– a short story by Michael K Freundt
Pollution saved my life. Air pollution gives us glorious sunsets but it was the watery kind that prolonged my life: as I breathed the water in – and that is what I knew I had to do – it was not easy, and it tasted vile so I spat it out again – Mah! – and immediately clambered out of the sewer-like river thinking of guns and poison. What a hideous mess! I should have chosen the pristine waters of a rural river, like Virginia Woolf, rather than the urban drain I had decided on. That primary stupid decision finally convinced me that perhaps I had not given the whole thing quite enough thought: I had reacted illogically to what had happened back at home. Now, however, my primary decision was about my ruined clothes – Look at me! Mah! – and how I was going to get to whatever destination I would soon have to choose. The fact still remained that if I was not going to kill myself I would have to face the fact that I had just killed my wife, but maybe, just maybe, it could be possible that the authorities will conclude that it was an accident; but probably not. I am not a very good liar. However, it is truly curious that the brain, in circumstances like this, prioritises decisions so effectively that once I was standing, dripping, and during the hours that followed, I was in no doubt what it was I should do next. If you have never witnessed a death, or attempted to cause your own, you may understand – but whether you believe me or not is of no concern to me, but as I stood on the dark river bank, in the overgrown grass strewn with more urban rubbish and vainly attempting to brush myself down, to regain a little of my lost dignity that complete saturation destroys, I was suddenly aware of what I must do: go home. It became incredibly important to me to get into clean, dry clothes, despite what such a decision may bring.
What interested me as I finished writing the above paragraph was the tone. It was a line early in Dan Simmons’ The Fifth Element; you know, I’ve scanned those pages and still can’t find what sparked the thought train that led to the above; but it was the voice, the tone that got me writing. I love it when reading can do that, even if the book didn’t grab me – I didn’t finish it – sometimes a line, an image can get the juices flowing. My narrator, not yet named, sounds like a self-opinionated, stylish homosexual, arch, wilful, and from the Inner-Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Note the use of the word ‘vile’ in the first paragraph: very queer. I like the tone, but I need to be careful: he is straight – self-awareness and a rich vocabulary are not the sole domain of the homosexual – but giving him ‘gay’ and knowing characteristics creates a unique individualism. Let’s see how it goes.
I must have looked a sight as I walked up the few tiled steps to the verandah of my inner-suburban terraced house and the look on the police officer’s face confirmed it. My wife’s body had obviously been found. The night was cool and calm so very little evaporation had occurred and my feet still squelched in my shoes: they were my favourite pair and now completely ruined. Mah! The exertion of walking all the way from the river to my house had obviously kept me relatively warm but the longer I stood still, forced to do so while the police officer talked to someone on his phone, his superior I assumed – I had told the young man who I was – I could feel the cold creep over me like a sinister blanket.
In a very short while a tall attractive uniformed woman came out of my well-lit house to confront me. I told her who I was.
It’s important that he finds her attractive: it could be useful later. You see, I’m not sure where this is going but I hope you’re as interested as I am.
“I’m afraid sir,” she said in the usual formal dry tone, “that I have to inform you that your wife has been found … deceased.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. Did she first think of saying ‘murdered’?
Despite her experience in such matters she hesitated, but then said, “And how do you know that, sir?”
“Because I … found her.”
“And was it you who called triple zero?”
“Yes, it was.”
If my unusual appearance had not impinged on her before it did so now, probably brought about by the fact that I had started to shiver violently.
“And why sir do you seem to be completely saturated?”
Now that my primary decision to go home had been fulfilled a new primary decision had automatically taken its place: it was absolutely clear to me what I had to say.
“Because I tried to kill myself.”
“And why did you try to do that, sir?”
It may give you some insight into my personality when I tell you that my immediate feeling now was of annoyance that every one of her questions had begun with a conjunction.
“I thought you would think I did it.” I did do it but not the way you think.
I thought I should amend that line to “I did do it but not the way you may think”. The use of the second person – referring to the reader – in prose fiction, by the way, is rare now. It used to be common – the opening to Elliot Perelman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity – great title – is an unusual modern example that springs to mind – I must read that again one day; but I like using the second person. It adds a personal touch, a writer-reader sense of confidentiality. It’s the word ‘may’ that I am concerned about. I cannot be certain what a reader might think but it is this note of uncertainty I do not like. I am very aware of words like ‘maybe’ or ‘perhaps’ or ‘could’ because they always weaken a phrase – except in dialogue, of course, where such words can be character-building – but ‘may’ sounds like one of them. No! I will leave it out.
I expected another, and obvious, conjunction-led question but my shivering had become so intense that she said, “I think you had better come inside and get out of those wet clothes.”
