The best time was always afterwards, alone, in the Ladies’ Restroom on the first floor. It had high frosted-glass windows that at this hour, before the frail winter sun had found its way between the buildings of the city, shed a dim grainy light like old footage in a documentary film.
How long since this room had been modernised? There was a quicklime incinerator for tampons and a yellowed notice about a women’s refuge, contact Terri, which might have been there since the seventies. It was the sort of place she was always trying to describe in the on-going letter in her head. But who was this letter to? Who wants to read about the toilets at your place of work? The rotating chrome soap dispensers, the mint-green handbasins on their pedestals, the big wire basket for paper towels—the sense of living in another generation’s film? Her father of course would be hanging out for this sort of news, but she wasn’t going to ponder to his romanticism.
And Jason Kay—if a letter ever reached him—would read anything from her with painstaking attention, but she didn’t want to think about Jason. In fact she hadn’t sent a single letter home since she’d come to Melbourne, though she’d started several on the office computer in the afternoons.
She had this room to herself. The other women in the building, the beauticians from Beauty by Mimi on the ground floor, didn’t start work till nine. It was pristine, like a beach first thing in the morning. She didn’t switch on the fluoro, but stayed in the gray light. All the contents of the little bag she kept in her desk were laid out on the broad sill of the handbasin. She washed and dried herself with paper towels, fixed her hair, put on deodorant and mascara. The antique plumbing hummed as she ran the taps. She felt safe here, performing these classic female rituals. Every morning at this mirror she thought for a moment of her mother and the compulsive little pout she made when she looked at herself, like an old-fashioned model.
When do you stop being haunted by your parents? The face that looked back at her was not a face that they had ever seen, the eyes darkened and reckless, the skin luminous. It made her shy, she turned away and then could not resist another peek. She knew this transformation wouldn’t last for long.
It was time to go back upstairs. She liked the washed lightness of her body as she moved to the door. She liked the silver flecks in the faded terrazzo floor. But then of course she liked everything, everything seemed to have significance, for a short while, afterwards.
Global Imports occupied the whole top floor of the narrow old building, above Jonathan Fung Barristers. Its corridor ended in a door out to the rusty metal landing of the fire escape, where on a fine day, amongst the roar of air-con vents, you could sit and eat your lunch and look out over the roofs along the back laneway. Someone had once slung a little washing line out there and tried to grow basil in a pot. It was like being in Naples or New York.
The office consisted of one large bare-walled room, high-ceilinged like all the rooms in this building, with two tall front windows facing the street. A head-high partition of varnished ply and frosted glass made a waiting space by the door. Here there were two cane armchairs and a low glass table on which sat a Cinzano ashtray—some of the clients came from countries where it was still OK to smoke at business deals—and a neat pile of magazines, Time, Fortune, BRW. It was part of her duties to keep these up to date and to water the rubber plant in its bamboo stand.
As soon as she opened the door she knew he wasn’t there. She could sense his absence even before she saw that his black coat had gone from beside her sheepskin jacket on the hooks behind the door. Inside the office the answering machine’s red light was flickering on his desk. He’d made the call from his car in traffic, she could hardly hear him. He said that he was going home, there’d been a turn for the worse and could she please just carry on. He would be in touch, he said, and something else that was lost in a blast of static.
She stood looking out a window for several minutes, holding her little quilted bag. The long window had a view of the black spire of the church opposite and the bare swaying tips of the churchyard trees. Below her a phone was ringing in Jonathan Fung’s office. Someone with a light tread was running up the stairs. The working day had started.
There was no other message. She had a sense of abandonment which was, she knew, unreasonable. He’d left the computer on and the coffee-maker. She poured herself a cup and sat down at her desk. The air in the room was still thick with their closeness. But her feeling of well-being, of doing good in the world, had faded.
Maynard Flynn started work before anybody else in the building because he had a sick wife. She slept during the morning while their son stayed with her and Maynard left at noon to be with her when she was awake. He asked Maya at the interview if she could work from seven till three. For the time being he was in and out of the office and needed someone to hold the fort. Things had, he said, with a little grimace, got rather out of hand. That was six months ago, in summer, soon after she’d arrived.
Each morning of those first couple of weeks she took the cup of coffee he offered her and plunged straight into the messy paperwork and files. She spread them out in piles all over the seagrass matting and for a couple of hours before the phone started ringing, she crouched over them, silent and frowning. He seemed both impressed and entertained.
In this way she saved herself from the shyness that threatened to take her over whenever she was face to face with him. Shyness, she knew, had a mind of its own, chose when to strike, caused red blotches to break out on her neck, made her voice catch, her eyes fill with tears. She lived in dread of its attacks.
His wife’s name was Delores. Sometimes he spoke of her as Dory. Every few days now her friends phoned to ask him how she was. He had a special tone with these women, Francine, Bernadette and Tina, women from her church. His voice dropped a note, became suave and medical. She’d had a good night, thanks, the doctor was pleased. Yes, he and Andrew were coping well. At the same time he kept tapping away at the computer. These conversations never lasted long. Maya began to understand that they were all waiting, that things were coming to an end.
She’d never got up early before in her life. This was one of her new adult acts, making herself wake before her natural span of sleep was done. She put the alarm clock out of reach, leapt from bed, pulled on her clothes, cleaned her teeth and rushed up to Victoria Street while the last stars were fading. The 6.40 tram approached just as she reached the Vietnamese deli. She liked to make the transition between sleep and work as swift and dreamlike as possible, while she was still all instinct and warmth.
As winter came on, each morning was darker than the one before. Nobody on the tram looked at one another, their faces blank and private. Some were shift-workers falling in and out of sleep on their way home. She was like a shift-worker herself, she thought, her real life happened at the other end of the day from other people’s.
Leaves rolled down the pavement ahead of her as she stepped off the tram. This was when she liked the inner city most, empty and echoing, a half-world, the light seeping into the dark. Car headlights and street lamps were still on. A newsagency was open, also the espresso bar on the corner, serving the little community she was briefly part of, the dog owners and joggers and council workers in rubbish trucks. Light broke out minute by minute as she walked, pale splashes over roofs and walls. Birds were going like mad in the trees around the old church. Bells rang the hour somewhere, pink clouds streaked the sky ahead. Sometimes the experience of striding up this street—the achievement of being there—could give her a historical feeling, as if she were looking back at herself, as if these mornings were already in the past.
She thought of the sick woman lying in the dawn, listening to the birds. Her relief. Her pillow shaken, her sheets smoothed, ready at last to sleep.
