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Authors: Fiona McFarlane

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BOOK: The High Places
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‘I'm getting married in two weeks,' he said between bites.

‘Where's the bride, then? Shouldn't you be painting the town? It's Friday night.'

There was something submerged about Kath's face – something private and sly. Henry disliked it. It reminded him of how well suited they used to be; of how they'd both liked to cultivate a secret life to which they could make coy allusions.

‘She's got a class,' he said.

‘And you're not invited?'

He snorted. The final bites of a hamburger were impossible in company; he abandoned them.

‘Take me to the track, then,' Kath said. ‘We'll go on a date.'

‘You never wanted to go on dates before,' Henry said.

‘You never won the lottery before,' Kath said, laughing, and two men at the counter looked over at her. They laughed too, and she seemed to absorb their approval and turn it back on them, brighter. The men watched as she put her hand on Henry's arm. ‘You're not a married man yet.'

Well, that was true, certainly. Kath smiled from her long immaculate face.

‘I guess I've missed you,' she said.

They stood together and went out into the street.

The city was scrubbed and pale after the summer, and the buildings rose from the street with a mineral sheen. There was a leisurely rush on the pavements. Henry was aware, as he hadn't been in some time, of the anxious thrill of Friday evening. He bought a copy of the
Daily Mail
.

‘I usually walk to Wenty,' he said.

‘All that way?' Kath showed him her heeled foot.

Henry liked the authority of hailing a taxi with a girl on his arm, and of getting into the back of it with her. Kath was wearing a short blue coat which drew attention to the bareness of her immoderate legs; Henry admired them, but with disapproval, as she stepped out of the taxi. Ellie was pretty in such a sensible way, but Kath required adjustments. She stood out on his arm. He and Ellie, he thought, stood out together. Ellie would be at her class by now. And here he was, at the dogs with Kath. Passing through the gates with this long girl at his side, Henry felt as if something had fallen over him: a soft cloak, maybe, made of silky stuff, invisible, that made him hot with knowledge and pride.

‘This feels like the Easter Show,' Kath said, pressing him forward, lifting her face to the lights and the noise. ‘How do we make a bet?'

‘Over there,' Henry said, and he pointed to the bookmakers, who stood under their umbrellas above the crowd, shouting, with their heavy bags strung around their necks. ‘You leave that to me.'

‘No,' Kath said. ‘I want to know everything.'

Henry found it gratifying to teach her. She frowned at the racing form in the
Mail
, tracing one polished finger over the names of the dogs, creasing her forehead and saying things like ‘I like Young Lightning. He's got a good feel to him.' She paid no attention to all the other information on the form, so he ignored it too. Kath took a small gold pen from her handbag and as she bent to mark the dogs she liked the names of, Henry saw the darkening roots of her copper hair.

She held his hand and let him lead her to the bookies, and once there she scolded him for wanting to bet so little on each race. ‘For a man who talks big, you have no ambition,' she said.

Henry was enjoying himself. He felt as if he'd been drinking; he felt the warmth of the crowd, of Kath's body against his, of having money to spend. If Kath liked Young Lightning, he would put five pounds on Young Lightning to win. Henry knew he would lose. And Ellie, right now, was in a room on the northern side of the harbour, among all those pink Madonnas, those green Apollos. She would never like it here with the noisy dogs. She would ask the wrong questions, and she was sentimental: she would worry about the treatment of the greyhounds. Kath sat beside him on the benches, tense in her blue coat, and watched every race. Young Lightning fell in the sixth race, but Kath only laughed; Henry couldn't care about his five pounds. This time last night, he and Ellie had been on William Street, at the hotel.

Kath turned to him and smiled. ‘These dogs love to run,' she said. It was the right thing to say, and he kissed her mouth. The kiss was friendly and without conviction. She squeezed his knee with her left hand.

‘I'll just pop to the loo,' she said, and she went quickly, taking her handbag with her. Then it was as if she'd never been there, as if she were only a good feeling Henry had every now and then. He wondered how many of the men sitting on the benches around him were married. They leaned easy on their comfortable knees; they wore open coats and drank from brown bottles. He loved them, and everyone.

