Authors: Cath Staincliffe
Cath Staincliffeis the author of the acclaimed Sal Kilkenny mysteries as well as being the creator of ITV’s hit police series,BlueMurder, starring Caroline Quentin as DCI Janine Lewis. Cath was shortlisted for the CWA Dagger in the Library Award in 2006. She lives in Manchester with her partner and their threechildren.
Constable & Robinson Ltd3 The Lanchesters162 Fulham Palace RoadLondon W6 9ERwww.constablerobinson.com
First published in the UK by Robinson,an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2010
Copyright © Cath Staincliffe, 2010
The right of Cath Staincliffe to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in anyform of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library
Typeset by TW Typesetting, Plymouth, Devon Printed and bound in the EU
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2Contents
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 herhard work.Chapter One
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. Morethan 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 andsarky 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 smartremarks. 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, chasedaway 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. Nota 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 frontpages 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. Thegood 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 sardonichalf-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 seatedwith 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 uptight, 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 ripplesand 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 assumedthey 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 fearthey 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 artsfaculty 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 weresecond 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 andintent 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 awayand 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 headingthat 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 tome.’
‘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 thinkshe’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 someof 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 hisarms 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 couldhave 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 thattheir 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 vomitforcing 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 everagreed?
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’dgiven 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 thismorning,’ 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. Shewasn’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 wasalways 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 andfind 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. Theother distracted me, asking questions: he’d been ill, what with, which hospital was he being seen by, how had he been earlier that day.
‘He is dead,’ his colleague confirmed. I nodded. The door went again. I heard voices. Then Sophie calling me. The ambulance man examining Neil gestured that I could go.
Downstairs there was a young policeman. Sophie had seated him at the kitchen table. He stood up as I entered the room. He was one of those men whose jaw is wider than his forehead, giving himthe look of a comic-book hero. He introduced himself as PC Stenner, and explained he was following up on reports of a sudden death.
I sat down opposite him. Sophie was making tea.
‘My husband Neil. He has motor neurone disease. I went to check on him this afternoon, about three o’clock. Anyway, he wasn’t breathing.’
‘Big shock,’ he offered.
‘Just a question of time, really. It’s a terminal illness.’
‘He’s not in hospital?’
‘There’s no treatment.’
His eyes fell for a moment. ‘I see. Well, the coroner will be informed, just a matter of routine. Any sudden death. But, like you say, if it was expected . . .’ He wrote a few linesin his notebook, then stood and spoke to Sophie. ‘I won’t be needing that cuppa, ta.’
Her hands stilled and she flexed her fingers, a little signal of frustration. ‘You can do one for me, love,’ I put in.
The policeman left, and then the ambulance men came downstairs and explained that they would be fetching a stretcher to remove Neil’s body. I tried Adam’s number again but it wasstill on voicemail. Typical. If he got back in time for the funeral it would be a bloody miracle.
Sophie passed me my tea and I took it upstairs to the bedroom. The smell caught me afresh; I’d probably have to chuck the mattress. We’d never thought about that. The way a bodyempties on death.
The sun was glancing off Neil’s hair, turning the grey at his temples into silver and bringing out the shine in the rest, still dark brown. His skin tanned in spite of death’spallor. He’d loved the sun. Had inherited his father Michael’s skin colouring, not his mother’s. Michael had Spanish ancestry while Veronica was Irish, complexion pale as milk andprone to burn. They were both small, Veronica was petite really, and Neil had towered over them. They joked he was their cuckoo child.
His parents arrived as the ambulance men were manoeuvring the stretcher down our stairs. Veronica was weeping noisily even as she came up the path. Sophie ran out to meet them and Veronicapulled her close. Michael moved on into the house, looking older and smaller, curly grey hair, a thick moustache. ‘Deborah.’ I moved into his arms.
He caught sight of the stretcher, let me go and moved to support his wife. Veronica groaned as the men brought Neil down. As they stepped on to the hall floor and straightened, she gave a wailand moved forward. ‘My boy,’ she cried. A fifty-year-old man. Ridiculous, perhaps, but I recognized the passion in her cry, the depth of her grief. If this had been my boy, my Adam . .. I started to cry, too. She loved Neil. I loved him. And now he was gone. Veronica clasped Neil’s hand between her own and kissed it.
‘Where are you taking him?’ I asked the ambulance men. ‘Only my son . . .’
‘He’ll be at the mortuary. Once you’ve sorted out the funeral arrangements, you can arrange a viewing at the funeral home.’
Michael eased Veronica away and I bent forward and kissed Neil’s cheek. I couldn’t speak. I stepped back to let them pass and stood in the front doorway while they carried him downto the ambulance and slid him inside. I watched until they had driven out of view.
When we were at university open relationships were all the rage, and Neil and I were nothing if not fashionable. Neil had one-night stands with a stream of women when I wasaway or staying in to study. I had a few short-lived affairs. Most of the time we’d sleep together, either at his house or at the bed-sit I’d moved into in my second year.
One night I’d been visiting my mother and got back sooner than expected. The trip had rattled me. She and I had so little to say to each other that, for me at any rate, the visits were anexcruciating mix of tension and boredom. We relied on banalities, talked about the weather, the increase in fuel prices, domestic mishaps and the ups and downs of acquaintances we cared littleabout. I went out of a sense of duty; I never could tell whether she got any pleasure from our encounters.
There was a disco on at the student’s union that evening, and although I’d missed most of it, it would be more fun than sitting in getting stewed on my own. While I changed, puttingon a vintage silk dress and dramatic makeup, I drank a couple of brandy-and-lemonades and smoked a joint.
Things were in full swing when I arrived, the air humid and smoky, the lights rippling over the crowd. Neil was in a corner, a pretty redheaded girl sitting on his lap. My guts clenched inreaction. I shot him a blazing smile and turned away. I wanted to rip her off him. I wanted him to dump her on the floor and come over to me. I wanted to kill them both. Not acceptable reactions.For the next hour I flirted with a group of lads at the bar before going off with the prettiest. It felt meaningless.
When I rolled up at my place the following afternoon, shivering in my thin dress, Neil was sitting on the doorstep. My heart burned when I saw him. He kissed me and followed me in.
I had a shower while he made bacon-and-egg butties. He was quiet as we ate and the tension was plain in the set of his jaw and the cast of his eyes. I put music on, rolled a joint. We lay on thebed smoking. He put the roach in the ashtray. I straddled him, let my robe fall open, traced his clavicle with my fingers. He stayed my hand and my skin chilled. He was leaving me. That was whyhe’d come round, why he was so wound up.
‘Move in with me,’ he said.
‘Or I’ll move in here. I don’t want anyone else.’ He edged himself up onto his elbows, shook his hair back from his face. ‘I don’t want to share you.’His eyes were hot.
‘Deborah,’ he warned me, his grip on my wrist tightening.
He closed his eyes, a gesture of relief. Then looked at me again. Lay back down. I began to unbuckle his belt.
Living together. Monogamy. I wondered how long it would last.
We argued about housework: cleaning, shopping, cooking, washing. He tried to joke about it but I was deadly serious. There was no way I was going to become my mother; solelyresponsible for all that – even before my dad died. Life was too short and chores too soul-destroying. Neil was an adult, not a child, and I appealed to his political sensibility. ‘Youbelieve in equality – this is part of the equation.’ I had little respect for a man who needed servicing. It worked both ways: I would shift rubbish and change fuses with the best ofthem. Not for me the helpless act, the little lady who hauls home the groceries then finds her muscles have melted clean away when faced with a flagstone.
Things weren’t up to scratch for a long time but I’d seen my brother successfully use the excuse of incompetence to get away with doing nothing in the house so that wouldn’twash. We taught each other and weathered the ridicule of friends and family:You the one wearing the apron, Neil?
He became competent at cooking and cleaning and laundry. No more than that, but no more was expected. And I became a dab hand at DIY.Chapter Two
The prison van comes for us at eight in the morning. We’ve eaten breakfast and are waiting in the reception area near the main exit. Four ofus. A couple of the girls, who don’t look much older than Sophie, are smoking and laughing, their nerves making them talk quickly. The other woman is silent. She wears Asian dress, asalwar kameezin a pale green. There’s grey in her hair. I wonder what she’s charged with.
The van is the sort you’ve seen countless times on television. Rectangular and white with the row of distinctive small windows. Any high-profile case and the news shows the van swingingtowards the court and photographers running along, arms upstretched, cameras held to the windows, hoping for that lucky snap. I wonder whether anyone will greet my arrival. It’s likely. Thecase, the ins and outs and the moral twists, have fed the papers and the discussion programmes for weeks. It appears mine is acause célèbre. Not what we intended at all.
We climb into the van up metal steps located just behind the driver’s cabin. The narrow corridor is lined with doors, a little cubicle each. Bare metal walls, a reinforced galvanized-meshseat. The guard sends me into the first and locks me in. It is April and all I can see out of the little glass window is bleak grey sky. Nine months I’ve been in prison.
The journey takes about twenty minutes. Styal is a few miles south of the city centre. Before all this, it was somewhere we came walking, a place with woods and a river, an old mill and tearooms. Where the kids played Pooh-sticks and Adam got stuck on a tree over the river and had to be rescued. Where Sophie got stung by a wasp and her ear puffed up and we worried it was an allergicreaction. The prison is less than a mile away from the country park.
Will they be there? Sophie? Adam? At Adam’s last visit, I told him it didn’t matter. That it would be horrible for all of us and I’d understand if he stayed away. Ihaven’t seen Sophie. She’s staying with Michael and Veronica.
Adam’s looking after our house. That might be too strong a phrase. I expect he’s treating it with benign neglect at best. If he’s off the rails again, who knows? He might havetrashed the place and sold the lead from the roof.
When I was first arrested Jane asked Adam if he wanted to move in with her. There’s a box room in her flat he could squeeze into but he was happier at home. I asked him, too, just in casehe was acting out of misplaced politeness. But he was quite clear: ‘Jane’s great, but move in? No way. I couldn’t relax, you know?’
I nodded, picturing Adam sprawled on the couch, a game on the screen, dirty plates and discarded items of clothing strewn about. I’m glad he’s comfortable at home, that there’ssome remnant of our family still there, that the house is not deserted. Jane keeps in touch with him; he can call her if need be. Adam likes Jane. I love her. She has been a constant for me, fromthose undergraduate days till now. A fast friend, someone I’ve shared my life with.
The vehicle speeds up and there are shouts outside, then a hard thump on the side. For me? For one of the others? Then we swing to the left and the van slows, the engine stops. We must be at thecourt. A ripple of panic courses through me. My skin chills but blood runs hot in my limbs. There’s a rushing noise in my ears. The guard unlocks the door and leads us down the steps and intothe holding area beneath the courts.
I don’t want to be here. Anywhere else but here.
The summer of my graduation we went island-hopping in Greece. I’d studied photography at uni but, as the course went on, found myself less and less interested in the actof taking photographs and more and more fascinated with creating material to photograph. Concentrating on still life and found objects, I would spend weeks building up an environment or acollection of items or a scenario complete with figures, maybe a sense of narrative. The photographs became a way of documenting the creative process. Drawn to different themes and cultures, Iresearched avidly, reading everything I could find on Mexican and Aztec culture for a project entitled ‘Day of the Dead’ or experimenting with early dyeing techniques for a photo-essayon colour. Using my own urine to set dyes was one of the more scandalous elements of my second-year project.
Graduating with a 2:2, I knew I didn’t want to work as a photographer. Perhaps I should have considered animation, though my drawing skills were average at best, or becoming a stylist, butat the start of the eighties there were precious few jobs for arts graduates.
Neil, who’d finished a year ahead of me, had gone on to do a teacher-training course. Jobs in history weren’t ten a penny either. By rights he should have started a teaching job thatSeptember. But I’d talked him into our Greek trip. We both worked for a temp agency through July and August to raise the money, then had two months away.
We arrived in Athens in the middle of the night. The air was hot and full of dust, which left our skin feeling gritty.
There was no bus to the port at Piraeus till dawn so we sat in the scrub on the airport approach road waiting for sunrise. At one point a car drew up, airport security, and a man in a crispuniform and peaked cap harangued us until we got up and dragged our rucksacks back to the building. There was nowhere to sit and nothing to eat or drink.
When the bus came we repeated the word ‘Piraeus’ to the driver, who took some drachmas and motioned us down the aisle. The front windows were framed with coloured fringing and sprigsof plastic flowers. Central on the dashboard stood a large plastic glow-in-the-dark Madonna, and rosary beads dangled from the rear-view mirror.
‘My mother’d love it,’ Neil murmured.
The bus juddered its way along winding roads and through the crowded jumble of the city, the muddle of apartments, small shops and businesses, to the port. When we got off, the place was quiet.Nothing open. I wondered where all the fishermen were. Hunger and lack of sleep were making me grumpy but then a corner shutter rose and a small, round, wrinkled man plonked a table and two chairsoutside. We made our way over and stepped inside. There was a garish menu with photos of sickly-looking food. I pointed to a cheese roll, treacle cake, coffee. Neil nodded for the same. We ateoutside at the rickety table and watched the gulls swerving down for debris on the quayside. The day was already warm and the food set me right. The sea was a pure deep blue and I took a longbreath of air and watched Neil. Early on, I often feared he would leave me. That was what men did. I hid it well. He never realized. Of course, I imagined he’d betray me for another woman.Instead it was neurones crumbling and muscles wasting away that stole him from me.
We were the only tourists on the ferry. Well off the package holiday routes, Syra was, according to the guidebook, a thriving ship-building island with a strong local economy and desertedbeaches. It was also several hours on the boat from Piraeus. The Greeks on board were all laden with parcels and packages. Most of them wore black or black and white. They seemed curious about us,eyes sliding our way. As they chatted, I wondered if we were the subject of their conversation – the scruffy hippies with their backpacks.
We set off with a clamour and the smell of diesel in the air. The engine clattered loudly and made it impossible to talk. But after an hour or so, the roaring noise cut out abruptly. One of thecrew, a man with skin like an old satchel and grizzled hair, climbed down into the hatch. For several minutes he and the captain exchanged words. He emerged now and then to throw up his arms andgrimace. One of the older women, dressed all in black, remonstrated with the captain.
How long were we going to be stuck there? My dreams of lunch in some small taverna followed by a swim and sex in the shade of a beachside eucalyptus tree shrivelled as the minutes ticked by. Thesun was high and fierce now. There was no land anywhere in sight, no rocks, no other vessels, no lighthouse or buoys.
The crewman emerged, wiping oil from his hands onto a rag, and another noisy debate erupted with several of the passengers chipping in. After a few minutes of this the crewman spat over the sideof the deck and lit a cigarette. The captain and a young lad, who I guessed was his son, began to lower a dinghy into the water. The crewman climbed into it and, after a few attempts, started theoutboard motor. Most of the passengers retreated to the shade in the lounge area in the middle of the boat.
‘He’s going for help,’ I said to Neil. ‘Will he go to Piraeus?’
‘Think so – there’s nowhere nearer.’
I sat back down and closed my eyes, my face tilted at the sun. I savoured the heat. I could feel myself sliding into sleep, but struggled awake, aware of the hard iron struts on the bench bitinginto the bones of my back. ‘I’m so tired,’ I murmured to Neil.
‘We could go over there.’ He gestured to a corner under the stairs. It was in the shade and dry. There’d just be room to lie down. We left our rucksacks where they were andmoved over.
We lay side by side, facing each other. The floor was hard; my hip bone soon ached. I used a hand to cushion my ear. ‘I wish I could teleport.’
‘Click my fingers and we’d be in our room.’
‘With a very cold beer.’ His T-shirt was crumpled from the journey, his chin dusted with stubble.
A picture of us making love formed in my mind: Neil prone on white sheets, me riding him, his gaze blurred with desire. ‘Touch me,’ I whispered.
His eyes danced. He brought his face close to mine, I tilted my body towards him – I had my back to the few passengers on deck and hoped the run of the stairs and my position would shieldthem from seeing anything untoward.
He touched my lips with his, moved his arm slowly, brushing my nipple with his knuckles. If anyone was peering at us they would surely see my buttocks tighten and my back stiffen. Neil respondedto my intake of breath. He kissed me again and shifted, trailing his hand down my body till it rested between my legs. My cheesecloth skirt was flimsy, my underwear close-fitting and I could feeleverything as he made tiny circling motions with his thumb. The proximity of other people gave an added edge to my excitement. After only seconds I came, the sweet release rippling down my thighsand up into my throat, flooding me with heat. I tensed my muscles hard so I wouldn’t flail about and managed not to cry out.
Opening my eyes, I stared at Neil. His face was flushed and sultry. I ran my tongue between his lips while I felt for his crotch and found the smooth curve of his penis, thick against his jeans.He stayed my hand. ‘Later,’ he whispered. I smiled. And closed my eyes.
The return of the dinghy woke me. I’d no idea how long I’d slept but my bum was numb and I’d pins and needles in my arm.
Whatever spare part the man had brought back did the trick and we were soon roaring and clanking our way onwards. By the time the island came into view, night was falling and a warm breeze cameup, riffling the water and whipping our hair about.
The harbour was small. Coloured lights ran along the quayside in front of a row of tavernas. On dry land, we walked along the front, catching sight of shoals of fish close by, their scalesflashing iridescent when the light spilled onto them. The smell of barbecued meat and fish and onions made my mouth water.
At the end of the drag the road forked; the right-hand turning led uphill and the other circled the bay. A few streetlights illuminated the buildings, many with boards advertising rooms.We’d started along the beach road when a voice called to us; ‘Room? Room?’ The woman was a few doors down and beckoned us closer. We reached the whitewashed block as she laid downher hose. The place was festooned with geraniums in oil cans and she had been watering them, the aroma of damp earth and vegetation strong. I caught the whine of a mosquito close to my ear.
The room was one of four on the first floor, overlooking the bay. With a location like that we’d have said yes to a cardboard box. It was clean and simple. Very simple. Bed, two ricketywooden chairs and a small table. A wardrobe that smelt of wax and contained heavy blankets. An ancient fridge, no fan, no kettle. Shower and toilet. Shuttered doors led on to the small balcony. Wethanked the woman and asked the daily rate. It was reasonable. We asked her if she needed our passports and she shrugged. We weren’t going anywhere. ‘Kalispera.’ She leftus and Neil shut the door. We grinned at each other in excitement and relief.
The bed, in a dark wooden frame, squealed as I sat back on it and eased off my rucksack. I used the bathroom; the water stuttered out of the tap as though it hadn’t been used for a while.I’d caught the sun already, my nose and forehead bright. While Neil had a wash, I went out on to the balcony. The sea was close: I could hear the crashing sound of waves and just make out thewater’s edge.
Neil came out of the bathroom.
‘I’m ravenous,’ I told him, as I walked back in. He switched the light off. It was very dark. He cupped his hand round my neck and then walked me back until we reached thewall. The plaster was cool on my arms. His breathing, harsh and eager, mingled with the noise of the surf outside. He kissed me and then he fucked me, gripping the fabric of my skirt in bunches atmy hips, his jeans puddled round his feet. I was ridiculously, sentimentally happy. I must remember this, I told myself, whatever happens. I must remember. He gasped when he came.
‘Now take me out and feed me,’ I whispered.
‘Okay.’ He kissed the top of my head. ‘Then I’ll fuck you again.’
My solicitor, Ms Gleason, is here. She reminds me what the procedure will be in court today, what is likely to happen. It’s hard to concentrate. Several times I findI’m agreeing with her and have no idea what she has been saying. It reminds me of a dream I have – they’re quite common, most people dream something similar. In my version I am onstage and the curtain is about to go up and I have forgotten to learn my lines. I don’t even know what the play is but I have a very big part and there is no time to find my script. It feelsexactly like that as we wait for the usher to call us. And I know there’s no waking up from it.Chapter Three
The weeks of our Greek idyll passed in a daze of cheap local wine, fresh food, hot sun and sex. We were both constantly aroused. I was on the pillso we had no need of condoms. Those happy days before AIDS came stalking.
