The Kindest Thing
Many thanks to the people who were so generous with their time and knowledge: solicitors Robert Lizar and Nicky Hall; Joy Winkler, writer in residence, and the writers’ group at HMP Styal. All the mistakes are mine. Thanks also to my agents: the late Kate Jones who encouraged me to tackle a different sort of novel and Sara Menguc for all her hard work.
It’s my birthday tomorrow. Fifty. The big five-oh. I’m not having a party – I’ll be in court. The charge is murder. More than one way to make the occasion memorable. Sorry. I’m being flippant. Fear does that to me. While it squeezes my insides and tightens my spine, my brain seizes on irreverent wisecracks and sarky comments. A defence mechanism, I guess. To hide how close I am to dissolving in terror at my situation.
The authorities find this verbal bravado very difficult to deal with. My lawyer soon cottoned on and told me to button it. Menopausal women with dead husbands are not meant to offer up smart remarks. Too bold. Too hard. It makes people uncomfortable – not least because for a nanosecond they share the humour. An expression of delight and hilarity flashes across their faces, chased away by frowns and winces. They wriggle in their seats, swallow and ease their stiff shirt collars with the hook of a finger. They expect a victim, all soft sighs and shame, begging for mercy. Not a backchatting bitch having a laugh. Different century and I’d have been fitted with a scold’s bridle or floated on the village pond. Instead it’s the Crown Court and the front pages of the nationals.
When the fear gets too large, when it threatens to devour me, like now, I drag my thoughts back to Neil, to what we had, what we shared before it was all narrowed down to one infamous act. The good old bad old days.
I wish he were here with me. He could still me with a look. In his gaze I would find strength and love and an edge of amusement. No matter how dark things got, he always had that sardonic half-smile in him. And things got dark; they are dark. It’s an illogical wish – if Neil were here, I wouldn’t be. He’s the reason I’m here.
I didn’t like him the first time we met. Fancied – yes. Liked – no. He was beautiful but I mistrusted his confidence. Took it for arrogance. He was seated with his friends outside the pub. A hot September lunchtime. I was a fresher, heading back to the halls for something to eat. Feeling lonely and excited by the move to uni, unsettled and bound up tight, lurching from one event to the next and wondering how long it would all feel strange. He had his chair tilted back and he was talking loudly – no idea what he was saying but ripples and little explosions of laughter came from the people around him. There was a girl at his side, quirky-looking with a round pale face and shiny black hair cut like Cleopatra’s. I assumed they were a couple. He caught my eye as I passed, just before I turned away, and I felt a little jolt of energy. Then he went on talking and there was more laughter and I’d a horrible fear they were laughing at me. Prat, I told myself, thinks he’s God’s gift.
The next few times I came across him, I made a point of ignoring him. I’d glimpse him out of the corner of my eye and force myself not to look his way. I’d see him around the arts faculty and eventually worked out he was studying history. I had expected something flashier: theatre studies or fine art.
Later that term, there was a house party in one of the big villas that the university let to students. A cold night, November or maybe December. The place filled up quickly; most of them were second and third years. Jane and I went along. She’d started seeing one of the second years who rented the place but most nights she came back to halls and slept there. Jane was ambitious and intent on getting good grades. Her three older brothers had all graduated with honours and she had a lot to live up to.
Friends from my course and I were sitting in a corner in the main room bitching about our lecturers and the essays we had to do – though none of us would have swapped it for the world. Neil came in with Cleopatra and a couple of blokes. One was small and wiry, he wore a duffel-coat, and the other was a lanky lad with shocking blond hair who always dressed in black. I turned away and pretended to listen to my friends, but when I looked back Neil’s gaze was locked on mine. And I held it. Just a beat too long. Then I went into the kitchen, aware he’d be heading that way for a drink. I poured some wine into a plastic cup.
He was beside me then. ‘Deborah Shelley.’ He knew my name.
‘And you are…?’ Me trying to be clever, as if I hadn’t made a point of finding out exactly who he was.
But he saw right through me, burst out laughing, a rich, throaty sound, and leaned closer in. ‘Very pleased to meet you,’ he said archly. ‘Come outside, come and talk to me.’
