Melbourne: Winter 1995
The moment she opened the front door and stepped into the passage she knew he was gone. She stood in the silence, her heavy briefcase hanging from her hand, staring at her reflection in the bevelled mirrorglass on the hallstand. The passage smelled of fish from next door’s cooking. It was raining again and the tyres of the cars going past in the road outside were making a swishing sound. A week earlier they had celebrated her fortysecond birthday together at her favourite Italian restaurant in Carlton. That evening with their meal they shared a bottle of wine then went home to bed and made love. After making love she slept soundly and woke next morning refreshed. That day, which was a Saturday, they began planning a trip to Europe, to be undertaken in the autumn. There were conferences they would each attend, hers at Kent on Globalising History and his at Leeds on Biography as Fiction. After her conference she was to look up family connections in Somerset and they would then meet in Frankfurt and spend a week there together with his brother’s family before flying home.
She looked along the passage towards the stairs and called, ‘Dearest?’ Her voice, however, was small in the evening stillness of the house, her tone uncertain against the silence, pitched a little too high for conviction. Her throat was tight and dry. She swallowed and stood listening. The car tyres hissing on the wet road outside; the faint sound of voices through the party wall, her Greek neighbours who always seemed to find something in life to shout about. Then she saw the envelope on the hallstand. She noticed also that his green windstopper and umbrella were gone.
Perhaps she had already registered the absence of these things, but subliminally, when she came through the front door. Perhaps it was their absence that had made her so certain of his absence.
For he always worked at home on the biography on Thursdays.
Indeed Annabelle’s husband, associate professor Steven Küen, was a man of regular, even strict, habits and could be relied upon to be where he was expected to be. Perhaps he was even a little oldfashioned and inflexible in this regard. She had always thought of him as a man of principle and been ready to defend him against the occasional charge of dullness. He was eight years older than she and would turn fifty this year. The Big One, he had called the upcoming birthday. And when he had confessed to her his fear of growing old she had playfully reminded him that Cervantes was sixty before he published his great novel, Don Quixote.
‘Cervantes would have been a faint footnote in history,’ she told him, ‘instead of being celebrated as one of the founders of the Modern Era of European culture, if he hadn’t persisted well beyond his fiftieth birthday.’ She had teased Steven about his fear of growing old, feeling herself to be secure behind her eight-year advantage over him.
She set her briefcase on the floor and reached for the envelope.
On the front, inscribed in his careful hand, the word Dearest.
Their word for each other. Dearest; Most Dear; Beloved, the association of phrases slipping through her mind and arriving at, Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here . . . But was that for weddings or funerals?
She could not remember. It was a long time since she had attended either of these ceremonies . . . She and Steven had never addressed each other by their names. Not even in the beginning. It would have sounded ridiculous if he had ever called her Annabelle or she him Steven. She turned the envelope over. He had sealed it . . . She thought, The seventh seal: And when he opened the seventh seal there was silence . . . She put on her glasses and opened the envelope. She unfolded the single sheet of closely handwritten paper and stood reading. When she had finished reading, she refolded the sheet and put it back in the envelope and replaced the envelope on the hallstand. As if this was where it was to belong. She took off her glasses and put them in the inside pocket of her jacket.
She could see herself in the mirror. She looked tired, a little worn. A middle-aged woman. Her make-up had faded during the day and she had not taken the trouble to reapply it before getting in the car and driving home. The skin of her cheeks was fiery. Her lips thin and pale, already the faint pencillings of convergent wrinkle lines. Her short hair was in need of fresh colouring, the grey showing near her scalp. She had believed herself to be cherished by him, safe from reproach within the privacy of their life; loved, cared for, at liberty with him to display her faults, her weaknesses, the shameful blemishes . . . He had discarded her.
She knew that the calm that possessed her was shock, and that she was not really present in her body. She felt soiled, as if by some indiscreet action of her own, as if she had not taken proper care of herself. She was shamed and humiliated. Steven had done this to her. He had cast her aside. She felt discarded, as something that is unclean and impure and is no longer worthy of respect. It was not his disgrace but hers, she knew that. He would be admired, even envied, for his conquest. He would not need her again to defend him against the charge of dullness.
She turned from the mirrorglass and stepped along the hallway.
Slowly she mounted the stairs, her hand to the banister, and entered his study, the sanctum sanctorum of his ambitions. The smell of his presence. The anxiety of his fraught endeavour. She switched on the light. Everything was in place. He had not taken his books or his PC. The growing pile of the manuscript of the biography rested on the tower of the PC, the chapters marked with pink iridescent post-it notes, the grey wedge of antique marble he had picked up in the Foro Romano weighting it - she could see him now bending to souvenir the piece of marble, slipping it illicitly into his sidepocket.
She stood beside his chair looking back at the room from the desk. His Hasselblad was not in its usual spot on the filing cabinet. Apart from the unusual absence from his study on a Thursday evening of associate professor Steven Küen himself, the absence of the expensive camera she had given him for his fortieth birthday was the only other sign that anything was amiss. Was he taking photographs of the girl? Posing her naked in a cunning halflight to capture on his black and white prints the exquisite grain of her perfect skin? All the words they used in their striving to describe it to themselves, honeyed, golden, gilded, café au lait, skin like a young fawn. The endless phrases struggling to be the experience. The old man mounting the young woman while he thinks of his own death. Annabelle felt a movement of nausea in her stomach . . .
