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CAT’S PAW The leaden weight of that afternoon had pressed all feeling from my extremities; it had clamped the lobes of my ears and numbed the bridge of my nose. Yes, okay, I should have bought a pair of long-johns and a leather cap with ear-mufflers for that winter in Canada, but I was determined not to be beaten by the weather too. When I arrived at his rooms, he was still out at lunch. I huddled up in a corner, watching the flakes of snow melt on my overcoat. They formed a drizzle of blackspeckled water under my chair. ‘And what’s been happening to you, Leon? I’ve missed our chats together these last few weeks.’ The long-bodied man of no more than thirty was sizing me up, with eyes hardening, as he shook off his coat. He tufted his beard and ushered me across to the black-leathered scoop of an armchair. Easing one leg across the other in a manner calculated to make me relax, settling his creases with a finicky wisping of the fingers, he was waiting, watching but not watching. Then in that practised murmuration: ‘I’d like you to share with me some of your recent experiences.’ Oh yes, the voice was caressive, all right, unlike most Canadian voices that are ground out of American gravel. It was like a Debussy prelude floating into my sunsetsombre atelier from a darkening room beyond the room next door. But the blandness of that mealy-mouthed jargon set my teeth on edge. I would not be smoothed over by the dimpling of a skin too finely tanned, a smile that advertised Concern, the forced calm that had me digging my heels into the carpet. I slumped back, giving in to the black belly that tucked my thighs. If only the answers were carved on the ceiling. The doctor positioned a chair opposite me. Behind him, a desk swept clean of paperwork. To my right, a macramé garden was dangling in hesitant twirl between shelves of Reich, Fromm, Berne et al. Above the elevation of his head hung a painting of thick, black horizontal lines: coffins upon coffins upon coffins.

‘Take your time, Leon,’ the voice crooned, as if he were about to chuck me under the chin. But I was already foundering . . . in the carpet . . . of sea grass . . . and the susurrus of waves scrabbling at the pebbles, sucking them down lengthening runnels of silt, only to swallow and furl, pounding in with mewing seagulls on flung spume . . . whetting echoes of seas overseas, her being overseas, her being the call of the running tide that lured, a wild call to kiss flecks of spray from my siren’s cheeks, a clear call to drown the fixation, her setting foot on the sands of Boulogne with him that man her husband supporting her arm . . . why did they never hold hands? . . . when we should have raced off the hovercraft together into the wind, holding hands together, so that all I asked was to let go under, under, underseas, she over . . . ‘And all I ask is a windy day . . .’ ‘Do go on,’ he murmured, not batting an eyelid, simply looking down at me with that benign smile of rubber, as if he had just been anointed. So snappily dressed in grey slacks and a pin-striped Dior shirt that I felt I should take his hand, except that his wrist was black-hairy and showed off a snazzy bracelet. Whereas I had slumped into old age, a scruff, a tramp, a hollowed-out case. Time was when I too might have presented myself behind a vest and Cartier watch and air of the arriviste’s selfsatisfaction. ‘Just a dose of Masefield fever,’ I shrugged out, but too feebly to intrigue him. The effing alliteration hung like spindrift in the still-taut atmosphere. I remembered last time the stickiness of his voice behind me in gathering darkness, as he tried hypnosis. ‘Can you . . . ?’ Those furry-spider hands hovered to explore expansiveness. ‘Elaborate?’ Sometimes I find it easier filling in other people’s crosswords. ‘Please,’ he sighed, with such gentle mellowness, a valium sigh. And stifled a yawn into quiescence. He had lunched too well. I waited till his eyes fudged and he was savouring the thought of his wifey and kids at their summer house in Nova Scotia. Or

