He meets us at the doorway.
We follow him upstairs.
‘The daughter Kate was at the hospital sitting with her Dad who’s in for some kind of cancer op. Mum Emma came home last night to get some rest before going back around lunchtime, but when she didn’t show and didn’t answer her phone, Kate asked the neighbour Jean to pop round and see if everything was all right. Jean’s got a spare key ‘cos she looks after the cat sometimes. She’s gone back next door if you need to speak to her. She’s pretty shaken up.’
He pauses outside the bedroom door.
‘So it was Jean found the body,’ he says.
Emma is in bed, lying on her back with her chin up and her eyes closed. Her left arm is raised above her head, her right hand clutches the quilt to her chest, whilst her right leg, bent at the knee, hangs out over the edge. Her face has that cold definition you only see on hyper-real dummies and the recently dead, but if there were any doubt, the lower aspect of her exposed arm and leg are bruised with pooling blood.
‘I haven’t touched anything,’ says Pete. ‘Jean says as far as she knows Emma only took HRT pills and that was it. Went to the gym. Didn’t drink. Pretty fit and healthy middle-aged woman. I didn’t see any tablets or anything that might explain it. Terrible, really.’
After I report the death on the police purple line – a cheerfully administrative voice the other end: Hello ambulance! What have you got for us today? – I help Rae look for essential information, date of birth, GP surgery, any scripts or letters that might throw some light. Rae finds a plastic presentation folder of old school reports going back to the sixties. Emma’s date of birth is written in faded biro on one from her infants school. The house is perfectly tidy, with bright screen prints of flowers on the walls, a busy family calendar covered with writing, letters and invitations clipped to the side. A pottery rooster crows on the windowsill. Three ceramic pots by the kettle.
There is a knock on the door; the police have arrived. The same sergeant I met at the last unexpected death at home smiles when he recognises me.
‘Anything suspicious this time?’ he says, and laughs. A huge but diffident officer follows him over the threshold, immediately blocking out all the light from outside despite ducking his shoulders to make himself inconspicuous. The sergeant listens to my handover, then follows us back up the stairs, chatting evenly to the other officer about the things he should bear in mind in these situations, what he should be looking for, what he should be thinking about.
‘The daughter Kate is with the father over at the hospital at the moment,’ I tell him whilst they roll the body to check underneath. ‘Here’s her number and the rest of the paperwork. Is there anything else?’
‘No. That’s great. Thanks guys. You can stand-down, if you like.’
We’re half-way down the stairs when there’s a timid rap on the glass of the front door. When I open it, there’s a twenty-something-year-old woman standing on the porch, one hand to her mouth. Her partner stands beside her, looking at me, turning to look again at the police car and ambulance dominating the road, back at me.
‘What’s happened?’ she whispers. ‘Where’s Mum?’
‘Are you Kate?’
‘Kate – you have to prepare yourself for some really bad news. I’m so sorry but your mother has died.’
She grunts, folding her arms over her stomach and doubling over as if I’ve punched her there. Her partner comes to put his arm round her shoulder, holding her up as a terrible, animalistic scream rises out of her. The man frowns at me, shaking his head from side to side.
‘What do you mean, died?’ he says. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
Kate breaks away from him, staggers over to a flower bed and vomits.
‘Is there nothing you can do?’ he says.
‘No. I’m afraid she’s been dead for some time.’
‘What – Emma?’
‘It’s hard to say. Probably sometime last night.’
‘But … died?’
‘Do you want to come inside and sit down? Can I get you anything?’
‘She can’t have died. Alan’s having his op today. This’ll finish him off. Died? No way.’
‘I’m so sorry. Was she complaining of feeling unwell yesterday?’
‘No. Not really. I mean she’s been pretty stressed lately, what with the cancer and this and that. But … died?’
Rae hands Kate some kitchen towel, puts a hand on her shoulder and talks to her in a quiet voice. Kate straightens up and pulls out a mobile phone.
‘How am I going to tell Steph?’ she says, holding it out to me like I might know. ‘Her baby’s due any day. And the girls? What can I say to them? This can’t be happening. This can’t be. Not now. I can’t bear it. I can’t bear it.’
‘I’d maybe leave phoning anyone just yet,’ I say. ‘Give yourself five minutes just to let the news settle and think what to do.’
‘No,’ she says. ‘They’ve got to be told right now.’
She tries to work the phone, but drops it because her hands are shaking so much.
The two police officers are standing in the doorway. I catch the sergeant’s eye and he nods discretely.
‘Come on,’ I say to Kate’s partner. ‘Let’s go inside and we’ll make you something to drink. What can I get you?’
