BUT LESS THAN LOVE”
“Mr Stygal, you have a visitor.”
“Really? I wasn't expecting anyone. Is it my son?”
“No – it's a woman.”
“What? My daughter-in-law?”
“No, I'd recognise her. It's someone else.”
“Are you sure it's me she wants to see. There might be some mistake.”
“Oh, quite sure. She was insistent, even urgent.”
“How interesting. Well, I get few enough visitors these days. Show her in.”
He stroked his chin thoughtfully and immediately wished that he had shaved more thoroughly this morning, but a visitor was the last thing he was expecting. If he had known, he would have used some after-shave but he rarely bothered these days. He feared that he had that musty, old man smell.
Robert Stygal had been in the care home for seven months, three weeks and four days – not that he was counting, of course. He knew that he had to be here: his stroke had been seriously incapacitating and he had been told that another one could kill him. But he hated it.
All his previous life, he had been so active, so alive. His work as a management consultant had been demanding but fulfilling and had taken him all around the country and often abroad. When he retired, he and Lucy had done a lot of foreign travel, sometimes to quite exotic places, and, even when he had lost her to acute leukaemia, he had continued to travel in groups.
He never wanted to leave London and live out in the depths of Surrey and certainly not in this home, but his son – they had only had one child – convinced him that it was for the best and would make visits easier. Every Sunday afternoon his son would dutifully come round for an hour or two, but it was clear that it was seen as an obligation and he rarely saw his daughter-in-law. There were no grandchildren. He wondered daily how much longer he could tolerate this elegiac disposition.
“Hello, Bob! Can I call you Bob?”
“Well, it is my name. But it does seem a little over familiar, unless we know each other but I've forgotten.”
“No – we don't know each other”.
He was beginning to notice her accent. It was quite mild but it was definitely Australian. He had always wanted to go to Australia – and New Zealand, of course. It was the one continent that he had never visited. Never would now.
“So how come you're here to see an old bugger of 74 like me?”
“Let me explain. My name is Mary Beale.”
“Well, Mary, it's always a pleasure to have a visitor here, but I'm none the wiser.”
“No. I understand. I'm the daughter of Rachel Beale – previously Rachel MacCarrick. Do you remember Rachel?”
“Rachel? Oh, my word ... Oh, I don't believe it ... That was so long ago. It must be 50 or so years ago.”
“Actually, Bob. It was 49 years ago.”
“You know that? You know about us? But how?”
“My mother told me about you. Well, to be honest, she told me very little about you.”
“And what did she tell you?”
“That you met while travelling separately in India. That you then travelled together for a while. That you had something of a fling.”
A smile crept across his face, becoming a wide grin. He seemed to be looking beyond his visitor to a scene that was none the less vibrant for being so distant in time and space.
“Did she tell you how we met?”
“No. I'd love to hear about it.”
“It was at Amber, just outside Jaipur. We were both visiting the Amber Fort. You enter the fort up a long, steep incline and, like all tourists, we took the easy - and the exciting - way up which was by elephant. All the elephants were beautifully decorated with face paintings and adorned with brightly-coloured cloths. You mount from the top of a special stone platform and each elephant carries four passengers at a time – two on either side of his back. We found ourselves sitting together, as excited as children. By the time, we reached the fort, we were chatting like old friends.”
“And you travelled together for a time?”
“Yes, for about a week, as I recall. We went to Agra and then to Khajuraho before we went our separate ways. Then I returned to London and she went back to Melbourne.”
“I've heard of Agra – the Taj Mahal, right? But I've never heard of that other place you mentioned.”
“Yes. What's there?”
“There's a couple of dozen stunning temples, dating back around a thousand years to when the site was the capital of a kingdom. The temples are famous for their erotic carvings. You wouldn't believe the variety of sexual activities and positions they illustrate!”
“And this put ideas in your mind? With Rachel? With my mother?”
