Short story: “Swan song”

The phone rings rudely and raucously, rousing me from my restful slumber at the unearthly hour of 4 by my bedside alarm clock. I reach for it irritably, then pause.

It can only be her. No one else would ever call me at this hour. Yet it cannot possibly be her. She has been gone from my life for over a year now. No, exactly a year, come to think of it. Could it be her? And if it is, do I want to hear her voice again? Of course I do. And start the cycle of hope and hurt and heartache and hate all over again? No way.

But habit dies hard, and I pick up the phone. The sudden silencing of the ringer is striking since sounds are hard to come by at this time of the night – or morning, depending on your point of view.

“Gareth?” Oh my God, it IS she.
“Yes.” Naturally. I haven’t relocated without notice, or disappeared from other peoples’ lives, as someone else seems to have specialised in doing.
“I dreamed of you, and wanted to hear your voice again.”
Pause. Say more, dammit. She surely doesn’t want me to respond to that statement, not question?
“And so you’re hearing it.” I try hard to put a guarded smile into my words.
“It’s been a long time, Gareth. I should have called earlier.” Take ten points and go to the head of the class. You should have called when you got home that night. Or when I paged you a hundred times over the next week. Or when I sent you that viciously angry e-mail asking you to please stop messing with my mind.
“But I’m glad you have called now, nonetheless, Leica love. Tell me, what did you dream that so wanted to make you call me?”

“I…I dreamed that you’ve been lonely. That you lost your job. That you stopped playing the piano. That you were taking a long walk along the beach when a dolphin dived out and back into the water, and you did not even smile.” How did she know that last bit? Could dreams be that real?

I could see her in my mind’s eye on the same beach now, her hand in mine. That had been just the second time that we had met. I had flown halfway around the world from Texas to Sydney to see her, even though we had been together in cyberspace
every day for several months. And all because her car had broken down and she had sought refuge in the upmarket bar where I tinkled on the ivory each night.

She had rented the car to drive from Austin to Dallas, from where she was to catch her plane back to Australia the following night. Where would she have spent the night in Dallas? “In the airport, I guess,” she had said. Not enough money on her for a hotel. So why was she in the US? “Just like that,” she had said. Her mother
had died of a sudden illness and left her some money and the house, and she didn’t want to deal with the memories just then so she had escaped for a week. And then the stupid vehicle just had to break down in this little town somewhere-in-the-middle-

Stupid car? Wonderful car. One quick look told me that it was a ten-minute job even for an amateur tinkerer like me, but the plane didn’t leave till ten tomorrow morning and my place was – I hoped – nicer than the interior of the airport. And she had no problems with that. Amazing. I was a total stranger. A down-and-out loser. But she trusted me. And I honoured that trust. All we did was talk through the night and then I drove her to DFW airport in the repaired rental roadster, knowing fully well that I could get sacked for missing a day on the job and could barely afford the Greyhound ticket back to my place.

What had we talked about all night? Nothing romantic, I promise you. Sort of cerebral stuff, which I had all pent up inside me over the years because there was no one here I could discuss it with. Mainly the mysteries of the universe, my pet topic, amateur astronomer that I am. She knew a lot about a lot of things, that little lady barely out of college. Her accent was strange but sweet, light and lilting. Shades of subtle promises that might yet be made between us developed through discussions of Dvorak, Diderot and Dickinson. She was an amateur-turning-professional photographer and interior decorator. And she loved poetry, and dance, and art. I was in awe of all three – and at ease with short stories and science and sixties music.
She recited Frost for me, and I strummed my guitar and sang “Sweet Baby James.”
She sketched me sitting in my armchair, trying hard not to fidget, and there I still hang above the fireplace. I walked her to the open meadow and showed her the Big Dipper and the Pole Star through the telescope – and saw the stars shine in her eyes
when she discovered that there were new constellations here in the Northern Hemisphere that she had never ever seen before. And before we knew it, the stars were gone and the sun was up, and our time together was up.

