It’s different in Australia. People don’t drive. They walk, or catch the bus, or a train. Just as easy to use public transport, they’ll tell you. When Charles’s mother came to visit and they took the train from Cronulla to Sydney, she said it was like being in Disneyland. She practically shouted it, everyone in the carriage heard.
Charles’s mother blames Sarah and hasn’t called or written or acknowledged either of her letters. Sarah suspects she’ll never hear from her, or from any member of Charles’s family, ever again. It goes without saying that none of them attended the funeral.
“It’s your own fault, Mum. You have to look at it from Grandma’s point of view. She lost her son. Of course she’s upset. How do you expect her to feel?”
This was at a time when Sarah was still numbly sheltering in a silent and oddly merciful place where nothing hurt. Nonetheless, Felicity’s words shocked her. She felt as if she’d been slapped
“Her son, yes. But he was my husband. That’s different. I’ve lost my husband, Felicity. Don’t you understand that?”
"And I’ve lost my father. You’re the one who doesn’t understand! Why do you always have to act as if you’re the only person in the world who has feelings?” A daughter is supposed to be a comfort at times like this. But Felicity is not a comfort, has never been a comfort. “You have to stop dwelling on things. You and Dad had wonderful years together, but Dad’s gone now. I mean, other women lose their husbands, but they get on with it, they get on with their lives. Max says it’s time you moved on.”
“Are you still seeing that shrink?” Felicity asks.
“He’s not a shrink. He’s a psychologist.” Sarah doesn’t want to get into this. “And yes, I still see him twice a week.”
“Now, that’s what I mean. It’s been nearly two years since Dad died, Mum. You know what Max thinks? Max thinks the shrink –- sorry, the psychologist –- might actually be holding you back.”
Holding me back from what?
“What do you talk about with him, anyhow? What’s he been telling you?”
“He doesn’t actually tell me anything. That’s not how it works. Mostly, he just listens.”
“But he gives you advice.”
“Only if I ask for it.”
“He’s the one who told you what to do with Dad’s superannuation, though. Isn’t he?”
Sarah had been told she must choose between a lump sum payment and an annuity. "No matter what you decide to do," Charles’s accountant said, "you won’t be looking at a great deal of money. My advice is to take the lump sum, make down payments on as many flats as you can afford, live in one, let the others out, and use the rent to cover the mortgage payments. You’ll have to borrow, of course. And you’ll have to manage tenants. But you’d be keeping up with the market, growing your money. If you were my mother, that’s what I’d be telling you to do."
It sounded sensible enough but it also sounded complicated. Flats, tenants, mortgages. "And if I take the annuity?" The accountant frowned and again punched at the tiny keys of his calculator. "You’ll receive monthly payments, about double what you’d get on the widows’ pension, for the rest of your life. And it’s indexed, which means it’ll keep its value. You’d live comfortably enough, but not the way you’re accustomed to living. As I say, it’s not a great deal of money."
“Mum, there’s no point in pretending I don’t have feelings about this because I do. I think you should have taken the lump sum, and Max agrees with me. As things stand now, when you die there won’t be anything left for us, for Sean and me. The annuity only lasts for as long as you live. Max looked it up. Maybe you didn’t realize that.”
“Actually, I did. I’m not stupid, Felicity.”
“I didn’t say you were stupid. But do you really think this is what Dad would have wanted? He worked hard. He wouldn’t want you to just throw it all away.”
“I’m not throwing it away. I’m living on it.”
“But you don’t need to live on it, that’s the whole point. You could invest it in real estate or stocks or something. And get a job.”
Sarah feels her lips tremble. “It’s all been settled, Felicity. I’ve taken the annuity. And it was my decision,” she adds, even though it’s none of Felicity’s business one way or the other. “Kahn had nothing to do with it.” What on earth would make Felicity think psychologists hand out advice on such matters?
“So what happens when you die? What do we get, besides that dinky little house?” Sarah remains silent. “Don’t you think you should have at least discussed it with us?”
“No, I don’t.”
Eight months after she bought the house in Bondi Junction, Sarah learned she was within walking distance of the beach. A neighbor told her. He said it was a longish walk and not worth the bother, not as far as he was concerned. But then, he added, he wasn’t all that keen on beaches.
It is a long walk, but Sarah doesn’t mind. She likes walking. Above her head, the morning sky is bright and blue as the inside of a Faberge egg. It’s been like this for weeks. There’s been no rain since before Christmas.
