Ruby stuffed her arthritic hands deep into the folds of her warm Barbour jacket. Wind shivered through the bare tree limbs. With it came rain: icy horizontal rain that crept inside the snug shelter of her hood and pricked at her face. She gritted her dentures together and trudged on through the woods. Wet leaves, fallen on the ground, clung to her Wellingtons. She whipped one clawed hand out of her pocket and tossed a red rubber ball ahead of her. Her Alsatian puppy bounded off in pursuit. The ball bounced off a gnarly oak trunk and flew down a slope into a thicket of blackberry. The puppy raced after it, through the undergrowth.
Ruby's eyes weren't what they used to be. "Harold!" she called. "Here boy! Come back to Mummy!"
The words died on her lips. They shrivelled. They became a dry whisper. When her husband had discovered her year-long affair, both had agreed they were too old and set in their ways to end a thirty year marriage. In a spirit of reconciliation, they rescued a puppy from Battersea Dogs Home. They were, after so many cold years, a family again. Simon insisted on calling the dog Harold after her lover. He wanted her to understand how her infidelity would haunt their lives. It was a cruel and unusual punishment. So, when she recalled that the overgrown slope descended to the river, swollen and fast now from weeks of rain, a tiny part of her hoped Harold would slip and drown. She stood alone in the woods, wishing this. Then she decided to save whatever remained of her soul. She crashed through the bushes, searching frantically, calling out his name.
The bushes ripped like barbed wire. They tore her waterproof trousers. She saw the river rushing below her, violent and angry. She heard a creaking sound and looked at the black branches.
Oh dear God!
Her feet slid in the muck and leaves, and she fell into the blackberry bushes. Ruby couldn't care less about the thorns stabbing her hands and face. She forgot about her runaway puppy. She did care about the dead man swinging in the wind, dangling from a poplar tree.
Many years ago, Ruby had been a Sunday school teacher. She seemed to remember the crucifixion cross was hammered together from two lengths of poplar wood. The rope creaked again: a tortured sound. From where she had landed on her bony behind on the sloping riverbank, she stared up at the pendulous corpse. The moon hung behind him. He was a dark cut-out against the sky. A broken puppet on one string. Ruby could not see his twisted features but her nightmares filled in the gaps. He stared out of the darkness. A swollen face, a lolling tongue, and above all his familiar grey eyes, bulging in silent accusation.
The trees clawed at the sky like a skeleton's hands; they tore holes in the sunset until only the night remained. Half an hour later, as if overcome by the syrupy blackness, the crime-scene lights fizzed and went out. Constable Oakman swallowed hard, startled by his descent into impenetrable night. Slowly his eyes adjusted. He made out the grey and silver shapes of trees, the subtle brush-strokes of moonlight providing the only detail on a black canvas.
Mark Oakman had checked the crime-scene log. It confirmed that everyone who had entered had also left. He was alone.
Alone in the presence of the dead. It was impossible to forget that.
Mark had not seen a corpse until two months ago when, during the first days of police training, he had visited a mortuary. An elderly man with unidentifiable yellow stains on his apron had displayed his parade of cadavers. He ticked off the cause of death in each instance, pointing out claw-hammer marks in one man's skull, then a man whose head had nearly been decapitated by a broken beer bottle. Even those expired by natural causes appeared ghastly, with paper-thin skin and sunken eyes. He had seen the bloated rotten meat of those whose death had not been discovered until decomposition ravaged them. He had studied the strange erosion of flesh caused by maggot depredation. These memories returned to him now and disturbed him. He tried not to imagine the faces of the bodies in the trees.
A postman had discovered the couple early this morning. The male had been there longest, the female only recently. He had hanged himself with a rope. She had chosen a dog lead. The pair adorned the same thick branch. When the wind blew, they swung against each other like gruesome sweethearts.
Mark wished he'd brought a torch with him. Sergeant Moss had warned him to. He sat in the cold and the dark, trying not to hear the rope and the dog lead creaking in the wind.
He had borne witness over these last few weeks to things that made him wonder whether he could do this job. He thought of a line from a Rufus Wainwright song his girlfriend was always listening to: Thank-you for this bitter knowledge. He had learned plenty of that.
Mark sat on a tree stump. He listened to his radio. Somewhere across town, police officers fought to resuscitate a child. He heard a Sergeant shout for an ambulance. The display screen on his radio lit up the woods in blue. Whenever someone transmitted, it glowed. He started breathing normally once more, unaware he had been holding it. The little girl was breathing too. The voices of his colleagues shone occasional light into Mark's dark world.