He woke up one morning and found he was old. Just like that. Yesterday he was pushing against the wall of age. Today he was old.
Martin pushed the bedclothes down and sat on the edge of the bed. That was it, you see. He didn’t sit up like a lively man, not this morning; he struggled up slowly as though his body was a great weight; and his right leg ached. He massaged his knee, stretched his leg out, twisted his ankle. It was almost as painful to notice the creped flesh above the knee. His calves were still firm, that was something. And his buttocks. Always been proud of his sexy bottom.
Martin slept naked. He liked the feel of the feather blanket falling around his body, finding its way into crevices, caressing him. Gave him a sense of being ready for love without notice. Damned if he didn’t sometimes almost make love to the feathery covering.
Now, sitting on the edge of the bed, he looked down to see if the thought had aroused him. He cursed his pouting stomach for cutting the view and laughed. ‘Can’t even see the old fella,’ he said and reached down to feel his penis. Thank god it still works he whispered.
But nowhere to put it these days.
He grumpily fell back into bed and pulled the blanket up to his chin.
‘I won’t get up yet. What for? Why bother?’
He could hear his wife in the kitchen, the noise of cups being put on saucers, the scraping of butter on toast.
‘Don’t wait for me darling. I’ll have mine later,’ he called
They called each other darling, but they hadn’t shared a bed in over forty years. It was his idea to leave off having sex with her.
It wasn’t that Martin lost interest in sex. On the contrary, it was the centre of his life. He adored women, obsessed with them.
He stretched his arms up, imagining them about to embrace a lovely woman, and was alarmed at the way the flesh hung in fine lines. How would a woman feel about that? Gone were the days when he rubbed his shapely body with oils and met his lover at the door naked.
Janet ... there was that time with Janet when, naked, he opened the door to her and she started flinging her clothes off, following him to the balcony where they made love at once in full sunshine. Oh, how his muscles glistened, how his pressing buttocks tightened. And how he swelled inside her.
He smiled as memories of conquests floated across the room.
Martin made a banquet of his love sessions ... arranged around lunch time. He’d prepare what he considered the most suitable meal, pre coitus.
A chilled champagne or a cool white wine with fruity overtones. ‘Just enough to relax you darling. Afterwards, well ....’
Fresh oysters, just half a dozen each. Good for sex. Great with champagne.
His friend Charles provided the love nest: a quite marvellous little apartment, balcony overlooking The Village. Charles travelled a great deal, rarely there during the day.
He smiled again, this time smugly, and then noticed in the corner of the ceiling, the other side of the room, a spider spinning a web. It had started weaving across the corner, creating a triangle, and was struggling upside down to get itself across the widening span.
‘I’ll get a broom to that when I get up,’ he said. Then regretted it, as he watched the spider working diligently to achieve what nature compelled it to do.
‘Seems cruel to wipe out all that work with one sweep,’ he thought. ‘I wonder if it’s a male or a female.’ He didn’t know much about spiders.
His mind came back to his lunches. With the aperitif he might perhaps have several squares of toast with smoked salmon, lemon juice, fennel and pepper.
Oh how sweet was life.
‘Was’ is the word, he thought. He hadn’t had a conquest in five years. Five years! What a waste of life. Oh, there’d been flirtations. But moving flirtations on to assignations, well, no longer easy. He didn’t think it was to do with age; he didn’t look anywhere near his age; he blotted out the crepe. He dressed far, far better than almost anyone he knew. Could it be that his aim was failing; wrong target perhaps? But dammit, man has always fancied young flesh. Nature at work.
He knew how to woo a woman: Darling, I’ve noticed what beautiful breasts you have. Women respond to attention like that. Where did you get those eyes? I think you have the loveliest legs I’ve seen in a dozen years. You have the most irresistible little arse - they didn’t mind if you said arse, even the most uptight woman gets a thrill from a touch of smut.
All women are the same, he declared to Charles, when they were having a confiding booze. They’re vain and deep down they’re decadent. But you have to feel your way. Don’t rush the brutal force. Work down to it. They all give way to it in the end and love it. Just love it. I tell you Charles they all fancy a bit of rape. And oh, when they give in to it, they enjoy themselves immensely.
‘You haven’t been reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover have you?’ Charles had said. ‘D.H. Lawrence: was a wake-up to women. But when he wrote about it in his open and fearless way, he was condemned. Banned. Mild stuff today; now it’s pornography dressed up as literature.’
