rian and Dean got the same train to work the next morning, Brian wishing him a good day at the new job and ‘success in the sack’ with either the unnamed tea lady or Rebecca Cleary or both, at once, in the shower. Dean applauded his inventiveness but said he wasn’t really interested in acting out Brian’s fantasy life.
He was in at his desk at 8:45, preceded by Con He said ‘g'day' to them and then with some surprise noticed a plain cardboard box on his desk. He ripped off the tape that sealed it and opened it. Inside were a new stapler, staple remover, diary, pens, drawing pins, a metal bodkin for pushing holes in paper to bind them in a folder (called a ‘pigstabber’ by clerical assistants everywhere), a pen tray, keys for his desk drawers, a hole punch to make nice round holes in paper for binding in ring binders, a large box of paper clips and another of elastic bands. He also found some sticky tape.
“Bloody hell,” he opined.
“Welcome to the section,” said Con. “The CA’s put that pack together for every new starter, but I think the idea was originally Mary’s. They used to put food in there, as well, chocolates etc but they did it once with a bloke who was transferred her then immediately seconded back to his old department. The box sat there getting whiffier and whiffier until George Latham, the head of Victorian Operations was due for a visit.”
“George Latham. That was about ten years ago, then.”
“Before my time, yes. It just shows how little happens around here. People still talk about it. Bloody hell.” He turned back to his work.
Dean got down to his. He read back through the history of the ‘James Sidon’ case and diligently made a few notes as to dates and times, especially when the passports had been used for travel to ‘zones of risk’. These included Thailand, Burma, North Korea and Laos in Asia, the Netherlands Antilles and Cayman Islands in the Caribbean, almost all countries in Africa and Bulgaria, Rumania and the European republics that had been part of the USSR. He wrote up a table of dates, passports and countries, did a quick check to see that two passports hadn’t been used in the same period and that every entry to a foreign country was matched by an exit on the same passport, then got out his new hole punch and filed the table with the other pages in the file. That took a good hour and a half and yet he was still no closer to solving the case of the duplicate passports or even working out definitively if there was a problem.
For one thing, each of the passports showed re-entry to Australia by the second week of September, usually at Melbourne but sometimes in Sydney. The exit points were from all the Australian capitals except Hobart. That part was easy – Hobart didn’t have flights to international destinations. Dean scratched his bear for a bit and stared out of the window across the room. A pigeon settled on the window sill and began to peck at something in its feathers.
The passports always came back in the second week of September, or at least no later than that, and the next exit point was around the start of January. The pigeon had stopped its grooming and was now strutting back and forth along the window sill. Dean’s mind wandered idly to the question of the tea lady and Rebecca Cleary. They were about the same height and build. Definitely ideal bathtime companions. Yes, he could certainly get lather up there. What was that pigeon on about? Pigeons were not seasonal visitors to windowsills on Collins St. They came in late September and left in early January… ‘James Sidon’ had done the same thing from 1893 to 1986…
“Fuck me,” said Dean, “he barracks for Hawthorn.”
“Who does?” said Rebecca, who had come into see Dean staring at a pigeon across the floor.
“My boy here,” Dean replied, tapping the file. “He’s gallivanting all around the world on different passports but he always comes back in time for the Grand Final, at least when Hawthorn’s playing. ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86! See?”
“This year, too,” said Con.
“Well, maybe. The point is that if he’s coming back for the Grand Final a week before it’s on he must be pretty well-connected to get tickets.”
“What’s his number? I could use some tickets,” said Con.
“I haven’t got a name for him yet.” Then, from out of nowhere a name did float to the front of Dean’s memory. It was on a letter he’d hung onto but not filed. He reached back behind him to his jacket hanging on the back of his char. The letter was there, alright. Some time ago he must’ve transferred it there on the off chance that he might be able to work out where it went. He got it out and read through it again. Yes, there it was. John Sturges. The initials were the same. Now to find out if John Sturges had a passport.
There was, of course, more than one John Sturges in Australia, but not all of them would have passports. There was no guarantee that the real owner of all five passports Dean was chasing actually had one in his real name, but it would cost nothing to find out. Dean picked up the phone and dialled the File Services Unit.
“Filing,” said the bored voice on the other end.
