Authors: Virginia Duigan
Virginia Duigan has lived and worked in Australia, Britain and the United States. Before becoming a novelist she was a freelance journalist and feature writer, and a broadcaster and scriptwriter for ABC television and radio. She has been a literary editor, theatre and film critic, and book and restaurant reviewer.
In 1996 she wrote the screenplay for the movie
The Leading Man
. Her first novel was
Days Like These
(2001, reprinted 2008).
is her second novel.
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ePub ISBN 9781864714272
Kindle ISBN 9781864716610
Original Print Edition
A Vintage book
Published by Random House Australia Pty Ltd
Level 3, 100 Pacific Highway, North Sydney, NSW 2060
First published by Vintage in 2008
Copyright © Virginia Duigan 2008
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
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Cover photograph courtesy Getty Images
Cover design by Sandy Cull
Typeset by Midland Typesetters,Australia
Printed and bound by Griffin Press, South Australia
To the two John Duigans: my brother, and my uncle.
And to my sister- and brother-in-law, Helen and Jan Senbergs.
Wednesday 5th July
Today I met an extraordinary man. Oddly enough, or perhaps not, I knew straightaway he was someone out of the ordinary. Well, you'd have to be blind, deaf and monumentally dumb not to notice that Mr S. is on the right side of unique.
It was a medium-sized notebook about the width of a woman's clutch bag, with
a shiny red cover that hadn't been opened for twenty-five years.The pages were
bone dry but otherwise unaffected, the words crowded together and sloping to
the right, fast and energetic. Greer looked at the flamboyant script, the extravagant
surge of the writing. Myself when young, she thought. Someone I hardly recognise.
Last month had brought a letter from Antony. The envelope, with its address printed in indelible black marker, stood out from the rest of the post, which was mainly bills and art-world bumf. Normally Antony preferred email, and she thought it was significant that this time he had chosen to write. A handwritten letter was challenging, tangible, it lay there in front of you.You could pick it up as often as you liked and re-read it, or tear it up and chuck it away. Or put a match to it, perhaps. Even the act of opening the envelope, which Greer had finally slit with a slender-bladed letter opener, set up an expectation.
The letter lay on her desk all afternoon until she brought herself to open it. After reading it she hadn't crumpled it up, tossed it in the bin or burnt it, but put it down, her heart thumping. Antony had written: 'I wonder if you could look out any material you might have from the early days. Press cuttings, of course, and reviews. But also photographs, letters, appointment books and general detritus – especially mad ephemera like doodles on the side of laundry lists ...Dare one hope for a diary or three? But absolutely anything you may have salvaged from the Australian period would be of use.'
The Australian period. Reading the three words made her mouth dry. They lay there
on the page in strong, masculine handwriting: three words, clear and unambiguous.
Might they have been innocently put down?
She stared at the writing as a graphologist might, as if it could be deciphered, searching for clues, but it told her nothing. After looking at three words for a while, she thought, any three words, they become meaningless and the implications that may or may not swirl around them cease to exist.They are like words in an unfamiliar language, mere arrangements of letters that have lost their power.The power they may have had to make your heart stand still.
In any case, a graphologist would be looking for revelations of character, and
not of knowledge.
The letter still lay face up on her desk. What kind of a person wrote in this way, as if people's lives were like segments of an orange, to be pulled apart? Or worse, labelled, dissected and denounced? Greer had mentioned the letter to Rollo. She knew it was unfair to expect Rollo to take those three words at anything other than face value, and he didn't.They sounded perfectly innocuous to him.
'It's a necessity of the biographical process, darling,' he'd said. 'What did you expect? This is what happens from now on. Your lives will be annotated, analysed and arranged in alphabetical order. Reduced to lists in a filing cabinet.They're not your lives any more,you see.You're in the process of being reinvented for public consumption.You belong to posterity now, and Trivial Pursuit. It's tedious, but exciting. Don't look so tragic, wallow in all the fuss. Lie back and enjoy it.'
But you don't understand, Rollo, she thought. You haven't a clue. If you had, you wouldn't joke about it. Even Guy, you see, even Guy might hesitate.
Most of Antony's communications had been with Mischa, but he had addressed this particular letter to her. 'Allowing for my admittedly patchy knowledge of Mischa's habits, I have a suspicion he hasn't bothered to record a great deal.You are probably the archivist of the partnership.'
The archivist. Another word that branded him, in her eyes,as an outsider.An enemy alien.
