Mariticide, noun. From the Latin ‘maritus’ meaning husband plus ‘-cide’ from ‘caedere’ , to cut, to kill. I was up early so I got to it before she could see. Red paint, this time, which seemed harder to remove than the white. Is that true? Never mind. Either way, it was a good thing I kept those scourers because it took four of them to get it off. It’s a grotty fence, as Tom was always saying, the posts bleached and rotting, cracks stretching between the slats, and parts of the letters – the curl of the G, the bottom of the L – were painted on the overgrown ivy. When I’d finished, I picked off each adulterated leaf. ‘YOUR GUILTEY’ I don’t like it. It’s unnerving. It smacks of mob rule, of a world in which a person who is accused of something, proven or otherwise, is expected to go around with a marker on their back. As if police, court, a trial, jail term (however it pans out), is not punishment enough. I won’t tell her, of course. She’s had enough to deal with. Bad enough to have spent those nights in the cell at Wandsworth police station; then the misery of the full week at Bronzefield.
The terrible food and the screaming, the soap that stripped a layer of skin. I tried to visit, got all the way to Ashford on the train, with the Clarins cleansing milk she likes, but it turns out you need photo ID: a passport or driving licence, and I have neither. (How do people manage? If she ends up going back, I’ll have to work something out.) Anyway, she’s only just settling in here. The last thing she needs now is to feel got at. Of course, it’s just the daubings of some illiterate or – to be sympathetic – dyslexic. But as I crouched, my back to the street, bucket at my side, I felt unnerved, as if each car that passed was watching. I felt suffused with shame, too, the natural humiliation, perhaps, of anyone forced to clear up someone else’s unpleasantness. And I felt strangely lonely. It was an accident, I’ve told everyone who asked.
Innocent. Any jury will see that. Surely. I don’t know why people are so odd. Once I’d stowed the scourers and the bucket in the kitchen, I came out to find her loitering in the hall, asking petulantly for her breakfast. Normally I take it up to her on a tray, as I always did for Mother, but this morning I hadn’t had time because of being busy with the fence. I shepherded her into the front room while I got it ready. She likes a particular type of granola, but we’re running low (I can only get it by walking down to the big Sainsbury’s) so I supplemented it with some of my Quick Oats. She didn’t seem to notice. She ate without expression, gazing out of the window at the cars and the buses, the children on their way to school.
She seemed to be in one of her fugue states. Shock, the doctor said. But I’m never quite sure. Maudie was agitating to go out, and when I suggested Ailsa join us I didn’t expect her to agree. She hasn’t left the house willingly since she got here. There’s always been some excuse: too tired, or her eyes hurt, or she might see someone she knew. Today the defaced fence must have given an extra force to my words, or perhaps I simply timed it right. ‘It doesn’t do anyone any good to be shut up all day,’ I said and she spun round. ‘OK’: the emphasis on the K, as if she were doing me a favour. I found her a jacket, one of mine, and a scarf, ditto.
She has none of the right clothes with her, all too summery. The jacket, a maroon-coloured puffer, not 100 per cent clean, was bulky and she didn’t like it. Her nose wrinkled and I had to push her arms into it, as if I were dressing a recalcitrant child. The black scarf passed muster. It’s only polyester but it feels like cashmere and, as I searched for the keys in the hall, I caught her studying her reflection in a mirror, lifting her chin to rearrange it at the side of her neck. Some habits die hard. I stage-managed the walk, of course, making sure to turn right out of the house so as not to pass her front door, down to the end of Trinity Road and then straight across there at the lights on to the common. I was keen to avoid the busy row of shops and cafes on Bellevue. The reporters have cleared off but she’s right; you wouldn’t want to make too much of a performance of it. She walked very slowly, and I hooked my arm through hers and pulled her along.
I tried to curb my irritation. Baby steps, I’d said, but I hadn’t meant it literally. It was a crisp, blustery autumn morning, the sky frantic with clouds, the sun rushing in and out. I unclipped Maudie from her lead and she ran ahead across the grass: a patchwork of roving shadows. Ailsa’s pace picked up on the main path and when I drew attention to the loveliness of the big tall chestnuts – they’re beginning to catch fire – she made a murmuring sound, which I took to be agreement. We should perhaps have turned round then, to quit while we were ahead. I blame myself that we didn’t. I like to think I am in touch with her moods, but I was insufficiently alert. I was trying to be jolly, chatting inanely about the cygnets on the pond, how big they’d grown, when I became aware of two women, both blonde, with small dogs on leads, walking towards us. It was like a magnetic field, the tension, the anticipation, in their silence.
Ailsa did too, or maybe she knew them. She knows a lot of people. Her breath changed: a sharp inhalation followed immediately by a strangulated whimper. She leant sharply into me – I wondered if she might fall – so I hoisted her off the path, and across the grass to the bench under the tree, the one that faces the incline down to the water. She hurled herself onto it, taking up most of the room, her head thrown backwards so she was staring up at the sky, her neck resting on the metal. After a few moments, she said, with some petulance, that she was exhausted; she hadn’t slept for days. And then she began to talk about Melissa: she’d emailed her again but she hadn’t replied; she wasn’t sure her messages were being passed on. It wasn’t fair. She told a long anecdote about a birthday picnic for the twins and how jolly it had been and something about a beautiful tree house they had built in Kent. I stopped listening, I’m afraid.
