Desideratum

Linda is bereft when Marcus, her enchanting young hairdresser, announces he’s returning to England. Linda offers to marry him so he can stay in Australia, but will this marriage of convenience be too painful to bear?

 

Chapters

One Two Three Four Five

One

 

Linda stifled a sigh as Marcus’s long, strong fingers caressed her, sending streams of delight through her body, right down to her curled up toes. His probing fingers found wells of pleasure she had hardly dreamt of. Waves of desire broke over her gripping, white-knuckled hands. But it was against the rules to move or make a sound. Instead she lay back and let him reach deep into her very soul and uncover an aching bliss, an agony of longing, long since submerged.

All too soon, the probing became a gentle stroke, and she let out the breath she had been holding. A shower of warm water flowed over her forehead down through her hair.

‘Is that too hot for you?’ Marcus asked.

‘No,’ Linda sighed. ‘It’s perfect.’

When he had towelled most of the water from her hair, Marcus led her to a tubular black chair in front of a full length mirror, leaving her for a moment while he fetched his instruments.

Linda groaned as she regarded herself in the pitiless glass – a woman of a certain age, her dark wet hair swept back severely, exposing her pale, drab face to the harsh fluorescent lights. Wrapped in a black kimono with a heavy black rubber collar protecting her shoulders, she resembled a medieval Japanese warrior awaiting his execution.

Yet despite this emotional torture, her monthly visits to Desideratum were a spiritual necessity. Linda had only one vanity left, her hair, which was still as thick and lustrous as it had always been. She spent nothing on make-up and little on clothes, but she had always been to the best hairdressers. Clive Miller, was Perth’s most awarded hairdresser, his salon, Desideratum, Perth’s most prestigious. And since Marcus had started doing her hair three months earlier, these visits had become her one guilty, agonising pleasure.

‘Tracy, you look fantastic,’ Linda heard in the distance. Clive was working his way down the salon. ‘Linda,’ he pronounced as he reached her, ‘that colour is perfect on you.’

‘As long as it covers the white,’ Linda replied dryly.

‘White? I don’t see any white.’

They exchanged wry smiles. Clive was still a very attractive man, Linda mused, but he was getting a bit too old for long hair and leather pants himself.

‘Isn’t Marcus taking care of you today?’ Clive asked, looking around the salon with a frown. Linda followed his gaze as the frown turned into a bemused grin. Marcus had been waylaid by Mrs Freeman. They could hear the whine of her voice from across the room. Linda slipped on her glasses to see Marcus’s patient, charming smile as he quietly reassured her. Clive sighed. ‘I’ll be sorry to lose that boy.’

Linda felt an unexpected lurch in her stomach. ‘Where’s he going?’

‘Back to England. His visa’s expiring. Oh, well, there are plenty more where he came from.’

Linda had been through a succession of British hairdressers at Desideratum, but none of them had been as good as Marcus, or had had the same effect on her.

Clive moved on and Marcus returned with an apology for keeping her waiting. Linda gazed at him in the mirror. Marcus was the epitome of tall, dark and handsome, and his voice, with its soft English accent, was like slow flowing honey. She took in and let out a long, slow breath as he combed his long fingers through her hair, stirring up the natural wave to frame her face. How could she have expected such a simple pleasure to last?

‘What would you like today, Linda?’

‘Oh, nothing special. A bit more than the usual off the length now that it’s getting warmer?’

‘Mmmm. I was thinking of doing something different. Something that’d make more of your lovely eyes.’

Linda bit back a sceptical rejoinder. Marcus was the consummate hairdresser, able to make his every client feel beautiful and special. His compliments were almost as exhilarating as his scalp massages, but they, too, were just part of his job. ‘You’re the expert, Marcus. I’m entirely in your hands.’

Marcus grinned. ‘Right you are then. Let’s see what we can do.’

As he set to work, Linda reluctantly took off her glasses and his fine-featured face went out of focus.

‘So,’ Marcus asked, ‘how has work been?’

‘Work.’

Marcus smiled as he combed her hair straight.

‘I was thinking of taking some time off. Going overseas. England, Italy.’

‘That sounds great.’ Marcus traced a part across the crown of her head.

‘Clive tells me you’ll be going back to England soon.’

Marcus separated out a tress of her hair and pinned it up. ‘Looks like it.’

Linda peered at his blurred reflection. Was that an unhappy expression she saw on his face? ‘Don’t you want to?’

‘Not particularly. I rather like it here.’ He twisted another lock of her hair and pinned it up beside the other.

‘Then why don’t you stay?’

Marcus eased her head forward. ‘I’m only here on a working holiday visa and my twelve months are almost up.’

‘That’s a pity.’

He snipped delicately at the nape of her neck. ‘I’d like to emigrate. I even asked about it in London before I came, but apparently you already have enough hairdressers here.’

Linda grudgingly agreed. There seemed to be one on every corner these days. ‘Isn’t there any other way?’ Linda peered up at him, wishing she could make out the expression on his face.

‘I could marry an Australian…’ Marcus kept his eyes on his scissors. ‘…but I couldn’t get married just to stay in Australia.’

‘No… no, of course not,’ Linda murmured dutifully, while inwardly she vehemently dissented. Marry an Australian? It wouldn’t be hard for her lovely Marcus to find a girl willing to marry him. She wanted to put her hand up then and there and say, ‘Me, pick me. I’ll marry you. Anytime. Just ask.’ But in the all-too-honest mirror she could see Marcus’s gorgeous, slender figure while there she sat before him, a middle-aged frump. She almost laughed out loud at her own foolishness. How could she ever expect him to even consider her in that light?

‘No, of course not,’ she repeated. ‘You couldn’t do that.’

Marcus finished cutting her hair in virtual silence.

