Resolutions by Diana J. Timms

Resolutions won first place in the Arrol Adam Prize 2019 (Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge), leading to deposit in the Fitzwilliam College Library as a special collection

Catharine Moorhouse kept her crime scene photographs inside her Bible. For a while she had slotted them into the blank pages at the back of her photo album, but the Girl Guides and church carol singers who came to offer conversation and company to the elderly always wanted to see pictures of her children. She told these visitors that her children had lived with their father since the divorce and the last time they’d visited was when they brought her the stack of nursing home brochures, but the visitors still insisted on seeing the album. Then they would turn the pages from smiling siblings on ponies and the beach and the school steps to find a bloodied corpse. Catharine moved the photos to the Bible in order to maintain case confidentiality.

So now the pictures were tucked between the pages of Isaiah and Jeremiah. When she first interleaved the photos with the fragile, columned pages, Catharine wondered whether it was in poor taste. Sat in her room after the evening tea and drugs round, she had convinced herself that the pursuit of justice was in line with Christian ethics and so she had arranged the cases into chronological order and hoped that the visiting chaplain would never ask to look up a passage in her Bible. If he did, she’d tell him to use his own tools of the trade. She had learned that age allowed her a rudeness that would never have been permitted during her career.

It was New Year’s Day, and Catharine had had a fight with Louise the care assistant, who had tried to serve her yet another cold turkey sandwich. Maybe it was because the kitchens had failed to adjust the catering numbers after both Gordon and Belinda had passed away a week before Christmas, or maybe it was because the care assistants had been told that old people like routine, but the turkey kept coming like the produce of a cornucopia. January the first, and Catharine had put her foot down. Louise had pleaded and placated in her usual ineffectual manner, but the sandwich was now in the bin and Catharine had won herself baked beans on toast.

Louise grudgingly helped Catharine from the dining room back to her bedroom after lunch. Settled in her armchair with satisfaction and a smirk, Catharine waited until Louise had shut the door behind her and then she began her afternoon’s work.

She had photocopied selected photographs and pages of notes from the open case folders whilst her colleagues had been waiting in the cafeteria for her retirement party. Throughout the warm beer and flat lemonade, Catharine had clutched her handbag close to her, and when she got home to an empty, silent house that night she pulled the sheaf of papers out of it and arranged them on the floor of the guest bedroom.

There was one case to which she kept returning, the last case on which she had acted as the Senior Investigating Officer. She adjusted her spectacles now and looked again at the picture that was engraved in her memory far more sharply than any of the care assistants’ names.

A twenty-six-year-old woman had died from multiple blows from a blunt instrument to the left-hand side of her head. When Catharine had been called down to the canal bank for a body that had been pulled out of the water, her stomach had churned at the crumpled-paper-bag contours of the woman’s ruined skull, exposed by the canal’s cleansing of the blood. Now, though, she had looked at the photos enough times to have become accustomed to the sight. She re-examined the pictures with clinical detachment.

Catharine didn’t bother to turn to Isaiah 39 to retrieve the case notes. She took off her glasses and rested her head against the back of the armchair, gazing up at the Artex ceiling which blurred and faded as she lowered her spectacles.

At quarter past three one April afternoon, Lucy Mackenzie had picked up her six-year-old daughter from school, and the mother’s body had been pulled out of the river at seven thirty by a jogger. The daughter had never been found, despite the dredging of the canal and the most expensive missing person investigation that Catharine had ever instigated. The last sighting of her had been by her teacher when the child had been picked up from school. The police investigation had circled for eighteen months, unable to reconstruct a mere four hours.

The care assistants knocked purely as a formality and Catharine still had the pictures spread across her lap when the door was pushed open without pause for a reply. Fortunately it wasn’t Louise. Catharine would have snapped at her like an ill-behaved sniffer dog if she had come back to bother her.

She didn’t recognise this girl, blonde and tall and far too confident for her age.

“Ms Moorhouse? I’ve got your afternoon medication for you.”

Catharine shuffled the pictures together and turned them face-down in her lap so that the corpse pressed into the cotton of her slacks.

“Who are you?” she asked, peering at the new face. The other residents might be content to admit any person in uniform purple overalls into their rooms, but Catharine was more careful.

“My name’s Flora, Ms Moorhouse. I’m the new care assistant.”

“Where’s your ID badge?” Catharine asked.

She had asked Louise the same when she arrived and she had laughed. Briefly. She had been in tears by the time that she had left the room to go and find it.

Flora didn’t laugh, but she did smile.

“It’s right here, Ms Moorhouse,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her overalls and retrieving her laminated pass. “I was issued with it this morning.”

Catharine ignored the little paper container of pills Flora was also carrying and took the card, turning it in the light to spot any signs of forgery. Satisfied with its validity, she handed it back to the girl.

