It was my fault. They were both drunk. That was my fault too. Robbed by illness of my voice, I had given full reign to the urge to at least act as host in what way I could, ensuring the wine was good and the bottles were plentiful. I should have paid more attention to the guest list.
It was a conspiracy of three – myself, my wife, and the chief of medicine – arranging a surprise party to celebrate Chris’ promotion to chief resident. And I owed him, this adopted son, this brother-in-law of mine, for all the years of resenting him more than I cared to admit, for the two years of unfailing care he'd given me since I fell ill. The party, I was sure, was a good idea.
I could plead ignorance; my illness kept me isolated at home. But a few old colleagues filled me in on hospital gossip. I should have thought to check, and if I had checked I would have known.
“What’s going on?” Chris asked in bemusement as he walked into the dining room in a tailored grey suit. “I count ten places, not three.”
“Well, Christopher Doll," Cathy said, coming to place her hands on my shoulders, "Paul wanted to throw a proper dinner party for your promotion. So soon some special guests will arrive and then Emma will serve up your favourite foods and we shall toast to the finest doctor in Clairmont."
Hearing her use that soft, teasing tone would have filled my chest with hot jealousy once; not so any more. Chris gave me a gentle smile. "Thank you, Paul. I'm touched."
The doorbell rang and Cathy tripped towards the door, laughing as she called back, "Take a seat, oh guest of honour!"
Chris sat, still smiling as his eyes followed the sound of Cathy's voice in the hall, just as his eyes always followed her every time she was near and even when she wasn't. And then the cacophony of voices echoed through from the porch and he went still. "Paul, who's coming for dinner?" he asked in an urgent tone, rising slowly to his feet.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. Cathy re-entered the room, the Chief of Medicine and his wife followed, and in the wake of their felicitations, a striking red head sidled across to press a lingering kiss onto Chris' cheek. "Congratulations, Christopher," she drawled with a sly smile. "Surprise?"
Cathy froze at the unmistakable familiarity. Her smile became brittle and the merriment in her eyes withered.
"Brought the lovely nurses with the wife and me," Reg Keele was saying, "and arrived just before Jones and McNally. Full set of guests at once!" He came to shake my hand, telling me the hospital wasn't the same without me. The younger residents piled in, gaffawing as they slapped Chris' back and teased the young nurse still at his side.
I thought the evening might have been rescued when McNally launched into a cautionary tale about hazing rituals for chief residents at his last hospital, and I nodded Emma to set the wine flowing. Soon cheeks were flushed and the room rang with laughter and cheers as jokes and toasts alike were offered. And if Cathy were chilly towards young nurse Lesley Banks, she at least largely held her counsel as she drank champagne and watched her brother, who relaxed more with every glass of wine and ceased to avoid Lesley's caressing eyes and hand.
It might have been rescued. But then Keele proclaimed Chris the Clairmont Ladykiller, with a meaningful glance at his nurses, and Lesley gave a cat-like smile.
"Well these Yankee boys aren't without their charms, I must agree."
Cathy's voice cut across the table like ice. "That's funny, because clearly Southern girls aren't all ladies after all."
In the instant silence Lesley gasped and flushed, while Chris' wine glass was placed sharply back on the table. Two pairs of clear blue eyes met, hers accusing and his sternly warning. And with that, the life drained from the party. Coffee cups were rapidly finished and excuses made. When the last of the guests had bid awkward farewells, I rolled myself out to the veranda to watch the stars and think.
Only a few minutes later the door burst open and first Cathy, then Chris, stormed out of the house and into the garden.
"What the Hell are you playing at?" Chris demanded to know. "To talk to a guest like that?"
"Guest?!" Cathy spat, rounding on him. "How dare she come here? Come and abuse my hospitality-"
"She was invited! How was she to know my sister would barely tolerate the sight of her?"
“You should have stopped her com-"
"Well I would have!" he yelled. "But I didn't know she was coming, did I?"
"I don't was that piece of trash back in my house!" Cathy cried petulantly, throwing the wine glass still in her hand against a tree.
"Oh, I think you guaranteed that already," he said in dire tones. "And who knows what she's going to make of tonight. God damnit, Cathy."
Still Cathy paced up and down, taking deep breaths. "Do you love her?" she asked at length.
"No, of course not."
"So then you're just fu-"
"Look, Cathy," he burst out angrily, "just because you're living like a nun doesn't mean I have to be a monk! You chose this life, Cathy, and now we're both stuck with it. We – we could have stayed with him, and nursed him, I'd never begrudge him that. Why did you have to marry him, for God's sake?"
She flung her arms wide. "Because I loved him. Because he needs me. Because – because he makes me feel clean, Chris, and I don't cry when I think about my first night with him!"
As soon as the words were flung from her lips she seems to falter, her arms dropping and a sob escaping from her chest. Chris let out an audible groan, sagging as if he'd been punched hard in the guts. "Oh God, Cathy. You know I'd take it back if I could."
But now she sobbed harder, one hand reaching out to him. "Would you? Because the worst part is, sometimes I don't know if I would."
I gasped to see her kiss him then, to see for the first time what I'd often feared to imagine, as they stumbled together, her body moulding against his. He lifted her off her feet and blindly took three steps back to collapse onto a carved wooden bench, setting her astride his lap. She pushed his jacket off his shoulders and I heard the renting sound of her dress tearing. Long minutes dragged by, murmured words between kisses too quiet, too slurred with drink and passion for me to make out. I thought they might make love right there, but then they started at the sound of Emma closing the kitchen window and Cathy jumped off the bench.
