Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
Dani could feel her mamma pouting over the phone. She told herself to be patient. When Gia was single, not only was she a great beauty but she was living during a period when men far outnumbered women in Australia. Migration programmes meant eligible bachelors were arriving on Australian shores weekly in great ship-loads. It was a man flood, as opposed to the man drought Daniela was facing.
Gia sniffled loudly.
‘You children were my greatest joy. I want you to know what that feels like.’
‘I know, Ma,’ Dani said, thinking to herself: ‘I’m trying.’
After she hung up she looked back at her three dates. What had been so wrong with Nicky anyway? The Mormon had been over-zealous and the bureaucrat had been cheap. But, despite the stories about re-blocking his house and his drain pipes, Nicky had seemed like a good man. Dani didn’t have his phone number, but she hoped he would call. She resolved to give that budding relationship a chance to grow. She could picture him fastidiously dressing two little boys and combing the fine print of insurance forms. That was what the whole husband-hunting venture was about, wasn’t it?
On Monday morning Dani went straight to her office and called the architects. Briggs would be on the warpath and she needed to take pre-emptive action.
Through her window she could see James and some of the boys laughing and drinking coffee from thermoses. They wore woollen hats and thick jumpers. Their breath was condensing in the cold. They looked like smokers puffing clouds into the air. Dani put her head down and kept working. At least the paralysing fear of what Briggs was going to say when she told him about the meeting was distracting her from her infatuation.
She pulled the building’s floor plans out across her desk and examined them. Overnight two possible alternatives for the air-shaft problem had come to her. She had to see if they would work. It took her all day, but by five o’clock she had two proposals that might be more acceptable to Dayton. But she still needed to talk to Briggs. Daniela put her hard hat on. It was time to face the music. If only it wasn’t death metal, she thought.
‘Briggs!’ Finding him over by the bobcat, she held up the document outlining the changes that Dayton had been supposed to authorise with their shiny gold pens. It was unsigned. Briggs ripped it from Dani’s hands and glared at it.
He screamed for seven minutes.
‘We can’t move forward until this is sorted.’ He seemed to expand as he shouted on and on. Spittle was raining down on her. She had to keep telling herself that he wasn’t mad at her, he was mad at Dayton. He was enraged by their stubbornness.
‘Did you explain it to them properly?’ he asked.
‘They didn’t want to listen to me.’
‘Shit.’ He kicked a bucket. ‘We’re bleeding cash ‘cos of these delays.’
‘I think there might be another way. We still have to do it, but we can make it less intrusive. Can we set up another meeting?’
‘We’ll have to send James with you.’
‘You mean male support.’
‘Dani, you know how it is. They’re dinosaurs.’
He held up a hand. ‘DeLuca, I’m sorry. These old blokes are never going to be comfortable with a woman calling the shots on a building site. When they were born, women were still dying in childbirth. Australia was still a collection of unfederated states. The West Tigers were just cubs and the Sydney Roosters were the Sydney Eggs. They call the shots.’
‘I know,’ Dani huffed, ‘but can’t we say something? Complain? It’s discrimination.’
‘It’s not about you. We’ve just got to get it done.’
‘Can’t you come? If you send a less senior man you’re saying to them that men, no matter their rank, automatically hold more authority.’
‘I can’t, DeLuca. Do you know how much extra work this fiasco has created?’ He laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, Dani,’ he said. ‘I’m with you. But when it comes to the head honchos, you’ve got to pick your battles.’
Daniela sucked in her breath. Her whole body felt like it was burning with rage. And she knew just who to take it out on. She cut across the centre of the site and headed straight for the elevator shaft.
‘James, why did you send the changes to the architects without my approval?’
He stood, a little shocked.
‘Uh. From two weeks ago?’
‘Yes, the ones that now need to be changed again because of the ventilation problem.’
‘Briggs signed off on them. He said it needed to go out fast.’
‘I am the senior engineer on this site. Don’t you think it would have been worthwhile showing them to me?’
‘Sorry, Dani, I was just following instructions.’
