Note by Inspector Pitman: The following was found in the diary of Norman Gregg, at the scene of his death.
Tara, do you remember?
Do you remember, when we were 5, when I tried to kiss you, and you slapped me in the face? Do you remember when I bumped into you in 4th grade and broke your nose? Do you remember when we puked on each other on the roller coaster?
Do you remember when you were there for me when my cousin passed away, the way I was there for you when your Labrador died? When I told you he was in doggy heaven, licking peanut butter out of God's private fridge? How I got a rap on the knuckles for saying that, but didn't mind because you had stopped crying and started laughing?
Do you remember the millions of sleepovers? The 10-year friendship? Swapping sweets? Swapping secrets? Our bond from heaven? Don't you remember?
The thing is, I myself had forgotten our friendship. The memories made me laugh when I remembered them with you, but when you disappeared, the same memories would make me cry. Sometimes I felt a dull ache and thought I was having a heart attack, but it was a mental pain that was so strong, it became physical. I should've known that the most perfect dreams end in the worst nightmares.
The year after you left, I searched. I spent all my free time looking for you, remembering our times together, and mistaking the pains for heart attacks. A year can feel like an impossibly long time. One day, I woke up, and I decided to forget. The memories were killing me, so I forgot them, not knowing that forgetting would one day kill you.
I'm sorry the first thing I did, when I finally found you, was yell in your face. It had been 15 years since we'd met, and I'd forgotten what you were like. I had forgotten how easily you took what I said to heart. I had forgotten how strong you usually are, but how when you break down, it’s like you’re a vase that has been dropped, shattering into a million particles, pieces of what you once were lying all around the floor. And you were definitely breaking down then. I could’ve picked up those pieces, gluing you back together like I used to. But because I didn’t have the memories, I didn’t know how to.
Maybe if I'd kept the memories, I wouldn't have yelled. Maybe if I hadn't yelled at you, you wouldn't have set off the gun that was aimed at your temple when I found you. It's true that your hand controlled the weapon, but my words were the ones that controlled your hand. I’m entirely to blame.
But do you know how hard it is to watch the person who used to be the centre of your world, inches from death? Knowing only you have the power to save her? Time went in slow motion. Yet, I couldn't keep up with it. I panicked. I failed.
I'm sorry I killed you.
A split second before you pulled the trigger, I looked right into your eyes. Our souls connected, and I saw two things.
The first is the memories. They all came rushing back to me when I looked into the same eyes I had looked into 15 years ago. Those hazel eyes, but more weary, and experienced. Nevertheless, still the same.
All those years we spent together came back to me, but it was too late.
The second thing I saw was the guilt. I know that every night, the screams of your victims haunt you to tears, the weight of their souls heavy on your shoulders. And when you wake up in the morning, the guilt disappears, replaced by the thirst for watching others in agony.
And I know just how you feel because I feel the same way every day. Funny how we both ended up going down the same route; I suppose it shows how close we were.
It began after you left.
I had check-ups with the lanky school doctor because I was doing badly in my exams and acting up. If they had left me alone, maybe I’d have been fine. But they insisted on hiring a psychiatrist without much experience; they couldn’t afford a better one. He made everything worse, him and his clammy palms and weird breath.
He met me for the first time after school one Thursday. His office was intolerably cold; the two air-conditioners, one ceiling fan, and three standing fans were all switched on. And he offered me mints. Mints. As if I hadn’t already become an ice block. It started off with him asking me all the details about everything. Normally I might open up, but his prying questions put me in defence mode. Calls himself a therapist. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that he was some random guy desperate for some extra dough. I could do a better job. He’s even worse than your cousin, Tara.
What really annoyed me was that he was contradicting himself. First he says not to go looking for you and that the police were already searching. He says to forget about you, that it was only causing me harm. Then he says you’re always in my heart.
It was that phrase that prompted me to stab him with his own letter-opener.