She had a key to let herself into the building. Past the brass letterboxes, past Mimi’s glass door with its stencilled sign, Waxing, Peeling, Paraffin Treatments: she still hadn’t found out what Paraffin Treatments were. The stairway was in darkness. She was aware of the ticking life of the building when it was left to itself, and its particular smell, ancient wood and radiators and dust, like an old person’s house. Her heart started thumping as she climbed the stairs. Her stomach felt queasy with excitement. Sometimes Dory had to have an injection and he’d arrive later than her. She could always sense if he was or wasn’t there. Nearly always. With about 98.2 per cent accuracy, as her brother would say.
“I thought you were a farm girl!” he said, amused, when she arrived that first morning windswept and out of breath. “I thought you’d be used to getting up at dawn.” She began to explain that she didn’t grow up on a farm, but in a town in the wheat-belt, that her family weren’t real country people, but whenever she spoke about her past she knew he wasn’t really listening. He went on making jokes about her strong shoulders and legs, from all that hay baling and cow milking: if he was in a good mood he liked to tease her about her cowgirl strength. The only questions he ever asked her were about her social life in Melbourne. When she told him after the weekend that she’d walked in the Botanical Gardens, or gone for dim sum with her housemate Cecile, he seemed disbelieving, even disappointed, and quizzed her about clubs and bars and boys. She shook her head. Something froze in her when he asked her these sorts of questions.
You could tell he wasn’t being looked after by a woman. The first time he held her his shirt smelt musty, as if it had been left too long in the washing machine. A bachelor smell, like some of the young male teachers at school.
It was a fatherly sort of hug that first time, an arm around her shoulder as he left for the day. The culmination of all the little taps on her arm he’d been giving her over the past couple of weeks when he was pleased with her. Just a little more lingering.
Good old country commonsense, he said that first time, his face close to hers, his arm along her shoulders. A can-do attitude, he said. This was his way of showing his approval, she told herself. It was what good employers were supposed to do. Look how it made her work even harder! All the same, all afternoon she could feel the heat of his arm at the back of her neck. It seemed like a long time since anyone had touched her.
That night she dreamt she was walking down the main street in Warton with a friend of her brother’s, Ben Lester, a nice enough boy, tall, freckled, three years younger than she was, to whom she’d never given a single moment’s thought. Except it wasn’t Warton, it was voluptuously beautiful, it was India, it was Paradise. A grove of feathery palm trees all swayed in the same direction, like underwater plants, beside a heaving grape-green river. The light was bronze, as before a storm. Everywhere she looked was this swelling beauty, exotic and familiar at the same time. She and Ben Lester stood beneath a blossoming tree by the river and moved closer, their feelings generous and loving.
She woke with the words of course he wants you in her head.
The next morning as she climbed the stairs, she was suddenly aware that they were the only two people in the building. When she let herself into the office and saw him she was too shy to speak.
“There you are,” he said softly, as if he too had been dreaming of blossoms and rivers. He stretched out his hand to her. “Maya,” he said, to her vast surprise, and yet deep down some part of her wasn’t surprised at all. “You’re tormenting me.” His voice was husky. “I can’t stand it.” Her first thought was that she must have done something unfair to him, and she searched her mind for how she might have hurt him. He looked tired as if he hadn’t slept. He must be cracking up under the strain of Dory. She took a step towards him. That was the crossing-over time.
From that moment she ceased having her own life.
When she first came here she saw an office that was too bare, that had been cheaply, hurriedly put together. It looked like he’d just moved in and could disappear overnight, though Global Imports had existed for some years. None of the furniture suited the dark wood of the old room: the flimsy pine desks, the metal filing cabinet, the plastic table for the fax and photocopier. The matting was greenish and springy as if it had only recently been grass. In the corner there was a little fold-up divan, on which, before Delores got sick, he used to take a siesta, a habit he’d picked up during his time in Asia, he said. Only the long uncurtained windows with their view of the spire were beautiful.
Now in her mind it was a room at the top of a tower, floating amongst the clouds, detached from the world. She was grateful for its unclutteredness, the space it gave them, its work functions pushed to the margins. Its bareness seemed to say that this was enough, this was all they could ever ask for. They lay on the divan’s thin mattress which he placed on the seagrass. There he was fully attentive. A beam of early sun streaked across the floor, stroked their white winter ankles. It was a shock to see white flesh in the pure morning light.
Whenever she was alone, in the office, on the tram, in bed, at any time of the night or day, she would see his hands, or the flank of his cheek, relive his touch, feel the weight of his legs, hear his voice in her ear as she fell asleep. She would sense the gray light swirling around them in their wordless concentration, hear the bird cries of their endless practice, closer and closer to the brink, and a shiver would run through her all over again.
The reason she couldn’t write letters was because he was everywhere and everything and he was secret.
Sometimes the phone rang, the answering machine clicked into life or a fax spewed out. He chuckled. She knew it excited him, to be lying with her at the top of this silent house of business. He liked to stalk naked across the room, and stand at the window, lightly scratching himself, with only the birds to see him.
For a short time afterwards, dressed and back at his desk, he was blinky, dopey, like a little boy woken from sleep, winking at her as he spoke on the phone, calmer, no longer tormented. He was very attractive to her then. “My legs don’t work,” she said as she tried to stand up from the mattress, and he’d smile but keep listening to his messages. She dressed quickly, took the little bag from her desk and set off downstairs, briefly carefree and light-headed.
He winked and joked when he was happy and had sudden bouts of fondness for her. As he passed he’d whisper in her ear that she was the best little worker he’d ever had.
Although she was proud to have made him happy, she couldn’t laugh at this with him. What had happened between them seemed too large, too radical for jokes. She smiled at him but she couldn’t laugh.
A country girl. He’d been surprised he was her first. Wasn’t that unusual these days? he asked. The isolation in the bush perhaps? She shrugged, not knowing why he was so keen for news of her generation, or why he seemed so taken up with the idea of all young women as freely promiscuous. She didn’t want to think about this.
She didn’t say that the way he made her feel aroused a longing in her to tell him about horses and her brother and her dog and the seasons and landscapes of the wheat-belt, all the things that fed into the river of loving that flowed through her.
She knew all the tones of his voice. He had a voice for doing business with Asians and another voice for Australians. Like her father, he became more macho, jokey, his accent broader, when dealing with Australian men. He was more at ease exchanging smooth small talk with the Asians.
Then there was the way he had of talking to his mother, tucking the phone under his chin, keeping on working, rolling his eyes now and then, ironic, yet always patient. His mother lived in a retirement village and forgot things and left flustered messages late at night: Maynard? Maynard? Are you there?—her voice quavery with self-pity.
Who are you? she demanded, impatient if Maya answered the phone. Oh, you’re the little lass from the West, yes, yes, he’s told me about you. There were old girls like this in Warton, left over from the big landowner families, shuffling into the newsagency with their hats and walking sticks, pretending to be helpless but always getting their own way. Going on and on about something that annoyed them, while everybody else had to wait.