Martin read very little although he’d had a good education in England. He was about six months old when Hitler was approaching the borders and his family fled Milan for England, leaving their famous Saachi Leather Goods company in the hands of an uncle. Martin grew up more English than Italian.
After the war his parents returned to Milan to pick up the pieces and Martin migrated to Australia to set up a branch of Saachi in fashionable Toorak Village.
A perfect set-up for Martin; he attended all the cocktail parties and store promotions on the circuit. Women, women everywhere and plenty there to drink he sang to himself. With his olive skin, thick dark hair, full lips, good teeth, fine figure, he couldn’t miss. When he laughed, which was often, he threw his head back and shared his mirth.
Within two years he married. Marilyn suited admirably. Three years younger, pretty, blonde - and tolerant. They bought a house on the heights of Hawthorn, ten minutes drive from the showroom, chose antique furniture, entertained dinner guests and floated nicely into the domestic life.
Sex had been good enough in the first few years, but Martin could never quite lose himself in married sex, could not see a wife as a lover. He had no intention, all the same, of allowing his affairs to damage his marriage and made it clear at the outset of each rendezvous that he was married.
Martin coughed, causing him to break wind. Ha, ha, tsch! That reminded him of Eleanor.
Oh dear! Eleanor. Love at first sight. Met her at a fashion parade, spent weeks pursuing and finally persuaded her to lunch with him. How adorable lying naked in the bed. Long and shapely legs, a mound of curly brown hair between her thighs. Her breasts stood up like pretty mountains, with a cherry on top, inviting him to climb and bite. He was pulsing and ready and she was moist and inviting and ... suddenly she said ‘Oh sorry, I’ve got to have a pee’ and leapt up.
He lay there subsiding a little and then heard her fart loudly in the bathroom. That was the end of it. His passion deflated and he simply couldn’t raise it again.
God arranged things badly he decided. How can one be expected to have high thoughts, write exquisite poetry, ethereal music, speak loving words, and at the same time belch and excrete and urinate. It was disgusting enough, lying here alone, to fart foul wind.
That’s why marriage only worked if you separated living from loving. You simply could not share toilets, bad breath and hangovers and all the unattractive everyday things with spiritual love, purity, perfection.
He held his hand in front of his mouth and puffed into it and quickly smelt his breath. Ugh. He chuckled. Smell before you speak. He should heed that advice.
How long ago was it now? ... oh must have been fifteen years. He’d angled for an introduction to a most alluring young woman he’d spotted across the room at the Chandler’s party. When he got up close and intimate and confident he would have her in bed before the night was out, she breathed ‘I’d love to meet you afterwards’ and he was knocked back by her foul breath. My wife just beckoned ... must go.
The spider had started another branch of its web. As clever as a little French lace maker.
He plumped his pillow, turned on his side and threw his head down into it. Why am I dragging up the failures? Must be my gloomy, negative mood. There were so many delicious times. He turned on his back, crossed his arms and rested his hands on his shoulders. The feel of his skin gave pleasure. He moved his hands down his arms, over his chest and stomach, across his crotch and upper thighs. He shivered with desire - desire for soft hands caressing his body. Oh hell, I don’t want to masturbate. That’s making love to yourself. He wondered if that constituted a form of homosexuality. After all, it was a man making love to a man ... in a sense.
Think about the good times, he told himself.
Well, there was Barbara. Think about Barbara. She was a delight. A buyer for David Jones, one of his biggest customers. He was in his mid-thirties when they met and she was twenty-something, a bubbly beauty, full of fun, average height, a little plump, swelling breasts and tight bum. Her blonde hair in a shoulder-swinging bob; green eyes, generous mouth ... and ... a pleasant voice without that strong Australian accent, which rang unappealingly in his English-trained ear. He deplored, too, perhaps even more, the Italian-Australian accent.
Yes, Barbara. The strange hippie ways of the seventies, when men wore their hair long, replaced neckties with beads, free-love-loose-sex. He took her for coffee and they talked of fashion, politics, local personalities, films - disguising the baited hook, Just as they were leaving and he was holding her hand in both his, he placed a lure: ‘I hope you won’t think it out of place if I say to you, Barbara, you have the most expressive eyes. I find them intriguing.’ She blushed and laughed and he kissed her on each cheek, thinking of her breasts.
