The phone rang in the small, neat Ashford flat at seven. It took three hours for the search team’s Range Rover to fight its way up Viper’s Hill through the blizzard. Justin Liddle’s head ached all the while, and not just from the excess of whisky in which he had sought consolation the previous night. It was, he found, impossible to erase Alison from his thoughts. Her memory filled his imagination to the brim. He felt a palpable, physical ache, as if only her presence could validate his existence. And yet he feared meeting her again. Rarely had he felt so miserable.
All the village turned out for the search. Miles remained in the kitchen, overwrought, as if he knew the inevitable result. Justin had spoken to him briefly, his head full of whirling emotions, and found Alison’s husband to be as he expected: good, decent, handsome, and perhaps a little dull. In the end, it was John Tyler who came across the body, beneath a mound of snow, close to the perimeter of the garden, where it met the Minnis. Justin watched as Tyler performed the unnecessary test for life. Silently, Alison, in tears he hated to witness, joined them. Tyler seemed genuinely overwrought by Arnold’s death, more than Justin had expected. Beulah was never predictable.
Tyler was a different man, seemingly unrelated to the loud-mouthed bore at the party. He stared at Justin with resentful eyes. “I hate this part of the job, you know. Arnold was such a spunky old bugger. He looked pretty croaky, to be honest, which is why I went along with that joke about a bet. But… why on earth did he go outside?”
“We’ve no idea,” Alison replied. “I can’t think of any explanation whatsoever.”
“I have to ask this,” Tyler said tentatively. “Had he ever talked of suicide?”
“No,” Alison answered, and didn’t bother to hide the testiness in her voice. “He could be a miserable old bastard. Usually he was. But yesterday…” She remembered the playful arguments in the kitchen, the way the old man had loved being around her and Sara. “Yesterday was probably the best I’ve seen Arnold as long as I’ve known him.”
“Then remember him like that. It’s the best you can do for him.”
“I will,” she answered quietly.
“So what you’re saying,” Justin broke in, “is that you’ve no idea what happened? I don’t need to know about the personal parts.”
“Why?” she wondered.
Justin and Tyler exchanged glances. “Sometimes it happens that people near the end of their lives feel something has been completed,” Justin explained. “Like the end of the record, I don’t know. If you realise death’s just around the corner, maybe it makes sense — to some people — to embrace it smiling instead of cowering in the corner. Is that right, doctor?”
“Not my field,” Tyler said. “Or yours.”
“If there’s a hint of suicide,” Justin continued, “you’re into all the fuss of a full coroner’s inquest. Which no-one wants. Unless you and Mr Fenway feel differently.”
The ambulance men arrived and started to lift the frozen shape onto a stretcher.
“He’s dead,” she said. “That’s all there is to say.”
An hour later he found her standing by the kitchen door, looking at the sea of footsteps in the snow. There seemed to be so many. They must have felt like a violation of the precious, private space she had built around herself. Miles was inside on the phone, looking devastated.
“I’m so sorry,” he muttered. “How are you feeling?”
“How do you think?”
Justin grimaced. “Daft question. Sorry. That’s the trouble with death. Everything about it is so deeply, irrevocably stupid.”
He kicked his boots on the ground to shake off the snow and looked at the sky. It was clearing. The blizzard would not return. Beulah was making another of its strange, sudden transitions, to some new, altered state. In the distance, Sara was wandering across the snow-covered Minnis, struggling back to her cottage before the light failed altogether. She made a distinct shape against the weak, dying sun. Somehow the thick wrap of winter clothes exaggerated her condition.
“I need to see you.”
“Jesus Christ, Justin. Now, of all times?”
“You’re not listening.” His face was taut with anxiety. “I need to see you. I can’t stop thinking about you. Seeing you. It’s like there’s a picture of everything we did together, running through my head. All the time. I have to…”
She clamped her hands over her ears, screwed her eyes tightly shut. Justin looked through the window into the kitchen. Miles, still on the phone but halfway to maudlin drunk judging by appearances, was peering back at them.
“Go away,” she told him.
“I can’t. You won’t leave me. I can taste you in my mouth. I can hear the sound of your voice when we were there together, there…”
Alison began to sob. There was no precedent, he thought, for feeling so wretched. This kind of despair, so insistent, so mindless, was quite beyond his experience.
She stumbled for the door.
“Funny old world,” he observed, with a sudden, easy cruelty he found loathsome. “As someone was saying only the other day. ‘For each birth a death’.”
(C) David Hewson 2012