Authors: Genevieve Gannon
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance
They agreed and locked in a date for Friday night; just the three of them and all the men in Sydney.
On Monday morning Daniela got into her car and turned up The Rolling Stones. She had discovered rock about the same time she had discovered boys. At house parties, standing in muddy backyards or downstairs rooms that smelled of mould and Cheezels, she would shoot pool with the guys and listen to them complain about girls. Why didn’t she do this? Why did she say that? She had resolved never to let them see her as the enemy. She would be Daniela DeLuca: not like other girls.
But that was in the 1990s when she thought techno and snap pants were a good idea. Now she was starting to think Annabel was right: perhaps she had to start doing things differently.
At 9am Dani had a meeting with a woman who was exactly like those other girls she had striven to be different to. The ones who hitched their skirts up in the playground, spent lunch time braiding each other’s hair, and seemed to have the boys wrapped around their fingers as tightly as the gum they spun and twisted. The woman was the company’s consultant on interior decorating, and her name was Abbey Kilburn. Dani didn’t hold Abbey’s inexorable girliness against her. She liked working with her, because she was efficient, very good at her job and organised. Abbey came onto the building site wearing high heels.
Dani opened her office door and immediately felt frumpy. Abbey was wearing a pencil skirt that would be snug on a grey-lead. Her matching jacket plunged to a V between her breasts. Dani was wearing boots, jeans and a shirt so old it was about to come back into fashion.
‘Hello, Abbey,’ she offered her hand.
‘Dani!’ Abbey cried, and dived in for a double air-kiss. ‘I brought swatches!’
She swept into the room and spread square slivers of plastic in varying shades of grey and beige onto Daniela’s desk. Then she leaned onto it herself.
‘I know the company likes to stick with neutrals,’ she said, ‘but I’ve also got the latest season colours as well, if you want to have a sneaky peak.’
There was a knock at the door, then James pushed it open without waiting for a response.
‘Dani, I— Oh, I didn’t realise you were with someone.’
Abbey hopped off the desk and adjusted her jacket.
‘James, you remember Abbey, our decorating consultant.’
‘Of course,’ he rubbed his hand on his pants before offering it up. As she had with Daniela, Abbey ignored the hand and instead went for the cheek.
‘James, of course! How are you? You’re the one the builders call “Jenny”, aren’t you? Why do they do that? Is it a little joke? The way people call redheads “Bluey”?’ She fiddled with the hem of her skirt, pulling at it. Though not, Dani noticed, pulling it down. The motion drew James’s eyes to her legs. Daniela folded her arms. The husband-hunters could learn a lot from Abbey Kilburn, she thought.
‘Jensen, was there something you wanted? We’re very busy, and I’m sure Abbey doesn’t have time to stand around discussing the etymology of your nickname,’ Dani said.
‘It’s so silly,’ Abbey tittered. ‘You’re so obviously not a “Jenny”.’
‘It’s short for Jensen,’ Dani said tersely.
‘Yeah, I don’t really like it.’ James ran his hand through his hair.
‘We’ll have to come up with a new nickname for you, then.’ Abbey clapped her hands like a child who has just been told that they can lick the cake bowl.
‘Shouldn’t we be getting back to …’ Daniela stammered.
have a nickname?’ James asked Abbey. Daniela pouted. He’d never asked her if she had a nickname.
‘Well, not really, except …’ Abbey descended into blushes and giggles. ‘For a little while, once they used to call me … oh no, I can’t …’
‘Go on,’ James nodded.
‘Well, at my Year 12 formal I was wearing this lovely dress with spaghetti straps …’
Dani couldn’t believe what she was hearing. They were supposed to be having a meeting about paint schemes, and all of a sudden she was in the middle of James and Abbey’s first date.
‘… They didn’t have it in my size, but I loved it and insisted Daddy buy it for me,’ Abbey was still talking. Until this moment, Daniela had never noticed how shrill Abbey’s voice was. ‘Anyway, we were all on the dance floor, doing the locomotion and my breasts just tumbled out of it. In front of everyone!’
James laughed. Dani didn’t know why. It wasn’t a funny story.
‘And so they called you what? Janet Jackson?’
Abbey thought this was hilarious, and demonstrated so by collapsing into hysterics.
‘No, no, silly,’ she leaned on James to steady herself from the destabilising effects of his wit. ‘Although that’s very funny. You’re so funny!’ With each word she gave his chest a pat for emphasis.
James chuckled some more. ‘Tara Reid?’
This set Abbey off again. She howled, leaning against James. Dani started shuffling the swatches loudly.
‘No,’ Abbey tried to regain her composure. ‘No, they called me Titsiana.’
James bellowed with laughter. Daniela didn’t.
