49 Sutherland Avenue was halfway up the ladder. A wide spread of lawn lay between the street and the house. Space you owned. That was the definition of status. The trees were large and established, not newly planted. Newly planted might suggest they were still paying off the bond. He brought the sports car to a halt; a dog rushed up to sniff at the tyres, tail wagging.
‘Daddy, Daddy, you’re home!’
Emily was a butterfly, flutter-running across the lawn to meet him. He scooped her up to cuddle against his shoulder. One day he would need to find a man who could look after her as well as he did.
‘My plastic duck can float, Daddy. It can! Just like real ducks!’
His youngest son, Andrew, came out onto the veranda.
‘Hi,’ he said.
The word had a disgruntled edge to it. The boy was looking down at his Nikes; falling into step alongside them.
‘Had a good day?’ David asked him.
‘Yes and no,’ he said, eyes still downcast.
‘Why yes? Why no?’
David was smiling now. Waiting.
‘I got into the football team.’
David heard the grin.
‘Knew you could do it, put it there, mate.’ David dropped his briefcase onto the table. ‘I’m proud of you.’
Andrew stood leaning awkwardly on a barstool. David set Emily down, and moved behind the bar to pour himself a drink.
The words of endearment searched the quiet confines of the house. No reply. Ice clacked down into the glass.
‘I’m ready to listen to the “bad” now,’ he invited.
‘Mum says I can’t go to the disco tonight.’
The words were spread thick with disappointment and frustration.
‘Because I spoke to one of his teachers this afternoon, and it appears he should be spending a little more time with his maths textbook.’
Georgina was still a pleasure to look at, even after gifting him three children. Her hair was fresh-washed and shiny, the colour of fallen acorns.
‘Let the boy be,’ he exclaimed. ‘What’s the point of being young if you can’t have fun once in a while?’
‘Once in a while, yes, but discos two or three nights a week and failing one maths test after another?’
Andrew already knew he had won. His father always won. His father was on his side.
He raced up the stairs to his bedroom.
‘David!’ she exclaimed, exasperated.
‘Honey, he’s a kid for God’s sake. He knows what I expect from him. If I allow him free rein tonight, he’ll listen to reason about his maths results when I speak to him tomorrow. He and Malcolm know what it takes to get places in life.’
Georgina frowned, fingering skin-warmed pearls nestling at her throat.
‘I’m getting the feeling he’s not cut out for what you’ve planned for him, David. But he doesn’t want to disappoint you. Surely they should have a say in the choices you make for them?’
This was a part of David’s grand plan for their lives that she did not agree with, instinctively did not quite trust.
‘It’ll all work out,’ he said. ‘Malcolm was happy enough to enrol for the Masters in Business Administration, remember?’ He kissed her forehead. ‘I’m famished. Let’s eat.’
Much later, with her naked body warm and familiar against his, David lay and listened to the wind. The branches of a tree scratched insistently against the windowpane. They became the tentacles of an octopus: threatening them, attempting to reach them.
All in the imagination, David thought, as he drifted towards sleep, all in the imagination.
David Dunbar habitually arrived at work an hour early. It allowed him time to sort out his priorities for the day. His secretary brought him coffee at ten, her subdued scent greeting his senses like an old friend. She came to stand next to him.
‘It’s time for a “Meeting-in-Progress” sign on the door,’ she teased.
He remained engrossed in the reports that lay on the desk in front of him.
‘Later,’ he said vaguely. But as his right hand reached for the handle of the stainless-steel mug embossed with the company logo, his left arm looped around her warm skirt-covered thighs.
‘Later,’ he repeated, with a gleam of anticipation in his glance as their eyes met.
‘Men who work hard should always be rewarded.’
He didn’t hear the promise in her comment, because he’d returned his attention to the lifeblood of the great beast he at last controlled.
‘The exertion has made me dizzy,’ he complained, after an early morning swim on the weekend. ‘A sign of old age creeping up on my youthful physique,’ he added hastily, seeing Georgina’s immediate look of concern. They both laughed.
‘Perhaps you should have your blood pressure checked,’ she coaxed. ‘Just to be on the safe side.’
She trailed her forefinger along his spine, following the vertebral stepping-stones down to the top of his moist togs.
‘I have a vested interest in your unfailing good health,’ she continued, unhooking her bikini top invitingly.
‘I’ll set up an appointment with Henry,’ he promised, calculating the weight of her breasts in his hands. If it’ll please her, he thought.
David was late for his appointment but the flustered new receptionist didn’t seem to notice. He sat on a padded chair and picked up a Reader’s Digest. He felt like a fool. Dressed in his smart business suit. Radiating good health. The old man in the corner coughed into the wrinkled skin of his hand. A weary-looking mother made ineffectual attempts to soothe a bawling, red-faced baby.
Dr Henry Chesterfield was thorough.
‘Too many late nights at the office recently,’ he concluded in a mildly accusing tone. ‘Burning the candle at both ends is never a good idea. You need to relax and eat properly if you don’t want to end up in my rooms anaemic and run down.’
