… I considered carrying on down the stairs, leaving without meeting her eyes and pretending the last thirty seconds hadn’t happened. I put my phone in my pocket, with the diary and the coke, and looked up at her.
She took a breath and a few of the waiting tears worked their way out. ‘Who was that?’
‘Listen, don’t panic,’ I said, marvelling at how ridiculous it sounded. ‘Listen to me. In a couple of minutes some officers are going to arrive and ask you to go down to the hospital to identify someone. Can you get hold of Pat?’
‘I’ve tried, he’s not answering…’ She came down a few steps. ‘What do you mean identify someone? You mean they’ve found something, don’t you?’
‘I don’t know yet.’
Why had I come back? Why hadn’t I just stayed in my car? Why hadn’t I just stayed at home and avoided this mess?
She came closer but still stayed above me. ‘Don’t fucking lie.’
It would be an insult to deny it. She knew more than that. It was admirable that she found the control to keep talking, even with the tears rolling down her cheeks from red eyes that the grief hadn’t caught up with.
‘I think it’s her', I said softly, as if that would make it easier. ‘Is there any other way of calling Pat?’
She looked away. ‘He’s not answering. Neither are his friends.’
The tears were still coming but it was just formality, an imitation of a natural reaction to cover the shock.
‘How are you sure?' she asked.
‘The clothes, he said.’
For a second, I was worried she might faint.
I heard a car pull up outside and she put a hand to her eyes. ‘Oh God, where the fuck is Pat…?’
There was a knock, a pause, and then the sound of the doorbell. I moved aside so she could pass me, rubbing her eyes as she opened the door.
The officers were in uniform, young and grave.
She nodded but said nothing. She didn’t invite them in so they carried on talking.
‘We’re very sorry, but we need either you or your husband to come with us to identify a body that was recently found.’ The officer glanced at me over her shoulder, hovering three steps up, trying to stay out of sight. ‘If both of you –‘
‘I’m not Pat Dyer,’ I said quickly. ‘I’m…a friend.’
I could feel the fear emanating from her in cold waves.
‘Do you have any way of getting in contact with Mr Dyer?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘No, he’s not answering his phone.’
‘I can drive you,’ I offered. Why, I didn’t know. It came out like an attack of Tourette’s.
She wasn’t looking at me but she nodded.
It was quarter past three.
Welcome to hell, indeed.
We were taken to the viewing room. Hospitals all had the same smell as prisons. I looked up over my shoulder out of habit, into all the rooms, sizing up the inmates as I had in juvie.
Clare hadn’t spoken in the car and didn’t speak now.
The outline that we could see through the pane of glass, under the white sheet, looked smaller than I had expected. I felt sick all of a sudden. She might have looked older in the photograph but she was only a child, really. They always looked their age when they were dead.
They pulled the sheet back and Clare recoiled.
I stepped forwards. The first thing I noticed, which drew me towards the glass in fascination, was that her face was gone. This wasn’t the usual purple bruising and fractures; it was total obliteration. I tried to focus on the point where her jaw ended and her neck began but, even with the blood cleaned away as best they could, I failed to find it.
Clare had only needed to look once.
She started crying with her back to the glass and I stayed silent, hanging back. I had tried my best to warn her of what she was going to see in the car but she probably hadn’t heard me.
The officers moved away to give us space that I didn’t want.
‘No no no no no no…’
I saw her knees buckle and managed to get to her in time to slow her descent to the floor. I was on my knees, holding her and unable to stop. I felt her tears stain through my shirt. It should have been Pat here instead of me and I hated him for it. Hate, fear and some alien feeling caught in my throat, making it hard to breathe. I went on to autopilot, doing what I thought other people would do with another man’s wife shuddering with grief in their arms; stroking her hair, soft as I had thought it would be, saying, ‘It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright…’ even though it wasn’t. It was never going to be all right.
I didn’t know how long I went on telling her that before I saw the officers returning and knew it was time for us to go.
‘Come on, let’s go home.’
I glanced at the officers, nodded as if to say ‘Give us a second’ and took a breath.
‘Hey,’ I said, looking down at her. ‘Hey, um…Clare.’
She looked at me but there was only a flicker of acknowledgement in her face.
My breath stopped in my chest and I swallowed. ‘Come on, we need to get you home. Can you stand for me?’
Slowly, she nodded.
I helped her up and half walked, half carried her out.
In the car there were no words from either of us. She rested her forehead against the window, watching yellow lights go by.
The clock on the dashboard said 05:48.
As we approached the house I saw that the Mercedes was back. I opened the door for her and walked her to the front door. Pat answered on the second ring of the bell, stood up too straight in his suit, looking as though he was trying his hardest not to lean on anything.
Clare left my side and slapped him.
He didn’t say anything, didn’t even meet her eyes.
She looked him up and down, her lip shaking, and walked inside.
I could still smell her perfume on my clothes.
Pat took a long breath through his nose and said, ‘You Nic?’
I nodded, ‘I’m sorry.’
His face contorted. ‘You can…you can go…I’ll call you.’
As I walked back down the path I inhaled deeply, trying to clear my head. An unforgiving wind started howling and when I got into my car the temperature read –4. No one was going to find comfort tonight.
Copyright © Hanna Jameson, 2012