They met for cocktails at a city bar, when he found himself ‘by chance near David Jones store’. Over the second cocktail, his leg rubbed against hers and they exchanged a glance that said they both knew where this was leading. Lunch at The Village apartment.
He hugged himself under the feathers and could feel her body again. ‘Oh Barbara,’ he whispered. ‘You gave yourself so naturally, unashamedly. If only you were here now, how I’d make love to you.’ His mind clunked like a lead chain back to the present. ‘Dear god, what am I saying? she’d be about sixty now.’ But why wouldn’t she be as capable of sex as he is now? Is the older woman desiring the young man worse than the dirty old man pawing a young woman?
He grunted and folded his arms in defence against age. He mustn’t give in. Mustn’t become dependent, domesticated. Women become tyrannical once they find their man is dependent on them. Look at Gordon Tidey: head of a huge company, dictating to everyone, especially his wife. When he had a stroke and needed her help, didn’t she give it to him. Revenge. That’s what it was. Bloody re-venge. Well it’s not going to happen to me. He might have cheated on Marilyn but he reasoned that nature intended him to follow his drives. Finding the right mate for the sake of the tribe. The tribe? Pack it in Martin. What nonsense you talk. You haven’t fathered any children, so what are you on about? Oh shut up, think about something else. Something good in your life.
He lay quite still, closed his mouth and breathed deeply and slowly. Something good. Mmm. Something good?
Well what about Anthea. He did some good there surely.
He was just over forty and she was twenty-three. Anthea was a private secretary in a big company about the time of the ‘glass ceiling’; fine stockinged legs and high heels, above-the-knee skirts, formal jackets with shoulder pads. Hmm, hasn’t changed much except for the shoulder pads. He met her at one of those corporate affairs; she wasn’t pretty, her nose was too sharp, lips thin and tight, but she had legs to die for. And she tossed her straight brown hair like a frisky filly. She spoke crisply and quickly, even her laugh was crisp. Not his cuddly type, but Martin was attracted in a strange way to this young woman. He could feel her strong sexuality but it seemed to be the other side of a wall. The challenge was too much.
When he finally bedded her, she lay stiff and scared.
‘Darling, why are you so frightened? I thought you wanted this.’
‘I ... I’ve never done it before.’
‘Not ever? Ever?’
‘You mean you are a virgin?’
Martin was ecstatic, but held back from showing it. He would gently deflower her. Most gently. He was a knight on a mission ... unlock the chastity belt. Far better he, than some oafish youth.
He lay there, seventy-four, with his penis rising under his blanket of feathers. savouring the memory. ‘Deflowering’. What a quaint word for the action. In his mind it was kindly, and he wouldn’t allow the idea of ravage or plunder to be associated.
Anthea’s terror lay in an act of the father of a childhood friend who had tried to rape her when she was ten. He forced her on to a bed, pulled off her panties and was about to force himself on her when his wife returned unexpectedly, slamming the front door but giving him time to adjust and leave the room. Anthea had not spoken about it to anyone, but had nightmares for years.
‘Poor darling,’ Martin had said, holding her in his arms like a little girl. ‘I will be very, very gentle in making your passage to womanhood.’
And he had. Kissed the bud open.
Surely that was something good he had done.
And Anthea adored him for it, as a pupil worships a teacher. Lessons continued once a week at the apartment and Anthea became a first rate lover. Then came the day he knew would come: Anthea had fallen in love with a forty-year-old man and wanted to get married and have children.
A sweet-sad goodbye, then, with champagne and caviar at the apartment, and love just once more.
A sudden memory; he put his hands over his eyes to shut it out.
But Trixie persisted. Met her at a nightclub. Martin was sixty-eight. The club was typically dark with flashing lights and there was this tiny redhead with dangling ear-rings and swinging beads; diamond patterned stockings on chunky legs in spiked heels.
He bought her a drink or two and was drunk enough to make a date for lunch. Ooh, somewhere swank, she’d said. Why not? Florentino’s. What a mistake. She was dressed almost as at the club. She held her wine glass with her little finger poking out in sham-gentility and held her knife like a pen between thumb and first finger. She was even ‘wearing’ a posh voice which didn’t cover the basic grammaticals. Despite that, Martin was drawn to her almost vulgar sexuality and met her the next day at the apartment.
She undressed vaudeville style; lacy suspender belt and thigh high stockings, g-string.
How would you like it? said she. Me on top? Doggie? Old trad? Kinky?
