Read Frozen Online

Authors: Richard Burke

Frozen (4 page)

*

As we looked for the police station, I started brooding again, this time about Verity's car. Adam's offer to drive it home, and for me to take the BMW, was kind. He loved his car; he had never let anyone else so much as touch it. To let me drive was a humbling token of how much he cared for my well-being. But I realised that I could not possibly accept his gesture. I
wanted
to take care of Verity's affairs. What else did I have of her? These scraps of her life were my only remaining connection to her. To allow someone else to rummage around in them would have been unbearable. I told him. He was uncertain and unconvinced, but finally agreed.

When we arrived at the police pound, Adam went to retrieve Verity's car while I wrestled with a pointless mass of forms and releases: insurance waivers, liability disclaimers, declarations of proxy. It took me fifteen minutes, and when I emerged into daylight the car was already outside the office. Adam's backside was high in the air, facing me, his head buried somewhere in the driver's footwell.

“Hey there,’ I said flatly.

“Hey, Harry,” he answered, his head still buried in the car. “You took your time.” He withdrew himself carefully, ruefully rubbing his back. In his other hand, he held a bundle of bits and pieces, which he waved at me. “Thought I'd have a poke around, see if I could find anything useful.”

“And?”

He passed me the items one by one. “Filofax. Could be handy. Some kind of bum-bag—makeup, I think. Keys.” I recognised the keys; they were for her flat.

Adam went on, “This postcard, from Spain, it looks like, from...” He held it close and screwed up his eyes. “... I dunno. ‘S,’ whoever that is.”

I took it and flipped it over: the Sagrada Familia cathedral. Stamped in Barcelona, postmarked two weeks ago. Generous handwriting, big and expansive, looping blue ink: “Wow!!!!! Barcelona!!!! The clothes... the boys... the buildings... the boys...” Then a gap, and then, “Paris, babes, slay 'em or die!!! (By the way, did I mention the boys? Hot hot hot!!!!). Love 'n' hugs, S,” and a heart. The echo of a past life.

“Sam,” I said. “Verity's business partner. Sam Mandovini.”

When I looked up, the concern I saw in Adam's face was almost too much for me. He spotted my distress immediately, and pretended to have noticed something fascinating on the far side of the pound. It was at least a minute before I was confident of my voice again. “Thanks, Adam. For everything. I mean it.”

He peered sideways at me, and grinned shyly. “Friends. What they're for.” He patted me on the shoulder and frowned at me. “Look, I'm not sure you should take her car, Harry. You're still pretty upset and it's only going to remind you. Why not take the BMW? I'll pick it up when I drop this one at your place.”

“Honestly, Adam, I'm fine. Truth be told, I want to drive it. And I'd probably smash yours, anyway, and then you'd never forgive me.” Her car would smell of her. It would have her things in it. The mirrors would be adjusted for her eyes. The seat would be moulded to her shape.

“But...” Adam must have seen something in my face. He shut up.

I gave him a lift to his BMW, a few hundred yards down the road. When I pulled up next to it, he opened his door but did not get out. He just looked at me, worry for me written clearly on his face.

“She was happy,” I muttered, at last. “She
told
me. Last time I saw her. She told me she really felt on top of everything, she felt she was getting somewhere at last.”

A van ripped along the street. It thumped past Adam's half-open door, rocking the car and leaving me reeling from the sudden implied violence. I was filled for a moment with a terrifying awareness of all those near misses that we bury and forget, the endless parade of moments when our lives could have changed irrevocably and, through chance, had not.

“Thanks again, Adam,” I said softly.

He shook his head mournfully. “No more thanks, Harry. Beer. This evening. You need it. So do I.” I nodded, reluctantly.

Adam hopped out and strode across the road towards the BMW. He waved briefly, pulled out and roared away. I stayed behind the wheel, gazing blankly at the road ahead of me.

