And now by popular demand, Chapter Two of our weekly serial, Heaven on a Saturday night: an Entertainment!
(Chapter One can be found in the Heaven on Saturday Night category)
Leo Carstairs’ was the last house on Riley’s Point. It overlooked the Pacific, and the wide mouth of Riley’s River. Originally a stone cottage built for the captain of a whaling ship, Leo had renovated, adding another story, and a study for his wife, Lusina, on the ground floor. Lusina had wanted the garden left as close to natural as possible, except for a terraced plot outside her study window she had planted with a selection of sub-tropical species. This garden required a good deal of protection from the salt and wind, however tending it was her relaxation. The garden was private, usually accessed from the glass doors of her study. Natural bush land made up the rest of the property, with the exception of two old monkey puzzle trees the whaler had planted close to what were now the sitting room windows. Wallabies grazed the grassed area round the house at dawn and dusk. A private gravel road ran from the end of the Riley’s Point village up the hill to the Carstairs’ house.
Through the front windows of the house you could see several tall and irregular rock formations, like the broken brown teeth of old and neglected men. The sea churned threateningly around these rocks at high tide. Today, the ocean heaved like a sleek animal turning itself in the sunlight. A trawler crossed the bar, on its way home from a day’s fishing, its nets spread out like a cormorant drying its wings. The river was calm beyond the bar, and several people pottered about in tinnies between the tear-shaped islands that dotted the river’s reach. It was a winter Friday. A cold, starry evening, the forecast promised, with light coastal showers easing by morning.
The township straggled out along the estuary as if someone had taken a handful of buildings and thrown them down randomly by the river where they had settled and opened for business. A bitumen road between the shops and the water was shared with emus. The shopping centre consisted of a bakery, a small supermarket, a hard-ware store, a dress and accessories boutique whose doors were flanked by large potted palms, a post office; a cluttered gift shop that also sold CDs and rented DVDs, and a café and milk bar whose ceiling was hung with fishing nets, and whose counters and tables were decorated with nautilus shells from a faraway place. The café had tables on the pavement with calico umbrellas, and a tin bowl filled with water for customers’ dogs.
Most of the Riley’s Point residents lived in weatherboard and fibro houses in the streets behind the shops. Further up river, just before the old wooden bridge, there was a small marina with a fish and chip shop, and a sagging jetty with a hut from which bait and ice were sold to anglers and the occasional yachtie. Riley’s Point had not yet been discovered, though it was only a matter of time till the sewage came on and building regulations changed. In the meantime it was populated by those who’d earned their living fishing for several generations, a few artistic incomers like the Carstairs, a handful of retirees like Ruby and Mel, and the business people who ran the shops, the one motel, and the caravan park on the opposite side of the river. The Riley’s Point children traveled on the school bus to Orchid Creek in the hinterland. Orchid Creek may once have been the picturesque site its name suggested, but now it was a large regional township that serviced the satellite communities.
In his studio loft, with its bank of windows overlooking the ocean, Leo Carstairs applied the final touches to his illustration of the Great Troll for his friend Anthony’s latest children’s book. Greig’s Pier Gynt played softly on the stereo, helping him to find the Nordic mood he needed to do the job justice. He didn’t hear the door to his workroom open, and the bare feet of the poet softly advance across the paint-spattered floorboards, but he sensed a familiar presence close to the back of his neck. Her perfume, as she rested her hands on his shoulders, proved stronger than the odour of paint. It was, appropriately, Poeme by Lancôme. He had a good nose for perfume. He could identify most of the middle to upper range. For himself he chose Pour L’Homme by Givenchy.
‘Pour L’ homme,’ Lusina would tease him if he complained about his life. ‘Poor, poor l’ homme.’
Leo carefully lowered his paintbrush into its water jar then swivelled around on his stool. He was still graceful in his middle age, Lusina noted, even just swinging around on a stool.
‘Hi, you,’ he said, and looked up into his wife’s eyes.
After sixteen years of marriage Leo still found her eyes remarkable. The blue green of Antarctic glaciers shot through with white light, was how he thought of them. His own eyes were navy blue and his cheeks ruddy, and he was tall. At the age of forty-three he was developing a middle-aged paunch, and his mane of sandy hair was greying faster than he would have liked. There was a dark brown mole on his left cheekbone that Lusina worried about from time to time, but the only inconvenience it had caused him so far in his life was during his morning shave. He had to work his razor round the mole like a lawn mower round a rock garden, frequently leaving behind bits of whisker that he couldn’t risk removing. He worried that he really should have the mole cut out, but never did. It was a distinguishing feature and one should hang onto one’s distinguishing features.
‘What’s up, then? Stuck for line?’ he asked his wife.
She wore a white shirt with a beige cashmere cardigan, and jeans. A gold watch was her only jewellery, apart from her diamond wedding band. She’d applied a pale gloss to her lips. She looked fabulous, he thought.
‘Nothing’s up’ Lusina said.
Leo loved his wife’s voice. It had a tender lilt, and was reassuring. She hardly ever raised it. Her preferred method of showing disappointment, disapproval and anger was an excessively cool politeness. A withdrawal of herself that was, he thought, devastating while it lasted. During these withdrawals she behaved as if he was an acquaintance of long-standing to whom certain civilities must necessarily be extended, but there was no acknowledgement of their passionate history, or on-going connection. A deliberate denial of their life together, a wounding severing of their marital intimacy. Worse than any tantrum could be, in his opinion. Then she’d relent, and Leo would be crazy with relief.
Leo had grown up with four older sisters who were always engaged in combat over him. From early in his life he’d been aware of both his dependence, and his power to get his sisters competing for his smiles and infant attentions. He’d often feared he’d be smothered, and he suffered nightmares in which he was surrounded by naked women urging him to suckle at their enormous, milky breasts. With Lusina, though, and this was part of her attraction for him, he felt he had to work at keeping her attention. Lusina would never smother. Except when they were in bed, she was far too remote.