Martin submitted to baser instincts and went along for the ride, but without enthusiasm. He preferred to be in control. I usually charge two grand, she said, but taking into account the posh lunch, shall we say fifteen hundred. A pro! You’d think he might have guessed it. I don’t pay for making love he told her, but I’ll give you a couple of handbags worth as much.
He felt pretty rotten about it, but consoled himself with the thought that it wasn’t as bad as old Eric Blackmore rushing around the Village in his trench coat, with empty brief case for effect, chatting up every bit of skirt he came across and going to Mirabelle Carthy’s beauty therapy salon asking for a blow job for a hundred quid. Knowing she’s The Village gossip. What an idiot.
The phone rang and Martin pulled the bedclothes over his head.
‘Charles wants to know if you’d like to go with him to that place on St Kilda beach for lunch. Will pick you up in half an hour,’ Marilyn called.
Martin swept the blanket off. ‘Tell him yes.’ The waitresses there have cleavages like peaches.
He leapt from bed, half his age, Shaved, showered, deod, aftershave. No time to touch up the side greys. Moleskins, roll neck sweater, reefer, wallet. Charles tooted just as he rushed out and slammed the door.
The web shuddered with the slam, sending the spider into a dizzy whirl. It pulled itself up and spun its way across with great intensity, since after all, there was the chance it might catch a juicy fly.
Goody knew where to dress his balls. The right side. Right was better than wrong, every time. He wasn’t called Goody for nothing. He liked the good life. Give and take was his game. That’s why he married Stella. She could give him the easy life and he could take it. Goody laughed to himself. You can’t have the good life without money. Enough, at any rate. He salvaged himself with his other self, the one who said what he really thought, but silently, as though written in italics. He liked the song Laughing on the outside crying on the inside - only he’d sing in his mind Lying on the outside, laughing on the inside.
Stella spoke in italics. He thought in italics. Like the other day when she said ‘Now Goody, you’re not wearing that tie are you?’ She might have put italics on ‘not’ or ‘are’ to equal effect. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘What do you think then? The navy with red stripe more suitable eh?’ and he’d go and change, muttering in silent italics ‘Get lost you stupid woman’ or somesuch derogatory line... and smile at himself in the mirror as he tied the knot, happy to have got even. In his mind at any rate. That’s how Goody survived in such good nature.
It wasn’t, when you came to think of it, overall that is, such a bad bargain. Most marriages, within a few years, ended up in similar fashion. That sexual deception that covered all the faults of one’s partner dropped like a bamboo blind and you gradually began to see what you might have spied if you’d looked through the slits much earlier. Little things became so evident Goody was in disbelief at his own lack of perception. The first thing he noticed that irritated him was the way Stella ate a biscuit. Picked it up with thumb and second finger and lifted the little finger ... not enough to be comical, but enough to make Goody wish he hadn’t noticed. Then there was the way she chewed. Sort of slowly and a bit on one side; he had the impression she was moving food around warily in case of biting down on a bone. Expensive crowns in mind.
Then there was the way she snapped his almost empty glass of whisky away to the kitchen right when he was contendedly lingering with intent to sip that last drop. Bugger you. Mean old bitch. Sometimes he’d stamp his feet in emphasis and she’d call from the kitchen to know what’s up with you, why are you clumping your feet like that? and he’d feel a sweep of alarm at giving himself away.
Bit of squib when it came to that, he had to admit. Or was it just that he preferred peace - and comfort. But it comes at a price Goody, he said, and can you keep on paying it? Is deception good for the soul. Soul? He hadn’t thought of having a soul since he was seven when Vicar Bradford told him his soul would go to Hell if he went on helping himself from the collection tray. He’d only taken two shillings and if your soul went to Hell for that much, well, Goody decided, goodbye soul. I’ll get along without you. He felt much relieved of it.
You’d think the son of the town bank manager wouldn’t need to pinch from the church collection, but Mr Gordon Goodwin was a frugal man and an even more frugal father, handing out no pocket money at all to Goody or his sister Audrey, and kept his mother Ethel on a ‘set figure’ - fig-ures were Gordon Goodwin’s business and he checked on household spendings like a man whose life depended on the last halfpenny.
And so Goody made friends with the kids who had some booty. Dicky Smallbone for instance. Not that Dicky’s family was wealthy, not at all - it was just that his mother was generous by nature and a sure bet to a bit of sucking up by her kids with their ‘Please mum can I just have two shillin’s’ so that before Jim Smallbone’s next wage came in, she was making do with vegetable stews and handouts from her sister, who was better at managing.
