Near South Bridge they saw a party of drunk men with torches in the rain. The men were crowded around a small heap, of what they couldn’t tell. The men kicked it occasionally, jeering, pushing each other in show. A sharp-pitched cry escaped the heap and the men whooped louder.
That’s what she told me. She said that’s when they ran. That’s all she told me the night she left. That and the note.
I went down to the bridge the next morning to see if I could find any clues to add substance to her story. Clara is not known for her accuracy. Some would call it lying. I would joke with her and call it dramatic embellishment for effect. Who doesn’t like a bit of bite to their tales. Especially when the scene is set on a dark and stormy night. But there was nothing there – not under the bridge, not next to it, not near it. I briefly wondered if Clara and her friends had been on a bender themselves. Anything is possible with hallucinogenics. Satan himself could’ve played hopscotch under the bridge with Christmas elves and Clara would’ve taken it as fact.
I didn’t know what I expected to find. A night of bucketing rain will wash just about anything away. I didn’t even know why I was taking her so seriously. It’s not like anyone had died. A ‘small heap’ is not a body. Maybe it was an animal? What would make a sharp-pitched cry? And why would grown men, drunk or not, piss about in the rain around a little heap of whatever-it-was?
It started drizzling again and my feet were cold. The initial adrenalin rush at the possibility of finding something had worn off. I was suddenly annoyed with myself for taking Clara seriously. What did it matter anyway. She was gone again in her usual flourish. It all seemed a ridiculous display of her routine episodes; manic, often violent, highs that spun her out of my reach; my guilty need to run after her and clean up the mess. I fell for it every time.
But then there was the note.
I pulled it from my pocket and read it for the hundredth time: ‘They’ll come. I’m sorry.’
Two days later it was still raining and Clara was still gone. No one had come for her or me. I was almost disappointed. A taste for the dramatic must run in the family.
He knocked on my door on the Saturday. It was the first day of clear skies in a week and I had started feeling better, as if I could shrug off the past few dark days like a bad memory; as if my nights hadn’t been filled with dreams of Clara and small heaps, ghostly figures in the dark bearing torches, sneers and wicked notes. It’s amazing how a bit of sunshine can fool you. But when I saw him, I knew he was there for me. The bearer of bad tidings only delivers to those still standing.
‘Is Clara home?’ he asked when I opened the door.
I wondered at the question, but responded anyway. ‘No, she hasn’t been here for a week at least.’
He asked if he could come in, and I, curious and nervous at the forewarning of the note, let him. Maybe there would be some answers to be had. I offered him tea and we sat in awkward stillness around the kitchen table. I didn’t have anything to say, so waited for him to deliver his news.
Instead, he asked me how I was feeling, about whether I’d been experiencing any nausea and having bad dreams. I guessed he knew something of the effects Clara’s sudden departures had on those around her. He was a stranger to me, but not to her and there was a kind familiarity that softened the brittle space between us. And he was obviously about to tell me something that affected us both. I wanted to make it easier for him. So I shared, telling this stranger that I had, in fact, been feeling ill and suffering from nightmares. I hoped it helped.
He nodded politely and then quietly handed me a sentence: ‘Clara popped in with us over the last week. She didn’t stay long, so I thought I’d stop by and check up on you.’
I went with him to the clinic where he said Clara had visited. If I waited there I was sure to see her, he said. As her sister, he said, I would certainly want to confirm her safety.
I nodded of course.
She had been coming in because of her issues, he said.
And I nodded again, vaguely starting to remember him as a character Clara had mentioned every so often.
He said that when he saw her the last week, she was quite distressed. He said she was edgy about what had happened that night.
It was the first time ‘that night’ had been mentioned.
My tummy turned and I felt dizzy. I was alarmed that he knew. I don’t know why. It seemed he was her doctor. She would tell her doctor. Could tell him, of course.
I asked for some water and he motioned to the nurse to fetch me some. I noticed how cold it was again, how a shadow had crossed the doctor’s sparse office. The sun never lasts for long here. While we waited for Clara, the doctor asked me about what had happened that night that she had left. I told him what I knew, which wasn’t much.
‘We are deeply concerned for her well-being,’ he said. ‘Hers and the baby’s.’
A baby? There was an echo in the room. Had I said that out loud? They kept looking at me as I had. I asked for more water and this time the nurse brought me a small tablet with it.
‘For the shock,’ she said.
Then, a pause that felt like it might’ve lasted a month.
I looked up from the table. The drug made my head heavy, but my eyes were suddenly clear. The sun was sharp.
‘Clara. Can you hear me? Look at me, Clara.’
Derek sat opposite me, beside him a woman in a stiff blue officer’s suit. It cut into my brain. I wanted to rub my eyes, but my arms were held fast by chair straps. They surprised me.
‘Clara,’ Derek’s voice was gentle. I liked when he dropped the doctor tone. ‘Officer Bailey is here is to take a statement. You’ll stay with us, but she has to go over what happened that night. That night with the baby.’
A shot of pain surged through me and I vomited. Apparently I hadn’t eaten in a while. A nurse appeared next to me and wiped my mouth and chin. The officer shot the doctor a look. I hated her for it.
‘Clara. The outpatient programme wasn’t working. You stopped taking your meds when you got pregnant. Do you remember?’
I remembered. I remembered him. I remembered he left me off the books because of our little ‘issue’; signed off on a nanny he thought would help. She took me to the clinic. Dumb cunt. They’d never find her. Piece of shit.
‘Clara. Do you remember what happened that night? Can you tell us in your own words? Can you tell us what happened to the baby?’
The officer had taken out a notepad and had her pen poised; she pressed record on a dictaphone that lay like a little grey coffin at right angles to the pad. The light glared off her masked face. I felt like spitting.
I looked Derek in the eyes, clear and true. ‘I got drunk,’ I said slowly. ‘Then I kicked it and when it wouldn’t be dead the first time I snapped its neck.’
I hadn’t felt rage in a while. It hurt me now but I let it. It felt like a power in my arms even as the the straps held onto them.
‘It’s in the river by South Bridge.’
to be continued