Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
Sweet Success had just signed the contract to promote a Russian vodka named Za Vas, and there were bottles of it all over the office. She took two with her to dinner.
Patrick lived in the type of building Annabel imagined attracted academics. It had a bluestone façade preserved behind a blanket of ivy. There was no lift. She took the stairs four flights up until she got to his door. A man in a waistcoat with a white goatee and a single pointed earring opened the door before she had a chance to knock.
‘We could hear you coming a mile off. This old building is as draughty and echoey as a cave, Patrick. I don’t know how you stand it.’
Holding a tray of glasses, Patrick greeted Annabel and introduced everyone, saying their name and delivering a short biography as he handed them their drink. There was Anton, who had answered the door. He ran a dog-grooming business. Then there were Hilary and Byron Hill, creators of Eve’s Garden, and a tall woman named Stephanie, who wore round glasses and a silk blouse that wrapped around her Rubenesque body like a kimono. She worked in the botany department with Patrick.
‘And Annabel.’ He handed her a drink. ‘Fellow Ealing Studio fan, and keen observer of the human desire to be surrounded by beauty.’ He took a glass himself and clinked it with Annabel’s. He threw his back. She looked at hers suspiciously, aware of the appetisers on the coffee table: oily grey sprats lying across hunks of pumpernickel bread and bowls of pickled fish. She was relieved to taste gin and tonic.
‘It’s not strictly Russian,’ said Patrick. ‘But I think you can’t go past a good gin and tonic to start the evening. One of the ingredients in Bombay Sapphire gin is distilled from irises.’
‘Talk to Patrick long enough and you’ll find everything comes back to irises,’ said Stephanie, who was leaning back on the leather sofa. Her eyes skated over Annabel. Annabel wondered if she and Patrick were dating.
‘I think Patrick has slightly misrepresented me,’ Annabel said to Byron and Hilary.
‘Nonsense!’ said Patrick. ‘You have a great talent for understanding what people want; what attracts them. That’s why you’re such a successful saleswoman.’
Annabel smiled. Nobody had ever described her as having a great talent before.
‘Do you need any help in the kitchen?’ she asked.
‘Everything is done. It’s just about presentation now. But that is your area of expertise, so perhaps you could help me.’
She followed him down a short passage into a kitchen that looked as though it belonged to a celebrity chef. There was a large marble island in the centre, with dozens of pots and pans hanging overhead. An entire wall was used to hold bottles of wine. Two large blocks of wood sprouted knife handles. There was an imposing stainless-steel fridge with double doors, and six gas hotplates, three of which were being used. The wide oven glowed. A silver fish was turning gold on the top rack. Patrick lifted the lids of pots to sniff and taste their bubbling contents.
‘I’ll make sure you’re seated next to Byron and Hilary,’ he told Annabel. ‘Hold these, please.’ He handed her bottles of vinegar and olive oil. ‘Could you splash equal measures of those into that bowl.’
Stephanie poked her head through the door.
‘Everything under control?’
‘Yes, yes, relax,’ said Patrick.
Annabel watched him work. He had everything timed perfectly. There were no recipe books or instructions. He did it all from memory, stirring and tasting with his sleeves rolled up and his glasses perched on the top of his head.
‘Would you like to present the fish?’ He transferred the main course onto a long ceramic dish and opened the saloon-style swing door.
‘That looks fabulous,’ said Byron. ‘What are we eating?’
Annabel shuffled backwards and turned her ear towards Patrick.
‘Stuffed pike,’ he said.
‘Stuffed pike,’ she announced. The table cheered.
Patrick followed her with a bottle of the Za Vas vodka.
‘I caught some lovely bream the other week,’ he said. ‘Of course you have to cook fresh fish the day you catch it, otherwise it spoils the fun. I’m afraid I didn’t have time to pop down to the lake after work.’
‘I’m never eating here again,’ said Hilary.
‘Oh, matches,’ said Patrick. There were long, unlit candles at the table.
‘I’ll get them,’ Stephanie jumped up.
