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Timothy Cairncross had left the station and was making his way along a tree-lined street. The late afternoon traffic was murmuring like a muted diapason, the sky darkening to ruby in the west. A slight wind stirred dead leaves in the gutter. And then a sharp turn in the road revealed a block of flats half-hidden in Virginia-creeper.
As he made his way up the pathway he saw his sister Rachele standing in the entrance-way. Rachele was flustered as usual, saying as she led him into a room pleasantly furnished with rattan and chintz, which served as her living-room/studio. ‘I wasn’t expecting you, Timothy. You should have rung. You’ll never guess who’s here – I’ve got Cyrene Shelton here – she’s sitting out on the patio.’
‘That’s all right,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got to face her sometime. My mobile ran out of credit.’
‘Just put your things on the sofa there.’
Of medium height, habitually hopeful, his sister was a ruddy-faced young woman with honey-coloured hair. She wore a wide multi-coloured skirt and low-cut gipsy-style blouse. Rachele was a landscape painter and was beginning to make a few sales. A large outback scene stood on an easel before the open window. It featured an active volcano visible above a low range of hills.
‘I was hoping you would have come up to Ballarat by now,’ Timothy said after a pause. He stood looking towards the doorway leading out onto the patio. ‘I’m heading home for Ballarat first thing in the morning,’ he went on to say. ‘I’ve booked into a hotel for tonight. I told Claire before I left that I would call in on you.’
‘I haven’t been able to get away at the moment,’ Rachele said almost breathless. I’m expecting Montgomery Finch any moment. Monty runs a curio shop and gallery in Essendon and says he might be able to place a painting or two. I was looking out for him when you suddenly appeared.’
‘I’ve come at an awkward time,’ he said.
‘Don’t be silly. Cyrene’s here. Go on out and talk to her. I’m just making a fresh pot of tea. I’ll join you in a moment’
Timothy stepped out onto the patio where Cyrene Shelton was sitting at a white-painted table. In the garden a sinister creeper was nearly – but not quite suffocating its host tree. But the sunset was magnificent and the tiled rooftops of neighbouring houses beyond the screen of trees looked metallic in the glow.
‘Hello Tim,’ Cyrene said, extending her hand. She smiled and shifted on her chair as Timothy took the seat opposite. Obviously she was far more composed than he. Dark eyed with night-black hair and full pouty lips, this was the woman who had once touched him into love.
He was now very conscious of her legs generously displayed. Sitting almost side-on in the metal chair, Cyrene was a woman who played the leg-crossing game and spent a long moment adjusting her tight-fitting skirt. He searched for some conversational opener, something bright to say, but he could think of nothing. ‘Well, what shall I talk about?’ she said at last.
‘What you always talk about – yourself,’ was his quick reply. ‘Tell me what you’ve been doing.’
‘No, let’s talk about you, Tim. It’s good to see you again. I see you’re still keeping your hair cropped short like I suggested,’ she laughed, her eyes heavy with the old knowledge of woman.
Her mind was doing a backspin to the time when she and Timothy were lovers. But now he was married to Claire Ridgeway and had entered the Anglican Church, as he always said he would. But when they were together he had always been concerned about losing his hair. He was an old-looking youth of twenty-four whose sandy hair was already receding. He’d even grown his remaining hair long enough to comb over his bald spot in an attempt to hide it.
‘You should have it cut short,’ she had said on more than one occasion. ‘Very short. Prussian-style would do it.’
‘If I were to do that,’ he had argued, ‘it’d be only too easy to see how thin it’s getting.’
But she had contradicted him, ‘The shorter it is, the less attention it will draw to itself.’ And so he had his
hair trimmed to please her.
‘I want to hear all about your ordination,’ she was saying, adding a third teaspoon of sugar to her tea. ‘And I want to hear all about your marriage. And how Claire is getting on.’
‘Claire has been in hospital with acute appendicitis.’
‘And has she fully recovered? She doesn’t mind you being away?’
