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What Have I Done?
By Amanda Prowse
Head of Zeus LtdCopyright © 2013 Amanda Prowse
All rights reserved.
Ten years ago
Kathryn Brooker watched the life slip from him, convinced she saw the black spirit snake out of his body and disappear immediately through the floor, spiralling down and down. She sat back in her chair and breathed deeply. She had expected euphoria or at the very least relief. What she couldn't have predicted was the numbness that now enveloped her. Picturing her children sleeping next door, she closed her eyes and wished for them a deep and peaceful rest, knowing it would be the last they would enjoy for some time. As ever, consideration of what was best for her son and daughter was only a thought away.
The room felt quite empty despite the blood-soaked body lying centrally on the bed. The atmosphere was peaceful, the temperature just right.
Kathryn registered the smallest flicker of disappointment; she had expected to feel more.
Having changed into jeans and a jersey, she calmly stood by the side of the bed on which her husband's pale corpse lay. With great deliberation and for the first time in her life, she dialled 999. It felt surreal to put into practice the one act that she had mentally rehearsed for as long as she could remember, although in her imagination the emergency had always been a child with a broken leg or a fire in a neighbouring empty building, nothing too dramatic.
'Emergency, which service do you require?'
'Oh, hello, yes, I'm not too sure which service I require.'
'You are not sure?'
'I think probably the police or ambulance, maybe both. Sorry. As I said, I'm not too sure ...'
'Can I ask you what it is in connection with, madam?'
'Oh, right, yes, of course. I have just murdered my husband.'
'I'm sorry, you have what? This is a terrible line.'
'Oh, I know. I'm sorry, I'll try and speak up a bit. It's always a terrible connection from here, even if I'm phoning someone locally. It's because I am up in the main bedroom and the reception is very bad. My son thinks it may be because of all the big trees around us; we did cut them right back one year, but I can't remember if it made any difference. Plus we get interference from the computers in the next building; we've been meaning to get it looked at, but that's by the by. Right, yes. I said, I have murdered my husband.'
* * *
Kathryn blinked at the humming strip light that winked overhead; the bulb needed to be replaced. It was a distraction that could easily become annoying.
'Did you do it?'
Roland Gearing rested his weight on splayed fingers, his hands forming little pyramids that, incredibly, supported his muscular frame as he leant over the table. He lowered his voice an octave; this was the one question he knew he had to ask and yet he was fearful of her response.
'Did I do it?'
'Yes, Kathryn, did you?'
He held her gaze, hoping to instil trust, trying to tease out the honest answer. He knew a lot about lying and relied on his gut instinct. Years on the job had taught him to monitor the interviewee's pupils carefully.
'It's a question that I wouldn't normally ask quite so early in proceedings, but as your friend — as Mark's friend too — I feel I have to. Is that okay?'
'Yes, yes of course. I understand.'
She gave a fleeting smile as her index finger and thumb looped her hair behind her left ear and then her right.
Her calm composure rattled him; there was none of the hysteria or fear that usually characterised these encounters. Women in similar situations were often almost insane with terror, rage or the dread of injustice. Kathryn, however, appeared placid.
She remembered her husband's glassy eyes. The way his fingers slipped and missed as they struggled with an invisible tourniquet that stopped the breath in his throat. Her nose wrinkled; her nostrils still carried the faintest trace of the iron stench of Mark's seeping blood. It had repulsed and comforted her in equal measure. It was as if she could taste it at the back of her throat. She hadn't sought to ease his discomfort in his dying moments, nor had she offered any words of solace. She had in fact smiled, as though he would manage, was still the strong, capable man who could cut wood, paint walls and raise a hand.
She may have even hummed, as though she wasn't hovering, desperate to witness the demise that would mean the end of the whole sordid chapter. When she had spoken, her tone had been nonchalant.
'Take your time. I've got hours, nowhere to go and a whole lifetime ahead of me. A promise is a promise.'
Her flippant pragmatism hid a heart that groaned with relief.
'I haven't got long.'
His voice had been a waning whisper. His final words coasted on fragmented last breaths.
'Too slow, painful. You'll pay.'
She mentally erased the words before he had finished. She would not share, recount or remember them.
'Oh, Mark, I have already paid.'
Bending low, with her face inches from his, she breathed the fetid air that he exhaled, sharing the small space where life lingered until the very end. Kathryn marvelled at the capacity for human animals to cling to the 'now'. It was quite impressive, fascinating even, despite the obvious futility.
'Yes. Yes, I did it, Roland. It was me. Me alone.'
There was a hint of pride in her admission, as if she were commenting on an achievement. Roland found it most disconcerting. He shook his head. Disbelief clouded everything, even after having seen and heard her confession. He looked at the neat, middle-aged woman with the pretty face sitting opposite him. The same woman who had handed him canapés on doily -decorated platters, served him percolated coffee and proffered homemade cake. The facts would simply not compute. She had been married to Mark Brooker, a man that he liked and admired. A man he had trusted with the education of his only daughter.
