Lucy had not felt so disliked for years.
Since moving to the village she had kept herself to herself, with almost no interest in those around her. She’d been forced into conversations and subsequent stand-offs with both teachers and other kids at school but she rarely spoke to anyone bar Mum when she was on holiday. She knew other villagers but in the superficial sort of way which meant that she would concede to greet them in the street if they approached her. Working at the library had meant that she had even been involved in longer exchanges in which she did endeavour not to sound sullen and unsavoury.
If it wasn’t for the man who lived next door to her and his son, she would have probably have been enjoying her most sociable summer since leaving London. Of course, that was not the way things had been allowed to play out – she’d tasted just enough attention and generosity for her head to inflate and her mind to lash at those who criticised her. Of course, she’d screwed it up; she never did anything but screw up these days. She was the master of all rash mistakes; a lord with no self-control.
She knew she’d been stupid about it but whenever she recalled the dispute she’d had with Mr Waters she still wanted to punch something. She wanted to break something or make the carpet shatter beneath her feet. No amount of blunders taught her anything, she’d learnt that criminality got you nowhere only to let her violence scrawl her name onto a list of suspects. And still, still, she knew she’d say the same things all over again if she had the chance.
That man made her so goddman angry and, even though she knew he was just a grieving parent, she hated him all the more now.
The village’s police station was as surprising as its library. Neither really belonged in such a small place but had somehow ended up rooted into their aging foundations. Like everyone in the whole village, these buildings belonged to a time when people had believed that their community was growing and going somewhere. It never did; no real reason why, aside from its insistent smallness on which it both chocked and depended.
The police station was opposite Lloyds TSB which Lucy found bizarrely amusing. It would be an ideal place to plot a bank robbery. It was a secret gloved by its comely eighteenth century façade, like a withered hand, and it contained only three officers who were on a rotating schedule to ensure that they didn’t get sick of one another. Lucy had not been inside before and, although vastly different to her other experiences of police stations, she was nauseated by its familiarity.
She thought she’d travelled somewhere when she left London but clearly she was not immune to the village’s soporific trap; she’d been pulled in a drawn-out and not-quite-regular which ahd returned her to being thirteen. She could not have been more disgusted by this regression. She wanted nothing more than to knock the glass of water off the desk and watch it explode for the sheer relief that destruction brought. She needed something to give; the tension in the room seemed to have forced her into a vice in which it was becoming more and more difficult to act rationally.
She remembered how, at thirteen, she’d rattle the handcuffs in the back of the police car whenever they could be bothered to nick her so that they’d take interest in her. They always thought she was trying to escape when she did that and so they’d hold onto her. That was all she ever wanted really; somebody to hold her back and indicate that she was important. She wanted holding back from the edge she’d already launched herself over.
Her former self sickened her now but she tried rattling the handcuffs all the same. They were more for show than for purpose, really, and so the woman sat opposite her barely batted an eyelid. They held her wrists together but more to mark her as potentially dangerous than because she needed restraining.
“You’ve got quite an extensive criminal record Miss McGuire,” the officer said, her eyebrows slipping upwards into her fringe.
Did she need to give effing reminders every two minutes?
“Been in this place before have you?”
“No,” Lucy said shortly. She wanted to hammer on the table, protest her innocence and storm out. “I haven’t done anything since I came here.”
“No, I mean you’ve been arrested before.”
“Not for two years,” she wondered what the point of self-defence was. She could tell the truth until she strangled herself with it but she would remain blood-stained until the post-mortem was completed. She could offer the woman her honesty but she would still be nothing more than a potential murderer with a crap alibi and a history of crime.
“Look, I’m sorry, but can we just cut all this crap. You can see it all on the screen in front of you – why do you even have to ask?” The words exploded from her but removed none of the tension. The water in the glass seemed to quiver.
The woman cleared her throat loudly.
“OK, I’ll ‘cut the crap’ but I think you should know-”
“Oh my God; I’m innocent and you don’t actually give a fuck! You just want to look like you’re doing something. You really couldn’t care less what I say right now because nothing I say is going to change it. You’ve already written me off because I got angry once with my neighbour and because my dad’s a criminal and because I went off the rails and did selfish stuff that I’ve spent two years regretting. And this whole interview doesn’t matter to you at all because it’s all just ‘necessary procedure’ and because you think that me getting angry is me proving you right because it shows that I’m unbalanced and violent and whatever other crap. But you’re wrong because I didn’t kill anyone. Me being pissed off with that man doesn’t mean I killed his daughter. I’m pissed off right now but I’m hardly going to hunt down your family because of it. I’m just gonna sit here and swear and watch your face while I do it because it is hands-down the funniest thing I’ve seen all week.”
