Deny Me – Karen Cole

She was still breathing – a revolting wheezing and hissing that made him feel sick and angry. He stood over her, his arms hanging limply by his sides, waiting for her to stop. Once it was all over and she lay still, he crouched beside her, watching the blood trickle at the corner of her mouth. He lifted her head, feeling the curve of her skull beneath her hair. He used to like to twine her hair in his fingers, breathing in the scent of her shampoo as she held him close and feeling the laughter shake in her belly when he said something funny. He used to love making her laugh. She hadn’t laughed all that often, even before. But when she had, when he’d succeeded in making her laugh, it was like winning the lottery or like finding something very rare and precious – something that was all the more valuable because it was so rare. But in the past few months she hadn’t laughed at all. She’d just watched him carefully with big, disappointed grey eyes. Thinking about that made him feel sad and angry again. He’d loved her once, he supposed. But she’d ruined everything. She didn’t want him anymore. She’d betrayed him and he wasn’t the type to forgive.

He let go of her head, gently setting it down on the concrete. There was something about her eyes – her blank accusing stare. It gave him the creeps. Looking into her dilated pupils, he was reminded of something he’d read recently – about how forensic scientists back in the early 1900s used to think that a murderer’s image would be imprinted on the retina of his victim. It was a stupid idea really, but in the early days of photography, they believed that the eye worked like a camera – that whatever a dead person last saw would be retained inside like a negative. He knew it was nonsense. The human eye didn’t record images. Even so, he leaned forward and closed her lids so she couldn’t look at him anymore. Now she was dead, his anger was slowly evaporating, leaving a residue of sadness and fear. He was afraid of what he’d done and afraid of what would happen to him when people found out.

What was he going to tell them? He wasn’t sure that even he could explain this one away. On the plus side, no one had seen it happen. No one could prove it wasn’t an accident. Yes, that was his story and he was sticking to it. An accident – just a terrible accident. Feeling calmer, he sat back on his haunches and stared up at the wide blue sky. He watched as a bird of prey wheeled above him and a single white cloud drifted past. But then, sitting there, he caught something, a movement or a shadow, out of the corner of his eye and he turned. With the glare of the sun on the window it was hard to tell what was reflection and what was not. But, just at that moment, he could have sworn he saw someone – someone standing there, watching him.

Chapter One ‘He killed her.’ We’re talking about my parents’ neighbour, whose wife died a few months ago. But when Mum makes this shocking assertion the conversation stops abruptly, and Dad and I both turn and stare at her. For a moment I think she must be joking; that it’s just her mischievous sense of humour. But she seems deadly serious. Her fork is trembling in her hand, bits of potato and gravy dropping onto her kaftan. Her bright red lipstick is smudged, her hair sticking out at wild angles and there’s a look of what I can only describe as horror in her eyes. Dad sighs, picks at the potato bits and wipes the gravy off his mouth with a napkin. ‘He didn’t kill her, love,’ he says patiently, patting her hand. ‘It was just an accident, a terrible accident.

’ Mum bats his hand away crossly. ‘It wasn’t an accident,’ she insists. ‘I saw him, clear as day, through the window.’ She’s getting more and more agitated, waving her knife and fork around. I know from Dad that her dementia occasionally makes her aggressive in between bouts of inappropriate friskiness, but I haven’t seen this side of her before. I’ve been away too long, I think sadly. I’ve been so wrapped up in my own life and my own problems. My mother has changed. She’s not the same vibrant, funny woman who used to dance on the tables in restaurants, who had us all in stitches with her impression of the head teacher at my school. ‘She gets confused sometimes these days,’ Dad whispers loudly to me.

‘It’s the Alzheimer’s.’ ‘I’m not confused,’ Mum retorts. ‘I know exactly what I saw, and I’m not deaf, by the way.’ ‘You’ve been watching too much Midsomer Murders, that’s all, Jean.’ Dad says. ‘You’re thinking of that episode we saw the other day, the one where the gardener hit his wife over the head with a spade, remember?’ ‘How did she die, exactly?’ I ask, a faint anxiety churning in my gut. Ridiculous, I know, but Mum’s distress seems to be infectious. Dad shakes his head. ‘It was horrible. A real tragedy.