Lusina hated raised voices and emotional scenes. Sometimes Leo’s expressiveness was too reminiscent of her life with her mother, she thought. In those days, anything you said brought trouble down on your young head. In those days, whatever you felt was best kept to yourself.
She took his face between her hands. ‘Absolutely nothing’s up,’ she told him. ‘Everything’s fine. I’ve got lines aplenty’
She kissed his nose and bestowed on him her generous smile. She was famous for her smile. On the receiving end of that smile, you felt immediately transformed into someone very special. It helped Leo balance out the unsettling effects of the puzzled air she assumed sometimes when she looked him, as if she wasn’t sure who he was or what he was doing in her house. Leo found this occasional attitude disconcerting: his wife apparently took herself to another world entirely at these times, a world in which he seemed to have no existence at all. Vague-outs, Megan called these intermittent emotional and mental absences. Mum’s vague-outs. She got away with them, Leo thought, largely because of that gorgeous, all-embracing smile.
‘What are you working on?’ she asked him.
‘Anthony’s reclamation of the Great Troll – you know the one who lived under the bridge with a band of troll brigands and extorted a gold coin from anyone who wanted to cross it? Until he was made aware of how shameful his occupation was by a beautiful princess who persuaded him to reform. I’ve given the princess your eyes. And your hair but I’ve made hers straight.’
Lusina’s hair was also remarkable, retaining the white blonde of babyhood in tight curls that she cut herself in varying lengths, ending at her shoulders. Back lit, as she was at that moment by the late afternoon sun shining through the large studio windows, she looked like a celestial vision, a wandering angel who’d happened by to make Leo’s day. He put his arms round her and pulled her close. There was nothing as good as this when it was good, he thought. Nothing. Lusina let him hold her for a moment then she pulled away.
‘Anthony should write something original instead of revisiting old fairy stories all the time,’ she said. ‘Children like to read about the real world as well.’
She tugged her hair and gazed at Leo as if she was thinking of asking him a serious question.
‘What?’ He felt slightly alarmed.
She made him wait a few moments.
Then she stopped gazing and abruptly adopted her practical, motherly persona.
‘I have to pick up Will in a minute, he’s playing at Adam’s and I said I’d be there before dark. Do you want anything?’
‘Nope. I don’t think so. Is Megan home tonight?’
‘Yes, and Lillian’s sleeping over.’
‘Okay. I’ve a bit more to do then I might go out for a walk. Love you.’
‘Love you, too. Bye.’
Lusina closed the door gently behind her. Left alone, Leo’s gaze gravitated to his mobile phone where it sat on the table under the window. A struggle then ensued between his desire and his conscience. It was a tiresomely familiar and ultimately pointless struggle. Desire always won out. Why did he bother trying to resist when he always knew the outcome, he wondered? A matter of form, he decided. Some vestige of guilt, or lip-service to honour. But it wasn’t exactly desire that drove him now. Rather, a clean-up operation was required. He trundled his stool across the room and picked up his phone. He pressed the number into the keypad. After two rings, Bethany answered.
‘Hi, you,’ he said.
When Leo first fell in love with Lusina he spray-painted the convent wall across the road from her front window in her house in the city. In bright green paint he wrote:
I love you. Be my Bride.
Leo was taking a degree in English Literature. He hadn’t yet fully discovered his talent for drawing. He was extremely fond of language and fussy about punctuation so he remembered, even in his extremity, to spray paint the full stops. As he did this, he kept glancing about him in case the nuns appeared. His heart crashed alarmingly in his breast. Fleetingly he recalled his family history: what weak-hearted lot they’d proved to be, and would he follow in their footsteps?
When he got home to his flat in Bondi he sat down on the couch to smoke a joint and think things through. He thought about how he felt delight in every cell when he was with Lusina. How her touch seemed to soothe every hurt he’d ever had. How time away from her dragged by, like it did when he was five and waiting to go to the beach while his parents took forever to get ready, and squabbled about which road they should take. Leo didn’t know what had happened to him. He never let himself get involved. Lusina was the only woman, and he told her this, that he had ever feared might leave him, apart from his mother, of course. He’d always done the leaving, and plenty of it. Suddenly he found himself defacing convent walls, and longing for marriage.
‘I’m done for,’ he thought, not entirely unhappily.
Lusina had mixed feelings about his extravagant gesture. It was flattering, even thrilling. At the same time his handiwork was always in her face. It had a constant presence that she sometimes found a little wearing. Not altogether unlike Leo. After recently ending a suffocating relationship, Lusina was struggling to find a balance between independence and love. This coloured her outlook.
Sexually they couldn’t get enough of each other. One day their friend Marina came to visit while they were still in bed. Marina sat at their feet, she told Lusina later, so she could soak up some of that sexual charge, those smells, that primordial energy.
‘I wanted to get in there with you,’ she confided.
‘Why didn’t you then?’ asked Lusina, who Leo often said was as generous as she was beautiful.
Leo’s place in Bondi was cosy. His bedroom was lined with wooden shelves that held an eclectic collection of books. There was a lamp with a red shade beside his bed. There was a sunroom off the bedroom, with pot plants and rice paper shades at the windows
His kitchen had pinewood cupboards. He cooked in ceramic pots and a black-bottomed wok. There was a long couch in his living room where sometimes they made love, or lay together listening to music. When Lusina first fell in love with Leo she imagined that his face beamed down upon her from the heavens, enveloping her in an adoring and unconditional gaze. When they fought, she saw that same face and sky, but implacable and black with anger. After many years she understood both images to be exaggerated.
It was Marina who’d introduced them. She’d shown Leo some poetry Lusina had written.
‘He’s crazy about your work,’ Marina confided. ‘He wants to meet you. He’s asked me to set it up. He’s asked me three times already. He said he’s seen you a few times around campus and wondered who you were.’
