It was just after eight in the morning and the traffic was sluggish in London due to the heavy downpour. David, who kept one eye on the static traffic outside the bus window and the other on the driver who seemed to be wilfully going nowhere, was battling with the indignation that all commuters feel when they are running late and it is not their fault.
He felt flushed and untidy. His tie was too tight around his neck. He needed to blow his nose, but had no tissues.
“Yeah, hi, yeah, not gonna make it,” said a chap standing in the aisle, into his phone. “You get the train, I’ll catch a later one. Yeah, I’m sure. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, no probs. Yeah, no probs. Yeah, I’m sure. Bye.” David stared at the man’s huge backpack with loathing. It was irritating that he took up so much space on this bus.
In fact, it had been an irritating kind of morning. He had had to fight his way out of a deep, suffocating sleep, and had woken up gasping for air. A trace of a nightmare ran rings around his scrambled thoughts. He was hungover. He felt clumsy and stupid, and getting washed and dressed was abnormally laborious. It was raining when he left the house, but he didn’t have time to go back inside and find his umbrella. Running to the bus stop he soon saw there was no point in rushing. The traffic on the main road was lined up, solid, unmoving. A bus was stuck a hundred yards and a million miles away. There was no room under the shelter because everyone else had got there before him, so he had only the bare branches of the towering lime tree to shelter him from the weather. He stood, arms and shoulder aching as if he had been shifting logs whilst he slept. The bottoms of his black trousers got wet, the damp from the pavement seeping, creeping up his ankles.
Now on the bus, the floor heater blew around his feet, wafting damp trouser onto his goosepimpled flesh. He sniffed again and the young woman next to him physically bristled. He wanted to just explain to her that he had to sniff or else he couldn’t breathe. This was his worst morning ever. There was absolutely nothing worse than this sort of social embarrassment.
An annoying mobile phone tune struck up, like the sound of an advert jingle, and David felt his irritation rise even further until he realised that it was his phone ringing. Then the irritation was replaced by a panic to get to it in time. It was in the zip of his bag and he had to hoist the bag up from between his legs. He missed the call but the screen told him that his mother had called, so he called her right back.
“Where are you? Can you talk?” asked his mother.
“I’m on a bus, what is it? Is it important?”
Everything was too loud and his mother’s soft Lancashire tones too soft. “I’m. On. A Bus. What is it?”
“You’re on a bus?”
“Yes. What is it?”
“Well, have you got a friend called Sabina?”
“Well, a girl called Sabina phoned me last night and she said she was a friend of yours. She said that she was up here and needed a place to stay and that you had given her my number to ring.”
“On my God, you didn’t say yes did you?”
“Well, I asked where she knew you from and she said she worked with you. I said, no, I don’t want strangers in my house thank you.”
“Oh hang on, there is a Sabina at work, I think.”
“Yes there is a Sabina at work, but I didn’t give her your number. Was it the landline or your mobile she rang?”
“Did she ring on the house phone or on your mobile phone?”
“On the house phone, only I’m ex-directory you know. I don’t want you giving my number out.”
“I didn’t! I don’t know why she rang you or where she got your number from.”
“Well, I told her no. She called late at night you see. I was asleep.”
“I’m really sorry mum, I don’t know what that’s all about. I’ll phone you later, OK?”
“OK love, I’m sorry I couldn’t help, but I don’t want strangers in the house.”
“You did the right thing, mum. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Ok love, you’re taking care of yourself aren’t you? Not out drinking all the time?”
“I’m fine mum!”
“OK love, bye, take care.”
He cut the call off and stared at his phone. No need to worry, he told himself, and put the phone back in his bag in such a way as to conclude the matter. The young lady was squashing herself up against the side of the bus to keep away from him. He could feel her exasperation at his phone call, at his sniffing. His cheeks burned.
The bus was moving now, it had made it past the bottle neck and across the island traffic and the road widened up and allowed the bus to fly for a short time before it had to pull up at another stop. He dared not sniff in case the woman finally said something humiliating to him. But he could feel a trickle making its way ominously downwards and at some point he would have to make a decision about sniffing it back up, or letting it flow.
Please God let this soon be over.