She passes an old cemetery slumbering behind a low stone wall. The cemetery originally belonged to a church, St. Margaret’s, but the church building was demolished after the war. There was a shortage of building materials, and people needed the bricks and blocks of sandstone. A wisp of cloud passes across the sun, reflecting gold and amber off shards of broken beer bottles discarded by the homeless men who congregate here at dusk in the weeds that grow between the graves.
Closer to the beach, tidy rows of Federation brick terraces flank the sidewalks on both sides of the street, similar to New York City brownstones although not so well-proportioned. Like most Australian buildings, they’re made entirely of dark red brick, the color of dried blood.
The shop at the intersection is boarded shut,the sheets of newspaper taped across its front windowfaded to the color of sugar cookies, and curled at the edges where the tape is pulling away from the glass.
From here you catch your first glimpse of the sea, a shimmering blue line beyond the red tile roofs. The land, the houses, everything is more expensive here, enhanced by the possibility of a water view. The sidewalks are wider and the houses, or cottages as Australians call them, are bigger too, set back from the street on allotments large enough to accommodate garages and well-tended walled gardens.
It’s hot and humid, even this early in the day. Sarah wishes she’d worn a hat.
The wail of a siren splinters the silence. Reverberating off the glass windows of the houses, gathering volume. It rises and falls and rises again as it bears down upon her, an avalanche of sound, enveloping her, immobilizing her. Her heart pounds. She closes her eyes.
Two men crouch in front of an ambulance parked inside a carport, their faces in shadow, their shoulders silhouetted against the glare of the summer sky. Sarah watches them cover Charles with a dun-colored blanket, carefully tucking its edges around him. Their tenderness reassures her.
She stands quietly off to one side, neither speaking nor crying. She does not interfere. She doesn’t want to get in the way.
The men confer, then lift Charles onto a wheeled stretcher, carefully levering it into the back of the ambulance. Sarah remains silent and motionless, and the men climb into the ambulance. One of them leans forward across the other to shut the door.
The ambulance begins to move, backing slowly out of the driveway into the road. It turns right at the corner and disappears behind the houses on the next street, its siren wailing.
Alone, Sarah walks unsteadily through the empty carport and down the driveway to the sidewalk. The late afternoon sunshine is slanting down upon the parked cars. Where have they taken Charles? To a hospital, yes. But which one?
I should have said something. I should have asked them where they were going. I should have gone with them. She is appalled, overwhelmed by the things she should have done. How could she have let them take Charles away from her?
A patrol car eases its way slowly down the silent street, stopping at the curb. Two uniformed policemen come toward her. "Mrs. Charles Andrews?" She nods. "You’ll want to come with us. Get in, then. And mind your head."
Just like on television.
“Death was instantaneous,” the doctor says.
He seems very young. The collar of his jacket is turned in, and he’s wearing round rimless glasses, probably hoping they’ll make him look older. ”I'm sorry, but there really wasn’t anything we could do. He was already dead. I suspect he was dead when you found him.” Sarah stares. “It was his heart, I’d say. But we’ll know more after the autopsy.”
This isn’t happening. It can’t be happening. The doctor is gazing expectantly at her. They all are; the doctor and the nurses and another man wearing a baggy green tunic over baggy green trousers who has just come through the swinging doors. They’re becoming impatient. There is obviously something she is supposed to say, or do, but Sarah doesn’t know what it is.
“Can I see Charles?” They stare, blankly. One of the nurses sighs and turns away, scribbling something. ”I want to see Charles.” The doctor looks at her and shakes his head.
Sarah says she doesn’t want an autopsy, doesn’t want them to cut Charles open.
“It’s not up to you,” the nurse says. “It’s the law.”
And the doctor was right. Charles suffered a massive cardiac infarction, they told her. A heart attack.
“Tell me what you remember,” Kahn says.
Sarah remembers the doctor's rimless glasses. She remembers the ambulance and the vast, echoing silence in its wake. She remembers how hot it was, that the parked cars in the street looked as if they were melting. She remembers the smell of gas. Gas? Kahn looks puzzled.
“Petrol,” Sarah explains, because of course, that’s what they call gas in Australia. “It's not that I don't remember. The problem is that I've suddenly got this . . . this compulsion to talk about it.”
“But that's normal.”
“No, it’s not.” She doesn’t want to say the wrong thing. But if he is to help her, he must understand. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to contradict you. What I was trying to say is, I don’t think what I’m doing –- what I keep finding myself doing -- is normal. That’s all I meant.”