Verity, bruised and bloated, crippled beyond recovery. She had chosen to die alone. She had not come to ask my blessing. She had not come to say goodbye.

Perhaps I never knew her at all.

CHAPTER 5

ADAM PLONKED TWO pints on the table—bitter for him, lager for me—and settled opposite me astride a stool. His knee nudged the table and he grabbed his pint hastily to prevent a disaster. He swept a patch clear of puddles with the edge of a beer mat, planted his elbows, and frowned at me. “Harry, you look terrible.”

There was not much I could say. In fact, there was not even much I wanted to say. I was lethargic and numb. I really did not want to be there.

Adam raised his glass and took a hefty swig. “Drink up. Dr. Yates knows best.”

Possibly he did know best. I certainly did not. I just wanted everything to go away. I wanted to wake up and find that none of it was real. There was relief in having someone else take charge. So I took a gulp. It was gassy and cold, and left me completely uninterested. The low table between us was crazed with circular stains; I brushed my hand over them absently. It did not help bring the world into focus. The real world around me was miles away. “That's the way,” Adam said. “It'll come.”

The trouble was, I didn't want it to.

We were at a designer pub near the town hall—you know the kind of place: huge, lots of bare wood, classy beers and overpriced food, part of a chain with themed names, the Slug, the Rat, the Pitcher and the Pickled Ferret in a Boat. Or something. Verity would have hated it. Someone edged past my chair with an armful of drinks, tripped, and I narrowly missed having my shirt sluiced with an obscure Czech lager.

“Another.” Adam meant another swig. He peered at me over his glasses.

“Adam, I really don't—”

He reached over and put his hand on my forearm. “Harry, you need this, trust me. You're in shock, I know, but you're going to have to face it, ‘else you'll be walking round like a zombie. It
happened
.” He waited until I met his eyes; then he leaned back and gestured at our drinks. “So the plan is to have a few of these, loosen up a little. Not much of a plan, I'll grant you, but the best I could come up with.” He jerked his head expectantly at my pint. “Go on.”

Another swig. Sharp and unsatisfying, but perhaps it warmed that empty place in my chest. Maybe drinking would help, maybe not. Either way, it was better than staying at home staring at the wall. And Adam was all I had left. I had other friends, of course, but I was only ever really close to Adam. And Verity.

“It doesn't make sense,” I mumbled.

“What? Getting drunk?” He raised his eyebrows, surprised. “Well, that's the beauty of it. You—”

“Not that. Verity.” But I almost laughed, a little. Then I hated myself for it. Adam gazed at me, his pupils large and deep through the lenses. “Oh, forget it,” I muttered, and sank my face into my beer.

“You didn't see this coming at all, did you?” His voice was gentle enough that it did not sound obtuse and insensitive; it was just an invitation to talk.

“Look, Ads—”

“Okay, okay, I know.” He drained his pint and pointed to mine. “Seconds away, time for another round.” I knocked back what was left of my first. It sat heavily inside me. I was not sure if my light-headedness was an unexpectedly early reaction to the alcohol or just part of my general confusion. I did not care. At least I could feel it. Adam scooped up both empties and headed for the bar, leaving me to brood. Which was bad. Because when he came back and prompted me, “So you were saying that it doesn't make sense...” it was the last thing I wanted.

“Can we just leave it, Adam?”

He raised his hands in surrender. “Point taken. Drinks, not talk. Understood. I just thought—oh, forget it, I'll shut up.”

So now I felt guilty as well. I tried to drown the feeling in beer. Adam gazed at a huge TV screen at the far end of the pub—grainy pictures of footballers running around, coloured boxes filled with indecipherable statistics—and my thoughts drifted slowly away from my annoyance and guilt towards Adam, and spiralled down towards one inevitable truth.

Gone. Verity, gone.

Time passed. More drink.

“It
doesn't
make sense, Ads... she was happy. She was.”

“And now you're wondering if she was keeping something from you.” Adam's tone was matter-of-fact.

