Joe O’Loughlin, protagonist of Michael Robotham’s acclaimed O’Loughlin series, was kind enough to stop by the office today on a connecting flight to Bouchercon, where he’s meeting Robotham to promote his newest, SAY YOU’RE SORRY. We’re happy to report that not only is Joe a beacon of morality in dark times, he’s also a really cool guy, and was kind enough to jot down the below recollection which appeared in the UK edition of his first appearance SUSPECT, but was cut for the US edition.
SAY YOU’RE SORRY, which Kirkus calls “subtle, smart, compelling and blessed with both an intelligent storyline and top-notch writing,” is now available in bookstores everywhere.
Sunday morning is normally my time. I bury myself under the combined weight of four newspapers and drink coffee until my tongue feels furry. But today is different. The calendar says so. My memory serves me well.
Charlie is rugged up in jeans, skivvy and a ski jacket because I’ve promised she can come with me today. After gulping down her breakfast, she watches me impatiently – convinced that I’m deliberately drinking my coffee more slowly.
When it’s time to load up the car, we carry the cardboard boxes from the garden shed, along the side path and put them next to my old Metro. The boxes are so light I can balance three on top of each other. Charlie makes do with one at a time.
Julianne is sitting on the front steps with a cup of coffee resting on her knees.
‘You’re both mad, you know that?’
‘And you’ll get arrested.’
‘And that’s going to be your fault.’
‘Why is it my fault?’
‘Because you won’t come with us. We need a getaway driver.’
Charlie pipes up. ‘C’mon, Mum. Dad said you used to.’
‘That’s when I was young and foolish and I wasn’t on the Committee at your school.’
‘Do you realise, Charlie, that on my second date with your mother she was arrested for scaling a flag-pole and taking down the South African flag.’
Julianne scowls. ‘Don’t tell her that!’
‘Did you really get arrested?’
‘I was cautioned. It’s not the same thing.’
There are four boxes on the roof racks, two in the boot and two on the back seat. Fine beads of sweat, like polished glass, are decorating Charlie’s top lip. She slips off her ski jacket and tucks it between the seats.
I turn back to Julianne. ‘Are you sure you won’t come? I know you want to.’
‘Who’s going to post bail for us?’
‘Your mother will do that.’
Her eyes narrow, but she puts her coffee cup inside the door. ‘I’m doing this under protest.’
She holds out her hand for the car keys. ‘And I’m driving.’
She grabs a jacket from the coat rack in the hallway and pulls the door shut. Charlie squeezes herself between boxes on the back seat and leans forward excitedly.
‘Tell me the story again,’ she asks, as we swing into light traffic along Prince Albert Road, alongside Regent’s Park. ‘And don’t leave anything out just because Mum’s here.’
I tell people that the reason I became a psychologist is because I wanted to know what Julianne was really thinking – but that’s not true. The real reason was great aunt Gracie, who died at the age of eighty, having spent sixty years never setting a foot outside her house.
My maternal grandmother’s youngest sister lived in a grand old detached Victorian house with mini-turrets on the roof, metal balconies and a coal cellar underneath. I used to visit her after school, cupping my hands on the frosted glass of her front door, watching her bustle down the hallway to answer my knock. She would open the door just wide enough to let me slip inside and then close it again quickly.
Tall and almost skeletal, with clear blue eyes and fair hair gone streaky white, she always wore a long black velvet dress, with a string of pearls that seemed to glow against the black material.
‘Finnegan, come! COME! Joseph is here!’
Finnegan was a Jack Russel without a bark. His voice box had been crushed in a fight with a neighbourhood Alsatian. Instead of barking, he huffed and puffed as though auditioning to play the big bad wolf in a pantomime.
Gracie talked to Finnegan like he was a person. She read him stories from the local paper, or asked him questions about local issues. She would nod her agreement whenever he responded with a huff, or a puff, or a fart.
Finnegan even had his own chair at the table and Gracie would slip him morsels of cake and admonish herself in the same breath for ‘feeding an animal from the hand.’
When Gracie poured the tea she half filled my cup with milk because I was too young to have full-strength brew. My feet could barely touch the floor when I sat on the dining chairs. If I sat back, my legs stuck straight out underneath the white lace tablecloth.
