A Stringed Instrument Ch. 12byBramblethorn©
When I got back from lunch, I told Susan I'd be taking leave on Thursday for a funeral. She nodded absently, but took a sudden interest when I mentioned it was for Phoebe's mother.
"Helen? Really? I didn't think she was that old."
"She wasn't. She had a car accident and they think it triggered a heart attack."
"Oh, that's awful. Poor RJ, no wonder he wasn't in today. You know they were still married?"
"I did, yeah. I didn't know you knew her."
"A little. I was working here before they separated, she came in now and then. Well. I suppose I should send flowers..." She trailed off, looking into space, and I left her to it. I had work to catch up on, and more if I was going to be away next week.
I worked late that evening and slept in on Saturday morning. I'd just gotten dressed and headed out the door to do my grocery shopping when Phoebe called me around midday.
"Hi, gorgeous. Hey, can I get a sanity check on something?"
"Sure, what's up?"
"We've been talking about the funeral. Yaya wants to bring in a priest to run the service."
"Was your mum religious?"
"We went to church a bit when I was little, but I don't think she's been in decades. And Yaya thinks Dad and I should give the eulogy."
"And not Scott?"
"And not Scott. She doesn't think he should speak. Because they'd only been together a year and they weren't married."
"That's... not right."
"Yeah, I know. Just trying to figure out whether it's worth arguing with her. She's pretty stubborn at the moment."
"Honestly? I've never met this Scott, but I have to think it'd be pretty awful for him to be treated like that. Especially on top of the morgue business."
"Yeah." I heard a long sigh. "Yeah, I think I'm going to have to pick a fight. Wish me luck."
I'd barely stowed my phone when I had an idea, pulled it out, and called her back.
"I just thought of something. How would your grandma be if your aunts do the eulogy? It's still family but it means you're not putting one partner ahead of another."
"Hm, that could work. I might try that if I need a compromise. Okay, I'd better go back in now."
"Cool. And here's my tram. Love you."
"You too. Bye!"
I dawdled at the shops; I didn't want to be wrangling a week's worth of groceries one-handed if Phoebe called back while I was in the middle of things. But after procrastinating in a bookshop for half an hour and then stopping for a leisurely lunch nearby, I still hadn't heard from her, so I bit the bullet and got on with it, and was home again before she called.
"Hey there, 'Vonne."
"Heya darling. Good timing, just finished unpacking my groceries. How'd it go?"
"She wasn't happy, but Dad backed me up. The aunts are going to do most of it, Dad says a bit, Scott says a bit. And we persuaded her that since Mum left the church a long time ago, it wouldn't make sense to have a priest, so that's off the table, thank God."
"Oh good. I was pretty sure you'd be able to work something out, your grandma seems like a sensible lady at heart."
"Yeah, usually she is. When she's not getting poisoned and irradiated and operated on, you know."
"I can't imagine it'd help my patience. So, are you speaking?"
"No. We've got enough speakers already, and honestly, I don't know what I'd say. I don't want to get up and say 'She left when I was seven and I didn't see much of her after that'. And I don't want to pretend everything was lovely and normal. So I'm going to stick to the cello instead. Speaking of which, sorry to leave you, but I really should go practise."
"Fair enough. I'm going out with the sci-fi buddies tonight, but my phone's on vibrate if you need me. Love?"
"Love you. Oh, by the way, should I work out my own travel there, or can I get a lift with you guys?"
"I need to talk to Dad about that. Let me get back to you tomorrow."
"No problem. Later!"
I was glad to get out for a night of mindless entertainment, sitting in a beanbag at a friend's place and heckling some of the worst monster movies the fifties could produce. Although I loved Phoebe dearly, I was feeling a little drained after playing emotional support for so long and I needed to recharge my batteries.
It was three in the morning when I got home, and I slept until eleven. I got out of my shower to find a message on my voicemail:
"Hello, Yvonne? About Thursday? Turns out the chapel Dad's booked at the funeral home is quite small, so they need to restrict it to Mum's family and close friends. I'm really sorry. I wish you could be there. I'll call you later, okay?"
I didn't hear much from Phoebe over the next couple of days; she was busy helping RJ with the arrangements. When we did talk, a few minutes here and there stolen from her family, she seemed preoccupied and distant. She spoke only of trivialities: a broken cello string, the missionaries who'd come by to pester them while she was practising, all the trouble she'd had trying to use RJ's rewards points to book hotel rooms in Ballarat.
