Every Little Secret – Ruby Speechley

Maddy is in the garden deadheading roses when a ring of the doorbell splinters the silence. Poppy and Daisy bark and run around her legs. ‘Go away,’ she says under her breath and twists off another flower, scattering petals on the lawn. Only strangers come to the front. The ring is more insistent now. She kicks off her sandals at the back door and pads along the hallway. ‘Mrs Saunders?’ A policeman and policewoman are standing there, blocking the light; the man has his foot up on the porch step, thumbs hooked either side of his padded vest. Maddy’s mouth opens but she doesn’t speak. Instead she grips the door handle a little tighter. ‘PC Dolan and this is PC Wright. May we come in?’ Maddy stands aside. Their shoes are caked in cut grass, the fresh smell unlocked by the mower earlier. The dogs sniff at the half-empty bin liner in PC Dolan’s hand. ‘If it’s about my car…’ She pushes a tendril of hair behind her ear. He shakes his head as though she’s told a bad joke.

‘Is your husband Mr Max Saunders?’ Maddy nods. A spike of heat shoots through her head. ‘Can you tell us where he is?’ PC Wright towers over them. She stamps her feet on the mat, scattering clumps of grass across the parquet floor. ‘He works away; he’s in Buckinghamshire this week.’ Maddy follows her line of vision, where she is taking in the child-size church pew and the row of various sized shoes neatly paired underneath. ‘Poppy, Daisy, come away.’ But they continue to push their noses at the bulging bin liner. Maddy invites them in and closes the door behind them. ‘Is there somewhere we can sit?’ Their faces are almost lost against the flowery wallpaper.

They’re not smiling. She shows them into the living room and lowers herself into the armchair facing the French windows. Her heart is galloping. PC Dolan’s uniform creaks as he perches his substantial weight on the edge of the sofa, his legs astride to keep his balance. PC Wright sits next to him her hands clasped together. ‘I’m afraid I have some bad news.’ PC Dolan’s fingers form a cradle in front of him. ‘Let me fetch you a drink.’ Maddy springs up. Her throat pulses as if a hand is squeezing her neck.

‘This isn’t going to be easy for you.’ He pushes himself up, so they are facing each other. A missed cluster of spiky hair on his jaw moves when he speaks. She pushes away a nervous smile. He nods, touches her elbow and they sit down again in unison. ‘We believe your husband fell from a bridge over Yeading Brook, in Uxbridge, at around 1.55 a.m.’ He refers to a notebook from his breast pocket. ‘So far we’ve only recovered a rucksack.

’ Maddy frowns, not sure she’s heard him correctly. Her fingers lock together into one large fist. She glances at the policewoman. ‘We’ve got underwater police teams and an RAF helicopter searching for him as we speak,’ says PC Wright. Ice trickles through her veins despite her face burning up. Her vision is blotchy. She can’t seem to construct a decent question to ask. ‘Were you expecting him home last night?’ ‘Not until Thursday.’ Her voice is barely audible. ‘A bridge you say, here in Uxbridge?’ She shakes her head.

‘That wouldn’t be him. He’s not worked here for a while.’ She’s been desperate to speak to him, try and get him to come home early so she can tell him what’s happened, but he’s not answered a single one of her calls or texts. ‘He was seen by witnesses, admittedly from some distance. They couldn’t say for certain if he fell by accident.’ ‘Then you’re not sure it was him.’ Maddy sits up straight. ‘It’s his rucksack, Mrs Saunders, although nothing is conclusive at present.’ A stream of air escapes her lips. She shuts her eyes, deflates into the armchair and tries to breathe normally.

Any minute now Max will breeze in, pat them on the shoulder and say it’s all been a terrible misunderstanding. ‘Mrs Saunders?’ Her eyes blink open. The room has darkened and closed in on her. ‘Can you tell me if there was anything bothering Max? Anything that might have given him thoughts of… harming himself?’ Maddy smooths out imaginary creases in her jeans. Tears roll down her cheeks. She digs in her pocket for a hanky. ‘Money problems perhaps?’ ‘Chloe.’ Her hand springs to her mouth as if she’s sworn at him. She swallows and wipes the tears away; they’ve always been so close to the surface these past few weeks. Unable to speak, she fixes on the latest school photo of Chloe and Emily; their toothy smiles, heads tipped together.