She had never opened the drawers of her husband’s desk. They had not spied upon each other. There had never been a cause for mistrust between them. She leaned now and opened the small top drawer, where he leaned his right elbow, the fingers of his hand lightly controlling the mouse. There was a curled copy of a glossy magazine in the drawer and nothing else. The magazine was titled Tush. As if it were a quaintly archaic exclamation of disapproval. A picture of a girl on the cover wearing brief panties and bra. The girl was looking over her shoulder, thrusting her glossy buttocks - her honeyed, her golden, her café au lait buttocks - towards the camera, her red lips parted, her startlingly violet eyes wide, her blonde hair soft against her back. The girl could not have been more than eighteen or nineteen years of age. Despite her pose, she looked to Annabelle to be guileless and innocent.
Her beautiful body unreal in its perfection. Did her mother know what her daughter’s job was?
Annabelle closed the drawer and went downstairs and into the kitchen. She stood at the sink looking out into the darkening garden. She drank a glass of water, her ghostly reflection suspended in the windowglass, gazing back at her, detached and incurious, as if from a place in the future already far removed from this moment.
Their carefully tended patch of lawngrass beyond the shade umbrella and the table and the Weber was vivid green, sparkling with raindrops in the evening light - the golden, the honeyed, halflight of evening . . .
Annabelle was seeing her husband with the young girl on the cover of Tush. He was naked, standing behind the girl making love to her. Of course he couldn’t possibly be with that girl. She knew the girl he was with. She knew he had let himself be seduced by one of his Honours students. A voluptuous Israeli woman, dark, intense, self-assured and aggressive. Twentytwo at the most. Annabelle had teased him about the way this young woman had stared at him at a faculty evening and he had laughed and kissed her and said not to be so stupid. He had written in his note that he was very, very sorry for what he had done.
He still loved her, he wrote. He would always love her. Nothing, he wrote, could ever change that. She must know it. He would not hurt her for the world. He had written that perhaps it would not work out for him with this young woman and that she should think of it as an aberrant episode, a brief rite of passage, if you like, that men need to pass through before they can settle down and grow old with dignity and grace. We may even find, he wrote, that it is genetically determined. But at any rate, when it is over with Sara, you and I will surely look back upon this episode as if it has been a soul cleansing for me. Annabelle had never heard Steven speak of his soul before. His midlife crisis, he wrote, though this was not a term he cared for, it was nevertheless a term he found it useful to employ on this occasion. He knew, he assured her, that he would come back to her, perhaps quite soon. Sooner than they could imagine. But for the time being he had moved in with the darkly beautiful girl who had worn the uuniform of a soldier and seen the corpses of young men lying in the streets and whose gaze was still and deep and strong and whose body had cast a spell over him . . . He had not planned it, he wrote. She must not believe that of him. He had not planned to hurt her. It had happened between himself and Sara one evening in his room at the university and now he was powerless to resist. It had been like an accident. Unforseen and unpreventable. As inevitable almost as an act of God . . .
While she was reading the letter Annabelle felt his lust for the girl seeping into it, as if he could not resist boasting of his passion to her and might at any moment begin to describe the details of their lovemaking. She might think of him, he wrote, as suffering a kind of moral trauma. It had been as much a surprise to him as it would be to her when she read this letter.
He was confident, however, he ended, that with the passing of time she would come to forgive him and that they would once again be together as they had always been, their trust restored . . . Annabelle set the empty glass on the draining board. She wiped her cold lips with her fingers and took out her mobile from the sidepocket of her jacket. She switched the phone on and entered her code. The smiling face on the illuminated screen advised, CODE ACCEPTED: Human Technology. An invitation to search the menu.
She was trembling. One by one she considered her friends and closest colleagues at the university. When she thought of these women listening at the other end of the phone, however, she knew she could not confide her story or her emotions to any of them at this moment. In the normal course of her life there could only have been one person to whom she would have spoken of something so devastating, so intimate and so shocking as this, and that person was Steven, her husband . . . Her stomach felt suddenly heavy and bloated and she thought she was going to be sick. She pulled out a chair from the table and sat down. The Greeks shouted joyfully to each other next door, the smell of their cooking fish sweetened with the aroma of dill . . . She sat at the kitchen table for a long time, until it was night and the room was in darkness, illuminated by the nightglow of the city sky, the eye of the green dial on the oven, the seconds counting over on the clock on the refrigerator.
The unnatural stillness of the house making her a stranger in this familiar place. Once she started in alarm, swinging around to look behind her towards the passage, thinking she heard someone at the street door . . .
Both Annabelle’s parents were dead, but she now pictured them as if they were still living. They had loved her devotedly and would have been stricken for her at this moment, sharing her humiliation and incomprehension, wounded by the injustice of her betrayal.
