A Stringed Instrument Ch. 07byBramblethorn©
75-year-old female, pathological fracture of the humerus with suspected osteosarcoma.
Which is to say: Phoebe's yaya Kalliope, cancer growing in her arm, eating away at the bone until it became weak enough to break as she dug out a garden bed.
Phoebe called me on Monday afternoon. I'd just sat down for a catch-up with my manager Susan, having spent the morning clearing the backlog after my week away, and ordinarily I would've ignored my phone. But it wasn't like Phoebe to call me at work, so I apologised to Susan and hurried off to a store room where I could talk without being overheard. That's where she told me what she'd heard from her father a few minutes earlier.
"Shit. Oh, Phoebe, I'm so sorry. Are you okay?"
She sounded like she'd been crying. "They'll need to do a biopsy, but it sounded like they were pretty sure. Dad hasn't been able to talk to the oncologist yet, he's going to call me back later."
"I just... I... She's always been so healthy. She's been saying her arm was hurting, I told her to see a doctor, but I just thought it was arthritis or something." A wet sniffle. "But she wouldn't go. She doesn't like doctors or hospitals."
"Not your fault. Phoebe, are you okay?"
A sigh: "Not really. I've got a student in fifteen minutes, too late to cancel. I'll manage."
"Is there anything I can do here? Cats to feed? I can get to..." I realised I didn't actually know where Yaya's place was.
"No, last one died a couple of years ago. I don't think there's anything you can do just now, but thanks."
"Well, let me know if there is. But I wish I was there to give you a hug."
"God, yes. I could do with that. You give good hugs... um, I'm sorry, I didn't think, are you at work?"
"Yeah, but it can wait. Happy to talk as long as you need me."
"I want to, but... if I talk now, I'll get all wound up again, and I need to have it together for my student. I should go. Call me later tonight?"
Susan gave me a concerned look as I returned to her office. "Everything okay?"
"Friend had some bad news. Sorry about that, didn't want to leave her hanging."
"Not a problem. So, how was the course?"
I told her what I'd learned in my training course. When somebody spends money on you it's politic to let them know they got their money's worth, so I'd spent the flight back making a list of things from the course that might be useful to us. After that I reassured her that I was getting through my backlog, and then we drifted into social chat.
"And did you have a good trip? Did you get to do anything besides work?"
"Oh yes!" It came across a little more enthusiastic than I'd intended. "Um, yes, Sydney was very nice."
"And how's your aunt?"
"My — oh, yeah, I didn't end up staying with her."
Susan looked at me, eyebrows raised, until I felt myself starting to blush. "That good, eh?"
"Well, I'm glad you had a nice time. No reason why you can't enjoy a business trip, as long as the work gets done."
I was spared further embarrassment — at least for a few minutes — by a knock on the door.
It was Peter, holding a sheaf of papers. "Afternoon Susan. Yvonne." A tiny nod in my direction. "Susan, have you seen RJ around?"
"No, what's up?"
"I need to talk to him about the Redmond deal. He was supposed to be in this afternoon but I haven't seen him, and his phone's switched off. Janelle doesn't know where he is."
"Sorry Peter, I haven't seen him either. I hope he's all right. I'll let you know if he does show up."
I was vaguely aware of the Redmond Barry from office buzz. It was a pub near Southern Cross Station that had been sitting derelict for almost twenty years, owned by a string of businessmen who'd been content to wait and watch their investment as the land value went up and up (and occasionally down).
But recently it had fallen into the hands of a developer who planned to knock it down and build a residential tower on the space. Eventually they'd want somebody to find tenants or buyers. Say close to a million per apartment, ten apartments on every floor, forty floors, and even at a one percent commission (plus incidentals) that's good money. Word had it we were putting in a bid for the job, and maybe Peter's business really was urgent.
So after Peter left, I closed the door and told Susan, "I don't think RJ's going to be in today. His mother's in hospital, he's there with her."
"Oh dear! Where'd you hear that?" I couldn't blame her for sounding surprised; I'm usually the last to know the gossip. And there was no sense in being evasive; that would just get her suspicions.
"That was Phoebe that called me before."
"Oh, RJ's daughter? You know her?"
"Yeah, we met at the Christmas party."
"That's right, I remember you were talking to her. Doesn't she live in..."
And then she gave me a sharp look, and I felt a twinge of oh-fuck in my gut.
