I WAS HEAD over heels about Steven, and that’s the truth. And having such a spectacular house didn’t hurt either, so far removed from my one-bedroom apartment that it was hard not to show my covetousness for it right from the start and make him run a mile. I had to settle for merely admiring his leadlight bay windows and seven-setting massage showerhead and so on.
‘It’s fantastic to share it with someone who shares my taste,’ he said, which made me hold out a secret hope that pretty soon, inevitably, we’d have the crucial conversation about how it was crazy to be paying two mortgages and how maybe I should move more in there than just my toiletries bag and a spare change of clothes.
Proof positive of how infatuated I was: I bought new toiletries to leave at his place. A set of the expensive all-natural ones, your cinnamon and tangerine body-scrub variety, stuff full of aloe-vera and green tea, no chemicals or perfumes; toiletries designed to signal loud and clear how low-maintenance I was, how beyond petty vanities and clutter. I wasn’t taking any chances.
Another confession: I researched recipes so I could pretend I was an ace at whipping up gourmet dinners in his commercial-grade kitchen. But the opportunity almost never arose, because Steven liked going out to dinner, or getting Thai takeaway from a particular place whose number he had on speed dial.
‘You work so hard,’ he said, ‘I don’t want you to feel you have to cook when you come over to my house.’
So who was I to argue? Who in their right mind would?
I MET HIM in the foyer at TAFE, picking up my friend Anna from her salsa class. He was there to enrol in a class to learn how to make outdoor pizza ovens, and we got chatting. Anna was furious when she learned I had a date.
‘Just from standing in the foyer,’ she fumed, ‘while I was in there dancing with a bunch of sweaty creeps who still live at home with their mothers.’
My mother, when I rang, was as cautious as ever. ‘Are you sure he’s solvent?’ she said suspiciously.
‘Mum, he’s an investment banker. He owns his own house.’
‘Are you sure he’s actually single? He hasn’t told you he’s technically married but planning to divorce, has he? Because men like that…’
‘Mum, he’s not married. He has no kids. He’s pretty well-off and you know what? He’s actually pretty good-looking. Why aren’t you cracking open the champagne?’
‘I just want you to find someone who’s got their life under control. Someone who’s a bit…organised.’ Mum never let me forget that one heady year, when I was twenty-three, I’d lived with a bass guitarist.
‘Trust me, Mum, he’s so organised he’s got an app to tell him when to change the battery in his smoke alarms.’
There was a silence. I’d been a bit startled by this myself when he told me, I admit. But all my mother said was, ‘Lucy, what on earth’s an app?’
ANYWAY, I WAS head-over-heels, because I wanted the package. Is that so wrong? I wanted the man, and also I wanted the bank of bi-fold doors that opened out onto his glorious vine-trellised courtyard. Even as Steven was showing me where he was planning to build the pizza-oven on our first date, I caught a glimpse of my reflection in them, and maybe it was a slight elongating distortion in the glass but I didn’t care; I looked taller and more willowy in those reflections. I sized up the vision of the two of us in that stunning garden talking wood-fired pizza and I thought God just give me this and I’ll never ask You for anything else again. And I don’t even believe in God. That’s how far gone I was. Organised is probably the wrong word. Methodical, maybe. Or hypercompetent. I’m a kindergarten teacher so I’m used to working in a world of glue and paint and mess and stray sharp bits of Lego, so to drag myself from this into a world of wine and deep leather-lounge comfort and music playing from Steven’s state-of-the-art iPod dock…well, it was like a glimpse of paradise. I likedthe feeling that someone else was happy to be in charge for once. I loved it. A man who kept his house gleaming clean and had Egyptian cotton sheets and yet was indisputably heterosexual, a man who had a remote in his car that opened the garage door as he turned into the driveway and a walk-in wardrobe full of dark and expensive suits which smelled, thrillingly, like power and cologne and boardrooms – what’s not to like?
