22. The Return

A WOMAN WAS JAILED after running over a crossing guard. She had been driving home from her Wednesday afternoon tennis club one August afternoon, when so windy was it the ladies had abandoned their game. Some bottles of wine were drunk, she'd said something that embarrassed her as she often did when she was drunk, so she left early, her mind spinning with anxiety, and she didn't notice the crossing guard walking out onto the road in his white hat and coat, with his bright orange sign, at a school crossing, until just before the thud of the impact. She sat in her seat, door locked, whimpering, refusing to get out, until a policeman threatened to break the window. The lollipop man was in a coma. The policeman recorded her blood alcohol level and drove her to the police station. Her husband, a pilot, was away at the time, in one of those heaving cities without end of which he had grown weary. He was in a taxi on a freeway when his mobile phone rang, and his wife was crying at the other end. He could barely make out a word of what she was saying, so he reassured her that everything would be fine. He then called his lawyer. The taxi was on its way to the airport anyway, so he allowed the driver to continue driving without changing his instructions. The freeway was elevated above the city and traffic was moving smoothly, and not for the first time in his life he felt disconnected from his conjugal problems. All his life he'd prided himself on his ability to remain calm in a crisis, although this time, as the taxi entered a tunnel, he felt so calm he wondered if it was wrong. At that moment, the taxi sped past a strange sight: it was early in the morning, and people were sleeping on the narrow footpaths along the tunnel walls, sheltering from the cold. One of them, a man, was lying inside a yellow-white blanket, and a woman appeared to be sewing it shut, so that he was soon to be entirely enclosed in it. So fleeting was this sight (within seconds the taxi had sped a long way past the couple) that the pilot wondered if his eyes had not deceived him, and with his head turned facing the back windscreen he tried to catch another glimpse of the couple, but to no avail. Because he was a pilot, he had no problem finding a seat home for that day, a first-class ticket his airline provided free of charge. By the time he was in the plane above the ocean on his way home, in fact, he wondered if he'd imagined everything - the taxi ride, the phone call, the man being sewn into a yellow-white blanket. His dependable lawyer hadn't called back, the chicken Kiev was delicious, as was the wine, and although he knew it was wishful thinking, he allowed himself to dwell in that consoling bubble, high above the cares of the world, until the plane landed.

THE ACCIDENT MADE THE pages of the newspaper in the town they lived near, in a spacious house abutting a small vineyard he'd planted himself, with the help of some friends, and which had lost him a small fortune in the few years since. He paid a local man to look after it, and had always had his suspicions that the man was somehow cheating him, without ever having figured out how. In the middle of the rows of vines was a scarecrow his wife had made of rags and an old felt hat, a token attempt at warding off the birds that descended to eat the fruit every summer, made more in the spirit of good humour than science. In fact, they had to cover the vines in netting every growing season, so that the vines looked as if they had been blanketed in spiders' webs. Over the following weeks the pilot, who was in his late fifties, applied for an early retirement, and the airline for which he'd worked almost his entire career obliged. He kept his departure low-key. Somehow his wife's disgrace also spilled over and tarnished him too. His friends and allies dwindled, and there was nothing in his arsenal of charm and persuasion he could call on to bring them back. Soon after the trial began, the lollipop man injured in the accident died of his injuries, and his wife was sentenced to several months in prison. He drove her there, and the trip was wordless. On his way home, he vowed to devote himself to looking after her as well as he could. It was true she drank too much, but she had been drinking too much for a long time, and they'd always been drinkers, even he, the only difference being his drinking had always been curbed by the demands of his job, whereas she had never had a job - he had always discouraged it. He was, in his way, also culpable. It was a two-hour drive to where she'd been imprisoned, and he visited her as often as he could. The first visits were difficult: his wife cried throughout. Despite having witnessed her tears many times before, he was on each occasion moved, and reminded her that she would soon start to feel better, as her body adjusted to functioning without alcohol. No, she replied, you don't understand. I will never leave this place. I know it in my bones. He told her to stop thinking such thoughts, and reassured her that the few months of her sentence would pass much more quickly than she assumed. He promised he would be waiting for her when she was freed. As a young woman she had possessed a great patrician beauty and fierce intelligence, and her large and happy family had welcomed him into their midst. He had loved them for this, and sometimes wondered if he didn't in fact love her for her family, at first for the stories she told about them, and later, for themselves, for they were even more likeable as real people than as she had described them. He had no family of his own to speak of, having fled Czechoslovakia in his youth as a political refugee after the Prague uprising in 1968. He'd settled for a time in Canada and studied engineering, and later - after his marriage, and their move to Australia - put himself through flying school. In the early years he'd sent letters to his father and his younger sister, but they went unanswered. At about that time, he'd changed his name by deed poll, to make it easier to spell, and less foreign. Years later, after the fall of the regime, they'd traveled back to his village. There he'd learned that his father had died soon after his departure, and his sister had left the village, leaving no forwarding address. There were different accounts of the story: in some, the father died before the sister left, and in others it was the other way around. The pilot and his wife had no children. Early on they had decided they would have no children and he had had his tubes tied, as the expression goes. He had always had the ability to impose his will upon her, and she had the ability to ignore what didn't agree with her, and in this way they led their separate lives together. He had been unfaithful, but not as often as she thought, and in truth he had long given up hope there would ever be the grand passion in his life he'd once dreamed of. On the days when he didn’t visit her he wrote her letters. He dictated them into a recording device, and then typed them up late in the evening. It was lonely work, during which he had occasion to spend much time in recollection.

