Friday 25 February, 2005
1:52pm and 36 seconds.
I am sitting at lunch with my Mum and our friend Alison, in a small café in the arcade at Beecroft. My mobile phone rings, but one of them — I can’t remember who — is in the middle of a story. I fish it out of my bag, look at the screen for a couple of seconds, but I don’t recognise the number. I decide it is probably something to do with work, so I press cancel, and it is silenced.
At around 2:30pm, we finish up, pay the bill and say goodbye. Mum and I go upstairs to go to the toilet. There are three cubicles, the middle one is taken. Mum goes in and I go in and she reads a sign that she sees on the back of the cubicle door. She says, “Do you have that sign?” I reply, “No.” Then, surprisingly, the voice from the middle cubicle says, “I don’t have that sign either.” I smile, because I am imagining the woman in the middle cubicle thinking it rude or inappropriate that two people were talking to each other over the top of her while we are all going to the toilet. That’s how I would have felt, had it been me. But she is obviously unperturbed. We come out, wash our hands and leave. She was still in her cubicle, so I never see her face.
We walk back across the car park. I comment how I am glad we didn’t park up here because the car would have been so hot when we got back in. The concrete shimmers in the Sydney summer heat, and I am perspiring. We walk down the stairs. I have told Mum that I want to buy some hair wax for Rob, and then I want to get some fruit and vegetables from the fruit shop in the arcade. Mum’s phone rings in the stairwell and it is Colin. I leave her there and go in to Franklins. I find the brand of hair wax that Rob likes, then pay for it at the register. I explain to the check-out lady that the other jar I am carrying is empty, that I just brought it along so I would be sure to get exactly the right one. I say this even though she has made no comment as to the second jar I have in my hand, nor does she appear suspicious. I do that sometimes, explain myself when it is unwarranted. I feel slightly guilty, even though I have done nothing wrong. The check-out lady asks me if I am happy to carry the wax in my handbag. I say, “Of course!” with a pathetic amount of gratitude, and feel relieved that she doesn’t seem to be harbouring any nagging doubt about whether the second jar in my hand was really empty. I had been tempted to hand it to her, just so she could feel the difference in its weight.
Mum is waiting outside. She says, “That was Colin. He just had a call at home asking for Clayton Carter.” Clayton is my cousin. He lives in Brisbane, which is what makes it strange. However, Colin was diagnosed with dementia about a year ago, so I am skeptical that the caller really asked for Clayton. I am also skeptical about his dementia diagnosis — he seems about just the same to me, although he gets phone messages wrong more often now. When my cousin’s wife had a baby, Colin told us it was a boy. It was a girl. I found this out when I rang to congratulate them. I sometimes wonder if he doesn’t do these sorts of things on purpose. He has a habit of acting helpless to get attention, pretending he can’t work the TV remote and so forth. Mum says, “Colin said, ‘He’s not here,’ so then they asked for Mrs Carter. They said the oncologist’s report was in.”
I try to imagine what really happened. Clayton’s twin sister Leah had given birth to a premature baby in Brisbane the previous Sunday night. After 36 hours, where she seemed to be OK, they discovered she had a condition that was fatal in ninety-five per cent of cases. All week they just cried and waited for her to die. Then today, Friday, when it became apparent that she was not, in fact, getting any worse, they decided perhaps their diagnosis could have been wrong. Like Colin’s dementia. She still has something wrong with her, they emphasised, not yet willing to concede that maybe they were totally wrong. I had only received the call that morning to say it looked like she would pull through. I had felt from Wednesday morning onwards that she was going to be OK, but I didn’t like to inflict my intuition on them, just in case. The stakes were far too high for that.
We go on to the fruit shop. I see some beautiful fat avocados and reach out to squeeze them. I like to shut my eyes and hold them, feeling the tiny give beneath my fingers and estimate how many days it will be before I will be able to eat them. But I stop short, noticing a sign that instructs me to squeeze them only after I’ve purchased them. I feel mildly irritated — how am I supposed to make an informed decision if I can’t squeeze them beforehand? I’ll be gentle, I think to myself. But I can feel the probing eyes of the owner boring into my back. The shop is empty and I am at the avocado stand, so there’s bound to be trouble. I pull my hand back and keep walking. I am punishing her in my own small way for her unreasonable demands on potential avocado purchasers. I will wait and purchase my avocados from my regular store, where I can squeeze every last one on the stand if that’s what it takes to find the perfect specimen. Nobody cares. They understand that squeezing is part of the purchasing ritual.
