I knew he was ill. To argue otherwise would be pointless.
He telephoned me one Sunday morning. The sun was out, the birds were singing, and the world was as fresh as lettuce on television. Someone was mowing their lawn. There would be many more lawn-mowing days.
I was in the kitchen, squeezing myself some orange juice. A glass of freshly squeezed juice, a croissant, the Times crossword, and the sun filtering through the dirty kitchen skylight. Oh, what a perfect morning!
And then the telephone.
With Hamish, even his ring could sound commanding. He’d just left a doctor’s office in London — a Harley Street doctor’s office, I was sure. I could hear the hush of expensive care in the background, and then Hamish’s voice booming in my ear.
“You finally awake, then? About time. I’ve been calling for hours.”
I muttered something untrue about a late meeting the night before.
“You are a liar,” he said sunnily. “It’s OK. I know you stay in bed till obscene hours on the weekend.”
“So . . .”
“Look,” Hamish said, “what I called to say is . . . Hey, can you be very brave?”
“Uh . . .”
“The thing is, I’m dying.”
So I cannot say I didn’t know.
Nevertheless it all happened much faster than I’d anticipated. He was hospitalized within weeks and lived for a month and a half. I visited him during the second week, bringing grapes and a bundle of National Geographic magazines. He was very thin but otherwise didn’t look too bad. The sort of cancer he had (pancreatic) wasn’t an ugly one — at least, it didn’t make him look ugly. Yet he was dying. I said I’d come to see him every day after that, but the next week turned out to be a hectic one, and also the week after.
Ten days later Inna phoned me. She was one of my few friends, this in spite of the fact that she had been Hamish’s girlfriend before me. But that had all been a long time ago. Hamish was now engaged to Karen, and we were — all three of us women — good friends. It was the only civilized way to behave, we often said.
“Hamish won’t last much longer,” Inna said on the telephone. “I think he’d quite like to see a bit more of you.”
We arranged to go to the hospital together that night. She’d pick me up at six. I spent the day marking students’ algebra tests, and by the time I’d finished, I was utterly exhausted. When Inna arrived, I walked with her to the car and then paused, hand on the passenger-door handle. “You know what?” I said. “I don’t think I’ll come with you tonight after all. I’m just so tired. Hamish won’t want to see me if I’m this tired.”
Inna gave me her look. How to explain this look? Her parents were Ukrainian Jews, and somewhere behind her softspoken exterior, her tan slacks and white cotton blouse and neatly polished shoes, are whispers of Kiev and Jerusalem; of one of the most tormented peoples on earth; of a country Stalin forced into starvation. You see all of that when Inna gives you her look.
“Suit yourself,” she said, and off she went.
When she showed up again the next day, I rushed out of the house to meet her.
“I’m going to see Hamish this morning!” I said giddily. “I’m just going now, if you want to come with me.”
“No point,” Inna said.
“What do you mean?”
“He’s dead. He died last night.”
In moments of stress the foolish question always comes first to mind. “Are you sure?” I asked.
Inna almost laughed. “There isn’t much doubt about it.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “I was going to see him again — and I didn’t.”
Inna smiled wanly. “Never mind.”
“I feel terrible,” I said, as though this were important.
A few minutes later we sat drinking coffee in my kitchen. “His mother was there, and Karen of course,” said Inna. “And Hamish mentioned you, like, a few hours before he died. Just before he went to sleep.”
“Yeah. Nothing special. He just asked where you were.”
“Where I was?”
Inna shrugged. “Like I told you: he kept talking about how he really wanted to see you.”
“What do you mean, ‘Like I told you’?” I felt the heat rising to my face. “When did you tell me that? You never . . . Why didn’t you? Why didn’t you tell me?”
Inna sighed like a woman who’d been waiting twenty years for a bus. “I did. I said he wanted to see you.”
“No, you didn’t. You said that you thought he’d quite like to see a bit more of me.”
“I don’t think that’s quite what I —”
“That’s exactly what you said.”
“Anyway it’s practically the same thing.”
“No, it isn’t. It’s nothing nearly as important as him actually saying he wanted to see me.”
Inna sipped her coffee daintily. Outside, the sun pierced the clouds and shone across the houses, and the sky became clean and blue. It was all irrelevant.