We travelled to Crete and went to Knossos, King Minos’s palace; Neil told me all about the legend of the Minotaur. The site was vast, impressive, but what captivated me was the frieze ofthe dolphins, the vibrant colour, the energy in it, and the mosaic floors made of thousands of tiny tesserae, I loved the sophistication and elegance of the images, the harmony of composition.
We sailed to Rhodes, entering the harbour where the Colossus once stood. On the island of Kos we got the bus up to the Asclepeion, the first hospital in the world, built on wooded terraces. Theplace had an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity that not even the clusters of tourists could disrupt. Down in Kos town we sat beneath the plane tree where Hippocrates was said to have taught hisprinciples of healing. Neil filled my head with stories of Greek gods and monsters and heroes. I came to share his fascination with the myths and legends.
Between our excursions to ancient sites we would walk up into the hills where the air was thick with the scent of pine resin and sizzled with the chirrups of crickets and the hum of bees. Hewould put his hand round the nape of my neck, a gesture that had surprised me at first but by then had become familiar, comforting. He would catch my neck and pull me close for a kiss or hold melike that as we strolled along. I was a head shorter than him.
‘Deborah.’ He’d stop me, circle my waist with his arm and steer me to a tree, the place dappled with shade and insects flittering in the golden pools of light. To the sound ofcowbells in the distance, he would make love to me. His passion for me, his appetite, fed mine and the lust showed no signs of abating. On the beach, reading, swimming, roasting in the heat thatsoftened my muscles and darkened my skin, my thoughts turned repeatedly to sex. Remembering what we had just done and what we might do next. Soon I would turn to him and whisper filthy words andsweet entreaties, teasing him until one or other of us caved in, stood, hand shading our eyes, and said, ‘Let’s go back for a bit.’
Neil had been dead for sixteen days and we still hadn’t been able to make the funeral arrangements because the coroner’s office hadn’t released the body. Thewhole country baked in a heatwave. I barely slept, barely ate, close to nausea much of the time. But the warm nights meant I could roam about the house or my workshop and wait for sunrise.I’m an interior designer; my workshop is a converted double garage at the side of the garden. Most of the work I did myself: insulating the roof, dry-lining the walls and laying the floor,though I got contractors in to sort out the plumbing and electricity. I’ve a free-standing stove at one end that heats the place perfectly in winter.
The part nearest to the drive is an office and meeting area. Clients occasionally come to the workshop to check me out or go over some ideas. The rest of the space is for practical work, drawingtable and plans chest, a messy area where I can experiment with paint and other materials: cork, plastics, ceramics. There are shelves lined with reference books and folders stuffed full ofresearch. Some of the books I’ve had since university; others I acquired for particular projects, like the huge volume of nursery rhymes that I return to again and again when I’mconsidering children’s rooms, or theGardens of Egypttome I’d bought when working for a couple who’d met at the Pyramids and wanted an outdoor room with the flavour of theNile.
The length of the workshop that looks out on to the garden is all sliding glass doors, which gives me the natural light I need. There are plain hessian curtains for days when I want to shut outthe sun’s glare. I set it up the year I launched the business. I’d spent fourteen years working for a big design agency, mainly on corporate contracts: hotel chains and supermarkets. Itinvolved more work away from home than I liked and less variety. I didn’t get much holiday, and although Neil’s teaching job meant he was available to look after the children in theschool holidays, I wanted more flexibility.
It was a risk going self-employed but I knew if I crashed and burned we’d still have Neil’s salary. We wouldn’t starve. Accepting that productivity would come ahead ofcreativity until I’d established a reputation, I said yes to all comers. As it was, I struck lucky. One of the clients I’d worked with at the agency had heard I was going solo andrecommended me to his boss, who had just won the contract for a new community hospital on the outskirts of Manchester. It involved me designing everything from the colour-coded seats in receptionareas to the napkins for the meals service and the pictures on the walls. Eighteen months’ work. After that I could pick and choose, and I built a portfolio of very different projects: hairsalon, fusion restaurant, sixth-form college, as well as domestic jobs, refurbishments, loft conversions and the like.
So, sixteen days after his death and I’d spent the early hours in my workshop, awake but eyes closed to rest them, my mind lurching about like a drunk on a dance floor. Avoiding thequicksands of sleep.
At seven I went into the kitchen and made a cup of tea. Adam had stayed with friends, or so he said, but Sophie came down, got her lunch ready and left for school. She was very quiet andresisted my attempt to make conversation, returning only shrugs or monosyllables. This wasn’t like Sophie but perhaps the silence gave her solace. In the aftermath of Neil’s deathsomeone had mentioned bereavement counselling to me: they offered it for children nowadays. If Sophie couldn’t talk to me about her dad then perhaps she’d appreciate doing so withsomeone else.
I thought back to how my own mother had handled it when my dad drowned. Not very well. I was nine. We were on holiday, staying in an apartment in Mumbles on the Gower Peninsula. She sat me andmy brother Martin down and told us in very simple terms what had happened: Daddy was missing. He’d been for a swim and must have got out of his depth. He wasn’t a particularly strongswimmer and might have misjudged the tides or the current. He had left his clothes on the beach. I imagined them neatly folded, the grey and yellow check poplin shirt, grey shorts, covered with thestriped blue towel. His watch in the pocket of his shorts. They recovered his body eight days later. Martin got his watch. I didn’t get anything.
Once I had children of my own, every seaside holiday brought a moment of intense anxiety that rose like bile, then a falling sensation, a rush back to the numb panic of waiting for news while mymother spoke to strange men in hushed tones. The earth sways. I am flirting with disaster, I am tempting Fate, bringing myself, my children here, a sacrifice to the ocean. Neil had told me aboutScylla and Charybdis when we were in Greece, the two monsters that sat either side of a narrow strait. If sailors managed to avoid the sucking whirlpool of Charybdis they sailed too close to thegrotesque Scylla with her six heads, each with three rows of teeth, her loins girded by dog’s heads. Scylla would drown and devour her captives. I imagined my father struggling against thepool of Charybdis, being pulled deeper and deeper, the water closing over his head, his limbs burning, heavy, feeble. Or Scylla, sated, cradling him in her loose embrace. Dad’s bones clankingsoftly in the slow current, crabs in his eyes.
Determined to face down my monsters, I dandled the toddlers in the foam along the shore, showed them how to jump the waves. As they grew, I taught them to float and crawl and dive. Allowingmyself to fear the worst, I pictured them gone, my eyes racing over the sand and the blue beyond. It’s a talisman: if I dip myself into the foam of tragedy and coincidence, give rein to thedread, then it will not come to pass. Some superstitions are hard to shake.
After those first few days my father’s death was never mentioned. And talk of his life was strictly rationed. Now and again my mother would mention how he loved to sing or recall watchinghim play cricket when they were courting, and I would keep still and hold my breath and long for more, so afraid was I that I would forget him. But she would always snap out of any reverie and if Iasked a question, tried to keep her talking, she would feign forgetfulness or ignorance. ‘I don’t know, I can’t remember. Now I must get on.’
One ill-judged day, at the age of twelve or so, I pulled out the photograph albums from the sideboard drawer. My mother was watching television. She saw me and tensed, straightening her spineagainst the sofa back and studying the magazine on her lap. I sat in the armchair and began to turn the pages, thick creamy vellum with black and white photographs carefully attached by cornermounts. This album ran from their marriage to our early childhood, and at the end the photographs were in colour: Martin and I in matching jumpers and tartan slacks, in romper suits on rugs,bundled up in woollen coats and tam o’ shanters feeding the ducks. Our clothes so formal, like little versions of our parents’, save the romper suits.
I turned the pages, longing for an invitation to share them with her but not daring to say anything. I was staring at a picture of my mother and father in evening dress. She looked vivacious,her lips dark with lipstick, her hair swept up in a chignon and her small figure stunning in a tulip gown. He gazed at her with great affection, his black suit and white shirt pristine. My motherlaid her magazine aside and stood. ‘I’ll sort the ironing out,’ she said. ‘Turn that off, she nodded at the television, ‘when you’ve finished.’
With everyone out, I listened to the house settle around me. The lack of sleep took me back to the days when Adam and Sophie were small. The same aching muscles, dry eyes pained by the light, aspine filled with sand, emotions horribly close to the surface. As a new mother I would eat to try to maintain some energy, some equilibrium, but now I couldn’t. Instead I ran a bath and laythere until the water cooled.
Later, as I was hanging out the washing, I heard the doorbell.
A man and a woman are on the doorstep. For a moment I think they are selling windows or are Jehovah’s Witnesses – something to do with the suits they wear even inthis heat. But they aren’t smiling. They flash ID cards at me and introduce themselves. All I hear is the word ‘police’.
‘Is it Adam?’ My heart bucks and my skin crawls with dread. ‘Oh, God, what’s happened?’
‘We’re not here about Adam. If we could come in?’ The policewoman flushes. I stand back, still swirling in the relief that Adam is okay, and they walk into the house. Theground tilts. I sense it then, a punch to the gut, the enormity of what’s coming.
‘We realize this is a very difficult time for you but there are a few things we need to clarify about the events leading up to your husband’s death. We’d like you to come withus to the police station. Is now a convenient time?’
My throat is dry. I don’t trust myself to speak. So I nod.
Like a zombie I put the answer-machine on, scrawl a note for Adam and Sophie, lock up the house and follow them out to the car. It is a plain vehicle, nothing to set the neighbours’curtains twitching and saliva glands drooling. Shame. Pauline-next-door would like nothing better than to see me bundled into a panda car. The officers are very polite; they seem completelyrelaxed. I will answer everything evenly, carefully, I tell myself, and it will be fine.
At the police station I am taken to the custody suite. Like some pastiche of checking in at a hotel reception I give my name, address, date of birth. They ask me about any medical conditions Imight have – mad with grief? I have to leave my bag with them. A young policewoman spreads out the contents and lists them. They ask for my earrings, my locket. They take my wedding ring. Andthen I have to sign the list. My hand trembles and my signature looks fake.
They explain that I can see a solicitor before I am interviewed under caution. Have I any questions? Numb, I shake my head. They request a DNA sample and run a small wand along the inside of mycheek. This is sealed in a container and notes made on the label. They take my photograph. Then my fingerprints. The ink smells strong, metallic, and then I am given medicated wipes to remove thedark, oily stains.
A man takes me through a locked doorway and along a corridor into a small cell. He smiles cheerily and locks me in. I sink on to the bench that runs across the back of the room. There is nothingelse in the space. They took my ring. I bite my tongue. Where is Neil’s ring? In some sealed bag awaiting collection? What will they give me back? The clothes he died in won’t be fitfor anything.
The walls of the cell press in on me. My skin is clammy and there isn’t enough air. I’m aware of my ribs locked too tight, my belly a fist of tension. I cup my hands over my nose andbreathe out into my palms, eyes closed. I recall how I taught Adam to do this when paranoia made him hyperventilate, sitting beside him on his grungy bedroom floor, smoothing calm into my voice,talking him down. ‘Breathe out nice and slow, let it empty out. Now wait, two, three, four, five. Very gently, little sips, that’s it . . .’
His breathing was more regular, yet still when I tried to go to make us both a drink, he scrambled after me, eyes singing with panic, his fingers clawing at my sleeve. ‘They’re stillthere – they’re still out there!’
Oh, Adam. I felt like snapping at him, ‘They’re not out there, they’re in here, in you, and you’re not the only one they’re driving round the bloody bend.’Instead I shushed and soothed and stayed with him until Neil came to do his stint.
In the police-station cell, as I wait, my sense of time distorts. I don’t know if it’s hours or minutes. I feel so alone and it is nothing like the solitude Iusually revel in but that awful sense of being isolated, left and forgotten. ‘Left to rot’, that’s the phrase. They have locked me up and they will decide when I eat or sleep orpee, who I speak to.
The solicitor arrives. A black woman with a frazzled look as though she’s been dragged from her bed after an all-nighter. Might worry some people but I find it reassuring – the messyblack curls, creased suit and purple shadows beneath the eyes give her humanity. She introduces herself as Ms Joy Gleason in a ripe Bolton accent, and even though I guess her to be ten or fifteenyears younger than me, there is a practical, no-nonsense, maternal style to the way she deals with the situation.
She describes her role and asks me to tell her about Neil. I explain: his illness, the deterioration, the last morning, finding him dead; every so often she interrupts to clarify a point. Shemakes notes on a legal pad as she listens.
She frowns. ‘The police have no obligation at this stage to disclose any information or evidence they have so we don’t know what’s prompted them to interview you. It may bethat the post-mortem on Neil was inconclusive or they’ve found it hard to attribute cause of death. But I’m second-guessing and, in a situation like this, where we really don’tknow what they’ve got, then I strongly advise you to offer no comment.’
‘Won’t that make me look guilty of something?’
‘That’s what the police will tell you,’ she smoothes her hands over her hair, ‘because they don’t like it. But until we know where they’re going with this, Idon’t want to put you in a position of having to respond to questions.’ She thinks for a moment. ‘They haven’t arrested you for anything but they do want an interview undercaution. If you choose to answer their questions there’s no adequate preparation I can give you. They will want an account from you and they will test that account very rigorously. It will beproduced in court, if things ever get to court. I would only ever encourage a client to answer questions in the dark like this if I was a hundred and ten per cent sure that the account wasabsolutely watertight and that the police evidence wouldn’t compromise it. But if I don’t know what they’ve got, whether it’s medical uncertainty or queries about the timingof events, whether there are suspicions of negligence or recklessness, then my advice has to be offer no comment.’
‘It won’t be easy. And it means you have to answer the same to everything they ask. Some of the questions will be trivial or mundane or obvious, but you still offer no comment. Itwill feel like a weakness, it will make you feel pathetic’ She looks up at me from under her eyelids, pressing the message home. ‘Everybody feels like that. But you just persist. Thepolice will be all sweet reason and they will make you feel ridiculous. They bank on that. And they will try to come between us. They might say I’m giving you poor advice, encouraging you towaste their time. Don’t rise to the bait. You’re recently bereaved so they know they must tread gently, but it will still feel horrible. Okay?’
Oh, fine and fucking dandy.
‘I want to rehearse with you,’ she adds.
I stare at her.
‘The no-comments. It helps to try it out before you go in.’
She asks the questions and an edge of hysteria creeps up on me as I repeat, ‘No comment,’ each time. What if I laugh? Cackling inappropriately like some picture-book witch,that’d look really good, wouldn’t it?
‘Sorry, I drifted off.’
‘You sure you feel up to this? I can ask for a few days’ grace. It’s just over two weeks since your husband died – we could raise that as an objection, that you’renot fit for interview.’
‘No, no, I’m fine.’ Why am I so keen to have the interview? I think because it seems the quickest way to get out of the place, to be freed from the confines of the cell and theawful isolation. I will say my no-comments and they will let me go.
‘Have you spoken to your children? Do you need to call anyone?’
I picture Sophie coming in from school, flushed with the heat, slinging her heavy bag down in the hall, drinking a glass of water, Adam peering into the fridge. ‘No, I left a note. Idon’t want to worry them.’
‘They may detain you overnight. They’d have to arrest you first but then you can be held for twenty-four hours.’
Shit. I cover my face with my hands. They are cool, though they feel grimy. If I were at home, I could take a shower, stretch out on our bed (new mattress in case you’re wondering. Willthat be held against me?) and let the afternoon unspool. Or sit in my workshop and gaze at the bees and the blue tits and the cabbage whites. Let their droning and swooping and flickering fill mymind.
‘Don’t worry about that yet,’ she adds, but now she has warned me I feel it’s bound to happen.
‘I’ll tell them we’ll be ready in, say, fifteen minutes. I’ll sort out a drink. Tea, coffee?’
I sit up straight, my back rigid like a slab, and take a deep breath, but the air is dry and stale and brings no succour.Chapter Four
The interview takes place in a small, bland room with oatmeal-coloured walls, heavy-duty ribbed grey carpet and recessed halogen lighting –it could be in a hospital or a school, the same anonymity. The light is garish and makes us all look washed out.
The detective, DS Bray, explains the protocol for the session. He makes eye contact a lot and has an easy, confident manner. A little like Neil, in fact, though nowhere near as beautiful. Thisis how Neil would be when he gave his students’ reports at parents’ evening – friendly and open and a pleasure to talk to. The police say they will record my interview on video.The camera is already running. He reads the caution, the one from all the telly programmes, and asks if I understand it.
He begins commiserating with me on Neil’s death, he understands what a difficult time it must be, sorry to intrude, but they would really like to hear my account of that day. Perhaps if Istart from the evening before? How was Neil then?
I hesitate. ‘No comment.’ My voice sounds hollow. He’s not put off by this: he must have been expecting it, though his colleague, a scratchy-looking man with dry skin, rollsback his shoulders, betraying irritation.
‘Your husband Neil was suffering from motor neurone disease?’
‘How long since his diagnosis?’
A year and nine months. ‘No comment.’
‘How long had you been married?’
Had, as though the marriage ended with Neil’s death. We still are, I want to tell him. If Neil had lived we would have reached twenty-four years this September. Twenty-four years andhe’s still my husband. I long to tell the man that, to prove the longevity of our relationship. ‘No comment.’
Ms Gleason said it would be hard but there is worse to come. ‘Was it a happy marriage?’
My throat swells. ‘No comment.’
‘You cared for him as his health declined.’
‘Was he on any medication?’
‘How was he that morning?’
‘Could he work?’
Neil, his lovely long legs, they could no longer bear his weight. He’d been so tall and strong, able to carry me. I’d revelled in his strength. My voice falters: ‘Nocomment.’
‘You have a son – Adam?’
He makes me negate everything about my life. I hate him for it. And I feel craven. Unable to own the circumstances of who I am, what I am. His tone is measured and warm, but the process isbrutal. Each question is a blow disguised as a caress.
‘And a daughter, Sophie?’
Oh, Sophie, Sophie. My lovely girl. I should have cuddled her this morning – even if she didn’t want to talk surely a hug would have helped. A pause, my mouth waters and my eyessting. I can feel the pressure as the tip of my nose reddens. I swallow hard.
‘This isn’t really helping us, Deborah.’ He is a sensible parent, a concerned form tutor. With ghastly inappropriateness I remember a joke Jane told me. About the inflatableboy who sticks a drawing pin in his foot and is called to see the headmaster. ‘You’ve let us all down,’ the head tells him, ‘you’ve let me down, you’ve let theschool down and most of all you’ve let yourself down.’
I blurt out a noise, a laugh or a sob. It doesn’t matter, does it?
‘If we can just hear your account of what happened to Neil it might help answer some of the inconsistencies we’ve come across. We’re as eager as you are to see this sortedout.’
My solicitor chips in – can she smell me weakening? ‘My client does not want to comment.’
‘You said previously that you discovered your husband at three o’clock and couldn’t rouse him. Is that correct?’
How does he know this? Then I remember the comic-book-hero policeman, with the wide jaw and narrow forehead, who called while the ambulance was there, making notes at our kitchen table. Whatelse did I say?
‘Did you give your husband any medication of any sort that day?’
‘Was he in pain?’
I don’t like to think of Neil in pain. And it didn’t often happen. The muscles became progressively weaker, turning from sinew to sponge as they lost the capacity to communicate withthe brain. The pain wasn’t physical.
‘No comment,’ I say tightly.
He takes a sip of water from the cup at his side. He’s left-handed; he wears a plain gold band on his ring finger.
‘I don’t know whether your solicitor has explained to you how a jury might interpret your choice to remain silent.’
