She has been bothered by the man in the tree—another thing to add to her sense that the country, nay, the world, is going to the dogs. Bothered that Teddy got so close to seeing the hanging man. Bothered that Korea has fired another test missile. Bothered that her bin collection has become fortnightly and that the streets around her home are rubbish-strewn. Funding shortfalls everywhere she looks. Detectives transfer or retire and don’t get replaced. Police inspector- ate warning of grave dangers to the service—poor response times, suspects not being apprehended, calls being downgraded. Calling 999? Yes, madam, someone should be with you in the next couple of days.
Everything is so much worse than she ever imagined it could get. And middle age keeps on landing the blows.
“When I get out of bed in the morning,” Mark says, “my whole body hurts for a moment or two.”
“Oh, I know,” she says. “Especially the feet.”
They are pale, with protruding bellies. Saggy-bottomed. In sharp contrast to their children, who amaze them with their shining, taut skin. Lovely legs. When she holds Ted’s face next to hers and looks in the mirror, it’s like an age-related horror show. Like satin next to Viking-era hessian.
At forty-six, Manon has entered an age of crippling anxiety, a period of her life freighted with dread. Her furrowed brow, never unfurrowed, is a bother to Mark Talbot, she can tell (although he’s no ray of sunshine); her joie de vivre abandoned at the coalface of worst-case-scenario planning. What if Teddy drowns or develops a tumor? What if the people she leaves him with are cruel to him? How will she know? Why won’t he sit quietly with a book for an hour or two? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, as the doomy king of Siam says in The King and I.
And marriage. Trying to keep that shit show on the road. Not bothering to have the same old arguments because they are boring, but fearful of screwing it up because who else would have her, and also: The Children? Frowning at Mark Talbot while she heaves the bins out in the rain. Because if you miss the bins, they’ll stink to high heaven; they’ll stink as bad as your rotting marriage.
In fact, they are not married, she and Mark, but might as well be (all the tedium, none of the tax breaks); slogging through it like most couples. He is her constant companion, which is no small thing; conjoined in the forge of parenthood, which is 70 percent delight at the emerging personalities of their children and 30 percent resentful trudge. Meal preparation, dishwasher emptying, overflowing laundry baskets, Lego underfoot. Underneath, she wonders if there might be something darker brewing—how can one tell? Mark might have someone else. His online life might harbor appalling secrets. But these questions she asks only fleetingly because he is her constant companion and life without him would be a dismantling of unconscionable proportions. He is the conversation, the jokes, the affection, the loyalty, all her warmth. She cannot ask the darker questions, because she loves him too much. It is better not to know, to settle down to another box set in a state of blissful and undisruptive not knowing. Human beings cannot bear too much reality.Everything is so much worse than she ever imagined it could get.
The last couple of Januarys have seen a welter of breakups among friends, Christmas being the straw that breaks the marital back. Mark Talbot secretly harboring his midlife crisis, the extent of which she cannot fully ascertain. He looks malnourished, despite his potbelly, and unfit. He’s developed a worrying antacid habit. She watches him pee and worries about his prostate.
“You get to a point,” she explained to her oldest friend, Bryony, “where you realize his shit is never going to get better. His shit will always be your shit.”
“Yup. You should come on my school run. They’re dropping like flies. Everyone in couples counseling, not all of it good.”
“I’m in couples counseling,” Manon replied. “On my own.”
“Result,” said Bri.
“I know. I don’t even have to listen to his side.”
“Isn’t couples counseling on your own just …therapy?”
“Don’t be absurd.I don’t need therapy. All my problems are because of Mark.”
“’Course they are. Why won’t he go?”
“Says it would just be me wanging on,” Manon said.
It’s not just the same old row about mental load, about who should be doing the utterly tedious bedtime routine while simultaneously preparing a nutritious dinner brimming with fresh veg, but also the deep chasm over The Anxiety of It All.Who is carrying The Anxiety of It All? Is it the person who is prone to anxiety? Or is it that person because one of you refuses to carry the anxiety and cunningly off-loads it onto the other one? She has her suspicions, which she keeps not very close to her (now shelf-like) chest. They barely touch each other these days, she and Mark.The bed is an icy canyon they cannot cross. Kissing is a thing of the past, unless it’s with Ted. It’s as if the physicality of looking after children, the lovely cheek to cheek of the bedtime story, the wrap of chubby little legs about the waist, has usurped the physicality of marriage.
Why does the mental load descend with such force? Is it late middle age? The anxiety has smothered her libido, once as bounding as a Labrador pup. It has smothered lightness. No more What the Fuck, Give It a Go, Devil May Care, C’mon Let’s Have a Laugh, et cetera, et cetera.
