IT WAS AT the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna that Edith noticed that Ian was behaving in a curious way, bending down as if looking at the showcase of liturgical objects but, in fact, she realised, looking at her through the showcase.
He was her secretary of mission at this International Atomic Energy Agency conference – ‘aide-de-camp' was the term he used, either comically or pompously, she wasn't sure, or as a way of baulking at his subordinate role.
She entertained the illusion that his odd behaviour was perhaps a way of showing a carnal interest in her in some perverse way, although he'd talked about some girl in London.
Given the age difference between her and her aide-de-camp – he was younger, she put him at around forty – it had to be a wishful illusion on her part.
‘Go back around the other side of the case, Edith.'
‘Why?' she asked, doing his bidding. ‘Here?'
He bent down again and squinted at her through the double glass. ‘Now crouch down.'
She obeyed. ‘How long must I remain here?' she asked, smugly pleased that she could hold the crouch without showing any strain. By sheer willpower she tried never to allow her chronically sore knee to determine her movements.
‘It's all right, that's it,' he said, standing up.
‘What was that about?' she asked, as she also stood up and went around to where he was.
‘There was an optical distortion,' he said. ‘It pleased me. I could see you as a young girl – you looked very girlish.'
She did not quite know how to take this. She knew he'd not been drinking. ‘Would that one could always move, then, in a glass showcase.'
He did not smile.
‘I think it was the magic coming off...' He glanced at the label in the showcase. ‘This second-century glass liturgical vessel.'
She thought but did not say that she sometimes felt like a second-century liturgical vessel.
They moved listlessly through the museum.
Ian was charming enough and not uncultured, and was physically well-turned-out. They had a science background in common – and a sense of the absurd. They'd both spontaneously laughed at the letter that President Jimmy Carter sent to be read at the opening of the conference. In the letter Carter said the United States would permit the IAEA to apply its safeguards to all nuclear activities in the United States – ‘excluding only those with national security significance'. Every country wanted to inspect: no country wanted to be inspected.
She'd seen that Ian had Goethe's Faust as his travel reading. That was encouraging. Her travel reading was an old collection of von Heyse short stories from her childhood.
‘You seem glum,' Edith said.
‘Too much history. Human race too old,' he said.
She liked his reply but he was too young to be saying it. ‘Indeed, too old,' she said. The young never chose to entertain what it was to which they were headed – ageing. Just as well. No one would go there.
AT BREAKFAST IN the hotel next day, he again seemed to be staring at her as she sat down. She allowed his gaze to warm her face but she did not comment. Probably another of his games.
Here in Vienna, she found she had quite an appetite. Perhaps even a ‘youthful' appetite. It could be from the stimulation of being back in Vienna and the swirl of an international conference, back in the diplomatic orbit.
She'd been in Vienna just after the war with the UN Relief and Rehabilitation Administration and as she walked the streets the buildings whispered sullen secrets to her. Back in the late 1940s she remembered going to work in her smart UNRRA uniform made for her by a Viennese tailor, and although they'd not been issued with sidearms she carried her personal pistol from the League days holstered in her handbag, picking her way along tracks through the rubble. Allied air raids had brought down the roofs of St Stephan's Cathedral and of the Opera. Rubble still blocked Kärntnerstrasse.
The slow trams had clanged along some of the streets. She'd commandeered a German army bike – a woman's bike – which was superior to the others and had a large rack and she was given a wonderful tin whistle with a snail-like wind chamber and a plaited black lanyard. Even though the bicycle had a bell she would blow her whistle and the Viennese pedestrians would scurry out of her way. She'd boiled the whistle before using it.
In those days you lugged the bike up the stairs into the office, otherwise it would disappear.
Their work at UNRRA had been relocating brutalised prisoners, forced labourers – people who, an American journalist back then had described, ‘pushed, screamed, clawed for food, smelled bad, who couldn't and didn't want to obey orders, who sat with dull faces and vacant staring eyes in a cellar, or in a concentration camp barrack'.
As the memories streamed through her mind she heard herself make a sound which she had never made before. Nearly a sigh. She knew instantly what it was – a sound from the creaking timbers of age. The sounds of old people were like those made by sleeping dogs as they remember forgotten bones and bad fights and times when they should've barked but did not.
She'd never made that sound ever before and she had no intention of making it again.
Perhaps the good appetite she was having in Vienna came from having at last faced the end of her marriage back in Canberra – an end in the very practical sense because she had no intention, she realised with some surprise, of even physically returning to it. At the end of this mission as an ‘eminent person' she was going to meander off into the world.
She would not be returning to the domestic smells and habits of her life back there. A dishevelled newspaper spread out somewhere. A male sock under the bed. Something spilled and not properly mopped up. And the relief of knowing that she would never again seek a domestic arrangement with another person. She may well go back to living in a hotel. She could live in Vienna and do some work for the IAEA. She'd spoken to Eklund at a cocktail party and he'd seemed receptive. She'd said, ‘Surely the IAEA could use someone such as I – someone who has seen it all?' She liked Swedes. They liked her.
She had always felt at ease in hotels: white tablecloths, meals served. Not having to search in cupboards for breakfast and to smell the milk for freshness because Emily the housekeeper – no, Emily was long gone, Joyce, whoever – would never get around to making sure the milk was fresh. And the marmalade being a rather paltry ring of orange at the bottom of a jar, barely enough for a full piece of toast sometimes specked with butter from the boys – at least in the early days when the boys had lived at home – and Richard using their bread-and-butter knife to take the marmalade out – regardless of how many times over the years she'd complained to Richard and the boys, had told them to use the jam spoon and the butter knife and to put the marmalade out of the jar into a dish.
