Read Human Remains Online

Authors: Elizabeth Haynes

Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Contemporary Women

Human Remains (3 page)

‘Right, then,’ I say, ‘let’s see. Have a think back to the bedroom you had when you were a teenager. Picture what it was like. Now I want you to describe it to me, just as if you’re standing in the doorway looking in. What can you see?’

‘Well, goodness. I guess it’s the dorm I shared with Roger Hotchkiss at St Stephen’s. There are two beds, one on each side of the room – mine is neatly made, Hotchkiss hasn’t made his, of course – a wardrobe at the foot of each bed, nearest to the door… Then the window straight in front of me which looks out over the kitchens. And a large desk underneath the window. Bookshelves above the beds. We weren’t allowed posters.’

He pauses for a moment, tapping his chin thoughtfully, his gaze up and to his left. This is going to be too easy.

‘That it?’

‘I can’t think of anything else.’

‘OK, then, next question. What does your mobile phone ringtone sound like?’

‘It’s just the standard ring, I’m afraid. I can never be bothered with anything more elaborate.’

That one was a bit quicker, but I still pick up on the cue that tells me he is telling the truth. In fact, I know it’s the truth because his answer reminds me that I’ve heard his phone go off in the pub before now. Maybe I’m subconsciously trying to cheat? In any case, the next question is going to be the one.

‘Right, final question. Tell me about your journey home last night. Did you go straight home? What time did you get there?’

It’s only a small hesitation, a brief flick of his gaze up and to the right, but it’s plenty. When he speaks, he even raises his pitch – too easy, way too easy.

‘I didn’t go straight home, no. I stopped off at the Co-op and bought some sausages and potatoes for supper. I probably got home – ooh, at about a quarter past six.’

I sit back and polish off the last of my pint. I press my fingertips into my temples and close my eyes, taking a deep, noisy breath in through my nostrils as though some peculiar psychic process is taking place.

‘Your last answer wasn’t quite true,’ I say at last. ‘Although I think the lie was quite nicely buried. You did get home at about a quarter past six, so you probably did stop off somewhere. You did stop off at the Co-op, but whatever it was you bought, it wasn’t sausages and potatoes. Am I right?’

He’s shaking his head and for a moment I wonder if I’ve got it wrong, or if he is going to try and fudge his way out of it.

‘A bottle of Zinfandel and a toffee yoghurt,’ he says softly.

‘Another pint of John Smith’s,’ I reply.

 

 

After I get home I stay up far too late again: too much whisky again, useless porn again, a fruitless wank in the end. Too much whisky, as I said. When I got back from my visit earlier, I started off reading something improving – forensic biology in this case, a topic of endless fascination – then moved on to reading something improving but possibly not in the way the original writers intended it to be, and then something that’s unlikely to improve anything other than the bank balance of some seedy porn producer in Eastern Europe. Not that I pay for it, of course.

I’m still feeling rather pleased with myself. Vaughn was so impressed with my display of brilliance that he demanded to know how I’d done it. I explained about non-verbal clues, how to watch a person’s eyes to establish visual construct as opposed to recollection, how to spot signs of discomfort, and how each of the little clues adds up to form an indisputable picture. I pointed out that, when he’d considered the last question, his eyes had flickered up to the right, a sure sign of visual construct, followed by a look up to the left, indicating that there were going to be some elements of recollection in what he said, too. This told me that he was planning to frame his lie around some elements of truth. Added to this, the discomfort he showed when I prepared to ask the last question, the tensing of his shoulders, the shifting in his seat – slightly away from me, I noticed – and his breathing, told me that he’d clearly told the truth in answer to the first two questions and knew that this one was going to have to contain an untruth. When he told me about his shopping, the sausages and the – what else was it? – potatoes, that was it – bangers and mash, how utterly appropriate – he moistened his lips swiftly with the tip of his tongue and then rubbed his fingers across his mouth. A natural gesture, of course, and in any other context it might have been simply an itch, a sniffle, a crumb. But it confirmed the lie.

