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Before The Storm
12.10am, Friday, June 24th, 2016
Swirling, flashing, blue and red lights lit up the empty streets as the ambulance raced. No siren blared, but lights screamed through the darkness, waking neighbours in quiet dread as the engine roared through to the end of the estate, the end of the street and the end of a life.
“Junkie Sir. But you said to let you know.”
“For Christ’s sake, I had to get out of bed. For him? What did the paramedics say?”
“Not much, but syringes in the living room, marks in his arm and his heart had stopped. Body cold, grey skin, blue lips, if Dulux did junkie it’d be this colour.”
DI Cooper shivered. “Cold is right,” he walked through the disorder, chaos was normal for an overdose.
He came down the carpeted stairs and gave his instructions. “Tape up the door to keep the rats out. There’s plenty of crime here, but not the overdose. The coroner will write it up as accidental. The paramedics can take it to the Royal join the queue for the pathologist.”
“Can you sign off on it?”
He scribbled his signature on the waiting paperwork, then walked toward the front door, but something about the quiet, empty house made him stop.
“Who called us?”
“Paramedics, dead on arrival.”
“Who called them?”
“Don’t know, Sir.”
Lights enlivened the chill night air as the ambulance filled the road outside. There would be an audience for the removal, neighbours in dressing gowns and behind curtains watched the living drama. Better than the TV, he thought. He pulled away in his unmarked service car, heading away from the estate. A warm bed in his clean, organised flat awaited. He left death behind.
9.15am, Friday, June 24th, 2016
Helen dropped Charlie at school, late again. On the drive home, her phone buzzed, she took her eyes off the road to swipe the screen.
She dropped the phone on the passenger seat. The second message from Macca this week.
In her peripheral vision, a black car veered toward her out of a T junction. “What are you doing? No!”
She swung her wheel to the left, to avoid it. Her front wheel hit the kerb and bounced up. The steering wheel wrenched out of her hand as the car smashed into a lamppost with a deafening crunch. Thrown sharply sideways, her head struck the window. A flash went off behind her eyes, in front of her still silence. The shattered windscreen splintered the harsh, bright sunlight. Dust eddied and swirled. She gagged, petrol fumes stinging her throat and nostrils. The black car disappeared down the road. “Bastard!”
A thick ribbon of blood ran down the side of her face. She tried to raise her arm, but the movement sent stabs of pain across her chest. Unable to move, the last thing she heard came from within the car. The phone buzzed and the screen lit up.
10.30am, Friday, June 24th, 2016
Vinny glanced at his watch. Time was running out. He had student papers to mark, but the all-consuming news distracted him. Britain would leave the European Union. Leave voters had won the referendum. The Guardian’s front page declared, ‘Britain sets course for Brexit.’ Anger rose in his gut. He should have voted, but it was too late now. Like so many things, the realisation came too late.
The slightly open sash window brought a warm breeze into his study, disturbing the undergraduate essays on his desk.
At 9.30 am, his phone lit up. He tried to ignore the vibration, but his eyes wandered over the flashing screen. Unknown caller. Telecom, or Power companies, selling shit he didn’t want. He turned his attention back to an essay on historiography. If he had to read one more cliché about history being written by the winners, he would go crazy. Two minutes in, and it was a refreshing change. He returned to the front page. Aliz Novak. Well done, Aliz. A Polish name. He wondered if she was first or second generation. He also wondered how long it would be or even if she would ever feel British. How would the vote affect her? Would the victors of this referendum write their history?
His mobile buzzed again. Merseyside Police. Vinny put the essay down and transferred his attention to the incoming call. He swiped to answer and leaned back in his chair. He picked up another paper.
“Hello,” his eyes took in the title of a new essay Climate Change -A crisis in Time. He smiled at the ambition of the essay.“Mr. Vincent Connolly?”
The authority of the voice set his nerves on edge.
“Yes, speaking…” Something was wrong.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, Mr. Connolly…” He rested the paper on the desk.“There’s been an accident.” Vinny’s thoughts went to Charlie.
Shit, Shit, Shit. No, don’t be sorry. Sorry is bad. No. It had to be serious. Something about the speaker’s slow, careful delivery unnerved Vinny.
“This is Sergeant Collins from Merseyside Police.”
The surrounding air grew cold.
“Okay, what is it?” His words came rushing, tripping over each other to get out of his mouth. “What? What’s happened? Is it Charlie, Helen, both of them?”
“There was a traffic incident…”
The pace of the voice killed him. “Just tell me,” he interrupted.
“Your wife is in the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, Mr. Connolly.”
He breathed out, “And Charlie? My son, Charlie?”
His phone buzzed with an incoming call. He ignored it, waiting for his answer. “Are you still there? What happened to my son?”
“I’m sorry, Mr Connolly…”Vinny’s legs weakened. He felt sick.
“… I have no information on anyone else in the vehicle. As far as I know, your wife was alone.”
“Oh fuck. Okay, Okay…” That’s good, isn’t it? He checked the time. Charlie should be in school by now.