a strawberry daiquiri or two over in Detroit at the Renaissance Centre once he’d disposed of me. In the silence that fell between us, I floated through his tobacco smoke. Until the creaminess curled into acrid wisps that choked. If he was endeavouring to smoke me out, bring me back, get me started, the hint was not so much unsubtle as callous, for my eyes were smarting already. So that my throat coughed out the words that he would not want to hear. ‘Last week . . . last week I was thinking it over . . . thinking long and hard . . . thinking about . . . taking an overdose.’ But this wasn’t my voice. It was too strangulated and highpitched. Even my hands were trembling, those hands chewed up with cold that had once sculpted figurines in her imagination. I buried the wafery fingers in the rucking of my overcoat. ‘So why didn’t you go through with it?’ ‘Doctor, be straight with me. What the hell should I do? I do love the woman. Madly.’ ‘Then catch the next plane back to Australia.’ ‘Not until she leaves him. I can’t be giving in all the time.’ He took up his glasses, staring into my eyes behind those tinted, mafioso lenses. I could still read him better than I could her. ‘It’s not up to me to tell you what to do.’ Those dulcet tones soured with irritation. Or disappointment that three months of so-called sharing had run aground. For talking and talking over and over did not help me discover the way. I was sick and tired of the stabbing thoughts in my head and that repulsive sack of body I lugged about. All too often the words issuing from my mouth would breed of themselves, in sharp bursts, without catching the lurches of pain; or sometimes they would spew out merely to dent his smug professional expertise. Sloping down the easy-chair with fatigue, always riding this non-stop roller-coaster that I was too frightened to jump off, when once its helter-skelter career carved such a sky-flying

destiny, clutching now at verbal straws that slipped by and by in the wind. ‘We are here to help you, Leon, don’t forget.’ ‘You can’t help a depressive.’ ‘You are not a depressive. Merely upset. Why do you want to hang these horrible labels around your neck?’ ‘I’m trying to understand.’ ‘Did this latest spell of being upset come about because you still haven’t found a resolution with this er . . . Judy?’ ‘Julia!’ . . . eyes of ebony gleaming and jet black hair a corona of jet that spoke of Louise Brooks, the Hollywood siren or some haunting shadow of a past life, the slinky, svelte back where my fingers danced their tracery and sun-freckles spangled her breasts so curiously petite . . . Julia. The very mention of her name caused a visceral keening, a pang in my abdomen that triggered a gassy colitis. Yet once that taboo was broken, I found myself babbling on about my lover, how one day we’d soar away to the flint-furrowed glades around Castle Goring until the seafret insinuated the oaken boles and scattered the rookeries – but a grey reality was spreading itself outside his cold, snowbound rooms, a day that lay a sheet of gun metal across concrete canyons, a day haunted by the melancholy foghorning of cargo vessels ghosting up the Detroit River. ‘It’s her two kids. How can Julia make a decision if she’s tied?’ ‘But how long have you waited? Two and a half years? What can possibly happen now to make her change her mind?’ ‘Don’t know.’ Christ, something had to give! Once we were always pleached in plans to spend a week together in Paris. I’d vowed to kiss her in front of Rodin’s ‘Eternal Springtime’, if only she could feed her husband something plausible about a ten-day school camp in the Blue Mountains . . . Et alors, un jour nous pourrions nous

promener libres . . . ‘The last time I saw you, five weeks ago . . . let me see now . . . ah, here it is . . . she was about to go overseas with her husband, if I remember correctly. Has she written since?’ Darling, I feel cheated somehow. Young lovers haunt wherever. So many rich textures, new experiences wishing to share with you. Athens disappointed. Perhaps if you instead of Nicholas had been getting excitable on retsina and moussaka, who knows? Yesterday we cycled through fabulous tulip fields. Tomorrow the Rijksmuseum and Rembrandt!!! This trip has solved nothing. I love you, of course, but on a practical level, N and I do get on. Is my ardent lover being faithful? Yes, of course, damn you! ‘Yes.’ I said. ‘Yes, she’s written.’ At first, I’d tear home every lunch-time, terrified in case an aerogramme was waiting, gulp sweet, billowing breaths if the mail-box was empty, then brace myself for a claw to clench my throat. ‘So it’s not all over then.’ ‘No. Oh, maybe. Look, I don’t know, for God’s sake. Why does she make me hate her? Her first time in Europe and she chose to go with a man she did not love. After all her promises to me.’ ‘The reason why you split for Canada . . .‘ ‘Mm. The evening before their departure from Melbourne, I was sick, physically sick. How could she go tripping off to such exotic places with a man she claimed not to love, when we had pledged to stick together and go to the Europe of our dreams? She’d always been rapt at the prospect of our trysting in some thatched village in the Cotswolds. I charged off to their house with the bread knife, determined to hurt her, no matter how. Even if I had to bury the knife in my own stomach on her doorstep.’ ‘So why didn’t you?’

