Book: Black River (2016)

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Mrs. Whelan returned from the kitchen with a gold-rimmed ornate tray on which resided china cups and saucers, a tea-kettle warmed by a hand-knitted cosy with the words “World’s Greatest Mum” calligraphically stitched with an endearing sloppiness throughout its weave, a white jug of milk and a plate of assorted biscuits, including rich teas, pink wafers and Kimberly mikados. The biscuits were wrapped beneath a sheeny film of cellophane that glistened in the cold light of the sun through the windows.

“Really Mrs. Whelan,” Hardy said, “there’s absolutely no need for you to go to all this trouble.”

“Oh not at all,” she answered, this stricken, harrowed woman who looked like she hadn’t slept for days, who had still managed to make an effort to get dressed and put on makeup and shower despite the very floor of her world having fallen out from under her, without any prior warning or indication that life could ever be so blatantly, viciously, dreamily cruel. “And please, call me Mary.”

“Thank you Mary,” Hardy said.

She placed the tray on the glass coffee table between them and then sat on the armchair opposite Hardy on the couch. “Everybody’s been so good,” she said, “the neighbours, the Guards. My sisters are down from Dublin and Jack’s brother is trying to get time off work from his job in Canada so he can come over to help with the search. There’s more traffic going through the house now than there ever was. Sometimes I think it’s almost like a wedding until I remember why it is.”

Hardy sipped his tea. Really it was like a wake. People knew how to behave, even if on the surface they all hoped and prayed and strove to convince themselves that Emily was somewhere out there still alive and well—the cultural tradition of ages was so engrained in the collective psyche that the stimulus-response pattern kicked into action no matter what the people tried to tell themselves. The dolorous scent of bereavement muddied every corner of this well-to-do four bedroom suburban home. Mary Whelan was disintegrating beneath the force of its denial.

“Please have a biscuit, won’t you?” she said, “We’re all out of sandwiches, though Angela was due to bring some over this afternoon. I don’t know what’s keeping her.”

He had no appetite but felt it would be impolite to refuse. Thanking her, he took a rich tea biscuit from the plate and crunched on it, dry-mouthed and slow.

“I spoke to Sergeant Ward at Mill Street briefly,” Hardy said, “how are you getting on with his team?”

“Oh, they’ve been wonderful,” Mary Whelan said, “they’ve been so kind, they gave us the number of a counsellor to call and everything, though we haven’t gotten around to it yet. We’ve just been so busy.”

“He sounded like a solid guy when I spoke to him,” Hardy said, not exactly lying, “he seemed determined.”

“Yes,” Mrs. Whelan said, “yes he is.” She hadn’t taken a sip from her own cup. It remained, cooling, clasped between two frail and white almost claw-like hands crossed at odd angles in her lap.

“Do you know how the investigation is going?”

Mrs. Whelan smiled. “Well,” she said, “not good.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Her eyes darted giddily to the window, almost coy and girlish, and she giggled, a strange and jarring sound that echoed shrilly through the silence of the room. “I shouldn’t be telling you this,” she said, “but they think… they think maybe Brendan, maybe Brendan had something to do with it.”

Hardy raised an eyebrow. “Brendan?”

“Emily’s boyfriend,” Mrs. Whelan said, “ex-boyfriend.”

“Is that right?” Hardy said, “And what do you think?”

She looked back to him, still smiling, though with eyes that now seemed dark and sardonic in their gaze. “Not a chance,” she said, “not Brendan. No way in a million years.”

Hardy nodded slowly. “Ok,” he said, “but they must have a reason for it, if they suspect him.”

She grimaced. “There was an incident. We didn’t know, he was always such a lovely polite boy, he even helped Mark with his grinds when he was failing maths—they thought he might have to go down to Pass Level until Brendan helped him through it. I don’t think Emily even knew, but Sergeant Ward told us that there’d been an incident a few years ago. A fight or some such that got out of hand and Brendan was arrested. They dropped the charges in the end and nothing came of it, but Sergeant Ward said that it showed aggressive tendencies, an inclination for violence or something like that. I don’t really know what went on Mr. Hardy—Brendan didn’t talk much about his home life, though I know he had a rough time of it growing up—but by the time we knew him he was the sweetest, most gentle boy you could meet. Whatever it was, he’d worked hard to get past it.”

Hardy continued to nod, his eyes glassy as he processed the information. “I see,” he said, “well I’m sure they’re just following up on every possible lead. Though I think you should know that sometimes… well when someone goes missing, if there’s foul play involved… often it’s from a person known to them. Known to the person personally, I mean.”

Mrs. Whelan’s eyes turned cold. “Yes, I’m aware of that,” she said.

Hardy winced. “I didn’t mean—”

“No, I’m sorry. It’s just Brendan’s been in Australia for the past two years but then we found out that he’d been back visiting the weekend when Emily didn’t come home. He flew out the next day. So that’s why they think…”

“But you think otherwise,” Hardy said.

“I know otherwise.”

“Ok then.”

Hardy looked past her to the mantelpiece, to the rows of framed photographs of the family. There was Emily, bright-eyed and happy as ever, her hazel eyes shining for whoever held the camera. Another photo depicted a teenage boy in a GAA shirt and shorts, knees bloody and caked with mud, holding a medal up around his neck with adolescent pride.

“Is that Mark?” Hardy asked, gesturing to the photo.

“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Whelan said, “that was the day they won the county final. It was a wonderful day.”

“How’s he holding up?”

Mrs. Whelan shrugged weakly. “He misses his sister.”

Hardy nodded. In his pocket his phone beeped with a message. “Listen,” he said, “I have to get on. Thank you for your time Mary. I hope I haven’t intruded on you, I just wanted to see if there was anything else I could do.”

“No, you’ve done enough,” Mrs. Whelan said, “the front page, we couldn’t have asked for it.”

“I’ll keep on it till we find her,” Hardy said. “We’ll run something every week.”

Mrs. Whelan said nothing. Hardy set his cup on the tray and stood up. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “Be well,” he said, “try to get some rest.” His words sounded hollow and crushingly inadequate to his own ears. He could only imagine how they sounded to her.

“Thank you Mr. Hardy,” she said.

Out in the car, Hardy erupted into a fit of painful hacking coughs. He frantically searched for a tissue to catch the discharge escaping from his lungs in thick ribbons of green and yellow and dark, viscous, ominous red. When he finally began to settle down again he took his phone from his pocket to check the message he’d received inside. It was from Linda.

“No,” it said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea Brian. Not tonight. Not any night.”

Hardy sighed, rubbed his temple and then looked out at the cold grey cul-de-sac around his car. He bit his lip and then typed a reply, pausing now and then to gather his words.

“Yeah, maybe not,” he typed, “but I could really use some company. Had a bit of a scare yesterday at the doctor. Have to go in for more tests again tomorrow but I’m still kind of shaken up. What do you say, wine and a movie, my treat? Even just to talk?”

He placed the phone back in his pocket and then twisted the ignition, pulling out and turning in the road, making his way back in the city centre direction. The phone stayed silent from then on.


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