PART II - AFTER
“Supposedly, I’m a potential criminal,” Dad said with overwhelming bitterness.
It seemed to Emma that the sky had fallen in on the day that she went and paid a visit to the pebbles. She’d spent the day contemplating insignificance, only to learn of its opposite. People were still enormous enough and catastrophic enough to pull the world down around them.
She’d returned with an uncustomary tranquillity and an aura of pensiveness only to find that Dad’s face had been stranded – the hours she’d spent away from him had transformed him into a shipwreck.
“Don’t go into the garden.” He’d said immediately.
“Why would I?”
“There’s a body there.” And then he’d sort of fallen like someone had pulled a rug from under his feet and his hands stretched for Emma but didn’t quite reach her. They’d clattered on the table top and rocked the mug full of ashes and stubbed-out cigarettes.
“And don’t go into the lounge, Emma. I’m sorry. I was sick. I couldn’t help it.”
If the villagers had all seen the way he had staggered and contorted on the kitchen floor that evening, Emma thought, then they’d know. There’d be no suspicion now.
“Supposedly,” he continued, “I want to inflict the pain I’ve felt on other families. Supposedly, having half a dead family means I’m due to wipe-out half of another. As if I wasn’t already ruined enough! As If I could in any way minimise the absolute shit of the last few months by reducing someone else to similar shit.”
Emma fidgeted with her fingers behind her knees as she perched on the stairs and stared at the patio that had been emptied later that day.
“I’m sure they don’t actually think that. Nobody would think that,” she told him.
He laughed and somehow the laughter was abrasive. “Were you in the fucking shop with me yesterday Emma? Someone actually said it to me, they actually fucking said it!”
“Dad-” she began without knowing where she was headed.
“I’m sorry Emmanuelle… I don’t mean to say things… it’s just… it’s just you didn’t see the back of that girl’s sm… that girl’s s… smashed-in head… you would have known if you did that shit is not a big enough word. Shit is never big enough when you really need to use it.” She registered her father’s use of her real name but still was struggling to process the way he leapt from rage to devastation with no time spared in-between.
“You’re teaching me how to swear?” She wasn’t sure if she’d ever hated either of them more than she did there, then, in that kitchen, in that ugly, ugly village.
“No I’m telling you that I’m not guilty.”
“You don’t have to tell me!” She exclaimed, frustrated with him for suspecting her of disloyalty, and disgusted with herself for making him do so. She tried to breathe a little, let go a little and search a little for a way to make her honesty sound sincere:
“There are days when I can’t bring myself to see eye to eye with you but there are never days when I think of you as a murderer. You should have realised that.”
“You’ve got a kinder judgement than most, Emma... Oh, Emma, the girl was wearing her hair in plaits. Plaits, Emma! Do you think I could kill a girl with plaited hair?”
“I’ve already said, Dad, you don’t have to prove your innocence.” It hurt her the way that he was so desperate to.
He’d already done that. He’d been in pieces since that day. Emma kept on having to pick up little splinters of him from the carpet; shards that had been chipped away by the cruelty of his memories. She didn’t really feel old enough for such a task, particularly given the fact that a mere strip of sticky tape was binding her own body together.
She remembered the occasion when, having been left at home alone for the first time as a child, she’d attempted to clean up a glass she’d smashed on the kitchen floor. She’d been scared to touch it but desperate to hide the evidence and had ended up shredding her fingers before washing the incident down in tears.
Dad was a wine glass which could never bear wine again. They were both repeated casualties that could not stop crossing and re-crossing their own paths.
You don’t run away from death only to be confronted with it once more. The first time they had been victims of it; this time accused of it and yet neither time were they sufficiently insured against it.
They had not wanted a roaring fire and all the solemn mass commemorations and generalisations of grief. They had done their best to escape that tethered, preyed-on existence. They’d crossed a thousand swimming pools in the hope that their misery had not been taught to swim only to find themselves wound back into the same horrifically shadowed life. In the evenings the wails of their next door neighbours pervaded their lives, reminding them bitterly of their own. In the day time, the village tremored with rumours that were too big for its dolls’ houses.
