Knocking on someone’s front door in the middle of the night to give them the news that they won’t ever be seeing someone they love walk through it again.
Telling the DI that the sure thing, guilty as sin suspect has both a watertight alibi and an on call solicitor who specialises in cases of police harassment.
Explaining to a victim that while, yes, of course we believe them, the evidence sadly isn’t enough to make a case out of.
Walking into a small, poorly ventilated room where – complete with bodily fluids, maggots and other assorted insects – a body has been decomposing for days.
Losing a bet and having to go into your local wearing a pale pink ballerina costume to both the great hilarity of all your so-called friends and the raised eyebrows of strangers you hope never to see again.
As unappealing as all of these things are, right now I’d take any one of them over what it is I’m about to do in a heartbeat. Seriously. Just about anything would have to be preferable to this.
Just because I’m allegedly trained in the arts of observation and, should there be a need for it, confrontation does not for a second mean I’m confident of knowing just what it is I think I’m doing. All I know is that I have to. I have to do something and, perhaps having already left it too late and the damage having already been done, I have to do it now. I can’t keep laying awake at night worrying any more than I can keep biting my tongue and playing the softly, softly games of waiting for something to give or for the right moment to present itself. Ignoring my own internal dilemma, it’s not fair on Ronnie. He should be able to rely on me to be there for him when he needs… whatever… and the fact that I haven’t been, that I’ve been too busy trying to ignore the signs, is something I’m actually ashamed off.
I should have spoken up right at the very beginning instead of trying to live in denial and waiting until now. The signs were obvious from the start. Text book, even.
Stressors in the form of the seemingly never-ending month from hell. Three multiple homicides. Eleven dead all up, including a newborn and a toddler. A violent rape every third day. That scumbag Watson managing to do such a psychological number on our star witness that she refused to testify against him and, despite all the months of hard slog we’d put into gathering evidence, he gets off scot-free. The incident with the sumo-sized suspect that saw both Ronnie’s glasses and my ribs coming off second best. A close friend from his boxing days suddenly passing away unexpectedly from a massive heart attack at the age of fifty-one.
Basically, if it could go wrong it did. Usually spectacularly and with horrid consequences at that. God knows there were nights when even my willpower faltered and I found myself seriously contemplating just giving in to temptation and doing whatever it took to both forget and numb the pain.
Then there were the late mornings, leaving early and, worse, days off. Only two all up, but that’s still two more than he took all of last year. And they were in quick succession too, Tuesday followed by Thursday. I asked, of course, if he was okay and very nearly got my head bitten off in response.
Which, needless to say, isn’t right in itself. Sure everyone gets in a mood every now and again but never, not once in the five years we’ve been partnered, has he ever snapped at me like that before. We’ve bickered, and I’ve sulked, but by the end of the day we’ve always managed to laugh it off and life just goes back to going about its business as it always does. Easy-going. Smooth. Comforting. Reliable. Enjoyable.
Very much taken for granted.
Not this time though, and however hard I might want to pretend the changes aren’t there, they just are. They’re there and, if you know him as well as I’ve always assumed I do, they’re in-your-face obvious. Irritable, mood swings, downright acting of character – and that’s just the beginning. Loss of appetite. Just… Honestly, what’s with that? I never thought I’d live to see the day where I’d see him knocking back offers of tea, coffee, pastries, even chips. I keep buying and offering all his old favourites and he keeps refusing them. It’s not right. And nor is either his suddenly AWOL sense of humour or the fact that the list of… peculiarities… just keeps going on and on. Abrupt. Surreptitiously popping painkillers – with water, of all things – whenever he thinks I’m not looking. Grey skin. Absent-minded. Distracted. The waft of too much aftershave on one of the mornings he was in late.
I might groan and roll my eyes, and if I’d been asked before any of this started I would have blithely declared that I’d be only more than happy to never hear it again, but I actually miss it. It’s not something I can explain or even for that matter particularly understand, especially given that some days it just makes me twitch, but I’m missing being called Sunshine. He hasn’t used it for a fortnight now and I think I’m going into some sort of strange withdrawal from not hearing it.
Either that or I’m just choosing to fixate on something meaningless in preference to the bigger picture.
The bigger picture that I don’t want to see.