His nicest voice, the only time he sounded open and natural, was when he spoke to his son Andrew. He was always happy after he hung up the phone to Andrew, smiling to himself for a few minutes, in a little dream. Andrew was an agricultural science student, writing his PhD—Maynard always mentioned the PhD—who’d come back home to help look after his mother. It was when she thought of Dory Flynn as a mother that Maya was able to grasp the momentousness of the situation, the affliction that had struck this family. A mother with cancer.
The light in the house going out.
Just before she left Warton she went to say goodbye to Miriam Kershaw, the headmaster’s wife. Miriam had asked for her, and at the last moment she knew she had to go. She steeled herself to step into that house, dark and stale with illness, walk down the shadowed corridor, sit beside her, and not show shock at Miriam’s body, so terrifyingly shrunken in her bed. Afterwards she went to the creek and lay back on the boulders and took deep swigs of air. I’m young! I’m young! she breathed.
Her father was angry that she’d been summoned and angry that she went. Something about Miriam always made him harsh and impatient.
Maynard never spoke of Dory’s illness in the office and she knew she mustn’t ask him. He remained matter-of-fact, calm and cheery. He gave no sign that he was worried. She couldn’t tell how much he cared. Perhaps he pretended not to care because he cared too much?
She worried that he didn’t care enough.
But this morning when she came in after the weekend, the face he turned to her shocked her. His eyes were sunken, his face blotchy, unshaven. For the first time she thought of him as old. He’d been up all night, he said. Things were going downhill. His voice was gruff and his hands shook a little as he shuffled papers. I shouldn’t really have come in, he mumbled, looking around the room. She knew it was for her, the “fix” he sometimes joked about. In that moment she had no suspicions of him. She went straight to him at the desk. As she held his head against her, her eyes searched out the spire in the window behind him, her point of reference. Why should she be troubled by something so simple, so generous? She bent and whispered how she’d missed him, how she’d hardly lasted the weekend. She loved him for his need of her, and for his pain at last, his redemption.
At midday there was still no word from him. She was so hungry that she closed the office and ate a hamburger and chips—taboo foods of her childhood—very quickly, sitting on a stool at the window of the espresso bar on the corner. Then a jam doughnut. She knew she ate too much to make up for being parted from him. The cafe was busy but not fashionable. She didn’t feel intimidated here. It had a TV and a magazine rack and a table of pale-skinned salesmen meeting for coffee. There was a pinup board in the back corner covered with fluttery desperate-looking homemade notices, to sell, to buy, to rent. It was here that she’d noticed Cecile’s Room to Let sign, her eye drawn to its professional graphics and its lack of chest-beating. She was still proud of this moment of good judgement, and the luck it brought her, to find Cecile. There was a new sign pinned up, a flyer for something called The Marijuanalogues, which made her think of her father. An evening of hilarity you will not soon forget (unless you smoke pot of course). Spread the herb! She remembered that her parents were coming to Melbourne to stay with her. When? It must be soon. For the past couple of months she’d deliberately wiped all thought of this visit from her mind.
She finished off with a large Diet Coke and left. The day stretched endlessly ahead.
The office was one in a row of old buildings, all joined together, two or three storeys high—a fashion agency for uniforms, a paper warehouse, a plumber’s workshop—down a side street, facing the church. It was like an old-fashioned village street tucked in amongst the high-rises. Seen from a distance, it would make a good location for a film.
The city centre was only a few streets away, but she never went there, among the fashionable people. She preferred to sit in the courtyard of the church. Every day she felt the need to collect herself, by being outside, near trees. The church was nested down between the glass flanks of the high-rise on either side of it, a valley surrounded by mountains. It was built of blackened stone, as old as England. Clusters of white plastic chairs were set out hospitably beneath tall English trees. A few twittery sparrows hopped along the bare black branches. She was used to native trees full of singing birds. Sometimes it was in this courtyard that she could feel most fully a stranger. When she first came to Melbourne she was almost surprised to find the same currency. It was like another country over here.
Clouds scudded past the tops of the skyscrapers so you could think it was the buildings that were moving. A hush seemed to descend over the precinct and for a moment everything stilled. Nothing appeared, no car, no passer-by. No phone rang, no door slammed, no voice called out a greeting. On the Diet Coke billboard next to the cafe someone had scrawled Nutra Sweet Causes Cancer.
She understood suddenly that death meant ending. Her heart started to thud, for Dory.
By three o’clock she felt very bad indeed. She shut down the computer, put on her jacket, zipped it up to the chin and locked the office door. Although she had no experience of religion she went straight across the road into the old church and sat down in a pew. She had an impulse to pray for Dory, though she didn’t know what for. Too late now to pray that she’d be cured.
For her forgiveness? Why hadn’t she thought of this before? She’d let herself believe that to be held and caressed like this was a good thing, kind and loving, when they were both so lonely. He was more lonely than her in a way. But who knew what Dory felt or understood, lying there day after day?
She’d taken her cue from Maynard in this.
When he spoke of Delores his voice was even and controlled like a professional carer, or the parent of a special child. Once, after he’d thanked one of Dory’s church friends for the curry she’d sent, he put down the phone shaking his head. “Excellent women,” he said. “Saints.” He sighed. “Just like my wife.”
He spoke as if she were apart from him. He only called her “Dory” if he was talking of the past. He said I when he talked of future plans. How to finance his return to Asia, probably Indonesia or Thailand. To live, for good. He spoke like a traveller who would soon be on his way.
But this morning he’d held onto her like a child does, his head against her stomach. He was breaking up inside and didn’t know it. She knew she was harnessed to him now, wherever he was going.
No one had taught her how to pray. Who is God? she’d asked her parents when she was a kid, and they had thrown their arms about and talked of trees and kindness and the way families love each other. Jason Kay’s God was the Great Headmaster, watching you wherever you went. Jason lived in fear of Hell, yet when she rode past his Brethren meeting hall, it seemed to her that it was Hell, chocolate-brick, windowless like a big toilet block, a yard of gray sand, a high cyclone fence all around.
Churches always made her curious. What was supposed to happen there? Comfort? Inspiration? But the cold dusty light and vinegary smell inside this old church had no power to calm her.
The tram was packed with very loud schoolkids. She was only a year or so older than some of them but she shut her eyes in their midst like a middle-aged woman with worries. If she could have prayed it would have been for Cecile to be home but Cecile was in Kuala Lumpur visiting her sister. There was nobody else in Melbourne she could talk to. Her secret life with Maynard cut her off, from her own past, her own family. She belonged nowhere.
Above all do not panic, she told herself. She would buy some takeaway noodles, have a long shower and watch a rerun of Friends, which was like going to bed with your teddy.
