The Love Scene
(Craig Billingham)

Verity La Lies to Live By

Cameron got out of bed in a manner that would not disturb his wife. He stepped into a pair of flip-flops and put on a blue shirt, the one he’d worn the previous day. He exited the room.

‘Close the door,’ Inés grumbled.

So much for good intentions.

Dawn, the house lit as through a jeweller’s loupe. Birdsong, or birdcalls, a partially opened window.

In the kitchen he drank a glass of water, as he did each morning. Filled the jug and turned it on, set two mugs on the bench-top, then went to take a piss. He used to piss first thing, but that seemed to require too little discipline, too little self-restraint. Discipline is important for a writer; hadn’t someone told him that, once upon a time? A mentor perhaps, or a tutor?

Cameron made tea for himself — Inés would sleep, or try to sleep, for a little longer. He took his mug of tea to his writing room. ‘Writing room’ may sound grand, but a writing room is what it was, what it had been those past two years, since the minor renovation. Three square metres at the front of the house, a desk with a lamp and a coaster, a pewter tankard filled with pens, a laptop on a stand above its mouse and keyboard, a tray of papers, mostly drafts and notes, in their purgatory. Also on the shelves — in the higher reaches, unimpeachable — were books and journals, in which some of his poems and stories had appeared.

He sat down, opened his laptop, double-clicked the story he’d been working on for several days. In truth it was only the stirrings of a story, an outline and some random notes, though with sufficient time and effort something might come of it: apply pressure until the plates begin to shift. He started to read. Rather forebodingly, the story’s working title was Precipice. He grimaced: where had that come from? And was he now obliged to include an ice pick? A walk in the snow, with appropriate musings — regrets like snowflakes settled on her shoulders, weighing her down, down — culminating in a fall? He couldn’t see how that would work. Precipice concerned a young woman and a young man coming to the end of their relationship, adrift, unanchored, their lives eminently unresolved. It was pathetic, really, to be writing about people half his age; he was wallowing in despond, the hippo in the room.

‘A cup of tea?’ said Inés.

Instinctively Cameron reached out and closed the laptop. Later — weeks, months — he would ask Inés to read a draft of Precipice, or whatever it would be called, but for now she mustn’t see a word. He stood and followed her, until their paths forked at the end of the hallway. On reaching the kitchen he doubled back to fetch his mug.

 

Inés was sitting up in bed, reading Elena Ferrante. She was on book two already, only three days after starting the four-book series. Cameron had always been struck by how quickly Inés read. Did she not appreciate how long it must have taken Ferrante to write those novels, not to mention the time invested by her translator? Years, he hoped, decades even — where did writers find their stamina? Their resilience? Perhaps he wasn’t cut out for a writer’s life. He should have done a Master’s of Publishing instead of Creative Writing, followed by an MBA, applied himself to the business of literature, the ecosystem, rather than trying to work up his own quite meagre, localised algal bloom.

‘Cameron?’ Inés said for the second time.

‘Sorry,’ he replied.

He placed Inés’s tea on the bedside table.

‘Good morning?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ he answered, as brightly as he could manage. ‘Did I wake you?’

‘No,’ said Inés. ‘I had to let Pablo out.’

The geriatric cat was beside her on the bed, grooming ineffectively, covering itself with mackerel scented saliva. Neither he nor Inés had the heart to lock him out of the bedroom overnight, not even on being warned of a parasite that migrates from cat intestine to human brain, rendering a person incapable of coherent thought. A ludicrous story, Inés thought, and anyway, wouldn’t losing one’s marbles — an expression she’s come to love — be a reasonable price to pay for the years of companionable solitude?

‘Which train are you catching?’ he asked.

‘The later one,’ replied Inés.

For the past three years, since selling her flat in Croydon in order that they could afford to buy a cottage in Bamberg, in the upper Blue Mountains, Inés had commuted four days per week. It was an exhausting journey, ninety minutes each way between home and the office in Parramatta. On the train she replied to emails, read case files, had thoughts she rarely shared with anyone. Something would have to give: they would need to find a new arrangement.

Cameron left Inés alone with Pablo and Ferrante. He would prepare breakfast — boiled eggs and soldiers — and deliver Inés to the train at 8.15.

 

It was his normal practice to write, or try to write, until midday, leaving the afternoon for chores and research, or reading, to use its common name, but at 11.15 the doorbell rang. He assumed it would be one of his neighbours, Thomas or Charles, to remind him they were going to see a play, that they were staying overnight in Sydney. Would he look in on Maggie, give her dinner and breakfast, a walk if it wasn’t too much trouble? Of course, he would reply. He loved Maggie unreservedly, loved the full-bloodedness of her being. He felt they had a special bond: she, like him, an overweight retriever with a gammy hip.