Years later, when my feet could reach the floor and I had to bend down to kiss Gracie on the cheek, she continued to add half a cup of milk to my tea. Maybe she didn’t want me to grow up.
Arriving straight from school, she made me sit next to her on the chaise longue, clutching my hand in her own. She wanted to know everything about my day. What I learned in class. What games I played. What fillings I had in my sandwiches. She soaked up the details as though picturing every footstep.
Gracie was a classic agoraphobic – terrified of open space. She once tried to explain it to me – having grown sick of fobbing off my questions.
‘Have you ever been afraid of the dark?’ she asked.
‘What did you fear would happen if the lights went out?’
‘That a monster would get me.’
‘Did you ever see this monster?’
‘No. Mum says that monsters don’t exist.’
‘She’s right. They don’t. So where did your monster come from?’
‘Up here.’ I tapped my head.
‘Exactly. I have a monster too. I know he’s not supposed to exist, but he won’t go away.’
‘What does your monster look like?’
‘He is ten feet tall and he carries a sword. If I try to leave the house he’s going to cut my head off.’
‘Are you making that up?’
She laughed and tried to tickle me, but I pushed her hands away. I wanted an honest answer.
Tiring of this conversation, she screwed shut her eyes and tucked loose strands of white hair into her tightly wrapped bun. ‘Have you ever watched one of those horror films where the hero is trying to get away and the car won’t start. He keeps turning the key and pumping the accelerator, but the engine just coughs and dies. And you can see the villain coming. He’s got a gun or a knife. And you keep saying to yourself, “Get out of there! Get out! He’s coming!”
I nod, wide-eyed. ‘Well you take that fear,’ she said, ‘and you multiply it by a hundred and then you’ll know how I feel when I think about going outside.’
She stood and walked out of the room. The discussion had ended. I never raised the subject again. I didn’t want to make her sad.
I don’t know how she lived. Cheques would arrive periodically from a law firm, but Gracie would place them on the mantelpiece, where she could stare at them each day until they expired. I guess they were part of her inheritance, but she wanted nothing to do with her family’s money. I didn’t know the reason… not then.
She worked as a seamstress – making wedding gowns and bridesmaid’s dresses. I would often find the front room draped in silk and organza, with a bride-to-be standing on a stool and Gracie with her mouth full of pins. It was not a place for young boys – not unless they fancied modelling a dress.
The rooms upstairs were full of what Gracie called her ‘collectibles’. By this she meant books, fashion magazines, reels of cloth, cotton bobbins, hatboxes, bags of wool, photograph albums, soft toys and a treasure trove of unexplored boxes and trunks.
Most of these ‘collectibles’ had been recycled or purchased by mail order. The catalogues were always open on the coffee table and each day the mailman brought something new.
Not surprisingly, Gracie’s view of the world was rather limited. The TV news and current affairs programs seemed to magnify conflict and pain. It was like looking through a fixed telescope at a landscape and glimpsing a dead tree. If that is all one ever sees then it’s possible to surmise that all the trees are dead.
She saw people fighting, wilderness vanishing, bombs falling and countries starving. While these weren’t the reasons that she ran away from the world, they were certainly no incentive to go back.
‘It scares me just seeing how small you are,’ she told me. ‘It’s not a good time to be a child.’ She glanced out the bay window and shuddered as though able to see a terrible fate awaiting me. I only saw an overgrown and unkempt garden with white butterflies flitting between the gnarled branches of the apple trees.
‘Don’t you ever want to go outside?’ I asked her. ‘Don’t you want to look up at the stars or walk along a riverbank or admire the gardens?’
‘I stopped thinking about it a long while ago.’
‘What do you miss most?’
‘There must be something.’
She thought for a moment. ‘I used to love the autumn, just as the leaves turn and begin to fall. We used to go to Kew Gardens and I’d run along the thoroughfares, kicking up the leaves and trying to catch them. The curled leaves would slip from side to side, like miniature boats riding the air until they settled into my hands.’
‘I could blindfold you,’ I suggested.
‘What if you put a box over your head? You could pretend you were inside.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘I could wait until you were asleep and push your bed outside?’
‘Down the stairs?’
‘Mmmm. Bit tricky.’
She put her arm around my shoulders. ‘Don’t you worry about me. I’m quite happy here.’