"Oh God, what are we doing?" she asked, looking down at her left hand – was she looking at her wedding ring? Then she took an unsteady step towards him and leaned to rest her forehead against his. She murmured some more and then I heard: "Just promise me: no more nurses."
He gave a long, low sigh before finally promising. She pressed one last kiss against his mouth, her lips clinging, and then pulled away. "Good night, Christopher Doll," she said as she weaved towards the house. Chris folded forward, head in hands until eventually, slowly, rising and following her in.
I sat for a long time before calling Emma.
It was early morning when I bid Chris to sit with me on the veranda where I had once more taken my place to breathe in the smells of fall.
"What's wrong?" he asked, reaching to check my wrist.
Nothing, nothing, I assured him. "Just sit with me." I placed a hand on his as I finally said, "I'm sorry. I didn't understand. It seems I never understood."
He cleared his throat. "I'm afraid you'll need to explain."
I gave a sad smile. "I used to dream of you bringing a woman home one day, thinking that would solve all my problems. Well- quite," I said in response to his half-despairing laugh. "Because as it turns out, I didn't really understand, did I? She never wanted to let you go. She never wanted you to find someone else. All she's ever been doing is distracting herself. Me, Julian-"
Chris snorted. "Come on, she married Julian because she thought you lied to her about Julia."
Now I looked at him, surprised. "You don't know? You don't know what else Amanda said?" When he just looked confused I repeated what Cathy had told me and watched the colour drain from his face.
"She was pregnant?" he asked in a hoarse voice, lurching to his feet.
"No, no," I said gently. "The D and C was just what I said it was at the time. Her HCG levels were normal, no palpable uterine expansion, no reason to believe she had a miscarriage. But don't you see?" I asked, giving his arm a shake. "Believing that she had been pregnant when she came to this house, she went straight into the arms of the one man she knew hated you, who would come between you in a way I never could have. It was all about you. As everything she does is always about you." He sank slowly back down, staring straight ahead and I squeezed his hand again. "So forgive me, please," I said, my strength starting to fail. "For not understanding. For being selfish."
Tears stood in my eyes as he finally turned back to look at me and covered my hand with his. "Paul, you saved us, all those years ago. It's not selfish to accept the tables have turned. We'll be here as long as you need us."
I kept silent and did not let him know just how much I had heard last night. Instead we sat in comfortable silence for a little time, until the screen door opened, and Cathy walked out with a tray of breakfast for me and for her.
She came to us with an apologetic smile and kissed me. "I'm sorry I didn't help you up this morning – you should have woken me."
I reached up to stroke her hair as I assured her that Emma had done all I needed so far. "You can help me bath later," I joked.
She placed the tray beside me before sinking into a second chair, wincing slightly.
"Feeling delicate?" Chris asked dryly, not quite meeting her eyes.
"Delicate and embarrassed," she agreed. "I can't imagine what state I must have been in last night."
"No?" He shot her a wary glance. "Well, I'll let Paul fill you in, it's time I took my headache to work..." He patted my arm and rose just as carefully as she had sat.
"Chris, wait!" She caught up with him by the steps. "It's all so foggy. Did – did we fight about something last night?"
I could swear I saw his shoulders slump even several feet away.
"No," he said. "No, not really."
Everything changed after that. Chris worked fewer long shifts at the hospital. Cathy behaved with a new consciousness which seemed to confuse her, as if the meaning of that night pushed through, even as the memories still eluded her. In early summer, a bout of measles forced Jory to be kept away from me for two weeks – an eternity at six. It was shortly after that he started calling his uncle Daddy Chris. No one commented on it but we followed his lead.
The balance shifted. Silently, wordlessly, the core of our domestic triumvirate became my wife and her brother. I slept in her arms at night, and I watched them parent her children by day. The easy understanding, the seamless coordination between them made me wonder if this was how it had been in the attic, raising their younger siblings, realising that no one would ever understand them the way they understood each other. A duality forged through the horror and deprivations, and the fleeting golden moments in those long years. How had I ever thought I could compete with that? And how long, I started to wonder, would I stand – or sit- in its way?
I had been so selfish in claiming Cathy as my own at long last. I tried then to be kind.
“You should leave me. Move me into a nursing home, give me enough morphine to make the end easy when I've had enough. Take Chris and the boys and go somewhere you can start afresh.”
“Paul, you don't mean that!”
She objected and she cried and still I couldn't tell her what I knew, what I had seen and she had forgotten. I couldn't bring myself to say the words out loud: it's what you want. He's what you want. I couldn't quite bear, even now, to face it entirely.
“Think about it, talk to him about it – and then decide.”
I feigned sleep that evening as I lay with the window open, their voices drifting in from the veranda.
“Why? Why would he say that?”
“You know why he said it.” Chris' voice was quiet, tired. “He thinks he's doing the right thing.”
“But how could he think we would-” She broke off as her voice wobbled.
“Cathy … maybe he knows you better than you know yourself. In some ways at least.”
I strained to hear her reply. “I'm not ready.”
“I know,” he said simply. “Just … don't pretend Jory isn't getting older every day.”
The sound of her footsteps moved towards the door and then I slept in truth.
It was the next day I had Emma send Reg Keele on a house call.
“Forget keeping me alive,” I told him. “I want to walk round my gardens. I want to make love to my wife. If it kills me, I'll die a happy man. Can you put me on that drugs trial?”
"You're sure?" he asked me. "It'll take time to work, and the strain on your heart-"
"I'm sure," I said.
And here I sit, a happy man, watching my wife and her brother walking her sons – their sons – down the drive towards the river, her fingers laced lightly between his. The sun lights their golden hair and warms my face, and the tightness in my chest feels like a blessing.