I was not allowed upstairs into our bedroom, now a crime scene or something – I wondered what they would find and what they would think it means – and so a young underling was sent to get me a complete change of clothes. His choice was completely unsatisfactory – why would anyone match royal blue with that brown?
That last phrase gives great insight into his character, don’t you think? I spent quite some time agonising over what colours to choose. Fashion today, to always embrace the new, has accepted anything with anything. I’m old enough to remember when paisley was in, and then when it was definitely out. Now I’ve seen paisley matched with floral. Mah! My narrator would only have block colours, I’m sure; maybe a stripe or check for summer; never floral, and never paisley. Brown and blue can at times go well together but his hatred of the match with that particular brown and that particular blue reinforces his opinionated sense of fashion. He so knows his own mind.
The young officer appeased his appalling fashion sense by bringing me a towel, but then my assessment of him plummeted again when he did not leave while I changed. I decided to ignore him. I undressed completely, towelled myself dry, resisted the urge to look up at him to see what he was looking at, and redressed as quickly as I could and refused to look in the living room mirror as I already knew I looked a fright.
Is the use of the word ‘fright’ too arch; too queer, do you think?
“Please take a seat, sir,” he said politely and when he did not leave the room I supposed he had been ordered not to leave me alone. I have always found it difficult not to talk to people when I find myself in close proximity to them but he was just standing there looking at nothing in particular so the urge to talk was weakened. I tried to attract his attention to the pile of wet clothes on the floor making it clear, I thought, that I expected him to do something about them: they were dampening the rug, but he paid no heed. I got up – he became alarmed a little at that – and removed them to a wooden chair. I resumed my seat on the couch and he relaxed. I remained as silent as he did.
It would be correct to use the word ‘him’ here: “… I remained as silent as him” – ‘he’ for the subject, ‘him’ for the object – but it sounds wrong, or, at least, clumsy; so, ‘as he did’ it is; to stop any reader with a fluffy grammar fixation getting annoyed. “Oh, thanks, Darling!” My partner, Tommy, just bought me a cup of coffee. He’s forgotten he’s brought me one already, poor man. It’s getting worse.
Eventually the pretty female officer entered without an iPad but with a note book and pen. How old fashioned! I needed to stay calm, but not too calm. She looked good in a uniform.
“Can I have your full name please? she said.
“Patrick Osman,” I said.
I chose a ‘foreign’ name and you will soon see why: a particular beef of mine.
“I beg your pardon.”
“It’s Australian,” I said more pointedly.
She looked at me quizzically like I was a cheeky schoolboy with a bad record.
“All white Australians come from somewhere else,” I said. “Even you.”
“I was born here.”
“So was I.”
“And your point is?” she said as neutrally as she could, which was not very.
“An authentic Australian surname would be something like Yunupingu, Gulpilil, Noonuccal,” I said, pedant that I am.
“I see,” she said with exasperation but also, eventually, understanding: annoyed understanding. She took a breath with intent as if to challenge me further with, I expected, European names for indigenous people, but she obviously thought better of it. ‘Smartarse!’ she probably thought instead.
“Mr. Osman, tell me what happened tonight.”
“My wife has – had – symptoms of early-stage dementia, one of which was a faulty sense of balance. She had just showered, then fell, and hit her head on the corner of the glass coffee table and died instantly.”
The attractive police officer was obviously flummoxed by the brief and precise description. She stared at me without writing anything down.
You see, I know where this is going now. Creative moments like this often cause younger, brasher writers to cry, “Oh, the writing process went so well; it wrote itself, actually.” No, it didn’t, darling, you did! Just like I am; but sometimes creative momentum can take over and you have to know when to let it, or reign it in. So, do you know where this is going? I hope not. Not yet.
“Could you please elaborate?” she asked.
“You’ve been in the bedroom. The sofa in the bay window, the coffee table, the wet feet, the wet floor, the body, the blood; doesn’t it look like that’s what happened?”
“Or made to look like that’s what happened.”
I chuckled. I could not help it. “I see. You think I picked up that large, extremely heavy and cluttered coffee table, hit her with it and then made it look like she fell on it?”
“Mr. Osman, your flippant tone isn’t helping you.”
“Do I need helping?”
“Without credibility, yes.”
I was disciplined enough to understand what she meant and so remained silent. It was then that she started to write something down. I waited.
“You said before that you were afraid that we might think you had done it.”
“I am on the public record, a television interview two weeks ago, as a supporter of euthanasia.”
“What was the name of the program, date, and time?” I told her. She wrote that down. Eventually she added, “So how would you describe what happened tonight?”