Three years went by and I had just a few postcards from her. Then e-mail came into
our lives. Soon after, chat room technology wiped out the distances. She made the
first move both times – tracked me down through search engines. If you think that
was odd, perhaps I didn’t tell you that she never gave me her last name. Or her
address. Which is why I had not been able to even write back.

But real time chat changed all that. We picked up from where we had left off at the
airport, unfinished words and phrases and sentences on a thousand topics, each a
tributary of another, thoughts interwoven more intimately than two people have ever
been. Every time she would sign off with an original poem. “My songbird”, she had
named me. A half-serious pun, very much in character. I had had a lot of difficulty
with my family name, Thrush, while growing up, but her adaptation of it I reveled
in. And that was not the only thing about her that I fell in love with.

It was a safe romance, this cyber-thing. But the whole idea of saving up to go visit
her was a disaster from the start. I became a social recluse, afraid to spend time with
friends because their idea of a good time was bowling, beer and bawdy backrooms,
all of which cost money that I was no longer willing to fritter away. In just under
two years, I had the magic figure of two grand. Enough for a return ticket and a week
Down Under even with plenty of overheads assumed.

Her reaction was incredulous. “You’re coming here just to see me? You must be
crazy.” I was. Crazy about her. She indulged my dreams and my imagined passions,
and met me at Kingsfordsmith Airport, fresh as a daisy. Ran into my arms and
hugged me as I’d never been hugged before. Drove me to her place – had simply
refused to consider my staying in a hotel – and then turned her large, liquid eyes on
helpless me.

“I don’t know how to tell you this, Gareth, but I have to go to Melbourne for two
“Yes, I know you had told me that you might have some other plans a month ahead,
but I do have a job and the duties and commitments that come with it.”

“Please don’t make it any harder than it already is for me. See, I’ve got a rackful of
books and magazines and maps of the area for you – and the car is at your disposal.
By your own admission, Gareth, you are a nomad, so go wander. I’ll be back even
before you have time to really miss me.”

She was, too. Guess she knew me better than I did myself. And the rest of the week
passed in a daze. We were together every waking hour, but sleep time was strictly
separate rooms, if you know what I mean. Phone calls came often but she would
keep them short, and I overheard her tell someone that “I have a very special house
guest all the way from the US of A, so don’t contact me again until Monday.” It felt
very good. Melbourne was forgotten.

We walked, talked, swam, surfed, went to the movies, saw the Sydney Symphony in
concert, dined out, cooked dinner together, held hands, hugged…but that was all.
Our conversation was like the ambience of a French cafe – impressions and
fragments creating a whole much more than the sum of the parts. I’m no longer even
sure of who said what and why, but the snatches of some sentences wander
homelessly and restlessly in my mind…

“The person you love most is the one you dream the least about.”
“Really? I would have thought just the opposite.”
“So do you dream about me?” Strange, had never thought of it, but I hadn’t. Ever.

She saw me off at the airport with tears in her eyes. “I have never had someone
make me feel so special,” she whispered. A quick kiss, and a sudden fear of what-are-
we-getting-into – then we broke away from each other almost hastily – a moment
that may have been a lifetime, but was not even an infinitesimal instant. I backed
through the glass doors and waved despondently. The plane took off over Botany
Bay and curved inland, almost in a salute to Sydney, the city of Leica, which receded
slowly from sight even as it etched itself into my permanent memory.

So it was back to the computer chat room, the backroom in the post office where I
now had a day job and my favourite bar room after hours. I knew her name now, her
address, and her phone number – but there was an unspoken code between us that
dictated I never try to call her or reach her through any means other than cyberspace.
Still, there was consolation. Her freelance business was growing – and she was
travelling farther and farther afield…first to Singapore, then Thailand, then Japan,
suddenly, the US of A was a real possibility.