“G’day, it’s Dean McNair here. I’d like to request the passport applications for John Sturges, middle initial unknown, active records between 1980 and present date.” That was a fair range to search. Possibly John Sturges’s passport hadn’t been used since before 1980 but Dean doubted it. “Melbourne’s probably the application city but - well, anyway, you know what you’re doing.”
“What’s it in aid of?”
“It’s a duplicates case.”
“Send us down a slip. We’ll get the Ripper onto it.”
“Thanks, I’m filling it out as we speak.”
‘The Ripper’ was the semi-legendary figure that lived in the filing centre in the basement. He had, it was rumoured, been in DFAT since 1914 and could find any file that every existed. Rumour had it that he had the nickname because his first name was Jack, but nobody really knew. It was rumoured that his personnel file was classified ‘Most Secret’ to prevent anyone finding out his real name. He knew public servants from all over the country and Ministers and Secretaries of Departments and probably had the Queen’s private number. He had never been known to socialise with anyone in DFAT and some said he never left the office but just prowled the racks of files seven days a week. It was provable that in 1981 a particularly ambitious manager, Deidre Jones, had attempted to have him transferred out of File Services ostensibly to improve his suitability for promotion but actually to show she could do it and that she had immediately been transferred to the High Commission in Tanzania and never heard from again. Dean had never seen him and he didn’t know anyone who had. That might’ve been him on the phone. (Only the truly famous refer to themselves in the third person.)
Dean now took the letter and attached it to the file. It was just in time for tea break. Dean was happy with his rather elegant solutions that might come to nothing and he looked around to see if anyone else noticed the rosy glow of success emanating from him. The pigeon probably had, for it had gone off to tell its mates, but the rest of the section went on blithely. Even Con and Rebecca worked merrily away, dotting their I’s and crossing their T’s. Dean began to worry then. Maybe his brilliant leap of reason wasn’t going to pay off. In his old section this would’ve been something pretty impressive, but maybe the rest of this new area had this sort of insights every day.
One certainty in the midst of all these ‘maybes’ was the undeniable beauty of the new tea lady. Dean nearly levitated out of his chair to get to the tea trolley first, but other people had the same idea. He stood fourth in the queue and resented every second somebody else took to get served. Finally, he thought as he finally got to the head of the line.
“Coffee, please, “ he said.
“Black or white, love?”
Love? “Er, white, please. No sugar.”
“You’re sweet enough,” she said. Her voice was deep for a girl’s, with no trace of accent. Dean had at first thought she might’ve been Irish. Now that he was this close he could see that her eyelashes were the same deep red as her hair. He wondered how far this red theme went.
“You’re too kind,” he eventually said.
“Hot jelly roll?” she asked.
“No,” he said, and then inspired said: “Some cream bun’d be nice.”
“Oh, I’m out of cream bun, but if you come by later I’ll have something special for you.”
“Pleased to meet you. How does lunch sound?”
“Lunch sounds great. How does tomorrow suit you?”
“It seems too far away,” said Dean.
“Then let’s have a drink this afternoon, get to know you better.”
“I – “ Dean was lost for something to say. “Sure.”
He hardly noticed his coffee, Rebecca, the world around him as he went back to his desk. How was he going to get his mind back on the job? Did it even need to be on the job? He should be concentrating on how lucky he was and how he wasn’t going to bore this gorgeous creature shitless. First dates were often awful, although both daters made allowances for not knowing each other. For Dean, even that didn’t help and he’d never been out with someone who could to be as fussy as this girl could. Woman. Perhaps he should think of her as a woman, because God knew that if he let something slip using ‘girl’ that would end it all before it started. Huh! See what a suit can do? He watched Holly serve the other people with not a trace of jealousy. Highly unusual. He knew that at least he could get to see her in some more intimate or at least delightful setting. He really couldn’t believe it was happening, but he wasn’t daydreaming. Of course something was bound to come up, a car accident or something, meteor strike, nuclear war, a sick friend or she suddenly realised her hair needed washing, but for the duration of this tea break he had something to look forward to.
