At the end of the day

A short story by Don Gazzard

 I sat by the bed reading the Age waiting for Ralph to wake up. He had some sort of stroke or heart attack yesterday and was rushed to Royal Melbourne around the corner from where we live. Although he'd survived it OK, the doctor told me last night that they didn't know yet just how serious it was. We are both in our seventies and often joke about who will go first, but who knows. I lay awake half the night worrying about him.  Poor darling, he looks a bit sad lying there with all those wires attached to him, his mouth open and snoring quietly. If I know him, the first thing he'll want to do is write an account of what happened with sharp comments about the treatment and his own honest reactions.  After he'd recovered yesterday, he insisted I bring his laptop in today so he could write.  I doubt he'll be using a computer for a while but I brought it anyway.        

We've been married for over sixteen years and for the last ten years have been living in Sydney where he's been working as a reporter for the Herald.  It's the second time around for both of us, my ex ran off with a twenty two year old when my eldest was almost a teenager. We've had a good time together including more than a few Indian summers of good sex before menopause slowed us down. I can't imagine not being married to him, it's as though we've always been together.   Unlike my first husband who was very sporty, always hitting or kicking balls around, activity for its own sake I always said, Ralph's the exact opposite thank goodness, walking four blocks to the library is his idea of exercise.  We have a good relationship, we amuse one another, like the same things, and our habits only mildly irritate the other person. 

Since we moved back to Melbourne a year ago Ralph has had two books published, both have been well reviewed and a commercial success; the first one has even gone into a second printing.  I was so pleased for him, he's a good reporter but he's always wanted to be taken more seriously as a writer. His novels are set in the present day real world, with real people like politicians as well as fictional characters, he compares them to Gore Vidal's novels, and says he's trying to get the flavour of contemporary political life.  As a result he's been in great demand on chat shows and at Writers Festivals because his books have shown such sharp understanding of the way political parties and politicians behave. He has an uncanny ability to get people to trust him and tell him truthfully what's happening, and to still remain friends with them.

In my modest way I've played a role, I correct his spelling and find the inevitable typos, he knows all that stuff but has become used to sub-editors picking up his mistakes.  More important, I have a good bullshit detector when he gets off the track, Ralph says my input has been invaluable and he's dedicated both of them to me.  I went back to teaching English in secondary schools after Tim left, but gave it up when we moved to Sydney; I had passed the retiring age and didn't want to start again in a new city.  Literature has always been my first love, and Ralph and I fight over who gets to reads the latest New York Review of Books first.  We usually read new books at the same time and don't ever seem to tire of discussing them.  I also share Ralph's interest in left wing politics, my Dad was an official with the CFMEU, and I love all Ralph's behind the scenes, cloak and dagger stories.  We've become part of the Carlton scene since we returned to Melbourne, and if I ever need him in a hurry during the day I can usually find him in the University CafĂ© or Readings.

He opened his eyes eventually and to attract my attention said softly, 'Ciao, Katie, come stai oggi.'  It's a game we have to try and keep our Italian from getting too rusty. ' Bene, bene  Ralphie, I replied, but you, how are you, scaring the pants off me like this,' holding his hand and trying to avoid all those wires and kiss him. 

It was Italy that first attracted me to Ralph.  The first time we met was at a friend's party, and he told me he was going to Italy next week to see all the Caravaggios, starting with the big one,  The Beheading of the Baptistin Valletta, then Sicily, Naples and all points north. It was a good line and it worked, because when I showed interest and he found I was a teacher and the school holidays started next week, he more or less talked me into going with him; it's the best offer you'll ever get to see Caravaggio, he said.  The kids had all left home so I took a deep breath, OK I said, you're on, and we've never looked back.  Friends told me I was mad going off to Italy with a man I'd just met at a party, but it was the best decision I've ever made.  As well as seeing Caravaggios , we had a great time generally and I found that it's good to have a specific purpose like this when you're travelling.    

 When we returned he moved in with me and we've had a good time ever since.  There's a big print of the painting 'Youth with a Flower Basket'  that's in the Galleria Borghese in Rome in our dining room to remind us of our first time together.  Peter Robb's biography of Caravaggio suggests that the model for the beautiful young man in this painting was a rough street kid, and that some of the innocent looking madonnas in other paintings were girls of the street and no better than one might expect, and this has always amused us both.  Ralph had done European history as well as literature at Uni, and had also studied Latin at school, so his interest in all things Italian was almost ordained.  Like me he had grown up without religion, so looking at paintings with religious themes might seem to be a funny pastime for two atheists, but we loved the paintings for their own sake and in any case they usually illuminate universal themes.

