Mary sat in the Land Cruiser in the station car park and stared out into the darkness. Even though the very word ‘art’ made her guts turn over, she couldn’t help seeing Caspar David Friedrich in the occluded moon, Jeffrey Smart in the black tarmac and colorbond fencing. Nervously she bit at fingernails already bitten to the quick. In a little while, in just a little while, she’d learn her fate. Robert had gone to Sydney the previous day for a radio interview and he’d arranged to see Amanda in the evening. After weeks of misery and torment he was finally going to make his decision. He was going to choose between them. Mary, of course, was to have no say in the matter.
She’d endured a night of purgatory alone in the house. As she’d eaten her dinner in front of the TV, trying to find something she could lose herself in to escape the pain, she’d imagined Robert and Amanda in some chic Sydney restaurant entwining fingers. While she’d got ready for bed she’d thought of them undressing each other in their hotel bedroom. She saw Amanda’s naked, twenty-eight-year-old body, milky-white, unblemished by childbirth or the weight of years, and Robert, satyr-faced, sating his lust between her legs like some Roman Emperor. The image revolted her so much she’d had to run to the bathroom to throw up. She’d tossed and turned beside the cold vacancy on Robert’s side of the bed but hadn’t been able to sleep and she’d been numb with tiredness in the morning when she’d driven to the hospital to spend another day – another long, draining day – at her mother’s bedside.
Exhaustion made her feel strange now – manic, feverish (God, how fast her heart was beating!), yet at the same time weirdly dissociated, as if she were somehow outside the car watching herself waiting for Robert.
The Sydney train was twenty-five minutes late when it pulled into the platform and almost at once passengers began to file out of the exits. It wasn’t difficult to spot Robert among the beanies and high-vis jackets – the black, broad-brimmed Panama hat, the opera cape draped over his shoulders, the onyx-headed cane carved especially for him by the Spanish sculptor Maximilio Vento. Robert, as always, playing the role of Robert Callaghan, ‘the celebrated artist’.
To a TV interviewer who’d once queried the theatricality of his dress, Robert, after biting back the angry riposte that was his knee-jerk reaction to any criticism, real or imagined, had said: “Product recognition, my friend. Dali had his moustache. Frida Kahlo had her Mexican textiles – and those unforgettable eyebrows of course. Warhol had his platinum-blond wigs. I have my hat, my cape and my cane, and it’s no small thanks to them that I’m one of the most well-known artists in Australia today. The artist and the product are conflated in the public mind. Today the artist is the product.”
Looking at him now, Mary wasn’t sure if he cut a sinister or a comic figure. Perhaps, she thought, in the next half an hour she’d find out. Once and for all.
Robert spotted her and raised his cane as if he were hailing a cab in New York City, then trained its ferrule on the exact spot where he wanted her to pull up. Mary switched on the headlights, and, with her mouth set – a thin black line across a white canvas – she squeezed hard on the accelerator and drove towards him. Just at that moment, Robert, shielding his eyes from the glare, stepped out into the road in front of the car. Mary slowed and flicked the switch that opened the boot, the routine smooth after all these years, and Robert went to the back and tossed in his overnight case.
He wrenched open the door and began to squeeze his enormous bulk into the passenger seat, ranting the whole time:
“The bloody trains just get worse and worse. They kept us waiting in the middle of nowhere for twenty minutes – twenty minutes! – and there wasn’t a single member of staff around of course, so I couldn’t find out what the bloody hell was going on.”
No hello. No how are you. No kiss, not even the dry, platonic peck familiar to long-married couples.
He dragged off his Panama, tossed it onto the back seat and ran a hand through his hair. He turned his startlingly blue eyes towards her, then quickly looked away again. The face was craggier, the nose and cheeks discoloured by the booze (“My nose has been marooned in my face,” he used to quip), but even in his fifty-eighth year Robert was still a handsome man.
He struggled to buckle himself up over his paunch, his breathing phlegmy and rasping as he tried again and again to force the metal tongue into the latch. At last it clicked home sweetly.