“Very well,” she said. “You can’t be too careful, though.”

“I agree,” Flora said. “My grandma always asks for ID whenever a workman turns up, even when she’s expecting them. She says posing as a builder or a plumber is the easiest way of getting into someone’s house.” She handed Catharine the pot of beta blockers and statins and aspirin. “What’s that photo of?”

Catharine was caught off-guard, almost charmed by the girl’s sensibility, and she turned over the page. Then she cursed her lapse of focus and control and glanced down, flustered, to see the photo staring blindly up at her.

“None of your business,” she said, pushing it between the other bodies in the series.

“Was that a crime scene photo?”

Catharine stared at her and clutched tightly at the pictures, crumpling the edges as the woman’s skull had been crumpled.

“Why do you say that?” she asked carefully.

“It didn’t look like a holiday snap, and your notes say that you were a police officer.”

Catharine would either offer this girl a job or place her under surveillance, if she still had the power.

“Yes, it is,” she said. She peered up at her curiously. Flora placed the pills on the table beside Catharine’s chair and went to fill her a glass of water from the jug on the dresser.

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Catharine considered the back of the girl and thumbed the corner of the photographs. She hadn’t discussed the Mackenzie case with anyone since she had officially handed it over to her successor, but she was in constant fear of it going stale in her mind. She was aware that the serving police force now viewed it as a cold case, an unsolved case, an open case that no one was planning to peer into for fear of the money and time that might disappear into its cavernous depths. This girl might be a useful sounding board. She seemed cleverer than most of the people Catharine had to spend her days with now, and the case was old. Plenty of her colleagues had voiced their ongoing cases to friends and bartenders, careful to be vague whilst sober, and accepting DCI Moorhouse’s fierce discipline when their drinks loosened their tongues too much.

Catharine was loathe to follow their example, but she studied these photographs every day and they had not yet shifted to reveal the missing piece, the murderer, the whereabouts of the child. She took the water glass from Flora and held out the photographs.

“Notice anything?” she asked, popping a tablet on her tongue and taking a gulp of water.

To give the girl her credit, she didn’t flinch, but she did raise her eyebrows and hold the photographs at arm’s length.

“Ms Moorhouse, I’m not sure it’s appropriate that I…”

“What do you notice?” Catharine said.

Flora pressed her mouth into a thin line and forced herself to look at the uppermost photograph.

“There’s a young woman, probably mid-twenties, white, with a wound to the side of her head…”

“Yes, I’m aware of that,” Catharine said. “Stop stating the obvious and properly look.

“Ms Moorhouse, should I really be looking at these?”

“It’s fine, it’s an old case.”

Flora squinted at the page, whether in response to the bright winter sunlight streaming into the room or to minimise the effect of the photo, Catharine wasn’t entirely sure.

“Ms Moorhouse…” she began again.

“Oh, very well,” Catharine snapped. “Give them back here if you’re not able to help.”

Flora took a step back and held on to the photographs.

“No, I mean… This is beside a canal, isn’t it? You can just see it behind. A body pulled out of the canal. When was this?”

“2004.”

Flora placed her hand over the photograph, cautiously, as though she was touching the corpse itself rather than the cheap paper from the police station photocopier, and she covered up the side of the woman’s face where the instrument had struck her. Without the distraction of the wound it was easier to focus on what was left of the woman’s face. She swallowed.

“I think I knew her,” she said.

“How could you?” Catharine asked, fishing an aspirin out of the paper container and rolling it between her fingers. “This was ages ago.”

“I think this is Lizzie Mackenzie’s mum, isn’t it?”

The aspirin slipped out of Catharine’s fingers and dropped down the side of the armchair cushion.

“How do you know that?”

Flora placed the photographs face down on the table and helped Catharine retrieve the tablet. It was covered in fluff and biscuit crumbs. She dropped it back into the container.

“I went to school with Lizzie,” Flora said, looking down at the blank pages as though she could still see the pictures on the other side. “I even went round to her house for tea a couple of times. We were only about six. And then she went missing.”

Catharine brushed off the aspirin and swallowed it, ignoring Flora’s protests.

“Her mother picked her up from school one day,” Catharine said, holding up her hand to break off Flora’s digression into matters of hygiene. “And they were never seen again. Lucy Mackenzie’s body was found in the canal four hours later, and Elizabeth Mackenzie was never found.”

“You arrested her stepfather, didn’t you?” Flora asked.

“We questioned him,” Catharine said. “He was a suspect at the beginning of the investigation, but we ruled him out.”

“He ruled himself out,” Flora whispered. “I might have been six, but you still pick things up at that age.”