From then on we had a sort of running joke. I kept suggesting new ways to get her outside and new pastimes like hang-gliding and wing walking. Gracie would react in mock horror and tell me I was the real lunatic.
‘So what about her birthday?’ says Charlie impatiently. We’re driving through St John’s Wood, just passing Lord’s Cricket Ground. The traffic lights gleam brightly against the dullness of the outer walls.
‘I thought you wanted the whole story.’
‘Yes, but I’m not getting any younger.’
Julianne gets a fit of the giggles. ‘She gets the sarcasm from you, you know.’
‘OK,’ I sigh. I’ll tell you about Gracie’s birthday. She never admitted her age, but I knew she was going to be seventy-five because I found some dates by looking through her photo albums.’
‘You said she was beautiful,’ says Charlie.
‘Yes. It’s not easy to tell from old photographs because nobody ever smiled and the women looked plain scary. But Gracie was different. She had twinkling eyes and always looked like she was about to giggle. And she used to cinch her belt a little tighter and stand so the light shone through her petticoats.’
‘She was a flirt,’ says Julianne.
‘What’s a flirt?’ asks Charlie.
She frowns and hugs her knees, resting her chin on the patched knees of her jeans.
‘It was pretty difficult to plan a surprise for Gracie because, of course, she never left the house,’ I explain. ‘I had to do everything when she was asleep…’
‘How old were you?’
‘Sixteen. I was still at Charterhouse.’
Charlie nods and begins pinning her hair up high on her head. She looks exactly like Julianne when she does that.
‘Gracie didn’t use her garage. She had no need of a car. It had big wooden doors that opened outwards, as well as an internal doorway into the laundry. First I cleaned the place up, clearing away junk and washing down the walls.’
‘You must have been very quiet.’
‘And you put up fairy lights?’
‘Hundreds of them. They looked like twinkling stars.’
‘And then you got the big sack.’
‘That’s right. It took me four days. I had to carry the Hessian sack over my shoulder and ride my bike. People must have thought I was a street sweeper or a park ranger.’
‘They probably thought you were crazy.’
‘Just like we’re crazy?’
‘Yep.’ I sneak a glance at Julianne, who isn’t biting.
‘What happened next?’ asks Charlie.
‘Well you should have seen the look on Gracie’s face. She came downstairs on the morning of her birthday and I made her close her eyes. She held my arm and I walked her through the kitchen, into the laundry and then the garage. As she opened the door an avalanche of leaves came tumbling out around her waist. “Happy Birthday,” I said. She looked at the leaves and then back at me. For a moment I thought she was angry, but then she gave me this beautiful smile.’
‘I know what happened next,’ says Charlie.
‘Yes. I’ve told you before.’
‘She ran into all those leaves.’
‘Yep. We both did. We threw them in the air and kicked up our knees. We had leaf fights and made leaf mountains. And eventually, we were both so exhausted we collapsed onto a bed of leaves and stared up at the stars.’
‘But they weren’t really stars were they?’
‘No, but we could pretend.’
The entrance to Kensal Green Cemetery is in Harrow Road and is easy to miss. Julianne turns through the large stone gates and follows the signposts to a parking area in a circle of trees as far from the caretaker’s cottage as possible. Glancing out the windscreen, I see neat rows of gravestones intersected by paths and beds of flowers.
‘Is this against the law?’ whispers Charlie.
‘Yes,’ says Julianne.
‘Not exactly,’ I counter, as I start unloading boxes and handing them to Charlie.
‘I can take two,’ she announces.
‘OK, I’ll take three and we’ll come back for the rest. Unless Mum wants to…”
‘I’m fine just here.’ She hasn’t moved from behind the wheel.
We head off, keeping close to the trees at first. Long fingers of lawn stretch between the graves. I walk cautiously, not wanting to tread on any flowers or bark my shins on one of the smaller headstones. The sounds of Harrow Road disappear and are replaced by snatches of bird-song and the periodic roar of intercity express trains.
‘Do you know where we’re going?’ asks Charlie from behind me, puffing slightly.
‘It’s over towards the canal. Do you want a rest?’
‘I’m OK.’ Then her voice takes on a doubtful tone. ‘Dad?’
‘You know how you said that Gracie loved kicking up leaves.’
‘Because she’s dead, she can’t really kick up these, can she?’