That I really don’t want to see but keep encountering signs of everywhere I turn.
Off the wagon.
Back on the booze.
Regardless of the term used, all the signs really only point to one thing.
Stressed from everything just piling up, he caved and took a drink. And then another… And another… And yet another for good measure.
And he’s still drinking.
I can kid myself that I was positive he’d come to his senses and stop on his own accord, but the truth is I’ve simply been slow to react. Putting two and two together and being horrified by the outcome is one thing. Knowing what to do, however, is something else entirely. Who could I raise my suspicions with? Not the Guv, because that could raise a question mark over his ability to do the job and, while, okay, I can see the logic in that, what if it was the last straw? I toyed with the idea of talking to Alesha, but in the end decided against it as she always has enough on her plate as it is. Gary, his ‘go-to’ AA bloke? It might be a cop out, but that just strikes me as going behind his back. Well and truly going behind his back, at that. Besides, what if I was wrong? I’m sadly confident that I’m not, but if I am and I’d gone around blithering on about it? It just doesn’t bear thinking about. Looking like a git with an over active imagination I can handle. Being the source of hurtful rumours, however… Well, that’d just make everything that little bit worse.
So… Really, it has to be me. He’s my partner and at the end of the day that alone means I should be the one to deal with the problem. It is, after all, only right. God knows he’d do the same, albeit no doubt quicker and with a lot less dithering and angst, for me. I may not know what I’m going to say. Hell, there’s probably even a fair chance I’ll put my foot in it and – all in the name of just wanting to put the day behind me, of course – will just end up opening my own bottle of something later this evening. I may even – and this is the thought that really scares me – inadvertently do irreparable damage to two of the most important things in my life, our friendship and partnership.
I have to try though. I – we – can’t go on like this. Answers need to be had and from there, however unknown the direction may be, we’ll move forward.
Sighing, I – marvel at the fact no concerned citizen appears to have called the police on me given the length of time I’ve been sitting here in my car waiting for inspiration to strike – reluctantly open the door and step out onto the street. Self doubt and reasons as to why I should just get back in the car and go home gnaw at me as I slowly walk up the path to Ronnie’s front door. I don’t want to admit it, but I’m nervous. Embarrassingly so. I feel out of my depth but after finally having made up my mind to act I’m focussed on seeing it through.
What will be will simply be.
Squaring my shoulders, I silently ask a God I more often than not no longer believe in for assistance to see us both through this and knock on the door. When this doesn’t succeed in achieving anything I – somehow resist the urge to thank my lucky stars for a near miss and bolt back to the car – try again, considerably louder this time, and peer through the glass panel for signs of life. Noticing that the light is on in the lounge room and, as is my current wont, immediately thinking the worse, I fumble through my pocket for my keys and use the spare he gave me years ago to let myself in. I try telling myself that I need to get a Goddamn grip, that everything will be fine and I just have to take things a step at a time, but my heart beats dully in my chest and, unsure of what it is I’m about to walk into, I can’t deny that suddenly I really don’t want to be here. I know that I have to be, that regardless of the consequences I’m doing the right thing, but…
Nearing the lounge room, I take a deep breath, step through the doorway and immediately come to startled – horrified – stop. While, granted, the image that assails my vision isn’t what I’d been expecting, a part of me can’t help but think it’s somehow… worse… and, my mind completely shutting off in respect to how I should react, I can’t back out of the room quick enough. Muttering, “I… I need a drink,” under my breath, I dart into the kitchen and make a beeline for the kettle. Tearing the house apart in search of alcohol now being the last thing on my mind, I decide that what I’m most in need of is sugary tea and, after getting a cup down from out of the cupboard, that’s when I get my second shock.
Green tea? Herbal infusions? Decaffeinated tea?
What the hell?
Where’s the Earl Grey?
Growing more flustered by the second, I push the alarmingly large selection of ‘designer’ teas around the bench in search of the boring old every day tea that always used to sit there and, unable to come up with a better explanation, begin to wonder if I’ve somehow managed to walk into the wrong house. Sure, most things look familiar. The sight in the lounge room and the wanky tea though? No. They’re out of place. Very out of place.
