Breakfast at Bethany’s (Craig Billingham)

Turpentine is a type of tree. How could Martin not have known? He’d lived in Bamberg for eleven years – he should have known.

‘It’s true,’ Anne said, expansively, her eyes widening as she spoke.

‘Turpentine forests surrounded Sydney, before European settlement. That’s how it was.’

Martin was a retired accountant, but even so. He knew the smell well enough, knew it from the half-used bottle in his shed, from numerous times cleaning paint brushes, forearms, fingers and palms.

He could have summoned the smell to his nose, to his throat, but in so doing he would have looked quite odd, foolish even, and so he resisted the temptation. Pride, that’s what it was – gets its teeth into you at an early age, or doesn’t.

They were chatting over breakfast at Bethany’s, Anne’s favourite café. This was the third occasion in four weeks, after being introduced by a mutual acquaintance. Initially, neither had taken kindly to the idea.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ had been Martin’s first response.

The acquaintance was Peter Taylor. Peter, from the golf club, perhaps the greatest of the non-playing members – he could have a drink with anyone.

‘A retired academic?’ Martin said. ‘No, nothing in common. Thankyou, but no, and I doubt she’d have an interest in the likes of me.’

‘Don’t be so sure,’ said Peter. ‘There are all sorts of perverts in the world – age shall not weary them.

That was Peter for you. He owned the TyreMart in town, though by now the place was managed by his twin sons, George and Michael – that had gone down well at school, especially during roll call. Bright boys, inherited their father’s entrepreneurial spirit, but not his graft. Big plans for a carwash, apparently.

‘In which discipline?’ Martin asked, thinking it couldn’t do any harm.

‘Discipline?’ Peter replied. ‘No one said anything about discipline. You kinky old bastard.’

‘Department,’ Martin said. ‘Subject. What was her area?’

‘French,’ replied Peter. ‘So you never know.’

Martin and Jean, his dearly departed, had several times holidayed in France. On their final visit, some fifteen years ago, they rented a farmhouse in Provence. The children joined them for the first ten days, his son with his then fiancé, followed for the remainder by Jean’s younger sister and her family. By then, he and Jean had grown hopeless at being alone.
‘I rather like the smell of turpentine,’ Martin ventured. ‘It makes your cheeks blush.’

‘And your brain,’ Anne responded, tilting her head for some unknown reason.

Anne wasn’t one for mind-altering substances. Even as a student – she’d graduated in 1971, for goodness sake – she’d stayed away from serious drugs, and certainly during her career at the university.

Marijuana but never chemicals, not even after she’d met Serge in Marseille and married him in Lyon. Serge – how apt a name: into her life and out the other side.

Anne smiled at Martin as she finished her cup of coffee. God knows she might have used something stronger, what with the trouble she was having with her daughter. Her daughter’s partner, more precisely, the way she spoke to Sabine and the children. The woman was a bully.

‘One of these days we should go on a bushwalk,’ Martin said.

Anne did not respond.

‘I said, one of these days we should go on a bushwalk. To Narrow Neck, for example. See if we can’t find those trees.’

‘Sorry,’ replied Anne. ‘I was miles away.’

She hoped she hadn’t offended Martin, hoped he’d sympathise with the way one gets carried away by one’s own thoughts, one’s preoccupations – one’s life. They were still new to each other, after all, had gone down only a layer or two, and so remained blessedly unrevealed.

‘A bushwalk?’ Anne said. ‘Goodness, I haven’t been on a bushwalk in years.’

‘Beautiful out there in winter,’ Martin assured her. ‘On a sunny day.’

Just the previous week Martin had taken his grandson on a bushwalk. They’d made it all the way to Mt Solitary. Stood together on the hump, looking back towards Bamberg, over the tops of trees, Martin doing his best with the local history. The boy had been patient and curious, for a twelve year old.

‘I’d not thought of bushwalking,’ Anne said. ‘Wouldn’t want to get caught out there alone.’

‘No chance of that,’ said Martin. ‘Fresh air, and good for the balance.’
Things were going well – Martin could feel it – so why not press on, take another step? They were enjoying each other, like adolescents with age-spots and pre-crimped skin, but infinitely more interesting. They had so much to avoid talking about.

‘It’s my turn to pay,’ Anne said.

Already? Martin thought. He had no further plans, and now the day would re-commence too quickly. Perhaps the club in the afternoon, though that would mean fielding Peter’s questions. He put himself together – keys, phone, coat, scarf – and went to wait outside, his collar turned against the wind. He paid attention to the door, opening it twice for an indecisive young woman and her tremendous stroller.

‘Thankyou,’ Anne said, joining Martin on the footpath.

‘No,’ said Martin. ‘Thankyou. For breakfast. For everything.’

‘You’re welcome,’ Anne said.

‘Same time next week?’ Martin asked.

‘Next week’s difficult,’ Anne replied.

It wasn’t that she wanted to drive to Sydney to look after her daughter’s children, but Sabine’s partner had arranged three nights in Melbourne, and their father couldn’t – or wouldn’t – have them during the week. A show, dinner, and God knows what else. Frankly, Anne hoped the rapprochement wouldn’t work. The woman was a bully.

‘The week after next?’ Anne said.

She leant forward to kiss Martin on the cheek, held his elbow for a second longer than she’d done the time before, and then she walked off in the direction of her car.

Martin didn’t leave, not immediately. He watched Anne disappear around the corner, and then he watched for a little while longer. What was going on? Even now, green shoots? Such capacity for renewal, such localised forgetting – how much more of this would they be granted? It’s ridiculous, and it keeps on being so. The way life might spring and lunge, in spite of itself, like a bull for the heart.

craig-billinghamCraig Billingham’s poems, stories and reviews have appeared widely, including in Meanjin, Australian Book Review, Southerly, and Review of Australian Fiction. A collection of poems, Storytelling, was published in 2007. He is a Doctor of Arts candidate at the University of Sydney.