The problem is, men don’t know how to say no. We haven’t had the practice. You see, I hadn’t even gotten over the one before. It was far too early to start another one. But I didn’t know how to say no. I was a mess.
It all began in February. February is the month that is covered in a thin film of sweat in this town. White mould grows on carpets. Towels are damp. You breathe steam, not air. For two whole months, starting in January, my head is wet. I remembered showering before making love to her. The loving itself, slippery, steamy, was made in a bath of sweat. And then a lather of anger.
But let’s go back to January. The end of the 800 kilometre drive down the Pacific Highway with the one before. A ribbon of silence. Not a word spoken between Mullumbimby and the Harbour Bridge. The break had come
to a head that morning in the bedroom of a farmhouse in the hills behind Mullumbimby. After hearing the torrent of truth – her truth – that had poured out, I could not bear to stay any longer. We loaded the car and left immediately.
Two in this steel capsule locked in their own thought cocoons. She, at the beginning of her freedom, planning her future. Me, sifting through broken dreams, trying to mend them, too frightened to speak in case what I say is the wrong thing, in case there is the sliver of a chance that she will say “I was wrong, I love you, come back to me, we can go on together.” I would hold on to this sharp shard for some time.
I had promised a friend that, if I was in town, which then seemed unlikely, I would drop in on the sixteenth birthday party of her daughter, also a friend. By a strange coincidence, tonight was the night. On the bridge I turned and asked her if she would mind. She shrugged and said
“if you must.” That did it. We went.
Should the truth be known the last thing I felt like was a teenage party. Bright faces, firm flesh, potential and confidence, maybe misplaced, but who’s going to tell the poor little bastards? No. We should not have gone. Christ. Especially after ten hours driving the silent highway. I’d been biting my tongue so long it was sore.
Rachel, the young girl whose party it was, was not only beautiful, she was an actress, having starred in her early teens in a successful film, and having discovered a natural aptitude for acting. That meant the shining and gruesomely fresh-faced teens who greeted us as we walked into the garden party were attractive and talented. I don’t know about her, but I felt old and dull and sweaty after the drive.
Rachel, flitting from group to group, greeted me with a squeal “Nick! Darling! How did you get here?”, wafting up in a cloud of gardenia and kissed my cheek, her eyes shining with self absorption, as is only right at a sixteenth birthday party. We exchanged meaningless chit chat, her gaze swooping this way and that over my shoulder at various awkward but handsome young men with all their own teeth and hair. She melted away, and we ended up with the other parents in the kitchen, leaving them to their party games, no longer pass the parcel.
Rachel’s mother Natalie thrust a glass of wine in my hand. The one before sidled away. I was left beside a man I did not know very well, an English psychologist, I forget his name. He was acting strangely. His eyes were as wide as an owl’s caught in a searchlight, he was beaming, he was talking far too much, mostly nonsense. Later I discovered he was as stoned as Fat Freddy’s cat. And then she was there beside me. Briony.
Of course I knew her. The one before and I had gone to the theatre with her once. A punk version of The Taming of the Shrew in Glebe. I had been talking, at the time, about an actress with her, an actress we were planning to use in a film project. The actress was in the show we saw. Briony works for the agent Christine Cartland. She took over the job from my ex-wife. This is, after all, a small town, and incest waits on every street corner. But before that, years before, when I was still married, she was going out with a very old friend of mine. There are more of these intimate intricacies in this story, in every story, surely many of yours? They seem to accumulate with the years.
She is small, with straight shoulder length auburn hair. She has full lips and a private smile, limpid brown eyes that are set over small, elegant bags, giving her face a bruised and wistful look. She has about her a gamin air of youth that is not at all out of place at this party, even though she must be, at the time, at least thirty. The psychologist in his stoned honesty noticed this and boomed, when I introduced them:
“But I thought you were one of the adolescents!”
She looked confused, brushed it aside, and then, asif to give immediate lie to the statement, is joined by her ten year old daughter, Alia, a plump healthy girl, eager to please, as indeed seem all girls that age.