But… Damn. The voice in the kitchen doorway is familiar. Which means…
“I…” Not wanting to turn around for fear of how I might react, I sigh and continue my apparently pointless search for a tea I might actually want to drink. This however proves to be fruitless and, having exhausted my options, I’m left with no choice other than to admit defeat and ask. “Uh… Where’s the tea?”
“In the back of the cupboard behind the mugs,” Ronnie replies as he walks further into the kitchen and, to my distinct discomfort, comes to stand next to me. “What’s up with you, huh?” he queries with what for all the world sounds like an amused chuckle. “Haven’t you ever seen Downward Dog before?”
“I…” Oh God. Just… What am I supposed to say to that? “Uh… I have, actually,” I reply, focussing on reaching up into the cupboard for the tea before he decides to do it himself and I cop another unwanted viewing. “Only… Well…” Here goes nothing. “Only she looked better in lycra and… uh… And it wasn’t from that angle…”
Snorting back laughter, Ronnie slaps me on the shoulder. “Cheer up, son. What’s seen can’t be unseen and all that.”
“Yes, but…” Given that it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever get the image of my middle-aged partner dressed in lycra shorts and attempting to do a yoga pose that consisted of sticking his arse up in the air out of my head as it is, I really don’t see what he’s got to be sounding so amused about. “You didn’t see it.”
“And going on your reaction I reckon that’s probably a very good thing,” Ronnie mutters with yet another laugh. “Am I right in taking it though that if I want you to look at me any time soon you’d like me to get changed?” he adds wryly. “Come on, Matty. I know my bench top is fascinating, but you’re going to get bored pretty quickly if you stay there staring down at it all night.”
“Uh…” Mentally waving the white flag of defeat, I nod and reluctantly turn around. “If you must know, on top of everything else I’m having flashbacks to that time we had to go interview that bloke at the male bodybuilding competition.” At the time I thought some of the competitors were the worst thing I’d ever seen. Now, however, I’m not so sure.
“That bad, huh?”
Making a point of keeping my gaze fixed on my partner’s face, I smile grimly and give another nod. Lycra aside, he’s looking more like the Ronnie I know and the welcome twinkle in his eyes is almost enough to make me believe that, despite the fact I may well have scarred myself for life, it was worth it. “At least you’re not orange,” I murmur blandly. “That… Uh… That’s a positive.”
“Hey!” He gestures down at his shorts and laughs when I make a point of glancing up towards the ceiling. “Compared to those glistening posers I’m positively overdressed.”
“And thank all that is holy for that…”
“I could have got ‘em in white, you know…”
“Please don’t say things like that. Black is bad enough.”
“You’re just jealous of my fine physique.”
“Uh-huh… You keep telling yourself that.” The kettle having finally boiled, I turn back around to attend to my tea preparation. “Now, weren’t you saying something about changing?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Ronnie chuckles as begins to walk out of the kitchen. “The things I do for you… Honestly!”
Alone, but no closer to knowing what it exactly is that’s going on, I direct all my attention to the tea and once again find myself thwarted when I can’t find the sugar. Like the Earl Grey it’s no longer where it’s always been and I’ve just got down on my hands and knees to ferret through the cupboard under the microwave in search of it when Ronnie returns.
“What’s this, huh?” he queries, gently tapping his foot against my backside. “Payback?”
Seriously. If this gets any more surreal I may have to start looking around for the White Rabbit.
“What?” I grunt, slowly getting to my feet and noticing with great relief that the lycra shorts have now been replaced by trousers and I can once again safely look at my friend. “Payback for what exactly?”
“For sticking my arse in the air and offending your delicate eyesight,” Ronnie replies with a wink. “I thought you were just replying in kind.”
I groan and roll my eyes. “If you must know I was looking for the sugar, not for an opportunity to… wave my arse at you…”
“Well, that’s a relief then.” Smirking, he gestures to the cupboard next to the one that contains the mugs. “The sugar’s in there, behind the cereal.”
“Of course it is,” I mutter, fixing him with a long suffering look before opening the cupboard door and promptly being hit with shock number three for the evening. Bran flakes? Muesli? A bag of some high fibre, low cholesterol birdseed that I wouldn’t even like to feed to the pigeons for fear of offending them? Shaking my head, I get the sugar bowl down from the cupboard and place it next to my mug just as the kettle boils. “I’d ask why it no longer lives on the bench where it’s always lived, only…”
“Oh, I’m hiding it,” Ronnie interrupts very much matter-of-factly, as though, well, really, I should have known that already.