‘Yes, well, we’re very busy, James,’ she said. ‘So if you wouldn’t mind—’ She took a deep breath and pushed him out the door.
‘He’s gorgeous,’ said Abbey, after he had left. ‘Why have I never noticed before?’
‘Really?’ Dani said. ‘Do you think he’s attractive?’
‘Definitely,’ Abbey fanned herself with hands. ‘His eyes are like that beautiful green from Dulux’s summer 2010 range: Highland Rain.’
Daniela gritted her teeth. It was university all over again. She could feel fear swelling inside her. It was like she was watching a volcano erupt and her shoes were starting to melt, fusing her to the ground so she couldn’t escape.
‘Well, I think he’s seeing someone,’ she said. ‘He always has a couple of girls on the go. He’s a bit of a womaniser, actually.’
‘But nobody special?’ Abbey’s voice was hopeful.
‘Yes, now I think there might be one. One in particular,’ Dani lied.
Abbey’s disappointment lifted Daniela’s spirits ever so slightly. Enough for her to pick up the ring of swatches and fake an enthusiastic smile.
‘I like the Jarrah and the Arctic Daisy,’ she said.
‘I like Arctic Daisy, too,’ Abbey agreed.
Dani pressed her lips into a thin line and pretended to consider the decision.
‘How lucky we have the same taste!’ Abbey said.
She left Dani with a smattering of air kisses and a fistful of order forms. Daniela immediately filled them out, requesting Jarrah for every room.
‘She had the cutest little gap between her teeth,’ Brian Highett said, looking at his wife.
Clementine sat opposite them in a straight-backed chair, her legs primly crossed.
‘It must have been more than the gap in her teeth. Do you remember anything specific she said or did that made you propose?’
Brian put his index finger to his lip in a sign he was thinking.
‘Well, it was—’
Clem had her pencil and pad poised.
His wife was encouraging him with nods, the way you might with a small child taking his first steps.
‘It was that gap,’ he burst into a smile. ‘I just loved that gap.’
Wilhelmina threw her arms around her husband and kissed him wetly on the cheek.
After failing the Highetts last week during the browser-history disaster, Clementine had become obsessed with finding a way to help. But Brian’s fetish of having clothes pegs clipped all over his bare flesh was an unusual one. After tearing through her office bookshelf, Clem had gone home and climbed up the shelves of her linen cupboard to where she kept her old textbooks, and run her finger down their indexes in search of inspiration. She had flipped through chapter after chapter barely comprehending what she was reading. It may as well have been written in Cyrillic.
Clementine slumped to the floor and clutched at her skull. She had done this before. Problems around sexual fetishes, sexual incompatibility and fantasies were common. But the answers were elusive. It was like reaching into a murky pond to catch a fish with your bare hand. She felt terrible for failing the Highetts, and the guilt persisted like the dull ache of a broken bone. She went to bed feeling like a fraud and a fugitive.
When she woke up she still didn’t have a solution, and nothing came to her in the days that followed before their next appointment. So in the end she decided to try to remind them why they fell in love, telling herself that she would come up with something better next week. It was a cheap trick, made cheaper by the fact that she was taking notes to use Brian’s ‘proposal trigger’ as inspiration for husband-hunting.
Clementine told herself she was doing it to help Annabel and Daniela.
‘Okay,’ she said uncrossing her legs, which were starting to atrophy. ‘You fell in love with her tooth gap. But there must have been something that made you decide she was the one. Can you think of what it could have been?’
Brian had wispy hair divided into two equal, flat plains on his scalp. Wilhelmina noticed a small strand had slipped loose, and lovingly returned it. Clem felt a brief reprieve. At least her cheap trick seemed to be working.
‘The only other thing I can think of is—’
Clem leaned forward. ‘Yes?’
‘She makes the tastiest toasted sandwiches. In winter, she puts them into the jaffle iron just as I arrive home. By the time I’m in the kitchen, they’re piping hot, full of cheese and tomato pieces and — What’s that other stuff?’
‘Basil,’ Wilhelmina offered.
‘Basil,’ Brian said. ‘I remember biting into one of those and thinking, “This is a pretty good thing I’ve got going here.” ’
Mr and Mrs Highett stared at each other with bulging anime eyes. Clementine pretended to scribble in her notepad as they pawed each other. She contemplated her second failure. A full day of researching why men fall in love, and this is what she had come up with: tooth gaps and toasted sandwiches. Not quite the artillery of ideas she had hoped to take on their night of husband-hunting.
‘That’s an hour,’ she said.
‘Thanks, Ms Crosley.’ Brian rose and shook Clementine’s hand. His other sleeve was being pulled by his wife. ‘Thanks so much.’