“She wouldn't. Never.” But I was not as sure as I sounded.

He looked at me again, another long, contemplative gaze. “So tell me,” he said.

My head was floating somewhere, spinning in furious circles, analysing, finding no sense, frantically ordering shards of thoughts and watching them dissolve into chaos. Colourlessly, I told Adam about Verity standing me up, about leaving the message for her and going to bed angry with her, about discovering what had happened from Gabriel the next morning. I told him I was worried about what would happen in the future: who would look after Verity, and how? But most of all I told him how I felt: that I couldn't help believing that what she'd done was somehow my failure.

Adam listened. He prompted me when I could find nothing to say. When I was near to tears, he reached out and squeezed my arm. When I was embarrassed he told me to sod the rest of the pub, I should cry if I wanted. Mostly he just listened. He hunched broadly over our table, his shirt-sleeved forearms resting unnoticed in a sweaty sheen of spilt beer and condensation. His eyes were wise and steady. His high forehead was creased with concern. When I finished my third pint he raised a finger for me to pause, downed his own drink, and drifted through the throng to the bar, managing to get served almost immediately again. He slid back with two fresh beers, and settled attentively. To be honest, I don't have much idea what I said, only what I felt. There was gratitude to Adam, for listening without question. There was relief that I was not alone. It was grief, of a preliminary sort: another beginning, perhaps.

And when I'd done, he said, “Drink” again, very firmly, and ghosted through the crowd to fetch yet another round—our fifth, heaven help us. It felt good. We sat in silence for a long time, a vacuum Adam would normally hurry to fill with words and laughter.

After a while I took pity on him. “Thank you, Adam,” I said. “I needed that. Badly.”

His face split into a boyish grin, and he raised his glass to me in a silent toast. Then he asked, “So, do you want to hear about
my
day now?”

And I actually laughed.

*

Adam...

He was all that stood between me and despair in the days after Verity's fall.

He was big and broad, and getting badly out of shape. He referred to the swelling mound of fat on his stomach as his “turtle;” imagine one clamped to your belly, all four flippers wrapped around you—as you walk, it jiggles up and down, an embarrassing hump. His hair was dark, his complexion pale and a little blotchy. Behind his thin-rim designer glasses, his eyes alternated between wisdom and hawkishness, shyness and laughter. His face had always been plump, even at school, and his mouth was a little too broad for it. When he smiled, which was often, it seemed to take over his whole face, and his brilliant white teeth formed a ragged line. His grin was diffident, but full of lopsided mischief.

We first met when I was thirteen, shortly after Verity moved into the village, although I had seen him at school before then. He was in the year above me. He had been an isolated boy, often sitting alone, occasionally hovering at the edges of the group of larger boys who used to dominate the playground. But our friendship had nothing to do with school. It developed in the evenings and at weekends. Throughout our teenage years, we would sit and share silences, watching the river slide past, or the clouds drift, or the stream of car headlights on the distant Oxford ring-road. I think it was isolation that kept us together. It was something we both understood; we held ourselves a little apart from the world. In many ways we were both solitary types during our youth, trapped into being who we were by chance events, by the pressures of life in a small community, and by our families: his, large and uncaring and occasionally violent; mine, a single scared woman, lonely, confused and haunted by regrets. In our silences, Adam and I found comfort.

As adults, we changed and remained the same. After university, Adam took pupillage with a large barrister's chambers in London. I spent a year finishing my arts course at Oxford Polytechnic, and then moved to London also, hoping to establish myself as a photographer but earning most of my cash as a less-than-average interior decorator. Perhaps we were both compensating for our backgrounds. Whatever the reason, I lived in a garret and struggled to make ends meet, while Adam became a paid-up member of the establishment. We remained close, but our social circles were so far apart that we rarely saw each other's friends.

