Authors: A.J. Waines
Dedicated to the memory of Eleanor Retallack
The Queen of Landladies
THE EVIL BENEATH
A J WAINES
Copyright © 2013, A J Waines
FACT: There are thirty bridges over the tidal stretch of the river Thames.
FACT: The Thames is tidal for ninety-five miles inland, from the Outer Thames Estuary to Teddington Lock.
Port of London Authority.
Sunday, September 20
She had been lying there, facedown in the water long before the tide had turned at 3.04 that morning. Her eyes were staring into the river, her blonde hair first fanning out, then drawing back under her head with the wash of the water, like a pulsating jellyfish. The belt of her raincoat was caught on the branches of an overhanging tree and she’d been hooked, destined to forever flap against the corner of the broken pier with outstretched arms. She wasn’t going anywhere now; she was simply bobbing up and down with the rhythm of the water - and she hadn’t blinked in a long while.
A male jogger came down the ramp from the main road and ran straight past her. Then a cyclist dipped under the bridge and pedalled at speed with his head down. He, too, passed the bundle tucked under the tree without noticing it. But by 7.15am, the creeping sunrise was opening up the scene for all to see.
Her arms were held away from her body forming the shape of a cross on the water and tiny pieces of weed and broken twigs were caught up in her hair, making her head look like the beginnings of a bird’s nest.
An old man with a poodle stopped to stare at the sodden shape in the water, then a woman who had been power-walking joined them, followed by a couple with their arms around each other. Another cyclist, older and slower than the first, joined them. He was the boldest of the group so far. He was wearing black lycra shorts and without taking off his trainers, he began to wade into the river.
In the distance, standing on Hammersmith Bridge, someone was starting to feel pleased with themselves. From that position, you didn’t need the binoculars to see a group was starting to form at the water’s edge. Where was everybody coming from so early on a Sunday morning? It was like watching wasps gather around a spoonful of raspberry jam.
The cyclist went up to his thighs in the water, getting within a few feet of the body and then turned around shaking his head. He was shouting something to the woman who had been power-walking and she began reaching into her backpack.
The woman’s legs were sticking out from beneath the gabardine. They were covered in purple striped tights and she was still wearing both ankle boots. Everything looked intact.
No one would notice the binoculars now trained towards the towpath. She had to arrive at the scene any time now, to get a good view, before the body was bagged up and taken away by the river police.
Take your time, came a whisper from the bridge, we need a certain person to get here before the police tidy everything away.
Another woman, who seemed to have come from nowhere, doubled over and rested her hand against the tree. Someone put their arm around her. You couldn’t tell from this distance if she’d been sick.
Then she was there. The chosen one. On her own, walking tentatively towards the water. She’d got the message and she’d responded. All was well with the world. How long would it take her before she realised? Before the shit hit the fan. That was a good image; it had the ring of old Tom and Jerry cartoons.
Was it worth waiting around for that moment or not? She might not make the connection straight away. Some people’s brains didn’t work as fast as others.
There was a sound of a siren. An ambulance and a squad car pulled up and in a flash, she was lost in the tight little gathering. No point hanging around. The show was over, but the party was just beginning.
An eye for an eye; that’s how the saying went. Proper punishment where it was due. And this was going to be one hell of a payback.
Strains of idle humming came from the bridge. It was time to start dreaming of fried eggs and two pieces of toast - and perhaps even some beans on the side. Wasn’t that justified?
Two days earlier
There was a pervasive smell of antiseptic and I couldn’t help wondering when the girl lying on the operating couch would notice she had a bystander.
‘Up,’ said Dr Finely. He was referring to the girls legs. I tried to stay behind her line of sight, as he made sure her thighs were secured into the leg rests. The surgeon’s eyes protruded in a way that made me think of a peeping-tom; the kind who steals women’s underwear and keeps it under his pillow. There wasn’t an ounce of softness or sympathy in his face. Nor, once he’d spoken, was there any in his voice. For him, it was just another tiresome removal.
