The weekend had finally arrived, although Leonard wouldn’t have noticed it if it wasn’t for Marley’s busy excitement and general exuberance. He found that weekends had long since lost their lustre as he could effectively choose whenever he wanted his weekend to be; in recent weeks his ‘weekend’ had been on a Tuesday and a Wednesday and it would be no surprise were this to change in the future. Marianna was already awake, and he smelled the sizzling bacon and heard the hissing pops as it presumably cooked in the pan. He slovenly rose to his feet and had a quick shower before settling down in the main living area for their breakfast. On his plate sat three strips of bacon, a colony of scrambled eggs and two slices of brown bread, and he played with his bread with a puerile melancholy.
“Why are we having brown bread again?”
“Because it is healthier and tastes better,” Marianna replied as she blew cool air onto her congested fork.
“If we’re not going to have white bread can we at least compromise on a ‘best of both’ or something similar?” Leonard enquired.
“Stop being such a baby,” Marianna scoffed with a mouth that was now full of bacon.
“Yup stop being such a baby!” Marley imitated as he took a big bite of his toast, to which Leonard replied with a dismissive wave of his hand.
“We’ll see who’s the baby when we get to the park and I’m knocking in goals left, right and centre,” he finished as he took an obnoxiously loud sip of his tea. Their meal continued in this softly competitive spirit until they had all finished and dumped their dirty plates beside the sink. Whilst the others changed their clothes for the park Leonard eyed the mess suspiciously as it would no doubt fall to him to clean it up, he groaned as he filled up a two litre bottle with water, and stored it in their gym bag. Before long they were set and so left for the park; it was a relatively short walk to the square patch of grass, which was bordered by roads and a waist high steel and cement mishmash of a fence. They were fortunate because the solitary goal in the far end was empty and so they could use it without having to share, it was sunken in at the right end and its white paint was flaky and fell away if you kicked it. Leonard started in goal and soon found his now familiar rhythm of flapping at Marley’s shots whilst taking Marianna’s more seriously. They continued like this for a while as the park became more populated and a number of other children and adolescents hovered around the goal before realising the Whistle’s weren’t leaving, and then glumly skulked away. Marianna had since replaced Leonard in goal, however, as he was lining up a penalty kick his phone vibrated in his pocket. He ignored it and dramatically exhaled before lining up a few paces behind the ball, he hopped on the spot before kicking the ball with all his might and it flew high, and it flew true, and it flew right over the goal and dangerously close to the road.
“I’ll get it,”
“I wasn’t going to offer,” Marianna muttered as she rolled her eyes and Leonard gazed forlornly after the ball, it had rolled quite far and after a morning spent playing football was in some ways too far away to be worth it.
“Can we just buy a new one?”
“Yeah!” Marley cheered and Leonard raised a hand in victory.
“I’m not letting you waste our money,” Marianna replied and he lowered his hand before walking after the ball. He wiped the sweat from his forehead using his t-shirt, as his phone vibrated again and he pulled his hand into his pocket to check the notification.
I didn’t expect this at all! Don’t really know how to feel about it, you’ve got a lot of nerve you know that? What you asked, that’s not casual.
That’s not ok.
This is where the first message finished, as a follow up message continued beneath it:
I can’t exactly say no can I? You’ve made a point of bringing it up, and I can’t say nothing especially if you’re writing about it? At the least I want to know what you’ve written. So fine we can meet but only if I can read what you’ve written and check it when it’s finished.
A blush reddened Leonard’s cheeks and its sudden appearance made him glad that he had been the one to chase the ball; he could blame it on the exertion. He had reached the football and he rolled it underneath his right foot before turning around and kicking it wildly back to his family.
When they returned home they had a minor fight over who could use the shower first, before forcing Marley to use it as he was the only one who was all too happy to go last. They could hear the slap, splash and spray of the water as Marianna reminded him to wash between his toes and behind his ears. Leonard felt his own ears with a minor disgust as he realised he hadn’t been washing behind his own, however as Marianna turned around he abruptly stopped.
“I need some advice, look,” Leonard stated bluntly as he tossed his phone over to his wife, she caught it awkwardly with her left and presumably changed the page she was supposed to be on in the process.
“I don’t get it? I think I pressed something?”
“Go to my messages on Facebook, and read the one from Marta,” Leonard instructed as he turned and placed both of his feet on the sofa.
“You haven’t mentioned a ‘Marta’ before,” she noted as her voice trailed off and recognition replaced her previous disinterest, “oh so this is Marta! Well you actually did it!”
“What of course I did,”
“I know but that’s kind of a personal thing to ask isn’t it?”
“Are you kidding me?”
“What?” Marianna gawked before shrugging her shoulders in a sort of half apology half dismissal, before coming closer and sitting down in the chair opposite the sofa, “so what are you going to do?”
