Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
Annabel still had half a dozen emails to read before she met Harry at Hyde Park. She opened the top drawer of her desk and rattled around for her emergency lipstick. Chanel’s Rouge Allure could save any wardrobe crisis. She switched on her computer monitor’s camera and examined the pixelated image of her face it beamed onto the screen. The olive blouse Clementine had loaned her was buttoned all the way up to her neck. Annabel pulled at it. It was pretty, but tight, and a little too prim for her taste. But it made the right impression. She looked at her Rouge Allure. It was vibrant. Probably not the sort of thing an Austrian nun would have worn, she decided, and stashed it back in her drawer. She ran her eye over the subject lines of the remaining emails. There was only one that absolutely had to be dealt with tonight; the rest she would save for the morning. She tried to tussle her hair a little, but it fell back limply to the way it had been.
Tonight would be the third time she had seen Harry since he had called her, and he still hadn’t kissed her.
Annabel pulled out her lipstick and looked at it again.
No, she thought, tossing it aside. If you always do what you have always done, you will always get what you always got. She slammed the drawer shut and turned off her light.
The last meeting with Harry had come about as a result of her efforts to let him know she was ‘there for him’. They had driven around antique stores looking for a bed frame. He had mentioned Mirabella only once. Annabel was wearing flat Moschino riding boots, and he had complimented them, saying that Mirabella wore high heels everywhere they went. Even to the beach.
‘It was ridiculous,’ he said.
As they strolled between wrought-iron bed heads and dusty lampshades, Annabel tried to keep the conversation to topics that wouldn’t be connected to Mirabella. She picked up an ivory pill-box.
‘My grandmother used to have a silver pill-box that she wore on a chain around her neck. It was embossed with a twisting fleur-de-lis pattern.’
Patrick had told her that the fleur-de-lis was modelled on an iris, and now she wondered if her grandmother had known that. She examined pieces of china, yellowed books and hats grey with moth dust.
‘What do you think?’ Harry said, sitting on the wire base of a cast-iron bed. He bounced up and down, making it squeak suggestively. Annabel giggled. He looked stern.
‘Mirabella kept our bed,’ he said.
That was a statement of fact, so Annabel didn’t count it as him mentioning her. ‘It just needs a clean and an oil,’ he said. ‘That will stop the racket.’ He paid cash and arranged for the store to deliver it to his dingy bachelor pad. Afterwards, Annabel drove him home.
‘Well then,’ she said, as her Alfa Romeo idled by the entrance to his apartment block. He was wearing a rumpled shirt, open at the neck. A cobweb had gotten stuck in his hair. Annabel wanted to reach forward and pick it out, but she was afraid of how he would respond.
‘Thanks for your help,’ he said, and jumped out of the car.
When Annabel got back to her apartment, she went into the kitchen and ate an unholy amount of cheese.
She waited three days, then sent a carefully drafted message asking how his bed was. He called the next day and invited her to join him at the Hyde Park food festival.
Annabel had a new strategy. She figured husband-hunting was about being pragmatic. If this was a business proposition she would be direct. As her heels clacked on the footpath and the park came into view, she rehearsed what she was going to say.
‘I always liked you, Harry. Ever since that first kiss.’
She’d finesse it a bit, but the intent would be clear. She figured if he told her he just wanted a friend, it would save her wasting weeks strategising over a lost cause.
She saw him as the gate came into view. He was facing away from her. He had common, caramel curls, but she recognised the slope of his shoulders.
‘Hi.’ She reached out and touched his shoulder.
He turned, relaxing into a smile.
‘Hi,’ he said, leaning in for a kiss. His hand went to her waist where it rested protectively on her hip. He held her in place; close. Annabel let her cheek sweep against his as he put his other arm around her neck for a hug. His skin was coarse, like very fine sandpaper.
‘Hi,’ she said again.
‘Shall we?’ he offered his hand.
‘We shall,’ she took it and smiled as they walked together through the park gate.
