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Authors: Judith Cutler

Life Sentence

BOOK: Life Sentence
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Life Sentence


For Frances, and all the unsung heroes and heroines who are carers

‘So here you are, Elise, on an ordinary ward at last. I wonder what it’s like for you after all that time in Intensive Care. For any other patient it would be a promotion, wouldn’t it? A step nearer to returning to the world. But for you, my dear, it’s definitely relegation. They’ve given up on you, haven’t they? It’s no longer a simple coma, with a hope of ultimate recovery: it’s Persistent Vegetative State. Of course, some people think it helps to have a label for an illness…

‘I hope they’re still caring for you properly. You must be turned regularly, or you’ll get sores. Of course, any other patient would have physiotherapy to make sure that pneumonia didn’t set in, and to stop your poor limbs contorting as if you’d had cerebral palsy. And what have they done for you? Given you splints!

‘Your poor face. Anyone else would have had plastic surgery for all those hideous scars. And you’d certainly have had false teeth: you might even have used some of the compensation you’d have got to have those terribly expensive implants.

‘At least your hair’s grown back. Mostly it’s a grey
stubble, but there are two white streaks either side of your forehead that make you look a bit like a badger.

‘How thin you are now. When I first came upon you, you were quite plump, with the sort of flesh that says you eat the wrong things. So it was natural that you should lose weight. One day – we have to face it – they may stop feeding you altogether. Oh, not just like that. There’d have to be all sorts of legal arguments, I’m sure. But sooner or later someone will decide they need the bed you’re occupying and ask to stop treating you. Or someone might even think it’s kinder to you to let you die.

‘Except that technically you are dead, aren’t you? Your heart and body may work, but your brain doesn’t.

‘All the same, I’ll say what I always say when I kiss you goodbye: I’m sorry, my dear. I wouldn’t have had this happen for the world.’

She jerked sharply awake. Where was she? And what was that noise? Had she fallen asleep and crashed the car?

No, it was someone rapping on the driver’s window.

God knew what time it was. She hadn’t dared drive any longer, that was it, not without a coffee and some fresh air, and before she’d done more than cut the ignition she’d fallen asleep.

She must have dribbled, and probably snored too. But it was the trickle of saliva that troubled her most, an outward and visible sign that she’d not been in control of herself while technically being in control of a vehicle.

‘You all right, miss?’

It was a traffic cop, his dayglo jacket fluorescing in the headlights of the cars still using the car park, even at this hour of the morning. Yes, it had been about midnight when she’d pulled off the M3, into Fleet Services. Which was where she must be now.

She heaved herself out of the Saab. ‘I’ve had a long drive, officer. Thought I’d take a break. And before I got anywhere near my KitKat, there I was, sending my pigs to market.’

Nodding without sympathy or humour, the young man – he looked about eighteen – dodged back to his Range Rover and came back fitting a mouthpiece to a breathalyser. Thank goodness her parents’ Devon bungalow was Dry. Capital D. She blew as if to clear the last cobweb from her brain. And then, damn it if she didn’t start a flush. Right from her belly up into her hair it went, the night air blessedly sliding on to it like ice cream on to hot chocolate sauce.

‘That seems to be all right,’ he said, tacking on ‘miss’ as an almost insulting afterthought as he registered this symptom of her age. ‘I suppose this is your vehicle?’

Without speaking she reached for her bag, stowed in the rear foot-well, out of sight of casual predators. She always practised what she preached when it came to crime prevention. Her wallet held her driving licence and a photocopy of her insurance certificate. It also held, when she wasn’t on duty, her police ID. Chief Superintendent Frances Harman.

His double-take was almost comic. ‘You’re a—? Sorry, miss. I mean ma’am.’

‘That’s OK – you were doing your duty.’

Another dayglo figure slid into view. ‘All right, Gazza? Hey, it’s Ms Harman, isn’t it? You won’t remember me, ma’am…’

She might in better light. She played for time. ‘You weren’t in Traffic then.’

‘No, that’s right. It was my first big operation in CID, ma’am. Back when I was based in Kent. Operation
Rooster. Those child murder cases all across the south.’

The clouds in her head began to clear. ‘That’s right, Ken. Some clown had put you on permanent tea duty. But you were far more useful than that.’

‘Thanks, ma’am. The way you pulled that case together: you should have seen it, Gazza – we were getting nowhere fast. Then Chief Inspector Harman—’

‘Chief Superintendent, guv!’ Gazza hissed.

The other officer’s eyes opened a gratifying fraction. ‘Then
Chief Superintendent
Harman came and pulled it all together.’

‘Not just me, Ken. That’s right, isn’t it? Ken Baker. It was a team effort. I don’t think any of us saw our families while the search was on.’