I notice her noticing me. I had noticed her noticing me at the theatre. I had noticed her noticing me some weeks before at a friend’s fortieth birthday party (that was the year that everyone turned forty) I had spoken to her, again in the kitchen, she had looked at me, her face a little flushed, I had suggested we have lunch one day. She had said ring me. I hadn’t.
Now with Rachel’s mother, Natalie beside me, and the one before hovering angrily in the background, the question of lunch is raised again. Natalie thinks it is a good idea. Natalie appears to be pressing Briony on to me. She is. This is the first time I notice it. It seems the one before had been talking to everyone except me about our ending. I was amazed. They were relieved.
But it is too early. I am cautious. Later, when Natalie invites me to a wine tasting at her home, I almost say no. Her husband, Christopher, has been given a wine tasting kit for Christmas by his ex-wife’s new husband – whose new wife is my ex wife’s therapist and who, as an obstetrician, has delivered most of the children recently born amongst our friends. In the same role, he performed an abortion on the one before – our child. That was the beginning of the end.
I am the first to arrive. It is my first outing since the split. The dining room table is set with glasses, little cubes of cheese and fresh white bread. I am carrying tiger lilies for Natalie – wine seemed superfluous. She is fluttering around nervously making the dinner. Christopher and I help with the pasta. Leo, the obstetrician, has taken charge of the tasting. He and his wife Judith (remember, Christopher’ ex-wife and my ex-wife’s therapist?) are followers of Gurdjieff. They have a tendency to gather disciples rather than make friends. He is quite powerful, but what I like most about him is that he dresses very well, in a land where dressing well is regarded as a sign of frivolity in men. Natalie brushes past with the tiger lilies in a Clarice Cliff vase. It was also the year of Clarice Cliff. I had one friend whose wife was spending upwards of $10,000 a year on her collection. Later, when they parted, she got custody of the children and the Clarice Cliff.
“Did I tell you Briony’s coming?” she asks in voice resonant with well rehearsed nonchalance.
O shit. Why did she do that? I pretend to ignore it, but am filled with anxiety, annoyance and impatience. I am not sleeping well. I do not need it. Now Tension stamps in and slams the door behind him.
She arrives at exactly the right time, when we are preparing to sit down to taste wines seriously. She is exquisite. She is wearing a handkerchief linen dress. It is backless, plunges almost all the way down to her beautiful bottom. She wears nothing beneath it. The effect is cool, elegant and, at the same time, erotic.
I greet her awkwardly. Then help Christopher prepare blind sleeves for the bottles in the kitchen. All this was supposed to be over. I had my woman. She had her man. Forever. None of this awkward fumbling around in the dark. Does she fancy me? Do I fancy her? What will I say? It was in a way worse than being adolescent. I had just been rejected. I am fragile. I am exuding fear. This is not attractive.
We got through the night. It was a little awkward. The wines were actually quite awful, except for one fine old Lindemans Hunter River White Burgundy. It – the tasting – was conducted with remarkably little pretension and egotism. Something to do with Gurdjieff I suppose.
At one point the conversation progressed from marital and relationship breakdown (also big that year) to the intricacies of grown up courting. I alluded to the strange fact that women, in these modern times, still have trouble leading, taking the initiative. Both Christopher and Leo had leapt on what I had said and argued that, on the contrary, women did all the leading – at least covertly. I was about to say my very point when Natalie piped up.
“I think that’s right. You had trouble ringing Nick and asking him to lunch, didn’t you Briony?”
“How do you mean?” she replied coolly.
“Well, you told me you wanted to ring him but were frightened of seeming pushy.”
There was that tension. I had not rung Briony and repeated the luncheon invitation. Too tender. I had wanted to, toyed with the idea, stared at the phone, but decided against it. This was Natalie at her pushiest.
“That’s not the way it was at all, Natalie.” Did I tell you she has a beautiful voice? Slightly throaty, calm and clear as a trickling fountain? “I didn’t ring Nick to ask him to lunch because he had asked me – and it was his prerogative to follow that invitation up. I did ring him to ask him to go to a film with me. But he wasn’t in.”