Roland exhaled slowly and scratched his chin where his stubble was at its most irritating. The hot, stress-filled environment of the interview room did nothing to help his sensitive skin. He wanted to go home and shower. Better still, he wanted to rewind the day and not pick up the 3 a.m. call that would disturb his family's rest and destroy the community as he knew it.
Kathryn sensed his irritation, knowing he was the sort of man who cherished his sleep. She pictured him at home earlier that evening, enjoying sea bream with steamed vegetables and a chilled white, after having spent an hour in the gym, maintaining that flat stomach. Neither could have guessed that his Sabbath would have ended like this, with him facing her across the table inside Finchbury police station at this ungodly hour, trying to figure out what the hell was going on.
'Are you sure you want to talk to me?' he prompted.
His jacket fell open, revealing the hot-pink silk lining of his handmade suit. She imagined his fellow police officers taking the mick, but knew enough about Roland and the care he took with his appearance to realise that he wouldn't pay them any heed. He would never be seen in the cheap, crumpled brands that some of his contemporaries wore. Kathryn recalled a conversation she had overheard between him and Mark in which he'd lamented the loss of his uniform, an inevitable consequence of climbing the ranks and becoming chief inspector. He had taken such pleasure in polishing buttons, shining boots and removing specks of lint from the wool of his tunic. She watched as he ran his palm over his abs, clearly enjoying the feel of himself against the inside of a crisp, white shirt.
'You are absolutely certain that this wouldn't be easier with a stranger?'
She noted the flash of wide-eyed hope.
'I am positive, Roland. Thank you for asking, but there is no one else that I would rather talk to and I appreciate you coming and giving up your sleep, I really do.'
It was as if she didn't get it, as if she had invited him over, rather than the fact he had been hauled from his bed in the early hours in response to the first suspected murder on his patch in eighteen years. There was no quaver to her voice, no hesitation or apparent nervousness. Her hands sat neatly folded together in her lap. She looked as calm as someone waiting for a doctor's appointment.
Roland had been a police officer for twenty years. He had seen things – gruesome, unjust and amusing things. But this? It made no sense; it was shocking. It had stunned him, shaken him.
'You seem very calm, considering your current situation.'
He wondered if she was in shock.
'Do you know, it's funny that you should say that, because I do feel calm. I feel very calm.'
'That worries me greatly.'
'Oh, Roland, there's no need to worry, no need at all. It makes a pleasant change for me, this feeling of serenity. I had almost forgotten what it was like! In fact I don't think I have felt like this since I was a child. That was a lovely time in my life, when I had absolutely nothing to worry about and I was very much loved. I had a wonderful childhood, a wonderful life. I wasn't always this way, you know.'
'Oh, you know ... afraid, edgy, contained. I was quite determined. Never racy or wild, but I had a quiet belief that I could set the world alight, blaze trails. I thought I would achieve so many things. My parents always told me that the only limit to my achievements was my imagination and I believed them. They are both gone now, and I don't think about them too much.'
She exhaled deeply.
'To tell you the truth, Roland, I have always thought that the dead might watch over us in some way, even have the capacity to protect us. If my parents have been watching over me, then I am ashamed for all that they have had to witness, mortified by what I have become. On the other hand, if they were able to protect me from their viewing gallery on high, why didn't they? I've lost count of the number of times I've asked for help, prayed for help, all to no avail. So I tend not to bother. It's far too confusing and that's one thing that I haven't needed any more of – confusion.'
'If you did it, Kathryn, then it begs the question, why? Why did you do it?'
With the small smile of one uncertain of where to begin, yet aware that she had to, Kathryn slowly formed her response.
'It's quite simple, really. I did it so that I could tell my story, unafraid.'
'Your story?' Roland was baffled.
'Yes, Roland. I needed to tell my story to my children, to our family, our friends, even our community, without fear.'
'Fear of what exactly?'
He had been listening to her for a while now, yet was still no nearer to understanding.
A small laugh escaped her lips. At the same time an unbidden tear rolled down her face.
'Oh, Roland, I don't know where to begin! Fear of pain, death, but most importantly fear that I would disappear inside myself and never resurface. I don't know where I have gone, you see. I don't know where the person that used to be me is any more. It's as if I have become nothing, like I have been living outside society even though I am within it. My life has felt so inconsequential, as if it doesn't matter what happens to me. I have become invisible. Very often I speak but no one hears me. Earlier today something happened that changed me, Roland. I can't say that it was a big, momentous or even a particularly memorable thing, but something happened and I knew that I had had enough. It was time, it was my time.'
He contemplated her words and decided not to ask just yet what that 'something' was that had changed her.
