Authors: Richard Burke
MOST OF HER injuries were hidden. Bandages covered all of her hair and one side of her face. The visible side was purple with bruising, the eye puffed shut, her perfect skin tight and shiny over the swollen flesh. A clear plastic ventilator tube plunged into her throat, gaggingly deep, and a thinner tube disappeared into her nostril. A huge plastic collar hugged her neck and thrust her mottled chin up at a proud angle. Her arms were outside the covers, one in plaster, the other bare, bloated, and blackening. A needle sank through thick wads of tape into her elbow. I couldn't help thinking that it must all hurt terribly. Her name tag was on her wrist: Verity Hadley, and a number.
After a while, Gabriel mumbled something incoherent, and left me on my own with her.
A few feet away in both directions, caught in their own sharp downlights, other figures were stranded somewhere between life and death, ghost-pure within their machines, their white gowns and sheets a kind of shroud.
I'm sorry, I'm being self-indulgent, aren't I? But the place affected me. I'd seen ITUs in countless films but until you've actually been in one you cannot possibly know. The only sounds of life come from the machines, softly breathing, pumping, trickling. Even the nurses sit at their station in respectful silence. No one is alive; it's just that no one is quite dead, either. Each of the unconscious people in that room had had a life until recently. Each had once had someone who looked at them and saw them smiling or crying or running—husbands, lovers, children, teachers, and friends. They saw them joking, talking, just with their eyes open. Verity had never really given up her childhood. She was still innocent and wicked. She still loved and disliked for no reason other than the love or dislike of things. For all her disfigurement, now she looked the part; she looked like a sleeping child. It must have been even worse for Gabriel than it was for me. No wonder he'd left me to it.
I bent and kissed her forehead. “I'm sorry, Verity,” I whispered.
Adam was chatting with a young nurse. When he saw me emerge, he hurried over. The nurse brushed past me with a small warm smile. There was a waft of perfume, cool and fresh.
Adam looked at me earnestly. “Bad?”
I nodded mutely.
His face softened. “I'm sorry, Harry. Truly.”
I breathed out sharply, hoping to clear the fog from my thoughts. “It's okay,” I muttered. “What did that nurse say?”
“I was just asking her about Verity...” Adam frowned and glanced around. Beyond the glass, machines rose and fell in pools of disinfected light.
He shrugged. “You already know. She's in a coma. It's bad.”
I might have known it, but Balasubmaranian had not put it quite as starkly. “How bad?” I asked sharply. “Is she going to die?” I was on the edge of panic. I desperately needed at least the illusion of hope.
As gently as he could, Adam shattered it for me. “Not die, no...” He scanned an empty distance, his lips pressed tight. When he spoke again, his voice was hoarse. “Harry, I don't know what's worse. For you, I mean.”
Adam's hand on my shoulder stopped me shaking. I had not even realised that I was. He coaxed me round to look at him. His eyes, magnified by his glasses, were large and anxious, full of care. He said nothing, just peered into mine sorrowfully. Then he muttered, “Come,” and pulled me into a brief, fierce hug, before propping me upright again. It felt oddly uncomfortable. “Take your time,” he said. I nodded, not sure I could talk without cracking.
A nurse drifted behind the bed next to Verity's, bent over the patient's head doing something with a plastic tube. The quiet was overwhelming. From where we stood, Verity was indistinct, one part of a jumble of sharp white lines and edges, machines, bandages, bedclothes. No cards, no flowers. Against the wall was a small locker for her personal effects, set back neatly from the bed so that it would not be in the nurse's way as she tended her motionless patients.
My panic gradually faded. Emptiness remained. And anger.
“There's people to see you,” Adam said, after a while. He nodded towards the visitors' room. I looked at him enquiringly. He shrugged. I trudged towards the room.
