We have been on standby in a car park by the cliffs for half an hour, smoking, talking, watching the night sky, watching for meteors. There is a chill autumnal cut to the air. The day burned away quickly, without any of the easy summer margins we’ve grown used to, when the light from one day seemed to fade gently into the dawn of the next. It had been a busy afternoon, but now everything has lifted clean away, deepening into a night of sharp sounds and silences. A fox trots past, more shadow than animal. In the darkness I could swear it smiles and nods. I look up again. I make out a satellite as it glides across the sky, the only other scrap of humanity between us and the resonant deeps of space.
The alerter sounds. We climb back into the cab.
Outside the residential home, we can see Steve, the warden, smoking and waiting for us at the top of the slope by the front door. He waves.
‘Beautiful evening,’ he says as we walk up. He takes one last pull on his cigarette, drops it, scrunches it underfoot, then picks up the butt and tosses it away into some bushes. ‘Thanks for coming.’
A muscularly compressed man in his fifties, Steve holds himself like a pantomime dame sharing scandal at the footlights. His great tattooed forearms are folded, partly against the cold, partly against the chill of his recent experience.
‘Mary didn’t show up for supper tonight at eight like she usually does, I hadn’t seen her the rest of the day, and I thought: “That’s so not like our Mary”. I went up to her room to see how she was, and of course, well … oh dear.’
I touch him on his elbow. ‘Where is she?’
He leads us through the lobby of the home – a building so new the plastic umbrella plant looks real. Next to it, a glass tank, and a bunch of massy, stupefied fish. They stare as we pass. Their bubble machine is so loud it must be servicing the entire building.
‘She is normally so active, so out-and-about. The life and soul. Or she was. Poor Mary. I hope she didn’t suffer.’
He leads us through a fire door and up to Mary’s door. He knocks twice – ‘Force of habit’ – then opens it up with his master key. ‘She’s in the kitchenette.’
Mary is sitting on the floor, slumped up against some cabinets. Her head is sunk down onto her chest, her right hand palm up in her lap, her left hand out to her side, her swollen legs drawn up. It looks as though she had slid gently down the cabinets to the floor; the kitchen is otherwise quite orderly, nothing up-ended or thrown about. She could hardly have made a sound.
‘She’s still got her little blue pinny on, bless,’ says Steve, looking over our shoulder. ‘She was such a tidy soul.’
I touch her on the arm. She is quite solid, and there is the characteristic dark marbling on the underside of all her limbs.
‘What happens next?’ Steve says. ‘I haven’t had much experience of – erm – of this kind of thing. I didn’t phone the relatives yet, because they only live round the corner, and I didn’t want them seeing her like this.’
‘No. Quite right. What we’ll do next is call the police on a special line so they can send someone over, just routine. They’ll handle the rest of it. The Coroner’s office may take the body, or the undertakers, depending –the police will know. I think it’s a good idea to wait until they’ve done all they need to do before the relatives are called. I think it would be quite distressing for them. Because she’s quite stiff, it’ll be difficult laying her out in bed or anything. But they’re the experts. They’ll know what’s what.’
‘Okay then. Do you mind if I just pop out for a quick ciggie?’
‘Go ahead. The police won’t be long in getting here.’
He gives me a smile and turns to go. He’s sweating, and it seems more than just the over-heated room.
‘We’ll let you know what’s happening,’ I tell him.
After I’ve called for police attendance I sit down on a low stool and start writing out the story of this visit. Opposite me, Mary’s riser chair is in the up position, and the side table pushed to one side, witness to her final movements. I wonder who’ll put the chair back down, and push the table to the side.
Frank locates the yellow folder for the full name, date of birth, list of medications, GP details – the fretwork of Mary’s life she slid away from so quietly today.
Five minutes later and there’s a knock on the door.
It swings open and an officer walks in, a buttress-booted giant, so broad and bulked up with his stab vest and equipment the hallway, the flat, in fact the whole damn building seems in danger of being pushed apart. He stands there, pulling on a pair of gloves, his face glistening in the light from the kitchenette.
‘I just knew if I had that kebab I’d regret it,’ he says. ‘Okay. So. What have you got for me, chaps?’