“Ruled himself out?” Catharine reached for the water glass again to give herself time to understand. Forcing her brain to keep up now felt like the time that she and a new PC had had to push the panda car down the street to restart the flat battery.

She realised what the girl meant.

“Yes,” Catharine said reluctantly. “Although we had proved that he couldn’t be involved before his body was found. He had maintained throughout questioning that he’d taken his dogs out into the fields for a long walk that afternoon, but there was no one else around and no CCTV cameras anywhere along the route. It was pure coincidence that we managed to confirm it eventually. A kid had been nicked for shoplifting, but he claimed he’d been smoking a joint on the footpath leading to the fields. He said he’d seen a man matching the stepfather’s description walking two Labradors at four p.m. on the day that Lucy and Elizabeth disappeared.”

“I assume he never knew he had an alibi?” Flora asked.

“Uniform found him in his garage with the car engine running,” Catharine said. “He adored Lucy and Elizabeth, but we only realised that afterwards.”

Flora looked sickened. She went over to the window and twitched the curtains, blocking the blinding ray of sunlight that was dazzling the room.

“Poor bloke,” she said. She stood and stared out of the window, watching Derek the gardener salt the path against the forecast snow and ice. “What happened to Lizzie?”

“No one knows,” Catharine said. “Didn’t you read the papers?”

“I was six, Ms Moorhouse.”

“You were?” Catharine frowned. “Yes, of course you were. We never managed to retrace Lucy and Elizabeth Mackenzie’s steps. We know that they left the school at three fifteen, and Lucy Mackenzie was found in the canal at seven thirty. We assumed that they headed back towards their house from the primary school, going by their routine on other days, but there are very few CCTV cameras in the vicinity to confirm this. We questioned half the population of East Yorkshire, but we never found a reliable witness.”

Flora stared straight through Derek as he raised his hand to wave at her.

“I don’t think they did go home,” she said slowly. “I remember that day. Not all of it, of course, but I remember that Freddie Yates punched me in the mouth to get my crayons. I’ve still got a slight scar where he split my lip. My mouth was hurting as I was brushing my teeth in the evening and Mum was ranting about it to Dad when they heard about Lizzie’s mum.”

Catharine folded her hands in her lap and waited, forcing herself to be patient.

“My teacher – it must have been Mrs Fitzpatrick at that point – she told my mum about Freddie and the crayons when she picked me up in the afternoon. I remember sitting in the foyer outside reception and watching everyone else leave. Lizzie and her mum turned left out of the school gates, but her house was the other way.”

“You’re sure?” asked Catharine. She reached across to extract a biro from beneath yesterday’s uncompleted crossword in The Telegraph.

“Quite sure,” Flora said. “I went round to hers a couple of times, remember? And I was watching everyone, because I wanted to go home too, but my mum was arguing with Mrs Fitzpatrick about the crayon incident.”

Catharine forced her fingers to fight their arthritis and painstakingly made a couple of notes on the back of the newspaper.

“You never knew that they didn’t go home?” Flora asked disbelievingly. “In fifteen years?”

“I don’t think so,” Catharine said. She turned over one of the photos again and stared at it, willing the printed corpse to stand up and lead her back along the canal, for her skull to fuse and her eyes to see again, and to look upon the figure that hovered above her, weapon raised.

“I should go, Ms Moorhouse,” Flora said awkwardly. “And I know that you don’t want to hear this, but this was a long time ago. Maybe it’s best to lay it to rest.”               

“Yes, you should go,” Catharine said coldly.

Flora nodded and took the empty drugs container with her as she left. Catharine felt the temptation of sleep.

Was this new information? She couldn’t quite remember. She cursed herself. It was Miriam down the hall who forgot her children’s names and couldn’t find the bathroom, not her. It was her failing heart and her weakening muscles that had robbed her of her independence, not her brain. Even so, she was tired, and the photos in her lap looked blurry and aged to her now. Maybe she would think this over later…

It was Louise who came to help her to the dining room for dinner later that afternoon and caught her dozing in her chair with the photographs still spread out before her. The care assistant gathered them up and held them by one corner in disgust. Catharine caught one last glimpse of the murdered mother and the answers that lay buried with her, tantalisingly close, before Louise marched the pictures off to her manager. Catharine heard the whirr of the shredder through the walls.

“It’s for your own good,” Louise said when she came back to take her to the dining room. “It’s not doing anything for you, dwelling on that grisly business, all these years on when there’s nothing you can do about it. Now, let’s go and see if there’s any turkey left.”

About The Author

Diana J. Timms lives and works in Norfolk. She studied Theology and Religion at the University of Cambridge and, during her time there, her short stories were published in The Mays Anthology, by Cambridge Creatives, and she won the Arrol Adam Fiction Prize in 2019. Diana is currently working on her first novel.

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