‘I don’t believe you,’ Lusina whispered, because they were in the café where Leo also hung out and everybody knew him. ‘He knows who I am because you pointed me out so why doesn’t he say anything to me himself?’
‘I told him you’d just broken up with someone and you weren’t ready. But you are now, aren’t you?’ Marina lowered her head and leaned in across the table. ‘He’s a wonderful lover,’ she whispered.
Lusina took a moment to process that. She lit a cigarette. Everybody smoked then. Marina rolled her own. Finally Lusina said:
‘But you’re gay.’
‘Mostly I’m gay,’ Marina told her,’ but now and again I feel like a penis. But I don’t invest any emotion in penises, all my emotional investment is in women.’
‘So you slept with him?’
‘Yeah, for about a week. Then he thought I was getting involved, which I wasn’t but anyway he got cold feet and we stopped. Pity,’ she reflected, then blew out a curl of blue smoke, ‘ I liked having his shoes under my bed. But never mind that’s ages ago, the point is he’s mad for you. He never gets mad for women they always get mad for him.’
‘So what should I do?’
This like a high school girl begging help from her best girlfriend. A girl poised, trembling, on the edge of the kind of desire that can really mess with your life.
‘Ask him out,’ Marina whispered. ‘Go for it. What’s to lose? Oh look, here he comes.’
‘You set this up, Marina. You knew he’d be here.’
It was right up Marina’s alley, setting up these kinds of situations. She loved sticking her nose in other people’s affairs.
Leo strode into the café, his shoulder-length sandy hair flowing out behind him, his canvas bag slung over his shoulder. He wore a white shirt and blue jeans. Lusina was suddenly breathless. She felt a hot flush move up her body and settle in her cheekbones. For a brief moment she took a good look at the situation from somewhere outside of it, with a detachment she wasn’t to recover again for years. But it was too late. Marina smirked. She had black hair in a pixie cut and when pleased with herself she grinned and poked out her tongue.
‘Maybe I did set it up,’ she conceded. ‘But only because he asked me to. Go with it, Lou. See where it leads.’
‘Well,’ said Leo as he arrived at their table and sat down. ‘Look at you. Look at her, Marina!’
‘She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes….’
He recited this in his rich, deep voice, his eyes fixed on her as if they were entirely alone. Marina winked at Lusina.
‘Told you,’ she mouthed.
Their love proved tempestuous, as is often the case when there is great sexual passion. He swam in her oceans. He floated on her glassy surfaces, he plunged through her currents and rips and cold streams and warm, pacific waters. He rocked in her, and licked the salt from the corners of her eyes. He shouted and bullied when she thwarted his will. He feared he’d be drowned or dismembered by the storms. He tried to channel her into a harbour of his choosing where she’d be contained, and where he could safely observe her changing colours.
Now and then, with icy, dirtied waves, she’d land him on the rocky shore and pound him hard for good measure. They fought, split up and reunited at regular intervals. Finally, they got married.
Nobody understood that move. Lusina told her friend, with a shrug that disavowed responsibility:
‘I don’t know why we did it. It just felt like the only thing left to do.’
At their wedding breakfast Leo said, ‘If you can do the time don’t do the crime,’ and everybody laughed. Lusina didn’t like that much. They fought on their wedding night and he wouldn’t make love to her. This was a grievance she held for years until one day at the dentist she read a magazine article. It wasn’t unusual, she read, for a marriage to remain unconsummated for a day or two. Stress, anticlimax and alcohol all contributed. Nobody should be blamed. So she let that grievance go.
Domesticity did not always suit them. One of the requirements of passion is that it must be thwarted from time to time to keep it lively. Unrestricted access provoked disagreements, and Lusina’s cold withdrawals. Leo tried hard, but he was unable to give up his flirtatious ways. The night before his wedding, he’d understood that from now on he’d be expected to sleep with no one other than his wife, for the rest of his life. This understanding almost caused him to flee the country. But he stayed. For some years he was faithful. Lusina never knew for sure when or even if this pattern of faithfulness changed. Leo was extremely discreet. Leo always covered his arse.
Lusina decided to drive the short distance from their house at the end of the Point to pick up Will. She thought she ought to walk, for all kinds of reasons personal and political, but she felt too tired. Leo had never taken her work seriously, she thought for the millionth time, even though she’d published two books of poetry, which was a considerable accomplishment, given how uninterested people generally were in poetry. She wondered if he’d ever actually read any of the poems.
After sixteen years of marriage and two children she still did not entirely trust Leo, she reflected, and she didn’t know why. She turned on the radio, tuned to ABC FM, in time to hear the Allegretto from Beethoven’s Seventh, the one she always experienced as ominous and sorrowful.
In retrospect, she admitted to herself yet again, each time as if she’d never considered it before, she’d always felt this way about Leo. She’d long had a sense that he was probably capable of doing absolutely anything he decided he wanted to do, simply because he wanted to do it. Regardless of the effect he might have on anyone else. Without even telling anyone else, if he didn’t feel like it. Leo needed secrets, even stupid little ones, like not telling her that he’d seen some movie by himself until she suggested they go together. Or that he liked listening to Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds (when, she wondered, and where? They didn’t have any Nick Cave), or some other apparently insignificant piece of information that he withheld about his preferences, and where he went without her. He had tastes and appetites that were unknown to her, something one wouldn’t expect in a marriage. Would one? She had no reference point, her own parents’ relationship having been far too bizarre. There were times when Lusina felt like a refugee in the ordinary world, as if she struggled every day to learn its customs, language and requirements.