‘I guess,’ David agreed, smiling inwardly to himself. Marilyn was an expert at wearing a man down.
‘We’ll take the necessary blood samples now, but call me for the results in about five days or so. I don’t expect anything untoward. I’ll send a script across to your office if it’s just a course of iron tablets you need.’
The doctor gave him a balloon and a lollipop for Emily.
As it happened, David didn’t need to telephone for the results. A week later he was passing the consulting rooms on his way to a business luncheon, and had a few minutes to spare.
‘The doctor’s next patient hasn’t arrived yet,’ the receptionist said. ‘I’m sure he could see you for a few minutes.’
Dr Henry Chesterfield rose, smiling, from behind his desk: his hand outstretched.
‘I won’t keep you,’ David said briskly, as the harsh squeal of a car braking on asphalt burst into the room through the open windows.
‘What in the name of —?’
The muted buzz of raised voices drifted in almost as an afterthought. Together they moved to stare down into the narrow street below. A passing car had knocked down a pedestrian. She was clearly pregnant. Even as they watched, she made a feeble attempt to rest her hand on her swollen abdomen. The sight spurred Dr Chesterfield into action, and with a hasty apology he was gone. David remained standing at the window, staring down. He felt detached. As if he were watching a movie.
‘Poor woman,’ he murmured, ‘some luck.’
The receptionist rushed in and dropped a folder onto the desk. Several of the documents it contained slid across the surface and dropped onto the floor but she was already on her way out. He bent to pick them up. ‘Dunbar, David’. His name.
‘Prognosis’, he read. ‘Am I ill? Impossible. I’ve never felt better.’ He heard footsteps coming along the corridor. His eyes continued to dart confusedly from word to word – none of this made sense. ‘Blood? Cancer? Leukaemia? God, no, … no!’
At first, the words were only in his eyes. Then they began their journey into his brain. The footsteps in the corridor walked in to stand beside him.
‘The doctor will be a while. You’d best pop in again tomorrow. If that’s okay, if it suits you?’ a voice said.
Pop. Suit. The words slid out from the jumble of sentences disintegrating in his head. Emily’s balloon had popped when she had given it to the cat to play with. Sharp claws. Bang. Tears had run down her face, wetting his suit. He had given her the lollipop to make it all better again. The voice next to him was quiet now, momentarily puzzled, waiting. David turned and strode from the room. He used the stairs to escape from the building: running down them one at a time, two at a time, three at a time.
‘How rude!’ the voice complained.
Watson had a mole under his right ear. David had never noticed it before. Watson’s mouth was opening and closing, like Emily’s goldfish. Emily loved her goldfish.
‘My goldfish can talk, Daddy, I know what my goldfish are saying, Daddy.’
Perhaps Emily would have known what Watson was saying. The waitress arrived. Set down plates in front of them. David looked into his. A trout lay cushioned on a pillow of rice, refusing to speak from its undignified position: eyes staring, lips stiff. What will Emily say? What will she say? I can’t get wet! It was raining and he was sitting in a bus shelter. When had he left Watson? David vaguely recalled shaking his hand. Was that before they had eaten or after? Or had that been Dr Chesterfield’s hand? He remembered eating the fish. Now it stared up at him from behind the walls of his stomach. Accusingly. Like the woman’s baby must have done – after the car she did not see had knocked them down. His lungs began to reject oxygen as he watched his future being electrocuted in slow motion. It was all over. Impossible. I’m feeling fine. Fine. No, it can’t be true. The image of a pregnant woman sprawled across asphalt careened into his mind. God, I was lucky. I would have had to listen to him saying it to my face. The hiss and bang of pneumatic doors being opened sliced into his shock. He didn’t get on the bus. He had no idea where he wanted to go.
Marilyn was not at her desk when he returned to his office. David sat in his expensive swivel chair. He looked at the trays filled with sheets of paper. The files stacked neatly on glass shelves in the corner. Meaningless: every word in them meaningless. Simply a structure that had kept him feverishly busy and unquestioning about the end, about what might lie beyond the end. Why had nobody warned him? Why had nobody told him it would be like this: having to acknowledge the gaping void of his own mortality? Falling with no wings. Sight blinded by the dark. It had been hiding in every tomorrow he had ever planned for. His efforts had been fuelling a gigantic hoax: that he was due a future at all – now there was only today and today he was a worn part. Marilyn. Perfect Marilyn. He tried to imagine how it would be when pity replaced the desire in her eyes. Weeds of despair began to choke logical thought. He made decisions in his office every day. People depended on him to make decisions. His elbows were on his desk. His hands covered his face.
Emily … Georgina … the boys.
Their names escaped through the gaps between his fingers. His mind was a whirling kaleidoscope of faces. Some decisions were hard to make; some decisions changed people’s lives forever. Chemotherapy, – God, my hair will fall out! And I’ll be fucking impotent! He didn’t see the desk. He didn’t see the telephone. He didn’t see the tray marked ‘Urgent’. He could handle anything. Everything. But not pity. Pity was for people who had lost. He pulled open the top drawer of his desk. Began taking out all those items that were personally his – even the packet of instant soup.