The trees were laced with strings of lights. Paper lanterns hung from the branches. They lined up for noddles, then found a place at the foot of a tree where they ate Pad Thai on their laps in the dying dusky light.
‘I had a dream about you the other night,’ she said.
‘Oh yes?’ He raised an eyebrow at her as he dug through his noodles.
Mirabella had been in the dream, too, but she didn’t tell him that. Instead she described how he had been playing football and she had gone to watch and barrack.
‘What do you think that means?’ he asked.
She had a pretty good idea. Right at the end, after Harry had scored the winning goal, Mirabella had burst onto the field and leapt into his arms. He smothered her with kisses, even though Annabel had been standing on the sidelines the whole time, cheering him on.
‘Perhaps that I’m interested in what you’re doing with your work and that I want to be supportive.’
After dinner they lingered on the footpath until Annabel flagged down a taxi. She hadn’t told Harry she liked him. As they said goodbye, he closed his eyes and planted a kiss on her face. Another chaste, friendly kiss. As she leaned away she felt his hand go to her hip again. He pulled her in and kissed her properly. Now is the time, she thought. They stood for a moment locked together before she pulled away.
‘Harry—’ she began. His phone hummed, cutting her off.
‘Oh!’ he said, startled. ‘I’d better take this.’ He gave her another quick cheek peck, then put his phone to his ear. ‘Goodnight,’ he said, and turned his back.
‘Bye,’ Annabel said, a little stunned, and climbed into the cab. She waved as the car pulled away, but Harry was talking intently into his phone and didn’t see.
Annabel was sitting alone in the conference room trying to concentrate on the Eve’s Garden proposal. She had two large, hardback art books featuring images of Adam and Eve that she hoped would spark some inspiration.
She leafed through the colour-plate pages. The ruby-red apples were overused, and the snake wasn’t a right fit. She had thought the style of the paintings might work for the label. A painterly picture of a garden would convey that the product was natural; made the old-fashioned way. The scholarly undertones would also appeal to the city sophisticates who so enjoyed the current line of products. But it lacked simplicity.
The second book was erotic art that had several listings of Adam and Eve, including a painting by Tamara de Lempicka. Her Adam and Eve were as sleek and modern as the skyscrapers in the background. Their bodies had an engineered hardness. De Lempicka had painted the male in the foreground. His round bottom was the focal point. His muscular arm was wound around the woman’s body. His face rested against hers, a nose to her ear. A perfectly round breast, like half an orange, pointed forward. Annabel stared at the painting. She flicked the page to find more drawings and etchings of naked men and women lazing in a garden. She slammed it shut and walked to the main office space where there was more air.
In the months since she and Hunter had split up she hadn’t had a proper lover. She had dated a handful of men and slept with a smaller handful of that handful. Mostly she concentrated on work or her friends, or, in rare moments of energy, exercise. But sometimes she became aware of a gnawing, nameless desire. Like lust, but not for a particular person. It was more a general need to be touched. It wasn’t sexual frustration either, rather than a sort of physical loneliness.
She sat at her desk and opened a Word file. The curser blinked at her, awaiting a command. But nothing would come. The only images in her head were the upturned nipples and the ripple of the muscular stomachs from the books in the conference room.
Picking up her phone, she keyed a message to Patrick:
How do you inspire students when they aren’t being productive?
A reply came back straight away:
By exercising their imagination.
She didn’t know what to say to that. Another message appeared.
Eve’s Garden? :)
I have PR-block.
What do you think of when you drink Eve’s Garden?
Annabel walked to the fridge where she had a couple of bottles.
I don’t know
, she clicked back.
There’s something nostalgic about it. It reminds me of the last few days before the summer break.
I didn’t go
, she tapped slowly.