Henry turned around to look for Kath's return and there was Arthur, freckled and ruddy under the lights, sitting higher in the stand with a paper folded over his knee. He was watching the dogs parade before the seventh race, and making notes; he wore the kind of flat green cap that Henry associated with butchers or publicans or plucky men down on their luck. Arthur gave no indication that he had seen Henry, but it was difficult to tell with a man like him, a man of winks and nods and innuendo, a man of showy discretion. Henry turned back to the track, where the dogs were filing into the starting traps, and Kath passed in front of him, one hand on his shoulder, to resume her seat. She wore fresh lipstick.

‘Who've we got in this one?' she asked, inspecting the form. ‘Is this Rowdy Jack?'

Henry's chest shook. He saw the future and Arthur in it, steering his mother by her happy elbow, smirking above the Victorian table, giving Henry quiet, confidential looks, tapping his nose, hating Ellie and wishing on the two of them a dull revenge. And in this future Henry saw himself in his mother's house, always and only the lucky son of a lucky mother. An inheritor, before she was even dead. There was something indecent about it. He would be living in debt to his mother and to Arthur and to Ellie, and they would all make demands on him, and on this free and shouting life he'd given up: the bookies under their umbrellas and Kath beside him with her copper hair and lips. Generous Kath, who was his friend even now, was so quick and alert, and had never asked him for anything. And another life occurred to him, a life in which his wife came with him to the track and the rest of the week was happy Sunday lamplight, with a bed and newspapers.

Henry stood. ‘Let's go,' he said, and she followed him out, her hand on his back, and he let it stay there. He didn't look at Arthur.

‘What's the rush?' Kath asked, and he pulled her by the hand into the darkness of a stand of trees. This whole part of Sydney had once been a swamp, and then an abattoir. There was rot and filth under all of it. Kath's lipstick tasted chalky and sweet, and he felt with hectic hands under her coat; but she pushed him away.

‘Henry,' she said, and he stopped. Her face was as pale as the bark of the gum behind her. ‘I could use some money,' she said. ‘Just a loan.'

He waited for the shouting of the crowd inside the racetrack to subside, and then he asked, ‘How much?'

‘I could use a hundred,' she said. He didn't answer. ‘That's nothing to you. That's a hundredth of what you won.'

Henry reached out for her coat again, and this time she unbuttoned it for him. She was as thin as she had always been underneath it, and she shook like an arrow. She didn't raise her face or body into his, and kept her arms behind her, wrapped against the trunk, so that he felt, kissing her, as if he were only pressed to a tree that had once had a girl inside it. But her mouth moved. She was willing. It was her being willing that made him stop.

He stepped away from the girl and the tree. He took all the notes he had in his wallet and passed them to Kath, who accepted them without looking.

‘Thank you,' she said. She began to button her coat.

Henry walked out to the part of the street that was most illuminated by the floodlights of the racetrack. The invisible cloak still lay across his shoulders; it was heavier in the light. He shook it off and walked home to his mother.

His lucky mother, who was waiting now for Arthur with a lamp in her bedroom window.

 

Mycenae

What a terrible thing at a time like this: to own a house, and the trees around it. Janet sat rigid in her narrow seat. The plane lifted from the city and her house fell away, consumed by the other houses. Janet worried about her own particular garden and her emptied refrigerator and her lamps that had been timed to come on automatically at six.

‘Is six too early? Too obviously a timer, do you think?' asked Murray. Janet was disturbed by this marital clairvoyance, and this was a new feeling, very recent. It had to do, she thought, with seeing the Andersons again. She took Murray's hand and together the Dwyers leaned toward the small window and watched as the horizon lost authority. When the attendants came with trolleys they would know they were safe, but until then they held hands as they tilted into the sky.