Dean would normally have eaten lunch at the work cafeteria only with a gun pointed to his head, but he was on something of a promise. Holly, though, had little time for him as she was serving at the cash register, or on the cafeteria line or collecting the empty plates from the tables. She did give him a smile if she came past him and he tried to smile back quickly and convincingly. Once back at his desk it seemed like the afternoon crawled. This was fairly usual midway through the week but this afternoon was taking the midweek crawl to idiotic extremes. Dean felt pleased with his work of the morning and the inspirational guess at the (hopefully correct) identity of ‘James Sidon’, but there was little more he could do until The Ripper found the John Sturges files. ON the other hand he was elated at the prospect of dating the gorgeous Holly. He wondered idly if hiring a private eye to photograph their meeting was a good idea, because there was no way any of his mates were going to believe such a scrumptious bit of fluff – pardon, such a woman – would ever go out with him. DFAT had no clandestine operatives in Australia and of course strenuously denied that they had any in foreign embassies, either. That role was owned and operated by the Australian Security and Intelligence Service, who could be called upon to do overseas undercover work if the need arose. Should that happen in this case, Dean would be whisked off it and back to his substantive position and maybe, one day, someone in the upper echelons might send him a note saying ‘Thanks’ or ‘You were right’ but that was highly unlikely. People with manners that good were usually overlooked in the promotions game. Which thus ruled out getting anyone from the organisation to covertly photograph tonight’s date.
These were idle thoughts Dean had no intention of following up. His main concentration was divided between planning ahead for tonight’s rendezvous and that most onerous of all tasks in any government department, trying to look busy. He got out a memo pad and wrote various notes on the case at hand, which were completely useless as he had already written a memorandum on his idea that the link between ‘James Sidon’ and John Sturges wasn’t supported in the accompanying letter but could possibly be corroborated if ‘John Sturges’ was his true identity.
Where should they eat? ‘Bligh’s’ was a nice place by all accounts and money was no object, even if it was over a week till payday. There was Pellegrini’s on Bourke St but he had never been there and it seemed more like a coffee-shop than an actual eatery you would take someone beautiful to. The Savoy had good meals at cheap prices but he disliked the idea of taking someone as pretty as Holly there. Not only was it crammed full of drunk Aborigines after 4:30 it was also full of people trying to sell gold watches, cheap VCRs and nights out with one of their girls. Around 3:45 he resolved to simply ask her where she would like to have dinner and go there.
Ithaca, on Bank Place had once been a wool store and before that the first offices of the Colonial Spiritual Society of Melbourne. It was a four storey bluestone building with narrow mullioned windows and a kind of frowning countenance. Dean had never heard of it before but he knew the Mitre Tavern nearby. Holly and he were both still in their work clothes, though she had doffed the teal lady’s apron ensemble and looked great in a green skirt, ivory blouse and fashionable shoes. Dean had purchased a toothbrush from a chemist’s on the way up here, as they had not walked up together, and had whipped into a pub toilet to sluice the toothypegs. This was just in case a kiss was in the offing. He made no assumptions or presumptions but he did believe in being prepared. He had pondered this philosophy as he walked up Little Collins St but decided that running back to the chemists’ s for some condoms was simply gauche.
Holly came up from the Collins St end of Bank Place and waved when she saw him. He waved back and she didn’t disappear. Tonight was actually happening.
She kissed him on his hairy cheek and, startled, he stumbled a moment before returning the favour.
“Hi,” she said.
“Enchantee,” he replied.
She ran off a long string of nonsense words that went almost completely over Dean’s head.
“If I gather that rightly, the answer is ‘no’,’ he said. “I can barely make myself understood in English.” That got a giggle like larks ascending. “Shall we improve the reputation of this place by dining at it?”
“I think that would be fine.”
As tempting as it was, Dean didn’t reach for her arm to escort her up the steps to the front door, but he did get the door for her, ushering her in with a flourish. The class and potential price of the place was evidenced by the way a waiter appeared from somewhere and stood just to Dean’s left.
“Table for two,” he asked, with just a slight hint of some Eastern European accent.
