Authors: Jacqueline Ward
‘Yes. Alive this morning. Fed him just before I went to work.’
Jim looks up.
‘Did you let the cat out?’
‘No. We don’t have a cat flap. He was in the house last time I saw him. On Aiden’s bed.’
I feel a lump in my throat. Percy. Didn’t I hear him just before I left? But how could I have? He had definitely been in the house last time I saw him. Jim continues.
‘Have you been home?’
I shake my head.
‘OK. Come on then. I’ll come with you, and a couple of uniformed. It’ll give me a chance to have a chat with you.’
He picks up the phone and arranges for the dog handlers to come and get Percy. We walk through the car park to my car.
‘They’ll have him cremated and you can decide if you want the ashes or anything.’
I nod. ‘Mmm. Yes. You seem like quite an expert.’
He laughs. ‘Long service record. Two dogs and three cats gone. No children as yet.’ He stops dead. ‘That’s what I wanted to talk to you about. And why I’m coming with you. A body’s been found, up at the Clough. Yesterday. A young man.’
I turn to look at him.
‘Is it . . .’
‘We don’t know. He had no ID on him. He was naked when he was found.’
I nod slowly.
‘OK. Let’s go. But you’d better drive.’
I can’t breathe. I’ve seen dead people before, but none of them are potentially my son. Jim Stewart’s talking to a uniformed officer I don’t recognise up the corridor.
I know what happens here. It’s one of the few things that scares me. I’m fairly used to seeing dead bodies in morgues. Desensitized, maybe. But post-mortems, autopsies, somehow they’re so final.
The body dissected, organs removed, clinically weighted, all the bits counted, then put back in the container, inside the skin and muscle, disconnected. I’ve looked at bodies after autopsy. I looked at my mother and wondered where the person has gone. Where the soul is. Was. Jim comes back and sits down.
‘We’ve tried to get hold of your husband, but he’s not answering.’
Let’s get that straight at least. Ex-husband.
‘Yes, of course.’
Jim’s reverted to the corpse-side manner we reserve for relatives. He’s lowered his eyes and he’s sighing.
‘You don’t have to do that with me. You know. The stance.’
He smiles a little.
‘Ah, but I do. I like to do things by the book, me. Straightforward. And you’d be wise to do that too. You’re not doing yourself any favours.’
I don’t look at him.
‘I wasn’t trying to do myself any favours. I was trying to find my son. Following up leads. Like I do every day.’
The door opposite opens and John Stafford, the guy who runs the mortuary, shakes our hands.
‘OK. We’re ready. So. Where’s the family member? You know, for the ID?’
We all look at each other for a few seconds. No one wants to say it. It’s suddenly unspeakable. Eventually Jim manages it.
‘Jan here is going to ID. Jan’s son has been reported missing. So if we can just get on with it.’
I’ve been in the room before, many times, with other people who need to have some closure. I’d like to think that these incidents, where people die in solitary circumstances and need identifying, are few and far between. I’m thinking just now that, in fact, they are quite frequent. More than you would expect.
Mums, dads, sisters, brothers, all here to witness someone’s disappearance from the world. Never to be seen again. This is the last place before the post-mortem or autopsy. The last farewell.
John’s touching the white sheet. I can see the outline of a face, nose sticking out. Further down, shoulder blades before the sheet becomes thicker and turns into a thick shroud. I realise that John is staring at me and I nod.
I can’t tell at first. I can’t see properly. Maybe it’s the shock. I have to move forward and look closely. Brown hair, white skin, more pallid than death, long eyelashes. Eyes closed.
I remember the day Aiden was born, the day I counted his amazing fingers and toes, checked his body for completeness. He had a small red birthmark just under his earlobe. Funny. I didn’t mention that in any of the reports I gave. I check the earlobes. It’s not him.
I start laughing loudly. I bend over double and rest my hands on my knees.
‘It’s not him. No. It’s not Aiden.’
John covers the boy up again and we leave. Jim waits until we get to the car before he speaks.
‘You shouldn’t have started laughing. It’s disrespectful.’
I lean on my car. I stopped smoking a long time ago, but now I really need a cigarette.