No. The reason that her appetite had returned was that she was home. This was her home: Vienna – or the meaning of Vienna – big issues, a conference, meetings which could have results. The whole daily wheel of breakfast with delegates, with sub-committees, with background papers, with the world at stake. She was at last home. The work of the world. It was as if her appetite, her stomach, had been cramped all these years.
He asked her why it was that in Austria he enjoyed the Austrian breakfast, in America the American breakfast, in France the French breakfast, yet back home he didn't eat breakfast. ‘Do you have a theory about that, Edith? About breakfasts?'
‘No...' she said, wary of his teasing. He seemed to like to tease. ‘No, I have no theory on that.' And then she added, ‘That I recall.'
‘That you "recall",' he laughed. ‘I like that.'
...and it was rather pathetic to base the hope for peace on the idea of free Oslo lunches and milk for schoolchildren in every country. ‘Maybe,' she heard herself joke, ‘Italians wouldn't go to war if they ate breakfast. The strong Italian coffee first thing in the morning without food may irritate their stomachs.' ‘There is more national difference expressed in breakfast than any other meal,' Lester said. ‘Must say something about how different nations view the demands of a coming day.' ‘I cannot understand the strange idea that it's the most important meal of the day,' said Ambrose... ‘Surely dinner is the most important meal of the day. Or, one could argue, all meals are equally important. I would've thought that it could be argued that the results of a good dinner carried over to the next day, so to speak...' ‘We should have had Health Section do a study of breakfasts,' Loveday said... ‘They did,' Edith said. ‘The Nutrition Report, "37".'
The voices were speaking to her.
She looked at Mr Aide-de-camp. He did not realise that in life there was quite a bit of forgetting and re-learning, even the forgetting of what one's opinions were. And she found that at times she had surplus conversation.
He prattled on in his almost charming way, ‘Changes of habitat require different diets. Maybe we're symbolically eating the prey of the country we're in.'
He smiled. ‘Touché.'
She felt herself slipping into his slippery, jokey style. How foolish she was with this man. Although she felt herself his intellectual equal – and definitely his superior in experience, and even his equal in wit – she did not like the competitive edge to his banter. That irritating male trait. She was tiring of males: but then, she had tired of males before.
‘Sleep well, Edith?'
Who admired experience? Experience and wisdom were pieces of the past, always subtly in combat with the young and the new. Handsome bodies, animation, clever glamour – these were the seductive things.
‘I had a restless night – I could hear strange water noises,' she said, taking a mouthful of the freshly baked roll and a sour berry jam which she could not identify. The European berries were in season, but the jam would've been last season's berries. ‘Yourself?'
‘I slept well – I'm a bushman – a few cognacs and all noises sound friendly.'
What sort of bushman could he possibly be, or consider himself to be?
SHE HAD KNOWN real bushmen and workmen and gardeners from her childhood, employed by her mother and father. Bushmen who did not wear polished RM Williams elastic-sided boots – although maybe their boots were dubbined – nor did they wear carefully shaped hats. Yes, they smelled of dubbin, those boots. And the real bushmen smelled of horses and hay and work sweat and burned wood, yet were not dirty. They sometimes had something to say about the nature of things that was wisely correct. And would take you down for five shillings – her mother said – if they saw the chance, as long as it would cause no hardship that they could determine. And who, if encouraged, would speak overlong and become too imperative and were always, in the end, short of sound data. They could be full of bush hokum.
‘You would be the first bushman I've known who drank cognac. I might ask for a different room – would they mind?'
‘Of course not – but the hotel is probably full.'
Why did she play to him? She would have no hesitation in asking for another room, she'd stayed at all the fine hotels of the world and she felt in control of any hotel in which she stayed. Why with him did she pretend to naivety? Some wretched lapse into dotty, outdated womanliness. Yet, she had to remind herself, it was also a female way of commanding him to serve her. What a foolish business it all was. Glad to be out of it. Was she out of it?
‘Quite a few delegations staying here,' he said, speaking with his mouth full.
I think I shall, though,' she said, jettisoning the humble voice.
‘See Frau Smidt.'
‘I think I shall. Or do you think I should see someone from the consulate?' There she went again – pretending to be deferring to him, granting to him a worldliness which she suspected he only barely had.
‘No, see Frau Smidt.'
He spoke with the confidence of a husband. Ah, but perhaps this was what she was bringing out in him – the role of the ascendant husband. For her own passing amusement and benefit. For the flirting frisson of it? She refused to think of it as a mother-and-son playlet. That had no appeal.
She spread more sour berry jam on her roll, taking his share of the sachets. She hated these new sachets – she preferred hotels which put both the butter and the jam in appropriate dishes with appropriate cutlery. But then why not demand what pleased one, or, failing the availability of what pleased one, why not at least wish for it, and remark it.
Remark it to whom?
‘You don't think I should also tell the consulate?'
‘No.' He now seemed to be impatient with her. ‘There's no need. We don't answer to the consulate.'
She enjoyed pushing him to petty exasperation.
She watched him scrounge another mouthful from the dwindling breakfast food on their table, ignoring the laden buffet over near the window in the breakfast room – and came up with another request which would, she knew, playfully prod his exasperation.
She said, ‘Would you mind dreadfully asking Frau Smidt for me – your German is so much better than mine?'