“Meet with her but this whole ’investigation’ suddenly seems a bit, morbid. I have no choice but to meet with her now, but I don’t think I’ll take it any further than that.”
“Yeah I agree; I feel quite embarrassed by the whole thing to be honest. Imagine if that was Marley and some guy you knew years ago called to interrogate you about it. That would hurt,”
“It would,” Leonard sighed as he palmed his face, he heard the sudden silence as Marley had presumably finished his shower.
“What do you want to do?”
“I’m going to reply to Marta’s message, how about you jump in the shower first.” Leonard replied as he rashly suggested a time and a place to meet before tossing his phone onto the coffee table. He leaned back in the chair and looked at the area behind his head as it spun upside down, and he stayed in this position until his head grew heavy with the unbalanced blood.
Leonard had to take an awkward route to find the café Marta had recommended; it was in a place he hadn’t visited for years and an inconvenient construction project caused numerous diversions. This circuitous route was annoying for multiple reasons; it was physically jarring for one and with each turning that took him neither closer nor further to their meeting spot, he was left with a sickly feeling in his stomach.
It’ll be a brief chat, we’ll go our separate ways and I will stop feeling so stupid he reasoned and consequently turned on the radio to scuttle his negativity. Once he was in the vicinity of the café he slowed to a crawl as his eyes darted madly in search of a parking spot, and he shortly saw a sign indicating a car park. He turned into it, stopped his car, got out. He walked down the road and crossed at the zebra crossing before entering the eatery, it was large, stylish and looked as though it was a regional franchise. At the very least, it wasn’t the sort of place that Leonard would refer to as the “café at the end of Cobalt Avenue” as Marta had nonchalantly termed it in their back and forth messages.
“Marta?” He asked cautiously as a woman he hadn’t seen for many years stopped being the picture she had since become. Her big, curly brown hair had streaks of a lighter coffee colour that must have been highlights that had since faded, or some other remnant of a previous fashion statement. Her skin was rougher than he remembered, and she also had more freckles. She must have recently been on holiday, he reasoned, as her ochre skin was noticeable darker than either his memory or her Facebook picture testified. She wore a cream jumper, had golden studs in her ears and her lips were pursed in a cautious sort of half grin, half snarl; her large eyes avoided direct contact.
“Leonard,” she replied as she nodded her head and continued to look at the menu.
“Have you ordered anything yet?” He asked to which she put it down.
“Not really sure what I fancy to be honest,” she muttered as he reached for a menu and had a quick look himself.
“I think I’ll get the pie and mash, and a side of wings if you want to share?”
“That’s a bit of a weird mix,” she replied before stating that it was a good idea and she’d also like some wings. She ultimately settled on a ‘salted cod with buttered, garlic rice’ and a glass of sparkling water.
“I’ve never been able to drink sparkling water; it makes me feel nauseous,” Leonard commented cautiously as he studied her expression.
“I remember,” she grinned and with her expression the mood at the table softened, they started to reminisce about their past before sharing what they had recently been up to. Leonard’s assumptions were also proven correct, as he found out she had spent the last few weeks in Antigua. Her sparkling water was placed on the table and following a few more minutes of benign small talk, their meals were carried in by their waiter. They sat and ate in a tidy silence, commenting every so often on the quality of the food.
“So, what do you want to know?” She asked abruptly as Leonard tongued a trapped piece of chicken between his incisors.
“You’re talking about the article right?”
“What else could I be talking about?” She replied with a bitter smirk, and Leonard brought a napkin to his face to remove the gristle and clean his lips.
“Ok well I’ve got a few questions, and if you don’t want to answer any of them please tell me. Ok so: (1) What happened on the day that Karim died? (2) Why did Paulie target you specifically (3) Do you blame,” Leonard paused as he considered how best to ask the question he had come here to ask, but could find neither the words nor the courage.
“Do I blame?”
“Sorry is there anyone in particular that you blame for what happened?” He finished.
“Alright I can answer those questions for you, did you want to take notes or anything?” She asked to a slightly bemused look on Leonard’s face before he realised why she had asked him that question; she did after all believe that Leonard was planning on adding this conversation to his article. He took out his phone and placed it on the table, before suggesting that he would record their conversation.
“So you want to know what happened on the day my son died? I left our flat to pick him up at half past three like always, however I was running late. I arrived at the school and went to the office to pick him up, where they told me that he had already been picked up by ‘Mr. Ayodele’”
“The teacher? So you two were…”
“In a relationship? Yes we were, however when this happened the ‘Mr Ayodele’ who was notified on Karim’s file was dead. Morgan had recently passed away and I hadn’t yet notified the school,”
“So Paulie picked up Karim from school? Why did Karim go with him?”