She drove along the river road past Hannah and Simon Dougherty’s enviable native garden, and the large yellow and white weatherboard house where Melanie Rose and Ruby Richards lived with their dog. The women were digging a trench inside their back gate, and looked to be covered in mud. Ruby wore her faded yellow hat with the red flower on the front. This hat, Mel once told Lusina, actually belonged to Mel’s second husband’s sister, who lived in Boca Raton, Florida. One evening, caught short with an attack of stomach flu while taking after-dinner coffee in Death by Chocolate at Bondi Beach with Mel and her visiting sister-in-law, Ruby had chucked up her supper into this hat. This was the reason Melanie had never reclaimed it, or returned it to her sister-in-law, she said. And now the second marriage was over, and all opportunity to return the hat was probably gone forever.
Their black and white dog, Bruce, stood watching his humans, just out of reach of the flying shovels of dirt. He’d not done anything particularly awful, had he? Lusina wondered about her husband. Not that she knew about, not that had seriously affected their lives together. So what was this growing unease?
Leo, she decided, was a little like a spy, clandestine, conducting one life out in the open and the other under wraps, though quite what that other life consisted of she could not (dare not?) say.
He was an accomplished lover, she reflected, and she ought to be grateful for that. Indeed, she was, and she’d enjoyed their lovemaking for many years. Lately, though, she’d been wondering how it would feel to be loved by someone with a little less skill. Someone less absorbed in his technique and more willing to lose himself in her. Someone willing to risk an error they could then joyfully work out together. With Leo, she had the sense that he was making to love to Woman, rather than to the individual woman who was his wife. And he was always in control. Leo never lost himself in her. Leo always knew exactly how long to do something, and exactly where to do it. Not that there was anything wrong with that, she hastened to tell herself. It was a guarantee of her sexual satisfaction. There was a lack of a sense of we in their lovemaking, though. In their entire marriage, if it came to that, let’s be honest while we’re at it, she thought.
Stop it, she ordered herself. Stop this mean, petty carping. Of course he made love to her, it was just that he seemed so intent on what reactions he could bring about. As if it was really about him and his prowess and talent, and what he could achieve with it. But if there was a sense of we lacking in the relationship, then that had to be as much her fault as his. Didn’t it?
Lusina stopped at the town’s one pedestrian crossing for a troop of teenagers who ran out into the road from the milk bar, on their way to the beach. Their school uniforms hanging off them every which way, they screeched and clutched at one another in a frenzy of adolescent emotion. Lusina thought she saw Megan among them, but in the fading light she couldn’t be sure. She hoped not. She’d imagined a daughter whose interests, cultivated by herself and Leo, would elevate her beyond the usual teenage obsession with boys, make-up and bitchiness, but Megan was utterly resistant to her parents’ influence. She ran with a pack, painted her fingernails the colour of ageing meat, had a rose tattoo on her burgeoning breast, and was ‘in love’ with some spotty boy who wrote excruciating poetry, preferably on shop walls and the sides of other people’s houses. She was an ‘emo,’ she told her startled parents. She believed in emotion and its expression.
‘Some emos are into cutting,’ she told them as they stared at her. Only one of her heavily made up eyes was visible behind the fall of dyed black hair with cerise highlights.
‘Cutting,’ Leo echoed. ‘Cutting what? And for God’s sake get your hair out of your eyes, will you? You look like a bloody Cyclops.’
‘Themselves, Dad,’ Megan informed him with a patronising sigh. ‘Their arms and legs and stuff. With razor blades and stuff. Self-harm. You know.’
‘No, I bloody well don’t know!’ Leo had roared.
His tone had outraged Megan, who apparently believed only in the expression of her own emotions and those of her friends. She’d stalked contemptuously from the room and had refused to discuss the subject again.
Leo suspected her of smoking when they were out of the house, and probably not just tobacco. When confronted, Megan denied it.
Lusina worried that there might be a connection between her own repressed emotional confusion, her carefully constructed facade of calm that belied her inner chaos, and her daughter’s attraction to the proudly angst-ridden emo cult. In other words, that too, was her fault and the fault of her own ruined childhood. Generational damage. She’d read about that. Would there be catastrophic substance abuse in their family’s future? Oh please, dear God, don’t let there be drugs.
It was more likely her own stuff, this unease about Leo, she decided as she drove on. She was projecting again. Not seeing Leo, but imposing a character from her past on him.
‘Your problem is,’ he was fond of reminding her during their disagreements, ‘that you’ve never learned to trust anybody, because of your cocked-up childhood with your drink-crazed mother and her psychopathic husband. You see slights where there are none to be seen. You imagine danger when I try to get close to you.’
It was true that she didn’t always know whether an action or intention was abusive, suspect, or normal. Nuances frequently escaped her understanding, and indeed, frightened her. She was often left confused, like someone a bit slow on the uptake who finds herself unable to keep up in a group of quick-witted people.
‘All very understandable,’ Leo assured her, ‘given your history.’
Oddly, she did not feel appreciative of Leo’s understanding. She felt patronized, and unreasonably angry with him. Her mother had turned up dead drunk to their wedding, it was true, but she’d died quite soon afterwards, and Leo had never met the husband, who’d killed himself when Lusina was sixteen. Leo knew only the bare bones of her history so what right did he have to comment about it? Most of it she couldn’t even remember herself, though lately, much to her discomfort, that had begun to change.
The older she got, Lusina thought as the Allegretto came to its conclusion, the less capable she became of maintaining the distance between her present and her past, the distance that had so far allowed her to live at all, in any real sense of the word.
She’d now pulled up outside Adam’s house without any awareness of how she’d got there. That was scary. Eleven-year-old Will was swinging on Adam’s rickety gate and chewing a large wad of gum. He blew a bubble at her in welcome.
‘Where’s Adam? Where’s his mother?’
‘They had to go out. His dad’s inside on the phone. You’re late, Mumma. You’re always late. Where were you? Did you forget me again? Is Megan home?’
‘Soon. With Lillian.’
‘Ah,’ sighed Will softly. ‘Lillian.’