But before sending it, she hesitated, embarrassed. She wasn’t naturally academic. Sitting in the rows of bright girls raised by doctors and teachers and lawyers at Lampton Ladies’ College, she became aware of her limitations. Their brains were hungry for literature and theories; they loved to figure out quadratic equations. She had trouble grasping abstract concepts, and had to read passages from their school texts over and over again — her lips moving ever so slightly — to be sure she had grasped the meaning of the poet’s medieval-sounding phrases. If
Pride and Prejudice
hadn’t been on the English syllabus in Year 12, she didn’t think she would have done very well at all. She didn’t want Patrick to discover her weakness.
A buzz arrived from him.
It reminds me of taking off my socks and walking through grass on a hot day.
It reminds me of high school. Those last days in December. Knee socks and cotton pinafores. Drinking ice tea while waiting for the bus. Water fights.
I bet all the boys chased after you
, Patrick wrote.
You would have been a real heartbreaker.
More like heartbreakee
, she replied.
The only romance she had had before modelling had been that one secret kiss behind fake rose bushes with Harry Barchester. She had been shy.
As a teenager she had been as flat-chested as a boy until halfway through Year 12, when her breasts announced themselves. They were unwieldy on her slim frame, and appeared as suddenly and gracelessly as a drunk at a surprise party. She had had no time to get used to them, and became bashful, keeping a large, coloured binder close to her chest. She held it up like a shield wherever she went. Particularly on the route home, which took her past the bus stop where schoolboys hung against the fence in untucked shirts.
Every inch of that binder had been covered with stickers. Some were furry, some were holograms, and some were the special scratch and sniff types that gave off fragrances of grape, cherry and watermelon when you rubbed them with a fingernail.
Annabel leaned back in her chair and thought about those sunshine days when she and her friends would search their backpacks for loose coins to buy an ice-cream. Then an idea came into her head.
I think I just hit upon something
, she wrote to Patrick.
Thank you for your help, professor.
She opened up a browser and searched for companies that produced scented stickers.
It was nearly 10pm when Annabel lifted her head from her Eve’s Garden proposal. Her phone was ringing. It was Clementine.
‘How did things go with Harry? When are you seeing him next?’
‘I don’t know. We haven’t made any plans. He was sending me messages last night, but I’m not sure if he is flirting with me or just being friendly. I hate texts, there’s no way to convey tone.’
‘Answer his question with a question. Make him come to you.’
‘I have no idea what to do. Normally in a situation like this I would try to be flirtatious. Sex sells. But since his religious awakening in Alice Springs, I’m afraid it could scare him off. Oh — I just got a message. Hang on a tick.’
‘Was it him? What did he say?’
‘No, it was Patrick.’
‘Patrick again? He does seem very interested in your … business.’
‘He’s becoming a great friend. Clem, I’m at the office. I’d better go.’
Patrick had written to say he was going to be out of town on the weekend. There was a conference on the Gold Coast, and he wouldn’t be able to make their weekly screening of the Ealing Studios film.
But you should still go
, he insisted.
The Lavender Hill Mob
this week. A bank clerk steals a pile of gold bullion and smuggles it out of the country by melting it down into Eiffel Tower souvenirs. But it all goes horribly awry, of course.
Annabel did go, but sitting in the near-empty, cavernous theatre was no fun without Patrick. The old jokes they usually laughed at felt hammy without someone to share a sly grin and a paw full of popcorn with. She wondered what the weather was like on the Gold Coast and if he would be getting any sun. She also wondered if there were any women botanists at the conference. He had mentioned that he would be back on Monday.
When she didn’t hear from him by Tuesday night, she called him.
‘What a pleasant surprise, I was just thinking about you,’ Patrick answered in his friendly voice.
‘You always say that.’
‘Are you suggesting I’m always thinking about you?’
Annabel paused, stumped. Was he flirting with her? Harry had completely thrown her radar out of whack. Patrick laughed, then invited her around to a Russian-themed dinner party.
‘When?’ she asked.
‘Tonight! It’s a fun little impromptu evening.’
‘Okay. I have just the thing to bring, too.’