As soon as he settled in the seat by the window, he adjusted the cutlery and condiments on the table before him. This was done with a degree of reluctance, as if he feared the contact might in some way contaminate his pale, well-manicured hands. He was a clean, neat man, his clothes pressed, hair combed and shoes polished. As for his face, it was obviously the face of someone who’d gone through life without too much stress or too much suffering, his features verging on virginal despite his being close to fifty.
He sat straight-backed, his head turning every so often to look through the window at the passers-by in the main street of Forbes. They were of little interest to him, in his opinion being either too fat or too thin, glassy eyed or open-mouthed, stooping, limping or shuffling, in one way or another either physically or mentally malformed. He found them, almost without exception, to be both offensive and inferior. They were like specks on the fabric of his life, asking to be flicked aside.
Lara, he thought with a smile, is not like them. She still looks good, shapely and healthy, without any excess weight. So far as he could tell from the photographs she sent him, she exercised, and from their phone conversations together he quickly ascertained that she was far from being a fool. She was well-read — both the Classics and the better modern authors (Banville, Updike, Coetzee, McEwan) — and she also loved music. Her taste was perhaps too catholic for him, and he chose to ignore her enthusiasm for the likes of Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, instead concentrating on her love for Mozart and Beethoven — scarcely difficult composers, but respectable nevertheless. He told himself that he’d doubtless have the opportunity to expand her horizons and introduce her to more serious musical compositions in the future. He looked forward to that.
After tasting the watery coffee, he tutted. Why can no one make a decent coffee outside of Melbourne? Is it really expecting too much? He considered complaining, but by nature was disinclined to make a fuss, and so persuaded himself there was little point. If he remonstrated with the waitress, whose eyes were as dull as the plates of food she dropped onto the tables in front of the elderly customers, she’d doubtless stare at him through her bottle-thick glasses with a complete lack of comprehension, and possibly even shrug. Such indifference, he thought, can ruin a person’s day.
It did appear, in so many different ways, that Lara was perfect for him. Not simply intelligent and with a sense of humor (or in the loathsome way that website puts it, GSOH), but unlike so many of the women he’d met, she didn’t seem to be totally self-absorbed. It had struck him, for instance, how interested she was in his work, an interest that seemed refreshingly genuine.
‘I work for the Council in Infrastructure Engineering — roads and footpaths. It also incorporates kerbs and guttering.’
Even though they were speaking on the phone, he could sense that she sounded, if not intrigued, at least engaged. ‘That must keep you busy,’ she said.
‘The work is certainly taxing. Many people don’t appreciate how diverse it is, the way it covers everything from traffic management and flood control to the prevention of soil erosion. There’s much more to it than just roads and footpaths, you see.’
‘It does sound fascinating,’ she said in her rather deep, throaty, but very alluring way. (‘You don’t smoke?’ he’d asked her once, during an earlier phone call, trying to keep the alarm out of his voice. ‘I gave up five or six years ago.’ He was relieved. He couldn’t possibly have considered a smoker. Such a filthy habit.)
He checked his watch. If he was to remain on schedule he should get back on the road. He hoped to make Goondiwindi by nightfall. This would give him time to find a nice B&B before going out for a quiet dinner by himself. He might even indulge in a glass or two of a good Pinot, and smiled in anticipation.
A minute later, standing at the counter waiting to pay, averting his eyes from the offensive pies and sausage rolls in the glass-fronted oven to his right, and the glaring rows of aluminum dishes with their unappetising salads and processed meats and cheeses to his left, he became aware of a child staring up at him. The boy, just centimetres from the pillars of Ross’s carefully creased slacks, suddenly proffered, in sticky fingers, a dirty, stuffed monkey. ‘Don’t bother the gentleman, Damian,’ said the mother, making it obvious with her admonition that she wished to convey to the civil servant just how wonderful her son was and how any normal adult would be instantly entranced. He, however, edged away from the small, filthy creature — held up in podgy hands — and forced a smile. ‘No bother at all. Quite charming,’ yet made little attempt to hide the lack of sincerity in his voice.
Back on the freeway, at a steady one hundred kilometers an hour, his hands at the recommended ten-to-two on the steering wheel, he began to relax. Once again he was happy and full of optimism. He pushed back into the leather seat. The interior of the car was spotless, everything just so: his jacket on a clothes hanger behind the driver’s seat, his small leather suitcase in the boot, a fresh bottle of water in its holder, and a box of tissues in the glove box. The air conditioning was set at precisely 22 degrees, the optimum temperature recommended by car companies for driver comfort and alertness, and he touched the accelerator every now and again just for the satisfaction of feeling the resultant surge from the engine. He decided that the car was a definite point in his favour, although he would never be so vulgar as to draw her attention to it. In fact, if she asked what make it was, he’d go out of his way to play it down. ‘European, you know…’ and would allow himself a modest, almost self-deprecating smile.
