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Authors: Fiona McFarlane

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BOOK: The High Places
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Janet was worried she wouldn't recognise Amy. But of course she recognised Amy, who cried out, ‘It can't be!' and advanced across the lobby with a look of delighted surprise on her face, as if their meeting were accidental. Amy wore slim white pants and a navy shirt with its jaunty collar turned up. She gathered Janet against her ribs. Eric's great height still gave him an air of magnificent remoteness; the grey of his hair only amplified the effect. When he bent low to kiss Janet, she felt there was something exaggerated about the slow hinging of his body to reach the level of her cheek. She refused, at first, to stand on her toes to meet his approaching face, but capitulated in the end.

‘Welcome to Greece,' said Eric. He said it with great seriousness, with a kind of weighty pride, as if he personally had prepared Greece, with effort but with no complaint, and with no particular thought for their pleasure; but he would share it with them anyway. Janet realised she was being uncharitable. She smiled apologetically at him. The Andersons had been in the country about five hours longer than they had.

‘Welcome!' echoed Amy. ‘How was the flight? Such a long way!'

‘It's just good to be here,' said Janet. Amy was still holding her hand.

‘Isn't it amazing to think: forty years, and here we are!'

Forty years ago, Murray had been completing his chemistry PhD and had, in a state of constant anxiety, crashed their small car three times. He and Janet were exhausted by England, by its complicated rules and the constant worry about where they would live next and how they would pay for it. Reflecting on that time, Janet saw herself eating toast and carrying shopping bags through rain almost continually, as if there had never been a summer (but there had been – three and a half of them, each glorious). They lived in a little college flat, and next door: Eric and Amy, not yet married, Eric a year ahead in his PhD and a philosopher, Amy on a Fulbright; they had painted their walls red without asking the college's permission. Amy invited them in one afternoon, fed them tiny pickles and gin, and after this had befriended Janet in a confiding, collegiate way, lending her books, giving advice. They had little in common and were very intimate, and their men were forced to befriend each other.

Eric was famous for refusing to engage in small talk. At parties he used to sit in the most comfortable chair, holding a glass that was always refilled for him, quietly, unasked, as if he were actually asleep, when in fact he was reading; finally, later in the night, he would materialise in the centre of a group and begin to talk with an irresistible urgency about Kant or sex or Nixon or Freud. This used to fill Janet with fury. She complained to Murray that
no one
liked small talk, but only Eric Anderson felt he was above it. It's
sociopathic
, she said, it's
intolerable
. But Eric's behaviour was not only tolerated, it was admired. Among their college acquaintances, Eric was always referred to, reverently, as a genius. No further explanation was offered or required. Alongside lively Amy, who danced and smoked, Eric seemed taintless and incorruptible; strange, then, that he should choose Amy, and apparently love her.

The Athenian Amy was a trim, ingenious woman, a walker in the early mornings, a subtle rearranger of hair, a gatherer of people, and a maker of plans. Observant. The first to admit her ignorance – ‘I know nothing whatso
ever
about Greece!' – and the first to master it. Within hours of her arrival she could direct taxi drivers, expertly manage her currency, and give a number of personally observed examples of the civility of the Greeks, their candour and charm. She had been, in England, a large girl, well made, with blond limbs and hair. There was a ripe blaze upon her. Now she was thin in what Janet thought of as an American way: hard-won. Janet admired it. She admired the smooth shellac of Amy's adult hair. During the week in Athens it made her, for some reason, ashamed of her persistent desire to browse among the cheap ceramics of the tourist shops in Plaka, to shop for plates and bracelets rather than take a dusty tour of the Agora. In Amy's presence she became a shy glancer in mirrors – glances accompanied by brave smiles and the rubbing together of lips. She and Murray walked behind Amy and Eric through the Greek streets, and they smiled a great deal. They walked hand in hand until they noticed the Andersons didn't. They never voiced strong opinions on where to eat or what to see, except that Janet wanted to go to Mycenae.

