“I want to buy you something. A dress, for your birthday”: a short story of two exes meeting for lunch, from a new collection by Fiona Kidman.
Bethany was waiting for him on the side of the street. The unexpectedness of it took Peter’s breath away. He was used to her being late, but here she was, bright-eyed and early, swinging her handbag backwards and forwards with cheerful disingenuousness, like a girl who knows that if she waits long enough her man will turn up. How right she was, even if he was only her man for a day.
“I thought you’d be waiting inside for me.”
“It’s too early for lunch, and it’s such a beautiful day. I couldn’t resist an extra spot of sun. We’ll only have a few more weeks of it.”
And it was a crystal-clear, sparkling day, autumn at its best. If Peter Dixon had been at home on a day like this, he would have looked out and just about seen all the way to the Blue Mountains from his office window. He had forgotten they had days like this in New Zealand. So many times when he had been here in recent years, especially in this small town, they had been wintry and dark.
“You’ve cut your hair,” he said.
“Yes, at last. Well, you know, coming up forty. I thought it was about time.”
Without meaning to, they had started to drift along the street away from the restaurant, but now he stopped in his tracks.
She laughed. “It’s permissible. It happens. It happened to you.”
“Ah, ha. I know. I thought about you when it happened . . .”
“Yes, I did. I felt very good about it, very malicious, you know?”
“I can imagine.”
“I thought, oh, God, I bet he’s feeling awful.”
“I thought that’s what you wanted.”
“Oh, I did too. But it doesn’t matter now. Actually, I don’t mind being forty. A new stage.”
“So, you got your hair cut, eh? It looks nice, it really does. Did I look a bit shocked? I didn’t mean to. I’ve just never seen you without it long before.”
He wanted to reach out and touch the absence of her hair. What was left was smartly styled, its nut-brown texture springy and vital, flecked with grey. He admired women who let it show, a kind of valour that seemed exciting. Still, it was odd coming across it in Bethany. She had always had the ability to surprise him. Once he had thought her predictable, but he had long understood that this was not true.
They were in a shopping mall with seats and spreading trees and a fountain. It looked like any such modern complex, but it was different because although this was the town he had lived in with Bethany, she had watched its development while he had not. He had gone away because he felt as if nothing would ever change and he was afraid that the sameness would stultify and destroy him. I am being sentimental, he told himself. Underneath, nothing would have changed, and he would still never fit in.
“Shall we sit and watch the fountain?” said Bethany.
“You don’t mind?” he asked, as he settled beside her.
“Mind?” Her brow puckered. “Oh. You mean about us?”
“Fine. I just wondered.”
He saw her involuntary shrug. “Nobody knows you now. Or, if they do, they’ve forgotten we were married. It wouldn’t interest them any more. Why should it, it’s what you wanted.”
So, here they were, and just when she had seemed pleased to see him, they were bickering away already. Across the mall, music boomed suddenly from a record shop as a customer had a stereo demonstrated to him.
“Whatever happened to The Seekers?” asked Bethany, cocking her head. “I mean, in the end, where did they all go? I remember they reappeared for a while. They looked middle aged, the men anyway. Like all of us.” As she glanced down, he thought that she was boasting a little, knowing that that wasn’t how she looked at all, but she had earned the right. “Then they all disappeared again.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about them in years. Anyway, they say sixty’s the new middle age.”
“Remember that time they were in Auckland?” Bethany said, still intent on The Seekers. Judith Durham was hitting a high note in the shop.
“We didn’t go, did we?”
“We couldn’t. Your mother said she’d have the children, then Ritchie got measles. It was a big deal.”
He was silent, thinking about Ritchie, the boy they had lost. The boy she had lost, he would think in flashes of anger. And, then again, perhaps it was him. He’d left by then.
“It’s all right, it’s a good memory,” she said, her voice softening. “It wasn’t such a bad weekend. The Kellys came over and we had a sort of a party and stayed up all night because there wasn’t much point in going to bed anyway because of Ritchie being sick. We watched the dawn and the red sky coming up over the hills, and then the rain settled in. Afterwards, when we’d had breakfast, the Kellys went home. Ritchie’s fever had passed, so we went to bed and the children slept too. We woke up in the middle of the afternoon, and things had come right. It was kind of like a holiday.”