"Yvonne, am I right in supposing...?"
She didn't need to finish the question; my silence was all the answer she needed. Softly: "Be careful, Yvonne. You might be playing with fire there. RJ doesn't know, does he? He's not a bad sort, but he's a bit old-fashioned. I don't know that he'd handle it well, not with his daughter involved."
"Yeah, I gathered. I didn't exactly plan it, it just sort of happened."
"Well. You're both adults, and he's certainly not going to hear about it from me. Just be careful."
There was an uncomfortable so-enough-about-my-sex-life sort of silence, and I decided to change the subject. Looking for diversions, I noticed a framed photo on the desk: Susan at some holiday park, standing in between a goateed man who I assumed was her husband Danny and a teenage girl who hadn't yet lost her puppy-fat. "I meant to ask, how're things going with Zara?"
"Oh, not too bad. She relaxed a bit when we were camping. She's not the outdoor type, but I think she was glad to get away from things for a while. Still not sure whether to come out to her friends. What do you think?"
"Hard to say. I didn't, but maybe she has better friends than me." Although if there's one thing I learned from school, it's not to depend to heavily on the good nature of schoolgirls. "But I hope she understands, once she tells her friends, everyone else in the school knows too."
"Yeah, that was my worry." She glanced at the clock. "Well, I've kept you a while, better let you get back to things. Don't work too hard!"
After getting home I had dinner, checked my email, and then called Phoebe.
"Hey there, gorgeous. How're you holding up?"
"Oh... coping. Better than Dad, anyway."
"Want to talk about it?"
"No. Maybe later. Right now I just want someone to hold me and say nice things to me and make me feel okay."
"I noticed. So say something nice."
"Well. There's a lady I know. She's beautiful. Sexy. Talented. Charming."
"Oh, at first I thought you were talking about me."
"Shut up and take a compliment, woman. Where was I? And she worries a lot, because she doesn't want to take the easy path in life. And that's part of what makes her interesting to know, and not just some snotty little rich girl. She plays the cello beautifully, and she's pretty good at cribbage too. But she has one really big flaw."
"She's not in Melbourne. If she was in Melbourne I'd be able to hold her so tight. I'd cradle her head in my lap, and I'd stroke her beautiful long hair for as long as she wanted. And while I was doing that, I'd have a nice warm bath running."
"That sounds nice. Are there bubbles?"
"For you, I would organise bubbles. And then when you were ready, I'd take you into the bathroom and undress you."
"I was going to say. If you spend too long stroking my hair, the bath will overflow."
"It's a very big bath. Big enough that I can sit behind you and scrub your back with a scratchy sponge."
"Mmm. That would be nice. Do you have soap?"
"Plain and fancy. The fancy one smells of chocolate and it has little bits of glitter in it. I think I'd use that one on you." I did indeed have sparkly chocolate soap. I don't usually buy that stuff for myself, but they'd thrown it in as a freebie when I was doing my Christmas shopping. "I'd soap your back and your sides. Nice warm water."
"Mmm. Leaning back into your arms."
"Snuggling you tight. Whispering nice things to you. Lips on the back of your neck."
"I miss that. I wish I was there."
"Soaping you all over."
"Unless you stopped me."
"I wasn't complaining. Yvonne, right now you can do anything you want, as long as you're kind to me."
"Lots of soap, then. Making sure your front is clean."
"Mmm-hmm. Where are your feet?"
"Stretched out either side of you. Probably over your ankles, why?"
"I think I'd like to stroke them. While you wash me."
"You can do that. I'd be running a cloth over your chest. Soapy and warm and a little bit scratchy. Especially on your nipples and your areolae."
"Mmm. Fancy words. Snuggled back in your arms and purring."
"Still rubbing the cloth over your breasts. Dunking it into the water to keep it warm. Arms enclosing you."
"Fingertips stroking your throat. Lifting your chin."
"Bringing my hands up to cover your other hand on my chest."
"Tugging on your chin, drawing you around until our lips touch."
"Kissing you. Hands tight on yours."
"And my fingers tightening on your breasts, squeezing and scratching. Pressing your knees between mine. My right hand letting go of your chin and moving down to stroke your belly."
"Kissing you so deep and slow. My hands on yours."
"My lips warm and wanting you. Right hand twisting back to catch your fingers between mine."