When Amy had contacted her with this Greek idea, Janet recalled a
National Geographic
article she'd once read about Mycenae, ancient home of kings. It had stayed with her for years: the death masks made of gold, the old name ‘Agamemnon', the gate carved with two lions. When she looked up the magazine – Murray kept them all in yellow rows – it was just as she remembered it. There were the death masks with their precise eyebrows, there was the grey-green valley, and the ruins on the hill. She showed Murray, knowing it would interest him: he liked the layers of things, the way they fitted together. ‘Look,' she said, ‘it was already a tourist destination in Roman times.' She liked to think of the warriors buried in the old grave circles, sleeping for centuries with their gold faces, and of Agamemnon setting out for Troy. Janet checked the distances involved and found it was possible to make the trip from Athens in a day; she suggested this day trip to the Andersons.

‘I
did
hear it was just a hill with rocks on it,' said Amy. Clearly she hadn't factored Mycenae into her itinerary; she must be polite to Janet, but it would occupy a whole precious day. ‘I guess we could hire a car and driver. The hotel could organise it. I don't like that phrase “day trip”, do you? It sounds so artificially lively. A minivan might be better. Then we'll have room to stretch our legs.' She looked pointedly at long-legged Eric, as if to emphasise the efforts she was making to preserve his dignity.

‘It was just an idea,' said Janet, who knew she was being shrill and deferential. ‘We're happy to go along with anything.'

But Murray cleared his throat and said, ‘You've wanted to see it, haven't you, for some time?'

So Mycenae was decided upon as a special favour to Janet. Amy arranged it, just as she made the other plans. All week she led them through the streets of Athens with the enthusiastic gait of a tour operator; she was a sort of Hellenic shepherd. Eric co-operated with her silently until he noticed something that interested him. Then they stood and watched him be interested in it. He seemed oblivious to their waiting. When he was finished he stirred himself a little, a bear in spring, and they all moved forward again, the Dwyers wearing their accommodating smiles. Alone, Murray and Janet would have fussed about where to eat and when to withdraw money. They had done this in towns across Australia and England. Here in Greece they withdrew sums in the early mornings so as not to inconvenience the Andersons, and they allowed Amy to lead them into any café she liked the look of. There was one in Plaka she particularly favoured, a small place with tables on the street; she enjoyed watching the crowds of people as they took the sloping road up to the Acropolis, and observing their faces as they returned. The tourists made respectful space for these tables, looking at them longingly as they made their way up the hot hill, and they collapsed onto the café chairs in relieved exhaustion, crying out for cool drinks, as they descended. Amy never ordered cool drinks. She ordered coffee for herself and for Eric, but the Dwyers sipped at Cokes.

The Dwyers were both too large for the chairs at the café in Plaka – they teetered, with the chairs, on the cobblestones – but Janet was relieved to be sitting down, however precariously. She was made uneasy by the marble pavements of Athens, over which she slipped in the soft soles of her comfortable shoes. The Parthenon was humourless above them; it meant too much. It was almost offensive. Janet felt that it was wasteful not to look at it while she had the opportunity; at the same time, it exhausted her. She could find nothing human about it –nothing like Mycenae's shining masks.

‘Let me see your passport photos,' said Amy, who was plainly proud of hers.

‘Oh, no!' cried Janet, reaching into her handbag.

Her passport was so new next to Amy's. She saw Eric compare them. He turned to Murray, uncharacteristically expansive, and said, ‘Nothing prepares you for the Greek light.'

The Dwyers nodded and smiled. Australia had prepared them for the Greek light. But it was still something different, if familiar: the great, burdened light, the Attic light. They sat among the flowers of the café as if prepared for sacrifice. In her embarrassment, Janet wanted to speak of Damian. It was a struggle not to talk about him too frequently. Into the silence of the table she wanted to say, ‘Damian has a lovely Chinese girlfriend.' Or, ‘Damian was promoted last year.' Instead she shifted her glass with her fingertips and noticed with surprise the dirtiness of her nails. She would have liked the café to smell of fish and rosemary, but instead there was the sun on dust, and sunscreen.

‘I had quite an adventure this morning,' announced Amy, whose meaningful days began hours before anyone else's. She told of setting out from the hotel at sunrise, of her walk among the early-morning streets and markets, her coffee at a café crowded with workers, her encounter with a man named Christos who wanted to take her to Marathon. She spoke with solemnity of her lone walk, of the café and workers, but her tone altered for the story of Christos: she became amused and worldly.

‘Why Marathon?' asked Janet.

‘That's where he lives,' said Amy, crumbling a floury biscuit between her droll fingers. ‘The man from Marathon.'