“So it was. Yes, I remember that. And Julie Felix. Remember how she used to come on the box every Tuesday night? She reminded me of you, with all that long hair of hers, walking down a track. I don’t know what sort of track it was. ‘Railway’? Wasn’t it?”
“I remember the track,” she said, nodding. “And thinking that it was taking her somewhere. Yes, perhaps, a little like her. I wanted to go along some track, some place. But I never did.”
“You did,” Peter said, his voice thick with emotion. And he was sure he was not wrong. A head had turned in their direction, and an old face that he remembered from long ago blinked in surprise, recognising him, but unable to put a name to his face. The woman turned and walked on. “Look at you,” he said. “Look how far you’ve come. Perhaps further than me.” This cost him an effort.
“Why have you come?” she said then. “It’s not long since you were last here.”
He had been dreading this question. In all the years since he had left, he had only come when there was a crisis, when she was in need. If he were honest with himself and, importantly, with her, this time he had come out of a sense of his own need. At least, he owed it to her to tell her that. She had taken the day off from her job in the hospital laboratory to be with him, as if he must have something important on his mind. Peter didn’t appear just for nothing, that is what she would have thought.
He stretched his arms along the back of the seat. Leaves, red and citric yellow, fell in small drifts from the tree above. One settled in her hair. He thought to brush it away, but she appeared not to notice. It sat like a small beneficent offering on her sleek head. Oh, lovely Bethany. Did he really owe her his burdens? he wondered. His journey suddenly looked absurd to him. He had boarded the plane almost on an impulse, booking the flight the night before, the way he had when there was one of those crises. This was a crisis, he told himself, but this time it was his own. On a crisp autumn day, she might be pleased to see him, but he had become incidental in her life, a fragment of her past. There had been another child, a lover who had left her, the death of their own younger son. Now he wanted to tell her his troubles, as if an atonement for his past follies, his desertion. Look, he wanted to tell her, it can happen to anyone. It’s happened to me, I’ve had my comeuppance. Why on earth should she care? Yet the idea had persisted, even on the drive south from the airport, that he was somehow bringing her a gift.
He shivered a little, for even on this brilliant day there was the premonition of snow to come in the months ahead, drifting down from the hills. A light breeze lifted the fallen leaves, turning them on the pebbles inlaid into the concrete paving slabs. Come the winter and a day of sleet, when the new pavement had not been swept and tidied as it was today, it would all look tawdry and ugly, just like any other small town imitating the smartness of cities. With a pang, he visualised Sydney, wondering again whether he should be here at all, what he was doing sitting on a street bench with this woman whom he no longer recognised as the person he had once married, and finding in her a mystery, something seductive that tugged at his heart strings.
She was looking at him, waiting for an answer. As he sought to concentrate, to bring his thoughts back to the moment, he found himself looking at her soft and pliable mouth, remembering its taste.
“It’s your birthday next week,” he said. “April the nineteenth.”
“Clever you. Yes.”
“At Easter. It often fell at Easter.”
“So Libby used to say.”
“Has your sister got religion now?” A crass question that he regretted straight away. He had never liked her sister.
“Libby doesn’t live here now. It just sounded nice when she said it.”
“So it does.” Her face was turned towards him. The midday light was pure. Bethany’s eyes still rested on him, enquiring. There had been a glancing away when she mentioned her sister. It was hard not to wonder what had happened in his absence.
“I want to buy you something,” he said with sudden decision. “A dress, for your birthday. Yes, you can accept a birthday present. Please. You will? Come on, you know what shops you like. I want to buy it for you now.”
He had pulled her by the hand to her feet, almost roughly, yet in such a way that he hoped would not be obvious. As he propelled her along the street, it was she who was guiding their footsteps as if, in her inability to resist him, she was also abetting him in his intention. It was as though they had agreed to buy the dress from the moment he suggested it.
They stopped in front of a shop. “I have enough dresses,” she said, as if their ungainly dash along the street was for nothing.
“I want you to have another one. Something you wouldn’t buy for yourself.”
“What about our table at the restaurant?”