I remember almost nothing of Hamish’s funeral. I know it was in a church, and that there were lots of mourners — I’d had no idea Hamish knew so many people — and that they played “Bridge over Troubled Water.” Karen was drunk. This was put down to grief. She sobbed, swayed, hiccuped, and clung to me for comfort, or perhaps just to remain vertical. I was very disapproving. I’d always wondered what Hamish had ever seen in her, apart from her rather boringly obvious good looks and her even more boringly obvious devotion to him. (I mean, honestly: did feminism actually happen, or did we all dream it?) Surely she had seemed such a comedown after me. After Inna, even.
Such were the thoughts that occupied my mind at Hamish’s funeral.
I drove myself home after the burial, took twice my usual amount of sleeping pills, and fell into a mercifully deep sleep.
Many hours later — or possibly many days — I woke up. Or, rather, I dreamed that I woke up. My mouth tasted of stale sleep and metal. It was late in the evening, half dark and half light, and I was not alone. Standing at my bedside were Karen and Inna, both soberly dressed (but not, in Karen’s case, sober) in black dresses and coats (and, in Karen’s case, a jauntily angled black beret).
“Come,” Inna said. “We’re going to say goodbye to Hamish.” She crossed the room, opened the wardrobe, and got out my coat. Karen knelt to retrieve my shoes from under the bed.
“But . . .”
Inna held out my coat. Karen brandished my shoes.
“But Hamish is dead,” I reminded them kindly.
Inna and Karen looked at each other and laughed indulgently. “Come on, sleepy,” Karen said. “We haven’t got time to muck about.”
It was a half-hour drive to the cemetery, where we stood before the big mound of freshly dug earth and the marking stick with Hamish’s name written on it in felt pen.
“We’re going to put up a stone with his name and dates on it,” said Karen, “and a photo too.” Some of the graves around us had little oval photographs: the dearly beloved wife and mother; the young man in a suit some twenty years out of date; the schoolboy in his cap. The weather had got behind the glass on some of them, forming condensation, so that it looked as though they were breathing. I hoped Hamish’s photograph would do that too. Would breathe. Bizarrely, I began to pray: Please, God, make his photograph breathe.
But there is no God to pray to, and there was no way I could say goodbye. Hamish was under the ground. He couldn’t come up again. I reminded Inna and Karen of this.
“We realize he can’t come up,” Karen said, rolling her eyes.
“Well, then?” By now I was bored and cold and empty inside.
“He can’t come up,” Inna explained slowly, as if talking to an especially dim five-year-old, “but we can go down.”
She and Karen put their arms through mine, and we went down. Deep down. Down through the earth and the earthworms and the tunneling maggots and the termites and the dazed seeds and bemused bulbs and everything else that lies deep in the earth, waiting for spring to return, for the time when flowers and leaves thrust themselves up and out, regardless, once again. Down we went, farther than the earthworms and seeds, till we passed through the lid of Hamish’s coffin, which was small and shiny and expensive on the outside, but cheap and dull and as big as a bedroom on the inside. In one corner lay Hamish, fast asleep.
Inna walked over to him, her high heels making no noise on the coffin’s soft red lining. She touched his shoulder, and he woke immediately.
“Still a light sleeper, then?” she said with a smile.
The soft, almost shy look that flickered back at her from Hamish’s face confirmed what I’d always suspected: that it was Inna whom Hamish had loved best — and Inna whom I hated more than I’d thought it possible to hate anyone.
Hamish pushed his hair from his forehead. His eyes were darker than usual. Perhaps this was quite normal, I thought, if you’d been dead for a few days.
“Hello,” he said. “What’re you after?”
“We came to see you,” Inna said.
Then he saw the rest of us. “Karen!” His face lit up. “And . . . oh.” The light died. “It’s you.”
“Yes, it’s me,” I answered lamely. “I just came to . . . to see you.”
“Finally made it, did you?”
“So, how are you?” Karen asked, crossing the coffin-room to embrace him. “Sleep well?”
“Until now.” He didn’t take his eyes off me, even as Karen’s arms went round his neck. “Well? What is it?” he asked me. “This had better be good.”
“It was just . . .” Just what? I couldn’t think.
“Look,” said Hamish, “why don’t you just go away. Leave me alone. I’m dead, for Christ’s sake.”
“We’ve brought you some presents,” Inna said. “Don’t be cross with us.”
“I’m not cross with you.”
“Please don’t be cross with me either,” I whispered. “I meant to go and visit you again. I really did. It’s just that I didn’t get around to it. I’m sorry. I’m trying —”
“Yes, you’re very trying. What’ve you brought me?”
“I’ve brought you a rose,” said Karen importantly. She produced a rather squashed red flower from somewhere inside her coat. (What a clichéd gift. Seriously.)
“I’ve brought you a book of verse,” said Inna. She handed him a blue-and-gold volume.