And so it was that Goody became smooth at getting and lax at giving. To operate like that you had to have a bit of charm, which mostly meant lying, so Goody found. You needed to be a good dancer too, because the town dances were where you met and mated in their small community. Luckily for Goody he had rhythm and was the best dancer around. More than that, he could play a trumpet with surprising virtuosity, so well in fact that he started up a jazz band and became some-thing of a legend in his own little world.
He also groped his way to becoming familiar with the female body, mostly around the back of the dance hall where some were more willing than others. What he did notice was that nearly all girls liked it when he held his hand around their breast; even those who pushed his hand away really liked it but wouldn’t admit it. No lack of opportunity since he had nice looks and nice ways and played a sexually stimulating trumpet.
Stella had been smitten, and although her father had better matches in mind, finally agreed to her marrying Goody. ‘But mark my words.’ he gravely advised his daughter, ‘mark my words, that fellow is just a... just a shadow. And I’d have thought you’d marry substance. I like a man with substance.’
They were lunching at a sidewalk table of the corner restaurant in the village and Stella was doing her chatting-in-public scene in a voice just a pitch above and to the right of the average.
‘I do like the way they do these chicken breasts - er fillets I mean, the thought of eating breasts takes my appetite away. These diagonal browned lines are sort of artistic don’t you think? Sliced and lined up so prettily on top of the salad, even more so.’
Goody’s mind and eyes had wandered some minutes ago to the breasts of the girl at the next table and the thought of eating, or at least lightly biting, breasts didn’t seem the least unappetising. The girl in question had on a very low cut summer dress of strawberries on some sort of floaty fabric and when she bent over her plate, from Goody’s point of view at something like ninety degrees to the right, they fairly invited his hand to hold them in. Stella was still talking and eating heartily and Goody glanced down at his hand to find it cupped, face up on the table and quivering open a little more to allow for the increased view of the neighbouring breast. Guiltily, he squeezed his hand in to a fist and pulled his mind back to what Stella was saying.
‘Yes, yes, couldn’t agree with you more. How’s yours?’
‘I just told you Goody. It’s delicious. You know, sometimes I think you never listen to me. I mean, what’s the point of talking to you, making pleasant conversation over lunch, if you just sit there with a glazed look on your face and contribute nothing, just nothing, to the conversation.
‘Going out together should be an experience to be enjoyed. An experience, do you see Goody?’
Goody couldn’t for the life of him think of anything sensible to say, out loud that is. Inside he could think of plenty: I am experiencing, silly woman. Look at those breasts at the next table. That’s what I call an experience. You and your fancy chefs, most of them are just wanky cooks. Hah, never seen anything like it, the way they put a little pile of mashed pumpkin on a plate the size of a football field, and with their fingers ... with their fingers ... lay down three mingy slices of half cooked steak and then squirt little circles of sauce all around the field like fly droppings. Give me an honest steak and a decent scoop of chips and a heap of mustard any day. And ... and .. at less than half the price.
After such an explosion and exposion (Goody’s word) of his genuine opinion, Goody felt justified in his sortie down the cleavage of the strawberry dress. And completely free of guilt. He was glad, as always, that he had parted from his soul all those years ago.
The strawberry dress got up, scraping the chair noisily on the pavement, and gave a sly smile to Goody over her shoulder. Nice legs, he noticed, and neat tight bottom. Be good and strong in bed. He watched her cross the road and go into the bank. Bound to work there, he thought. I’ll go in this arvo, strike while the iron’s hot.
After cafe latte and trying to concentrate on Stella’s newsletter about the several boutiques that have closed down, the children’s wear shop that has changed hands, the shops that are still empty ‘after almost a year and I don’t know how they make a profit really I don’t with the prices they charge for some of those clothes that are all, and I mean all, made in China, and badly made in China I might add’. after enduring all that Goody announced he had to pick up a pair of shoes he’d had mended and he’d see her at home later.
When Stella was well down the street, he crossed to the bank and walked in to find strawberry dress behind the glass counter.
He went to the customer ledge, picked out a deposit slip and wrote on it ‘Hey gorgeous, meet me for a drink at the pub bar after work’ and took his place in the queue behind a five-by-five lady in giant floral dress and high heeled shoes that were mightily stressed to the point where the heels were veering back at around thirty degrees. She scratched her head and ran her finger through the top hair like a comb, making Goody lean back to avoid the greasy locks catching his nose. The man behind him shuffled papers into Goody’s back. He hated standing in queues.