Eric stirred his coffee and looked toward the immemorial street.

‘And what did you say to him?' asked Janet. She felt a small throb of envy. Before the trip, as she brushed up on the Greek dramatists, she worried that she couldn't possibly do Athens justice, and here she was, tired and hot, with dirt under her nails. But here was Amy, not reading about Greece, but actually
living
it, and all this from a hotel, not an apartment. And still beautiful enough for a man in a café to ask her to go home with him.

‘I told him I was happily married,' said Amy, with a brief look at Eric, a brief hand on his mammoth arm, and Eric inclined his head toward her, stirring, stirring his coffee. ‘I said I didn't trust his intentions. In no uncertain terms.'

‘And what did he say?' asked Janet. Murray pressed her foot under the table with the firm undersole of his sensible shoe, because they had decided last night, under the sweltering ceiling of their apartment, that they would stop encouraging Amy by asking questions.

Amy pursed her lips and leaned back in her chair in preparation for laughter. ‘He said, “I'm hungry, but I'm not that hungry.”'

And Eric let out a great, unsuspected laugh, a bark of laughter which Murray later described as a guffaw. It drew attention to their table, it silenced Janet, it left Amy adrift in the end of her story about Christos of Marathon. They sat startled among the plants and crockery. Eric tasted his coffee and pushed it away.

Janet all at once regretted every moment of the trip. Murray hated to travel. Damian had talked her into it; she'd talked Murray into it. She was furious with everyone. Travel was ridiculous. The dead plants, the fled cats, the concern at mounting mail. What could someone like her possibly be doing in Greece? The Greek light sped over the streets, the marble pavements tilted. So much marble. Restaurants in car parks, the blue dusk, doves among the stones. Greece was life, Amy said. But the Greeks must water plants and feed cats and answer mail. There were people here who taught high school, just as she had. Where were those people? They were speaking all around her, she supposed, but she couldn't understand them, and never would.

The light ticked on and the real sun fell. The couples arranged to meet at the hotel for cocktail hour. Janet and Murray, arriving early, drank wine, intimidated by ouzo and carefully aware they were not paying guests. They drank too quickly as they waited for Eric and Amy to appear, and the sight of the Andersons made them drink faster still.

‘I'll get drinks. A Scotch?' Murray asked Eric. They were the patient husbands of friendly wives. Their conversation had been reduced to a funny little parody of manliness: liquor and modes of transport and the distances between places. Among the sharp, pointed objects of the male world they sat quietly, and Murray asked again, ‘Scotch, Eric?'

‘Oh, no,' said Amy. ‘No, he's just brushed his teeth. So have I. We'll wait. Wouldn't go, would it – toothpaste and whiskey?'

‘If for no other reason,' said Eric. Sombre. Janet looked, and he winked. Don't wink, thought Janet. You're not a boy. She was susceptible to winks. They prevented her from feeling overlooked, and notice of this kind caused her heart to flower with gratitude. Made nervous – more nervous – she reached for her empty wine glass, then drew back. A funnel of lamplight fell over Eric and Amy. Janet told Murray she would join him at the bar.

‘What was all that about?' said Murray. ‘The not drinking?'

‘Yes, what?'

It was about too much, or too little.

‘Do you think he's…?'

‘Couldn't be.'

‘What's he drunk other nights?'

‘Not much. Never what you'd call too much.'

‘The truth, then? Toothpaste?'

‘Don't they want us paying? Is that it?'

They could only conclude: Don't worry, not our business. People arrived at the bar later than they had and were served first. The Dwyers tested out their Greek on each other, then ordered haltingly in English. Behind them the music rose in volume and couples began unexpectedly to dance – unexpected to Janet, although she had imagined hotels of this kind and people dancing in them. The lights were lowered on the tables and the dance floor was illuminated. The Andersons were dancing. So the Dwyers hesitated in the semi-darkness. Diminished, utterly, by their fear of the Andersons, who had found Greece – Amy had found Greece – and now moved as if through grape vines and olive groves, over the hard ground toward the mountains. The sea would rise up to meet them; the original sea. The Dwyers waited beyond the lights with extravagant drinks in their hands. They stood foolishly, and they stood without speaking to one another. They were afraid, and they waited.

BOOK: The High Places
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