Closer – K.L. Slater

She knows it’s her. She knows this before they even pull her tiny body out of the oily black water. Dread squirms in her stomach and she wills herself not to vomit at the side of the quay. Not here. Not in front of all these people. Someone drapes a scratchy pale blue blanket around her shoulders. Someone else presses a plastic cup of hot tea into her hand. But neither kindness stops her from shaking, or brings back what she has lost. There are concerned, hushed whispers all around. The sounds blend into one swishing echo in her ears, like dry leaves swirling against asphalt on a breezy autumn day. She holds her breath against the ripe smell of the water, closes her eyes against the rawness of the hopeless dread that hangs above them all. ‘Why don’t you wait inside, love?’ a policewoman says softly. ‘There’s no sense in standing here in the cold. It might be a while and… you don’t need to see her the moment they find her. Not like this.

’ ‘I’m not going anywhere.’ Her voice sounds cracked and hard, a brittle shell that tries in vain to protect the soft belly of her agony. She plants her feet a little further apart in an effort to stabilise her trembling legs and says, ‘I have to be here when she comes out. I’m her mother.’ The policewoman nods and takes a step back, merging back into the small crowd of concerned onlookers. Mercifully, there are no rubberneckers here, no jackals. They’re all people who can and want to help. Police, medics, the underwater search divers, the quayside staff… Their faces are full of the same dread too. Just diluted. But there is also a tangible anticipation in the air.

A drowned child is undeniably tragic, but is nevertheless a major event in this sleepy seaside town where graffiti on the pier is the most high-profile criminal act that’s occurred in the last few months. She knows the people here will go home at the end of the day. With drawn, troubled expressions, they’ll tell their families, over food, about this terrible, terrible tragedy. They will frighten their children with this example of what the water can do if you take risks. In a day or so, they’ll accept a drink on the house in the local pub with the feature bar that overlooks the quayside. They’ll hang their heads on the street when there’s another pat on the back for the awful job they’ve endured. Some of them will dream about the web of burgeoning blue veins that almost pop through the child’s skin as they pull her from the water. Her bulging eyes and swollen, distended tongue will visit some of them for many nights to come. But at some point, perhaps not too long afterwards, they will tell themselves: Enough. They’ll recite silent prayers of thanks that their own children are intact and they will begin to forget.

This terrible day and the dead child will become a story to recount on suitable occasions. A sadness they feel that is sometimes allowed to air in order to warn others. And, in time, they will get on with their lives once again. She starts as raised voices sound. People surge forward around her. The police officer appears next to her again, lays a comforting hand on her upper arm. A shout. Water splashing as they pull something small out of the terrible wetness. A collective groan of grief. She drops the cup of tea.

Scalding drops of liquid pepper her hands and body and she is grateful that it helps her to focus. She recognises the soft hair that she used to brush until it shone. Now it sticks to her bony shoulders like thin, wet ropes. The fragile hands splayed like limp starfish. And her rosebud lips, the perfect Cupid’s bow too impossibly pale against the sickly bluish-white pallor of that ten-year-old face. Yes, she tells herself. This is the broken body of her poor dead daughter. CHAPTER ONE EMMA Now I pull up outside the dance school in my new, shiny bright red Toyota. Well, not exactly brand new. My budget wouldn’t stretch to that, so it’s second-hand.

But the way the car slides into the parking space with ample room to spare is a novelty, and I breathe a sigh of relief that I no longer have to park Shaun’s enormous Audi within the designated white lines. I check the clock on the dashboard and am gratified to see that I’ve arrived a good ten minutes early. Maisie will still be in her ballet class. I turn Smooth Radio down low, rest my head back and close my eyes. Like every other parent I know, my life seems to consist largely of work and ferrying Maisie to her hobbies, particularly since she joined the dance school about a year ago. Today is Monday, which in our world means ballet. It’s jazz and tap on a Friday, and she’s just started freestyle disco on Tuesday nights, which my mum has reluctantly agreed to pick her up from. That’s before we get to performance art at the church hall a couple of times a month. My mum has been retired from her job as a school librarian for three years now. Her life is busy, not least with catching up with old friends and trying out her own new hobbies.

