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Authors: Stephanie Butland

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BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
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This morning, by the gate, it was a few crocuses—crocii?—tied with a silver ribbon again. I was out there early—it was barely light—but you'd beaten me to it. I felt as though, if I'd been fifteen seconds earlier, I'd have seen you disappearing around the side of the gate (or through the fence, or dematerializing, or however you do it). It seemed as though the air was still reassembling itself around the place where you'd been.

I put them in our bedroom, on my bedside table. I opened the curtains, a little bit, so that they would get some light, although I know it doesn't really matter once they're picked. Thank you for bringing them for me, today, of all days, when I've lain awake all night and thought about drowning.

I keep telling Mel she can go home, and she says yes, or she could stay here, because she can work anywhere she can plug her laptop in, and I'm a little bit glad, really, although I'm probably being selfish. Mel's the only person here who has a history with me that isn't also with you, so she isn't an automatic reminder. Not that I forget.

I'm making no sense. It's partly because I'm not sleeping, which makes the whole world slightly overexposed. But also because yesterday, you were supposed to get older, but you didn't, and now that's something else that's wrong.

I looked at your photo in the morning, and I wanted to wish you happy birthday, and then I didn't, and then I couldn't work out the tense—“It is, was, would be, could have been your birthday.” In the end, I said, “Happy birthday, my darling, precious Mike, who brought me to this cold, damp, twisty-turny little place and made it my home.” I said it because I'd found something to say that made perfect sense, whether you were alive or not. I said it to your picture, but if you'd been here, I would have said it to your sleepy, bristly, another-year-older face.

I miss you. I love you. I'm here. I'd rather be there, where you are. Wherever there is. But you know that, because it was always that way.

E xxx

Although Blake has been very clear with the Micklethwaites, telling them that they can call him any time, for any reason, and that he'll help them in any way he can, Richenda has shied away from doing so. She blames her mother—she blames her mother for a lot, actually, one way or another—whose cry of “I'd rather die than take handouts from the state” had made for a long, cold, bleak childhood and a horror of taking any kind of help from any kind of institution.

As she dials Blake's number, she blames herself a little too, for her absurd idea that her family would be able to get through this time by relying on one another when, in reality, it's been years since they've had so much as a fully civil and convivial mealtime.

Blake arranges to come that afternoon, which gives Richenda enough time to calm down and feel a little foolish for making the call. She plans for coffee and questions about that poor policeman's widow.

But there's something about his face, as honest as the sky, demanding honesty in return. So when he asks her how she is, how things are, she tells him. She tells him in a headlong jumble. The dog, who at least has Kate leaving the house but knocks the bin over several times a day and trails rubbish everywhere, and no one seems to find it galling except her. Rufus slotting back into life as it was before this as though nothing much has happened, while she feels as though everything is tilting. The pictures in the local paper of that poor policeman's funeral, and his mother and his widow. Kate, hardly eating and vomiting and refusing to talk and how she'd looked up
on the Internet and felt sick herself, all those girls destroying themselves as they tried to wrest control of something, and how she doesn't know where shock and trauma stop being a reasonable, understandable reaction and start being something else. How glad she feels that Kate is here, how terrible that Michael Gray is not. (She makes herself say his name, Blake notes, in the same way that Elizabeth carefully forms the words
Kate Micklethwaite
, although Patricia can only bring herself to spit “that girl,” and rebukes her daughter-in-law for caring. Although only, Blake has noticed, when Mel is out of earshot.) The worry that having someone die in the process of saving you is a huge burden to bear, at any age, and because she is so young, relatively untouched by difficulty, Kate has no strategies for this.

“She has you,” Blake says, his first opportunity to say anything at all since sitting down. “Don't underestimate that.”

“Yes,” Richenda replies, instantly underestimating it, “but she won't talk to me, or can't, and there's something different about her that I can't quite put my finger on. She's sleeping all the time and I don't know if that's good or bad. She still doesn't say much about what happened and I don't know what to think about that—should I be relieved, should I be worried? I wonder, if she did talk, would it be better, or worse…” She tails off, wiping her eyes.

“Right,” Blake says. “I don't have any answers, but I can give you one piece of advice.” Richenda looks straight at him, eyes darkened from blue to gray by the tears and the fading of the late afternoon light. “Don't worry about what you can't control. You can't make Kate talk and you don't know what will happen when, or if, she does. So put that out of your mind.”

A retort is on the tip of Richenda's tongue—how easy those words are to say, how impossible to do—when she thinks about all of the times she's locked the front door at night, knowing that Rufus isn't coming in, knowing what he's doing and, sometimes, where he's doing it and who with, and choosing not to think about those things. She takes a deep breath, exhales, thinks about smiling and, although she can't quite manage it, Blake sees that the storm has passed.

• • •

The trouble is, Richenda thinks later—apart from her marriage and Kate and the poor dead policeman—that she is working from home more, and being around for Kate more, she has more uninterrupted thinking time. Although her job, as a freelance bookkeeper, is easy to do from home, she's always preferred to sit in other people's offices, seeing how they work and getting a sense of lives other than her own. Since Kate's accident, she's been going out for a couple of hours to collect paperwork and spending the rest of the week in her beautiful, stifling house. Kate, whom she aches to care for, is mostly sleeping or going on long rambles with Beatle, who seems to be the only companion she will tolerate.

When Richenda hears Kate crying and goes to her room, she is sent away, not unkindly—“I just want to be on my own, Mum”—and so she sits in the office next door to Kate's bedroom and puts her head against the wall. She stares at the signed Beatles poster, one of Rufus's most treasured possessions, and waits for the sobbing to stop. And she wonders. She wonders where, when it could have been different.