At the counter he smiled his alluring best and, as he handed over his deposit slip, he said ‘Oh, I’d like to open an account’ by way of covering up his purpose. Strawberry dress read his note and smiled. Oh, sweet victory.
And then she picked up her intercom and spoke into it for all to hear, Mr Titchfield, there’s a gentleman here who would like to open an account’. At which Mr Titchfield, like a figure in a cuckoo clock stepped out of a door from the office adjoining the main counter, stood aside for Goody to enter and swept in after him and shut the door, as though capturing a prize victim.
‘Well, yes, I’d - um - yes, thinking about changing banks in fact. Need some details, interest rate, charges and so on,’ Good blustered.
He left the manager’s office with a sheaf of papers and slips and a glossy brochure extolling the bank, and almost fell as he broke his way through the line of people queuing up. Strawberry dress managed a rueful grin.
Goody looked on the bright side. Yes, he rather liked the trick she played. Liked a challenge. She’d be at the bar he reckoned, and he went home to have a rest. After which he’d shower and dress up a bit, a few good squirts of Hugo Boss, women liked it, and might, before he had a lie down, sneak a bit of that ‘uplifting youth-restoring’ cream Stella paid a small fortune for.
While he avoided at all times thinking, let alone mentioning, his age, he was sixty-three and strawberry dress he guessed at about late-thirties, he ws convinced that women like a man with a bit of maturity, perhaps even a bit of daddy about them. But heaven help him, not sugar daddy, that’s for old has-beens who shuffle, low-slung balls and can’t get it up. And Goody was a competent, no he’d say skilled, lover and if anything more virile with the years.
Above all, he understood women - as far any being man or woman can undertand women. He’d made a study of them, their twists and turns, vanity, selfishness, jealousies, bitchiness, viciousness, deception, faithlessness, absolute disloyalty to each other, deception and downright acqusitiveness. Gawd, he wondered, with a string of qualities, why he was so keen to get them. It was the eternal fate of man, he decided, to want them. But not all the time and not forever.
What he’d like is a woman who understood a man. Willing to join him in flirtation and some thrilling sexual exercise and let it go at that for the moment. Again and again, if they liked. But not if they started possessing and expecting full time attention. Men weren’t made for that. They had more important things to do, like run the world, or mess it up, or fight wars or make fortunes. Go on adventures. Be just men together.
Women never understood what good old fashioned fun men had on golfing or fishing weekends away. They were forever asking to come along, checking up the hotels where the fellow stayed, going through the guys’ clothes when they got home, looking for lipstick stains or tell-tale signs on the underpants. The didn’t trust men because they didn’t trust women that’s what it was.
He was just wondering why men bothered with them at all, when he suddenly pictured strawberry dress and the thought drifted down through his stomach to between his thighs. Well, of course there was that reason.
‘Willis! What are young doing in town?’ Cassidy turned in his seat at the bar when the draught hit him from the opened door and Willis walked in.
‘Cassidy. Fancy finding you in here, or I should say fancy not finding you in here. Same old haunt. Scotch with water on side since you’re buying.’ Willis walked confidently to the stool and almost leapt on to the seat, as though to flaunt his energy beside the slouching Cassidy. He looked ten years younger than his fifty-eight; no grey in his dark hair, no thickening of the waist, no lines. Fancied himself a James Bond, with language to match.
He pinched his fingers around the lapel of Cassidy’s green linen jacket. ‘Still wearing those loud colours I see.’ He laughed with a scoff. ‘Orange and green striped tie over white shirt, which looks uncharacteristically clean I must say. And trousers? Let’s see. Christ, what are they, orange? You are a packet of colours you know.’ He nodded to the barman, poured a dash of water in to the Scotch and raised his glass. ‘Here’s to you Cassidy - for want of a better thing to drink to. After all, you are paying.’
‘Still a mingy bastard aren’t you? Anyway, what are you doing in town. Haven’t sighted you in Melbourne in ... how many years is it? Must be about eight years. Y’must like Sydney.’
‘Well, as a matter fact, Cassidy, I’m here on a damned good assignment: investigating a company fraud, Good story.’