‘Which was why I left CID, ma’am. The wife –
wife put her foot down with a firm hand, you might say.’

Fran laughed. Ken probably thought it was at his weak joke. In fact she was enjoying his swift correction of a term she’d never allowed.
The wife
, indeed. ‘And now you’re an inspector: but what are you doing out and about on a night like this?’

‘That’s what you taught us, ma’am – hands on; no job too small; don’t lose touch. So though I’d rather be tucked away in the control room, I make a point of putting myself on the roster from time to time.’

‘Despite your wife?’

‘She understands. So long as it isn’t too often.’

‘Quite right.’

The three of them stood in embarrassed silence. The
two men were clearly too much in awe of her to have a proper conversation and without her jacket Fran was trying not to dither in the cold night air. She was saved by Gazza’s radio crackling into action. ‘You take your shout and I’d better go and get a coffee. I’ve got a long way to go tonight.’

‘Back to Kent, ma’am?’

‘That’s right.’

He pulled a face. ‘Safe journey, then. And watch out for the speed cameras near the M25: we’re having a special purge.’ Then they waved each other off, the night having become the better for their encounter, at least as far as Fran was concerned.

With luck the next leg would be an easier run than the first half of her journey, the M20 delivering her to within ten miles of her Kent home. For some reason no one had ever had the sense to put a decent road all the way from London to Exeter. Hapless holiday motorists heading for the South West had the doubtful privilege of being able to stare at Stonehenge from their traffic jam on the A303, encouraged by the news that in a few miles time there would be a minute stretch of dual carriageway, just long enough for one wheezing caravanette to overtake another. Inexplicably travel back tended to be marginally quicker, but there were still endless miles of road with solid white lines confining you to the safety of one carriageway, with absolutely no overtaking. Until Fleet, the only loos were at Happy Eaters, a food chain more optimistic
than accurate in its title, as far as she was concerned. But then, she was rarely happy going down to Devon, and more than usually serious on the return journey she was on now. She’d had her stint in Devon, for this dreary October weekend at least.

She bent stiffly to retrieve the
, zap the Saab’s locks and stagger painfully towards the services, stiff and unsteady, she had to admit, as an old woman: not the spectacle she wanted to present to underlings, even those from the past. Fancy young Ken ending up an inspector. And he might go further yet.

She missed her step on some uneven paving and yelped, clutching her back. It was always worse after a weekend with her parents. Half of her brain dismissed the pain as psychosomatic; the other half reasoned it might be simply a result of her unremitting activity. Although she had long since insisted on paying for a gardener, her parents contrived to fall out with him, and with each one in a long succession. One had planted too early, another too late. One left the lawns too long, the other clipped them too short. Now they could both complain to her that she never achieved enough in the short time she was with them. Short! It seemed like an eternity.

The same sort of problem applied to the domestic help she’d employed. Now, however, that had been imposed upon them despite their protests, thanks to the intervention of Social Services. It was rightly official policy, of course, that the hapless help could clean only
the rooms her parents used, not the guest room, which was inches deep in dust each time she arrived. As for Meals on Wheels, or whatever the name of its trendy reincarnation, her mother had insisted that she had produced good home cooking all her life and she didn’t see why at her age she should put up with stuff the council saw fit to feed to pensioners. In any case, her gall bladder and Pa’s high blood pressure meant they couldn’t eat half the meals anyway. Ma waved aside any suggestion that the meals could be adjusted to meet their dietary needs. Nor, for some reason, was either of them prepared to countenance ready meals, be they ever so low fat, from a supermarket. It had to be home cooking, which meant, with their other daughter Hazel safely ensconced in Stornaway, that it had to be Fran’s cooking – Fran, who at home so rarely raised a pan in anger. Perhaps she should have enjoyed the stint simply because it was different, but when she cooked for herself, it was never bland pap.

As Fran queued for the till – as always, she was surprised that so many people were in transit at one on a Monday morning – she tried to recall a time when her mother hadn’t complained about Pa’s attacks on the garden, or he hadn’t moaned about the over-cooked and watery substances passing as meals. Now they could both round on her for whatever reason: sometimes she thought it was simply as a change from bickering with each other. But lately she feared that her mother carped if Fran spent time with her father, and he if she indulged
her mother. Their possible return to second childhood was the thing she dreaded most.

She fumbled the change: the sooner she got some caffeine inside her the better.

There. Just her and a coffee and a newspaper in a clean, well-lighted place. A scene straight from Hopper.

She could ignore the lads in the smoking area high on something or other. Just now she didn’t want to know what it was. She had to grip her chair to stop her strolling over and scrounging a cigarette, though. Just at the moment she couldn’t see the point of eschewing life-shortening pleasures. A short life and a merry one let it be. No dwindling into old age, please!