The police. Gabriel was already with them, standing at the room's far end, staring out of a grimy window into the concrete courtyard below. There were two of them, a man and a woman, both in shirtsleeves and each weighed down with a belt full of their own personal selection of hardware: CS spray and a couple of obscure black leather boxes for the woman, handcuffs and a baton for the man. (
? In an ITU, for God's sake! Who was going to escape?) And, for a moment, I could almost have smiled. I could imagine Verity sighing and rolling her eyes. This was a fashion disaster; just look what those belts did to the line of their uniforms. Even I could see that she'd have a point. The walkie-talkies clipped to their epaulettes looked silly, their drip-dry shirts fitted badly, and those nylon trousers...
The gear on their belts made them walk with a swagger.
After the formalities, they settled down to asking us about Verity. The man was clearly senior, but he let the woman do all the questioning. The conversation was unreal. It was like they were talking about a different person. To stand there with two strangers trying to formulate reasons why she might have done something that I simply couldn't imagine her doing... It was madness, a dream.
The man stood still while the woman talked, but he managed at the same time to give the impression that he was prowling. He craned his neck occasionally; he stared about proprietorially, as though she was a young cub having her first playful stab at being an adult. If I'd been the woman (PC Jefferies? Jefferson? Honestly, I don't remember. She was kind, she was brunette, and I liked her), I'd have hit him. Instead she just seemed to get a little softer and sweeter every time he leaned over to check what she was writing in her notebook, or finished her sentences for her, the patronising bastard. She was quite pretty, actually, in a bland sort of way. Perhaps that was her problem; he'd cast her in the role of dumb blonde before she even opened her mouth. And before he'd bothered to notice that her scraped-back hair was dark. She was good, too, sensitive but not indulgent. She kept her voice neutral and efficient.
“This is really just a formality,” she said. (“Formality,” echoed PC Bastard. She glanced at him, and then pointedly turned her gaze back to Gabriel.) “There are no suspicious circumstances, so we just need to complete an Incident Report.” (“Report,” he said.)
She asked us for Verity's personal details, and Gabriel and I alternated answers as if conforming to an unspoken system. Age, thirty-three; job, freelance fashion designer; residence, Gladstone Terrace, Battersea; single, no children; next-of-kin, Gabriel; there was no one else to notify. Yes, we could confirm that it was her. We could be contacted at the following addresses and numbers. Yes, she had our names down right. PC Brunette made it as easy as she could. All the same, it was a depressing process.
“Thank you,” she said. She carefully folded her notebook into her breast pocket. “I know how difficult this is.”
No. She didn't.
PC Bastard harrumphed in a haven't-you-forgotten-something way. She blinked slowly, gathering patience. “Do you have any idea why she might have done it?” she asked.
Gabriel looked half-hypnotised. He had shrunk even further into his clothes, and was scuffing his fingers back and forth across his threadbare jacket. He said nothing, so I spoke for us both. “No...” I said doubtfully. “No idea at all. I thought she was happy.”
But happy people don't jump off cliffs, do they?
“I see...” She sighed in a never-mind kind of way. For her, the reason really did not matter’ it was enough that it had happened. She could complete her paperwork.
“Well, that's pretty much all we can do for now. Our report will record this as attempted suicide. Unless either of you have reason to think otherwise?”
We shook our heads meekly.
She continued sympathetically, “Well, we didn't find a note in her car. Perhaps there's something in her flat. If you do find anything, please let us know. We'll keep the file open.” She smiled warmly at us both, and handed us each a card with contact details.
“Car,” PC Bastard said suddenly. She frowned at him, and then nodded. We must have looked blank.
“Ms. Hadley's car,” she explained. “We found it in the car park at Beachy Head. It's in the pound. But I'm afraid we really can't keep it there.”
I looked at Gabriel, who shook his head, not returning my gaze. “Don't drive,” he muttered hoarsely.
Down to me, then. “Where do I go?”
“It's all on the card,” she said. “Eight-thirty to twelve-thirty, and two to four-thirty.”
I nodded. They nodded. They left.
Gabriel and I sat and stared at the floor. Eventually Adam came in and stood, waiting for us to notice him.