They hustled me out eventually the way they do in hospitals, assuring me they'd ring if anything happened, so I went home and cleaned the flat, it's a knee jerk reaction when I'm worried. Visiting hours were not till seven in the evening, so I filled in time letting people know what had happened.  I spoke to Muriel in Hong Kong first, she really likes Ralph and helped get his last book printed in China when we visited her six months ago.  I have a slightly strained relationship with my eldest daughter,  she still blames me for what she sees as a less than ideal set-up in the years after her father walked out on us.  Nothing I can do about it now, I had a hard enough time making ends meet as the bastard never paid the maintenance he was supposed to and in the end I gave up trying to force him.  Apart from this however, she's a dutiful daughter, ringing me regularly, and she's been much more relaxed since she married a year ago.  She's done well financially and been generous in helping her sister. 

 Susan, my youngest, is separated from the father of her two children and living in Newcastle on welfare.  Susan said routine 'sorry' things about Ralph when I rang her, before starting up the cracked record about her own life.  She is very envious of her elder sister and keeps saying she has been so-o lucky, but it isn't luck of course as I keep telling her. Muriel has worked her butt off to get where she is.  Being short of everything when she was growing up left her with the clear understanding that rich was better than poor, and that what had happened to me would never happen to her; I hope she's right.    

Ralph generously squeezed an allowance for Susan out of his retirement fund and she manages, but isn't at all grateful or happy, and even worse, feels sorry for herself and clearly thinks the world owes her a living.  It's hard for her to work with the kids the ages they are, but she left school early and doesn't have many employable skills.  I worry about her and even more about my grand-children, however there isn't much I can do at this stage except nag her to complete her education somehow.

The middle one, Ken, is unmarried and works in some great big insurance office in Sydney, I'm not sure exactly what he does, he's an odd boy and was never very communicative.  The two younger ones were more affected by Tim leaving than Muriel, and long before I met Ralph, Ken's reaction has been to isolate himself from all of us.  Muriel persists in keeping in touch with him but we only ever saw him in Sydney when Ralph more or less insisted that he come to dinner, and we haven't heard a word since we moved back here.  I ring him regularly but don't get much out of him on the phone, he wasn't in the office when I called just now, so I left a message, but I doubt that I'll hear back; a strange boy!

None of them have stayed in touch with their father except Muriel, they've met a few times at his instigation; he likes the idea of having a successful daughter!  With the wisdom of hindsight I can see that our split up wasn't all his fault but he precipitated it and didn't behave at all well afterwards, so serve him right if Muriel gives him a hard time about it twenty years later.   I didn't know who else to tell.  Ralph was an only child and his parents are both dead.  I have two sisters who live in Carlton and Parkville, we all get on well, it's been one of the really good things about being back in Melbourne, and not just for me.  After their initial suspicions about this man who they kept saying was after my money, ha-ha, both of them have adopted Ralph and he often has coffee with them when he runs into them in Lygon Street.  He has a few old mates he sees regularly but I don't think he'd want them to see him like this; they can wait till he's recovered a bit.

Ralph has ingrained working habits from being a journalist all his life.  He gets out of bed before seven, hail, rain or shine, puts a cup of herbal tea next to the bed for me, and goes down stairs to the cafe to read theAgeand have coffee.  Before leaving our warm bed, he has the endearing trait of always rolling over and wrapping me in his arms and giving me a cuddle for five minutes, stroking my bare back and that sensitive area at the junction of the spine and the bum, kissing my neck and sliding his fingers up into the back of my hair massaging my scalp; a lovely way to start the day. 

He comes back for breakfast a couple of hours later after he's read all the Sydney and Melbourne papers cover to cover, gets out his laptop and starts working on whatever he's doing; it doesn't seem to matter where he is, his newspaper background enables him to work no matter what racket is going on around him.  It used to irritate me that the dining table got so covered with books and papers, but it is a small enough fault in such an amiable man, and I'm more relaxed about it now than I was at first.  I only wish I was as disciplined, I usually find excuses to put things off.

When I went back to the hospital he wasn't there, he'd been moved into an intensive care ward after having another, bigger stroke; they couldn't get me on my mobile they said. It was my fault probably, I keep forgetting to charge the bloody thing.  I was upset I wasn't there, not that I could have done anything and settled down by his side to watch and wait.  I dozed in the chair and was there all the next day but he never regained consciousness and died in the early hours of the following morning.  It was like that space movie, the dancing green mathematical curve of his heart beat on the screen got fainter and fainter, slower and slower, until it simply stopped.  I called the nurse who had been very caring, and said blankly, it's all over.  She gave me a big hug and I probably seemed a bit cold and unfeeling to her, I couldn't cry, I simply wanted to get out of there, the real love of my life had just left me and I wanted to be alone with my sorrow.  What did I want to happen to his clothes and things, she asked as I beat a retreat, sell them, I replied, or give them to charity, and I was well up the hall when she caught me and silently handed me his laptop.