I told him all that, and of course gave him some ideas of things to look out for the next time he and Audrey are discussing indelicate matters. I try hard not to picture Audrey because, as soon as I do, I find myself imagining her naked and from then on it’s a short hop to seeing Vaughn naked too, and the pair of them fucking away, a happy missionary pairing if ever there was one. Despite my best efforts, I still end up thinking about it all the way to Vaughn suddenly tensing and crying out, shouting in a way I’ve never heard him shout in the office, or the pub either, for that matter.

Feel rather grubby after that little lapse in concentration and have to get up out of bed at 02:45 to have another shower.

 

 

Martha asked me once about my parents. I must have been feeling communicative on that particular occasion, or else it could have been one of those situations where to refuse to answer might have appeared rude; in any case, I told her how my father died when I was eleven.

‘You poor boy,’ she said. I wondered if I should be offended, but then understood she was addressing my younger self. ‘It must have been incredibly traumatic to lose your father at such a difficult age.’

I did not understand what she meant by a difficult age, nor what she meant, really, by traumatic. ‘Life goes on,’ I said with a shrug.

‘Yes, but still – such a shame.’

‘The living being is only a species of the dead, and a very rare species at that.’

‘That sounds like a quote, Colin. Who said that?’

‘I did. Well, to be fair, I’m paraphrasing Nietzsche. I’m assuming you would prefer to hear it in English rather than the original German.’

She thinks I’m weird; they all do. This was at the beginning, when I first started working for the council – they were all very chatty back then. Now I find that they leave me alone and avoid falling into conversation with me, unless circumstances force them to do so. Even then they seem to look at me warily. I think Martha views me as something of a personal challenge.

My father’s funeral was held on a Saturday to enable his work colleagues to come along. There was considerable debate about whether I should be allowed to attend. I remember overhearing a conversation between my mother and her friend a few days before.

‘You know what he’s like,’ my mother was saying. ‘He thinks about things so much.’

‘But he’s nearly an adult, Delia. It might help him come to terms with things.’

In the end my mother relented – although it might have also been due to the lack of available babysitters to keep an eye on me. As it ended up being such a dramatic occasion, I remain glad to this day that I got the chance to attend.

I had no appropriate outfit so I wore my school uniform, even the blazer and cap. It was a hot day, with fierce, unrelenting sunshine, and of course the assembled throng were all dressed in black. My mother even had on her black coat, the one with the mink collar he’d bought her in New York. Everyone sweltered on the way to the church, gained some relief during the service and then sweltered outside for the interment. Bored beyond bored, I roasted and sweated – my shirt was damp under my blazer. I stood next to my mother and thought about something I’d read: how King Henry VIII’s body was so bloated by decomposition gases while it was being transported from Whitehall to Windsor that the coffin burst open overnight. The next morning they found dogs feeding on the remains of the king. And that was in winter! What would the body of my father look like, given that it was the height of summer? I considered that his body, held in storage for nearly three weeks pending the post mortem and the inquest, might actually still be frozen, defrosting slowly in that box like a melting choc ice. I felt compelled to touch the wood, to feel if it was cold. As the vicar warbled on, I took a step forward towards the coffin, which was on a bed of plastic green grass of the sort you see covering the tables at the greengrocer’s. My mother, who must have panicked at my sudden movement, lurched forward, her hand out to grab my shoulder, and stumbled over the uneven ground. In doing so, she knocked me over too and we both ended up lying inches from the open grave. The shock of it all, or maybe the excessive heat and her ridiculous coat, or maybe even the gin she’d consumed earlier to fortify herself for the ordeal ahead, caused her to vomit as people rushed to pull her to her feet. I couldn’t help laughing at them, being sprayed with vomit as my mother continued to heave. Some of the mourners started to retch themselves. The vicar’s face…

It was the primary topic of conversation at the wake which followed. All conceivable options were considered: my mother had fainted and I had tried to catch her; she’d suddenly been taken unwell and had fallen against me; we were both so
grief-stricken
that one or both of us were trying to throw ourselves into the grave. My mother, pale and weeping, replenishing her bloodstream with more gin and fanning herself with the Order of Service, kept a close eye on me at the wake and, afterwards, it was never spoken of again.