He was in love with the dark-haired Lillian, and suffered terribly, as one can only suffer in the throes of the first unrequited love. He knew that Lillian and Megan considered him a dork. The girls were fifteen. They had breasts, and snuck cigarettes when they were made to baby-sit him. He never told on them. He kept everything he knew about Lillian and Megan secret, and lulled himself to sleep with his knowledge, elaborated by his florid imagination, every night.
‘Did you have a good day at school?’ his mother asked him.
He couldn’t be bothered getting into that with her. He just wanted to think about Lillian.
‘Yeah,’ he said, and turned away to look at the lights coming on in the houses along Riverside Drive. Lillian lived in one of those houses. He knew which one because he’d followed her home one time when she’d spent the afternoon at their place. He’d been extremely careful, knowing the ridicule and indignation he’d face if Lillian caught him and told Megan.
Grateful for the silence, Lusina didn’t attempt further conversation with her son. She was tired. Oh, God, she was so terribly tired.
In his penthouse apartment in Elizabeth Bay, with its extensive views of Sydney Harbour from the bed and sitting room windows, Anthony Freelander stretched himself along the length of his cream Italian leather couch and sorted through his day’s output. By an extraordinary stroke of serendipity, he’d decided several years ago to render into English ancient Scandinavian fairytales, at precisely the moment when an upsurge of interest in trolls, gnomes and various Northern Hemisphere elementals guaranteed him undreamed of popularity. Together with Leo Carstairs, they produced a series of spectacular children’s books. Three of their productions had now been made into ridiculously successful films. They were rich. They were also becoming more than a little bored with their subject matter, and looking around for new challenges.
Freelander was himself not unlike a troll: short, with an untrimmed grey beard and wild hair, he wore corduroy trousers held up by red or blue braces, checked flannelette shirts, and brown leather walking boots tied with purple laces. He had a gruff, gravelly voice and was almost entirely bereft of physical grace. He was also remarkable mean with his money, as his ex-wife Monika complained to Lusina every time they met for coffee when Lusina was in the city. The marriage had produced no children, thankfully, Monika confided. Anthony was an ill-tempered bastard, she said, and it continued to be an unfailing source of mystery to her as to how he ever managed to know or care enough about children to enable him to write such wildly successful books for them. He had, Monika told Lusina one evening when they’d had whisky, not coffee, peculiar sexual interests that she could not bring herself to describe. Lusina was grateful for Monika’s uncharacteristic reluctance. Who wants to know these things about people one has to regularly encounter? Later, she’d tried to tell Leo what Monika had said.
‘For God’s sake!’ Leo had yelled. ‘I don’t bloody want to know these things! What’s wrong with you, Lusina? I don’t think about Anthony’s sex life and neither should you. In fact, I forbid it!’
Forbid it, she’d thought. Forbid it? She’d said nothing, only looked at him till he looked away first, scratching at his head as he often did when he was upset. Then he’d gone out, for a walk, he’d said, and the next morning when she went downstairs she’d found him asleep on the couch in his clothes. Who ever really knows another person, she’d wondered, thinking at the time of Anthony.
In Elizabeth Bay, Anthony laid his latest printouts on his stomach and closed his eyes. His agent had rung him earlier in the day, asking if he and Leo would be interested in putting together a children’s book about death.
‘Death?’ Anthony had asked in alarm, ‘Did you say death, or the deaf?’
‘Death, darling,’ she’d repeated. ‘There’s an absolute dearth of anything good about death for children. What do you think? Are you up for it?’
‘Am I up for death?’ he’d echoed. He scrabbled wildly through his beard with his free hand. And then had felt an urgent need to go to the bathroom. ‘Lizzie, I can’t talk at the moment, I’m in the middle of something. Can I get back to you?’
‘Course you can, darling, but don’t leave it too long. You’re getting first refusal. Talk to Leo about it. See you later, my dove. Bye.’
‘My dove,’ Anthony had thought in exasperation as he ran to the bathroom, his anal sphincter threatening a sudden collapse. ‘She’s not bloody Cornish, she’s from bloody Brisbane. My dove, my heart, my bird, indeed! Christ, what did I eat for dinner last night? Is there something wrong with me?’
Another of Anthony’s less endearing characteristics, Monika had confided to Lusina, was his obsession with his bowels. He could sink into a daylong funk, she revealed, if they hadn’t performed as he expected in the mornings. And God help everybody if they seemed a bit awry either way for any reason: he became simply incapable of thinking about anything else, obsessed with every intestinal rumble and grind. Lusina hadn’t bothered transmitting this information to Leo. He probably knew anyway, she’d thought, they spent enough time together.
Now Anthony reflected again on Lizzie’s proposal. Death? How the hell did one write for children about death? Or adults, for that matter. Who wanted to think about such a morbid topic, anyway, certainly not him. Now and again he suffered pain down his left arm and across his shoulder and up into his jaw. He did not want to think about this pain. He was not going to think about this pain. Lizzie was going to have to get somebody else to do the death thing. But he’d have to mention it to Leo, because if he didn’t and Lizzie did, Leo would get on his high horse again about his, Anthony’s, predilection for making decisions without proper consultation.
Fuck it, Anthony thought. Carstairs was a brilliant illustrator but he could be a difficult prick. And a womanizer. Anthony was not averse to the occasional dalliance with a desirable woman, but unlike Carstairs, he knew how to do without when necessary. Anyway, it wasn’t so much the sex Anthony was interested in, he reflected. It was more having an audience when he wanted to talk about his ideas, and someone to take care of his domestics. Domestics brought him undone. Shopping for his meals since Monika left him brought on a panic attack. Instead of washing, he went out and bought new underwear. He had no idea how women did it. Organising households, children, laundry. He looked primarily for comfort from his women, and someone who would manage the things that when left to him, made him feel his world was out of his control. Though if he scored on both the domestics and sex, he considered himself to be a very fortunate man.
