The second the car door opens, a hundred camera flashes blind me and I'm deafened by as many questions. Everything swarms around me like TV static, disorientating me, and for a moment I'm lost.
There was a time, a few days ago, when this would have freaked me out. I mean, the first time it happened, I just sat paralyzed in my car while photographers blanketed every window, firing in sharp bolts of light until I was convinced I could see the bones beneath my skin. Eventually, panic took over, forced me from the car and I ran across the car park towards the high-rise and the safety of my own four walls. Later, when I watched myself on the news, it was like seeing a primal version of me. I don't think I've ever felt as sick as I did that night.
Now, I've almost become immune to it. I no longer panic and I don't run. I realized a while ago, they don't want to touch me. In fact, a few of them have fallen over themselves in their desperation to get out of my way. It's not about hurting me. It's not even about scaring me. It's about getting a photo and a quote. As long as I hold on to my composure, I'll be okay.
With my collar up, chin tight against my chest and eyes on the ground, I head for the flats. The circling crowd follows me, clicking, flashing and questioning as it moves.
"How do you feel today, Mr. Colbecki?"
"Daniel, are you happy he decided to plead guilty?"
"Mr. Colbecki, are you relieved that you won't have to give your side of the story in court?"
"What's next for you, Daniel?"
"Do you have any message for the family?"
I manage to pick out a few of these standard questions, but everyone's shouting over everyone else and mostly it's just a noise. I don't answer, not even to say no comment.
"How can you live with yourself?" someone screams. "I hope you die, Dan Colbecki. I hope you all die."
This tears above the others and for the first time since I got out of the car, I blink. I swallow a torrent of saliva. Some of the attention sways from me to the source of this outburst and I come very close to looking up. Then, one of the photographers, tired of taking pictures of the back of my head, holds his camera at my chest, points it up at my face, pulls the trigger and all I can see is white.
The baby had been crying all evening. That's what Dan tells the police when they ask him about the previous night. From when he'd got home from work at nine, she just refused to go down and nothing he or Louise did made any difference. If anything, Dan suspected they were just making matters worse. Then, with no warning or outside influence, she fell asleep in Louise's arms - just like that - and it was at this point Dan noticed the tear tracks on his wife's cheeks.
"This crying," the elder of the two policemen says. "How long did it go on for?"
"A couple of hours," Dan guesses.
The policemen look at each other as if to suggest that a couple of hours isn't such an impressive length of time.
"I know that doesn't sound like much," he goes on, "but she's been crying for every waking moment since she was born. I can't tell you when Louise or I had a good night's sleep. It was really getting on top of us. Plus work's been stressful recently bills and stuff Louise and I have been having " He pauses. "It's been getting on top of us.
If either of them understands or has the slightest of sympathies, they don't let it show. Meanwhile, Louise flashes Dan a look that lets him know exactly what she thinks of his honesty.
The policeman continues, "Okay, so you finally got your daughter to sleep. What time would this be?"
"About eleven. Maybe quarter past."
A nod. "Then what happened?"
The lobby of the block of flats is quiet and dim. A strip light buzzes and strobes on the ceiling and the faint remnants of ancient detergent aren't enough to mask the presence of urine and vomit. Shadows crouch in corners. Inside the lift car that takes me to the fourth floor, someone has sprayed Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here in red paint across the metal doors. The letters are bleeding.
When I step on to the fourth floor landing, I immediately sense that something's not quite right but it takes me a few seconds to realise what it is. My front door is wide open.
I check over my shoulder, looking back at the closing lift and then back into my flat. I edge closer to the door, listening for a clue, praying to hear something because it just seems more dangerous walking in to silence. From the kitchen, or possibly the living room, Louise coughs and I start to feel ashamed of my paranoia.
As it turns out, she's in the living room, crouched over a cardboard box with her back to me.
"Hi," I say.
I didn't think I was creeping, but she bolts upright when she hears me and drops a bunch of CDs. One case, for a Wildhearts album I got her at Christmas, breaks open and the disc flies from it like a clay pigeon, skimming under the couch.
"Fuck, Dan," she gasps. "You scared the shit out of me."
I offer a smile that makes her adjust her hair and turn back to the box. She seems pissed off.