 
Briarstone Chronicle
 

March

Dead Woman Lay Undiscovered ‘For Up To A Year’, Police Report
 

The body of a woman was discovered yesterday at a house in Laurel Crescent, Briarstone. A police spokesperson said that the body was in an advanced state of decomposition and was found in the bedroom to the rear of the detached property.

The building is one of several in Laurel Crescent scheduled for demolition and police were called after construction workers noticed that the building was apparently still occupied.

Letters found at the address indicate that the deceased may have lain undiscovered for up to a year. The name of the deceased has not been made public as police and the coroner try to trace relatives or anyone who may have known the woman.

 
Judith
 

My name is Judith May Bingham, and when I died I was ninety-one.

I was afraid of many things until the end, which sounds very silly now because of course at the end nothing matters, nothing matters at all. I was afraid of the people who lived next door, the teenage boys who came and went whenever they felt like it, and banged the door, and sat outside my house on the pavement, or even once on my fence, until they broke it. They would drive up and down the street on their motorcycles, or sit smoking and drinking from cans and shouting and throwing things at each other.

I was afraid of running out of money and not being able to buy food or keep the house warm.

I grew to be afraid of going out.

I was afraid of the woman who came from Social Services once to check up on me. She said she had heard I might need some extra help. I told her I did not, but she kept talking and talking until I asked her to leave. In fact I told her to fuck off. She wasn’t expecting to hear that and she tried to tell me off. She said she had a right to a pleasant working environment the same as anyone else and that there was no need for me to be rude. I said there was no need for her to speak to me in my own home as though I was an imbecile, and that I had asked her to leave nicely and she had ignored me.

At that time I was brave – and when she went and I locked the door behind her I laughed for a little while. It had been a long time since I used that word, and it felt good. It felt like being young again.

Forty years ago I was running a pub by the docks. It was a rough place. We had some nights where hardly anyone came in, and other nights when a ship or two had put in to shore when the place was full and people were spilling out on to the street outside. We had working girls in, too. When my husband Stan was alive he used to try to send them on their way, but as far as I was concerned their money was as good as anyone else’s. What they did to earn a crust was neither here nor there.

We had fights all the time. It was part of the plan for them when they came off a ship – get drunk, find a girl, get into a fight, sober up, back to the ship in time for the tide. If we were lucky they took their disagreements outside; if we were unlucky the odd chair and several glasses might get broken. Once a young lad was stabbed. That was terrible; he lived, though. Was fine, after. A few stitches and on his way.

Back in those days I wasn’t afraid of anything. I lived every day as it came and I expected there to be bad days; I knew I would get through them just the same as I did the good days. One thing you can’t stop is time passing.

As I said, I used to use that word all the time but I haven’t had cause to since I retired from the pub trade. Until Miss Prim and her leaflets turned up and tried to tell me what to do.

A few hours after her visit, though, I grew afraid. I was afraid she’d come back with some official form or something to tell me I had to leave my house, go into a nursing home. I would rather have died than gone into a home. I thought about finishing things, about doing something to make sure that I wouldn’t end up being taken away, but you need courage for that and by then I had none left.

I went to the Co-op at the end of the road twice a week to get my shopping, and to the doctor’s to get my prescription, but apart from that I never went out. I planned ways to finish it over and over again but it felt wrong to give up, and, besides, I was afraid of getting it wrong, not doing it properly. But all through my life I’d made choices for myself, and for the first time other people were starting to make choices for me. It was this that I objected to. I was a grown woman, an old woman, and while I still had all my marbles I wanted to be able to choose to finish this life that had become so wearing, so empty. But of course that’s not done, is it? If I wanted to end things, then I must be ill, or depressed, or something and therefore I needed help to cope, help to find new ways of enjoying the world. This is how the young see it, from their position of complete and utter ignorance.

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