‘Glad to have helped,’ Clem said.
They were already halfway out the door.
The Establishment was like a tightly packed bull pen. Clementine and Daniela were already at the bar. Clem pulled out a compact mirror, swiped on some lipstick and walked over.
‘I’ve never been here before,’ she said, unbuttoning her jacket. She had spent half an hour curating the perfect outfit for today. With the jacket on, her suit was unassuming work wear. Once she took it off, the blouse said ‘come and talk to me’. But the skirt said ‘I’m looking for something serious’.
‘I should take my jacket off, too,’ said Daniela, shrugging out of her boxy blazer.
‘Wow, Ms DeLuca, where did
come from?’ Annabel gazed approvingly.
Dani turned pink.
‘If I’m going to do this, I have to put in a bit of effort. It’s just a black top.’ Her usual ploughman’s shirt had been replaced by a thin knit with a low-scooped neck.
‘It’s perfect,’ Clementine told her.
Dani crossed her arms over her chest.
Clem ordered two gin and tonics — Hendrick’s with cucumber — and a glass of champagne for Annabel. The room was grand, the tall columns and high ceiling giving it a palatial air.
‘Dutch courage,’ Clem said, handing out glasses. ‘But first: ground rules. Let’s go over them.’
They had come up with some guidelines to help them move relationships along without getting side-tracked by affection or feelings. Rule number one: Be immaculate and interested. They figured men were visual creatures. They should be the best versions of themselves and puff up their targets’ egos. Rule number two: The men must initiate all contact. Be receptive but not over-eager. This meant not making men feel like they were sitting around waiting for their call. Rule number three: Don’t sleep with them.
‘The chemicals a woman’s body releases during orgasm can cause feelings of affection. If we want to stay detached, it’s best to resist,’ Clementine said.
‘No kissing,’ said Annabel. ‘The plan is to lock in a date as if you are arranging a business meeting. You wouldn’t kiss your interior decorator, would you?’
Dani banged her glass down.
‘What’s wrong?’ Clem asked. Dani’s pink blush had become an agitated red.
‘Nothing.’ She straightened her back. ‘We’re going out to have a good time, right?’
‘A productive time,’ Clem said.
‘You should be excited,’ Annabel gushed, giving Daniela a playful push. ‘You might be about to meet the love of your life. Just because it’s not part of the plan, that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.’
‘We’re not here to find the loves of our lives,’ Clementine said.
‘But we can still hope,’ Annabel replied.
Clem had to admit that for the first time in a long time she felt ready to be attracted to someone new. She felt her faith in men had begun to return on Saturday night when Damon had offered her a lift home. As he drove, he told her about growing up in the country and going to school with only twelve other students, including three of his siblings.
‘The other kids at school used to call me and my brothers and sister posh just because we had an indoor toilet,’ he had said as they left the mansion.
He had seemed like a nice man. One who genuinely cared about the answers Clem gave to his many questions. She sensed he was honest and dependable. He seemed loyal, ethical and open. He had a valiant smile and a trustworthy face. She looked around at the bar at the men and wondered if any of them were nice.
Annabel was stressing the importance of making eye contact.
‘Let them know you’re interested,’ she said. ‘I know you’re both funny and smart, but they don’t know that. Give them a reason to pick you out of all the women here.’
Clementine practised this on three men who were sitting one table over from them. Two of them glanced over. One ran his gaze over Daniela and the other looked at Clem. She returned the look, holding his eyes a nanosecond longer than was comfortable. Then she looked away and took a sip from her G and T in what she hoped was an alluring manner. The man was still watching. His hair was shot with grey, and he had a mask of black stubble sprinkled with silver hairs. He had a thick body and broad, formidable shoulders. Clementine finished her gin.
‘My round,’ said Annabel.
‘It’s okay, I’ll get it.’
As Clem stood she gave a meaningful look in the direction of the neighbouring table. She rested her arms on the bar and pretended to read the cocktail menu. The eye contact had had the desired effect. The salt-and-pepper man joined her.
‘You’re new,’ he said.
He was close enough that she could breathe in his cologne. It was sharp and citrusy.
‘In what sense?’
‘I come here nearly every week. I’ve never seen you before.’
‘Who are you, the nightclub police?’ Her exterior was cool, but inside she was thrilled. She had done it: she had issued an invitation with her eyes and summoned a man.
‘I’d remember someone like you.’ He leaned against the bar.
Clementine smiled. ‘Smooth.’
He insisted on buying her round of drinks. They chatted as the bartender mixed them. It took barely a minute. In that short time the man had asked Clementine if she would like to meet him for a cocktail the following Thursday.
‘I’ll have to check my diary,’ she said, feeling powerful.
