Drawing on my vanilla vape, I brood; there isn’t the same satisfaction as there is with a normal cig. I miss the snap of the lighter, the hum of the flame as it burns oxygen and the first dizzying inhalation. You can crush a cigarette out in an ashtray, flick it away nonchalantly, or throw it on the floor and twist your foot in an act of finality: all intensely gratifying actions. Mood can be interpreted just by watching someone put a cigarette out.
I watch as the rising sun hits the slope of the War Museum roof and hints at a lovely summer day. The sand martins and willow warblers have arrived, and swoop and dip over the black water of the Manchester Ship Canal. Lycra-clad joggers huff and spit as they run along its banks.
The first yellow trams arrive and disgorge the baristas and hotel staff, followed by the execs, actors, and office workers. Lights come on, doors open, coffee machines steam, and the grassed areas slowly fill with break-time escapees and visitors. I feel a sudden urge to shatter this innocent scene. I want to scream, to confess, anything to relieve the weight of guilt which squats like a slab of granite on my chest.
I take a seat outside Catena and order an Americano. The waitress asks if I want milk with it. Her ignorance irritates me; she should know an Americano is always served black.
The investigation room buzzes with activity as I weave through the back-to-back desks, most are occupied by detective’s intent on their computer screens, cups of coffee or bottled water close at hand. Phones ring intermittently, like robins marking territories. Jackets are discarded over chair backs as the heat from the ardent sun bores through slatted blinds. Odours of cup-a-soup and cucumber linger in the air.
A detective propels her chair a short distance across the blue-carpeted floor and passes a sheet of paper to her colleague, Detective Ashida Asante.
‘These are the numbers,’ I hear her say.
She looks up as I dodge past. Detective Constable Alison Cromer, one of the newer recruits, on the fast-track route from university.
‘Oh, sorry, ma’am,’ she says.
I wonder what she sees when she addresses me.
One of the phones stops ringing. I make an attempt at approachability, but in truth I don’t want to be approached. ‘Afternoon,’ I answer. ‘Are those the numbers for the Assad mobile trace?’
It’s a case I’m Senior Investigating Officer for, death by dangerous driving. The investigation has uncovered a previous connection between the victim and the driver, which leads me to believe it was either deliberate or planned.
‘OK.’ I walk backwards for a few seconds, such a good act, casual, in control. ‘Can you give me an update at three this afternoon?’
‘Great,’ I turn and face front again.
‘Hey,’ DI Matt Anderson calls from across the room.
Matt and I were in training together; but I was promoted to DCI over a year ago. Don’t even bother asking if I slept my way to the middle. I didn’t so much as flutter an eyelash. I used to wonder whether I should be insulted, because I’d never been propositioned in an inappropriate, Weinsteiny way. There wasn’t a ‘hashtag me neither’ movement, so I’d just moved on.
My promotion hasn’t affected our working partnership or Matt’s penchant for acting like my big brother.
‘You look like shit,’ he says in his strong Salford accent, following me into my office.
I run my hands through my hair and try to hide the tremor. ‘I slept in a doorway.’
He nods. ‘Class.’
Landing heavily in my chair I exhale.
‘You still not sleeping?’ he asks.
I never know how to handle these probing questions.
‘Why don’t you stay at ours one night? Caro would love it. She asks about you all the time.’
‘Look, Matt, I love you all, you know that, but just now, at night, I need to get up, move around. I’m restless.’
‘Well, how about dinner next week?’
Cornered. Fuck. I nod.
Matt heads for the door, then stops. ‘Listen, you know when you’re restless at night, phone me. Really. I’ve told you, day or night. As Homer Simpson said, me casa es su cazi.’
Thanking Matt, I check my watch. He’s well-meaning. But as if I would call him when I can’t sleep? He’s a married man. I know Caro well, she’s always been nice to me, but it’s because I understand the boundary.
The following day is the summation of a long and drawn out court case. The jury retire and we wait for the outcome. When it comes, we aren’t disappointed. Gary Brunswick is found guilty of kidnap and murder. The judge describes him as a dangerous man and sentences him to a whole life order. She says, ‘It is wholly appropriate that I pass this sentence because of the danger you represent to the public.’
I resist the urge to high five Matt or give the judge a double thumbs up.
Watching as Brunswick is led away, I have a vague sense of something. Foreboding sounds too dramatic; it’s something nesting, waiting to hatch. I’m distracted by it so much that when I exit the court, I walk straight towards the waiting cameras. A few flash tantalizingly in my direction and a dozen questions are thrown at me. I’m almost lured onto the rocks, but then Matt’s hand is on my arm and he gently steers me away. Superintendent Barbara Dean is close behind. She approaches with confidence and begins her statement; it’s clearly her show. Anyway, my mother once told me I had a face more suited to radio.