The useless student man standing in the aisle with the huge back-pack was on his phone again. David thought he might just strangle him soon if he didn’t shut up.
In the work toilet at last David felt the relief of blowing his nose. His nasal passages felt so clean and fresh. He flushed the tissue down the toilet and loosened his tie.
One of the other cubicles was occupied by somebody who sounded as if they were crying. The presence of another person spoiled things. He left annoyed, swinging the toilet door so violently on his way out that it crashed back against the wall.
Reaching his desk almost twenty minutes after nine o’clock, he sensed a coolness towards him. Nobody said good morning, and under pressure to excuse his lateness he muttered something about bloody traffic. Nobody responded.
He had logged into his computer and fetched some files before he registered that there was an unearthly quiet in the office. It was a large open plan office, with perhaps fifty of them all sharing the same space and usually you couldn’t hear yourself think for the chatter. This morning however he could only hear a few people on phone calls. He slyly looked about him. There were some empty desks. Other people were later than he was, so he wasn’t sure why he was getting the cold shoulder.
He thought about Sabina, who worked in accounting. He felt sure that she would not have been the Sabina who had called his mother last night, but he would check with her anyway. He couldn’t think that he had even had a significant conversation with Sabina, yet alone told her his mother lived up north in Lancashire and that she could call her up. Outside of work he’d seen her drinking in the same pubs as him, but that was it. She wasn’t an approachable woman, seemed a bit stand offish, too aware of her good looks. He stood up and looked across to Sabina’s desk. She wasn’t there. In fact, none of the accounts team were in, their area of the floor was empty.
He sat back down and wishing to break the silence he spoke to Gary, the guy at the next desk. “How was your weekend? Do anything good?”
Gary shook his head, but didn’t say anything. He and Gary had once been good drinking buddies, but once too often Gary went home with the girl David had fancied. David went to say something else but stopped when he spotted Muhammad from admin come onto the floor rubbing his face in a large white tissue. His face was all blotchy and his eyes red. The sniveller in the toilet.
David’s team supervisor approached, looking more like a holiday rep than ever David thought, hugging her clipboard, wearing her cheap navy nylon suit. “Morning,” she said to everybody, with the respectful and solemn tone of someone addressing funeral goers. “Shall we just pop into the meeting room?” David attempted to share puzzled looks with his colleagues but everyone kept their eyes to the floor. Something had happened that he didn’t know about.
The meeting room smelt musty and the air was thick with dust and boredom. David took a seat up the corner on his own and immediately felt his nose began to run. He wavered a little, wondering if he should excuse himself to get some tissue from the toilet, but decided on a big sniff instead. He caught the tail-end of a disgusted look from Sharon in sales and felt like he was back on the bus again.
The supervisor stood in the front of the arrangement of tables and waited for everyone to settle down. “Now, I think you all know why I have called you here, the very sad, sad news that we have had this morning about one of our colleagues. All managers have been asked to assure you all that we know that today will be a tough, and that if you need to take some time out during the day, we understand. We are all very, very shocked here and we understand that it is upsetting to have this happen.”
Everyone sat with their heads bowed, trying their best to make their sadness look genuine. David looked about him, puzzled.
“Was anybody here particularly close to Sabina?”
The girl who did the admin for David’s team, Shelly, put her hand up. “We were at the same party the other week, and we got on really well. We were going to go clubbing together.”
“I’m so sorry,” said the supervisor. “It must be very hard for you.”
“I can’t believe she’s gone.”
“It is very shocking. Does anybody here not know what happened to Sabina?”
David put his hand up.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” apologised the supervisor, “I thought everyone knew. Well… did you know Sabina in accounts?” David shook his head. “Well, very sadly, at the weekend, Sabina was murdered. Her body was found in the woods by the reservoir.”
“OK,” David replied and sniffed. He knew immediately that was the wrong thing to do. He had made himself look callous. He was aware of the judgement in the room and not for the first time that day felt his cheeks burn. As the supervisor talked on he started to feel hot, his armpits tingled with sweat, and he pulled at his tie.
“There will be police in the building today,” the supervisor was saying, “and do be warned, this will be on the news too, so no doubt everyone you know will be asking you about what’s happened. Such a terrible thing to have happened.”