I had him cremated without any ceremony and the ashes scattered in Argyle Square in Lygon Street where he used sit in the sun yarning with his mates in good weather.  Both the Age and the Herald did him proud with good obituaries and I had a wake in the flat a month later.  They all came.  His old colleagues from the two papers, the Italian family from the coffee shop downstairs, Ralph had almost become part of their family and their kids always called him Zio Ralph, Uncle Ralph.  The union guys from the hot pool were there, and Bruno flew down from Sydney. 

The man from Readings came with a book Ralph had ordered for me without telling me.   Lu and his family came early, the girls Lin and Mei have inevitably lost part of their difficult given names at school and will be teenagers soon.  One of them is apparently a whiz at mathematics, and Lu kept retelling the story of Ralph's role in their escape from China.

Carol came with two year old Louisa who climbed onto my lap and wouldn't move until Lin and Mei took her and looked after her.  And James came, that nice young man from Papua that Ralph had taken under his wing when he'd been a cadet at the Age, until he decided he could do better running a stall at the Victoria Markets; he always keeps the freshest fruit and vegies for us on Saturdays.  Muriel bless her, flew down from Hong Kong, she and my sisters organised everything.  It was a good afternoon, not at all maudlin, with lots of good food and grog and much laughter and stories about Ralph and we all got a bit high.  At the end I thanked them all for coming and to their amusement told them the story of how I first met Ralph.  I didn't realise Muriel hadn't ever heard the story, but she'd been away in Sydney doing her MBA at the time. After they 'd all left and we'd cleaned up, she hugged me, saying it was a great story and how right I'd been to trust my instincts, how kind Ralph had always been to her, but more importantly, how much he'd loved her mum.

Although I was quick to dispose of the clothes he'd been wearing when he was rushed to hospital, I was much slower to dispose of the rest of his stuff.  There was something almost superstitious about it, I accepted that he was dead of course but I was still reluctant, and my sisters obviously started to think I was being a bit morbid.  I kept some fine cotton shirts we had bought in Italy and which I often wore anyhow, and two of his favorite jackets.  I rang the Sacred Heart Mission to come and pick up the rest, but I was still disturbed by the whole process of letting go.  I don't consider myself a sentimental person but I like having those two coats hanging in the wardrobe along with my stuff, it's a little physical reminder of his continuing presence in my life.

All Ralph's practical affairs were in order of course,  it wasn't his style to be otherwise.  We bought the apartment in our joint names, and he didn't have any relatives or kids, and had left everything else to me, including his literary rights.  But the best and most loving gift came a month later when I found his laptop, which had been stuck out of the way in a cupboard.  I opened it up and was surprised to find a short letter to me, written in his characteristic no nonsense style which read;

 Ciao Katie, I have a feeling this is the end for me and want you to know that our time together has been absolutely the best part of my life.  Find the story in a file called  'At the end of the day', you'll like it, it's a true love story, finish it and send it to Jim, I'm sure he'll publish it.  Ti amo carissima, addio bella Katie.

I soon found the story, it was a lightly disguised, romantic account of our life and love together, except the couple in the story were called Frieda and Tom.  Till then I 'd been putting a brave face on things, but by the time I'd finished reading, I had tears streaming down my face; it was his last gift of love to me.  I completed it, sad ending and all, and he was right of course, it hit a popular nerve and became a minor best seller.       

After Ralph died, Muriel persuaded her sister to move to Melbourne so I could play a role in the kids' education, they are in Years three and four, both nice little boys. I found a flat nearby and they've all settled in well.   I mind the boys a few evenings a week as Sue has enrolled in night classes to catch up. I often pick them up after school and we do things like going to the library or the new museum with that great rainforest in the Carlton Gardens, and having a gelato on the way back. It's good to be able to raise their horizons above Newcastle and at my prompting both have joined the library; they feel very important at having their own cards and being allowed to borrow books. What with the book world and my grandchildren, a whole new life has opened up for me so I'm very fortunate. 

Much later I asked Muriel how she had talked Sue into moving, I was curious after all my efforts had failed.  It was simple, I'd sent her a copy of the book, and she had remarked to Muriel that if she was lucky she might meet a man like Ralph too, and Muriel had told her tartly that 'no one is ever going to ask you to go anywhere if you don't even know who Caravaggio is.'  After all my earnest nagging, this is all it took apparently to shake her out of her rut.  Another small victory to Ralph, he would have liked that.