Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
She unlocked her office and pushed through the door. The room was cloaked in darkness. She had left the blinds shut. They were high-up and made from heavy wool, and she didn’t have the energy to open them. She flicked on the light switch instead. While she used to arrive brimming with energy, ready to tackle meaty marital problems, now she felt as though she had lost her tools. The certificates on the wall behind her felt self-conscious. Like clumsy misdirection. Don’t look at the pale woman who had an affair, they seemed to say. Look at her certificates. BSc, MSc, Dip Psych, Dip Clin Psych.
She undid her top collar button. There was a knock at the door. Her first appointment. Clementine took a deep breath.
Brian and Wilhelmina Highett sat before her looking uncomfortable. They had been married only eighteen months, and had decided to enter ‘pre-emptive therapy’ when they started fighting about furniture placement. Clem had spent the past four months working with them through their adjustment to co-habitation. There had been a fight on the subject of paint versus wallpaper, whether a television should be allowed in the bedroom, acceptable wattage for light-bulbs, and solid versus liquid soap. They were just starting to make progress when Wilhelmina had stumbled across Brian’s web-browser history.
‘I just don’t understand why, if he likes that stuff, he couldn’t tell me,’ she said, avoiding her husband’s eyes.
Brian folded his arms. ‘I don’t want to do that with you. I just like looking at it,’ he mumbled.
Clementine curled up the edges of her notepad. She wanted to help them, but she couldn’t think of what to say. Who was she to give advice? Her tongue was stuck to the roof of her mouth. Brian and Wilhelmina waited with hopeful eyes.
‘Communication is really important in a marriage,’ Clem offered weakly.
Wilhelmina nodded. ‘I bet you and your partner talk about everything.’
Clementine’s right hand moved to cover the naked knuckles on her left.
Here was another reason the husband-hunting project was important. She needed to get her credibility back. She needed that final marriage counsellor’s certificate for her wall to firm up her suitability for the task. That would restore her confidence. It would be right there in black and white: Clementine Crosley, Md (Married).
Her last appointment for the day was with a new patient, a recently separated television executive named Premendra. He was a tall man of Indian heritage, with beautiful skin and wide coal-coloured eyes.
Usually when men first came into Clementine’s office they shuffled around nervously and um-ed and ah-ed until they made themselves comfortable on one of the chairs. Premendra immediately went to the chaise longue and flung himself onto it dramatically.
‘Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know why I can’t make it stick,’ he said.
Clementine got up from her desk and took a pad to the chair closest to the chaise longue. Nobody ever lay on the chaise. The chestnut wood and bottle-green leather antique had been rendered ornamental by disuse. Men seemed to feel too vulnerable splayed out on it. They preferred to sit up straight on the other side of her desk.
Premendra slipped off his shoes, folded his hands behind his head and began to talk.
‘She’s really organised. Really together,’ he said of his wife. His tone told Clementine he considered this to be a bad thing. ‘Everything at home runs with Swiss precision. She stage-manages my life. I’d be hopeless without her.’ Clem scratched her cheek, restless.
The hour expired after more of these breathy soliloquies that didn’t reveal anything. The old Clementine would have patiently waited for him to open up. The new Clementine was indignant. He was only pretending to try; were no men committed to their relationships?
‘That’s an hour,’ she said, closing her notepad.
‘Righto.’ He leapt off the couch. ‘Same time next week?’
After he left Clementine took from her bag the lunch she hadn’t had time to eat. It was a fruit salad of apricot and banana, and avocado spread on linseed bread. All the ingredients were packed with potassium and tryptophan, designed to lift her mood. Dessert was a muffin studded with raspberries and cranberries for strength and resilience, which she hoped would strengthen her willpower. She plucked the berries out one by one and threw the dismembered cake in the bin.
Then she starred at her bare desk. She felt lethargic. The animal part of her wanted to call Jason and listen to his promises that his marriage was over. But her civilised, socialised self was trying to do the right thing; to leave him and Amanda in peace. She feared that if she moved she would find her hands picking up her mobile and dialling his number.
Clementine sat in her chair for forty-three minutes, motionless, until her phone shook to life. She seized it. There was a message. Her pulse immediately rose. She pressed open and exhaled. It was Annabel letting her know the details for their planned catch-up on Saturday.
‘This is madness,’ Clementine said to herself.
She scrolled down until she came to the last message Jason had sent and zapped it with the delete button. She repeated the process until all incoming and outgoing message to Jason Ceravic were erased. She went through her call history and exorcised him from there, too. Then there was only one thing left to do. She opened her contact list and highlighted his name.
