Jack has been hopelessly in love with Ava since they met at university at the age of 18. He is now in his mid-forties. Until the meeting in the excerpt below, he had not seen Ava for fifteen years – although he had thought and dreamed of her on a daily basis. As well, with Jack in the Asia-Pacific region and Ava in Oxford, the two of them have maintained contact through weekly letters.
The meeting occurs at Ava’s home in Melbourne. Ava and her husband Harry have returned home after 25 years in Oxford. Also at the gathering are two other old friends from university: celebrity philosopher, Conrad Lyall, and molecular biologist Helen Rankin, who, together with Ava, co-hosted the fondue lunch way back in 1980s Oxford to which Harry turned up uninvited – and never really left.
There comes a time in a life of intense and enduring emotion that it secretes a sort of chloroform. To break the pattern is to wake up under the anaesthetic and it is terrifying. Jack’s love was under threat as he sat in Harry and Ava’s home watching their perfect duet. She passed food, he poured wine; she went for another bottle, he uncorked it; he called her ‘Davey’, she called him ‘Oak’. And all those fond nudges and casual caresses as they went about their hostly duties. And a shorthand communication of gestures and eye movements, and words used so sparingly they might be grains of caviar.
What about me? Jack was thinking. What about me? as he watched the two of them so easy together.
Sex was partly to blame. Never had he been able to imagine Ava and Harry in bed together – not simply because he didn’t want to put Harry where he himself had so briefly been, rather he could not imagine the pale and flaccid Harry Guerin pumping his seed into anyone. Yet within weeks of the fondue brunch, Helen had reported that Harry was an overnight fixture at the flat.
Jack had been incredulous. ‘Surely not for sex.’
‘The walls are thin, Jack, paper thin. And believe me, they’re not discussing Shakespeare.’
Jack refused to accept that aspect of their relationship lasted very long, and when in her letters Ava clearly referred to her bedroom as clearly a separate space from Harry’s, Jack found the proof he needed to relegate Harry to a marital twilight zone, a sexual no-man’s land. But when he eliminated sex from the marriage, he tossed out all other intimacy as well.
There was no avoiding it now.
He tried to screen Harry out, to focus only on Ava, but she was strange to him. He did not doubt the truth of his Ava, the Ava of his thoughts and imaginings, nor did he doubt the reality of the woman who sat so close he could reach out and touch her. It was more that the two realities were fundamentally different, like the United States is different from Nigeria. As he tried to scramble out of his confusion, he found himself wondering how it might be to live without this love. He felt the possibility like a man losing his footing high above an abyss, a moment of doubt, a moment of falling, a mere flicker and then it was gone. (Reunion, p. 20-21)
Conrad Lyall is a celebrity philosopher, who has lived in the U.S. for the past twenty years. He is an attractive man, a serial-marrier who has also had numerous affairs. He comes across as very assured, a successful man who is at ease with himself. In the excerpt below, the reader learns of a different side to Conrad – Connie – as he tries to steady himself before a lecture to his home-town crowd.
Conrad Lyall was churning in the wings of the auditorium. He was accustomed to nerves before a lecture, the extra adrenalin charged up his performance and he had learned to capitalise on it, but tonight he was more jittery than usual. Melbourne might be located well off the world stage but home always demands more of you. There was family out there, his mother in particular, his ever-supportive mother who from the moment of his birth had set out to make something of her son. Even now, an old woman in her eighties, she would remind him he had been named after the great Joseph Conrad – more a reflection of her own youthful desires to be a novelist, Connie had long believed, than anything she might have observed in her infant son. His sweet, hungry mother who had channelled all her passions into her only child, so that in the patchy night hours when work and mothering were finished, it was a sour whine which dribbled from her pen. She had always been burdened with more aspiration than talent when it concerned her own ambitions, but in the case of her son she had long been convinced he had lived up to his name.
His mother was in the audience, together with old friends and acquaintances. Over drinks he had mingled with former colleagues – they’d certainly be watching his performance tonight – as well as two former students who had done rather well for themselves. There were snipers out there too, Connie knew exactly who they were, academics who had been quick to target him as all charm and artifice twenty years ago and had used the time since to practise their punches. Connie had long been aware that reputation was considerably less sturdy than he would like, but with his career now well-established surely it would take more than a lecture to a home crowd and a few bitter philosophers to topple the cumulative effects of twenty years’ work.
And Sara was out there too. He peered around the wings. Sara, ‘it rhymes with tiara’, was in the fifth row on the aisle and already on friendly terms with her neighbour. All glossy brown skin in her skimpy black dress, he definitely wanted to impress her.
It was a part of Australian folklore that expatriates only returned home when they were on the wane in the wider more important world. But his star had never been brighter. He had been attracting huge crowds both here and in the States; even the Europeans now acknowledged him. Such suspicion attached to popularity, yet in his own case there was no reason for popularity to condemn him as lightweight. If there was a problem, and he was unsure whether there was, it lay with the well-known collegiate capacity for envy. For the fact remained that while he might be tired and unduly anxious, and yes, he was very popular, irrespective of what some of his dryer colleagues might think, popularity did not rule out a serious and significant contribution. Dickens had been popular, Russell too, and Einstein had been a celebrity. Not to mention the de Bottons and Shamas of his own age – although he harboured the same doubts about them as he did about himself. (Reunion, p. 66-67)