More than ever I felt the frustration of being back in a closet that I thought I'd escaped long ago. I wanted to be there with her, sharing her troubles, instead of hiding from her family. And I wanted to ask her: are you merely busy? Or are you retreating into your shell, and should I try to bring you out again? Or are you pulling away from me?
But I kept it to myself. She had enough on her plate already without having to coddle my insecurities as well.
On the Tuesday night, I phoned her. I figured she'd be with RJ and Yaya, but one call from a friend two days before the funeral could hardly raise suspicions. We spoke for a little while, and I told her, "You're strong and brave, and you'll get through this. I love you."
I could hear RJ in the background, and Phoebe only said, "Thanks, take care. I might call you on Thursday night, I'll see how things are. Gotta go now. Bye!" But a few minutes later I got a text from her: Can't talk, but I love you. Not much of a girlfriend, am I? Sorry.
You do what you need to do, don't worry about me.
Then I added: Some time when this is over I'll come visit. Quality time, just us.
When I came in on Wednesday there was a sticky note on my desk to say that Susan wouldn't be in. That suited me; although I liked and respected her, she'd been generating a lot of work for me on the Redmond Barry project. A day without Susan would give me a chance to catch up on the everyday work that needed doing. Really exciting stuff, like installing software updates and ordering printer cartridges.
All the time I thought of Phoebe and what she must be doing: getting dressed, packing her rented cello into RJ's four-wheel drive, driving a hundred kilometres down the Great Western Highway to Ballarat. I imagined her sitting in the back — Yaya would be in front — looking out the window as the trees flickered by, thinking of her mother. And thinking of me?
When I came home Aleks was in the lounge room with a couple of his regular drinking buddies: Michel (think Vladimir Lenin's scruffier brother just after dropping out of art school) and Renee (tomboyish lass doing a communications degree, specialising in something that was either complete bullshit or too clever for me to comprehend). They were arguing about sculpture and politics over a bottle of Scotch and it sounded as if they were ready to make an evening of it.
I wasn't feeling sociable so I said a quick hello, fixed myself dinner, and retreated to my bedroom to eat and surf the net. At nine o'clock I caught myself reloading my email twice in thirty seconds and admitted that I was just killing time, the way I tend to do when I'm feeling lonely, so I shut things down and changed into my pyjamas.
Buzz. A message from Phoebe. A single verse, borrowed from some anonymous poet of five hundred years ago:
Westron wind, when wilt thou blow, that the small rain down can rain? Christ! That my love were in my arms, and I in my bed again!
I started on a reply, but no matter how I arranged my words it kept looking like useless platitudes. After deleting three drafts I admitted that there was nothing I could say to her to make this better. But perhaps there was something else I could do...
I walked out into the lounge and raised my voice to be heard over an increasingly raucous debate: "Aleks? Can I ask a favour?"
"Oh! I'm shouting too loud, isn't it?"
"Actually, if you say yes, then you can shout all you want." Or until the other tenants call the cops, whichever.
"Even better! What do you want?"
I told him. After he'd agreed, I messaged Phoebe: Can I call you in a couple of hours? Will you still be up then?
Yeah why not. Can't sleep anyway.
Talk to you then.
True to my word, I called on the dot of eleven-fifteen. She had her own hotel room, so we could talk without disturbing her family.
"Hey there, Yvonne."
"Hey, darling. How're you doing?"
"Feeling like crap."
"Wanna talk about it?"
"I don't know. It's all tangled up in my head, I don't think I can get it out yet."
"Love, are you dressed?"
"Yeah, haven't got my act together to go to bed yet. Why?"
"I'm outside looking up at the moon. It's beautiful and big, almost full. If you step out of your room and look up, we'll both be looking at the same moon together."
"And I thought I was sentimental." I heard the rattle of the door handle, and she stepped outside. "I'm on the balcony looking up at it now. Oh, it is huge tonight, isn't it?"
"Now look down, across the car park." And I put away my phone and stepped out onto the asphalt, under the sodium lights. I saw her mouth make an 'o' of surprise as she caught sight of me, and then she rushed to the stairs. By the time she got down I was there at the bottom. She flung her arms around me and I hugged her so tight I lifted her off the ground.
"Yvonne! How are you here?"