‘She’s doing pretty well. Yes, Claire’s fine now,’ he answered, his eyes meeting Cyrene’s. ‘They removed the appendix just in time. She insisted I go to Hobart for the conference.’
‘She’s şirinevler escort no longer working, I understand?’
‘So she gives her time to the parish? She gives you every support?’
Cyrene’s questions were polite but formal. How’s Claire? Cyrene had asked only because it might have seemed odd if she hadn’t. He surmised that nothing would have delighted her more than to hear that his wife was sick, unhappy, dying, no less. For a long moment their eyes again met and dwelled in each other’s. ‘Do tell me what you’ve been doing?’ he asked finally.
‘I’m working as a sort of gad-fly journalist for a not-too savoury magazine ‘Melbourne Night Life,’ she replied. ‘And I’m singing Blues three nights a week at Philistines. That’s a jazz-club in Flinders Lane.’
But their conventional talk was concealing their real thoughts. Timothy was reflecting on their stormy love affair two years before and how he had been awakened to the depths of his own nature and had been made to face one of the sharp corners of life. Sex had been the great leveller between them. And she, he thought ruefully, had played the serpent’s part.
Cyrene for her part was remembering the feel of his boyish arms around her, the sensation had been sharp, visceral, urgent. Her fingers had caressed tumescent flesh.
But there’s no boy left in him now, she knew. Timothy Cairncross was very much a man, all muscle and sinew and that close-cropped haircut! With his sheer physical good looks, he was much too male for a priest, she thought. At Melbourne University he had been the mainstay of the football team, a formidable full-back. Girls had competed for his favour, she was only too aware. She had never believed such a red-blooded man would become a minister.
And now she caught him looking at her legs. He was blushing as he raised his eyes slowly to hers. The fair sex never did play fair, he mused. No doubt she was thinking, I want you to look at my legs, but I don’t want to catch you looking at my legs. No doubt it was all a game to her!
‘Of course I’m delighted you’ve come, Timothy.’ Rachele was saying as she came out onto the patio. It’s just that I’ve been caught up with Montgomery Finch. He just rang to say he’s on his way.’ She set a large plate of scones and a fresh pot of tea on the table.
Somehow Rachele had always stood just outside the overlapping circles of Timothy and Cyrene’s lives. But inside herself Rachele was fully aware of her brother’s present discomfort with Cyrene now that he had married and taken Holy Orders. Rachele had often said that where Timothy was too self-controlled, Cyrene was too much the weird wild-cat woman, an aggressive female with not a single inhibition, irreverence being her attention-getter. And how she had loved to shock this God-conscious man! And on the whole there had been not much in common between the two of them, Rachele thought, except that they had both seemed to want the thing you can’t have, something like the desire of the moth for the flame, no less. And as she poured the tea, Rachele reflected on the many contests of will between them, with herself as a sort of referee. She knew only too well that Cyrene had been the one to seduce her straight-laced brother while they were students and had had a stormy affair that lasted only a few weeks.
At that moment the doorbell rang.
‘That must be Monty,’ Rachele said as she darted back to the studio. ‘You’ll excuse me, won’t you?’ They could hear her welcoming the curio-shop owner at the door and heard a man’s low voice in answer.
‘You’re still angry with me, aren’t you, Tim?’ Cyrene was saying, as she shifted in her chair. ‘I can see that clearly.’ She added a large dollop of cream to a jam scone.
‘Why did you do it?’ Timothy asked. ‘Why did you get involved with me in the first place?’ He was a man more angry with himself than with her, his humiliation stemming from his own yielding, not so much from her assault. In his mind he was reliving the night Cyrene had seduced him and how he had proposed marriage to her the next morning and how she had laughed in his face.
‘Because I could not help myself,’ she replied. ‘You were irresistible.’ There was a hard metallic ring in her voice. Tim had been quite a challenge to her, she knew. She had deliberately set herself to wile the ripe splendour of his man’s body, and in this she was well aware that she had been a soulless piece of devil’s mechanism. But how else could she have known him, she had asked herself, except şirinevler elit escort through the forbidden sense of touch? How could she have known what her own feelings were until she heard his heart beating on top of her?
