Monday, 26 January 2009

Short Story: Beyond Innocence

I met Reepa's parents outside Roseberry Hall as they parked their car by the road. 'I don't have any change,' Reepa's father Nilesh said as he fumbled in his jacket for some change to pay the parking charge. In a sense I was relieved that Nilesh was able to focus on something like that. I gave Nilesh some change, took them to my room and sat them both down on my bed. They had a look of disbelief, as if they were waiting for me to tell them that the whole thing was a big joke Reepa was playing on them and that they could go home. But I couldn't tell them that. No way. Not after I had seen Reepa in the mortuary and identified her to the cops. The four inch gash across her throat had been too real. The police had questioned me and would have made me stay longer if I hadn’t managed to convince them that I had no plans to run away and that it was vital for me to meet Reepa's parents when they arrived.

'Do you want to use the loo?' I asked them.

'Yes, I do. But you go first,' Nilesh told Pallavi.

'No, I don't want to,' Pallavi said woodenly.

'Nonsense. We were in the car for almost three and a half hours.' He then turned to me. 'We didn't stop anywhere you know.'

Pallavi hesitantly got up. I opened the door pointed her towards the toilet at the end of the corridor.

'Must be a record, to drive from Manchester to London in under three and a half hours.'

'There was not much traffic, Sunday morning, and well, I drove like mad. Now tell me what really happened. Are you sure Reepa is dead?'

I sighed. 'Yes she is.'

Tears came to Nilesh's eyes and his shoulders trembled. 'She had everything going for her. She wanted to go to the LSE ever since she was fourteen. And now this … Life is so cruel.'

I was silent.

'I hope they catch the men who did this. Do you have any idea why they had to kill her? Why didn't they just take what she had and let her live?'

I started to lift my shoulders in a shrug, but didn’t. I continued to be silent. Reepa’s father was making a reasonable inference given the circumstances, though he was dead wrong. How could I tell them about Jimmy? I ought to have told them at least six months ago, as soon as Reepa started to spend all her free time with Jimmy. But I hadn't. It was none of my business I had told myself. I didn't subscribe to the Indian values which my parents and Reepa's folks carried across continents and oceans when they came to the UK to work for the NHS. If Reepa wanted to date Jimmy, that was strictly her business. And now, thanks to Jimmy, Reepa was dead.

'Do you think she resisted them when they tried to mug her? She could be stupid at times!'

This time I shrugged my shoulders and wondered how Jimmy was reacting to Reepa's murder. Did he really care? In his own way? Was he planning to retaliate against the murderers? For some reason, I hoped that Jimmy would be able to kill the people who killed Reepa. My thoughts then turned to more immediate matters. Was Jimmy likely to turn up at Roseberry Hall and remove any incriminating evidence from Reepa's room? Should I try and stop him if he did? I might not survive such an attempt since Jimmy was a six feet four inch tall man with a build to match and most probably carried a gun.

As soon as Pallavi came back into the room, Nilesh got up and went out. You could have gone with her, I almost told Nilesh. The toilets at Roseberry Hall can take more than one person at a time. Didn’t they know that? They had been here many times before. But it was too late to remind them. Too late for not just the toilets. For a second I wanted to laugh hysterically. I'm so sorry Nilesh, I wanted to tell him. I had let both Nilesh and Pallavi down. I keep saying Pallavi and Nilesh instead of Pallavi aunty and Nilesh uncle. That's because I think of them as Pallavi and Nilesh, even though I address them as Pallavi aunty and Nilesh uncle.

'Can’t we go to the mortuary right away and see her?' Nilesh asked in a choking voice when he came back. On hearing that, Pallavi burst into tears. 'Is she really, really dead? My poor baby! Why did they kill her?'

'The police told me that they want you to identify the body. I’ve done that already, but I’m not a close relative. But before you do that, they want to ask you some questions. They will give me a call once they are ready to talk to you. I've given them my mobile number. They'll call me and then we go down to the police station. From there they’ll take you to the mortuary.'

'I don’t want to identify her body. I just want to see here. Why can’t we go to the mortuary right now? Why should we go to the police station first?' Nilesh asked, his voice breaking once more.

