To Absent Friends
‘Don’t you miss her?’ I enquired tentatively, nervously sipping my vodka. He had poured it so swiftly and carelessly that most of it was pooling on the polished wooden kitchen counter. I brushed the drips from my suede skirt.
‘Miss her? You are joking aren’t you? Have you any idea how much I’ve had to put up with for the last seven years? Miss her? I’d rather live with a gorilla!’ Steve raised his voice, his bitter words carving a cold current into the air.
‘Well, it’s just that it seemed rather a sudden decision, that’s all. I’m surprised, as is everyone else. Are you sure …’
Steve interrupted me, slapping his long, slender hand on the counter, unable to hide the pain and visibly wincing as he began to make a point. ‘Look! What’s done is done. I have no regrets. You didn’t have to live with her day by day, night by night, listening to her demands, her wailings, the way she constantly criticised everyone. Mostly me. I asked myself for years, what had I done to deserve this shrew? She wasn’t like that before, was she?’ Steve raised his eyes to meet mine. I wanted to pat him like one does to a cocker spaniel who has lost his bone. But Steve hadn’t lost a bone, he’d lost the plot and love him as I did, there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
‘Drink up, Steve. And you can pour me another while you’re at it. The counter drank most of mine. Got a dishcloth?’
‘A dish cloth,’ he repeated stupidly. ‘Oh, yeah, here’s something.’ He reached for a grotty sponge that sat on the edge of the sink. ‘Use this.’ He opened the fridge door and pulled out the ice tray. It was empty. ‘You’ll have to drink it without ice. She forgot to fill it up. Typical.’
‘And I suppose that was one of her jobs, was it? To replenish the ice trays? She doesn’t drink. Must have had better things to do.’
‘Don’t you start. I’ve had it up to me bleeding eye balls. Are you on my side, or what?’ He gave one of his belligerent looks.
‘I’m not on anyone’s side. Look, this conversation is not going anywhere. You’re angry and tired. I’m reaching the end of my listening tether. I’m going home to finish my thesis. Call me tomorrow when you’re calmer.’ I got off the stool.
‘Calmer! That’s a joke. How can I be calm after the chaos she left me? What am I going to eat? I’ve got a dozen shirts that need ironing. The bloody dog hasn’t had a walk for a week. There’s no ice in the trays,’ he wailed, pouring a large vodka for himself but not me. ‘Do you have to go? Like, straight away?’ he pleaded, looking like a cocker spaniel again.
I resisted his look and picked up my jacket where it trailed on the back of the stool.
‘Steve, pull yourself together. You wanted her to go, right? Well, you got your wish. She’s gone so live with it. And now I’m going, Okay?’ Again, I muttered under my breath before I pecked him on the cheek and walked towards the front door before he could start more wheedling.
The phone rang several times before it was picked up. Steve wasn’t any calmer than he’d been the night before. His mood had turned sour, well, more sour if I was being honest.
‘Whad’ya want?’ he threw at me crossly.
‘Just checking to see if you’re all right,’ I tried to keep my cool.
‘Course I’m not all right. I’ve got a head like a melon and every bone in my body is aching. And before you say it, yes, I know. Self-inflicted. Still, it numbed everything for a while. You coming over after work?’
‘On the reception. I will not put up with a repeat of last night.’ I said but knew I probably would.
‘Okay. I promise. I’ll even clean up the kitchen a bit. And I’ll order in a pizza. Satisfied?’
‘All right then,’ I sighed into the phone, annoyed that I’d been persuaded so easily. ‘See you later.’
‘Good. That’ll be good. Oh, and bring some wine will you? There isn’t any left. She probably took that too!’ Steve hung up.
He was on my mind a lot that day. Cara had perhaps been his favourite. In fact, if one must be truthful, she was a lot like me. I say that without ego pushing its nose in. We were both much too compliant, too patient, too forgiving for a man who was intolerably spoilt and who was oblivious to any needs other than his own. Yet, there was, and is whilst I am still being truthful, an essence about Steve that couldn’t be overlooked. Apart from his social charm that would guarantee any comfort he required, there was this other side that one couldn’t quite put one’s finger on. That was the thing that most stunned us, because we never knew what it was. We had been drawn to him like a magnet. The fact that I was number one and she was number three, didn’t faze us in the slightest. Now, why was that? And now, the latest contender in the Steve stakes had flown the home hearth and joined the legion of exes. So here I was, on the second night in succession, sitting opposite Steve, dear, familiar Steve, as we devoured a supreme pizza and washed it down with a not too bad southern vales Shiraz.