Peter Willis had built his reputation on investigative journalism. He had a nose for it. And the relentless tenacity. He stalked with his mind. Saw behind shadows. He bribed without conscience. Clawed out the facts. Tore them out. And if he couldn’t get them, he invented them. Yes, he did that. He had no compassion. Not for anyone. He could put his foot on his victim and accept awards with pride.
He and Cassidy had shared a desk, one at either side, in the newsroom on the second floor, two doors away from the bar where they now sat. Even in their police rounds days, Cassidy was the only journo who could tolerate Willis, whose arrogance and pretensions got under the skin of the rest. And it may be that Cassidy’s forthright manner appealed to Willis; offered a sparring partner he could beat. Somehow when Cassidy said ‘You’re a bastard Willis’ it came over like a compliment.
It wasn’t as though Cassidy liked Willis. He disliked him, perhaps more than the others, because he knew more about him to dislike. It was an odd kind of sympathy on Cassidy’s part: someone so hated by all, needed someone on his side.
Willis certainly had looks. Regular features. Ambitious. Yes, he was that. Sucked up to the editor and all the sub-eds. Could turn on what you might call charm with them, but from a certain height as though looking down.
He was keen on taking the micky with clever turn of phrase, and did so with a loud voice and demonic laugh. It was when he laughed that you saw the fault: his eye teeth were slightly twisted and sharp and longer than his other teeth, so that as the laugh faded and his mouth was still open a little, the eye teeth rested on his lower lip, vampire style. When he was concentrating on his work, those teeth were often to be seen biting his lip.
Then, of course, his eyes. They were unexpectedly blue, cold blue.
‘Where’re you staying. Hotel?’ Cassidy asks, just for something to say.
‘Nup. Don’t like hotels. Staying in a rather swank apartment near Toorak.’
‘Girl friend? Free lodging no doubt.’
‘A hundred and fifty smackers a week. Not a girl friend, never met her before. Friend of a friend whom I phoned; thought she might have spare bed in fact, but not: all I needed was a bedroom and means to make a cup of tea, so she got in touch with her friend, who said fine for me to stay - and pay.’
‘Don’t fancy staying like that. Feel a bit restricted I’d think,’ said Cassidy.
‘Not a bit of it. She’s at work all day and I have the run of the place. Mind you, gets on my nerves when she comes in and says “Hello Peter. How was your day?” I’m not her husband for god’s sake. Boring. I don’t answer, just keep reading or watching TV.’
‘She’s probably only being sociable. Natural isn’t it? to say hello or something. I’d think it’d be mighty awkward not speaking. After all, it’s her home.’
‘Look, honestly speaking old sport, I think she’s after me. Not bad looking, good figure, and er, yes, she’s sexy. But I haven’t time to get involved.’
‘Think you’re irresistible do you?’
Willis didn’t answer. It was the truth though. He did think every girl was after him. Handsome men were inclined to think that way.
Cassidy ordered another beer for himself and Willis took another sip of his. ‘Not finished yet. You go ahead,’ he said, avoiding his shout.
‘There’s something about this place. Grotty, a bit dark, but it was almost home to us in those days. Smarter bars in Sydney. Smarter city. Can’t see myself moving back to Melbourne.’ He caught his reflection in the mirror behind the bar, lifted his arm and smoothed his hair and stretched his neck out of his crisp collar.
‘After this assignment I’d like to do some work overseas. God, wish there was a war on.’
‘Whaddyamean? There’re wars all over the place; Africa, Middle East, Afghanistan, Pakistan.’
‘I mean real wars. Civilised people having wars.’
Cassidy laughed and coughed. ‘That’s a funny twist. Civilised. Wars. Do you think wars are civilised?’
‘You know what I mean. Like World War II. Big stuff. Or the Spanish Civil War. Now that’s a war I’d like to have seen.’
‘Oh I get it. The glamorous war correspondent. In amongst Hemingway and George Orwell.’
‘And Herbert Matthews and Dos Passos, Koestler and Antoine de Saint-Exupery. Yes, I’d like to have been there.’
‘Don’t forget Kim Philby. He was there too. Correspondent for The Times on the Nationalist side so he could spy for the Soviets. What a bastard he was.’
‘Still, he was, in truth, on the side of the Republicans, which is where I’d have been,’ Willis declared with raised jaw.
‘It was a funny sort of war when you come to think of it,’ said Cassidy, who had done some heavy research on recent European wars. ‘On one side you had the democratically elected Republican government and on the other the Nationalists run by dictator Franco.’