'That’s what the police told me. They want to talk to you first, maybe take a statement in the police station and then take you to the mortuary to see Reepa. There will be a post-mortem in a day or so. And a coroner’s inquest in a week or so to determine the cause of death. Only after that will they release the body to you.' I was not playing square with Nilesh. I knew that the police were planning to do some serious questioning before they allowed Nilesh and Pallavi to see Reepa. Her body I mean. But Nilesh had stopped paying attention to me. I guess he knew pretty well the procedure for holding a post-mortem and the coroner’s inquest. He was a doctor after all, as was his wife who didn’t pay attention to a single word I spoke. We were all silent for a while. I desperately wanted to tell them everything, but I could not bring myself to do it. I had been woken up by the resident warden at three in the morning telling me that Reepa had been, well…, murdered and asking me if I could go to the Lewisham Public Mortuary with him to identify the body. After I identified the body, the police asked me to call Reepa’s folks and tell them. The policeman in charge had asked me if I could answer some questions. Did I know anything of Reepa's drug habits? Did I know how long she had been involved with gangs? They had made up their minds that the murder was drugs related. I had denied knowledge of everything, other than tell them that she had a boy-friend named Jimmy. The police knew all about Jimmy. They apparently had a very thick dossier on him, with a couple of pages in it devoted to his girl-friend Reepa.

'Ranjit will be here soon. I called him before we started our journey.' Ranjit was Reepa's elder brother. He was following his parents' footsteps, studying medicine at Newcastle.

'Why don't we go down and get some breakfast?' I asked them.

'Are you sure we cannot go to the mortuary right away?'

'No, we can’t. Unless the investigating officer authorises you to see the body, they won’t let you. You know that, don’t you Nilesh? I think you should eat some food before the police call me and we go to the police station. Once the police call me, we won’t have any time for food.'

'Okay. Where do we go?

I took them out to a nearby place where they served All Day Breakfasts. We placed our orders – An All Day Breakfast for me and just coffee and toast for Nilesh and Pallavi - and waited to be served.

My mind drifted back to the day Reepa and I started as undergraduates at the LSE. We knew each other vaguely since my father was also a doctor with the NHS and he had worked in the same hospital as Reepa's father when they were both very young. I remember seeing her and Ranjit at one of those Indian doctors-dos at Warrington when I was ten or eleven. We had both chosen Roseberry Hall – it was reasonably close to the LSE, closer than Butler’s Wharf, and not as pricey as High Holborn, which was the closest - and had moved into it at about the same time. Reepa's parents were naturally anxious about their daughter and they were very happy to see that I was around. In their eyes, I was an Indian boy who would be a friend to their daughter. I didn't really mind. One look at Reepa and I knew that she didn't want an Indian friend to take care of her. She was ready to spread her wings. You know, she had the sort of look which girls from protected backgrounds have, the ardent desire to go their way, do their thing, make their mistakes and live their lives. But there was no hint of any stupidity. No Sir, if someone had told me then that Reepa would soon start dating a drug dealer, I would have laughed aloud.

Reepa's parents came to see her every month or so during term time. Mine never did, because I was a guy and was supposed to be able to look after myself. Reepa and I did become friends despite the fact that her parents expected us to become good friends. We had a few common friends and once in a while went out together as a group. I remember going for a play at Saddler's Wells with a group of people which had Reepa in it. Whenever Nilesh and Pallavi came to meet Reepa, they would also call on me. How's our Reepa doing? they would ask me. She's fine Nilesh uncle. She's doing just fine, Pallavi aunty, I would say. As you can see for yourselves, I never added. Keep an eye on her, won't you? Nilesh or Pallavi would tell me as they left. I will do that Nilesh uncle, I would dutifully reply.

My All Day Breakfast arrived warm and enticing, but I didn't feel like eating. I wished I had just ordered coffee and toast like Nilesh and Pallavi. Nilesh nibbled at his toast, while Pallavi started straight ahead.