When the big break came, it wasn’t in Texas. The ole panhandle was OK for steaks
and suchlike, but interior decoration was better suited to the coasts. “Huge hotel
project coming up in Rhode Island,” her message read. “Should be there next week
Friday night. Planning to stay at the Best Western Motel on I-95 if OK with you.”
“Super-OK, Leica love, but which flight are you coming in on? I could pick you up
at Logan or Newark or wherever you’re landing at, and we could drive up (or down)
I-95 in my beat-up pickup.”

“Not sure, for sure, my songbird,” her note danced on my screen. “But I’ll be there if
you will, God willing.”
“Sure thing, Lady Leica. I trust you. Friday night at 8, Best Western at Providence
off I-95.”
“Won’t have a chance to mail you till then, but will countdown through the
sundowns…and rest when we meet…” maddening possible pun there, but might have
been unintentional; you could never tell with this will-o’-the-wisp.

9 p.m. Thursday at the Best Western – I had already checked in two hours ago and
seen that her reservation was in place, told the clerk to keep a room for her next to
mine. He nodded sagely, knowingly. I was too excited even to be annoyed. But
that was then. Now I was anxious. Antsy. Agitated. Alarmed. Almost going out of
my mind…aaah! The phone rang and I just-about-jumped out of my skin. “Leica?”
Nope, the smug reception clerk. “Miz Lawson called in to say she missed her flight,
will arrive 7 am tomorrow and requests the pleasure of your company at
breakfast…no, she didn’t say nothing else.”

Ouch. Had I known this, I could have come in tomorrow morning after driving
through the night or taking a long nap in the Chevy truck. Could hardly afford the
extra $40 that this night was costing me, alone under the East Coast starlit sky with
no Leica in the vicinity. Restless sleep, and no dreams. Rude ringing of alarm at
06:45. Bathed and shaved in record time, and sharp knock on the door at 7 sharp. It
was Leica, all right. Haggard and evidently unslept, dark circles, but smiling as she
held out her arms. “Sorry about this, Gareth. Last-minute crisis – and no time to let
you know. Last plane into Boston was too late to drive down here way past

“Oh yeah? That’s a shame.” Unspoken postscript follows: you could have spoken to
me when you called, instead of leaving a message. And that was just after 9 – if your
plane landed past midnight, you must have called from the starry sky. Skyphones
exist, of course, but somehow I don’t believe you would have. So what sort of game
are you playing, Leica?

“And Gareth, I have to go to a meeting at 10.”
“On Saturday? What sort of meeting? And until…?” hoping that she would catch
some of the early morning frost in my voice.
“Only way I could fit this client in. Five. Six. Seven…who knows? You’ll find
something to busy yourself with, won’t you? And promise you won’t mind?” Sure
as hell, I mind. And I have a good mind to tell her this, but…
“Oh, my songbird, by the way…”
“I’ve cancelled the other room. You don’t mind if I stay with you? Will give us
more time together, especially after what we lost last night?”

Speechless. Tongue-tied almost throughout breakfast. Lady metamorphoses from
sweetly scrawny semi-starlet to suit-clad professional and drives off in a natty New
Yorker. How on earth has she risen so fast as to be able to afford that sort of rental
car? Musing, I wander back into the room and find a slip of paper that must’ve
fallen out of her purse.

“Darling Leica (that’s not my writing, so who’s this?)
Thank you ever so much for last night. I have been waiting for this time together for
so long. Now that you have my car, you will have to see me again on the way back
– wasn’t that a nice little idea of mine? I ask nothing else of you but that you keep in
touch, the way you did this time. Ever, Lloyd.”

Blind rage. The two-timing little bitch.
Critical analysis. She has never said up front that she loves me. Nor have I asked
her whether there is someone in her life.
Confusion. Lloyd may be in love with her (Lloyd and Leica sound nice together, do
they not), but is she? Well, certainly enough to spend the night with him while
leaving me high and dry.
Conclusion. Let me try and be normal tonight, and make the most of it. Hopefully,
things will be clearer by morning.

