Death changes things. And violent death – whether deliberate or accidental – does so in spades. Maureen Day knew that from personal experience. Three years previously, while she was out at work, her husband Adam had decided to kill himself. He had dressed himself in his favoured dark navy suit with a very fine grey pin stripe, a beautifully ironed white shirt – he always ironed his own shirts – his grey and red silk tie from New York and his newly polished black leather shoes. He had taken a green synthetic rope which, according to his credit card records, he had purchased a week before from a DIY store in Lymington, and a set of steps which was normally kept in the kitchen to facilitate Maureen reaching the cupboards above the work surfaces. He had shut the door of the garage and tied the rope to a wooden cross beam. At some point in the set-up procedure he had cut the rope, as it was far too long for the required task. The forensics team had detected traces of green synthetic fibres trapped in the pen-knife which they had found in his jacket pocket. He had been a cub and a boy scout and had always loved his pen knife. It was as if he had wanted, like an Egyptian pharaoh, to take it with him into the afterlife, whatever he conceived that to be. Life after death? It was something that he and she had never discussed.
She sometimes – though not very often these days – has a nightmare. It is always the same. She arrives home after work, a day which has implausibly involved lunch on an ocean liner. She parks her car next to his, which for some reason is stationed outside the garage. In the dream this strikes her as being strange. She gets out, rolls up the sleeves of her blouse (that never happened in reality) and opens the side door of the garage. And then she wakes. Because in the dream she knows what she will find inside, whereas in reality she had no idea, of course. In reality she kept her shoes on, went into the house, found it empty, wondered where the hell he was and poured herself a drink. Only after a few minutes had elapsed did she go and look for him in the garage. And that is where she found him, eyes bulging with the green noose tight around his neck.
It would not have been a quick death. A youngish doctor with spectacles and ginger hair and absolutely no sensitivity had told her that later, in a matter of fact way, as if he was talking to a lecture room of students, which apparently was something he did from time to time. It had been a very short drop, he told her, too short to break his neck, and Adam Day had strangled slowly to death.
It was something she preferred not to discuss, even with well-meaning friends, although it was unquestionably a defining moment, a watershed in the calendar of her life. Before Adam’s death and after: it was her own personal BC and AD, though she was sufficiently self-aware to stop the before-period becoming romanticised in her head. It hadn’t been the worst of marriages, but then again it hadn’t been the best either. They’d had good times and bad, made good calls and bad and had had to kiss and make up often enough like most couples. There had been no kids, though not for the want of trying, and before Adam’s death she had pretty much come to terms with the fact that this was what marriage and life was going to be like.
Immediately after Adam came the questions. ‘How are you?’ ‘What was it like to find him like that?’ ‘Punch drunk’ were the two words she deployed most frequently to protect herself from the barrage. It was amazing how insensitive people could be. Friends and even bare acquaintances somehow seemed to think they had a divine right to dig deep into her pain, to ask her how it felt and what it was like and hadn’t she had any inkling that he was unhappy and how could she not have noticed that dear Adam had reached such a state of despair. Well, they didn’t all ask that last question – though doubtless they all thought it – so she just hid behind clichés like punch drunk and waited for them to leave her alone. Even so, after a while she began to realise that punch drunk wasn’t such a bad description after all.
Almost a year had passed before she got back to work after Adam’s death. Post-traumatic stress was what her GP had likened it to. ‘God knows how any of us would react if we came home to what you came home to,’ Dr Lucinda Croft had told her. Maureen didn’t believe in God, but she found Dr Croft’s firm pronouncements helpful, though not as helpful as the drugs she prescribed. But there were other aspects of life after Adam that became apparent long before she returned to work. One was to do with money. She was financially really rather well off. The endowment policy he had taken out not only cleared the mortgage on the house, but left her a substantial five-figure sum to fall back on. Another feature of post-Adam existence was sex – the offers came thick and fast from the most varied and unlikely sources. It was as if she had paid for a card to be displayed in the window of the newsagent in the village – ‘independent, well-heeled, attractive widow seeks no strings sexual relationship’. The plumber and the solicitor, the decorator and the restaurant owner all came and went. Even a mother of four kids and two dogs came to lend her a comforting shoulder (without her menagerie, fortunately) and ended up sweating and squealing in Maureen’s bed. All of this was fun of a sort while it lasted, but eventually the experience palled and the opportunities diminished and one evening, after a singularly unfulfilling copulation with a mid-fifties double-glazing salesman named Ralph, she realised that none of this really helped.