‘You only offered marriage because you thought it the correct thing to do,’ she said. Of course he would always do the right thing, she reflected. He was that sort of man. But she hadn’t meant to do that to him, to entice him to propose. She hadn’t believed he really loved her.
‘I belong to me and to me alone,’ she had said. ‘And I do as I please. Your church would have me burned at the stake, no doubt. And there’s an independence in me you’ll never break. I’ll always be single. I also know you’d never allow me the freedom I crave. Once you’re a wife,’ she went on not pausing for breath, ‘a woman’s individuality becomes submerged in the male. So, I have absolutely no desire for the straight and narrow gate of matrimony. I am and I must be myself or I am nothing and better off dead. I never will belong to any man.’
‘Well, that’s tough on you,’ had been his quick rejoinder at the time.
A month later she had chucked him for another man.
She was once more probing the wound that festered in his heart.
‘And there is another thing,’ she was saying.
He looked at her. ‘And what is that?
‘I don’t happen to share your religious beliefs. I would be the last person to be a vicar’s wife.’ Cyrene was one of those who could scarcely credit any rational person still believing in God. She herself had been brought up in strict Catholicism, against which she had rebelled, doing everything to break loose.
‘It was your God who put a separation between us. I knew I could not compete with Him. And there was no way I could ever believe the way you do.’ She had tried to will herself into his skin, to see the world as he saw it – but in vain. ‘I couldn’t understand why you believe, why you would want to enter the church.’
‘There was something stronger than myself that called me,’ he said simply. ‘Faith is a pure gift,’ he went on to say, ‘a special favour from heaven, not something acquired by reason or by merit. One can’t argue a person into belief.’
‘Then it’s all a great mystery as to why it’s a gift for some and not for others,’ she replied, sipping her tea.
‘If there were no mysteries,’ he explained, ‘there would be no need for faith.’
But this argument held for her no force of reality.
‘For if there is no God, then the universe would be a chaos without meaning,’ he was saying.
‘Well, that’s how it has always appeared to me,’ she laughed.
Timothy was watching her. But in his eyes there was a dark violence that Cyrene could not decipher. Her dress was open-necked and the dark well of her breasts was visible within. But he looked away, staring out into the garden, neither seeing nor as yet sightless. She would never understand, he knew, the struggle against the dictates of inclination and conscience that he underwent.
And now she was asking as she finished her tea. ‘How long are you in Melbourne, Tim?’
‘I’m staying the night at the Sheraton Hotel in the city, then catching an early train home in the morning.’
‘The Sheraton? Opposite the Treasury Gardens?’
‘That’s not far from Philistines in Flinders Lane where I’m singing tonight. I can drive you to the city.’
‘That’s not necessary, he replied, perhaps a little testily. ‘I can get the train.’
‘Oh, come on, Tim. Don’t be like that! It’s not out of my way.’
Eventually, they made ready to leave and congratulated Rachele on managing to place four of her paintings with the curio-shop owner.
A little while later in the car on the way to the city Timothy felt like a man entranced. Old memories kept stirring as he listened to the low intimate tone in Cyrene’s voice. But they were memories that were like tiresome obstacles that he had to work his way around, as though in a blindfold game. He was trying to puzzle out what it was that had drawn him to her in the first place.
‘It’s quite like old times,’ Cyrene was saying on overtaking a tram.
‘Old times are old ghosts,’ he said not committing himself.
‘But the ghosts are not laid yet,’ she laughed.
It was that sudden sense of her as a very individual woman, of an honesty and frankness that had attracted him, he was thinking in spite of himself, she stirred him still, but as a serpent might charm a bird.
‘I did everything possible to tear you şirinevler escort out of my heart,’ she went on without any self-consciousness. He focused his eyes on the road ahead as she spoke. ‘I went interstate, started a new job, found myself another man.’
