What do you say to a man whose life you destroyed? That was the question I asked myself when, out of the blue, my godfather phoned just as I was leaving work at the museum.
‘Am I speaking to Eliza?’ It was the voice of an old man, a little hoarse, trembling on the last syllable. ‘Th is is Ian Bingham.’
What sun there had been, pallid and diffi dent, had set a while ago but darkness was banished by the street lamps and cars and, since the weekend, the Christmas lights in the trees and round the ice-rink further up by the Science Museum. I loved that artifi cial brightness; it softened the blow of night and winter.
My bus drove past, pulling in at the stop just a few yards away but I stayed where I was on the front steps of the building. Sleet was falling from a low sky but in my mind I saw wind-blown ripples of water lapping against a wooden jetty in the monochrome light of a spring evening.
‘I expect you’re surprised to hear from me.’
Oh yes. The last time we had seen each other had been some moments after he had admitted he couldn’t stand the sight of me. He had been inside the house, talking to my mother. I had been sketching in the garden on the bench right outside the open window. Even now, twenty-fi ve years later, I could recall his words precisely; they weren’t the kind that you forgot.
‘I know it’s unfair, Olivia, and I’ve tried my best, but the truth is that I can barely stand to be in the same room as her.
I can’t stand looking at her, or hearing her voice.’ There had been a pause before he added, his voice lower but not too low for me to hear. ‘And the worst of it is I fi nd myself wishing it had been her.’
I didn’t blame him for feeling that way; in fact I felt pretty much the same way myself. But it was still hard to hear him say it. For a while, following the accident, the friendship between my mother and Uncle Ian had dragged along, like an injured fox trying to reach the safety of the roadside, snarling and biting at anyone trying to get close. But at that moment, with those words, it died.
‘Eliza, are you there?’ Uncle Ian asked.
My voice seemed all bunched up in my throat and I had to take some extra breaths before managing a feeble ‘Yes.’
‘Your mother gave me your number.’
‘Oh. She didn’t tell me you’d been in touch.’ I paused before asking, ‘Are you in London?’
‘No, I’m at home. In Sweden.’
I hoped he hadn’t heard my sigh of relief. A wet snowfl ake landed on my lashes like an insect and I wiped my eye, smudg-ing the back of my hand with mascara.
‘I didn’t know you’d moved to Sweden.’
‘There’s no reason why you should know.’ Th ere was a pause.
Then he said, ‘You’ll no doubt be wondering why I’m calling.’
I nodded before remembering the obvious fact that he couldn’t see me. ‘Well yes, I am. Although it’s lovely to hear from you. I mean there doesn’t always need to be a reason for calling other than the call itself. If you see what I mean.’ I was making the kind of conversation Uncle Ian used to compare to an idling engine.
‘I never intended for us to lose touch in this way. Still, better late than never, eh?’ He gave a forced laugh.
‘No’ would have been my honest reply, but as every child knows, there was a time and a place for honest answers and quite often that’s a diff erent time and a diff erent place.
‘Absolutely,’ I said.
‘I would very much like to see you.’
‘I was hoping you might be able to come over for a visit?’
I switched the phone from my right to my left ear and then back again. My voice sounded like someone else’s, high-pitched and anxious as I said, ‘A visit? To you?’
‘Well, of course to me.’
Annoyance made his voice younger and I thought it was quite comical how, after a quarter of a century, we had managed to pick up where we had left off; as Irritated and Irritant.
‘And don’t worry about the tickets. I’ll arrange all that.’
‘I’ll get tickets.’
‘I am inviting you.’
‘Really, I’d prefer to get them myself.’
He sighed. ‘You always were stubborn.’
I thought that as reconciliations went this one was definitely not up there with the greats. A second bus passed, its massive wheels squelching.
‘My bus is here. May I call you back?’ But I didn’t board this time either. I needed to stay out in the open. My entire body was itching as if ants were using my veins as motorways. My chest was aching from all the swallowed words and most likely, once this conversation was over, I would have to shout and scream and swear which, were I on a bus, might cause alarm. So instead I sat down on the museum steps, not caring about the cold and wet while all around me the city I thought of as my friend carried on as if nothing had happened.
My phone rang a second time. ‘It’s, me, Ian. Are you on your bus?’
‘Didn’t make it.’
‘I realised that of course you won’t have my number and it won’t have come up on your phone as it’s a trunk call.’
‘Sorry. I didn’t think about that.’
‘So, you’ll come?’
There was a pause and then I asked the obvious question.
‘Uncle Ian, what made you decide to get in touch, now, after all this time?’
It was his turn to hesitate before saying in a pre-emptive voice, as if he expected to be challenged, ‘It was Rose.’
My heart leapt like a fi sh in my chest. ‘Rose?’
‘That’s what I said.’
I scrunched up my eyes and the headlights of the passing traffic elongated and merged into a stream of golden light.
I pushed a strand of damp hair from my face. ‘How do you mean, Rose?’
‘I saw her.’
He’d gone mad. Or senile? Please let it be senile. Senile wouldn’t be my fault, but grief could make you crazy. ‘You’ve seen Rose?’
‘That’s what I said.’ I could hear he was trying to stop himself from snapping. ‘She’s angry.’
Rose was angry. Of course she was. I put the mobile down on the step, having decided against throwing it into the road.
I pushed my head between my knees, taking deep breaths, one after the other.
‘Eliza, Eliza, are you there?’
I realised that I’d been rocking back and forth like some crazy woman. I straightened up and picked up the phone. ‘I’m here.’
‘As I said, she’s angry with me.’
‘There is no need to repeat every word I say. It’s all perfectly straightforward. Rose came to see me. And she is angry with me for neglecting you all these years. She told me to get on and sort it out.’
That last bit dispelled any doubts I might have had as to the state of mind of my godfather. He had gone mad. Rose would never tell him or anyone else to ‘get on and sort it out’. Getting on was not what Rose did. Rose rested and she hesitated, she shook her head and hid her face, she wandered and fl oated but she did not get on with it. Nor did she sort things out. Instead she smiled sweetly at a problem. Sometimes she laughed at it.
She walked round it and over it and under it. She did not sort it out. That’s what the rest of the world had been for.
‘Uncle Ian, Rose can’t be angry.’ I paused. It was hard to go on. ‘She can’t be anything.’
‘I’m telling you that I saw her. You can believe me or not.’
This was a man who had worn two watches, each for a diff erent time zone. A man, who when he closed a factory, closed a town; a man who had never to my knowledge sat in a soft chair. I should not let the voice that had become as unreliable as that of an adolescent boy mislead me, nor the fact that he seemed to be seeing ghosts; Uncle Ian remained the kind of man who brooked no arguments.
‘She told me to get in touch with you and she was right to do so. My neglect of you, my betrayal of your dear father’s trust, has weighed heavy on my conscience and . . .’
‘But you were entirely right to feel the way you did.’ I must have been shouting because the woman hurrying past, laden with Harrods bags, stopped abruptly and stared. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary, just a woman speaking too loudly on her mobile, she hurried on, her expression once more refl ecting only the usual despair of the Christmas shopper.
‘Rose doesn’t think so. She wants me to make amends. And I agree with her.’
I looked around me for reassurance but the world had slipped out of focus and for now, remained that way. Th e people, the
cars, the buildings, all appeared distorted, like refl ections in a funfair mirror, the kind that were supposed to make you laugh.
Never being able to make amends, I thought, was a particular kind of hell. I said, ‘Of course I’ll come.’
‘Thank you, Eliza,’ the old man said. ‘I’ll tell Rose. She will be very pleased.’