‘I’ve decided to go to the Alice again.’ Steve announced suddenly as he noisily chewed on a piece of pizza. ‘It’ll be good to get away and the clinic up there has a vacancy. So, I’m taking it.’
‘Oh, well I guess that’s a good thing. Take your mind off things. Quick decision, isn’t it? I asked.
‘Oh, you know me, not one to wallow. And yes it will help to focus on something more lofty than the ungrateful bitches that have been sprinkling my life lately.’ He said this so matter of factly, without a hint of derision or bitterness that I nearly choked on my wine.
‘Really,’ I said tartly as I dabbed my lips with a handy tissue. ‘That would include me, would it?
‘You? Oh, no pet. You’ve been very supportive in your funny little way. It’s them. I’m never going to make the same mistake again. Never!’ he said emphatically, grinning cheekily.
Feeling diminished and chuffed simultaneously—Steve had the ability to do that to a person—I asked him just what mistake he was referring to.
‘I would have thought that was obvious. Marriage of course. It came to me in the middle of the night. It’s always the wrong women.’
‘You mean you chose the wrong women?’
‘Oh, no! They chose me! And I just can’t resist until I see them for what they really are and then, then it’s too late.’ He took a large gulp of his wine. ‘I understand now.’
‘So, you are saying that you had no responsibility at all in these … these contracts and that you were persuaded, beguiled, had your stupid arm twisted into doing something that you didn’t really want to do in the first place and then you felt justified in blaming them? I can’t believe I’m listening to this drivel.’
‘Hey, that’s a bit harsh, isn’t it? Is that how you see me?’ Cocker spaniel again.
‘Frankly, yes, and while I have the chair,’ I continued, ‘I agree that the best thing you could do is to go up to the clinic at the Alice. They must wonder if you are still alive!
If your ego didn’t govern you completely, you might just be a half decent human being. For a talented eye surgeon, you see very little of how things truly are. Why don’t you, for heaven’s sake, take a look at some of the lives of the people up north whose sight you save. You might learn a little about humility, acceptance and, and … love!’ I blurted out.
With sudden clarity, I realised that this essence I saw in Steve was his god given talent for saving sight, and how he had worked tirelessly to perpetuate this talent. This was where his humanity lay. It did not lie in the kitchen, or the bedroom or at the supermarket. A woman, a wife, was superfluous. We had all tried to compete in our own way but it was never enough for a huge man with a huge appetite for greatness.
I waited for the tirade I felt sure would follow in response to my ‘honest’ assessment of a man I was once married to and loved, still loved and here we are with the truth again. I searched his face for the cynical expression, the false admission, the inverted charm that had seduced many beautiful women over the years, that spaniel gaze but his face showed none of these.
‘You’re probably right,’ he replied, looking into my eyes. The spaniel was gone and I swear he was almost on the brink of some timely honesty. Almost.
‘So I’ve decided to sell the house. I shall rent a small place up north and focus on my work,’ he continued ruminatively, fingering the stem of his glass. ‘I want to ask you, Cara, if you will come and assist me. It will be like the old days. What do you say? Please say yes. You are the only one who understands me.’
I closed my open mouth, floundering in this unfamiliar sea of admission, searching for the right words to say. His offer was genuine, it was persuasive, it was appealing to my own altruism that I could once more make a difference standing alongside a man I admired and loved. He expected me to say yes unequivocally. I swallowed a mouthful of wine, took a couple of slow breaths and looked him in the eye
‘I’m flattered that you should ask me, Steve. I can truthfully say I am tempted and I remember how it used to be. But because I remember and because the past can never truly be relived, I am saying a very definite no.’
‘Why am I not surprised?’ he replied, a bemused look on his face. ‘It wouldn’t work, would it? But promise you will stay in touch?’
‘I promise I’ll remember you, Steve. I very much doubt if our paths will cross again.
But anyway, let’s drink to some pleasant memories and to an enlightened future for both of us, Okay?’
‘It’s a deal,’ he said. ‘And shall we also drink to absent friends?’