“Somewhere on the North side, please, and not near the window,” Holly said. Dean nodded - as if both Holly and the waiter needed his permission. The inside of Ithaca was fine and quiet, with dark polished floors probably drenched in lanolin from its wool store days, high narrow windows that let in the faded light that managed to struggle down to ground level in Lt Collins St and white walls hung with various curlicued tapestries. As Dean looked at the one closest to their table he saw that they were printed, not woven, and printed with distorted human faces wound about by gold ribbons and red streamers on a black background. There was some Greek lettering along the right hand side of their tapestry which he had to twist his head to read. Or would’ve done if he could understand Greek. Their table had a thick linen tablecloth so white it nearly lit up the room and, as soon as they sat down, a blue glass carafe of ice water and two glasses that looked like carved diamonds.
“Can I get you some drinks?” asked the waiter. Dean was about to leap on a vodka and tonic like a starving cheetah but restrained himself to wait for Holly to order first.
“I’ll have a vodka martini, with Polish vodka and two olives,” she said. “Dean, you look like a vodka and tonic man.”
“As it happens, I am a vodka and tonic man,” he replied. “Vodka and tonic, then, “ he said to the waiter. “With the same vodka as she’s having.”
“And then drown it in tonic?” Holly asked sceptically.
“”Augment it with tonic,” Dean said desperately. “Like soda augments Irish whiskey.”
“My father would’ve been scandalised by that,” she said.
“Nevertheless…” Dean said. “I think we sorted it out,” he said to the waiter, “vodka martini…two vodka martinis.”
“Certainly, sir,” said the waiter and drifted off.
“I hope you like the martini,” she said.
“James Bond drinks vodka martinis,” he said, “so I’m willing to bet they’re well worth it. I have to confess that I thought we were getting off to a ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ start to the evening.”
“Why? I don’t expect you to agree with me on everything over dinner, but I’m sure you’ll like a vodka martini made with good vodka more than drowning the gift of the grain in anti-malaria medicine.”
“I hadn’t thought of a vodka and tonic like that,” said Dean, “but now that I do, you’re right. Still, with the vodka they usually use it’s better to mask it with kerosene.”
“I saw a bottle the other day, “ said Dean, “from New Zealand. New Zealand vodka? Might as well have Japanese Scotch or Spanish champagne.”
“I hate this new thing they’ve got of naming wines. ‘Dry white’, ‘sweet red’, ‘blend of three grapes’. We know our wines, we’re wine drinkers! If it’s a sauvignon blanc, call it a sauvignon blanc!”
“I agree,” said Dean, who’d learnt more about wine in that last sentence than he had known in his entire life.
Their drinks arrived and for a moment they were both lost in the pleasures of savouring – something new in Dean’s case, something old in Holly’s. “Isn’t that the best martini you’ve ever tasted?” she asked.
“The best vodka one,” said Dean, who really had little to compare it to. It was sweeter than he’d expected and the olives added a nice tang to a drink, something you didn’t get out of a dozen cans of lager.
Their menus arrived and they ordered another brace of martinis to tide them over while they pondered the bill of fare.
“Nice trick,” said Holly. “They talk us into an aperitif and then give us the menus so they get another cocktail order out of us.”
“Is that why?”
“I’m both curious and cynical about catering practices,” she said and touched her fingers to her lips. Dean admired that gesture, mostly because it drew attention to her lips. “Anyway, see anything you like?” she smiled.
“Um, hmm…” Dean said Entishly. “I’m going to borrow a line from Steven Wright here and say ‘Do they have anything that you think I would like?’.”
“Well,” she said and rested her chin on the back of her hand, letting her fingers sort of dangle and move subtly as if there was some kind of breeze stirring them like thin branches, “I was right about the vodka and tonic, wasn’t I?” Yet you still got the vodka martini. Let’s see. . .I’m in a shellfish kind of mood.”
“Whatever you say, “ said Dean, “provided there’s no mushrooms involved.”
“Don’t like mushrooms?”
“I look at it this way,” he said. “You wouldn’t have ‘em on the shoer floor, so why would you want to eat ‘em?”
“But you wouldn’t have steak on your shower floor, either, and you eat steak.”
“Yes, but…hmm… There’s a logical flaw in that argument but I can’t put my finger on it. Anyway, ixnay on the ushroomsmay.”
“A-OK,” she smiled. “Then I think the seafood and salad with the crab meat and sea urchin roe, er, times two. Then for the main I shall have something criminally decadent. The fillet of alpaca, blood rare and I think some of that lovely Dijon sauce on the side. Raw vegetables.”