Mark and Tobes were looking over curiously. Even Emerson had stopped to watch. Don’t play the sexism card, she told herself. You’re not a woman who’s been bypassed; you’re a senior manager who’s been bypassed.
‘This really isn’t acceptable, James,’ she folded her arms. Her body was shaking.
‘Briggs said what? “Daniela isn’t important, cut her out of this process?” ’
He looked apologetic. Dani knew she was being unprofessional. Get it together, get it together, she told herself.
James looked at the men gathering around them. ‘Do you want to go and talk about this in your office?’
‘No, I want to talk about this now.’ It was all Dani could do to stop herself stamping her foot.
‘Are you sure?’
Daniela cleared her throat. She could feel everyone’s eyes on her. ‘Actually, yes, perhaps yes. We should discuss this in my office.’
Her cheeks were burning. She had done it — she had let her professional mask slip. Daniela almost felt like she was going to cry, which would make things even worse. She rushed to her office with James following. The door was jammed. She pushed it. He didn’t help. She leaned into it with her shoulder. Her bottom lip was trembling.
Inside, she covered her face with her hands.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said, still trying to hold on to some semblance of a workplace discussion. ‘I apologise. I was out of line. Briggs gave you an order, and you followed it.’
She felt another wave of sadness.
‘Dani, are you okay? I’ve never seen you like this.’
‘I had a meeting with Dayton,’ she spluttered. ‘They threw me out because I’m a woman. They wanted to hear from someone “qualified”, and by “qualified” they mean qualified to pee standing up.’
‘Jeez. Dani, I’m sorry.’
She shook her head. ‘It’s just the way it is around here sometimes.’
James walked to the filing cabinet where Dani had a kettle and a jar of cheap instant coffee and mixed two short blacks.
‘I shouldn’t have been so unprofessional,’ she said.
James handed her the piping Styrofoam cup and leaned back against the filing cabinet.
‘People lose their cool on building sites all the time, Dani. In all workplaces.’
‘No, it’s not okay.’
‘Didn’t Briggs just scream at you for almost ten minutes? For something that was not your fault. For what, in fact, was a problem you had identified and were trying to fix.’
‘But that’s different.’
There was silence for a moment while they contemplated how it still was.
They both spoke at once.
‘No, you. What were you going to say?’
He cleared his throat. ‘What are your plans for this evening? Have you got a hot date?’
‘Ha! Hardly,’ Dani said.
‘You’ve been going out for a lot of dinners lately.’
‘How do you know about that?’
‘I heard you talking to Abbey about that Bodega Spanish place. And Pasha’s, the Turkish place on King Street.’
‘Oh, that’s just— I’ve been spending a lot of time with some old girlfriends from school. It’s been nice.’
He nodded. ‘I feel like we never … we never really hang out any more. Do you want to get a drink?’
Dani’s heart thumped in her chest. Spending time with James was perilous. Of course there was the joy of getting to be with him, but it only served to make her want him more. And there was the danger it would ignite hope.
‘A drink would be great,’ she said.
Over two small beers and shared a bowl of chips, Dani told James about the girls. He laughed as she described Annabel disguising herself as a non-model and Clementine hiding behind the pie-warmer.
‘There’s no one in your life, then?’ he asked, looking at the table.
‘No, I—’ She tried to think of how best to answer. ‘Not right now.’
The peal of a bell announced last drinks.
‘Already?’ said James.
They’d been talking for five hours.
‘It’s great hanging out with you,’ said James, standing. He lifted his arm and reached toward Daniela. For a moment her heart fluttered, fuelled by the hope he was going to hug her, perhaps even kiss her. Then it crashed like a stone to the earth as James playfully punched her arm. ‘You’re not like other girls.’
Clementine’s brow creased in confusion. The message was from an unknown number:
Have dinner with me.
She thought back over the men she had met on the hunt. The first, salt-and-pepper Rex, had been charming. He walked, spoke, ate and dressed with the confidence that attends privilege. As Clem broke open her lobster at a swish Elizabeth Bay restaurant it struck her that Rex was out of her league. So much so that she expected he wouldn’t call. When he didn’t — despite promising to — it felt like a small triumph of her ability to read people, rather than a rejection.