It was lying on the desk between us, and it was obviously a prized possession. It was engraved with his name (A. Thompson), and the decoration had been hand-carved in Turkey (he told me). His dad, who shared the same initials with his son, had given it to him. If you were in my heart, his precious letter-opener could be in his. The irony made me want to dance with glee.
He tried calling an ambulance; he was reaching for his phone. As a doctor, he should’ve known that that would do nothing. He was good as dead. The whole of the National Health Service could walk into the room and they probably wouldn’t manage to save him. I laughed, and held the phone out of his reach. I loved every second of it.
Until that night, that is. That was the worst night of my life. Even worse than the night after you left. It's so much harder to hate yourself than to hate someone else. And I hated and regretted with every bone in my body. Guilt is the worst feeling a human being could possibly feel. I didn’t sleep, sobbing into my pillow till morning.
That day, I learnt that watching others in pain got rid of my own pain. The days that followed were the best since you’d left, as the devil on my shoulder tempted me to seek temporary relief. But the nights were the worst.
They say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing, and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.
That's not always true. There are some people whose names will live on forever. I want you to be one of those people. And I want the same for myself.
That's why I'm writing this.
The gun that killed you, and that will kill me after I finish writing this, will only kill us once. Our names will live on. We’ll never have to die a second time.
We'll be remembered.
My name means ‘Fighting Glory’ in English, which is ironic.
The piano I found in the woods was very different from the grand, polished, black piano I was used to playing at home - it was small and dusty and dented and scratched and not at all what I imagined a piano should look like. The sounds that spring forth when one plays are much too grand for such a pathetic object as what stood before me.
I played anyway. I thought I had forgotten the tune, but my fingers remembered.
It was heavy, forlorn music that danced, slow and sorrow, above my head.
It was the same tune I played every month for my cousin Rita when she came to visit during my teenage years. She enjoyed pieces like this and would burst into tears whenever she heard it, hiding her face in her pretty lace handkerchief.
“Oh, Borislav, it’s just so wonderful! Oh, what talent you have!” She would exclaim.
It was on one of those visits when I received The News of my father.
Rita was in tears as usual, listening to the piano from the velvet sofa in front of me, while I played and smiled at her awkwardly.
Andrey, our butler, entered the room, bowing respectfully to my mother, who was listening to the piano from the other end of the room. He handed her a letter, addressed from the War Office.
I stopped playing.
I could see, by the paleness of her complexion and the red on her cheeks, that she knew the contents of the letter. But she bravely and stubbornly tore it open, hoping against hope. Unfortunately for us, hope is like a piece of paper flapping desperately against a hurricane; it is the hurricane that decides in which direction it will move.
The last time I saw my father, before he left to fight in the battle that would kill him, he told me he was not happy that I would not enlist.
“You think you are a pacifist?” He asked, standing tall and magnificent in his uniform. I suddenly felt conscious of my wimpy arms and lack of height. “There are people who are too afraid to fight, and there are people who are brave enough to do so for their country. If you really are a pacifist, fight for it. Fight for peace.”
I am not a pacifist. But at the same time, I cannot kill. I simply cannot. If I do, I will live with the guilt of it for all of my life. I already live with the guilt of killing my sister.
It was an accident, my mother says, again and again, holding me while we both cry for Tatiana. It is not your fault.
It was my fault. I remember it all too well. I pushed Tatiana. It does not matter that I did not see the approaching horse, because my mind does not let me forget that I pushed my sister.
I know why I blame myself so harshly - my father was so distraught at the loss of his precious Tati that he took it out on 7-year-old me, yelling at me for what I’d done. He begged me to forgive him later on, and of course I did, but the damage was done. I could not face taking another person’s life.
You are probably wondering how it is that I ended up being a soldier.
The thing is, I am the relative of the previous wife of the Tsar of Russia. It is with great reluctance that I admit that I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, and was always ridiculed by my peers for being a snob. I let it get to me, and in an effort to prove I was more than what they said I was, I enlisted.