"Lips coming back to kiss your neck and the curve of your shoulder. Then at your ear. Heat of my breath. One hand still pressing the washer against your breasts and the other slipping below the waterline. Taking yours with it."
"Guiding your fingers down between your legs, and my hand slipping out from under yours and catching your wrist. Whispering in your ear."
"Bringing your hand between your legs. Telling you what I want."
"Yvonne. What do you want?"
"I want to feel you come while I hold you. Wrapped in my arms and the lovely heat of the water."
"Mmm. Running a finger over my lips. Over my clit."
"Water lapping at your sides and your belly. My voice in your ear telling you how utterly beautiful you are."
"I want this so much. Feeling calm and safe." I could hear her breathing, just slightly faster and shallower than normal.
"Cloth running over your breasts one last time. Then I let it go and continue with just my hand. Kissing the nape of your neck."
"Oh, yes." A catch in her throat.
"Don't stop. You're so fucking gorgeous when you come."
"You should... know." Her voice disjointed, interrupted by the rhythm of her fingers. "Tell me again... what you want."
"I want you to come in my arms. Want to feel every shiver and gasp."
Little gasps, building and building...
"I'm holding you."
Only ragged breathing at the other end of the phone, faster, faster, and then the sounds tumbled out. "Ah! ah! Oh!"
Her breathing, slowing again as I listened, curled up on my bed. "Phoebe..."
"Oh, Yvonne... mmm. That was so nice. Now I miss having a bathtub... you know, that brings back memories."
"Used to have an eight a.m. class at the Conservatorium. Hated getting up early on cold winter mornings. I'd run the bath as hot as I could... lie back in the water half-asleep... set myself... off."
"You sound like you're fading."
"I am." A badly-stifled yawn. "Bed for me."
"Good night. Sleep tight. Think of me holding you, and I'll talk to you tomorrow."
After that we talked most evenings. On top of the lessons she taught, Phoebe was practising two hours in the morning and another three at night in preparation for an audition with the Philharmonic, so she'd call me around ten when she was done for the day and we'd lie in bed and chat. Sometimes we flirted, or went beyond flirting. Often we just chatted about our days and our enthusiasms, but now and then she'd tell me how things were going with Yaya.
The doctors had put a brace on Kalliope's arm, to stabilise and protect it until they could deal with the cancer and allow it to heal. The plan from here was a couple of months of chemo to shrink it down and get it manageable, then surgery, then more chemo in case they'd missed anything.
"The oncologist told Dad, usually what they do is take out the tumour, and put in a pin or something to strengthen the bone. Sometimes they have to amputate if there's too much damage to the bone, but the X-ray wasn't too bad so they're hoping to avoid that."
"Brr. Even so, that's a lot for anybody, let alone at her age."
"Yeah, Dad said they suggested just doing the surgery straight away and skipping the chemo, because it can be almost as dangerous as the cancer for somebody her age. But Yaya is... look, Grandpa died of lung cancer. I was only three and I don't really remember him, but from what Dad says it was pretty horrible for her. She quit cold turkey after forty years of smoking. And this one, they said if it spreads, it often spreads to the lungs. I talked to her yesterday, and she said she doesn't care what she dies of as long as it wasn't drowning, fire, or cancer."
"Fair enough. So how's she bearing up?"
"Okay, I think. They let her go home for now. Dad's paying for a live-in private nurse, and he visits most nights too. She starts chemo tomorrow and they're going to keep her in hospital a while for that, but if she's well enough between cycles she'll be happier if she can be in her own place."
"Not moving into your dad's place?"
"No, he suggested it, but he must be the only Greek guy in Australia who can't talk his mum into moving in with him. She's lived in that house fifty years, and she loves it too much to move. Especially the garden. When I talked to her, she spent half the time telling me how angry she is about the weeds she can't pull out with her arm like it is. Hey, I was thinking..."
"I'm planning to come down on the eleventh —" that was a Saturday, about two weeks away "— and stay for a few days. Spend time with Yaya and try to beat the garden into shape. See if it helps cheer her up. How do you feel about —"
"Helping out? Love to. I need to get outside more anyway."
"Great. So you know, I probably won't be able to stay with you while I'm down, but I want to see you. We'll figure something out."
"I'd love that."
And so I counted down two weeks. Yaya started chemo; as Phoebe had expected, she spent a couple of days in hospital before they let her go home again. RJ was back in the office, and if anybody but Susan and myself knew why he'd been away, I didn't hear anything about it on the grapevine.
