The slap of cold air mists my glasses. I take them off, as I don’t have anything to clear the lenses, yet without them the world remains fogged. It’s better this way, stumbling through the nightmare, faces and features blurred beyond recognition.
‘Here, use this,’ says the WPC offering a tissue. ‘Mine always do that, that’s why I’ve got my contacts in.’
I take the tissue and wipe the front and then the back of the lenses, then the front again. Now I’ve stopped I’m not sure I can move again. Perhaps I can stay here, on this spot, not knowing. Not knowing is believing.
The WPC takes my arm. She’s not going to let me stay. She wants this to be over, to tick the box. ‘You okay, Mrs Henshaw?’
I ignore this bloody stupid question.
My other bookend stands too close. Any body odour is masked by the overpowering stench of disinfectant. His white coat brushes against the bare skin of my arm where the hairs are raised. I should have worn a cardigan. I knew they were bringing me to this cold, hopeless place, but didn’t consider the practicalities. Always pack a woolly. Gran’s words are in my head. She never left the house without a spare cardy, brolly and one of those see-through plastic rain hats that tied under the chin.
The technician looks younger than my son. He scratches the stubble on his chin, then rubs his hands on his lab coat. Maybe this is his first time. Another day I would have smiled at him, murmured reassuring platitudes like any good mother. Today, I shrink from his contaminating fear.
In front of us stands the trolley. When the sheet slips from his face my world will collapse. I’ll sink to the floor, crumple and deflate with howling despair.
The WPC’s grip tightens as the technician steps forward. His hand is on the sheet.
What if I start to retch? I haven’t eaten since the police telephoned last night, my stomach is empty so I’ve nothing to throw-up. My eyes are stuck open, yet I can’t picture his face. I try to summon a memory, anything from his childhood, from our holidays in the caravan, from his graduation. I can hear his voice, ‘Stop nagging Mum.’ But the colour of his eyes, the shape of his nose have disappeared into the mist. What kind of mother forgets her child? What kind of mother lets her son fall off the radar, to live on the streets?
I wipe my glasses again, so I can see clearly.
Bowing my head, I breathe out my fear.
I understand why they called me. Age, height and hair colouring, all match.
IT’S NOT HIM.
I shake my head. This poor boy is not my son. I have a second chance. I can believe again.
In the corridor I sink to my knees. Hands touch the floor, as if in prayer, and I retch until my stomach hurts.