The Other Side of Sorrow

Peter Corris


‘Hello, Cliff. It’s Cyn, as you always used to call me. Cynthia Samuels. I know this must be a bolt from the blue, but I have to see you. I need to tell you something. I’ll be in the city tomorrow and I want you to meet me at the cafe in the State Library, say at eleven-thirty. Please, please try to make it. Here’s my number in case you can’t, but please try.’

I scarcely heard the numbers she recited on the answering machine tape in that strange way people reel off their telephone numbers. Her voice and tone were unmistakable even though I hadn’t heard them for more than twenty years. Cyn was my ex-wife and our parting had been as tempestuous as the relationship itself. We got a no- fault divorce under the new law and went our ways. I kept vaguely in touch with Cyn’s life through her father who I played a bit of tennis with. But he’d died some years back and that broke the connection.

I played the message again. ‘I want you to meet me…’ That was typical of Cyn. She always expected to get her own way. With me she had, but only for a shortish time. As it turned out, our ideas of how to live were completely different. This had been obscured from us at first. By sex, mainly. Cyn was an architect who either sat in an office or went out to places she was helping to put into strict order. She liked life to follow suit. I was a private detective who spent as little time in my office as possible and most of it out dealing with messes that rarely got completely cleaned up.

When we split up we had virtually no assets. Our equity in the Glebe terrace consisted of the small deposit we’d jointly put down. I took out a personal loan and paid back her half and that was about it. She’d disliked the house and Glebe anyway, and went back to the other side of the harbour. I signed the divorce kit papers she sent me and we spent about five minutes in court establishing that our marriage had irretrievably broken down. We didn’t shake hands and wish each other luck. I’d always felt bad about that.

All this and much more came back as I listened to the tape for a third time. Inevitably, I remembered the fights more clearly than the good times. There were plenty of both – screaming matches that almost, but never quite, got physical, at least on my side. Cyn accused me of every crime in the book – neglect, dishonesty, infidelity, drunkenness, irresponsibility. Increasingly, as things got worse between us, the accusations were valid. In the end my failure to show up for ‘a talk’ which I’d sworn to do was the last straw for Cyn and she left, cleaning the house out of all her possessions.

I remember getting home full of remorse for not keeping my promise and finding her gone. I immediately went looking for the gin bottle to help me through it, but she’d taken the gin.

The good times were less sharply focused in my memory – beach holidays, dinners, late night walks through Glebe and sexual bouts that left us both exhausted.

On the third run-through I paid more attention to the present than the past. The voice, although recognisable, had changed a bit. Still firm, but not as firm, still clear but not as clear. And for Cyn to say please three times in a short message was unusual. This made me curious. But I was surprised to find that traces of the old hostility persisted. Bugger it, why should I put myself out for her? was one impulse. Against that, she said she had something to tell me and information was my business. I had the phone number written down and I could have called and suggested a meeting in another place at another time. But how petty was that?

As it happened, I didn’t have a lot on at the time and after successfully concluding a long-running fraud investigation I was solvent if not flush. That evening I wandered around the house, noting the signs of neglect and decay that advanced and retreated over the years as I spent or withheld money. The house was worth a fair bit now, but I could never bring myself to move. Inertia? Nostalgia? I wasn’t sure. As I moved around I kept thinking about Cyn and the short time we’d spent here. Were there any traces left of that time? I laughed when I realised that there was at least one – a missing staircase baluster which I’d grabbed on the way down after Cyn had pushed me. Hard. After a while I gave up and went to bed. The last I’d heard Cyn was living with her advertising executive husband in a Wahroonga mansion and I bet there wasn’t a broken baluster in the place.

In the morning I took a good look at myself in the bathroom. I still had all my hair and it was more dark than grey. The cheeks were seamed and the multiple broken nose wasn’t beautiful, but the money I’d spent on my teeth had been worthwhile. Plenty of crows’ feet, but no jowls yet. A bit soft in the middle but not too bad. I knew it was ridiculous, but I shampooed my hair, shaved closely and put on a clean shirt, newly dry-cleaned pants and brushed lint from my well-worn blazer. No tie.

In these pre-Olympic days, when they’re ripping up the city and turning it into a series of holes in the ground and cranes in the air, it makes no sense to take a car into the CBD. The traffic crawls and is diverted into places where you don’t want to go. Parking costs a packet and you never know when you’re going to be a victim of road rage, or a perpetrator. It was Monday, supposedly a light traffic day, but I wasn’t tempted. Some day a politician is going to have to find the guts to ban private cars in the city or institute an odds and evens system. I wasn’t holding my breath. There’s talk of reinstating a ferry from Glebe to Circular Quay and I’m looking forward to it. I caught a bus.

As I sat on the bus I looked at my dollar-twenty ticket. Geoff Towers, my accountant, would insist on me submitting it as an expense even if I wasn’t on the way to see a client or pursuing an investigation.

‘You’re riding on public transport, right?’ Geoff Towers once said over a similar tiny amount for a rail journey. ‘You’re seeing things, right? Noting changes in schedules and timetables. Security arrangements or the lack of them more likely. That’s a professional activity. You think those consultant arseholes the Tax Office hires don’t write off paper clips?’

‘How about when I’m having a beer in the Toxteth on a Friday night? Observing humanity.’

‘Arguable,’ Geoff said. ‘Eminently arguable.’

That train of thought led me back to Cyn and what she had to tell me. After telling me goodbye she’d had nothing else to tell me for twenty-plus years. ‘I hope I never see you again,’ was one of the things she’d said towards the end. Well she hadn’t, apart from our moment in court. In the time between the split and the divorce I’d tried often to contact her but she’d thrown up a high wall. She’d told our few mutual friends not to talk to me about her and instructed them to tell me not to ask. In all the time I was with her I never knew Cyn to change her mind. This had to be something serious.

Libraries have changed in the last twenty-five years more than most institutions. They used to be gloomy, wood-panelled places with a musty smell and tight-lipped women in twinsets. Now they’re brightly lit, computerised, and the senior reference librarian is likely to be sporting tattoos and a lip ring. The cafe was below decks in the library but natural light flooded down from a massive lightwell. That was welcome. Since I incurred some damage to the cornea of my left eye I’m slow to adapt to changes in the light. Too dim and I’m fumbling, too bright and I’m dazzled. As it was, in this bright space with very few of the tables occupied, I spotted Cyn almost straight away and before she spotted me. Always an advantage, that. The tables were grouped around an indoor garden and waterfall. Cyn was sitting near the centre of the place. She was reading with the book held well out in front of her. That was a sign that she was short-sighted. Cyn would be too vain to wear glasses in public. I pulled up and looked at her. The hair was still blonde and luxuriant; her wide mouth was closed firmly and the sculptured features that had thrilled me were still in evidence. Always slim, she looked even thinner in her late forties than she’d been in her twenties. That was Cyn. When she was slender she’d tried to be skinny. Well, she’d made it.

‘Hello, Cyn.’

I’d snuck up on her, gumshoeing it. But you couldn’t faze Cyn. She slowly lowered the book and levelled her blue eyes at me.

‘Cliff,’ she said, ‘Sit down.’

It was always like that. Just when I thought I’d got the drop on her in some way she’d fake me out. She was paler than I remembered and there was something frail-looking about her neck bones showing above the collar of the white silk blouse. She was wearing a blue linen jacket, almost certainly the top half of a suit. The shoes and bag would match in the same way the string of pearls and earrings matched. The pearls were a mistake though, they

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