She watched him. He with his coquette somewhere in London, probably adorable, young and bright, although he was a little old now to be playing with young girls, but, then, why not? Why not take with both hands all the erotic beauty life had to offer. She'd had nearly her share of that when she was his age, but not quite enough. The war, and just after it, had been good for that sort of thing. Handsome officers in clean uniforms washed, ironed, sponged with cleaning fluid – or with petrol or kerosene – by Viennese valets who a year before had sponged German uniforms. Looking back, all things considered, she did feel she had taken her share of erotic pleasure and of beauty. And then she'd had Ambrose for those good years – a most rare and exotic creature, whom she missed dreadfully. An exotic creature and also a sage beacon. Dear Ambrose. And leafing through the faulty, flattering, lying calendar of her mind she had also to acknowledge that she'd not had a lover for some time.
‘Edith – you know I have very little German. And Frau Smidt's English is fine. But yes, I'll ask her for you.'
His German was hopeless. Her German was much better. ‘Thanks awfully, I can't cope with that sort of thing, I know I'm being silly...these days women should, I know...try.'
She did perhaps act it too well. Should be careful, the wind may change. She took the last of the coffee in the pot.
AGAIN, SHE SAW him studying her while they sat in the auditorium listening to simultaneous translation of the French-speaking African speaker through headphones. The African was stating that nuclear war fears were ‘western hysteria', and if this nuclear power was so valuable why not allow all countries to have it? She could not understand his thick French pronunciation without the translation.
They could have it – with IAEA supervision. They did not like supervision.
Yes, Ian was again gazing at her. Men and their gazing at women. Her vanity sprang to life as she felt his gaze. Her figure was in good shape and she had the kind of skin which aged well. The fish and salad diet of her upbringing had been nutritious and reasonably scientific – her mother had been a supporter of Philip Muskett and his diets – his Art of Living in Australia had been something of a textbook for her mother – they'd been the only family she'd known who'd eaten olives – always thoroughly wash off the soap from the face and neck – cold baths – her neck was not bad at all, and she had missed most of the cruelty of age-wrinkling. She was not going to think about her hands.
She fancied she looked something like Klimt's Judith I. ‘Oil and gold on canvas.' No, she saw herself more as Klimt's Frau Fritza Riedler.
She had seen them again on this visit – alone. She'd again marvelled tearfully at The Kiss. She had not taken Ian because of some crass remark he'd made about The Kiss now being ‘the property of advertising companies' and ‘embarrassingly lush'. She'd remarked that one had to have the aesthetic strength and deeper judgement to throw aside such impediments to seeing the paintings, to be able to see back to the original blinding emotion of the work. To reclaim the painting from pedestrian familiarity. He'd simply shrugged.
Would she ever again kiss passionately? Would she make a pact with Mephistopheles if that were offered? Her recall of the opera was dim. She must borrow one of the Faust plays he was reading.
He was squinting again and pulling the skin near his eyes with his fingers. She was no longer flattered or amused. He was being ridiculous.
As she listened to the speakers, she found she was almost wallowing in the madness of the human species, in its capacity to apply its scientific intelligence to these dangerous elements lying in the ground for billions of years, to dig them up and then use them to shape a weapon which could make the planet uninhabitable. A weapon with ‘no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained', according to Oppenheimer. ‘Death on a hitherto unimaginable scale.' She'd always trusted him. And Waltz. Not Teller.
Uranium and plutonium were the two elements in the soil of the planet which were truly symbolic of the human condition. More than all the gold and silver.
She perversely allowed herself some defeatist despair as she listened to the accounts of the appalling affects of radiation sickness outlined by the second speaker. The ‘creeping dose' – something which perhaps we were all now suffering or would soon suffer – tumours, cancers of the breast – organ tissue damaged from ionising radiation ‘and the stochastic effects of radiation...' She silently noted that radiation was also used tocure breast cancer.
Ian stopped fooling around, probably because she was paying no attention to him – at least, not appearing to pay attention to him – and he said to her, ‘Stochastic? Stochastic!'
She leaned to touch his shoulder and whispered, ‘Chance effect – it refers to the random, statistical nature of the damage – having a probability that can be analysed but not predicted precisely.'
She hoped he was suitably impressed.
‘Oh – you mean guesswork.'
‘No.' She turned back to the speaker.
The speaker said, ‘As an illustration, we know above-ground nuclear tests that occurred in several countries between 1955 and 1963 dramatically increased the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere and subsequently in the biosphere; after the tests ended the atmospheric concentration of the isotope began to decrease.'
She again leaned into him, and said softly, ‘Did you know that they're discovering one side effect of the change in atmospheric carbon-14 is that it enables us to determine the birth year of a corpse? The amount of carbon-14 in the teeth can be measured – only works for individuals born after 1943.' She looked at him and smiled. ‘You might just get in.'
He saluted her in a silly way.
The speaker went on. ‘These tiny levels of radiation are not any more harmful than sunlight, but just as excessive quantities of sunlight can be dangerous, so too can excessive levels of radiation.'
The favourite word at the conference was Armageddon and there was much solemn, pious, aggrandising talk at the conference about this Armageddon, this last great battle between good and evil, this last catastrophic conflict.
Those who used the word had only their piety to show: they did no tough thinking. They made her want to welcome Armageddon – a wish rose up in her for everything in this frustrating and disappointing world to just go in a whomp. But, of course, nuclear war would, for most of us, be a lingering death. A big obliterating whomp would have to be from another more totally powerful source. A meteor would do.
SHE CAME BACK to the hotel from the evening session at which he'd been absent. As she opened the door of her new room with the enormous key – the new room was on the other side of the corridor to where she'd originally been – she glanced at his room down the hall and wondered what he'd done with his evening.