I move around to the carrots, and I suddenly remember the phone call. I retrieve my phone from my bag and dial 101 for voice mail. The robotic female voice says, “You have one new message.” The “one” is emphasised, because that’s the part of the automated system that has to change according to how many messages are queued up. It is inserted into the pre-recorded bit, so it never sounds quite natural. “Message received today at twelve fifty-five pm.” All the money in the world and Telstra can’t even make allowances for daylight saving. I listen and a tight voice I don’t recognise starts to speak.
“Sylvie, it’s um Martin Timmins, I’m Alfie Timmins’s father. Um, if you could give me a call… I have some very bad news about Alfie and I’m just trying to contact some of his friends. If you’d care to call me back, I’d appreciate it. Thank you. Bye.”
I feel my breath rush out, like a wind gusting through me. I feel myself sink. Alfie is in Asia somewhere. I know what Alfie’s father is going to tell me, yet I punch in the numbers frantically. Martin Timmins is not going to tell me that Alfie has been in a rickshaw accident, or that he has lost his arm or has severe food poisoning. He is going to tell me Alfie is dead. I know it in my gut. Alfie has been one of my best friends for four years, yet I have never met or spoken to his father. I didn’t even know his name. Somehow he has got my phone number, and he’s rung to tell me there is very bad news about Alfie.
Martin answers the phone.
I stutter out my name, but what I say from there is a blur. My voice is high and trembling. Knowing he is going to tell me Alfie is dead makes no difference to the gut-staggering impact of actually hearing it from his father’s mouth.
“…found him dead in his hotel room in Thailand this morning…”
“…no suspicious circumstances…”
I start to shake uncontrollably, not a minor tremor, but violent spasming in my arms. I am hyperventilating, my body feels like it is shutting down. I somehow get off the phone. Mum has her hand on my shoulder. She doesn’t need me to tell her how bad it is, she just needs to know who.
I don’t remember how it happens from here, not the way I remember in excruciating, mundane detail the events leading up to me retrieving the message. I tell her. She says, “Alfie you just bought the car from?” I am stuffing some plums into a plastic bag as I am nodding… why am I still shopping for fruit?
It’s out of my mouth before I am aware of even formulating the thought, “I think he’s taken his own life.” I don’t know where it comes from, perhaps from the years and intimacy of our friendship. She says, “Do you really?” I consult my gut again, and it concurs. “Yes, I do,” I say.
I stand at the counter shivering as I pay for my purchases. My face is blank, my eyes staring. There is a small intellectual voice in some separate compartment of my mind it seems that is speaking with measured reasonableness yet asking questions I can’t believe I could possibly be formulating at a time like this. Questions about money and practical things and inside me I am screaming and slamming doors at it, but when I stop, it starts up again. Things I don’t care about, nor associate with Alfie. It asks about the car I’ve just bought from him, whether it matters that I have still to transfer it into my name. Now that he’s dead, that is. It asks if I still change the date so I don’t have to pay the late fee, whether they will match up the date of his death and realise that I lied and then I’ll get into trouble. It asks how recently I could change the date to, so that it was still before his death but within the fourteen days required before I have to pay the late fee. My mind throws up number after number, dates in late February where I could say we swapped our contracts. Numbers, dark pink, purple, chocolate, go streaming through my head. 22, 23, 24, 25. No, 25 is no good. He was already dead then. I am like some mathematician savant out of control. Numbers are the only thing working for me. I try to think up algebraic equations to work out the optimal date for us swapping registration papers so I don’t have to pay the late fee. I feel sick with shame that I could think this way, now of all moments. But on and on, pages of complex formulae flying past my eyes. My legs are on autopilot, propelling me back to the car that he handed over to me just a couple of weeks before. Mum trails behind. I open the door for her — it’s like an oven inside — and I hand her the bags of vegetables. I am slow and deliberate, but it’s all happening without conscious thought from me. She asks me if I’m ok to drive, and I reply yes. I think to myself that I have to get myself home from where I drop her off anyway, so I’d better be ok. My thoughts are jumbled, but alien in their logic and intellectualism. Occasionally my eyes well up but I force them back because I don’t want Mum to see how upset I am. Somewhere in my screwed-up thinking, I imagine I can hide it from her. She has just witnessed my spasms in the middle of the fruit shop but perhaps it’s not too late to pretend we weren’t that close. Maybe I can convince her that I didn’t love him with every cell in my body, or that I didn’t think him the most unique, gentle and exquisite human being I had ever met.
We get back to Epping and she gets out. The detached professor in my head wonders at how she can just let me go when she knows I must be haemorrhaging to death inside. But the real me is grateful for her sensitivity — she knows I am someone who has to do my emotional stuff alone.
And so it goes. I drive off up the road, and something breaks through. I turn the little bottle cap he left hanging from the rear vision mirror around so I can read its one-word message: Peace. The sobs come then, out of me in huge choking gasps. I feel I will vomit or turn myself inside out.
I feel I might die.