 

Two

 

The Hetro-Metro Bar was just around the corner in King Street. Linda peered into the dimly lit room, until she saw a stocky, red-haired figure in a booth towards the back. Elaine had already seen her and was waving, holding up an empty glass. Taking her meaning, Linda bought a lager and lime and a gin and tonic for herself before joining her.

‘Mm-mmm,’ Elaine greeted her. ‘I take it you’ve just been to see the delectable young Marcus.’

Linda replied with a wicked grin.

‘The lad still does it for you, does he?’ Elaine continued in her Manchester lilt. ‘Half your luck, lass.’

Linda scoffed. ‘What’s this? Doesn’t the delectable young Garry do it for you?’

Elaine sighed. ‘When he’s in the mood. Which is rarer and rarer these days. What with football and cricket and hockey, there’s not much energy left for me.’

‘It sounds to me like the two of you need a holiday together. Why don’t you drag him away to Margaret River? Lie on a beach for a while.’ Linda caught Elaine’s wry smile. ‘Better get him away before the cricket season starts, though.’

They laughed. Linda took her friend’s hand. ‘Seriously, though, he’s a good man. Don’t let him go too easily. Take it from me. They’re few and far between these days.’

Elaine squeezed back. ‘I know, lass. You’ll find your little piece of bread some day, as your old Italian nan used to say.’

Linda chuckled. ‘It’ll be pretty stale by the time I find it. Oh, Elaine,’ she groaned, ‘the closest I come these days is getting my hair washed by a boy half my age. I don’t know why I bothered to leave Melbourne. It’s not as though the pickings here are any better. Every man I meet is stranger than the last. And it’s not as though you can blame inbreeding. They’re not all born here. I think it’s something in the water.’

‘Then you’d better grab Marcus before it takes effect.’

They laughed into their drinks before Linda turned serious. ‘He’ll be gone before it does any harm.’

‘Gone? Where?’

‘Home to England. Apparently he’s here on a working holiday visa and it’s expiring soon.’

‘I’m sorry, lass.’ Elaine shook her head. ‘He doesn’t want to stay in Australia, then?’

Linda turned her empty glass. ‘Actually, he says he does. He’s enquired but he can’t migrate. Apparently we’ve already got enough hairdressers.’

Elaine studied her thoughtfully. ‘There are ways and means of getting round that, you know. Look at me. I came here for a working holiday, and I’m still here.’

‘But you got married. Marcus said he wouldn’t marry an Australian just to stay here.’

Elaine’s eyebrows shot up. ‘He just said that, did he? Or did you suggest it first?’

Linda blushed. ‘Of course I didn’t. It just came up in conversation.’

Elaine burst into laughter. ‘Oh, Linda, my love. Can’t you see? He was making you a proposition and it went right over your head.’

‘Why would he do that?’

Elaine nudged her. ‘Maybe he noticed those white knuckles when he washed your hair.’

Linda felt her blush deepen. ‘Don’t be silly, Elaine. He wasn’t teasing me. He was being serious.’

Elaine groaned. ‘Of course, he was serious. But he was being all English and indirect. They’re like that in the south. Believe me.’

Linda studied her drink and let the welcome thought warm her for a moment, but then shook it off with a surge of will power. It would never do to let her innocent fantasies take control. ‘Well, we’ll never know now, will we?’

‘Are you giving up too easily now, lass?’

‘What’s there to give up, Elaine?’

‘You’re not to know without asking him.’

‘Asking him? Are you crazy?’

‘I thought you fancied him.’

‘What if I do? He’s just a boy.’

‘Garry’s younger than me.’

‘By four years, not a dozen.’

‘Oh, don’t let that worry you, lass. Your lovely Italian complexion takes a good few years off your age.’

Magari…,’ Linda sighed. If only…

‘What have you got to lose?’ Elaine insisted.

‘My dignity, that’s what!’

‘Or your loneliness? Or are you clinging to that, lass? You talk as though you want a man, but I don’t see you making much of an effort to find one.’

Linda could feel the indignation and frustration rising like a hot tide within her. ‘Because I’ve stopped trying, Elaine. I’ve had enough. I’ve tried being positive. I even advertised once. But there’s only so many times you can bear to see that “She’s no Michelle Pfeiffer” look. As if any of them were Johnny Depp.’

Elaine stretched out a soothing hand. ‘All right, lass, it’s all right.’ She reached into Linda’s handbag and held out her purse. ‘Look, why don’t you get us both another drink. I think you could do with one.’

Linda was almost at the top of the queue at the bar before she remembered she’d got the last round.

 

 

Linda slammed the drinks down on the table. ‘What are you up to, Elaine?’

Elaine raised a knowing eyebrow in reply.

Returning her purse to her handbag, Linda noticed her mobile phone peeking out of it where it hadn’t been before. She checked the last call made. It was to Desideratum a few minutes ago.

‘Elaine! What have you done?’

‘You just wait and see, lass.’

They drank in a strained silence covered by the background noise of music and conversation, Elaine’s eyes drifting occasionally to the door until they lit up with appreciation. ‘Well, if that’s him, lass, it’s no wonder you’re smitten. He’s dead gorgeous, he is.’ She waved tentatively.

Linda whipped around to see Marcus approaching them. He broke into a wide smile as he recognised her. ‘Ahh. So you’re the mysterious friend I’ve been lured here to meet. What a pleasant surprise.’

Linda was too overcome to reply so Elaine had to invite him to join them, standing to let him slide into the booth beside her.

‘So,’ Marcus said ‘what’s this advantageous proposition you have for me?’

‘All in good time, lad. First things first. What’s your poison?’

‘Scotch and soda.’

‘My shout, I think.’ Elaine gave Linda a wink as she headed for the bar.

Linda twisted the glass in her hands. She could feel Marcus’s eyes on her. ‘I’m so sorry about this. It was definitely not my doing. Elaine can get carried away sometimes.’

‘Well,’ Marcus said after a pause, ‘any excuse for good company will do.’

Elaine returned cradling three glasses. ‘Have you asked him yet?’