The village rang with it.
For some reason the death toll was considered more painful for Emma’s neighbours than Maman and Anastasie’s had for her and Dad. Perhaps this was because it was supposedly an unprovoked attack or because supposedly when less people were wearing the same tragedy, they felt it more acutely. As if the fact that other people burned up too had made it any easier.
“How did it happen? Who did it?” The village that had thought it knew itself inside out knew nothing. It could not ask itself enough questions.
It was a small place and in small places it was very easy for darkness to hide. People were so tightly cramped together that they failed to notice the bogey man beneath their nose. Too close to see the obvious. Emma wouldn’t have thought it but it was true; it was harder to locate something when the search zone was so restricted. Being in the village was like being zoomed right in on one letter of one word; it seemed like everything was complete and wholesome but that was only because the focus was too close in to see the full word, the full truth.
Everyone had shrunk inwards, their human energy imploding until the village was a spring, crushed in so viciously that it could not react to disaster without exploding catastrophically. Frictions and tensions were pressed small and therefore magnified in power; everything was precariously self-contained so that one incident could off-set the whole place. Small was deadly.
Here was the proof.
In the house next door was a ruptured family which, in the process of rupturing, had simultaneously ruptured the peace of what had once felt like a whole world of greenery and smiling cottages. Emma poured Dad a coffee and tried to encourage him to prop himself upright. He was close to buckling once more; the suggestion of guilt was perhaps was worse than the death itself. How could you accept the suggestion that you were a murderer when you were desperately trying to forget the fact that you’ve had most of your own hope murdered? How were you supposed to react to not only the sight of a body but the suggestion that you were responsible for it?
Emma touched him lightly on the arm, thinking miserably that conversations mostly consisted of each other’s names these days. They had to keep saying them in order to remind themselves of who they were: Emma and Dad, each forming a separate half of a halved family.
Dad deserved more than his name thrown back at him. She wanted to say that she loved him and she wanted to tell him that she’d taken away the padlock from her bedroom door in the hope that he might one day come back and ask her about the dress Anastasie wore. She’d answer this time, she decided. She wanted to tell him that she needed him and his tar-soaked heart and to explain how desperately she wanted him to remove the temptation of the ash tray and give himself a chance at staying alive. Yet, despite having all these words to say, she throttled herself with panicked silence whenever they threatened to spill.
“Emma? Oh Emma. What do I do?”
“It’s gossip Dad, everyone needs someone to blame – you’re an easy enough option; nobody knows us enough to care how cut up we are. It’s just talk; they’ll move on before too long.” Her lips were dry and scratchy. “It’s easy to move on when it’s not you. It’s easy to be insensitive about things that haven’t happened to you.” She realised she was rambling and remembered why she’d taught herself not to speak.
“Emma, Can we just not talk? Is that OK?”
“OK,” she whispered, attempting to avoid sounding the way she felt – snubbed. She was a mere cigarette that had been ground into the ashtray of her father’s grief. Her words were worth no more to him, or so it felt, than the tar that trickled deep in his lungs.
The police knocked on the door two days later, asking if this was “Five, Tippens Close” and saying that they needed to talk to a “Mr Gray”. Emma hovered before them in the doorway, hoping that by telling them that there was no such person at the address they might go away. She had no doubt as to why they were there but did not see how either her or her father could cope with an interrogation, no matter how guiltless they were.
The woman consulted her notes with furrowed brow.
“Sorry,” she said with a forced smile. “Mr Garry, my apologies.”
She had no choice but to step aside and let them pry into their little world of boxes and brimming ashtrays and unorganised grief. There were socks and shoes on the sofa, alongside old photographs and poetry books and Emma busied herself with clearing them.
“Mon Dieu,” she moaned, “Why are you doing this to us?”
“It’s a necessary procedure I’m afraid.” The police man said, completely misinterpreting the direction of the question.
“Why?” She demanded. Did you find my father’s DNA on her body? No, I think not. Why? Because he’s currently trying to smoke himself to death while he sits and reads poetry. If he’s trying to kill anybody then it’s himself.