The word ‘jury’ sends my blood pressure sky high, a tightening of my skin, my pulse stammering. I want to run – I want to hurl my chair aside and fling open the door and peltdown the street, through the park, across the main road, on and on, away. Find somewhere safe, somewhere for Neil and me, where nobody can bother us.
Ms Gleason jumps in. ‘My client is exercising her right to remain silent under advisement.’
‘Did you love your husband, Deborah?’
He waits. My jaw is locked. My tongue stiff, pressed against my palate. My teeth imprinting scallops in the edges of my tongue. I force my teeth apart. ‘No comment.’ But I cannothold myself together. I break down and Ms Gleason makes them agree to a break until I am less distressed. I’m crying for Neil because I miss him so. I’m noisy and messy and my nose isrunning and I don’t give a damn.
‘They seem interested in his medication,’ Ms Gleason tells me, once we are alone. ‘There may be something from the post-mortem that they’ve yet todisclose. Was Neil on regular medication?’
I want to say no comment. How much to tell her? Can I trust her?
‘He’d been on anti-depressants.’
‘He was depressed because of the illness?’
Stupid question. ‘Yes.’ I’d tried to keep my voice even.
‘He’d become breathless, and had quite a lot of muscle pain. The GP had put him on liquid painkillers for that. Morphine.’
‘He was self-medicating?’
‘Where did you keep the medicines?’
‘So they were accessible to him. Is it possible Neil self-administered an overdose?’
‘It’s possible,’ I say, my knees pressed tight together, toes curled, gripping the floor.
‘You didn’t give him anything that morning?’
‘No. Just some wine at lunchtime.’
There is a knock at the door and she goes to see who it is. A respite. Exhausted, I slump in my chair. She turns back into the room and says she will be away for a few minutes. Do I needanything?
Adeus ex machina,ta. I shake my head.
She is back in ten minutes. She takes a moment to settle her file and gather her thoughts. ‘The police conducted a second post-mortem.’
I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react. Is this a good thing? She sees I’m confused, places her palms on her knees. She has large hands but slender wrists. In fact, she isscrawny, but for those mitts.
‘They wanted to confirm the findings of the first. In a case like this we can opt to have an independent post-mortem carried out – if we don’t trust their findings.’
What have they found? I don’t trust myself to ask. She carries on talking but I’m imagining Neil, his chest cracked open, his organs weighed and measured. Not twice but three times.Of course, he’s not there any more: his body is a shell.
‘Okay, we have partial disclosure of the postmortem reports. It’s as I thought. Potentially fatal levels of morphine as well as alcohol in the blood. Now, we can get our own medicalexpert to interpret the results – it may be, for example, that motor neurone disease affects the body’s ability to process the drugs. The levels may have built up over time –that’s a fairly clumsy example but you see what I’m getting at?’
‘Right.’ She puts her hands on her waist, straightens up. ‘They want a second interview. It’s half past six now. They have to allow you eight hours’ rest plus ameal break so they can’t go on very long. And I advise you to maintain your right to remain silent.’
I let my eyes close, hoping to summon some energy from somewhere. She touches my hand. ‘I could do with another cuppa. You, same again?’
Sophie would be doing her homework in front ofHollyoaks.
‘Will they let me go home tonight?’
‘I don’t know. It’s hard to tell.’
‘If I explain,’ I begin, my voice shaky, ‘give a proper statement . . .’
‘I wouldn’t recommend that. Any small variation in what you say could be catastrophic. We still don’t have full disclosure. You’d be putting yourself in a very vulnerableposition.’
‘And I’m not already?’
She regards me for a moment. ‘This could be much worse. The caution’s there for a reason. Anything you say, that meansanything,can be used against you. To give a statementnow would be nothing short of reckless.’
I surrender to her argument.
‘Can you call my daughter, tell her I’m delayed, legal stuff to do with—’ I can’t finish.
‘I’ll be discreet.’
I know now. Something’s tilted. Like the sheen on two-tone fabric shifting, the other colour to the fore. They are going to keep me here.
We are in the same interview room. I have been no-commenting for maybe an hour. All of me is weary from the soles of my feet to my scalp. The detective has maintained hischeery disposition but his colleague, scratchy DC Mercer, has been asking the questions this time. He has a more brittle edge to him. A note of incredulity taints his queries.
‘And you have no idea how your husband could have administered such a high dose of morphine?’
‘You made no attempt to revive your husband. Why was that?’
But it is DS Bray who weighs in with the next evidentiary disclosure. See how I’m picking up the jargon. A bombshell to you and me. ‘The postmortem shows signs of petechialhaemorrhaging – that is damage to the blood vessels in the eyes – and fluid in the lungs. This is consistent with suffocation.’
The air in the room hangs still. The camera whirrs in the silence. I feel the pulse jump in my throat. The Furies have found me, the daughters of the night. They know I have blood on my handsand they are coming. With snakes hissing through their hair and blood dripping from their eyes, the three of them will hound me to insanity.
The detective tilts his head to one side, his eyes soft, open, inviting my confidence. If I talk, he’s saying, if I just talk to him, then all will be well.
‘I did not harm my husband. I love him.’
Ms Gleason scrambles to shut me up. ‘Deborah! I’d like a word with my client in private, please.’
The detective agrees.
We leave the room and are taken into the adjoining one. She closes the door behind me. There’s an astringent taste in my mouth, chemical, the smell of pear-drops. When did I last eat? Ican’t remember. Ketones, they call it, when the body is depleted and draws on fat reserves. I had it in my urine when I was giving birth to Adam. We’d bought glucose tablets to keep myreserves up but I couldn’t keep anything down.
Ms Gleason takes a full breath and sighs it out. She stretches her arms up, clasps her hands behind her neck and stretches. Then drops them. ‘We still haven’t full disclosure,’she says, ‘but the drugs in his bloodstream and the petechial haemorrhaging are strong forensic evidence that this was not a natural death. Is there anything you want to revise from theaccount you gave me earlier today?’
‘Okay.’ She nods. ‘Then it’s imperative that you do not offer any comment in there. Now more than ever.’
‘You feel all right to carry on?’
They want to interview me a third time. Magic number three – we all know that: sisters, princes, witches, curses, wishes, betrayals.
When we resume there’s a change in the atmosphere, a sparkle of new-found energy from the detectives. Perhaps they’ve snatched a meal, taken a turn in the freshair. Had an ice-cream or freshly ground coffee.
Detective Sergeant Bray leans forward. ‘Deborah, we want you to tell us what happened in your own words.’
‘Did you give Neil morphine, with or without his knowledge?’
‘Did you do anything to deprive him of oxygen – for example, holding a pillow to his face?’
He pulls a face, rueful, and sits back, his fingers flat against the edge of the table. ‘Deborah Shelley, I am charging you that on the fifteenth of June 2009 you did murder your husbandNeil Draper. You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given inevidence. Do you understand the charge?’
The words won’t come.
He repeats the question.
There are wings beating in my chest and the chill of stone in my bowels.
‘Yes,’ I whisper.
‘Is there anything you wish to say?’
It was still light, the world gold-drenched with sunset when we arrived at the prison. I was stunned, a ball of static in my head that made it impossible to think clearly.
At the main gate, we were taken from the van one by one. The guards exchanged forms and I was asked to confirm my name and date of birth. The entrance to the complex was a big metal gate andgatehouse. Fences ran off either side, cream-coloured steel mesh topped with coils of razor wire.
A prison officer led me through to the reception area, unlocking and relocking a series of doors. There, I was met by two other officers, women. Again I had to give my name and date ofbirth.
‘Have you been to prison before?’ PO Vernon, asked me, various forms spread out in front of her.
‘Every time you enter or leave the prison we have to do a full search. Please put your clothes in the basket here. Socks and shoes in here. Your bag on the side there.’
My fingers trembled and I wanted to cry. I removed everything until I stood naked before them.
‘Now walk in a circle.’
I did. My face burning, my pulse quick and uneven. I was so thirsty. And horribly aware of the eyes watching.
Everyone was very matter-of-fact and workaday about this process because it was their daily work. But me, I was drowning. Anxiety prickled my every pore. I was hot with shame and stiff withapprehension. My muscles twitched and shivered without control.
One of the women moved to my clothes and looked through them, holding them up to the light of the window, checking seams and pockets, shaking them. Then she examined my shoes.
The officer told me I could get dressed and asked my dress size. They gave me a change of clothes – briefs, bra and T-shirt, tracksuit bottoms and sweatshirt. Casual, anonymous garb. WhenI finished, they asked me to sit down.
‘You get a towel and soap.’ PO Vernon passed them to me. ‘Do you need any sanitary supplies – Tampax or towels?’
‘No.’ It was two years since I’d had a period.
She poured the contents of my bag out on the table. ‘There are some items that are prohibited,’ she told me. ‘They will go on your property card and be kept for you, until yourrelease.’
She set aside my mobile phone, money and credit cards, paracetamol and lip salve. ‘We can’t allow any cosmetics in,’ she explained. ‘Some of the women conceal drugs inthem. You can buy some here once you’re settled.’
She also picked up the photograph of the four of us taken just before Neil got ill.
‘Why can’t I keep that?’ I asked.
‘Nothing allowed if it has your face on it. It could be copied, used to fake ID. You can have them send in some other photos from home. Everything will be checked before you getit.’
They let me keep my wedding ring.
‘Do you smoke, Deborah?’
She made a note on one of the forms.
‘Are you a drug-user?’
‘Are you currently on any medication?’
‘Do you have any existing medical conditions?’
‘Do you suffer from any of the complaints on this list?’
She passed me a sheet, which I read through. It reminded me of the permission slips we had to fill in for the children’s school trips. Asthma, diabetes, epilepsy.
‘Sign here for the property we’ve taken.’
I wrote my name.
PO Vernon held out a plastic card to me. ‘This is for the phone. There’s two pounds’ credit already on it. You can make a brief call to let your family know where youare.’
They took me through, locking and unlocking doors, and across the grounds to another building. There I waited behind two other women until I could use the phone. It was noisy: there were lots ofwomen milling about, talking loudly, snatches of raucous laughter. People were glancing my way, a new face. I felt disoriented, shaky and exposed.
Adam answered the phone. ‘Mum?’
‘Adam, I’m . . . erm. Listen, love, I want you to call Grandma, okay? Ask her to come over.’
‘Why? Where are you? Are you still at the police station?’
‘I’m in prison, in Styal.’
‘Fuck. Why? Because of Dad?’
Did I even answer his questions? I don’t know.
‘Is Sophie there?’
‘She’s in the shower.’
Disappointment weighed me down. I longed to hear her voice, picture her disconcerted but determined to manage. It probably wasn’t fair but I was hoping she would make me feel better.‘Tell her I’m fine. You both look after yourselves. And will you ring Jane and explain to her? The number’s on the thing in the kitchen.’
‘Mum, it’s going to be all right, isn’t it?’ Was he trying to reassure me or asking me? ‘How long are you going to be there?’
‘I don’t know. I have to go to court in the morning. They might give me bail. I’d better go now. I love you.’
I was still in shock. People had to repeat things to me before I grasped what they were saying. My knees were weak and I worried that I might throw up, though there was nothing much to throw asI hadn’t managed to eat anything for hours.
As a novice, I was put into a special unit called the First Night Centre. It was designed to give new prisoners extra care and support but I was so bewildered to find myself locked up that I wasunable to pay much heed to such distinctions.
I shared a room with a slight, dark-skinned woman who spoke no English. I don’t know where she was from, Africa perhaps. When I made attempts to find out her name, she just shook her head.We spent the time silent, each in our own cocoon of despair, numb and unresponsive. Everything around us was out of proportion, escalated like in a fever. The level of noise was debilitating: thehard surfaces amplified the sound of chairs scraping, gates clanging, coughs and shouts and canned television laughter. The smells, of women and food and unfamiliar toiletries, were overpowering.The ceilings were too low, the lights brash, the colours sickly and unsettling. When I touched the plastic chair in my room, an electric shock bit my fingers.
If they’d employed me I could have shown them how to use natural materials to absorb the sound and vibration, reduce the amount of static. Soften the lighting with daylight bulbs to givean easier spectrum, less tiring for everyone. Pick colours to soothe the eyes and ease the emotions.
The day after, I appear in the magistrates’ court. There are three people sitting at the bench. I confirm my name and address and date of birth. The charge is read outand my solicitor says I am not entering a plea. She asks them to consider bail. The magistrate in the middle looks to her colleagues and a couple of whispers are exchanged. Then she straightens up,presses her lips together briefly before replying. ‘Given the seriousness of the charges involved we will not be granting bail. The accused will be held on remand until the preliminaryhearing next week.’ They send me back to prison.Chapter Five
So today, nine months after, I am being tried in the Victorian Court at Minshull Street Crown Court. There are two Crown Court buildings in thecity. This one’s not far from Piccadilly station. Handy for spectators, if popping into town for a shot of criminal justice is your thing.
As the name implies, it’s a traditional set-up: a raised gallery for spectators, dark wood benches and panelling, a high, vaulted ceiling. The combination of pomp and circumstance that theVictorians loved and their careful workmanship. You can see evidence of that in the carvings on the ends of the benches, the crest with the lion and the unicorn high on the back wall.
Being a prisoner, I enter the court up steps that lead from the cells beneath. When I hear the clatter of our shoes on the marble, my thoughts seem to fly apart in fragments, like spilled beadsrolling into the shadows, under furniture, out of sight. I cannot remember what the solicitor said. There’s an urge to run, to flee or buckle.
The room bristles with attention as I appear. Afraid, I do not dare look round yet. I need to place my feet one in front of the other and turn so as to reach the dock. The usher nods that I maysit and I do, letting my gaze fall on the warm, worn wood of the ledges around me. My cheeks are aflame and my pulse thrums heavy in my neck. There are whispers and muttered conversations and therustle of papers – all the lawyers have great big folders. They march around with them, in one arm, all importance. Well, it is important, the reports and records and documents that speak toliberty or incarceration.
Little by little, I raise my eyes, glancing to my left, across the people seated in the main well of the court. My barrister, Mr Latimer, the one in charge of my defence, is a bullish man withan unfortunately appointed nose and beefy skin. He stammers but he has a technique for overcoming that in public, a sing-song delivery that reminds me a little of the comedian Kenneth Williamsstretching out his time on the radio quizJust A Minute, though Kenneth was way more camp. Beside Mr Latimer is his junior. And beside them my messy solicitor, Ms Gleason, takes her seat.She’s the one who’s held my hand for all these months. Today the hair has been pulled back in a barrette. She smiles across and nods. She is watching me and the others are talkingshop.
Beyond them is the prosecution table. I have already been told about their team but the names escape me now. The main prosecutor is a woman and she has a male aide.
My heart squeezes as my eyes light on Adam in the public gallery. My boy. I am so glad he has come. That seems bizarre. What mother wants her child to see her tried for murder? Next to him,Jane. Jane and I are the same height but she’s a bigger build. More padding, she says. She’s on a diet every few months and shifts a few pounds. Then it creeps back on. She can’tstop smoking either. She’s done the lot, everything from patches to acupuncture.
I try to smile but my lips jerk about in some ghastly jig. Adam bows his head suddenly, close to tears, I think. Jane gives a wry smile. She has always been there for me. Have I been as good afriend? Jane is giddy, gregarious. She’s never really left the hubbub of her childhood, competing with her three brothers for a spot in the limelight. The phrase ‘good for alaugh’ comes to mind. Not that she is frivolous or shallow, more that she has a ripe sense of humour. She sees the funny side and points it out. People mistake her comic vision for happinessbut Jane has had a hard time of it. Since Mack left her she’s never found the right man. And she’s very lonely. She’s a manager in the NHS, her working life a mire of reports andstrategies, evaluation and targets. She and Neil had plenty to moan about together, swapping anecdotes of bureaucratic lunacy and governmental folly.
Sophie isn’t there, or Veronica or Michael. There are other faces – I’m startled to see two of Neil’s colleagues, and people I don’t recognize. The gallery is full.I’m quite a draw. Who are all these strangers? What brings them here?
The team have dressed me in mumsy clothes, Marks & Sparks, a plain light blue blouse, navy skirt, opaque tan tights. The skirt rustles against the tights when I walk. I hate these clothes.I’m a fraud. I’ve never worn things like this in my life. School uniform came closest. But I will do whatever they tell me now. At their mercy. They even brought earrings, small goldstuds. My fingers seek out my wedding ring. I twist the familiar smooth metal.
We bought our rings from Lewis’s. It’s hard to remember now why we got married. It certainly wasn’t part of some shared dream of white silk dresses andpageboys and speeches. And we didn’t do it to stock up on toasters and tableware, either. I did wear silk – and taffeta – a gorgeous cherry red cocktail dress that I found in adress agency in Stockport. Neil wore a black suit and shirt and a bolo string tie. He still had his hair long and looked like an extra, a pioneer in some Wild West movie. We got hitched at theregister office and only told our families afterwards. They were hugely disappointed. My mother gave a little ‘Oh!’ of regret on the phone, as though I’d punched her in thestomach, which perhaps I had. And Veronica was furious: the register office ceremony wasn’t a union in the eyes of God. But I was a non-believer, with no intention of converting, and Neil hadbeen lapsed for years. Neil told me they tried to keep it all secret from their Catholic friends.
I’d had boyfriends before Neil, I’d even had some after, but sooner or later they had irritated me. The reasons varied, the timescale too, but eventually their childishness, the waythey held my hand or their taste in music, the smell of their skin or the pattern of their conversation would pall and then rankle – like grit in my shoe, producing a blister, not a pearl.Soon everything about them would be wrong and I’d be planning my farewell speech.
‘You want perfection,’ Jane had said, when I was dumping my first boyfriend at uni. ‘It’s impossible. Give him a bit longer.’ She finished rolling a joint, lit itand sucked hard.
‘No, I feel trapped. When I think of carrying on I feel panicky.’
She’d shaken her head. ‘He’s so sweet.’
‘It’s not enough. I know he’s sweet and pretty good-looking, and he’s not dumb but . . . I can’t change how I feel. I can’t unthink what I’ve beenthinking about him.’
I held out my hand for the joint, the first two fingers splayed. ‘Exactly, not possible.’
So when I asked Jane to be a marriage witness for Neil and me, she reminded me of how picky I was. ‘What if you go off him?’
‘We’ve lasted six years.’ I laughed. ‘It’s him going off me I’m worried about.’
‘You love him more than he loves you.’
Had that been true? Back then or as time went by? Had the power in the relationship shifted? I wasn’t sure. Rather, I thought, the intensity of feeling we had, the desire for love and theneed for independence, ebbed and flowed between us like a subtle tide.
Jane was one of our witnesses and Tony Boyd, Neil’s old school friend, the other. Tony was a lovely man who could consume more illegal drugs then anyone I’ve ever met and stillacquit himself decently. He’d got hold of cocaine for our wedding party. It was pretty rare then and more expensive too.
We’d all booked into a hotel in the Derbyshire peaks, and once we’d checked in we took a picnic out into one of the deep valleys, still in our finery. The four of us got stoned andwent paddling, drank champagne and rolled about in hysterics. We’ve a handful of photos left from the day – I had my camera with me – but there’s only one with all of us in.We roped in a passing hiker who did the honours. I look so young; we all do. The dress, its strappy top and flared skirt, glows against the green of the grass, the colours acidic.
When friends heard we were married, some were quite shocked. They’d assumed we had rejected the institution, that we’d live together in defiance of hidebound rituals. If Neilhadn’t proposed perhaps we would have. But I liked my new status. I think I needed the conspicuous commitment, though I kept my own name. And bank account.
