Mr Prepolec invited Mrs Prepolec out to dinner. He never thought she’d say yes, but the asking alone seemed like the right thing to do, one firm step on the road to recovery. But she did say yes. She didn’t want to go to their local restaurant. She wanted to go to a restaurant where there were no memories. So they got into the car and drove out of town and it was nearly forty-five minutes before they’d found somewhere that looked suitable. And there were no memories there, but of course there were memories there, they both remembered the first time Charlie had eaten a spaghetti bolognaise and had thought it was worms, and how much fun he’d had twisting the worms around his fork, and how he had splashed them both with meat sauce. There was nothing but memories. But they did well, they didn’t mention Charlie once, well, they mentioned him once, but not too badly, it was all right. They were going to be all right. And the waiter was polite, and the decor nice, and Mr Prepolec said, “It’s good here, we should come again.” The food was very nice and the wine was nice and neither of them enjoyed it, and neither of them had expected to, that would be too much to ask for.
He said, “I love you.”
She said, “I love you too.”
He raised a glass to toast her, but halfway up he decided that might be inappropriate, and drank alone instead.
At a little after nine o’clock they got home, and they could see right away that the house had been burgled. The alarm had been triggered, the blue box above the front door was flashing, and they could hear the siren inside, an electronic wail that was low and mournful and annoyingly discreet.
Mr Prepolec felt a rush of excitement. “Let me go first,” he said. “They might still be in there!” Though he didn’t know what would happen if he opened the door and found burglars the other side, what would he say to them, what could he do. Mrs Prepolec was right behind him, and she nodded fiercely as he put the key in the lock and pushed the door open, and Mr Prepolec thought she seemed excited too.
The hallway looked just the same as they’d left it. Mr Prepolec called, “If there’s anyone there, come out!” But no one did.
They saw where the burglars had broken in, a smashed window at the back leading out on to the garden. She said, “We’ll have to see what’s missing,” and he said, “I’ll do downstairs, you upstairs,” and they set to work. And as Mr Prepolec inspected the sitting room he allowed himself some little congratulation, he and his wife really responded well to crises. The day by day silences had been so difficult, but give them a crisis and they could really show off their best.
And then he heard a shout from upstairs, it was a shriek, and he hadn’t heard his wife shriek like that, not even through all the agonies of the last few weeks – and he rushed up to her, up the stairs two at a time, straight to the bedroom.
The bedroom, like the sitting room, looked untouched. There was not a hint any stranger had been inside. But his wife was shaking, positively shaking; tears were streaming down her face.
“What is it?” he asked, and went to touch her, and didn’t quite.
She said, “He’s gone. Oh God. Oh God.”
She pointed at her dressing table.
He said, “Are you sure?”
She said, “Oh God.”
He said, “Because you might have put it somewhere else? Hey? Did you put it, listen…”
She said, “What are we going to do?”
He said, “Did you put it in a drawer? Could it be in a drawer?”
She said, “What ever are we going to do now, oh God.”
He said, “I think we should check the drawers. Let me check the drawers. Let me.” And he checked the drawers, and the drawers were full of other stuff, jewellery, some of it perfectly nice, some of it perfectly burglerable, but it wasn’t there. And his wife sank down on to the bed, and then stood up again.
“We’ve got to get after them,” she said.
“What are you saying?”
“They could be right outside. They might only have just. They might be.”
“We don’t know what they look like,” he said. “We don’t know what to look for.”
“We’ll call the police. It’ll be all right.”
“How can the police help? You just said…”
“They won’t know what to look for.”
“I’ll call the police. We have to call them anyway.”
“I’ll call them.”
“I’ll call them. You’re in no. You lie down, or. Or make us a cup of tea, I’ll, I’ll call them right away.”
He called the police. They said they’d send someone right over.
At ten minutes to ten she started clearing up the broken glass from the sitting room carpet, and he told her not to, he said it might be evidence, he said the police might want to fingerprint it, maybe that’s how they’d find the culprit. And she dropped the glass as if it were burning hot.
At quarter past ten the police rang the doorbell. There were two of them – one was a short woman, young; the other, a man who was younger still, who never said very much. They both looked suitably serious.
Mr Prepolec said, “Thank you for coming over.”
Mrs Prepolec said, “Thank you. Would you like some tea? We’ve put tea on.”
The woman said, “Thanks, we’ve just had some. Oh, this is a nice house. Have you had it long?”
He said, “About ten years now.”