Do you want to delete contact Jason Ceravic?
her phone asked.
She moved the cursor over the yes panel, let it hover there for a moment, and clicked.
On Saturday morning Annabel announced that she was taking Clem and Daniela to a CrossFit class.
‘When you’re trying to sell a product you need to have confidence in it. Being fit and healthy will improve how we feel about ourselves, which will make our pitches more effective,’ she said.
‘What is CrossFit exactly?’ Dani asked.
‘It’s a very intensive form of exercise,’ Annabel said, stretching. She was dressed in electric blue lycra and silver runners. ‘Lots of professional athletes use it. But the same principals are also used for grandparents who want to stay in shape.’
‘Which group are you suggesting we relate to?’ Daniela asked. She was wearing board shorts and a Powderfinger T-shirt.
‘In that outfit, stoner teens,’ said Annabel. ‘But they can do CrossFit, too.’
‘What? This is what I play rugby in.’
‘It’s better if you’re wearing proper exercise gear. You can move more freely, which means you’ll burn more calories.’
‘I don’t care about that. I can’t put on weight,’ Daniela explained.
‘It’s not about being thin, it’s about being fit,’ said Annabel.
‘You should exercise as much as possible,’ Clementine said, stretching her legs. ‘Rigorous activity releases endorphins that make you feel good.’
‘Besides, who knows who you’ll meet at the gym?’ said Annabel. ‘This is the place to be if you’re after a muscle man, Dani.’
‘There are lots of cute men at my gym,’ Dani said. ‘Problem is they’re all checking each other out. Plus, I can’t meet someone when I’m all sweaty and red.’
‘I’m sure you look great at the gym,’ said Annabel.
‘Nobody looks good at the gym,’ said Dani. ‘If you look good at the gym, you’re not doing it right.’
Clem noticed a set of dark eyes looking at her from the other side of the weights station. They darted away when she caught them starring. It was Premendra. He was wearing a loose tank top that showed off unexpectedly large arms. She gave him a friendly wave. He nodded and smiled, but didn’t come over.
‘See!’ Annabel whispered.
‘He’s handsome,’ said Daniela.
‘He’s a client.’
Clementine hated running into clients in the world outside of her office. Despite living in a city of four million, it happened frequently. Like many people, she travelled almost exclusively in her immediate cluster of suburbs, which meant she was really living in a village with a population of about forty thousand people. When she collided with a client in that small-town world they panicked, as if they expected her to bellow ‘Bill, how’s your impotence problem?’ across the sauce aisle at Thomas Dux.
The only thing worse was when she came across them in a social situation. They forgot that the reason she listened patiently and dispensed insight over the minutiae of their lives was because she was a paid professional. They seemed to think she was fascinated by them, and wanted to spend all of Kimberly Granger’s pool party hearing about the dream they’d had the night before.
‘That’s a shame,’ said Annabel. ‘Oh well, maybe you’ll meet someone at the party tonight.’
Clem didn’t like her chances. She pushed her earphones into her ears and hopped onto the treadmill to warm up. As the music started to play and she fell into a rhythm, her mind drifted back to a stolen afternoon with Jason in Sydney Park. She tried to steer her thoughts away from that memory. But little pieces kept coming back to her: the scratchy grass, the scent of Jason’s shampoo, mouldy blue cheese. At the time she hadn’t thought to question why he had driven the twenty-five minutes to the park in Newtown when Centennial Park was closer and, frankly, nicer. Their spot on the top of the hill provided panoramic views of the city, and that had seemed like reason enough at the time. They had picked from plastic plates of fruit and cheese while lying side by side. As they were heading back to the car, Jason swinging the picnic basket, they had come across a tree. It was thick and had smooth, low branches.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘as a kid I was a champion tree climber.’
He hooked a leg over the lowest branch and swung himself up. Then he held out his hand for Clem. She stepped out of her shoes and put a bare foot on the rough bark. She gripped the topside of the branch and pulled herself over. Jason settled down against the trunk of the tree and pulled her into his arms. Below them, children played rugby with their father. Clementine had wanted to ask Jason if he wanted children, but she was afraid to. The words were formed in her throat — all she had to do was open her mouth and release them — but something held her back.
‘I’d like to have kids one day,’ he said.
Her heart fluttered. ‘Mmm,’ she agreed dozily.