Jane once asked me whether I thought Adam’s troubles might have been made worse because we’d taken a relaxed approach to drugs, never hiding our own history of experimentation. Igave her question some thought. Had he needed limits that we’d failed to provide? Had he needed different boundaries? But in the end I couldn’t see it. If we’d hidden our viewsand adopted a rigid just-say-no stance, his dabbling would have been even more covert and we’d only have learned later how the drugs were affecting his mental health.
I look across the courtroom at Adam again and try the smile. A little better, perhaps, though Ms Gleason frowns. I am to be the grieving widow for the duration of my trial, ahollow shell of a woman. They have warned me against sly remarks or clever answers. I must show some humility. It’s not me, at all.
My brother Martin is not here. I didn’t know whether he would come or not. We’ve grown apart – not that we were ever that close. There was a flurry of contact when Mum wassick. Adam was only a month old when she first saw her doctor about her weight loss. She was dead before he was three. He was a wonderful baby but he never slept and he couldn’t bear to bealone. He’d be up at five every day and happy as Larry if he was carried everywhere. It was exhausting. We had a baby sling, and for the first year we lugged him about in it constantly. Iremember hoovering with him strapped to my back. Then we bought a back-pack with a frame. Those years were a blur of broken nights and driving back and forth to my mum’s, Martin and Iconferring over who would do the next hospital visit.
Neil and I were both shattered, ill-tempered with each other, bickering about the chores – all the new ones that came with parenthood. I didn’t cut him any slack; he would doeverything bar breastfeeding or die trying. I knew other couples where the advent of a baby seemed instantly to dissolve any intentions of domestic parity, to rob them of political intelligence andplunge them back into the stereotypical gender divisions of the fifties. The man was working harder than ever, all the overtime going, quickly losing faith in his skills as a parent; the woman didall the housework, the shopping, cooking, cleaning, the baby. She was up night after night, simmering with resentment and careful not to disturb him because he was tired and he had to go to workthe next day. As if child care wasn’t twice as demanding.
No, Neil and I worked at it. Some days I’d wait at the front door for him coming in from school, ready to thrust Adam into his arms so I could set off to see my mum – or even so Icould just get out into the garden and have ten minutes’ peace. I went back to work part time after six months and we took turns dropping Adam at the child-minder. It was shaky for a while,the parent thing, but we made it work. Not rocket science, just a little social engineering. Oh, I know I can be a smug bitch but, hell, I didn’t drop my beliefs when I dropped the placenta.I’m proud of what we did. I’m proud that Sophie and Adam can look at us and know we were both fully involved in their care, their schooling; we both wiped and fed, changed and scolded.We both did the fun stuff too, and there was plenty of that: Play Doh and puddle-jumping, castles made of cardboard, bedtime stories. Huge pleasure. Having children gave me glimpses of my father,rare flashbacks to his whistling, letting me sip the whisky from his glass (it smelt like wee and tasted horrible), him playing the piano in a honky-tonk style and me plonking the black notes, himwatching me master my pogo-stick one Christmas morning.
Sophie was born in the shadow of my mother’s death and the clamour of Adam’s toddlerhood. Either she was born self-contained or she immediately adopted that as a strategy in the faceof the competition. As long as she was fed and her nappy was clean, she would watch everything around her with steady interest.
There were times when I felt ripples of guilt that she got so little attention and I would engineer it so Neil could take Adam off somewhere, leaving Sophie and me to ourselves. I would lie downon the floor with her and sing and play. She’d give a gummy smile and gurgle or make little shrieks as she flailed her fists about, but I got the sense that she was just playing along. Thatit didn’t matter to her whether I was giving her my undivided attention or not. That she’d have been exactly the same with a babysitter or Grandma Veronica.
When I tried to explain this to Neil, he gave me an indulgent smile. ‘She’s a baby! She’s just a different character from Adam, thank God. You’re used to him, the way hehas us running round in circles. She’s the second child.’
‘Like me. But they’re usually more difficult. What if she turns out to be some wilting feeble, Barbie doll, all inept and fluffy?’ I speculated.
‘By way of rebellion, you mean? I think that’s pretty unlikely,’ Neil said.
And he was right. She’s a little solemn but she’s bright and articulate and ferociously independent. As soon as she could dress herself she chose her own clothes. As a four-year-oldon holiday she always picked a seat away from us on the coach or bus, quite happy savouring the view.
She made friends at playgroup and nursery but not with the passionate attachment that Adam brought to his alliances. She did well academically and was reading by the time she reached Reception.She seemed to soak it all up effortlessly, while Adam became mute and mutinous if we tried to get him near a book. We had countless meetings with his teachers about his lack of progress.
My girl thrived and I was buoyed by her success and always felt the lifting of my heart, that lightening sensation, when I clapped eyes on her, but I knew she loved her father more than me. Orperhaps her love for him was less complicated. I understand. I made the same differentiation in my feelings for my own parents. My love for my father was visceral, unsullied, simple, direct. Butthe emotions my mother called up in me were contrary, critical, double-edged. I hated her at times but never my father. Did Sophie learn these patterns from me, or discover them for herself? IfAdam had been any different would it have changed the dynamics? Sophie thinks I love Adam best. I don’t. I just love him differently. Is it because he’s a boy? Or because he’sAdam?
None of that differentiation was going to happen when I had children. Boy or girl, they would be treated equally. No gender-based toys or colour-coded outfits, no breastfeeding a boy for longeror over-protecting a girl when she headed for the climbing frame. Any girls I had would be tomboys like me, any boys sensitive and caring. Of course, there’s another side to the equation thatI hadn’t factored in – Adam and Sophie as individuals with personalities and predilections fully formed.
I miss them so. And how much harder must it be for them? Losing Neil and then, before they can get their breath back, I’m gone too. Locked up. It was never meant to belike this. I rage at Neil, floating around in the bloody ether. Well out of it. You’re off in your Elysian Fields, mate, but look at us. See where we are? You sacrificed us all. You sorrynow?Chapter Six
It was just before Easter 2007 that Neil first complained of stiffness in his hands and arms. I wasn’t very sympathetic. It’s the sortof reaction I get myself if I’ve been doing something that involves a lot of manual work: cutting tiles or screen-printing, repetitive movement that strains the muscles. I said as much but hereplied he hadn’t been doing any physical jerks. Try paracetamol, I told him.
He didn’t go to the doctor until the summer. The GP gave him a course of anti-inflammatory drugs and asked him to come back afterwards. They didn’t help.
After his next appointment, when he came home, I could see straight away that something was wrong. His face was sallow and he’d an artless, vulnerable look in his eyes. Sophie was in thekitchen, sorting out ingredients for her food-technology class – pineapple upside-down cake.
I sent a warning glance to Neil, not that he needed telling, and walked after him into the lounge.
We sat down. He looked at me, gave a little ‘huff and swallowed. ‘They want to do tests.’
My guts clenched. I assumed he was talking about cancer.
‘It could be . . . the weakness, losing control . . .’
I stared at him, the cup he’d smashed, the plates he’d dropped now sinister.
‘. . . it might be motor neurone disease.’
Stephen Hawking onThe Simpsons,wheelchair, robotic voice, head lolling to one side.
‘Oh, Neil.’ I wrapped my arm around his shoulders. ‘It’ll be all right,’ I said. ‘Whatever it takes.’
‘There isn’t any cure.’
My heart stopped. ‘But the treatment, there must be something.’ I refrained from mentioning Stephen Hawking – he’d lasted years. Or had he got a different illness?
‘Not really,’ he said quietly.
I kept still. My mind was scrambling, trying to unpick what he was saying.
‘It just has to run its course.’
A deluge of fear, my heart thudding in my chest. This wasn’t happening. No. It wasn’t true. It was a mix-up, that was all, a silly misunderstanding.
‘Oh, Neil. These tests,’ I said tentatively, ‘it might be something else.’ A condition they could treat, a disease they could cure.
‘Yes.’ He took a shaky breath and then another. He was crying. I’d only ever seen Neil cry three times in our years together: at the birth of our children and when I’dtold him about my affair. The sound of him crying was alien to me, the rhythm unfamiliar. I climbed on to his lap, wrapped my arms tight around him, raised one hand to cradle the back of his head.He put his face in the crook of my neck. His tears soaked warm into my T-shirt. He was going to die. How long? I was screaming inside. How long? Ten years? Five?
People talk of a bolt from the blue, of being thunderstruck, and that was how it felt. As though Zeus had hurled his lightning bolts at us, a sickening crack to the skull, a galvanic shock,paralysis and the sun stopped in the sky.
‘It might be fine,’ I said.
And the lie, the false hope, lay leaden between us.
At the first opportunity I had, when everyone else was out, I went online to find out about the disease. Doctors did not know what caused some people to develop it. It was nota virus and there was only a hereditary link in a very small minority of cases. Each site I logged on to reported the same stark facts: for those people with the most common form of the disease,life expectancy was between two and five years from diagnosis. Neil’s muscles would weaken and waste – he would lose ability in his arms and legs first; then chewing, swallowing andspeaking would become difficult. As his chest muscles also weakened he would only be able to sip shallow breaths. Eventually his breath would fail.
On the upside, he was not likely to become incontinent or impotent. He could go down fucking, then. He wouldn’t go senile either. Although the disease affected the motor nerves thatconnected the brain to the muscles, the brain itself wouldn’t be affected. He’d be fully aware until the end stage. MND is not a painful killer, not like the cancer that riddled mymother and rendered her insensate with pain. MND sounded sly and swift and wilfully random.
As with any new project, I flung myself into research hoping understanding might make me better able to deal with the situation. I read and read, surfing link after link, waiting for obscuremedical abstracts to load as pdf files, sussing out books on the disease, startlingly few. But all it did was reinforce my anger, my alarm, each new web page breaking over me, a cascade of rapids,cold and treacherous. Without hope.
Neil’s next appointment was with a hospital neurologist. Apparently it isn’t easy to diagnose MND in the early stages: the symptoms may be due to other problems,which have to be ruled out. After an examination, a muscle biopsy and an electromyography test to measure muscle strength they might be left with MND. A matter of elimination.
We agreed not to say anything to Adam and Sophie until we knew one way or the other. We were worried about Adam’s reaction. Sophie would be devastated but Adam’s state of mind wasfragile and a shock like that could see him in meltdown again.
As it was he beat us to it.
That Friday night, a few days before Neil had to go for tests, Adam didn’t come home. He was sixteen then and had just started back at school. Part of the deal he’d made with us andthe counsellor was that he’d be home by midnight or get in touch if not.
That night we lay in bed longing to sleep, taking turns checking the clock. I tried Adam’s mobile at twelve fifteen, one thirty and two forty-five. I got up at five. The house was chilly.There’s a convector heater in my workshop. I went to get it, half hoping that Adam would be there, spreadeagled on the rug or even huddled on the bench in the garden. A lost key, reluctanceto disturb us, the explanation.
There was no Adam. Back in the kitchen, I made coffee with hot milk, then dragged out my bread-maker, dusted it down and sprinkled in dried yeast, filled it with wholemeal flour, addingsunflower seeds, chopped dried apricots and walnut pieces, salt, sugar, olive oil and water.
Neil came down at seven. ‘Adam back?’
I shook my head.
‘Should we try Jonty?’ He was one of the friends who still hung out with Adam.
‘It’s very early, I’ll try at nine.’
Neil stood behind me, wrapped his arms around me and stooped to kiss my cheek. ‘He probably got pissed and stayed at someone’s house.’ He straightened up.
‘And lost his phone?’ I was more sceptical. And also, if I thought the worst, as I had done all night – the body broken beneath car wheels; the figure, beautiful andbare-chested, falling as he tried to fly; the knife fight after some silly comment; the beating dished out by a gang of hard lads who had sniffed out Adam’s middle-class softness – itwould not come to pass.
The phone rang. It was Manchester Royal Infirmary. Adam had been admitted to A&E. Unconscious. He’d ingested a cocktail of drugs washed down with vodka. They were pumping hisstomach.
When we got there he was awake but very drowsy, looking sheepish and then plain sad when I asked him if he was okay.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said to us both. There was defeat in his tone, a note that sent a chill through me, as though he’d accepted that it would always be like this. Him messingup, him hurting us, scaring us.
He claimed not to remember anything about the hours before he collapsed.
‘Nothing?’ Neil said incredulously. ‘Not where you were, who you were with?’
Adam shook his head and looked away, his lips parted slightly, his tongue up behind his front teeth: a trick he uses to fight tears. Had he taken the drugs to get off his head or had he wantedto harm himself? The question bored into my brain. It didn’t seem fair to ask him yet and I guessed he’d be more likely to lie now, in the immediate aftermath, eager to reassure us andbe forgiven. I knew all that but I was so upset I wanted to shake him.
‘You promised,’ I heard myself saying, ‘that if you ever felt at risk . . .’
‘Mum, I got trolleyed,’ he said. ‘That’s all, honest. I’m sorry.’
The rest of the weekend I found myself watching Adam, looking for signs of deterioration: was he hanging around the kitchen so he wasn’t alone? Was he feeling anxious again? When he stayedat home all day Sunday, was that because he wanted to chill out after Friday’s scare or because he was too fearful to leave the house? I asked him if he wanted to see the GP but he shrugged ano. He gave the same response when I offered to contact the counsellor.
Once Sophie knew he was okay, she dealt with the situation by ignoring it: he wasn’t going to get any of her attention with his dumb behaviour. She had spent her life being frustrated byAdam, playing together and invariably falling out. Adam always pushed things too far, rebelled; he’d grow bored with whatever game they were playing and want to change the rules; he’dget distracted and start playing something else. Sophie would end up incandescent, in angry tears, vowing never to play with him again. Till next time.
His chaotic behaviour sucked up our attention while her diligence, hard work and successes won way too little recognition. Neil and I often talked of it, as things grew difficult in recentyears: how to care for Adam without neglecting Sophie. He saw the same thing with some of the kids at school: that gap between achievement and recognition when another sibling is acting up.
We tried to talk to Sophie about it when Adam first saw the psychiatrist, to explain the situation and apologize for the upheaval, for our distraction, maybe our neglect.
‘It’s okay,’ she reassured us. ‘I’m fine.’
‘We love you, Sophie,’ Neil said.
‘I know, Dad. And I’m not a little kid any more. I can see that Adam needs your time.’ She was relentlessly self-reliant. But the truth was somewhat different.
One day I found her weeping in her room, face blurred with misery. ‘Sophie, what’s the matter? What’s wrong?’
‘I’m sick of it, sick of everything, and Adam and living here. It’s all so shitty,’ she cried, the words a snarl of hurt.
‘Your precious Adam happened. I know you love him more than me.’
My heart tore. ‘Sophie, that’s not true! I swear to you, I love you both. More than anything.’
She gave a shuddery sigh, sniffed and wiped her face. ‘I hate it, Mum. Why can’t he just be normal and stop messing everything up?’
‘Adam—’ I took a breath, meaning to try to answer but her question was rhetorical.
She went on, ‘They’re all talking about it at school. I’m not me any more, I’m just Adam Shelley’s saddo sister.’
‘Sophie, you are not a saddo. You’re a wonderful—’
Tears burned in my eyes. ‘Hug?’ I offered, my voice too squeaky by half.
She gave a little shrug, noncommittal. I moved in and wrapped my arms around her. Kept quiet. In a few moments she spoke: ‘When’s Dad back?’
‘Soon.’ Could he make it better? ‘I’ll tell him to come up and see you?’
‘Okay. It won’t always be like this, you know. It’ll change. Everything changes.’
She nodded. ‘Yeah.’ A small voice.
‘You want anything? Hot chocolate?’
‘No, just tell Dad.’
She always wanted her father. He was her rock. And now he’s gone. I have taken him from her.
Neil persuaded me not to hang around while he was in having the tests done. He wouldn’t get the results then, and most of the day he’d be sitting about waiting. Hepromised to call when he was done.
It was late afternoon when I picked him up. He didn’t say much about the day, just some quip about hospitals being no place for sick people. He had a little plaster on his arm wherethey’d taken the biopsy. They wanted him back in a week’s time for the results. ‘I’ll come with you,’ I said.
Did the days go fast or slow? They rippled, concertina-like, altering speed. The sooner the days passed, the sooner we would know.
That winter I was working on a refurbishment project for a health spa. They were building an extension and it was a good time to revamp their interior, which was looking jaded:Roman mosaics and friezes, pillars and arched doorways. I’d been playing around with something minimalist, using Japanese influences. Any materials would have to be high spec, to cope withthe heavy traffic and, of course, the effects of steam and chlorine in the pools area, without looking industrial. Calm, comfortable and clean: these were the words I used with the client during myfirst presentation.
The day of Neil’s follow-up appointment I drove out to the spa, near Knutsford, for a meeting and spent the morning with the manager and the architect. It was frustrating: the manager waseager to shave off costs but not happy to compromise on quality, and the architect was dying to get away.
I tried not to get too sharp even though I felt the manager was wasting our time. At one point I suggested he redraw his budgets and give me a new figure to work to, if he was having secondthoughts, which prompted the architect to complain about delays. The manager backtracked and blethered on. My husband might be dying, matey, I thought. I don’t give a flying fuck for youryardage problems. But I smiled thinly and did my job. After all, if Neil was dying, I’d need all the work I could get.
Of course, the proper jargon, as I learned on the Internet, is living with MND, not dying from it. Like AIDS. Adam had a T-shirt around that time, black and voluminous with a slogan in scratchywhite lettering: ‘Life – a death sentence’. That soon got lost in the wash.
At the hospital, I saw Neil before he saw me in the waiting room (ghastly orange chairs designed to deaden the bum and weaken the spirit). He was reading, his head tilted to the side, legsstretched out, ankles crossed. Beautiful. If I hadn’t known him, I’d have thought the same: the shape of his face, his frame, dark hair, inherently attractive. I didn’t need toget close enough to smell his pheromones.
He sensed me watching, looked up and smiled, closed his book. Unhooked his ankles and sat up straighter. I reached him, sat beside him, unbuttoning my coat, unwrapping my scarf: I was hot afterthe frosty air outside.
‘They’re running late,’ he said.
‘Great – gives you a bit more time, then.’ I thought I’d gone too far but his eyes crinkled at the joke.
‘Good meeting?’ he asked.
‘Crap. He wants to cut corners without it showing. I told him we need to move forward by next week or he’ll lose the slot, another client waiting, bigger.’
‘Neil Draper,’ the nurse called.
The consultant, Mr Saddah, was a really nice man. He took his time, answered all our questions, even if most of the answers started off withit’s hard to sayorit varies a greatdeal.He said eminently sensible things about support and resources and dealing with it as a family and how MND progressed.
His words streamed past me, lapping around me like channels of water carving the sand. I gripped Neil’s hand and tried to stop time.
The judge comes in and everybody stands. A wave of panic washes through me, blurring my vision. I blink hard. Jane is saying something to Adam. It’s lonely here, lonelyand exposed. Did Martin think of coming and decide against it? If my dad had lived would he have come to show support? I’m glad my mum’s not still around, not here today, anyway.Because her reaction to all this, her eloquent unhappiness would give me more of a burden to carry. Happy birthday, Deborah. Happy bloody birthday.Chapter Seven
‘Call Deborah Shelley.’
I stand in the dock, beside me a guard from the court. The clerk asks, ‘Are you Deborah Shelley?’
Do they ever get it wrong? No, not me, mate. Whoops, sorry, you should be next door with the traffic offences . . .
‘Deborah Shelley,’ she reads from a notepad, ‘you are charged that on the fifteenth of June 2009 you murdered Neil Draper at 14, Elmfield Drive, contrary to common law. Are youguilty or not guilty?’
‘Not guilty.’ My voice sounds thin, swallowed by the space.
