We have known our neighbours, Dean and Miriam, for over fifteen years. A loving couple in their seventies, they had been together for close to fifty years. Miriam was everybody's sweetheart. A Princess, beautiful, generous and caring.
Then came the heartrending news that Miriam had late-stage pancreatic cancer. Miriam fought the cancer for as long and hard as she could. She once told me that it helped to stay mentally positive and strong, mainly for Dean's sake. Rex had regular chats with her, telling her of his own cancer battles, giving her his support.
Baking was one of the activities that gave Miriam solace and she did a storm of baking for everybody during that period. When we were all in pandemic lockdown, she even made a rich chocolate mud-cake for my birthday. That was so like Miriam, always thinking of others. Another time, Rex and I were surprised with two fresh sultana muffins for afternoon tea, and there was the wonderful fruit cake we got for our anniversary.
Dean and Miriam decided that they would get married that year. A celebration of their life together and a lovely memory to have and hold. Due to the Covid restrictions, their families in New Zealand could not attend, nor could they invite everyone in our apartment complex. Rex and I were the few guests honoured to be there at their wedding. I shall never forget the beautiful glow on the faces of the happy couple.
But late one night, seven months later, Dean rang to tell us that Miriam had fallen in the bathroom, while at the hospital for chemo treatment. She had cracked her skull.
The following day, while Rex was on the phone telling another neighbour about Miriam's fall, I was suddenly hit by a wave of stabbing pain in my heart. I had tears pouring out uncontrollably. My heart felt shattered, but the grief wasn't coming from me. It was someone else's grief.
Two hours later, Dean told us that Miriam had slipped into a coma. The hospital had moved her into palliative care and they were no longer administering a drip feed. It was not entirely unexpected, but still heartbreaking. Did I somehow tap into Dean's feelings earlier on? Or was that Miriam herself that I had sensed?
Rex went out to buy some ready-made meals for Dean. He was on standby to take Dean home from the hospital, so he could get some rest. I was alone at home when the phone rang. There was no caller ID. The display just said "Private" number. I immediately suspected a robocall from some scammer.
At the same time, I noticed the distinct scent of perfume. It was a classic musky fragrance, the sort an older woman would prefer. Something familiar. I was sure I had used the same perfume in the past, or smelled it on someone.
When I picked up the phone, there was no voice on the line, but I knew someone was there. I hung up. The scent lingered.
Just a few minutes later, it rang a second time. Again, no caller id.
On the third call, I picked up the phone and asked: "Hello?"
A woman, or a teenage boy, answered: "Hello? Hello?"
For a second, I had the strangest feeling that it could be Miriam. I asked who was it, where was she/he was calling from, but got no answer.
Suddenly spooked, I quickly said: "You've got the wrong number." I hung up in a hurry. The scent was gone.
Miriam never woke up from the coma. The next day, we heard of her passing from Dean.
An hour after hearing the sad news, an unknown caller with a "private" number rang one more time. Rex was ready to grab the phone from me as I picked it up. But the call disconnected the moment I said: "Hello."
That night, I looked through some photos I had taken of Miriam and Dean at their wedding, feeling heavy in my heart. A curious thought came to me of the mysterious woman I had seen last year in the basement carpark (refer: 'Of Sandalwood And The Ghost Month'). She had looked a lot like Miriam. Similar hair colour, hairstyle, height, but much younger. At the time, the image had seemed distorted to me, because the woman was really skeletal-thin. But she looked just like Miriam the last time I had seen her, when she was going through chemo.
A few days later, we met up with Dean for coffee. I asked Dean what had been Miriam's favourite perfume. One of them was Estee Lauder's Beautiful.
The moment I came home, I dug out the small bottle of Estee Lauder perfume I still had. Beautiful - that was what I had smelled during those phone calls.
Miriam's funeral service was simple and lovely. Covid restrictions in New South Wales had just been eased on the number of people who could be allowed in church, so more people could attend. It made a difference to be there in person.
There was a big bunch of beautiful white roses for the casket, sent by the company Miriam used to work for. One of her work colleagues and their supervisor gave moving eulogies, which brought tears to many eyes. The priest read the messages from her sisters and niece in New Zealand, since they were not able to be there.
Dean's son had problems lighting the tall church candle. It took a few attempts, but they finally realised that the wick was bent. There were a few chuckles and even the priest had a rueful smile. It was as if someone was being playful, lightening the general mood.
After the service, everyone who had been at the wedding ended up joining Dean, his son and daughter-in-law at the pub across the road from our apartment building. We had a few drinks and lunch, taking comfort in each other's company.
While the others went to get their food, there was a brief moment when I was alone with Dean. I took the opportunity to tell him about smelling Miriam's perfume and the phantom calls. Dean then revealed that around the same period, he had a missed call on her mobile phone. He didn't recognise the number and rang it back, left a message. Later, he found yet another missed call, but again, no message left. He still doesn't know who it was, or if it was just a wrong number.
About a fortnight later, Rex picked up a parcel for Dean at the post office, and then met him for coffee at the café downstairs. The parcel was Miriam's urn. Rex picked a table and set the urn on a spare chair.
All of a sudden, Dean was choked up. He showed Rex his phone, with his last photo of Miriam. At the same table, same chair where Rex put the urn. It was as if Miriam had just sat at the table with them. Rex told Dean that Miriam was probably with him, and Dean agreed. He been feeling Miriam's presence around, watching over him.
Perhaps these were all coincidences. But when put together in sequence? Really strange.
Goodbye, Princess Miriam. Gone, but never forgotten.