‘Mum, wake up. Mum, there’s someone at the door.’
I was dreaming, surely. My son had finally passed the age where he woke up at five every single morning. Still, the arrival of parenthood brought with it an end to uninterrupted nights and, for me anyway, the ability to sleep through anything.
Except for on this occasion. It wasn’t a dream. Ned was shaking my shoulder, with all the strength his whippet-thin, seven-year-old frame would allow.
‘What is it, darling?’ I asked, not quite managing to open my eyes.
‘There’s someone at the door... can’t you hear?’
I hadn’t, but my fuggy head was a reminder that I’d taken a couple of sleeping pills at two in the morning. Banging, then the metallic clatter of the doorbell for six or seven seconds, more banging. I leapt out of bed and grabbed my dressing gown.
‘Stay there, I’ll just be a minute.’
As I darted down the stairs, I could see blue lights flashing through the first-floor window.
Another round of pounding, accompanied by a low bellow through the letterbox. ‘Police, open up.’
As I ran down the last flight of stairs, two thoughts formulated in my head.
One: something similar to what had happened one night a few months ago. A man, trying to escape from a criminal gang, I found out later, had got cornered in our back garden. He’d pleaded with me to let him in through the patio doors. Yes, he did have the fear of God in his eyes. But he must have been nuts to think I was going to invite him in. Instead I’d picked up the phone and called 999. He spat on the glass, told me I was a ‘fucking bitch’, and shinned over the fence into our neighbour’s garden.
Two: Sean, Ned’s dad, my ex, had killed himself. Or attempted to. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Or the second. For the last few years, I’d kind of expected it to happen at some point, a knock at the door from the police, just like this.
As I reached the bottom of the stairs, the internal debate I was having over which scenario was more likely was brought to an abrupt halt by more hammering. I tried to turn the Chubb key in the bottom lock, my hands shaking uncontrollably.
‘What’s going on? You’re going to break the door down.’ I finally managed to open it, forgetting the chain was still on.
The chain stopped the door opening by more than a few inches. All I could see was the upper body of a man, taller than me, around thirty, unshaven, wearing a short-sleeved white shirt underneath a tight, thick bodywarmer.
I answered through the small gap. ‘Yes, that’s me, what’s going on?’
Without warning the hallway erupted with the shrill screech of the burglar alarm. I ran to turn it off.
‘Take the chain off immediately or we’ll force entry,’ he barked.
I could just hear Ned’s voice above the noise. ‘Who is it? Why are they shouting?’
I turned round for a moment and saw that he’d appeared at the bottom of the stairs, hands covering his ears, his blue furry penguin held tightly by one foot. As I undid the chain, I turned to him again. ‘Don’t worry, it’s nothing. Go back upstairs.’
The door was flung open. The young officer I’d seen through the gap in the door grabbed my arm and pushed me against the wall, using one elbow to pin me in place. I winced, shoulder muscles screaming, my wrists pulled together as the officer closed the handcuffs around them.
I was facing Ned, who stood on the bottom stair looking at me in disbelief. A dark patch appeared and grew on his pyjama bottoms. His face crumpled and he buried it in the body of his penguin – I knew he was crying, too afraid to make a noise, too embarrassed at what had happened.
‘Go back to your room, honey, please.’
He turned and ran upstairs.
The more senior male officer, in plain clothes but wearing a stab vest, marched up to me. ‘Alexandra Kendrew, I’m arresting you on suspicion of the attempted murder of Malcolm Russell.’
I felt simultaneously light-headed and heavy-limbed. Blood rushed in my ears but somehow wasn’t reaching my brain. I knew it so well, the feeling just before fainting, and I pressed my weight against the wall to stop myself collapsing to the floor, the cold metallic ridge of the radiator digging into the top of my thigh.
He continued. ‘You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.’
‘Mal? What’s happened—’
‘I’m Detective Sergeant Lambert, Lambeth CID; my colleagues here are Detective Constable Noble and Constable Grayson. Please be aware that Constable Grayson is wearing a Body Worn Video device and will be filming throughout.’