‘The usual paralysis. I could only stab her in my mind. I’ve never been able to tell her when she’s hurt me. Never.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I was afraid she’d say it was all over.’ ‘You seem to be making so many assumptions about her attitude towards you. Apparently, she still feels for you. Besides, what did all this self-torture achieve?’ ‘Nothing, I s’pose. I became autistic. Could barely find my words. Well, not to utter, anyhow. Words to recreate Julia, yes, in my head. Millions. But I didn’t want to open my mouth. No one else mattered a damn anyway. Even when I could see that she was destroying my marriage, home . . . career . . . security . . . my life even . . . still I loved her.’ ‘Whoa, rein in there, Leon. What do I hear you saying? “She was destroying my life”?’ ‘Yes. Well . . . I’d given away everything for her.’ ‘But that’s a mighty heavy trip to lay on another person. Didn’t you allow yourself to be drawn quite willingly into this situation?’ ‘Of course, I didn’t! Are you crazy?’ ‘Come on now, Leon, you can come clean with me.’ That all-knowing smirk was riling me again. ‘Oh, what’s the use! You deliberately misconstrue what I’m saying. Its better if I leave.’ ‘There’s no one here stopping you.’ His arms opened out into a shrug. ‘In fact, it’s about time you got off your butt and did something positive about yourself.’ ‘Look, she doesn’t understand what I’m suffering. The more I try to reassure her, the more she torments me. I left my wife so that I could be free to love Julia. Yet from that very moment she moved back closer to her husband.’

‘Sometimes we impute motives retrospectively, Leon. Our thinking can be so conjectural that our judgment may be way off-centre, even unjust. What’s more, it’s not constructive. It doesn’t get us very far.’ ‘You don’t understand! Why do you want to let Julia off the hook?’ I felt the urge to lash out, go for a jog till the stitch stabbed me between the ribs, lift weights till I dropped, tramp through the snow till my nose cauterized with cold, do anything but defend and justify, defend and justify. ‘Let’s just concentrate on how you are. You do have a few things going for you, such as your poetry and book reviews. You could write a play. Perhaps a two-hander. Why do you want to toss away your life? You may think you’ve lost control, but you can do something about that if you really want to.’ ‘I can’t write because of her. I can’t concentrate. I can’t do anything.’ ‘But why put all your eggs in one basket?’ He was fumbling to relight his pipe. ‘Why deny other relationships?’ ‘Because it’s her I love. Can’t you see that? Just to say hello to another woman cuts me with guilt. She’s the only woman who has led me to . . . to Paradise.’ languid in illicit lay under the floral quilt that moired our faces laguna blue melding into each other’s veils of flesh your finger-kisses impress my glans with trilling so exquisite mine milking those mauvy nubs, glazing the pips of your areolae pricking lubricking pump and plumb come pumping come spinning into your cumquat spindrifting into oneness wondrous tranquil still . . . ‘Then why in tarnation are you mooching around in Hell? Why make yourself so dependent upon another person?’ ‘Because I can talk to someone, really talk, with feeling, even about the most trivial things. Isn’t the intensity of communication what love is all about? At the same time we were so different. She was delightfully unpredictable in her moods, ideas, antics, everything. But whenever I expressed my jealousy over her sleeping with her

husband, swearing I’d leave Melbourne for good, she’d soften, butter me up with a lovely, big smile and eyes dilating to drown in, implore me not to frighten her like that, if I’d only be patient. Always tomorrow, next month, next year. I still can’t believe she’d go to Europe with her husband.’ ‘But you’d better believe it, Leon. You have to learn to live in the present moment.’ ‘It’s so ugly. He might force her to make love this very night.’ ‘Of course. They’re probably fucking right now.’ ‘You bastard!’ ‘Sit down again . . . Please. It happens.’ ‘Why-don’t you-help-me?’ My lungs choked to yell. ‘Consider the pleasure that she’s giving him, a pleasure that she also gives to you. You have no reason to be so possessive.’ ‘Now that’s really sick.’ ‘There are hundreds of women out there dying to meet such a personable man as yourself.’ ‘I couldn’t care a stuff about anyone else!’ His eyes narrowed. ‘I don’t ever hear you speak of your male friends.’ ‘I don’t have any.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I’ve never thought about it.’ ‘You seem to be relating easily enough to me.’ His ingratiation clenched my fingers