Linda felt herself blush to the roots of her hair.

Marcus looked from one to the other, brown eyes wide with amusement. ‘Asked me what?’

Elaine put the glasses down and sat beside Linda, forcing her further along the seat and blocking any escape. ‘Well!’ she demanded of her. ‘If you won’t, I shall.’

Linda’s constricted throat wouldn’t work.

Elaine took control. ‘Marcus, lad, we were wondering about what you said to Linda tonight, about wanting to stay in Australia. Did you mean it? Do you really want to stay?’

Marcus gave Linda a sidelong glance. ‘Well, yes, I’d like to stay, but I can’t. I’m only here on a visitor’s visa.’

‘I came here on a visitor’s visa five years ago and I’m still here.’ Elaine looked from one silent figure to the other. ‘You could stay, too. Just like me.’ She paused for a response. There was none. ‘I got married, you see.’

‘Elaine!’ Linda hissed.

‘I met my Garry while I was here on a working holiday. We got married in haste, but we haven’t regretted it. Yet,’ she chuckled. ‘You could, too.’

Marcus cleared his throat. ‘I’m afraid it isn’t an option for me.’

‘Why not?’ Elaine persisted. ‘I’m sure a good-looking lad like you could easily find someone to marry.’

Marcus rolled his glass between his hands.

Elaine grinned mischievously. ‘I’d offer myself if I weren’t already taken.’ She nudged Linda. ‘What about Linda, here? She’s free.’

Marcus laughed half-heartedly. ‘I couldn’t ask Linda to do something like that.’

‘But what if she were willing? She’d love to help you out, wouldn’t you, Linda?’

Linda gripped her glass in sweaty hands. She heard Marcus’s voice say her name. ‘Would you?’ He was watching her intently.

Elaine kicked her sharply. She found herself speaking with no idea of what was going to emerge. ‘If,’ she croaked, then tried again. ‘If you really wanted to stay, I-I wouldn’t mind. As-as a friend.’

Marcus shook his head. ‘It’d be asking too much. You’ve got your own life to get on with.’

Elaine kicked her again. ‘No,’ Linda squeaked. ‘I-I mean… I-it’d be no trouble.’

She ventured to look up. Marcus was watching her. ‘I’m told it’s not a simple matter. Wouldn’t we have to live together and… and what about all the paperwork?’

Elaine reached across and took his hand. ‘I’ve been through it, lad. It’s a bit of a pain, but it’s all over in a few months and then you can both get on with your lives.’

Marcus gave Linda a wavering smile. ‘It’s a kind offer. I’ll think about it.’

‘There’s no time to think about it, lad,’ Elaine urged. ‘It takes a couple of months, between getting married and getting the application in. If you don’t decide now, it’ll be too late.’

Marcus searched Linda’s eyes and she was held by his gaze. For a moment the rest of the world fell away and, with it, all her objections. She nodded. Marcus smiled shyly.

Elaine’s voice came from somewhere in the distance. ‘I can take care of everything for you. Linda will tell you, I’m a whiz at organising. You won’t have to worry about a thing.’

 

 

Elaine had left them to get the next round of drinks. They sat in awkward silence, Linda’s stomach in a turmoil again once the momentary spell had dissipated. Elaine had no right to railroad them like this. She couldn’t let this farce go ahead. Her indignation gave her courage to speak. ‘Look, Marcus, there’s really no need to take all this seriously. Elaine really has gone too far this time.’

Marcus’s face fell. ‘Oh, I see. If you would prefer not to… it was just…’

She hadn’t meant to let him down. ‘No… no, it’s not that… I’m quite happy to, if you really want to.’

His face brightened. ‘Of course, what a fool I am. I should do this properly.’ He reached across and took her hand. Linda almost jumped at the electric shock his light touch sent through her. He gazed into her eyes. ‘Linda, will you marry me?’

For one joyous, irrational moment, she let herself believe it was true, but then her heart started beating again and painful reality rushed in. She wasn’t a silly, romantic adolescent, but a woman fast approaching forty about to enter into a sham marriage with a boy in his twenties. There was only one way to do this.

‘I will,’ she said, ‘but on one condition.’

‘Yes,’ Marcus breathed.

‘This… marriage will entail lying to our family, our friends, our workmates, and even the government. All I ask is that we don’t lie to each other. If we have nothing else between us, let’s at least have total honesty. We’re getting married simply so that you can stay in Australia, nothing else. I’m doing this for you out of friendship. That’s all. No other claims. No other expectations.’ She paused. ‘I just hope… I just hope we can still be friends when all this is over.’

Marcus’s expression hardened. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘I hope we are.’

 

 

Marcus left soon after Elaine got back, having hardly touched his drink, saying he had to get up early in the morning.

Elaine gave Linda a ferocious hug. ‘Congratulations, love. My little plan worked. You’re engaged to be married.’

Linda didn’t return the hug.

‘Why the long face, lass? You’ve just netted the best looking lad in Perth. You should be wearing a smile from here to Kalgoorlie.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Elaine. This little plan of yours is ludicrous. Come to think of it, what exactly is your plan?’

‘Simple. You two shack up together and then you let Mother Nature take its course. You’ll see. Even when he gets his residency he won’t be moving out.’

Linda could well imagine what Mother Nature would do to her if she lived in too-close proximity to Marcus. She would make a total fool of herself and he wouldn’t be able to get away from her fast enough.

‘Look at me and Garry,’ Elaine continued. ‘We really only did it for a laugh, and we’re still together.’

‘Yes, but you and Garry were already living together before you got married. This is different. We don’t even know if Marcus likes me.’

Elaine sobered. ‘Of course he likes you. Didn’t you see the way he looked at you?’

‘All I saw was that he was being too polite to say no to my face.’

Elaine took her hand. ‘Believe me, love. This will work. You’ll thank me for being such a cow some day.’

