9th February 2012 was the worst day of my life.
It was about 8:30 in the morning. I had just got out of the shower. I had a towel around me.
It was a bit cold in my flat, so I had got into the habit of putting my dressing gown on over the towel, while I made myself tea and breakfast.
There was a knock at the door. I lived in a house that had been converted into three flats, and mine was the top floor one.
The knock was on the door to the actual flat, rather than the front door of the building, so one of my neighbours from a flat below must have opened the front door for whoever it was.
Who’s that at this time? I wondered. The knock was quite quiet, I wasn’t sure if I’d imagined it.
I went and opened the door.
Two policemen were standing there.
They said “are you…” and then said my full name, and I said yes.
“Can we come in and have a chat?”
Oh my fucking god oh my fucking god.
My first thought was that I was in trouble. I went through a phase in my twenties where I used cocaine on nights out, about once a month. I had done that the weekend before.
I think I felt a cold sweat prickle me.
Are they going to arrest me?
But I only thought that for a few seconds, because then I knew from their manner that they weren’t going to arrest me. They seemed kind but serious and sombre.
“I’m sorry you’re in your pyjamas.” One of them said.
Actually I’m in a towel.
“You might want to sit down”. They said.
We were still standing by the door, in the hallway.
“Oh, err…”. I replied. We walked through to the living room. I only had one chair, because I’d only just moved in. My sofa was still at my ex-boyfriend’s house.
I remember being concerned that there was nowhere for the police to sit. They wanted me to have the chair. I said that there was a dining chair on the other side of the room, but they just knelt down next to me when I sat down.
And all this time, while I faffed about with chairs, I knew they were going to give me some bad news.
This only lasted for a few seconds, but I had time to think
Oh my god, something’s happened to my parents
Something’s happened to my ex-boyfriend
Something’s happened to my parents…
(I’ve changed my ex-boyfriend’s name here. He had an unusual name. Once we talked about what we would name our children, and he said he liked the name Balthazar, which I quickly vetoed).
“Are you the ex-partner of Balthazar James?” One of them said.
“Yes.” I replied.
Oh my god, he’s killed himself.
Something in between panic and numbness started to rise in me. I knew my world was about to change.
“Balthazar died in a house fire last night”.
I can’t remember what I said. Something like “oh my god”, or maybe I just made a noise.
One thought that came into my head was thank god nothing happened to my parents.
Then I felt instantly guilty for feeling at all relieved, and I’ve felt guilty ever since.
For a long time I kept going back over and over that part of the memory, because I couldn’t remember if they said
“Balthazar died in a house fire last night”
Or “Balthazar James died in a house fire last night”
Or “Mr James died in a house fire last night.”
I think they just used his first name, which seems a bit informal for such big news.
Afterwards, I felt like it was news that changed everything so much, I should be able to remember exactly what they said. So I tried to remember that moment, over and over, for a long time afterwards. It took at least two years for me realise it didn’t matter how they said his name.
“Was the fire at his house?” I asked.
They said yes. I asked how it happened. They said they didn’t know.
“Oh my god, I bought him an electric heater last week! Did that cause the fire!” I don’t know if I was crying already, but I definitely cried when I said that.
They said something like “it’s not your fault” and “you can’t blame yourself”.
They explained they were from a different police force to the one involved with the fire, because I had moved to a different county. The police force in my old city didn’t know who Balthazar’s next of kin were.
At one point around this time, I said “has he really died?”.
I had the same thing after being told I had passed my driving test – I suddenly felt confused about what had happened and whether it had really happened, and felt I needed to check again.
They said yes, in a way that seemed like they thought it was a slightly strange question.
“I’ll get you his Mum’s number.” I said, getting up. I had a fish tank in my living room which was still unused, in its cardboard box (because my fish was still in its old tank, at my old house) and I’d been keeping my handbag and phone on top of it.
I went and picked up my phone.
“Actually, can I get dressed first?” I said. They said they would make me a cup of tea.
I went into the bedroom and started getting dressed. After putting on my underwear, I realised I needed to put my deodorant on before I could put on my dress. But my deodorant was in the bathroom, and I’d have to walk, in my underwear, past the police to get it.
This was a riddle I couldn’t solve, after several moments shifting from foot to foot by my bedroom door. In the end I thought “fuck it” and shot out to the bathroom in my underwear.
Once I was dressed, I went back to the living room. I went to pick up my phone from on top of the fish tank, but it wasn’t there.
I started to feel confused and panicked. “I can’t find my phone!” I said.
“I think you’ve already taken it into your bedroom.” One of them said kindly.
I went back into the bedroom. I didn’t have a bed yet, I’d been sleeping on an air mattress, and the phone was on the mattress.
I have no memory of doing that.
I picked it up, and went back into the living room. They gave me the cup of tea. I had told them to help themselves if they wanted one, but they hadn’t.
By chance, they had used my favourite mug. They hadn’t put quite enough milk in.
I told them Balthazar’s mum’s name and her number. I didn’t know her house number but I told them her street name.
It suddenly occurred to me to ask how they found me. They said when the other police force were trying to find his next of kin, they’d looked on their database and seen that Balthazar was insured to drive my car.
I asked them if I should go to work. I can’t remember what they said.
I went back into my room and phoned work.
The lovely administrator answered the phone.
I said I didn’t know if I was coming in because some police had just come and told me Balthazar had died in a fire.
She said “who’s died?”
I said “Balthazar, my ex”.
She knew who Balthazar was, because I talked about him a lot, I think she just couldn’t understand me because I was crying.
“Oh, sweetheart! Sweetheart, sweetheart.” She said.
Apparently, when she got off the phone, she told my colleagues what had happened. Our manager came in a minute later and found them all crying. For some reason, when this image comes into my head, it still makes me well up. Which is weird, because I wasn’t very happy working there, and I wasn’t that close to them, but maybe that’s exactly why it catches me off guard.
The policemen were phoning the other police force, to give them Balthazar’s next of kin’s contact details.
“Their on hold music is worst than ours.” The police man on the phone said.
The other one asked me what my job was. When I told him, he said his uncle had recently been sectioned. I wasn’t sure what to do with that.
The police gave me a sort of business card with a reference number on, in case I needed to contact them.
They told me to go to A&E if I felt like I was in shock later.
And then they left.