Finally she got what she wanted; the officer stood up and left, taking the pressure with her. Lucy slapped her palm sweatily on the desk and noticed with grim pleasure that her nails still bore the streaky memory of red nail polish.
Give her another effing reason to blame me.
She decided that she must have been an easier culprit to blame than almost any other. She was not well known enough and did not have a copious amount of support from other villagers. She had never bothered to engage with them and this condemnation was the price. She was attached to too few to be counted as harmless.
She drew her legs up towards her body even though she was too hot and too old to cradle herself and pressed her forehead into her knees. She was such a mess that you could read it on her body.
She supposed that the real reason for her hatred of Mr Waters was not what he had said about her illiteracy and all his other automated, stereotyped ideas about her. It was how much he cared about his children. She was jealous. He cared about them so much that others were allowed to be pushed roughly out of his way in order for him to have space to love them. He cared so deeply and desperately that he did not think twice about accusing any who might have been responsible for such a shattering subtraction from his life. He was so centred on them that he was incapable of seeing beyond them and this made Lucy more enraged than any other inequality or misconception between them. He set the bar for family unity too high and did not leave enough left over for those excluded from the perfection of his home. He showed her just how rubbish her own Dad had been. Had been. She always put him into the past, as though he was dead, because, for all she knew and cared, he might as well have been.
Later, when the heat of the day had burnt itself off and when Lucy had gone through several stages of blind and blistered rage, she was summoned back to the so called interrogation room. It was actually just an ordinary room with some chairs, a desk and an air of unfriendliness. There was some generic piece of artwork hung above the remains of a Georgian fireplace and little else. It could not have felt less like an interrogation room if it tried – it was more like the waiting room at the dentist or a Geographer’s office.
She’d studied Stasi Prisons at school, with all their mind-chewing confusion, and been thankful that her previous experiences of the police service had not been studded with psychological torture and checkerboard walls. Now, however, she couldn’t help thinking that this place had made her feel suitably ruffled without any such trimmings.
She was hot, miserable and nostalgic; unable to give up on remembering the sweeter sides of her childhood. Still turning back the pages to before the magic had disappeared.
“You’ve got a visitor.”
The blonde girl from the library was stood in the corner, watching the officer with cool distaste.
“What are you doing here? You’re not-” Lucy left the question unfinished but the girl had clearly understood because she smiled mirthlessly.
“Oh no, no they’ve already asked me for an explanation. They just chose not to bother with the show and the handcuffs for us – kept it neatly tucked away in our lounge.” The girl spoke with such bitter contempt that Lucy actually took as step away; frightened by the extremities of this familiar stranger. She would not, in that moment, have been surprised if the girl had thrown something at the officer overseeing them.
“I suppose,” She continued, “They didn’t want to seem xenophobic – bad press, probably.”
Lucy flickered her eyes briefly back to their observer but the woman had rearranged her expression to one of steely permanence and utter dispassion. She supposed that this shrunken unit of police was not used to dealing with serious crime. Their jobs were more based on overseeing safety at village events – the occasional case of trespassing or puppy drowning – but their opportunities to assert their authority must have been limited. Perhaps that was why they were relishing in this murder, it was what they’d joined the job for, and they got to exercise the power they’d never yet let leak from their hands.
“So why did you come?” Lucy asked, confused but secretly flattered that this mutual non-friend had bothered to visit.
“I went to the Library to get those poetry books – the old woman said you’d been taken in for questioning about the d- dea- the – you know,” she looked at her hands. “At first I felt kind of relieved they’d taken you,” she continued with abrasive honesty. “It meant they’d accepted that Dad was nothing to do with it. But then I started to think about how rubbish it was to be accused. And I couldn’t imagine a girl who doesn’t let anyone damage books would purposefully damage a human… I don’t know, I came.”
Lucy supposed that she was supposed to appreciate the girl’s intentions but they served only to heighten her misery. If only she knew, Lucy thought, I never stop damaging people. I damaged a little boy with a finger and then proceeded to smash his family. Murder, no. Destruction, yes – too often.
