A Dissection of Normal
It feels like judgement has arrived. A knock at the door
when I least expect it. No phone call, no text message, of course there
wouldn’t be. ‘Hi, it’s the police, we’re on our way,’ unhappy emoticon. The
world I know is turned upside down with a simple rat-a-tat on the door.
I confirm, allowing the two officers into my home.
I sit whilst they explain. The uniformed woman, WPC Holton, neatly sat on the end of the sofa, legs held tightly to one side in an awkward meditation stance, says nothing. She wears a smile that’s not a smile but is drawn on her face, suggesting that despite my ex-wife’s self-induced death, it’s all going to be absolutely fine. I don’t blame her, I wouldn’t do her job. Inevitably she is judging me and my life, even though she must pretend otherwise.
‘Was your wife unhappy? Jones asks. I drift off to the last time I saw her. Three weeks ago actually, I’m pretty sure. Nat, our daughter, would have seen her since, probably at the weekend. She still goes round. For me, the last time was when I was in the supermarket, buying some bananas. She bought raspberries and yoghurt. Funny place to have a conversation with your ex-wife. There was no drama, just ‘how are you,’ a friendly smile. Twenty years of marriage reduced to two minutes small talk.
‘No, Michelle wasn’t unhappy,’ I reply. Though that was evidently not true, certainly I didn’t in a live in a world where the woman I shared a home with for so many years offed herself in a layby with a bottle of vodka, a packet of pills washed down with a healthy dose of exhaust fumes. What the hell did I know? ‘Michelle, was many things,’ I say.’ She was determined, romantic, funny, charming … confident. I am trying not to make out she was perfect but outwardly she was. So to me, she wasn’t unhappy, but then there was obviously a lot about Michelle that I didn’t know. I could be talking about a stranger on the train.’
‘Was that the reason for the separation?’ he asks. ‘Sorry to pry.’
He’s not sorry, that’s the reason he’s here. I don’t think Detective Sergeant Jones has done this too many times as I notice his hand shaking. He is taking notes on his pad. Gruff hairy hands poke out of a black suit. I wonder whether he is that hairy all over, for no reason whatsoever other wanting to than think about anything else than what we are discussing. But my thoughts don’t linger for long. I should be sad, grieving, angry. But I’m not. I don’t feel anything. Perhaps I am role playing, like in a job interview where I sit up straight, tighten my tie, shine my boots and try and tell strangers how wonderful I am.
‘It could have been,’ I say. ‘I moved out, I let her go is the way I see it. After a few months we made the separation official. No drama. We didn’t dislike each other. We didn’t fight or argue. It was my choice. I run my business, nothing spectacular, a café on the high street. It makes me money, I like people and it suits me fine. Michelle had a job, executive, at the council. She met and worked with a lot of important people, politicians and media. I couldn’t keep up to be honest.’
It’s hard in reflection to see how we were ever compatible, but I guess she moved on from serving coffee in my shop whilst a student. Her life climbed mountains, I am still making baking cakes at seven a.m. Michelle had her mobile glued to her ear. It even followed her to the bedroom. Her life was on that phone not at home, not with me. I didn’t begrudge it, I just didn’t want it for me.
The police leave eventually, ritual platitudes left behind. There’s nothing more they can tell me and there’s definitely nothing more I can tell them. There will be a small investigation, but at this stage, there is no expectation. Michelle chose to end her life and the reason might never be known.
Now it’s my turn to pick up the phone to tell Nat I am coming round, but maybe the rat-a-tat-tat is the only way. Now I feel like P.C. smiley, informing the relatives. Being the giver of news feels almost as bad as being the receiver.
The next few days pass in a whirlwind. Formalities, people to see, her body to identify, hands to hold. There’s a process to go through and maybe that works as therapy for some people. For me, it’s a complete distraction. For me, the ‘Why’ is still working its way round my brain, seeking explanations and finding dead ends.
