I spent yesterday morning with Tanya’s husband, Rick. Tanya collapsed overnight and had to be taken to hospital. Rick has suspected for a while that she has been close to having a breakdown. “She couldn’t sit still. She was like a caged bird,” he said. “Up and down all night, listening outside Leo’s door to make sure he was OK. We got a letter from the school last week saying they could no longer tolerate the amount of phone calls she was making, up to 20 a day just to see if Leo was all right. I had no idea she was doing that. And then to attack you like she did -”
Rick cries silently. He is tall and sturdy with an air of dependability; one of those men that you hate to see cry. My husband is taking the boys to the beach. They have the video camera and plan to make a movie about sealife in rockpools. They rehearse the commentary as they leave – it is a cross between David Attenborough and Mike Myers. Leo appears carefree but his eyes are troubled.
It is noon. The sky is full of clouds as if a bowl of flour had been dropped from above. A wren ducks and dives in the maidenhair ferns that grow along the fence. It sees me watching and propels itself upward like a little sapphire bullet.
“We lost a child,” says Rick. “Four years before Leo was born. Our first child. She was beautiful. Rosie. We called her that because of her cheeks. They were like little rosebuds. She contracted meningitis when she was 6 months old. We took her to the emergency room with a high fever. We were discharged with paracetamol and a diagnosis of a non-specific virus. Well, they were wrong. That virus was very specific. We were back at the hospital within the hour because Rosie’s feet and hands had turned black. She had septicaemia. Her fever was 42 degrees Celsius. They told us they might be able to save her if they amputated her hands and feet. We didn’t know what to do. How can you make a decision like that? She died half an hour after reaching the hospital.
They put us in isolation, gave us antibiotics in case we had contracted the disease too. I wish they hadn’t. I wish I had died right there with her then none of this would have happened.”
Rick’s revelation has covered the garden in eggshells. Fragmented, pearly blue, they surround me. I cannot move for fear of crushing them underfoot. The clouds cast shadows on them like tears. I have lost my voice, it stumbles in my throat. Nothing I can say will be good enough, so I hold out my hand. Rick clings to it. I feel like I am pulling him from quicksand.
“Tanya never recovered from losing Rosie,” he says. “For a whole year she stayed in bed, barely spoke, barely ate. Most of the time I didn’t know she was there. It was like living with the ghost of someone you used to know. We separated for two years. I don’t know what she did in that time – she never speaks of it. One day she turned up at my office, said she still loved me, asked if we could try again. I was aimless, playing the single guy without conviction, so I agreed. A year later, Leo was born.”
Tanya had been overprotective from the start; when Rick pulled her up on it she defined her behaviour as necessary vigilance. When he accused her of redirecting her grief over Rosie’s death into an obsession with Leo’s life they almost split again but Tanya seemed to loosen the reins a bit and for a few years Rick thought she was in control of herself. But now he realises her apparent self-control was just an act.
“I can’t do it anymore,” he says. “How’s Leo going to turn out if I don’t intervene? What kind of father would I be if I just do nothing? And what will become of Tanya if she doesn’t get some help?”
Rick wants me to talk to the police, to lodge a complaint against Tanya; the hospital has recommended it as a way of getting her into the treatment centre she needs. It is a sad end to a harrowing tale of pain and grief. “Rosie’s gone but Leo’s still here,” says Rick. “He the one who counts now. We have to allow Tanya to see him without his sister’s ghost walking in his footsteps or we can never move forward. He has to be Leo, not the boy with the sister who died.”
As we wait for the police to come, a peace descends. A cat stretches, its whiskers soft little question marks. Someone plays Ella Fitzgerald a few doors away.
April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees…..
Speaking is a nuisance, so I bask like the cat, wondering at the ease with which he moves through the world. I sing with Ella in my head, the mellow tone of her voice is a silken shawl, enfolding me with consolation. The cat reaches for a butterfly and yawns, too idle to really bother. I smile, cheered up, able at last to pray that Tanya’s glass fortress of grief over time will shatter and that she will be able once again, to live.