Linda gritted her teeth. She felt like yelling at Elaine to stop. Stop pandering to her fantasies, her pathetic romantic fantasies. Linda had long since learnt that fantasies never came true, and it was defying the gods to try to make them. So why was she letting this happen?

She withdrew her hand from Elaine’s, saying, ‘We’ll see.’

 

Three

 

Linda kicked off the bed sheet. It was no use trying to sleep. She had barely slept a wink since the wedding, over a month ago. Thank goodness it had coincided with the onset of the summer heat so she had some excuse to give at work for her lethargy. She let glide right past her all the winks and nudges aimed at her newly-wed status.

The room was stifling. She got up and leant against the wide open window, but there was not a whiff of breeze. The Fremantle Doctor wasn’t making house calls tonight. Usually in Summer she slept with all the windows and internal doors open, but now her bedroom door was always shut. It might be preserving her modesty, but it could not keep out her all-too-strong awareness of the beautiful young man that slept just across the hall in her spare room.

She got back on the bed, switched on the bedside lamp and picked up her novel. She read the first paragraph three times, but still had no idea what it said. She threw the book aside in despair, lay back and studied the cracks in the ceiling. Was it always going to be like this? She had almost reached the point where she wished that Marcus would leave so that she could go back to being alone, but at peace.

 

 

There had been so many times in those statutory four weeks’ wait before the wedding when she had been tempted to call the whole thing off. But Elaine had made sure that the news had quickly got around their office, the salon and even across the country to her family back in Melbourne. Linda had been all too aware of the raised eyebrows. Her brother had put it so succinctly. ‘Finally found a blind one, have we, sis?’  She could well imagine what people would think if a woman her age suddenly called off a wedding with a young man like Marcus. She would become an object of pity if not outright derision.

But there had been another, at least more honourable, reason to go through with it. Linda had felt that she could not offer Marcus her help and then withdraw it for no good reason. She knew that he would be too much of a gentleman to remind her it was bad form. It had been up to Marcus to call it off, and he hadn’t.

Elaine had wanted to invite everyone they knew to the wedding, but Linda had vetoed her plans. Only Elaine and Clive were to witness the registry office ceremony. But Elaine reminded her that the Immigration Department would want to know that the marriage had been recognised by her family and friends, and so insisted that they at least invite a few people to dinner at a restaurant in lieu of a reception. Linda only managed to keep her family away by promising them that she and Marcus would visit Melbourne soon and have a proper church wedding and reception there for her myriad Italian relatives.

The registry office was on the tenth floor of a high-rise building in the centre of the city. A few vases of flowers had been placed around it in an attempt to soften its harsh, modern corners, but to little effect. It wasn’t the kind of place Linda had envisaged in her girlish dreams of a white wedding to her one true love. As she made her sham vows those long-buried hopes returned to mock her. Her sudden tears had impressed Elaine and the registrar. Clive seemed embarrassed and made an inept joke about Marcus not being that frightening. Marcus smiled at her gravely and handed her a tissue. The scene so distracted the registrar that, thankfully, she forgot to instruct the groom to kiss the bride.

All through dinner Linda’s stomach was tied in a knot. The speeches were a distant rumble and she was glad, for once, that tradition decreed that the bride should not make a speech. Beside her, Marcus sat almost as stony faced as she. At one point Elaine came between them and embraced them both but only as a cover for a hissed message. ‘Would you two please buck up! People are starting to talk.’

The guests put them into a taxi outside the restaurant with much banter and good cheer. The taxi driver, delighted to be carrying newly-weds, talked non-stop about all the strange scenes that had been played out between lovers in his back seat. He dropped them off in the darkness of the car park outside Linda’s flat and, suddenly, they were alone.

Linda stood in the dark, wanting to say something, but nothing more profound came to mind than ‘It’s this way. Mind your feet.’ But, ignoring her own warning, she tripped in the dark over the edge of a flowerbed.

Marcus caught her elbow before she reached the ground and put an arm around her. ‘Steady now. I can’t remember you drinking that much.’

Her heart stuck in her throat, Linda pulled away. Marcus stepped back without a word.

Resolutely, Linda led him to the outside staircase that took them up to her flat.  After a nervous struggle to find the keyhole in the dark, Linda let him into her kitchen/dining/living-room. They stood awkwardly, avoiding each other’s eyes. Linda debated whether to offer him a cup of tea or a glass of the scotch she had bought especially for him, but Marcus forestalled her. Bidding her a dry goodnight, he withdrew to the spare room where he had unpacked his things the previous day before spending the night at Clive’s. Linda was left in the empty room, the sickening weight in her stomach telling her she had just made a terrible mistake.

 

 

Linda sat up and pummelled the pillow with her fists. All this rehashing of the past was only keeping her awake and she needed some sleep, however little she could catch. In only a few hours’ time they were due at the Immigration Department for their interviews. She couldn’t face them with a head full of cotton-wool. Drastic action was needed – an iced camomile tea.

In the minimal light from the range hood, Linda waited for the kettle to boil. As its roar came to a head and it switched itself off, she heard behind her, ‘How can you bear a hot drink in this heat?’

She swung around, the heat of the night nothing compared to her burning cheeks. The contours of his naked chest caught in the half light, Marcus stood in the gloom. In contrast to his tall sleek body, all the more alluring in nothing but boxer shorts, Linda was painfully aware of her too-short, clingy slip and mussed hair. She indicated an icetray. ‘I have it cold on nights like this.’

Marcus approached and picked up the packet of camomile. ‘Does it help?’

‘Sometimes.’

‘I might have one, too.’ He got out a mug for himself and watched as Linda drowned the teabags in half a cup of boiling water.

As they stood in the uncertain light, waiting for the tea to infuse, Marcus said, ‘I guess it’s having the same effect on you, this interview tomorrow.’

