The birthday boy

Published in the Cardigan Press anthology Normal Service Will Resume in 2003

journal cover
How can I describe Hilary's husband? He's not my friend exactly, we're not close enough for friendship, although I know quite intimate details about him. We are more than acquaintances certainly, (there is a professional connection) but less than friends although my good feelings towards him are genuine and I know he likes me. I can even understand how she prefers him to me although she insists that it isn't like that. That there is no point comparing us because that's not what it's about. Well, I think, what is it about then?

They must talk about me from time to time and I have to wonder what she says about me. How I come up in conversation. And how much he knows, for instance, of the intimate details of my life that I reveal when Hilary and I are replete, no longer coiled and anxious, waiting for a chance to be alone. Does he know my deepest fears, my strangest quirks? Sometimes I wonder if he knows and even consents to what is going on between us. It's not entirely improbable. Although the way she worries puts paid to that. She's very cautious, even a little paranoid at times, you could say. Jumpy and nervous.

I am always amazed at how different we are, Jack and I, although I don't know why I should be surprised.

Sensitive is a word I'd use to describe him, I suppose. He's a kind man, someone you would trust to keep your secrets close. I know she loves him. But I know too that he can't do for her what I can. He can't push her to the edge. When I've got her, she's like a child in a dark forest, wide-eyed and fretful, the capacity for rational thought has gone. She forgets herself. Really. The successful fund manager is adrift, the sleek and obsessively tidy woman becomes, at last, dishevelled and fragmented. I am able to dismantle her in a way that I know he never could. He's not ruthless enough. He's not selfish like that. My ex-wife calls me a control freak and maybe she's right. I like it best when Hilary has lost her will.

Of course she doesn't want that kind of disarray all the time. How can you possibly live like that, a slave to your baser instincts, out of touch with reality. With him she can maintain order and with it, a high degree of comfort. Perhaps between us, we are the right man for her. She can swing between one extreme and the other able to find refuge in the mere act of movement.

Last night, he and I went out to dinner. Well, actually, in truth he took me out to dinner for my birthday. Forty two. Not exactly an age that is cause for celebration. More one for consolation. I know that he is a few years older than I am and therefore he could anticipate the discomfort that descends on such occasions. He knows also that I would have been alone that evening because since I left my second wife, I spend most evenings alone. They both well know these details about me and have in the past taken me in like a sad little orphan, to share a meal and watch some TV.

I am their architect. And in my way I have helped construct their lives together as much as either one of them. In the designs for the current house they have requested an extra bedroom. Fair enough. They want a large kitchen too, they are keen on many windows because of the bush setting and the views of the valley. They want a studio each, places to retreat from each other. She told me that when he was sick, she trained herself to revel in solitude, believing that he was soon to die and part of her, in a way, had let him go prematurely which always made him seem a little absent to her, a little hazy.

When it comes to the design detail of the house, I have always dealt more with Hilary than her husband, who trusts her judgement and taste implicitly. In the various requests she makes she reveals the rhythm of their lives to me. In the plans I draw, I plot their movements from room to room. I often find myself staring at the plans, creating scenarios, arranging the three of us in various tableaux. Plotting. Placing myself in the third bedroom as a semi-permanent fixture, my role unclear and unspoken. Why not? I've proven myself incapable of an ordinary relationship, whatever that is. But this is just my private fantasy.

If I was design a space for the two of us there would be one room and no doors or windows. There would be no escaping each other. I would want to hold her captive for as long as possible.

It's obvious to me what Hilary sees in Jack. There is no pretence about him, he doesn't make a big deal of things. For instance he took me to a modest Greek restaurant in his old neighbourhood, the one where he grew up, and paid without fanfare. I would have taken him, if the tables had been turned, somewhere more pricey, more showy. And I would have invited other people and ordered a cake, bought presents, made speeches. That's how we differ. I have a tendency towards overstatement and a certain theatricality while he is restrained and subtle. I often go too far and I envy this naturally modest way he has. This ability to avoid stage management.

It was quite cosy at dinner, just the two of us. Hilary was working interstate and originally had intended to come, but had to cancel at the last minute. She rang and told me first and then Jack rang me.

'It's just us blokes tonight, mate. I hope you don't mind?' he said in his earthy straightforward way.