She said, “Nearer fifteen!”
He said, “About fifteen.”
The woman said, “And can you show… Oh yes. Yes, this is where they’ll have got in, look.”
She said, “They? Do you think there was more than one?”
The woman said, “And when would this have been?”
He said, “We got back about nine-ish. We’d been out for dinner. We’d been out, I don’t know, an hour and a half?”
The woman said, “So, that’ll give us an hour and a half window.”
He said, “Yes.”
She said, “Will you be able to catch them?”
The woman said, “And has there been any other damage?” Her colleague was writing down everything in a little notebook.
“No,” said Mr Prepolec. “No, it was just the window.”
“Well, that’s a mercy,” said the policewoman. “And missing, what’s missing?”
He said, “Not that much.”
She said, “It’s everything to us.”
“Have you made a list?”
He said, “No need for a list. It was in the bedroom.” The Prepolecs showed the policewoman and her friend up the stairs.
“Right,” said the policewoman, surveying the room. The policeman wrote something new down in the notebook.
“It was an urn,” he said.
“Over here,” she said.
He said, “Though it might have been in the drawers. It’s gone, anyway.”
She said, “It contained our son. Charlie. It contained his ashes. He was seven. He was only seven.”
“Right,” said the policewoman. “Oh, I’m very sorry.”
He said, “It’s all right.”
She said, “It’s not all right. It was the only thing. It was the only thing left. Of him. Why didn’t you get here sooner? Then you could have… got after them and… bloody caught them…”
He said, “Hey, hey.”
She said, “Oh God, do you think you can get him back?”
The woman said, “A cup of tea would be nice. Mrs Prepolec? Do you think we could have that cup of tea?”
Mrs Prepolec said, “Yes.”
The woman said, “Andy here will help you.”
Mrs Prepolec said, “I don’t need. Yes. Thanks. Yes. Sugar?”
The woman said, “Please.” And Mrs Prepolec and the silent man with the notebook called Andy went downstairs.
“Sorry,” said Mr Prepolec. “She’s. Well.”
“Of course,” said the woman. “Your son. I’m sorry.”
“Yes,” said Mr Prepolec. “But we’ll be all right.”
“What did the urn look like?”
“So big. Quite small. They don’t give you many ashes. I thought there’d be more. We were both surprised. Oh, and it was sort of grey. The urn.”
“Sort of grey,” said the woman. “Right. And is the urn all that’s missing?”
A few minutes later the tea was brought up. Mrs Prepolec had stopped crying. She was even smiling. She looked at the policewoman with such hope in her eyes.
“Here you are,” she said. “Do you think you can get him back? I mean, I know you can’t make any promises.”
“It just seems odd that this was the only thing that was stolen,” said the policewoman. “I mean. Did anyone know where you kept the urn?”
“No,” said Mrs Prepolec.
“No,” said Mr Prepolec. “I mean, sometimes, you move it about, don’t you, love?”
“I’m not quite sure where I want to keep it yet,” said Mrs Prepolec.
“Odd,” said the policewoman. “Well. Well, we’ll get right on to it.”
“I know you can’t make any promises,” said Mrs Prepolec. “That’s all right.”
The woman said, “I won’t lie to you. The chances of recovering the urn are really. Well, very small. I mean, it’s not impossible.”
“But I don’t want you to have your hopes raised.”
“I don’t need the urn back,” said Mrs Prepolec. “If that makes things easier. We were going to get a better urn anyway. Something pretty we could keep forever. We only want the ashes inside.”
“That doesn’t,” said the woman, slowly, “make recovery much easier, no. Now, we’ll give you an incident report number. Andy. There. And if you get any further info, just. Yes. And we’ll send you something about theft counselling, it’s standard procedure.”
“We won’t need that,” said Mr Prepolec.
“It’s no trouble. Now, will you two be all right?”
“We’ll be all right,” said Mr Prepolec.
Mrs Prepolec said, “Yes. Yes.”
Then Mrs Prepolec said, “We won’t press charges. Tell them that. So long as they give us the ashes back.”
The policewoman said, “Nasty business. But you sleep safe. They never come back. And I’m. We’re sorry for your loss.”
They both thanked her.
Andy said, “Forgive me, but. How did your little boy die?”
And they told him.
At ten thirty-five the police left. At ten forty, Mrs Prepolec remembered the glass in the sitting room, there might be fingerprints on it. She wanted to call the police up and tell them. Mr Prepolec told her not to. Mrs Prepolec said they’d been asked to call if they had any further info, and this was further info, and Mr Prepolec said this wasn’t the sort of info that they’d have had in mind.