There was plenty of space on the other side of that wardrobe, open shelves and drawers left invitingly empty. Clean. As if they’d been wiped. By someone thorough and meticulous who had the foresight to actually key a smoke-alarm app into their phone. Someone who murmured, as he disentangled a piece of playdough gently from my hair, that it was kind of crazy, both of us paying mortgages like this, and doing a cross-town commute just so we could be together every night.
‘I don’t want to rush into anything,’ I lied. It was a warm night and the miraculous slimming doors were open onto the garden, letting a flood of fragrance into the room from the jasmine and lavender outside. In the twilight I could see his winding path of rosebushes, including the variety he called Amnesia Lavender which struck me as a perfect shade for a striking and unusual wedding dress, a rose which bloomed profusely in October, eight months away, so not altogether out of the question.
‘It’s something I really need to think about,’ I said gravely. ‘We both do.’ Actually thinking: October, cheap fares to Fiji.
I’VE LEARNED THAT a romantic gesture is not always what you think it’s going to be – you have to learn to read between the lines. So when Steven rang and told me to meet him after work one day at a restaurant we both liked and said, ‘Lucy, listen. I’ve got something I’d like to give you,’ I had to concentrate on slowing down my tearaway heartbeat so I didn’t feel physically sick with longing and nerves.
‘Ooh, this sounds serious,’ I said lightly. It took everything I had to compose my face into a mask of curious independent woman for whom the thought of living together has barely registered, a woman for whom it is a pleasure to pay a mortgage on a crappy flat with no balcony, a woman who would be loath to exchange this life for another.
‘I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I think it’s time,’ he went on. ‘Hold out your hand.’
I did as he said, all a-tremble, and looked down at my palm as he dropped into it not a ring or small velvet box, but a key. I stared at it. A shining, freshly cut key with a small hard plastic tag attached. I concentrated on the key’s sharply jagged teeth for a few seconds before raising my face again.
‘It’s a key to my place,’ he said, smiling. ‘I want you to know you’re welcome to come and let yourself in, even if I’m not there.’
Okay, better than a ring, really, when you thought about it, a bigger sign of trust and confidence, especially for someone like Steven. A symbol of trust I would use very, very sparingly, something I would not abuse or take for granted. He sat back expectantly, still smiling. Watching me.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘That means a lot to me.’
‘This little tag here,’ he said, pointing, ‘is for the burglar alarm. You wave it once in front of the sensor at the front door and the red light will flash blue, so you’ll know.’
‘Are you sure about this?’ I said, and he nodded as he picked up the menu.
NONE OF US come without baggage in our mid-thirties, Anna says, except weird men in dance classes who sneak fake profiles onto rsvp.com.au, and who wants one of them? You had to expect that adults have some serious relationships in their pasts, she said, otherwise they wouldn’t be normal. God knows I’ve had a few crash-and-burn relationships myself, and obviously there would have been something odd about Steven if he hadn’t had a couple himself. An ex-wife, in fact, who now lived overseas and was, he assured me, entirely off the scene. Oh, and a couple of girlfriends after that – one he’d lived with for a year or two, who’d left after the house was finally renovated. A year, or two? I thought a bit obsessively to myself, that seems like quite a difference to me, but he went on to explain that was why the house and garden were so important to him; he’d worked hard to make them exactly as he wanted and he didn’t want to make any more relationship mistakes like that again. ‘I mean,’ he said, ‘a man’s home is his castle, right?’
I thought of all this in the restaurant as I accepted the key.
‘So just wave that in front of the alarm and it flashes blue, then this opens the front-door deadlock?’ I prompted hesitantly, wanting, I guess, to hear him say more about this overture of trust, and why me, and why now.
‘Yes, when you come over and I’m not there,’ he said, turning from the wine list to study me again, his eyes dark and serious. ‘Like on Fridays? Isn’t that when you get off work early?’
‘Well, yes, the kids at the kinder have those two half-days, remember…um, this means a lot to me, Steven, knowing I can keep these and make myself welcome…’
‘Fridays, then,’ he said.
Back to the wine, and I saw suddenly how he’d be in the boardroom when a deal was clearly closed. Still, it meant something, it was an overture. Giving me the key, I realised, now asked a little something of me in return. If I wanted to push things along, I mean. Some symbol to bridge the first heat of this early, charmed infatuation, and settle down to the slow cosy burn of long-term commitment.