BY NOW IT WAS late summer, and the time came to harvest the dusty purple grapes clustered on the vines, hidden under their web of netting, and pickers were hired. On the agreed morning the pilot drove into town to pick them up. It was not long after dawn and the light was a limpid blue. The three pickers were waiting, as agreed. Two of them were a Vietnamese man and woman, a husband and wife it transpired, and the third was a woman who seemed vaguely familiar to him. She returned his gaze with a flicker of recognition, or at least so he thought, only he couldn't be sure. Strangely there arose a shyness in him, a shyness he hadn't felt since much earlier in his life, when he'd left his country. They returned to the vineyard and began to harvest the grapes, the Vietnamese couple, the familiar stranger, the pilot and his manager. The pilot studied her closely, careful to do it unnoticed, careful not to betray his interest in this woman, aware that he might be watched. He was, after all, in a state of disgrace. They stopped for lunch, and as they ate their sandwiches she said something and he realized she spoke with an accent. He asked her where she was from, and she said she was from Czechoslovakia. He asked her, still in English, how long she had been in Australia, and she said she had only recently arrived. He asked her why she had moved when things were going so well now in her country, and she said that she had come to find her brother, and that she had run out of money. He asked her about her brother, and she said that he had left when she was a child to Canada, and that she had traveled there, and been told that he'd moved on to Australia, and changed his name there. The pilot looked at her closely and realized that she was in fact his sister, but when he spoke to her he said, I wish you the best of luck in your search. In the meantime, you're welcome to stay here. I need some help while my wife is away. So at the end of the harvest she stayed. The woman slept in a room detached from the rest of the house. It was rudimentary, but in the summer months it was a pleasant place to sleep and wake up in. They spoke little, as if both were overcome by shyness, and only ever in English. Her own English was stilted and clumsy, and she was perhaps too much of a beginner to hear that he too had an accent, an accent now smoothed by the passing years. The first task he assigned her was to clean the house, whose condition somewhat reflected his own, and she cooked for him too, dishes he knew from his childhood, and soon he had entrusted her with the keys to the car and she drove to town to do the shopping, which meant he could avoid the social disgrace of his situation. She betrayed no curiosity about him whatsoever, or at least not on the surface. She asked him no questions. When he asked her questions, she answered politely but in such stilted language that it was difficult to know whether she was being discouraging or whether she was in fact unable to express herself. She drew a veil around herself. Still, the more he studied her, the more he was sure that she was in fact his sister, but she was at the same time a stranger, and he felt it was still too early to tell her so, and so he continued to address her in English, and one day he realized the time to reveal himself had passed. Three times a week he would drive the two hours to the prison to visit his wife, returning late at night, but his guest never asked him where he had been, and he never volunteered the information. His wife, for her part, seemed to withdraw into herself a little more every time he saw her. He didn't tell her about his guest because he thought it would upset her. Gradually his visits dwindled, and each time he left her with an even more acute sense of futility. At the same time, over a period of some weeks, he became increasingly attached to his guest, despite or perhaps because of the elaborate game that had developed between them. His sister had been little more than an infant when he had left his country, and now he felt welling up inside him the great passion he had longed for all his life. He wondered whether she felt the same way, but to ask her would be to break the spell that, he felt, both of them had fallen under - and so it became the spell that held them together. The nights were cooling, winter was approaching, and one night she appeared in his bedroom in her nightgown and entered his bed. He pretended to be asleep, but in fact he slept very little that night, and in the morning he arose from bed before she woke. That day, they didn't mention the previous night's event, but he detected the faintest trace of a warming in her manner, and in his way he tried to reciprocate without breaking the tacit agreement he felt they had both wordlessly entered into, and thereafter she slept beside him every night.