After that she had started thinking that maybe children were a real possibility for her and Jason. She pictured freckly kids with hair that was a cross between his brown and her red. They ran around a lot and always seemed to get dirt on their hands. One would play the violin. The other would spend Saturday afternoons in the backyard with a magnifying glass, looking for evidence of pixies.
But those kids would never exist. In their place, he would have little blonde kids with clear, purple eyes and hair that never tangled.
Clementine ran faster, increasing the incline and punching ‘15’ into the speedometer. She ran until her muscles ached. Tears mingled with sweat. She ran until she could hardly breathe and all she could think about was water.
‘It’s not about what you wear, it’s about how you wear it,’ Annabel told Clementine as she held a third dress up to her chest.
‘A supermodel would say that,’ Clem said, tossing the pink silk Fleur Wood sundress onto the pile of maybes on the bed. It had large swirls of dark pink on it and delicate covered buttons. Clementine’s clothes were — almost without exception — all green. The inside of her wardrobe looked like a forest. It looked like Narnia.
Everything was perfectly pressed on evenly-spaced matching hangers, quite different from Annabel’s chaotic flat; constant late-night events left little time for doing laundry. In emergencies, underwear could usually be found in one of the wrapped boxes or gift bags that sat in the corner of her walk-in wardrobe.
‘It’s all about confidence,’ she told Clementine, rifling through her drawers. ‘What are you best assets?’
‘My SolarTech shares are performing awfully well right now.’
‘You know what I mean. Pick something you like about yourself and dress to accentuate it.’ Annabel held up a bottle-coloured flapper dress with a white pleat trim. ‘Why is everything green?’
‘I like this one.’ Daniela picked up the pink dress. ‘This is quite low-cut, and you’ve got great breasts. You should wear this.’ Annabel nodded in agreement. You could always trust Dani to think like a man. Clementine furrowed her brow.
‘Tonight is all about testing out new tactics,’ Annabel insisted. ‘Whatever we’ve been doing for the past twenty years hasn’t worked. We need fresh strategies.’
Clem held the dress against her chest again. She was moping. Since cutting Jason out of her life on Wednesday, the sense of empowerment had started to ebb. When she hadn’t heard from him by Friday, loneliness had set in.
‘I thought the idea was understated charm,’ she said.
‘That’s just me,’ Annabel told her. ‘Wear the pink dress. How are you going to change your fate if you can’t even change your clothes?’
In the spirit of the husband-hunting venture Annabel had decided to conduct an experiment. She was a firm believer in Mark Twain’s saying: ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, then you’ll always get what you always got’. She didn’t think people should alter themselves for others, but she figured she could alter others’ perceptions of her. When people met her for the first time they saw a former model in designer clothes. They registered blonde. They registered breasts. She figured she must have been attracting ambitious types who wanted a display wife because she was going out polished up like a prize. Tonight she would dress simply.
‘When I’m trying to sell something, I think a lot about the product’s branding. What’s its story? Packaging is a big part of that,’ Annabel told Clementine as she wriggled into the pink dress. She picked up a pair of gold drop earrings. ‘Add these and you’ll be unstoppable.’
The shades of pink in the frock clashed prettily with Clementine’s hair, which was long and slinky. She usually tidied it away in a bun or a top-knot, but Annabel had convinced her to wear it out. It was the colour some would have called strawberry blonde, but richer. More like raspberry blonde. Clementine was small, with thin shoulders and ankles, but curvy breasts and hips, and a long, graceful neck. She slid her hair to one side as she hooked the earrings into her lobes.
Annabel had tried to copy her sophisticated style. Her blonde mop was pulled into a simple bun at the base of her neck, and she wore a plain white shirt, Max Mara slim-cut with crisp pleats, black tailored Saba pants, and a pair of low, pointed Italian heels. Her makeup was a dab of crème blush and some Indigo mascara. She had even considered wearing her Dior reading glasses, but decided that was going too far. In the spirit of her challenge she had convinced Daniela to wear some lipstick and a little eyeliner.
‘I’m not sure this is a compliment,’ Dani said, wiping a tissue beneath one of her eyes. Without makeup she was very striking, but the subtle colour highlighted her eyes and beautiful mouth.
‘James says the makeup industry preys on women’s insecurities to turn a profit,’ Dani continued. ‘And that some of the most beautiful women in the world hardly wear makeup at all.’
‘I’m looking forward to meeting your friend James,’ Annabel said. ‘It sounds like you two are very close.’
‘No, no, we’re not.’ Daniela gave Annabel a look she couldn’t quite read.