If only it were just a day down there. But her parents demanded more than that. Every other weekend. More than that. Every weekend. More than that. It was pound of filial flesh time.

The coffee was thin and bitter, once you got past the heat. She refolded the paper and reached for her ballpoint.

The more she stared at the Everyman crossword, the less sense any of the clues made. Even the quick crossword was impenetrable. Except for one answer, which leapt at her:
. Then another:
sacrificial lamb.


She used the loo and set off into the night. At least she now had the system perfected. Back in Lenham her bed would be ready. The washing machine would deal
immediately with everything she’d worn in Teignmouth, so the mustiness she’d brought back – her parents abjured open windows on account of draughts – wouldn’t get a chance to permeate her home. The morning’s clothes, down to pants and tights, were hanging just inside the wardrobe. Even the instant coffee stood poised beside the kettle. As for breakfast, the canteen staff knew exactly what she wanted and how she liked it. Sorted.


Back in Maidstone the next day Fran was looking at her complexion in the ladies’ room. Oh, yes: this was Monday morning in spades. She fished in her bag. Over the years she had learnt to use make-up not just for prettification but also for disguise. She could appear as sombre and professional as the most misogynist judge might require, or if M’Lud preferred fluffy women she could do that too. She might have spent twenty-three hours of the last twenty-four on a case, but in her make-up pouch was a clever concealer that would hide bags under the eyes from all but the most searching gaze and blusher to impart at least a modicum of colour. This morning she was speaking first to representatives from Domestic Violence Units from across the country about appropriate means of intervention. Perhaps they’d be more interested in what she said than the accuracy of her mascara. And she’d spoken about domestic violence often enough to be able to sound convincingly angry even in her sleep.
It wasn’t just women who were victims. Men could suffer too. Children, it went without saying. And old people. They were often victims of household bullying… Could she imagine ever being driven to violence against her parents? Those who’d bred her, nurtured her – and now whined at her like overtired children?

Perhaps that was their problem. Her mother and father were just tired. As she was. Whatever the outward appearance, her brain was like the potatoes she’d mashed by the saucepan load yesterday, for the shepherd’s pies she’d batch-cooked for their freezer, after she’d mown the lawns and done a brisk autumn prune of the twenty-seven elderly rose bushes, all of which ought to have been uprooted and burnt. She’d had to take the garden refuse to the recycling centre, its ridiculously limited opening hours producing long queues.

And now she wanted to sleep. God, how she wanted to sleep.

But instead she had a second meeting, this one with colleagues from neighbouring forces, including the Met, about tackling cross-Channel crime. How on earth could she get through it? The preparatory glossy documents, couched in the sort of language no human being had ever yet spoken, had defeated her even when she was at her most alert. And although insomnia and she were old friends, especially lately, the day after her Devon weekend was always the time she most craved
sleep. It would have to be extra-strong coffee instead. And then she’d simply have to wing it. So long as no one asked her to take minutes, she might just get through.


‘Harman’s just not doing her job, Turner,’ the Chief Constable snapped. ‘Not up to it. Goodness knows what she’s playing at.’

Mark Turner had had his hand on the door, ready to leave the Chief’s office. Now he came back to stand like a naughty schoolboy before the Chief’s desk, drawing a deep breath. ‘With respect, sir—’

‘Have you seen her recently? She always used to be a credit to the force, and now she’s scruffy, hair all anyhow, great bags under her eyes. You’re her line manager: do something.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought she was any less presentable than many of our male officers of the same age,’ Mark Turner objected.

‘It’s worse if a woman lets herself go.’ The Chief Constable realised what he’d said and slapped a guilty hand over his mouth. ‘Only don’t tell her I said that: she’ll wave every Equal Opportunities document there is over my head.’

Mark didn’t laugh. ‘And rightly too, sir, if I may say so. Actually, I’ve thought for some time she doesn’t look well, but you don’t discipline a colleague for ill health. I’d have thought it might be more worthwhile enquiring whether we’re not simply asking her to do
too much. She already had a post in crime; she only took on policy development as a temporary measure when Field had his heart attack. If he’s not able to return to full duties, Personnel ought to find a proper replacement.’ He felt inexplicably angry. Then he realised he should direct the anger against himself: he was, after all, the one to whom Fran reported, and he should have done something about her work overload weeks ago. And he’d noticed she looked more exhausted than simply tired, but he’d never asked why. Being too busy himself might constitute some sort of excuse, but it was only that. He had time to do the urgent jobs, and enough outside work to see what he could of his family. Not that they needed him so much, now they’d flit the coop. Why had he not asked her out for a comradely drink, a meal even? No, best keep to the matter in hand, pushing the point even further. ‘In fact, I’d have thought if we didn’t take some work off her shoulders she could start a grievance procedure—’

BOOK: Life Sentence
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