“It is, like I said, procedure. We’re not accusing anybody of anything; we simply need witnesses. Your father is well placed to give an account. We have to know for sure.”
There was an uncomfortable pause which Emma chose to fill by grabbing a couple of unfinished water glasses and taking them through to the kitchen. She would not have been surprised if they were readying handcuffs as she did so. Whatever they might say, there was no doubt in Emma’s mind that they half expected to locate their murderer in the quaint and shrunken lounge they were sat in.
“DAD?” she called and waited for him to call her name questioningly back in response. It was something of a betrayal to summon her father in order for him to suffer an inquisition. There was, she noted, a difference between her holding grudges against Dad and anybody else trying to lump blame on to him. She was allowed to snarl bitterly at him but she could not bear the idea that others might do the same. It was twisted but it was unavoidable.
“You need to come down stairs.”
She returned to the officers in the lounge; they looked so hideously out of place, stood there in their uniform and bristling with their stiff avoidance of sympathy.
“He’s coming,” she said pointlessly. Perhaps he was, perhaps he wasn’t. God knew. Perhaps. God being, in her eyes, an entirely unreliable concept. Was all this mess God-driven? She’d read about predestination once and decided at the time that it was as hard to grapple with as God himself. Now she could not say whether the idea that all of this might have been prepared for them repulsed or comforted her.
She also wondered whether this whole thing of ‘grief’ was something she’d unwittingly signed up to at some point. It was as if she’d lived such a dull life, cocooned in her happy sarcophagus, that she’d one day got bored and ticked some boxes on a form that promised adventure. She’d signed her family away and had, as a result been lumbered with the exhausting and unyielding baggage of a washing line of tragedies.
“Well, while we wait, er – er; sorry – your name is?”
“Emma. Emma Garry”
“Well, Emma Garry, can you tell me what you had to do with this incident? Where were you on the 17th July?”
“I was out with a friend.”
“You were? Are you quite confident about that?”
“Of course I’m confident about that.” She knew she sounded suspiciously defensive but the truth was that the question was rude and unnecessary. She knew that her statement sounded like a clichéd alibi, too over-used to be honest but the hidden accusation in the question scalded her. She knew where she’d been, what she’d done; she was capable of recalling the day perfectly. What details was she supposed to include to convince them?
“Sorry, can you just confirm; when, exactly, were you out?”
She wondered, in agitation and with overwhelming anxiety raking at the lining of her throat, whether they were going out of their way to make themselves dislikeable.
“Yes.” To her horror, she was breaching the boundaries of hysteria. Fear and anger seemed to be pressing back on her oesophagus; tumbling to frenetic insanity in her knotted chest. “I was out with a friend until the evening and if that’s not specific enough for you then you can ring someone called Ryan Meyers and ask him, or you can go down to Dungeness and ask some guy if he served us fish and chips, or you can just go down and ask anyone who lives in Dungeness – God knows we stood out enough! I was not here, at home. Is that good enough confirmation?”
“I’ll vouch for that as well,” Dad said, entering the room looking older and wearier than he ever had before. Emma was unexpectedly moved by his wretchedness and managed to swallow some of her panic. “It’s OK, she was out, she was nothing to do with it – she’s not a liar.”
“Thank you Mr Garry,” the woman said with a vague gesture in the direction of the arm chair; one of the few items that had withstood the purge of their apartment. It had always been Dad’s chair and no one else had ever been allowed to test it out despite Anastasie’s best efforts to persuade him. It was, therefore, bizarre to see him be instructed to sit there like a naughty school child.
“It’s fair that way Emma,” Dad said. The strained whisper was for no-one but her and it was desperate. “Don’t you think? You saw the fire and I saw this – we’re sort of equal. You don’t have to be part of it this time.”
“You can go, Emma.” The male officer told her but she stood her ground.
“Oh yes, I’m sure I can.” She drew breath, terrified of the uniformed figures and yet oddly fuelled and empowered by her own audacity. “But this is our house and that’s my father you’re about to tear apart; at least let me sit next to him so that I can catch the falling pieces.”