Time heals, they say. Not quite true, she thinks. It is the forgetting that heals and she has become good at forgetting. So much so that when one day she opens the front door and is confronted by a stranger who wants to talk to her about her husband, she very nearly slams the door in his face. What stopped her she didn’t know at the time and she has never worked out since.
For several seconds she stood silent in the doorway studying the card he had put into her hand. She had never seen a policeman’s ID card before. It looked convincing enough, but she doubted that that meant anything. Any conman worth his salt would carry a convincing ID card. She looked at the man again, this time properly, trying to work out if he was genuine or not. She reckoned she was good at weighing people up. The man was wearing a light grey mackintosh which grew darker the longer he stood there in the rain. His hair was almost non-existent. His shoes were black and tolerably clean. He looked back at her and shivered.
‘Would you like to make a phone call and check me out?’ Maureen watched with fascination as a drop of water ran down his nose and hung tantalisingly on its tip before eventually giving way to gravity.
‘No,’ she said, making her decision. She moved to the side, letting him into the corridor and then shut the door with a bang. She saw the man flinch and she smiled. She did not apologise.
In the past, she had always taken visitors through to the front living room. She had done that with double-glazing Ralph and what a disaster that had been. So after Detective Inspector Dawson had taken his mackintosh off, she ushered him through to the kitchen-diner at the back of the house. Soon they were sitting down opposite each other, safely separated by the oak table at which she ate all her meals, he with a glass of water and she with the gin and tonic which she had poured for herself seconds before the doorbell had rung. He took a sip and she followed suit.
‘So, Inspector,’ she said, ‘how can I help you?’
He ran a hand backwards over his damp pate and frowned.
‘It’s all rather tedious,’ he began. His teeth, she couldn’t help noticing, were crooked and discoloured. ‘I’ve been side-lined, shunted into a corner until I reach retirement age, and so they’ve had to find me things to keep me busy. Like going through old cases, checking the paperwork.’
‘I don’t understand. My husband committed suicide. He hung himself from a beam in the garage out there.’ She pointed through a side window at an imposing oak-framed building. ‘Are you telling me that his death is a case?’
‘It had to be investigated at the time. It had to go to the coroner’s court.’
‘And the coroner, in her wisdom, determined that he killed himself whilst the balance of his mind was disturbed.’ Maureen could recall the words which the coroner had used with absolute clarity.
Dawson took another sip from his glass. He pulled a tissue from his pocket and blew his nose noiselessly. He shrugged. ‘It’s the internal auditors. They breeze in. They snoop around. They randomly pick out cases to find fault with. And your husband’s was one of the first. I’m afraid it was a case of sod’s law. Paperwork incomplete. Things not tied up. Procedures not followed. Some or all of those things. Not to mention coffee split all over your statement by some idiot clerk. So it gets shunted onto me to sort out. Something to keep me occupied until I get shunted out for keeps.’
Maureen was not a person who easily felt sorry for people. People, her thinking went, had only themselves to blame. Yet for a few seconds she felt a glimmer of compassion for the damp figure in front of her. It didn’t last. ‘So you’ve come here to stir up a load of bad memories?’
Again he shrugged. ‘Don’t shoot the bringer of bad news.’
‘Except that you aren’t just the bringer of bad news, are you.’ Her sympathy had disappeared down its own black hole. ‘You are the bad news.’
This time there was no shrug. He sucked in air through the gaps between his teeth. ‘I’m not looking to upset you, madam. I’m just trying to do my job. I could have asked you to come to the police station, but that would have been embarrassing all round. For us and – if some acquaintance or neighbour of yours happened to notice – for you too. So I came here to try and keep it simple. I ask you a few questions. I make a few notes. I go away and submit my report. Job done.’
Maureen sipped at her gin and tonic. ‘I’m inclined to make a formal complaint about this cock-up. Why should I be put through it again?’ she said.
‘I understand.’ He nodded. ‘I can tell you the procedure for doing all that. But …’ Dawson let his unspoken thoughts hang motionless in the air.
‘But?’ Maureen had no intention of letting him off.
‘But then the whole process becomes more formalised. Other people get involved. People whose interest is in protecting the police service.’
‘And you’re not interested in protecting the police service?’ Maureen emitted a harsh guffaw.
‘You’re a sharp woman. I can see that.’ He nodded again. Maureen felt her irritation level rising. He was like one of those stupid dogs that her father had put on the back window sill of his Triumph Herald. Nod, nod, nod. ‘And you’re right of course. The only difference is that my role is to keep things low key. To tidy up the loose ends with discretion so that we don’t have an embarrassment on our hands.’
