Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
‘And Ma wonders why I’m not married,’ sighed Daniela. ‘Look at what we have to choose from.’
They took a seat on a stone bench that looked out over the expansive lawns. Annabel handed out the champagne flutes and poured.
‘Here’s to the happy couple,’ she said flatly. They raised their glasses and drank in silence for a moment.
‘Marriage seems like a sham sometimes,’ said Clementine sadly. ‘I’d never made it a priority before, but I’m starting to realise I do want—’
‘Love?’ Annabel asked.
‘A family?’ said Daniela at the same time.
‘Well, all the trappings,’ said Clementine. ‘I’ve seen enough failed marriages to know I shouldn’t rely on a big white wedding to make me happy forever. But I do want children. I want to read the Brontë and Mitford sisters to my daughters, and I want to show my sons how to change a tyre. Come to that, I want to read
to my sons and teach my daughters car maintenance.’
Daniela nodded. ‘I’d always planned on making a home with someone. You know, designing a great house for me and my family. Sometimes I wonder how I got to thirty-four without it happening.’
‘Yes,’ Annabel agreed. ‘When I was a little girl I imagined someone tall was going to sweep me off my feet. But he never arrived. I’m going to be thirty-five in December.’ She could already feel the bubbles tingling inside her head, making her thoughts soft and slow.
‘Can I tell you something?’ Clementine said, pouring the next round. ‘I’ve only met one man in my life whom I thought I could marry — and he was already married to someone else.’
‘You had an affair?’ Annabel gasped, eyes wide.
‘No,’ Clementine waved her hand. ‘I didn’t know he was married. I ended it when I found out. The point is, in thirty-four years I have found
person I would consider sharing my life with, and it turns out he was a horrible candidate because he would have cheated on me, just like he has cheated on his wife.’ She had a faraway look in her eye.
‘I know lots of great men,’ said Daniela. ‘The guys from work and I go out for drinks on Fridays, but as the night wears on they lose interest in talking to me and starting fiddling with their phones, casting around for someone to go home with.’
‘Perhaps Mirabella has got it right,’ sighed Clementine. ‘I mean, what do we want husbands for anyway?’
‘Well,’ Annabel said, ‘to share your life with someone you love.’
Clementine shook her head. ‘No, that’s not what I mean. Forget love. We’ve tried love. We’ve all been dating for twenty years and so far love hasn’t cut it. Think practically. What uses does a husband have?’
Annabel said the first thing that came into her head: ‘Companionship.’
Clementine nodded. ‘Right. What else? For me, it’s children. What I envy most about the young families I know is the camping trips and big Sunday dinners together.’
‘But they do those things because they love each other,’ Annabel said.
‘But what if you can’t find someone to love?’ Clementine asked. ‘What if he doesn’t come along? Does that mean you have to miss out on having a family?’
They chewed this over for a moment.
‘For me it’s about having a life partner,’ said Daniela. ‘I wouldn’t want to be single when I’m sixty-five.’
‘Yes, someone to share things with,’ Annabel agreed. ‘As people pair off and have children, they’re naturally less available for dinners and cocktails and plays and galleries or a movie on a sleepy Sunday afternoon. I want someone who’ll do those things with me.’
‘Exactly,’ said Clementine. ‘So that’s what we should be looking for. Instead of sitting around waiting for our soul mates to invite us for a night of mimosas and dancing, we should be trying to find men who will meet those other needs. People didn’t used to marry for love. They married to form alliances or to enhance their family’s wealth or status. They married to create a working unit. Women would till soil while husbands trapped animals. Sailors’ wives would maintain the property while the men improved their fortunes at sea. Marriage was mercantile. This “true love” thing is new. It’s romance cooked up by art and marketing. It’s commerce. It’s spin. It’s MGM studios and Harlequin paperbacks and Cadbury’s trying to increase the sale of Milk Trays. It’s Tiffany’s and Cartier wanting to sell more diamonds. We’re not looking for lovers; we’re looking for business partners. Partners in the business of being married. The business of paying mortgages and having and raising children. We’re thirty-four and we shouldn’t be duped any more. We should be recruiting men the way you would recruit someone for a job.’