The judge is exactly how you would imagine a judge to be: old, white, male. The only deviation from the stereotype, a northern accent. He has wild white eyebrows and a pleated face. He leansforward slightly and asks the clerk to fetch the jury. They file into the court and make their way to the jury box. Here they are sworn in, each person putting their hands on the Bible (no onechooses the Qur’an even though two are Asian and one is black) and promising to try the case faithfully and reach a true verdict on the evidence presented. Three of them choose to affirmrather than use a holy book. I find it depressing that nine are believers. But perhaps their faith is the church-once-a-year variety, the sort of people who tick ‘Christian’ on thehospital admission form because they can’t bear to tick none. If any of them are fundamentalists, rabid right-to-lifers, it bodes ill for me.
The clerk repeats the charge against me to the jury.
The judge explains to the jury and the court that we will hear first from the prosecution who will make an opening statement. He consults with the barristers about a probable time to break forlunch. The exchanges are eminently civil and the reality that I am in the dock for murder seems preposterous set against this mannered chat. I detect warmth in the judge’s voice, perhaps downto those Lancashire vowels, and a benign paternalism in his manner. It shouldn’t make a difference: he is meant to be impartial, his role simply to apply the processes of the law, but had heseemed waspish or frosty I would have been more fearful. After all, the jurors will look to him for guidance, they will drink in all his non-verbal communication. And if I am not acquitted he willset my sentence.
The prosecuting barrister stands up and introduces herself. ‘Your Honour, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, my learned friends, I, Briony Webber, appear for the prosecution, and my learnedfriend, Mr John Latimer, appears for the defence.’
I guess she is in her early forties. She’s extremely tall, like a seedling gone rampant, but she carries it well. No stoop. Her wig looks fresh and tidy, whereas Mr Latimer’s has theappearance of a scrap of sheep’s wool caught on barbed wire.
Miss Webber has a clear voice, a fluency with words as she lays out my crime for the court.
‘In the dock today stands Deborah Shelley. She is here accused of the gravest crime, that of murder. The murder of her husband Neil, a loving son, a caring father, a valued colleague. Thecase for the prosecution is that Deborah Shelley set out to kill Neil Draper, in the full and clear knowledge that what she was doing was wrong. We shall show how she attempted to cover up hercrime, lying to her family and lying to the police. We shall show how, faced with incontrovertible evidence that she had poisoned and then suffocated her husband, she continued to lie. Neil Draperwas unwell. He suffered from motor neurone disease. He had a limited life expectancy. It is our contention that Neil Draper asked his wife to help him end his life prematurely and that shecomplied. We shall call witnesses who will testify that Deborah Shelley was functioning well in the days before this tragic death, witnesses who will report her being in good spirits, able tosocialize, to work. We will call a psychiatric expert who has examined Ms Shelley and who will tell you that the defence of diminished responsibility is a sham. Ms Shelley knew exactly what she wasdoing that day last June.’
She gives the word ‘Ms’ a little buzz, a hornet’s touch.
‘She set out to end Neil Draper’s life and she succeeded. She then covered her tracks, employed deceit and a web of lies to try to convince the world that this was a natural death.There was nothing natural about this death, there was nothing natural in her behaviour. This woman lied to her own children, to the parents of the man she killed, to the authorities, and shepersists in her lies even as she stands before you today.’
Holding my head high, fighting the urge to bow, aware of the tension in my throat and my jaw, I watch the jury, their eyes flicking from the prosecutor to me. Examining my hair, my clothes,making assessments already. Forming first impressions. Snotty cow, not even a Mrs, unnatural, how could she do that?
The day the magistrates refused me bail and remanded me to Styal, I rang home again. The desire to hear their voices, to make sure they were coping, was all-consuming. Sophieanswered the phone.
‘Sophie, it’s Mum. Are you all right, darling?’
There was a pause and then she said in a low, trembly voice, ‘You shouldn’t have done it, Mum.’
My heart racketed in my chest. I felt the blood drain from my cheeks and the cold steal into my bowels. ‘Sophie, I never meant to hurt—’
There was a clatter as she let go of the phone. She believed what they were saying. She trusted them, not me. I longed to call her back to the phone, to try and explain. Her censure wasunderstandable: she’d adored her father and now she thought I had taken him away from her. I felt unsteady, the love and concern I’d anticipated from Sophie snatched away. The chance wemight console each other shattered.
A few seconds later, Adam came on. ‘Mum?’ He was subdued.
‘Adam, I’m sorry for all this. I need you to be strong now, look after yourself.’
‘You can go to Grandma and Grandpa’s.’
‘I’ll stay. Sophie’s going.’
I’d a mad image of Adam opening up the place for a house party. It’d be great weather for it, tents in the garden and a barbecue, giant spliffs and too much booze.
‘Talk to Jane, if you need anything.’
‘Cool. Can I come and see you?’
I couldn’t speak for a moment. Tears burned the back of my eyes. I didn’t want to break down on the phone, didn’t want him to have to cope with that on top of everything else.‘Yes, please. I’ll find out what we have to do. You’ll need to go shopping – make sure you eat something.’
‘Course.’ There was a pause. Then he went on, ‘ Jonty’s going to this festival in Spain – there’s a load of them going. I . . .’ He offered it assomething to talk about, then realized it might seem tactless.
‘That sounds great. You thinking of going?’
‘When is it?’
‘Middle of August.’
‘Good.’ I’ll still be in here, I thought. Ms Gleason had told me it would be between six months and a year till my trial started. ‘You could take the littletent.’
‘Well, I’d better go. I love you. I’ll ring you about the visit.’
‘Bye-bye.’ My hand ached from gripping the phone.
That night as I lay in my bed, Sophie’s words tore through me, again and again.You shouldn’t have done it, Mum.
The prison isn’t one big building, as I’d imagined. Instead two rows of large red-brick villas slope down avenues lined with oak and lime and beech trees towards the wing at thebottom. Most women live in the houses, which were built as Victorian orphanages. Nowadays the villas all take their names from venerable women, good role models for us: Brontë, Gaskell,Pankhurst. Though when I think about it Pankhurst spent quite a bit of time behind bars, being force-fed for her trouble.
The more dangerous prisoners, those with chronic addiction problems and those in for the most serious offences, live on the wing. Although my charge was up there with the worst, once I had beenassessed and deemed to pose no threat to the other women, I was allocated a room in one of the houses near the bottom of the hill close to the wing.
The majority of the women ‘pad up’, two or four to a cell, in the houses. When they sent me to Shapley House – this villa is named after a pioneering radio broadcaster wholived in Manchester – I was put in one of the small single rooms, a privilege, and I was hugely relieved that I didn’t have to put up with someone else’s taste in television nightafter night, that I didn’t have to lie awake listening to another woman breathe and dream.
We share a bathroom, one to each floor, and I can’t get used to sharing with strangers, never time to indulge in a long shower or a hot soak, someone always knocking on the door. I dart inand out when I have to and never linger. The single cell gives me the option to retreat. That’s all I want to do. To withdraw into my shell like a hermit crab. To creep back along thecrevices of memory.
My ‘pad’, as I learned to call it, measures ten foot by eight. Beneath the protector, the mattress is plastered with graffiti, crude and poignant:Cilla4Shawn,I suckcock,help me,Kimberley Smith died age 3 my angel in heaven.There is a moulded block covered with a speckled rubber coating for the mattress to rest on. I once used some of thesame material for a maternity unit. It copes well with heavy human traffic, is fireproof, will easily repel blood or urine or vomit and withstands accidental or malicious damage. An importantaspect in prison. My pad also has a set of built-in shelves and a cupboard made of the same tough material, a chair, a telly and a sink. Its redeeming feature is the big lime tree outside thewindow. Its limbs sashay in the wind. I lie on my bed and gaze at it. Listen to the rooks cawing, the ‘teacher teacher’ song of great tits and the roar of jets. We are close to theairport, below the flight path, and the planes overhead are a reminder of freedom, of escape, of holidays. And beyond all those sounds are the haunting calls of women yelling from the wing. Like achorus of sergeant majors, their plaintive conversations bellow across the spaces between the cells, between the wing and the houses. That sound more than anything is Styal. I can never make outthe words. No one ever calls for me. But through the mangled yells and shouts, news travels: of private affairs and public tragedies. Of the woman who set her hair on fire and the one who’sgot a release date and the one whose child has been taken away in the mother and baby unit.
And at night, at the bottom of the hill, I am close enough to hear the clamour that erupts at intervals from the wing. The sudden alarms and bursts of activity, shouts and feet kicking at doors– ‘Come on, Keely, come on, girl, come on’ – as Keely or Jen or Emma or Kim is discovered hanging or bleeding or comatose. Night after night, the same deadly dance.
Ms Gleason came to see me the day after I had been remanded without bail. She told me we would be back for a preliminary hearing in a week – and that a timetable would beset for the trial. Then we had six weeks until the plea and case management hearing. This sounded like so much jargon to me. I asked her to explain. ‘That’s when you enter your plea tothe charge, guilty or not guilty. It’s also when we adjust the timetable and agree on dates for the exchange of papers, the preparation of reports and so on.’
She placed her palms against the edge of the table, fingers splayed, edged forward towards me. ‘We need to run a defence. It’ll be my job to prepare a brief for your barrister. Thatwill include our instructions, what we want them to do for you and all the information they need to fight your case. The barrister will be there when you plead and again for the trial. Between nowand then I expect them to come and see you to go over statements. And I’ll chivvy them if they don’t.’
‘Don’t they always?’
She gave a little snort of amusement. ‘You’d be surprised. I’ve had plenty of clients meet their brief on the day the trial starts. But a serious case like this, they’llwant to put the time in. There’s a QC I know who’d be excellent. Meanwhile we need to consider your defence. The prosecution have substantial medical evidence, which they will produceto back up the murder charge. But we can use our own medical experts to raise doubts about each element of that evidence. Considering the drugs, for example, we might argue that Neil took themedication himself, without your knowledge.’
This was our fall-back position but now I wonder if it’s going to fly. The police asked me about smothering. If they can prove I did that, they will see he had help. Should I tell MsGleason the truth now? It’s hard to think clearly. I almost miss what she is saying.
‘Or that his condition led to a build-up of toxins in his system. If his metabolism was impaired then the drugs might not have been processed as quickly as in a healthy person.’ Sheheld up her hands in warning. ‘These are just examples off the top of my head. Medical advice would help us formulate the best defence.’
The prison meeting room where we sat was pleasantly warm and brightly lit but I felt feverish, as though I could no longer maintain my temperature. My skin was clammy and my back ached. Fromsomewhere else in the prison I could hear the banging of doors and the occasional voices raised in greeting or farewell. Guards coming and going, I thought, or inmates going for their recreation.Are we inmates? Or prisoners? What’s the correct term for us? There was a glimmer of hope in what she was telling me: if we could use science and doctors to explain away those post-mortemresults then I might have a chance.
‘We would also need to produce expert testimony to give alternative explanations for the lung damage, perhaps as a consequence of the drugs, or his condition. He had troublebreathing?’
‘Yes. We knew it would get worse.’
We had a kit from the Motor Neurone Disease Association for just such an eventuality. When I first read about them in the literature that, more than anything else, brought home the inexorablehorror of Neil’s future.
‘And it may well have,’ she said. ‘Then there’s the haemorrhaging in the eyes. I’ve had a quick look into this and I think we can easily dismiss that – insome people a heavy sneezing fit can cause the same outcome.’ She smiled and sat back. ‘We have a number of options. At one end we have a clear not-guilty defence that relies on uscountering the medical evidence – and it’s crucial for you to remember that we do not have to persuade the jury of how Neil died. We simply have to cast doubt on the prosecution’sversion of events.’
I tried to grasp this: she was saying they could argue away the symptoms of suffocation. So, if I told her Neil had taken the overdose, that I’d found him and hidden everything . . .
‘To convict you, the jury must have no doubts about the prosecution case.’
‘What are the other options?’ I asked.
‘Reckless or negligent manslaughter. We would argue that you administered the drugs to Neil but without any malice aforethought. You increased the doses or gave extra tablets for the bestof intentions, not realizing the risk.’
I shook my head. This muddied the waters. And it’s not me – I’m not some ditzy wife who gets the pills mixed up. ‘I didn’t do that.’
Ms Gleason nodded. ‘Good. I’m confident we can cast doubt on the forensic evidence, which would leave us with witness testimony.’
My stomach spasmed as I imagined Veronica on the witness stand, talking about Neil, rewriting the story of our marriage from her perspective. Veronica, who believes unflinchingly in the sanctityof life. There had already been features in the papers, laden with assumptions, portraying me as some euthanasia campaigner and Neil as some martyr to the cause of assisted suicide. A knee-jerkreaction to news of my arrest and Neil’s condition. It was not a mantle I wanted.
I didn’t help Neil die. I found him dead. I’d no idea. It wasn’t a mercy killing. That was what I’d been telling everyone. Even my lawyer. What happened was personal, andparticular to the two of us, to our situation. I could hear Neil teasing me: ‘You used to think the personal was political.’ But I didn’t know any more. I didn’t knowwhether what I had done was right, you see. And it was certainly not something I was prepared to wave banners and go to gaol for.
‘I don’t know yet who they are calling as witnesses,’ Ms Gleason went on, ‘but I’ll set the wheels in motion for our medical experts and I’ll have a thinkabout who we call for the defence. As soon as I have any news, I’ll be back. Have you any questions?’
I was wordless, out of my depth on the high seas. Was silence the safest option? She sounded so confident. Would she find a medical expert who could explain away Neil’s death? Perhaps wecould win this and I could keep my secret. I hesitated and missed my chance.
She let the guard know we were finished and said goodbye. She hoped to get back to me in a few days’ time.
She was back within twenty-four hours. I was in the common room – feeling awkward and horribly lonely, trying not to make eye contact with any of the women around who all seemed more athome than me, a situation reminiscent of waiting for Adam and Sophie in the school playground – when one of the warders called my name. My cheeks burned as I got to my feet and I saw oneyoung woman nudge her neighbour and whisper something. It only occurred to me then that they knew who I was, why I was there.
The warder took me through to the meeting rooms where I found Ms Gleason. She looked solemn and tired. My stomach knotted.
‘Deborah, I have some news, some difficult news. Regarding witnesses.’ I stared at her. How could this be any worse?
‘Your daughter Sophie is appearing for the prosecution.’
There was a massive thump in my chest. The shock made me cry out. My girl, my Sophie. ‘No,’ I moaned. ‘I don’t want her to.’ I looked across at Ms Gleason.‘She shouldn’t have to. She’s sixteen.’ I imagined her, brave and scared, in front of all those people. Hurting from her father’s death, hurting because she thought Ihelped him leave her. Angry and mixed up. What would that do to her, to us? ‘I don’t want her to,’ I repeated. ‘She’s a minor, I’m her only parent.’
‘We can’t do anything about it, Deborah. Sophie’s already made a statement. She contacted the police with her grandmother, on the twenty-fourth of June.’
I froze. Stared at her. Nine days after Neil’s death. Before I was arrested. Sophie went to the police. And then they arrested me. Oh, God. The phrase ‘turned me in’ came tomind. I imagined Veronica fuelling that grief, not from malice, for all we have clashed, but out of her genuine sorrow and outrage at my sin. At my going against God’s will and robbing her ofNeil. I will lose Sophie, Adam will lose her. How do we ever come back from this? I imagined Sophie’s fierce determination, her moral certainty. The way she raises her jaw and stares youdown, all conviction and courage. All that ranged against me when I’d had unspoken hopes that she would come round, see sense and deploy that passionate belief on my behalf. Tears slid downmy face. I wiped them from my chin. Took a deep breath.
‘If I plead guilty, say I did it, that Neil begged me to help him – would she still have to testify?’
Ms Gleason stilled, her face became a mask. ‘Probably.’
‘Deborah, you need to be very careful. I can only run a defence based on the account you give me. If you’re changing that account then the whole of our defence needsre-examining.’
‘But if I say Neil wanted to die, that I did what he wanted—’
‘No defence. That’s an admission of guilt and a mandatory life sentence.’
‘He was terminally ill.’
‘They’d lock you up, a life sentence. No alternative.’ She said this crisply, surprised I think at my naïvety or maybe at myvolte-face.
All those myths of lovers torn apart by death: Dido so bereft she stabbed herself and leaped into a pyre, Hero throwing herself from her tower when Leander drowned, Orpheus, torn to pieces, hishead severed from his body yet still calling for his beloved Eurydice as he floated down the river. But I’m not going anywhere. My side of the deal is to stay, to hold my resolve, to protectthe children from the fallout. And I never imagined this.
‘I don’t want to stay in prison,’ I begged her. ‘I don’t want Sophie to be a witness.’
‘We can’t do anything about Sophie. I’m sorry. If you’re changing your story, if you’re admitting that you deliberately gave Neil the medication, then there’sonly one defence possible and that is guilty to manslaughter due to diminished responsibility.’
‘What would that mean?’
‘We wouldn’t need to challenge the medical evidence, the post-mortem report and so on. Our argument would rest exclusively on your state of mind at the time. We would argue that youdidn’t know what you were doing.’
I wanted to laugh. I’d known exactly what I was doing. ‘So, I pretend I was disturbed?’
‘No pretence. You were disturbed. The strain of caring for him, other stresses in the family . . .’
She means Adam.
‘. . . the situation drove you to behave irrationally, to break the taboos, to break the law.’
‘He asked me.’
‘And the fact that you did what he asked is proof that you were out of your mind at the time.’
I was Alice in Wonderland. ‘And if I stick to denying it all?’
She frowned and ran her hands through her hair, then looked at me directly: her eyes, a caramel brown, a freckle of gold in each iris. Her gaze stark. ‘You’ve given me two versionsof events. I cannot lie to the court. I cannot represent you if I believe you intend to lie to the court. If you revert to your original statement and deny involvement I would have to advise you toget a new solicitor.’
She can’t leave me! I was as panicked as a small child. I couldn’t bear to start again with someone else. ‘I want to tell the truth. Neil asked me to be there with him, tohelp. We talked about it many times. I finally said yes.’
She nodded gravely. Sighed. ‘One thing you need to be aware of is that the prosecution will make a meal of your change of story. They will use the fact that you lied as a stick to beat youwith, to undermine your credibility. But if we know that from the outset, we can do our best to counter it.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Maybe I should have told the truth straight away but I was hoping they’d let me go, that if I repeated the version of events that Neil and I had settled onoften enough, the children would never know he had chosen to leave them and I would not risk prosecution. But it had all fallen apart.Chapter Eight
Briony Webber calls her first witness. It is our GP, Andy Frame. I like him a lot: he was great with Neil, sensitive but not too sombre. A goodbedside manner. He looks a little uncomfortable as he catches my eye on the way to the witness stand. After he has sworn to tell the truth, and confirmed his identity and his role as our GP, sheasks him about Neil.
‘When did you last see Neil Draper?’
‘At the beginning of June last year.’
‘And you were sharing his care with the hospital?’
‘How did he seem?’
‘He complained of breathlessness.’
‘Were you able to help him?’
‘I prescribed some morphine. It helps to relax the patient and is often used in the treatment of this disease in its later stages. It is also used in pain management, and in May Neil hadreported a worsening of pain in his shoulders.’
‘So you had prescribed it before to Mr Draper?’
‘Yes, in May.’
I see where she is going now. Laying out how we hoarded the drugs.
‘Did you administer the medicine?’
‘No, it comes in a liquid form. Neil found that easier to take and he could use it when he felt particularly anxious.’
Or when he was planning to top himself.
‘And I’d also supplied an emergency dose in the breathing space kit.’
‘Can you explain to us what the breathing space kit is?’
‘It’s a pack supplied by the Motor Neurone Disease Association. It has instructions for use and drugs to help in an emergency – if a patient is choking, for example. The carerslearn how to administer it, so they can use it while waiting for a doctor or nurse to come.’