When she came back, the dog-groomer was in the middle of a lively story about a woman who wanted her poodle dyed red to match her own hair. He mimicked her upper-crust accent perfectly, dropping his Os and rolling his Rs. Annabel laughed heartily. She was having a wonderful time.
‘And what do you do, Annabel?’ Stephanie asked.
‘I run my own PR business.’
‘She specialises in food,’ said Patrick. ‘Local products in particular.’
‘That’s sort of like advertising, isn’t it?’ said Stephanie. ‘Writing little catchphrases so people buy muesli bars or rubber gloves?’
‘Very hard work running your own business,’ said Byron.
‘Isn’t it just?’ Annabel agreed.
‘When we were getting started we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,’ said Hilary. She patted her husband’s hand. ‘You would know all about Eve’s Garden, I imagine.’
‘Who doesn’t know about Eve’s Garden,’ Annabel gushed.
‘Exactly,’ said Byron. ‘Which is exactly why we don’t need to employ PR people,’ he barked in Patrick’s direction.
‘Patrick and I were saying the other day how we wouldn’t mind a change from academia, weren’t we, Patrick?’ Stephanie stood to clear the table.
‘Oh, Stephanie, you don’t have to—’
‘Nonsense!’ she said, touching his shoulder as she passed. She stacked the plates and took them to the kitchen. When she returned, she began clearing away glasses.
‘Shall we have some coffee?’ she asked.
After several cups of black coffee, the dog-groomer stood and announced that it was time to go home. Byron and Hilary followed shortly afterwards. Patrick said he should start work on the dishes in the sink.
‘Let me help you.’ Annabel leapt to her feet, eager to show her appreciation for his efforts.
‘Not at all, but you could keep me company while I clean.’
‘Patrick, you’ve spent all day cooking.’ Stephanie stood and stepped in front of Annabel. ‘Let me wash up. I’m sure you don’t want your guest’— she looked at Annabel — ‘doing the dishes. I absolutely insist.’
‘That’s very good of you, Stephanie,’ said Patrick. A look of triumph settled on Stephanie’s face, but quickly vanished.
‘Annabel and I will finish our coffee in the lounge room,’ he said.
‘Hilary and Byron seem like a very well-matched couple,’ Annabel said as they settled back onto the couch.
‘They have a great story,’ said Patrick.
‘How come you never married?’
‘I’m not dead yet.’
‘You know what I mean. You must be — what? — thirty-nine?’
‘Forty-two. But Byron and Hilary didn’t meet until they were in their mid-forties. I like the idea of marrying later. It gives you a chance to live independently. Find out who you are and who you are looking for.’
‘Tell me the story of Byron and Hilary.’
‘Ah,’ he said, removing his glasses. ‘Star-crossed lovers.’
Annabel laughed. ‘How so?’
‘There was one chair in the botany department and they were both after it; competing and working long hours trying to out-do each other. All of that extra time in the lab, all of those networking dinners and conferences in exotic locations … They fell in love.’
‘Who got the position?’
‘He did. It’s not the modern feminist fairy tale I suspect you were hoping for.’
‘Well, one of them had to get it, and I’m sure she was happy for him.’
‘That she was. The following semester she was offered a very prestigious research position in Manila with the ANU. She took it. And he followed her there.’
‘That is very romantic.’
The Hills seemed like they had an idyllic marriage. They were partners in love and partners in business. Annabel imagined them gracing the front cover of a romance novel, their arms around each other, dressed in academic robes and mortar boards.
A Study in Love
, the book would be called.
‘Only one thing was missing.’
‘There was no running through the rain.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, whenever lovers are separated and it seems the opportunity to be together has been missed, one of them has to run through the rain. Correction, the man. The hero has to dare the thunderclouds and race out after his girl.’
‘That’s the definition of true love, is it?’
Patrick nodded with authority.
‘That’s the definition of true love. That, or a full-bodied shiraz.’
