Her Best Friend – Sarah Wray

The sun had held out for as long as it could. Thank goodness for that at least, everyone kept saying over and over; a mantra, just to fill the space. But it was getting dark, panic was setting in. She’d been missing for a whole day. The adults all sat around the kitchen table – Peter and Michael had been out searching for hours along the canal, in the parks. They had come in, everyone’s eyes on them straight away. But they shook their heads. Michael looked grey and he steadied himself, gripping a chair. ‘She’ll come in any minute,’ he said before Judith could ask anything or presume the worst. ‘You’ll tell her off and in a few days, it will be all forgotten. You’ll see. You know what they’re like.’ Judith put her head back in her hands. Sylvie wasn’t allowed to stay in the room with them any longer. She had been interrogated all evening – her brain felt scrubbed and numb from it, bleached out.

She watched everyone’s eyes locking wordlessly as she spoke, but she couldn’t decode the messages they were sending each other. She went and sat in the living room, pretending to watch TV, the sound down as low as it would go, ears straining for the murmurs coming from the kitchen, for something she could latch on to. The brightly coloured balloons from the party the day before still bobbed, ghost-like, around the house, on the gatepost at the end of the garden. Shiny, metallic streamers hung on the doorways and across the ceiling, fluttering of their own accord every now and then. Some had already fallen down and trailed along the carpet. The chairs and furniture were pushed back, the party food drying out, turning rotten on the trestle table Sylvie’s dad had once used for wallpaper pasting. Sylvie shoved a stale yellow party ring into her mouth, swallowing without tasting. Grabbing at the tray, she picked up one of each colour and pushed them in at the same time. Bad luck would ensue if she missed one out, a little voice in her head said. The buffet was starting to smell – gloopy egg mayonnaise, greasy cocktail sausages, the air thickening with it.

No one knew what to do with all the food: inappropriate to spend time clearing it away, grotesque to leave it there. Sylvie glanced back over her shoulder then crammed one thing from each plate into her mouth, breathing heavily through her nose, trying not to be sick. Her jaw was stretched, hardly any space left in her mouth free to chew, and it made her gag. Cold, fatty sausage churned in with goneoff cream. She retched, her eyes straining, then swallowed hard. A big ball of food stuck in her chest, pressing down painfully. Did they really think she could just switch off and watch Beverly Hills, 90210 like nothing had happened? Did they think she was stupid enough to believe them just because they said it would all be fine? She sat back on the sofa, hugging a cushion to her distended stomach. All she could hear from the kitchen was mumbles, the words and voices all blurring and running together. A uniformed police officer waited in the hall. Her radio crackled and the dreaded words squawked out of it, loud and clear.

‘Found her. Up at the lake,’ the robotic voice said, followed by more interference. ‘Got you. Yes, sir,’ she heard the officer reply. Sylvie froze on the sofa. No, please, no. She held her breath. She couldn’t make out what the voice said next. The police officer muttered ‘Shit’ under her breath, missing the ‘i’ sound out altogether. Sylvie went to the hall, saw the police officer’s back, heard the handle of the door to the kitchen turn.

A long silence, then Judith’s scream. Sylvie couldn’t take it in. She couldn’t fathom that Victoria had been here yesterday, right in front of her, here in this house, and now she was gone. She had to see for herself, to believe it was really true, not just a bad dream. She slipped quietly out of the front door. Alternating between walking and running as much as her breathlessness and the recurring stitch in her side would allow, Sylvie felt like she was floating somehow; sounds were distant. All that food was jiggling around in her stomach. Vomit threatened in the back of her throat. She drifted over the road and a car horn blared but it was remote, removed. It was still warm, even though it was late, and people sat on doorsteps and in deckchairs in the yards in front of their houses, talking and drinking.

Windows were open, people watching TV, folding ironing. Preparing for their holidays maybe. The houses went past as if they were moving and Sylvie was standing still watching them. Beyond the housing estates, past the school, the road emptied out, becoming just fields, no one around. Two police cars whizzed by, sirens blaring and echoing. Sylvie turned inwards, closed her eyes and clung to the dry-stone wall until they passed. When she finally reached the lake, she was sweating, wheezy; her chest tight and painful, cheeks burning. But she couldn’t stop. Instead of following the road all the way up to the lake, which would have been faster, Sylvie climbed over a gate and approached via the fields. The lake was floodlit – like a stadium.