Richenda unravels her life and looks for the knot that, had she seen it and undone it in time, would have changed the way things had turned out, and meant that Kate would have been safe at home that night. Or that she would have been confident enough to go to Thailand instead of being beset by last-minute nerves. Or that she had been anywhere, anywhere but here. She can't find it, or rather, she can find lots of knots, tied tight, not easy to undo, not clear what they are holding together.

Most of the knots attach to Rufus. But of course, without Rufus, there would be no Kate at all. Richenda knows that she's unkind to her husband, and sometimes unfair; she knows that there were times, earlier, when she was all too ready to let him sleep on the sofa bed under his precious poster while she sulked on their vast and expensively sprung mattress. She wishes she had made more effort and got the marriage really working, or made less effort and left him. She remembers their early days, and how the nervous young man, recently emerged from the double prison of obesity and merciless bullying, had been devoted to her, following her around the way Beatle follows Kate, dejected in her absence, ecstatic when she appears. He hadn't known then how handsome he was, those eyes as bright as cornflowers and those cheekbones and the way his hair wouldn't quite lie flat at the back of his neck. His shyness, his desire to please, was as true then as it is an act now. His interest in her studies was unfeigned, his enthusiasm for her body endless.

And she curses the fact that she didn't have the sense to realize that the way he reacted to a little bit of attention from her would be the way he would react to a little bit of attention from any woman.

Yes, that's the top and bottom of it, really
, she thinks as she listens to Kate's sobs subside
. I can make it a lot more complicated, but it isn't. That's how he's always been, and that's how I've let it be. And now here we are. The mistake I made was to think that the state of our marriage wouldn't affect Kate.

When Kate was born—and earlier, when Kate was unborn, swimming and growing inside her mother—Rufus and Richenda took their role as parents very seriously. Rufus set up a savings account on his way to work on the day that Richenda took the test. (“We don't want to have any worries about university fees,” he'd said.) They'd read books about child development and attended prenatal classes with the fervor of newly signed up members of a cult. Richenda had felt thoroughly loved, from without and within, and put the unsteady early years of their marriage down to—well, it didn't matter, really, they were here now, and they were talking about what they'd be doing with their child in five, ten, twenty years, and they wouldn't be doing that if they weren't happy. Of course they wouldn't.

The birth had been uncomplicated. “I wish all of mine were like you,” the midwife had said. “Seven hours and three tiny stitches, and baby as calm as can be.” And Rufus had burst into tears. Richenda had hardly noticed, looking at the wonder of her baby's earlobes and the way her little feet flexed. Yes, Kate had been easy from the start: easy to feed, easy to get to sleep, easy to love.

Not so easy to give a baby brother or sister to. The miscarriages and the grieving and the sex fraught with purpose were like taking Rufus and Richenda's marriage and hurling it down a hill. When it came to rest, the part around Kate was still strong, but much else was broken. Simple intimacy had been one of the first things to smash; without it, honesty soon broke away.

As Kate grew and Rufus and Richenda grew apart, they did their best to parent together. However much they might whisper disappointments late at night, ignore the other whenever they could, they sat together at parents' evenings and school plays and made a point of being polite whenever they thought Kate was in earshot. Their heads touched as they put their diaries together and worked out who would take Kate to her riding lessons; they talked about her future without edge or rancor. Richenda allowed herself to cry only once Kate had gone to bed, and shouting was restricted to the times when she was out of the house.

They thought they did a good job. Of course, such a way of life was unsustainable. At fourteen—still quiet, still clever, sometimes sulky—Kate had said, quite matter-of-factly, that she really didn't think a family trip was a good idea this year because she could see how much strain it put on her parents to play happy families for a fortnight. They'd protested, but she'd said, “Don't insult me,” and that had been that.

Of course, Rufus and Richenda had agreed that, even if they weren't all going away together, they could still be civil. Perhaps the lack of pretense would make things easier. Perhaps, conversely, admitting that they didn't get on might help them to get on.

It didn't.

Kate is quiet. Richenda, making her way softly down the stairs, is no closer to knowing whether she and Rufus should have done less, or more, to avert this disaster for their daughter. She remembers what Blake said, about not worrying about what you can't control. She starts to look for the knot again.

• • •

Kate's bones gnaw with tiredness. She wants to be left alone, to sleep and cry and think, but that doesn't seem possible.

She sleeps all afternoon, sits downstairs with her parents for a couple of hours, goes to bed at eight, wakes early, and finds the only bit of the day that she likes: taking a walk with Beatle, before Throckton has rubbed the sleep from its eyes and so can't stare. She avoids Butler's Pond. Dog walkers, when she meets them, seem to be kind, but she already knew that.

When she gets home, she lets her mother make her breakfast and then she has a look to see what her friends are doing, in the posted pictures full of tans and new friends and sun reflecting from teeth.

She answers emails and texts and tells people that she's getting better, which she knows isn't true. Where before she wanted to talk, now she wants to be quiet. She toys with saying more to Bella, who is the one who knows the most and has understood things best over the last year. But Bella is in India, and when Kate looks at the latest pictures of her friend, she can't imagine how to talk to someone in such a bright and blazing world.

The relentless approach of the inquest dogs her dreams, along with Michael's face and the sound of him calling her name.
seem like words too small to describe the way she feels, although her mother throws them around with a desperate fervor, as though they will heal her. Kate knows she will never be healed.

BOOK: The Secrets We Keep
13.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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