“Thank you. Thank you, both,” said Hamish. “What about you?” he said to me.
“I didn’t know I was supposed to bring anything!” I sputtered. “They didn’t tell me they were bringing gifts.” I gestured pathetically in the direction of Karen and Inna. Hamish’s eyes didn’t follow the gesture. He just stared at me.
“So you haven’t brought me anything?”
“Well, I didn’t know.”
“Always the last to know, aren’t you?” he said.
“I meant to write a poem for you. I just haven’t got around to it yet.”
“You never get around to doing anything. That’s your bloody problem, or one of them.”
I looked to the others for support. They looked back disapprovingly.
“I have a poem,” I said. “I didn’t write it, but it’s the best I can do. It’s been in my head a lot ever since you . . . went away. It’s by Tennyson.”
“Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”
“Hmm.” Hamish eyed me coldly. “I’ve heard of him.” This was probably a lie. He hadn’t heard of many poets. The only time he woke up at school, he’d told me, was when they played cricket.
I cleared my throat self-consciously. “A poem. A present. For Hamish. By Tennyson. From me.” A tense pause, and then I began:
Be near me when my light is low, When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick And tingle; and the heart is sick, And all the wheels of Being slow. . . . Be near me when my faith is dry, . . . Be near me when I fade away, . . .
I stopped. “I don’t know the rest, I’m afraid. I always meant to learn it: I just never got around to it.”
“You never get around to anything. That’s your problem,” Hamish said again, but this time his voice was soft. He wasn’t angry with me anymore. “That was very nice,” he said. “You recite well. You’ve a good voice. You don’t use it often enough. I always said that.”
The last conversation I had with Hamish when he was alive and well — or seemed well, because even then the cancer had begun its work — would’ve been about nine months before the funeral. About nine months, two weeks, five days, and thirteen hours. About that. So this was before everything else — quite some time before Hamish died. Here is how I remember it:
It’s three in the morning, so naturally I am huddled on the stairs in my flat, eating a sandwich in the moonlight, my dressing gown around my shoulders. My cordless phone is beside me, because I just dialed the speaking clock for the sound of a human voice. When it rings, I answer immediately.
“I’m calling from a supermarket.”
“From a call box inside a supermarket, that is. I’m in a town I’ve never heard of, about two hundred kilometers from home.”
“Oh,” I say. “Any reason why?”
“Not really. This just seemed like the place to be tonight, you know? I was driving to Karen’s for a late dinner when I suddenly got this urge to change course and drive two hundred kilometers to a town I’d never heard of and call you from a supermarket call box. But my car broke down before I could do the whole two hundred — had to do the last ten on foot. And I was wearing those shoes.”
“Those shiny dress shoes with the holey pattern on them.”
“I’ve never seen shoes like that. Except on women.”
“Of course you’ve seen them. And not just on women. That guy in that movie wore them, so now everyone wears them.”
“What guy in what movie?”
“That movie. You know. The one with that thin woman in it. That movie I hate. . . . It doesn’t matter. There’s a man outside. I can see him walking along the street in front of the supermarket. Do you know what he’s doing? He’s carrying a dead bird. He has this bird — a blackbird or a thrush or something, I don’t know — and he’s holding it by its wing. He’s holding its wing in his right hand, like he’s holding hands with it while crossing the road.”
I say maybe the man’s crazy. Perhaps he’s a vagrant. Perhaps he’s a crazy vagrant.
“He looks normal enough. He’s wearing a suit, and his trousers have a nice, sharp crease in them. But why’s he carrying a dead bird?”
I give up, I tell him. I don’t know why he’s carrying a dead bird.
“There are quite a few people here. You wouldn’t think there’d be people in a supermarket at three in the morning, would you? Especially in a town I’ve never heard of. Like, just this minute there’s a lady going through the checkout, buying a baby rattle. Why would anyone buy a baby rattle at three in the morning?”
“Perhaps she has a baby.”
Hamish ignores this. I don’t blame him.
“Did you want me to drive down and pick you up?” I ask. Of course he wants that. But of course he’ll say no. He knows me. He knows that I will never really come down there. He knows that I will feel badly about it tomorrow.
“Oh, no,” he says breezily. “No need for that. Apart from anything else, the sea is quite nearby. I’d rather like to watch the sunrise.”
“Well, if you’re sure . . .”
“Quite sure. It might be nice. It might be a good show. At any rate, I’ll hang about for a little while.”
“Just a little while,” I say. “Promise me.”
“Just a little while. I promise.”