Each morning this week, about half past ten, a woman has phoned and asked to speak to my wife.
I tell her my wife is at work. Would she care to leave a message? But she never would care, this woman who sounds like a different woman each morning. (Or does she disguise her voice?) ‘Just a courtesy call,’ she tells me as I’m setting the receiver back down in its cradle.
So this morning when she called I told her instead that my wife was dead.
It was the woman’s turn to put the phone down on me.
I rolled over in the bed and tried to go back to what I’d been doing, which was nothing much at all. Presently, however, it occurred to me that I’d better give my wife a call to make sure. Just to be on the safe side, as they say.
But then I corrected myself; that thought of mine was pure superstition. Only there it still was just the same. ‘You ought not to say that.’ A voice or the echo of a voice, the way voices sound in your head instead of in your ear. The voice, it now struck me, of my mother who is actually dead, of a stroke in her bathtub. I’m not sure I ever asked her why not, but I’m pretty sure I know what she’d have told me: ‘Tempting fate.’
My wife picked up on the very first ring. ‘Is there something wrong?’ she asked. ‘Are you okay?’ and I said, ‘No’ and, ‘Yes’. There was a pause and I thought of telling her about the woman, or women, who kept calling for her and about what I’d said, but I decided it would more than likely come out wrong. So I told her I loved her and she sounded both pleased and distracted. My wife works very hard; she has what you’d describe as a demanding job.
Following this call I thought for a longish while about fate, about why I’m so often tempted to tempt it these days. My conclusion was this: because I want to see if there really is some connection, some causal link between words and events. And I think I wish there were but I no longer believe, if I ever did, that there is. So it’s my sense of frustration, or perhaps I should really say it’s my anger that impels me to keep tempting fate.
Because wouldn’t it be something if nothing bad ever happened so long as we watched our words and minded our tongues? Wouldn’t it be something to live in a world where your mother never died or your son got hurt, knocked off his bike and killed, just so long as you didn’t tell someone he had been? (Or, for that matter, in a world where saying he was alive and well, and probably in maths class about now, was enough to make it so.) I never told anyone my son was dead or my mother either. In one case it was my wife and in the other a tall policewoman who told that to me.
The postman has just delivered, which means that it’s already afternoon. What I’m wondering now is will that woman phone again tomorrow. And I think she might well do; she might want to say sorry for hanging up before. It’s entirely possible and I rather hope she will. I want her to call back because I have more that I’m anxious to tell her.
Will I say I’m sorry, I lied yesterday, my wife’s not dead? No, not that. I’ll say I’ve just come back from the funeral. And she’ll make a shocked, sympathetic noise, and say that’s terrible, but I’ll tell her people die all the time and there’s nothing on Earth you can do to stop it. There’s no such thing as fate, I’ll tell her, or if there is it’s not something that can be tempted or appeased. Saying, or even thinking, things doesn’t make them happen, and it doesn’t make them not happen either. So go ahead, if it makes you feel better, avoid tempting fate, say your prayers and tell those you love to take care, but don’t kid yourself. There’s nothing you can think or say to keep them safe from harm.
That’s what I’d like to tell her, and more besides, although probably she’ll have put the phone down before I’m halfway done.