‘You know, that’s the second dead body I’ve seen in two days. I don’t wish anyone else dead, or this feeling on anyone else. But believe me, I’m celebrating.’ I breathe in deeply. ‘But then again, I’m not. Because if he’s not dead, he’s out there somewhere, being kept prisoner against his will, isn’t he?’
Jim shakes his head.
‘Or tripping the light fantastic with a glow stick in each hand. You don’t know where he is. For all you know he could have skipped the country and is working in Ibiza. You think you know these kids, but you never do. Not entirely. You know the drill. My boy would never do that, my daughter would never do that. Parent’s natural instinct to protect their offspring. But most of the time they’re thinking with their hormones and they turn up months later pregnant or skint.’
‘Yeah. I did think about that. The only flaw in your argument is that corpse in there. He’s someone’s son. Have there been any missing reports recently? Or have you just written them off as runaways? He’s not pregnant or skint, Jim. He’s dead.’
I drive him back to the station, then go home. Uniformed are there, waiting in a car for me. Sheila Lewis meets me.
‘Must have got in through the back window. It’s been forced. Fucking Connelly, I bet. This is the second today.’
I nod. At least it’s not just me who thinks Connelly shouldn’t be knighted in next year’s honours.
‘Oh. Right. And the other one?’
‘Didn’t you hear? Jim Stewart’s car was covered in human shit. Covered. His wife must have run him to work, then she left it in the drive. When she went out to get it, it was dark and she even leaned against it. She’s hysterical. Not as bad as your cat though. Sorry, Jan, that’s horrible.’
I stare at her. She’s sorry about my cat. What about my son?
She shifts from one foot to the other.
‘Erm, we’ve been posted outside here tonight. Can we make some hot chocolate? We’re bloody freezing.’
I smile at her. I used to do her job.
‘Course. Look, why don’t you come in and stay in the lounge. I’ll only be upstairs. Better than sitting in a cramped car all night, yes?’
She nods and signals to her colleague. They settle in the lounge, sipping hot chocolate and watching Sky Movies. I go to bed and sleep for twelve hours solid.
When I come downstairs in the morning the two women are asleep on the sofa. They stir and then sit bolt upright.
‘It’s OK, ladies, I’m still alive. No thanks to you two.’
Sheila picks up a stray biscuit.
‘We must have dropped off. The
trilogy was on back to back and it was just too good to resist.’
I make tea and toast. It’s good to cook for someone again and I overdo it slightly. Then a joiner arrives to fix the window and I offer him some.
Mike calls to tell me that he’s been cleared for the job and that he’ll keep me updated and feed-back any info for me to record. I tell him I’m doing the TV appeal and he just sighs and tells me to be careful.
I guess he’s heard about Percy. I look at Percy’s dish. This house doesn’t feel like mine anymore.
‘Look, you stay as long as you like, until your shift finishes. I’ve got to be somewhere.’
Shelia takes another piece of toast.
‘Oh. You sure? To be fair, we’ll probably be more of a deterrent from in here.’
I text Sal to tell him that I’ll pick him up. So I drive over to his flat. Unlike most people, who listen to music when they’re driving, or sing along, or even learn a language, I’m still working.
I was trained at the start of my career to keep my eyes and ears open for everything. Early on, I thought that ‘everything’ meant the ever more intrusive CCTV cameras and mobile phone masts. The shop CCTV and the people who stand on street corners every day and know the area intimately; newspaper stands, prostitutes, paperboys, milkmen. That sort of thing.
I thought I had it sussed. But then, when it became a little bit boring and predictable, just when I thought there was nothing left to learn, I realised that the world was full of silent messages and signs. The kind of thing that was shared between a group of people, a kind of code.
They’re everywhere. In graffiti, in music, even unintentionally, the clothes people wear and how they decorate their houses. Everywhere. So, when I first saw the various items hanging on the telephone wires—the shoes, the scarves, the sweaters, and hats—I thought they were just some kind of tribal decoration. Little did I know, back then.
I see them now, hanging in the backstreets, a pair of high heels marking off the working girls’ territory. Stray beyond that boundary and you’re strung up. Silent messages, an entry point to an unknown world. Usually a criminal world. You have to be in it to read it.
