On the Other Side of the Glass Wall

Copyright Adam E. Smith

After telling Nick that his daughter had been stabbed dead in the school toilet, the policeman pulled at the glass door. This action sucked the boisterous chatter of the newsroom into Nick’s private office. The reporters all looked at him. Nick noticed a cup of cold coffee on Giles’s desk, but Giles himself was missing. Nick let the door click closed, locking him in behind the drawn blinds. The glass wall concealed, Nick now knew nothing of the activity in the newsroom. He assumed that his colleagues had heard the news; one of them should have made it to the scene already.

The dreadful image came to him. Suddenly he could see Katy’s little body, discarded on the floor. Blood drained from her, and spread across the white tiles.

When Nick took a deep breath, he trembled, raising tears. He opened his eyes to let them flow and then pushed aside tomorrow’s front-page proofs to lay his head on the hard desk. As his body shuddered behind the cloaked glass, Nick heard the policeman’s words again. Another girl, he had said. They were holding another girl from Katy’s school.

That made the entire story even less plausible. The policeman had confirmed several times that his colleagues were sure the victim was Katy, although he needed Nick to verify it. Now that the policeman had disappeared the entire conversation came unstuck in Nick’s mind. When he tried to picture the policeman, the memory appeared as a facsimile only. To Nick the policeman felt false, even unreal, as if he had never existed. The entire story must be a mistake, Nick decided, his head suddenly clear. Nothing about it felt genuine, and Nick knew that if it were true he would be able to feel it. Instead, he felt a pristine dullness.

The opaque blinds blanked him when Nick raised his eyes to them. With the newsroom and the rest of the world veiled, Nick felt protected from fake policemen who come to peoples’ offices to tell horrific inaccuracies. The offence angered him. Nick lived his entire life in pursuit of accuracy: he demanded it from those around him and never settled for anything less. Giles claimed that accuracy could always be bent and, although Nick liked his friend’s double meaning, he regularly challenged the sentiment. The most condemning stories, he told his sub-editors and reporters, were those told without a shred of doubt.

Nick paced, describing a circle around his desk and chair. The memory of the policeman and his words still pervaded the office like an echo that kept bouncing off the walls without fading. When the image of Katy on the toilet floor reappeared in Nick’s mind he shook his head: it could not be true. From this room he had overseen the reproduction of countless facts. He had developed a keen sense of smell for the truth. Every day he put his name to a new set of facts assembled from an incomprehensible world by his brilliant colleagues. He described to them how their task made the office very special. This building, Nick used to tell junior reporters, until even the greenest ones started to cringe, is a factory. This made the office the most genuine, most real place in the city.

Nick knew that the people between these walls were motivated by truth. Truth was the only fibre that connected them all. It was pure and uncomplicated. Nick loved the simplicity of the newsroom, which framed it in such stark contrast to home. Home could not have been more complex. Sometimes, Nick felt that he did not even speak the same language as Susan, who could never explain what motivated her. Where it used to be commitment, now it was support; she confused Nick too much.

Here life was simpler, and felt all the more real for it. For Nick, this notion was only reinforced by a mistaken policeman who stands in the middle of the office and says things that cannot be true.

Here Katy was still alive. Nick knew it like he knew the facts he printed every day. Of course she was still alive – he had a framed photograph of her on his bookshelf. From the opposite end of the office, Nick’s eyes searched for the picture among the volumes. He hurried over to the shelving and hunted for Katy. The shelves groaned as he pushed books around. A paperback slipped out and fell to the floor. Nick cursed himself for allowing his bulging library to grow out of control. Finally he located the frame, wedged flat between two hardbacks. When he saw Katy’s beaming face, Nick’s hand shot to his mouth and, trembling, he uttered an incomplete word. Closing his eyes did not stay his tears, which bled down his cheeks as he moved back over to his desk  chair.

Because Katy grinned back at him through the glass in the frame, Nick told himself that she could not be the victim of the crime described by the policeman. Nick wanted it to be another girl so that he could get on with the business of deciding whether to run the story on tomorrow’s front page. Giles and the other sub-editors were probably already talking about it themselves – Nick could hear phones ringing outside his office.

Tentatively he raised his own phone to his ear but failed to remember Susan’s speed dial number. He stared at the buttons as the tone buzzed in his ear. At first, his inertness frustrated him. Finally he realised that he never called her from work. “I’m not going to any more newspaper love-ins, Nick,” she’d told him once after an editors’ party. “We should keep the paper and family separate. You work and I’ll sort Katy out.”

Before Katy was born, Giles had told Nick that editors’ spouses fell into two categories: those who can’t cope and those who are editors themselves. Grinning as if they were still at university, Giles had said, “That’s probably why you’re sleeping with Harriet.” Resigned, Nick had shrugged, plotting to see Harriet alone at some point the next time their group dined out.

While Nick had been covering home affairs, Harriet had been on world politics. As they’d chatted excitedly with other colleagues in the pub after breaking an important story, Susan teased, “You’re celebrating just doing your job?” Glancing at Harriet, Nick had playfully defended his small circle of friends. But the episode left him disappointed in Susan: she could not grasp the extraordinary sensation of connectedness Nick felt – between the facts and a public that demanded them.

Nick hoped he could stir this feeling in every one of his reporters and editors. They should understand it, he told himself, even if Susan did not. Susan focused on connections she could see: she described her pregnancy as the tie that would bind them together once and for all.