Glenis and Desiree were laying out forceps and clamps on a stainless steel trolley in the matter of fact way one might lay out fruit on a market stall.
‘Waiting for anaesthetic,’ he said. Glenis shot round and scuttled towards him holding a kidney shaped dish.
It was a thoroughly ungainly affair; the young girl, no older than seventeen, was naked from the waist down, locked into position with her legs spread apart. I could see the girl’s chest rising and falling like an injured rabbit at the roadside as her fingers fluttered in anticipation.
When I’d agreed to take on extra counselling at Fairways Clinic, I’d had no idea that witnessing a live procedure was part of the introductory package. I thought perhaps I’d be given a brochure with discreet diagrams or at most be asked to watch a video, but being in the room when this poor girl was undergoing an abortion seemed a lot to ask of both of us.
‘Name?’ Dr Finely had said earlier by way of introduction. I’d told him.
‘Well, Juliet Grey, don’t interfere.’ He gave me the kind of look you’d give someone you found rummaging through your wheelie bin. ‘Don’t do anything to interrupt or influence the proceedings.’
What did he think I was going to do? Push him aside at some point and claim I could make a better job of it?
Dr Finely was lining up various implements on the couch between the girl’s legs and he pulled down a plastic sheet; a feeble flap designed to give her some dignity. The ‘lunchtime abortion’ it was called, with the assurance that the patient would be back to work in an hour or so. Just like popping out of the office for a pint of milk. So convenient.
The girl was silent, but watching the surgeon’s every move with glistening eyes. Her red tumbleweed hair was tamed into a ponytail and she was pretty, with delicate features. No one in the room had taken the trouble to ask the girl’s permission for my presence. I swallowed hard, hoping she would be too distracted to realise she was being observed. With his blue latex gloves in place and the face-mask pulled down over his mouth, Dr Finely swung the overhead light in front of him and began. There were no words of reassurance.
I took a sharp intake of breath. The lights suddenly seemed overly bright, as though I’d walked out into a football stadium. Don’t you dare faint, I said to myself, as I took a step back to use the wall for support. The girl squirmed as the surgeon pushed the metal implement, the size of a fat pen, deep into her vagina. Her nostrils flared and she pressed her clenched fists down on to the couch.
As the surgeon introduced another implement, the girl whimpered and reached out her hand. Desiree had her back to the operating table and the other nurse was holding a clamp and tissues. I didn’t hesitate. I took one step forward and took hold of the girl’s clammy palm.
‘It will all be over soon,’ I whispered, aware as soon as I said it that I had no idea how long this was going to go on for. ‘You’re doing really well.’
I gently squeezed the cold hand. I didn’t even know her name.
The girl made futile attempts to roll her hips away from the source of the pain and the surgeon looked up and told her to keep still. She began keening quietly.
I kept hold of her hand.
Dr Finely handed a small bloodied tray to Desiree, as Glenis told the girl to pull on her underclothes. It was all over. I let go. The girl, her shoulders shaking, was left to hitch herself down from the couch unaided and find her way back to the recovery room. I thought the clock in the operating room must have stopped; I seemed to have been standing there for far longer than twenty minutes.
Dr Finely stripped off his latex gloves and I assumed I was free to go. As I made a move to leave, he rounded on me, as if I’d just rudely bumped into him on a busy street, his fishy breath blasting straight into my face.
‘Ms Grey, what did I say to you about not interfering?’ he said, casting the gloves into the bin. He shook his head and took a step forcing me against the operating couch.
I was so startled I couldn’t speak. You need to know that this is a rare occurrence for me. I couldn’t believe I was being admonished for showing basic human kindness. Who, in their right mind, would deny someone in pain, a comforting hand?
‘I was… she was…’ I stammered, following him to the door.
‘You know how this all works, do you? You’ve done it all before, have you?’