The next morning he wasn’t there. She strode straight through the dark office to the flickering answering machine and listened to the voice of a woman with a foreign accent telling her that Mr Flynn would not be coming in today, because unfortunately, yesterday afternoon, Mrs Flynn passed away. Mr Flynn will be in touch, said the woman in her precise, gentle foreign voice. Francine, Bernadette or Tina? Whoever she was, she didn’t feel comfortable speaking into an answering machine. Er—thank you. All the best . . . Like signing off a letter.
Maya sat down in his chair. Through the window she could see the very tip of the spire, a mysterious, ornate black knob. What was it supposed to be? An acorn? A bud? She’d asked some workers at the church, but they didn’t know. All that care, she thought, put into something that nobody knew about or saw. Just the birds, year after year. For some reason, this made her want to cry.
She didn’t know how long she sat there. It was cold, she’d forgotten to switch on the heating. She sat sunk into her jacket, the collar turned up, the wool around her jaw. A phone rang on and on somewhere in the empty building. It felt like days since she’d spoken to another human being. What to do next? She took her little bag from the drawer of her desk and made her way down the stairs to the Ladies’ Restroom.
A toilet was flushing and the black-haired beautician from Mimi’s was washing her hands. She had switched on the lights and was peering critically at her skin, though her geisha-pale face looked perfect to Maya. She smiled at Maya from the mirror. All the women from Mimi’s were friendly. She was wearing tight black pants and a pale-blue smock and high black platform heels. The air carried drafts of her airy, floral perfume.
“Busy day?” she said to Maya, as she reached for a paper towel. Her name, Jody, was embroidered on the pocket of her smock. Jody had a kid, Maya had watched her once on the footpath, blowing kisses to a little tear-blotched face in a car driving off up the street.
“Not really. My boss’s wife died last night.”
“Oh no!” A concerned, maternal frown appeared beneath Jody’s dead-straight, blue-black fringe. “Was it expected?”
“She’d been sick for a while. Cancer.” They stared at one another as Jody slowly dried her hands.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do.” Maya heard her own voice echo, high and plaintive in the tiled room. “I’ve never known anyone who died before.”
Why was she talking like this? She’d never once met Dory. And even as she spoke she remembered Miriam Kershaw.
To sound innocent.
Jody raised her perfectly plucked eyebrows. “You could always send some flowers.”
“How do you do that?”
“There’s a florist round the corner. They’ll deliver them for you or you can take them yourself.” She started to edge gently around Maya. “I’ll speak to the girls. We’ll send a card or something. That poor guy. Any kids?” She hesitated at the door.
“A son. Grown up.”
“You OK, sweetie? Going to close up for the day?”
“Yes, I will. I’ll take the family some flowers.” She hadn’t known this was what she was going to do until she heard herself say it.
Everything was speeding up. She was in a taxi holding a bouquet as big as a baby, wrapped in mauve cellophane, the stems like limbs across her knees. They were racing down a freeway, in a direction she’d never been before. Billboards, overpasses, factories stood to attention beneath a sombre sky. She was like an official mourner, sweeping past in a motorcade. The taxi was filled with the freshness of her flowers.
Why this terrible rush? She’d run into the florist’s, pointing to irises and hyacinths and orchids and flowers she didn’t know the name of, as long as they were purple or mauve. She’d never been in a florist shop before, and the exotic blooms, the leafy hush and tang went to her head. In Warton if people gave you flowers, they would have grown them.
She hadn’t asked how much they’d cost—nearly as much, it turned out, as a really good haircut—just signed her credit card and rushed out again to hail a taxi. As if she were late. For what? To show him her support? So as not to be left out?
Her mouth was dry and she was sweating inside her coat. She caught a glimpse of her half-profile in the taxi’s tinted window, and for a moment she thought she saw Dory. But Dory looked nothing like her.
She’d spotted a photo once in his wallet and made him take it out and show her. Dory with baby Andrew beside a potted palm in a studio in Jakarta, a creased little colour print, faded now, washed out. The tiny boy was fat and gingery, his face a smudge, screwed up ready to cry. In contrast, Dory was very striking, like a sixties pop-star, with a beehive of black hair, pale pink lipstick and dark, kohl-lined eyes. She was Dutch-Indonesian, Maynard said. (My father is half Dutch! Maya told him, but as usual, he didn’t seem to hear.) He’d met Delores in Java in his days as a saxophonist with a touring band. She taught Indonesian in a language school. Later he went into business for a while with her father. Dory wore white gloves and a collarless mauve coat with large mauve cloth-covered buttons. Her smile was serene, her eyes shy, shining. “She looks happy,” she said to Maynard as he slid the photo back into his wallet. He said nothing.
In her mind, as time went by, the name Dory came to have a sort of orchid-coloured glow.
They were off the freeway now, charging into a suburb. The main street of every suburb here was a city in itself, stacked with shops and cafes, under rows of swinging wires. This was what Dory would have seen when she first came to Melbourne, looking out a taxi window over little Andrew’s head.
The flowers were for Dory, of course.
The Flynns lived in a dead-end street that finished in a shallow rise of bushland. The houses were packed in, side by side, close to the road. In Melbourne everyone lived closer together. Some of the houses were modernised, with glass and timber additions and frondy landscaped gardens, but the Flynns’ house was bare and treeless, like it would have been when it was built.
So this was where he came from and returned to. Winter sun shone briefly through the clouds, but the house looked dark, stricken, closed in on itself.
It was after she had paid the driver and turned towards the house with her armful of rustling cellophane and flowing purple ribbons, that she realised her offering was not only showy and over the top, it was fatally, morally wrong. Sweat spurted into her armpits, she swung around but the taxi had already disappeared. No shelter anywhere. Oh God, how could she get rid of it? Was anybody watching her?
The curtains in the house were drawn. There was no one on the street. Quick, she told herself, leave it on the doormat and run. Head lowered, she moved swiftly up the front path to the porch. There was no garden, just a concrete slab and some woody shrubs by the steps. Somehow she’d expected Dory to have made a beautiful garden.
Andrew opened the door as she tiptoed across the porch. He could be nobody else but Andrew, though he’d grown tall and dark and clear. The fat smudge-faced days were long gone. How had he known she was here?
A wave of heat moved up her neck so violently that her eyes watered. “I just wanted to . . .”
He smiled and put his arm out and firmly ushered her inside. The door closed behind her.
The hall was cold and bare as a hospital. Far down the end it opened into a room where people were talking. She caught the foreign inflection of women’s voices and the clink of dishes. Francine, Bernadette and Tina no doubt, doing what women friends do. An oxygen cylinder stood in a bar of light outside an open bedroom doorway, and in the shadowy front room next to her she glimpsed a table piled high with bouquets. She could smell freesias, a cold sweetness from her own past. She had no right to be here.
