unday began with a heavy, deep rumble.
Gabriella’s heart raced. She couldn’t get used to it.
It was barely light. She could tell without opening her eyes.
She didn’t want to wake up. It was far too early. She pulled the duvet up tight.
The rumble began again. She put a pillow over her head. She’d be ready for the next one, and the one after that, because that’s how it would be for the rest of the day, plane after plane at two-minute intervals until 11pm or thereabouts.
She was in the loft room where the noise was at its worst. But at least it offered the best chance of sunlight.
Jamie stirred beside her – Jamie who said he could sleep through anything. His muscular hulk edged closer. Soon, he would slip beneath the covers and ease his prickly face between her thighs. She wouldn’t feel like it, not at first. She was tired. But Jamie had a way of making her come round.
Nine months they’d been together and his enthusiasm still amazed her. The boys back home never bothered. She thought of Rodrigo, and the way he liked it. She rarely got to see his handsome face during sex and he certainly wasn’t bothered about looking at hers.
The third plane of the day thundered above, and sure enough, Jamie burrowed beneath the sheets. Gabriella checked her yellow watch – 6.15 exactly.
The door creaked open and with equal inevitability a small, five-year-old figure approached and stood still at the side of the bed.
Gabriella lifted the pillow from her head to check the kid was OK.
The kid was pouting. ‘What is it, Alexia?’ said Gabriella.
‘Why is there a man in my sandpit?’
‘What?’ Gabriella sat up, momentarily clamping Jamie’s face in a thigh-lock.
‘What the -?’ Jamie re-emerged from beneath the covers, rubbing his right ear.
‘Shush, Jamie,’ said Gabriella. ‘Lexi, what do you mean?’
‘There’s a man in my sandpit.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘What’s he doing?’ said Jamie.
The child’s face began to crumple. ‘It’s my Coco Beach,’ she rubbed at her eyes, but there was no time to console her. Jamie was up, trying to open the Velux as Gabriella grabbed for her underwear.
‘You won’t see anything from up here, we need to go down a floor,’ Gabriella pulled on her jeans and a green vest top. ‘Jesus, Jamie, get dressed.’ She threw him his shirt and then led the way one floor below to Lexi’s room.
They went to the window, past the New England style painted furniture, but couldn’t see a thing due to the size of the new extension.
‘Down another floor,’ said Gabriella.
They tried the master suite. But it was impossible. The sandpit was at the far end and screened by box hedging.
‘What a room,’ Jamie had never been in before. He stared at the lavish fixtures and fittings: the oversized cream leather headboard, the chandelier and the stone egg-shaped bath in the en suite.
‘Come on,’ said Gabriella, rushing him out and down to the ground floor. ‘Lexi, wait with me a moment – Jamie will go.’ She held the child’s shoulders, as they waited in what Tessa called “the media room” – not only did it have a wall-mounted, flat-screen TV, but also an even larger cinema screen that could be automatically lowered for film screenings.
Gabriella held her breath. Come on, Jamie, what is it? Tell me. Tell me it’s nothing.
Jamie walked back in, his face impassive.
‘Well?’ she said.
‘You need to take a look.’
‘Jamie, just tell me.’
‘Just take a quick look.’
Gabriella went through to the kitchen. She walked across the limestone flooring, straight to the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass that was now, following renovations, the back of the house – a “harmonious inside/outside space”, according to Tessa, though Gabriella wasn’t sure what that meant.
The house and garden certainly looked fantastic once the builders and gardeners finally left. However, that’s when Tessa started buying too much furniture, over-filling the space she’d been so keen to create.
The sandpit, at the far end, had been christened Coco Beach (Lexi couldn’t say Copacabana), during the summer when Gabriella had put her bare feet in the hot sand and started to talk about Rio. She told Lexi about the colour, the food (all you can eat) and the cocktails, the carnival and of course the beach. She had always loved the beach – such a perfect escape from their cramped apartment, five blocks back, on the edge of the favelas. But it was the family that most impressed Lexi. Gabriella had three brothers, two sisters, five nephews, and two nieces, not to mention the cousins – how many cousins? Gabriella had to count on her fingers and toes.
Gabriella chewed her lip as she looked out. There was someone there.
She checked the door was secure before taking a proper look.
The sandpit had its own teak cover for when not in use. The wood had started to turn grey in the rain to match the rest of the English winter. The man was straddled across this hard covering rather than in the sandpit itself.
Was he dead?
Gabriella clenched her fists. ‘Santa muerte,’ she muttered, and crossed herself in prayer – just in case.
The figure, in faded red sportswear, was twisted awkwardly but with the sandpit so far away it was hard to tell if this twisting was fatal.
He was like the doll Lexi had thrown against her bedroom wall one night, upset that it was only Gabriella kissing her goodnight. Gabriella hadn’t told her off that time, but simply reshaped the doll, squeezing its limbs back into place.
‘Oh!’ Gabriella jumped. Jamie was behind her, pressing his groin into her backside like he always did.
‘How’s my Giselle?’ His arms were around her, holding her tight.