Persevering with his intention to play only her two favourite classical composers on the drive north, in order to feel closer to her, he pushed Mozart’s Piano Concerto K467 into the CD player.
He was already anticipating driving her home after dinner, although not with any intention of rushing her towards the bedroom. In his opinion it was better not to hurry those things, to allow nature to take its course. They were adults after all, not modern, sexually obsessed teenagers.
‘I’d like to take you somewhere special,’ he’d insisted during one of their frequent phone calls, concentrating on instilling both genuineness and strength into his voice. She finally relented, and agreed to go out for a meal. The restaurant where they were to eat was her recommendation — a place in the wharves area of the city that she claimed was highly regarded. ‘How many stars?’ he’d asked, being suspicious of any restaurant situated near water. She laughed. ‘I’m not sure, but I can find out if you want. It does have a good reputation.’
He suspected she could be rather vague and, unusually for him, he found this rather endearing. Originally, she’d suggested meeting up for a coffee, but he insisted they go out for dinner — ‘I’m coming all the way from Melbourne, so I think it would be nice to have more than a coffee.’ He added: ‘Let’s agree not to worry if it doesn’t work out between us. We shall still be friends, I’m certain of that.’
He said this because he thought it was the right thing to say, but it wasn’t what he truly felt. This is the one, he told himself with increasing frequency. There’s something about her that sets her apart from the others. Despite his best efforts not to, he was already imagining their future together: Lara tending the roses in a sun-dappled garden before going indoors to prepare dinner; he giving an affectionate wave from the window of his study where he was busy cataloguing his collection of antique nutcrackers.
It struck him that it could be seen as romantic driving almost two thousand kilometers to dine with a woman he scarcely knew and had never met. Some might consider it totally impractical, like something out of an old Hollywood movie, but he chose to see it more as a gesture, a flamboyant demonstration of his feelings. Although she didn’t say as much, he suspected she felt the same way. He certainly hoped she regarded him as a little different, maybe a touch eccentric, a trait he had secretly aspired to all his life.
He had never been any good at putting these things into words, but he did sense she was his soul mate, someone he could confide in and with whom he could share his dreams. Someone he could spend the rest of his days with. It couldn’t be denied he had such high hopes. They were clearly demonstrated by the fact he was on this long journey north. And at that moment, while considering the brightness of the future they were to share together, it struck him that he should maybe call the office and take a few more days off. Why rush back for work on Monday morning?
Did all of this point to marriage? It was a definite possibility further down the track. He smiled, and raised the volume of the Mozart. Why not? He’d considered it before with other ladies, and the only reason he’d never made it as far as the altar was because the right one had never come along. It had certainly not been his fault. There were one or two with whom he’d had a relationship for a year or more, but they had all, in one way or another, let him down. His last significant relationship had finished almost three years ago, and it had taken until now for him to recover.
He’d gone out with Dawn for a year before discovering she had a child, a boy of nine. What surprised him was the fact she’d managed to deceive him so completely and for so long. When he spent weekends at her place, it later transpired that her son had been shunted off to his father’s, and all clues (toys and clothes) were cleared away or shut behind the child’s closed bedroom door. Ross was the kind of person who didn’t like to pry, who respected others’ boundaries, yet how was it a woman he considered to be neither strong-minded nor particularly clever manage to not once let slip any mention of her own child? He’d given it careful thought before deciding to end the relationship. She’s used me, he persuaded himself, then wondered if he saw her revelation as no more than an excuse to break up. Was he ending the relationship because she had a child, or because she hadn’t trusted him enough to tell him?
‘I was going to tell you, Ross’ she sobbed, ‘but I was worried you couldn’t cope. I didn’t want my son to come between us.’
A few months later he had tried to get back together with her, when he realised — or, as he half joked to a work colleague — when it dawned on him that he did possibly love her after all. However, she’d met someone else by then and had been quite abrupt over the phone, almost rude. His colleague told him that anyone who could be that small-minded and unforgiving was not worthy of him, and he found himself agreeing with her.
This was maybe why he felt such anticipation over Lara. They seemed to have so much in common. Although unlikely at their age, she’d even reassured him, during one of their long phone calls, that she didn’t want children. He didn’t want them either, certainly finding other people’s far too disruptive and difficult to control.