‘Puts you in an uncomfortable position, eh Cassidy. The Catholics being with Franco.’
‘Only because they knew the Republicans were run by the Communists. That was the whole trouble: the Republicans weren’t your party of democracy, they were infiltrated by the Communists who influenced the people who voted. The Catholics didn’t have much choice, did they? If you opposed the Commos you opposed the Republicans and had to join the Nationalists.’
‘And the Germans and Italians, otherwise known as Nazis and Fascists. I mean to say, Cassidy, dictators all round, eh? Even the Pope by god; when you get down to it, the Pope’s a dictator.’
‘Spoken like the bloody heathen you are. And I’m lapsed, in case you didn’t know.’
‘Once a Catholic always a Catholic. You’d have been with the Republicans in principle but with the Pope in practice. I wouldn’t have sent you as a correspondent in a fit. Loyalty would’ve got in the way of objective reporting.’
Willis nodded to the barman to fill up their glasses and turned without paying to look at a blonde who’d just come in, and given a half smile when she looked his way. ‘Who’s she?’
Cassidy looked around. ‘Uh, just started. One of the new lot who come with degrees. Reckon they know it all, but get a shock when they find it’s hard yakka. They don’t like getting out there on the road; sit at computers and get their info that way. Gayle, I think that’s her name.’
‘Martha Gellhorn. Now that’s the sort of female journo I’d like to have worked alongside. From Collier’s magazine to the Spanish Civil War and then to Mrs Hemingway.’
‘Didn’t last. He’d have been a bugger to live with. All ego. Bit like you Willis. Ego.’
‘If I’d been there I’d have cut him out and won the fair Miss Gellhorn.’
‘Wouldn’t have lasted either. She got around, that one. Spain, China, Finland, Britain, Italy, France, Germany and then Vietnam. I don’t think you’d have kept up with her.’
‘The thing is ... the thing is,’ Willis began, looking for attention, ‘so many correspondents wrote with appallingly obvious bias. I doubt there was a paragraph of truly honest reporting in the entire war.’
‘I don’t think any correspondent writes without some bias. How can you? I mean, you see war going on and you have feelings, emotions. You can’t keep them out of your story.’
‘Bollocks to that. I say a journalist, especially a war correspondent, ought to be honour bound to report what is going on without the slightest hint of bias.’
Cassidy laughed. ‘Well, I think you’re one of the few who might be able to do that. The rest of us have hearts.’
‘Come off it. You put your heart aside, that’s all. How can you be objective otherwise.’
‘It doesn’t work like that. Look, Herbert Matthews, New York Times, one of the finest correspondents - he wrote of the falseness and hypocrisy of correspondents who claimed to be unbiased; he reckoned the editors who wanted purely objective reporting were asking the impossible; y’can give the facts, but there’s no rea-son why you shouldn’t give opinions and show feelings.’
Despite his belief that it was no good arguing with one so opinionated as Willis, Cassidy felt himself drawn into the argument.
‘But let’s add, the opinions and feelings must be genuine and rise from actual happenings. And Koestler is a case in point.’
‘Arthur Koestler. Yes, I seem to remember he blotted his copy book somewhere along the line.’
‘The Nationals had him arrested after they took Malaga - nearly shot him as a spy. Anyway, he spent three months in prison and then was exchanged for one of the Republican’s prisoners.’
‘Didn’t he write a book about it?’
‘Spanish Testament he called it; he wrote of atrocious happenings inside the prisons, horrendous stuff. Caused a huge backlash against General Franco and his side. Everyone believed it because it was Koestler.
‘It took him seventeen years to come clean and admit that some of the worse accusations in the book were dictated to him by the German correspondent Willie Muenzenberg; he was a prominent Communist and insisted Koestler stop being weak and objective and hit them with everything they could think up, like running over prisoners with tanks and burning them alive.’
‘All that aside,’ said Willis, ‘I’d certainly have enjoyed being with them in Madrid when they made the Florida hotel their headquarters. Nice drop of Spanish wine over a dish of paella. Great stuff.’
Catching sight of the barman out of the corner of his eye, Willis suddenly slipped off the stool, turned briefly to Cassidy, ‘I must be off’ and was out the door in a flash.
‘Typical,’ Cassidy muttered as he paid for Willis’s shout. ‘Typical. If I was in a war I wouldn’t want him on my side.’