‘Behave,’ she said and shook him off.
‘Be serious, Jamie. What should we do?’
‘You’ll always be my Giselle, you know that?’ He held her hands in his.
‘Jamie, this isn’t the time.’
‘Promise me we’ll grow old together in Rio.’
‘Jamie, there’s a man dead in the garden and you’re talking about retirement?’
‘It’s just some homeless black guy – probably a burglar.’
He shrugged, ‘It’s not like there’s anything we can do.’
‘What do you mean? We have to do something.’ She looked out at the man, at the tight black curls at the back of his head.
‘What can we do?’ she said.
‘Call the police, I guess.’
‘Shouldn’t we go and check him?’
‘You don’t know that.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Trust me, babe, I know a dead man when I see one.’
‘Have you seen one before?’
‘I am from Hounslow,’ said Jamie.
‘It’s hardly the favelas.’
‘That’s what I love about you – you always go one better.’
‘Jamie, please, we have to do something.’
‘Gabs, I’m down to work this morning, I promised Marko. You’re going to have to make that call.’
‘You didn’t tell me that.’
‘I know, I know – I thought you’d get the hump, and there’d be no jiggy jiggy,’ Jamie smiled, creases at his eyes. He rubbed at his stubble.
‘That’s all you think about,’ Gabriella folded her arms. Was that all she was to him – what did he once say – his perfect piece of Brazilian arse?
‘Gabs, call 999, they’ll sort it out.’
‘I want you to look. Check whether he’s dead. What’s Lexi doing?’
‘Lexi’s fine,’ he nodded towards the media room. ‘I’ve put a film on.’
‘You’ve put a film on?’
‘Bambi – that’s alright innit?’
‘Are you crazy, she’s not allowed films, not with me anyway.’
Gabriella stopped to think. Why could only Tessa or Dominic put on a film for Lexi? It didn’t make sense.
‘Don’t think too hard about it,’ Jamie grinned and tried to hug her, but again she pushed him away. ‘All right, all right, I’ll take a look. Open the door.’
Gabriella worked the locks and stood back to let Jamie through.
She watched from the window as he approached the body.
Jamie crouched down to look at the man’s face.
He poked the man’s cheek.
Jamie returned to the kitchen. ‘It’s like I said – stone cold. Call the police. I’ll touch base with you in a bit – make sure everything’s OK. Where’s my jacket?’
‘Jamie,’ she wanted him to stay. She was more than uncomfortable about being left alone with a dead man in the garden. It was a shock.
Jamie frowned, and said, ‘Best you don’t mention I was here.’
‘It’ll only complicate matters.’
‘You’ve nothing to hide – have you?’
‘You don’t know how these things are – the police twist things,’ Jamie had found his leather jacket on the banister. ‘Babe, I’ve got to do one. I’ll call you later.’
Gabriella stood in the doorway, swearing under her breath, as his white van disappeared down the road and out of sight.
Fat lot of help he turned out to be. A man should protect you – protect you from other men – that’s what Rodrigo used to say. Not that Rodrigo stuck around when he saw police. ‘Worms’ he called them.
Gabriella checked her watch – the egg-yolk face said 6.40. She looked in on Lexi. The blonde little girl was on the edge of the cerise pink sofa staring at the screen.
here’s a man in my garden,’ Gabriella told the operator.
‘Which service do you require?’
‘There’s a man in my garden. I think he’s dead.’
‘Do you require an ambulance? The police?’
Gabriella bit her lip. ‘Yes.’
‘What is the property address?’
Gabriella’s mind had gone blank, but then she remembered the ‘Emergency Contacts’ magnetic board that was on the left-hand side of the kitchen.
A man in your garden cannot be a good thing. And Jamie didn’t even stay.
She glanced out. The man had only one shoe – a brown leather sandal. Homeless – he must be. Perhaps he broke into the summerhouse, camped out all winter, and none of us noticed?
She wished there were curtains like a normal house. She closed her eyes.
abriella paced between the hallway, the media room and the kitchen. Her gaze alternating between the death of Bambi’s mother, the driveway, and the yellow watch for the interim period between 999-call and the arrival of the police – five minutes, 43 seconds precisely – quick by anyone’s standards. She guessed the police didn’t have much else to do on a Sunday morning in leafy Richmond-upon-Thames, southwest London.
Within half an hour the house and garden had been encircled in blue and white police incident tape like an enormous indoor/outdoor gift.
There was one handsome young officer in the house while outside there were three forensics experts in white overalls and two middle-aged plain-clothes detectives.
Thank God Tessa’s not here to see this – all these people on her freshly laid lawn – the lawn that no one was supposed to walk on for at least another week.
‘Can you get them to stick to the path? It’s new grass,’ she said to the young officer.
Tessa and Dominic were due back later that evening. They’d been to a wedding in Italy at a “splendid hotel” – no, Hotel Splendido, that’s it. Tessa had been so excited; “It’s where Rod Stewart got married,” she said, and showed Gabriella a photo of a sun-lit balcony overlooking an azure bay. Tessa had tried on her new lime green dress and matching hat from one of the boutiques on the hill. She looked lovely, especially seeing as she’s quite old.
