Elise stood at the top of the stairs in a fury.
‘When I’m feeling this bad, you sitting there looking at me doesn’t help!’ And she threw the heavy silver boot that she’d bought at the markets at Eddy’s concerned face. ‘Go off to Melbourne! Leave now!’ She slammed the door behind her as she fled to their room, half afraid that her shot might have hit home. As Eddy stood in the dim stairwell and his expression of concern remained the same. He frowned, wondering how it was going to turn out. He had to go to Melbourne, it was a chance he couldn’t miss. The scholarship was only part of it. The faculty’s reputation and the teachers there, to be supervised by Garry Endright, it was too good. But Elise was so important, and he felt like his chest would cave in at the thought of her being sad about him leaving.
He picked up the boot from the bottom stair. He knew things for Elise were never simple. He’d give her some time to herself, though all he wanted to do was go into the room and stroke her hair and tell her that things would work out, that they would see each other.
That was the easy bit, the harder part was saying it was OK her aunt had died. That death couldn’t be too bad, it was just the end of life, he’d seen it often. At least he’d worked on the cadavers. But he’d never really known someone who died, no-one in his life had just disappeared. His grandmother had died, but he was too young then to understand. Everyone else was still around, and he squinted as he tried to imagine someone, like his mother or one of his brothers just no longer being.
Because that was what death was, a lack of life. The body was still there with all its fibres and bones and organs, they were just no longer ticking over. They were still. And in that stillness Eddy sometimes sensed, as he ran his scalpel across the greying skin, a relief.
When the news came through he was able to be useful. His studies of the brain let him translate for Elise and her family what had happened. The haemorrhage would have left her confused and numb, so there would have been little if any pain. Gradually the brain was flooded with blood, and so slowly it would have shut down the body’s functions. The grief at this was understandable. But, in his mind, though he could never say it, there were worse ways to go.
As he’d sat, watching Elise, he tried to imagine her feelings. She was closed, too sad to talk, the sobbing had finished and she sat there with her eyes swollen and her nose looking sore. She was a picture of misery, and Eddy wished that he didn’t feel so distanced from her and the grief. Grief was something he’d seen a lot of; at the death of children in the hospital; relatives in the emergency ward. He separated himself from it with clear lines of knowledge, this is what happened and this is why, I understand, I read a paper on it, led the discussion, have done the research, seen the numbers. But, with grief coming to live in his own house he wasn’t sure what to do. The knowing why it happened didn’t help. Elise wasn’t interested in the pathology. She didn’t want to know what the latest data showed. That was why he’d sat, glassy eyed, looking at her. That was what had sent her upstairs shouting. Eddy just hated it when it came to this.
‘Hey, man, what’s happening?’ Stew had just let himself in the front door.
‘Oh,’ Eddy was momentarily startled. And, as he looked at Stew squinting his stoner’s sqint, a pang of love for Elise and everything she was squeezed its way out of his chest and made him turn and go up the stairs. ‘Not much Stew, not much at all.’
Eddy opened their door and found Elise lying on the bed, face down. He put the boot back in the corner and slid down into the bed beside her.
‘I know it’s not your fault,’ Elise mumbled through the bedclothes, ‘but I just can’t make you OK when I’m not. I can’t help you cope with me not coping.’
‘It’s OK.’ Eddy put his arms around her. ‘I don’t want you to.’
‘But I hate making you feel this bad.’
‘I hate you feeling this bad. And you’re not making me feel bad. I’m just not sure what to do.’
‘Don’t do anything then. Just don’t look at me like this.’ And she turned around to fix her gaze on him, drooping her eyes and mouth.
‘I am not looking at you like that.’
‘Yes, you are.’
‘Well, sorry, but I think it was more like this.’ And Eddy summoned his worst impression of himself, allowing his glasses to slide down his nose and his eyes to widen.
‘No…’ Elise was smiling, no she was laughing at him. Thank god. After a week of sadness… ‘Why are you grinning like a maniac?’
‘I’m not a maniac.’ But he thought of the way the body had to be flown home from the Fiji holiday. Elise’s family’s shock that such a thing could happen. That someone could be dead and postcards could still arrive from them in the mail.
‘Lets go and get chocolate, I feel the need for chocolate cake.’
‘OK.’ And he sprang up in that way he had of suddenly being on his feet. It made Elise think that he’d never be caught off balance. Always be able to find up. ‘But I’m not going to let you forget that you just threw a huge silver boot at me.’
‘Oh God, I didn’t hit you, did I?’
‘No, you didn’t, but it was a close thing.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m just so…’ She waved her hands, and sitting with her legs folded under her, hips to one side, hair akimbo he loved her better than ever before. Please be happy for a while, he thought as he took hold of that waving hand. Please let’s leave this sadness in the house and go away from it.
He put his arm around her waist as they shut the front door. It fitted there, just so, as if it was made for him to hold. She put her head into his shoulder, where she felt it fitted, and all the morbid thoughts that had hovered around her hushed down, like rain on the roof. And as they walked towards Glebe Point Road she said:
‘Jan is – I mean was – a rich woman, you know. It’s as if some scenario that we always played as children has become reality. All the cousins, all her nieces and nephews, we were always playing that the rich aunt would die, that there was all this mystery and intrigue and … I don’t know, it feels strange. She was only fifty-two. That’s young, really isn’t it? Mum says that there’s a will, she’s only just written, and that there’s something for all the nieces and nephews. I mean, it feels weird, as if as kids we were acting out something that would become real.’ And Elise was back in the café with her mother, watching her cry in that wretched way you do when the sadness is too much even for tears. She heard her mother sob dryly as the checked table cloth – but it wasn’t even cloth, it was laminated so the waitress could come with a sponge and wipe away whatever had been spilt – imprinted onto her retina she had stared at it for so long.
They walked down the hill, the evening fading into night, currawongs calling from the camphor-laurels in the church-yard, the traffic lights glowing in the gathering dusk. They had their head so close together that, to them, walking, leaning into one another, there was nothing else in the world but the two of them. And Eddy knew it would be all right, he knew that things were going to be fine.