Carstairs, though, he was another story, Anthony thought truculently. It was all about sex and mastery with that bastard, and always had been. The women he went through at uni! Jesus.
Anthony had no idea why Monika had left him. He truly believed he had given her everything a woman could ever want yet she walked out without any explanation and hadn’t offered one since. What about Leo’s wife, though! Those eyes, that hair, that long slim body draped in loose silks and cottons and pale linens, hidden from the eyes of men who only wanted to admire her! Once, when he and Leo won an award for best children’s book and had to attend the posh presentation dinner, Anthony had spent much of the evening covertly observing Lusina in her strapless aquamarine gown, a gown that fitted her tightly above the waist, then flared into sea green taffeta that imperiously swept the floor as she danced with Leo. What a couple they made! Her white blonde hair was longer than usual at that time, and she’d left it loose so that it hung down her bare back in an mass of corkscrew curls that a man just wanted to grab hold of, the better to pull her in close to him, the better to pull back her head so as to kiss her white throat. Her breasts, he’d noted, were full and seemed to want to surge out of her gown into some lucky bastard’s waiting hands. She’s got white skin and assassin’s eyes, Anthony often hummed when he thought about Lusina. He knew she took care to keep out of the sun.
In his research on Scandinavian and European mythological creatures, he’d once come upon accounts of the Melusine, half-woman, half-sea serpent sometimes known as a mermaid. Lusina never used her full name, which was in fact Melusina. He knew that because he’d had to sign some legal document to do with the distribution of royalties between Leo and himself, in the event of the death of one or the other of them. Melusina Rosamund Carstairs. Half- woman, half-sea serpent, in her foaming sea-green frock. Well. Who would have thought her drunken old hag of a mother would have come up with a name like that?
This unexpected knowledge of her secret name had forever after inflamed Anthony’s fantasies. Anthony wanted Lusina, very badly. And he’d never have her because a) she clearly didn’t want him, and b) Leo would kill him. Kill him stone dead in a very unpleasant and prolonged procedure that would undoubtedly involve cutting off his balls and sticking them down his throat. But he could dream. A man was permitted his dreams.
No, Lizzie was definitely going to have to find somebody else to do the death thing, he decided, doing up his trousers, and anyway, why should children be made to think about such things? The only children Anthony really knew were Megan and Will, and he was Will’s godfather. He was quite fond of them, though his inclination to view them as small adults inevitably resulted in disappointment when they failed to live up to his expectations. Nevertheless, he’d look out for them if he ever had to, he thought sentimentally, and he always gave them generous cheques at Christmas and birthdays. Not that they’d ever be short of a quid.
Only the elfin Will had inherited his mother’s colouring. Unfortunately Megan was rather plain, in Anthony’s opinion. Not to mention a little stout, probably due to the junk food he knew she binged on behind Lusina’s back. He’d come across her more than once stuffing her face with a bunch of grubby, black-garbed friends, in the milk bar when he’d been visiting Riley’s Point. And at the fish and chip shop. What was he doing in these places, one might ask? Well, since Monika left and he’d had to fend for himself he’d quickly developed a junk food habit. Food was comfort, the stodgier it was, the more comfort it offered. Was that what Megan was after as well? He must talk to her about these things one day, he decided. Perhaps the girl had problems. Perhaps he could help her out. It couldn’t be easy, being the plain daughter of a beautiful mermaid, and she didn’t do a thing to help herself, wearing that thick black eyeliner and what looked like flour on her cheeks.
Anthony hauled himself up from his couch and went to the kitchen for a drink. He had, he realised as he poured himself a Scotch, on-going fantasies of rescuing the two Carstairs women, but from what he didn’t know. There was something about them both that made a man want to help them out. As for Will well, what a fey one he was turning out to be. A changeling child if ever there was one with his great green eyes and his mother’s white hair. He looked as if he’d been nursed from birth on fairies’ milk. Ah, well, Uncle Anthony would be there when he was needed. He drank down his Scotch and crossed to the phone to call Lizzie. There was no reply. He’d better call Carstairs before she did and fill him in, or he’d never hear the end of it. Christ.
‘I’ve got about half an hour,’ Leo told Bethany on the phone, ‘before everybody gets home. They’re all expecting me for an early dinner. But I could nip down to the beachfront for a coffee with you if I hurry up. Can you get there?’
‘Okay,’ agreed Bethany.
She was disappointed. She’d hoped for more, but you took what you could get in her situation. She was in the Riley’s Point library, only minutes away from where he’d suggested they meet.
‘I’ll wait for you in the café,’ she told him.
Every time she heard Leo’s mellifluous tones, Bethany felt their resonances deep in her belly. Leo’s voice was his first weapon of choice in his romantic arsenal. It was a richly mined secondary sexual characteristic, his first being his undisguised love of and desire for women. When Leo felt like it, he was capable of making a woman believe that she was the only woman in the world he had ever, or would ever, be interested in. The problem was that he had increasingly begun to act this way towards women he wasn’t remotely interested in, thus emitting ambiguous signals that served only to make him unreadable, and therefore even more dangerously attractive.
Leo finished the call and stood up. He had to end this thing with Bethany, the sexual part at least. It was always a mistake to let a friendship become sexual, he knew that. He’d done it anyway, out of an unforeseen intersection of deep if temporary need on his part when he’d felt neglected by Lusina, and intense, long-standing desire on Bethany’s.
The sexual thing lasted about three weeks as far as he was concerned, before he started to wonder what the hell he was doing. The gates of love they budged an inch, I can’t say much has happened since… he sang to himself. He began to suggest meetings such as the one this evening, where there was no possibility of sex. This was most uncharacteristic of him, Leo thought. What kind of careless fool finds himself entangled with a mistress he desires less than he desires his own wife? And if that wasn’t bad enough, he feared Bethany was becoming increasingly dependent on him, and trying to insinuate herself further and further into his life.