The police return with a certain regularity. My skin always crawls when they visit, the cringing conversation isn’t normal, it’s forced, scripted, reading lines from the manual. I know they don’t suspect me, or at least I don’t think they do, but still there’s the sense that they don’t switch off and have a normal chat about things. Everything follows procedure until the job is done. And then you’ll never see them again.
The last visit drops a small pebble in the calm waters of the predictability of my life. Enough to ruffle the protected surface I had managed to garner.
‘What was your wife doing in Stamford?’ Jones asks. ‘Only we found a menu from an Indian restaurant on the back seat of the car. She picked up a takeaway it seems.’
‘I don’t know’.
Stamford is seventy miles away, I have no connection to it and as far as I knew she doesn’t either. What happens next? Are more pebbles going to drop from the sky or are rocks about to fall.
The rat-a-tat-tat is no longer a surprise.
Opening the door, I smile, like long lost friends have arrived. Tea is made, even a piece of left over mother-in-law’s sympathy cake makes an appearance. I wonder what I am about to learn.
‘I am afraid this is a little sensitive,’ Jones says. Holton still sports the drawn smile. This time her hands are neatly placed together on her knees. The mood is different.
‘Did you and your wife have, what might be termed, abnormal sexual practices?’
I am not sure how to respond, spluttering a response that isn’t words more a response to a kick in the shin.
I look at Holton for a reaction, more insight, but she’s unmoved.
‘Everything was normal?’ He asks again.
What’s normal I wonder? We had sex. It felt normal. There was no pain, no S&M, no role play, It probably wasn’t earth shattering and like every couple it became less important as time went on. Her head was in her phone. Maybe that offered Michelle more in the way of relationship. I am sure they have seen and heard it all, but by even having to explain it, I can feel the judgement.
‘Yes,’ I say, more firmly, ‘just normal.’ Though even saying normal made me, like I was apologising. I fear normal is being dissected. ‘Please explain why you are asking.’
Jones looked at Holton but he got the same coldness as I did, she wasn’t going to make this any easier.
‘We have reason to believe,’ he pauses. He doesn’t really know how to put it. ‘Your wife may have been a frequenter of public sex events.’
Surprises are becoming a habit yet they don’t seem to relent in impact. I begin to feel like I’ve been sentenced to twenty lashes, but spread over a period of time. I just have time to get used to the pain of one, when the next one strikes.
‘Public sex events?’ I struggle for a clearer meaning.
‘Well car parks, people watching, that kind of thing?’
‘Dogging?’ I say the word because he clearly isn’t going to. His nod confirms it. ‘How?’
‘We found some CCTV, a regular site, by the A1, a disused restaurant with a car park. It’s not far from where she was found. Her car showed up quite a few times going in the same direction. I’m not saying she wasn’t or was. But to a certain extent there isn’t much else to do or see at night on that road, if you get my drift.’
I do get his drift, much as I am desperate not to. ‘Others?’ I ask. I need to know more, but am scared of where this is going to lead.
‘We are looking into, others, yes. The post-mortem produced results that confirm our suspicions about what she might have been doing on the night she died.’
I struggle for a moment to process the statement.’
‘I think you are going to have to be clearer,’ I say, even though I suspect nothing good is going to come from knowing more.
He takes his time to respond.
‘She’d had sex recently… there were multiple semen samples found both internally and externally.’
‘Ok, enough,’ I say, as my stomach convulses. My voice holds, just about. ‘I really don’t want to know more. Does this mean you don’t think it was suicide?’
‘At this stage, sir, we are just investigating,’ Jones relaxes a little more, probably content with less explanation at this stage. ‘No conclusions, let’s say, more anomalies, Just normal checks.’
Normal again. My sense of normal feels like a joint of meat pulled apart with all the tiny slivers of flesh and bone being picked over.