It was not Thomas or Charles at the door but a young woman with a high forehead. She was wearing a black t-shirt and skinny jeans, rolled to mid-calf, a pair of leather sandals. Her dark hair was loosely tied, a stripe of fringe tucked behind one ear.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘I was expecting someone else.’

‘That happens,’ the young woman replied.

Cameron felt anxious; he did not like surprises. Dimly he recalled an article in the local paper, about the forced relocation of the poor and destitute from suburbs in Western Sydney to areas of the Blue Mountains, Bamberg and Lithgow in particular. Was the young woman one such person? Was she mentally ill? Clear skin, so evidently not a junkie.

The young woman smiled; she had teeth, and they were good ones.

‘Mr Cameron,’ she said. ‘I’m Mandy, from number six. We’ve just moved in. But I’m afraid I’ve lost my keys.’

Her knowing his name, and there being nothing obviously threatening in their predicament — he was large and she was not — he invited her in. He gestured for Mandy to proceed along the hallway.

‘Second door on the right,’ he said, and then, each having entered the lounge room, ‘Please, take a seat.’

From where Mandy stood, she was able to survey the room.

‘You have a lovely home,’ she said.

She walked to the bookshelves, which took up one whole wall. With her back to Cameron she tilted her head and asked, ‘Have you read them all?’

‘Most,’ he answered.

Mandy moved to the far left of the shelves, from where she slid several books in turn from their places. Atwood, Austen, Borges, Coetzee; she was moving slowly.

‘I studied literature at uni,’ she said, ‘but I dropped out in second year.’

How depressing, thought Cameron — readers were his favourite people. But perhaps it was the environment she did not like, or the accumulation of debt? It was not Mandy’s fault the world had ranged against her, even before she’d joined it.

‘My name is Cameron,’ he said. ‘But you called me Mr Cameron?’

Mandy crossed the room and sat down, choosing the sofa rather than one of two opposing chairs. Having not yet committed to the situation, Cameron remained standing.

‘That was the name the agent gave us,’ she said. ‘He told us you were a writer, and so I googled you. You looked more like a Mr Cameron than a Cameron, if you know what I mean.’

He did not know what she meant. Also, he’d never had anyone ‘look him up’, not as far as he was aware, though he supposed such things were now inevitable. Trolling he’d heard of, and stalking, which made him think of bridges and a horse. He began to blush, and he couldn’t think what next to say. This happened frequently, the return of childhood shyness, the rendering, like fat from a duck’s breast. Pushing back in his chair he resisted an urge to stretch his arms above his head, conscious that his shirt might ride-up, revealing a pale, freckled belly. What a sight he and Inés made at the beach, once or twice each year, she of the olive-skin, the regular stroke, the naturally high levels of serotonin: his better three-quarters, four-fifths.

‘Have you changed the locks?’ he asked.

‘No,’ said Mandy, ‘I hadn’t thought of that.’

‘Well,’ Cameron said, ‘you’re in luck. The previous owner gave us a set of keys, for safekeeping. She and my wife — Inés — were very close. But can I get you something to drink? Tea? A glass of water?’

Leaving Mandy alone would demonstrate trust, which, Cameron had always believed, was a virtue worth promoting, especially among neighbours. As such, he stayed away for longer than it took to pour two glasses of water, enjoying a spoonful of blueberry yoghurt directly from the tub.

On his return he found Mandy again was looking through his books: by now she was close to the middle, fingering the spine of Haruki Murakami.

‘You said you’d looked me up’, he said. ‘What did you find?’

Mandy resumed her seat, drank and wiped her mouth.

‘An author’s photo,’ she said, ‘which is obviously quite old. And I read two of your stories. I liked the women — they’re hilarious.’

Did she mean it as a compliment? Cameron did not do comedy, deadpan or otherwise, not even after being encouraged in that direction by a tutor at the Writers’ Forum. Perhaps she was an unsophisticated reader, which, for an understated writer such as he, a literary writer, a tooler of the under-wrought, was by no means ideal. He tended to agree with the line from Henry James, on how the young are terrible, baffling little mysteries. But how old was Mandy? Twenty-two? Twenty-seven? Did she qualify as young? Perhaps thirty really was the new twenty. Perhaps the shadows were lengthening still.

Cameron considered what next to say. He looked down at his wrist, at the band of skin where once he’d worn a watch. The skin was dry, irritated; it burned a little and was red, as though from eczema, or ringworm. He pulled his shirtsleeve lower.