Yes, he’d heard from Rachele that Cyrene had found a new lover, probably one of several, he thought. She would never be in love with any one man, but simply with life itself. And she exalted in the power that her beauty gave, no doubt enjoying the writhing of her victims. To keep yet another Samson blindly making sport for her.
‘And how is Steve?’ he was asking after a pause. He had known that she had teamed up with a Steven Collier.
‘I’ve no idea,’ she said as they approached an intersection. ‘It all ended very quickly with him. I’m now going with one of the guys in the band. Ralph Bastin. He plays trombone.’
‘And do you love Ralph as much as you did Steve?’
‘In a way I do, I suppose.’
‘Only in a way? But he is, I take it, surely, well worth it?’
‘Of course not,’ she replied with a laugh. ‘He’s not much, I guess.’
‘Then why do you love him?’
‘Because I can let go and be savage with him.’
‘And that you never could with me?’
‘Well, you’re so terribly good.’
She was a superb and challenging woman, he had always known. He recalled how Cyrene had come to his room in the College night after night and how they had lain together, she caressing the inside of his naked thigh, then running her mouth down his body. Afterwards, she had coiled herself around him like a clinging vine. You fall, whether you mean to or not, he thought.
Cyrene had parked the car across the road from the Cathedral in Gisborne Street and they were walking towards his hotel. Above the street lights a round and brilliant moon hung high. The solid black shadows on the footpath shifted amidst patches of light as a tram slid past.
‘What time does your show start?’ he asked as they crossed the road.
‘Ten thirty. But I’ve got to change first.’
‘So you have time for coffee?’
‘Make that a vodka and orange, Tim, and I’ll join you. I’ve got half an hour,’ she was saying.
They stood for a moment under the awning to the hotel entrance, then made their way into the Lantern Bar cocktail lounge.
They found a table in the crowded lounge. Three American businessmen and their girls were huddled close to them. Timothy placed their order with a waiter.
He was intensely aware of Cyrene at his side. He wanted desperately to prolong the moment, to have some word or gesture from her. For a long time her eyes held his and had power over him. Suddenly he wanted her very much. But inside himself he was thinking, we seem to have no choice, then aloud he said, ‘It isn’t we who move the pieces in the game.’
Cyrene looked at him as if divining his thoughts. ‘Life is not so ready-made,’ she said. ‘It is for us to make it. All we have is this moment, so make the most of it, I say. But you needn’t worry, Tim,’ she said gently, ‘I shan’t come to your room tonight.’
‘But – but – I never suggested …’ he spluttered. He looked across the table and read in her eyes all that he most dreaded.
‘I do pity you, Tim. You can’t get away from yourself.’
He had an inner conviction that his whole life was collapsing like a house of cards, his moral strength made impotent. It was as though he were pulling down the whole damned house like Samson. There was a queer sensation of being split into two parts, with a tug of war going on between himself with himself.
Timothy felt keenly the stab of conscience. He was a martyr to his civilized Christian training, he knew. He was a man who knew no half-measures, he was a parson first and a man after. Blinded by an ideal he was a man whose face was ever turned elsewhere. His eyes were wild with vision.
For he was now considering his other love. That Claire with her porcelain prettiness was his ideal. He had come to depend on this Galatea for his ego nourishment, to provide him with a glamorized reflection of himself. And he knew that Claire would be waiting at home like the patient Penelope.
And so he was blindly closing the door – the door of the forbidden might-nave-been.
Cyrene and Timothy sat silent for a moment while she took out her compact, adding a splotch of carmine to her lips.
On finishing their drinks they made their way out to the foyer where they stood in a pool of yellow light. As if he was searching for himself in her face, he felt her difference from himself.
Suddenly, he exploded, his eyes burning like sulphur. ‘I hate your type of woman,’ he was saying.
‘Then we must learn to forgive one another,’ she countered, placing a big red lipstick kiss firmly on his mouth. ‘I must fly now. Bye, bye, Tim. Be good.’
And then she was gone – out into the night.
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