In his mind, he heard his own footfalls. Why had he never noticed it before? Walking was like listening to the ticking of a clock: left right, tick-tock. He was tired. So tired. Words whispered inside his head, forming sentences, talking to him. You have nothing. But you are alive. You have to move. But you are dead. He turned. Started walking backwards. Shut his eyes so tight his teeth clenched of their own accord. Noooo! Dying was the past and the present and the future merging into one. All the colours were swirling together and forming a black vortex he wanted to turn away from. Decisions defined change, for better or worse. Consider the available information, and do whatever is best under the circumstances, he thought. It had always been his mantra. I’ll be a hairless wonder … halfway to a coffin. The image embraced him. And he couldn’t break free of it. Consider the available information, and do whatever is best under the circumstances. All his life he had been trained to be decisive. All his life. He reached his car, took the keys from his pocket, deactivated the immobiliser.
David Dunbar drove to the forest very slowly. He liked to think he had all the time in the world. He had stopped off at home first, had hunted for Georgina’s voice from room to room. When he couldn’t find her, he had stood at the foot of the stairs, pirouetting clumsily, on flat feet, his mind lost and alone. I never planned to break my promises to you. I never planned it. Henry knows. He parked his sports car, opened his briefcase and took out the revolver. He had bought it for self-protection. ‘Dying is like walking into a dark night without a torch, less scary than you at first imagine.’ His mother’s words when his grandfather had passed away. He locked the car, looked across the road and into the dense stand of trees – to where sunlight shafted between branches and painted pools of warmth onto a canvas of cool dim shadow. Christ, can I do it? He began walking towards the trees: to try. A bird fluttered across a shaft of sunlight. A rasping, screaming sound cut through the stillness. He was surprised. It was a terrible cry for such a small bird. He was through the gate, amongst the trees, feeling for the gun. It was gone. He stopped walking, confused now. He turned and looked back the way he had come. What …? A station wagon was pulling up behind his car. And a logging truck had stopped in the middle of the road; he could see people standing in front of it, looking down. Shit. They’ve found the fucking gun! He didn’t understand how he could have dropped it. He started back towards them. Then he saw what they were looking at – a man spread-eagled on the road in front of the truck, dressed exactly like him.
Georgina was fond of reading poetry. David had invented the ritual of presenting her with poetry books when a man ought to have brought flowers.
‘Poetry separates the civilised from the barbaric,’ she had informed him on their first date, and he had agreed. ‘Men always agree with everything on a first date, don’t they?’ had been her playful response.
Today, curled up on their bed, she was reading Edward Fitzgerald’s first translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Melodious words that stepped into the mind with a delicate tread:
While the Rose blows along the River Brink,
With old Khayyám and Ruby Vintage drink:
And when the Angel with his darker Draught
Draws up to Thee – take that, and do not shrink.”
She heard a car coming up the drive. She was not expecting anyone just then.
‘Tis all a Chequer-board of Nights and Days
Where Destiny with Men for Pieces plays:
Car doors were opening: voices.
Hither and thither moves, and mates, and slays,
And one by one back in the Closet lays.
The doorbell chimed; she put down the book impatiently. She was surprised to see the policemen.
The cafeteria bustled with students hurriedly purchasing snacks to wolf down before afternoon classes began. Emily sat eating at a table near the door, tog bag leaning against her chair. The ribbon of a ballet shoe had escaped from the bag, and snaked its way down towards the floor in a seductive pink ripple. A dark-haired youth made his way towards her.
‘Forget the salad, and eat your heart out instead,’ he said triumphantly. ‘You’re looking at the next recipient of the Hawthorne Scholarship. Italy, here I come!’
Emily smiled at him affectionately. Simon had become one of her closest friends at the School of Music, Art and Dance in New York. He had arrived to study art in her last year of dance. They came from the same home town, a coincidence that had instantly given them a great deal to talk about.
‘Ah, what talent can do for man!’ she countered. She gently tugged at the gold star dangling from a fine chain around her neck, her expression thoughtful. Simon noticed the small movement, and the faraway look in her green eyes.
‘Are you wishing on a star?’ he asked quietly. He knew her mother had given her the star when her father died. She focused her attention on him again.
‘I was thinking of my dad. I called Mum this morning to tell her I’ve been chosen as an understudy for one of the principal dancers in Giselle, and she said he would have been proud of me.’
‘I’m sure she’s right,’ Simon said quietly. ‘The past has a strange way of colouring the present. My mum says I mean everything to her because she almost lost me.’
‘Almost lost you? That’s a story you haven’t told me before!’
‘Only because I thought it would bring back sad memories for you. A car knocked her down on a pedestrian crossing when she was pregnant with me. A doctor treated her before the paramedics arrived. I would’ve died if it hadn’t been for him. I had to use one of my nine lives before I had even been born, would you believe!’
‘Well, I for one am glad you landed on your tiny feet.’ She grinned. ‘Fate must have been on your side that day.’
‘It was! So here I am … ready to paint a famous ballerina like you. Shall we go?’