more tightly. ‘Why deny fifty per cent of the population the enrichment you can derive from them?’ ‘Huh. Most of them are pub-crawlers, jocks . . .‘ The question was irrelevant. ‘Tell me, what sensations do you feel coursing through your right leg right now?’ ‘Nothing. Nothing at all, really.’ ‘You must feel something. Unless your poor old leg is utterly dead.’ God, the games people play. ‘Okay, I feel a sort of . . . pulsation down there,’ I manufactured. To humour him. I couldn’t feel any damned sensation in my leg. Though if he had asked me about my irritable colon . . . ‘I don’t hear you take responsibility for your leg, Leon. Why don’t you start off, “My leg feels . . .“ What? A warm, flowing tingling? ‘Doctor, don’t make fun of me! Ours is no ordinary love affair.’ ‘No love affair is ordinary.’ ‘But I can’t exist without her, however much she torments me. It may appear to you a no-win situation. But when we come together it’s like . . . like two explosions of energy, exhilaration.’ . . . Down on the Prom, the flamingo-rose dawn . . . the chill, salt tang of your lips and the banksia scent in your hair awaiting the burnishing of Sealers Cove with the clanning of blue soldier crabs and sea-swallows in corrugations of the whitest sweeps of sand . . . ‘The fact is she is living without you. She’s a grown-up woman who is perfectly free to make up her own mind as to what she wants.’ ‘But she doesn’t want to make a decision. She’s calling my bluff that I have left Australia for good, yet at the same time insists that I have betrayed her.’

‘People don’t bluff, Leon. They just move around obstacles. Besides, where is she, this Judy, this Julia? Where is this phantom lady for whom you wish to surrender your life? But I was already slipping away on that undertow, irresistibly . . . just off Kuta beach, a year ago, but every waking hour since. A cluster of Balinese fishermen had warned me in sign-language about the demon sea-spirit, the Fanged Giant Sut, but I’m sceptical about myths. It must have been the mushrooms a cheeky, little runt discounted me or the tap water, and I should’ve yelled for help, but didn’t because . . . because I was mere flotsam without her, thousands of miles away, lonely as hell. Yet after they’d dragged me back half-dead through the breakers and I’d retched a few times, well, I thought then how blissed out with relief I was, almost hysterical in fact; but nowadays I get to wonder whether my euphoria wasn’t due to something else, something that merely jumping off the Petanu bridge would never have excited within me, something so intense on my nerve-ends that my flirting with death and then my very real fight against it was a never-ending scream of love for Julia. ‘Now listen here. How long are you going to sit around moping? You’ve got to get up off your ass. Why did you choose to fall in love with someone so inaccessible? You’re wasting a great deal of energy on a . . . a dream.’ My gaze absorbed the twisting of the tawny, thickly corded cat’s cradle that flounced spiky fronds and bulbous knots. The hairy fibres stifled my breathing, dried my mouth. It was a tarantula’s web; in its eye, Julia’s face so alluring, so taunting, gazed back. ‘Look what became of your Tristans, your Werthers, your Heathcliffs. Selfdestructive Romantic twaddle! Besides, men seldom marry their mistresses. Tell me, what do you do for relaxation?’ ‘Read. Go to a movie. Go for a walk.’ ‘When you’re out walking, what do you notice?’ ‘How do you mean?’