I bought him a tree.
A Tahitian lime tree. Feeling impetuous, I lugged it out of Bunnings a few weeks later and laid it down in the back of my car, then drove around to his place. Once kinder had finished but before he got home from the city, I usually had a two-hour window I generally spent at home spritzing my hair and ironing the clothes I was secreting, garment by garment, into the wardrobe at his place. This time, though, I’d surprise him. I lifted the tree carefully out of the car and carried it around the back, through the tall garden gate with the special catch, before returning for the bag of slow-release fertiliser I’d purchased at the same time, because one thing I didn’t need right now was my symbolic gift curling up and dying within a week. In fact it was the fertiliser which made me realise I meant business. This wasn’t a tree given in an accompanying pot, to be lifted and moved if things didn’t work out. This was a tree to be planted in the actual earth. I stood there looking at it, and it was as if someone persuasive who’d sidled up noiselessly spoke softly into my ear, and what they said was: why not plant it for him now?
Good question. Why not? Hadn’t Steven said he’d like a lime tree out here, and hadn’t it been as we were standing drinking gin and tonics, right here on this spot on the lawn where I now stood, breathing in the heady scent of everything flowering?
I was too timid, that was my trouble; way too nervous about overstepping the mark and reading the signs right, (listen to yourself, whispered the voice) this was a man who had given me his HOUSE KEY, a man who had gestured down at the lawn and fragrant rosebushes and said, ‘I love being able to share this with you’, and if that wasn’t practically a declaration of lifelong commitment, what was? Hell, why not plan a reception right here, in this courtyard, it would fit about eighty people and we could hire some chairs…anyway, why not just quell this ridiculous apprehension right now and seize the day and plant this tree myself? There were instructions on the label, after all.
All I needed was a spade.
DOWN BEHIND THE garage Steven had a garden shed I hadn’t been in, but judging from the magnificence of his garden I knew he would have a range of tools in there to make a grown man weep. Except that its door was padlocked. I swore to myself, then suddenly visualised a double row of hooks with keys on them, neatly labelled, and just where I’d seen them too – in the kitchen pantry. Inside the house. To which he had given me the key. I could have this tree in and then have a shower and slip on a fresh white shirt and check my hair for errant glue and glitter before he got back. At the front door, I cautiously swiped the security tag and the sensor light flashed as blue as a cloudless, untroubled sky. The key went in with barely a snicker.
IT WAS COOL in the shed after the sunshine outside, and I hesitated in the doorway, my eyes adjusting to the gloom. It was a workshop with every tool, from hacksaw to orbital sander to leaf blower, lined up on the wall with hooks. Against the opposite wall was a set of shelves stacked with tins of paint, glue guns, silicone, grout mix and everything else Steven had mastered the use of to make his home his castle. I walked past the shelves, smelling two-stroke fuel and noting the mower, the brushcutter and the pressure hose, the folded tarps and dropsheets. Hanging beside them, right in the corner and covered with a fine film of dust, was a rain jacket.
I have no idea what made me lift it down, except the sudden certainty that it was one female garment that had escaped the purges of the house’s interior. If this were a movie, you’d have me slip my hand inside a pocket, wouldn’t you, and find something incriminating – a hotel bill, say, or a love letter, but all that was in there was a single hair-tie and a tissue, and the long-lost hint, under the shed smells of oil and fuel, of some unfamiliar perfume. I roused myself and went over to the spades and shovels, arranged by size. They all gleamed like new, but I didn’t dawdle anymore, because I was thinking now of him getting home. I didn’t want to be hot and sweaty and dirty with a half-dug hole, I wanted to be finished and reclining, smelling faintly of tangerine body scrub, smiling in welcome. I just selected the closest one and ran back to the lawn where the tree was waiting.
