The next six weeks were filled with self recrimination and sleepless nights. I was continually haunted by the sound of that poor child crying in the night, and of what I could have done to protect her. Shamefully on my part, my guilt was eclipsed by the fear of what those two dreadful words seemed to promise: “You Told”. My days were increasingly engulfed by thoughts of someone watching me - eyes staring out from around corners, whispers in the dark. The paranoia was only fuelled further by the apparent lack of details; the police had released little information about the dead family, and had yet to even declare their deaths the result of murder, which I was certain they were.
A police officer by the name of McClellan had paid me a visit on two separate occasions to ask further questions. I informed her about the subsequent message which I had received after the family were killed (a point which she would not verify for me, no matter how hard I pried), and while she jotted down fragments of our conversations into her little black notepad, it was clear that she was only talking to me out of a commitment to procedure, rather than one stemming from a belief that the emails were of any real importance. In attempting to ascertain exactly what had happened to the family next door, I was met with a friendly, and I have to say, attractive smile, followed by a polite explanation that any information regarding the fate of my neighbours could not be divulged to the public.
As time wore on, my nerves began to settle, and while I was still deeply disturbed by the entire ordeal, I was at least able to return to some form of normality; that is, with the exception of my writing. I hadn’t been able to place one measly word onto paper, nor transfer one simple keystroke to my monitor screen. No matter how hard I tried, no matter how determined, I just could not write. Fiction seemed inconsequential and pale when reflected against the death of a child.
As I had received no further emails, I managed to even persuade myself that they were unrelated to those terrible events; one of life's strange and unsettling coincidences, and nothing more. With hindsight this delusion seems to have been utterly foolish.
While I had been unable to write, I had still busied myself with the arduous and tedious task of submitting manuscript after manuscript of my previously completed work to various publishers. These were quickly followed by rejection slip after rejection slip. 'Not interested at this time' seemed to be the running theme, but the disappointment served its purpose and kept my mind away from darker thoughts.
By October 6th, almost seven weeks after that horrid night, and after settling into a form of daily routine, I decided to take a trip to see my mother. She had been ill over the previous few days and was currently living in a nursing home on the outskirts of Inverness; a small city seated amongst the rugged isolation of the Scottish highlands.
My mother's name is Joan, and in her youth she was a strong, self-determined and rather strict woman. Underneath this armour of typical British resolve, however, lay a kindness which occasionally shone through the rare, yet often welcomed cracks. As her only child, and raising me as a single parent, I learned a great level of self-reliance from her, perhaps in the end almost too great. Being two strong-willed individuals we would often clash, and to my detriment I had rarely visited her in the preceding years, thinking of her still as the proud, self-determined woman I had grown up grudgingly admiring from a distance.
I had received several worrying phone calls from one of the carers who worked at the nursing home. His name was Benjamin Haig, and I owed him a great deal of gratitude for the amount of time he had taken to explain my mother's situation to me, not to mention the care he had shown her for some time. Based on the recommendations of the nursing staff, that seeing her son may help stem her confusion and raise her spirits, and with no small sense of guilt, I made the four hour bus journey through the wilderness, admiring the sheer scale of the landscape on the way.
After taking a taxi from the bus station to the outskirts of Inverness, I found myself hesitating at the gates of Cradlehall Nursing Home. Conversations were often tense with my mother, but what concerned me the most was what my reaction would be to see this once infallible woman, now confused, frail, and diminished in stature. Physical deterioration is a terrible thing - watching loved ones grow frail, taking on the shadow-like form of their previous selves - but the robbing of their faculties, their very ability to recognise their families and friends, is a particularly bitter pill to swallow.
Calming my nerves, and focussing on a happy childhood memory I had of my mother baking cakes for me on an Autumn afternoon, I passed through the gates, entering the reception area via two large security doors. While the home was quite modern and its walls were papered in a friendly peach colour, occasionally sporting a cheerfully framed painting or two, the sting of disinfectant in the air still invaded my impression of the building; a place where the forgotten are left to wither when society has no further use for them.
At the front desk I gave my name, and was immediately greeted by the happy and enthusiastic smiles of several of the nursing staff.
“Joan always talks about you: The Writer. She will be so happy that you’re here!” exclaimed one of the nurses.
Her name was nurse Miller and she seemed a jovial type with round features and kind eyes, but her seemingly oblivious attitude to my mother's condition worried me. Surely the nurses should have been aware of their patients' health?
As we walked down the brightly lit hallways, passing the occasional room with its door lying open revealing residents who seemed both content yet lost, I questioned nurse Miller about my mother and how she had been. I wanted to prepare myself. While I had recovered somewhat from the guilt of my inaction at the sound of my neighbour's child crying in pain, my nerves were still not entirely healed, and the thought of my mother losing her mind in a nursing home was enough to send me teetering once more on the edge. I knew that if nurse Miller could inform me of her condition, then perhaps I could more readily deal with the shock.
Finally, we stopped outside of an anonymous room. Nurse Miller stood staring at me with a puzzled look on her face. “Your mum is fine, in fact she is one of our most popular residents. She often keeps the others going.”
“Then why did Mr Haig phone me?” I enquired, half relieved, half angry.
“Benjamin Haig, the carer who has been looking after my mother.”
“Oh! You must be mistaken. Benjamin Haig isn't a carer here, but he has been visiting your mother daily,” she answered, confused. “I don’t understand. I assumed you knew that, as he said he was a friend of yours.”