I examine the jury. Twelve people are an awful lot to get to know. I decide to assign them nicknames or jobs to help me. I christen four of them, all on the front row. Dolly is the woman withtoo much makeup and a brassy hair-do. The Prof wears tweed and specs and has trouble fitting his long legs into the space. Besides him sits Callow Youth: he can’t be much older than Adam buthe dresses very conventionally. I imagine he does a job where he has to conform and not frighten the customers; perhaps he goes door to door trying to get people to switch fuel suppliers. Next tohim is Mousy, she’s middle-aged and has given up: shapeless clothes and lank hair. Trinny and Susannah would have a field day giving her a TV makeover. She looks tired – I wonder if shehas a hard life.
Miss Webber turns Andy Frame’s attention to me. ‘You were also Deborah Shelley’s doctor?’
‘And when did you last see Ms Shelley?’
‘In October 2008.’
‘You didn’t see her at all in 2009?’
‘No, not on her own behalf.’
I stiffen, waiting for him to mention Adam’s name. This is one of the worst things – not being able to insulate the children from it. But he continues: ‘I saw her on occasionswith Neil.’
‘As her GP, what would you deduce from her lack of visits to your surgery?’
Mr Latimer stands, but before he can say anything the judge speaks. ‘No deductions, please, Counsel.’
‘Sorry, Your Honour. Dr Frame, did Deborah Shelley come to you with any health problems in 2009?’
‘Had she ever come to you for help with psychiatric problems?’
Andy Frame nods. ‘Yes. In 1993 she was under a lot of stress. I prescribed Prozac’
‘But not since then?’
‘If she had been under stress again would you expect her to come to you for help?’
He hesitates but what else could he say? ‘Yes.’
‘And she didn’t. Thank you, Dr Frame.’
The implication hangs heavy in the air. I wasn’t off my rocker when I helped Neil. I was as right as rain.
Mr Latimer has a few questions of his own for Andy Frame. He asks him about my medical history. Was I a frequent visitor to his surgery?
‘How often did Deborah Shelley come to see you, on her own account, in the years between 1993 and 2009? How many times a year?’
‘I don’t have the exact figures here.’
‘A general idea?’
‘Perhaps twice a year.’
‘And when you prescribed the Prozac for Deborah Shelley in 1993 this was in the aftermath of her mother’s death. Is that right?’
‘How long did she take the medication for?’
‘She could have taken it for longer if she wished?’
‘But she chose to come off the medication. Why was that?’
‘She didn’t like the side-effects, and she didn’t really feel it was helping.’
Mr Latimer pauses, turns a page of his notes and examines something.
There’s a juror on the second row, a weather-beaten man with long grey hair. I call him the Sailor. I imagine him salted and sozzled at ports around the world. He sneezes into a big whitehandkerchief, interrupting the thick weight of the silence.
Mr Latimer returns to the task in hand. ‘And in the years between 1993 and 2009 did Deborah Shelley ever seek your advice for help with stress?’
‘For depression or anxiety?’
‘Did she ever ask for a psychiatric referral?’
‘The appointments she made were to discuss physical ailments?’
‘So, even after her husband’s diagnosis, or in the time when there were other family troubles, she did not come to you with any emotional problems?’
The questions end abruptly and the jury look a little perplexed. The Prof rearranges his legs. The Sailor glances at his neighbour, the eldest of the two Asian men who is very plump. He has alittle gesture, pinching the corners of his mouth together – it makes me think of someone savouring food so I nickname him the Cook. The other Asian man is much younger, with collar-lengthhair, and wears a colourful handmade jumper. The sort of thing from a designer stall rather than an unwanted present. He will be the Artist.
At this stage Mr Latimer can’t explain what’s significant about the GP’s answers. He will get his chance later. But he has told me already that he wants to show how unlikely Iwas to seek help, how Prozac hadn’t really helped me before so I wouldn’t bother asking for it as I became increasingly unhinged caring for Neil.
The prosecutor asks the judge if he has any questions for the GP. He does not. He thanks Andy Frame and tells him he may go. As he leaves there’s a little surge of activity among thelawyers, notes referred to, gowns straightened, water poured. As soon as the door closes behind the doctor, Miss Webber announces her next witness.
‘Call Mr Byron Wallis.’
He is one of the ambulance men. He’s wearing a nice suit, a white shirt and green tie. I don’t recognize him but I realize he is the man who tended Neil while his colleague asked mequestions. He confirms his identity and affirms he will tell the truth.
‘Mr Wallis, you are a paramedic.’
‘You attended an emergency call on June the fifteenth at 14, Elmfield Drive.’
‘Can you please tell the court what you found on your arrival?’
‘We went upstairs and there was a man in the bed. I checked for vital signs but he was dead.’
‘Did you carry out any procedures for resuscitation?’
‘It was too late. There were already signs of lividity.’
‘Can you explain what lividity is for the jury?’
‘After death, blood settles and pools. With a body lying on its back, like this one was, it’s visible in the underside of the limbs, the back, the fingernails. It’s the effectof gravity.’
‘What would it look like?’
‘Discoloration, like faint bruising, purple.’
‘And you observed this where on the deceased?’
‘On his fingertips.’
Oh, Neil. Unexpectedly, grief clasps my throat. I think of his fingers, long and slender like a pianist’s though he only ever played a guitar and that with little real skill. Just goodenough to strum a few tunes round a campfire.
‘How long after death would lividity appear?’
‘From half an hour or so.’
‘And did Ms Shelley say anything about her husband’s condition?’
‘She said he had motor neurone disease, that he had been very ill.’
‘Do you recall seeing any medicines in the room?’
‘Did you look for any?’
‘No. We didn’t think it was a poisoning.’
‘It was a sudden death?’
‘But at that point, judging by the information you had from Ms Shelley, you believed it was a natural death, occurring as a result of Mr Draper’s illness.’
‘No further questions.’
The first time Neil had raised the prospect was a few weeks after his diagnosis. We were still reeling from the shock and trying to find a way to interact. It was as if our oldroutines rang hollow, as though a new sun shone light on habitual gestures and exchanges, painting them false.
But what he hated, what we both hated, was that for a while, every smile and glance and touch was heavy with the burden of his prognosis.
One night we got drunk. We’d eaten late and shared wine with the meal and more after. We were looking through old photographs. Sophie was doing an art project and wanted pictures ofcelebrations. Neil and I ferreted our way through packets of prints, reminiscing about the phases the kids had gone through, the faces of people we no longer saw, birthdays and holidays and all thein-between days when I’d got my camera out. I remained chief photographer in the family.
When Neil opened another bottle, I raised my eyebrows.
‘Well, I’m not exactly bothered about liver cancer any more.’
Giggling, I held out my own glass. ‘Silver lining.’
He poured and began to speak. ‘When things get bad, I want to be here. Not some hospice or hospital.’
‘Yes,’ I agreed, without hesitation.
He sought my eyes. ‘Deborah, if I wanted to choose when it happened, if I needed help . . .’
There was a spurt of fear in my stomach. His words sobered me up but I pretended to be pissed still, hiding my panic and slurring my words. ‘I’m sure the doctors’ll sort youout. They do that nowadays.’
He wouldn’t let me go, his eyes clamped on my face. ‘I’m not asking them,’ he insisted.
I was scared, scared by what he was asking and by my own cowardice. I wanted to say no. My first instinct was to say no. I closed my eyes, tilted my head back to escape his scrutiny. When Irecovered and opened my eyes he was looking down at the coffee-table, his fingers tracing a line with the spilled drops of wine.
After a while we resumed drinking, sifting through the photos, but the wine tasted acidic, our recollections were superficial, going no deeper than the obvious anodyne memories: Adam loved thattrike, the time Sophie ate the sand.
That night I woke in the early hours, shaky and hung-over and feeling dirty.
Back then, I thought he’d taken my silence as refusal. That the question wouldn’t arise again. Whenever I allowed myself to envisage the outcome of his illness, the inevitable,unstoppable end, dread reared inside me. Not just the dread of losing him, of bereavement, but the dread that he would ask me again. If I refused, what would that say about my love for him, mycompassion? That I wasn’t prepared to stand by him and let him control the event? And if I agreed, what would it mean? How would I weather the reality of killing him? How would I bearbreaking that taboo?
It was another six months before we spoke again about the manner of his dying.
‘Call PC Stenner.’
My neck prickles and I sense a frisson of interest from the jurors: a policeman – maybe now we’ll get to something juicy. He comes in, wearing his uniform, and is sworn in. Hisblocky head and wide jaw are as I recall. He has an angry rash on his neck.
‘PC Stenner, please take us through your notes from the fifteenth of June, when you attended 14, Elmfield Drive.’
‘Yes. I had a report of a sudden death. An ambulance was attending and I was in the vicinity. On reaching the premises, I found the ambulance service already in attendance. I spoke withMrs Deborah Shelley, who reported that her husband had been terminally ill and she had been unable to rouse him that afternoon. She also stated that it had been only a matter of time.’
‘What did you think she meant by this?’
‘That he could die at any time, that it was expected.’
‘At that point did you make any further enquiries?’
‘Can you recall for the jury Ms Shelley’s demeanour at that time?’
‘She was quite calm.’
‘Thank you, PC Stenner.’
Mr Latimer gets to his feet. Some of the members in the jury box rearrange their positions. Are you sitting comfortably?
‘PC Stenner. Did you meet anyone else at the house that afternoon?’
PC Stenner looks blank. I wonder if his mind is working furiously or whether you get what’s on the tin. ‘The daughter.’ He’s got there at last.
‘Yes. And can you describe her demeanour for the court?’
The constable hesitates. He knew they’d want the low-down on me but he hasn’t done his homework on Sophie. ‘I don’t remember.’
‘R-really.’ There’s a hint of Mr Latimer’s stammer but then he gets going. ‘You recall clearly the demeanour of Deborah Shelley but have no recollection whatsoeverof the demeanour of her daughter, Sophie?’
‘I suggest to you that the reason you cannot recall Sophie’s demeanour is that there was nothing remarkable about it.’
‘I don’t recall.’
‘I suggest, like her mother, Sophie appeared calm. Do you remember she offered you a cup of tea?’
‘Hardly the actions of an hysteric. Let us return for a moment to your description of Deborah Shelley. She seemed calm. Would it be fair to say she conducted herself with dignity, as didher daughter?’
There is a squawk of protest from Miss Webber. Mr Latimer cuts her off: ‘Let me rephrase that. Did Deborah Shelley behave in an undignified manner while you were at the house?’
Mr Latimer has planted the notion of dignity, altogether a different image from the woman who had just calmly seen off her husband. Not cool and calculating but brave and dignified. Mousy givesa little nod and that spark of hope tickles in my chest.Chapter Nine
The judge suggests we break for lunch and the jury file out. Mr Latimer comes over. ‘Everything all right?’
I nod, a little dazed. The tension in my body is suddenly evident to me, running the length of my limbs, coiled round my spine.
‘Good.’ He smiles.
I wonder why he doesn’t invest in a new wig – or is the tatty relic some sort of statement? The legal equivalent of a Hell’s Angel’s dirty denims.
The guard escorts me downstairs and, after using the facilities, I sit in my cell. This is a windowless box with whitewashed walls and a bench seat across the narrow rear wall. Hundreds ofpeople have sat here, waiting to be called, to be tried, to be sentenced.
The guard brings lunch, a cheese-salad sandwich, bag of crisps, a pack of round shortbread biscuits and tea in a plastic cup. I eat half of the sandwich and one of the biscuits. The tea istasteless, an odd grey colour with little discs of oil visible on the surface. I sip it and close my eyes. My bones feel weak, my muscles feeble. I’m like a puppet that has had its stringscut.
My case had already made the national press and television, so when I got up the courage to go into the prison kitchen and meet some of the women I’d be sharing the placewith, they all knew what I stood accused of.
There are eighteen of us in Shapley House; perhaps eight were in the kitchen that day. ‘I couldn’t do that,’ announced one of the women, flatly, arms crossed and staring at meas I fumbled about trying to find the things to make a cup of tea. ‘Drug someone up, then hold a bag over their head and watch them die.’
The room was quiet and I stilled, not knowing how to reply. I set aside my cup and turned to leave.
‘You got any burn?’ the same woman asked. She had a crude tattoo on her neck, small, hard eyes. ‘You, Mrs Mercy Killer, you got any burn?’
Some of the other women laughed but I sensed unease riddled through it. The nickname was to stick. I became known as Mercy.
‘I don’t smoke.’
‘What bleedin’ use are you, then?’
I fled to my room. ‘Burn’ was short for Old Holborn, the rolling tobacco of choice that the women wound into needle-thin cigarettes. It was the top currency in Styal, prized evenhigher than the methadone given out to the addicts three times a day. Some of the addicts sold their methadone to buy tobacco.
Fleetingly I considered taking up smoking in order to have something to trade.
I don’t know why Gaynor, the loudmouth in my house, took such an instant dislike to me. I guess I was an easy target, different from nearly everyone else, different class, differentbackground, different accent, room of my own. It was like being in a foreign country: I didn’t understand the culture or the language. ‘The sweatbox’ was the name for the van thattransported us to and from court. People would say, ‘I’m in on a section twenty,’ and I’d need it explaining – assault inflicting grievous bodily harm. There was noneat little number for me. Murder is murder.
In prison there are sheets to fill in for everything: phone credit, CDs, shampoo, tampons, lip salve. For some reason all the toiletries have to be from Avon. We fill in our menu choices aheadof time and these are sent to the kitchen. At the top end of the prison, along from the main gate, there are old vegetable gardens. Long abandoned, the poly-tunnels are ragged with holes; weedsgrow waist high among them. It’s a shame we don’t grow our own fruit and veg – they’d be a welcome addition to the meals. I don’t eat much. The food reeks ofinstitution, tray-baked for too long. The women constantly complain about the portion sizes.
I was allowed to have things from home, and I made a list to give to Jane. Clothes and sketch pad, pencils, some of my earrings (nothing larger than a ten-pence piece allowed) and a decentpillow. Neil’s denim jacket. When Jane sent stuff in it was examined, then added to my property card.
‘You could have told me,’ Jane said, when she first visited. It wasn’t a reproach, there was no glint of that in her eyes: she was stating fact – you could have told meand I’d have stood by you.
‘I couldn’t.’ I shook my head.
‘I might have been able—’
‘It was part of the deal. With Neil.’
She took that in, her face shorn of artifice or the usual glimmer of mischief. ‘Would you have told me eventually?’
If they hadn’t found me out? Would I? I’d said nothing in the days between Neil’s death and my arrest even though Jane came whenever she could, day or night. With food and wineand the comfort of her presence. ‘I don’t know.’
I think she was hurt. I would have been. We’d never had secrets. But it will not come between us, I trust in this. We have come too far to lose each other now. I’ve known her longerthan I knew Neil – just. I know her well enough to see beyond the public persona, the humour, the upbeat take on everything, the endless energy. Over the years we have revealed ourselves toeach other, peeled back those social layers, the poses and façades, sharing the bad times, the languors and doldrums, the storms and shipwrecks that punctuate our lives.
‘Well, thank God you didn’t – I might have been done for aiding and abetting,’ she said ruefully. I grinned. With the quip she forgave me. I wish she would stop smoking.I won’t grow old with Neil but I would like to share whatever’s still to come with Jane.
Once I have Neil’s jacket, I wear it every evening. It’s big on me, I have to roll the cuffs back, but it smells of him; it feels like him.
The only thing I sketch is the lime tree. Again and again, charting its journey from high summer into autumn and on. The glow of its large soft leaves from bright green to sherbet yellow. Thelittle ball-shaped fruits dancing in the winds. The same fruits that Sophie used to collect and paint red as miniature cherries for her teddy bear. In the winter months the tree is often shroudedin mist in the morning, its stark trunk black, branches reaching up and out. On grey days it is wreathed in fog, which settles along the avenues muffling what we can see and adding a spookierquality to the noises of the prison.
The days are strictly regimented. Set times for meals, for work, for breaks and association. The roll is called at the beginning and end of the day and also at random times. We all have to stopwhat we are doing while the officers count us and relay back the numbers to Security. Everyone in the prison has a ‘job’, from working in the laundry or the gardens to piecework in thetextile factory or helping in the office. As soon as I opened my mouth and demonstrated I was well educated and literate, they suggested I work in education. Many of the women can’t read orwrite more than their name and those of their children, and there is a constant demand for people to tutor those wishing to learn.
I thought the work might be like the miserable sessions we had trying to teach Adam to read, the leaden silences, his restlessness, one foot kicking against the chair, but the women are notsullen or resistant. They’re greedy to learn and when they do make progress I share their sense of pride. Our sessions are short, twenty minutes at a time; little and often is the best way.As the weeks go by, I get to know them: we exchange titbits of information, the small victories and defeats of prison life and the life outside that they yearn for – the excitement of visitsand parole hearings, the bad news about children with problems and illnesses, or husbands getting into trouble.
When the court resumes the pathologist takes the witness stand. He is a gingery man with a beard and a Canadian drawl. I guess it’s Canadian because his initialqualifications are from Toronto. In answer to Miss Webber’s questions he tells us he has been a practising pathologist for twenty-three years, that he has conducted thousands of post-mortemsand that he performed a post-mortem on Neil Draper on 23 June 2009.
‘Please summarize your findings for the court.’
‘The deceased was in an advanced stage of motor neurone disease and muscle wastage was apparent in the limbs. The external appearance of the body was otherwise unremarkable save forpetechial haemorrhaging, which was visible in both eyes.’
Miss Webber asks him to describe this for the jury.
‘This presents as broken capillaries on the whites of the eyes.’
‘Comparable to broken veins?’
‘Smaller, but the same principle.’
‘Please continue,’ she says.
‘Internal examination revealed trauma to the alveoli of the lungs and the presence of fluid in the lungs. The stomach contents contained alcohol and I ordered a toxicologyreport.’
‘Am I correct in saying that the report establishes what, if any, drugs or poisons are present?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘And the results?’
As the pathologist begins to talk of negligible amounts of Zoloft but morphine present in so many parts per million, Dolly blinks and a look of boredom steals over her face. In the row behindher the Cook folds his arms and tilts his head, eager to give the impression of someone taking it all in, but I suspect the pose is a disguise for being completely at a loss.
Thankfully, the pathologist then simplifies the dizzying numbers by telling the court that this level of morphine would invariably result in death. So our calculations weren’t that farout.
‘A fatal dose?’
‘In a healthy person of the same age as Mr Draper what effect would this have?’
‘Metabolisms do vary a great deal but in most people such an amount taken with the alcohol would be likely to precipitate depression of the central nervous system.’
Callow Youth frowns: he doesn’t like the long words, or maybe he just doesn’t like being here. Me neither.
‘How would that manifest itself?’
‘Tiredness, dizziness, loss of motor faculties, then a slide into unconsciousness.’
‘Were you able to establish cause of death?’
‘Due to the drug and alcohol?’
‘No, the evidence, the state of the lungs, the petechial haemorrhages, suggests that the deceased was suffocated, which deprived the brain of oxygen.’
‘Would the drug and alcohol have contributed to the death?’
‘Can you summarize for us the most likely scenario based on the physical evidence you observed?’
Someone over on the benches to the right is scribbling. Ms Gleason has told me that’s where the press sit. Something spicy for tomorrow’s readers.
The pathologist clears his throat. Dolly sits forward and rolls back her shoulders. Behind her the row of jurors shuffles about too. In the back row of the jury, the two oldest women, who areneatly turned out – blow-dried hair, colour co-ordinated scarves and cardigans, looking for all the world as if they have strayed in from doing a bit of shopping in St Ann’s Square andwill head off for a cuppa at Marks & Spencer’s any minute – exchange a glance. They are probably Veronica’s age, maybe a bit younger. The upper age limit for jurors isseventy. I dub them Hilda and Flo, old-fashioned names that may be coming round again.