Dani left work at lunchtime to collect her mail. She had been hiding out at Clementine’s and making stealth trips to her flat for supplies during the day, when she would swap dirty clothes for clean, and water her plants. Once, when she had been feeling particularly vengeful, she poured all the milk from the carton and put it back in the fridge empty. Then she rubbed soap over the serrated edges and tines of the knives and forks.
Her letters were on the table mixed in with Simon’s and those for various other former tenants who presumably had been jailed for not paying all the bills that still came to Dani’s place. She leafed through the envelopes and wondered whether Simon had even noticed she wasn’t around. Among the usual notifications, there was a handwritten letter. It was a familiar format, in a heavy, textured envelope addressed in a woman’s cursive script.
Daniela tore it open. She had received a dozen similar letters in the past year and knew exactly what it was. The only question was who. As expected, it was an invitation to an engagement party. A sense of dread filled her as she read the name: Emerson. She would have to see James and Abbey.
She reached for her phone and called Clementine. ‘We have to go out: I need to find a date.’
‘Saturday?’ she asked.
‘Tonight! Meet me at Grandma’s Bar. I’ll explain when we get there.’
‘Around 7pm. I’ve got a little chore to do first.’
Dani had made appointments to inspect two houses after work. The ads had promised a ‘family home’ and a ‘renovator’s delight’. The agent was a young buck named Miles Cheetham whose billboard ads dotted the streets on Sydney’s inner north-west. Next to the photo of him shooting finger pistols was the phrase
Miles Cheetham: The Most Wanted Man in Real Estate.
Daniela met him at his office so he could drive her to the first address in his shiny black BMW. It was a single-fronted terrace in Petersham, with two bedrooms that stuck out from a narrow hallway, which opened into a small kitchen and dining area. A colonial-style table took up almost the entire room.
‘The fridge is in the lounge room,’ said Miles.
He took Dani through a door that led to another hall. Stepping down onto uneven ground, she had to steady herself. She reached out, but instead of touching a wall her hand found a fence. A roof had been jerry-built to connect it to the house, thereby creating an enclosed, makeshift passage. A narrow Persian rug and been rolled over sheets of linoleum. Dani knelt and lifted one of the floppy lino tiles. Beneath it was dirt.
After they left, she said: ‘So that was the renovator’s delight. Show me the next one, the cosy family home.’
‘That was the cosy family home,’ said Miles. ‘The next place is the renovator’s delight.’
He slid on some dark glasses and climbed into his car. He was kind of handsome, and Dani wondered whether she could fool him into coming to Emerson’s engagement party with her by pretending it was an open for inspection.
‘Okay, let’s have a look,’ she said.
They took off down Parramatta Road towards the city and pulled into a street in Newtown. They drove past a large park with a football oval and a small grandstand. There was a bowling green and a busy café looking onto the sports ground. Tall trees created a green canopy that bathed the whole area in dappled light. It was a pretty part of the world. They turned into a narrow side street.
‘It needs a lot of work,’ Miles warned as he cut the engine.
They were parked out the front of a beautifully restored terrace. It had been painted in cream and grey. He slammed the door and walked past it to the terrace two doors down. The house looked like a before shot. The fence, cast iron and rusted, was coming out of the ground. The garden was overgrown with weeds. Miles tried to open in the gate. It wouldn’t budge.
‘It always does this,’ he said, grunting.
Dani estimated that the fence alone would cost hundreds of dollars to remove and replace. The gate squealed and gave way. The front yard was a wild tangle of weeds. A small path of broken mosaic tiles led to the porch. Crabby grass poked through the cracks. Dani looked at the garden and the path and did some sums. The weeds could be ripped out easily enough. New tiles for the path would be the big cost.
‘It’s not that bad. How much?’ she asked.
‘Five hundred and seventy thou.’
She nodded the noncommittal nod she had perfected. It was far less than she expected, but still more than she could afford.
He slipped a key into the lock. The wood was old and rotting. Several layers of paint, all in various stages of decay, were visible on the dried-out door. Like the gate, the door stuck. Miles leant against it with his shoulder and pushed.
Daniela was hit by the smell of mildew as the door opened.
‘It needs a little airing,’ he said. ‘As I told you, renovator’s delight. It has three bedrooms.’