“You will need to arrange for the recovery of the vehicle.”Sod the car. Vinny rang off. He needed to get to the hospital.
The screen flashed, and the buzzing started again. Work. He swiped to reject it.
He rushed down the hallway and grabbed his jacket from the coat hanger. His phone buzzed again.
“Mr. Connolly, I think the call cut out. This is Merseyside Police.”
“Yes, I’m sorry. Okay, I got the message. The Royal.”
“I have to inform you that we will recover the vehicle as it is currently blocking a roadway.”
“Yeah, sure, okay. Do whatever you have to. Can you just let me know where you take it? Look, I’m sorry, I have to get to the hospital.”
“Central vehicle compound will contact you when they receive the car, and you can make arrangements with them for its recovery.”
“Okay. Thanks for letting me know.” He rang off.
Vinny stepped into the street, his eyes scanning the tidy row of Victorian semis in Ensworth Road, just round the corner from the busy Liverpool suburb of Allerton Road. They were ten minutes’ drive from the Speke Estate, where he grew up, but a world away in atmosphere and lifestyle. The morning sun was intense, but a freshness hung in the air, under a blue sky. Not a day for accidents or anxiety. What did he mean? Brexit day was one big accident. He turned the ignition and drove out onto the main the road.
Vinny pulled into the car park of the Liverpool Royal Infirmary. Making his way through the multi-storey lot, he ended up on Prescot Street. The Royal was grey and dirty, a concrete block similar to the worst of sixties housing schemes. He walked through to the main reception desk. He passed a collection of bandaged, wheelchair-bound patients accompanied by family members — all of them a reminder of human frailty. At least Charlie remained safe.
He approached the reception. “Helen Connolly… Dwyer, the paramedics brought her in this morning after a car accident.” He didn’t know what name she would’ve used for the police or paramedics.
The receptionist ignored his lack of courtesy. “How long ago?” Her fingers, practised at protecting her painted nails, expertly floated above and tapped the keys.
“I’m not sure. An hour? Forty minutes?”
“She’s probably not in the system yet. You’d best go down to A&E. I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.”
“Shit. Okay, where do I go?”
“The easiest way is to go back outside, turn right, and follow the building round. You will see it.” She pointed out the main door, using her fingers and nails to full effect.
He followed her directions and left the building. He hurried round to the right, pulse racing. In front of him, the traffic edged its way into the town centre. They were close enough to the river for stray scavenging gulls to be circling overhead. He didn’t know what to expect? Blood, stitches, broken bones?
Vinny turned the corner and saw the Accident and Emergency. More functional and less imposing than the main entrance, the business end of the operation. Diagonal yellow lines marked the front of the hospital for ambulance arrivals. The sliding double doors lead to a short corridor that opened into a wide waiting room. An ambulance pulled up, lights flashing, but no siren. The sight took him back. Sammo and Jaime in Garston as kids. He walked straight on and through a set of swing doors into the medical area. He knew behind those doors people were suffering, maybe even dying. A room full of the bruised and broken, of all ages and colours, representing Liverpool in all its desperation. He walked past two trolleys, one holding the figure of an elderly man, his dignity absent as he lay back half-dressed on pillows, breathing heavily through an oxygen mask, his thin, grey-haired chest rising and falling with the rasping breaths. Vinny caught his eye; he could see no emotion but blank endurance. Fuck this.
He kept his eyes on the reception window in front of him, refusing to notice details of the person inhabiting the second trolley, except it was someone younger. An anxious mother stroked the smaller shape under the blanket.
“Helen Dwyer. Car crash, about an hour ago?” he asked.
The admin behind this desk was older and more harried. Nurses and orderlies were coming and going, leaving or collecting files and checking or writing on a large whiteboard behind her.
She swivelled effortlessly in her seat. “Cubicle five, beyond the double doors.”
He nodded in thanks. She acknowledged him and picked up the phone.
Vinny prepared himself and went through the swinging doors. He didn’t want to see blood and guts or hear cries of pain. He didn’t. Instead, he saw the hustle of the reception repeated. Nurses and orderlies crisscrossed the area in a scene of controlled efficiency. The disinfectant smell of all medical facilities hit him. Voices rose and fell in urgency and volume, but never panicked.
A blue-uniformed woman stopped his progress. “Yes?”
She pivoted and pointed straight ahead to the left. He walked on, each curtained area contained a casualty. He avoided the gaps between the curtains. Instead, his eyes focused on his destination, third up on the left. He looked through the curtains of number five. Helen lay immobile. Not a good sign. A shockingly white bandage threaded round her head, trapping her dark bedraggled hair and forming clumps. Her eyes were closed and puffy, her breathing regular. She looked peaceful. No blood, no scars, but a large, bluish purple patch ran down the side of her face. Vinny’s pulse slowed, and he exhaled heavily. Her arm in a sling. He could see the fingers of her left hand poking out at the end.
He swished the curtain open and then closed it behind him. He approached Helen, reaching out to touch her shoulder.
Her eyes remained closed. He leaned in, his head next to hers, touching cheeks. He pulled back and stroked her shoulder.
