by Carolyn O’Donnell
A toy koala sits on a shelf near my bed. This little bear has sat there, watching over me, for nearly thirty years. When I stop to look at this little bear, maybe not every day but at least every week, sorrow surges for the loss of Nathaniel, who gave it to me. Or rather, he willed it to me after he died.
Some weeks after the funeral, a lawyer rang to say that there was a bequest, and I could come to the office to collect it. It was an unknown process: no one had ever left me anything before. When my grandparents died they did not remember me; or perhaps my mother had instructed them not to. I signed for the little bear, and on the train afterwards tears slid soundlessly down my face and the ticket collector, with mute sympathy, placed a sticker on the bear’s head saying Special Passenger.
Nathaniel and I had met through mutual friends on the fringes of the arts world, and I was entranced by his commitment to personal style. Before Hugh Grant flopped his hair through a series of romcoms, Nathaniel had already mastered the eloquence of an artfully disheveled thatch. His profile was mysterious and perfect like Mount Fuji in a woodblock print by Hokusai. Next to him, I felt like a raccoon that had crawled out from beneath someone’s house. But I basked in his wit and kindness like a glossy Burmese cat.
Nathaniel’s passion for the transformative power of couture was expressed through a barely paid job running the costume department for a small theater company. With his slender, exquisitely proportioned frame, he showed the actors how to carry off a double-breasted suit in a Noël Coward revival. How to look like a Yale man in Anything Goes. When he made his drag debut as a towering Diana Ross with eight-inch heels and a gravity-challenging beehive, I cheered for him.
One of his dreams was to see the real La Ross on stage, so when I landed tickets, Nathaniel accompanied me, vibrating with enough excitement for the two of us.
Nathaniel lived with his extensive wardrobe in a small apartment not far from the home I shared with my flea market treasures. Bond cemented, we spoke nearly every day. He exposed parts of his life fully and intensely, while others remained shadowy, glimpsed in the flickering spaces.
It was understood that families did not always understand or approve of our choices. I rarely spoke to mine, Nathaniel rarely mentioned his. I gleaned he was related to people who did important things in law and business and lived serious, gilded lives.
When his parents went abroad on a trip, Nathaniel was trusted to mind the house. With a suitable venue to entertain, he hosted a formal dinner party—the one occasion I ever saw him attempt to cook. As the sole proper girl, I was honored to be included. Our little group toured the discreetly luxe mansion, cocktails in hand, squealing from room to room.
We pretended to be grown-ups around the enormous dining table beneath the Murano glass chandelier, chewing to Mozart and using crockery that cost more than my car. The food almost superfluous, we were high on the decadence of this exotically privileged world. We giggled hysterically over the floor-to-ceiling vase cupboard, though we were silenced by the silver-framed photo of Nathaniel’s aunt at a horse racing event with Queen Elizabeth II.
Together we flounced through many a soirée, but Nathaniel saw what lay beyond martinis and repartee. When I spent a birthday in the office, he was the only person who ever had a box of pink roses delivered to my desk.
At a certain point during many of our evenings together, Nathaniel would say he was fading, and wanted to go home. At first I put this down to fatigue, then I thought he visited clubs where I was unwelcome. Maybe he just had plans he didn’t want to explain.
There was a party where I was feeling sorry for myself, so I drank too much and allowed a man to kiss me. This meant nothing; what I remember most vividly was Nathaniel’s desolation and my own flushed regret. We realised we both needed things the other could not give. There were too many feelings. We had our secrets and they needed distance.
Until time ran out on Nathaniel’s secret.
His body had turned on him through four long acts, and now this tragedy had reached the denouement. Dulled by my own despair, I’d failed to notice he was ebbing away. The knowledge sat in my gut like a dense, clammy stone, malignant with the betrayal of my neglect.
I drove to the infectious diseases hospital along sinister streets in an unfamiliar area. Leaving the car in a dark parking bay, I approached the shabby entrance as distressed, drained people slipped past me, each sealed off by grief and fear. A nurse gave me directions to Nathaniel’s room, and I edged down a dim corridor of sarcomas and lesions and terminal rasping breaths.
Nathaniel was propped up in bed, frail and almost transparent like the crustaceans which live in the twilight zone of the ocean. His exhausted face was losing substance; his profile dissolving into the pillow.
That was no surprise. What did surprise me was the other people in the room, calmly settled and reading or knitting or doing crossword puzzles among many vases of perfumed flowers.
They glanced up neutrally as I made my way to Nathaniel’s side and I saw the effort he made to find the energy to welcome me. We gazed at each other, and time and distance dropped away.
“I’m so very glad you’re here my love,” he said in a husk of his dear voice.
“Even in pajamas, you’re still the most dashing man in the room.”
Nathaniel made a small choked sound of appreciation. “This old thing?” he murmured, plucking a sleeve. “As Oscar would say, you can never be overdressed.”
He patted the bed, and perching there, I clasped his precious hand.
“Are you ready for introductions?”
The other visitors looked up, shifted in their seats. I hadn’t really paid that much attention to them, apart from sensing that Nathaniel was the fragile magnet which drew us together.
An older man in a herringbone jacket with a full gray mane rose to his feet, as did an impeccably groomed woman in a floral silk dress. They smiled and stepped forward as I turned towards them. The affection in their eyes kindled a warmth that spread through my body, my dread easing as the scent of honeysuckle caressed me and sweetened my blood.
The couple stepped forward to shake my hand, and I already knew who they were. I had glimpsed their lives from afar; now we encountered each other as grieving souls on a shared journey.
“Anna, this is Winston and Ingrid,” said Nathaniel softly. “I want you to meet my parents.”
Carolyn O’Donnell is a writer and journalist who grew up in Australia and was passionate about the arts from an early age. After moving to London, U.K., she worked for The Times and The Daily Mail, and has won an award for travel writing.