‘My conclusion would be that the deceased imbibed a mixture of morphine and alcohol and that he then suffocated.’
The room is quiet. Miss Webber leaves it hanging there for a few beats while everyone absorbs the hard facts. ‘Were you able to ascertain how he suffocated?’
‘No. We swept the nasal passages and examined the trachea but there was nothing conclusive.’
‘Could it have been a pillow?’
‘Or a plastic bag?’
The detail drills through me. What must it be doing to Adam?
We will not contest this evidence because I am admitting to all of this. Yes, I fed him the morphine and the booze. And, yes, when he still wasn’t dead, I smothered him.
Nevertheless the way the pathologist has set it out for us, the stepping-stones that Miss Webber has laid down, lead to a picture of ruthless intent, not one of a person pushed to extremes, andI wonder if Mr Latimer will cross-examine. Is there any finely phrased question that might redeem me? Any image he can elicit to show me as crazed and demented rather than efficient and cold? Icatch my breath as he rises, but then he turns to the judge. ‘No questions, Your Honour.’
The first time Adam came to me in Styal was the worst – the unfamiliarity of it all, I suppose, the institution, the room full of bustling families and women prisonersall used to the parade.
My expectations bristled with iconography from the movies and American crime drama series on the box. Would we be allowed to touch? If we betrayed any emotion would a guard with a scowl and anightstick yank us apart and slam me in solitary?
As it was there were no hands pressed palm to palm either side of a Perspex screen, no screens at all, no sadistic screw ready to pounce or cakes with nail files. It was all a little shabby andterribly depressing. The visiting lounge had all the atmosphere of a coach station – perhaps the shadow of parting and separation was similar.
We hugged and I wanted to hang on to him for ever. Adam isn’t as tall as Neil was but he’s got the same build. For a dizzying moment Neil was in my arms and when I opened my eyes wewould be back home.
‘Did you find it all right? Did they tell you what to do?’ I made small-talk as we sat.
‘Yeah, cool. Miss Gleason sorted it out. There’s a bus from town.’
A moment’s pause and then we both spoke at the same time. I heard him say, ‘Sophie,’ and stopped. ‘That is so wrong,’ he went on.
‘Adam, I know it’s hard but . . . she’s not doing it to be mean . . . Something this serious—’
‘You could go to prison.’
‘I am in prison.’
He half smiled. ‘Mum.’
‘I’ve got good lawyers. They will do everything they can.’ I studied him a moment. I owed him a bit of gravity. ‘I never wanted you to find out like this.’ I feltuncertain; should I continue to talk about the situation, explain everything that had gone on or steer us into safer territory? My concern was that the strain would tip him into a reprise of hisown destructive behaviour. ‘We can talk about this later,’ I offered.
‘I’m all right, Mum. It’s just Sophie – I hate her. Why’s she doing this?’
‘Adam, even if she hadn’t gone to the police there would still be enough evidence to put me here.’
He was surprised.
‘The medical stuff,’ I elaborated.
‘Have you seen her? Has she said anything?’
‘I got some fuckin’ lecture from her before she went to Grandma’s. Dad wanted this, right?’
‘Then what is her problem?’ His face was intent, his eyes blazing.
‘She’s hurt, she’s missing him, and I know we all are, but Sophie must feel that this is the right thing for her to do.’ It was ridiculous. There I was defending her whenshe was lining up to throw stones at me – but it hurt me so much that they couldn’t rely on each other to get through this.
‘Like I care? You did what Dad wanted, why can’t she just accept that?’
I rifled through platitudes and homilies, discarding them. Nothing fitted. I put my hand on his arm and smiled. ‘Tell me about the festival.’
He raised his eyes, aware of the clumsy change of subject, but went along with it. As he talked, various practical questions occurred to me. Things I needed to ask Ms Gleason about. How couldthe kids get money while I was inside? Did I need to give anyone power of attorney to deal with the house stuff? And Neil’s will? Would that be in abeyance until the trial was over?
‘The house is okay? No problems?’
There was a spark of irritation in his eyes. For my asking? Was I undermining him? I began to explain but he cut across me: ‘Fine except for Pauline. She keeps trying to ambush me –she waits by the bins.’ I laughed at this image of our next-door neighbour. We don’t get on and there have been a few run-ins over the years. She’s big on complaints. One of herbetter offerings was a request that we ask the children not to make so much noise when they were playing out. They were nine and six, playing out the best thing they could be doing. Noise came withthe territory, and it wasn’t late at night.
‘They’re kids, Pauline, they need to let off steam,’ I tried to reason with her.
‘They make such a racket.’ She glowered. She hadn’t any kids of her own and I did wonder if there was some sadness there, grief that hearing Adam and Sophie and their friendsat play tapped into, resulting in irritation.
‘You could try ear-plugs,’ I suggested.
She had snorted with annoyance and bustled back inside.
‘Just smile and ignore her,’ I told Adam now. ‘Any other news?’
‘I’ve got an interview tomorrow,’ he said. ‘A club in town.’
‘How many hours?’
‘Don’t know yet.’
Adam had worked in a few pubs and bars in the previous year but never for very long. He was a poor timekeeper. I was glad he had the prospect of work, something to structure his time. He was allalone in the house. The fallout from our seismic shift in fortune struck me again. A month ago the house was home to a family of four; now the sole occupant was a teenage boy.
‘You seeing anyone?’
He grinned. Another flash of Neil in the alignment of his features and the warmth of that smile. ‘No chance. We’re notorious, aren’t we?’
Christ! I hadn’t thought. People in the city know each other. They gossip and chat in shops, on the corner, at work. My murder trial was front-page material. Draper and Shelley – thenames must now be synonymous with sinister deeds, a savage end, a lying spouse. ‘No telling what you might do,’ I said darkly. Wit seemed to be the best defence. He laughed. I loved tomake him laugh.
My mind rolled back over the years to previous scandals or tragedies that had touched our circle of acquaintances: the teacher caught downloading porn, the priest at Veronica’s church donefor drink-driving, a colleague of Neil’s who ran off with a sixth-former, a friend of Adam’s whose father beat his mother and broke her jaw. We’d tittle-tattled along with thebest of them, sharing our latent suspicions or our complete surprise.
And, of course, now all our friends and acquaintances, all Sophie’s mates and Neil’s colleagues would be swapping their reactions. All over Manchester Neil and I and our childrenwere being picked over like so many bones.Chapter Ten
It is Detective Sergeant Bray’s turn to talk about me. He makes an excellent witness: the same disarming manner and friendly approach as whenhe questioned me at the police station. The lawyers all have transcripts of my interviews and DS Bray holds one too.
Miss Webber establishes the date and time of the first interview and then asks, ‘DS Bray, is it true that when you questioned Deborah Shelley she offered no comment?’
‘And in the second interview, which commenced at sixteen forty, that is twenty to five in the afternoon, she again offered no comment?’
‘And in the third interview Ms Shelley refused to answer any of the questions put to her but said only, ‘‘No comment’’?’
Miss Webber nods along with him, both sharing disapproval at this monstrous display of uncooperative behaviour. ‘DS Bray, you’ve many years’ experience in the policeforce?’
‘Seventeen.’ He gives a rueful smile, likehow did I get here?And the Prof smiles too.
‘In your experience, why do people choose to reply, ‘‘No comment’’?’
‘To avoid saying anything that may be used against them.’
I wonder if Mr Latimer will object to this: even though Bray’s answer is strictly true, it makes me sound like I had something to hide but he makes no move.
‘Ms Shelley failed to give an account of the circumstances surrounding her husband’s death?’
‘Did she answer any questions about his illness?’
‘About the family circumstances?’
‘About her own movements on June the fifteenth last year?’
‘No.’ His tone doesn’t change: there’s a steady, slightly downbeat note to it, implying he was saddened but not surprised.
‘When you conveyed to the defendant the forensic evidence that gave rise to concerns, did she offer any explanation?’
‘Please will you explain to the court what effect refusing to answer questions has on the interview?’
‘It makes it uncomfortable for everyone. It is frustrating for us, the police, but it is also difficult for the person being interviewed.’
‘It requires a degree of determination?’
‘Have you interviewed people before who have found it impossible to sustain offering no comment?’
‘Yes, on many occasions.’
‘Did Ms Shelley answer any questions at all in the course of three separate interviews?’
‘Not directly but she did say—’ Bray looks down at the transcript to check he gets it right. ‘‘‘I love my husband. I would never harmhim.’’’
‘On the second of July last year you received notification that Ms Shelley was changing her story?’
‘That she was admitting to manslaughter due to diminished responsibility?’
‘Is it the case that if Ms Shelley was found guilty of murder she would face a mandatory life sentence whereas manslaughter carries no mandatory sentence?’
‘That’s my understanding.’
‘In your professional opinion what would be the reason for Ms Shelley changing her story?’
‘The forensic evidence we have is compelling. It is hard to see what other defence might be accepted by the court.’
The jury have hung on his every word but there is no flourish of pride in DS Bray’s evidence. That is why he is so dangerous.
Mr Latimer picks up the transcripts and grins wolfishly at DS Bray. ‘Thank you, DS Bray. Please will you turn to paragraph three on page four of the transcripts. Will you please read thatfor the court.’
DS Bray turns the pages. He looks across at Mr Latimer when he’s found the right place. His eyes lose a little of their sheen, or maybe that’s my wishful thinking.
‘‘‘Ms Shelley distressed. Interview suspended,’’’ he reads out.
‘Do you recall this?’
‘In what way did Ms Shelley demonstrate her distress?’
‘She was crying.’
‘She was crying.’ Mr Latimer repeats the answer and looks sad, as if he might too. ‘Was she calm?’
‘No, she was upset.’
‘Were you surprised?’
‘No. It was a distressing situation.’
‘In what respect?’
‘She was being asked questions about her husband’s death.’
‘Did you ask a doctor to attend to Ms Shelley?’
A slight hesitation, just a nanosecond but loud as a fart. ‘No.’
‘Even though she was so distraught that you had to stop the interview?’
‘If her solicitor had requested it we would have given any medical care required.’
‘Thank you. No further questions.’
Mousy looks disappointed. She liked DS Bray. Could have listened to him for longer.
The judge decides to call it a day. The jury rise and wind out of the court. He gathers various folders from his table and disappears out of his own door at the back of the room. Adam catches myeye, attempts a smile. I wink at him and he screws up his mouth as if he’s fighting a guffaw. Winking might send the wrong signal but I reckon with the jury out of the way it’s notgoing to affect my profile. The guard approaches and we set off. I’m taken downstairs and straight out to one of the vans parked on the side street. And back to Styal.
There are privileges with living in the houses – no official lights out, a kitchen where we can get drinks and make snacks and associate. We are not locked into our roomsat night – only the main door to the house is locked – and we are left alone then, though we can summon help by pressing the emergency call buttons. We are ‘free-flow’:trusted to move around specific parts of the prison complex without an officer escorting us. Women on the wing are escorted everywhere, their every movement checked. They have set times forexercise in their own concrete yard.
I saw inside the wing one day, accompanying an officer who was returning one prisoner and collecting another to come and work with me on the reading programme. The rectangular building is twostoreys high; the cells run the length of each wall on both levels. The metal cell doors are thickly painted in garish primary colours: red, yellow, blue and green. It reminded me of a car ferry,the same preponderance of metal and the tough wipe-clean materials. Bad behaviour could see any of us sent to the wing and subject to an unforgiving system of reward and punishment: red and greencards. Red cards are issued for the slightest infringement of rules and if you accumulate three you are put into isolation, holed up in your cell day and night. Most of the suicides occur on thewing.
Some prisoners I never meet, the ones who are segregated in the modern block beyond the wing. These women never mingle with the general population. They are deemed either too dangerous or toovulnerable. They are escorted everywhere, many on twenty-four-hour suicide watch – they can’t even pee in private. Some are sex offenders who would be recognized. When possible theprison mixes ‘nonces’ with the general population, though, of course, the women know to lie about the crimes they’ve committed. Those who might be recognized, their faces familiarfrom news coverage, stay in segregation.
There are days when the whole prison feels pitched on the edge of hysteria. Four hundred and fifty women close to explosion, half of them suffering from PMT at the same time. A vertiginous mood.Though there seems no bent to riot. When the dam breaks it is usually individuals falling off, losing their tenuous grip, feeling their nails tear and their feet flail for purchase. They’remore likely to descend into madness or take a blade to their own flesh than attack their gaolers.
One night I woke to shouting. This was not the echoing chorus of women calling from building to building but something close and urgent, with the rhythm of violence. Before I had opened my doorthe alarm sounded, a deafening shrill in my ears. Someone had summoned the guards.
On the landing Gaynor was red-faced, screaming at Stephanie, the pretty young Afro-Caribbean girl she was sleeping with. There were plenty of trysts inside and they were tolerated by the staff.Stephanie’s face was swollen, one eye puffed up and bloody. Her nose was bleeding and her nightshirt patchy with dark stains.
‘Teach you a fuckin’ lesson,’ Gaynor continued to shout. Her fists were smeared with blood.
The guards burst in and we were roll checked, then sent to our rooms. There was more shouting, and banging as Gaynor was taken downstairs. From my window I watched them walking her down the hillto the wing. She was still cursing and voices began to call back in response from the black windows of the wing, the telegraph already spreading news of the attack.
My life got a little easier without Gaynor’s jibes to deal with. I expected Stephanie to relax now her assailant was locked up, but two days later she too was shipped off to the wing. Therumours were that Stephanie had sexually assaulted a girl in the gym.
On my wall there are two birthday cards, one from Adam and one from Jane. Nothing jokey about being over the hill or still up for it, thank God. For a while I distract myselfremembering earlier birthdays, the surprises I had, the homemade gifts when Adam and Sophie were little, many of which found their way into my workshop when I couldn’t bear to throw themaway. The time I’d been working away and come home to find the house full of flowers and a birthday tree (a yucca) hung with presents.
Sophie turned sixteen this February. I wanted to send her a present. In prison I am only allowed to order things from the Argos catalogue. I pored over the pages wondering what her grandparentswould get her, wondering if she had bought herself any of the things that I was considering. Although I have some money here, earnings from my job, they don’t amount to much at 15p a session.I asked Jane to get Sophie’s present for me – I’d try to pay her for it later. Our bank accounts had been frozen. Jane has had to go to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau to helpher sort things out with the bank so our direct debits continue to be paid and money made available from our savings for the children. The bank’s not really geared up for this sort of thing– one account holder dead and the other on remand. Not what’s expected of their platinum reserve customers.
I got Sophie a camera, a digital SLR. She was talking about doing photography at A level. There was a workshop in the prison stocked with graphic materials and computers where we could makecards and calendars. I designed a card and sent it to Jane to include with the present.
I didn’t hear whether Sophie liked the camera. Would she shun it because it had come from me? I didn’t probe Adam when he visited. He sees her a couple of times a week but he findsit very difficult, and if I mention her there is always a flash of resentment in his eyes.
I am lost in this chasm between Sophie and me. A trench so wide, so deep, filled with choppy water, sunken rocks. Her insistence on justice is familiar. When she was twelve I mistakenly accusedher and Adam of running up the phone bill, and told them they couldn’t make calls to their friends, especially not to the mobile numbers that cost so much more. Sophie’s face hardened.She’d stuck out her hand for the bill and disappeared. She returned later and she had highlighted the calls she made. The cost of them was negligible. It was all down to Adam. She had beenfurious at the unfairness of my accusation. My paltry ‘Sorry’ and my backtracking weren’t enough. She refused to speak to me for days.
And now here we are estranged. Two pinprick figures either side of a canyon. I ache for the sight of her face turning my way, the break of her smile, the tune of her laughter, the brief weightof her embrace.
Tonight I lie awake spinning headlines and worrying about the children. When I sleep I dream of sinking sand: it is dark and I am out alone in a vast estuary, being sucked under, my legs leadenin the mud, my nostrils filling with the cold, gritty stuff until my lungs crave breath and my heart climbs into my throat.
The jury file in and I watch the parade as they walk through the court to their seats. Mousy moves with her eyes cast down, her shoulders rounded;Dolly has strappy shoes, which cause her to wobble a little; the Prof strides along and the Callow Youth bobs after him. The Cook and the Artist and the Sailor take their places in the second row.The only woman on this row is young and trim. She wears her hair scraped back into a ponytail and she has lovely skin – either that or she’s a makeup wizard. She reminds me of a PA wehad at the big interior design firm so I’ll call her PA. Hilda and Flo settle in on the back row, sandwiched between the only black juror and an overweight woman with ginger hair. The manwears a crisp blue shirt and a suit and has been following the proceedings with an intent and unchanging expression. He looks a bit flash – estate agent or media man, perhaps? Yes, Media Man.Earning plenty, I guess, with a canal-side apartment, a beautiful girlfriend and all the latest gadgets.
At the other end of the row, the last juror couldn’t be more different from him. She’s probably in her early twenties, her hair is long and she wears an Alice band. Alice has a wide,freckled face and her large size is emphasized by the tight clothes she wears. She smiles a lot, laughs a lot, nods as if she agrees with whoever’s speaking.
When they go home at night, these twelve peers of mine, do they confide in anyone? Does any of them have an audience clustered round the family tea-table, clinging to their every word, or arethey alone with their thoughts from the day, or oblivious, shrugging off my case with their courtroom clothes and heading out to see friends?
The court usher calls Sophie Draper and my bowels turn to water. I would give anything to stop this, to shield her from the amphitheatre. I had asked Latimer if he would refrain fromcross-examining her. He gave me a pitying smile, murmured some words of sympathy and assured me he would be gentle with her. There would be nothing to gain if the jury witnessed him ripping into atender sixteen-year-old.
Sophie had the option of giving evidence by video link but only the real McCoy would do for my girl. My jaw is clamped so tight I think my teeth will shatter. Saliva clogs my throat.
She comes in and I am so happy to see her. How daft is that? My maternal instincts kick in and override all other considerations. She is here, my girl is here. It is almost six months since Ihave seen her. That was at Neil’s funeral. This flush of pleasure, the quickening of my heart, is swiftly replaced by a bitter sadness, an impotent desire to protect her.
She steps into the witness box and tucks her hair behind her ears. A gesture that betrays her youth. The sympathy emanating from the jury box is almost palpable. I wonder if any of them havechildren, teenagers, and daughters. Can they make sense of this rift?
Sophie’s hair is different, longer, layered, the highlights bolder. By this time of year her hair has usually darkened to the colour of toffee. She wears clothes I don’t recognize: aplain cornflower blue long-sleeved top, black boot-cut trousers. Who went with her to buy them? A wave of jealousy grips my neck. Did Briony Webber have a hand in it? Counselling her witnesses asto what apparel would best create the right image? The prospect that Sophie and I might never do these things together again, shopping, ordering things online, that she will never wander into myroom and ask me if she can borrow my eyeliner or if she should put her hair up or leave it down, kicks me in the belly.
All I have lost.
Sophie does not look at me; she does not look at her brother in the gallery. She concentrates on Miss Webber and the jury.
‘You are Sophie Draper?’
‘Yes.’ Sophie’s voice is small but not timid.
Neil chose the name Sophie. I wanted to call her Rachel but he wasn’t keen. He’d gone out with a girl called Rachel at school; she’d been horribly clingy when he broke up withher. All those years later the name still conjured her up. So we settled on Sophie. Adam had my surname and we gave Sophie Neil’s. We had no plan for how we would name a third child.
Sophie affirms, which I’m relieved about. She’d had a religious phase as a younger teen and challenged Neil and me when we made any anti-religious comments. I think I’d beenworrying that staying with Veronica might have sent her looking for comfort in God.
‘You are the daughter of Neil Draper and Deborah Shelley?’