“And for you, sir?”
Dean perused the menu. Most of the entrees were full of ingredients he couldn’t identify and in any case Holly had done the entrée ordering and the entrée sounded as good as any he could see here. The mains were a bit more familiar and running his eye down the list, the prices of which were listed in bold print with only one significant figure and no dollar sign (the grilled Atlantic salmon, for example, was 25.5), he spotted something he’d heard of and wanted to try.
“Er… No offence, but that doesn’t sound that appealing. That entrée’s good, I mean, but for the main I’ll have the venison, medium grilled, pepper sauce on the side and I like my vegies like my women. Er…that doesn’t quite work. But cooked, anyway.”
“And can you send the sommelier over?” asked Holly.
“Certainly,” said the waiter.
After he’d whisked their menus away Dean said: “He didn’t tell us the specials.”
“I don’t think they have any specials,” she replied. “Look around, you see how it’s not crowded?”
“I thought that was because it was a bit early.”
“It is early, “ she said, “but this place never has a large crowd. It’s one reason I like it. And have you noticed the music?”
He hadn’t, and on listening now he said: “There’s no music.”
“Exactly. It’s a quiet place where you can hear and be heard and the only thing that disturbs you are the people who’ve got a reason to do so.” The sommelier, whatever that was, had arrived. He had a couple of multi-page volumes in the crook of his arm which he handed to them both. This wasn’t his usual practice but the other waiter had noticed that Holly had done the ordering. Holly didn’t even open the wine list and Dean, who had been about to, put it on the table as well. He nodded to Holly to say ‘By all means, go ahead’.
“What would you recommend for the entrée?” she asked.
“Well, since you are both having the sea urchin row, I think these new Limestone Coast whites are quite palatable. I’d recommend the 1984 Seahawk sauvignon blanc, which is sweet for the variety. Or there’s the 1986 House of Ponds chardonnay from Margaret River.”
“Wooded or unwooded?” asked Holly.
“Wooded. But the wood is very subtle, overtones of oak and of course jarrah.”
“Do you still have any of the 1978 Coup de Nuit Chablis?”
“By the bottle, yes.”
“Excellent. Now, for the main we’re divided, though not fatally. I’m having the alpaca and he’s having the venison.”
“Well, we have a 1977 Hermitage, of course, but I think that a bit too powerful for the subtleties of both dishes, so I would suggest something we’ve just acquired, a 1982 or 1983 (both fine vintages) Deer Stalker chamboursin.”
“A what?” asked Dean.
“It’s from an unusual vineyard in Tasmania. Yes, they are doing some fine work on the light reds, the pinots noir and grigio down there, but a chamboursin requires heavier warm weather grapes. Yet, both years are exciting and certainly apropos for tonight’s desires. Plus, we like to encourage new and independent vineyards – if they meet our standards.”
“How experimental do you feel?” asked Holly.
“Tonight is so unusual that I am full of the joys of wonder and discovery,” said Dean expansively. “Bring on the cham – whatever it was.”
“That sounds excellent – ah, and here are our fresh martinis.”
They sipped in silence for a moment, while Dean got more and more nervous, and eventually put down his martini and leaned forward. Holly seemed to watch him without blinking and she raised a quizzical eyebrow.
“I was going to ask this anyway,” said Dean, “but probably leave it till the entrée. But I have to know. No, wait, actually it’s none of my business, but…why a tea lady?”
“I have to make ends meet, like anyone else.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. However you took ‘that’. I meant that you dress so nicely, you’re obviously not unintelligent – “
“Yes, that was rather badly put. You’re obviously intelligent, is what I would’ve said if I were, and you clearly no your way around fine wines and dining. So, why a tea lady?”
“Suppose I said I became a tea lady because it was the easiest way to meet you?”
“It’s too early in the evening and you’ve had too few martinis to talk crap.”
“Well, in that case I’ll blurt out the truth. I took the job because, as intelligent as I may sound, I’m not qualified to do much better and I needed to make ends meet. I don’t pay rent because I inherited my house but I still have to eat. For various reasons I never went to Uni and thus don’t have a degree and I don’t want to get a job that’s long-term. I’m still young enough to want to enjoy life, so I’m trying something like a backpacker’s life without all the crap accommodation. Why are you working for DFAT?”