Strange that children weren’t invited though – what kind of wedding is that? Gabriella thought of her cousin, Ines’ wedding where a stream of laughing nephews and nieces had chased each other round in circles and danced late into the night.
Gabriella looked at the young policeman with the smooth, square jaw. ‘Are we allowed to go out somewhere?’ she said. Not that there was anywhere she particularly wanted to go, she just wanted to know that she could leave if she so wished.
‘Just give us half an hour,’ said the young policeman. ‘By then we should have more of an idea how the investigation needs to progress.’ He had a kind smile and lovely teeth for an Englishman.
‘Gaby, I want to watch Cinderella,’ Alexia held the DVD aloft, like a trophy.
‘Oh, Lexi, not in here,’ Gabriella shooed her back into the “media room”. ‘You know I’m not really allowed to let you watch films, but today I think it’s OK.’ Gabriella set up the film and settled Alexia on the sofa. She then returned to the kitchen doorway to watch the scene outside where a woman in hooded white overalls was taking photographs.
The young policeman opened a notepad. ‘Is this your house?’ he said.
‘Oh no, I’m the nanny.’
‘Oh right, where are you from?’
He smiled again. ‘And you live here too?’
‘And your name is?’ He kept smiling.
‘It’s Gabriella – Gabriella de Souza.’ She smiled back.
‘OK, very nice. Can you give me the names of the property owners?’
‘Tessa and Dominic Harper.’
‘And where are they this morning?’
‘They’re away at a wedding in Italy.’
‘Can you give me their contact numbers?’
She started with the landline.
‘And what number is it best to get you on?’ he asked – that smile again.
Again, Gabriella smiled back. This was more like it – a man willing to stick around in a crisis. She glanced back towards the garden. One of the team had begun to remove the incident tape.
A plain-clothes officer came in the back door. He was wearing a dark suit and had a thick grey moustache. He nodded in her direction. ‘You’ll be glad to hear, it’s all over, love.’
Outside, above the box hedging, the man’s body was being zipped into a black body bag.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The coroner’s happy. You’ll get your house back to normal now.’
‘How did he die?’
‘He fell to earth,’ he said, a slight flicker of a smile at the corner of his lips.
Gabriella searched the officer’s face for clues, and surmised that his mouth had a sneery seen-it-all-before quality. ‘What do you mean – fell to earth?’
The officer fixed a more serious expression, as if he only then realised how inappropriate his first comment was. ‘We’ve seen it a few times now. They stow away under the wheel shaft, then as the plane reaches a certain altitude they freeze to death and then fall out as the wheels come down ready for the plane to land.’
‘My God,’ Gabriella clasped her hand to her mouth. She could see the man falling, his body stiff with cold.
‘Where was he from?’ asked the young officer.
‘Nigeria, Somalia – somewhere like that – the planes from Africa arrive early.’
Was he on the first plane? The second? Third? Again Gabriella saw him, a dark figure in red, falling from the sky.
The young policeman shook his head, ‘What a way to go.’
Did he have family? Surely, he had family. Gabriella imagined a dignified but impoverished wife and one, two, three babies or more all waving him off, hoping, dreaming of a better life, the life he would create in England. He would send for them.
She recalled her own passage to England. How tedious it had been – all those forms to fill. She had needed a work permit, visa and certificate of sponsorship. She’d moaned about it, but at least her cousin had been able to advise her. Red London buses, Big Ben, tea and cakes, the Queen and Camden, London was nothing like how she’d imagined. It was more complicated and exciting – never life or death.
She looked out at the pale grey winter sky.
Another plane thundered overhead.
‘He didn’t even know what it’s like,’ she said.
The policemen thought it was a joke. But then they had no idea how she longed for the warmth – the sun on her skin – and her family, how she longed for her family.
The police were ready to leave. As she showed them out, the young one turned and said he’d call, ‘to finalise the statement’.
She smiled. He’d ask her out. She thought she might say yes.
he sandpit’s days were numbered. Tessa was bound to fill it in or rip it out. It’s Coco Beach. Gabriella would scrub the cover clean; in the hope Tessa would let it stay. She looked in on Lexi. She was still in a TV-induced-trance; so Gabriella slipped upstairs to her loft room to find the plastic miniature of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer that her Great-aunt Christa had given her to keep her safe.
Gabriella sorted through a drawer and came across a card showing a colourful print of a skeleton in an oversized feathered hat – Santa Muerte, Saint Death, the religious icon that lets you live how you like and yet still protects you. “She walks with us,” it said. It was from Gabriella’s sister-in-law Roxy. She told Gabriella to forget Great-aunt Christa’s oppressive Christ; ‘it’s Santa Muerte you want’.
Gabriella took the skeleton-card and the mini-Jesus outside, where she solemnly walked up the path to the end of the garden. One after the other, she pushed the card and mini-Jesus into one of the grooves of the sandpit lid.
‘Please let that poor man’s family be OK,’ she said.
A plane rumbled overhead.