Her second date was a vegan lunch of wet lentils served in biodegradable bowls that had started disintegrating as she ate. It had gone so badly that she had cancelled the third one. Not that she had told Annabel or Daniela.
Then she remembered Jason wasn’t in her phone any more. Her temper rose. It was obvious that the message from was him, from the arrogant, entitled way in which he demanded she comply with his request. How dare he? she thought, resolving not to text back. But she couldn’t quite bring herself to erase the text. She spent the rest of the afternoon picking up her phone, rolling it over in her hand, reading the message, then putting it down again. Finally she called Daniela.
‘See, this is why it makes sense not to love your husband. That way you don’t get hurt when he cheats on you,’ Daniela said.
‘Don’t say that, I feel awful.’
‘If you feel the urge to write to him, write to me instead. I’ll talk you out of it.’
Clementine slept badly. Alone in the dark Jason’s message didn’t seem like a demand. Around 3am it took on the properties of a plea. She wondered if he longed for her as much as she longed for him. She turned her pillow over and punched it into a more supportive shape.
When she got to the office she felt like she had jet lag. Premendra was early. He waited outside her office, with a coffee sitting on the seat next to him like a faithful companion. Clementine unlocked her door and he followed her inside.
‘Take a seat.’ She was sleepy and grumpy.
He seemed not to hear, because he walked around the room, touching and raking his hands through his hair, before he threw himself onto the chaise longue again and sighed dramatically. He lay, sprawled in silence for a few moments, before saying: ‘I lied to you. Last week. I lied.’
‘It was me who killed our marriage, not her endless organising. That was just an excuse. I had an affair. No, that’s not it — I fell in love. I chose my wife. I stayed with her, but now she … my girlfriend … my ex … Jessica is getting married, and I’m devastated. It has poisoned my marriage.’
He jumped up and rushed over to Clementine’s desk.
‘The wedding’s in two weeks,’ he said, putting his mobile phone under her nose. ‘This is her.’
The photo showed a woman with long red hair looking out over the Harbour Bridge.
‘That was a great day,’ Premendra said. ‘We drank Bloody Marys.’
He scrolled through more shots of Jessica: one of her smiling from behind sunglasses; one doing a star-jump on the beach.
‘Does your wife know?’
‘No, no,’ he said, his eyes focused on the photos. ‘It was two years ago. For so long I thought I had made the right decision. The affair ended cleanly. Well, to be completely honest, she ended it. But I let her. I knew she was right. Or at least, she was right in that it was wrong of me to deceive my wife. But she was wrong, too. She thought I was never going to leave, when I realise now I should have. Jessica was the love of my life. She still is. I wish I had been brave. It would have been hard on my wife at first, but in the long run she would have been better off. By now she would have moved on with her life. She would be happy. Not saddled with a resentful husband in a spoiled marriage.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Clementine gulped.
She tried to gather her thoughts, which had become unshackled like runaway horses. With this revelation her own life had changed. That’s the thing about affairs. Everything is unclear, and you can feel elation or terror without anything happening. Hearing your lover was spotted at a restaurant alone can prompt fantasies that he has left her and you are going to get your happy ending after all. News from a friend who saw them at the opera together has the reverse effect — suddenly all hope is lost. You can be made ecstatic or miserable without anything about your situation changing. So much of your life becomes a fiction — what you tell co-workers, family and friends — that it starts to filter through into what you tell yourself.
Clementine had been haunted by Jason’s insistence that his marriage was over. She had seen them fighting at the wedding. She had seen Amanda leave the Jensen party alone. Perhaps he was telling the truth. If he became single again there would be nothing wrong with dating him. A picture formed in her mind of him, with his shrewd eyes that softened every time they caught hers. She imagined him sitting alone in a café on a Sunday morning, slowly stirring a cappuccino (double-shot, one sugar), wondering how he ended up with no wife and no girlfriend. Then the waitress would place the bill by his cup. She would have full lips and a blonde bob. Their hands brush, he looks up and their eyes meet … Clementine gasped. She needed to find out. As soon as Premendra left, she called Jason.
