The Good Samaritan

Page 26


He was the first to climb over them, before holding his hand out to help her until they were side by side. Then, with their phones still clutched to their ears, they began their walk towards the horizon. My stomach sank when they suddenly fell over the edge and out of view. Mum’s hand covered her mouth and Dad looked away from the screen.
It was absolute proof that Charlotte hadn’t been abducted, she hadn’t slipped in an awful accident and the ground beneath her feet hadn’t crumbled. No longer could I tell myself the eyewitness statements were mistaken.
We all remained in silence for I don’t know how long. I could feel everyone’s eyes drilling through me, waiting for a reaction, for me to say something, anything. But I didn’t have a reaction to give.
Instead, I tried to imagine what had been going through Charlotte’s head in her final moments. Was she scared? Did she die straight away or was she in pain? Was she thinking about me, or had she put me out of her mind? Why did she do it? Had she learned there was something medically wrong with the baby and felt she had no choice but to end both their lives? Had this man, this unidentified stranger, been a part of her life for a long time, skulking about in the shadows, hiding behind my back? Had he made her pregnant? Who was on the other end of the phone as they walked to their deaths? Just how shit must our life together have been for her to take herself away from it in such a brutal, catastrophic way?
Among all the confusion there was only one thing I was certain of: I didn’t know my wife as well as I thought. I grabbed my jacket and keys and left the flat without saying a word.
I made my way by foot towards Abington Park, where I’d spent many a school holiday and weekend as a kid playing football and cricket with my mates. More recently, it had become a place where Charlotte and I took long Saturday-afternoon strolls, throwing bread to the ducks and geese in the lakes and buying Gallone’s ice cream from the van near the children’s play park.
I used to think one day it would be me there, catching my kid at the bottom of the slide, or hovering under the metal rungs of the climbing frame in case they got scared. Not now though.
I sat on a bench, staring at a Sunday-league football match being played on one of the pitches, but I wasn’t taking in much around me. I absent-mindedly turned my wedding ring around my finger in a clockwise motion until I became aware of a lump in my jacket pocket. I remembered what it was and removed the small box that I’d gift-wrapped with a bow. I’d been going to give it to Charlotte the night of our anniversary. Inside was the key to a house she had no idea I’d bought.
That morning before work I’d exchanged contracts and picked up the keys from the estate agent to a cottage she’d fallen in love with. It was in Harpole, a village on the outskirts of town, and the house had been empty for years. She’d seen it many times when we’d borrowed Oscar, my parents’ dog, and taken him for walks around villages as we considered where we’d like to move to when we outgrew the flat.
I vaguely remembered visiting the house a few times as a kid. Mum was an old schoolfriend of Catherine’s, the woman who’d lived there, and I’d go and play with her son Robbie while they chatted. Catherine moved out after her missing husband reappeared on her doorstep. Twenty-five years earlier, he’d vanished one day and left her with three kids to raise alone. Everyone assumed he’d died in an accident or something, so they got the shock of their lives when he suddenly came back. One of their sons had found fame in a band, so the story of his dad’s return before dying – this time for real – in the village cemetery made headline news worldwide. Catherine moved away almost immediately, but it was a long time before she put the place up for sale. And although it was now a bit rundown, Charlotte had seen its potential and fallen in love with it.
Keeping its purchase a secret from my wife had been as hard as hell, and I’d had to sneak around behind her back to deal with conveyancers, my estate agent, the mortgage broker and bank. I’d even had legal letters sent to my parents’ house. God knows how people having an affair manage to keep secrets.
I held the key so tightly in my palm that it made a deep impression in my skin. And I wondered if I’d told Charlotte a day earlier we were set to complete on our forever home, might it have saved her? I’d never know.
My love for Charlotte was fast being swallowed by hate.
Days ago, I’d wanted to lock myself in our bedroom and never leave. Everything about the room was her, from the Laura Ashley floral wallpaper to the scent of her perfumes that lingered on the matching curtains and pillows. I knew those smells would eventually fade, so I’d immersed myself in them while I could. But now they only made me feel sick.
I needed an explanation as to why she’d do this to me, so I ransacked the flat, searching everywhere to see if she’d left a suicide note. The police had taken her electronic devices, so I searched notebooks, bins, coat pockets, and inside books, cupboards and drawers, but I drew a blank.
I needed to be in a safe place, far away from the woman who, with one selfish act, had destroyed me. So I went back to the house where I was raised. Being at Mum and Dad’s brought it home how much I’d taken for granted as a kid. My only worries then were fitting in homework around playing FIFA ’99 on the Nintendo 64, and how long Johnny and I could stay out before Mum called us in for our tea. I longed for those days again. I no longer liked being an adult. This adult, anyway.
Mum and Dad were handling me with kid gloves. They never accused me of neglecting my wife or asked how I could have let her slip through my fingers. They left that to my own conscience and to Charlotte’s parents, Barbara and Patrick. They’d taken early retirement and moved to a large white villa on the slopes of Alicante’s hillsides, but were away on a Mediterranean cruise when the police tracked them down. They’d flown home from Tenerife on the next available flight.
Instantly – and understandably, I guess – once we came face to face in my parents’ living room, they needed someone to direct their frustration at. I became their whipping boy.
‘You told me she was getting better!’ Barbara snapped, making no effort to disguise her bitterness towards me. ‘You lived with her, couldn’t you see she was getting worse?’
‘She said she was feeling better.’
‘Why didn’t you talk to her doctor and explain she needed a higher dose of antidepressants?’
‘She was limited to what she could take because she was pregnant.’
Barbara shook her head, refusing to accept my answers. The whites of Patrick’s eyes were bloodshot and the sockets dark. ‘I don’t understand any of this,’ he muttered. ‘All I know is that you promised me you’d look after my little girl, and you failed.’
‘I know and I am so sorry . . .’ My voice trailed off.
I recalled months earlier, when Charlotte and I should have been at our happiest, and how a sort of darkness had descended within weeks of her becoming pregnant. I put it down to the morning sickness at first. It wasn’t just at breakfast when she was ill, it was often after lunch and dinner, too. Sometimes she couldn’t even keep a slice of dry toast down. But when that eventually passed, I thought things would start getting better and that she’d share my enthusiasm as a parent-to-be. Instead, she remained in her funk.