They came to me, my aunt and my sister, separately, then together, to tell me that Belle was dying, diagnosed with cancer of the liver though she’d not drank for years. She’d changed, or so they said. I should make my peace – for my sake, not hers. I told them I had no need, it was over. I was afraid of losing what I’d achieved, that the sight of her after all these years might undo me.
Yet, I went. And while I was conscious of the need to protect myself, I knew I must go with good grace or not at all, as my grandmother used to say. There would be things we dare not mention, elephants would fill that overheated room, but I wouldn’t be the one to name them and I was as good as certain she wouldn’t either. One of the things I always found hardest to bear was the false narrative she had foisted upon me where I was a wilful, selfish child, the cause of everything that happened. When she expressed this, I had to make the white noise hum in my head to stifle the sound of her. Standing by her hospital bed in the sterile, white-walled room I wondered if she still believed it.
It was true that she was altered, but not enough to make me feel safe. There was some careful stepping around each other, something she wouldn’t have bothered with in the old days. She described her illness with an air of triumph, as if it vindicated her: the first symptoms, her doctor’s swift reaction, how they looked when they said there was no hope. I let the words float. There was a pause, a silence. I watched while she heaved herself up on the pillow, groaning with the strain of it. She looked me directly in the eye for the first time. ‘Ann, there’s something I have to tell you.’
I had no intimation of what I was about to hear. She’s going to say she was wrong about me. She’s going to tell me it wasn’t my fault. She’s going to say she loved me really, all along. I could have thought all these things, or one of them, but I thought nothing.
A smiling nurse appeared, in squeaking shoes. ‘We need you for a few minutes love, to do a couple of tests. We won’t be long.’
‘I’ll go, I have to get back –’
‘No.’ she took a deep painful breath. ‘Stay. You can wait till they’ve finished.’
That shook me. Belle could order you about no end and react with savage fury if you didn’t give her what she demanded, but to ask for your company, she wouldn’t demean herself. I wanted to escape. I didn’t know what she planned to tell me and I was afraid to allow myself to hear it. Yet inexplicably, I waited, sipping lukewarm tea in the windowless family room with the dog-eared bridal magazines, till the nurse stuck his head round the door and said, ‘We’ve finished with your mum now.’ I walked slowly back to the ward. Belle was asleep, snoring lightly. I took in her loose sallow skin, slack half-open lips, a glistening trail of drool from mouth to chin, and I felt for her as for any human being who is suffering with no hope of recovery, but I was gratified and comforted that my history would die with her.
The tarmac of the carpark was oily with rain making the blue and white lights of accident and emergency look almost welcoming. I sat for a moment in the car, visualising Dan at home, warm and sheltered; then I twisted the key, started the engine and drove.
Ann was waiting for a sign. She didn’t know what form it would take but she expected to know it when she saw it. It came on Tuesday morning, twenty-four hours before the police turned up. She had eaten breakfast and was on her way upstairs to clean her teeth, when she heard the clack and clatter of the letterbox. A shiver passed over her like chilled water running down her arms, a primordial instinct alerting her to something amiss moments before her brain registered that it was much too early for mail. She froze, listening for the sound of movement from the room where Dan was watching the morning news. Then she tiptoed downstairs and crouched before the packet that lay in wait on the mosaic tiled floor. It was an A5 padded brown envelope, no stamp or postmark, just her name scribbled in large, uneven handwriting. She prodded it, feeling something small and hard, a shape she thought she recognised.
‘What was that?’ Dan stood in the doorway.
‘Just junk.’ She said, her voice sound sounding shrill. She raced upstairs before he could respond, holding the package out in two fingers like a hair she had found in her food. In the bedroom she dropped it on the side table then she sat on the bed. She had an almost overwhelming urge to crawl back under the still-warm duvet, but she forced herself to reach to the top of the wardrobe and pull down her navy cabin-size suitcase. She unzipped the inside panel and pushed the package inside.