I don’t like hearing about Kent and I’ve heard a lot about the children recently. Also, I was pretty tired myself. I’m having to work at night, for obvious reasons. A couple of parakeets flew, squawking, between two trees. Maud was over towards the copse, taking those oddly prissy choreographed steps that mean she’s stalking a squirrel. The light was buttery, with a cool sharpness to the air, the criss-cross patches of sky a lovely washed blue. Under our feet was a proper scrunch of autumn debris. I rolled the soles of my shoes over it, finding the noise satisfying. I thought about Ailsa’s voice, how posh it is and how her sentences can turn up at the end; sometimes even in the middle. I wondered for the first time how it would play with jurors.
Conclusion: not well. When she first leant forwards, I assumed she was looking at my legs. I was wearing those zip-off trousers that are so comfortable for walking, and a section of my lower calves were on display. Her eyes were focused on the tiny scales – the completely perfect white circles that are evidence of age; idiopathic guttate hypomelanosis, to give them their correct name. I thought she might be about to comment – ‘You must see my dermatologist’ – so her words came as a shock. ‘At first, I didn’t . you know, it was as if he just had something stuck in his throat, or it was too hot, like he’d eaten a whole chilli or something. You know? But the water I gave him it was all coming out of the sides of his mouth . I mean, his tongue was—’ She began scraping her top teeth along the surface of her own tongue, back and forth. I couldn’t think what she was doing, until I realised with a sickening lurch that she was giving a demonstration.
‘How awful,’ I said. I had a panicked feeling that I should have been trying to record her, though I didn’t know how subtly to get to my phone. She plucked at the maroon jacket, scratching the fabric with her nails, and then scratching at her wrists. Her skin looks sore at the moment. ‘And his pupils, Verity. It was so weird. They were just black, like an animal’s, and he was clutching at his neck and his mouth was hanging open still, and all this saliva everywhere, like a dog frothing. You know? I’ve never seen it, but how you imagine a dog with rabies, like that. It was inhuman. He was writhing, contorting like his body wasn’t his; his forehead was covered in sweat.
He was still looking at me. The look in his eyes . And he had been so sick – it was all over his shirt and the kitchen floor, and I couldn’t find any kitchen paper, so I was using loo roll.’ ‘Was he still at the table, at that point, Ailsa?’ It was something the police had kept asking. ‘I think he had left the table. He’d slid off his chair onto the floor.’ ‘So he was on the floor. And you were – standing? Or had you got down?’ Crows flapped in the branches behind us. Her voice rose. ‘I’d got down.
I’d got the water.’ ‘Oh yes.’ A flighty wind was playing in the tree next to her, leaves spiralling past her shoulders. ‘If I’d rung an ambulance immediately would I have saved him? Was it already too late?’ I opened my mouth to answer, trying to control my expression. If only I had been near that night. If only I’d known he was home. ‘I don’t know.’ Maudie had disappeared from view, and even as I was concentrating on Ailsa, I made room for a small amount of mild panic. I fought the urge to stand up and call. Ailsa’s head was making small darting movements, her eyes flickering with shadows.
‘They said the hemlock was what stopped him from breathing?’ It was a couple of seconds before I realised it was a question. I said: ‘I believe it paralyses the nervous and respiratory systems, and that is what leads to death.’ Her hands had fallen limply by her side. ‘I often said I wished him dead.’ She had begun to cry. ‘That things would be so much better if he were. But they’re not. It’s not fair. Everything always goes wrong for me. I wish I could turn back time.
’ I felt impatient with her then and I stood up. ‘We’d better get going,’ I said crisply, and I pulled her to her feet – all those years fussing about her weight; I’m not sure these days she’s even eight stone – and, once I’d pinpointed the dog, I sort of frogmarched her home. She’s asleep now. We’ve made her a nest in the front room, in one corner of the sofa, and she is conked out there. She was sweet when we got in. She held my hand to her cheek when I brought her her rooibos tea, said thank you for standing by her. I’ve been watching her – the tiny muscular flickers under her eyelids, the way her mouth opens, blown apart by her breath, then gently falls back into place. It’s a dear little face, really, heart-shaped, with the widow’s peak (ironic now) in her tawny hair, those distinctively upward-turning green eyes. The small dent of an old scar runs for an inch or so under her hairline. I don’t know how it got there.
There is so much about her I don’t know. She has a meeting with the QC this week. Until now I haven’t been too worried; I’ve been complacent. I thought it would work itself out. I told myself nothing on the surface was wrong with their marriage – they were the perfect couple. The case would be dropped, I assumed, or dismissed; after expressions of unending gratitude for all that I’ve done, she and the children would move back next door. Now, I don’t know. My head is full of thoughts. Who is she? How have we come to this? Her tone this afternoon – I keep thinking about it. There was shock there, of course, and self-pity: her own particular ‘why does this have to happen to me?’ vein (the consequence, I think, of being slightly spoilt).
And fear, and horror – watching Tom dissolve into something animal and unrecognisable before her eyes: ‘like a dog frothing’. All of this is understandable. Each of us deals with trauma in different ways. And after what she’s done for me, I’ll forgive her anything. I really will. My fingers are still raw from scrubbing at the graffiti. I keep wondering who could posibly have done such a thing? What are they trying to tell me? It’s awful, but as she sleeps, and the night presses against the window, I feel scared for the first time. Have I made a mistake? It’s just one thing was missing from her outburst this afternoon, the one thing you’d expect to find in a tragedy of this kind. Grief.