Having been standing around like an inconsolable spare part, there was little that Dan could have done, other than to start the dreaded drive home. His shoulders had slumped as his Garmin Sat-Nav had estimated a journey time of around five hours. He could not remember the last time he had spent so long behind the wheel of a car.
As the tarmac passed under him at various speeds, he had found himself diverting his attention from the road ahead to his cut and blistered hands. The paramedic had told him that it was a miracle that he had come away from the burning car with only minor injuries. Dan didn’t feel like the lucky recipient of a miracle.
Every now and then he would stretch his fingers out before clenching them around the steering wheel again, sending pain shooting to his fingertips and a grimace to adorn his face yet again. I didn’t follow the instructions. I didn’t get there quick enough. I deserve this pain.
Despite the occasional moments of pain in his hands and face, medical treatment could do nothing to help. Minor burns and cuts had to heal in their own time. When he tried to ignore the pain, he felt nothing but numbness.
The police had told him to go home. They would call in a few days when autopsy results and a full forensic analysis of the crime scene had been conducted. The cause of death was obvious to him, but there was still a lot to be done before the body could be released and a funeral arranged. A single tear fell from his right eye. He straightened his face, cleared his throat and shuffled in his seat. If I start crying now, I might never stop.
Around four hours into his journey, the cycle of pain, regret and the holding back of tears had worn Dan out. He felt his eyelids drooping and he was tempted to reach for the stereo. He moved his hand away again and shook his head. It seems crazy, but I can’t sing along to the radio after what I’ve done.
Dan rarely missed an opportunity to inflict more misery on himself than the world had done. When he had made a mistake of epic proportions, it was easier to starve himself than to justify that he had earned his next meal. However archaic, and with no religious affiliation whatsoever, he had developed his own modern take on self-flagellation. His mistakes, even when punished by the world, would also lead to punishment on him, by him.
The car stereo, like everything else in the car, worked perfectly. The bomb blast from not too far away had not affected his car in any meaningful way. Despite its condition, the stereo was there to provide entertainment, through radio, music or audiobooks. Dan felt as if giving in to such things would not prevent his mind from returning to that scene by the beach in Lowestoft, and that the words or music of others would only serve to devalue the life of his late daughter.
The Bluetooth connection had allowed Dan to make several calls during his journey. He had spoken to Jennifer after both had calmed down from the initial shock. They had a frank talk about the events that had reduced their family from four to three. They had discussed memorials and funerals that they could not hope to begin planning yet. Most importantly, they had vowed to work through it all together.
The usual disbelief, anger, tears and shouting had accompanied the breaking of the news. Part of Dan was grateful for the distance that separated them at that moment, but a much larger part wanted to be there with his wife, knowing that comfort and compassion were needed in such moments of grief, and Dan could not provide it. There was a short window for the provision of hugs and soft-spoken assurances when bad news had been shared, and Dan had missed it by several hours.
On their previous long journeys, the sign for the M62 Summit had been an indication that the Castle family that they were almost home. Today, the fact that Dan was hurtling along at seventy whilst one and a half thousand feet high was of little interest. His mind was elsewhere as his descent towards Manchester began.
The quick downhill trip towards the drizzling, miserable-looking borders of Lancashire had not been as quick as Dan’s own journey from hope to despair. He thought about their son, Noah, and winced. Does he know about his sister yet? He shook his head. Jenny will be dealing with her own grief. She wouldn’t attempt to tell him anything yet.
The feeling of recursively recycling regret was not new to Dan. Despite his publicly proclaimed reasons for leaving the police, the overarching private reason was a desire to avoid feeling as he now felt.
Armed with forensic copies of computer hard drives and a case brief, he had spent many hours reviewing case after case for indications of criminal activity, reporting his findings, going to Court and doing everything else that his work entailed to bring those suspects to justice.
One case, one day, changed everything. The officer in charge of the case had pinned all hopes of a result on Dan’s examination of the digital evidence. An overbearing scumbag had been threatening his wife and others in his family.
The typical review of computer files, media and internet history showed nothing untoward. The guy’s computer was as clean as the driven snow, and the officer was informed. The wife was dismissed as attention-seeking or as having an ulterior motive. Maybe she had grown tired of the marriage and thought she had found an easy way out.
The drive to work the next day, every moment of it, was etched into Dan’s memory. The news on the radio described the initial police investigation into an ugly, violent incident. He recognised the name of the town, and then the street, and then the suspect. The guy with the clean computer had covered his hands in the blood of his own daughter. He had killed her with a kitchen knife.
Dan was asked to review the evidence again, where he found something. The evidence, key to the investigation, and to the safety of that family, was there, staring him in the face. From that moment he felt the blood of that young girl on his own hands, and no amount of washing could remove it.
Colleagues and senior officers comforted, consoled and reassured, but their words were meaningless. Dan could not justify his error with platitudes about vague and incomplete case briefs. He could not accept that he could not have known, or that anyone else would have missed that one file. There was a sickening feeling that his mistake had condemned a girl to an early grave.
That same sickening feeling had accompanied him on his drive home, like a nagging, complaining passenger. This time, the blood on his hands was his own, mixed with that of his own daughter.
He looked at the digital clock in the car and grimaced with half of his face. Half an hour until I’m home, trying to figure out how we move on with our lives.
His phone had buzzed on several occasions over the past few minutes. Using the Bluetooth connection he had rejected several calls and cancelled the auto-read of his text messages, dismissing each with a wave of his hand as he spoke, and once almost hurling the phone from the car to shut himself off. It can all wait until I’m home.
Approaching signs to Manchester, he remembered the times he had spent there as a “beat bobby”, delivering the bad news to parents and friends that their loved ones were dead. He raised his eyebrows, lowered them again and let out a long sigh. Who knew I’d ever have to do the same thing to my own wife.
The last leg of a long journey, towards the northern edge of Manchester and home, had often infused excitement into Dan. Today, the only feelings entering his heart were those of trepidation and self-loathing. Tears had formed and were falling freely. His vision was blurring and he could do nothing to stop it. I should have been coming back here with Abigail in the passenger seat.
In the coming days he would have to make the long journey to Suffolk again to sign for the release of the body of their little girl. The thought of that alone caused his acid reflux to return with a force that would have made his eyes water if they weren’t already doing so. I’m not looking forward to that journey.
Just as the hills ahead of him seemed to merge with the murky, grey clouds above, his grief and his physical pain had become one, inseparable. Within moments he would be home, where at least he would have another person with whom to share his misery.