She couldn’t decide whether it was ominous or merely ironic that the message came the very day she was to have her first session with the therapist. Her instinct was to cancel, except she knew her manager would read something into it and she couldn’t come up with any explanation that would justify missing it apart from the truth, which wasn’t an option.
One of things that Ann always found irritating was the cliche of the over-zealous detective who is traumatised by an incident on the job, then insists on taking personal responsibility for it as if the whole world revolves around him. When he’s ordered into therapy he argues that doesn’t need ‘a shrink’ – the very use of the word, an intentional signal of his antediluvian views on life in general and policing in particular. But the fact was, Ann didn’t need a shrink. It wasn’t that she didn’t have problems, one particularly huge problem in fact, but it wasn’t something that could be fixed by a counsellor. The only reason she found herself in this situation was that her manager, Beverley, got involved when Ann needed time off for her police video interview. She had planned to invent a reason, then thought, why should I? What had she been thinking? Beverly had simulated shock and sympathy then questioned whether she was emotionally fit for work. Ann said she certainly was. And she wasn't doing that other cliched detective thing either, where the guy’s so devoted to work that he can’t take a day's holiday, let alone a day’s sick leave. She was just mindful of the strictness of the council’s sickness policy. Beverley insisted on the involvement of the occupational health department who recommended counselling. Ann declined. They informed Beverley.
‘Do you mind me asking why?’ Her tone had made it very clear how little she cared whether Ann minded or not.
Ann told her that it was painful and she didn’t want to keep going over it – surely sufficient to silence any mortal, but Beverly had scored nil on the manager’s empathy scale, they knew this because she told them, apparently unaware that it wasn’t a positive.
‘You wouldn't have to go over it.’
‘Then what would be the point?’
‘To help you come to terms with it.’
Beverley Carver had come with a range of mundane responses, reusable for any occasion. When she started with them they were warned that she was a renowned micromanager. It was the first time Ann had heard the term and she thought, I can work with that. She imagined that a micro-style would be super-efficient and meticulous. She could envisage advantages as well as disadvantages. There would be a more intense focus on their work, but the work was good, and in recompense they would have a manager who had a tight hand on the reins. She never anticipated the utter pettiness of her, or how her attention to detail manifested itself as an endless compulsion to nit-pick and focus on all things irrelevant. She checked every detail and nothing useful or productive ever came from her scrutiny.
‘A situation like this would impact anyone,’ she said impatiently.
Ann realised with a sinking heart that she was in that age-old mental health dilemma where the very act of refusing help further demonstrates your need of it.
‘We have a duty of care,’ Beverley tried a concerned tone.
Ann sighed. Duty of care? She was a fifty-odd year-old woman with a husband, a grown-up child and a mortgage.
She followed Mrs Foster into a room of pale lavender walls and gentle ambience. Apart from a cheerful wall-hanging, apparently created by a class of primary school children, there was nothing to distract; no knick-knacks, no books, no pictures, just a faint scent of herbal tea and a fan whirring gently in the corner as if not wishing to draw attention to itself. Mrs Foster, who introduced herself as Gemma, was a tall solid woman with a broad pleasant face and a toothy smile. She explained the nature of confidentiality and asked if she minded her recording their sessions. Ann was dubious, for obvious reasons, but it seemed churlish to refuse.
Mrs Foster waited for her to speak. ‘I understand what I have to do here,’ Ann blurted out. ‘It’s not pleasant to go over it, but – well, I recognise that that is kind of the point. So I’m going to get all the unpleasantness out of the way, here in this space.’ She took a quick breath.
Mrs Foster assumed an expression of interested concern. ‘You think the point of this process is to leave the unpleasantness behind in this room.’ She didn’t quite make bunny ears around the word ‘unpleasantness’ but the intention was implicit.
Ann stared at her hands, clammy despite the fan. ‘You think I’m being avoidant.’ she said, to pre-empt her. Mrs Foster waved a hand as if to say she wasn’t assuming anything, though they both knew better. ‘You don’t need to ask if I’m taking it seriously, I’m not entirely. That would be letting it beat me.’ Her mouth was suddenly dry, she gazed at the water jug and the misty blue plastic glass on the table next to her, but she chose not to drink.