He pulled a cord that controlled the hall light. A single globe filled the hall with an eggy yellow glow. They were facing a staircase covered in dark red carpet. The banister had been worn away to splinters. Dani followed Miles inside. There was a dining space to one side, and towards the front of the house was the lounge room. Each had fireplaces boarded over with wood. Towards the back of the house was the kitchen. Heavy blinds hung in each of the rooms.
‘Can I—?’ She walked towards windows. There was very little light.
‘No—’ Miles began to say as she pulled the bottom of one of the dining-room blinds. Up it flew up, and dusty sunlight filled the room.
The space was open and airy, and the light transformed it. She could see plaster architraves and high ceilings. Walking into the lounge area, she found that its chimney had an ornate mantelpiece. She imagined what it would look like if she built bookshelves on either side and hung a painting in the space above the mantel. Her large bridge print could go opposite it, above her couch. The dining room was the perfect size. She walked around the room imagining the dinner parties she could host. There was plenty of room for her whole family, unlike her flat in Glebe where some had to sit on the couch with their plates on the arm rests.
Miles was watching her, chewing on the arm of his sunglasses. There was another window on the other side of the fireplace. Dani opened its blind, too.
‘Keep an open mind—’ he blurted. More sun lit up the room.
Then she realised why he had wanted to keep the blinds down. The walls, which she had thought had been painted a drab green colour, were covered in mould. The moss-coloured spores grew in circular stains, like a watercolour painting. She looked at the floorboards. They were rotten and ruined. Miles sighed.
‘There is a problem with the plumbing,’ he said.
‘How much of a problem?’ Dani walked to the kitchen and turned on the tap. The pipes made a groaning sound, but nothing came out.
‘The entire plumbing system has to be replaced,’ he said meekly.
‘And the floors?’
‘All of the floors have to be re-done as well.’
‘And the walls.’
‘Fresh plaster needed in every room.’
She did the sums in her head. All of this would add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of the home.
They walked up the stairs which sighed and protested under their weight. Dani looked up at the ceiling and thought how much a few skylights would improve the space. There were four doors on the second floor. All looked as though they had abstract paintings on them. More mould. She pushed one open. It was damp to the touch, but the bedroom behind it was large and had double built-in wardrobes. The carpet was covered in lumps of plaster. The ceiling looked as though it had survived a bombing raid. Barely.
‘There’s also a little problem with the roof. It’s not exactly waterproof.’
She stood under the largest of the holes and looked up.
‘Is that the sky I can see?’
‘It’s well-ventilated,’ said Miles.
She shut the door. The second bedroom had survived better than the back room, and the bathroom was in relatively good condition, although it would have to be re-tiled. Miles opened the last door to the master bedroom.
‘We don’t know why this room didn’t suffer the same damage as the others,’ he said.
Dani stepped inside. It was the width of the entire house and had been painted the colour of buttermilk. Light was streaming in from the large windows that looked out into the bare branches of plane trees. This room also had fireplace, wide and with a marble surround. Miles went to the window and wrenched it open, paint chips flying into the air as he did so. They stepped through it out onto a balcony. The floor was a mosaic, but, unlike the path below, the tiles here were preserved. Daniela pictured herself sitting there on outdoor furniture, music playing, a magazine on her lap. The house needed a lot of work, but she was in love with this room.
‘It’s not bad,’ she said, trying to stay cool. ‘And they definitely want five-seventy?’
‘Not a penny less.’
‘No room for negotiation?’
He shook his head. ‘They were originally asking eight hundred thousand.’
Again, she gave her noncommittal nod, but she was crying on the inside. After he drove her back to his office she told him she would think about it and left with his card.
Half an hour later, Dani was descending concrete steps to a basement parlour decorated with balls of yarn, old-fashioned tins, and books about crocheting. The place was called Grandma’s Bar and was another of Annabel’s ‘must sees’.