Maureen took another, deeper pull at her gin and tonic. He drained his water.
‘Any chance of a tea?’ he said. ‘And can I use your toilet?’
She switched on the kettle and listened as he padded along the hall to the loo. It was tucked under the stairs and she had no doubt that he would have to bend to accommodate himself. The thought occurred to her that he might be going to the loo because he had prostate problems. The bathroom would have been immeasurably more comfortable for a man his size, but she had no intention of allowing him up her stairs.
‘That’s better,’ he said as they sat down opposite each other again. She wondered if he was referring to the tea which he had just sipped or the emptying of his bladder. Maybe both.
‘So,’ he said, finally jumping in, ‘you came home on the 8th of April at approximately 5.35pm.’
‘I guess so. It’s quite a while ago now.’
‘That’s what it says on your statement. The part that hasn’t been obliterated by the clerk’s coffee.’ For the first time, there was the flicker of a smile on his face. ‘So what happened then?’
‘I went in the house as I normally do. I thought he would be there, but he wasn’t. I poured myself a gin and tonic because it had been a difficult day at work. I looked in the garden, but he wasn’t there, so I went over to the garage. And that was where I found him hanging from the rope.’
She fell silent. Dawson waited several seconds. Then he spoke. ‘Were the garage doors open?’
‘No. of course not. If they had been, I would have seen him when I pulled up on the drive, wouldn’t I?’
Dawson was unruffled. ‘How did you enter the garage?’
‘By the side door. You can see it from here if you look through the window.’
Dawson stood up and looked across, appraising it. ‘So was that door open?’
‘So what made you go into the garage?’
‘He had to be somewhere.’
‘He might have gone for a walk.’
‘But he hadn’t, had he?’ Irritation flared in Maureen. ‘I wasn’t going to go wondering off round the countryside to find him. But the garage was only a few metres away.’
He held up his hands in mock surrender. ‘I’m just trying to get a handle on what happened. I suppose I was thinking that if I could only get you to recall it fully, you might remember something you forgot the first time round. Something significant.’
Maureen’s hands tightened into fists. ‘What is there to remember, for God’s sake? I went into the garage and he was hanging there.’
‘What did you do then?’
‘I went up to him, but he was clearly dead. So I rang 999 and waited until help came.’
‘Did you touch anything while you were waiting? I mean in terms of contaminating the scene with your fingerprints.’
She didn’t answer immediately. It was amazing how clear her memories of that day were, but her thoughts were confused. ‘I don’t think so. I froze at first. It was such a shock. But I did go up to him eventually and I touched him on the cheek. Just to check that he really was dead. But I still had my gloves on.’
‘Ah!’ Something had occurred to Dawson. ‘These would be leather gloves or woollen?’
‘Black leather. I wear them to drive in the winter.’
Dawson gave his impression of a nodding dog. ‘That explains that, then.’
Maureen jerked her head up. ‘Explains what?’
‘Explains what?’ Her voice was sharper and insistent. ‘If you want me to co-operate with your stupid investigation, you had better be straight with me.’
‘Sorry.’ He smiled apologetically. ‘The fact that there were none of your fingerprints anywhere in the garage.’
‘I don’t recall touching anything.’
‘Not even on the handle of the door by which you entered.’
‘I see.’ She did see, but she felt too a flutter of alarm. There was something about Dawson that unnerved her. Maybe she should have insisted on ringing the police station and checking that he was genuine.
Dawson wrote something on his notepad and then began to rifle through the several sheets which constituted the paperwork on the case. He hummed as he did so, a rather tuneless, irritating melody.
‘There is just one more thing I need to check out.’
‘Good.’ Maureen wanted him to go. She really had had enough. And she really did want another gin and tonic.
‘It’s about the timings. We’ve established that you arrived back at 5.35. We also know from the telephone records that you rang 999 at 6.03 p.m. You’ve told me that on your arrival home, you went inside, realised your husband wasn’t in the house, poured yourself a gin and tonic, looked in the garden and then went and found him dead in the garage.’ He paused. ‘Did that really take twenty-eight minutes?’
He stared at her. His eyes were sunk into his face deep beneath his eyebrows. She was reminded of a bird of prey she had seen close up at the local fete. Totally not to be trusted.
‘Sorry to be so fussy, but if I don’t ask you that, then someone will ask me why I didn’t.’ Again he held up his hand in silly mock surrender. ‘Maybe, I don’t know, you turned the TV on or went to the toilet or something? All I ask is that you try and remember. Then I’ll be gone.’