“Kind of the same as you except that I don’t own my house. No, not really. When I was young I wanted to be a lawyer, but for various reasons didn’t get good enough marks to get into Law at either Uni.”
There’s three unis.”
“There’s four if you count Deakin and LaTrobe, but who does? Anyway, my fallback position was to join the Public Service, not really caring where I went, except for Social Security, so I sat the selection test and finished, I am still astounded to say, top in the country. So they recruited me at DFAT. I must say that in the two years I’ve been there I expected more promotions than I got, but there’s been a promotion freeze on.”
“But you changed floors.”
“Higher duties. The promotion you’re having when you’re not being promoted. It’s temporary for the duration of the current project, which I couldn’t tell you about even if I knew what it was all about myself.”
“Something secret?” she said.
“Yes. Your Government Keeps secrets. It does offend my liberal soul to know that the government keeps secrets, but I suppose in this case we’re just protecting people’s privacy, and I suppose preventing crime. I don’t think it does any harm to tell you we’re looking at people who have multiple passports. This bloke’s called – well, forget his name, but he’s got five passports at least.” He realised that he had told Holly less about the project than he’d told Brian and his mates at the State Bank, but for some reason, probably the expectation of higher pay or the increased sense of responsibility he felt now that he was higher up the food chain, he was more cautious with Holly.
Of course, he also didn’t want to bore her and she worked in the office. You never knew what might get back to who it shouldn’t. Was he really becoming that paranoid? No, but he certainly didn’t want to bore her, and it was a constant fear with him that he might be boring whoever he was talking to. Tonight, though, two vodka martinis had not taken the edge off that fear.
The entrée was an unexpectedly, to Dean anyway, pleasant surprise. The crab meat tasted just as bland as crayfish but the sea urchin row was a salty delight. The taste stirred up memories of sitting on the pier at Portsea as a child, dangling his legs over the edge and looking down into the green water, hearing the seagulls and the ‘thock thock’ of water against the pilings, with his father sitting next to him with the radio tuned to the cricket or the races depending on which side of Christmas it was. If he were sixteen years younger, he thought, this was what he’d be doing now.
“Hmm/: he said. “Excuse me, I was miles away. That lovely American expression ‘woolgathering’. How apt.”
“”This used to be a wool store. That is, they stored wool here, not that it was a shop that sold wool.”
“I know what you mean.”
“Sorry. Of course you do.”
“So, I was saying while you were dreaming of life on the beach of whatever, that this is particularly good. What do you think of the crab meat/”
“I was just remembering times on the beach, as a matter of fact. Uncanny. I was also thinking the crab meat tastes as bland as crayfish, in my opinion – my humble opinion – the most overrated of all edible products. It’s about as tasty as a ream of photocopy paper.”
“Oh, but if you’ve ever had it a la Roquefort or in a vinaigrette.”
“But then it’s the sauce, isn’t it? Now, don’t get me wrong. The sauce may compliment the crayfish, but on its own crayfish is just – bland. It’s the ultimate snob food because the appeal is based entirely on the price.”
“I have to disagree with you about the crayfish,” she said, “but what about the crab?”
“Well, I’ll tell you the story of crab. I was once dining with friends near LaTrobe University, just to bring that again into the conversation again, and because even in those days LaTrobe was crammed full of Asians, we were dining at an Asian restaurant. I was told that I had to absolutely, positively try the crab claw soup. So I had a bowl of that and, on dipping into it, came up with a crab claw. I just stared at it for a few moments. It was like waking up to a horse’s head or pulling a human leg out of the washing machine. In the end I just couldn’t eat it. I had to apologise to every one profusely and get the long soup instead.”
She was laughing. “Oh, God, I’d never thought of it like that! What must they have thought of you?”
“Not a lot, I don’t think. I was certainly not asked back to similar events. IN the end my friend, who was like the link between me and these Asian gourmets got into a religions community and we sort of lost contact. Actually, it was one of these country getaways or whatever you call them. He shaved his head, gave up meat and reading and changed his name. I doubt we’d recognise each other if we met today. It’s sad, though.”
“Not if he’s happy.”