‘Well, what do you look at?’ ‘S’pose I just think about . . . things.’ ‘What sort of things? The alarming rise in the number of unemployed auto workers in Detroit? The protest movement against Three Mile Island? The threat of a nuclear holocaust?’ ‘Mm. Julia and yours truly.’ ‘But such preoccupation hasn’t solved anything. What’s more, you’re existing with only one part of your body. When you walk out of here, take a good close look at the trees on Riverside. Spring is just around the corner. What colour are their leaves?’ ‘Green, I s’pose.’ ‘There are myriad hues of green. And leaves have innumerable possibilities where colour is concerned. Open your eyes, eh. Life is teeming out there beyond your mind. And so rich, so varied in its profusion. Now I’d like you to make a list.’ ‘No more lists, please! I know what the bloody alternatives are! I’m drowning in my own ticker-tape.’ ‘Calm down, Leon. Relax. Let’s try some deep breathing, shall we? From down here.’ He placed a hand on his solar plexus and began inhaling so artificially that he looked vulnerable to the sympathy I might once have been able to feel. ‘Your body is terrorized by that tiny, insidious computer inside your head. But each of your organisms has its own kind of intelligence, its own responses that you are blocking off.’ ‘So you reckon that she has chosen never to decide, is that it?’ I wasn’t going to be deflected that easily. ‘I don’t know her, but what I do know is that right now I happen to be talking to you. I can’t tell you what she’s thinking.’

‘But you did mention once something about her possibly seeking a little intrigue to spice up her marriage.’ ‘Anything’s possible.’ His jowls sallowed with mid-afternoon jaundice. ‘So you think she’s an arch manipulator.’ Beads of sweat were now tatting his forehead, glistening in the gloom. Which gave me a skerrick of triumph. ‘Now, listen, that’s coming on mighty strong. Why don’t you accept responsibility for your own thoughts?’ He knocked out his pipe and lay it down with more concern than seemed its due. ‘But did you or did you not categorically state that our relationship might depend on factors of doubt?’ At last I had driven him back into the shadows stealing around his helmet of hair and blanketed his superiority. Only the spectacle frames ogled, the lenses blind. Edvard Munch might have been skulking around over there. ‘Sometimes people need pain.’ He was pecking at his words while twiddling his necktie. ‘For them, it’s like love. At least they know they’re alive. They might even stage-manage situations, it’s their thing, the big climactic scenes. Some are compelled to step into a cage with wild beasts and risk being mauled. After all, a grand gesture can massage the ego, even if it is destined to failure. One can still play the role of the tragic hero or the avenger seeking redress for grievances or the noble martyr. Or they behave like a child who breaks all his toys and cries to have them put back together again. Others want out, wary of making waves. They might drink themselves blind or stone themselves into oblivion, or have recourse to lithium or tryptanol. Or just ride out time.’ ‘Till when?’ ‘One day you might wake up to find the wound is just an ugly scab.’

‘So where do I fit in?’ A fist uppercut the gloom like a fractured cauliflower. But he was merely taking off his glasses, as if shedding a superfluous garment. ‘Make a list of all your options. He tattooed the frames on his notepad, so evenly that I grew vexed with his sense of infallibility. I would like you to share them with me next week.’ ‘And in the interim, the exploration of other relationships bit? Meaningful exchanges? Get myself centred et cetera?’ ‘Building bridges would be a great start. Now I do find you a very interesting person to work with, Leon, but you appreciate how schedules are.’ He stood up to tower over me. ‘Tight, eh? I felt empty-brittle, the shell of a mollusc.’ ‘Pretty well.’ It was then that I sensed the tears trickling down my cheeks in spite of myself. ‘Pull yourself together, eh,’ he said softly. ‘We can go back on lithium if that’s what you decide.’ But his concession served only to strengthen my resolve not to. At least, not now, not before next week. As I untacked myself from the clutch of chair, I suspected for one embarrassing moment that he was going to steer me out by the sleeve or even shake me by the hand, but extension of his arm acted as simple reminder of which flight-path to take. So I lingered, partly to contain my sniffling. ‘What’s that reproduction behind you? The black-tone one.’

‘That? Oh, that’s Mondrian. Do you like it?’ ‘It’s okay. Looks like a pile of coffins.’ ‘No, it’s the Place de la Concorde. Personally, I find it very restful. Like Paris on a spring day.’ Paris, restful! My abdomen gave another lurch. ‘I think we’d better make an appointment for next week at the same time. And remember: don’t forget your options.’ If only cleft-sticks triggered the stuff of poetry, I’d be sky-writing my tears against the clouds.


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