‘What about Cleopatra?’
He blinked; his eyes were the colour of green olives, his hair dark brown, almost black, brushing his shoulders. He realized I meant the girl. ‘Jackie? She’s gay. I don’t think she’ll mind. Not unless she’s got her eye on you.’
I blushed, a little startled. I hadn’t met any lesbians back then. Well, none that were out anyway, though at school we’d had our suspicions about the chemistry teacher. I drank some of the wine, cold and sharp. I hated blushing but he was kind and didn’t tease me any more.
‘Deborah.’ He said my name again, slowly, like a kiss, all three syllables.
‘It’s freezing out there.’
‘I’ll keep you warm. Look.’ He wore a greatcoat, a big heavy thing in grey, ex-army or something. It practically reached the ground. With his hands in his pockets he spread his arms out, flinging the coat wide open. An invitation.
I swallowed the rest of my wine.
He took my hand. His fingers were cool and long.
Outside, the garden was full of junk, old milk bottles, bakery trays and a broken dining chair, all frosted and glistening. There was just room to stand beside the door. I trembled. It could have been either the cold or the wine or the desire that flushed through my limbs and over my skin.
‘Kiss me,’ I said.
He raised a hand to tuck his hair behind his ear as he bent towards me.
I closed my eyes.
I fell in love.
The day Neil died, when he’d stopped breathing, I lay down beside him on our bed. Hoping, I think, that I might gain some equilibrium, some respite after the horror. Wanting to stay there till the soft June sunshine rolled into night. Keeping a vigil if you like. Not ready to let him go. But I knew I had to phone the ambulance and let Sophie and Adam know that their father was dead.
I kissed Neil again, told him I loved him and got up off the bed. Panic crashed over me. My stomach spasmed and water flooded my mouth. I ran for the bathroom and was violently sick, the vomit forcing its way down my nostrils as well as out of my mouth, scouring my throat. While I washed my hands and face and brushed my teeth, a lump of fear lodged in my stomach. Why had I ever agreed?
Fetching the phone from the hallway, I returned to our room, watching Neil while I made the call. ‘He’s stopped breathing, my husband. I think he’s dead.’ After I’d given my name and the address, I called Adam. His phone went to voicemail. ‘Come home, Adam, as soon as you can.’
Sophie knew straight away. ‘It’s Dad?’
‘Oh, Mum.’ Her voice broke. ‘Is he in hospital?’
She got back before the ambulance arrived. Found me upstairs sitting on the edge of the bed. Her hand covered her mouth. The room stank. Her eyes flew to her father. ‘He was fine this morning,’ she said.
‘Yes.’ In the scale of things. Better than dead, anyway.
‘Have you tried anything – the breathing space kit?’
I froze, tried to swallow. ‘Sophie, it’s too late. Darling, I’m sorry.’ I walked over to her. She threw her arms around me and squeezed tight, sobbing into my neck. She wasn’t often physically demonstrative. Not with me. With Neil – yes. ‘Oh, Dad,’ she wailed. After a minute or two she pulled away.
‘It’s all right,’ I told her, ‘if you want to sit with him or hold his hand or anything.’
She looked at her father again, then shook her head. She went out of the room. I’d misjudged it, perhaps. She was fifteen and we were constantly second-guessing her reactions. Sophie was always so practical and sensible that it was easy to forget how young she really was. Unlike Adam.
I followed her down. I hated to leave Neil on his own. Sophie was on her phone. She ended the call as I came into the kitchen.
‘You didn’t tell Grandma.’ It sounded like an accusation.
‘Not yet. I thought you and Adam – you’ve told her?’
She nodded. She was being so grown-up. I realized that this was how she would deal with it now. She’d throw herself into the arrangements and help me with the tasks that needed doing and find a way to be useful.
‘Thank you,’ I said.
The doorbell rang. There was an ambulance outside, a man on the step. He checked that he’d come to the right place and signalled for his mate to join him.
‘He’s upstairs,’ I told them. ‘He’s been very ill.’ I led the way and the two men followed. One crossed over to Neil’s side and felt for his pulse. The other dis ...