“No, it’s sad to lose friends. Some you can’t help. Two of my mates from high school were shot in some crime thing. Oh, they were heavily into it, don’t worry about that. Those things you can’t help. But when people drift away, or take up things that separate them from you. It sucks. To use a particularly poetic analogy.”
Holly stirred her seafood around a bit and then took up a small portion on her fork. Dean ate his ingredients separately. He watched her chew for a moment, focussing on the movement of her jaw and the way her lips changed shape. He suddenly realised he was doing it and sat up straighter, apologising.
“No, no, “ she said with a smile. “From someone else it would be disgusting and creepy and intrusive, but when you do it…hasn’t it been cool for January?”
“I’m teasing you,” she said, sipping her wine. “That was me teasing you.”
“Well, now that I know what that’s like, I suddenly don’t know if I can live without it. That was me teasing you.”
“I think mine was better.”
“I agree. What’s this sauce they’ve got on this?” he asked. “I’m not saying that to change the conversation, I’m curious because I might want to get some sometime.”
“When the waiter comes, I’ll ask,” Holly said. “What do you think of the wine?”
“It’s the perfect accompaniment to whatever this sauce is. I like the buttery taste chardonnay has.”
“Buttery? That’s what they call the wood. I’d never heard it called ‘buttery’ before.”
“Well, maybe they have something about on the label.”
“Oh, don’t read the label,” said Holly. “My ex used to read the labels and believe everything they said on it. If it said ‘overtones of peach’ he tasted peach; if some copywriting wanker from Adelaide had written ‘a canine top note’ he’d’ve tasted dog in it. He even learnt French so he could believe the copy on imported wines.”
“I’m torn between suggesting he was something of a wanker for believing advertising and something pretty formidable by learning a foreign language just to read it.”
“He had the emotional range of an espresso machine and as much warmth as a mortuary slab. He was good-looking, though, and intelligent and rich.”
“So, more or less a clone of me in a better bracket.”
“Nothing like you. You are warm and deep and stable and kind and good-looking, too, under that hair. Or maybe that’s the wine talking,” she said,
“Well, it’s a very insightful and candid drop of vino,” he said, “but how can you know all that about me? You only saw me for the first time two days ago and really, my tea-ordering technique isn’t so amazing as to sweep someone completely off their feet.”
“You’ve never heard of love at first sight?”
“Romeo and Juliet were teenagers. Even if it weren’t for the fancy suicide bit, how long would they have lasted really?”
“If their parents had cut them off, which was certainly on the cards given the family feud at the time, not long. ‘They started to fight when the money got tight’ as the song says.”
“Yes, “ said Dean in wonder. “That is exactly what the song says. I’ve got a Billy Joel record at home but I don’t have a player to play it on.”
“I have a record player,” Holly said.
“Would you care to indulge in some Billy, um, well sometime in the future?”
“This weekend?” she said. “I’d be delighted.”
“Oh,” said Dean. “I thought you were going to introduce a ‘but’ in there.”
“We only met two days ago, “ she said. “Don’t start second-guessing me yet.”
And this was only the entrée.
The downside of venison is that when it’s cold, it’s poison. This means that you have to gobble it but not, in a classy restaurant with a woman so beautiful wine wasn’t able to augment it, look as if you are. Dean opted for the subtle approach and risked the bad taste and stringiness venison becomes as it cools. The sauce was a fruity strawberry-flavoured thing that actually complimented the meat. The wine was superbly chosen and Holly also agreed that it was a good choice. “That’s why they have professionals to advise you,” she said.
By the time he placed his knife and fork parallel on the plate and a waiter appeared out of nowhere and whisked their dishes away, he was both pleasantly replete, enraptured by this woman and in a pleasant state of drunkenness that was as unlike his usual bouts in licensed premises as a cool towel on your forehead is like a kick in the balls. By this time of night at his usual haunts he’d be either muttering to himself while trying to focus on the conversation or half asleep in a puddle of stale spillage on the bar.
“Wow,” Holly said, “I’m sated.”
“What do you think of dessert?” Dean asked.
“I’m not really ‘into’ dessert,” she said. “So few places have fruit these days and I can’t abide cake. We can have coffee, though.”