“He went with him because he had seen Paulie around Morgan’s place, so they were familiar with each other. Anyway at this point I was panicking, and I don’t know what to do, I don’t know who to call so I went home.”
“It sounds stupid right? I can’t for the life of you tell you why I did what I did, but I went home and started cooking dinner. Some time passed and I received a call from Paulie telling me that he was looking after Karim, and that after we’d had a chat he’d send Karim on his way.”
“What did he want to talk about?”
“Anything more specific than that?”
“I’d rather not say. In any case I shortly hung up and called the police, before jumping on the bus to get to Paulie’s house. By the time both myself and the police had arrived, Karim had died of an asthma attack in the basement.”
“Shit.” Marta looked away as her eyes watered and she cupped her face in her palms, “do you mind if we stop for a minute?” she asked and Leonard nodded his head as he returned his phone to his pocket.
“Who could do that to a little boy Leonard? To my little boy!” She sighed and spluttered as she was visibly overwhelmed with the conversation, “I can answer your third question right away, I blame Paulie because of course I do! I blamed Paulie, the police blamed Paulie, the jury blamed Paulie. No one else is to blame!”
On the drive home Leonard was pensive following the meeting he had just had with Marta and, having recorded it, replayed it out loud on his phone. A grim smile twitched his lips because, despite its morbidity, he couldn’t help but feel excited by their chat and found himself thinking the following:
Why did Marta go home? If she had called the police sooner or been clearer with the school, Karim might still be alive. If she had updated the school on Morgan’s passing, Karim might still be alive.
He was yet to figure out how he fitted into this mess, but had suddenly started to reconsider Paulie’s position in this affair. Leonard hadn’t fully verbalised the following thought, but he had assumed that Paulie was an abused youth who had ‘snapped’ and that if you could stop Paulie from snapping, for instance by reporting his abuse, you would have stopped Karim’s death. Maybe matters of life and death were far more mundane, and maybe the right call at the right time would have left such a tragedy to films and books?
“I can’t for the life of you tell you why I did what I did, but I went home and started cooking dinner.” Marta’s voice repeated through his mobile speakers.
When he arrived home he settled into the evening with his family and assimilated into their regular pattern of dinner, games and administrative chatter before deciding to have an early night. Leonard had planned on sharing his thoughts and feelings about Marta as soon as Marianna was ready to listen, however as he saw her tiredness, and as they relaxed together as a family, he felt the topic had suddenly become inappropriate. Marianna had also formally taken up her new role as manager and so Leonard preferred to be the listener for the evening. Over the course of the week Leonard continued to speak with Marta and they even started to rekindle their since cooled friendship. He also found that Marta was actually quite willing to discuss Karim and Paulie once she had gotten over his sudden reappearance in her life. She had since looked over his article and seemed to agree with the clinical and depersonalised treatment he had made of the case.
“It sounds finished to me, so I’m not sure what my input could add to it?” She queried as they found themselves sitting again in the swanky café that had since become their meeting spot.
“I suppose I just wanted to check that I had covered your story accurately and in the right way and,” he sighed, “I was also, well mainly, wondering if you held me accountable for what happened to Karim.”
“You, no, what, why?”
“Not just me, but any of us from back at school. I can’t help but think that Paulie could have targeted any one of us because none of us believed him about Morgan. Maybe we all could have taken him more seriously?”
“Leonard this isn’t a slasher flick, Paulie didn’t wear a hockey mask and abduct my son in the middle of the night. He wasn’t out for revenge. Paulie just thought I had answers for him, and was prepared to do anything to get them.”
“What sort of answers?”
“He thought I might know about why Morgan did what he did,” she paused and stared at Leonard expectantly, “well?”
“Aren’t you going to ask me whether I did know?”
“I’m assuming you’d want to tell me in your own time,” Leonard replied to a muted shrug from Marta, and as it became obvious that she was bothered about the topic he asked her a different question, “do you hate Paulie?”
“Hate? No, I don’t feel anything for Paulie.” She replied, effectively ending their discussion for the afternoon. These moments of sudden tension didn’t stop their correspondence, however, as Leonard realised that Marta had had no one to talk to about her son’s death. What also became increasingly apparent was that Morgan Ayodele had been a big part of her life, a much bigger part of her life than his memory allowed. It started to become clear why Paulie, whether rightly or not, expected Marta to have known about his abuse at the hands of his father. Leonard realised that he needed to figure out two things from Marta: 1) Did she know about Paulie’s abuse? 2) If she did, could she have done something about it? Leonard also believed that if Marta could have done something about it, then maybe he as their mutual friend could also have done something to address Paulie’s abuse, and by extension, stop Karim’s death.