‘I mean, she can’t come back to life. Dead people don’t do that, do they? Because I’ve seen scary cartoons about zombies and mummies that come back from the dead, but that doesn’t really happen, does it?’
‘And Gracie is in Heaven now, isn’t she? That’s where she’s gone.’
‘So what are we doing with all these leaves?’
It’s at times like these I normally direct Charlie to Julianne. She sends her straight back to me, saying, ‘Your father is a psychologist. He knows these things.’
Charlie is waiting.
‘What we’re doing is sort of symbolic,’ I say.
‘What does that mean?’
‘Have you ever heard people say, “It’s the thought that counts”?’
‘You always say that when somebody gives me a present that I don’t like. You say I should be grateful even if the present sucks.’
‘Yes, well that’s not quite what I mean.’ I try a new approach. ‘Aunt Gracie can’t really kick up these leaves. But wherever she is, if she’s watching us now, I think she’ll be laughing. And she’ll really appreciate what we’re doing. That’s what counts.’
‘She’ll be kicking up leaves in Heaven?’ adds Charlie.
‘Do you think she’ll be outside or will Heaven have an inside place.’
‘I don’t know.’
I set my boxes on the ground and unload Charlie’s arms. Gracie’s headstone is a simple square of granite. Someone has left a muddy shovel leaning against the brass plaque. I have visions of gravediggers taking a tea break, but nowadays they use machines instead of muscle. I toss the shovel to one side and Charlie gives the inscription a polish with the sleeve of her ski-jacket. I creep up behind her and dump a box full of leaves on top of her head.
‘Hey! That’s not fair!’ Charlie scoops a big handful and stuffs them up the back of my jumper. Soon there are leaves tumbling all over the place. Gracie’s headstone disappears completely under our autumnal offering.
Behind me somebody loudly clears his throat and I hear Charlie give a little yelp of surprise.
The caretaker is silhouetted against the pale sky, with his hands on his hips and legs akimbo. He’s wearing a pea-green jacket and a pair of muddy Wellingtons that appear to be too big for his feet.
‘Do you mind explaining what you’re doing?’ he asks in a monotone. He steps closer. His face is flat and round with a wide forehead and no hair. It brings to mind Thomas the Tank Engine.
‘It’s a long story,’ I say feebly.
‘You’re desecrating a grave.’
I laugh at how ridiculous he sounds. ‘I hardly think so.’
‘You think this is funny? This is vandalism. This is a crime. This is littering…’
‘Fallen leaves aren’t technically litter.’
‘Don’t play games with me,’ he stutters.
Charlie decides to intervene. With a breathless eloquence, she explains, ‘It’s Gracie’s birthday, but we can’t give her a party because she’s dead. She doesn’t like going outside. We brought her some leaves. She likes kicking up leaves. Don’t worry; she’s not a zombie or a mummy. She’s not going to come back from the dead. She’s in Heaven. Do you think there are trees in Heaven?’
The caretaker looks at her with utter dismay and takes a few moments to realise that her last question is directed at him. Rendered almost speechless, he makes several unsuccessful attempts to speak before his voice deserts him. Having been totally disarmed, he crouches to be at her eye-level.
‘What is your name, Missy?’
‘Charlie Louise O’Loughlin. What’s yours?’
‘That’s pretty funny.’
‘I guess so.’ He smiles.
He shows me none of the same warmth. ‘Do you know how many years I’ve been trying to catch the bugger who spreads leaves all over this grave?’
‘Thirteen?’ I suggest.
‘I was going to say eleven, but I’ll take your word for it. You see I worked out when you come. I made a note of the date. I nearly caught you two years ago, but you must have come in a different car –’
‘…And then last year it was my day off – a Saturday. I told young Whitey to watch out for you, but he thinks I’m fixating. He says I shouldn’t get so worked up over a pile of leaves.’
His nudges the offending mound with the toe of his boot. ‘But I take my job very seriously. People come here and try to do all sorts of things like planting oak trees on graves or leaving kid’s toys behind. If we let ‘em do what they like, where will it end?’
‘Chaotically,’ I say, trying to sound sincere.
‘Too bloody right!’ He glances at Charlie and apologises for his language.
I reach into the pocket of my overcoat and produce a thermos and two metal mugs. ‘We were just about to have a hot chocolate. Would you like to join us?’
‘You can use my cup,’ says Charlie.