Of course he is. I mean, why didn’t I think of that?
“Of course you are.” Biting back a sigh, I pour boiling water into the mug and quickly follow it up with four heaped teaspoons of sugar. “Silly me.”
“It’ll all make sense.”
“Of course it will.”
“So anyway, Matty, what brings you around here?” Ronnie murmurs after no doubt having just about all he can take of my parrot-like ‘of course’s’. “You’re always welcome and I’m glad to see you, but it’s just a surprise is all.”
“I…” Shit. What with all the shocks to my system I’d almost forgotten my reason for being here in the first place. Now what? Do I play chicken with really putting my foot in it or do I just make up some bullshit and hope he buys it? “I… Uh… I wanted to talk to you about… uh… something.”
“Mmm? And that would be?” Ronnie prompts as an expression of open curiosity settles over his face.
His question a good one, I quickly decide that I need to stall for time and gesture at my mug. “Tea?” I offer brightly, already reaching for another cup.
“Oh, why not,” Ronnie replies, giving me one of his ‘and don’t think I’m not on to what you’re playing at looks’.
Wrinkling my nose, I make to pick up the closest of the ‘designer’ teas. “Green?” I murmur, the very word feeling foreign on my tongue.
“Nah. Make it the good stuff. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried that green muck, but I reckon it tastes like cat’s piss.”
“Then why do you…” Trailing off, I shake my head and busy myself with making another cup of tea. “Never mind.”
“All in good time, Sunshine, all in good time.”
Sunshine… Quite literally taken aback by how pleased I am to hear Ronnie call me that again, I make the snap decision to be fully open with him about why I’m here because, simply put, I feel that’s it’s important to be completely honest. I doubt now that it’s the case at all, but something’s still going on with him and I hope my… confession… will get him to open up to me and set things back on their normal, easy going path.
Ronnie’s tea made, I carry both the mugs over to the kitchen table and sit down. Once he’s followed suit and is sitting at the table, mug in hand, I look him in the eye and blurt out, “You probably don’t want to hear this, but I came here because I thought I might need to… uh… perform an intervention.”
“An intervention for what?” Ronnie queries, giving me a funny look. “Yoga? I know it may not look much chop, but I’ve never heard of anyone needing an intervention for doing it wrong before.”
“I…” I sigh and glance down at my tea. “I was afraid you might be drinking again.” There. I’ve said it.
“Drinking? Hey… Hey, Matt. Look at me,” Ronnie states, the soft coaxing tone of his voice leaving me little option other than to obey. While he looks bemused, he doesn’t look either angry or, far more importantly, hurt by my random assumption and I begin to cautiously hope that things may turn out alright after all. “Can I ask why you’d think such a thing?”
“These past two weeks, you…” I take a mouthful of tea to fortify myself with. “You’ve been acting out of character…”
Ronnie looks at me expectantly, clearly waiting for me to elaborate.
“You know…” I sigh and start to list off everything that’s been striking me as cause for concern these past few weeks. “Getting in late, leaving early. Days off. Knocking back offers of tea, coffee, even… and I never thought I’d live the day to see this, food. Then there’s been your mood. Hell, Ronnie, irritable had nothing on it. One day I thought you were going to go me just for asking if you were okay…” Trailing off, I dredge up a wan smile before adding, “Just… Out of character, yeah?”
Laughing, Ronnie grins at me and shakes his head. “When you put it like that, I suppose I have been acting a little… oddly.”
I tell him that his peculiar behaviour made me think he was drinking again and he… laughs? So much then for my fear of insulting him.
“Well?” I demand, wanting now more than ever to get to the bottom of all of this strangeness.
“Oh. You’d like an explanation, would you?”
“Well, you know, it would be nice.”
His smile slipping a little, Ronnie nods and takes a sip of tea. “Yeah. Fair enough,” he murmurs. “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to worry you…”
“Oh yeah, and that worked well, didn’t it,” I interrupt with a snort. “What have I told you before about it not paying you to think?”
“Yeah, well… Looks like you may well be right on that point.”