I trained harder than anyone else. Many of the others put up with the depression of war a little coarsely. They bullied me, but I ignored them. I am not a snob, I told myself, I can take this. I had to prove myself.
Alek helped me through it all. To be fair, I helped him through it all too. He was the kind of person who smiled all the time, cracking jokes to help us get through the day. But at night, he would cry himself to sleep. I was the only one who knew. The only one who saw him at his lowest. The only one who would whisper to him that it was okay, that he would see his wife again, and his daughter, and he would be happy - really, truly content - one day.
Sometimes, war can bring people closer together than you would think possible. Within a month, Alek and I were like brothers, except in a way, even closer than that.
He talked a lot about his three-year-old daughter, who sounded like my sister. And that reminded me of my father, and of everyone who would tease me back at home, and of why I was here and why I had to be strong.
I stomached the pain, the heat, the cold, the mosquitos, the hunger, the thirst, and the exhaustion better than I thought I would. Much of being a soldier was walking. Just walking. One step in front of the other, battling the weariness. Listening to Alek’s cheery talk, but not having the energy or will to reply.
And then one day, after hours of walking, with no warning, we met the Germans. They had cunningly positioned themselves at the top of a hill densely covered with trees. We did not see them until we were almost on top of them, and they had been expecting us.
As we approached their tents, exhausted but ready for battle, I could feel the adrenaline pulsing through me. I remember thinking of how it must hurt to have a bullet pierce through your head. I started sweating a cold, sticky sweat. I looked at Alek, and I could see the fear in his eyes and the determination on his face. I knew he was thinking of his family.
I imagined how it must feel to pull the trigger and shoot. Shoot a living, breathing human being and strip him of his future. Watch him die before me. His family members would receive a letter from their own War Office, and with a horrible dread I am so familiar with, open the letter and read the contents. And their lives would never be the same, and it would be my fault.
My heart thumped harder and harder as we marched forward. I heard a far-off shout. The commander yelled something. He was telling us to take cover and open fire. More shouts. It’s hard to remember.
And then everything became so real. There were bullets. They were firing at us. This was it. What we had been preparing for for the last 6 months, and we were not in the least prepared.
We came to our senses, and Alek and I darted behind a huge tree. Bullets zipped past us. Alek was shooting from behind the tree. A whole torrent of bullets were aimed at him, and he ducked behind the tree again. He turned to face me, and shook me by the shoulder when he saw I was not taking action.
“Boris, come on!” He said to me urgently, “Wait, where are you going? Boris? Come back! Boris!”
My head was pounding, and images of Tati’s last moments flashed in my mind. A loud chaos engulfed me. I was vaguely aware of noises behind me, getting quieter and quieter. I do not know how long I was running for, but when I could not go any further I collapsed in a clearing in the woods, breathing heavily.
All was quiet. I only heard birds chirping in the trees. It was so calm, I could hardly believe that just a minute ago I was in the midst of a battle.
I stood up, knees shaking. That’s when I saw the piano. I slowly walked over, thinking about how insignificant it looked compared to the piano I had at home. My fingers brushed over the keys. I shrugged the rifle off my shoulder, letting it drop to the ground with a thud.
And when I played, the melancholy, haunting sound as it echoed through the woods brought me back in time, back to my house, back to my father and his words and what he said about fighting for peace.
My fingers continued to dance across the keys, before they suddenly stopped and crashed down onto the piano.
What am I doing?
I’m playing the piano while Alek is fighting for his family and for his country. While Alek is being brave, I am being a coward.
I bent down and picked up the weapon. I was not willing to fight for my country. But I was willing to fight for my father. For little Tati. For my mother, who was so proud of her son for enlisting. For Alek, who needed me now.
I turned around and jogged, picking up my pace until I was running against the wind, back to the sounds of yells and gunfire and war and death.