“I confess that we'd both already had ideas and acted upon them in Agra. The Taj Mahal was built out of a great act of love, you know? In Khajuraho, we could have taught those carvings a thing or two!”
He paused and then added: “I hope that I'm not embarrassing you.”
“Of course not. I always guessed that what you two had was as passionate as it was brief. And, after all, something special came from it.”
“Yes.” She paused. “Me.” She hesitated again and then added: “I'm your daughter, Bob.”
He froze. He looked incredulous rather than shocked.
“But that can't be, Mary.”
“Why? Because you always took precautions?”
“I can't remember. This was the early sixties – before the pill was in use. We might not have always used a condom – but it can't be because we wrote to each other and she never told me. She never said anything about a pregnancy, about a child.”
“I know. I know that she never told you anything. But then she didn't tell me much either.”
He looked confused now, even anguished.
“But – why didn't she tell me?” he pleaded.
“I don't know, Bob. And we can't ask her. She died of breast cancer two months ago. I think she knew that there was no way you two were ever going to get together and it was just simpler that you didn't know.”
“This is just too much to take in. For 50 years, I've had a daughter - and I never knew?”
“Do you mind – 48 years.”
He seemed to melt into his armchair and then he announced: “I'm sorry. I need the toilet. Will you wait here?”
“Are you kidding? It's taken me a lifetime to find you. I'm not going anywhere.”
She watched him pull himself unsteadily from his chair, using his frame for support and then guiding it out the door of the sitting room and down the echoing corridor. She stared at the impression of his body on the armchair. For all her life, he had been little more than a shapeless, characterless image. For a few minutes, it seemed that this was all he was again and she was scared that somehow he would never reappear. But then there he was, edging back into the room and returning to his chair, slumping into the previously empty depression.
Once he had recovered his breath, he commented: “I suppose I can understand why Rachel never told me anything ... but I wish I had known, I really do. How much did she tell you, Mary?”
“Very little. She married when I was three. But she never pretended that her husband was my natural father. She always told me that my dad was British and called Bob. But she would never tell me any more. When I was a teenager, she told me about India. But nothing else – however often I asked her.”
Both of them seemed emotionally exhausted by the encounter and a silence ensued – not an unpleasant or embarrassing one, rather an opportunity to take stock of the extraordinary situation and to study each other's demeanour.
Bob was sure than Mary had anticipated this moment many times in her life, never sure that it would actually happen. She must have imagined it, pictured it, painted it in her mind over and over, rehearsed what she might say, guessed how he might react. Did he look like she had thought he would? Probably a lot older, certainly more frail, much less than the classic British character she had no doubt envisaged.
For his part, he had never ever imagined that he would be face to face with a daughter and he examined her visage as he would an oil painting in an art gallery. He could see Rachel's high forehead and prominent cheek bones framed by dark brown hair with the same centre parting he had found so appealing. He thought he could identify elements of his own appearance: the tired eyes, the slightly pointed nose, the full ear lobes – but maybe he was imagining it all.
“So – how did you manage to track me down?”
“Like I say, my mother died two months ago. I went back to Melbourne just before she died. After the funeral, I had to clear out the house. It was just me – my stepfather disappeared when I was 12 and there were no other children. That was when I found the letters.”
“Your letters. You wrote three. She kept them all.”
“Of course, the letters. No e-mail, no social networking in those days. Even telephone calls to Australia were expensive – on the assumption that you could find a time when you were both around. So, yes, we wrote letters – but I can't remember how many I wrote or what I said.”
“You wrote three. They were affectionate – but it was clear that you knew that you'd never see each other again. You were quite meticulous though. You wrote your full name and address on the back of each one. So, after the funeral, at last I had your surname and an address in London. When I got home, I immediately hired an investigator to find you.”
“Home? Where's home, Mary?”
“London. It has been for 27 years. Knowing that I was half-British and that you were somewhere in the country, I always wanted to come here. So I did my Masters at the London School of Economics. I fell in love with a fellow postgraduate student – a Brit – and I've lived and worked here ever since.”
