The Good Samaritan

Page 24


Drumming my fingers against the steering wheel in time with the beat of a song playing on the radio and singing at the top of my voice, I was pretty pleased I could still remember all the words to Justin Timberlake’s ‘SexyBack’ more than a decade after it played the night I met Charlotte at the student union bar.
She’d been dancing to it with a group of her friends when I saw her, then sparked up a drunken conversation. Lately, when she was going through one of her funks, I could still make her smile by dancing around the bedroom naked, miming along to the song, the irony being that bringing sexy back was pretty much the exact opposite of what I was doing.
I remembered her admitting on one of our first dates that she had a crush on Justin from his *NSYNC days. And after a few Jägerbombs, she confessed how, when she was a girl, she’d scribble out the face of his then-girlfriend Britney Spears in her mum’s gossip mags and pretend that she was dating him. I hoped her teenage self wouldn’t be too disappointed she was now Mrs Ryan Smith and not Mrs Timberlake.
I stopped the car at a red light and my eyes wandered uphill to Northampton’s skyline of new-build offices and high-rise flats. I’d been born and raised here and remembered how once, when it had felt so small and claustrophobic, I couldn’t wait to break out on my own. It only took a couple of terms at the University of Sunderland before I understood that once you strip away a town’s facade, they’re all the same underneath.
Charlotte’s willingness to laugh at the less cool aspects of herself was rare among the type of girls I’d hung out with back then. So was the way she looked. With her delicate features, chestnut curls, sky-blue stare and the androgynous clothes she wore, I knew early on that she was something special. Eleven years later and I was still right.
It was in our final year at uni when we decided to try to make it in London after graduation. We were fresh-faced, bursting with enthusiasm, and nothing could stop us from conquering the capital. Once we got there, the reality was that we were two anonymous little fish in a ginormous polluted pond. We shared a ridiculously overpriced flat above a Chinese takeaway, lived an hour’s commute from all the cool places we wanted to hang out at and barely had any spare cash to live the city life we’d imagined. But it served its purpose, and after a year of training it got me on the career ladder and we sucked it up without complaint.
Once we were married and had decided the time was right to start a family, I was adamant I didn’t want to do it in London. I landed a job back home before Charlotte did – she wasn’t so convinced it was the right place for us to be. However, she gave it a chance and started work as a graphic designer at an agency not far from the flat we bought together.
The traffic lights turned to green, and as January’s night began to fall I drove past Becket’s Park, just about making out the colourful moored canal boats in the marina. I couldn’t stop myself from grinning when I passed the Barratt maternity unit building, because in a little over two months, Charlotte and I would be waiting for a bed there. It hadn’t been easy: a combination of her polycystic ovaries and my low sperm count meant we’d had to rely on NHS-funded IVF to conceive. But on our second cycle, bingo! We were expectant parents.
I couldn’t wait to be in that hospital to meet my kid for the first time. And to be honest, I was even a little bit envious of Charlotte and what her body was able to achieve, while mine couldn’t even finish its part without my helping hand and a fertility expert’s syringe.
I soon changed my mind. Some women take to pregnancy like a duck to water, but after the first month, Charlotte really struggled. Morning, afternoon and evening sickness sapped all her energy levels and she was constantly feeling crappy. It became so bad that she was forced to take a leave of absence from the job she enjoyed. She spent much of her day mooching around the flat, and never too far away from a toilet bowl. But as we approached the final part of our third trimester, she turned a corner.
I glanced at the time as I continued on my way home – I reckoned I’d have half an hour to shower and spruce myself up before we headed to her favourite Thai restaurant to celebrate our fourth wedding anniversary. And it was there that I planned to give her the surprise of her life. I patted my jacket pocket just to reassure myself that the gift-wrapped box was still inside. I couldn’t wait to see the look on her face when she opened it.
Charlotte’s car wasn’t in its space in front of the flat when I drove in through the gates and pulled up onto the driveway, so I called her mobile to see where she was. It went straight to voicemail. I’d spoken to her at lunchtime while she was running errands, and hearing her voice sounding so chirpy had given me butterflies. ‘I love you, Ry,’ she’d said before she hung up, the first time I’d heard her say that in weeks. It felt like the tightest and warmest of hugs.
I climbed two flights of stairs and opened our front door to the overpowering scent of cinnamon and spices. She’d always been fond of air-freshener plug-ins, but now that she was pregnant our home smelled like Christmas all year round. She’d also had a thorough tidy-up. There were no dishes draining by the sink; tea towels were neatly folded on the worktop; the bathroom reeked of bleach; dried toothpaste had been rinsed from the electric toothbrushes and magazines were neatly arranged on the coffee table. She’s nesting, I thought, and smiled.
I phoned her again when I climbed out of the shower, but when she didn’t answer I began to feel a little uneasy. If she’d gone into an early labour, I was sure I’d have been told by now. I checked my phone again after drying my hair and trimming my stubble and then, just to be on the safe side, I called the maternity unit. I also called her friends, but when they hadn’t heard from her either, something inside me tightened and turned, like the wringing of a wet dishcloth.
Suddenly the front door buzzed.
Thank Christ for that, I thought, and hurried to it.
‘Have you forgotten your keys?’ I began as I opened it, only to be confronted by a stony-faced man and woman.
‘Mr Smith?’ he began.
‘Yes. And you are . . . ?’
‘My name is DS Mortimer and this is my colleague, PC Coghill. May we come in, please?’
My distraught parents sat either side of me, asking the questions I couldn’t bring myself to.
They’d rushed to the flat with my brother Johnny within half an hour of the police turning up at my door. It was uncharted territory for everyone in the room. Mum and Dad had no idea what to say to me to soften the blow. The best the police could do was offer me their condolences and reassurances that an investigation had already begun to find out what had happened to my wife.
All they could tell me was that Charlotte’s body had been found at the foot of some cliffs in East Sussex. A witness had spotted her in the company of someone else and they’d fallen together. They’d yet to identify the other body, as it had been swept away by the sea. Charlotte had landed on rocks.
‘Why would someone want to murder my wife?’ I eventually asked.
The officers glanced at each other, and DS Mortimer wanted to say something, then thought better of it.
‘I really don’t know. I’m sorry, Mr Smith.’
Before leaving us to grieve alone, they explained that their colleagues investigating the case would visit the following day.