“These were her favourite colours, did you know that?” Andrew said, touching Maya’s flowers. She nodded, unable to speak. He had his father’s hands, but more finely cast. She could see Maynard’s features in the set of his face, but his skin was olive and his eyes were dark, wide-spaced, intense. Dory’s son. You could tell that she’d been beautiful.
That’s him, Maya thought, without quite knowing what she meant. It was as if she’d dreamt of him.
“Andy? I think you’re needed.” A long-legged girl in jeans strode up the hall towards them. She was wearing a large football jumper, probably borrowed from Andrew, the way girlfriends liked to do. She put her hand on Andrew’s shoulder. “Granny’s asking for you.” Perfect, cool, in charge, good skin, dark hair in a curly ponytail. She would have been a champion runner, a maths whizz, a prefect, one of the shining girls at school.
“This is Kirstin,” Andrew said. His girlfriend. The girlfriend he deserved.
There was a pause. Since Maya didn’t speak, Kirstin reached for her bouquet.
“I’ll take this if you like.” She whisked it into the front room with all the other flowers.
“Maynard? Andy?” The old girl was down the corridor of course, making sure that no one forgot her. Where was Maynard? She knew he wasn’t here.
Andrew kept on looking at her. “Were you one of Mum’s students?”
Maya shook her head and backed towards the door.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” he asked. “Anything at all?”
His dark eyes each held a drop of radiance inside them, like the gleam of water at the bottom of a well. She couldn’t look too long into them. He knew something she couldn’t bear to know.
“No, no. My taxi’s waiting.” She opened the front door and started across the porch. Then she turned and said quickly: “I’m Maya, from the office. I’m really sorry . . .”
“I know you are.” He stepped forward and took her hand for a moment. “Dad’s at the funeral director’s. With Mum.” He looked up over Maya’s head. “What a beautiful day!” he said. “I had no idea.” He was almost high, she saw, almost a little crazy.
“The funeral’s on Thursday, nine-thirty at St Xavier’s,” he called out after her as she fled down the path. She nodded over her shoulder and he raised his hand to her. Fuck fuck fuck, she muttered, rushing down the street, bare, of course, of taxis. He knew. She could swear he knew. On this day Dory’s son knew everything.
The bushy rise at the end of the street looked down over a football oval, a playground, a bike trail. At this hour it was spotted with retirees throwing balls for their dogs and young mothers with little kids. The embankment was floored with shredded bark and planted artistically with native grasses and shrubs. Imitation bush, city bush, not a place where you could lose yourself. Where to now? Her bladder was bursting, and without thinking, as if she were still a country kid, living out of doors, she crouched down between two bushes and pissed splashily into the bark, risking yet more exposure.
She lay awake in the dark, trying to remember when Cecile said she’d be back from Kuala Lumpur. Sometimes when Cecile came home late from her editing work, Maya got up and they talked. Could she be back tonight? Maybe Cecile would be too tired to talk, but it would be a relief just to see her, or even just to know she was in the house. She longed for Cecile’s calmness. Cecile was nearly thirty, far ahead of her in everything. Her advice was always very down-to-earth.
But in the morning Cecile was still not there. What if she’d come home to get changed and then gone straight off to work? Sometimes she did that. Maya wandered in and out of rooms looking for clues to see if Cecile had been and gone. The house was dark from pouring rain. Everything was cold. She didn’t know what to do next. She couldn’t even think of going to the office. In the end she went back to bed.
She wished she hadn’t told Andrew her name. Maynard would be angry when he heard of her visit. You know the rules. Would he say that to her, like a teacher? What were the rules? They’d never spoken of them, but she knew that they were there. He liked to keep all the different parts of his life separate. She knew, without anything being said, that he was afraid of demands, of being trapped, held back. If she looked away, got on with her own work, suddenly he’d come to her. Sometimes this made her laugh. It reminded her of handling Choko, the most highly strung of the horses in the Garcias’ paddock. Turn your back and he’d be nuzzling in your pocket.
He was capable of sulking. He believed in his right to do what he wanted when he wanted to, and was savage if he couldn’t. It had been a shock to find that out. But underneath, always, was the tug of need.
At first he joked about the matching first three letters of their names. I knew this was a good omen, he said, as soon as we met! A few weeks later she’d referred to this and his face went blank. She’d set off his alarm system: did she think that this bound them together? Was she hanging on to his every word? Nothing he tossed off to be charming could be taken as a promise.
Yet she had no dream of any future with him beyond the usual one, to spend a whole night together. She couldn’t conceive of any other place in the world where they would fit, they existed as a couple only in their eyrie with the bird’s-eye view of the spire. If he was offhand, became business-like and impersonal, she could cringe to think of herself on that mattress, like a creature without its shell.
He was a bit overwhelmed by her devotion, she suspected, by what he had unleashed. Sometimes he was touched by it and was tender: a small, spontaneous measuring out. Only her love kept them afloat. The creaks and sighs of the old building around them sounded like a warning. Throat-clearings of disapproval. She wondered if after this she’d ever be able to have a “normal” relationship. If secrets and rules were part of its kick, a kick she’d got used to now.
More and more he was out of the office. This was the nature of the business, he told her, a lot of running around. It was better to pick up freight yourself than deal with a customs broker. Then there was the banking and the checking of stock in the warehouse and trips to see potential customers. Sometimes a customer whom he said he was meeting rang up to speak to him. From time to time she caught him out with little lies, to her, to his mother. Why didn’t she take this into account?
What did she know of him? She only had a keyhole view of him, a fixed, secret eye.
Sometimes he’d lie back and suddenly open up to her. How his widowed mother sent him to a private school where he had less money than the other boys and never learnt anything but how to gamble and play the saxophone. How when he left—he was asked to leave—he ran away to join a jazz band that was touring though Asia.
“Why were you kicked out?” she asked. These days you had to do something pretty heinous, or that was how it was at a country high. She needed to know everything about him so she could understand him.
“Got a girl pregnant,” he said briskly. “The headmaster told my mother that she was wasting her money on me, I was a blight on the school’s reputation. My God, if they only knew what was really going on there.” He was still angry about it, she could see.
“What happened to the girl?”
“She lost the baby before it was born. I was told I’d ruined her life. Girls weren’t supposed to want sex in those days, you understand.”
He fell in love with Asia and married Dory and stayed there for many years. He and Dory decided to bring up Andrew in Australia, but he still went to Asia on business at least three times a year. With the contacts he’d made in Indonesia he started up Global Imports. She’d have to come with him one day to the warehouse in South Melbourne, he said, and pick out something for herself. One morning she arrived to find a large carved wooden jewellery box sitting on her desk. Not really her sort of thing, but he seemed pleased with it and she couldn’t tell him that.
He couldn’t remember the last time he played the sax.