'You need to consider what you are saying, Kathryn. I want you to think very, very carefully about what you say and who you say it to. Your words and actions from now on can dramatically affect how things turn out for you. Every scrap of information that leaves your mouth will be recorded and will affect your future.'
Again the small laugh.
'Oh my goodness. My future? That's another funny thing: the fact is I don't have to think about anything very carefully now. I've already thought about it. I've had years to think about it.'
Roland paused and weighed up the options, trying to decide on the best course of action. His eyes widened suddenly. There was one possible way out for the headmaster's wife.
'I think it would be a good idea for you to see a doctor, Kathryn. For your own good.'
'Ah, yes! A psychiatrist, I assume? That would be fine. You will see that I am very good at acting on suggestions, agreeing with statements and following orders. In fact, I can't tell the difference between them any more! But I should warn you that after careful assessment and diagnosis, he or she will write you a long-winded, expensive report that will tell you I am one hundred per cent sane, rational and in full control of all my faculties. The fact is, I acted alone and with complete knowledge and understanding of both my actions and their consequences. But you go ahead; get this confirmed by someone with a gilt-framed certificate hanging behind their comfy swivel chair, if it makes it easier for you.'
'It's not about what is easier for me! Jesus Christ, Kathryn, I can only assume that you've had some kind of breakdown and that your actions are the result of some form of madness, temporary or otherwise.'
She laughed then.
'Temporary or otherwise? I like that. The fact is, Roland, I am speaking the truth and I do so from a lucid mind. Can I tell you something?'
He prayed for some revealing rationale, a fact or piece of trivia, anything.
'Yes, yes of course.'
'There have been times over the last two decades when I could quite easily have lost my marbles, times when things felt so bleak and sad that I wondered if it wouldn't be easier to let myself sink into depression and opt out. Two things stopped me from giving in to that, no matter how tempting. Dominic and Lydia. They have been my reasons for keeping sane and keeping going. I would have been no use to them if I'd gone a bit loopy. It's been a battle, though, I can't say it hasn't. I would stare at my distraught face in the mirror day after day and wonder how long I could keep up the pretence. Turns out for quite a while!'
She laughed in a short, unnatural burst.
Roland stared at her, convinced she really had lost her reason, despite her protestations.
'I have to say, Kathryn, that as a friend, and not as a chief inspector, I am worried about you, very worried about you.'
Her laugh interrupted him. She sighed, rocking slightly as she retrieved a damp square of kitchen roll from the sleeve of her cardigan and blotted her eyes and nose.
'I am so sorry, Roland. I shouldn't be laughing, I know. I'm a tad emotional. It's been a difficult forty-eight hours.'
Neither of them commented on the gross understatement.
'The reason I laugh is that I have been wanting someone to worry about me and help me for the last eighteen years. But now, for the first time since the day I got married, I don't need anyone to worry about me because I am finally safe.'
She placed her palms flat against the table, as if taking strength from its solidity, to emphasise the point that she could stand alone now.
Roland stood and paced the small police-station interview room; his hands were on his hips, his arms sticking out at right angles. He was starting to lose his patience, his frustration level rising in direct proportion to the lack of progress. He had the feeling that their conversation could meander like this for hours and that was time he didn't have to waste.
'Okay, Kathryn, I am going to level with you. I find myself in a very difficult position. I don't mean professionally, but psychologically. I am having great difficulty in understanding what is going on with you. I have known you and Mark for ... how long? Nearly ten years?'
Kathryn pictured the arrival at Mountbriers Academy of his daughter Sophie at the age of eight, with her little leather satchel, frightened eyes, freckles and swinging plaits. She was now a confident sixteen-year-old who had not only caught the eye of her own son, but every other boy in the year. Kathryn nodded. Nearly ten years.
'And in all that time you and Mark have always been seen as a very close couple, a devoted couple. He speaks – spoke – very highly of you, Kathryn, always. So can you understand why this seems ...?'
Roland stared up at the ceiling momentarily, steadied himself, and tried a different tack.
'God, Kathryn, I am struggling to word this politely, so I'm going to stop trying and cut to the chase. Mark is ... was ... a much -respected and loved member of this community. He was the headmaster, for God's sake! Only recently nationally recognised, well regarded by all. And you expect me ... everyone, in fact ... to believe that for the last eighteen years you have been living a life of misery behind those high flint walls and sash windows? When all we have seen is a strong, happy couple who appeared devoted to each other? Do you see why people might have some difficulty with this?'
She smiled her hesitant smile and chose her words carefully.
'I can see that some people will only ever see what they want to see, Roland. I do know that. But it's also important to recognise that some people are great deceivers. Mark was a great deceiver and, to a certain extent, so was I. He was a monster who pretended to be otherwise and I was a victim and pretended I was not. Guilty as charged.'
Excerpted from What Have I Done? by Amanda Prowse. Copyright © 2013 Amanda Prowse. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
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