Nick wanted to agree. When Katy was born, he ended his relationship with Harriet, only to find that Susan wanted to do everything for Katy herself. Gradually, his work schedule and Susan’s maternal devotion reduced Nick to a passive participant in Katy’s upbringing. Nick craved information about Katy; every minute detail about her fascinated him. But they were always relayed by Susan. He felt as if he were on the other end of a phone line.

“Why the distance?” he’d asked once. “We’re supposed to be a family.”

“You get home past midnight every night, Nick. Katy and I have already gone to bed by then. Not much of a family, is it?”

“I just don’t like feeling as if I’m missing out. I’m scared you may forget to tell me something.”

“Like you forgot to tell me for a year you’d been sleeping with another woman?”

“That’s different. And it’s over now.”

“Forgive me for not leaping for joy. Look, you’ve kept things from me in the past, Nick. That’s all I’m saying. So don’t you dare suggest that I’d keep anything from you. Especially about Katy.”

Although Susan had kept her promise, Nick noticed steady differences in Katy for which he was not prepared. She giggled uproariously as Susan harrumphed or scoffed her way through storybooks. When Nick took over, Katy criticised his performance. Gradually he withdrew from them both. Feeling quietly shunned, he spent more time with colleagues. Susan and Katy were always in the house when he returned; the fact that he still came home to them would, he’d hoped, prove his commitment to Katy.

Katy must have believed this, he thought. “Why don’t you sleep in the big bed with Mummy anymore?” she’d asked him once, prodding his shoulder as he stirred on the sofa. While he explained the situation, Nick had found himself avoiding her eyes. When he finally looked at them, their blend of sorrow and accusation struck him like a slap. After a while she had had to ask him again, more urgently, and then Nick knew for sure that Susan had taken control of their daughter. His wife and daughter were by now on the other side of a glass wall: visible but unreachable. The impression had driven him out of the house. He’d stayed at Giles’s for a week.

When Nick finally returned he told Katy that he and her mother disagreed on certain things but that they both still loved each other, and especially her. Katy looked away, and then asked if she could go and play. Nick felt like his own daughter had somehow pulled the rug from under him: he went to the study and closed the door behind him.

Now he would have to face Katy again. He looked down at the framed photograph and realised that it was three years old. Katy’s face had grown and changed since Susan had taken the photograph he now held. Nick stared into his daughter’s eyes but they lacked depth. The outdated image looked flat and empty. Nick’s daughter felt as false as the policeman.

Nick touched the glass that encased the photograph and decided that Katy was dead. He had seen his daughter go through many transformations, and now he would report to the station and observe her final change. How impossible, he thought, to look at her on an aluminium slab made for adults. It would be the last time he saw his daughter and she would not be able to look back at him. Her eyes would be blank, unable to show that she understood everything, that she accepted his silent, incommunicable apology. In that final, awful moment, the distance between them would become infinite. Nick would lose her forever.

He dropped the photo frame onto his desk, leaned back in his chair and exhaled long and hard, pushing all the air out of his lungs until his stomach ached. “She’s gone,” he whispered.

He knew now that she had died some time earlier that day, perhaps as he’d joked with a subeditor about a minister’s regrettable statement. Or perhaps as he’d been relieving himself at an office urinal: how dire to think that Katy could have been lying on the floor in the school toilet while her father took a piss at work.

Whenever it had happened, he felt for sure that Katy was gone, which sounded the death knell for his marriage. He already sensed his now unrestrained animosity towards Susan growing. It had been muted too many times for Katy’s benefit, or to keep the peace at a party.

Nick told himself that if, with Katy gone, Susan also somehow faded then good could spring from this tragedy. The longer he thought about it, he saw it as a kind of strange justice. It was not a comfortable idea, but an honest one. Without Susan, his guilt at working hard and sharing something with his friends would vanish. He felt, very strongly now, an affinity for the people on the other side of his glass wall. He had always been with them, not his family. A shared pursuit of news was his partner in life. Nick realised sadly that he had committed a terrible adultery, worse than that with Harriet. He would never have been a good father or husband. Poor Katy would have only suffered; his devotion lay not with her or his family but with the truth.

Nick now realised that his family had been a departure from this. It was why he felt such a strong bond to the reporters on their phones in the other room, and it was why he’d committed himself to friends like Giles. For nearly a decade he had been unable to understand this, the most simple of facts. He saw it all so clearly now – neat and contained, like a town observed from the air.

Katy’s death itself was a fact, as blunt as a silver-buttoned policeman in his office. Incongruous and unexpected – but truthful. The details that the journalists would assemble into their stories were as yet unknown to him. All he knew at that moment was the gentle unravelling of his life, and the immediate horror of Katy’s death.

Nothing could stop journalists unfolding that, and asking Nick to play his part in it.

Nick paced to the front of his office and pulled the cord to lift the blinds. He regarded his staff through the glass wall. One by one, they turned to look at him. Some still spoke into their phones while their eyes concentrated hungrily on him. Nick surveyed the entire room. In that instant, he understood every reporter in that room because their needs were still alive in him. Only now, for the first time in his life, he had the information they each craved.

Giles had returned, sipping a fresh coffee from a red mug. When Nick caught his old friend’s eye, he almost crumbled. Giles’s sombre expression, Nick realised, must have reflected his own.

He beckoned Giles in and told him to get on the phone. The newspaper’s editor would, for the first time, be holding his own press conference, open to every journalist who was covering the brutal murder of the schoolgirl. As Giles set to work, Nick fell back into his chair and calculated how much time he had during which to see Katy before the press conference at 4 o’clock. There was so much to do. And, he suddenly realised, he still had not called Susan.

Copyright Adam E. Smith

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