‘Recruiting them?’ Annabel bristled at the word.
But Clementine was on a roll: ‘Yes, very targeted recruitment. Finding someone to suit a set of criteria to carry out a task.’
‘Like head-hunting?’ Annabel asked cautiously.
‘Exactly.’ Clementine was decisive. ‘Husband-hunting.’
Annabel thought back to the recruitment firm she had used to hire Ant and Kathy. She had to admit, they had been very effective.
‘But hang on,’ said Daniela. ‘I have been dating for a very long time, and nobody has ever asked me to marry them. Once we’ve identified candidates, how are we going to enlist them? Conscription?’
‘The same way we would if we were approaching them from a business perspective,’ said Clementine. ‘By following a plan, finding out what they want, and making them an attractive offer.’
Annabel had been starting to warm to the idea, but she had to draw the line there.
‘No, no, no, no. You can’t just slap down a prenup and a mortgage agreement over cocktails on a Friday night. What about romance and dinner dates?’
‘We’ll still do that,’ said Clementine. ‘I’m not talking about sending them a prospectus with an offer made out in writing. I’m just talking about following a plan. A strategy. Not getting swept up in the emotional turmoil.’ She sighed. ‘I work all day with men who are struggling with relationships, and I feel like I have a little insight. But I just … I find it hard to meet them and strike up a conversation.’
‘Talking to men is easy,’ said Daniela. ‘I’m on site with them all day, every day. We have a great time. But none of them are interested in me. I can’t seem to get men to see me as a woman. As desirable. Sometimes I look in the mirror and I think, “I’m okay-looking, you know.” But they don’t seem to notice. And at 11pm on a Friday, the men I know would rather be with a bimbo in a short skirt than with me, one of their friends.’
‘At least they want to hear what you have to say,’ Annabel said. ‘Men look at me and all they see is how good I will make them look when they’re showing me off to their co-workers.’ She blushed. ‘They couldn’t care less about my business or my ideas. I could be a professional traffic cone standing on Parramatta Road dressed in orange all day for all they care.’
‘It sounds like we could help each other,’ said Clementine.
‘I’d like that,’ Annabel smiled.
When they had finished their drinks, they walked back up to the reception centre. On their way they passed a very angry woman in a Roberto Cavalli dress. She was storming out, with her husband trailing behind her.
‘You’re so untrusting!’
‘You’re so untrustworthy!’
‘Oh God,’ said Clementine, putting a hand up to hide her face. The couple hadn’t seen them.
‘Yes.’ Clementine’s body was rigid. They stood in silence for a moment.
‘You know what Jane Austen says,’ Annabel mused. ‘Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. It is best to know as little about the defects of one’s future partner as possible.’
And suddenly they were laughing again.
6.59am. Daniela’s clutch jammed.
She screeched into her parking space with seconds to spare. The rough arrival knocked the lid off her espresso and sent the contents sloshing all over her gearstick. She blotted it with the morning’s paper. No time to worry about that now. She gathered up her contracts and hard hat and, with a quick check in the mirror to make sure there was no food in her teeth, tumbled out of her car.
Daniela loved construction sites in the morning. The air was still. The city hadn’t fully woken up. Behind steamed-up windows parents were trying to get their children to eat their cereal or were chasing naked toddlers who didn’t want to be constrained by clothes. And she was outside, building. The city was forever expanding and changing, and she got to be a part of that.
She put on her hard hat and regretted coming into work with a hangover. Not for the reasons most people would — namely, the risk of vomiting on your boss — but because she loved her job and felt it deserved her full attention. She quietly cursed Mirabella for holding her wedding on a Sunday. As someone whose relationship with paid employment was casual at best, the imposition obviously hadn’t occurred to her.