James’s brother’s three-storey Vaucluse house rose behind a dense hedge. It was brilliant white. Each ascending level was slightly smaller, like tiers on a wedding cake. The spaces created by the retreating levels were used as balconies. They held stray guests smoking cigarettes.
Daniela fished the invitation out of her handbag. It had the security code for the gate. A hired guard with a little plastic slug in his ear ran a metal detection wand over the guests.
‘Wow,’ mouthed Clementine.
A set of polished concrete stairs led to a door with an old-fashioned pull-ring bell. Daniela gave it a tug, releasing a jangle of bells. Annabel began to regret her pared-back outfit, worrying that she would end up like a hapless rom-com heroine whom everyone mistakes for a waitress at a party. She slipped her hand into her bag and felt around for a lipstick.
A handsome man with broad shoulders and a works-outdoors tan answered the door. He looked at the three women with eyebrows raised in surprise.
‘Dani,’ he said. ‘Great that you could make it. Ah, who are you friends?’
‘Hi, Jensen,’ Dani leaned in and pecked him on the cheek. ‘This is an old school friend of mine, Annabel, and you remember Clementine from uni. This,’ Dani gestured to the man, ‘is my, ah, friend James.’
‘Good to meet you.’ He shook their hands. ‘Come in.’
Dani fell into step with James as he led them down a shadowy hallway. The white walls were decorated with large sepia photos from famous sites taken from unusual angles: among them, the Eiffel Tower, shot standing directly under its apex, an aerial photo of the Taj Mahal and its grounds, and grainy, close-up shots of Petra.
Clementine raised her eyebrows at Annabel as they heard titters from the pair in front of them.
‘Have you got a lipstick?’ Annabel asked her.
The hallway emptied into an expansive lounge room filled with people clutching drinks. There was a cheerful hubbub in the air. A glass wall revealed more people talking and laughing on a lawn among palm trees and paper lanterns.
‘Make yourselves at home,’ James said, taking their coats.
The second he was gone, both Clem and Annabel grabbed Daniela’s arms.
‘Your workmate James is James
?’ Clementine hissed.
‘He’s gorgeous,’ Annabel said.
‘He’d be the perfect target,’ Annabel told her.
‘No,’ Dani snapped. ‘Absolutely not. That’s not an option.’
‘I can’t believe you work with James Jensen,’ said Clem.
‘Why?’ Daniela looked guilty.
‘The way you always used talk about him …’ Clementine trailed off. ‘Oh my God.’
Amanda Ceravic was striding towards them. She walked as though modelling the crimson skirt slashed to the thigh, and the silk beige top that showed off her midriff. Her stork-like legs were wrapped in strappy, bone-coloured Louboutins. She was headed for the hallway, staring straight ahead. But she stopped, a little startled, when she came to Clementine.
‘Oh, hello,’ she said. Annabel could see Amanda’s mind ticking over, trying to place her. Clementine lifted her chin.
‘Hello,’ she said. ‘Amanda, wasn’t it?’
‘Mirabella’s wedding!’ Realisation arrived. ‘Why, hello again.’ Amanda’s eyes were on the exit. ‘Lovely to see you, but I’m just on my way out. I have to be at The Ivy by ten. Excuse me.’ She breezed past in a cloud of Prada perfume.
‘Oh my God,’ Clementine cried again, diving behind Daniela. On the deck was a man Annabel recognised as a wedding guest. Jason. She could see why Clementine was so attached. He was the personification of the phrase ‘tall, dark and handsome’. An open collar showed off the top of his sunburnt chest.
‘I had never seen him before we started dating, now he’s everywhere I look,’ Clementine said. ‘Why wasn’t he so overtly present when he was young and single? I have to get out of here.’
‘We can’t leave,’ said Daniela. ‘We just got here.’
Clementine gave Annabel a knowing look.
‘Oh, come on,’ Clem said. Crouching forward in the manner of a soldier under fire, she pulled Daniela and Annabel into the kitchen where she barricaded herself behind a commercial pie-warmer. ‘Why do I keep running into him?’
‘Here.’ Daniela grabbed a stray bottle of merlot and poured a glass. ‘Put some wine on it.’
Clementine drained it in one go.
‘I’ll get you another.’ Annabel headed off the waitress at an onyx coffee table in the adjoining room.
When she returned, Daniela was stockpiling cocktails. A blond head popped over the pie-warmer.
‘Hello,’ the man said. ‘I thought I saw you.’