“I beg your pardon.”
I resisted a comment reflecting her possible ignorance of the word and forced myself to assume she was surprised by my supposed flippancy. “She died unexpectedly, accidentally, quickly, as opposed to gradually, sinking into confusion, a withering brain, organ dysfunction, pain, senility, a coma, then death. She loathed that scenario. Who wouldn’t?”
“Did your wife share your views on euthanasia?”
“Did she also take part in that television interview?”
“No.” She wrote that down too.
“I’m afraid I’m going to have to take you into custody based on what you have told me.”
I’m resisting here to get bogged down in police procedural matters. My knowledge of the medical aspects of this story I have acquired from personal experience. However, when it comes to research for the sake of pedantic accuracy I find it unnecessary as it is safe to assume most readers are familiar with television police dramas from a wide spectrum of sub-genres, and possible procedures; and readers are willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story – up to a point, of course. Absolute reality is not necessary if procedural information decided on by the writer for the purposes of the story falls within the realm of possibility; besides, what is important here is the dialogue between these two characters and the development of plot and intrigue. I am talking here about what is more important: I don’t need to study aerodynamics to jump a puddle.
“You’re arresting me?”
“No, but you’re the only witness.”
“Are you going to charge me?”
“We’d like you to assist us with our enquiries.”
Oh, look! Tommy is sitting in my reading chair reading McEwan’s Amsterdam. He will not remember a thing he has read, of course. He’s read it before, when he was well. Maybe it is muscle memory at play. He used to read for hours every day. I don’t even think reading is possible for him anymore. If I had time I would watch to see if he turns the page. His balance is getting worse, too. And that is not all. However, the idea of making it look like he is doing something normal, requiring working brain function, is proof that something is still operational in that brain of his. Meanwhile I am worrying about continuing this interrogation here or back at the station. The stakes would be higher at the police station. OK. And there needs to be a developing expert who has been rabbiting around the scene, collecting information while Patrick has been questioned by the cute officer.
As I was led out of my house a dozen or so people, all clad in white plastic looking like workers in a nuclear power plant, passed me and invaded my house like ants. And yes, the police officer, the same one who saw me naked, did place his hand on my head, pushing it lower, protecting it from damage, as he directed me into the back seat of the police car. The ride to the station was uneventful: no one spoke. I was later led politely into an interview room and offered a cup of coffee. I asked for tea, English Breakfast, and the young man stared at me for a moment, either in ignorance or distain, but then went away to get it, maybe not English Breakfast, but he went away. I sat and waited. There wasn’t a vast mirror on the wall; you know, a two-way mirror for investigators to sit behind and watch proceedings, making clever but snide remarks, but there was a CCTV camera in the corner of the ceiling. At least some modernisation is occurring in our police force. And, lo and behold, a little red light went on as I was watching it. A few moments later she arrived.
She turned on the recording device on the table between us, stated the date and time, my name, and her name, “Detective Constable Lena Marinos.” She asked me the same questions she asked me at my house and I gave the same answers, minus some of my attitude: I thought it only fitting. I was curious what line of questioning she would take but she did not continue. Instead another person entered the room.
He was a large man in a cheap suit. He had pages in his hand. Paper. This station is so behind the times.
“Joined now by Chief Inspector Mullen,” said Detective Constable Lena Marinos for the sake of the recording but who did not see fit to introduce him to me.
“Mr. Osman,” said the new arrival referring to his bits of paper, “you said your wife had just showered and had walked into the bedroom drying herself presumably.” He spoke like a rugby player, all mumble, few consonants,
I won’t bore you with writing his dialogue phonetically; you get the idea.
“but the floor and her feet were dry.”
“Shouldn’t a lawyer be sitting quietly next to me?” I asked in the politest tone I could muster.
“We haven’t charged you with anything,” said Marinos. “You’re just …”
“Yes, I know,” I interrupted, “just helping you with your enquiries. It probably evaporated.”
“What?” said Mullen.
“The water,” I said helpfully. “It probably evaporated.”
“What work did your wife do?” he asked, ignoring my comment.
“We run a business together: an employment service specialising in relief staff for the medical industry.”
“Did she understand medical …” he waved his hands as he sought for the word, I expected him to say ‘stuff’, “… procedures?”
“She was a trained nurse with many years’ first-hand experience,” I said.
“Was she up with, ya know, trauma cases?”
“Most of her career was in the emergency department.”
“So she knew about trauma injuries.”
“That’s what usually happens in an emergency department; yes.”
“Did you see her fall?”
“No. I was about to sit but looking for a space on the cluttered coffee table to put my gin and tonic; she was walking from the en-suite drying herself.”