Four lines to summarise ten hours of thinking. No meals, no cigarettes, no liquor –
just getting a bad, acid high on hard thought. Then she returned, occupied the bath
for over an hour, and came out looking like dewdrops on an early spring morning in
a deceptively demure dark blue dress. Off to dinner, walk by the seashore in the
starlight, old familiar sweet nothings of no consequence, then back to the motel

I can’t talk about this part. Some things are private. Even sacred.
Next morning…no, the clock says 12, so I must have slept for a hell of a long time,
but after all, it’s Sunday. Nudged awake by a ready-to-leave practically attired jeans-and-
tee-shirt almost-sophomore. No clue when she got up. All that was last night
was last night. And now she’s leaving.

Sanity departs. I rush to the door and block it. “You can’t just leave like this.”
Her smile is premeditated and set. It does not touch her eyes. “I have to, Gareth.
But it isn’t final like you’re making it out to be. I’ll be back. Soon, I prom…”
I cut off her words with a shove that staggers her back on to the uncrumpled one of
the two beds. “Who’s Lloyd?”

“Who’s …what, Gareth…you’ve been spying on me?”
“Do you know that I drove here halfway across the country for you? That I’m broke
and may lose my job because of this jaunt? And you spent Friday night with some
other man?”
“I can explain, Gareth, but you have to give me time.”
The moment of truth. “OK, Leica, if that’s the way you want it.” I flung the door
open. “You can go. But don’t contact me ever again until you’re ready to sing the
whole confession, chapter and verse.
She leaves. I can hear the New Yorker start up in the parking lot around the corner.
Last-minute impulse, 100-meter dash to the car as it pulls out. I’m in luck; the
windows are rolled down.
“Leica…” she jams on the brakes.
“Never mind what I said, but you will call once you’ve reached to let me know that
you’re safe?”
A muted yes, a reluctant half-wave, and she is gone.

And that was that. Until now.

“I…I dreamed that you’ve been lonely. That you lost your job. That you stopped
playing the piano. That you were taking a long walk along the beach when a
dolphin dived out and back into the water, and you did not even smile.”

How can I smile, when you disappeared just like that, with no explanation to follow?

“I called because I’m ready to sing, Gareth. And before I start, you must believe me
that I have never loved anyone but you, but was always afraid to admit it to either of

“OK, I believe.” As much as I believe in Santa Claus these days, but what the heck –
a white lie is a small price to pay for rediscovering lost treasure.”

“Lloyd is my real father. My Mom met him when he came to Perth as part of a
Naval Exchange program. Because he rarely kept in touch after he came back to the
US, she never told him about me. She never told me about him, either – moved to
Sydney when I was born and had me believe my Dad was dead. In her mind, I guess
he was. But she named me Leica, after the camera that he always had around his
neck…seems they had joked about it hypothetically.”

“How did you find out?”

“The Internet. You’ll never believe this; I was just searching for other people with
my name one day when the search engine threw up a page that talked about my
Mom. Lloyd had been very ill when he came back to the US and, by the time he
recovered and tried to contact her, she had relocated to Perth and the leads were all
dead ends. So, when the Internet revolution happened, he made this web page. On
it, he put photos of her taken with his Leica and wrote lots of stuff about their times
together, in the hope that she would find it after all these years.”

“Oh my God. And I thought…”

“I know. And stupid me, I was too proud to tell you how things were; just wanted
you to accept me the way I was, without explanations. I am so, so sorry, Gareth.”

“So why did you not keep your promise and call me when you got home that night?”

“I kept crying even as I drove. Then it started drizzling so I put up the windows and
it got foggy, and I think I drifted into the next lane into the path of an 18-ton tractor-trailer.”

“And then?” My whisper was a horrified croak that belonged to someone else’s

“And then,” she said softly, as the line faded into dead silence, “I died.


Dr Anjan Ray

Dr Anjan Ray is the Director of the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum at Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India, a premier research institute in the oil and gas sector. He was a visiting lecturer at the Xaviers Institute of Communication, Mumbai and a founder-member of the Indian Society of Cosmetic Chemists.