‘And on the twenty-fourth of June, nine days after your father’s death, you made a phone call to the police?’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘What did you tell the police?’
My throat is tight and there’s a burning around my ears. I concentrate on my breathing, taking air in slowly through my nose.
‘That I thought my mum had something to do with my dad dying.’
There are gasps and sharp intakes of breath from around the court. Dolly puts her hand over her mouth in shock. Sophie blinks, tightens her lips with resolve.
‘Please can you tell us what happened on the afternoon of June the fifteenth?’
‘I was on my way home from school when Mum rang me, to tell me Dad had died.’
‘Were you surprised?’
‘Yes, he’d been fine that morning.’ There are tears in her voice and my heart rips. Resentment ripples through me. I want to leap across the space and gag Miss Webber, freeSophie from the ordeal.
‘You’d seen him earlier in the day?’
‘I said goodbye before school.’
‘You got the phone call. What did you do next?’
Her voice is firmer. ‘I went home. Mum was there and we went upstairs.’
‘You saw your father?’
Callow Youth is following Sophie’s testimony carefully. Perhaps he relates to her because she’s closer to his age than any of the other witnesses. And she’s gorgeous, ofcourse.
‘I asked her if we could do anything, like the kiss of life and she said it was too late. There was an ambulance coming. Then I rang Grandma and Grandpa to tell them.’
‘Your mother hadn’t called them?’
I am neglect on legs.
‘And your brother?’
‘She said his phone was off.’
I sense rather than see Adam flinch. It had been another few hours before he had come barrelling home to find the sky had fallen. His absence he saw as another failure to carry with him, anotherbrick in the basket.
‘How did your mother appear?’
‘A bit upset.’
‘She was crying?’
‘Did she tell you anything about events that day?’
‘Just that she had gone upstairs and couldn’t wake him.’
‘Nine days later you called the police. You told them you suspected your mother of involvement in your father’s death. Why did you think that?’
‘Well, he died really suddenly. He was okay when I went to school. They’d told us about MND and what would happen and it wasn’t like that at all.’
‘Was that the only reason?’
‘No. I knew Mum had been looking on the Internet at sites about assisted suicide, euthanasia.’
‘How did you know this?’
‘She never deletes her browsing history.’
Flo narrows her eyes; perhaps she’s not a silver surfer. But Miss Webber is prepared for this and has a follow-up question. ‘So when you went on the computer you could see a list ofprevious websites that had been visited?’
‘Perhaps your father had been looking them up?’
Not unless he’d regained the use of his legs, got himself down there without help.
‘It’s her computer – it’s a Mac for her work. He didn’t really go on it.’
‘And was there anything else that alerted your suspicions?’
Sophie swallows. She licks her lips. My hands hurt: my fists are bunched, my nails cutting into my palms. I uncurl them, clasp my hands tight together.
‘Well, when I first got back and I wanted to know if we could do anything I asked her if she had tried the breathing space kit – I thought maybe that might help. She just said it wastoo late, but later when I went to look for the breathing space kit I couldn’t find it.’
‘You knew where it was usually kept?’
‘Yes, in the kitchen, in the middle cupboard. We all knew where it was and what to do if Dad was choking or couldn’t breathe.’
‘And this kit was missing?’
‘Do you know what drugs it contained?’
‘It was morphine, I think, and something else, a sedative but I don’t know what it was called.’
Midazolam. We hadn’t used that. If Neil had taken it as well, might the end have been different? My mind veers away from the memory.
‘What did you think had happened to the kit?’
‘I thought she’d hidden it, my mum.’
‘Because she’d given him the drugs but she didn’t want anyone to know.’ Her answer is fluent, logical.
‘Can you tell us what happened after you phoned the police?’
‘They wanted to talk to me in person.’
‘And you agreed?’
‘You made a visit to the police station the following day?’
My mind flew back, dipping around dates and memories. Ten days after – she’d have still been at home, wouldn’t she? But everything became hazy in those days after Neil’sdeath. What had she told me? That she was going into school? I couldn’t recall.
‘You spoke to the police and they asked you if you would be prepared to make a statement?’
‘They asked you whether you would be prepared to testify, if the case came to court?’
‘You agreed to those requests. You are here today. Can you tell the jury why you decided to help the police?’
‘It was the right thing to do.’ She is simple in her certainty, steadfast. My Antigone. I could use exactly the same words in my own defence – except I have to pretend thatwhat I did was very much the wrong thing. And as for Antigone, after defying the authorities to honour her dead brother with a burial she was walled up and hanged herself.
‘Sophie, can you tell us how your mother seemed in the months leading up to June last year?’
Sophie hesitates a moment. I don’t think she’s unsure. I think she’s choosing her words carefully. ‘The same as usual.’
‘Did she complain of strain or stress?’
‘Did she seem withdrawn or depressed?’
We are getting to the heart of the matter. This is what the trial pivots around – was I off my trolley or not? Ms Gleason summed it up: battle of the shrinks. And Sophie is the opener, thefirst line of attack who may be sacrificed but serves to expose chinks in the enemy’s line, root out weaknesses and gaps, to illuminate the pattern for the next assault.
‘Had she exhibited any signs of anxiety, any panic attacks?’
‘Did your mother behave in any way that made you think she was mentally ill?’
Each ‘no’ rings out calm and clear. Sophie tucks her hair back again.
‘Did she continue to care for you and your brother in those months?’
‘And she was working?’
‘And running the house?’
Isn’t that little lot reason enough to go doo-lally? Or are we running along the lines of the Protestant work ethic here? Busy hands equal a healthy life.
‘Would you say your mother coped well with your father’s illness?’
Stupid question. How can anyone know how I coped? That’s what coping’s about, isn’t it, swallowing the trouble and soldiering on?
As Mr Latimer rises to his feet, adjusting his robe around him, I push my feet into the floor and grip the edge of my seat. Some of the jury stiffen too. Mousy’s chin goes up, herexpression sombre, and Media Man straightens his shoulders, uncrosses his legs.
‘Miss Draper, is it true that your mother suffered from insomnia?’ Mr Latimer jumps in without any preamble, though his tone is soft enough. He even stutters a little on‘insomnia’.
‘Was this a constant problem?’
‘But your mother had insomnia in the months leading up to your father’s death?’
‘In your estimate, how often did your mother have broken nights?’
‘I’m not sure.’ There’s a trace of a frown. Sophie is always so concerned to be honest, to get things right.
‘Once a month?’
‘More than that.’
‘Once a week?’
‘And after sleepless nights how did your mother seem?’
‘Tired,’ Sophie says drily, and a little ripple of laughter runs around the room. Dolly snorts and Alice smiles and I feel a rill of pride at Sophie’s wit.
‘Did she ever snap at you?’
Did I? Well – yeah!
‘Lose her composure?’
‘Can you remember seeing her distressed during this period?’
That’s not what Mr Latimer hoped for and he changes tack. ‘Is it true your brother Adam has had mental-health problems?’
‘This pre-dated your father’s diagnosis?’
‘And Adam also has a history of drug abuse?’
Adam’s face has reddened; the spots on his forehead look angry. Jane’s expression is heavy with disappointment. I am grinding my teeth.
‘Can you tell the court how this impacted on the family?’
‘It was difficult. They worried about him – they never knew what would happen next.’
‘A stressful situation?’
‘Yes,’ she says quickly, aware that he’s getting close to what he’s trying to prove.
‘Miss Draper, does your mother usually confide in you about her problems?’
Sophie blinks, swallows. ‘No, not really.’
‘She is quite a private person?’
‘So, it might be hard for you to know how circumstances are affecting her.’
Sophie doesn’t know what to say and I hate it. ‘Maybe.’
‘Did you discuss your decision to go to the police with anyone?’
‘With my grandmother.’
‘Did your grandmother encourage you to go to the police?’
‘Not at first – she didn’t believe me. Then, later . . . Well, she didn’t push me.’ Sophie is a little defensive and in the note of protest is the chime of adifferent truth.
‘How was your grandmother in the aftermath of your father’s death?’
‘Very sad – she couldn’t stop crying. She had to see the doctor.’
‘And you moved in with your grandparents shortly after your mother was arrested?’
‘You live with them now?’
My skin prickles as I sense him circling my girl. A sharp pin after a winkle.
‘Did your grandmother talk to you about your father’s death?’
‘Yes. She couldn’t understand it, like me. It was so fast. We never got a chance to say goodbye or anything.’ Sophie’s face flushes and crumples and she squeezes tearsaway. ‘Sorry,’ she says. My own throat locks in sympathy. Oh, Neil, what have we done?Chapter Twelve
Some of the harshest criticism I’ve faced, on television and in the newspapers, came from disabled people. Many with life-threateningillnesses have spoken out about the risk to human rights when carers and relatives make judgement calls on a person’s quality of life. Members of the MNDA have issued several persuasivestatements about the misleading portrayal of the disease by the pundits and the very real possibility of a dignified and peaceful death if people seek out the appropriate resources. Some of thesearguments are familiar to me. I raised them when Neil asked me the second time to help him die.
We’d gone away to Barcelona for a weekend – three nights actually – to a resort a few miles north of the city. It was almost a year after his diagnosis and we had all beenadjusting to the new situation. Neil now had ‘foot-drop’ – he was dragging his left foot, which made walking and stairs hard work. It also ruined his shoes (well, the left ones).He used a cane, a rather stylish carved affair with a snake on the handle and a silver tip. He was still working. School had been brilliant and had offered him an early-retirement package for thefollowing year, along with an understanding that he might need to take long-term sick leave before then if his condition deteriorated.
We often talked about how lucky we were: we had read so many horror stories of people plunged into debt and fighting for benefits, their last months a nightmare of the battle for recognition andsupport.
We had a ground-floor beachside apartment with a veranda. The place had a pool and a restaurant, a small shop and a beauty suite. There was air-conditioning and satellite TV in our room and asuper-king-size bed. The complex catered to people who expected a little extra luxury from their holiday. Neil and I were like children exclaiming over the complimentary bathrobes andstate-of-the-art wet room. Arriving, I felt the thrill of adventure – daft, perhaps, given how cocooned we were in our four-star comfort.
We walked down the few yards from our veranda to the strip of beach. The bay was fringed with palms and pines and the edge of the sand was scattered with old fronds and cones. The sea stretchedcalm and vivid cerulean out to the horizon. No children to worry about but the thought of Neil, weak in the water, drifting away, shadowed my mind. He wouldn’t do that to me, I reassuredmyself. He wouldn’t.
Neil grinned at me and edged forward to the shallows. I slipped off my shoes and walked after him. Underfoot the sand felt hot and gritty, finer near the shore, then the water silky cool. Neilcaught my hand and we paddled slowly along the water’s edge, his lazy foot leaving an arc in the sand with each step.
‘Good, eh?’ He’d picked the resort.
We soon turned back – he was tired.
‘Fancy a lie-down?’ I asked.
He turned, a sparkle of interest in his eyes.
‘To sleep,’ I said, ‘and then a little lunch. And afterwards I’ll shag you stupid.’
I dozed beside him for an hour, the room densely black with the shutters closed. I showered and changed into a sun-dress and went exploring. There was a road at the rear of the complex that ranthrough the resort then up to the main coast road. About half a mile along, a mini-market sold everything from lilos to cheese. I bought a selection of tapas from the deli section and some freshrolls, a bottle of chilled white wine, a couple of squat glasses, sparkling water. We could have eaten at the restaurant but the prospect of lunch on the veranda and falling back into bed was moreromantic.
Strolling back, I soaked up the little details of being in a different country. The whitewashed walls draped with honeysuckle and splashes of bougainvillaea, the lizard that scurried away at theedge of the road where rough concrete met dust, and water pipes emerged from the scrub. Tall, striped grasses hung with snails. The smell of hot resin from the pine trees and the tang of rosemaryand thyme baking in the heat. The sky was unbroken blue and some sort of larks dipped and spun above the fields, mirroring the cadence of their song.
While Neil showered, I laid out our little feast. Olives with herbs, chunks of chorizo and cheese, a pot of green salad, saffron chicken.
We ate and drank, the wine still achingly cold, with an appley taste and a slight fizz. We gazed at the sea, gazed at each other.
When the food was gone, I went inside and brought out our books. I stood beside Neil and passed him hisHomage to Catalonia. He squinted up at me, the sun high and bright. He ran his handup between my legs, stroked me. I took a shivery breath. His face darkened with excitement and I bent and kissed him roughly before returning to my chair. While he read, I scanned the bay, followeda little motor-boat and its silver wake, observed an elderly couple with faces like dried fruit, who walked down from one of the other rooms to the beach and watched the insects, hornets andbutterflies dance around the potted plants along the walkway.
I took the last of our wine inside and Neil followed. The shutters were adjustable (only the best) so I fiddled with the rods until they admitted little slits of sunlight, enough for us to seewhat we were doing.
We kissed. I unbuttoned his shirt, slipped it off his shoulders. Bent and pulled down his shorts, helped him step out. His balance was delicate, and simple things like undressing were harder forhim now.
He stretched out on the length of the bed: still slim, his skin smooth, his penis erect. I undressed myself, savouring his eyes on me. Making love was easier with me on top. I kissed him andstroked his arms and his chest, his belly and his thighs before guiding him inside me. I rode him slowly at first, relishing the languorous movements, the way my own body responded, swelling andquickening. He played with my breasts and my nipples. Our breathing became harsher, ragged. He called to me, dirty entreaties, words he knew would arouse me more, then placed his hand so that as Ithrust up and down the pad of his thumb pressed against my clitoris. Panting and moist with sweat, the tension of sexual excitement washed through me, growing and retreating, ocean pulses thatgathered depth and speed until I came, sighing loud with sweet relief and setting him off too.
We spent the afternoon lazing on the beach, on loungers under a big blue parasol that flapped in the breeze. Time and again, as I rubbed oil on his back, as we waded into the cool water, as weconsidered where to eat that evening, the realization that this might be our last holiday together swept over me. Like gusts of wind knocking everything about. Hating myself for the maudlinsentimentality, I struggled to live in the moment. To savour the pleasures we were sharing, not to look ahead. To focus on the details: the scent of coconut from the sun cream mingled with the kickof brine, the particular colour of aquamarine at the end of the bay, the fine dark hairs on Neil’s knuckles, the crisp texture and honey taste of melon bought from the beach vendor, the feelof grit between my toes and the thready whine of a motor-boat on the horizon. But Cassandra had my soul and her talons gripped my head and held my eyes wide, one bony claw pointing to the future.The prospect of death stuffed my ears and nose and throat with dread. Perhaps, I thought, the holiday had been a mistake: stripped of our routines, there was too much time to think.
Neil knew me so well that he likely guessed at my melancholy. We’d had a couple of sessions with a counsellor who worked with terminal patients and their families. The general guidance wasnot to try to deny or hide the gamut of emotions: the savage embrace of anger and fear and guilt were normal and to be accepted. Neil seemed calm. Why couldn’t I smell his fear? If our roleshad been reversed I imagined I’d have been noisy, needy, bitchy. Making the most of my remaining time by having tantrums. But he seemed to find a stoicism within, a steady centre for much ofthe time. A legacy, perhaps, of his childhood faith – the sweet resignation to God’s will, the certainty of an afterlife of love and grace. Even though he didn’t believe it, or sohe told me, might it still be a comfort to him? He had been angry at times, once the initial shock had worn off, turning to me one evening after brushing his teeth, face trembling, eyes ablaze,telling me, ‘I’m so fucking pissed off, so fucking—’ before he broke, a sob deep in his throat. (The books said crying more, or laughing more, was a symptom some peopleexperienced, probably to do with changes in the frontal lobe so that these responses were ratcheted up. I don’t think that happened to Neil: his crying was always correctly proportioned tothe situation.) His anger seemed to seep away over the next couple of weeks. When I asked him about it, his answer startled me: ‘I’m desolate, there’s no room for anything else,but there’s moments of, I don’t know, euphoria, too.’
‘Euphoria?’ The guy’s dying and he’s getting high on it?
‘Everything’s so intense, and still so ordinary.’ He smiled, shaking his head a little because it sounded weird. ‘It’s amazing.’
Any illusion I had that our Barcelona trip was going to be an escape from real life shattered on the second night as we sat on our patio after dinner. My skin had that taut sensation from thesun and the salt, I was tired from the heat and the sea air and the wine and surprised that Neil hadn’t already flaked out. Our books lay on the table. I was too sleepy to read and he’dset his down when he topped up his glass.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I murmured, staring out at the inky night, the sea’s dark pierced by half a dozen fishing-boat lamps, the sky by thousands of stars flickering magnesiumwhite.
‘Can you see Orion?’
I laughed. Neil had taught me some of the constellations, the Greek heroes flung into the night sky for eternity.
‘Yes. And there’s Cassiopeia.’
‘Deborah,’ he said quietly, ‘I want to choose the time.’
My skin contracted. There was the sensation of a blunt blow to my stomach, a blur of rage in the back of my skull. How dare he ruin all this with his unreasonable requests? ‘Idon’t—’
I sighed and turned to look at him.
‘It’s going to happen, we know that. I don’t want to wait until I’m choking—’
‘It doesn’t have to come—’
‘Just listen,’ he interrupted. ‘I want a good death. For me that means choosing when.’
He paused, inviting me to respond.
‘I won’t stop you.’
‘But will you help me?’
I didn’t speak. A flutter of black swooped past near the roof – a bat. I studied my nails, the ridges and grooves, the cuticles ragged. My mind tangled. ‘You might not need anyhelp,’ I fudged. ‘Look, there are organizations, aren’t there, people who go to Switzerland . . .?’
‘I don’t want to go to Switzerland. I want to be at home, with you. I want you there with me, Deborah.’ His voice shook with emotion.
A thousand questions skittered in my mind: how would you do it, what would we say, what would I have to do?
I stared up at the stars. They were cold and brilliant. My eyes watered, making each prick of light a pinwheel, the jet sky now full of silver dandelions.
‘We can manage the disease,’ I tried. ‘The association, there are so many things we can do, you won’t be in pain, you won’t choke . . .’ My words were runningon like panic, filling the hiatus.
‘I’ll be there,’ I said slowly.
‘And you’ll help?’
What could I say? No, I’d rather you did it, actually, all by yourself, so my conscience will be clear. Now I’ll just pop down to the shore and wash my hands of you.
‘I don’t think I can.’
‘When you had Adam,’ he said, ‘you wanted to be at home. I thought you were mad.’
‘Your mother didn’t help.’ Veronica was a nurse and firmly toed the line that first babies are best born in hospital. She’d tried to talk us out of it even though DrFrame and the community midwives were completely at ease with the idea.
‘Maybe not,’ he said, ‘but I trusted you, I went along with it. It was fine, Sophie too, even with the cord, but you chose.’
‘It’s not the same,’ I protested. ‘In fact, it’s the opposite. I wanted home births to avoid intervention, if possible. I wanted it to be as natural as possible.What you’re talking about isnotletting nature take its course. It’s interfering.’ I could feel my tears rising.
‘I want it on my terms.’
‘No. I want to keep you here as long as possible, not help you slope off early. I don’t even know whether I want you to die at home – I want the safety of knowing you can go toa hospice where people know the score, where they can help us.’
I began to cry silently. I wasn’t looking for comfort but the anxiety inside was too strong to contain. ‘It’s not fair, you shouldn’t ask me. I don’t want you todie. Why should I make it happen any sooner? I’ll do everything I can to help, Neil, but not that.’
The silence burned between us. I could hear the suck of the sea. I stood up then. Mumbled something about a walk. When I returned Neil was in bed, asleep. And the final day of our holiday, ourvery last holiday, was brittle with resentment. My throat ached, my stomach cramped. Neil was remote. The beauty of our location, the gorgeous weather only served to highlight our sharedmisery.