“She was naked?”
“She was drying herself with a towel, so, yes and no.”
“And talking at the same time.”
“Yes. She could do that.” I instantly regretted that line. Marinos looked at her hands.
“What was she saying?” Mullen asked.
I did not hesitate. I thought little about what I should say, but I was aware that an instant reply was necessary, otherwise they may think I was working something out; weighing my options for a better answer. “Her condition was constantly on her mind, what to do about it, be in control of it, avoiding the medical and legal outcomes. I don’t remember exactly what she said but she always spoke about that, ever since she was diagnosed.”
I want you to believe him. Do you?
“I think I was thinking about all the coffee table clutter: where did it come from, what could be tossed. I don’t remember exactly.”
“Are you aware that aiding and abetting a suicide is a criminal offence?”
I chucked incredulously, “Yes.” I could sense a goal he was steering the questions towards. A goal he so desperately wanted.
“Do you remember when you realised something was wrong?”
“I hadn’t sat yet, or had I?” I thought about it. What did I remember? Oh, yes. “No, I hadn’t sat down yet. I heard a sound. A surprised sound. Like an ‘oops’ but it was soft, sharp but soft. Not alarming until I looked up.” I sighed deeply, closed my eyes, and flopped my head back.
“What did you see?”
I was trying to recollect the sequence of events, their order, their connections. Did I remember the sequence or did my brain fill in the gaps with invented logic? “It was just before she hit the floor.”
“The floor or the coffee table?”
I could feel their logic. “The floor. She was in the air, facing up.” I could see her as if caught in a photograph, suspended in the air. “Her backside hit the floor first, and then her head was thrown back sharply, whipped against the corner of the coffee table. The sound was like a bottle breaking on concrete.”
I worried about the words ‘arse’ or ‘backside’. He’s a man who would say ‘arse’, never ‘bum’; but given the circumstances, would he choose ‘backside’ as more polite when referring to his now dead wife? Backside, I think. Oh, dear! Here comes Tommy with another cup of coffee. Oh, now he’s staring at the used, empty cup on my desk. If only I could know what he is thinking at times like this. Now he has turned back to the kitchen with the fresh cup, confused no doubt. Poor man. Mah! Poor me!
“How did she come to rest?” asked Marinos. “On her front or on her back?”
“On her back,” I said. Yes, I can see her lying on her back.
“Where was the towel?” asked Mullen
“I don’t know.”
“Was she wearing it?” Marinos asked.
“Yes. No! I put it over her after I called triple O.”
“Mr. Osman,” said Mullen in a winning tone, “your wife was found lying on her stomach with her towel wrapped around her and tucked in above her breasts, like women do.”
“But the wound was to the back of her head,” I said aware of the flutter in my voice.
“Yes. So, you moved her?”
“I remember closing her eyes.” Did I?
“Mr. Osman, I put it to you that you colluded with your wife to end her life. She knew exactly where a blow would have an instantaneous effect. She talked to you about this. You planned how it should look. The shower, the water on the floor, the cluttered coffee table, everything. An accident. She needed you to aim her head at the exact spot. That’s why you remember her eyes. You were holding her head aiming at the correct spot and with great force you jabbed her head onto the corner of the coffee table and achieved your shared goal. Putting her out of her misery. A noble deed, Mr. Osman, but an illegal one.”
“So you believe me,” I said quietly. “You said there was no water, so you believe me about the water. Hah? You believe me! You just ……” I could not help myself. “Chief Inspector Mullen!” I wanted to say ‘Mullet’! I shouted vehemently. “Do you understand how ludicrous that sounds? That is the most ridiculous story I have ever heard and that any courtroom has ever heard, or may still hear, no doubt. Why didn’t she just put a bullet in her head? Why didn’t she just jump off the roof? Why didn’t she take a handful of pills and slit her wrists in a hot bath like any sensible person? Why go to all this ridiculous trouble?”
“Because she loved you Mr. Osman,” said Marinos sweetly. “And you loved her. She wanted you to be her last image. There you were face to face. A kiss perhaps? Your face was the last thing she saw: you, then nothing. Her face was the last thing you saw: her, then she was gone. Over. Finished. Saved.”
I stared at her feeling moisture in my eyes and then said to stop it, “You’ve been watching too much Swedish crime drama.”
I never did get my cup of tea.
There was a trial. A short trial. The police’s story sounded just as ludicrous in the courtroom as it did in the station. I was acquitted. There was such a lot of truth and fiction thrown around in that courtroom; so mixed up, no-one was ever sure which was which. One thing I do know though; I’m not such a bad liar after all.
Oh, Tommy! What – are – we – going – to – do – with – you?