‘Well, I —’
‘Perhaps you should have mopped her brow, bought her a sandwich and paid her bus-fare back to the squat she’s no doubt living in.’
‘I’m not sure —’
His words shot out like flying shards of glass. ‘Not in my theatre.’ He sliced his hand across his neck in an emphatic gesture. ‘You
touch my patient.’
A surge of heat flushed upwards as if my collar was on fire. It wasn’t so much the way he made me feel so small that was the issue, it was his total refusal to recognise basic compassion. There was no way I’d done anything wrong. I opened my mouth again, but he’d gone. I turned to the nurses, but they too had moved on and were already preparing for the next patient.
I can’t wait to work here, I muttered, wondering if it was too late to tell Human Resources I’d changed my mind. But as I stepped out into the blissfully fresh, cool air, I knew there’d be no reason for me to find myself in the same room as Dr Finely again. As long as there was a distance of at least fifty yards between us, everything should be fine.
Not knowing how long the observation at Fairways would take, I’d kept the rest of the morning free and booked in my private clients at home after lunch. Besides, there was something important I wanted to do before then. I drove over to my flat near Fulham Palace Road in my ancient mini, and parked in a side street. I didn’t go inside straight away. Instead, I collected a little bundle from the passenger seat and started walking.
* * *
Some late September days felt like they still belonged to summer, but not today. The sun was trying to break through, but the sky was predominantly angry, with charcoal smudged clouds crowding in from the East. It looked like it could rain any minute. I held the parcel carefully in my arms and decided a fierce downpour, under the circumstances, couldn’t be more fitting.
When I reached the river, the tide was in, swallowing up the pebble shoreline. I watched the green liquid expand and contract like a robust lung, life-support for the entire city, and opened my package. I didn’t have long.
Inside there was a single white rose and a neatly folded piece of notepaper. I lifted the flower to my nose. It had a faint smell of sherbet. Luke would have liked that. Make him think of sweetshops. I trailed the bud down my cheek. It was cool and firm and had started to unfurl; to show itself to the world. A solitary living organism, its stem severed, already on its way towards death.
I leant against the railings, cupping the bud gently in my hand. A woman jogged past me and I could see a couple strolling in my direction in the distance. I needed to be ready. I needed the right moment with no one else around. I waited for them to pass and knew it was time. I could see no one else. My heart trembled. I held the bud out over the handrail, watching the ivory petals; delicate, innocent, vulnerable against the swelling force beneath. I reached right out, held my breath and let it go.
‘Happy birthday, Luke,’ I whispered. ‘Not much of a present, I know…’
I watched the rose swirl and bounce on the water, like a small bird trying to take flight. The tide must have changed, as the water was now heading back out to sea. I ran along the towpath, parallel to the stem for a while, trying to keep track of it as it swirled and twisted, purposeful on its journey. I dodged around people, keeping up with it as it gathered speed before it was sucked away under Putney Bridge. Then I lost sight of it.
As I caught my breath, I noticed tiny pockmarks on the surface of the water. Grey spots were also spattering the pavement beside me, accompanied by a light hissing sound. People started to hurry for shelter. I stayed where I was. Yes, let it rain. Hard. Give me all you’ve got.
Luke left us nearly twenty years ago, when he was sixteen. I never forgot his birthday, but finding mental images of him that weren’t jaded with overuse was getting harder each year. Like a photograph that creases and fades and finally cracks down the middle. I couldn’t imagine him being thirty-five. He was forever locked in a time-capsule; an adolescent with a lopsided smile, five ex-girlfriends behind him (even then) and a quirky desire to playing air-guitar at inappropriate moments. Like the time when Mrs Heppenstall’s rabbit died or when Uncle Dan was about to make a speech at cousin Joan’s wedding.
I started walking home, feeling like I could breathe again.