She fell from the top-floor window. They added a third floor only last year. The racket the builders made was insufferable, wasn’t it, Jean?’ ‘What? Oh yes,’ Mum nods vaguely. ‘It went on for months.’ Dad presses his lips together disapprovingly. Something about his tone suggests that he feels her death might have been a fitting punishment for all the noise they had to endure. ‘Kate was so young too – only thirty-two. The same age as you, Jessie.’ He looks at me with a worried frown, as if it had something to do with her age; as if I too might be about to launch myself out of an upstairs window. No doubt he’s thinking about his conversation with Matteo last night.

How much did Matteo tell him? I wonder. How much was Matteo’s particular brand of bullshit and how much was true? Under the table I dig my nails into my thighs. The room is hot and stuffy, and I wish I could open the door, but the draft bothers Mum so we keep it closed. I’m starting to feel that sense of panic I sometimes get when I’m shut in. ‘Apparently, she hit her head at just the wrong angle,’ Dad continues. ‘It’s such a shame. She’s got a young daughter too.’ He shakes his head gravely. ‘That poor child. That poor man.

It doesn’t bear thinking about.’ I imagine a handsome couple with a cute little girl. In my head the little girl is about seven – the same age as Anna Maria. I close my eyes, trying to block out an image of big, frightened brown eyes and tear-stained cheeks. Why did I have to go and think about Anna Maria now? I don’t want to think about her, or about the English Academy and Madrid. That’s all behind me now. An unfortunate chapter in my life best forgotten. ‘How long have they lived here?’ I ask, trying to focus. I run my finger along a groove in the pine table, where someone, either me or Howie, dug into the soft wood with a knife. Dad frowns.

‘About three years now,’ he says. ‘They moved in shortly after you went to Spain. Ajay’s a vet at the practice in the village. He’s very good apparently. He’s been great with your brother’s dog.’ I wonder if Howie’s still got the same dog, an irascible pug called Bella, who never stops yapping and who tried to bite my ankles last time I visited. I’m about to ask, but Mum is breathing strangely, clutching her chest, and her face has turned puce. ‘Are you OK, Mum?’ I ask anxiously. ‘Dad, is she OK?’ ‘She’ll be fine,’ he says, carrying on eating. He has a look of studied calm on his face – an expression that suggests he’s seen all this before.

Like it’s a regular occurrence. ‘He wants me dead,’ Mum hisses dramatically in my ear. ‘Because I know too much.’ ‘Nonsense,’ says Dad sharply. ‘Ajay Chandry is a very nice man. He didn’t murder his wife and he certainly doesn’t want to kill you. Jessie, can you pass me the salt, please?’ I pick at my food, not really tasting it. I want to make a joke or talk about something happy to lighten the mood and comfort Mum, but I’ve no idea what to say, and I know all too well that when someone is in a delusional state like this, there’s not a lot you can say. We eat in silence for a while. There’s nothing but the sound of our chewing and the steady monotonous ticking of the clock on the wall.

Dad gulps down his beer, staring broodingly at the label and picking at the edges with his thumbnail. He’s put on weight since I last saw him and his belly is straining over his trousers. Next to him Mum looks delicate and ethereal, like an aged Titania. She’s looking at her fork, twisting it in her hand as if she’s never seen one in her life before, and there’s an emptiness in her eyes that scares me. It’s way too warm and stuffy in here and the silence is oppressive. I’ve always hated long silences. They just allow space for dark thoughts to fester. ‘Well, it’s nice to be back,’ I say brightly at last, just for something to say. ‘It’s lovely to have you, darling,’ says Mum, smiling at me fondly and cupping my face in her thin, blue-veined hands. Her moods these days are as changeable as a child’s.

And, just like that, she’s happy again, as if our earlier conversation has been wiped clean from her mind. ‘Isn’t it lovely to have Jessica home again, Brian?’ ‘Mmm.’ Dad nods and clears his throat. ‘I was just wondering what your plans were, Jess? How long are you going to stay in England?’ And I realise with a sinking heart that he hasn’t fully understood the situation. He doesn’t know that I’m never going back – that there’s nothing to return to. ‘I’m not going back to Spain,’ I say firmly. I think about the flat I shared with Matteo in Madrid – the expensive wooden floors, Matteo’s wardrobe full of designer shirts and jackets. I think about Dr Lopez with his kind, grave face and I shudder. ‘But Matteo gave me the impression . ’ Dad starts.

