“We can’t just leave you on your own Mrs Harris,” the middle-aged policewoman said, pulling what she probably thought was her most genuine looking empathetic face, maintaining eye contact and smiling constantly, but being careful to make sure her smile was not too happy.
Paula hated her.
“We have a duty of care, you see.” she added.
Paula had forgotten her name already. She’d introduced herself with her first name, as if that would make Paula warm to her. Dawn? Dora? Daisy? Something wishy-washy and unprofessional, too jolly for the job. Paula glared at her. She wanted to slap her face. Kick her. Pick her up and literally throw her out of the house. She wasn’t used to feeling such anger, hadn’t felt it for years.
“Why?” Paula asked.
“Why?” Dawn, Dora or Daisy repeated, looking confused.
“Why? Why do you dictate what I can and cannot do? This is my house. If I say you have to get out, you have to get out.”
The policewoman shuffled her bum across the sofa, the leather squeaked with her movement. She moved closer to Paula. Paula caught a whiff of Chanel No.5. It reminded her of her mother. She hated the woman even more. For one horrible moment, Paula thought she was getting closer in order to hug her, or hold her hand, but once she was suitably within Paula’s personal space, she just let her arms fall back by her side.
“You’re having a very distressing time, I quite understand Mrs Harris.” The sickly smile was back.
Paula was just itching to hit her. The police had obviously picked her as the most mumsy, soothing-looking one to look after her. They’d made a mistake there.
“But it simply wouldn’t be right to leave you alone at this time. I’m sure at a time like this that what you’d really like is to have a friend, or family member around. Is there no one I can call for you? Surely there’s someone who could—“
“My daughter is the only person I want!” Paula shouted, getting to her feet. “My daughter is my loved one, she’s my friend, she’s who I want with me.”
As fast as her anger had risen, it began dissolving into sadness. She felt the strange pressure around her eyes as tears began to form. She looked up, blinked a few times. She did not want to cry in front of this woman.
“I just want Michelle, okay. Only her. Now please get out, just go and find her.” she finished quietly.
The woman paused for a moment, before slowly getting to her feet. Paula wondered if she’d get in trouble for leaving her alone. She hoped so.
She left the room, and Paula heard the front door click shut. She sat still on the sofa. The only sound came from the boiler rattling away in the airing cupboard, trying its best to pump out some heat. Normally when it made that noise she’d get some logs in, light the fire, make sure they didn’t both freeze. But lighting a fire just for herself seemed all wrong. She didn’t want to go through the ritual of laying it all out, watching it smoulder, catch, crackle and warm the room. What was the point?
She didn’t know what to do. Doing anything seemed wrong. Doing nothing seemed wrong. She sat. She picked at a bit of loose skin on the edge of her thumb, peeling it away slowly, hardly noticing as the thread of dead skin ran into live skin and began to draw blood. The clock ticked loudly, slowly. A car passed, heading out of the street. She wondered who it was. That happy-looking young couple who lived at the end of the road maybe, off out to the city to spend their Christmas vouchers, drink wine, have a meal, laugh and look at each other lovingly.
The clock ticked on.
She heard the front door creaking open slowly, like it did so often when Michelle came home too late, or snuck out too late. She thought she was so sneaky but Paula always knew.
She hadn’t known this time.
A head popped around the living room door.
“Only me again!” The policewoman had returned. She pushed the door wide open, and stood in the doorway. Paula hated having doors wide open, it let the heat out. She was always having to tell Michelle to close them.
The woman had her painfully sunny smile plastered back on her face, and Paula realised there was someone hovering behind her. She blinked a few times, trying to make out the other person in the dim light of the hallway. She realised after a few seconds, she knew that face. It was her neighbour.
“Now, I know you did say you wanted to be on your own Mrs Harris, but look who I found outside! It’s Heather, and she’s kindly said she’d love to spend some time with you.” The policewoman smiled, glancing between Paula and Heather. Neither woman smiled back. Heather looked as if she’d rather be anywhere else, and stood stiffly in the doorway.
“Right-ho! Shall I put the kettle on before I leave you to it?” the policewoman asked.
Heather glanced at Paula, who was staring at the fireplace.
“Perhaps a glass of something stronger?” asked Heather, looking pointedly at her watch. The policewoman frowned, looking towards Paula.
“Well… I suppose—“ she began.
“There’s no drink in the house,” said Paula, still not looking at either of them.
“Michelle drank all the cava, and I’m not a drinker. There might be some Advocaat in the cupboard, if you’re really desperate,” Paula said. “Michelle hated it,” she added, beginning to work on another fleck of dry skin around her fingernail.
Heather hovered by the door. She was unsure if she was expected to sit on the sofa with Paula, perhaps put a comforting arm around her. She felt sick at the thought. She opted instead for an uncomfortable chair that was next to the TV. It was as far away from Paula as she could manage in the tiny living room.
Heather appraised Paula. She’d seen her putting the bins out once or twice, but other than that she hardly seemed to leave the house. She was the epitome of mumsy, her hair cut brutally short, the sort of style that said she had absolutely no interest in attracting men, her cardigan pink and sensible, shapeless. The sort of woman who’d always have wet wipes and a spare packet of tissues in her handbag. They hadn’t spoken before. She doubted they’d have very much in common
“Righty-ho!” said the policewoman again, clapping her hands together. “I’ll leave you ladies to it, but remember Mrs Harris, if you do need us for anything, or anything else springs to mind, you’ve got my number.”
The policewoman bounced out of the room. Paula continued to concentrate on her nails. Heather sat stiffly in the chair. Her back hurt already, and she wanted a drink. Perhaps Advocaat would be more palatable than she remembered.
“She seemed nice,” said Heather.
“She’s a cow,” replied Paula, still not looking up from her bleeding fingers.
“Oh.” Heather shuffled in her chair, trying to find a comfortable spot. Her bum was going numb already. If she’d known it was going to be like this she’d have brought a book or something. She wracked her brain trying to think of a topic of conversation.
Did you have a nice Christmas?
This is a lovely room.
It smelt strangely clinical, like a swimming pool or a hospital.
The rain pelted against the window, the storm gathering momentum outside. Heather had on her thickest jumper, but she was still feeling the cold. She glanced at the fireplace. It was full of ash.
“Shall I light the fire perhaps?” she asked.
Paula didn’t respond. She was still picking at her nails.
“Or I could put the kettle on first. Tea or coffee?” she asked. She received no reply, so headed through to the kitchen with a view to making both. Perhaps a splash of Advocaat instead of milk would cheer the bloody woman up.
© Rachel Jenkins