She’s fond of saying, with a chuckle, that she doesn’t know how she ever found the time to go to work before. She was already helping out with driving Maisie around, and so I tried to appeal to her sympathetic side when Maisie announced she’d also like to go to the new disco class. ‘You see, I can’t just finish work every day at five o’clock sharp any more, Mum, not now I’ve got the new job. More often than not it’s six, sometimes seven before I even leave the office these days.’ ‘They’ll come to expect you to work late every day if you’re not careful, you know.’ Mum pressed her lips together. ‘I can pick Maisie up from the new class until she breaks up from school for Christmas, but I can’t keep it up indefinitely, Emmeline. I’ve agreed to start a new line-dancing class with Kath in September and it’s scheduled for Wednesday nights.’ Cantankerous Kath, as Shaun likes to call her, is Mum’s best friend. ‘Seriously? People actually still do line dancing?’ I pasted a look of exaggerated horror on my face.

‘I thought it had died out at least a decade ago.’ Mum’s head whipped around and I quickly looked away so she didn’t see me trying not to laugh. Served her right anyway, calling me by my full name, which I’ve hated since primary school. Everyone calls me Emma these days. Except Mum, if she can help it. But I have to admit, she’s right about my hours. Since I started my new dream job, my working day seems to bleed later and later into the evenings. It’s what Shaun and I always expected. The new position came with so much more responsibility, but I knew it was crucial I proved myself from the off. After all, I love what I do and the extra time is no hardship; the long days at work fly by.

Like I told Shaun, it’s best we think of overtime as an investment for the future, rather than unpaid hours. ‘An investment in your future, you mean,’ he said in that playful way he often tries to pull off when he’s using humour to cover his irritation. It’s a shame he feels the need when everything is going so well at last. You see, Shaun and I… we’re not together any more. Well, that’s not strictly true. We are still – to all intents and purposes – very much together. We’re just not together like that. We’ve called time on our marriage, on our emotional attachment as husband and wife. Instead, we’ve devised a surprisingly amicable agreement, without consulting lawyers, or resorting to any outside interference at all, and it’s working just fine for both of us. It might sound a cold and pragmatic outcome to some, and we’re fully aware that it’s far from the norm.

But to us it feels a very adult, very modern and efficient arrangement. I feel lighter inside than I have done for years. On the surface of it, nothing has changed between us. We live together in a leafy suburb of Nottingham with our ten-year-old daughter. We get on well, like we did when our marriage worked. We like the same foods, the same TV programmes (with the exception of football), and we even share the same taste in music. I like to think we’re more like siblings now, or friends. Close friends who still feel an affection and consideration for each other. The most important thing we have in common is our love for Maisie. And it was for her sake we made our unconventional pact in the first place.

‘The extra hours I’m putting in are for Maisie’s future too,’ I responded to Shaun’s jibe, and turned back to read about new legislation in the publishing of information about the gender pay gap. To be fair, out of the three partners at Walker, Dent and Scott, one is female. But it hasn’t escaped my notice that most of the actual lawyers are men, as were three of the four paralegals. I allow myself a small satisfied smile. Seven weeks and three days ago, the company gained another qualified female paralegal: me. I’ve worked so hard to get here, I’m determined nothing is going to get in my way now. Least of all Shaun’s griping about my putting more hours in. This company is not the first one I’ve worked at. I started my legal career at Clayton and McCarthy, a much smaller firm just outside the city. I had big hopes and dreams of forging a career path from humble beginnings there too.

But three years ago, after the trauma of what happened while I was employed there, and on the advice of my doctor, I took a few weeks’ leave without pay. Looking back, I feel sure now that the partners must have been relieved when I gave them an easy way out. I also realise now that it probably made me look guilty of everything my colleagues were whispering about me behind my back. But whatever they thought, I was not that person. I know that, my family knows that. Once I’d made the decision to take some time out, I tried to relax and focus on the simple things that would hopefully bring back the balance in my life. I took up baking, cross-stitch, even yoga and Pilates. Yet in time, being at home just seemed to make everything worse. The more I tried to relax, the harder it became. I’d hear noises upstairs in the middle of the day when Shaun was out on a photography job and Maisie was at school.