The two of them growing old and frail together in the rambling weatherboard house on Zamia Street in Townsville—the way their eyes would meet and the way they would not speak openly of such a difficult and unseemly thing as this, but would each know the other’s mind and would bear it in silence . . . Tropical North Queensland. Thousands of kilometres from Melbourne. It was another country. She had neglected the old connections. She had not even visited Townsville for three years, since the tragic death of Allan Templeman, her sister’s husband, in a car smash on the Bruce Highway. She would have telephoned Elizabeth now but her sister was travelling somewhere in Italy with her son, Peter.
There was only one person in Townsville at this moment to whom she could appeal for a hearing. Susan Bassett was a woman of Steven’s age. Unmarried and childless, she had been a friend and colleague in the department of history in Melbourne until she turned her back on academia and went alone to Townsville to set up the first cultural survey business in North Queensland to service the requirements of the new Cultural Record Act. But Annabelle had neglected this friendship too and had not been in touch since Allan Templeman’s funeral, when she and Susan had had lunch together. Annabelle checked the phone book on her mobile. Susan’s number was not on it. She rang directory assistance and gave them Susan’s name and the name of her street in Townsville. When the recorded voice directed her to press 1 if she wanted to be connected or to wait if she wanted to hear the number, she pressed 1 and listened to the number dialling out. Perhaps it was the distance and the absence of recent contact between them that gave hher the courage to ring Susan Bassett. For in a way she knew that in telephoning this woman she was telephoning another reality, and did not really expect to make contact with it. The number rang once then was answered.
‘Hello, Susan Bassett.’
Annabelle couldn’t speak.
‘It’s Annabelle Küen,’ she murmured.
‘Annie! What a lovely surprise. We were only talking about you the other day. You’re not in Townsville are you? Are you coming up to see us?’
‘I’m in Melbourne.’
There was a pause.
Susan said uncertainly, ‘Are you okay?’ Her voice took on a note of concern, ‘Has something happened?’
‘Steven’s left me.’
‘God! When did this happen?’
‘Tonight. Just now.’
‘I don’t know what to do. I didn’t know who to talk to. I’m sorry to bother you.’
Susan said with gentle concern, ‘You’re not bothering me, Annie.
I’m very glad you rang me. We have to think of what you must do.’
‘I’m scared he might come back. I thought I heard him at the front door before. I couldn’t bear it. I can’t bear the thought of seeing him or hearing his voice. He’s moved in with one of his students.’ Her voice broke and she began to sob.
‘O Annie! This is horrible. What can I do? There must be something I can do.’
‘Nothing. You can’t do anything. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have rung you. I feel as if he’s beaten me. I feel as if he’s turned on me and beaten me to the ground. Enraged. His teeth clenched. Not saying anything. Not giving me any reason. Smashing me as hard as he can. Steven,’ she said helplessly, ‘I can’t believe it’s him. It’s like he’s an insane stranger. I keep wanting to ring my old Steven, the kind one, the real one, the gentle one, and tell him to come home and help me.’ She wept, sucking her breath and gasping into the mobile. ‘He thinks I’m going to forgive him. I can’t bear the thought of ever seeing him again.’ The sobs engulfed her. ‘I’m terrified he’ll come home and I’ll have to face him. I’m scared, Sue. I know he’s going to suddenly come through the front door.
I couldn’t face him.’
There was a long pause. Susan said firmly, ‘Pack some things and get on a plane at once and come up to Townsville. Do it now.
I’ll ring and book you on a flight.’
Annabelle blew her nose and wiped at her face with her handkerchief. ‘Do you really think I should?’
‘You’ve still got Zamia Street, haven’t you? You and Elizabeth haven’t sold the old place, have you?’
‘No. We keep meaning to. We had tenants there for a while.’
There was a silence.
Susan Bassett said, ‘Pack some things and get a cab out to the airport. Pick up your ticket when you get there. I’ll ring them now.
Don’t stay in that house a minute longer.’
‘He’ll follow me. He’ll track me down. He’ll know I’ve gone to Townsville.’
‘No he won’t. I have to go to Burranbah tomorrow. Come with me. The Burranbah job will take me at least a week. We can pretend you’re my assistant. It’ll give us time to think of something. He’ll have no idea where you are. Leave a message at work to say you’re sick. Do it now, Annie. I’ll meet you at the Townsville airport.’
Annabelle said, ‘I completely lost my poise then. I’m sorry.’
‘Poise for God’s sake! Christ, you’d have to be a bloody robot to be poised at a moment like this.’
‘I feel calmer already just talking to you. Thanks Sue.’
‘Hang up and ring a cab at once. I’ll be at the airport. Okay?’
‘Okay . . . Thanks. You always were incredibly strong.’
‘Nonsense. Just do it.’
Annabelle took a deep breath; behind her pain she detected a flicker of curiosity at the thought of what was happening to her life—the ghostly reflection of herself in the kitchen window, observing her distress from the incurious detachment of a future time. ‘All right, I’ll do it. You don’t have to be at the airport. I’ll go to Zamia Street.’
‘I’ll be at the airport. Hang up and ring a cab.’