More lights than usual. The police must have brought their own. That wasn’t a good sign, Sylvie thought. Police cars were parked at the road entrance and tape sealed it off. She could see officers mingling around in the distance, like ants. The dry grass came up above Sylvie’s knees, scratching her legs, creating criss-crossed red lines that turned to swollen welts. Something had drawn blood. She looked ahead and kept going, as if sleepwalking. Closer to the lake, the sounds solidified, the blur cleared. Light breeze through the grass, chatter from police radios, birds, the odd shout between the officers.

As she got nearer, Sylvie could see they were pulling something from the lake. Someone, of course. She imagined herself turning back, running through the grass the way she came, jumping into bed, pulling the covers over her head. But she found she was still powering ahead as they lifted the body out and onto the path at the side of the lake. The police at the lake entrance had become aware of her approaching; they put their hands up to their brows, squinting into the distance to work out who she was. They waved their arms but Sylvie ignored them, woozy, just shapes in the corner of her field of vision. A female officer ran towards her, holding her hat to prevent it falling off. The policewoman’s arms shot out in front of her and she shouted towards the officers at the lakeside. They screwed up their faces, didn’t know what she was saying. The officer pointed towards Sylvie, but her running had slowed down.

She was too out of breath, she was too late. Sylvie weaved in between two officers by the lakeside, ducking under their arms. ‘Oi, you can’t be here! Oi!’ Everything stopped. Victoria was there, out on the ground; a strange, grey, waxy quality to her skin. Her red hoody and clothes sodden and sticking to her, rushes in her hair and across her face. Some kind of foam or goo around her mouth and nose. She looked like a crash-test dummy, a shop mannequin. ‘Aren’t you going to try and revive her?’ Sylvie heard herself say, the words swirling in the air around them. ‘You need to do mouth-to-mouth. I’ve seen it on TV.

’ ‘Can you get her out of here, someone, please? Jesus Christ! Is this amateur hour or what?’ Someone grabbed her elbow. The next thing Sylvie knew she was sitting in the back of a police car with a blanket around her. Her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. A disembodied arm passed her some water and her hand shook as she tried to drink it. ‘You’re Victoria’s friend Sylvie, aren’t you?’ The female officer smiled at her, speaking softly, craning her head round from the front seat of the car. Sylvie was confused. ‘How do you know my name?’ She tried the car door but it was locked and they were already moving, the lake and Victoria getting further and further away. ‘Officer saw you bolt from your house. Just had her on the radio. We better get you home, sweetheart.

You look like you could do with your mum.’ Sylvie put her forehead against the cool glass all the way, watching the grey of the road whizz by. ‘She’ll have been worried something had happened to you too,’ the woman said, a strong Irish accent. ‘You shouldn’t have your mum worrying as well with all this going on.’ The male police officer in the driver’s seat didn’t turn at all so Sylvie couldn’t see his face. The female officer eyed him sideways and spoke quietly as if Sylvie couldn’t hear, as if she wasn’t really there. ‘Whole town’s going to be on high alert after this, that’s for sure,’ she said. Sylvie stared down at her legs, scratched and smeared with bright red blood. TWO Sylvie I clear a spot in the condensation on the window of the café to watch the storm. People gather under the striped canopies and in the doorways of the shops, waiting.

Yet more squeeze in, shrieking and scowling at the sudden ferocity of the downpour. The sky is heavy and dark, the rain is falling in sheets. The café door keeps swinging open and the bell rings, people looking for somewhere to sit to wait it out, shaking umbrellas all over the floor. Each time, the waitress, a teenage girl in a pink cropped mohair sweater, runs over with a mop and metal bucket, wipes most of the grey water up and repositions the yellow caution sign. Looking through the porthole I’ve created, it feels like I have my own private view of a film. They have barely changed the shopping centre in the twenty years I have been away. A few different shops, but some of the original ones are still here too. The main shopping area is in a square over two levels, a balcony running right round it. The stonework is even more blackened than I remember it. There’s something about the drabness of the shops that makes my stomach feel heavy.