She dumped her conference satchel and handbag and poured herself a cognac from her flask. She then undressed, taking off her bra, leaving on only her satin slip, allowing her not-too-large breasts to hang free inside the slip, finding as always the satin relaxed her body. She removed her make-up and applied her moisturiser.
There was a knock on her door.
‘Who is it?' she called.
She knew it would be him. She looked at her watch.
His muffled voice said, ‘It's me.'
Had her inkling about his desire for her not been an illusion but, in fact, an astute reading of the situation? And if so, what then? Did she really desire him? She thought desire could be kindled, the sight of a stiff, youngish penis – well, young enough – would cause some stirrings. Along with some caressing. Would he be a man who caressed? How much had she drunk? FO rules: ‘Never lose count.' This evening, dining with the some of the old gang, she had lost count.
‘Hold on,' she called. She went to the wardrobe and took out her clinging dark-blue velvet night robe and put it on, tied the waistband and then looked at it in the mirror and undid the waistband, revealing some of her slip.
Leaning closer to the mirror, she checked that the moisturiser had been absorbed. She gave her dyed black hair a brush and found a hair loop to pull it back. How long could she go on with the henna-indigo business? She'd lost her red hair, of that there was no doubt. She could see damage. She considered lipstick but that would look, what – too obvious – and if she were wrong about his interest it would make her appear foolish. She put off the overhead light and turned on the bedside light. And then checked the room for tidiness. She left her new silk nightdress laid out on the bed. She called out again for him to wait: ‘Be with you in a tick.' She went back and put on lipstick. A gesture of polite reception. Really? Earrings? Definitely not. She blotted the lipstick to tone it down a little, threw the tissue in the waste bin and then had to retrieve it and flush it.
‘Be with you in a minute.'
She went back to the mirror. She took off the velvet night robe and carefully draped it on the bed. She put on her travel slippers and then looked at them – too dull – she kicked them off and pushed them under the bed with her foot and went to the door barefooted. She always felt younger barefooted. She had always liked being barefooted with men. She still painted her toenails. And fingernails. Both were in good condition. She also thought she had a girlish stride, a hockey-player stride – vigorous. She hoped that no one thought of her as sprightly.
She opened the door. ‘I was preparing for bed. You wanted something?'
Then, for an instant, their eyes met in what she was absolutely sure was desire – unmistakably desire. Her mind delivered some lines from one of the von Heyse stories she was reading: ‘...only one quick flash, as he entered her presence and had looked on the proud stately mistress of the castle, had told her that the blood of manhood coursed through his veins...'
She looked away, unable to quite handle the fact that her dreamy, dopey fantasies had leapt alive, leeringly, challenging her to now perform them. She became timorous, how would he react to her naked, if she were ever to become naked, she might not have to do that – would she be wet enough for him – hand cream perhaps would be of use – would he stay the night, how would she look to him in the light of day? What if he failed to perform when he saw her body or because of whatever sometimes happened with men and, if as a consequence, they were both humiliated?
They stood there at the door, he without a tie and a jacket, and she in her satin slip with newly reddened lips, breasts shaped in satin.
He would have to take the initiative, would have to affirm his desire – she could not risk doing anything which might reveal her as being a foolish older woman.
It would not kill her to be humiliated.
Yes, it would.
He spoke, ‘I thought you might have a spare airmail letter form.' His voice was husky and he cleared his throat – she knew that huskiness, oh, she knew it too well. She was again thrilled, and she disregarded the lame excuse for the visit.
He stumbled on, and said, ‘...the late-night letter writing – from the darkness of the soul.'
She liked his attempt to dress up his words with the suggestion of poetry. She waited for him to take her in his arms.
But he didn't. His excuse for the visit now pushed them both into an ambiguity, his sophistication was too flimsy, and she knew she could not help him. If only he'd said something like: I needed company, I wanted to have a drink with you.
She had to follow his invented excuse and said, ‘I think I have one,' and as she turned to go back into her room she felt the moment die, felt the desire founder, leaving him standing at the door while she went to find him his ‘airmail letter form'.
She stopped halfway across her room and turned. ‘An airmail letter form?' She hoped that her voice implied that there was perhaps something else he had come looking for. It was a last-ditch effort to find a way for the tiny desire to advance itself: her voice had – she hoped – a faint sauciness to it, and she was going to add, ‘Is that really what you desire? Can't I be of service in some other way?' or ‘Perhaps we can be of service to each other in other, more satisfying ways?' But she couldn't. She didn't.
‘Just one,' he said.
SHE TURNED AWAY and then turned back again, again trying to keep the possibility alive. ‘Oh, do come in – how rude of me.' For the first time in her life the words ‘oh, do come in' spoke their innuendo. She had never before spotted the innuendo of that female doorstep invitation to a man. Or was it just her lustful mind. Or a mind desiring to experience lust.
‘Is the room quieter?' he asked, as he came in and stood in the middle of the room.
‘Thanks awfully, it was decent of you to arrange it all.'
She saw him glance at the two pharmaceutical bottles beside her bed. She should've put those out of sight. Displaying one's frailties was never attractive, although they were not serious medications, more futile elixirs of health. No magic aphrodisiacs.
Having gone to her writing desk and found an airmail letter form, she held it out to him, holding on to it for an instant as his hand took it, as a form of touching, looking into his eyes but the desire had gone out, and she then let go.
They said goodnight and she walked barefooted with him to the door and he left, and she closed the door, allowing her breathing to break, as if she'd been holding her breath.