There it was. What she felt. What she thought. And what she knew to be the truth. Not tongue tied, flustered or embarrassed. Some woman. Now I liked her. That was a dangerous sign.
3. The First Night.
We went to the theatre, this strong woman and I. We saw Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys. It began well, but sagged in the middle. So did I. Afterwards we went to the Bayswater Brasserie and ate roast eggplant. We talked. I felt guilty, all this so soon. I had no idea what she wanted of me – does any man? At least I hadn’t picked her up, hanging around bars, eyes desperately scanning. I tried to play the part, but found it difficult to choose which one. The confident devil, or the lonely and sensitive man looking for a warm shoulder. I alternated.
I drive her home. At the door I bend swiftly and kiss her cheek. She turns the other one, which I also kiss. I leave with a feeling of relief, like walking away from an examination. We had talked without saying anything.We had brushed together without actually feeling anything. The next move was up to me. The next week, I rang her and asked her to come to my place for dinner, after which we would go to see a late film. She would like that very much.
4.The First Gladiolus.
She arrived on my doorstep with a white carnation. A real one – she had grown it – with that surprisingly spicy smell. We had gins and tonic. We talked in a civilized manner. She made polite remarks about my little house. Civil war had broken out in Lebanon. The Druze militia and the Shia Muslims and assorted arcane factions had taken over from government troops. We talked about the sheer incomprehensibility of the Lebanese conflict. We talked about corruption in New South Wales. It was chit chat. I remember nothing specific said. I began to relax a little with her. There was no covert sexuality in our discussion. She was a woman friend. Aah, yes, I have many of those, this shall be another.I was determined that it was too early for any other kind of relationship, that if there was to be anything else,
I wanted to get to know her first, to make friends before making love. In that mood, I laid out the dinner. We had antipasto then Sicilian Fettucine. We drank Italian wine, Est! Est!Est! or something similar. Two bottles. We were,if not pissed, loose of tongue and glazed of eye. I was becoming aware of the bed just up the narrow stairs.
We agreed it was too late for the movie. We played chess.
She began to massage my back. Then she announced she wanted me to massage her, and she slipped quickly out of her top and lay on the floor, face down, her eyes closed. I massaged her carefully, concentrating on muscle manipulation, my mind working hard to avoid the messages being sent from her flesh at my fingertips to my groin. After half an hour of this I suggested as politely as I could that she dress and leave. She looked at me through half closed eyes with a strange look of annoyance and amusement. I can’t say I blame her. This is, after all, my problem. She stood and dressed. At the door I muttered something about “respect and affection”. She walked away. I watched her go. That was that.
I began to wash up feeling both elated and depressed. Elated that, for the first time in my life, I had made a decision overruling my foolish penis. There is no doubt but that as Briony lay half-naked on the floor it was telling me to slip the rest of her clothes off and make love to her. My intelligence had interceded. This was astonishing. I was depressed because, once again, I would wake alone. And I was getting tired of it. But that was intimacy I missed, not sex. Then the phone rang. It was two in the morning.
“Listen Nick” the voice said without preamble, “I’m very lonely and desperately in need of a cuddle. I’ve never done this before. Could you please come over?”
There was a silence from my end.
“I’ll see you in ten minutes.”
What else could I possibly say?
I took her a single gladiolus, a pink one, from the vase on the table. She let me in draped in a white yukata, the little smile still in place as she took the flower and put it in a tall glass. We went straight to bed. That night was a disaster. My now confused prick, overwhelmed by this strange turn of events, could not be expected to function. And it didn’t. The next morning, however, it regained its composure. The sex was good, but not great. The affection however, was marvellous. We went back to sleep curled in each other’s arms.
5. The Morning After The Second night.
“Hi. How do you feel?”
“Sooo tired. Did you get straight to sleep?
“No. I sat in the courtyard and drank whisky. I talked to the cat. I watch the pink fingers of dawn trying to rip a hole in the photochemical smog layer.
“How about you? You came. You went.”
“I’ve never done that before.”
“You’re chalking up a few firsts here.”