He looked around the trickle of lunch-time shoppers. “I reckon they’ll keep it. Do they queue for lunch here?”
“I could buy it afterwards. After you’ve gone.”
“I want to see you buy it.”
“Then it’s for you too.”
“Do you mind that?”
She shook her head then, as if sensing he was in trouble, perhaps that he was asking for something smaller and less frightening than what he had come for.
In the shop, the owner hurried forward, a woman with ageing chic, whom he dimly recalled had once owned a much smaller and less well-presented shop in the main street. Since then, she had clearly prospered; the clothing on display was stylish and up to date. A couple of slender, expensive-looking women were selecting clothes for a race meet, choosing their outfits in loud voices. Bethany seemed at ease among them, even though he guessed her clothes, neat as they had become, were seldom purchased here.
“Hullo, Mrs Dixon, how nice to see you,” the woman greeted her. It was a shock to hear her called Mrs Dixon, as if he expected her to have some other name that did not associate them, did not bind them in a multiplicity of acts from which they would never recover, however much they might have told themselves they had. Surprising, too, to see Bethany recognised and greeted as a respected woman of the town.
He had intended ordering events as he would have if buying a dress for another woman — announce their mission, discreetly suggest a price range, stand back and let the women believe they were in charge. As it was, he said nothing. Already Bethany had said that she would look around for a few minutes, and that her friend would wait while she chose a dress.
Again the phrase struck him as curious. Her friend. On reflection, as he watched her flicking through a rack, he decided that he liked it better than husband. How did people cope with such referrals from the past?
Bethany had taken a dress from the rack and was looking at it thoughtfully. It was a smoky-grey woollen garment with a cowl neckline and a narrow skirt.
“I’d like to try this on,” she said to the woman. “What do you think, Peter?”
“Let’s see how it looks when it’s on.”
“Why don’t you take a seat while Mrs Dixon changes?” the woman said, arching an eyebrow. He sat, as Bethany disappeared into a fitting room. He felt precarious and exposed, perched on the light wrought-iron chair in the middle of the showroom. The race-going women were leaving, so at least he had the place to himself.
Bethany took what seemed like an age to change. He tried to imagine her shedding her clothes and wished that he could be there too, that buying the dress gave him the privilege of seeing the transaction through from beginning to end. He could see her struggling among straps and belts, her shoulders and arms erupting out of the top of her undergarments, her breasts bulging across the cutting line of her brassiere. Such big, pendulous, pear-shaped breasts they were; his children had suckled them, and he too.
The woman at the counter was busying herself with folding clothes, not looking at him, as if she knew the thoughts that ran through men’s heads at moments like this. As if he had ordered a striptease. He looked up at the ceiling and whistled softly through his teeth.
Bethany emerged at last, clad in the dress. It fitted her perfectly. “Do you like it?” she asked, turning slowly in front of him. Underneath the wool her hips pivoted, jutting wide at the edges of her flat stomach. He had pinned those hips beneath him.
“It’s lovely on, Mrs Dixon, nice for winter evenings. Lovely for five o’clock.” As if five o’clock were a new discovery in the ordering of time. Bethany, beautiful, in her grey woollen frock.
On a mannequin, he saw a black dress with a high neck and rusty gold and scarlet borders. “What about the one over there?” he said.
“Don’t you like this?” said Bethany with obvious disappointment.
“Yes, but I’d love to see you in that one too.”
“I’m not sure that it’s me.”
“Well, you need to be sure, don’t you? Have something to compare it with?”
She bit her lip, hesitating, and he thought for a moment that she wouldn’t do it, that it was him ruling the roost again and telling her what to do. How could he blame her if she said no?
“All right then, it’s worth a try.” She changed very quickly this time, and came out again in the black, gold and scarlet dress.
She was laughing, though at first he couldn’t see what was making her so happy. He saw her watching her reflection, smiled with her, thought of her mouth and the white teeth that troubled her whenever she was pregnant. Once she had let him feel, with the tip of his tongue, the jagged edge of a tooth where the filling had come out. They knew each other, the good and the rotten. You couldn’t go much further than that.