BEING A DISCIPLINED MAN, he'd kept his vow to himself to write his wife a letter each day he didn't visit her, but he was increasingly burdened by this task, especially as it kept him distracted from his guest in the evenings, when she would sip herbal tea by the fire as he typed away in his study. He asked her one night if she would type his letter for him while he dictated. It will be good for your English, he said. She agreed. So it became a ritual between them: every night, he would dictate a letter to his wife, which she would type on a computer, and he would correct it over her shoulder afterwards. And as his visits became less frequent, the letters became longer. He filled them with anecdotes and observations, memories and compliments. The letters were affectionate if not passionate. He didn’t mention his guest, it would be too upsetting even if, in his own eyes at least, nothing yet had happened that he might consider outwardly wrong. But in not mentioning her, the complicity between he and his guest deepened. As he dictated them he felt that through them he was explaining himself to his guest without risking breaking the spell that enveloped them. Then in the morning she would seal them in an envelope and take them down to the letterbox for the postman to collect. He began to spend the greater part of his time with his guest. He became neglectful of his everyday duties. The manager would visit him at the house to tell him about some matter or other related to the vineyard, to hound him to pay for some expense or other, or to chide him about some labour or other he had yet to agree to. The pilot began to detect a measure of scornfulness in the manager's demeanour, so he fired him. He did so with some relief. It would allow him to concentrate all the more on his guest. He saw in the face of his guest a great unravaged grace that comes to a woman only in middle-age, and then only rarely. Together they passed the winter, he dictating letters to her nightly. The vines remained unpruned, and with spring their shoots outgrew their tethers and turned the vineyard into a wilderness of leaves and shoots. One early summer night, the coolness of the night drifting in through the open window, with trembling hesitation, as she lay with her back to him, he reached across to touch her, but she didn't move. He kissed the skin of her back, taking in the smell of her skin deeply, but as there was no sign of life from her, he stopped, and he never tried again. Soon enough the vines heaved with white birds, attracted by the fruit, unaffected by the scarecrow, but the pilot paid them no heed. The vines had become entangled in one another so thickly that it became impossible to walk the rows between them. It was a full year since the guest had arrived, and she announced the time had come for her to leave. Her decision came as a great blow, and yet somehow from deep within him there was a knowing, not so much consent as acknowledgment, that the spell was bound to break, and that it was better that she leave rather than that it should do so. He decided furthermore that her decision was a tacit reassurance, for by now he was convinced that she and he were of the same mind, that the spell consisted in the fact that each knew who the other was without either of them ever having to reveal themselves. He offered to drive her where she was going, and although he didn't say so, he felt that implicit in his offer was another offer, a much more profound offer, a declaration of love. For such was the way they had always spoken to one another, with hidden inferences that connected vast distances. She refused shyly, insisting that he merely drop her off where he had found her, and that she would find her own way back. He considered pleading with her, but he felt this would destroy everything that had happened in the previous year, and that at any rate she would not change her mind. The day of her departure arrived and they drove wordlessly to where he had first seen her, and although his eyes were shrouded with tears, he thought it important that she not see them, and that at any rate there was no need for her to see them, as those tears would always already be understood. He stopped the car at the agreed place and made her promise to write, which she agreed to do with a sad smile. They then kissed for the first and only time, and as she got out of the car, she leaned into it and said, Look in the letterbox. He drove home quickly, his heart breaking but thankful to have been given a reason to return, which otherwise he might never have had the courage to do. He stopped the car at the front gate. Crammed in the letterbox and spilling out of it, littered too on the ground under the letterbox, yellowed and weathered and inkstained in their unopened envelopes, were all the unsent letters he had dictated to his wife in prison.

Author's note: it turns out the story I originally wrote and published for today was a double-up of a previous story. Long story short, I've replaced it with this one, written some years ago.