Linda shrugged. ‘Guess so.’ It was one reason, anyway. She turned away and twisted the icetray. The cubes clattered onto the sink. She filled the mugs with ice-cubes, placed a teaspoon in each and handed one to Marcus.

He let it hover in midair until she looked up at him. Holding her gaze, he took the cup. ‘Thanks,’ he murmured, ‘for everything.’

Linda concentrated on stirring her tea vigorously to dissolve the ice-cubes.

‘I just wanted to say,’ he went on, ‘whatever happens tomorrow, it won’t… I mean I’d still…’

He paused, then she heard him put his cup down. With one sculpted hand he took her mug and with the other took her hands. He leant closer to put the mug down on the bench behind her. Her breathing stopped. Her eyes closed but she was aware of every inch of his body and her own. Her captured hands spread across his chest. She could feel the youthful strength of his flesh, the light down of hair, his shallow breathing. One hand raked through her hair and tilted her face up to his, the other, behind her waist, pressed them close.

Their lips met, his tongue was searching for hers, his body craving hers. A wave of cool relief then of warm desire washed through her. For one moment she didn’t exist, but floated in a sea of pure joy. And then she was outside herself, watching this silly old woman making a total fool of herself. What on earth did this beautiful boy want with her? Her hands stiffened against his chest and she pushed him away.

In the darkness she couldn’t make out the expression on his face as he staggered away from her. ‘I told you,’ she said through a tight throat, trying to smile to make light of it, ‘there’s no need for that. You’re under no obligation.’

He stood looking at her a moment, his mouth open as though to speak, but then, without a word, he strode past her to the bathroom. She heard the door slam, the lock turn and then the shower run. That heavy, sick feeling returned, bringing tears to her eyes. She took her camomile and returned to her room, closing the door behind her.

 

 

The caseworker shook Linda’s hand, her round, matronly face creased in a friendly smile. ‘It was lovely meeting you, Linda. All the best for you and Marcus. Just give me a call if you have any problems with the paperwork. I’m here to help.’

Linda thanked her and watched her return to her office. She breathed a sigh of relief. The caseworker had been nothing like she expected and the interview had been much less exacting. Wherever there were gaps in her knowledge, Linda had been able to fall back on ‘Marcus doesn’t really like to talk much about his family’…or…’his old girlfriends,’ and it was perfectly true. She had been meaning to ask him for more information about these things but she had never had the courage, and that morning had not been the right time. Except for the bare courtesies, Marcus had been silent over breakfast and all the way into the city on the bus.

Linda took a chair in the waiting room, wondering what was taking Marcus so long. Was he being asked the same questions as she? How would he answer the crucial question: ‘How do you feel about her?’ Linda had dreaded that question but when it came – perhaps it had been her caseworker’s understanding eyes – the answer had poured out all on its own. ‘He’s the most considerate, caring man I’ve ever known. When I first met him, I thought I was just reacting to his looks, that it was just a physical thing, but I know now there was something more, something I never really expected. I just wish… I just wish he would let me get to know him better. There’s a huge part of himself he keeps… hidden.’ And again, it was perfectly true.

Finally Marcus emerged, followed by his caseworker. They shook hands and conferred for a long time before the caseworker handed Marcus a manila envelope.

‘What’s that?’ Linda asked as Marcus approached her.

‘Nothing really,’ he replied evasively.

Linda tried for a reconciliation of sorts. ‘Shall we have a coffee before we go to work?’

Marcus looked past her. ‘It’s getting late. Clive’s expecting me.’ As they stepped out into the street, Marcus took his leave and then turned back. ‘I might be home late. We’re having drinks after work tonight. I might even crash at Clive’s.’

Linda tried not to take it personally. ‘Right. Well, I won’t cook for you, then. Have a good time.’

Marcus paused, smiled at her uncertainly, then turned away. Linda wiped away a tear as she looked for the nearest bus-stop.

 

Four

 

Linda was carrying home a load of Italian delicacies. It was Thursday, late night closing, and Marcus always came home exhausted. Tonight she would greet him with a glass of vintage red and a gourmet meal. It might go some way to thawing the freeze that had come between them since the interview on Monday.

Marcus had spent that night at Clive’s, but Linda had still had no sleep, listening for his key in the lock, reliving the night before but with a much different ending. She had been such a fool. Had she become so used to rejection that she anticipated it? Did she have such a low opinion of herself that she could not believe that someone might want her, despite all the signs to the contrary? How could she explain herself to Marcus? It was little wonder he had become even more silent and distant since that night. Linda had no expertise in wooing a man, so she was resorting to the oldest recipe in the book, good food and wine.

Her heart stopped when her front door opened at a touch and she heard a female voice, then the low murmur of a male voice. Should she call the police, tell them there were burglars in her flat? Then the male tones resolved into a familiar voice. She pushed the door aside.

Marcus was sitting at the table with his back to her. Beside him, a young woman was grasping his hand, speaking urgently, so intent on him that she did not see Linda come in. She was young, blonde, handsome rather than pretty, with intense blue eyes and a vitality Linda could sense from across the room. ‘Marcus, it was nothing. You know it was nothing. I’ve come all this way. Doesn’t that say something?’ Her voice was a gruff contralto, her accent Marcus’s own. The old girlfriend he had never spoken about.

Linda couldn’t turn and run. This was her home.

A sudden gust of hot wind whipped through the door. The girl looked up. Her intense expression turned into a charming smile. ‘Oh, you must be Linda.’ She came towards her holding out a hand to be shaken. ‘I’m Fiona. I presume Marcus has told you all about me.’

But Linda’s arms were numb with the weight of her shopping bags.

Marcus had reached her and took her bags. ‘Linda, this is Fiona my… um… an old friend. She… she’s just arrived from the UK.’

‘Old friend? Is that all I rate?’ She leant against Marcus’s shoulder, put an arm round his waist, smiling up at him proprietarily.

Marcus did not respond and moved away from her.