The phone rang for half a second before he answered it with a hurried ‘Hello?’ He was formal. His words clipped. Clementine told him she would hear what he had to say.
‘I’ll be at The Grasshopper tonight,’ he said, sounding relieved. ‘Meet me at six?’
Clementine agreed and hung up.
‘Fuck,’ she whispered to the empty room. Usually she was not a big swearer. Her nanna had moved in with the family after her mother died, and her constant influence (pursing her lips at four-letter words and chipped nail polish) had left Clementine with slightly nanna-ish manners. But these days swearing seemed warranted. Necessary even.
She paced her office and thought about Premendra and Jessica. He might not be happy that she had moved on after the affair, but was she?
Clem’s nerves were jangling as she pushed open the door to the bar. Tiny light-bulbs hung from the roof encased in recycled-jar lightshades. She peered into the cave-like room. She couldn’t see Jason.
‘Hello there.’ Her heart jumped. She had to squint. But it wasn’t him.
He smiled warmly and held out a clear drink.
‘Vodka?’ Clem asked.
‘Gin,’ he said. ‘I remembered from the party. Jason’s just taking a business call. He’ll be back in a moment.’
‘You’re like Jason’s social secretary. Always ready with an excuse.’
‘We had plans to have a drink tonight, but it seems he has traded up.’ Damon put his hand on his chest, feigning heartache. Clem couldn’t help but laugh. She sipped as he looked at his drink.
‘Do you disapprove of me?’ she asked after a moment.
Damon grimaced. Clem searched his face. For some reason it seemed really important that he like her.
‘No, not at all,’ he said finally. ‘Why would you think that?’
‘Meeting up with a married man … you must have gotten to know Amanda over the years …’
Damon wouldn’t meet her eye. ‘I am aware that you didn’t know Jason was married. Anyway, I wasn’t going to stay late: I have dinner plans.’
‘Yes,’ he brightened. ‘With a very beautiful woman who treats me far better than I deserve.’
‘Is she a new love interest?’
‘No. She’s my mother. I’m taking her out for her wedding anniversary. Dad’s overseas for a conference.’
Clementine smiled. ‘Aren’t you a good son? What does your father do?’
‘Paediatrics. His father was a doctor, too. He lived to his nineties. I’m the black sheep of the family, selfishly pursuing finance.’
‘Ninety isn’t bad. Good genes.’
‘Jason tells me you’re a psychologist.’ He looked at her with interest.
‘Yes.’ She quickly put her glass to her mouth.
‘And you specialise in …?’
Her adrenal gland began to pump again. She was skirting dangerously close to the edge of her professional boundaries by being there, and now she was being asked about her job. Damon was looking at her intently, awaiting her answer. She wanted to lie. Say sleep disorders, she thought. Tell him you deal with the criminally insane and spend your days documenting the sadistic thoughts of psychopaths. That will get him off your back! Instead, she heard herself say, ‘Marriage counselling.’
Shock flickered on Damon’s face.
He looked at his drink again. A moment ticked by.
‘You’re very quiet for someone who doesn’t disapprove of me.’
He met her gaze. His eyes focused on her in a way that made everyone else in the room fade away.
‘I’m just disappointed—’ He didn’t get to finish the thought.
‘There you are!’
Jason came towards them, smiling as he slid his phone into his pocket. Clem couldn’t help but notice that it was his personal mobile and not the Blackberry he used for work. That’s the other thing about affairs. The tiniest thing arouses your suspicion. She twisted her ring and reminded herself to be cautious.
‘Sorry to have kept you waiting. We were supposed to have some contracts by 5pm today.’ He turned to Damon. ‘What time are you meeting your mother?’
‘I think that’s my cue to leave. Nice to see you again, Clementine.’ He leaned forward and gave her a soft kiss on the cheek.
‘Hey-hey-hey,’ Jason joked. ‘You’re all too keen to kiss my girl.’
‘I’ll see you, mate,’ Damon said and left.
