The Good Samaritan

Page 28


My reflection in the window caught me by surprise. My short, dirty-blond hair was flat and without product, and my cheeks were gaunt. I was pale and my eyes vacant. At five-foot-ten I was neither tall nor short, but I felt myself shrinking by the day. Despite our two-year age difference and his glasses and beard, Johnny and I had been the spitting image of each other. Now, if you put us next to each other, you wouldn’t know we were brothers.
 A staff member brushed my shoulder with his arm as he passed, and I recoiled so sharply that he glared at me for my overreaction. ‘Chill, blud,’ he muttered.
So many people had tried to console me with hugs that I could no longer stand physical contact. Being touched by anyone, no matter how emotionally close we were, felt like acid burning holes into my skin.
I dumped the half-eaten food on my tray in a bin and loitered by a bus stop, unsure where to go next.
‘Borough Market,’ I suddenly blurted out, and ran my finger up and down a bus timetable fixed to a lamp post.
With little money to spend on activities, and surviving on cheap, microwaveable meals, Charlotte and I had made sure to hold enough money back each week in the house kitty to treat ourselves to fresh produce at the market every Saturday morning. Then we’d stretch it out to make an organic lunch and dinner, our only healthy meals of the week. We were broke, but we were content. Well, at least I had been.
I hopped on the red Routemaster bus and made for the back row of seats on the top deck. That’s where Charlotte and I would sit. I imagined she was by my side and, for a moment, I felt loved again.
I looked at my phone to check the time. I’d kept it on silent and saw I’d missed seven calls – three from my mum’s mobile and four from Dad’s. In addition, there were a handful of text messages from familiar names.
Once the news of Charlotte’s death broke within our friendship groups, they all wanted to know what had happened, and it was horrible explaining to them that I wasn’t really sure but it appeared Charlotte had ended her life. I might as well have said, ‘It was so fucking awful being married to me that she’d rather die.’ They’d try to analyse what she’d done, searching for reasons, but they were never going to get their answers. If I had a pound for everyone who said ‘I just don’t understand it’ or ‘She had everything to live for . . .’, I’d have had enough money to pay for her funeral in cash.
Her friends fell into two camps, each connected to the other by a common loss. On one side were the people racked with guilt for not recognising or reacting to how much pain Charlotte was in. Without fail, they wanted me to know how responsible they felt for letting her slip between the cracks. They pitied me and my loss, and in return I hated them for it.
Then to the others, I was an object of suspicion: a convenient get-out clause for their own failings. Blaming me was much easier than blaming themselves or Charlotte.
The bus reached Southwark Street and I got off and stood on the opposite side of London Bridge, staring at the glass roof and art-deco-style green metal arched beams of Borough Market Hall. I pictured myself crossing the road with Charlotte’s arm linked through mine, two hessian grocery bags in our hands and inhaling delicious food aromas wafting from all the stalls. Then we’d wander from trader to trader, choosing vegetables and meats and bickering over whose turn it was to cook. This used to be Charlotte’s and my playground, but those days were gone and there was no point in me going any further inside. There was no point to anything anymore.
He was a boy. He was a boy. The baby Charlotte and I were expecting was going to be a boy.
Throughout her pregnancy, we were adamant we didn’t want to know its sex. We’d just felt so lucky that while some couples struggled for years to conceive, IVF had succeeded for us on our second attempt. So we didn’t care if it was a boy or a girl. But after her death, and while I tortured myself trying to imagine how our family might have looked, there was a gap in my mental picture. I needed to know if I’d have been standing on the sidelines cheering him on in a rugby match, or being the proud dad watching her playing netball.
The desire to know became an obsession that dominated everything. A day after I called DS Carmichael, she phoned back.
‘According to the coroner’s preliminary findings, Charlotte was expecting a boy,’ she said.
‘Thank you,’ I muttered, and hung up before she could try to console me.
Now I was picturing him in my head. His name would have been Daniel, like we’d decided. He had my dark blond colouring and Charlotte’s clear blue eyes. He had dimples in his cheeks like mine, but a smile that could melt a polar icecap like his mother. He had my athletic build and her speed. I imagined teaching him how to sail, like my dad had with my brother and me at Pitsford Reservoir. Or maybe he’d be more creative and I’d teach him how to play the piano. I shook my head, and he disappeared into a thousand tiny fragments just as quickly as he’d arrived.
I was alone in my parents’ house for the first time since I’d temporarily moved back in. Mum had returned to work at the shoe shop in town, and Dad had gone back to the printworks. Johnny was at the bank playing God with who could have mortgages, while I remained in quicksand, clutching a flimsy branch for dear life and waiting for it to snap. All around me, other people’s lives were beginning to restart and edge forward. Not quite back to how they were before Charlotte, but they were in gear and moving in the right direction, at least.
I walked to the local corner shop to buy some cheap lager. People are right when they say alcohol takes the edge off things; too much of it, though, can distort your reality. I wanted just enough to get me through a particularly tough day. Mrs Verma served me from behind the counter with a sympathetic smile, but I was grateful she stopped short of asking me how I was. I was sick of that question.
It must have been the end of the school day because I kept passing mums and dads holding their kids’ hands on the way home from the nearby primary school. I wanted to yell at them, ‘You don’t know how lucky you are!’ because if I had Daniel’s hand to hold on to, I’d never let go of it.
My thoughts gravitated again towards Charlotte. I couldn’t fathom why, when she knew how much I wanted to be a dad, she would rip the opportunity away from me so cruelly? She had murdered my longed-for boy. If she really, truly hadn’t wanted to live anymore and was convinced dying was the only option, maybe I could have understood if she’d done it after Daniel was born. I’d still have been gutted but he’d have given me the strength to carry on. Now she’d murdered my son, I had no reason to carry on.
I carried my six-pack home in a plastic bag and chose to drink it in the back garden. Conifers, large green and red bushes, and six feet of wooden fencing ensured privacy from the neighbours, not that I’d have cared if they’d seen me boozing away the afternoon. I didn’t bother to pull the canvas cover from the patio furniture and flopped onto a chair, sinking two cans and watching dragonflies skim the pond. My parents’ dog kept me company, but the buzz of the third drink on an empty stomach was starting to cloud my brain. Instead of mellowing me out, my thoughts were becoming more sombre.
I started thinking about my son again, questioning if he’d picked up on the chemical imbalance in Charlotte while he was still in the womb. I speculated how much pain he’d felt when she’d jumped. Months ago, I’d read that at just twenty weeks an unborn baby can feel pain more intensely than an adult. Did he notice the difference in gravity in those few seconds as she fell through the air? I’d been told Charlotte’s traumatic head injuries had probably killed her instantly. Had Daniel died immediately, too? Or was he trapped inside her, in pain and slowly being starved of oxygen? It was almost too unbearable to think about, yet I couldn’t stop. I began to cry for him.