I stared at the red light at the top of the tiny square camera on the uniformed officer’s stab vest. They were all wearing them, not body warmers as I’d thought; large, rectangular Metropolitan Police badges emblazoned on the left.
‘ You said attempted murder... so, what, Mal’s... he’s alive?’
‘I can’t tell you anything more at the moment.’ The man who’d cautioned me, Lambert, was the eldest; I assumed he was the most senior. I directed my question at him, with as much authority as I could muster in the circumstances. ‘Are you a parent? Do you have any idea what psychological harm this could do to my son?’
The female officer, Noble, led me along the hallway, turning left into the lounge.
Lambert answered. ‘I’m sorry your son was present during your arrest. Your son’s father isn’t here?’
I was shaking uncontrollably; it was difficult to concentrate enough to speak. ‘No.’
‘Does he live here?’
I took a moment to calm down, closing my eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths. ‘We’ve been separated for about four years. We haven’t seen him for a few months. He lives just outside Oxford with his mother.’
‘Is there anyone nearby who could look after your son now? You’ll be taken down to the station for questioning. We’ll need to get in touch with your son’s father so he can come and look after him while you’re in custody. Do you have his phone number?’
‘Yes, on my phone. It’s in the kitchen I think.’
The female officer, Noble, tightened her grip around my arm momentarily before standing up.
‘Stay there please, Mrs Kendrew, I’ll get it.’ She got up from the sofa and returned a minute later with my mobile.
‘There’s no passcode on your phone, Mrs Kendrew?’ she asked as she sat next to me.
I closed my eyes for a second, hoping it would help me to compose myself. ‘No, my son kept typing in the wrong number and I got locked out so I took it off.’
She pressed the home button on my phone again. The screen showed the text conversation I’d had with Mal the night before, that I’d read and re-read before I’d gone to bed. A one-way conversation, all blue boxes. I’d left the phone downstairs, knowing I’d be checking it all night to see if he’d called or texted if I’d taken it to bed.
The only officer in uniform, Grayson, appeared in the doorway with Ned. He ran towards me, his little arms instinctively wrapping around my neck. ‘Sweetheart, don’t worry, it’ll be fine.’
He was sobbing. I felt Noble unlock the handcuffs. I swept Ned up onto my knee, and felt his hot, wet cheeks against my neck.
‘So, Mrs Kendrew, is there anyone who could look after your son now?’ Lambert asked, an impatient tone barely concealed.
‘God, I don’t know, how early is it... five?’
Noble glanced at her watch. ‘It’s a few minutes before six.’
I could see now, through the gaps in the thick velvet curtains, that there was daylight behind them. I tried to think who could look after Ned. My head felt blank, like wading through fog; the zopiclone I’d taken only a few hours ago still had a hold.
DC Noble was scrolling through my phone. ‘The people you’ve contacted in the last few days are...’ he paused for a moment. ‘Mal, Ingrid, Agnes, Itsumi, Denny.’
God, why hadn’t I thought of Denny? I’d always joked with her that she was my get-out-of-jail-free card. Ned moved for the first time and looked up at me. ‘Is Auntie Denny coming?’
‘Maybe, darling’, I whispered back before replying to Noble. ‘Yes, Denny, Denise Coleman; Ned knows her very well, she’s only round the corner.’
She was already pressing the green button. Four rings, five, then Denny’s voicemail message – I must have heard it a thousand times. ‘Hello, Denny here, leave me a message, when I get a bit of time I’ll call you back.’
Noble spoke after the beep, explaining the situation, and asking her to call back as soon as she could.
‘What time does your son start school?’ Lambert asked.
‘Ten to nine – it’s the school opposite,’ I replied.