"Borrowed Aleks' car." An adventure in itself, but let's not dwell on that. "You mentioned the hotels you were looking at back when you were having that trouble with the booking, so I drove around and looked for that." I pointed at RJ's car. "I have to leave around six-thirty so I can return the car and get back for work, but until then, here I am."
"Oh, darling." She squeezed my ribs. "Thank you so much. You shouldn't have, but I'm glad you did."
"Do you want to go for a walk, or can we use your room? What are the walls like?"
"Thick enough, we can talk. Let's go inside. I don't think Dad's going to come out, but just in case..."
So I slipped into Phoebe's room and we locked the door behind us.
"Want to talk?"
"I don't know." Her eyes were quite red, and she sounded sniffly. "Feeling small and unlikeable. Can we just sit for a while?"
"Sure." There was a small couch in front of the TV, upholstered in a hostile shade of tartan, and we sat side by side. Phoebe was still radiating tension, and I turned around and started massaging her shoulders and her scalp.
"Oh, honey, you've always been good at that. Don't stop."
I kept going. Normally when massaging I try to find the focus of the tension and concentrate on that, but that night it was everywhere; I just did the best I could. After several minutes she spoke.
"Wanna hear something fucked up?"
"I told you the teenage fantasy? Greatest cellist in the world, tragic death lamented by millions of grieving fans, all that? The other part of it, I wouldn't tell Mum anything about it. She'd just read about it in the papers and see how awesome I was, what a huge mistake she'd made walking away from us.
"Then one day I'd be interviewed on TV. Terminally ill but being very brave about it, and I'd talk about how much I owed to Dad and Yaya. The interviewer says 'You never mention your mother Helen, but it must have had a huge effect on you when she abandoned you so young.' And I put on my most gracious face and tell her, 'To be honest, I've never really thought about it much, she had such a small role in my life. I've always thought of my grandmother Kalliope as my de facto mother.' And of course Mum and her friends would hear all that, and she'd feel awful. And when I was on my celebrity deathbed, she'd want to apologise for everything, and I'd just tell her 'It's too late'. God, aren't I a horrible person?"
"I can understand you being angry. It's a big thing, especially at that age. I know I had my revenge fantasies as a teenager."
"Thing is, I never really let go of it. Every time I go in for an audition, I've thought about that." She hugged her arms to her chest. "Joke's on me now. Stupid thing is, even if I had become a star and done all that... I don't know whether it would have gotten to her at all. Maybe she wouldn't even have cared."
"Yeah, she would have."
Phoebe turned to look at me over her shoulder. "How can you know that?"
"We talked a bit, the other week, after you guys went to hospital. Well, mostly she talked. She said she snuck into one of your concerts in Sydney, and she was so proud of you."
"She did? No, I don't believe it. When?"
"I don't know. But I think she meant it."
"I don't understand. If she wanted to see me play, why not tell me?"
"Maybe she was afraid you'd say no?"
I hadn't felt her crying, but there were shiny streaks on her face. "How should I feel about that? Does that make up for all the years she wasn't around? Should I have called her up and said 'everything's forgiven, mum'? I don't... god, if I'd known this was going to happen..."
She was shuddering, sobbing, and I pulled her into my chest and rocked her from side to side. I didn't try to hush her, just let her cry until my shirt was soggy with tears and snot.
"I wish I could fix things for you, love."
"Can't fix this. Not now."
"Let's get you out of these and into bed." I undressed her, tucked her in, and then stripped off myself. Before I climbed in beside her, I set my alarm to six-thirty and switched out the lights.
"One thing, love. It's not going to help you right now, but maybe it will later on. You don't have to feel just one thing about it. It's okay to be glad she came to see you and angry about the other stuff. And you don't have to feel guilty about it. You're not going to hurt her feelings."
She said nothing, but she settled a little in my arms. She was still tense and it felt as if there was more she wanted to say, but whatever it was, she wasn't ready to say it. Some things take time, and the most you can do for the one you love is help them get through the hours and the days until they find their own sort of peace.
So I did my best to soothe her, rubbing her temples and forehead and talking softly, until at last both of us drifted off. It must have been at least six hours, but it felt like I'd only slept a few minutes before my alarm woke me again. I was in the exact same position I'd fallen asleep in, clasping her protectively, and I had to wriggle to get my arm out from under her and switch off my alarm, but she didn't stir.
I dressed as quietly as I could, and when I was ready to leave I bent to kiss her on the cheek. Although her eyes were shut, something in her breathing made me think she was awake.