‘Has anybody seen Briggs?’ Daniela called out, trying to sound decisive rather than late and flustered as she motored across the site.
Barney Briggs, the foreman, was on his phone. He waved at her.
‘Did those new drawings come in from the architects?’ she asked.
He put a hand over his phone. ‘Don’t know. You’ll have to ask James.’
Daniela stopped. ‘James?’
‘Yeah. He signed off on the changes.’
‘Oh. Have you seen him?’
‘Would have asked him myself if I had.’
‘Right. Can you send him into my office if you do?’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Briggs, saluting.
‘Oh stop it,’ she called over her shoulder, power-walking to her demountable.
Two of the company’s builders, Toby and Mark, were unloading a pallet of cinder blocks near the site offices. As Mark bent over, Dani saw Toby toss a handful of gravel at the target Mark’s backside presented.
‘You guys wouldn’t be throwing things on my building site, would you?’ Daniela said.
‘DeLuca,’ Toby guiltily dropped another fistful of stones. ‘What happened to you after rugby yesterday?’
‘Yeah, we needed you for darts at The Sandy,’ said Mark.
‘Sorry, boys. I had a wedding.’
Toby pushed back his hat, revealing his boyish face. His chin was streaked with tiger-stripes of hair missed by his razor. Daniela didn’t know for sure, but she guessed they were both in their mid-twenties.
‘Whose wedding?’ he asked.
‘An old school friend.’
‘Have you been holding out on us?’ Mark asked. ‘All this time we thought you were only mates with blokes. Turns out, you’ve got a whole schoolhouse of girlfriends.’
‘Are you going to hook us up, then?’ Toby asked.
‘I don’t think my friends are your type.’
Daniela wondered what they would say if she told them about the husband-hunting venture. They would probably laugh. When she was their age she would have laughed, too. But what Clementine had said made sense. It was a form of outsourcing. If you need your taxes done, you go to an accountant. To get your nails done, you go to a beauty salon. Actually, Daniela did her own taxes, and she hadn’t had a manicure since she was a bridesmaid at her cousin Concetta’s wedding. But Clementine the psychologist and Annabel the model were going to help her. In return she would be their spy in the world of men.
‘Go on,’ said Mark, opening his backpack.
She watched them pick at their breakfasts. Toby slurped a Coke and Mark ate a cold meat pie. As he bit into it, sauce and pie guts dribbled out onto his wrist. He used his other hand, which a moment earlier he’d been burrowing in the ground with, to hold up its bottom, which was sagging.
‘Okay. You guys want to meet my friends? Tell me, what do you look for in a woman? I’ll see if I have anybody who might be to your liking.’
‘Easy,’ said Mark. ‘Tits, legs, face.’
‘Aren’t you in luck,’ Daniela folded her arms. ‘My friends have all those things.’
Toby laughed, spitting flakes of pie pastry. Dani had already told Annabel and Clementine that guys from her job would be off-limits. Not that she had to. There was only one eligible man on the whole site.
‘You guys haven’t seen James, have you?’
Toby chewed his pie, looking at her.
‘What do you want him for?’ He raised an eyebrow.
Daniela’s chest tightened. Had Emerson said something? Mark slurped from his can.
Toby swallowed. ‘Nuh, haven’t seen him.’ Dani studied his face for traces of amusement. Derision. Nothing. Emerson hadn’t told them.
‘I’m waiting on some new drawings,’ she blurted. ‘That’s why I’m asking. Drawings.’
Then she hurried into her office and shut the door.
A month earlier, James Jensen had been chosen to go with Daniela to Melbourne for a series of meetings with Dayton, the company they were building the apartments for. Their duty manager Emerson had gone, too.
Dayton put them up for a night in a place built by their previous contactor.
‘This is like a “what not to do”,’ their staffer had said when he let them in. ‘This place is the reason we fired the last mob.’
The boxy interior had no natural light, and the floors were a dingy polished concrete that had been poorly finished. The surface was dark, almost black, and it sucked the colour from the air.