‘The house is perfect,’ Daniela told Clementine. ‘It’s just way out of my price range, and it needs tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of work. I could do a lot of it myself, and I could live in the master bedroom for two or three years while I slowly repaired the rest. My brother Silvio is a plumber, too, so that’s another bonus. But the cost of the materials and the deposit is just out of reach.’
‘How much more would you need?’
‘Ten, maybe twenty thousand. I could sell my car, but I’d still be short.’
‘Let me buy you a drink,’ Clem said, getting up and going to the bar.
Dani looked around the room for possible dates to take to Emerson’s, until Clementine returned and handed her a glass of red wine.
‘There’s a more immediate problem,’ she said holding up Emerson’s invitation. ‘A work engagement party. I’m going to have to face James and his underdressed paperweight.’
‘Do you have to go?’
Clementine watched Daniela quietly assess the few men scattered around the bar on wicker chairs.
Avoiding the party would save her spending $50 on a present, bringing her one tiny step closer to home ownership, she thought. But she shook her head.
‘If I can get through this one first time, the rest will be okay. But I can’t go without a date.’
Everyone in the bar looked much younger than them. They were lanky hipsters and edgy geeks in buttoned collars.
‘Let’s try somewhere else,’ Dani said.
They turned the corner to The Slip Inn, a bluestone pub made famous for hosting the first moments of the relationship between Denmark’s Crown Prince Frederick and a Tasmanian woman named Mary, who would go on to become his princess.
‘I’ve got an idea,’ said Clementine. She slipped off her glove and held it between her teeth while she unhitched the small silver hoops from her ears. One she dropped into her pocket, the other she slid onto the fourth finger of her left hand so that it resembled a platinum ring.
‘I’ve found a loophole in the single girls’ rule book. A married woman can approach a man on behalf of her friend. The single girl doesn’t lose any of her allure, and by sending in a wedded wing-woman she can chose who in a bar she speaks to.’
‘I should have hired you years ago,’ Dani said. They ordered two gins and tonic, then moved outside.
‘What about him?’ Clem predictably pointed to a man in a grey suit.
‘Too smarmy,’ Dani dismissed him. ‘What about him?’
He had sandy stubble and was ordering a glass of wine from the outdoor bar.
‘He’s a bit young,’ said Clem.
‘Right now he is exactly what I’m looking for in a man. In that, he is a man.’
‘Okay, hold this.’ Clementine pushed her glass into Dani’s hands. She made sure the clasp was hidden on her earring-disguised-as-a-ring, then strode over to the man.
Dani watched them chat. She knew what Clementine would have been telling him: her attractive and incidentally single girlfriend thought he was handsome.
‘Don’t tell her I told you,’ she would whisper conspiratorially.
The man looked in Dani’s direction, smiled and nodded. Clementine grinned and brought him over.
‘Dani, this is Christophe. He’s from Marseille.’ He reached forward and shook Dani’s hand. His palm was warm and smelled of sawdust.
‘How long have you been in Sydney?’ Clementine asked. ‘Do you miss France? My husband and I were in Marseille last year.’ She was interrupted by a tap on her shoulder.
‘Clementine? I thought that was you.’
His face was familiar, but Dani couldn’t place it. He had salt-and-pepper hair and a growly, persuasive voice.
‘Rex,’ Clementine stammered. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m so glad I ran into you,’ Rex looked delighted. ‘I swear, the morning after we had dinner my car was robbed.’
Clementine tittered nervously and twisted her fake-wedding ring. Daniela realised the man was Rex Stonehouse, the first mark in Clem’s husband-hunting history.
He was explaining to Clementine that thieves had taken his stereo and his briefcase. When he replaced his phone, he discovered that her name had been saved to the device, not to the SIM card and so he couldn’t contact her. He started scrolling through his new Blackberry to show her that he had tried emailing.
‘I didn’t know your last name, but I Googled marriage counsellors and psychologists named Clementine in Sydney.’
Three days after their first date he had sent emails to four practitioners operating in the CBD.
‘Who would have thought there would be so many psychologists called Clementine?’ he said, shaking his head. ‘One of them even wrote back saying she’d love to have dinner.’