'Not at all,' I said, and it was the truth. In a way I preferred it. If ever the three of us are together I always have a sense that he can see the hungry way I look at her. It makes me tense, self-conscious. I am constantly monitoring my actions, editing my words, anticipating how my facial expressions might appear. I don't want him to see the sting of it rising to the surface and blistering through to my skin like a rash. I was on the brink of cancelling, actually, claiming the onset of flu, when she rang to tell me that she was at the airport and wouldn't make it and I must say, I was relieved.

So it was just the two of us. I hoped for a chance to hear more about her in her natural setting, something I like to do, in the guise of professional interest, but really it's so that I can torment myself with fantasies of what it might be like to be in Jack's place. We have been on illicit trips to the supermarket together once or twice, she and I, tantalising little excursions that bring on a sharp twinge thinking of what cannot be, that we'll never stand in the breakfast cereal aisle discussing the merits of different brands of muesli. It is the minutiae, the incidental elements of such a life that fill me with yearning almost until my skin burns. He's a lucky man, my lover's husband, and I know he takes these things for granted as anyone would, whereas I dream about them, crave them. In a way I take the sex for granted, knowing that it must fade at which time we will be left with nothing, instead of decisions about kitchen tiles or the types of blinds we will have installed. For us there will be no such fall back position. There will be no steady companionship waiting at the end of all this, just a flatline and memory.

'So, Will, how're things with Elena?' Jack asked, as we plunged pitta bread into saucers of mixed dips.

Elena is my second and most problematic wife and Jack knows the long tedious story of our break-up and the constant battles over the children and assets. Jack and Hilary have no children and this makes their lives uncomplicated in a way that I think they are hardly aware of. It has an emotional smoothness that I'm sure they don't appreciate. They never have the shrill sound of a small child rupturing their thoughts and conversations, reducing everything to an erratic staccato of urgent but trivial needs for which your own must be forsaken. They can share elongated afternoons in silence, reading, thinking, pottering in the garden. No discordant wailing and shrieking for them, the horror of bodily fluids and mashed food has no bearing on their lives.

Each weekend I am able to forget Hilary by turning my attention to my two small children. It's one kind of unrequited love replaced with another. Their mother has made them suspicious and unco-operative. They eye me with trepidation as if she has warned them to be careful. It takes several hours to win them over each time I see them. I have to work so hard at it that Hilary vacates my mind for a while. On weeknights when I am alone, I mull over the mistakes, fear for the future and wonder what will become of me.

I told Jack that Elena has been more accommodating lately and less snarling, which makes me think perhaps she is on sedatives or might, at last, be seeing someone.

'Mate, I've learnt one thing in life about women, and that is they always, without fail, do the opposite of what you expect them to,' Jack said.

'That's so true,' I said, 'I go there expecting world war three and there's nothing. The next week I'm all smiles and she's screaming at me before I'm even out of the car. Explain that,'

'Mate, I can't,' said Jack, 'It's a mystery to me too.'

'But Hilary,' I said, being careful to sound as neutral as possible when I say her name so he can't hear the tremble of desire in my voice, 'Hilary seems quite normal to me.'

'Oh, she has her days, believe me, at that time of the month, don't you worry, brother,' said Jack.

'But she doesn't get hysterical,' I suggest, 'Does she?' 'No mate, she doesn't,' said Jack, lapping up the last of the dip with a triangle of bread, 'Thank the lord, she's not the hysterical type.'

My thoughts immediately went to the conversation she and I had, sheltering below the bridge on that rainy night last year. Hilary's face was red, her eyes puffed and her cheeks glistening with the steady, panting flow of tears. Her grey suit was stained with raindrops, her black hair had come loose from its bun.

'Don't think you're the only one who's in pain,' she said through halting gasps, 'How do you think it is for me? There's nothing I can do that won't hurt someone. So you tell me what I should choose? Whatever happens. I lose. It's a lose lose situation.' And she let out a derisive little snort.

I stood a few feet away from her but I wanted to be near, holding her, keeping her impossible choices wrapped tightly to her, so that they would never burst free. But we were in public and it wasn't wise. Earlier I had described myself to her, complainingly, as 'the man in the shadows' and true to my name, there I was, in the shadow of a pilon with more than an inkling of how this would end. I felt some quiet perverse pride, nonetheless, that I had stirred Jack's seamlessly cool wife to such heights of emotion. And I accepted my place - standing dumb and patient like a servant boy.