‘This is not a home,’ said James, opening the curtains to a view of a brick wall.
‘It’s like a dungeon,’ Emerson said.
There was an L-shaped living space and kitchenette, two bedrooms and a stadium-sized bathroom. ‘The last place you want an echo,’ Emerson said.
‘What a waste of space,’ said James. ‘Uh-oh.’
He was inspecting the sleeping arrangements. There were only two beds. A single in one room and a double in the other. Daniela looked at the double bed. James shuffled his feet.
‘I’ll take the couch,’ he said.
‘There is no couch,’ Emerson called from the living room.
Opposite the television was a wooden bench built into the wall and upholstered by a flimsy piece of foam rubber.
‘Looks like we’re bed buddies,’ James said to Emerson.
‘Fine,’ Emerson grumbled. ‘But I’m the big spoon.’
The Dayton management team took them out for steaks swimming in pepper sauce and several bottles of red wine. By 11pm James and Dani had wanted to head back to the flat, but Emerson was determined to enjoy his night in Melbourne. He dragged them to the casino, where he poured large steins of beer down his gullet, then wiped the foam away with the back of his sleeve before ordering more. James and Daniela drank water as they followed him from table to table.
‘Emerson, we have a big meeting before our flight tomorrow,’ Dani called as he staggered over to a blackjack dealer, scuttling stools. Emerson was stocky, with curly hair that always seemed to be damp, and a face that was becoming puffier and redder as the night progressed.
‘One more game,’ he protested.
They watched him drain whisky glasses and lose at blackjack for half an hour until he ran out of chips.
‘Come on, mate, we’ve got an early start.’ James hooked his arm under Emerson’s and heaved him up from his seat. Placated by booze, Emerson didn’t resist. His legs worked, mostly, and he let the other two guide him out onto the street, into a cab, and then across the lobby to the lift of their apartment.
After James unlocked the door, Emerson lurched forward and stumbled into the first bedroom where he crashed onto the single mattress.
‘Emerson,’ Dani cupped her hands over his ear. ‘Emerson.’ She looked at James. ‘Help me move him so I can get to bed.’
James bent over Emerson, put his arms around his waist and tried to heave him off the bed. Emerson moaned and burped a tablespoon of bright vomit onto the pillow. It was the colour of squash.
‘Yuck,’ Dani said.
‘Why is it yellow?’ James asked.
Daniela put her hands on her hips. ‘Change of plans. Emerson gets the single bed.’ She looked up at James. He was contemplating Emerson’s beached body, avoiding her eyes.
‘I’ll sleep on the couch,’ he said.
While Dani cleared away the soiled pillow, James took a pile of blankets into the living room and tried to turn the bench into a bunk. He climbed onto the makeshift cot and said things like ‘quite comfy, really’, as he plumped the pillows and tried to stop the blanket sliding off his knees. His legs were bent up like a pair of A-frame houses, and the foam padding had been crushed by his weight to the width of a pancake.
‘I’ll sleep here,’ Daniela said. ‘You barely fit.’
‘No, Dani. I can’t make you sleep on this.’
‘Well, what will we do?’
James didn’t say anything. They both looked towards the master bedroom.
‘We can’t sleep in there together,’ Dani said.
‘Would it really matter? We’ve shared a bed before—’
‘Jensen!’ She was too late to cut him off. ‘Shh!’ She pointed at Emerson’s room. A rattling snored emanated from within.
‘He can’t hear us. Besides, I’m not asking you to go to bed with me — I’m saying you should share a bed with me. It’s a huge bed. I was going to share it with Emerson, for God’s sake.’
‘I don’t want him seeing us in there together,’ she whispered.
‘He’s not going to guess.’
‘That’s not what I’m worried about. I just don’t want him getting the wrong idea. You don’t know what it’s like being a woman on a building site. I don’t want him telling people we were in there. I don’t want gossip. I don’t want doubt. I don’t want anything a male manager wouldn’t have to deal with.’
