Chapter 20. The river.
That night, Maeve had waited till she was on her own before calling Steve. The proximity of his voice in her ear was intimate but at a safe distance. Maeve found it easy to flirt with Steve on the phone. She was giggling at silly things like a teenager, and he wasn’t much better, he seemed to find everything interesting. ‘What are we like’, she thought to herself, enjoying the moment.
“But seriously, Ada says something bad must have happened in the woods. Something to do with a child. She said it could be recent. I was thinking it might be the opposite. Could you see if you could find anything in the last say fifteen or twenty years?”
“Nothing’s too much trouble for you…” Steve was only half joking, but he couldn’t remember anything off hand so he didn’t think it would take long to check it out.
Steve was enjoying the intimacy of the late night call too. He was comfortable. Which is probably why he started talking about things closer to home.
“You asked about PTSD, or the effects of trauma. Of course I imagine anyone that has been in a war zone is a candidate, but many others are too.” Steve was shifting the tone between official and personal as though trying out boundaries. “We get called out to domestics. Some of them are bad, really bad. And I know that the kids suffer from watching their Mums being beaten up. And there are worse things than that. I know it comes out later. The women you can see, but the effect on the kids can go deep.”
Then his tone shifted again, became more personal,
“You know we get that in the force too. In fact a surprising amount of people can suffer..” He left the sentence hanging.
Maeve allowed a warm moment, before almost whispering,
“It’s not something we talk about. It’s not macho. But it's very real. The flashbacks, the triggers. Lads don’t talk about feelings. Any sign of weakness and you’re a wimp, ‘not a real man’. So you don’t.” He sighed and added as a matter of fact, “You push it down inside, tell yourself it’s okay and try to forget about it.” Steve was finding it easier than he thought. The phone made it feel safe, and Maeve was listening, not passing judgement.
“For me, I had a bad day early on, when I was a first responder.” He stopped talking for a while, and Maeve just waited.
“I was called in after a jumper had thrown himself right in front of a train at the station. He made it across both rails of the tracks before the train hit. The train never had a chance to stop. It cut his head clean off, and the rest of his body in two.”
Maeve could hear him breathing, this was hard.
“The ambulance guys dealt with the body. I had to go further up the track and find his head. Then bring it back.” Pause, “That frozen expression of surprise still haunts me.”
She wasn’t absolutely sure but she felt that Steve was allowing the emotion out, thinking that must be a good thing. She imagined the tears, and wished that she was there for him in person.
After a few minutes, he cleared his throat, and in a stronger voice, went on,
“It was worse for the driver. On the day itself he was in total shock, deathly white, trembling. But he never recovered, couldn’t put it behind him. He left the job after that, said he couldn’t get it out of his head. Just kept seeing it over and over, every time he came to a station.”
“For me it was a smell. I don’t know what exactly, oil, blood, metal, the wet of the day, but sometimes I get a whiff that reminds me of that mix and I am right back there. Right in front of that face and the look of surprise.”
“I know you’re not supposed to, but I keep thinking, if I’d been there twenty minutes earlier I could have stopped him. Stupid really, he was a stranger, there were other people there, no-one saw it coming. But still, I think if only…..” a few moments silence “Anyway, that’s a long time ago.”
Maeve wasn’t sure how what exactly to say, but something needed to be said,
“Accepting is good. I mean just acknowledging something, not saying good or bad, just it happened. I think that’s good.”
Steve exhaled, as if he hadn’t noticed that he had been holding his breath. “It feels good to let it out. You are the first person I have ever told.”
They carried on talking and Maeve steered the conversation round to the normal, mundane, until she felt that Steve was okay.
By the time they hung-up, they had agreed that Maeve would go for a walk along the Stour with Steve as soon as possible. Ostensibly to see if she could communicate with the woman who had drowned recently. However Maeve was pretty sure that if she was with Steve no one from the spirit world would contact her.
On the call she guessed that this was just the beginning, Steve needed to open up to someone. She also thought she wanted to be there for him, to let him talk some of this stuff out. And if she was really honest with herself, she needed to know who he really was.
On the other hand, if the sun came out, the idea of spending time walking along the river bank together sounded good. Maeve needed adult company, she needed him too.
The following morning, the hubbub of the station was normal and full of the normal frustrations. They were stretched. Some people simply wouldn’t take the pandemic seriously. It was the house parties that they just couldn’t ignore. Everyone knew it was hard on young people, but these parties with up to fifty or even a hundred drunk kids you had to do something, and they used up a lot of resources. Other crimes hadn’t stopped either. And now they were being pulled into Brexit preparations. Just what they needed, miles of container trucks or pantechnicons parked up on the M2 and the M20 and in Manston Airport, which was a pig to get to in a truck. And Steve’s early experience in the Roads Policing Unit meant that he was the one they were most likely to call on.
Being pulled in all directions, Steve decided the best thing to do is to walk out the door, and leave it all behind, and come back in an hour or two when priorities were established. Coming back with a clear head sounded like a good idea to him.
The rain had stopped, the sun was shining, it was a glorious morning, and he called Maeve as he walked,
“You up for that riverwalk now? I’ll pick you up. Wear a mask, I have a helmet, and you’ll be fine on the back of the bike.” Steve felt lighter. He didn’t think that they would find anything either, but sometimes just talking out loud to someone else helped.
Ten minutes later, like a teenager bending the rules Maeve hopped on the back of Steve’s bike. Full of hope for some quality ‘me’ time, Maeve enjoyed holding on to Steve. The journey was too short for both of them, so Steve decided to go a bit further out of Canterbury. Get them in the right frame of mind, he thought. He followed the river on to Fordwich, the smallest town in Britain, more importantly home to the George and Dragon pub, still open for takeaways. In reality they were about twenty minutes walk from the spot they had planned to visit, just on the country rather than the town side of the river.
Hot coffee and a bacon roll in hand and still giddy, they crossed the road away from the pub facing towards the river bank. Glad that the car park was pretty empty and no one was watching them.
As they finished up their takeaways, Steve took the debris back to the bin. Looking back at the pub Maeve sighed, shame it was closed. The sun had the remnants of warmth, the grass was still a brilliant green, the pub garden stretched towards the river, it was idyllic, with the perfect traditional pub, red tiled roof and window boxes full of flowers.
She waited for Steve, before walking through the gap in the car park edging towards the river itself. She turned to her right facing the red brick bridge, noting the weeping willow touching the water, as she looked down into the flow.
The morning had lulled Steve. He didn’t feel on duty so he wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen, and at first he didn’t react at all.
Maeve was walking towards the water. Steve was still talking as he followed behind her. But she didn’t stop at the water’s edge. She kept on going. Straight into the river.