I’d put my phone down on the kitchen worktop, and when I went back for it, I’d find it had disappeared, only to turn up on the coffee table in the living room, convincing me that someone else was in the house. Shaun would sometimes come home to find me curled up in a ball on the couch, or sitting in the locked downstairs loo, shaking and waiting for his return. Each time he’d trawl the rooms upstairs, and when he came down, his face creased with concern, he’d say gently, ‘There’s nobody up there, Em. There’s nothing. Not even a spider.’ One day Maisie came into the bedroom to find me hiding behind the curtain in tears because I’d convinced myself a man had walked by the house twice and looked in with what I described at the time as ‘worrying intent’. Like many of my concerns at the time, it was just another foreboding feeling I couldn’t shake. There was no real substance to it. I had to admit then, finally, that my nerves were shot to ribbons. ‘We need to get you away from the house and from that job,’ Shaun said.

I didn’t argue with his suggestion that we go away for a while. At that point, I would have happily moved somewhere else entirely to start again incognito. Without the stigma, the gossip, the accusing stares. We booked a ten-night family holiday in Spain, and afterwards I did feel more positive and even agreed to undertake a few counselling sessions to try and deal with the guilt and remorse. I resigned from my position as legal secretary at Clayton and McCarthy and took on a job in an independent clothing shop. Later, I worked in the ticket office of the Playhouse on Wellington Circus. I only stayed in each post about six months, but it seemed to do the trick. It gave me some space and time away from the legal profession I still yearned to be part of but that still felt too close for comfort. When the time felt right, I joined Walker, Dent and Scott and worked for a year as a legal secretary before Joanne Dent, the female partner, agreed that the company would sponsor me to study for the Graduate Diploma in Law, commonly referred to in the business as the GDL. At last, my dream of becoming a fully qualified paralegal was within touching distance.

‘As long as you’re sure you can manage the additional workload alongside your other commitments,’ she said when she reviewed my application. ‘And you realise you’ll have to sign an addendum to your contract tying you to the company for two years following completion of the GDL? This training programme is a big financial commitment for us.’ ‘Yes and yes,’ I said pleasantly, but it irked me that she’d alluded to my ‘other commitments’. I felt certain she was referring to Maisie. I happened to know Joanne had a young daughter too – Piper attended Maisie’s dance school – and so I found the snipe both irritating and surprising, coming from a fellow working woman. I’d expected more. Still, it was all worth it. After two years of setting the alarm and working from five until seven each morning, then grafting for two to three hours after Maisie had gone to bed, I managed to pass my GDL with a very respectable 2:1 and qualify as a paralegal. It was an amazing feeling. Granted, the process hadn’t been too great for my marriage, but after years of being told I’d never come to anything worthwhile, it was a very sweet moment indeed.

More importantly, it felt like I’d put the trauma I’d gone through at Clayton and McCarthy firmly behind me. ‘I hope Dad is turning in his grave,’ I said to Mum at the graduation ceremony as we stood with a glass of flat fizz and a nibble each. ‘You were always oversensitive with him, Emmeline. Still are,’ Mum said, biting into her prawn vol-au-vent. ‘He never meant anything by it, the silly old fool.’ She’d called him a lot worse than that when he was alive. Night after night, when his drinking pals would take an arm each and drag him up the path at gone midnight, I seem to remember that Mum was often very oversensitive herself. ‘It still hurt,’ I mumbled, sipping my drink and wishing I’d asked Shaun to come instead of her. ‘Whether he meant it or not, it’s stuck in my head all these years.’ ‘Perhaps you ought to be thanking him instead,’ Mum said tartly.

‘Maybe in a roundabout way it was your father who gave you the drive to achieve something in your life. Like you’ve done today.’ My graduation day was about the closest Mum has ever got to congratulating me. Mum’s never been very open with her affection. I can remember criticisms, pieces of advice and curt nods to acknowledge various achievements at school, but that’s about it. There’s a lot of stuff that happened back then that we’ve never talked about. I suppose some things are better off forgotten. For now.

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