Reading the messages passes the time on the short drive to Sal’s. He hasn’t replied by the time I’ve got to his flat about two miles away, so I park and skip up the steps at the front. Someone’s conveniently coming out so I slip in through the half-closed door and take the lift to the second floor. I knock and he doesn’t answer. . It’s an open fronted building with the doors set back and I look over the balcony. I bend down and shout through the letter box.
No reply. I try his phone, but he doesn’t answer. It’s only then I remember about the disguise. I need a hat, or a scarf to tie around my hair, and some sunglasses. I look around, thinking where Sal would hide a key.
Some things never change. It’s exactly where I thought it would be, wedged between two bricks on the balcony. I let myself in and see that nothing has actually changed.
The place is absolutely pristine; completely spotless. None of my household laxness spoiling Sal’s vision of beauty. I go into his bedroom and open the top drawer of his blond pine cabinet. His accessory drawer. When you’ve lived with someone, you can imagine that when they leave, they simply transplant all their little nuances onto another location. Like Sal had. Had Aiden done that too?
I take out a black lightweight scarf and fold it in half, running it around my hair like a loose headband. Then I go to the bathroom and take out my makeup bag. I apply a lot of makeup, much more than usual, and some very pink lipstick. Finally, I find a pair of amber aviator sunglasses and put those on. People will just assume I’ve been crying. Except my colleagues, who won’t bat an eyelid because we’re trained to do this. To alter our appearances temporally whilst on a case.
Then I pass Aiden’s room. I haven’t been here for a long time, not since we first split. I do know that this was the last place he ever was, the last time he was real and touchable.
I can’t resist. I open the door and I see the bed is made and there is a neat pile of T-shirts on the white computer desk. No computer—that’s been taken away for testing weeks ago. But his sports bag is still there.
I pull out his blue-and-green-striped sweatshirt and hold it up to my face. He was wearing this when he left my house. It’s flat and empty and I reach further into the bag. Spare Adidas trainers, two pairs of socks, two shirts, underwear. All have been washed now, no Aiden smell about them, just Sal’s sterility.
I open the side pocket of the bag. I don’t know what made me do it, maybe the chance that there was an explanation, some clue that only I would recognise. His pencil case was stuffed in tightly. Inside his pencil case was his passport and bank card.
I hold them momentarily, trying to think why these hadn’t been found. The search report distinctly mentioned that he must have taken his bank card and passport with him to wherever he was, as they found no trace of them in Sal’s flat or my house. And they hadn’t recovered them. No wonder. They were here.
I tear out of the flat, slamming the door and ramming the key between the stones. Speeding to the station, I can feel my heart thudding. I haven’t drawn any conclusions, but I need to see Sal. I park up and rush through the building to the room where I know the appeal will be held. Sal’s standing there with one of the producers.
‘Fuck me. It’s Lady Gaga.’
I grab him.
‘Come with me. Just come with me.’
I open the door of an adjoining interview room and throw him inside. Door shut, I hold up the passport in one hand and the bank card in the other. I watch him very carefully, knowing that he knows exactly what I’m doing. He simply frowns.
‘Where did you get them? I thought . . .’
I think for a moment. If he doesn’t know they were there I’ve no need to tell him I was in his flat. No. Fuck it.
‘Well, I went to pick you up, Sal. I was being nice, doing what you wanted, a proper little family doing a TV appeal. But I needed something to put over my hair so I went into your flat and borrowed your scarf. Which I’ll fucking strangle you with if you don’t tell me exactly what you know.’
He takes a used car salesman stance, palms upturned.
‘You’ve been in my flat? Why didn’t you just ask?’
‘I tried to call you, but I expect you were too busy pretending to be a film star.’
He touches his newly cut hair and ridiculous makeup.
‘But you still haven’t answered me. Where did you get those from?’
‘Aiden’s sports bag. Side pocket. Pencil case.’
‘Impossible. Your lot searched that room.’
I weigh up the situation. Sal knows perfectly well that the whole case has hinged on if he left prepared or not. Yet it looks like he’s kept back this evidence. He’s clever enough to turn it back on me, saying I had them all along. Pull the madness card, like he did when he divorced me.