He settles back.
“For instance, I can be standing in the middle of a shop, and all of a sudden I'm explaining to everybody that my husband died two months ago. Or I start talking to people on the train. Or people in a queue at the bank, telling them my husband is dead. And once I've started, I can't stop. I go on and on, telling them about it.” Sarah drew a shaky breath. “Talking to strangers like that isn’t normal.”
He’s Australian rather than English, she can tell by his accent. So he knows what she means. Australians don’t talk to strangers, not even at social functions, and certainly not in the street.
“I can’t seem to stop myself. It’s embarrassing. It’s . . .perverse.”
Sarah watches as he shifts in his chair, purses his lips, steeples his fingers, nods. Unable to think of anything to add to what she’s already told him, she folds her hands in her lap and waits.
“As a matter of fact,” Kahn says at last, “it’s quite natural for you to want to talk about what happened. It’s normal, it's healthy. Charles's death was completely unexpected. You had no time to prepare yourself. You came home, and you found him. It was a terrible, traumatic experience. It was. . .it was a catastrophe.”
Kahn is not what Sarah expected. She agreed to these sessions reluctantly, resigned to enduring an hour of platitudes, the things people say to someone whose husband has died. That she should be glad Charles didn't suffer. That she should cherish her memories of their good years together. That life must go on. That things will get better.
“A catastrophe. And you know, I'm thinking it might be helpful for you to think of yourself in those terms. I mean, as someone who has survived a terrible, meaningless, and utterly devastating catastrophe.” He pauses, waiting for her to respond.
Charles is dead. What more is there to say?
“You’re sad, you’re devastated. You’ve sustained a terrible loss. But you’re angry, too. And that’s natural, Mrs. Andrews. Anger is a completely normal reaction under the circumstances.”
“You’ve every right to feel angry.” He pauses again, but only for a moment. “And guilty, too. You feel as if somehow all of this is your fault. You think if only you’d done this, or hadn’t done that, Charles would still be alive. It’s natural. It’s normal. Survivors often feel guilt.”
He’s wrong, though. She doesn’t feel angry, or guilty. Maybe she ought to feel these things, but she doesn’t. She feels numb. She doesn’t tell him that.
“We both know you’re not to blame for what happened to Charles. It wasn’t your fault.” Kahn’s tone is firm, as if he expects her to disagree.
Of course it wasn’t her fault. But she’s on her guard now. Why would he think she blames herself for Charles’s death? What sort of things do they teach psychologists in Australia?
He leans forward. “Things will get better,” he says. But she must be patient, she must take things a day at a time. She needs to be kind to herself. She needs to give herself time to heal. And he’s sorry, but he has to stop now. He’ll see her again on Friday.
Birds sing outside Sarah’s window each morning; shadows form and shift and lengthen as the sun moves across the sky. At night she can sometimes see the stars, but these southern constellations are not the ones she knows and recognizes.
She calls Felicity every morning, but Felicity rarely returns her calls. Felicity hasn’t got time for her.
Weeks pass. At least she’s stopped bursting into tears, and talking to strangers.
But the pain is still there. The pain is like a predator, biding its time and then striking when you least expect it. The pain is like certain people Sarah has known: a teacher, a supervisor. You learn to live with them; you put up with them and make the best of it, because you don't have a choice.
She is occasionally overwhelmed by paroxysms of unreasoning panic, and when these engulf her she must get away from people, she must hide. Episodes, Kahn calls them. She must get hold of herself, he tells her gravely, especially when she’s in public places.
“People are edgy these days, worried about terrorists, remembering what happened in Bali. It only takes one person to ring the police and say there’s someone acting crazy. And once they’ve got you, once they’ve put a label on you, it can be difficult to sort things out.”
Sarah understands. This is Australia. If they think you’re crazy -- a danger to yourself and others is how they phrase it -- they lock you up. You’re detained at the pleasure of the queen, which means forever. Kahn is right. She needs to stop behaving inappropriately in public places.
She remembers when the weather turned cold, too cold for the long, aimless walks that filled those first unbearable days of widowhood. Gusty winds bring rain, and Sarah huddles next to the electric fire. Most Australian houses don’t have central heating, or air conditioning.
“What do you do with yourself all day?” Kahn asks.
“I read. I look out the window. I wait for it to be night, so I can go to sleep.”
“You’re coping. But that’s all you’re doing, and it’s not enough. You need to make more of an effort. You need to start living again. You need to go out and meet people. You need to do the things you used to do.”