He was fifty, a couple of years older than her parents though he didn’t seem part of the same generation, the sixties or whatever it was. She couldn’t imagine him long-haired in a protest rally. He told her he voted Liberal, and was amused at her gasp of shock. I make love with a right-winger, she thought. She began to explain to him what it was like being Labor in a country town, but as usual he wasn’t listening. He was always dreaming, she’d come to realise, and if she asked, his dreams were always schemes for making money. If he and her parents met, they would have nothing at all to say to one another. But that must never happen. They must on no account ever meet.
“Global is never going to make my fortune,” he said, looking up at the ceiling high above them. “I’m using some contacts to diversify.”
If he’d looked anything like her father, large, sweaty, hairy, nothing could possibly have happened between them. If he’d had the body of men in Warton of his age. But he was narrow-boned, smooth-skinned, trim. Sometimes he’d pat his belly or flex his arms and frown. “Haven’t been able to get to the gym for months now.” The stress of his current life kept his shape almost boy-like. When their two pairs of shoes lay side by side beneath the radiator, hers were the same size as his.
Her first thought when she met him was that he had the looks of an actor, an older, workaday version of, say, Kevin Spacey. His cheeks were hollow, close-shaven, with a fold on either side of his mouth like pleats in soft leather. A half-circle of creases ran up his neck and jaw if he tucked his head down. He had a habit of running his fingers back through his hair, which was cleverly cut to be pushed-up at the top where it was thinning. It was babyishly fine, a fading reddish-brown sprinkled with silver. Was he vain? At his desk he wore small, fine-rimmed tortoiseshell glasses. His eyes were quick and hard to read. In his black coat he looked like a Melbourne man.
Age didn’t come into it. She registered an instant reaction to him when she saw him, a softening all through her body at the sight of his hands and wristwatch, his ivory skin, his pale shirts, his narrow, gold-buckled belt.
There was some sweetness too, a quick understanding, and sometimes a playful streak. Rarely now. He’d become more and more preoccupied.
Late morning she went downstairs and ate a bowl of Weetbix with the last of the milk. There was nothing else to eat. Neither she nor Cecile had been shopping for a couple of weeks. She ate at the kitchen bar, the big open room silent around her. The long leaves of the bamboo in the courtyard hung flat in the endless rain. She remembered the fierce rush and instant turning off of Warton rain, like a little kid’s tantrum. She kept listening out for the scratch of the key turning in the lock.
When Cecile was home there was always music. As soon as she came in, even if it was very late, she went straight to her workbench next to the stairs, turned on the lamp and played music on her computer. Music was the background to everything she did. It was the same in Warton when her father or brother were home. She would never forget the feeling of relief when she first entered this house and stepped into music.
Cecile gave her the sheepskin coat a few nights after she moved in. It had been hanging forever at the back of her cupboard, much too big for her, she said. She’d bought it from a friend who was desperate for money. The moment she put it on, Maya felt safe, embraced, protected, able to face the Melbourne streets at last. It was a perfect fit, the cream fleece tucked inside against her skin. Cecile put her head to one side and studied her as they put on their shoes at the front door. It was ten o’clock at night and they were about to go to a Vietnamese restaurant to eat a soup called pho which Cecile had a craving for.
“I knew the right person would turn up for it one day.”
Maya opened the door and set out, muttering something about being big-boned like the Dutch side of the family. At that time, before Maynard, she still hated to be looked at, and avoided looking at herself in mirrors.
After she started wearing the coat everything changed. It transformed those cold dawns, transformed her into a city girl. She began to feel at home. The house, small yet strangely spacious, had a distinct personality that in her mind she associated with Cecile. Just as, from the start, she didn’t feel shy with Cecile, so she felt at ease in this house.
Melbourne started to look different to her. She got the hang of the trams. Shops and restaurants on Victoria Street became familiar. She and Cecile always ate there, or bought take-away. Restaurateurs hailed them. They never cooked at home. Cecile introduced her to Shanghai dumplings and baked pork buns and sticky rice in a twist of bamboo leaf out of the warmers in the little supermarkets. Wherever she went Cecile always looked out for quality.
She began to sense the romance of this city. One night when she and Cecile were trudging home with Thai take-away, sharing an umbrella, the lights shining on the wet road, she felt so light-hearted that she wanted to say his name.
“Maynard says Thai is the haute cuisine of Asia.”
“My boss.” She turned her head and found herself looking right into Cecile’s eyes. Their gaze locked for a moment beneath the umbrella and then they looked away.
They were passing the tower blocks of Housing Commission flats that loomed above the trees in the park on the corner. Lights shone in window after window, people were home, eating together as night fell. For the first time she understood the comfort in being part of the myriad lives of a great city. Warmth spread through her from the misted-up plastic boxes she clutched. It was a relief to let her secret out even a tiny bit, ease the pressure she carried around with her every moment of the night and day.
The next day, Thursday, the day of the funeral, it was still raining. She pictured the black cars waiting outside the house, Maynard escorting his mother down the path under an umbrella, Andrew hand in hand with Kirstin, and the faithful three bringing up the rear, Francine, Bernadette and Tina. All in black clothes and dark glasses. The cars gliding off into the rain.
At midday a postcard came from her parents, in her mother’s writing, but signed T & J, reminding her they’d be arriving next week. Her mother, always suspicious of technology, still didn’t trust leaving phone messages. Typical of her, to send a postcard of the lake turned to salt, proceeds to CALM, from the stack on the counter in the Warton newsagency. Can’t wait to see you xx. Maya couldn’t bear to think of their familiar, expectant faces here in this house. She was a different person now.
She still hadn’t cleared out the little back room under the stairs for them. Cecile said it was OK if they stayed. They planned to spend two weeks here before going to Tasmania. She’d told them she and Cecile would be at work when they arrived and where to find the key.
Her father would be blown away by Cecile’s music. She felt a pang of possessiveness about her life with Cecile. It was hard-won. It was a gift.
We don’t want to get in your way! If they were so anxious about that, why didn’t her father take his long-service leave somewhere else?
They’d tried to persuade her to go to Perth, not the other side of the country, and study literature, acting, film, something to do with “self-discovery.”
They had no idea of real exploration.
Nobody knew how sick she felt, those first few weeks here. She came to understand, in a way she never had before, that the city and the country were two separate worlds. She understood now the kids who grew up with her in Warton and never wanted to leave. There wasn’t a person, a horse, a tree, a stretch of road or horizon in Warton that she didn’t know, while here she was a stranger to everything, the beauty of the shops and cafes, the people in smart coats like Europeans, even the different brand names for homely milk and bread. The city was like a heavy mass she was trying to fight her way through. She got lost in the grid of the streets and was too self-conscious to ask for help.