"Goodbye, love," I whispered. "I wish I could be there with you today. I'll be thinking of you all day and I'll talk to you tonight."
But she made no reply, and I thought perhaps I'd been mistaken. I picked up my overnight bag, and I was at the door when she spoke.
"Yvonne. I do love you, you know that?" Poor thing, she sounded so strained.
"I do." I went back, kissed her again — she still hadn't opened her eyes — and then left.
I would gladly have called in late for work, for the sake of another hour curled up with Phoebe. But RJ seemed like the type to be an early riser, and to bump into him on my way out of Phoebe's room — it didn't bear thinking about.
The drive back was unpleasant. I was weary, handling an unfamiliar car, and I was distracted by thoughts of Phoebe, of work, of trivia like the shirt I still hadn't been able to find. (It's a small thing, but it niggled at me: where had I forgotten to look?) My concentration on the road kept wavering, even after I stopped for a vile-tasting energy drink, and a couple of times I found myself on the verge of dozing. I stopped to stretch my legs, hoping to wake myself up — it didn't help — and then got caught up in heavy traffic coming into Melbourne.
By the time I got home it was a quarter to nine. I dashed inside, dropped Aleks' keys on the bench and my bag in the bedroom, then ran for the train. I prepared to make my apologies to Susan; I was sure she'd be understanding.
But when I got in and checked my email, in amidst the tech-support requests and mailing-list messages there was one that caught my eye. From Peter to everybody in head office, sent at 8:35 am:
ATTN ALL - SUSAN HAS REQD INDEFINTE LEAVE EFF IMMEDIATLEY FOR PERSONAL REASON'S. IN HER ABSENCE I WILL MANAGE ALL MATTER'S RELATING TO REDMOND BARRY APARTMENT'S AND TERRY WILL HANDLE SUSAN'S OTHER CLIENT'S.
And another to me personally, sent at 8:40:
YVONNE I AM YOUR MANAGER WHILE SUSAN'S ON LEAVE. SEE ME AT 9 TO DISCUSS YOUR WORK ON THE RB PROJECT.
Nine o'clock, that would be... almost thirty minutes ago. Shit. I locked my PC and hurried to Peter's office.
It was not a good meeting. He was cross that I was late. Of course, I couldn't give him a good reason why, beyond "I had to go out last night to see a friend". He wanted to ask all sorts of questions about our website, second-guessing decisions Susan and I had made weeks ago, and in my tired state I couldn't give satisfactory answers. It was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I came out of his office forty-five minutes later with a flea in my ear and instructions to send him a full status report before I went home.
The only shred of satisfaction in all of it was looking at him and thinking: That chair you're sitting in, that's where I told my girlfriend I loved her. And the sex was probably better than anything you've ever had.
I worked through lunch and well into the afternoon, collating my notes and documentation into a briefing. I considered trying to snow Peter under with technical detail, but decided it would be unwise. Although he was obnoxious and technically inept, he wasn't an all-round idiot. RJ wouldn't have made him a branch head if he had been. If he saw through me, I'd just have made things worse for myself. Besides, I reminded myself, I was a grown-up and grown-ups don't play those games.
By the time I finished the briefing and hit 'send', the sun had set outside and my stomach was growling something fierce. I grabbed a sandwich on the way home, and it was only as I finished eating it that I realised I hadn't heard anything from Phoebe all day. I sent her a short message:
Hey there, hope you're feeling OK.
Fifteen minutes later: yeah I'm managing. With family now. Will prob call tomorrow.
Take care. Thinking of you.
I got home and was about to try for an early night when I remembered the other thing that had been lurking at the back of my mind: what was up with Susan?
She'd given me her mobile number soon after I started working at RJC, but I'd never copied it to my phone and it took me a few minutes to find it in an old email. I wasn't sure whether it would be bad manners to call her while she was on leave, so I settled for a text that she could ignore if she chose:
Hey Susan, Yvonne here. Just heard you're on leave, hope you're OK. Best - Y.
Almost immediately she called me back and told me the story. She'd reported the Facebook page to Zara's school principal, who'd talked to the girls involved. After that she'd heard no more about bullying, and had assumed it'd eased off — until she came home on Tuesday night and found Zara comatose in the bathroom next to an empty bottle of bourbon and a razorblade. She'd been fortunate, this time; she'd passed out from the booze before she got around to using the blade, and they pumped her stomach in time to avoid any serious damage from the alcohol.