They both stare up at the picture on the shelf above the fireplace. PC Dolan’s eyebrows rise as he takes in the dozens of sympathy cards and teddies huddled around it. ‘Our youngest died of meningitis three weeks ago,’ she says, struggling to swallow the lump in her throat. ‘Oh goodness, I’m so sorry,’ says PC Wright. ‘She was only five.’ She sniffs and presses her lips together. ‘I’m very sorry to hear it.’ PC Dolan dips his head. Tiny pearls of sweat line his top lip. ‘This is clearly an extremely difficult time for you already.

Is there a relative or friend you can call to support you?’ ‘My neighbour Sarah will be here soon. She’s picking up our seven-year-old, Emily, from school.’ ‘Good, good. A Family Liaison Officer will be over to assist you.’ He rubs his palms together. ‘I’m sorry, but I need to ask, what has Max’s behaviour been like over the last few weeks?’ His voice is softer now and his head nods up and down a little. ‘He’s not been here a great deal; he’s a builder and decorator you see, works away a lot.’ Her hands find their way to her belly and rest there. She takes in a breath to control her emotions. ‘We’ve not talked much lately.

’ She covers her eyes. If only he’d answered his phone. ‘It’s been a terrible time. We’ve all been so…’ ‘I understand.’ He pauses. ‘Is it possible to have a recent photo of him?’ She rocks back in her seat as though a bullet has skimmed past her. They think he’s dead. She tries to focus on the framed photo of Max on their last holiday only a few weeks ago, his blond hair caught up in a breeze, arm around his surfboard like it’s his best buddy. She points to it on the TV cabinet, and PC Wright reaches across and hands it to her, but Maddy’s all fingers and thumbs and the frame crashes to the floor, glass cracking across Max’s face. Maddy gasps and covers her eyes.

Without saying a word, PC Wright picks up the frame, unclips the back panel and slips the photo out. Maddy fetches a dustpan and brush, which the policewoman takes from her and sweeps up the glass. ‘I brought along everything that’s been found.’ PC Dolan’s hand hovers in mid-air. ‘Could you… would you mind?’ They glance at each other before he opens the black bin liner at his feet, unzipping the rucksack inside it. Everything is still wet although it’s all been placed in clear bags. He lays a plastic sheet on the glass coffee table and takes out a Mars bar wrapper; a packet of Rothmans cigarettes; a GAP sweatshirt and a pair of jeans, both splattered with paint; and a Lloyds Bank cheque book. He places each item in front of them. Maddy picks up the bag containing the sodden cheque book, which has been peeled open. Max’s printed name is blurred around the edges, the stub clumped together.

Her trembling fingers trail across the bags of clothes. A cry escapes her lips. She presses her fist to her mouth. PC Dolan hesitates, holding something else in his hand, poised like he’s about to throw a dice. ‘We found this.’ He unfurls his palm to reveal a Yale key on a fob. ‘It was hidden in the lining of the rucksack.’ She examines the dull brass next to the constable’s thick gold band, worn into the fabric of his skin. She exchanges a look with him, then with PC Wright and takes the front door key. ‘Plot 146’ is scribbled in biro on a piece of card framed in an oblong of plastic.

She holds it up, dangling it between them. ‘It isn’t ours,’ she says. Chapter Two Maddy stares at the key and her mind clouds over, blocking her thoughts with too many questions. Sarah arrives with Sophie and Emily moments later, clattering through the back gate full of chatter and laughter. Emily is the first to spot her through the French windows, sitting with the constable who is tidying Max’s things back into the bin liner. All three of them stop dead and stare through the glass. The constable slides the patio door open. ‘Everything okay?’ Sarah’s voice rings a high note of alarm. ‘Mummy!’ Emily cries and runs into her open arms. Maddy tries to stand up but her legs wobble and she crumples back down.