‘I’ll have a tea – as it comes. Kate’ll have a coffee, white with two. Jesus Christ! Dead?’
I go into the house and the new police officer follows me into the kitchen.
‘I’ll help you,’ he says.
He puts the kettle on and I find some cups.
‘What do they want?’ he says.
‘Tea as it comes, coffee white with two.’
He clatters around finding stuff.
‘Tea with two, was it? Coffee and what?’
‘The guy’s having tea, just as it comes. She’s having coffee, white with two sugars.’
‘Coffee and how many?’
‘Two. Two sugars.’
‘Tea and sugar?’
‘No. Just as it comes.’
The house cat is watching us from under the kitchen table. I kneel down and hold out my hand. It meows a couple of times, then struts over with its tail up. It sniffs my fingers, then rubs up against me, round and round.
‘How many sugars?’ says the police officer.
We take the drinks into the living room. Kate is sitting on the furthest edge of the sofa, jogging her knees up and down, periodically looking down at her phone. We put the drinks down on the coffee table in front of them.
‘Is there anything else you want to ask us before we go?’ I say.
Kate looks up.
‘Thanks for all you’ve done,’ she says. ‘Well – you know.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ I say.
Control send us back to base.
We drive along the top road that runs like the rim of a great, shallow bowl, halved by the ocean, the town spreading out towards us from the cut-line. Far off to the west, storm clouds are moving in from the sea, the rain falling so thick it smudges out every detail like a spillage of ink across a canvas.
‘They’re getting it over west,’ says Rae.
‘And it looks like it’s coming this way.’
We drive on; a moment later, splats of rain hit the windscreen.
You really relayed the confusion and disbelief of an unexpected death so clearly. It is so difficult to grasp that an intregal person in your life could leave when there is so much left undone...unsaid. From Kate, to her partner, to the new police officer: everything unclear. Your experience shows through in this situation, with your calm clear reponses. And at the end, the storm hitting...very apropos.
So sad... and so sudden. The image of the "busy family calendar" really strikes me, like even Emma wasn't expecting to die. Very solemn indeed.
That was so sad I can't help crying.
It must be a gift that enables you to be sympathetic but not overwhelmed by the emotions all around.
A sad tale Spence.So difficult to know what to say to someone in those circumstances.I guess you all go into an auto-pilot of stock phrases to try to keep yourselves sane.
To be honest, I was hoping to get away from the scene before the relatives got there. I know that's probably awful to admit, but it was only recently I had to break bad news and that was traumatic, too. When Kate showed up I just had to go ahead and do it - desperately sad for the family, esp. considering everything else that was going on. Def one of the worst aspects of this job!
I think what struck me were the domestic details. We've got a calendar exactly like that at home! All those little things made me even more aware of the tragedy - a person dying unexpectedly, right in the middle of everything, the daily business of family life. Absolutely appalling.
I certainly felt like crying at the time, but for some reason I managed not to. I don't think it would've mattered if I had. It's just the way it went. I was pretty shaken by the whole experience, though. I hope I don't have too many of those to do (despite the fact that I've had a couple in as many weeks...)
Stock phrases do help - esp. if they're sincerely meant. I'd have done anything for her not to have had to come up to that door and be met by me with that news! Dreadful.
The other thing is that you have to give it to them straight, no euphemisms or anything that could be misinterpreted. It's amazing how even using the stark words 'died' and 'dead' still get challenged - but then, it's not so much the word, I suppose, as the enormity of the fact that they're having to face.
I'd better put out a cheerful post in short order!!
Your writing conveyed the misery of the situation too well Spence. Gallows humour needed to soften the dreadfulness of it all.
Yep - could've done with some of that. Mind you, I think gallows humour is one of the most difficult thing to write about. At the time it acts as an important safety valve, something to keep you sane, but written up later it can sound pretty heartless. Anyway, in this case I don't think we said much. We were just too shell-shocked - esp. me!
It sounds like the new police officer was pretty shaken up too given that 'goldfish memory' thing he had with the sugar. He'll learn, I guess - they have to give 'death messages' all the time.
What an awful thing. Kate in particular must feel like the universe is just taking the wee.
Can you take solace in the fact that you and the cops are there to help people with this stuff? It would be so much worse if you weren't.
Yeah - I think he was pretty shaken up. Prob his first time in a scene like that. I do take some solace from the fact that we're there to help. I mean - someone's got to do it, and it may as well be us! I just hope I can go a bit longer without having to do it again!
Cheers for the comment, MD.
Such a devastating time for the family.
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