Gabriel glanced listlessly up at him, and I roused myself enough to make the introductions. “Gabriel, you remember Adam.” It must have been at least fifteen years since they had seen each other. Gabriel cast an apathetic eye in his direction. Adam grimaced his sympathy and murmured, “If there's anything I can do...” Gabriel's gaze returned to the floor, his face expressionless.
“Harry?” Adam sounded as though he was talking to someone else, someone far distant. “
I looked up tiredly. His face was etched with concern. “What next?” It came out like a conspiratorial whisper; he did not want to disturb Gabriel.
“Car,” Gabriel croaked.
I had forgotten about that already. Reminded, I groaned. It seemed so cruel to have things to
. I was so weary. All I wanted was silence, and a featureless piece of floor to stare at. “Car,” I echoed. Adam waited while I gathered myself, showing none of the exasperation I am sure I would have felt in his position. Finally I explained that we had to collect Verity's car from the pound.
“Okay. I'll drive you down there, Gabriel.”
“Gabriel can't drive,” I muttered sullenly.
“Well, I'll drive it, then, and you can take the BMW. We'll go in convoy. Where am I taking it?”
I looked to Gabriel for an answer, but he was lost somewhere. I sighed again. “Best get it to London. Deal with it later.”
Gabriel showed no reaction at all.
A new awareness pressed down on me: I was going to have to do everything. Gabriel was all but paralysed, and if he wasn't capable of sorting out Verity's life, then who else was going to do it but me? He was her family, all of it, and although she had countless friends, not many were truly close; most were more like partners in fun, and not one had known her anywhere near as long as I had. And the practicalities: the rent to be settled, her tenancy cancelled; bills and contracts to be dealt with, services to be cut off; her possessions… what to do with her possessions? The burden was inevitably mine, just as the horror was, and the grief that I knew would eventually come.
Adam came across and sat next to me, surveyed the patch of floor I was staring at, put a hand on my shoulder. “I'll do it,” he said quietly.
“It's not just the car, Ads—” My voice cracked.
He squeezed my shoulder. “I didn't
just the car, Harry.” There was nothing to say. Instead, I concentrated on not crying. He sensed my difficulty, slapped my shoulder and stood briskly. “I hate to say it, though, but the car does still need fetching.” He was right, of course. Time to be responsible. I stood, heavily, and drew myself up as tall as I felt able.
Adam smiled at me, and then grimaced and gestured at Gabriel with his eyes. It took me a moment to understand what he meant. Gabriel was the real problem. He was still staring at the floor. His lips were working, as though he was trying to find words to whisper to himself.
“Gabriel?” I said. He didn't look up. “Gabriel? Will you be all right?”
He blinked hard and looked up at me. His expression seemed carved into his skin: soulful, wise, careworn. His deep-set eyes held no clue to his thoughts. “You're a good man, Harry,” he said. “Verity was fond of you.” He stared at me for a moment, and then drifted away again. Adam spread his arms helplessly.
“Gabriel?” I urged. “Go home for a few days. The hospital will let you know what's going on.
will; I'll call you. You need some rest. There's nothing you can do.”
“Harry's right, Gabriel,” Adam said.
“I'll give you money for the train,” I added. “Will you go back to Oxford? Go and get a few nights' sleep. You need it.”
Suddenly, he stood. Then, painfully, he straightened himself. His gaze glittered. “Don't patronise me, Harry.” His voice was cold, and addressed solely to me. His eyes glowed darkly, and his face tightened; I could see the blood pulsing in his neck and jaw. “I'm no use here. I'll go. I don't need money.” Verity had told me that he had a fierce temper, but I had never seen it before. It was a little scary. His posture relaxed slightly, and he smiled thinly.
“I don't need charity,” he said, more gently. “But thank you, Harry. I could do with a lift to the station.”
We dropped him at the station and saw him to the platform. As we left, he seemed to shrink back into himself, until he was small and grey against the desolate stretches of concrete and iron.