They dealt with the glass together. He picked up all the shards one by one, taking care he didn’t cut himself. She held a plastic bag open for him to drop the pieces inside. It was a perfect example of just how effective they could be when they worked together, they didn’t even need to plan it, he’d just gone to the shards, she’d gone for the bag, they were a team. It was the same mindset that had sent out the funeral invitations so efficiently, and had ensured the catering had been a success. At ten forty-five Mr Prepolec took the bag from his wife, and sealed it with a knot. “That’s that then,” he said. She asked whether he was going to call the insurance company for the window, and he said it’d be rather a waste of their no claims discount, wouldn’t it? And it was only three panes broken, he could have a go at them himself at the weekend.
He said, “You didn’t mean that, did you? About the urn?”
She said, “What?”
He said, “That we were going to buy a new one. To keep forever.”
She said, “Oh. Yes. Well, I hadn’t decided.”
He said, “I thought we’d agreed. We were going to scatter the ashes in the park. Where he used to play, you know.”
She said, “In the back garden, we said.”
He said, “Or in the back garden, yeah. Yeah, you never said anything about keeping the ashes.”
She said, “I hadn’t decided.”
And at quarter past eleven her face suddenly lit up. She went to the phone.
He said, “Who are you calling?” and she said, “Shh!”
She spoke to an answering machine in her nicest voice. She asked very sweetly if her call could be returned urgently, the very first thing next morning.
He said, “Was that the police? Love?”
She said, “It was the crematorium. I thought, hang on. We didn’t get many ashes in the first place. Maybe they have some left over.”
He said, “They won’t have any left over.”
She said, “They might.”
He said, “It wouldn’t all have been Charlie’s ashes anyway. There’ll have been bits of coffin in there.”
“It may have been other people’s ashes too. We don’t know.”
“Why are you saying that? Why would you say that?”
“I don’t know.”
“If you don’t know, then just bloody well shut up.”
A few minutes later he said, “Look. I was just trying to. I don’t know.”
She said, “It’s all right.”
He said, “But the ashes. Love. Love. They’re just a symbol, aren’t they? That’s what I mean.”
She didn’t reply.
“So,” he said, “we could scatter some other ashes. We could still say goodbye to Charlie.”
“What other ashes?”
He said, “It wouldn’t matter. It could be, I don’t know. One of his favourite toys. We could burn that bear of his, what, Paddington.”
“Charlie loved Paddington. We could set fire to Paddington and scatter Paddington’s ashes. That’s all I’m. That’s what I’m saying.”
A few minutes later he said, “I love you.”
A few minutes later he said, “I’m going to the toilet.” He didn’t go to the toilet. He went up the stairs to Charlie’s room. He closed the door. He sat on the bed.
Just before midnight she came upstairs to find him.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I’m sorry too,” she said.
“Sit with me,” he said.
They’d left the room as it was. All the toys. All the cupboards full of little socks, little shirts, little person clothes. The wallpaper of characters from Toy Story. Mr Prepolec knew at some point he’d have to strip the wallpaper. Getting rid of the clothes and toys wouldn’t be so bad, there was still some use to them, they wouldn’t feel wasted. But he’d have to strip the paper right off.
He said, “I’ve been thinking. And it’s just you and me now. And I’m so sorry about Charlie. About all of this. But maybe, with the ashes, it’s good they’ve gone. Because it’s over. You know? It’s over. And I was so. Oh, dreading, that moment we would scatter his ashes. So scared of it. Having to say goodbye again, and we’ve already done it, haven’t we, I can’t go through that again. And now, it’s awful. I just feel such relief.”
She said, “Yes.”
He said, “Do you feel it too?” And he said, “We have each other.” And he said, “Oh, God. Oh, shit.”
She said then, “Did you do it?” And it was so quiet.
And he thought, what, did she mean, was it all his fault? Was it his fault Charlie had died? And of course it wasn’t. It wasn’t anyone’s fault. No one could have known.
She said, “Tell me. Did you do it? Did you steal the ashes?”
“What? No. No, I.”
She said, “What the police said. How odd it was. Only the ashes missing. And the thief knowing where there’d be. You knew where there’d be.”
“I thought they were in the drawers.”