Where were all the full-blown feelings of her youth? Interrailing around Europe at seventeen, having regular epiphanies in Italian churches. Reading Where Angels Fear to Tread as she pulled into San Gimignano station, Tears for Fears through her headphones. The smell of Vidal Sassoon’s Wash & Go, its green bottle perched in plastic soap dishes of camper-van showers. God, everything was miraculous then. Music! Literature! Frescoes! She fancied everyone at seventeen, as opposed to no one at forty-six.
It was the absence of weariness. She could sit on a pew in some preposterously gold-leafed church and think seriously about Lucy Honeychurch, and Isabel Archer, and Gwendolen in Daniel Deronda, so fully engaged with them that they might have been interrailing together in some unwieldy, crinoline-wearing troupe. Why couldn’t she live like that forever? Why did one have to switch energy providers and set a mobile phone alert for bin day, only to find out you cannot set an alert because your phone storage is full, so you decide to pay for more storage (until you die), only to find you don’t know your password. By the time you retrieve your password, you are sixty-five and howling into the abyss.
It’s the children, she thinks.You can’t toss out your marriage be- cause of the children.You can’t stick two fingers up to your job to go and tend orangutans in Borneo.You can’t forget to go food shopping for, like, three weeks.You can’t think, Fuck this, I fancy doing an MA in classical Greek. You have to keep the sodding show on the sodding road. Weetabix at 6 a.m. whether you like it or not. Behind every meal is another meal. And can you imagine sitting across the table from some loathsome Internet date (who hasn’t half the charms of Mark Talbot, even on bin day) with your epic brow furrowed to the max, the Über-Furrow, and then looking at your watch and saying, Sorry,I can’t get pissed and come to your place for a shag, because I have to put the bins out tonight, otherwise the council won’t come back for a fortnight. Politicians so incompetent she can hardly bear to look.
No one replaces the light-bulbs, so they live in an ever-descending gloom.
It’s either the children or it is Death. It might well be Death: that shadow of a notion that you might be more than halfway through and this is all you’ve got, this is all the powder in your keg. New experiences? You’ve had ’em. Except cancer, and that might well be the one remaining new experience left to try. Each holiday a repeat of a previous holiday: Eurocamp sites where the plastic houses were just a smidgen too close together so she could gaze on happier couples from her Veranda of Bitterness. Doing crosswords on her phone (storage allowing).
The great variable of it all after forty-five: when the reaper might call. Will it be fifty? Sixty-two? Will people shake their heads momentarily, saying “So young” before going back to their online food order? Or will it be ninety-two, blind, deaf, and gaga? Once you’re living after halftime, it’s a gamble—when death is going to take you and whether it might be your own fault for not “eating clean.” Too many fags, not enough kale. Too much telly, not enough yoga. Sitting is the new smoking. Obesity is the new sitting.A scientist once told her the age of your death is set at your birth. If only we could know, we wouldn’t have to spend so much time worrying about it. Imagine spending your life chowing down on kale, only to find you’ve got ninety years of it to get through? If someone could just inform you, at maybe thirty, that you’ve got until sixty-eight to do everything, love everyone, set your affairs in order, have your affairs. If only we could be taken less by surprise by death. People in the past who went quietly mad losing child after child lived cheek by jowl with death, less utterly astonished by it. Perhaps if it surrounded you like that, like a terrible, dank lake,you would take less umbrage at its random cruelties.
Must research retirement accounts, renew contents insurance, remember Thursday is “wear green to nursery day,”and take in a panoply of exotic fruit. Which diet to follow as she hurtles toward matronly? Embark on daily seven-minute fitness? Seven whole minutes, though, SO BORING! Which new holiday idea might be the least Not Fun, and just as they decide on a place and a date after approximately three years on the Internet, they check in with TripAdvisor, which shits on all their dreams with close-up shots of molding shower trays.
Bring back the high street travel agent. Get rid of estate agents, but bring back travel agents. Someone out there ought to be a purveyor of joy rather than a peddler of worry.
She thinks of the song “Age of Aquarius,” but substitutes “Anxiety.”
At the GP they tested her iron levels.
“I’m tired all the time. Like, I wake up tired,” she told the nurse. “Forty-six-year-old women generally are tired because they’re doing everything,” the nurse said, seemingly unable to summon much interest in her case.
She’s been out of the office most of the day on some dull cold-case interviews that yielded close to nothing. Still, it was an outing.
Manon squints into the brightness, wrapping her scarf around her neck. It’s that time in the year when the coat has been dispensed with, but frankly, it’s freezing, hence the scarf. Her mobile starts ringing before she’s even at the end of the path. Bryony.
“All right?” says Manon.
“You on your way in?” asks Bri. “Yup,why? D’you want a coffee?”
“No, McFuckface wants to see you.”