James slid his fingers through his hair. ‘Okay. You’re right. I just … I feel bad making you sleep out here on this awful, indoor park bench.’
‘I’ll be fine.’ Dani took the pillow from him.
She was able to straighten her legs, but her head was forced into an angle perpendicular to her spine. The wood ground into her bones. She threw off the blanket and padded around the lounge room, looking for somewhere else to sleep. She wandered up and down the hall, then into the bathroom. Bingo. A spa. She ripped the foam mattress from the bench, grabbed the cushions, emptied the hall cupboard of blankets, and carried them into the bathroom. She arranged the bedding all around the tri-corner bath, then layered blankets on top. She lifted her leg and climbed in.
‘What are you doing?’
Dani jumped. James was standing at the door with an amused look on his face.
She straightened up. ‘You were right. The bench is too small.’
‘So you’re going to sleep in the bath?’
They looked at the nest of bedding.
‘Come on.’ He picked up one of the pillows.
‘No, Jensen. We can’t.’
‘We’ll set an alarm. Emerson won’t even know. If he asks, we’ll say you slept on the couch. We have a breakfast meeting with Dayton at six. You’re going to be doing most of the talking. You need sleep.’
Dani hesitated, but he was right. She followed him into the bedroom where the double bed looked soft and inviting. Climbing into the left side, she kept close to the edge of the mattress, and turned away while James changed. She could hear the fabric skipping over his skin as he pulled his shirt off. The elastic of his pyjama pants snapped against his waist.
Daniela closed her eyes and felt him ease himself into bed. The stiff mattress sunk with his weight, tilting her towards him. She pressed herself flat and tried to focus her mind on the meeting.
‘Night.’ James turned off the bedside lamp.
The air was still and he was silent. She wanted to say something. The room’s high windows dropped bars of light across the bed.
Dani rolled over to face James, but he was on his side with his back to her. The pose was indifferent, and she felt a familiar jab to her chest. She turned over again so that her nose was almost touching the wall, and tried to sleep.
At the wedding Daniela had suggested to Amanda and Clementine that the best way to get a man to fall for you was to be demanding and shrewish.
‘Treat them mean, keep them keen. There’s a reason that’s a saying,’ she declared.
‘That’s the opposite of what I’ve always been told,’ said Annabel.
Dani shook her head. ‘They don’t care if you’re nice, only if you’re nice-looking. No man has ever said, “I’m in love, I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s just so reasonable.” ’
Now she drummed her fingers on her desk, contemplating this. She looked out the window to where Toby and Mark were doing bicep curls with the bricks they were supposed to be moving. Tits, legs, face. Charming. There was a knock at the door.
‘Dani? Are you decent?’
‘Ah, just a minute,’ she called.
‘Briggs said you wanted to see me.’
She scrambled for some Tic Tacs, mixed herself a pick-me-up of Berocca and Red Bull, and swept a bottle of Clear Eyes from her desk. She took off her hard hat and scrunched her hair.
‘Okay,’ she called.
James pushed open the office door.
‘What were you doing? Disposing of a corpse?’
Daniela laughed nervously and wondered how bloodshot her eyes were.
She cleared her throat. ‘Did those drawings come in?’
‘Yeah. I’ve just been going over them.’
‘They’ve moved the air vent?’
‘Yep. It all looks okay. I’ll get Toby to bring them over shortly.’
‘Was that all?’ He was grinning. James had lovely warm tan, as if he started each day basking in a private patch of sunshine. His eyes were the colour of shamrocks.
‘James, what are you doing this weekend?’
‘Jeez, Dani, it’s only Monday morning and already you’re planning your next bender.’
‘What bender? Why would you think I was on a bender?’
He nodded at the tablet effervescing in the glass of pink energy drink on her desk.
‘I just needed something to wake me up. But really, I’m curious, where do you and your friends hang out on weekends?’