"It wasn't intentional," I say by way of apology. "And I told you I'd bring your CDs over to your mum's. There's no need to sneak back. This is still your home."
"I saw the verdict," she says with a lightness I can tell is fake. "Probably not a verdict, really, is it? I mean, there's not going to be a trial so I don't know what you would call it. The result? The outcome?"
"I know what you mean."
"I saw it, whatever it was and even if I hadn't, those pigs outside made sure I knew." She's still concentrating on the box, not looking at me. "I don't suppose it makes much difference, but at least it's over."
A couple of steps take me over to the window. Down in the car park, the journalists and photographers linger, waiting for the next poor bastard to turn up. Their vans and cars are parked on kerbs on the surrounding streets, seemingly random and abandoned in a hurry, but careful to still offer residents access to their normal parking spaces.
"It doesn't feel over," I mutter, turning back into the room. I sigh when I see Louise has repositioned herself so she has her back to me again. "I guess bits of it feel over are over. It all goes on, though, doesn't it? It doesn't end."
"You need to try and find a happy place through all this. There's got to be some way, you know?"
"Please don't leave." It's out before I can stop myself.
For a moment, she deflates. Her shoulders drop and her head hangs. In an instant, she bursts back into life and it's as though I hadn't spoken. She retrieves her Wildhearts CD and says something I don't quite make out while the disc catches the light and reflects it straight into my eyes.
He tries to remember but gets frustrated because even though it was just last night, it was all over so quickly. That's what he thinks, anyway. Later, he'll learn it went on for nearly forty minutes but at that moment, with the police looming like giants in the living room, he describes it as a split second during an unremarkable evening. A throwaway moment, he calls it.
As usual, the baby had been crying and Louise looked one wrong word away from breaking point. He was tired and hungry and was dreading having to get up at 5 am to start his other job and with an argument brewing between him and his wife, it had all the makings of another common or garden night.
"So you heard a noise," the policeman says. "What kind of noise?"
"Arguing. People shouting."
"How many people?"
"Two people. I thought it was kids at first. Kids are always fighting outside. Gangs. Drugs. You're the police. You know what it's like round here."
"What were these two people arguing about?"
He shakes his head. "It was just raised voices. I couldn't pick out specific words and I wasn't really paying attention." He tries to assess if they believe him.
"Were there screams?"
"I don't know. Maybe."
"So what happened next?"
He takes a deep breath. "I was worried the baby was going to wake up so I went over to the window -"
"What did you see from the window?" the policeman asks, interrupting.
"A man and a woman."
"What were they doing?"
He pauses. He knows he needs to get this right. "At the time, it just looked like they were drunk and out to cause mischief kick over bins fall into cars the usual nonsense. With a clear head, though, I guess it probably looked like he was trying to beat her up."
"And what did you do?"
"I shouted at them to shut up."
"I closed the window and turned up the TV."
Louise leaves. She tells me she doesn't think there's anything of hers or the baby's left in the flat, but if she realises she's forgotten something in the next week or two, she'll make sure I'm out before picking it up. When I ask her if she wants help with her boxes, she shrugs and shakes her head and tells me it's probably best if I stay indoors. Without looking, I hear the media animal roar into life as she loads up her taxi and then, after a wheel spin and screeching first gear escape, she's gone.
The flat feels cold and empty with just my stuff in it, like I'm in a squat. I turn on the TV, mute the sound, stare through the screen and think about what Louise said about my happy place. After five minutes or so, it begins to distress me to learn I don't know where it is.
It's certainly not here. This high rise - this vertical village - has always had the feel of a social experiment about it. Let's stick 130 people in a tower block and see how long it takes them to burn it to the ground. No one knows anyone else or dares to make eye contact. No one knows whose responsibility it is to keep the landings clean or the communal gardens tidy so in the end no one does it and the landings attract graffiti and needles and the gardens attract dog shit and shopping carts. It drains you. The shit and the puke and the spunk and the piss that decorate the walls and floors becomes the norm and it's not so much that it becomes acceptable or that you think it's right, it's more that you just do not care anymore. And when the papers asked, this was what I told them: there are 130 people existing in this building and none of them gives a fuck.