Davidson’s Family Butchers is directly opposite. ‘Family Butchers’ always made me think of massacres when I was younger: cannibalism. Dad would shake his head at me. ‘I don’t know what goes on in there, where you get these ideas from,’ he’d say, tapping on the side of my head. But that image has been replaced by another one now. Seeing the dead meat sitting in the window, some bearing no resemblance to the animal it’s from, some gruesomely retaining the shape. A pig’s head gaudy on the green felt at the front of the window. I am back in the maternity ward in the stillness after the noise and violence of the birth. The nurse said it was a ‘bit of a bloodbath down there, but you’ll live’, and she sewed me up, chattering about Strictly Come Dancing while I stared at the white strip lighting. She might just as well have been doing a cross stitch in front of the TV.

Mother and baby doing well, the word went out. Outside, a man sticks his hand out under the canopy and looks up at the sky but rushes back in again. It’s showing no signs of stopping yet. I force in a mouthful of the iced custard slice. I’m not hungry really, it’s too sweet, but comforting too. Me and Mum used to come to this café every Saturday with Grandma. I’d have a prawn mayonnaise sandwich with an ice-cream float, followed by a custard slice. Mum and Grandma would have black coffee, and Mum would smoke and watch me, occasionally stealing the smallest nibble of my food. ‘Excuse me. This seat taken?’ I look up and do a double-take at the woman looming over me, her hand still on my shoulder.

Her face is blooming into a new expression too: recognition. She narrows her eyes and zooms in. ‘Sylvie? Is that you? I never saw you come in.’ Judith looks as neat as ever. Slim, well-fitting clothes. Her bouncy, rollered hair is wilting in the weather. Faint mascara smudges under her eyes. ‘Judith! God, I didn’t… Please, sit down.’ ‘Oh, well I need to get home really, but this weather!’ She scrapes a chair out, setting my teeth on edge, and sits down. ‘And who is this?’ She touches the handle of the pram next to me.

‘They’ve a fine pair of little lungs on ’em, eh? I remember what that’s like.’ She pushes her lips together and looks out across the shopping centre. A crack of wind lashes rain against the window so hard it sounds like gravel, setting the whole café chattering. It looks like night-time outside now. ‘This will be punishment for the two sunny days we got back in the summer, eh?’ Judith says. ‘Mind you, even then we got those terrible floods a few days later. It’s hardly worth it, is it?’ ‘I heard that on the news.’ ‘I didn’t know you were back, Sylvie. You should have come to see me or let me know.’ She smooths down her coat and tries to rearrange her hair.

‘I just got back very recently actually. I need to sort things out at my mum’s, you know. I was going to get in touch.’ Judith looks down at the shopping bags of baby things by my feet. I couldn’t carry everything with me on the train. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t go to the funeral, love. I don’t do very well with them, I’m afraid. After, well… you know. I sent her my wishes privately.’ Judith taps the side of her head.

‘Will you come round to the house?’ she says. ‘I know Peter would love to see you and it would be so lovely to catch up and hear all your news. You’ve obviously plenty to tell us all about.’ She’s looking at the baby the whole time, as if she’s talking to her, not me. People often do. ‘OK, I’ll come round. You still in the same place or…?’ ‘Oh yes, same place. That’s us now, that house. We’ll not move from there. Do come round… I’ve been trying to contact you, actually.

There’s something I need to talk to you about.’ ‘Oh, really? What’s that?’ ‘Can you come tomorrow?’ Judith says. A cry distracts us both. Judith reaches out her hand. ‘What’s her name, pet? She’s absolutely gorgeous.’ I take a swig from what’s left of the sugary remnants of my coffee. ‘It’s Victoria. Her name is Victoria.’ Judith tenses and her eyes start to glitter. ‘I’m sorry, Judith… I…’ ‘Don’t be, dear.

That’s lovely. It’s absolutely lovely. It means a lot to me. Really. She’s just gorgeous.’ I want to ask Judith again what she wanted to talk to me about, but she’s already standing up to leave the café. ‘Anyway, the weather looks to be lifting now.’ She pulls the belt of her coat tightly around her waist and leaves, clattering into a couple of chairs along the way, accidentally dragging them a short way across the floor. Outside, it’s still pouring with rain.

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