"Very old school guy. Blazer and these beautiful starched white shirts and such lovely, lovely cufflinks. He smelt like Old Spice aftershave. Just a hint. We could not have been more different, but we made each other laugh-don't ask me why. I also thought he fancied me a bit. Nothing overt; there was just a little extra sparkle in the way he talked to me or the very, very gentle way he touched my back when we were going into a room together. I don't think Mother much liked that. But I did. It was an impotent way to level the score, but there you go."
"But nothing more?"
"It crossed my mind, but that would have poisoned my heart as well as hers. No. Mother had her own inferno-you know what your dad was like. He was way out there on the margins. And not just financially. He screwed half her friends, even the unattractive ones. It sounds hostile, but it wasn't. It was just greedy. No, in the end our mother didn't get away with anything. No one does. In a way, we all have it coming."
I wanted to keep her talking; she took such palpable pleasure in conversation, she danced such an elegant dance when she spoke, that I thought for a second it might occur to her to stay around and do some more. I also knew that if things went as planned, these were the final chapters, the final paragraphs, the final sentences I would ever get from her. From some point not so far down the road, there would be a clean line, an end, and from there I would have only past conversations to revisit; and they, like the paint on an old house, would fade gently away. And I would partially forget them and then people would forget me and then there'd be nothing left of us or this evening.
"So you grew up with your grandparents. In the country. And that was-?"
"You want to keep me talking," she said with a smile. "And I'm happy to. Just please don't confuse it for something else. Okay?"
"We were seven miles out of town, the nearest neighbour was a farmer across a cornfield. The school bus came to the top of the driveway every morning. It was all fine. Until p.u.b.erty. Then living in the country's not so good. It always feels like you're missing something. And you are, in fact. Then one day a car rolled up the driveway and Bruce Sanders got out. And that was that."
She took three pills and swallowed them. Both of us, Sally and I, retreated into private thought. Surfacing, I said, "What are you thinking about?"
She jerked as if she had been suddenly startled. "Something ridiculous."
"It's not the sort of thing you're supposed to be thinking about at times like this." Turning a frowning, half-smiling face toward me, she said, "Do you ever have a song in your head that you can't get rid of?"
"Yes. Do you?"
"What is it?"
"It's the theme song from that television show, The Waltons."
"Right. I remember that show."
"I always liked that man, the actor who played John-Boy's father. Do you know his name?"
"No. But I remember the theme song."
"Now we're both hearing it," she said with a dry smile that made my heart contract.
More pills. I could hear her fingernails rattle against the side of the glass bowl.
The music changed. Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade." I hadn't heard it since that night with Chloe in the Montreal jazz club.
"Nice song," I said.
She looked up sleepily. "Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman. One of those guys. I can't remember."
We listened, both of us, those easygoing saxophones floating overhead like clouds.
"I have another favour to ask," she said. "I want you to tell Chloe about this night we had. I want you to do it soon. I don't want her to think I died sad and alone. Will you do that?"
"Do you promise? Look me in the eye and promise."
And I did. And I suddenly realized who the caller on the phone was.
She sighed. "Will you dance with me? I want to remember what it's like to be held in a man's arms."
So we danced, the two of us. She dropped her crutches and I carried her, my chin to hers, and it struck me the way she nestled her chin into my shoulder that she was, after all this, still very much a girl at a teenage dance.
"Do you think there's an afterlife?" she said.
She was sinking into sleep. I said, holding her tight, holding her for my own life, it seemed, "If there is, will you let me know?"
A slow sigh, her eyes closed. "How would I do that?"
"Find a way to let me know. Find a way to tell me."
For a second, I thought she had fallen asleep, but then her hand stirred and she said, "What would you do then?"
"I don't know. Maybe behave better. Or worse."
"It's best not to know."
"But don't you want to know?" I said.
Another sleepy pause, her head dropping down near her chest.
"I think I'd like to lie down. Will you help me?"
She was dead weight, her head bobbing against my shoulder. I lifted her in my arms and I took her and laid her on the couch on her back and straightened her legs and put a pillow under her head and sat beside her. I took her hand. It was still so warm, so lifelike. Her pulse fluttered like a tiny bird under her skin.
"When I was a little girl," she said, "I used to go to sleep on the porch during the summer.They had a little bed out there for me. And sometimes, in the middle of the night, it'd start to rain. How I loved the sound of that rain. My grandfather used to come out, and he'd say, 'Sally, do you want to come inside?' And I'd say, 'No, Grandpa, I want to lie here. Will you stay with me?' And he'd say yes and sit down, and I could hear him settle into the chair and light his pipe, and I could smell the smoke drifting over to me, this delicious blue smoke, and I was so, so, so happy-just the rain and my warm bed and my grandfather's tobacco. I was happy for eternity."
"I'll stay with you," I said.
"Yes, Sally, yes, I will stay with you."
For a long time, nothing, and then she mumbled something. I leaned over. "What?" I whispered. I put my ear to her mouth. "Yes?"
And then she said, or I think she said, "I'm almost there."
Some quarter of an hour later, she took a deep breath, as though she was going to say something; and then she slowly exhaled. And then I never heard her breathe again. I kissed her on the forehead. I could feel the life leaving her body. I said, "I love you, I love you. Please take this with you wherever you're going."
I had never before sat in the room with death. But I stayed with her because I have always suspected that there is something between dying and dying, a zone of after death that precedes extinction. And I wanted her to have company for it. Who knows when we're really born into consciousness or when we leave it?
I remained in my chair, holding her hand, speaking quietly to her. Suddenly, a wave of gooseb.u.mps covered my whole body; my voice broke; the tears streamed down my cheeks. "I'm so sorry," I said. "I'm so sorry."
Her hand grew still colder, and as it grew colder, I could feel a change come over her, see a change rather, and I understood for the first time in my life that we are born with a soul and that it inhabits our body our whole lifetime and when we die, reluctantly, like children leaving a park, our soul very gently disengages and moves off, like a shadow, and takes with it all that ever made us human, all that ever made us us. And behind, in its wake, is just a body, an uninhabited residence. The doors blowing open, the windows creaking. Grass growing up in the cracks in the floor.
So this is death, I thought. I touched my sister's face. It too had grown cold.
But still I stayed. "Will you tell me?" I said. "Will you find a way to tell me?" But from this body on the chesterfield in front of me, in its green dressing gown, her lips lipsticked, her brow unwrinkled, I knew that she had gone, and it felt as if I was talking to no one, talking to an empty room.
"Where did you go?" I said. "Where are you now?"
But there was no answer.
"Is there anyone there with you?"
I stayed with Sally's body until the sun came all the way up, a morning, I recall, almost metallic in its sheen. I taped the note about calling the police to the outside of her door. Then, certain the hall was empty, with the ashes of her son under my arm and my bottle of pills rattling like teeth in my pocket, I kissed her on the forehead. "Goodbye, Sally," I said, "goodbye," and then I went down the back stairs and went home.
About the Author.
DAVID GILMOUR is the critically acclaimed and internationally bestselling author of seven previous novels and one work of non-fiction. His books have been translated into 27 languages. For many years, Gilmour was a fixture on Canadian television as the national film critic for CBC's The Journal, as well as the host of his own Gemini Awardwinning show, Gilmour on the Arts. He is presently the Pelham Edgar Professor of Literary Studies at Victoria College at the University of Toronto.
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Back on Tuesday.
How Boys See Girls.
An Affair with the Moon.
Lost Between Houses.
A Perfect Night to Go to China.
The Film Club.
The Perfect Order of Things.