In the Frame

1

I stood on the outside of disaster, looking in.

There were three police cars outside my cousin’s house, and an ambulance with its blue turret light revolving ominously, and people bustling in seriously through his open front door. The chill wind of early autumn blew dead brown leaves sadly on to the driveway, and harsh scurrying clouds threatened worse to come. Six o’clock, Friday evening, Shropshire, England.

Intermittent bright white flashes from the windows spoke of photography in progress within. I slid my satchel from my shoulder and dumped both it and my suitcase on the grass verge, and with justifiable foreboding completed my journey to the house.

I had travelled by train to stay for the week-end. No cousin with car to meet me as promised, so I had started to walk the mile and a half of country road, sure he would come tearing along soon in his muddy Peugeot, full of jokes and apologies and plans.

No jokes.

He stood in the hall, dazed and grey. His body inside his neat business suit looked limp, and his arms hung straight down from the shoulders as if his brain had forgotten they were there. His head was turned slightly towards the sittingroom, the source of the flashes, and his eyes were stark with shock.

‘Don?’ I said. I walked towards him. ‘Donald!’

He didn’t hear me. A policeman, however, did. He came swiftly from the sittingroom in his dark blue uniform, took me by the arm and swung me strongly and unceremoniously back towards the door.

‘Out of here, sir,’ he said. ‘If you please.’

The strained eyes slid uncertainly our way.

‘Charles…’ His voice was hoarse.

The policeman’s grip loosened very slightly. ‘Do you know this man, sir?’ he asked Donald.

‘I’m his cousin,’ I said.

‘Oh.’ He took his hand off, told me to stay where I was and look after Mr Stuart, and returned to the sittingroom to consult.

‘What’s happened?’ I said.

Don was past answering. His head turned again towards the sittingroom door, drawn to a horror he could no longer see. I disobeyed the police instructions, took ten quiet steps, and looked in.

The familiar room was unfamiliarly bare. No pictures, no ornaments, no edge-to-edge floor covering of oriental rugs. Just bare grey walls, chintz-covered sofas, heavy furniture pushed awry, and a great expanse of dusty wood-block flooring.

And on the floor, my cousin’s young wife, bloody and dead.

The big room was scattered with busy police, measuring, photographing, dusting for fingerprints. I knew they were there; didn’t see them. All I saw was Regina lying on her back, her face the colour of cream.

Her eyes were half open, still faintly bright, and her lower jaw had fallen loose, outlining brutally the shape of the skull. A pool of urine lay wetly on the parquet around her sprawled legs, and one arm was flung out sideways with the dead white fingers curling upwards as if in supplication.

There had been no mercy.

I looked at the scarlet mess of her head and felt the blood draining from my own.

The policeman who had grabbed me before turned round from his consultation with another, saw me swaying in the doorway, and took quick annoyed strides back to my side.

‘I told you to wait outside, sir,’ he said with exasperation, stating clearly that my faintness was my own fault.

I nodded dumbly and went back into the hall. Donald was sitting on the stairs, looking at nothing. I sat abruptly on the floor near him and put my head between my knees.

‘I… f… found… her,’ he said.

I swallowed. What could one say? It was bad enough for me, but he had lived with her, and loved her.