Maureen drained what was left of her tea. She hated tea. ‘That’s it,’ she said suddenly. ‘I went to the loo.’
‘Ah! That explains it.’ He smiled and scribbled again on his notepad. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking, but was it a number one or number two?’
Maureen swore. ‘Number two as it happens. If you want the full detail, I went upstairs to my ensuite bathroom because it is much more comfortable that the other two in the house. I did a number two. I probably looked at a magazine. I always keep a couple there. That would have delayed me. But please don’t ask me what article I read while I was sitting there because it really is too long ago. Afterwards I went downstairs and finished my drink and decided I really needed to find out where he was.’
Dawson straightened the pile of papers in front of him and slipped them back inside their envelope. ‘Just one more question.’ He flashed his insincere smile and Maureen knew in that moment that she had made a mistake.
‘Tell me, Maureen, why did you kill your husband?’
She felt her neck tighten, as if it too, like her husband’s, had had a noose tighten around it.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You know very well, Maureen.’
‘I’d like you to go.’
He shrugged and ferretted in his inside jacket pocket. He put a voice recorder and microphone on the table close to himself. He pressed a button. He unplugged the microphone.
‘That’s off now. The next part of what we have to say is off the record.’
She glared at him. She doubted she could grab the recorder before him and in any case she was pretty damned sure that he was stronger than her. But she still didn’t know where she had slipped up.
‘I’ll tell you what I think happened. You came home. You got yourself a drink. Then you went looking for your husband. Maybe you were pissed off that he wasn’t there to greet you or that he hadn’t started the supper. He had lost his job, hadn’t he, so I expect one of his domestic chores was to cook the supper. I expect you were going to give him a piece of your mind.’
He paused. Maureen licked her lips, alarmed that he should have guessed what had happened with such accuracy.
‘He wasn’t in the house or the garden, but I suspect the side door to the garage was open. I expect you noticed that from the kitchen. So you went back outside and entered the garage. You didn’t need to turn the handle to open the door. All you had to do was give the door a push.’
‘What does it matter whether the door was open or shut? I’ve already told you that I was wearing gloves.’
‘Ah! ‘You were wearing gloves.’ He held up his first finger and wagged it at her like a school teacher putting a pupil right. ‘So what exactly are you saying? That you went upstairs to the toilet, had a crap, read the magazine and wiped your arse and you did all this without taking your gloves off?’
Maureen shivered. She could feel a cold sweat running down her neck. ‘Maybe I misremembered the gloves. Maybe I did take them off. It was so long ago.’
‘I dare say you put them in your jacket pocket. And when you went into the garage and found your husband standing on your kitchen steps with a noose round his neck, you put the gloves back on. Then you went over to him and instead of saving him you grabbed the steps, pulled them out from under him and watched as he choked to death. Isn’t that right?’
Maureen froze. She eyed Dawson and he eyed her. She looked down, noticed afresh the recorder on the surface of the table and reached across. She picked it up and checked that it was turned off as Dawson had said, that he hadn’t been tricking her. Then, with savage power she hurled it down onto the floor. At least two pieces of casing skittled across the ceramic tiles. Dawson flinched, but said nothing.
‘Have you any idea what it is like living with a man like that? He was pathetic. A loser! Gave up his job. Hopeless round the house. Useless cook. I’d had enough of being the strong one in the relationship. He wanted to kill himself. He used to talk about it sometimes, but in a way that made realise he wouldn’t have the guts to do it in a month of Sundays. So when I caught him standing there, on my kitchen steps for God’s sake, unable to have the courage of his convictions, I thought to Hell with him, I’ll help him on his way.’
Dawson said nothing for several seconds. The grandfather clock which stood in the hall chimed the hour. Then he said: ‘Technically, that’s murder.’
‘I like to think of it as assisted suicide.’
In the end, Maureen later told herself, it hadn’t worked out so badly. Dawson had turned out not to be half as miserable as he had initially appeared. He had expressed sympathy for her dilemma. He had given her the disc on which he had recorded their conversation and had promised that this would be the last she would ever hear about her husband’s death. There had, of course, been a quid pro quo. She had had to take him upstairs and let him use her en suite bathroom and share her bed, but that had proved to be a lot more enjoyable than she had feared.
But it wasn’t to be just a one-off. He had been insistent on that. Not like it had been with Ralph, whom he apparently knew. Maureen looked at her watch. He was due in just five minutes. He wouldn’t be late. He had already rung her and reminded her that he was coming.
She smiled. She had done it once. She could do it again.
Peter Tickler asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work