‘If there’s nobody else who could look after your son, he will have to come down to the station with us and someone could pick him up from there. We can probably organize for a social worker to stay with him while you’re being questioned.’ The two detectives exchanged glances. Noble turned and walked into the hallway and I could hear her talking in a quiet murmur with her colleague. Were they discussing the logistics of taking a young child to a police station? One of them opened the door and the conversation continued outside, one of them talking into their radio and a crackly response from it.
I tightened my hold around Ned and kissed his right temple. He stayed absolutely still, his gentle, silent breaths warming the small cavity between our bodies.
I felt a sob rising in my chest. I looked up at Lambert. ‘This is barbaric – he’s only seven for crying out loud. There must be some kind of...’
Noble handed the phone to Lambert who briefly looked at it.
‘You sent Mr Russell four or five text messages last night, all unanswered.’
I nodded, impatiently. ‘It isn’t like him really, but I realised when I heard the news on the radio before I went to bed that Arsenal played a friendly last night and I just...’
I stopped mid-sentence. They probably didn’t need to know all this. TMI. Lambert kept looking at me. Just to break the silence, I continued.
‘… I just assumed he’d either gone to the match and hadn’t mentioned it to me or he’d been watching it on TV at home or at a pub and that’s why he hadn’t replied. Surely if I’d tried to kill him, d’you think I’d have gone to bed like it was just a normal night?’
‘People act in all sorts of strange ways in these situations, Mrs Kendrew.’
Noble came back into the lounge. Lambert continued. ‘DC Noble will accompany you and your son upstairs so he can get dressed. Can you also show her where the clothes you wore last night are?’
I nodded as I stood up, Ned’s body still wrapped around me, like he’d done when he was a toddler and had fallen asleep in my arms.
Upstairs, I showed Noble the linen basket in the corner of the bedroom. ‘Everything I wore yesterday is in there, on top.’
I asked if I could get dressed but was told my dressing gown would be treated as evidence. ‘You’ll be given some clothes to change into when we get to the station. Forensics will be searching the property for the rest of the day, and may take some items away for analysis, particularly any computer equipment you may have. We’ll need to keep your phone too,’ she added, holding it up – she’d already put it in a clear, plastic evidence bag.
Ned came out of his room. I checked his trousers and polo shirt weren’t inside out. ‘Is it okay if he cleans his teeth before he goes?’ I knew this probably sounded ridiculous. ‘It’ll only take a minute.’
She nodded. We walked downstairs to the bathroom. Noble held the door open while I squeezed some toothpaste onto Ned’s brush.
‘Do I have to clean them now? I haven’t had breakfast yet.’
‘Yes,’ I whispered back.
I joined Noble on the landing.
Downstairs there were voices, outside in the street, dogs barking, and a familiar voice. Denny, bless her.
‘Alex, you okay, darling?’ she called up the stairs. ‘What’s going on? I was walking past with the dogs and saw all this kerfuffle outside. I went to text you to find out what was going on and saw you’d called. And then I heard this message from the police. Is it something to do with Sean?’
Lambert appeared in the doorway. ‘Come inside please madam, and I’ll explain.’
Ned finished in the bathroom – we filed downstairs. Spotting Denny, Ned ran hugged her. ‘Come here, sweetness.’
Denny, or more accurately, her family, had already had a few run-ins with the police – she had a pretty dim view of them. Her son, now in his early twenties, had been stopped and searched on numerous occasions, without ever being found with a knife or drugs, or anything else they assumed might be in his possession. Just for being mixed race and in Brixton or Peckham after 10 pm.
‘Coleman,’ Denny said.
‘Mrs Coleman, we need to take Mrs Kendrew down to the station for questioning.’
‘Questioning, about what? Have you got a warrant to come barging in here?’ She looked at me, searching for a clue.
‘They think I tried to kill Mal.’
‘What, that’s ridiculous.’ Denny turned towards Lambert. ‘Are you serious? Alex wouldn’t hurt a fly, look at her.’
‘Mrs Coleman, are you able to look after her son while she’s in custody?’
‘That’s all we need to know for the moment, thank you. Our colleagues at the station will call you.’
‘Alex, shall I take Ned to school this morning?’