‘It sounds as if you’re saying that it’s important not to let yourself be a victim, so you treat your pain …’ she looked to the ceiling as if searching for the word, ‘flippantly.’
‘I hold it at a distance yes.’
‘Mmm.’ She went to say something then seemed to change her mind. ‘So you help victims of abuse. A demanding job – emotionally and psychologically.’
‘I’m used to it. It’s okay when you are helping, it only stressful when the system fails.’
‘You have a husband and child, have you talked to them?’
‘My husband, a little. My daughter’s out of the country, a year travelling.’
‘You must miss her.’
‘I’m happy for her. I’m glad she’s able to do it.’
Mrs Foster gazed at her thoughtfully, her pen tapping loosely against the pad.
‘Look I’ll be honest with you, I'm sure you’ve heard it all in here. The fact is, I don’t miss people. I don't know how it works. For me, someone is there and then they are not. When they return I’m happy to see them – overjoyed in Cassie’s case – but while they're away,’ she paused considering how to explain, ‘I don’t dwell on them. Perhaps you'll come to your own conclusions about why that is, but it's how I am.’
‘You love your daughter?’
‘Of course. And when she’s with me I actively love her, but when she’s not it's just a theoretical concept.’
Mrs Foster studied her, seeming at a loss for an answer. Perhaps she hadn't heard it all before.
‘It’s not like I haven't seen her at all, she came home for a couple of weeks in March.’
‘That was when your mother died?’
‘When I found out that she had died, yes.’
‘Do you want to talk about that?’
‘I – not at the moment, that had nothing to do with it – with what happened later.’ Ann took a deep breath and let it out slowly. ‘She stopped being my mother a long time ago.’
‘But it had an effect.’
‘I’m just saying I don’t think there was any connection between that and what I did afterwards.’ She glanced around for a clock wondering how long they had left.
‘You had mixed feelings about your mother’s death.’
‘I didn’t have mixed feelings. I had no feelings.’
Mrs Foster waited in silence. Ann didn’t elaborate.
She was in the car for nine, if she could make it to the office by quarter past it would give her an hour to get some work done before the Cynthia’s managers meeting. She took the main road, longer but faster, wrenching her mind from the image of a brown padded envelope with her name scribbled in the unsteady hand of a child or a geriatric. The previous night she had a strange return of her recurring childhood dream where she was in a field of corn so high it reached her chin and someone was crying, ‘Rhian, Rhian’, and in childhood she woke with tears dried on her face.
Emma was already at her desk. ‘How was the conference?’
Ann looked at her blankly.
‘Oh yes, sorry. It was okay, some good contacts.’
She grimaced sympathetically. ‘Wasn’t even your job to go, was it?’
‘No. Cynthia was too busy.’
‘We’re all too busy. I’ve got to go to the safeguarding board audits this morning, that’s half a day wasted.’
They heard the bleep-bleep of someone activating the door code and Carol hurried in, a bustle of handbag, scarf and umbrella. She waved a weary hand. ‘I’m not staying, I’ve got a child in need meeting at nine.’ She looked exhausted, her hair lifeless, her complexion the colour of putty. Ann registered it but it didn’t ring any bells until Emma spoke. ‘Carol, what are you doing in work? How’s Dave?’ Ann remembered the call yesterday saying Carol had cancelled her last visit because her husband was in hospital with breathing difficulties. She had meant to ring to check on Carol, but as usual, it had just gone from her head. This job conditioned you to live in the present, it was all reacting, firefighting, never mind that they were described as early intervention, there was no money for early interventions anymore, the families that came to them were already broken.
‘How is he?’ Emma asked gently.
Carol started telling them how frightened she’d been, he was older than her, she worried about his health. Ann noticed a glistening of tears which she read as an indication that it would be inappropriate to return to her reports. She glanced at Emma and gave herself a metaphorical pat on the back when Emma’s expression confirmed her interpretation. So they talked it through, the three of them, then the door went again, it was Luke with Jane close behind and it was all starting.