After four days she had steeled herself to write back.'If by "archivist" you mean the one who throws things into boxes, then yes, I suppose I qualify. But it's a very grand title for what has been woefully piecemeal and amateurish – Mischa hates keeping anything and I have been neither systematic nor thorough.There are a few boxes of jumbled cuttings, exhibition invitations, reviews – that sort of thing. Completely unsorted.Your job will be cut out to get them into any useful order, I'm afraid . . .'
Before posting the letter she tore it up and emailed her reply instead.
During the four intervening days before Greer answered the letter, the unknown Antony had followed her around. He was there in the bedroom in the morning, a critical voyeur, watching her dress. Instead of reaching for clothes unthinkingly she found herself pausing to make selections and looking at herself in the mirror.
He was a third, faceless presence at dinner. Mischa was oblivious to him, shovelling
food with his usual gusto. Greer felt unusually constrained to make conversation.
Companionable silence might too easily be misinterpreted, might be put down
to imagined tensions and resentments. Might, in the mind of a silent arbiter,
be put down to something else altogether.
When she picked up an English glossy magazine she felt him looking over her shoulder. He was inquisitive about what she was reading, curious about every aspect of her. She discarded the magazine and from a pile of books picked up one of J. B. Priestley's more obscure novels, which Rollo had lent her last week. Be flattered by the prospect of his scrutiny, Rollo had advised. Wallow in it. But she did not find it flattering.
One night she even dreamt of Antony, but when she tried to recall his appearance she could remember nothing. There had been an uneasy feeling pervading the dream, though, an aura that still lingered.An aura of threat.
She tried to redefine him as benevolent. A benign authorial presence who was only concerned to put on record the life of a successful painter and give Mischa his due.And in so doing to impose a semblance of order on his, and later on their joint, ragtag past. Wasn't that the main purpose of biography? An attempt to define a life by tracing its chronological evolution?
If you were to put a life, any life, under the microscope you might conceivably work out a formula to separate the random elements from the deliberate choices. There were conundrums here that Greer had thought about a great deal lately. Still, when considered in this way a biography sounded fairly harmless, beneficial even, with the potential to enlarge the range of human understanding.
Until the relative calm of the past decade Mischa's life, and by assumption her
own, had been so nomadic and almost wilfully undocumented that the most assiduous
biographer would have his work cut out trying to make any sense of it.There
wouldn't be much time left for anything on the periphery. It would be a matter
of imposing an artificial order on chaos.
It's Mischa's business anyway, she told herself. I am on the periphery.
She tried to put herself in Antony's shoes.A biographer, she supposed, would take the raw materials – birth, character, personality – and superimpose on them the achievements of the will and the accidents of fate.Attempting,in the process, to answer a recurring question that could never be answered with absolute certainty: was this the result of that?
But a life could be affected forever by an accidental meeting, a chance encounter of two people. There was no avoiding that. It was what made the world go round. Two lives could be fundamentally changed, to be specific. And not only two, to be more specific still. There were causal questions Antony would certainly ask, to which the answers were unequivocal.
How far might he wish to go? If it was legitimate for a biographer to ask, to what extent has this person dictated his or her own fate, might he not also ask, to what extent has this person dictated the fates of others?
I was the only one there when he came in. I knew he was coming,Verity had told me to look out for him,she'd said,'He's noisy, big, you won't mistake him.'Well, that was accurate, I suppose, but what she hadn't told me was how potent, how archetypally male he was.That's typical of Verity, she probably hadn't even noticed. She's kind of impervious to men – I think she must've been desexed. Or else everything's atrophied from lack of use. How awful would that be? Unthinkable.
Anyway, he came staggering in carrying a huge painting, which was covered in a mouldy bit of felt, dumped it down without a word to me & rushed out again, and lurched back in with another.Then he yelled,'Are you a real person? Are you a fragment of my imagination? Is it too much to ask for help before it pelts with rain?'
'You mean a figment of your imagination,' I said.'But I'm impressed with your vocabulary, so I'll help.' He had a very thick accent, not sexy like a Frenchman but not unappealing.We lugged pictures in from this ancient ute he'd borrowed that looked as if it had been rotting in a paddock for centuries. He looked a bit like that himself. Inches of stubble, long hair that looked dirty, frayed t-shirt hanging out under his sweater, filthy canvas shoes tied up with string.