Not as terrible as having a running nose and no tissues, David thought. Then he realised one thing. If Sabina was dead, she couldn’t have been the one who rang his mother up last night.
The strangled hush of a funeral gathering hung over the floor. The accounts team didn’t return to their desks. He watched Michael from sales leaving a post-it note on Sabina’s desk and thought it an odd thing to do. It wasn’t like she was going to be coming back to work. Flowers would have been more appropriate, he thought. That set him off thinking about who would do the collection for the flowers for the funeral, and whether the office would get the day off.
When he felt his mobile phone buzz in his pocket, he casually left his desk to go and answer it. Out in the corridor he prodded his smartphone’s screen and put the device to his ear. “Mum,” he whispered, “are you ok?”
“Yes love, it’s me! Are you at work?”
“Yes I’m at work.”
“Yes, I’m at work.”
“Yes, I thought you were. I’m sorry to ring again but something else has happened.”
“Well, you know I had that phone call from Sabina last night…”
“Well, she’s just been knocking on my door!”
“She was knocking on my door!”
“Did you answer?”
“No love! No love, sorry! She was really angry! She was shouting!”
“What was she shouting?”
“She was banging and shouting!”
“Has she gone now?”
“Yes. Yes, I think so. I wouldn’t answer. She was banging on my door, so angry! What did you go and send her to me for?”
“Well, she’s very angry at you!”
“Mum, this might seem a bit random, but have you been watching the news?”
“Have you watched any news?”
“I don’t know, why?”
“I just wondered if you’d seen the news and my workplace got mentioned and… never mind. Doesn’t matter. I can’t explain it.”
“Well, you know I’m not quite myself these days!”
“I know. Are you still taking your meds?”
“I don’t need to!”
“Ok mum, look, why don’t you book yourself in to see the doctor anyway?”
“Do you think I should?”
“Yes. And if Sabina or anyone else calls again, call the police, OK. There’s nothing I can do living down here in London.”
“Take care of yourself, mum. Miss you.”
“Miss you too. Are you coming to see me soon?”
“Not soon, but I will.”
“I haven’t worried you have I?”
“What a funny thing.”
“Yes, it is. I have to go. Talk later. Love you.”
He cut the call off, put the phone in his pocket, and stood looking puzzled for a moment. Then he sniffed and headed to the toilet to blow his nose again.
David was in the office kitchen, waiting for the kettle to boil, when Michael from sales came in. “Alright, Dave!” Michael said breezily, as he fetched his cup from the cupboard. ”Pull anything the weekend?”
“Never do, do you? Put on a bit of timber, haven’t you, mate? You need to sort your hair out ‘an all, you hippy. When you gonna get a haircut?”
“Yeah or maybe I’m just finding better things to do with my time.”
“Just kiddin’ mate! What about poor old, Sabina, then! Such a lovely girl! Out of my league but can’t say I never tried to get into her knickers! Such a crying’ shame! And we all know who did it, don’t we?”
“Yeah, course we do! Obvious, isn’t it?” He lowered his voice to a whisper, “her family, of course. Bloody savage bastards! They call it honour killing, don’t they? Where’s the honour in killing your daughter and dumping her body in a wood?”
“I don’t think you should start such rumours, to be honest mate.” David took up the boiling water and poured it into his mug. “Let’s just see what the police say.”
“Yeah, yeah! Whatever! We all know what they’re like! I don’t get it myself, that attitude to women.”
“Yeah, I like my women with their tits out and their legs spread!”
David stared at him, but Michael only stopped laughing when Shelly entered the kitchen.
“Hey Shelly,” Michael said softly, “How you doin’, mate?” and he tipped his head sympathetically to one side.
David walked out. Ignorant men like Michael enraged him.
The company didn’t get a visit from the police until late afternoon, by which time the feel across the floor had returned to something resembling normality. David watched from his desk as the two male police officers came out of the meeting room, followed by the department head and the chief exec.
The department head and chief exec still looked forlorn, but no one else in the office was keeping that up anymore. As the four of them left the floor, a giggle rose above the general hubbub. Earlier, David had overheard someone from IT complaining that if accounts had the day off, they all should have had the day off. He could see Michael across the way, standing by someone’s desk, throwing his arms around and chatting excitedly about something.
