To The Bridge
Chapter One
An Exchange
Everything has meaning. There is meaning in the speck in your eye, in the way you blink at an uncomfortable moment. The fragment of a half-remembered dream contains meanings you will never dare investigate. Before a thing has happened it has meaning. Somewhere a home awaits it. When the dust has settled, its name tag is revealed.
For Michael there was meaning in the way the door was double-locked.
The staleness of the air in the hallway held ineluctable meaning. It made of Michael Leap a child, lonely and ashamed; transformed his home into a boarding school, all visiting parents gone.
The note was waiting for him on the kitchen dresser. A cold white light – overflowing with meaning – shone between the slats of the wooden blinds. Michael walked to the dresser, picked up the note, held it before him like a book of prayer.
The note said almost nothing.
Less than nothing.
For Michael there was more meaning there than words could ever have conveyed.
Sarah had used a black biro. Had written carelessly, as if in a hurry. He recognised her reckless, postcard script: the cross of the t flying over the length of the word; no dot above the i.
She’d signed herself ‘Sarah’. Not ‘Your darling’. Not ‘Love, Sarah’. Not ‘Sarah xxx’.
Just ‘Sarah’.
He screwed up the sheet of paper, threw it in the bin.
No subtle meaning there…
It was normal now, to screw up Sarah’s notes as if they meant nothing, to stroll to the bin, to discard them.
Its normality held a world of meaning. It was a statement – ringing like the bell of a buoy in deep fog – of loss.
Mildred would read about that moment in the diary Michael kept. She would read:
Sarah… my Sarah… might as well – might just have well have written "Goodbye forever"…
She might as well have written "You are a stranger to me now. For the rest of our lives it will be as if we had never touched, as if we had never been utterly close. It will be as if we had never made love".
   Mildred would read in the next paragraph:
She might as well have written "Fuck you".
The kettle’s automatic sensor no longer worked. The thing would boil half away before realising what was happening and turning itself off. Michael walked over to it now, brought its turbulence to an abrupt and sudden end. Drowned a teabag in scalding water. Drifted, cup in hand, into the lounge.
Lowered his cup onto the coffee table.
Picked up the phone.
A telephone exchange, he thought. Objects changing hands. One state replaced by another. Marital bliss exchanged for loneliness. A telephone for a cup of tea…
He closed his eyes. Held the phone before him like a tablet of stone – like a testament gifted, without intermediaries, from the hand of God.
There were questions he wanted answered.
There are questions I want answered.
Quite a number of questions.
Important questions.
He opened his eyes, admired the seamless ergonomics of the phone.
He wanted to know why anything was worthwhile.
He wanted to know – in a world where some people had everything and others had nothing – why the people who had everything still managed to be unhappy.
He wanted to know why – for almost all his life – he had never been able to appreciate anything until it was gone.
He wanted to know why Sarah had never wanted children.
He keyed in a number.
Soon he need only utter a name, speak it aloud, and phones will dial themselves.
Soon he need only murmur incomplete syllables and nanotechnology will fathom his inner thoughts and establish lines of communication on the basis of a computerised perception of what it was to be human.
Soon –
His mother’s voice.
There were other things that he wanted to know, other things that the cordless, inarticulate phone needed to explain to him.
He wanted to know why anything meant anything, if anything really meant anything at all…
He wanted to know why Jeremy bloody Paxman was more entitled to his opinions than Mary Nice-But-Dim next door.
He wanted to know why one opinion, in a world drowning in opinion, should have any more weight than any other.
He wanted to know why he couldn’t help but go on eating crap that made him overweight when he knew full well that millions of people in Africa looked like Sarah had when she was ill in hospital but not because of chemotherapy but because they had never ever had enough to eat.
He wanted to know why somewhere in the core of his soul he had never believed that he deserved to be loved.
He wanted –
‘Michael? Is that you?’
‘Yes, it’s me. Michael.’
He wanted to know why something close to fear echoed in his mother’s voice whenever she realised who it was who was phoning her.
‘Michael! What’s wrong?’
Now, there was a question…
What’s wrong?
She had always been that sort of mother. ‘What on earth is wrong, Mikey?’ she would have said a few years ago, when he was still a child. ‘Why are you making such a fuss?’
‘It’s – it’s Sarah, mum.’
‘Is something wrong with Sarah? Something new?’
And there was another question worth asking.
Is something wrong with Sarah?
He wished he could tell his mother what had happened – the whole story, unabridged – but he couldn’t find the words. All of a sudden he felt a desperate need to put down the phone, to listen to the silence that had crept over the house, to try to work out what it all meant… but it was too late to stop. His conversation was gathering its own momentum. It was all set to carry on by itself, independently of anything Michael could do, ricocheting away through the ether no matter what.
‘No, mum,’ Michael’s voice said, translated by the phone into zeros and ones, ‘there’s nothing’s wrong with Sarah. Nothing at all. She’s left me, that’s all. Sarah’s left me.’
Sarah’s left me. The words echoed somewhere in his head, echoed back to him from the phone. This wasn’t communication. He had known it wouldn’t be. When he spoke to his mother it never was.