I pull off the road on a dark rainy autumn evening. I assume this is the place, it seems the most likely. One of the old cafes is even operating as a sex shop so not a great stretch to imagine the car park the back might be used for illicit purposes. My headlights pick up other cars as I find a space in the corner away from the main centre of vehicles. I turn the headlights off but don’t get out, letting my eyes adjust to the darkness.
There isn't much to see as there is no illumination either from the cars or the cloudy night sky. Peering through the rapidly steaming up window, I feel not even the remotest desire for sex. I must be in the minority given there are about ten cars in the car park. Someone is expecting something.
I shiver and wonder whether I should drive away. I don’t belong here, and I never would have imagined Michelle did either. But the Police are certain and their explanation makes sense, or at least makes sense as much as anything does in this madness. Coming here feels like the only way I can get some closure or at least imagine what this activity is about rather than judging from afar.
Headlights approach from the side and light up the car park. I see people who I hadn’t noticed a moment ago. The car finds a spot and the headlights dim. No-one seems to move, as if they are all focussed on something. I decide if I am to see anything I have to get closer. When the car door opens I can hear voices and see small lights. For a moment I think that they might be torches but as I walk across, see they are camera and smartphone lights. Whatever is happening is being videoed. This is it. I get closer and wonder if I am noticed as an outsider. But then I assume this is a club where membership isn’t by direct debit. I am now behind a crowd of men and stand slightly on tip toes to see what’s happening. A girl is bent over the car, her skirt lifted forward whilst a man in a heavy coat thrusts behind her. His trousers rest round his ankles, which seems as unattractive as is possible to be. The men cheer his progress, cameras focussed on the couple. She moves from under him, then squats to the ground before his open coat. I can see more of her now. She has a coat on but is completely naked underneath. She’s not young, ruffled blond hair and make-up. Nothing special but then this show isn’t about special. I turn away, not needing to see more, not wanting to attract any attention to myself. I think about Michelle. Was this her? Was this what she’d become? Walking back to my car, more headlights appear. The crowd cheers. No prizes for guessing what that is about. Headlights shed more light on the scene and the array of cars opposite. I can see Mercs, Land Rovers and then a Fiesta and some small old Japanese thing, maybe a Suzuki. Strikes me that this sport attracts all classes. The Merc catches my eye. A familiar number plate. V1NCE. The headlights dim but I detour round to make sure I’m not wrong.
Swearing, I run back to my car and drive away. Vince Hathaway, car dealer, professional snob, next door neighbour for more years than I wish to recall. The fact that the old slime ball is a dogger comes as no surprise. But the connection with Michelle feels like a stab in the back with a broadsword.
I drive away barely able to see through my tears.
I arrive home, thankful the sanctuary of being in my own place, relieved to be away from what felt like a visit to a medieval horror show rather than 21st century living. I pour a drink from the whisky bottle in the lounge before I’ve removed my coat thinking through what happened; how little I knew Michelle. Was she always this way or did I do something to change her? It is hard to see how I could be responsible for something so extreme, so I cling onto the sense that it was never about me, just something about her.
There is a knock on the door. It isn’t a light tap but a forceful demonstration.
I open the door to Vince Hathaway.
‘Thought we should talk, Tom,’ he says, I think about closing the door on him but he is past me before I can react.
We stand in the living room staring at each other, both in anoraks. I don’t want to sit. Sitting is too welcoming, suggesting I respect his presence.
‘What is it you want to talk about?’ I ask.
‘I saw you, creeping round my car. Knew it was you, then saw that crappy thing you drive.’ He stands arms spread like a gunslinger, a fat gunslinger in jeans and wellies.
‘So what,’ I say, the attempt at bravado feels forced. I am nervous, this is a confrontation and I don’t know whether to stay and argue or run for the door and the police. He has the door covered, so I’m cornered.
‘I’m here to warn you,’ he says, ‘you say nothing to anyone. Right? None of your business.’
‘Give me one reason I should keep my mouth shut. Want to protect your shitty little reputation? Wouldn’t want people down the golf club to know you’re a sad old perv would we?’