“It is me, isn’t it?” She whirled around the room, the elegant skirt flaring around her knees, the silk puddling into little bunches of colour, the black displaying the creaminess of her skin. The old, wild, strange Bethany, the one who was different, the one from whom he had had to escape and, however he had chosen to see it otherwise, had never been predictable. She stopped in front of the mirror again, ablaze with excitement. In the glass, she saw his eyes following her, and her own widened as if they’d been caught in the act of love, as if in some sudden, stolen joy, like their long ago rainy “holiday” Sunday.
“You’ll have it then?”
She paused again, sobering, the moment of joy past. “I don’t know that I’d get much wear out of it. But it is nice.” She cast a reflective eye towards the grey.
“Have them both,” he said.
“No.” She shook her head firmly. “I couldn’t do that. All right then, I’ll take the black.”
Outside, she said, “I never thought of you buying me a dress.”
“For old times” sake,” he said.
“Yes, for old times,” she echoed, and he knew with sharp and painful clarity that she would probably never wear his present. She might even go back another day for the grey dress, perhaps on layby, for slow and laborious payment.
Along the street, she stopped at a store window full of exotic novelties. “I’d like to buy something for Jason,” she said. “Would Patsy mind? Look, a Newton’s Cradle. Ritchie and Stephen had one that Nana and Granddad gave them one Christmas. I thought it was an absurd thing to give the children, but they couldn’t leave it alone.” Already she was heading into the shop.
Peter looked at the silver balls suspended on their fine filigrees of silver wire and touched them gently, seeing them bouncing off each other, connecting, parting, with riveting rhythmic perfection, coming to rest until they were touched again. Touched, moved, it was much the same.
“I’m not sure when I’ll be seeing Jason,” he said. “Maybe not for a little while.”
Over lunch, he said, carefully so as not to alarm her, not to knock her like the little balls that sprang away from each other, “It’s over, you see, Patsy and me, we’ve separated.”
“Poor Pete,” she said, holding his wrist as if she were keeping count of his pulse. “Is it very sad?” If she was surprised she did not show it.
“Enough. We’ve parted, which is hard, as you know.” He said this to forestall the comfort he had wanted to ask of her. He could see now that it was too much to ask of anyone, and certainly that he would give her nothing by saying, look, it can happen to me, it’s not just you, it’s me too. I’ve been punished. Reward and punishment, they were long past.
“I’ll miss Jason, of course,” he added. But he didn’t know whether that was true. His blond Australian son whined a lot and was never satisfied with anything for long. A pity to have let Bethany spend so much money on her gift, but how could he betray his other child? And to her. He seemed to have made a habit of betraying his children. She would not be pleased to hear him disparage this boy.
“How are Stephen and Abbie?” he asked, partly to change the subject, and partly because he really wanted to know.
Bethany released his arm. “Stephen’s a whole lot better. It’s not saying a lot, but he’s doing his homework and he should pass his exams. He’s civil. I mean, that’s progress.” Their son caused her grief.
“I’m really glad. And Abbie?” He knew he spoke too eagerly of the girl, yet of all the children that he and Bethany had had, with this or that person, it was Abbie, not his at all, whom he thought of the most.
“Oh, she’s just the same.” Bethany spoke offhandedly, but he had trespassed. He could not have Abbie in exchange for a dress, or a moment of the past, or for any reason at all. He and Bethany had exchanged two useless gifts (for he would keep the cradle for himself, as he suddenly understood was what she expected) and that was where it must stop. Kind Bethany, with slumberous eyes now, in a dim restaurant. She had touched him again, and he turned to her.
She murmured to him, and he had to listen carefully to make sense of what she was saying. “The nice thing is, if we wanted to, we could, but we don’t have to because we can. Isn’t that so?”
He knew she was talking of making love, and that although she had made no absolute decisions she had, nonetheless, made his for him. In an hour, maybe two, they would go their own ways, carrying their offerings from each other. There would always be baggage of some sort or another but, as you went along, some of it could be abandoned, replaced if necessary. Wives, too, though friends were harder.
From the new collection of stories All the Way to Summer (Vintage, $40) by Fiona Kidman, and first published in 1982. Next week’s short story is by Linda Burgess.