Jack had ordered lamb rack and I decided on the calamari, rubbery little rings of deep fried squid. The first one was chewy and tough but I persisted slowly to eat the whole plateful for Jack's sake, so as not to seem ungrateful. I wasn't really hungry at all. I was more interested in drinking, but I had to drive home so I restrained myself. There was a bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge that I could finish when I got home and I consoled myself with that thought.

There were times when I wanted to tell him what had been going on if only to show him how much she loved him. That despite the lure of our particularly intoxicating intimacy, she had rejected it in favour of life with him. But to say that would have been an act of sheer vandalism on my part. And lives so elegantly ordered cannot be disrupted in such a way. Yet for as long as I can remember I've had to fight this capacity I have for senseless destruction. Learning how to design and build houses has been part of that struggle, a way of atoning for the more devastating acts. Maybe, having reached my forties I am able to avert these terrible impulses, Hilary and I being a case in point.

Between courses I looked more carefully at Jack's face and could see how the illness had made him more gaunt than he had been in the pictures I'd seen of their earlier life when he was almost plump, his features quite cherubic, his eyes bluer, his lips more full.

He was in remission now, she'd told me, but it could strike again at any time. This spectre loomed over them and had almost become a third party, she said. Would that make me the fourth, I wanted to ask, but didn't. So many silent partners in this marriage of theirs. One couldn't help wonder about any others that even I didn't know about. What might the third bedroom be all about, for instance?

His hair was clipped close and the grey made it seem velvety. I wanted to touch it. His eyes were crinkled in the corners as if he had spent more time in life smiling than not despite the physical pain that he had been through. He looked fit and told me he ran five kms every other day, although his knee was starting to cause him trouble.

I thought that we were utterly different looking men too, him tall and elongated, me stocky, nuggetty, more eye to eye with Hilary. When he put his arm around her it looked like an almost paternal, protective gesture. I often found myself wanting to press hard against her so that it felt as if we were merging. I wanted to graft myself onto her whereas he appeared to offer her a safe haven.

A waiter came and cleared the empty plates and Jack asked me about romance. It had been a few years since I left Elena and I suppose it was reasonable to assume that there was a woman in my life. I shrugged.

'There must be someone by now, mate,' he said.
'Well, actually, there is,' I said, 'But she's married.'
His eyebrows shot up.
'They're the best kind mate, no danger of getting in too deep with a married woman,' he said.
'No,' I said, 'that's right. Easy to get out of it really. There are more arguments against adultery than for it, if you know what I mean.'
'Unless she's looking for an escape hatch,' he said.
'Not this one,' I said, 'She's happy.'
'Still, you have to ask yourself if she's happy what's she doing having affairs.'
'You do, I suppose, wonder that.'
'Any kids?'
'No, no kids. And that's it for me and kids too. No more,' I said, slicing my hand through the air like a guillotine.

He sat back and sipped some of the Retsina we had been drinking and looked at me almost fondly.

'Life's complicated, huh,' he said.
'Very,' I said.
He raised his glass and said; 'Anyway, mate. Happy birthday.'
'Thanks Jack,' I said, 'I really appreciate it.'
And I meant it. I was grateful that he had thoughts for how I might be feeling on my 42nd birthday. He played absently with his napkin and smiled at me.
'Well,' he said, 'will we ever get to meet this mystery woman?'
'I doubt it,' I said, 'Under the circumstance, we can't really socialise together.'
'Of course,' he winked, 'as long as you're happy, mate, that's the main thing.'

'He's a good man,' I said to Hilary when we spoke on the phone later that night.
'I know that,' she said, a little impatient with me.
'He's sensitive, you know,' I said.
'Of course,' she said. Then there was silence on the line for a while.
I could hear the rhythm of her breathing change and shorten at the other end and then that sharp little wet gasp that I knew so well.

'Talk to me Hilary,' I said.

I heard another gasp. She cleared her throat and told me to hold on.

I looked at the plans before me on the desk and started to think about that extra bedroom and whether or not it was in the right place and if it really required the extravagance of an en suite. I started to draw a re configuration of the layout on a piece of paper while I waited.

In the background I could hear a muffled conversation, and then the sound of the door closing. It was a while before she came back to the phone. Enough time anyway to prepare myself for what was to come and to accept it without argument, as I knew I would have to since that night under the bridge.

Nothing good ever happens on my birthday, it's true, which is why I usually like to let the day pass without fanfare and try to treat it just like any other day, which is exactly what I should have done this time too and simply cancelled the dinner altogether.