The slip had been wrong, wrong, wrong – too brazen – a woman of her age should not answer the door in a slip, even if it were lace-edged and shaped. It wasn't a dull housewife's slip. Younger women would not even wear a slip these days, let alone to the door. Her hips. The robe would've masked her hips.
She calmed. She supposed the episode itself was flattering, even if its promise had collapsed. She poured herself a cognac. She was a little shaky. She should've offered him a drink. Still, in her defence, the slip was vampish, rather sensually forward in its own way. A way of saying she was, well, available. She felt hot, the room was overheated, and she decided to sleep naked. She pushed the straps of the slip off her shoulder and let it slither to the floor. Her body had never lost its love of the feel of the sheen of silk and satin.
Perhaps at the last moment he'd backed off so as to be faithful to this girl in London? Perhaps.
She looked at herself in the mirror, running her hands down her hips and then up to her breasts, not bad, not bad. Not buxom, she had never been buxom. She had put on weight but she carried it well, and she was still waxing. The hips. She had some weight there. And there was something of a tummy. Some men might like that. She held out a leg – her ankles were excellent. She'd never been a beauty but she had her attributes. She did not want to be undesirable. She could perhaps now accept that she might be unlovable but did not want to be undesirable. Out in public, she'd studied women of her age and she especially observed mothers and daughters and saw what age did. The sad contrast of mother and daughter could give her a sharp pain. She tried, as all did, she supposed, to exempt herself from ageing, to think she could just wriggle past the years without them noticing her. She remembered something de Staël said about having been desirable and then having been fifty years old and that ‘these two facts changed everything I have ever felt in life.' Something like that.
She wondered what age he would put her at. Sometimes, if ever ungallantly asked, say by a news reporter, she sometimes plucked an age from the air, sometimes younger: sometimes rather wildly older. All her personal numbers on official forms had become unreliable even to herself – the years of marriage, years at the League, years at UNRRA, years living in any given country or city, how long she'd worked for Latham after university, for example. Unreliable not only because of evasiveness nor only because of her memory, but because she couldn't be bothered calculating and, for godsake, could not, in retrospect, easily calculate. And then, we are for some time – was it from thirty to sixty? – one blurred age. The wonderfully blurred years.
Was that really true? True or not, she was no longer in the blurred zone.
She'd made herself older when she joined the League. Coming to Geneva back then she'd rehearsed herself to be older. She'd wanted some of the elan of age. She'd been older in her makeup and dress. Had kept reminding herself to act older. Now she was older.
And there was someone at the door.
She heard the door handle turn and looked with some fright as the door opened.
He was back in the room. Without looking at him she went to the robe on the bed but before she could cover herself, he mumbled, ‘Sorry,' and went back out the door, closing it behind him. He must have seen her fully naked.
Should she run after him, take hold of him, say, ‘Come. I know what you want'?
Instead, she stood there, naked, clutching her robe, paralysed like some frightened animal.
THE NEXT MORNING she considered having breakfast in her room so that she would not have to face him at their table, with its play of domestic intimacy which now had been given a licentious shape, but she decided that she would face down the irritating ambiguity of the evening. Face it down.
It was a rest day from the conference and there'd been an arrangement by the organisers for a visit to an art exhibition. She put a little more effort into her appearance and went down to the breakfast room and again she was there before him. She picked up the Herald Tribune, sat down, and began her breakfast. She liked her newspaper to be untouched, newly minted.
Without quite looking up, she was intensely aware of him when he entered the breakfast room, heard him saying good morning to the Canadians, bonjour to the Cameroons, guten morgen to the waitress, as he made his way to their table. Another display of his thin worldliness.
‘The Austrian idea of a rest day,' he said, with a brightness which was meant to imply that nothing had happened the previous night.
She, in turn, spoke brightly about the weather to convey to him, that from her point of view, there was nothing amiss.
And – sadly – nothing to be said.
‘Anything in the Herald Tribune?' he asked, breaking a bread roll.
As they ate, she considered whether to separate herself from him during the day's recreational activities and to let the day adjust a proper space between them, but even when she entered the bus a little later than he their eyes caught, and he patted the empty seat beside him and she went skittishly to it.
At the Orangerie art museum he tried to disengage from her but she saw that it was half-hearted and sensed that he desired her company – if not her body – and that almost against his will, and, to a degree, againsther fluctuating will also, they seemed to fall together.
With some disgust she then heard herself say, ‘Would you mind if I clung on to you today? I'm feeling a little down.'
Theirs was now, indeed, a very befuddled alliance.
Perhaps, with her demand, she was punishing his lack of temerity the night before, taking a compensatory payment for his having begun an advance and then having lacked the passion to carry it through – for whatever reason.
If that was what had, in fact, happened. She was no longer sure. Oh.
It was avant-garde art and, despite her openness to experimentation, some of it aroused her scepticism.
‘But is this really art?' she asked.
He said to her, ‘I suppose art is what you find in art galleries.'
She'd come back, saying that given this art was displayed in the Orangerie, maybe, then, ‘this isn't art but oranges we're looking at.'
He turned to her smiling. ‘Very good, Edith.'
They stopped at photographs of the OM Theatre.
‘Art or oranges?' became a running joke with them.
‘Neither, "Orgies and mysteries",' he said, reading from the catalogue.
She went in closer to look at the photographs.
He read out, ‘According to the catalogue, you're looking at the entrails of a freshly slaughtered cow.' He said it in an impudent male way, as little boys try to frighten girls with toads and lizards and rats – to frighten them into trembling submission – and to which little girls gasp, hands raised in pretend horror – signals of their submission.