Jason looked at Clementine, his eyebrows raised in contrition. The familiar scent of his cologne transported her to a moment on her couch when she had nuzzled under his chin to watch a film. He had started playing with her hair — caressing and gently pulling it. It was only after the film had finished that she realised he had woven it into a series of tiny plaits.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’ she had asked, touching the silky ropes.
She wondered now, looking at him in half-light of the bar, if he even had any sisters. He was trying to get the barman’s attention.
‘Do you want another?’ he asked.
‘Just water for me,’ Clementine said, turning her ring.
‘Educational at the moment,’ she snapped. She was feeling combative; she couldn’t get the image of his personal phone out of her head.
Jason nodded, then looked at his shoes. This humble side of him was new to Clementine. When they had been together he had always been rushing off; refusing her invitations to events, deflecting her requests for him to sleep over, to spend 15 more minutes in bed.
‘Clem, I’ve really missed you,’ he said.
‘What are your sisters’ names?’ she said.
‘Your sisters. You said you had bossy sisters. What are their names?’
He exhaled a puff of breath. It was the humourless little laugh of someone caught in a lie. A technique to make light of the deception.
Oh that trivial little thing, ha-ha-ha.
‘Ah, I only have one sister. Her name is Caitlin.’
‘You said you had
, plural.’ Clementine folded her arms. ‘I should go. I don’t know why I came.’
‘WILL YOU JUST—’ Jason raised his voice, then corrected himself. ‘Will you just hear me out? Please.’
Clem knew that if she left she would always wonder what he was going to say. She looked at the face she had fallen so quickly and so deeply in love with. She knew no matter what she did, that face would torment her for some time yet.
‘Okay.’ Her voice was small.
‘It’s over.’ He stated simply. ‘I promise. It’s you I want.’
Curiously the words had no effect on Clementine. Perhaps she had played them over so many times in her head that she was having trouble processing the fact that he was saying them for real.
‘Where has this come from?’
‘I didn’t plan to start an affair. I never expected to fall in love with you—’ Clem quivered. He had never said that before. ‘I know I cocked it up. But Amanda and I haven’t been happy for a long time. Just tell me I have a chance. I need a week to break it off. To sort things out. But give me something. Give me some hope.’
‘Jason.’ Clementine started twisting her ring again. ‘If you were a single man I would want to go out with you. But things are—’
‘I will be a single man.’ He took her hand.
‘But you’re not yet.’ She took it back.
‘One week. I promise. Then I will be separated. I’ll be a man whose marriage has ended and who is about to start divorce proceedings.’
The word made Clementine’s stomach turn. As is always the case when you get exactly what you want, she feared that maybe she didn’t want it any more. She felt panicked at the thought they were about to do something irreversible. Did she really miss him that much? Did she really need him so badly that she was willing to sacrifice the happiness of a woman she didn’t know?
He moved closer to her and kissed her bare shoulders. First the right, then the left, and then the right again. They were soft, tender kisses. The type you might bestow on a newborn. He put his hand to her cheek. The word ‘divorce’ was still echoing in Clementine’s head.
She spoke to break the spell: ‘Jason. Call me when you’re single.’ She turned and walked out of the bar.
It was pure adrenaline that propelled her down George Street. Night had fallen and it was starting to rain. She stopped and leaned against a shop window. She wanted to cry, but her insides felt as though they had dried up. She no longer knew the value of a promise from Jason. She thought about how Damon had responded to her. He had been so calm, so nonchalant about the affair. Clementine was struck by an unsettling thought: had Jason done this before? She thought about how coolly he had delivered his offer. The soft rain was soaking through her clothes. She shivered and kept moving.
As she walked Sydney’s shiny wet streets, she became obsessed with finding out if Jason was a serial cheater. She had a feeling Damon would tell her. She didn’t doubt Damon’s loyalty to his friend, but she also didn’t think he would lie for Jason in order to dupe her. She felt, in a way she couldn’t account for, that Damon was on her side. She didn’t have his number, but she knew he worked at Standard and Poor’s. She decided she would call him in the morning.