She said, “Did you do it?” And he said, how, how could he have done it, they were out together, they were doing something together, at last, like ordinary people, as if they were ordinary people again, he hadn’t left her side, he hadn’t even been to the toilet, they’d been together the whole time. She said, “You could have asked a friend. You have lots of friends. You could have paid someone,” and he said, of course he hadn’t, he hadn’t got any friends, no friends at all.
She said – and she did the same thing she’d done with Charlie – she said, “Look at me, I can see if you’re telling the truth.” He looked at her, and my God, she was beautiful, she’d been crying and her eyes were so wet and large. “Just tell me. I’ll forgive you. I’ll understand. I’ll try to understand.”
He said, “I didn’t do it.” And she thought about this, then got up, and left the room.
She was back a few minutes later. She was wearing her coat. She was carrying his.
“What?” he said.
“We’ll look outside,” she said. “Maybe the burglars dropped something.”
At ten past midnight they left the house. She said, “You look down that street, I’ll look down this one.”
He’d not wanted to go, but he felt the need to apologise to her, and he wasn’t sure for what. He’d said there’d be nothing to find. She said she’d read somewhere that burglars drop some of their spoils in the getaway from the crime scene. She said she’d seen this programme once about burglars who were overcome with remorse, and brought back things they’d stolen, and left them on the front lawn. Maybe their burglars were remorseful. Maybe they’d thought, we can afford to buy an urn. Maybe they’d decided they could have a child of their own.
The moon was bright, and they didn’t need torches. She handed him a torch nonetheless, and turned on her own. She turned it up to her face, and she looked somewhat devilish. “Good luck,” she said.
He traced the beam on to the pavement for a while, and then, when he rounded the first corner, and could no longer be seen, he turned off the light. He stood there, and for all he was worth he tried to cry, but nothing would come out.
At one o’clock Mr Prepolec checked his watch, and decided that was time enough. He went back home, and found Mrs Prepolec was already indoors. In the kitchen she was making yet more tea.
“No luck,” she said. “Any luck? I had no luck.”
He said, “I can’t do this any more.”
She said nothing to that. He felt his heart beat faster. He felt sick.
“We’re not going to see Charlie again,” he said.
“I’m not happy,” he said. “With you.”
“No,” she said. “But. But.”
“The three of us. It worked. Didn’t it? As a family. When we were all together.”
“I wasn’t sure it would work. Do you remember? When you were pregnant? I didn’t think it would work. Because the two of us, on our own, that worked. Why should three of us work? Why mess that up? Do you remember?”
“But it did. It was good. It was good. And now. It’s just you and me. Again, you and me left, baby.”
“I don’t see how.” He said, “I don’t see how.”
She said, “We’ll be all right.”
He said, “I only want to make you happy. And nothing makes you happy.”
She said, “I can’t be happy.” And she said, “We’ll be all right, though.” And she said, “We just have to get back to where we were. Before Charlie. We just have to find that again.”
“I don’t see how we’re going to do that.”
“No. No. No. Nor me. I know.”
He made a move further into the kitchen, right towards her, and she thought he might be about to hug her, and she steeled herself for it accordingly. She didn’t want to be hugged. But maybe it would be all right, so long as she let the hug happen, maybe after the hug everything would get better, maybe the hug would be the turning point. She steeled herself, then, but he didn’t hug her, and all that steel in her body gave way, she felt her limbs get all floppy and useless again.
“I’m going to bed,” he said. “Not in our bed. I’ll sleep. I’ll sleep on the sofa, or. Charlie’s bed. I’ll sleep in Charlie’s bed. Not to get away from you. I just want to be on my own.”
“Yes,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Yes,” she said, and he went.
At quarter past one she knocked on Charlie’s door. “Can I come in?” she asked. He wanted to tell her to go away, he wanted to say something that would make her hurt, and he didn’t know why, why would he want that? “Sure,” he said.
He was lying on the bed, fully clothed, staring up at the ceiling. She said, “That looks comfortable.”
“Can I join you?”
There wasn’t much room on the bed. He shuffled to one side, but they had to hold on to each other to stop themselves rolling off.
She said, “I need you to tell me you did it.”
“I need it to be you. I need it to have been you. Please. And not some stranger. Please.”
He said, “I did it.”
“I need you to tell me how. I need you to make me believe it.”
He said nothing for a while, and she thought he wasn’t going to speak, he wasn’t going to speak again, not ever, and where would that leave them? And then, softly, he explained. He told her how he’d asked a man at work. No one she knew, he wouldn’t give the name, it didn’t matter. He’d asked this man for a favour, no money had changed hands. He’d told the man their address, when they would be out at dinner, the exact location of the urn. And then he’d given instructions for the man to take the ashes to the park, and scatter them there by the swings – Charlie had liked the swings.