She screwed up her face to show puzzlement at what she was seeing. She'd seen far worse than the entrails of a cow.
She stepped back and said, this time mocking herself, ‘Are we in the Orgierie now, perhaps?'
She opened her own catalogue and read out from the short introduction to the exhibition by the director, RH Luchs, where he said that ‘the older artists should not pursue the splendid rashness of youth. To desire only the new and the young was a state of mind which bred nervousness and distorted one's personal history.'
That could apply to them both – her fantasies about him – were they fantasies? – and his aspirations with his much younger girlfriend. She looked at him meaningfully but he seemed not to register. Perhaps she was also being a little cruel. Unsuccessfully.
Next day at breakfast he asked her for a favour. ‘Edith, there's something I want to ask of you – a favour.'
‘Of course – you've done lots of things for me on this trip – you've been really very considerate.'
For godsake, he was paid to do errands.
‘This is an unusual request – outside the boundaries of our mission.'
‘You can but ask.'
‘There is a girl in London – I need her address and telephone number – I've lost contact.'
He seemed to have forgotten he'd already told her of the girl, one of the first conversations they'd had. Back then he had seemed to need to talk to her about this girl.
‘I want you to help me get the telephone number.' He looked at her defencelessly.
‘Where do I come into it? It's rather odd – if indeed I do come into it.'
‘You could telephone her home in Adelaide and ask her parents for it – you could say – this is a cover story – that you found her wallet at an airport and wish to return it to her – you could say that's where you found her home address – in the wallet. Something like that.'
She sat silently, eating.
Then she said, ‘By "cover story" you mean "lie". I'm not sure I could carry that off – or that I should. Never any good at lying.'
‘Come on, Edith – you've been in intrigues before surely – lovers' intrigues.'
She saw that he hoped that calling it ‘lovers' intrigues' made it sound more acceptable to her.
He added, ‘And you're a poet.'
‘One small book many years ago, and what has that to do with anything?'
She must've told him about her youthful poetry in one of their conversations on the long flight over – things one said on a droning plane on a long, long flight thirty thousand feet above the world.
‘Poets are...' He made a sweeping gesture. ‘...poets are traditionally in alliance with lovers.'
‘I suppose there is a small part of me which is still the poet – but aren't you a little old for these games?'
He pretended to wince. ‘Point taken – but she's young and I'm obliged to play them: it's her world I wish to belong to. At least to visit.'
‘Although it surprises me,' she said, carefully, wiping the crumbs of bread roll from her mouth, frowning, ‘and I don't know how to say it, and maybe I shouldn't say it, but I will – I don't know that I don't feel a little jealous.' She then broke her frown into a smile. ‘After all, you are my consort on this trip – in a way of speaking. Please excuse the double negatives.'
He raised an eyebrow, caught by this declaration – claim – or whatever. Whatever it was she was saying or meaning, she had not thought it through.
He leaned across, touched her hand with his oh-so-warm hand – she heard von Heyse's words, ‘the blood of manhood coursed through his veins...' ‘Edith, I am your consort.'
They gave a little laugh which backed both of them away from any sincerity there had been in their mock declarations.
Declarations of an intimacy without prospect, this widening of the definition of the relationship which was itself essentially bureaucratic simply pushed them further into the mud of it, or perhaps, the glue of it.
‘Let me think about it, then,' she said.
THE NEXT MORNING he did not sit with her, instead came to the table to tell her that the Cameroons had invited him to breakfast. They'd expressed pleasure at the speech he'd given at one of the unofficial functions. As he explained this to her, implying that she was not invited to the breakfast, she could see that he felt guilt about abandoning her, and perhaps some irritation at having let things between them get to this point where he felt such guilt.
He stood there waiting for permission to go to his Cameroons or for her answer about his request concerning the girl in London.
Even though she'd made up her mind to do it for him she told him she was still thinking about his ‘intrigue'. Punishment.
He went off to the other table.
She felt somewhat excluded especially when, from behind her newspaper, she heard their all-male table break into laughter.
She was not the only person in the dining room eating breakfast alone. Come to think of it, eating alone had never worried her. Her marriage seemed to have been a training for eating alone. Richard and she reading at the table while they ate – she had a flash of her reading the airmail London Times and he reading theCanberra Times and then wordlessly swapping when they'd finished. He or she saying as they stood up, ‘Are you minding the shop with the standing committee
on...?' And one or the other, usually she, saying, ‘Won't be in for dinner, go ahead without me.'
Having finished her breakfast, she resolved to leave without giving attention to him but he must have felt some delinquency and left his hearty table and came over to her as she was leaving. He suggested they play truant and see an exhibition of Max Ernst paintings.
Was this affection? It wasn't duty. Or did it have a hint of the irksome fidelity of marriage?
ON THE WAY to the Max Ernst exhibition she told him she would help him with his plot to contact the girl. He became quite merry, thanked her profusely.
At the exhibition she told him a story which she knew about Max Ernst. ‘Ernst's father – also an artist – painted a picture of his garden and left out the bough of a tree which he considered spoiled the symmetry of his painting. When he completed the painting he went and cut the bough from the tree to make the garden conform to the painting.'
She said that Max Ernst's paintings struck terror in her. ‘Too many bad dreams in his paintings.'
He said that Ernst used what he called ‘optical provocateurs' to produce his visions.
‘Ernst manipulated his eyesight and field of vision to cause new images to appear to him.'
‘I should have thought the world strange enough as it is without resorting to distortion.'