Fiona turned her attention to Linda. ‘Marcus has told me what you’ve done for him. It was awfully kind of you to put him up when he’d been thrown out into the street like that. I hope you don’t mind my just dropping in like this.’

Linda tried to catch Marcus’s eye, but he was busying himself putting away her shopping. She forced herself to smile at Fiona. ‘Not at all. This is Marcus’s home as much as mine. He pays half the rent.’

‘Great. So it’s all right if I stay a while? I can sleep in Marcus’s room. We’ve cuddled up in a single bed before, haven’t we, Marcus?’

Marcus had run out of shopping and rejoined them. ‘I can sleep on the couch.’

Fiona took his arm, his left arm. There was no wedding ring on the hand. ‘Don’t be such a fuddy-duddy, Marcus. We’ll manage.’

The smile had frozen on Linda’s face. The fantasy she had nurtured all the way home had crumbled. What was left to her but a gesture of defiance at the gods who had defeated her again? ‘There’s no need for that. Why don’t you two take my double bed? I’ll sleep in Marcus’s room.’

‘Oh Linda, that’s so kind of you,’ Fiona crooned. ‘I’ll just move my things.’ She disappeared into Marcus’s room.

Marcus swept his hands through his hair. ‘Linda, I’m so sorry.’

Linda’s eye was on his bare left hand. ‘There’s no need to be, Marcus. It’s as we agreed: No claims. No expectations.’

She cooked her gourmet meal that night. There was enough for three. But it had little flavour.

 

 

It was Saturday night and, glad to be on her own at last, Linda was settling down to watch The Bill, looking forward to participating in someone else’s melodrama for a change. The strain of smiling sweetly at Fiona, of pretending to be pleased when she announced that she had got a job and would now be able to contribute to the rent, had made the last week unbearable. The nights had been no better – lying awake listening to endless murmured discussions and slammed doors. Her only consolation had been to get up occasionally and find the lumpy, second-hand couch showing signs of having been slept on.

But just as The Bill’s theme tune was playing, the door bell pealed insistently. Her heart pounding, Linda warily drew back the blinds. Elaine was outside, hands on hips, mouth tight with anger. She was barely in the door before she started.

‘What the hell’s been going on, lass? I’m away for a week and you’ve let another woman into the house. Who is she, this… this Fiona?’ Elaine mimicked Fiona’s posh, southern accent, an accent that had never worried her when it came from Marcus.

Linda picked up the remote and turned off the TV. ‘When did you speak to Fiona?’

‘When I rang this afternoon to tell you I was back from Margaret River.’

‘How was it? Did you and Garry get your groove back?’

‘Don’t you go minding my groove, lass. What’s been happening here?’

Linda shrugged. ‘Nothing you couldn’t have predicted. Your little plan is just coming unstuck. Fiona is Marcus’s ex-girlfriend come to claim him back.’

Elaine sat down with a thud.

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ Linda asked, going into the kitchen to fill the kettle.

‘You’re taking this a bit too calmly, aren’t you?’

Linda plugged the kettle in and flipped the switch. ‘What choice do I have?’

‘And what about her? How can she stay here knowing…’

‘She doesn’t know. She thinks I’m just a friendly customer who offered Marcus my spare room when his last roommate threw him out.’

‘Who told her that?’

Linda shrugged.

‘You should tell her the truth.’

‘It’s not up to me, is it?’

Elaine had no answer. Into the silence fell the tinkle of keys and the turn of a lock. Fiona and Marcus weren’t due back for hours. Fiona had been determined to hit the nightspots after dinner. Fiona let the shock of encountering a strange face faze her for a fraction of a second before her smile beamed. ‘Oh, hello. I’m Fiona.’

Linda held her breath, but Elaine surprised her. ‘Fiona! How lovely to meet you. Linda was just telling me all about you. We spoke on the phone this afternoon.’

‘Elaine! Of course.’

Linda exchanged a quizzical look with Marcus. ‘You’re just in time for a cuppa.’

Marcus and Linda took little part in the chat over tea. Linda warily monitored Elaine and Fiona as they caught up on the latest news and fashions from the UK. Marcus stared into his mug.

‘Well,’ Elaine said at last, putting down her empty cup. ‘I must get going. I told my Garry I’d only be half an hour.’ She stood and offered Fiona her hand. ‘It was so nice meeting you, Fiona. It’s such a pity you couldn’t have got here earlier. Linda and Marcus would have loved to have you at their wedding.’ Elaine didn’t pause to let the bombshell register before she sailed out the door.

 

 

The door closed and there was silence. Fiona turned on Marcus. ‘What did she say?’

Marcus met her look. Linda could see his back straighten and his jaw stiffen. ‘She said Linda and I are married.’

Suddenly, Fiona had lost her aplomb. ‘You never said. I’ve been here a week and you never said.’

There was a steely glint in Marcus’s eye. ‘It was none of your business.’

‘None of my business. Damn you, Marcus. I came all this way and it’s none of my business?’ Fiona’s contralto was getting shrill.

‘I’m nothing to you. You made that perfectly clear.’

Fiona approached him. ‘My God, Marcus. I never said that.’

Marcus moved away. ‘You didn’t have to.’ His smile was hard and ironic. ‘The half naked man that answered your door said it all.’

‘That’s all it took? And you turned and ran?’

‘What was I supposed to do? Challenge him to a duel?’

‘You could’ve let me explain.’

‘Explain what? Why you’d been putting me off for months? Why you were always too busy to come down to London? Why you kept telling me there were no jobs for hairdressers in Aberdeen? I know I’m not as clever as you Fiona, but I worked all that out pretty quickly.’

‘Marcus, you’re not being fair.’ The sob in her voice was almost believable.

‘Fair? I gave up everything for you. My family, any chance at an education. Who’s not being fair?’

‘I never asked you to.’

‘You never had to. You always knew how to get your own way. And I was too young and stupid to see it.’

‘You told me it was because you loved me.’