Not that we were any different. For me and Louise, this place had always been a means to an end. It was a stopgap until something better came along, no matter how far away that turned out to be. Now, with Louise back at her mother's, it feels like nothing.
Maybe an hour later, I check on the circus outside. Most reporters have packed up their gear and gone on to other things and those who remain are in the process of following suit. An old woman, who I recognise from the building, is kneeling on a cushion at an overgrown bush. In her right hand, she's holding a trowel or a little fork or some other kind of garden tool and it's obviously brand new because the metal is shiny and manages to reflect the sun back up at me.
From the moment the police arrived that night, Dan knew it was bad. He didn't discover how bad until he'd gone through his statement a second time and they were about to leave.
"So, am I in trouble?" Dan asks as he walks them to the door. "What exactly happened here last night?"
The older policeman does all the talking. "Thirty windows overlook the spot where a fifteen-year-old girl was attacked by a man described to be in his twenties or thirties in what appeared to be a bag-snatching attempt. This initial scuffle had been witnessed by six people, you being one of them, Mr. Colbecki. The man reportedly left the scene but returned to find the girl collecting the contents of her bag that had spilled during the struggle and he continued his attack. She was dragged into bushes where she was raped and beaten unconscious."
At this point, Dan has to lean against a wall.
The policeman continues as though he doesn't notice. "At twenty to midnight, fifteen minutes into the incident, a woman on the fifth floor shouted, 'You leave that poor wee lassie alone,' and the man abandoned his victim for the second time. Between ten and fifteen minutes later, he returned, raped the girl again and then killed her, stabbing her more than a dozen times.
"From start to finish, the attack lasted approximately forty minutes and during that time, not one of the twenty-five people who witnessed at least part of the incident called the police."
As they step out of the flat, clearly seething, the older cop concludes, "And no, sir. You're not in any trouble."
The next day, the press get hold of the story and set up camp outside. There's no massive manhunt and the killer is caught without drama even before the police have finished their door-to-door enquiries. Through the eyes of the media, the building that had towered blind over the crime is the real villain and those who had admitted their apathy are treated as though they held the girl down, which Dan supposes isn't so far from the truth. Talk-shows speculate over whether this is really what's wrong with society. Has it come to this? ask newspaper editorials. Campaigns and petitions are conducted to get the building condemned. Some families leave. Others just fall apart.
Louise's words are still with me as I leave the flat. Although it only takes a couple of minutes to get down to the old woman, something about the act feels important. I stand behind her, throwing my shadow over her shoulder as she digs weeds out of the hard earth. A suede belt with various tools is unrolled at her side. Shading her eyes, she turns her head and looks up at me.
"Hello," she says. "Looks like it might turn out to be a nice day after all, wouldn't you say?"
I smile and do my best to look non-threatening. "It's supposed to rain later."
"It's always going to rain later," she replies with a chuckle.
"So you're weeding, huh?" If I need a reminder of how unnatural it feels sharing a conversation with a neighbour, this is surely it. Not knowing where I'm going with this, I carry on regardless. "My mum used to hate weeding. She said it was the worst part of gardening along with pruning roses. Pruning always made her feel sad, she said. One year, my dad called her melodramatic and ripped the rosebush out. She never forgave him."
Still kneeling and squinting up at me, she says, "People are leaving flowers for that poor wee lassie and there are carts and bike frames and God knows what else all over the place. It's disrespectful. It's been crying out for a good tidy for years."
"Can I help?"
She looks at me without speaking for an age, as though she's sussing me out or waiting for the punchline. My expression must give her the confirmation she needs. She nods and runs a finger along the handles in the tool belt, stopping at a pair of pruning shears and sliding them out of their loop.
Handing them to me, she says, "You could always make a start at getting that bush into shape."
I'm not green-fingered so I'm not sure how good a job I do. Combined with this lack of skill, I'm slow and I'm scratched so often I begin to think I'd be safer wrestling a cat. But it doesn't need precision or a professional touch at this stage; it just needs attention and for the next few hours, that's what it gets. The woman keeps me right, gives me tips and tells me with a smile that she seems to work better with company. It's hard work, but as afternoon moves into evening and the setting sun shines against the lower windows of the tower block, it looks like we've begun to make a difference.
M C R
This work is copyrighted by the author, Gavin Broom. All rights reserved