“And where do you live, Mary?”
“Aaah – south of the river. I lived in Muswell Hill. No wonder we never met.”
The situation was so ridiculous he had to joke about it – but then a visible sadness cloaked his lined and wrinkled face.
“Seriously though. You mean to say that, for the last 27 years, you've lived in the same city as me and I never knew? You mean we could have passed each other in the street and never known each other?”
“Yes – exactly.”
“Well, it won't happen now. I don't live in London any more. And I can't walk down the street any more.”
“No – but I've found you at last. There is so much I want to talk to you about, so much I want us to do together. And you have to meet Lawrence, my husband. And you have three teenage grandchildren – two girls and a boy – that you have to meet. You'll love them.”
A member of staff appeared at Mary's shoulder and looked anxiously at Bob.
“I have your medication here, Mr Stygal. And I have to say that you don't look so well. Paler than usual. Perhaps you're tired from your visitor.”
She turned to face Mary.
“I don't wish to be rude, but I think that Mr Stygal needs to rest now. Perhaps you could call it a day and visit another time.”
“Of course, I quite understand. I'll be going ...”
Mary stood and leaned over to her new-found father, taking both his hands in hers. She held his eyes for seconds and then bent forward and kissed him gently on the cheek.
“I'm sorry, Bob. I have to go.”
He could find no words but his eyes were pleading with her.
As she reached the door, at last he found his voice: “Mary!”
“You will come back, won't you?”
“Of course I will. Would Saturday suit you?”
“Saturday would be splendid.”
And then she was gone .... leaving him utterly changed for ever. As he sought to take in the enormity of the new situation, he found his mind flitting from one part of his life to another. Through this new prism, everything seemed subtly different, not quite as he had imagined it at the time. His time in this world felt simultaneously both so much more and so much less than he had thought. The kaleidoscope of his life had been well and truly shaken and the pieces would take some time to settle.
Mary kept her word. Peckham may be the wrong side of the river for Muswell Hill, but it was quite convenient for Surrey and she was at the care home before noon. As she approached the reception to register her visit, she felt something was wrong and soon the member of staff who had first shown her in to Bob explained the situation.
“I am so, so sorry, Mrs Beale. Mr Stygal has had another stroke and he's just been rushed to the hospital. He was so excited by your visit and so looking forward to seeing you again. Perhaps he became too excited.”
“But he's alright, isn't he?”
“Well the thing is we didn't find him till sometime after we think he had the stroke. He didn't manage to press his panic button.”
“But he will be OK, right?”
“We really don't know, Mrs Beale. It was his second stroke and it looks like it was a bad one. We've heard from the hospital that he's in intensive care, so I'm afraid that you can't visit.”
Mary stumbled for a chair and gratefully fell into it.
“Can I at least visit his room?”
“Well, I suppose so. If you really want to. But I think you'll find it a bit of a mess. He seemed to be going through old things when he had the stroke. We haven't had time to tidy up yet.”
“I understand .. just a few minutes ..”
Bob's room was on the ground floor and clearly labelled with his name. The door was already ajar and she entered with a degree of trepidation. She did not know how to view this room: as a shrine to someone who was dying, or even dead, or as a celebration of a life that was now at least in part her own. The bed was littered with envelopes and writing paper and she perched on the edge as she tidied things up.
There were five letters from her mother to Bob and they looked as clean and bright as they must have done the day she posted them. He had kept them all these years. She could have no idea how often – if at all – he had read them since first receiving them, but he must have been examining them this morning and in one case the pages were still out of the envelope. She picked up the pages delicately as if they might dematerialise in her hands and read the opening words:
“I know that we were only together a short time but you gave me more than you will ever know. I realise that what we had in those few days was more than lust but less than love and I am pained by the thought that our lives will never touch again."
Published on 28 May 2010
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