Mr Gravesend considers this, wondering if the offer can be construed as a bribe. His planning had involved catching me, but didn’t extend any further than that.
‘So it’s come to this,’ he says in a clear soft voice. ‘Either I have you arrested or I have a hot chocolate.’
‘Mum said we’d get arrested,’ pipes Charlie. ‘She said we were mad.’
‘You should have listened to your Mum.’
I hand the caretaker a mug and give the other to Charlie.
‘Happy birthday, Aunt Gracie,’ she says. Mr Gravesend mumbles an appropriate sounding response, still stunned by the speed of his capitulation.
At that moment I notice two boxes approaching, swaying on black leggings and sneakers.
‘That’s my Mum. She’s our look out,’ observes Charlie.
‘Not her strong suit,’ Mr Gravesend replies.
Julianne drops the boxes and lets out a startled squeak, not unlike Charlie’s reaction.
‘Don’t worry, Mum, you’re not going to be arrested again.’
The caretaker raises his eyebrows and Julianne smiles feebly. Hot chocolate is shared around.
‘What happened to Aunt Gracie?’ asks Charlie, eager for the rest of the story. ‘Why wouldn’t she leave the house?’
I glance at Julianne and then at the leaf-strewn grave. My parents never talked about Gracie and couldn’t understand my affection for her. She was like a dropped stitch in our family’s history – the black sheep that nobody talked about. I had to pick up bits and pieces from cousins and distant relations, each with a tiny piece of the puzzle.
Gracie had been a nurse during World War I and fell pregnant to a childhood sweetheart who didn’t return from the fighting. She was seventeen, unmarried, heartbroken and alone.
‘No man wants a woman with a baby,’ her mother told her, as she put her on a train for London.
Gracie glimpsed her baby only once. The good sisters at Nazareth House in Hammersmith erected a sheet halfway down her body to stop her seeing the birth, but she tore it down. When she saw the mewling infant, ugly and beautiful all at once, something broke inside her that no medical doctor could ever fix.
My second cousin Angelina says there are family photographs of Gracie in mental asylums and county hospitals. All I can say for sure is that she moved into her house in Richmond in the early twenties and was still there when I went to university.
I didn’t see her as much after that. I told myself afterwards I was always too busy, but the truth is that I barely ever thought of her, alone in her big house.
My mother called to tell me Gracie had died. I was mid-way through my exams in my third year of medicine – the exams I failed. According to the coroner’s report, the blaze started in the kitchen and spread quickly through the ground floor. Even so, Gracie had ample opportunity to get out.
The firemen had seen her moving around upstairs, before the fire had completely taken hold. They said she could have crawled out of a window onto the garage roof. But if that’s the case, why couldn’t the firemen have gone in the same way and saved her?
All the books, newspapers and magazines fed the flames – along with the tins of fabric paint and bottles of dye in the laundry. The temperatures were so great that her entire rooms of ‘collectibles’ were reduced to a fine white ash.
Gracie had always sworn that they would have to carry her out of there in a pine box. In the end they could have swept her into a dustpan.
My mother phoned me with the news. I was nineteen, finishing my second year at medical school, but knew that I wouldn’t be a doctor. Full of anger and questions, I wanted to know why Gracie had been so frightened of the world. Why did neighbourhood kids throw rocks onto her roof?
Why did society demonise her for falling pregnant? Why did they take away her child?
This is why I became a psychologist. I wanted to understand human behaviour. The questions have never stopped. Why would a middle-class well-educated student of urban design fly a passenger jet into a skyscraper? Why would a schoolboy spray a schoolyard with bullets or a schoolgirl leave her newborn baby in a wastepaper basket at her school prom?
When Hitler ordered the Final Solution and when Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel and when we Mozart wrote his melodies and when my neighbour mows his lawn at six-thirty of a Sunday morning it all comes down to that four pounds of grey matter between our ears.
And what matter it is. A piece of human brain the size of a grain of sand contains one hundred thousand neurons, two million axons and one billion synapses all talking to each other. The number of permutations and combinations of activity that are theoretically possible in each of our heads exceeds the number of elementary particles in the universe. That’s why I became a psychologist – to explore the great unknown.
Michael Robotham’s latest novel SAY YOU’RE SORRY, features Joe O’Loughlin and is now available in bookstores everywhere.