She made herself sit on a high stool in a tattoo shop and have her nose pierced, which she and Jason Kay had always sworn would be the first thing they’d do when they left Warton. The first of their piercings. She wrote a postcard to Jason telling him how cool it was here, but didn’t send it, it made her ashamed. She was a stranger to cool, anyone could tell that at a glance. “Country” was written all over her, nose-stud and all.
It took her a while to realise that the sinking sensation in her stomach, the scooped-out feeling in her brain, was homesickness. It really was an illness that she woke up with every day. She’d been unable to remember why she wanted to come here. On the other hand, she knew she couldn’t possibly go back.
The only reason her parents had let her come was because it was arranged that she could stay for a while with Tod Carpenter, nephew of Forbes and Rhonda Carpenter, who owned the Warton newsagency where Maya worked after school.
“Tod is such a lovely young man, he always does his best for people, he’ll look after you,” Rhonda told her. “Why Toddy’s never married . . .” She shook her head.
“Married to his own right hand most likely,” growled Forbes, waiting for Rhonda.
“Forbes!” Rhonda never let him down. Besides, a couple of years ago Rhonda had undergone a near-death experience. She had a heart attack and saw the portals before she was revived. It gave her a sort of moral authority.
Her father talked to Tod on the phone and arranged it all. He knew how to make a good fellow of himself, old Tod. It took her in for a while. And then mysteriously, every cell of her body seemed to shrink away from the sight of him.
It was true that Tod did his best. He played guitar, cooked stir-fry, took a camera everywhere. When he drove his MG he wore an Italian cap to protect his head. His hair fell out ten years ago in the week before his twenty-first birthday because his girlfriend ran off with his best mate. There were photos of him at his party, hamming it up in a woman’s wig. He was round-faced, snub-nosed, stocky but fit, he worked out. He’d lived in Hong Kong and London for a few years and was paying off his house, a stark home unit twenty stops out on the train. He didn’t have a girlfriend just now, but lots of friends, at work—he sold insurance—and at the clubs he’d joined. He heard of the job at Global Imports from a guy at the gym.
Why, when Tod was so kind to her, showed her how the trains worked, took her on drives to the Dandenongs and to his favourite restaurants and bars—entered smiling, waving at people who didn’t see him—was she, soon after she moved in with him, so desperate to get away? There was something increasingly intense about his chubby hands as he cooked and put down plates for her. Instinctively she swerved away so he wouldn’t touch her when he opened the car door for her. She stopped running past him in a towel. Once she saw him bringing in her washing when it started to rain, tenderly gathering and folding her scrappy underwear. People often rang and cancelled outings with him. He chewed gum non-stop for his breath. Sometimes he was so tense he roared off in his MG for a drive. There was a devastated look in his eyes when he watched television at night, gnawing on his fingers. She wanted to write a letter about him to someone, a cruel letter about being sexually repressed. She wanted to feel free here, not trapped by pity.
Once, in the middle of the night in his spare bedroom, she woke gasping, surfacing for air. In her sleep, Miriam Kershaw’s words had come back to her, in her English accent, from her bed with her eyes closed. Her last words.
Tod means death. Don’t go with that boy.
After the interview with Maynard—he told her she could start straight away—she had a coffee at the corner espresso bar and copied down Cecile’s phone number from the notice board. Cecile happened to be home that day and told her which tram to catch to her house. That evening Maya went back to Tod’s home unit and told him she had to live closer in now, for her new job. She was starting work tomorrow. Good old Tod put her bag in the boot of the MG and, his jaw working overtime, his hi-fi turned up full blast, drove her to Cecile’s.
It was night again and she was still wearing her old trackies. Was it because she was so alone that she found it hard to get a grip on things? There was nobody she could possibly write a letter to about this. If she did, where would she begin? The Flynns’ house. The house of the dead.
She lay back on her bed. What sort of family lived in a house like that? A man who wasn’t interested in home. A woman without joy. Why wasn’t Dory happy? Miriam Kershaw said that was why you got cancer. Loss of hope. Had Dory been homesick? She was a teacher, and went to church and had friends. Why hadn’t Maynard made her happy? Or she him? Maya asked him once if he’d had any affairs before Dory was sick and he couldn’t help laughing. Many affairs? she corrected herself, hating to seem na’ve, but by then he had his coat on and was blowing her a kiss.
But Dory had Andrew. Is there anything I can do for you? Anything at all? As if the whole world was in mourning for his mother.
Each time she thought of Andrew’s face she held her breath for a moment. The underlids of his eyes were swollen like little ramparts to hold in grief. His dark hair had reddish glints left over from childhood and his clothes were loose and crumpled on his tall, thin frame. He must have slept in them all night beside Dory’s bed. When he smiled she saw that something which was guarded and cloudy in Maynard, in him ran clear.
He had strong, narrow fingers. She could feel them now, holding hers.
He was forever out of bounds for her. She had done something to herself which cut her off from him, as well as from her past, and most people her own age.
Perhaps she should quit, just not ever go back.
She woke late to a rainless day and the smell of something reassuring. Toast! She sniffed the air for another human presence. Cecile! She stumbled to the top of the stairs. Down in the kitchen Dieter was sitting on a stool at the bar, munching toast and sorting through Cecile’s mail.
“Dieter!” She was even glad to see him. Usually they kept to the unspoken pact between them to ignore one another. “How are you?” She came down into the kitchen. Dieter waved his buttery knife at the open packet of bread on the bench. “Help yourself.” He must have brought the bread with him. He kept his own jar of cherry jam in the fridge, a Swiss brand. Dieter never smiled and never had been heard to say hello or goodbye. It was restful when you got used to it. If they needed to communicate they always got straight to the point.
“Do you know when Cecile will be home?” She pulled her coat on over her stale old tracksuit. Her hair needed washing. There was sunlight on the bamboo leaves in the courtyard. She felt she’d been away in a dark land and had just come back.
He shrugged. “Today, I hope. We have bills to pay.”
Dieter’s status in the house was uncertain. He was a partner in Cecile’s company, Prodigal Films, and there were periods when he was around for days on end, watching videos, making phone calls, engaged in long intense discussions with Cecile. The living room filled up with his clothes and papers, became his personal office. He left his video collection here and a stash of ganja in an empty 16mm canister on Cecile’s desk. He stayed up very late. Sometimes he was there in the morning, asleep in his clothes on one of the couches.
He had thin-lidded eyes, very sharp, and a tight-closed mouth. At first sight Maya thought he looked hostile, even spiteful, but she soon found out that he wasn’t interested in the personal. Cecile said he was like a scientist about life. When he was working with Cecile he despised all interruptions, as if what he was doing was all that mattered in the world.