‘BY FORTUNATE ACCIDENT. I found it at the airport – I too am an Australian which makes it all the more remarkable.' She thought to herself that this all sounded highly improbable. ‘...instead of taking it to the consulate I thought I'd make direct contact – your name and number are in the back of the passport as next of kin.' She left the location of the airport vague.
He sat there in her bedroom listening to her call to the family of his girlfriend – if indeed she were his girlfriend. She could be committing a crime, aiding an older man to pursue a much younger woman.
‘...yes, in the ladies room at the airport. Very fortunate. Yes.'
On a sheet of hotel stationery, Edith wrote down an address and telephone number in the UK, and he silently clapped his hands.
She finished up the call and turned to him, handing him the sheet of paper. ‘I spoke with her brother. I don't mind saying that I feel guilty about having done this – I don't feel good about it at all. And they will eventually find you out. And me. Obviously the girl does not want to communicate with you and perhaps you should respect that. But I suppose it is all too late now.'
He stared at the address and number.
She said, ‘It was probably easier because the brother answered. The parents would have been more cautious.'
‘Thank you, Edith – you're a good sport. A messenger of Eros.'
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. ‘You may recall from your youth that pursuit and hiding and being found are part of the sport of love.'
She made a dismissive noise but was pleased with herself. ‘I can only hope that it brings you joy.'
‘I doubt it.'
‘I'm so glad that all this sort of thing is behind me.'
He looked up from the address. ‘Is it really – all behind you?'
He seemed to be enquiring in a genuine way.
‘Almost,' she said, coyly, ‘almost. But not yet. Allow me some illusions.' She wondered if his question was also an attempt to elicit some evidence of her potential for passion. Which may involve him.
He veered away. ‘I thought that now, at forty, I wouldn't be vulnerable. But I am. Very vulnerable.'
‘Oh, the forties – they are the desperate years.'
That was not right: they were the years when you know what you can do and how to do it and you know that while everything is not possible, most things still were – at least for a man.
She went to the window with her back to him and watched the passing parade of people in Stephansplatz. It seemed to be her past in procession. She had a strange sensation that she was wearing a favourite and flattering dress from many years back and had to glance down to be sure that she wasn't. She wished she were.
Without looking back at him she said, ‘Oh, such things are still glimpsed but at least the exhausting ardour is gone.' Would she still wish to put up with that exhausting ardour? Perhaps. But she could not put up with the haunting, insecure fear that the love once gained would disintegrate, decay. Rot.
She turned. ‘I do hope that it brings you some joy.' Her voice quavered.
She moved from the window and sat at her writing table, put on her reading glasses and began to fiddle with papers as a way of ending his visit.
‘You are a splendid consort and travelling companion, Edith.'
She didn't say anything at first, staring down at her papers, but she coloured a little and then looked up at him and said, ‘Thank you – now be off, you silly boy, and play your games.' She waved him away. She felt like weeping but instead, looking back to her papers and in a controlled voice, she reminded him of the time difference between London and Vienna.
After he closed the door behind him, she found herself awash with envy that he should still have the powerful energy for these games of the heart. She wanted something like that in her life but she could not quite imagine the softer passion which at her age she knew it would have to be.
Was there such a thing as a softer passion?
NEXT DAY THE envy had subsided and she was alive with curiosity about his call to his girlfriend, pointlessly, cruelly half-wishing that the girl had spurned him. She did however wait as long as she could at breakfast before asking him how his call had gone. There was another converse feeling, a vicarious wish for him to succeed with the girl, and like a dazzle ball she turned – now wanting to be the girl, now wanting to be him, now wanting to be the lover of either of them, now wanting to steal their youth.
‘She's involved with a man in London. A Parisian.'
‘It's honourable enough to lose out to a Parisian,' she said, hoping that the pointless relief did not show in her voice. ‘Anyhow it sounded very much like a middle-age-crisis love affair to me.'
A life-phase change like that had landed her in her current marriage. But no, what he was doing could never be dismissed as foolishness – as long as you accepted the less than perfect result, even the devastation. Ah, the devastation – the laying waste of the spirit. All its dangerous pain.
And now, having heard of his defeat, she was still inclined to think of a shipboard romance with him here at the conference. Not a Grand Romance. She could perhaps play the role of the older lover with a younger man, buy him gifts. Become – what was the term – a ‘sugar daddy' – she could become his ‘sugar mam'. Was there such a term? She could buy him an expensive watch. A rare old volume of one of the Faust stories – perfect. She did not know upon which laws of eroticism or psychological theory this romance between them could rest. Perhaps it was one of those murky reversals of nature which carried with it some perverse, scandalous resemblance to passion – some warped erotic symmetry – she being so much older – while he was pining for someone so much younger. Perhaps she could find and bring into play this powerful erotic chemistry – if it existed – cause it to explode within him. Even – she permitted herself to consider it for the first time – even if she came to play the role of the consoling older maternal woman, or even, maybe, the mother. This was a role which had never entered her erotic experience with any man. Now might be the time to let loose its dark madness.
She would have to find the words and poetry and scene and ambience which would make such a perverse passion appealing and accomplishable.
She was pulled from her sexual witchcraft by him saying, ‘I don't see myself as "middle-aged".' He was hurt. ‘I don't think that description has any meaning anymore and certainly doesn't carry a program of behaviour to which we all have to adhere.'
‘I didn't mean to offend.'
So he too was trying to trick age. But if he was seeing himself as somewhat younger than he in fact was, then that would put him even further out of reach. Or would it add yet another perverse piquancy?
He was so right. She had never believed in ‘fixed programs of behaviour' determined by age. Especially in matters of the bed.