‘Mummy?’ Emily wails like an injured bird, clinging on to her. ‘What’s happened?’ Sarah asks in a quiet voice, arm around her daughter Sophie. Emily stands between Maddy’s legs, searching her face. PC Dolan sits near them. Maddy’s mouth makes strange shapes, barely able to say the words. ‘Daddy’s had an accident.’ She sucks in a breath and the tears come fast, uncontrollable. She pulls Emily to her, sobbing into her daughter’s hair as she rocks her back and forth, never wanting to let her go. ‘He was seen falling into Yeading Brook last night, but I’m afraid, as yet, he’s not been found,’ PC Dolan says. Maddy squeezes the key in her fist and stuffs it in her pocket.

‘Oh, dear God.’ Sarah wraps her arm around Maddy. ‘We’re doing everything we can to find him.’ PC Dolan’s voice is a soft blanket, wrapping her up in comforting words. ‘Will you be able to stay for a while, until the liaison officer arrives?’ he asks Sarah. She nods. * Later, when the police and the liaison officer have gone, Sarah sits the girls in front of the TV, tucked up together under a blanket with an ice lolly each. Maddy follows Sarah into the kitchen. She sits at the table and stares into space. The seconds tick by on the wall clock, louder than usual.

She’s not sure she can summon the energy to do anything, but while Sarah is making tea, she picks up the phone and presses in Max’s number. The line is dead. Her stomach tumbles. How can this be? Sarah takes two mugs from the draining board and switches the kettle on. ‘He must have taken losing Chloe so much harder than he let on.’ Maddy nods. If she speaks she’ll start crying again. The last few weeks have been hard enough, and now this. ‘Oh honey, come here.’ Sarah hugs her.

‘Did he say anything at all to make you think he’d do something like this?’ Maddy shakes her head and gently pulls away. When was the last time she and Max really talked about how they felt? Especially lately, since Chloe’s death. What was there to say? The truth is, it’s been too painful. Nothing was going to bring her back. But they used to be able to talk about anything. He confided in her when they first met, told her how his gran had brought him up in near poverty. A superstitious lady. A good sort, he called her. Read tea leaves and lived her life by the phases of the moon. ‘He’s been so excited about the new baby.

’ Sarah pours boiling water into the teapot and gives it a stir. Maddy looks down at her bump. A miracle conception in many ways considering how little they made love anymore. ‘Is there something else? You can tell me.’ Sarah sits at the breakfast bar opposite her and leans forward to pour the tea, her straight blonde fringe falling across her face. They’ve been friends since their girls were born only days apart. Sarah’s written about bereavement on her parents’ blog, emailed her all her top hints and tips on how to cope. But it’s not something that can be fixed by advice in neatly set out bullet points. Will this be the subject of her next post? How to tell your child their parent may have taken their own life. ‘It’s nothing,’ Maddy says, and the moment is gone.

She presses her palm to her forehead to stop the thumping pain. ‘They found a front door key in Max’s rucksack.’ Maddy takes it out of her pocket and places it on the counter between them. Sarah picks it up by the fob, turns it over in her hand. ‘I’ve never seen it before,’ Maddy says. ‘It’ll be from one of the new houses he’s been doing up, won’t it?’ Sarah says. ‘I thought that too. I’ve seen him with a ring full of keys before, but never one on its own.’ Sarah rubs her finger over the number on the fob. ‘Plot 146.

’ ‘What could be so special about this one?’ Maddy takes it from her. ‘Could it be for the house he was working on yesterday?’ ‘But wouldn’t he keep it in the front of his rucksack with all his other stuff?’ ‘Isn’t that where it was?’ ‘No, it was hidden away in the lining.’ ‘I wonder why.’ Sarah collects up their mugs. ‘I don’t know, but I need to find out. It might explain why he was on that bridge.’

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