He’d been at the wedding, too. He held out a plate of chocolate tarts. ‘I noticed there was a siege in the kitchen, so I thought I’d bring you some sugar to help keep your energy up for the stand-off.’
He was looking at Clementine intently. She took a tart and thanked him. Annabel gave a little cough.
‘I’m Annabel.’ She offered her hand.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, where are my manners? I’m Damon.’
‘Avoiding the enemy?’ he asked. Clementine nodded. Damon told her that he was sorry for the way she had been treated.
‘Jason is my oldest friend, but he always has had a thing for the ladies,’ he said.
Clementine nodded stiffly. The pink dress she had chosen brought out the bloom in her cheeks. Damon couldn’t take his eyes off her. She couldn’t take her doleful eyes off the French doors that led to Jason.
‘So, Damon,’ Annabel spoke over the people gathering at the food station, ‘has Clementine ever told you about the high-school skiing trip where we collided and each broke a leg?’
‘No, she hasn’t.’ He came out from behind the pie-warmer and forged his way through the crowd towards them.
‘What are you doing?’ Clementine hissed in Annabel’s ear.
‘You have to talk to a single man tonight. It’s your one task.’
‘But he’s Jason’s best friend.’
‘It’s just practice. You need to restore your confidence and remind yourself that you are an attractive woman who can do better than that lying, cheating liar.’
Damon arrived. ‘So, you’re a skier,’ he said to Clementine. Annabel discreetly excused herself to take her glass of red wine for a tour of the party.
But first she rustled in her handbag until her fingers curled around a compact of highlighter. Turning her back to the room she pulled it out and attacked her cheek and brow bones with the brush. Satisfied, she accepted a crab claw from one of the waitresses and moved off to assess the men on offer.
She tried to picture herself propped up in bed with one of them, the newspapers spread over their laps. Him reading the sports pages through horn-rimmed glasses. Her, in a Calvin Klein nightie, trying to pay attention to a feature about genetically modified foods before flipping to the fashion pages. Their bedcovers would be unrumpled and catalogue-ready. A sexless chill would linger between them. It all seemed so sad, like a form of surrender to the expectations of others at the expense of your own happiness.
Annabel noticed that most of the attractive men were outside with Jason. He had an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth and was wearing a white shirt of textured cotton that was offset by a careworn velvet blazer. A single tortoiseshell button nipped it at the waist, creating the perfect inverted isosceles triangle of broad shoulders tapering to slim hips.
As she watched him talk and wave his cigar around, anger bubbled inside her. How dare he be so cheerful? How dare he laugh casually after what he had done? She acknowledged that his features were handsome, but instead of looking attractive they seemed sinister; like bait to lure unsuspecting women. His teeth were hateful. His smile was arrogant. He had selfish lips. Lips he had pressed to the apple of Annabel’s friend’s cheek to make her believe she had found someone to love. Lips that weren’t his to give. Lips he had already pledged to Amanda.
This was not how it was supposed to be, Annabel thought. In all the paperback romances she had devoured backstage before catwalk shows, the great love stories never involved the hero having an affair. They had titles like
To Have and To Hold
Shores of Love
. Chisel-jawed Chad, or Rhys, the rippled prince of Loch Leigh, never cheated on their wives.
I should go out there and say something, Annabel thought. She imagined his guileless grin melting away when she told him what she thought of him.
Jason took a silver lighter from his pocket, put the cigar between his lips and bought the flame to its tip. He puckered his mouth, sucked greedily, then blew a geyser of blue smoke over the crowd. Annabel ground her teeth. How inconsiderate.
A short man in glasses coughed and waved his hand in front of his face. Dressed in tweed, he stood out in the crew of blue-suited men. He seemed gentler, and looked vaguely familiar. Jason opened his mouth and laughed. Annabel felt a shudder of rage.
In the kitchen, she could see Clementine deep in conversation with Damon. Her pale neck was bent down like a melancholy swan. She was nodding along to Damon’s conversation, but not contributing much herself. Annabel wanted a chocolate tart from the tray Damon was holding. But something about the way he was looking at Clementine told her not to interrupt.
She stole another glance outside. Jason looked up in time to catch her eye. She hurriedly looked away. Too late! He faintly raised his brow as his eyes met hers. The arrogance! He thought she was checking him out. Annabel put her hand up to her face, hoping nobody had seen the exchange. He lifted his chin. Then he winked.
It was like a slap.
Amanda gasped. How dare he? She paced the lounge room angrily, thinking ‘I should say something.’ She couldn’t believe he had winked at her. ‘I should