He became self-pitying, returning again to the girl. ‘I wanted to do a pilgrimage to the Spanish Civil War sites with her. And to visit anarchist places. I wanted to fit it in after you and I finish up here – we'd planned it for some time.'
She ate her cheese and cold cuts, wary of speaking.
He said, ‘Have you seen the film The Passenger?'
She shook her head.
‘The Antonioni film.'
She shook her head again. ‘Why?'
‘It's about a journalist played by Jack Nicholson who is turning forty and who takes on the identity of a casual acquaintance after the acquaintance dies while they are together in a remote hotel in North Africa. Nicholson decides to abandon his own life and live out the other man's diary appointments. In Barcelona, Nicholson meets a young student – Maria Schneider – who involves herself with him on his drive along the Spanish coast from Barcelona through Almería and Algeciras.'
‘He keeps the final appointment in the Hotel de la Gloria and meets the other man's destiny – he is shot dead in that hotel by the man's enemies.'
‘I don't follow?'
He moved about in his chair, ill at ease. ‘The film is special for me because I was approaching forty when I met this girl.'
‘The girl in London?'
‘She was seventeen years old – I'd been sent to visit the weapons testing facility at Salisbury, you know it. I was very attracted to her. And she to me.'
‘The longest rocket range in the western world.'
He nodded, acknowledging her comment, and then became silent, as if the story of the girl was uncomfortable for him. Embarrassing perhaps. Put him in a bad light. Or maybe there was genuine pain. She remained silent.
He then went on, ‘I had an impulse and asked her to drive with me to Darwin – five thousand kilometres clean across the continent and back again. She said yes. Without hesitation. And we did it. It changed my life forever.'
He pushed his breakfast platter across to her. ‘You have that. I'll just have coffee.' He said that he had an ‘indifferent appetite'.
She smiled at his little affectation. ‘Thank you. But I couldn't eat it.' She examined what he'd left, and thought she probably would eat it.
She made a move, saying, ‘I'd love to see Spain again. I was there many years ago, I hate to admit it – before, just before, the civil war. Yes, I'd like to see Spain again. I knew Ascaso, one of the brilliant minds on the anarchist side. I knew him...well.'
Very well indeed. Ascaso was by far the most dangerous man she'd ever slept with.
She would steal the trip to Spain from the young girl.
He seemed to light up. ‘Did you know Durruti, then?'
‘I would have liked to have known him, but no.'
She began to eat his breakfast leftovers, now aware that she'd impressed him. She could impress him more if she felt like playing all her cards about Spain. She could show him a great, secret Spain. She could show him where she'd watched Ascaso and others dig up buried grenades. She, in her hooded Spanish cape – acapucha, it was called – and her black leather knee boots, had observed the digging: she had not helped. She had been, after all, a neutral officer of the League. Daresay, there were still weapons buried at that spot. She could dig up an anarchist revolver for him wrapped in its brown waxed paper and oilskin. That might cheer him up: win his love.
‘I've abandoned the Spanish plans,' he said, a little irritated. ‘Anyhow, it was sentimental anarchism, a hangover from another part of my life.'
He changed the subject, saying, ‘I should try to sit in on the consultative committee to stop some of the silliness that will come out.'
She changed her tone too. ‘You're hard on the others.' She was even harder. They both shared a contempt for those who thought it all could be reversed – the uranium put back in the ground; the secrets of science locked away in a safe. To run the film backwards.
She leaned over and was about to put her hand on his, but instead took his hand and placed it over hers, concealing her blemished hand, and joked, ‘So far at this conference we have yet to hear the expression "History will prove the cynics wrong".'
Throughout the conference they'd been jokingly compiling a list of Dullard's Conference Wisdom. He now played along, saying, ‘But we have heard "only time will tell" and "crying wolf will lead to dangerous complacency".'
She added, ‘"We have nothing to fear but fear itself" and "history will be the judge".'
They laughed at the last – nuclear weapons were the one matter on which history may, in fact, not survive to judge.
He added, ‘"It will not be accomplished overnight".'
They bonded in a smile and then he looked away and lapsed into silence.
Without looking up she said, ‘If you change your mind about Spain, I would gladly come. But don't expect me to help with the driving. I have had a car with driver for so long I think I'm rather below par – I dare say it's not that much different from back home but I do recall many donkeys and flocks of sheep on the roads of Spain.'
Her proposal was sheer, breathless audacity.
‘Thank you, Edith, but as I've said, I've given up on the Spanish adventure.' His voice was cold.
She found her consoling voice. ‘You poor boy, you make it sound so tragic.'
‘No, I don't,' he said, again irritated with her. ‘It is not tragic at all. It's just something that's passed through my life. Abandoned plans. Acceptable losses. Nothing tragic.'
She wondered if he thought her offer to take the place of the girl was pitiable. Others looking in on her might think her pitiable. She did not see herself as pitiable. There was a certain steeliness now in her behaviour – it was no longer a time for artful reticence. Having served as a handmaiden to Eros in his pursuit of the young girl she could at least ask Eros for a favour back.
Did Eros still have her name on her list?
Did Eros even remember her name?
This story is from the next volume of the Edith Campbell Berry trilogy, scheduled for publication in 2010 by Random House (Australia). It is one of five which are developed in the new book from chapters which first appeared in Forty-Seventeen (first published by Penguin in 1988; republished by Random House in 2007), where Edith herself was first introduced. In the new book the events of these chapters are told from Edith's point of view and include further development of those events. The book will be set mainly in the 1950s during the Cold War and continues into the 1970s.