This was action and reaction – a reflexive response to the shapes of words. He had known how his mother would react, what she would think. It was utterly predetermined. It was irrevocably shaped by everything that had happened in the past.
The little bitch, is what she would think. My darling boy… The little bitch…
She would think murderous thoughts. Maternal defensiveness, the possessiveness of the matriarch, would already have been triggered in her mind – would be jerking his mother about like a puppet at the end of instinctive, predetermined strings.
The little bitch.
My darling boy.
The little bitch.
‘Sarah’s left you?’ his mother asked.
Michael thought he could hear her teeth grinding. ‘Yes,’ he said.
‘The – the little cow! Oh, Michael, I’m so sorry! How could Sarah be so stupid? How could she do this to you? Oh, darling! It’s so far from being what you deserve! After all you’ve done for her! After everything you did while she was ill! Oh, Michael… Oh, Michael, I never really thought you could trust her, you know that, not really. You know that’s what I’ve always thought. In many ways this is just what I expected all along. Oh, Michael! Oh, Michael, you poor, poor boy!’
You poor, poor boy.
Michael bridled at the phone.
Tele-bloody-communications… he thought. Whose clever idea was that?
‘I’m not a boy, mum – and it’s not what I expected. It’s the last thing I expected. In fact, it’s not even true.’
‘Michael, are you crying?’
Mildred, ‘Auntie M’, would read in Michael’s diary:
I should never have phoned up mum.
Did I think I could just say goodbye, could just shut her down?
Mum’s inescapable. She’s in my blood. The years of my upbringing have imprinted her upon my brain.
He said, ‘You’ve got it wrong, mum. She hasn’t really left me. Not physically.’
‘Michael, what’s wrong? What do you mean “Not physically”?’
‘She’s left me in the only way that matters, mum. She – she’s stopped loving me. Sarah doesn’t love me any more…’
‘Oh, Michael… Oh, my poor boy…’
‘And there’s more.’
‘Oh darling…’
‘You see, I don’t really blame her. She’s completely and utterly right. I – even I – would walk away from the person I’ve become if I only had the strength. You see, I’ve realised something, something really important. I’m not worthy of love, mum – not of Sarah’s love, not of anyone’s love. I wonder if that’s what you taught me, all those years ago? I wonder if that’s the lesson my childhood imprinted on me? I’m a worthless little shit, mum, that’s what I’ve realised. I’m small, mum, a small business man with the emphasis on infinitesimal… I’ve – I’ve had enough, mum. I’ve had enough of struggling to be something that I know I’m not. I’m not a success – and I’ve had enough of trying to be successful. I want out. That’s what I want. That’s all I want. I want out. Out of here. Out of telecommunications. Out of everything.’
‘Oh, Michael! What did Sarah say? What did the little bitch say?’
‘Sarah’s not a bitch. She didn’t say anything. I’m fucked, mum, that’s all. That about sums it up… I’m totally and utterly fucked.’
‘Michael! Don’t say that, my darling! You’re not… effed. You’ve never been… effed. Maybe – maybe, Michael! – maybe you’re just seeing something wonderful and new! Maybe this is just the beginning of something new, my darling! Even if Sarah does leave you, this could be a fresh start, a new opportunity, a time for change. You’re not fucked, Michael – of course you’re not! Maybe this is God intervening at last! Maybe there will be something new for you now – something more meaningful, something better than you have ever had before!’
‘Like you, mum?’
‘Michael – I’m just trying to help! You know that! All I’m trying to do is help!’
What a funny word.
It didn’t sound quite right.
It sounded like a cross between a greeting and a kind of seaweed.
‘Help?’ Michael asked. ‘Help’snot what I need… And in any case there’s nothing left to help. There’s nothing left to salvage. The person you could have helped is gone. I love Sarah. I’ve always loved her. I loved her before she was ill. I loved her all the time she had cancer. I love her now. But she doesn’t love me. Not any more. She doesn’t love Michael Leap and there’s nothing I can do about it. I’ve tried to salvage something – I’ve tried everything I could possibly have tried – but I’ve failed. Sarah’s closed me out and I can’t find a way back in. It’s like I’ve never really been here, in this house, in our home. It’s like I’ve ceased to exist. It’s – ’
He was no longer making sense.
He knew that now.
His tongue was clattering in the sterile spaces of his mouth. His teeth were moon rocks in a desolate lunar landscape. His body was a spacesuit from which the air was steadily escaping. That was the hiss he could hear down the telephone line. It wasn’t static. There is no such thing as static anymore. That hiss – that was his voice.
‘I love you, mum,’ he said or maybe shouted. He needed to shout to hear his own words. Could his mother hear him? He doubted if she could – and he didn’t think she would want to hear whatever it was he was saying anyway. He was tumbling over and over like an abandoned space station, halfway between the sun and the earth, a spurious historical artefact. The meanings of his words were tumbling in and out of the sound that they were making, reverberating through the narrow corridors they were allowed to occupy, the sounds sounding senseless, conveying nothing of the love or pity or self-pity or anger or whatever emotion it was that he was trying to convey.
What were they? What were his words? What in any case could they have possibly hoped to convey?