“Did you feel used?”
“Like a semen stained tissue. Like a male whore.”
“I just had to snatch an hour’s sleep. I knew I couldn’t sleep if I’d stayed with you. Not yet. It’s too early. You understand?”
“Of course. Miss Direct.”
“What else can I say but what I feel?”
“You’d be surprised. Try a Pisces.”
“Oh stop that. I don’t want to hear about that. Really. It’s nothing to do with me. But yes it is. It’s how you feel. Maybe it’s too early. We should just be friends.”
“Just friendly no rootin’?”
“Listen. You started it. I wanted to go slower. You pushed me into it. Into your bed. You’ve been the bloke in all this. I’m not complaining. But don’t start holding threats over me. Let’s just walk along side by side for a while and see how far we go.”
“And a little passion.”
“I never did like her. Stupid hippy.”
6. Where Did This Come From?”
And then we were a couple. But not exactly. What happened was this. I filled the emptiness the one before had left inside with her. I did it. I didn’t ask her. I was this awkward insecure man who woke up hating himself and the morning. A bumbling man with worried eyes. And that other one, the cheeky arrogant bloke, self assured to the point of insensitivity – what happened to him? He was just a shadow in the mirror. And we never actually seemed to touch, except in bed. What was she doing there? I never understood. Was I merely filling a void in her? We were just a couple of fillers. We never discussed it, not even later, when we made friends again. We began drinking heavily. This is what would happen.
We would go out – to a movie, to a play, something. I would feel awkward and uncomfortable with her. She would be irritated and irritable with me. Then we would drink. We used to go to Kinsela’s a lot, Kinsela’s was good then. We drank a lot of Beaujolais. It’s the taste of the whole affair – the tart sweet taste of chilled Beaujolais, like cold blood. We’d get pissed. Then we’d go upstairs and drink Margaritas in the cocktail bar. She’d talk to actors and I’d talk to people like Don and John and Barry – the Poker Faces. Then we’d stagger down the hill. And then we’d fuck like tigers. It was curious. There was no tenderness. We attacked each other.
I hurt her. She hurt me. Not sadism or anything like that. Just ferocious coupling and biting and thrusting and screaming and veins standing out on necks and sweat and orgasms like machine gun bursts. Then we’d sleep. And we’d say nothing about it. Waking up side by side like two strangers. And then one morning she woke up with bruises inside her thighs and she said:
“Christ. I’m so sore! What did you do to me?” And she sunk her face into her hands and shuddered huge sobs and I lay next to her saying nothing. Then she looked at me through frightened eyes and said “Where did this come from?”
7. The Second Gladiolus.
And then it was over – the time spent together that is, not my obsession. I still spent most days unsuccessfully not ringing her. There were evaded meetings and embarrassed meetings and then nothing. But I couldn’t dislodge her from that hollow. She haunted me. Her body perfect but for a knotted mass of cartilage at the base of her spine. The bruises under her eyes. Something she once said. “I want to be somebody’s right hand man.” Then she would hardly ever see me. The next year, I sent her a flower on Valentine’s Day.
“Yers dollink ?” asked the fat old Hungarian woman in the Kings Cross flower shop where I have been buying flowers for a variety of women for almost as many years.
“I’d like to send a flower.”
“Who doesn’t today? Write the address and message here.”
“No message. Just the flower. ” I scribbled the name and address on the envelope resting it on a pile of pink and yellow tissue paper. Around me were ladies boxing roses, cutting stems and talking on the telephone. One crumpled man awkwardly ordered roses.
“Seven. White roses.”
“Perfect white roses dollink.”
“Or red. What do you think?” he enquired nervously.
“White if you’re courting, red if you’ve caught” replied the wise old woman of the roses.
“And vot about you dollink,” she said as she took my envelope,” a rose?”
“No. A gladiolus.”
“Gladioli? Vun gladioli?”
I didn’t correct her. What’s the point? Seventy years old and Hungarian.
“Yes. A pink one.”
It went unanswered.