The first-floor flat I rented had once been part of a terraced Victorian family house. I crossed the busy road and opened the gate. It was in a reasonable enough area, although it was just around the corner from the place where Jill Dando had been shot in 1999 - one fact I ‘forgot’ to tell my parents when I moved in. You can get away with omitting any number of pieces of information, I’d discovered, when your parents are as far away as Spain.
There was a message waiting on my answerphone when I got back. It was from Cheryl Hoffman, one of the practitioners at Holistica, a clinic in Bloomsbury, where I held my supervision sessions.
Ring me – we must do coffee, soon.
Cheryl was perhaps sixty-five, with thick white hair tied back under a silk scarf. She wore floaty dresses in cerise pinks and cherry reds; layered one over the other so it was difficult to define her exact shape. She had large, masculine-looking hands, but her chunky fingers were weighed down by clusters of gold rings bearing large stones.
What attracted me most about Cheryl was the far-reaching wisdom I saw in the folds of her tanned, leathery skin, and in her eyes, painted with thick kohl like an Egyptian goddess. She gave the impression of having lived an extraordinary life. Whenever she wafted by, I thought of pyramids and pharaohs. It made me want to get to know her better.
‘Special day on Friday?’ she’d whispered knowingly when I’d last seen her. She claimed to be psychic, although she was officially registered as a homeopath.
‘How did you —?’
Before I could ask more, she’d disappeared behind a door marked
Do Not Disturb
How could she possibly know about Luke’s birthday?
Is that what she meant? I’d wanted to find out more, but she was with a client. I’d had to let her go.
I wiped her message and check my list of appointments.
This was my first home without flatmates. When you were on your own I discovered, quirky habits emerged. I had a bit of a thing about creases and once it was just me, I found myself ironing everything – hankies, socks, towels, scarves, even fleece gloves. I loved the smell of hot fabric and there was something symbolic in the purity of pressing out the folds. I could happily while away hours at a weekend making everything smooth – besides, it gave me an excuse to watch soppy black and white films.
My other foible was reading magazines back to front. Don’t ask me why. I also hated having hair creep inside my collar and I couldn’t bear pictures that weren’t hung straight. Friends always told me off for doing regular tours of their flats, scrutinising every frame.
I plumped up the cushions and put a jug of water on the coffee table. Some people thought I was taking a risk working alone as a psychotherapist and inviting strangers into my home. I’d had to learn to be super sharp when I got that first contact from a client and always made sure I spoke to them in person. If I felt the slightest reservation regarding their tone of voice or what they were saying, I would give them the
spiel. Not that people were always that easy to read. After all, rapists and axe-murderers say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ just like anybody else.
That’s where my rape alarm came in. It was always in my pocket when I was working. It was small and discrete and I usually forgot it was there. Thankfully, I’d never had recourse to use it.
Moments later, I heard the doorbell and my sessions got underway. It was a straightforward day, if you considered consoling a woman who had just found out her husband had been frequenting a nightclub dressed as a woman, calling himself Geraldine, straightforward. Or discussing deeply intimate sexual acts with a gay man who was still a virgin at thirty-five. Such were the secrets behind the seemingly humdrum lives of many people. Then my final client scheduled for four o’clock arrived.
‘Come in,’ I said, opening the front door. ‘Juliet Grey.’
Mr Fin was ten minutes late. I decided not to make anything of it as it was his first session. He averted his eyes to start with and brushed past my outstretched hand. He was inordinately tall, perhaps six-feet five. I led him along the corridor to the spare room and pointed to the seat beside the door. He grunted and folded his wiry body into it. In the silence that followed, his dewy brown eyes shifted and were now trying to scorch a hole in mine.
‘You told me you hadn’t had any counselling before, is that right, Mr Fin?’ I asked. When he’d phoned a few days earlier, Mr Fin had sounded meek and lonely. He nodded. His gaunt face was so pale it looked as though it was covered in a layer of talcum-powder. He looked around forty-five, going on sixty.
‘Okay. So, what has brought —’
you,’ he said, without the slightest movement.