‘So,’ he said.

For a moment Mandy sat contentedly on the sofa. How should he deal with that, the smoothness of her silence, the walled imperium, there, against the backdrop of all those books? He did not know.

Eventually Mandy said, ‘The one about the hot-air balloon was very sad. It reminded me of Ian McEwan.’

‘Well, I had the idea many years ago,’ said Cameron, ‘before I’d read any of McEwan’s books. But it’s not really about a hot-air balloon.’

‘Oh?’ said Mandy.

‘Or, I should say, not only. The balloon ride is allegorical.’

It was bad form to be one’s own literary critic. If readers couldn’t cope with the economy of a short story, so be it: let them read novels.

‘I just wish they hadn’t crashed,’ said Mandy. ‘It would have been more surprising, if they hadn’t, I mean. Less like a story and more real, more like life, or most people’s lives. After the ride, they could have just gone home.’

Cameron thought about that for a moment. More real? They could have just gone home? No, that is not how stories work. Too boring. There must be conflict, resolution, development, unless of course the absence of conflict, resolution, development, is the point of the story, either that or the lamentation of their absence. But who would read such stories? For that matter, wouldn’t they be impossible to write? A visual artist might be better placed, or a musician: a single brushstroke, preferably black on grey, a note that stretches to infinity, or rather, to the point where infinity stops, and is therefore other to itself.

‘I don’t know where stories come from,’ he said. ‘Old stories inspire new stories, as much as real life inspires stories, whatever real life is. Even just an image or a sentence can set you off. I wrote poems before they gave me up; perhaps that’s where the habit comes from. What I mean is, it’s never just one thing. Are you also a writer?’

‘No,’ replied Mandy.

‘But you would like to be?’

‘No, nothing like that. I wouldn’t know where to start.’

Cameron stood. What was he doing? He’d been thinking about books and writing for the entirety of his adult life: how could he know so little? He should have started earlier, by candlelight, in the womb; now, there’s an idea for a novel. But what was he doing? Searching for mutual ground between he and Mandy; perhaps he should bring up iambic pentameter, or the symbolic meaning of the sea, or the politics of representation? He had an uneasy feeling about identity, his own most fervently; perhaps he should mention that? And then, as Mandy’s eyes glazed over, he could study his own reflection. What would he see, once he could not see Mandy? The belly, the hair, the eyes, somewhat like his mother’s?

‘I need a coffee,’ he said. ‘Would you like a coffee? I have a machine.’

‘I shouldn’t,’ replied Mandy. ‘It’s not good for the baby.’

Cameron looked at Mandy’s stomach: how had he missed that she was pregnant? Detail, detail, detail: aren’t writers meant to be masters of observation, meticulous noters of liver spots and dust motes? It did not augur well.

‘I’m so sorry,’ he said. ‘Not about the baby — that’s wonderful, congratulations. No, for being insensitive. Will it be your first?’

‘Yes,’ said Mandy. ‘We’re very excited. Do you have children?’

‘No,’ said Cameron.

On that topic he had nothing more to say. Perhaps he should have made an effort to change the subject, to go on with things, but instead he drew the conversation to a close.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll get those keys.’

He excused himself, and when he returned, Mandy was sitting exactly as before. What had she been thinking? Whether or not, by virtue of the keys, Cameron had snooped around her house? Whether she should invite Cameron and his wife to dinner, by way of thanking him? Whether he’d let her borrow a book?

‘Here they are,’ he said.

‘Thank you,’ said Mandy. ‘I’m sorry if I intruded.’

‘Not at all,’ said Cameron. ‘I’m stuck with the piece I’m working on, and sometimes it’s best to step away. I’m only sorry Inés wasn’t here to meet you.’

Dialogue, thought Cameron: this would make for hopeless dialogue. No wonder the best writers do without.

Mandy retraced her steps to the front door. Cameron followed closely behind, newly protective; he couldn’t help himself. Once outside she stopped, then turned around.

‘We’ll be happy here,’ she said. ‘I know we will.’

Cameron was going to say something wise, something writerly — he was the right age, by now, grey above his temples — but when Mandy stepped towards him, he could think of no good reason not to allow the embrace to happen.

 


Craig Billingham has published two collections of poetry, Storytelling (2007) and Public Transport (2017). ‘The Love Scene’ is from a recently completed short story cycle; an earlier story from the same cycle, ‘Breakfast at Bethany’s‘, also appeared on Verity La. He lives in Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains, NSW.