“I’ll do my victory dance later. Now, come on. Out with it. What didn’t you want to worry me about?”
Sighing, he takes another mouthful of tea before returning the mug to the table and wrapping his hands around it. “Bob’s death,” he confesses quietly, referring to his old boxing mate. “It hit me hard, harder than I cared to admit. He was a couple of years younger than me and far fitter, and… And, well, it got me thinking…”
A light bulb suddenly being switched on in my head, I nod as things start to fall effortlessly into place. “Oh…”
“Yeah. Oh. Just call it a wake-up call,” Ronnie continues. “Not wanting to go the same way as old Bob, I’ve been having everything tested. Heart, cholesterol, diabetes, the lot. If there’s a test for it I’ve had it done.” Pausing, he lifts his head and, looking happier than I’ve seen him in months, positively beams across the table at me. “And the good news, son, is that all the results came back today and, believe it or not, I’ve almost got a completely clear bill of health. I still can’t believe it myself, and I could tell on the doc’s face that he thinks I’ve dodged a bullet or three too, but the results were right there in front of him and I’m as healthy as an ox.”
“That’s brilliant,” I reply, the words falling out of my mouth in a rush as I release the breath I hadn’t even been fully aware I was holding in. “That’s just bloody excellent, mate. But…” Wanting to be clear on absolutely everything, I have to ask. “Almost, though? Almost a clear bill of health?”
Leaning back in his chair, Ronnie pats his stomach and smiles ruefully. “Weight. Of course. I’ve got to lose a few pounds but, hey, I expected that and have already started working on it. Mind you, all the damn blood tests and the fasting they require has certainly helped.”
“Ah… So that’s why you been coming in late,” I murmur, more for my own benefit than Ronnie’s. “In late because of the blood tests, leaving early and taking days off for appointments and tests…” I smirk. “Not to mention the irritability from both starving and, or so I’m assuming anyway, going cold turkey on the caffeine… You know, it’s all making sense now.”
“Yeah, sorry about the whole bear with a sore head routine,” Ronnie replies, pulling a face. “There were times when I was even aware that I was doing it but everything was just getting on top of me and I couldn’t rein it in. So… Sorry, Matty. The last thing I wanted to do was get you all worked up and thinking I was on the booze again.”
I smile and give an easy, unbothered shrug. “It’s in the past now. I’m just glad you’re okay and not back…”
“You really thought…?”
“Yeah. Sorry. The signs though…”
“Mmm… I suppose you’re right. I hadn’t thought about it before, but now that you mention it… Crabby. Unreliable… Yeah. I can see it.”
“Don’t forget that day you came in absolutely marinating in aftershave,” I murmur. “I think that’s when I really started to have my suspicions…”
“Aftershave? What are you… Ah…” Experiencing his own light bulb moment, Ronnie nods and chuckles. “Oh yeah, I remember now. One of the heart tests consisted of being put through my paces on a treadmill and, well, having forget to take deodorant with me I had to call through Boots for a quick spray…”
“Quick? Could have fooled me.”
“Thorough? A thorough spray. Does that sound better to you?”
His expression turning serious, Ronnie reaches across the table and lightly touches my hand. “Matt… If you ever seriously suspect I’m back on the bottle, speak up, yeah? Just… Regardless of how you think I might take it, have your say. I want you to know that you can always say anything to me that, this little misunderstanding having really brought it home, there’s really nothing we have to keep secret from each other.”
“Yeah…” I nod and give his hand a quick squeeze. “And… Same. If you ever want to say anything to me, just come out and say it.”
“In that case…” Ronnie makes a point of slowly looking me over as a smirk tugs on his lips. “I can’t help but notice you’re looking a little… well… larger than you usually do,” he states with just the right degree of hesitation in his voice. “Now, as I’ve become something of an expert on the subject, if you’d like a few pointers on how to get it off…”
“Oi!” Not knowing whether I should be outraged or mortified, I settle for laughing instead and shoot him a dirty look. “Ribs, remember? I’m still paying the price for playing the role of human roadblock to that damn sumo. Not to mention I somehow always seemed to end up eating all the food you kept knocking back.”
“Mmm… And it looks like it too.”
Unable to help myself, I laugh again as a very welcome thought flies into my head…
Things are back to normal and it feels good.
~ end ~