‘Young and stupid, like I said.’

Fiona retreated and then caught a glimpse of Linda in the furthest corner of the kitchen. ‘But her? You married her?’ Her lip curled. ‘My God, Marcus, she’s an insult.’

Marcus stepped between them. ‘Shut up, Fiona. I told you. It’s none of your business.’

Fiona took an involuntary step back. ‘What’s happened to you, Marcus? She’s old enough to be your mother.’

‘That’s enough.’ He took a step forward.

Fiona had reached the couch. ‘You’re so pathetic. Is she the best you could do? It makes me wonder how I settled for you for as long as I did.’

Marcus stepped closer. ‘Shut up. Now.’

Linda shouted, ‘Stop it. Both of you.’

Fiona gave Marcus a triumphant grin. Marcus stepped away, his back still to Linda. Let her have her victory, Linda had had her own of sorts. ‘If you must know, Fiona, Marcus married me to stay in Australia. To get away from you, I gather.’ She approached Fiona. ‘Now I’ll thank you to get out of my house.’

Fiona looked from one to another with a dry laugh. ‘You are both so pathetic. Don’t you think Immigration could see right through you? Well, if they haven’t already, I’ll make sure they do.’

Fiona went into her room. Marcus and Linda waited motionless for her to emerge with a daypack. ‘If you don’t mind, I’ll come back in the morning for the rest of my things.’ The door slammed behind her.

 

 

Marcus picked up the empty cups and put them in the sink. Then he turned towards her, though he didn’t catch her eye. ‘I’m sorry you had to hear that. I’d forgotten how vindictive she could be.’

Linda leant against the kitchen bench taking a deep breath. ‘You don’t see the flaws when you’re in love.’

‘Is that what it was?’ He turned and looked out the window. ‘After all that, I guess I owe you an explanation at least.’ Linda waited. Marcus turned back, bracing himself against the bench.

He smiled grimly. ‘You know those soap operas you always make fun of. Well, ours was worse than that, but when you’re in it…’ He took a deep breath. ‘How could you understand? Your family is so different from mine…’

He seemed to drift off to a distant place. Linda waited for him to come back.

‘My parents divorced when I was eight. Dad remarried twice, Mum once, but she’s left him and I don’t know who she’s living with now. I’ve got two half-brothers and a half-sister, three step-brothers and one step-sister, Fiona.’

He turned back to the sink, ran water over the cups, wiped them, rinsed them and put them on the drainer. Linda didn’t stir. He picked up the tea towel to dry his hands. Then pulled it out of shape as he continued.

‘Dad married Fiona’s mother when I was fifteen and she was fourteen. My mother had just had her first child with her second husband. For some reason… he and I didn’t get on. He threw me out.’

Marcus folded the tea towel over and over. Linda wondered how anyone could throw him out of the house. Or perhaps it wasn’t so surprising that a grown man would be jealous of a beautiful young boy. Jealous, or desirous?

‘Dad took me in. On sufferance, I think. I guess what happened next was inevitable.’

Linda could imagine all those raging hormones in the intimacy of a suburban house.

Marcus almost smiled. ‘When they found out, I was out on my ear again. I’d meant to go to art school, but I got a hairdressing apprenticeship instead. Fiona though, she went to university, did Engineering. Her father put her through. I think it was more to spite my father than anything else. In London, so we lived together right through.’ He shook his head. ‘Strange to think of it now.’ He shrugged. ‘But we were in love… Well, I was.’

Linda did wonder how their relationship could have survived, he surrounded by women all day, she by all those macho engineers. How much had Marcus really known about what she was up to? To what lengths would Fiona have gone to hold on to her prize?

‘But then when she graduated, the only work she could get was up in Aberdeen, working on the North Sea oil fields. We were going to commute, we were going to see each other every fortnight at the outside, and we did… for a while… until Fiona started getting too busy to come down, or to have me up there.’

Linda could almost tell the rest of the story for him.

‘Then one weekend, it was her birthday, I got someone to cover for me. I thought I’d surprise her.’ The irony brought a grim smile to his face. He shrugged. ‘I think you caught the rest.’

A silence as thick as treacle fell over the room. Linda’s arms wanted to reach out to him. Tentatively she let go her grip on the bench behind her, willed her foot to take that first step.

Then the telephone rang. They both jumped. Instinctively, Linda dived for it as the only way to silence it.

‘Yes.’

‘It’s me, lass. Has she gone yet?’

‘Yes, but I can’t talk now.’

‘Yey! I did it. You see, it wasn’t so hard.’

‘Can we talk about this later, Elaine?’

‘Ooh, I see. You get back to it, lass. I’ll see you on Monday.’

Linda hung up the phone and turned back, but Marcus had gone. She could hear him moving around in the bedroom. He came out holding an overnight bag.

‘Wh-where are you going?’

‘I’ve put you through enough.’

‘There’s no need to go, not right now.’ Not now that she’d finally got up the courage.

Marcus kept moving towards the door. ‘I’d rather not be here when she comes back for her things. Could you give me a call at the salon, let me know when she’s been? I’ll come back for the rest of my things then. I’ll leave the key on the table.’

‘Where will you go?’

‘Clive will put me up.’

There was so much she wanted to say, so much she wanted to do, but there seemed no point now.

He opened the door, then half turned back. ‘I’m so sorry. You’ve been so kind and I just bring you… all this.’ He walked out and closed the door behind him.

Linda collapsed on the lumpy couch, feeling too drained even to cry.

 

Five

 

Linda drew the letter out of her handbag for the tenth time that morning and looked at the crest of the Department of Immigration in the corner. She had been through so much for this, had looked forward to it so much, and now it was worthless. Whatever it said, it could make no difference.

‘You trying to read it with your x-ray vision, lass?’

Linda slipped the letter under her calculator.  Elaine came and stood by her desk.

‘Please, Elaine. We agreed.’