“Excuse me.” The words and the swish of the curtain behind him were simultaneous.
He moved around and sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m her husband.”
“Ok,” the nurse looked at the clipboard on the end of the bed. “Mr Dwyer, your wife needs rest.”
“How is she? What’s going on?”
“You’ll have to speak to the doctor.”
“Ok, well, where is he?” Vinny looked around.
“She is with a patient. If you wait, I’ll let her know you’re here.”
“Excuse me.” The curtain was pulled open again and a police officer put her head inside. “Mrs. Dwyer?”
“Yes.” Vinny answered.
“It’s about the traffic incident. Can we have a word?”
Vinny moved to stand beside Helen. The officer opened the curtain fully, revealing her uniformed colleague. They stepped forward, and the nurse moved out of the way and let them through. Her colleague stood at the edge of the curtain with his helmet in his hands, fidgeting.
“I’m PC James, and this is PC Cartwright. We’re here to get a few details regarding what happened this morning.”
“Well, as you can see, my wife is in no condition.”
“Can you take this outside, please?” asked the nurse.
“Of course.” Vinny moved out into the ward.
“Outside please.” The nurse pointed to the double doors.
“After you.” The officer waved Vinny ahead. Beyond the swing doors, PC James spoke first. “Can I just check the basics: make of car and registration? And just to confirm the driver?”
“Do we have to do this now?” asked Vinny
“It’s just to confirm the basics.”
“I haven’t even seen the doctor yet.”
“I’m sorry, sir, but we need to establish what happened.”
“Ok, so what happened?” asked Vinny.
“You’re the police. You tell me, what happened?”
“Sir nothing, have you been to the scene?”
The officer stepped forward. “We’re not here to answer your questions. Now—”
“Suzuki Swift, registration KLM 342,” Vinny finished.
“And the car’s registered to Ms Dwyer, your wife. Can you confirm she was the driver?”
“I’m sorry, but we have to ask. Had your wife been drinking?”
“Really?” Vinny asked. “You know she’s a registered social worker?”
“I’m sorry. It’s a formality. We have to check with anyone involved in a road traffic incident.”
“No, she hadn’t been drinking. She was on the school run, on her way back since my son wasn’t in the car. Thank God. What happened to the other car? How badly is it damaged?”
“What other car?”
“It was an accident. Who was driving the other car?”
“No other car involved, Mr Dwyer.”
“The name is Connolly,” Vinny said.
“The car’s registered to Ms Dwyer.”
“That’s her maiden name. So what happened?”
“That’s what we are trying to establish Mr.” the officer paused. “Connolly.”
“Your wife’s vehicle left the road and hit a lamppost.”
“Why did her car leave the road?”
“We aren’t sure yet.”
“So, no one else was involved?”
“As far as we can tell at the moment.”
“Where did it happen?”
“Menlove Avenue, just past the junction with Springfield Road.”
“She would have been coming back from the school.” Vinny rubbed his hands over face. “Jesus. What the hell’s going on?”
“Can you think of any reason someone might want to harm your wife?”
“No, of course, not. Why would you ask that?”
The officer didn’t answer. For the first time, Vinny got the feeling something was going on.
“Okay. I see. Is there anything else you want to add? Anything that could have contributed to the accident?” the officer asked.
“No, of course not.” Vinny shook his head.
“Have you spoken to anyone else? Were there any witnesses?” Vinny asked.
“If you need anything else, my name is on there.” The officer smiled for the first time since her arrival. “I hope your wife recovers soon. Be grateful she’d already dropped your son at school. How old is he?”
“Fourteen,” Vinny said.
“Okay, well, all the best.” She turned and followed by her colleague, walked out through the main doors.
Vinny stood and watched the police leave. He waited until they were through the double doors.
The nurse in the blue uniform appeared in front of him again, carrying a large manila envelope containing Helen’s personal effects from the paramedic.
“The doctor will be with your wife in about five minutes.”
She handed him the envelope.
Vinny made his way through the waiting room; the older man hadn’t moved from the trolley. The harried receptionist made a flicker of eye contact, and then he was back on the street.
The noise of the street contrasted with the quiet inside the hospital. Vinny could see the growing structure of the new Liverpool Royal Hospital being built up the road. There were rumours of cracks in the infrastructure, but public money was still being poured into it. He remembered the quote from Marx: “All that is solid melts into air.” How did it end? Something about man being compelled to face his real condition?
Cars and buses negotiated the busy road into the city centre. Liverpool bustled with activity. Instead of making his call, he opened the envelope containing Helen’s handbag and contents, nothing important: phone, some makeup, lipsticks, and a compact, tissues. He looked for keys but couldn’t find any. He turned on the phone after swiping in Helen’s symbol, and it went straight to its last position, showing an open text.
He swiped to see who sent it. Steve McNally. What? Vinny stared at the screen. He let his hand drop, but didn’t know what to do or think. Why is Helen getting texts from Steve McNally? First, the headcase Sammo shows up, then the crash and now Macca. A seagull swooped and stabbed at a piece of mouldy burger bun near his feet. What the fuck.
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