She said, “I’d prefer the back garden.”
He said, “I told him the park,” and that had to do.
She said, “Thank you.”
She said, “I still love you.”
He said, “Good.”
“Is it, though? Is it good?”
He thought about it for a while. “I don’t know,” he said, honestly.
“I don’t see,” he said, “how it can be bad.”
“Can we turn the lights off?” she said. “Can we get beneath the covers?”
He couldn’t see why not.
Charlie had had a bedside clock, it lit up in the dark, it showed wild animals. And so they both knew when it was thirty-five minutes past one.
And at thirty-five minutes past one it was exactly nineteen days since Charlie had slipped away, and neither of them mentioned this, but both commemorated the moment in their own way.
Then he turned the clock around, so they couldn’t see the time any more. And it was truly dark.
And twenty-four hours later, exactly, they’d reach twenty days. And maybe that would be better. Or maybe it would be just the same. But they’d reached nineteen, they’d reached another milestone, they’d hopped right over it, and that was good, that was good, that was all right.
They dozed for a while. They now had no way of telling for how long.
They got hot. So they took off their clothes, and they snuggled together, naked.
And at length Mrs Prepolec said, “I kept on thinking, he’ll be more interesting when he’s older. Seven year olds aren’t very interesting. They haven’t done anything yet. They have nothing to say. I kept on thinking, he’ll be better when he’s a teenager, I have that to look forward to. But now, he’s never going to get interesting.”
She said it very softly, maybe because it was dark, maybe because she thought Mr Prepolec might be asleep.
He said, at last, “We’ll talk about it tomorrow.”
“Do you forgive me?”
“Tomorrow,” he said.
And then he said, “Yes.”
They began to kiss then. They hadn’t kissed for a while, and that had nothing to do with Charlie, or his death, they just hadn’t felt the need for such a very long time. They did now, but incuriously, and both thought that at any moment they might pull away and tell the other to stop.
He climbed on top of her.
He said, “Is this all right?”
She said, “Yes.”
He said, “Do you want me to. I don’t know. Do you want me as I am?”
She said, “It’s up to you.”
He said, “I think I’ll carry on. As I am, I think that’s best.”
They made love. And it didn’t mean anything that there was no condom, not necessarily – this wasn’t the start of something new. It was just another absence in a room full of absence. But it felt good, and they worked together, they didn’t need to tell the other what to do, they were a team. And afterwards Mrs Prepolec said thank you, and Mr Prepolec said thank you, and they kissed, and they held each other, and they went to sleep.
I love this kind of story that contains some dramatic incident of note, but manages to focus on the emotional tension between characters, which can be heartbreaking, even at its most mundane. Did you decide specifically what had happened to Charlie and whether either of the Propelecs had orchestrated the burglary before or during writing? Determining those factors were definitely not necessary for me as a reader, but I wonder if they were necessary for you to be able to write the characters so well.
Robert Shearman said:
I have suspicions about who committed the theft – I can say that much. But it’s the way of writing, I think – sometimes what seemed obvious to you in the planning stage fades into ambiguity, and sometimes what seemed small or trivial suddenly leaps out loud and clear. And I think the act of writing a story (not to sound too pretentious about it!) changes the idea completely anyway. Most of the time I go into a story with a clear intent about where it’s going to end up, and that almost makes it feel too predictable or corny, because it’s lived in my head for too long – so I veer away from it deliberately!
I always feel that ambiguity for the sake of it is rather an unfair trick on the reader. It makes the writer look a bit pompous. So when working on the revised draft of this one, cutting away (always cutting!), I found that everything I say about the theft is really all I now know *for sure*. Everything else I might guess at.
I don’t think I ever knew what happened to Charlie. Sometimes in the first draft an explanation would swim into view, and then I’d just as quickly try to paddle away from it again. I don’t think really I wanted to find out.
I think the Prepolecs will be all right, though.
Amber (@innerspacecase) said:
Yes. If there’s one thing I’m sure about at the end of this story, it’s that everything is going to be okay. Someday…maybe today, maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.
Thank you for the insight. It’s interesting to think about storytelling as a big ocean of ideas through which a writer navigates with a little craft, avoiding the sirens of Overdetermined Events and Facts for the Record.