Adam was ambitious, socially and professionally. He was not aggressive or pushy but, in his own thoughtful, methodical way, he gradually “arrived.” By thirty he was a successful barrister, working in corporate arbitration. By thirty-five he was a QC and had branched into politics, working three days a week at the Bar, and the rest of the time serving as a councillor for Wandsworth. His aim was to move full-time into national politics, with legal consultancy as a sideline. He looked set to achieve it; word had it he was a hot favourite for selection as a candidate at the next general election. Needless to say, his political colours were far from red.

Adam married the same year he took silk (that's becoming a QC to you and me), making a grand entry to both the social and professional stages simultaneously. Sarah McKyle was pretty but not attractive, charming but not warm. She was nervous, a bit scatty, but kind in that brusque way that the children of moneyed families so often are. She was bossy but insecure, thoughtful but distracted. I felt neutral about her. I couldn't see what Adam saw in her—but then, I didn't have to, because I wasn't the one marrying her. And she had many good qualities. She was generous and thoughtful. There was always a present at Christmas and on my birthday, wrapped in conservative paper, all the edges impossibly neat. It was always a silk tie or a scarf, or handkerchiefs. But Adam loved her, and that was what counted. With Sarah on his arm, at last he
belonged
... sort of...

But between ourselves, I was simply Harry, and he was simply Adam. And we sat and watched the world, these days, from the pine tables of designer pubs and restaurants. We shared silences and stupid stories, and left our real lives at the door. I would not have had it any other way.

*

After a few pints, and a couple of hours, though, my friendship with Adam was hardly at the front of my mind.

“Why'd she do it, Ads?”

“Hmm?”

“Doesn't make sense.”

It must have been the tenth time that evening I'd said that. I couldn't help chewing at what had happened, with the doggedness that only truly drunk people can muster. There was a mystery there somewhere, there had to be. For the last couple of months she had been so positive, so full of purpose. She had been more intense than I had seen her for years. She was vibrant. She had attacked every element of her life with a kind of happy rage. If she had wanted to kill herself, I would have known. It made no sense, no sense at all.

Adam shook his head, slowly and sadly. “Of course it doesn't make sense. It's not a rational thing to do.”

The bar was getting more and more packed. He had had to shout above the din. It was reassuring; it made me feel as though we were having a normal conversation, just one of hundreds happening all around us. As though we were discussing football-team selection or a scientific discovery, not the reduction of a person's life to machines and stark white sheets. Adam must have seen the frustration in my face, because he gestured resignation. “I hate to say it, Harry. I know you're not ready yet, but eventually you're just going to have to accept it. And you'll probably never know the reason, because people don't work that way. It just happened.”

It was around half past nine, and still light outside. I swilled my remaining beer around in its glass, held it up to the window and squinted through it. The streets, distorted by the glass and the thin foam drying round its rim, were grey and luminous and quiet. People drifted along the pavement, strangers, all ignoring each other, but simultaneously reading each other's movements and imperceptibly adjusting their step, brushing past each other gracefully without a word exchanged.

Adam pressed, “And besides, from what you've said, she was pretty unpredictable at the best of times.”

“Oh, come on, Adam!” I snapped. “There's a difference between being a bit unpredictable and jumping off a bloody cliff.”

What did Adam know about anything, anyway? It was the beer that was making me brood, of course—that and the fact that I had just lost Verity forever. He had not even seen Verity for fifteen years or more. They only had me in common. Over the years, I had suggested several times that the three of us should get together, but it had never happened. I had realised that there was nothing to be gained by pressing the issue; they were such different people. Had they met, I was pretty sure that they would have hated each other. What right did Adam have to judge Verity now?

“Get real, Adam,” I muttered. “You don't know what the fuck you're talking about.” I buried myself in my drink.

He gazed at me mildly. “True, Harry. I don't. I just meant that suicide—attempted suicide, whatever—is never going to make sense. But I shouldn't have said it. It's the last thing you want to hear. Sorry.”

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