He glanced in the rear mirror: the nearest car was at least two hundred meters away. Nor was there anyone on the road ahead. He reached across to the glove compartment and took out his wallet. He held the photograph up against the windscreen so that he could keep an eye on the road at the same time. She was at a beach bar in Bali, clutching a cocktail, wearing a colourful sarong and with some kind of flower in her hair. She looked striking, there was no doubt about that. Possibly it was the exotic setting that stirred him, or the grinning local in the background, or the hint of adventure. When he first saw the photograph, he’d been suspicious that it was an old one, but she’d quickly reassured him, promising that it had been taken less than a year ago. In another photograph she emailed to him, there was the hint of a man’s shoulder and a tattoo. ‘Oh, that was someone I went out with for a few months. We’re not even friends now.’ Tattoos always made Ross feel uncomfortable. They reeked of rebellion, and were something quite beyond his comprehension. He also felt a pang of jealousy when he looked at the photograph. This was stupid at their age. It was inevitable they each had a past, and the fact she was almost ten years younger than him certainly didn’t preclude her from having known other men.
He made it to Goondiwindi by early evening. He was pleased; everything was running to schedule. He could easily make it to Brisbane by the following afternoon, check into his hotel, wander round town or along the beachfront, and still have plenty of time to get ready for his night out. He wanted to be relaxed. He might take a short nap in the afternoon so that he’d be fresh for the evening.
He was back in his car before ten the next morning. A few minutes after leaving the modest guest house where he’d stayed, he slipped Beethoven into the CD player.
‘You know the third movement of his 9th Symphony?’ she’d said to him once, over the phone. ‘Well, don’t laugh, but it always makes me think of a misty morning, and ghosts skating across a frozen lake against a snow-filled landscape.’
Attempting to disassociate himself from the summer heat outside the car, he concentrated on that vision. Yes, it was true, he could see — and hear — exactly what she meant. He smiled. Without doubt, this was yet another promising sign.
He continued north across the slither of land that lay beneath the vast cloudless sky, gazing, like an explorer of old, at the mirages shimmering ahead, illusory lakes being constantly absorbed by the reality of the blotting paper earth as he sped towards them.
He was proud (almost as if she already belonged to him) to notice a couple of men — middle-aged like himself, but no matter — stare as she walked across the restaurant. A believer in formalities, he held out a hand as he stood up. She grasped it, but then leant forward and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Don’t you feel we’ve passed the hand-shaking phase by now, Ross? I feel we already know each other so well.’ Taken aback, he was also pleased, doubly so when he noticed, out of the corner of his eye, that one of the middle-aged men was still staring at her.
She was smiling as she sat down. She didn’t strike him as disappointed in what she saw, and nor was he. Her hair was redder than in her photographs, and longer. It was very beautiful. He sat down, lifting his chin as he did so, easing the cravat he always wore on special occasions. Then, placing his napkin on his lap, he straightened his knife and fork, moving them an inch or two outwards, and pushed the condiments from the centre of the table to one side. Only then did he lean forward, forearms resting on the tablecloth, and concentrate on conveying his warmest smile.
‘Let’s have a glass of champagne before we look at the menu.’ He thought that was romantic, the kind of gesture a woman would appreciate. He was determined to do everything to make the evening both perfect and memorable, convinced they would be looking back on it for many years to come. ‘Remember that little restaurant in Brisbane where we first met? You wore … We ate … I said …’
She talked a lot, interspersed with ripples of laughter, which he put down to nerves. And there was a sparkle in her eyes that he found most attractive.
They ordered their food during a brief lull in the conversation that neither of them had been quite able to fill. He was careful not to order anything that was either messy or awkward to eat, not wishing to embarrass himself by struggling with bones or spaghetti. First impressions were so important.
The entrée passed pleasantly enough. Once, to emphasise a point, she reached across the table and briefly touched his hand. He was surprised, but persuaded himself that it simply showed her warm personality. Although they’d only just met, there was nothing that could be said to be incorrect about the gesture — in his eyes it was maybe just a little gauche. But the actual truth was, he liked it.
When their main courses arrived, and after saying, ‘Bon appétit!’ he was taken aback to see her pick up her knife for the first time and hold it like a pen. Briefly it entered his head to do the same, but to change his grip now would be awkward, and it was possible, even likely, that she’d notice. Nor did it seem sensible to do something socially incorrect simply in the hope of trying to put her at her ease. It would be hypocritical. The situation was embarrassing, his disappointment almost overwhelming; he’d believed her to be so perfect. Quite unexpectedly, he had a brief, stark, foreboding of her eating peas off her knife.
The evening passed more slowly from that moment, and he found the continuation of their conversation a little more awkward. Yet he went out of his way to play the part of the punctilious but detached host, and spoke to her with emphasised cordiality, keen that no blame for this ill-judged escapade should be laid at his door. How she had misled him!
Driving her home after dinner, he was at pains to do everything correctly. He opened the passenger door for her when they left the restaurant and was first out of the car when they arrived at her home. But he had doubts that Lara would recognise, let alone appreciate, good manners if she saw them.
He declined her invitation to go in for a coffee, explaining politely that he was tired, and hoped she would understand that he had a long trip back to Melbourne in the morning.