“Don’t ask me.”
The new detective superintendent in charge of MCU and hence Manon’s über-boss, above Harriet but below the commissioner (re-placing the regrettably deceased and thoroughly discredited Gary Stanton) is, drumroll, Glenda McBain.
Glenda McBainof MyLife. Glenda McBlameGame.
The promotion had taken place during Manon’s maternity leave and according to pretty much everyone in the major crime unit, it was an overpromotion. What McBain lacked in policing acumen, she made up for in buzzwords, trotting out references to social media, digital presence, and “blue sky thinking” until the panic among the aging interview panel was palpable. So the story doing the rounds in the canteen went, anyway. These senior officers, with their shiny buttons and epaulettes, were men of an age to smooth a physical newspaper across a kitchen table in order to keep abreast of current events. Word was that Glenda McPersonalGain had mentioned Facebook and Twitter, sticky content, and clickbait sufficient times to have them reaching for the Gaviscon. So terrified were they by her Internetty lexicon that they ended up spluttering,“Well, she seems to have it covered” in relieved tones, hopeful they might never have to discuss it again.
Manon’s first run-in with Glenda McBain was her return-to-work interview,it being never too soon to fall out with your new boss.
Manon was returning to cold cases three days per week—a very feasible pattern in a department that was not driven by round-the- clock “live” investigations, their victims usually having been dead for decades, so another few weeks wasn’t going to hurt. There was no middle-of-the-night responding, no sleepless first seventy-two hours like there was on MCU. Cold cases was the force’s cultural backwater, thick with officer plankton, and Manon was more than happy to be swimming in it. Pottering in, coffee in hand, and log- ging on for a spot of Internet shopping was precisely what she had in mind when she thought of work-life balance. Admittedly, how- ever, the work lacked a certain grip. Excitement couldn’t be listed as part of her daily experience.
It made no discernible difference which days Manon worked, so she naturally chose Tuesday,Wednesday, and Thursday. Long weekends a-go-go, much of them spent in bed with Teddy, cuddling, kissing his face, and reading Dr. Dog on a loop. These mornings would be all the more delicious in contrast to the workday scramble, sleep- deprived if Teddy had been up in the night.Trying to shower/blow-dry her hair, feed and dress him, feed and dress herself, deal with the inevitable nearly-out-the-door poo he could muster at will.
Glenda McBain, however, had pretty randomly decided that Manon should work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This, Manon was sure,was mindless sabotage from a boss she soon realized was… well, not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She might know Internet words, but Glenda McBain was, as Bri put it, “thickety thick thick, stupidy stupidy.”
Subsequently, when Manon and Harriet were in Glenda’s office discussing the complex mechanics of a case or some element of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, she could see Glenda struggling to keep up: the tiny flicking of the eyeballs combined with physical delay. It was as if Manon could see Glenda’s brain saying,
Hold up ,lads! We’re going to have to suspend arm and leg movements for a minute while we process this convo.
Harriet knew it too, but was too institutionalized to use the full panoply of McFuckface monikers, in sharp contrast to Bryony, who was at the very vanguard of Glenda ribaldry.
“Something’s happened. Something disastrous,” Bri had said recently, marching through Manon’s front door, past her, and into the kitchen, her beetle-like movements saying panic.
“I called her I called her— I can’t.”
“Yes, you can.”
“This was in a meeting. And I blame you, Manon, because you’re always egging me on, encouraging me to be juvenile.”
“Come on, out with it.”
“I called her McFlurry. It was kind of quiet, and I corrected it mid-speak, so Manon started laughing, so much she had to bend double.
“It’s not funny.”
“Stop it, I’m doing a wee.Did you go for the full Det Chf Supt McFlurry? Or the more informal CE McFlurry?”
“Can I come and work on cold cases?”
“Only the finest minds on cold cases, Bri. Our best and finest minds.”
Manon had wondered what on earth Glenda was even doing in her back-to-work interview,it being well-below her pay grade.
“Can you manage the workload in three days a week?” Glenda demanded, all brusque and challengey, as if this was what powerful women could do. Thank you, feminism.
“It’s cold cases,” Manon answered. “I’m not heading up counterterrorism.”
Glenda, Manon reasoned, was meddling for the sake of meddling. Glenda was saying I want it pink just because she could.
Glenda fell into that group of people who seemed to believe that if they stretched their tentacles into the very far-flung corners of existence—corners that didn’t even concern them—they would Achieve Ultimate Control.
She agreed to McBain’s preposterous working pattern, and then, a few weeks later, when McBain’s laser gaze was focused elsewhere, quietly shifted her working week to the way she wanted it.
Excerpt from REMAIN SILENT by Susie Steiner, copyright © 2020 by Susie Steiner. Used by permission of Random House, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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