Bethany had a puritanical streak, he reflected as he pulled on his socks, one could imagine her in some community like the Amish where her desires were kept strictly in check, yet were apparent to any man who had the sensitivity to look deeply. There was a challenge in women like that, Leo believed. The challenge being to soothe their fears about their sexuality, set their desires loose, and reveal to them how gratifying sex could be. But when that was done and they were at last complete one sent them off into the world to find their husbands, one’s work finished. The liberation of desire was his gift, Leo decided, not its long-term maintenance. Except with Lusina, whom he’d never stopped desiring. He’d want her till the day he died. Though increasingly, he worried, she seemed not to want him.
Bethany had that scrubbed, fresh-faced, pink-cheeked look of a woman who’d sworn off all adornment, he thought as he washed the paint off his hands. Her clothes, uninteresting but always clean, looked as if she bought them in the op shop, slightly worn, frequently shapeless and a little out of date. She could be a whole lot more attractive than she allowed herself to be, in his opinion, and that was part of his job, wasn’t it, unveiling her repressed beauty?
She was scared to death of her husband finding out about them, she’d recently confided. Acting on some instinctual perception, Leo had asked:
‘He hits you, doesn’t he?’
Bethany didn’t reply. It wasn’t that simple, she thought. He had hit her once or twice, just a slap, she amended silently, not wanting to exaggerate the situation. She couldn’t bear to be thought of as one of those women who claimed to be victims of domestic violence. She’d never understood how they could endure the humiliation of publicly confessing such private matters, and then having everybody pity them.
No, it wasn’t that he hit her. What he’d done, on numerous occasions, was take her forearm in both his hands and twist her skin back and forth in opposing directions till her arm felt as if it was on fire, and she begged him to stop. Or he pinched the skin of her cheeks in a cruel parody of paternal affection, slowly increasing the pressure until she cried out, and beseeched him, stop, please Roland stop, it was hurting her so much.
‘No,’ she answered finally. ‘He doesn’t hit me. He has difficulties, Leo, you have to understand that. He can’t mix with people and he’s completely alone except for me. And I’m not as smart as him, I can’t keep up with his mind and that makes him frustrated. I know I irritate him, I don’t mean to but I do. But I’m his only connection to the world, Leo.’
At another time, she’d explained more.
‘Roland’s got a heart condition,’ she confided, as she and Leo held hands after sex. She had never felt so satisfied, she thought. Every part of her lost in love. ‘If he finds out about us it will kill him.’
Leo silently reflected that from what he’d heard, the man didn’t deserve that much consideration. He kept that thought to himself, however. Bethany might misunderstand, and take it to mean that Leo wanted Roland to know. Which he most certainly did not. If Roland suddenly died, or threw Bethany out, Leo’s position would become extremely complicated. How had this got so difficult, he wondered. And how was he going to extricate himself without unthinkable repercussions?
Bethany had recently told him that his own marriage was a ‘destructive relationship,’ and that Lusina was selfish and didn’t care enough about him.
‘You deserve better,’ she said, and stroked his hair. He was lying with his head in her lap at the time, one eye on the football playing soundlessly on her television. He liked it that she watched the football with him. Lusina always left him to watch it alone. It wasn’t as much fun if there was no one to share it with. Bethany understood that.
‘You need someone who’ll take care of you, Leo. Lusina is too self-absorbed, she always was.’
Leo found these observations somewhat seductive: they spoke to his own aggrieved suspicions of increasing spousal neglect. He had not seen the irony inherent in him accepting relationship advice from Bethany.
What he wanted, he decided now as he ran a comb through his hair, noting the number of strands that remained between the comb’s black plastic teeth, was to remain friends with Bethany so he could continue to have her support against Lusina when he needed it, and to end their sexual relationship, at least for the time being. Bottom line, he simply did not desire her enough. He had desired her quite a lot, when he was feeling low and she came on so strong, but it was going nowhere and he couldn’t keep it up. Literally, he was beginning to fear.
He’d explain it all to Bethany, he thought, as he tied his shoelaces and ran down the stairs. She’d always been a sensible woman. Leo, Bethany, Lusina and Anthony had known one another at university. Leo and Bethany had met infrequently for coffee over the years when they lived in the city, though he’d never told Lusina about their meetings. There were many things he didn’t tell Lusina, small, insignificant things as well as things that would cause trouble. Why should she know his every move? Lusina hardly ever saw Bethany, he thought as he closed the front door and loped down the hill to the beachfront. They’d never been friends and Bethany wasn’t in the Carstairs social circle. And she’d only recently moved to Orchid Creek.
‘She was so determined to have you,’ Bethany had told him, their first time in bed at her small fibro cottage in the bush, a few kilometers beyond the town. Through her bedroom window, he could see the distant, restful hills, indigo in the afternoon light. He was already feeling anxious to get home. He had a drawing in progress, and he suddenly badly wanted to see Lusina.
‘I knew I didn’t have a chance,’ Beth went on, ‘she was so colourful and I was just the drab, brown little bird. You couldn’t see anybody but her.’
Leo had agreed with this assessment. It was comforting to find someone else who shared his occasionally resentful perspective on the young Lusina, which was that she’d made him love her, against his better judgment. Dazzled him, and led him by the prick.
‘No man could have resisted her,’ Bethany had told him. ‘It was hardly your fault.’
Leo had taken Bethany in his arms.
‘You’re right,’ he’d said. ‘And now here we are, after all this time.’
It had sounded phony to him, Leo thought as he approached the riverfront café, even that early in the piece.
Bethany walked out of the cluttered gift shop, where she’d just bought Leonard Cohen’s latest as a gift for Leo. She frequently bought him gifts, usually books or CDs, or she cut out bits of poetry from the Saturday papers, poems with lines like I am smitten with you, and This is our country, my heart. Most recently she’d given him a Stendhal quote that read: Even a very small degree of hope is enough to cause the birth of love. This last one Leo found most disturbing. He stuffed her offerings into a drawer in his workroom where he felt fairly confident Lusina would never venture. She was too self-absorbed to go through his desk, Leo had told Bethany in bed, with, Bethany feared, a tinge of disappointment.