8. Stood Up.
(Written Drunk. Drinking Lots Lately)
I kept ringing her and occasionally seeing her until – Brian Syron used to say to us acting students when something bad happens to you praise the Lord because you can use it – she answered, and we occasionally saw each other. Occasionally. Just friendly. Very civilised. Very casual. For her. I was learning how to act.
“It’s not evening. It’s still afternoon.”
“Right. Hmm. What do you want to see?”
“Do you know what’s on television tonight?”
“Ha! I thought you might have – you want to watch it?”
“You liked it?”
“Loved it. That’s OK.”
“And there’s drinks here after work so it’s not a good night to go out. Why don’t you come round and watch it?”
“Sure. Why don’t you get some food in?”
“Because I haven’t got any money. I’ve got to go. Bring something – takeaway. 7.30?”
He went to the deli down the road and bought some goat cheese and some smoked salmon and, um, some seafood pate. And a bottle of Beaujolais.
When he got back his friend wasn’t in the other office. He poured himself a whisky and sat down to read the Anthony Burgess book about young Will Shakespeare, Nothing Like The Sun. He drank the whisky and he read how WS woke up one morning after fighting with his father about a sonnet, drunk, in the fields, with a woman called Anne. Burgess said she was older than WS. They fucked, and it was a well written fuck. And it was some time since he’d had one so reading it he got an erection, sitting in his black plastic office chair. It looked a little ludicrous when he got up, a lump in his blue cotton trousers.
Then it was time to go home. He drove across the bridge listening to the Law Report, about repatriation law and he thought what a strange language, what did the word repatriation have to do with poor old diggers coughing their lungs up in Concord Repat, and he drove up to the greengrocer at the Cross next to the florist shop which was closed for some reason. He parked in Kellett Street outside Joe Taylor’s old gambling club and as he walked past the florist door there was a terrific looking young whore wearing these gladiolus pink fluorescent tights, talking to an old man in a dusty suit. He bought oranges and a melon which cost three dollars but he thought what the fuck it’s HEALTH I need, with this belly rolling over the trousers and then he went to the deli and bought some crushed garlic and then he walked past the long stemmed whore and she was still trying to persuade the old man to climb the stairway with her. How far up is it love he was asking?
He turned right into Bourke Street and parked in front of his house just as neighbour Gibson walked out the front door wearing his Australian football sweater.
It’s worth noting here in the original manuscript (now being soberly copied repeating the increasing number of original mistakes) how hard it is to type after a few whiskies, even though the brain is working, the fingers won’t, strange, strange, dyslexia of the brain sits in waiting. (Sober writer’s interpolation, there’s a book about alcoholic writers called Thirsty Muse; in it Hemingway says ‘good writers are drinking writers and Faulkner says ‘isn’t nothing ah got whiskey won’t cure’). Got dyslexia out anyway, I’ll get this tale of humiliation and egradation out despite the flailing fingers.
Gubson. Or Gibson. What a nreighbour. The Prince of Neighbours. Gibson is honest. Like Bukowski. About his lusts, his failures, his strength. Gibson knows who he is. Gibson. A subject. This night he is moving out – had to think about the spelling of night – is it nihgt or night? Requiem For a Nun Across The River And Into The Trees, no wonder they slipped towards the end, is it worthwhile hearing or reading this kind of trash from somebody with the mind of bowerbird a question for posteriority, and that, my friend, is a deliberate arseabout.
Anyway. Gibson is moving out. Gibson has some of the things from the wall on his floor. Would I call them art? Would he? – not Gibson – the he of this story – no. The moody photo of the girl’s breasts, the print of a print of a mediaeval tapestry. Gibson is wonderful.
And then. She wasn’t there, she wasn’t there. He drove up with his goat’s cheese and his Beaujolais and his seafood pate and his still fragile being and the lights were off in the Spanish Stucco flat. Where he’d woken up with her that first morning. And discovered the knot of cartilage at the base of her spine. The rain in spine is stucco in the morning. He won’t wake up with her no morning. My fingers are betraying me. My brain thinks (but not quite as fast). And all the other people in the story shake their heads sadly and turn back to their work.