He approaches me. I’ve nowhere to go, only the sofa behind me to fall onto. I move to the left as he makes a lunge for me. He stumbles over the coffee table.
Now I’m door side. He gets to his feet but doesn’t approach.
‘There are people you don’t want to upset. It’s not just about me. You saw it. Lots of money, people who will go a long way to ensure no-one talks.’
‘What about Michelle?’ I ask.
‘What about her?’
‘You know what happened to her,’ I say with as much force as I can with my shaking body. It's true. He wouldn’t have come here otherwise.
‘Stupid cow. Couldn’t hack it. She was off her head. No wonder she did herself in. God knows what was going through her head half the time. You must have screwed her up good and proper.’
‘What happened Vince, I’m entitled to know. She was my wife. Tell me and you won’t hear a word more from me.’ I want to scream but resist the temptation. Knowing is more important than anything else.
‘She was desperate for it. Like a whore,’ he says, ‘in fact, better than whore, because she loved it. We even had a name for her, not that anyone knew who she really was, beside me. We called her Aero, because of the number of -.’
‘Enough!’ I scream.
‘Let’s just say she liked cock,’ he said, enjoying my discomfort.
‘Especially mine,’ he says, laughing, ‘who the hell do you think introduced her to it all?’
Then I remember. Stamford. That’s where he moved to. Some new garage there, biggest site in the country he bragged. Michelle had been in Stamford to see Vince. My legs weaken, the sense of betrayal weighing on me. I have to fight it.
‘But she hated you, she called you creepy Vince because you couldn’t keep her eyes of her chest whenever she saw you.’ I say, not scared to voice my frustration, ‘how could she?’
‘Yeah she hated me, I know that. Took a great big bite out of me once. But that didn’t stop her. You have no idea Tom? Some people take pills, some slice themselves open with a knife. Your wife let people fuck her. That was her therapy. Like a rag doll, she wanted to be thrown and abused. Like I say, she was a funny one. I used to imagine her at work in that flash business suit, but underneath a desperate tart.’
‘Why kill her?’ I say, struggling now to hold it together. I keep asking questions but the answers make it worse.
He holds his hands up. ‘She topped herself,’ he says, ‘nothing to do with me.’
I see it in his eyes now. He did kill her. He’s looking round the room, seeking out options. He knows I know. I wonder what happens now.
‘She’d had enough? I speculate, turning the pressure on to him, ‘you didn’t want to let her go.’
He walks towards me but he’s heading for the door wanting to get away. I push him with as much force as I can and he stumbles. ‘You’re not leaving until you tell me what you did.’
Standing over him, I’m not sure what to do. I don’t have any weapons but if he wants to leave he has to get past me.
‘She’d been at my place earlier,’ he says,’ we had something to eat, then she wanted to go to the car park. I said no. I wanted to stop her. For what’s it’s worth, Tom, I knew it wasn’t’ right. She was going to get seriously hurt by someone.’
‘We argued but she left anyway. I went after her. When I got there she was in full swing, going at it like an animal. Like she wanted to show me. She was seriously crazy. After they’d all gone. I picked her up off the floor. She was in a state but the minute she saw me, she flew at me. Told me then, that was it. She was going to tell everyone about me. It was the end.’
‘You’re the one who couldn’t handle it, Vince. She got to you didn’t she? You couldn’t control her and that wasn’t good enough. So you filled her full of pills and gassed her.
He leaps from the seat and pushes me over. I am the floor now. He eyes a glass bowl on the table and I know what’s he’s thinking. He grabs at it. I kick out. The glass bowl misses my head but lands on my back, smashing on the floor. I am winded. He grabs a shard and jumps on me. Broken glass crunches under my back. Tiny pricks pierce my coat.
I lift my hands in horror, thinking he’s going to stab me There's a knock at the door. Rat-a-tat tat.
Hathaway is distracted by the banging. I take advantage and push him away, then run for the door, desperately hoping it's Detective Sergeant Jones.