During the flight Janet allowed herself to remember her fear of the Andersons. She had forgotten this fear – or placed it aside – during the flurry of preparation. There had been an efficient period of To Do lists and of telling people, coyly, that they were ‘meeting old friends in Greece'. Now, necessarily idle on the plane, Janet recalled the Andersons' sophistication; the decisiveness of their actions, which had always been without tremor or negotiation; the fact of their being American, which placed them at the centre of the world. Suspended above the revolving deserts of the Middle East, she feared the Andersons, who were from ‘good families', however that might be understood – this was clear because they used to mention expensive New England schools and exotic family holidays. Or Amy Anderson mentioned these things on behalf of herself and Eric with an air of begrudging tenderness, as if obliged to give up a shameful but pleasant secret, and this fascinated Janet, who'd grown up in an asbestos house owned by the Australian government.

Murray would never say he feared the Andersons, though in his anxious way that's what he meant by ‘Is six too early?' And Janet worried about him coming into daily contact with a man like Eric Anderson – what that might do to her husband's self-esteem, given that Eric, since they'd met him, had gone on to an illustrious academic career and Murray's contribution had been so small, though very solid. And to be seeing them again in Greece of all countries, in an old place that mattered, among the ancient terrors of history. The best thing was to be afraid along with Murray, to retain that sense of unity; later they could rally, once they'd been reassured by the goodness of Greek food and the number of people who spoke English. So Janet nurtured her fear over peanuts and warm washcloths, and pressed her leg against Murray's, and together they watched the same in-flight movies and walked up and down the night-time aisles of the plane in their compression socks, treading softly over the slipped blankets of other passengers.

In this way they flew to Greece, as if that were an easy thing to do: to board a plane in Sydney, spend a few hours in Hong Kong and then in London, and finally to arrive in Athens. They stepped out of the airport terminal and were surrounded by offers of help and information; they'd expected this and made their way to the official taxi rank with resolute faces. Murray held a piece of paper with the address of their apartment on it in Greek letters; he handed this over to the taxi driver like a man entrusted with the delivery of a sacred object. The driver understood. The apartment was, it seemed, a real place in a real city.

The apartment had been Amy's idea. Both couples would find one and spend the week as if they really lived in Athens. They would be neighbours, they would cook experimentally with market vegetables, they would carry keys and not hotel swipe cards. Here were some vacation rental websites Amy had looked at. Here was the apartment the Andersons were booking, a large white space with a roof terrace. Amy was sure Janet could find something similar nearby. Janet was less sure. She preferred the idea of a hotel. The apartments on Amy's websites were too expensive, or unavailable. Her son Damian offered to help. This wonderful trip to Greece, said Damian. He'd talked her into it. Damian was an experienced traveller – he'd been to places like Lebanon and Cuba – and he would help them. Now he worked for a law firm in London, and they would visit him after Athens. They would visit Damian in London and take him to the town Murray and Janet had lived in all those years ago, when Murray was a graduate student and they were newly married. They had met the Andersons in those days, in that town.

Damian found something not very close, but not so very far away from the Andersons' apartment: a student sublet with too many stairs, crowded with plastic furniture. It was cheaper than it needed to be, but it was something and it was somewhere; it was their apartment in Greece. And Damian had spent time finding it. And the relief Janet felt, despite the furniture and the view of TV aerials, countered, briefly, almost all of her disquiet. Murray sent a deposit. Then came an email of apology from Amy: their apartment had fallen through, last-minute, a shame, hotel after all, so disappointing. Here was the hotel address – the website – the tasteful lobby – the Acropolis view. The computer screen gave Athens to Janet and Murray, and they peered at it from the safety of their house in Sydney. They saw the white buildings, cement towers among the hills, the brown smudge low in the sky, the many roads, the temple high above. A sensation of having made a terrible mistake, of having sunk into something disastrous. But they would survive this city. In their apartment.

‘We'll save on breakfast with our own kitchen,' said Murray. ‘Make tea of a night.'

And Janet was reassured; they both were. When they entered the apartment – finally, having crossed the world to find themselves in it – they both looked for a kettle among the furniture. There it sat by the stove. It restored their confidence. They carried their suitcases into the small bedroom and lay on the student bed. Their limbs pressed into the sheets as if they were made of metal. Janet wanted to phone Damian at once but they fell irresistibly asleep, and when they woke later that afternoon it was time to meet the Andersons at their hotel.

BOOK: The High Places
5.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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