By the end of the first year, I started to see less and less of Reepa. I knew that she was dating a post-graduate with long hair, I think a French guy, but it was one of those casual things which no one expects to last very long. I'm pretty sure her parents didn't know about that French boy-friend. No, Reepa never asked me not to tell her parents, but that was because she knew I would not tell them. I didn't have a steady girlfriend, but I did have my share of friends, many of whom were women. I think I saw Reepa with Jimmy for the first time after we started our second year. I knew that something was wrong since Jimmy was obviously not a student at the LSE or at any other university for that matter. He was a toughie, a man who used his fists without hesitation. But I had no idea then that he was a dealer.

My thoughts were interrupted as Nilesh's mobile rang. It was Ranjit asking for directions. 'Roseberry Avenue,' Nilesh said as he gave directions to Ranjit. 'After you reach Mount Pleasant, you should …………..'

'Is Reepa's room locked?' Pallavi asked me.

'I think so. The police have recovered Reepa's handbag which had her room keys in it. They have it with them.' They had also recovered her wallet with all the money intact. The police told me that Jimmy's turf rivals had most probably killed Reepa as a way of hitting back at Jimmy. I was going to leave it to the police to tell this to Nilesh and Pallavi. There was no way I could explain it all to them. They could understand their golden daughter being killed by muggers. But they would not understand Reepa dating a drug dealer from the Caribbean and getting killed in south London as part of a turf war.

Soon Ranjit stormed into the restaurant. 'How did this happen? Why was she out so late at night?' I had no answers to Ranjit's questions.

'What time did the murder take place?'

'According to the police, at around one a.m.'

'What was she doing so late at night? Was she with someone?' Ranjit demanded of me. I kept silent.

'Was this normal for her? To stay out very late?' This was my chance, to tell them that she was dating a guy, almost living in with him and that she did keep very late nights. But no, I didn't say that. 'Reepa and I are friends.' Wrong tense, I realised, but it was too late. 'But I didn't keep tabs on her. I have no idea if she went out often and how late she stayed back.' Wonderful, I thought as my guts tightened. Once the police tell them the whole story, Nilesh and Ranjit were bound to ask me how long I had known about Jimmy.

'Let's go the mortuary,' Ranjit said. Pallavi had drunk half a glass of coffee and Nilesh had eaten a toast. My breakfast was untouched.

‘We can’t. The police are going to call me and then we go to the police station first and they will take us to the mortuary.’

‘Why’s that? Ranjit asked me.

I did not reply. I didn’t have the energy. I just shrugged my shoulders. I also stopped worrying about Jimmy turning up. Most probably he was keeping a low profile. Shouldn't the police post someone in front of Reepa's room to make sure Jimmy didn't remove anything from there? I wondered. Granted it was not possible to enter Roseberry Hall without an access key and the police had Reepa's keys, but lack of keys was unlikely to deter Jimmy. Maybe they had posted a plainclothes man there already. Never mind. None of my business, I told myself. There was nothing I could do about it. Actually I stopped caring.

‘What was she doing south of the river?’ Ranjit asked me. I ignored him once again.

My mobile rang. It was the police. 'Yes, Reepa's parents are here with me. Shall we come to police station now?'

I turned to them. ‘Yes, they have asked you to come to the police station. It’s a thirty minute drive to Lewisham.'

Pallavi started to weep loudly. Nilesh was sobbing quietly. There were tears in Ranjit's eyes as well. Where were Reepa's other friends? I wondered. There was no reason why I should have to face all this on my own. But Reepa had very few other friends. After she started dating Jimmy, she started losing friends one by one. Some of her friends drooped out because they disapproved of her new friend. Some, because Reepa was no longer the old Reepa. I remember once running into Reepa and Jimmy at a pub on Kingsway, both of them stoned out of their minds. Nilesh and Pallavi had continued to visit Reepa every month. Why didn't they suspect anything, I wondered? There was that other time when I saw Reepa looking totally zonked, her face buried under layers of makeup, waiting to meet her parents. When was that? Not more than two months ago. I was sure that Pallavi, if not Nilesh, would sense that something was wrong. But nothing had happened. Nothing! Why didn't someone do something? Why didn't I do something?

'Shall we leave?' Nilesh asked. Ranjit had settled the bill while I was lost in my thoughts. I led them out of the restaurant and we walked back to Roseberry Hall in a single file.

**A special note of thanks to the London Metropolitan Police’s press office for assisting me with the technical aspects of this story. Any mistake in this story, however, is entirely mine.

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