He had a room somewhere with a bunch of musicians. Although, like Cecile, he had a day job at NuVision, as a telecine operator, he never seemed to have any money. It was always Cecile who bought their meals. He had the traveller’s mentality, Cecile said, unworried, he was always saving up to go somewhere else.
So far Prodigal Films had made a music video for the band of one of Dieter’s housemates, and a corporate video for Cecile’s father which they were still editing. Cecile was the director and Dieter the cinematographer.
“You are not at work?” Dieter said “v” for “w.” His “verk” had a driven, obsessive sound. It was a word he often used.
“My boss’s wife died. It was her funeral yesterday.”
“So? You are not needed in the office?”
All at once she thought of mail spilling out of the brass letterbox, faxes scrolling across the floor, the answering machine overloaded with urgent calls. What if Maynard was too grief-stricken to work and did not come back for weeks? What would happen to Global Imports? How could she desert him at a time like this? She was not holding the fort.
She peered at the clock on the microwave. “My God, is it really eleven?”
Coffee roared through the percolator on the stove. His arm shot out at once to turn off the gas. Fresh, perfectly timed coffee was another of Dieter’s obsessions.
“Black?” Dieter said. “You buy no milk, I think.”
It was nearly twelve o’clock by the time she hurried down the street to the office. The Global letterbox in the hall had already been cleared. Strong chemical scents seeped out from beneath Mimi’s door as she passed, perhaps a Paraffin Treatment was in full swing. The dusty smell of the staircase made her heart lurch. He wouldn’t have come in, she told herself, not yet.
She could see the dark shape of his head through the frosted glass of the partition. He was standing at the table and further back against the window was another shape. Somebody was with him. She hung her coat up and walked in.
He was photocopying a pile of documents. In a black suit and tie and a white shirt, as if he were still dressed for the funeral. He looked handsome, well-groomed, in control, with the little smile fixed on the corners of his lips as he turned towards her.
Standing behind him was a very short, broad Asian man in a well-cut black coat.
“This is Mr T, my good friend and new partner. His full name is much too hard for us Westerners.” There was a twinkle between the two partners, a nodding and showing of teeth. Mr T was in control, which meant he had the money, she could tell that from Maynard’s readiness to please.
“And this is Maya.” A little pause made her wonder if he’d already spoken of her.
“Yes yes yes,” said Mr T.
“Maynard, I’m sorry . . .” Her voice went creaky. There was so much she was sorry about, Dory, the flowers, her lateness, not being there for him. “I wasn’t sure whether . . .”
“Best to carry on, I think.” He went on photocopying, quite stern, not looking at her. “Thanks for the bouquet, by the way.” Far from being slowed by grief, he seemed energised. There was a sleek, glittering look about him that she’d never seen before. His whole presence had changed. Was he in shock? Or did he feel relief? He was pretending not to care.
He gathered up the documents, knocked them straight, slid them into a new briefcase. “We’re off to eat.” He spoke lightly, blinking, as if to bat away her gaze. “There’s going to be some changes. I’ll brief you after lunch.”
There was mail to sort, a bit of filing, an invoice to prepare. She worked furiously, though her hands shook and her eyes blurred. In fifteen minutes everything was finished. It sometimes crossed her mind that there wasn’t enough for her to do. If his computer skills were up to scratch he could have run the show himself. He didn’t really need her. A suspicion which she’d always dismissed now came back to her. That he’d planned all that was to happen between them even before he met her and that was why he’d hired her. Office hours, the only time he had to himself. And you know what young women are like these days.
It was Tod who fixed him up.
She could hardly breathe.
He didn’t need her anymore. In fact, now that she’d strayed out of the office into his private life, he wanted to get rid of her.
It was clear he was going to sack her.
Leave now, a voice kept telling her in her head, just pack up and go, but she sat rigid at her desk, looking at the spire.
She heard him let himself in. His face was a little flushed as he took his jacket off and slung it over his chair. He came towards her at her desk smiling, smelling of alcohol, loosening his tie. Swivelling her on her chair to face him, he pulled her up, and kissed her in the ear in a semi-humorous way. He was strange, she felt afraid for him. Then he was holding her close, closer and she felt his need for her, his lips cold and desperate, she tried to warm him with her mouth. She heard their breath in the silence, the little gasps from their lips. He bent her back over the desk, and they laughed a little, their eyes meeting as he ran his hands up her legs, pushing up her skirt, his hands smoothing and diving. Her whole body came alive again to meet his, soft with relief.
Something, a mouse scrape, made her eyes fly open and she turned her head a fraction and caught a movement, a glitch on the known horizon of the frosted glass of the partition, a blur that rose up and became an eye peering over the top, startled to meet hers. Mr T, on tiptoe.
If he’d just arrived, she would have heard the roll of the handle of the door from the corridor, the click of its closing. Even lying back like this, she would have registered the brief suck of new air. She knew by heart the full repertoire of sounds of this place.
They must have come in together.
“Don’t look like that,” Maynard was saying, smiling wide, consciously, like a celebrity, holding the glass of water for her. He helped her sit down on the chair. Everything looked different, as if the light had changed. His skin was thin and dragged across his bones. A half smile she’d never seen before hovered on his face, top teeth resting on bottom lip. Eyes flickering with nerviness and deep down knowledge of himself. He was saying something about closing the office, that he and Mr T were starting a new venture up north. “Don’t look like that,” he said again in a low voice. “I just asked him to wait while I spoke to you. Then one thing led to another. I’m sorry, I’m a bit pissed. I didn’t know he’d watch.”
But he’d been about to make love to her. He would have.
He went into the waiting room and shut the door behind him.
She’s going to pieces, she’s going to make a scene.
The door to the corridor slammed closed.
Maynard came back into the office. “He’s gone, Maya. He’s waiting downstairs.” He crouched down beside her. “Listen, why don’t you come with us?”
She could keep her job, he said, and have a bit of a holiday in a warm climate to boot. Whatever that old boot was, he said, trying to make her laugh as if she were a kid. Could she leave at once, was that possible? He’d call to see if there were still seats on the plane. Just come as she was. She could buy what she needed when they got there. He talked cheerfully and fast, helping her up by the elbow. And all the time, in the shine of his eyes, like tears, there was regret, that made her even sadder.
OK? he said. He fetched her coat and helped her put it on. He seemed like a friend, but he was not a friend. Everything had slowed and darkened. There was a drumming in her ears. Strange to see the brightness outside the windows, like a world she’d just left.
He put on his jacket and picked up his briefcase. Did she want to leave a message for her housemate? Celia, was it? He wasn’t very good with names. Often called her Myra in the beginning. She couldn’t focus, her mind looped and slid away from something she had to remember. Something important. He ushered her out ahead of him. Her legs went one after the other as if they didn’t belong to her any more.
For some reason all she could think of as she went down the stairs was the little back room that she hadn’t cleared out for her parents.