“I brought some ice-lollies but they made me leave them outside.”
For some reason, Lucy began to cry. It was not as if the gesture was noble or spectacular but it was thoughtful and touching when compared with what most people offered. She was saddened most by the incompleteness of the gesture; another full-stopped attempt from this dead-end girl, she thought. There was something whimsical about ice-lollies and she clamoured for them; searching for any sweet antidote to her surliness. Although she knew that ‘outside’ merely meant the Innocents’ side of the police desk, she had a vivid image of a row of lollies spilt and murdered on the pavement. They were, so she imagined, melting with the excess of long-finished summers.
“Sorry?” The girl ventured, “Perhaps I should leave?”
“I’ll be fine in a minute,” Lucy breathed, scratching at her tears with tarnished nails. “I’m just remembering.”
She bit her tongue to stem the flow of sobs and to set her mind wandering elsewhere. Was there, she quizzed herself, any real difference between ice-lollies and lollipops?
While Lucy recaptured herself, the other girl stood silently, half watchful. Her limbs hung from her like string and her toes pointed half-heartedly towards each other. The caps of her converses were like new lovers, unsure whether to touch and so keeping a steady near distance.
“I’m an obvious suspect of course,” Lucy began to explain. She could not manage to forget the presence of the officer but decided that, as she had already lost it with her earlier, there was little she could do to displease her further.
“You sound like Dad,” the girl said stuffily and then she dipped her head, scuffing the bottom of her nose with the back of her index finger as though suffering from stage-fright.
“Oh, is he a ‘murderer’ too then?” Lucy rolled her eyes to the cheap ceiling lights and chose to displace her recent distress with a semi-amused aloofness.
“Bad track record plus hostile next-door neighbour and BANG – in handcuffs.” She smiled because she cared but wanted not to.
“What did you do?”
“Before? Not much. Petty, attention-seeking, thirteen-year-old vandalism and had a dad who jacked cars for a living. Not much of a sin really but enough to mean that they won’t want to see the truth.”
“So you really didn’t do it? She really did just fall?”
“What do you take me for? Don’t tell me you’re another disapproving snob who-”
“I haven’t been here long. I barely know you.”
“Point taken,” Lucy said meekly. “No one really knows me, that’s the problem, myself least of all, I sometimes think.”
“I get that too,” the girl admitted. “I don’t know your name but I know that you like books more than people.” The girl looked surprised by herself as she said it, as though it was brave of her and, Lucy supposed, it was. It was brave to show a virtual stranger their self-portrait and it was brave to bring ice-lollies to the girl that no one else could trust.
“What does ‘jacked cars’ mean?” she asked unexpectedly and Lucy laughed at the question.
“Sorry, I forgot, you’re French aren’t you? I think my Mum said that. It means that he stole them.”
“Oh. Sometimes I think I’ll never be English. I can basically speak it fluently but I don’t fit in with you. I don’t think I fit in in France either anymore. It’s been too long. I’m just here, caught somewhere between the two. We came to England and didn’t have the energy to step inside it.”
“You have to move on and this place won’t help you. It doesn’t help anyone. People come here thinking they can leave but they don’t. We all get trapped like flies in amber. Once you’ve arrived you can never really progress; you get stuck being the person you made yourself become.”
The girl smiled; “You even talk like a book.”
Lucy wanted to tell her that she talked like an English dictionary but decided that the room was too fragile around them for comments like that. It was one of the first times that she had stopped rudeness from brimming out of her and she didn’t much like the way that the unspoken words clogged-up her throat.
“She was a spoilt bitch,” Lucy said brusquely, trying to reorder the conversation. It had rocketed its way through so much that she’d half lost track of everything – where they were and why they were there. She steered herself back to the interrogation room.
“She was a spoilt bitch, that girl, but I don’t kill people for mistakes their parents made. God knows, if I did there’d be no kids left at school.”
The French girl raised an eyebrow, “What do you kill people for then?”
“Ah, nothing less than an offer of a million quid and a world cruise.”
“I don’t understand; how are you not yet filthy rich and on your way to Barbados?” Then they were both laughing – Lucy fully, the other girl distractedly – and unable to stop even though they knew that it was wrong to laugh in the face of death.