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“But you never actually got divorced, did you, sweetie?”
A crackly phone line and the unfamiliar Australian twang could not disguise the impatience in her voice.
“Donna, I have seen neither hide nor hair of your brother for two years. Good riddance.”
“You can’t change facts. You’re his next of kin. There’s no-one else.”
The legal expression hit me like a punch in the gut. Donna steamrollered on. “We don’t want you to be out of pocket. Heavens, no. You just tell the funeral director to send the bill to Tobes. No expense spared.”
That was one matter where I agreed with my late, unlamented husband. His elder sister had rammed her Australian husband’s prosperity down his throat for years. Her Christmas cards showed photos of a spacious house, sunlit swimming pool, his and hers treadmills, and their growing children on growing ponies.
Donna was still talking. “Like I said, sweetie, it’s not convenient for us to come over right now, and it is your legal responsibility.”
Two days later, I unlocked the padlock the police had put on Matt’s door after the ambulance crew broke in.
Deep breath. I could do this.
I drew back the curtains to take in Matt’s whole life, encompassed in one tawdry rented room, a life ended by painkillers. It was typical of Matt that he somehow overdosed on over-the-counter flu remedies. “We’re treating it as an accident, love,” a sympathetic policeman had told me. “It happens. People swallow them like sweeties.” That figured. Matt was always impatient, wanting immediate results.
Might as well get on with it. Mollified by Donna’s largesse, the landlord had promised to send a van to collect Matt’s leavings, and I intended to be in and out as quickly as possible. I shook out the plastic bags I had brought with me. A clear one for anything important. I would post his phone and paperwork to Australia, and Donna could get off her treadmill-toned arse and deal with it. Black bin liners for everything else.
Why do some women marry the wrong man? If I knew the answer, I would make a fortune. Did I think I could change Matt? Perhaps. Matt was one of life’s losers, although when I met him I thought he was a talented guy who needed a push in the right direction. Was my biological clock ticking? Perhaps. Did I sorry for him? There I stopped and gave myself a mental shake. It was impossible to be sorry for someone who brought problems on himself.
I cleared the cupboard above the sink of a random assortment of plates and mugs. It also contained a half-empty bottle of whisky. That could come home with me.
Moving on, I threw grubby bedding into bags, followed by sweaters, shirts and underpants. Matt had never been a vain guy.
The letter was in a metal cigar case, in a drawer that also contained his spare reading glasses. The paper was dog-eared, the creases worn, as if it had been unfolded and refolded many times.
My very own Matt, I’m writing to you tonight because I can’t wait until next week to say how much I love you. Next week will be our first anniversary. The first of many, my dearest. I want us to grow old and grey together. Isn’t it wonderful that together we are more than the sum of you and me?
Dumbfounded, I skipped to the signature: The name Andrea meant nothing to me. I read her last paragraph again.
Do you remember our second date? When we met in the park? You didn’t know I was watching, and I saw you punch the air and jump over a puddle. I knew, I just knew, that you wanted to jump right into the puddle, like a toddler, and make a splash, for the joy of living, and the joy of coming to meet me. My heart exploded with the joy of meeting you. That was when I decided to marry you. Happy anniversary, my dearest Matt.
Who was this Andrea? What had gone wrong?
I tried to think. Matt had never, ever mentioned her name. Even when we split up, when I accused him of being an emotional cripple, and he accused me of being a control freak, he had never compared me to some previous love. But the letter looked far too old for her to belong to his life after me. Just in case, I scrolled through his phone. Andrea was not listed in his contacts.
I washed out a glass and poured myself a whisky. Some time later, I poured another. By then, I had decided it didn’t matter who she was. It didn’t matter if she came before or after me. What mattered was that someone loved Matt. Loved him truly, in a way I never did. If he inspired such devotion, he wasn’t the loser I thought he was.
Humbled, I looked at the bin bags stacked against the wall, waiting for the landlord to collect them. An hour earlier, the debris of Matt’s life had seemed pathetic. Not anymore. Someone loved him. That alone justified his place in the world.
Whatever had gone wrong, Matt deserved dignity and privacy. Donna and Tobes, secure in their perfect Australian life, need never see the letter.
I raised my glass in the direction of the square of sky visible through a grimy window. “Here’s to you, Matt, wherever you are. Here’s to you, Andrea, whoever you are.”
As an epitaph, it seemed inadequate. I listened for an answer, a sign. Then tried again.
“Night night. God bless.” The words echoed my grandma’s comforting goodnight kiss in childhood.
Footsteps sounded on the stairs but they went past the door without stopping. A hum of traffic came from the street below.
It was time to go.
I left the whisky bottle on the table.
For the landlord.
For Matt and Andrea.
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