“I don’t really like coffee,” said Dean, feeling comfortable enough to state at least that candidly. “I’ll certainly indulge in a whatever the opposite of an aperitif is.”
“I have tea at home,” she said.
“Oh, good,” said Dean brightly.
She leaned across the table and kissed him. The kiss was so warm and sensual that for a moment Dean didn’t know to respond. Then he remembered what he was supposed to do and kissed back It seemed to last for hours but when they eventually parted it was still twilight outside.
My God, thought Dean.
Dean signed the credit card receipt without looking at the price, made a guess and tipped fifteen per cent. It was not usual behaviour to tip in restaurants and Dean had rarely been to a place that would expect it, but he was trying to impress a girl. One thing he couldn’t impress her with was car, but she seemed to realise he didn’t drive in and she said her car was only two blocks down Market St in what was still a cheap car park.
It ruined out that she drove a red Triumph Stag that had been her mother’s. She drove it badly. There were frequent instances of heavy braking and she seemed only to notice turns as she passed them. Any mechanic would’ve got rich repairing the transmission. But she bumped against him as the car swayed and he could feel the curve of her hip against his hand and her shoulder against his. She didn’t apologise for bumping him. They were past that.
“Bloody hell,” Dean said when she drove through tall gates and down a gravelled driveway.
“Oh, don’t,” she said. “Everyone has some exclamation at first. Okay, yes, I live in a big house because I inherited one and why would I take somewhere small and have to pay it off?
“I only use the top floor anyway,,” she went on. “It takes forever to clean even the few rooms I use regularly. If I opened up the whole place and used it I’d be forever cleaning it and wouldn’t have time to work enough to pay the rates.”
They pulled up to a garage about the size of Dean’s current house and she turned off the engine and stepped out. There was something that low slung cars did for tall women’s legs that Dean really appreciated.
“I withdraw my ‘bloody hell’, then, “ said Dean. “Bl - I mean, is that a Rolls Royce?”
“Yes. It costs a fortune to register and insure it, so I never drive it.”
“Please forgive me for gaping. I, um, should be less astonished.”
“Here,” she said and kissed him again. This time they were standing outside the garage and she could put her whole body into the kiss. It went on and on until their breathing sounded like snuffling and Dean had to stop to laugh.
“What?” she said.
“God,” Dean started. Unaccountably, his mouth was dry. “Sorry, we sounded like we were searching for truffles.”
“Tea,” she said and Dean followed her around the back of the house, where there was garden the end of which Dean couldn’t see in the fading light, and a swimming pool with a mirror surface in the still night air.
She unlocked the door and punched in something like a PIN number on a panel that beeped three times in response. Catching his look, Holly explained that it was a house alarm. “The insurers make me use it,” she said.
They walked up a flight of dark wood stairs without carpet into a landing that had been turned into a kind of loungeroom. It had comfortable chairs, a small TV, a long couch that looked soft and inviting (and was red) and a couple of standard lamps with pleated satin shades. Holly went off to one of the four rooms that ran off this landing and was back in a moment while Dean just stood there.
“You didn’t sit down,” she said.
“It’s all too good for me,” was his feeble explanation.
“You said you wouldn’t do that,” she said. “Retract it.”
“Cheerfully withdrawn. The truth is I didn’t want to impose. Making myself at home like that would be an imposition.”
“You have my permission – no, this is an order and you will obey it! Make yourself at home. On that couch. I won’t be a moment.” She stepped out again and Dean went to the couch and tried a few experimental pushes. It was deep and comfortable and when he sat down he sunk so far into it his right arm was nearly level with his shoulder when he rested it. This was an uncomfortable position so he sat with his hands folded in his lap, feeling like an applicant for a position at a Victorian girls' school.
Holly had been pretty in her work clothes but when she came back into the room a few minutes later she was breathtaking. She wasn’t in something long and see-through or in some weird negligee contraption, though both of those she could’ve carried off. She was wearing a long red dressing gown and under that sensible red pyjamas and bare feet. She didn’t paint her toenails. She carried an ice bucket, two flute glasses and out of the ice bucket stuck a gold-wrapped bottle neck.
“I, I thought instead of tea, champagne?”
On To The Ninth Chapter
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Get Me The Hell Out Of Here!