I told him he could do with a wash.'So,you are being rude to me now, as well as lazy!' I couldn't tell if he was affronted or not. It was true, he stank. I said he could use the shower in Verity's flat, but he wouldn't have it, & insisted on starting to hang the pictures. I tried to tell him V. would have a fit because she always wants things hung her way, but he just ignored me & started banging in nails.
Greer shivered in the pale sunlight, clasping her arms under her breast. Mischa
had asked early that morning, and unusually for him almost tentatively,'What
is this albatross on your mind?'
Mindful of Antony's scrutiny, she plucked something out of the air.'I was thinking,does first imply second?'
'First? First of what? First love?'
'If you say the first something – anything – does it imply the existence of a second?'
'Mrs Smith, you are a mystery to me.You are my first true love.You know that. I have no strength for a second, not at my stage of life.'
She had gone on to say, but he hadn't waited to hear, 'It's not just a position, is it? It's expressing a potential.The potential for a second.' She would discuss it with Rollo sometime. He was always interested in everything – the more fanciful, the more pointless, the better.
She thought, in actual fact, Mischa, what you just said was not strictly true on two counts. I wasn't your first true love at all.Your first and enduring love is something quite different.And neither was I your first carnal love.But–you were mine. Oh yes, you were mine.
She had no doubt in her mind of that.The conjunction of ideas and memories gave her an ache in the heart. As if something lying there, which had not made its presence felt for years, was turning over.
The weak April sunlight lay on the wide windowsills and rebounded off the stone. Greer lifted her hands from the red exercise book and held them in the light.The hands of a middle-aged woman, she thought. No age spots, no wrinkles, but a certain puckering of the skin when the fingers were spread.
She turned them over.The palms were soft, unmarked by calluses or scars. Not the hands of a woman who did hard physical work. What kind of a woman's hands, then, were they? They looked capable enough,the long fingers pleasing in their symmetry, the square palms marked by well-defined grooves, like an etching.They might strike an observer as a confident woman's hands.Were they?
On the fleshy mound below each thumb was a tangled grid of tiny criss-crossed
lines. Years ago, a clairvoyant in Sydney had told her that meant passion.
She had been unsurprised to hear this. It confirmed something she had recently
discovered about herself: she was a passionate woman.
She remembered exactly how old she was when she made this discovery. Almost thirty
years of age. Somewhat advanced in years, many might think, to arrive at such
a momentous realisation. This part of her must have been there before, must
have been there always, but until she was nearly thirty she was unaware of
it. It had needed something, an impetus, to rise to the surface. No, that was
not right – it had clawed its way out, like a tigress. Tearing, shattering,destroying.
I'd gone back to finish some paperwork from the last exhibition when I suddenly heard a roaring sound. It took me a moment to realise it was him singing. It was the hymn 'Jerusalem', of all things.'And did those feet,in ancient time,walk upon England's mountains green?' He'd hung a painting and was staring at it, hisface was transfixed.Absolutely lit up with joy.And he was bellowing this, but like a rock song, his own rollicking tune, not the usual dirge. He was so loud I could see people passing in the street peering inside & grinning.
I looked at the picture. It was of a piano in a paddock. Standing on the keys, feet apart, was a little barefoot Aboriginal girl dressed in oversized dungarees, staring the onlooker down with a truculent expression. She and the piano were painted very beautifully and meticulously.The paddock was recognisably Australian – brown, parched, with a huge expanse of blue sky & an extraordinary atmosphere of heat & blazing light – all that was painted very freely and expressively. I could see immediately what Verity meant.She'd said,'Greer,he is,without question,the most profound talent I have ever represented.' I remember that, word for word, because it's unprecedented for Verity to engage in anything approximating a rave.The way she said it actually made my spine tingle.
He stopped, having sung every verse of the entire poem, and stood there with his eyes shut and a beatific expression on his face.I said to him,'That's really,stunningly good.'He said,his eyes still closed,'My painting or my singing?''Your painting, of course.' He opened his eyes, seemed to see me properly for the first time, enfolded me in his arms and kissed me on the lips. Kissed me passionately.
She covered the page with her hands.The nails were painted in a transparent gloss, the whites as bright and the half moons as boldly defined as they had been all her life. Her toenails were painted red. Once she had never bothered, but now it was a habit. A habit of twenty-five years. The colour was identical to the scarlet cover of the exercise book, but that was a coincidence. The colour of passion, she thought. I might never have discovered that I was a passionate woman.