‘Matteo is full of shit . Sorry about my language, Mum, but he is. He can’t accept that I’ve left him. I’m never going back.’ I stare at Dad defiantly, waiting for the backlash. My parents were so upset when Howie divorced his wife that they refused to speak to him for more than a month. And even though Matteo and I weren’t married, they were pleased that I’d finally settled down with someone. I know from the less than subtle comments they’d made recently that they really hoped we’d eventually tie the knot, which was strange, considering they’d never actually married themselves. But the reaction to my news is surprisingly muted. Mum looks confused and Dad just frowns.

‘What are you going to do for money?’ he asks. ‘I’ve got some savings. That’ll tide me over for a bit until I get a job.’ I want to reassure him I’m not going to be an extra burden – that I can look after myself. ‘But are you sure you’re well enough to work?’ Dad asks. ‘Maybe you should rest and recuperate for a while. Matteo said—’ ‘What’s wrong?’ Mum interrupts, looking alarmed. ‘Are you ill, Jessica?’ ‘No, I’m fine, Mum. I don’t need to rest.’ I pat her hand.

I’m thinking about the days after I was fired from the English Academy. Those days were the worst – being trapped in the house all alone with my thoughts and the awful gnawing boredom and loneliness. ‘I think work will be good for me.’ ‘But what will you do?’ Dad asks. ‘There can’t be much call for EFL teachers in the village.’ ‘Maybe not,’ I agree. ‘I was thinking of having a break from teaching. I might do some photography.’ I took a few photos at Matteo’s friend’s wedding, before everything went pear-shaped, and they turned out well. Photography was part of my degree at college before I dropped out to move to Spain with Matteo.

It feels like a logical choice. But Dad doesn’t seem reassured. ‘How much money can you make as a photographer?’ he asks doubtfully. ‘It doesn’t seem like a very steady job.’ ‘Nonsense.’ Mum shuts him up with a spark of her old fire. ‘Not everything’s about money, Brian. I think it’s a marvellous idea, Jessica. You’re so talented. You should take up painting again too.

Your painting was always fabulous.’ I haven’t done any painting for ages, I think sadly, and I try to remember exactly when and why I gave up. It must have been shortly after I arrived in Spain. Matteo never liked me painting. He didn’t like the smell of turpentine and even when I bought odourless paint thinner, he still objected. Sometimes it was easier just to give in to him. Thinking about Matteo, my chest feels tight and the room seems unbearably warm and humid. I thought that I would escape the heat when I returned from Madrid. But I’ve come back in the middle of a heatwave, and I feel hotter than I ever felt in Spain. At least in Spain we had air conditioning.

Mum and Dad haven’t got any fans, and no one ever opens a window in this house. ‘Do you want afters?’ I ask, standing up abruptly. I feel dizzy and am sure I’m about to faint. I need to get out of this room. ‘I’ll just have a cup of coffee, please,’ says Mum. ‘You couldn’t fetch my shawl from the bedroom while you’re up, could you, darling? I’m feeling a bit shivery.’ How she can be cold when the temperature must be at least thirty degrees, I’ve no idea, but I escape willingly upstairs, glad for an excuse to get away from them both. I love them but being back home hasn’t brought the relief I thought it would. Dad can’t help treating me like a child and I can already feel myself slipping back into old ways, old patterns of behaviour. The sooner I move out, the better, I think, as I push open the door to my parents’ room.

It’s like a time capsule – practically unchanged since we first moved here, when I was three years old. There’s the same wallpaper, the same aubergine-coloured curtains, even, if I’m not mistaken, the same aubergine duvet cover. I can’t find Mum’s shawl, so I open the wardrobe and pick out a warm fleece. I’m about to take it downstairs when I get distracted by the photos on the bedside table. There’s a picture of Mum looking super glamorous with big eighties hair, me propped up in her lap. And there’s a school photo of Howie, chubby cheeked, about twelve years old, grinning cheekily at the camera. As I turn towards the door, I feel a sudden wave of claustrophobia – like I haven’t suffered in ages. I stagger to the window and open it, leaning out, gulping in the humid air. Everything in the close is completely still. Nothing is stirring.

There isn’t even a hint of a breeze in the trees. It’s as if the world is holding its breath, waiting for something. There’s a clear view of the house opposite and the silver Toyota parked outside. I look at the window at the top of the house, but the sun is low, reflecting off the glass, and it’s impossible to see in. I think about Mum’s strange outburst, musing on how little we really know about the people who live all around us. Unlike the other houses in the close, which have small, neatly clipped lawns, the house opposite has a concrete front garden with a stone statue of an owl at the centre. I imagine Kate Chandry tumbling to the ground, smashing her head against the concrete, and I shudder.

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