Bethany crossed the street to the café, and saw ahead of her the gaggle of teenagers Lusina had observed earlier. Megan was amongst them, Bethany noted. Bethany hated Megan, if only because Leo adored her. She felt a peculiar pain when she thought of Leo being with other people, especially his family. She was left out, as mistresses were always left out. She knew he still slept with Lusina, even though they’d never discussed it. She’d watched them, through the windows of their house. They never pulled the curtains because nobody lived near them. Their physical connection was painfully evident. But Leo and Bethany shared their secret, she reassured herself, the secret that nobody else had any idea about, least of all the brilliant bloody Lusina. It was their private world. Lusina would never be admitted.
Though Leo seemed to have been avoiding her lately, Bethany worried, as she hurried towards the café, or at least avoiding intimacy with her. The last slanted glow of afternoon light touched the water. Across the river, purple shadows darkened the hillside. Leo hadn’t asked her on the phone what she was doing at the Point, instead of working at home in Orchid Creek where he’d have expected her to be on a weekday. In fact, she was spending more and more of her time just hanging around the Point in the hope that she’d run into Leo. If that didn’t work out, she’d trail the unsuspecting Lusina round the village, or watch Megan eating rubbish with her weird friends. Lusina had noticed her once or twice, and had looked puzzled, as if she couldn’t quite remember who Bethany was. Bethany hated her for this as well.
I ought to be worrying about the negative effect all this is having on my work, she thought. She was a freelance journalist, and she couldn’t afford to slip under the radar.
Bethany was, she’d told Leo a few days after they’d first become lovers, sort of apart from her husband of ten years. The illicit couple was in Bethany’s car, parked at a deserted beach a couple of kilometres down the coast from the Point. It was early evening and already dark. Leo had ridden down from his house on his bike. They’d had furtive sex in the car. The windows were fogged, and outside the high tide was pounding the beach. They were holding hands. Leo was wondering how he could look at his watch without seeming rude. They’d met in the car because he didn’t have time that night to drive to Bethany’s place and back. He couldn’t come up with an excuse Lusina would believe. Or so he told Bethany. He’d needed a bike ride to clear his thoughts, was how he’d explained his sudden departure to his wife. Lusina had looked at him for a long time before advising him to be careful on the road, and not to ride in the dark without his lights.
‘Roland decided to become a recluse, and moved himself permanently to our place up the coast,’ Bethany told him. ‘I’m only allowed to visit him at weekends, and I’m not allowed to ring him up to except in emergencies.’
Leo had glanced at her. Her voice was strained, and she enunciated her words with exaggerated care, through thinned lips.
‘Six years ago,’ she’d revealed, holding his hand so tightly he almost yelled, ‘Roland told me he didn’t want sex anymore, and that he wanted to live a celibate life. It was awful, I felt just discarded. I haven’t had sex for six years, till you. I’m still young, Leo, I still have desires, I don’t want to live like a nun.’ She exhaled loudly.
Leo worked his hand free from her grasp and put his arm around her. Their clothes were still awry from sex. He could see her breasts.
‘You mean he didn’t even talk to you about it?’ he asked, incredulous that a man these days could get away with something like that. Or would want to, was more a point of wonderment. Leo’s physical desires occupied a significant place in his daily life. The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world, he’d once quoted to Bethany before their affair began. She’d read that as an invitation, understandably, given her circumstances.
‘No,’ Bethany stated flatly. ‘He didn’t talk to me about it. He just told me that was what he wanted. He said we could stay married as long as I don’t sleep with anyone else. So you see, he musn’t know about us. He’ll leave me, if he doesn’t have another heart attack.’
She laid her head on Leo’s shoulder. Leo heard raindrops begin their drumming on the car roof. Shit, he thought. I’ve got to ride home on my bike. And I have to go soon before Lusina starts wondering where I am. What’s the bloody time? Bethany lifted her face to him. He kissed her nose.
Unfathomable, he’d concluded, stroking her hair. Spray was seeping into the car, her hair was damp and tasted salty, Leo was beginning to feel chilly. Unbelievable that Bethany had agreed to Roland’s demands. What right did the man have to make such unilateral decisions? He was married to her, for God’s sake.
‘You must have been so lonely,’ he told Bethany, and nuzzled her breasts to comfort her. Her nipples were the pale pink of a woman whose body had not been altered by childbearing. Poor woman, no wonder she sometimes looked like a dried out old twig, he’d thought. No juice in her life. No sexual joy. He felt himself becoming aroused again.
‘Why don’t you leave him, start a new life with someone who wants to be with you?’
He stroked her nipple. It hardened under his attentions.
Bethany had lifted his head from her breast, and stroked his cheek.
‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ she’d whispered, ‘I’ve been waiting for you for years, Leo. Don’t you know I’ve always loved you? Always wanted you?’
Leo had then felt very uncomfortable, and his erection had suddenly wilted. She meant waiting for him to talk to her on this deep level, and then to help her out of her misery with sympathy and encouragement, and sexual attention, he’d decided. That’s what she meant. They were both married, for God’s sake, and she wanted to stay with Roland, she’d said that more than once. Leo was definitely transitional, a catalyst. They were just two old friends comforting one another. That was the deal. So he’d thought at the time.
Leo arrived at the café and saw Bethany was already seated at an outside table. Behind her, the river was lit in patches by the streetlights, and a half moon rose in the winter sky. Bethany looked up and smiled at him. Okay, he thought, smiling back. I’ll remind her of the deal. No problem. She’s not the type to make a fuss. Everything will be all right. He pulled out his chair and sat down.
‘Hi, you,’ he said.