She collected her drinks, thanked him and reported back to her table.
‘Thursday means he’s cautiously optimistic,’ said Annabel sagely. ‘He likes you, but if it doesn’t work out he’s still got his Friday free to find someone else. But it’s late enough in the week that if things go really well there’s a chance of ending up back at his place.’
Clementine hadn’t slept with anyone since Jason, and even when they had been together it had felt rushed, or cut short, never enough. He had always left her wanting more. He satisfied her, but only in the most basic sense.
‘He only wanted to have a drink,’ Clem said pessimistically.
‘What’s wrong with a drink?’ asked Dani.
‘Dinner would be better. Studies have shown that simply sharing a meal with others increases people’s levels of oxytocin — the love hormone.’
‘Exactly,’ said Annabel. ‘If he can’t commit to dinner, how is he going to commit to a mortgage, three kids and a Border Collie?’
‘That’s silly,’ Daniela said dismissively. ‘A drink is fine.’
‘Do you mind if we join you?’ The salt-and-pepper man had followed Clementine back to the table. He was flanked by two friends.
‘You didn’t like my offer,’ he whispered, as he shuffled in next to her.
‘What is this, a business deal?’ she asked, inwardly enjoying the joke. He laughed.
‘I’m Rex,’ he offered a hand. ‘Or is a handshake too business-like? Should I write to your father and state my intentions to court you?’
‘Rex? As in the T-Rex, the feared predator?’
Annabel was laughing at something a man with short red hair was saying.
‘That’s my friend Archer,’ said Rex. ‘It looks as though he likes your friend.’ This was true; Clementine could see him practically salivating. ‘So you don’t want cocktails. Would you be interested in having dinner sometime?’
‘I’m very interested in having dinner. So interested, in fact, that I have it nightly,’ Clem said.
Rex roared with laughter. ‘Me, too. And people say men and women have nothing in common.’
She couldn’t help but smile. He was confident and funny.
‘Maybe we could arrange it so we have dinner at the same place,’ he said.
‘I’m only free Monday,’ she said, choosing the most serious, unsexy night of the week.
When Rex went to the back bar, Clem caught Annabel’s eye, stood and exited to the bathroom. Annabel followed.
‘He upgraded to dinner.’
‘Mine invited me to dinner, too.’
Daniela came through the door.
‘I heard. Two dinners. They seem nice,’ she said flatly. ‘I’m not sure this guy I’m talking to is interested.’
‘Then he’s insane,’ said Annabel. ‘What do you think of him?’
Dani shrugged. ‘He’s a bit serious.’
‘He seems sweet.’ Clem was feeling positive.
But Annabel was on Dani’s side. ‘He’s quite short.’
‘The height doesn’t bother me, as long as he has the inches where it counts,’ Daniela smirked.
Annabel laughed. ‘That’s the spirit.’
‘We should leave,’ Clem said.
‘Leave? I’ve only been talking to him for half an hour,’ said Daniela.
‘It’s the perfect opportunity to get him to ask you out. You’re leaving, so if he wants to see you again he’ll have to take you to dinner.’
Daniela looked doubtful.
‘Unless you don’t want to—’
‘No, no, I do want to. And it’s part of the plan, right? No eligible man left behind.’
‘He seems friendly,’ Annabel said. ‘He’s handsome, too.’
‘He ticks all the boxes,’ Clem encouraged.
‘Right, and who doesn’t like having their box ticked?’ Daniela adjusted her top.
They finished a last round of drinks, then, as if choreographed, stood and announced they had another engagement.
‘Oh, but, you’re leaving, oh,’ said the man Daniela had been talking to. Physically speaking, they were an uncannily well-matched pair. He was diminutive and strong, like her, and had the same browns and shades of gold colouring his skin and hair.
He leaned forward.
‘Can I … Are you free for dinner one night next week?’
‘Oh, that would be lovely.’ Dani looked genuinely surprised. She put her number into his phone. Her smile grew with each tap of a button.
Clem, Annabel and Dani moved to the door and burst out into the night.
‘That was amazing!’ Daniela laughed. ‘Three dates.’
‘It did go remarkably well,’ Clem said. ‘And it was so simple. Annabel, you’re a genius.’
‘We’re all geniuses,’ she gushed. ‘It was a team effort.’
It was just after 10pm. The sky was black and the air had a biting winter chill.
‘Where to next?’ Daniela asked, rubbing her hands together.
They chose The Silk, a smart bar nestled in the legal district. When they entered a tall man immediately homed in on Annabel, leaving Clementine and Daniela at a table by themselves. They ordered Cokes and finished them quickly. As Dani’s drink drained away, so did her smile. Clem watched her play with the ice in her glass for a minute before she asked what was wrong.