When the telephone rang, Rupert Daves was in the vulnerable stage of early sleep. Confusion followed, not knowing what time it was, what was happening, even where he was. His pulse rate had shot up so high that he half-wondered if he was having a heart attack. Cardiac deaths ran through his mother’s side of the family, and, at 51, he was close to what his mother used to call The Age. Her own father had died at 54, with no warning at all.
Then he had the phone in his hand, but he had it the wrong way around and the voice on the other end was only a whisper until he righted it.
“Rupert?” A familiar voice but not one he would have expected. “It’s me. Clara.”
“Yes, I know.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s late.”
“What time is it?” He looked across the room at the clock radio but the numerals were a green blur. His contacts were out. He couldn’t remember where he’d left his glasses.
“It’s 10 past one.”
It was Barbara who spoke. She was leaning on her elbow, facing him, her long hair in a tangle, her expression quizzical. They had been earlier to bed than usual but late to sleep. A long interval of love-making had followed on from a bottle of good wine. His glass, not quite empty, stood on the bedside table beside the telephone.
“I’m at the hospital,” Clara said. “It’s mother.”
Rupert levered himself to a sitting position, his legs hanging over the side of the bed, feet resting on the broadloom.
Clara’s mother was 81 and Rupert knew that her health was in decline. Rob had told him that just a month back. Rob — Robin — was his son, his and Clara’s.
“I’m not sure. I was at her apartment when she collapsed. It might be a stroke.”
Rupert recognised the familiar tension in Clara’s tone, a reedy quality that made it seem like she was having trouble breathing.
Behind him, Barbara slid out of bed and went into the bathroom. Rupert heard the door close behind her, then the sound of water running in the sink. It was something she always did when she used the toilet.
“Where’s Rob?” he asked.
“He’s at a friend’s home. William. They were at a basketball game. I don’t think you know him.”
Rupert heard the toilet flush, then the sound of hand-washing.
“No, I don’t know a William.”
“Can you come down? To the hospital?”
The request didn’t surprise him.
Barbara was back in bed in time to hear the question. Now she sat up, one knee propped under her chin, looking at him. Her nightdress had slipped down to gather at her hips, revealing dark pubic hair, so recently the focus of his attentions. She caught the direction of his glance but didn’t shift her position.
He went back to the phone.
“Fourth floor. Intensive Care.”
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” he said. He hung up the phone.
“You’re going out?”
“What’s happened? Is it one of your kids?”
“No, it’s Clara’s mother. She might have had a stroke, Clara’s not sure. It might be serious.”
“Then it’s right that you should go.”
“I suppose so,” he said.
Rupert and Clara had been separated for five years, divorced for four. He had not spoken to her in almost six months. They had two children, Rob who was 17, and Dana, his sister, who was 22. A year after the divorce, Clara had married again, to Colin, but it didn’t last. The second divorce had come through just six months ago.
Colin left Clara for someone else, just as Rupert had done. But Colin had married his new lady, while Rupert hadn’t married his, hadn’t stayed with her for very long after the split. There had been other reasons for his leaving Clara, however much he’d pretended otherwise at the time. His counsellor told him that the other woman — and how horribly trite that sounded — was only the proximate cause of the breakup. A tidy phrase, proximate cause, layered like an onion.
“You know, I never liked her,” Rupert said. “Clara’s mother.”
“I know. But she didn’t like you, either.”
“So, why am I going to the hospital?”
“Because you liked Clara and you still do. She must need you or she wouldn’t have phoned.” Barbara pulled her nightdress down over her knees and the bedcovers up to her waist. “You can say ‘hello’ to her for me. If you think that’s a good idea.”
Clara had known Barbara before Rupert did. They were both speech therapists and they’d worked together. He’d first met her, after the divorce, when he went to pick up some papers Clara had brought to work with her. There were times, still, when he wondered if Barbara’s sympathies lay as much with Clara as with him. He knew that Clara had told Barbara her version of the marriage breakup, woman-to-woman, although he didn’t know the details. Barbara and Clara had been friends back then, but after Rupert and Barbara became an item, their friendship wilted.
They had been together for a year, Rupert and Barbara, long enough to have talked about making their relationship permanent. Marriage had not been discussed, not yet, although Rupert thought about it sometimes.
Like Rupert, Barbara had been married before but the marriage was only a distant memory for her. She almost never mentioned her ex, Jean-Claude, and when she did it was in the context of something trivial, commonplace, items with little personal content. There was no lingering attachment that he could see.
Jean-Claude was Swiss and he was wealthy. He spent his winters in Martinique and lived in Zurich for the rest of the year. He was in what Barbara called the posh holiday business — she was English originally — resorts, cruise ships, exotic destinations. She had alluded to a lush lifestyle with Jean-Claude, large houses, five-star hotels, expensive cars. Now she drove a Toyota Yaris, lived in a two-bedroom townhouse and parked her little car outdoors.
Unlike Rupert and Clara, Barbara and Jean-Claude had no children.
It was partly, but not entirely, the two children that linked Rupert and Clara. And if he and Clara weren’t in actual contact very often, she was never very distant from him, even after five years. From time to time, and too often for anyone’s comfort, he would refer to Clara as “my wife.” The hasty addition of ‘ex’ or ‘former’ didn’t really make it better, worse if anything. It had fatally cracked the foundation of several of his post-Clara relationships.
Barbara didn’t seem to mind, though. Smiling, she told Rupert that he should have married twice, because with two ex-wives to dilute the significance, the problem wouldn’t be there at all.
He dressed quickly. As he pulled on the same black turtleneck he’d worn that evening, he realized he hadn’t asked Clara if she’d phoned Dana. She might not have. Dana was living in London, had been for almost a year. He calculated the time difference. Five hours, making it barely 6 a.m. in London. Dana had never been an early riser but that might have changed. Almost everything about Dana had changed over the past year, her suddenly dropping out of university and moving to London being the major items. He thought of calling her himself but decided to wait until he spoke to Clara again.
He finished dressing. Barbara watched him, sitting up, two pillows behind her head. He sat on the side of the bed, close to her. She touched his cheek.
By Thomas Rendell Curran