Most of the talk in the office kitchen was about the Redmond Barry deal. RJ and Peter were keeping quiet about what we were planning to offer, but the rumours were enough to induce salivation in anybody who got paid by commission.
Susan explained a little of the economics to me: every time you sell a house, you have to do the work of selling that particular house. Talk to the vendor about what they want. Take photos that make it look like something out of a Thomas Kinkade painting. Write and pay for an ad tailored to the individual property ("musty smell" becomes "authentic heritage charm", "noise pollution" becomes "close to all facilities"). Show up for a month of Saturday mornings to host half-hour inspections before rushing off to some other house two suburbs over. And so on, all for maybe ten or fifteen thousand in commission and the chance to offer finance to anybody stupid enough to bid on a house without already having a loan approved. The next time you want to sell a house, you have to go through all that work all over again.
If you're selling four hundred apartments, all brand-new and most of them identical, you don't need to do those things four hundred times. Nice work if you can get it. And for those of us who get paid on salary, well, RJ had a reputation for giving decent bonuses when he was in a good mood.
So I spent my spare time at work making a few tweaks and fixes to our website — wouldn't do to have it looking shabby should the developers feel like checking us out — and checked capacity to make sure we could handle the load of advertising several hundred new properties. At home, I nagged Aleks about the housework and hung out online.
The time passed slowly, and sometimes I chafed at how long it felt. But every time, I remembered the real reason Phoebe was visiting and felt selfish, and then consoled myself with the thought that she'd call soon. But she never called early, never before ten o'clock on a weeknight. So I was surprised on the Tuesday night before her visit, when the phone rang at eight.
"Hey, little sister. What have you done?" My brother's favourite running gag. It was corny, but I'd become fond of it.
"John! Oh, I'm sorry, I've been horribly slack. I haven't called you in ages. How are you and Cat?"
Cat was a new girlfriend who'd come into the picture just before Christmas. I'd only met her once, and for all I knew the whole thing could have fizzled since I'd talked to John last. But I was spared the embarrassment. "Doing really well. We went bowling yesterday with her and some of her friends, had a great time. And how are you? How's work?"
"Busy, but not bad. Mum and Dad?"
"Oh yeah, they're good. Listen, Yvonne, I can't talk long tonight, got things on the stove, but do you want to come over for dinner on the weekend? Just me and Cat?"
"What, this weekend? I'm not sure, I may be booked."
"Film buddies?" I had a small group of friends from uni days and previous work; now and then we'd get together to watch the most awful sci-fi or horror movie we could find and mock the hell out of it. A couple of times I'd dragged John along when he was at a loose end.
"No, it's... there's this girl coming down from Sydney."
"Oh. Seeing someone?"
"I think so. Yeah, I guess I am."
"Well, now you've decided that, do you want to bring her over?"
"I'd like to, but not sure she's ready for that. And this weekend might be busy, her grandma's sick and I said I'd help in the garden."
"You, gardening? Voluntarily? Fuck me, this must be serious. Is she nice?"
"Yeah. Yeah, she is. Look, I'd love for you to meet her, but she's got a lot going on in her life right now and I'm not sure she's ready yet. I'll have to take a rain check on that."
"Well, okay. Tell her I'm looking forward to meeting you, and if the weekend's no good... what about this Thursday instead?"
"Deal. Gotta run now, catch you later sis. Bye!"
Two hours later, talking to Phoebe:
"My brother John said I should bring you over for dinner some time."
"You told him about us?"
"Yeah." Silence from the phone. "Well, I told him I was dating someone. And that she was nice. That's about it. I didn't tell him your name, I didn't tell him how I knew you."
"Oh, okay. Sorry, I just thought —"
"Phoebe, he's not an idiot. Even if I had told him who you were, he's not going to go shouting it all over Melbourne."
"Okay, okay. Don't mind me, just overreacting."
"Um. Something else you should know then, Susan at work figured it out. My manager. But she knows better than to talk about it." I explained how it'd happened.
"Well." Another long silence; I imagined her at the other end of the line, frowning. "Well... can't be helped. I hope you're right about her. But we need to be careful from here. I've got enough drama in my life just now without looking for more, and I don't think sleeping with the boss's daughter is going to help your career prospects."