A cry of loss? An expression of desolation?
‘I love you, mum.’
He doubted if even that was true. It was just more air escaping, a hissing, sibilant noise, very far away. He no longer understood its meaning, though in itself it must have had meaning. There is meaning in everything.
Ineluctable meaning.
He put the phone down suddenly. Picked up his cup of tea.
A fair exchange, he thought.
A telephone for a cup of tea.
Stared at the tense unbroken surface of the drink.
There was only one person he had ever truly loved.
Sarah was the only person he had ever truly loved.
He loved his wife, Sarah. Only ever Sarah.
But Sarah no longer loved him.
‘I’m fucked, mum,’ he said to his mother, or seemed to remember saying.
‘That’s what I am. That’s all I am…
And from later in the novel:
He’s there at her side for every single moment of her first cycle of chemotherapy, guarding her against the dangers of this strange new world. He watches as they tape something called a cannula to her wrist, a needle permanently inserted into a vein, allowing the drip-feed of medicine. She shows him the scar where they have removed the whole of her left kidney, fourteen centimetres long and already beginning to heal – and he almost faints.
A handsome young doctor tries to explain. ‘Cells are more sensitive to being killed when they are replicating,’ he says, ‘and cancer cells in general replicate quickly. Chemotherapy takes advantage of that fact – uses that window of opportunity to get at the cancer. Unfortunately, hair follicles and bone marrow cells also replicate quickly, which is why your hair falls out and your white blood cell level goes down and we have to protect you from infection.’
‘I see.’ This is Michael – though he is too tired to see very much at all.
‘You do?’
‘Thank you for explaining it to us,’ Sarah says.
The doctor retreats, a little perplexed by their apparent lack of interest. Michael mutters. ‘I probably know more about the drugs they are giving you than he does… Oh, the joys of the Internet.’
‘The joys of being poisoned,’ Sarah says.
‘Yes, that too.’
But it’s not just Sarah who is filling up with poison.
Michael is also becoming toxic. A poisonous velocity is pumping through his veins, driving him forward, downward, at an ever greater speed; driving him at breakneck speed to and from the hospital each day, carelessly swerving around cyclists, tyre-treading the toes of pedestrians, tail-gating geriatrics in their geriatric cars, undertaking buses, overtaking trucks, rushing helter-skelter from one uncomfortable space to another.
He is accelerating, faster and faster all the time. He is going faster and Sarah is slowing down, both of them growing more and more toxic with every passing second. There is a bitterness at the back of his throat, burning like acid, burning like regret. He hadn’t thought through his options, had he? He hadn’t taken the time to work this all out.
Outside 59 Sylvia Avenue Michael jumps from the car and hurries round to the passenger side to open Sarah’s door. She climbs out with a strange smile on her face, as if there’s something sad about coming home as well as something wonderful. She leans against the car door and looks out over the vehicle’s roof at Perrett’s Park. ‘You know,’ she says, ‘I almost feel as if I’ve been reborn. As if I’m looking out at the world with new eyes, with the eyes of a stranger, not the eyes of Sarah Leap at all. Everything seems new and different.’
Michael laughs. ‘Including me?’
‘Yes.’ She smiles out at the view of the city. ‘You seem the most different of all.’
Michael leans down and suddenly lifts her into his arms. Sarah gasps in surprise, laughs out loud. ‘What are you doing, you mad fool?’
‘Everything is new,’ he says. ‘Our life, our marriage, everything.’ He kicks the car door shut and carries her up the steps to their front door. ‘I’m carrying the new you into our new home for the very first time, just like I did on our wedding day. Just like on our wedding day, this is a wonderful new beginning for us. You’ll see…’
Her arms are around his neck and she’s looking into his face. He feels an unutterable happiness welling up within him – which is suddenly replaced by a terrible sensation of loss.
He drops the house keys. Almost drops Sarah.
His heart thunders in his chest.
He thinks he’s going to faint.
And finally:
Mildred will say, ‘I wonder where he is, what he’s doing, that son of yours?’
Jane, almost angry, will reply, ‘I know what you’re thinking but I don’t accept that as even a possibility.’
‘Accept what? If you’re so clever as to know my thoughts?’
‘I could believe it of Roger – of a man like Roger – but not of Michael – not of a man like him.’
Mildred, aggrieved: ‘What on earth would you believe or not believe of that god-forsaken child of yours?’
‘That he could run away from the crisis he and Sarah have somehow managed to concoct between them – like his father ran from me. At the first sign of trouble off Roger went, nimble as a bloody March hare. Running was Roger’s way of dealing with things, not Michael’s. Roger: yes. Michael: no.’
‘You’ve always had such a high opinion of that boy of yours…’
‘And you haven’t?’
‘Haven’t you always had a high opinion of him, too?’
‘I suppose I have. Of Michael… and of Sarah.’
‘So what should we do then, do you think?’
‘About what?’
‘About staying, leaving, whatever?’
‘You are the one who decides important things like that, Jane.’
‘Then I think we should pack.’
‘Then, dear, let’s pack.’

© 2011 Luke Andreski. All rights reserved.





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