Ned turned to look at me optimistically, I guessed hoping for a day off school.
‘Yes, definitely. I want to keep things as normal for him as possible.’
‘Has he had any breakfast?’
I shook my head. Ned buried his head in Denny’s fleece. She stroked his hair – it had grown long, falling in loose curls over his white school polo shirt.
‘Come on then, sunshine. What’s it going to be? Toast or CocoPops?’ she asked, trying to make it sound like an exciting choice.
I stood, like a school kid in front of two teachers deciding what length of detention would be most fitting, while Lambert and Noble exchanged a few words. Noble took notes in a small, flip-over pad which struck me as ridiculously analogue.
‘Let’s go,’ Lambert said.
Noble handcuffed me again. As they walked me into the hallway, I mouthed ‘love you’ as I met Ned’s gaze, tears pricking the back of my eyes.
Lambert conferred with the more junior, uniformed male officer in the hallway; when the SOCOs would be coming, when house-to-house enquiries would start, here and at Mal’s. As I waited, I couldn’t understand why I felt so calm; somebody had tried to kill Mal and I didn’t feel anything. Now that Ned was being cared for, my mind became an empty void.
As we waited for Lambert, I scanned the wall of happy snaps I’d recently framed and hung, adding to photos already there; Ned when he was a baby and a toddler, his first day at school, stirring the Christmas cake, camping with the other Ned and his mum in the New Forest. And then one more – the only one not of Ned – was of Mal and me, when he’d taken me to the Emirates Stadium to see his team play Manchester City. He was in his red Arsenal gear, hat, scarf, ear-to-ear grin. He’d used it as his Facebook profile photo ever since – I’d been really touched that he was finally acknowledging, maybe to himself, that we were an item.
Before I could stop myself, I felt my chest tightening; a huge sob rose up and exploded, tiny droplets flying out and landing on the detectives’ black stab vests.
‘Jesus Christ,’ DS Lambert shouted. Noble renewed her grip around my upper arm and the others wiped the spit away with the back of their hands.
I couldn’t stop a steady stream of tears coursing down my cheeks, nor the small, hiccup-like sobs that broke out from deep in my throat. The two men looked embarrassed, like they’d never had to deal with a hysterical woman before, though surely they must have, hundreds of times. I couldn’t stop myself blurting out, ‘Look, I need to know what’s going on. Where is Mal? In hospital? God, I’d never do anything to hurt him. You have to believe me. This is just mad.’
Noble spoke as soothingly as she could manage. ‘Mrs Kendrew, our colleagues down at the station will be able to give you more details. You’ll be interviewed fully but before that takes place, you’ll have the opportunity to call a solicitor, either someone you know, or you can appoint one of the duty solicitors.’
I kept my head bent as we walked towards the marked car; I didn’t want to see anyone. Although, I was sure some neighbours must have been watching from their windows to see what was going on, a bit of juicy local gossip to share. DS Lambert opened the door and motioned me to get into the back of the car. As I bent down, I glimpsed my neighbour opposite, Rob. He was standing in his open front doorway, with an expression changing quickly from curiosity to concern. I reddened and looked down, not knowing how to respond.
We made off down the street, Noble driving speedily but adeptly, nimbly moving into spaces to allow other cars to pass. I’d always felt car sick if I wasn’t driving; as we skimmed over speedbumps without breaking, I felt a strong surge of nausea. To counteract it, I tried to concentrate on the small section of road I could see between the two front head-rests.
I caught blurred glimpses of Brockwell Park and Herne Hill; the familiarity of the surroundings making the journey all the more surreal. Half way along Railton Road, instinctively I turned my head to look for Mal’s street. I closed my eyes; I could picture his face but his features kept disappearing. Instead, the question I’d evaded formed in my mind: who had tried to kill Mal?
My heart pounded, echo-like, in my chest. As the car turned several sharp corners and came to a sudden halt in front of a solid metal gate, I threw up all over myself and DS Lambert sitting next to me.