As we drive back to headquarters, Matt says, ‘We did a great job, pardner. You and I will clean up this town.’
‘The only way I’m cleaning up this town is through a community order,’ I reply.
Matt laughs. It’s a good, throaty laugh. ‘You’d probably meet a better class of people.' His expression changes, distracted by a driver coming towards us on the opposite side of the road. ‘Fuck, was that idiot on his phone?’ He follows the car through his rear-view mirror. ‘Fucking unbelievable. I know him, he’s that McGill, McGrath character.’
I turn, but only catch a glimpse of a man in aviators at the wheel of a black four-by-four.
‘The one who gave Brunswick an alibi, said he was working for him,’ Matt explains.
I remember him well. A sly looking guy with close-set eyes. He had provided the alibi which meant Brunswick was free to torture and kill a young boy called David Foster. A quiver of loathing shoots through me. David’s father, Mark Foster, crazed by grief, had pleaded with me more than once, ‘Just give me five minutes alone with Brunswick.’ I’ve heard it many times over the years, from both fathers and mothers. I get it. But Mark Foster’s had been the only request I’ve ever seriously considered.
‘He should have been prosecuted for perverting the course of justice,’ I say, though it sounds laughable, a ‘very naughty boy’ slap on the wrist. ‘Brunswick should have been hanged, along with the creep who alibied him.’
‘Too right,’ agrees Matt. ‘That bastard knows some influential people.’
‘Fucking egg and butter man.’
Matt frowns, ‘What does that even mean?’
‘Ah you know, small time guy, acting like a big shot. You don’t want to go after him, clean up this town?’
‘What? Nah? Another day won’t make a difference.’
Typical Matt, loading the bullets but leaving the safety on.
‘Y’know,’ I say. ‘Quentin Crisp said he never cleaned his house. He said that after three years the dust settled on everything, and you couldn’t tell.’
Matt shakes his head. ‘Dirty bastard. Is he the one works in records?’
‘Yeah, that Quentin Crisp.’
He looks at me. ‘What?’ He pulls into the car park of the main building. ‘You still on for tonight?’ he asks, as he deftly parks up.
‘Sure, looking forward to it,’ I lie, feeling a flip of dread at the thought of the overload of sympathy from Caro.
‘Pity, Caro’s making a moussaka, and I don’t usually like to share.’
As we enter the investigation room, Matt claps his hands in congratulations. A few members of the team join in; one whoops.
‘Well done, everyone,’ I add. ‘Great team effort. The drinks are on Matt.’
Ashida shouts, ‘Champagne all round.’
‘Order their very best Cava,’ Matt jokes.
It's nice to see them in good spirits. I’ve pushed them hard. But I cannot shake the feeling of being an imposter. I have used the case as a diversion.
At four pm, Matt leaves to join the rest of the team for a drink at The Angel, but I decline, and tell him I’ll see him at his house at seven. I approved the early finish and the celebration, but it’s too soon for me. The averted gazes and dropped voices have increased, it seems, over the last few months. I’m tired of the sudden change in atmosphere whenever I enter a room.
I pack my briefcase, pull my jacket from the back of the chair, and picture the night ahead. I’ve not eaten all day and can feel the emptiness. Jangling food receptors, begging for an injection of carbs. I’d planned a binge, but then remembered dinner with Matt and Caro, and their six-year-old daughter, Lucy.
I’ve promised to provide an updated report to Barbara before I leave. Turning right out of the dim corridor towards her office, I can make out lowered voices. Instinctively, I slow my step and approach. The door is slightly ajar; inside Matt leans over the desk, he and Barbara intent on an open file.
‘You think?’ I hear Barbara ask.
Matt replies but his head is turned away, so I only catch the word ‘annual.’ They don’t notice me. I feel a tightening in my throat. What am I witnessing? Something? Nothing? It feels momentous, life changing. They are close. Matt is clearly a confidante, a part of the inner circle. How have I not seen it before now? As I retreat, I pass a waste bin. I drop the report into it in disgust and walk away. Then I think better of it, spin on my heels, and retrieve the file before leaving.
While we’ve been stewing inside the courtroom, outside the pavements have warmed and the bars in Spinningfields and along Deansgate are crammed with the pink-necked masses. The smell of al fresco food is tantalizing on the warm evening air. Manoeuvring my car through the traffic, I feel envy for all the party people. The tiny doll girls overdressed in barely there outfits. How do they do it with their crammed social lives, and appearance of wealth? I’ve never managed it; I like to keep them separate. I compartmentalise. I keep my social life separate from work life, only my compartment for socializing is akin to an Ikea flat pack. My work life balance is a seesaw, glued to the ground at the work end. I picture Matt and Barbara, discussing. Discussing what? They looked like conspirators. Matt had supposedly left the building.