Only Muhammad, sat behind him, was still showing he cared. His systematic snivelling was oppressive to David. His grief felt like a physical thing, like it was reaching out and putting its hands around his neck. He made a phone call to the suppliers to try and take his mind off things, but as soon as he put the phone down he felt the tightening around his throat again. He needed this all to be over.
Soon, he told himself, soon everyone, including Muhammad, would forget about Sabina and that would be the best thing for everybody.
He stood up and went to the toilet once again to blow his nose.
On his way back from the toilet, he went to the filing cabinets over by the accounts team desks. There were lots of post-it notes on Sabina’s desk and curious he went to take a closer look. He saw they were all little notes from everyone expressing grief at what had happened to her, lots of little hearts and kisses. He spotted the note he had seen Michael leave earlier:
See you the other side, chick
Queuing in Mr Singh’s shop to pay for a packet of tissues, mucus was still breaking for freedom down his nostrils, and he was sniffing more and more. He reflected how, for him, the worst thing about today wasn’t his mother’s insane phone calls or even the news about Sabina. No, the very worst thing today was the indignity of being shamed by a runny nose. The constant threat of mortification should snot run down his face and the tension that built up behind each sniff would be something he would try very hard to forget. There was nothing, absolutely nothing worse than the idea of such embarrassment.
He paid for the packet of tissues with coins warm from being held in his sticky palm and he walked to the bus stop with a limp gait and sagging shoulders. He thought this had been one of the worst days of his life.
Back in his flat, David stood in the middle of his kitchen forgetting what he had gone in there for. His body ached, his nose was sore from blowing it so often, and his ears rang. He remembered what he wanted and reached in the cupboard for the supermarket brand paracetamol and popped a couple out of their bubble. He stopped and thought for a moment, then popped a third one. He washed them down with a glass of water and then threw the glass up the wall. It smashed spectacularly, shards bouncing off so violently he had to quickly shield his eyes.
Irritably he pulled at his tie. He wanted it off. But the more he pulled, the tighter it got around his neck. He started to choke. Stars formed in front of his eyes as he suffered from the lack of oxygen. Unable to loosen it with his fingers, he opened a drawer and scrambled desperately amongst the cutlery for something sharp to cut it with. He found the scissors, brought them to his neck, tried to get a blade down inside the tie, but the tie kept pulling tighter and tighter. He was aware that he was cutting himself, he felt the blood sticky on his fingers. He was close to blacking out, but he managed one last good snip before becoming unconscious. Exhausted, he fell to the floor, flinging the bloodied tie away from him.
He wanted to speak to his mum.
He got up, staggered into the living room and plonked down onto the sofa. Picking up his smartphone from the coffee table he thumbed the screen to bring up his mum’s number. He pressed the call symbol. The phone disconnected. He tried twice more, then suddenly he stopped and looked up as if remembering something.
Stupid boy, he thought and laughed to himself. He had forgotten that his mum was dead.
He laughed some more and then cried a little. Putting the phone down he stood up and ambled stiffly towards his bedroom, wondering if he was coming down with flu. He stood in the doorway, thinking about whether or not to go to bed. Then he realised something was different. He looked around his room trying to figure out what was wrong. Then he saw it, the bin bag of Sabina’s clothes.
He really should have taken the clothes last night, when he dumped the body in the woods, but he hadn’t been thinking properly and had left them behind. He had come home after lugging her body about to the clothes and had been too tired to do anything but bag them. If the police caught him with that, they’d arrest him. He couldn’t believe he’d completely forgotten about it!
Funny to think that Sabrina was now in the same place as his mum. He’d said to her as she lay in his bed and strangled her with his tie that it would be alright, his mum was dead and she could go and stay with her. Sabina hadn’t been happy about it, but what could he do? He had tried to have sex with her and couldn’t manage it. He couldn’t just let her go into work and humiliate him by telling everyone he couldn’t get it up. That would have been the worst thing in the world. There was literally nothing worse than embarrassment.
He shook his head and smiled to himself, fancy getting phone calls from his dead mum about her. Then he sniffed and bent to pick up the bag to take it down to the trash.