‘Yes, lass. And I’ve kept mum these last two months, watching you go about like a bad-tempered wombat.’

‘Well, it’s over now.’

‘Are you so sure it’s a no?’

‘Fiona will have made sure it is.’

Elaine pulled up a chair and took Linda’s hand. ‘Why are you letting him go so easily, lass? When all it would take is for you to pop down to Desideratum and take him aside.’

‘And tell him what?’

‘That you love him. That you’ve missed him terribly.’

Linda wiped a tear from her cheek. ‘It’s not that easy, Elaine.’

‘Why not? You’ve a tongue in your head, haven’t you?’

‘What would be the point when I know what his answer would be?’

‘You may have convinced yourself of that, but not me.’

Linda clenched her teeth. ‘Well, it’s not up to you, is it?’

Elaine stood up, angry. ‘I’ve got a good mind to go down there myself and have a word with him.’

‘You won’t though, will you?’

‘I’ve made my promise and I’ll abide by it, but under protest.’

Elaine walked away and Linda put the letter back.

 

 

Desideratum was a cool oasis in a desert of hot pavement, the underlying acrid aroma of hair products adding a sharp edge to the coolness. Marcus’s dark head was visible above the busy, lunch-time bustle.

‘My goodness, Linda. Look at you. It’s about time you came in.’

‘I don’t have an appointment today, Clive’

‘Family doesn’t need an appointment.’ Clive pecked her on the cheek.

‘I’m not stopping.’ She thrust the letter into his hand. ‘Could you give this to Marcus?’

Clive peered at the envelope and put it back in her hand. ‘Come with me.’

‘Clive…’

‘Come with me.’ And, without a glance behind, Clive led her to the back of the salon. ‘I’ll finish off Mrs Freeman, Marcus. You take Linda upstairs.’ They both stood indecisively. ‘Now!’ Clive shepherded them towards the backdoor, leaving them no escape route.

Marcus led Linda up the narrow staircase to the staff lounge. For a moment they stood, looking at each other. Linda took in every fondly remembered line of him. Marcus smiled at her diffidently. ‘Would you like to sit down?’

‘No. I tried to tell Clive. I’m not stopping. I just came to give you this.’

He took the envelope from her but made no move to open it. ‘How have you been?’

‘Fine. And you?’

‘Well, thank you.’

‘Where have you been staying?’

‘With Clive. He said I may as well until I got this and could make plans.’

‘What are your plans? I mean, if that says no.’

He shrugged. ‘I guess I’ll go back to the UK.’

‘Right. Well, if you do go I’ll need your address. So I can serve the divorce papers.’

Marcus’s brows knitted. ‘Divorce?… Of course. If that’s what you want.’

No, no, she wanted to shout. It’s the last thing I want, but what would be the point in staying married to you if I’m never going to see you again? Instead she shrugged and said, ‘It seems the most sensible thing to do. I’ll just say goodbye then and wish you good luck.’

If it had been anyone else she would have given him a hug and a kiss, but she dare not even shake Marcus’s hand. He seemed to understand and made no move towards her, but he held her with his gaze. Reluctantly she drew herself away, and headed down the stairs.

At the landing she stopped and gripped the banister. Her unspoken words echoed in her head. I’m never going to see you again. They opened a gaping hole in her stomach. If she was never going to see him again, what did she have to lose? She could just go in, say her piece then turn around and walk away. She needn’t even wait for Marcus’s reaction.

She turned on unsteady legs, and, clinging to the banister, dragged herself back up the stairs, blurting out as soon as she got to the top, ‘Marcus I can’t let you go, not without saying…’

As she was speaking she registered Marcus reading the letter, a broad smile on his face. He looked up at her. ‘Saying what?’

‘Is it a yes?’

He nodded.

‘But Fiona?’

‘There was nothing she could do. Our marriage played no part in my application.’

Dumbfounded, Linda walked into the room. ‘What? I don’t understand.’

He held out his hand to her. ‘Come and sit down. And promise you’ll listen to me.’

‘Don’t I always?’

‘No, you never have.’

He sat her down on the couch beside him, took her hand, holding it as though trying to keep her in place rather than as a caress, and handed her the letter.

‘It seems I was misinformed in London. Hairdressers are on the list of skilled occupations. The caseworker noticed it when we went in for our interviews. He persuaded me to change my application. He said it was much more likely to succeed.’

Linda wasn’t sure how to take this. Had she been taken advantage of? But how? ‘So you didn’t have to stay with me?’

‘No.’

‘Then why did you?’

‘Because I wanted to.’

Linda searched his face for his meaning.

‘Did you really think I’d only married you to stay in Australia?’

‘Wh-why else would you marry me?’

He stroked the hand he held between his own. ‘What do you think?’

He was looking at her fondly. She shook her head. ‘What everyone else must think. What Fiona thinks. I’m not right for you. I’m so much older and I’m no beauty. And you are so…’

Marcus shook his head. ‘Fiona was just trying to provoke me. And she succeeded. If you hadn’t stopped me…’ With a long finger he combed her hair back from her forehead and then ran it down her cheek. ‘You know,’ he said with a grin, ‘if there’s one thing I’ve learnt in hairdressing it’s that a lady is never over twenty-five.’ And then his expression turned grave. ‘And another is the true nature of beauty. With those eyes and skin and hair… beauty is what you have.’

Overcome, Linda turned away. ‘I can’t… you can’t…’

Marcus sighed and lifted her chin towards him. ‘Haven’t I made myself clear yet? I love you. I’ve always loved you, and I married you because I wanted to. Is that understood?’

Linda shook her head.

‘Well then,’ Marcus said, lifting off her glasses. ‘Let’s try this.’

As his lips touched hers, Linda felt as though a brick wall was collapsing inside her. One small section of it bore up, but, as though, sensing it, Marcus held her closer, and the last brick toppled over.

 

© Pauline Montagna 2016

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