I chose a spot and hacked up a neat circle of grass, then started to dig. It’s only a hole a foot deep for a little tree, I thought to myself as I chopped and levered up dirt. If it’s not in exactly the right spot we can…well,hecan always replant it. He’ll be really happy. He’ll be delighted at my impulsiveness. Of course he will, said the voice in my ear, that’s just what he loves about you. About a spade-length down, I hit something, and my babbling, nervous thoughts braked to a skidding halt.
My spade crunched then clanged, as the jolt went up my arms. Something metallic. Feeling a cringe of dread that I’d hit a sprinkler attachment or a pipe, I knelt down to clear the dirt away with my fingers and stared in bewilderment at what was exposed.
It was a chain. A smooth taut line of chain buried there, straight as a railroad track. I stood up slowly and took a step back, my eyes travelling from the hole to the house, making a mental straight line, in the direction of the chain, up to a concrete pillar supporting a tap beside the courtyard. Then the other way, right down past the trellises and the sweeping lawn, arrow-straight, to the rendered garden wall and the boundary of Steven’s property.
Still mystified, I dropped my spade and walked down there, my feet tracking along the invisible line where the chain was buried. Everything getting slow now.
I came up short at a marble birdbath, on a little pedestal. I’d barely noticed it before.
I stood there, squinting up to the house and back, baffled. The only possible answer prodded at me now, as insistent as a dentist’s probe looking for an exposed nerve. This thing was chained to the house. Which meant that Steven had, at some point in the past, taken one of his tempered-steel spades and dug an underground trench fifteen metres long for this purpose alone – to secure a lawn ornament. So that nobody could reach over the wall and steal it.
I put my hand flat into the birdbath, mesmerised, feeling the heat rising from its baking, shallow bowl. Maybe he’d forgotten about it, screened here behind shrubbery. Maybe it had a slow-leaking crack in it.
I had an inkling, though, who might have purchased it, and kept it filled. I could see her, in a season much less benign and flowery than this one, walking the boundaries of this garden alone in the drizzle, in a rain-jacket. Taking out some tissues to wipe her eyes over something. One of my predecessors, anyway. One of the ones who’d broken the tether.
THE BIRDBATH WAS decorated with a cherub sitting on the brim, hand on cheek. It looked like something decorating a gravestone, this figure, something you’d find tenderly guarding an inscription that says not dead, just sleeping. It looked pretty disconsolate as it stared down into the dry basin of the birdbath. Possibly not so tender; depending on how you looked at it, possibly baleful and morose. Just possibly, I thought as I stood there staring at it, slow on the uptake as usual, a brattish, obese little angel, slumped in a sulk, with ridiculous, stunted little wings.
I ran awkwardly back up the lawn – funny, it had a slope to it I hadn’t noticed before – heart pounding as I tried to calculate how long I’d been here. He could catch me red-handed, sprung and stuttering, evidence of trespass everywhere. But I could make it alright. All I had to do was to shovel all this dirt back in and then rearrange that grass over the hole and press it down and hope to God it didn’t die in a telltale circle, giving me away. Then get a grip and think what needed to be done – key back inside, door relocked, alarm reset, tree back in car. Then go. I wiped the last traces of dirt off the spade and noticed a tiny scratch glinting, where it had scraped the chain. If I got this back in the shed in time on the right hook and padlocked it and replaced that key too, then nobody, surely, would ever notice a single tiny scratch, not on a garden tool. Nobody in their right mind.
I hear the garage door groan as it swings open via remote control, and his car engine comes up the driveway then cuts out as he stops. The burglar alarm. Some automatic verification system sent to his phone, no doubt, some electronic sentry guarding the fortress. Or maybe I should just believe him when he says he’s home early. Maybe he’s going to come through the gate and smile with surprise and pleasure at the sight of me here, and I could say Steven! I was just going to plant this lime tree for you for a surprise! because of course he will have seen my car and know it’s me. Where do you think it should go? I might say innocently, free of guile, full of love. I see his hand come through the gate to release the spring-loaded catch. Too late to flee, then. I swallow, weighted and held fast with something, bound helpless to the spot.
‘Where are you?’ I hear him call. I lower the spade to the ground, turning it so the scratch is hidden against my shoe, and I wait.