I slam my brakes on at a pedestrian crossing. ‘Shit.’ When everyone has passed, I set off again, mindful, less white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel, foot lighter on the accelerator.
I pull onto my driveway, a neat two-storey with a racing green front door. This was once a welcoming space, but now I feel like the house doesn’t remember me. The lounge walls are a deep shade of blue, which looked great in the House and Garden magazine; it spoke to me. It still speaks to me, but now it shouts, ‘Hello, you lonely bastard.’ The house smells good though, which compensates for the emptiness. I like a diffuser in each room. My mum once said I had a very fussy nose. I guess she was right. Aromas are important to me, but I don’t want the smell of a sweet shop or funeral home; I like a masculine smell. Cigar smoke for the living room, strong roasted coffee for the kitchen, and patchouli for the bedrooms.
Throwing my jacket and bag on the chair, I switch the lamps and the TV on, then go through to the kitchen to flick the kettle on. All these mundane actions help me to plant my flag, reclaim a sense of home. The kitchen is probably my favourite. A black marble counter covers the dove grey shaker-style cabinets. I put it together myself, except for the marble top. I did all the tiling and painting too, saved a fortune. Impressed my dad. He laid a spirit level on top of the cupboards, a faint high-pitched whistle hidden within the deep timbre of his wheezing. When the bubble settled dead centre, he nodded in appreciation and told me I’d always been more of a son than a daughter. Which to him was the biggest compliment he could bestow on me.
I look towards the kitchen cupboards and then frown at the large wall clock. I’m expected at Matt’s at seven. It’s going to be a rush.
It’s a balmy evening, and for the first time this year I’ve decided to wear a dress. I source most of my clothes online. I’m six feet tall and usually buy a size eighteen. I have unfashionably large ankles, which makes it challenging to find comfortable winter boots. Summer is a much easier time in the shoe department, but a complete ball ache for anything in the clothing one.
‘You’ll have to do,’ I say. Considering myself in the mirror. A fashion editor would describe my outfit as an easy office-to-party look. ‘For respectability at the office, just cover the straps and décolletage with a cardigan, or a jumper, or a monk’s habit. Discard the cardi in the evening, add a sparkly necklace, and red lipstick, and voila, total transformation.’
Pulling my M&S sandals from the bottom of the wardrobe, I’m already perspiring. I rummage around again and eventually locate a beige evening bag and turn away from my reflection, unimpressed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate my body, but neither do I find myself attractive. I view my form like a Tibetan monk might, or a life artist, interesting in its aesthetic and functionality, but not a thing to be ravished. Not anymore, anyway. Not in that way. No, too many scars, too much pain. Sometimes I experience a sexual twang, or twinge, a sense memory. But I ignore it. In my experience, cultivating desire only brings heartache.
Slicking a little Pink Sherbet over my lips, I press them together. I spray dry shampoo into my damp roots, then order a taxi.
Halfway to Matt’s, I instruct the driver to turn around and take me back. I write and rewrite a short apology text to Matt, begging him to forgive the short notice and apologizing to Caro. I say I’m not feeling well, then I turn my phone off and just hope he doesn’t get it into his head to come around.
Back in the house my slippers make a satisfying slapping noise on the kitchen tiles. Reaching up, I open the large cupboard and remove various packets and cartons in a well worn ceremony. A large bag of marshmallows, a box of Mr. Kipling French Fancies, a packet of Yum-Yums, a small bottle of chocolate milk, a bag of chocolate buttons, and four Freddo’s bars. This has been my plan all along. Who have I been kidding?
Half an hour later I screw up the empty bags and push them into the kitchen bin. There’s no one to hide them from anymore, but the empty wrappers are evidence I can do without. Retracing my actions in reverse order, I turn off the lamps. Upstairs, I briefly consider making myself sick, but I hate the smell and the taste of vomit. Instead I wash my face and brush my teeth, all the while avoiding my reflection. In bed I feel fat and disgusted with myself. All my thoughts consumed with shame. I haven’t thought about David Foster, or my sister, Helen, since the first mouthful of my binge. I pray fervently for sleep without nightmares, vowing only to eat salad and fruit tomorrow.
The impact of landing with a smack onto cold concrete reverberates up through the memory foam. I wake up, screaming, the recollection bloody and raw, like the gap left by a rotten tooth that’s just been pulled. The damp sheet is entwined around me like a vine and it takes me a moment to extract myself. The edges of the dream fade but the fear remains, gripping my insides.
The bathroom tiles are cold on my bare feet. What if I’m still asleep? I concentrate on the pattern on the floor tiles. What can I do to establish I’m awake? Cry? Cut myself? Phone someone? Who? I run the shower and sit under it. Grabbing a towel from the side of the bath, I bury my face and sob as if no one is listening.