“Right, I’m in. Let’s go,” he ordered.
Obediently, Mary pulled away and joined the queue of cars inching towards the exit. Through his window Robert watched the other commuters running to meet lifts, hurrying to catch buses and taxis. There was a puzzled expression on his face as if he were observing the frenzied activity of faintly repulsive insects.
Thirty-five years ago when Mary was studying the piano at the Sydney Conservatorium, those same blue eyes had looked at her with almost fanatical longing. He’d pursued her across the city, besieged her with letters and phone calls. He’d compared her to Boticelli’s Venus, Leonardo’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Rossetti’s Proserpina. He’d painted dozens of Hockneyesque portraits of her and sent them to her student lodgings with ‘marry me’ scrawled in red paint across their backs. One day he’d even got down on his knees in the practice room where she was rehearsing and quoted Marlowe to her: ‘O, thou art fairer than the evening air clad in the beauty of a thousand stars…’ (He hadn’t known Christopher Marlowe from Philip Marlowe back then and had begged a schoolteacher friend of his for a quote that would ‘melt the heart of a woman.’)
Now those blue eyes looked at her with weariness – and wariness. It was late, he was tired, he didn’t want to fight with her all the way home. He wanted to postpone any ‘unpleasantness’ until tomorrow when he’d slept and was fresh. But at the same time he knew that wasn’t going to be possible.
Mary drove through the deserted Blue Mountain town, the brightly-lit window of the Chinese takeaway on the corner of the High Street reminding her, as it always did, of Hopper’s Nighthawks. Within a few minutes she was on the winding country road that would take them to the house they’d bought fifteen years ago when Robert was finally confident enough of his standing to move out of Sydney. He’d agonized long and hard over the decision. ‘If you’re not at the meal, Mary,’ he used to say, ‘then you’re on the menu…’ (As Mary knew only too well, she hadn’t been at the meal last night).
With the lights of the town behind them the darkness thickened. Mary put on her full beams and watched her speed. Her night vision wasn’t good and the road twisted and turned sharply. She didn’t want to have an accident here. There was a steep drop on her side and no crash barriers, just a thin screen of gums and then the ravine. If a car went off the road here it might not be found for days.
“So…how did the radio interview go?” Mary asked with obviously faked brightness.
Robert grunted. “He’s getting more insufferable every year. It seemed to me he spent half the bloody show talking about himself – his wife, his farm, his bloody communist past – as if anybody bloody cares! And he interrupted me just as I was starting to make an important point about the decline of the avant-garde. The bastard just talked right over me! I could have punched his smug, bloody face in.”
After a brief silence, his vanity wounded, he asked, “Why didn’t you listen to it?”
“I was at the hospital with mum till late last night and I was there all day again today.”
He sank into sullen silence. Even he was shamefaced that he’d forgotten Mary’s mother was in hospital.
He brooded for a long time before he asked, “How is she? Any improvement?”
“No, Robert,” said Mary with exaggerated patience as if she were talking to a child. “She’s dying. There can’t be any improvement. Maybe in the la-la-land you call reality people recover from multiple myeloma, but in the reality the rest of us have to endure, believe me, they don’t.”
“I meant,” he said through clenched teeth, “is she in less pain?”
“Yes, thank you, Robert, she is in less pain. They’ve put her on such strong medication now that I don’t think she knows who I am anymore. The doctors say it will all be over in forty-eight hours.”
Robert shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“I’d hoped you weren’t going to be like this,” he said.
“Like what, darling?” Mary replied, all innocence.
“You know what I mean. Bitter.”
“Bitter? Why should I be bitter? My husband tells me he’s having an affair with a girl young enough to be his daughter and that after thirty-five years’ faithful service I’m to be put out to grass. What on earth do I have to be bitter about, Robert?”
Mary couldn’t control the spasm of anger that twisted her mouth into an ugly grimace. She altered the driving mirror to lessen the dazzle from the headlights of the car behind and glimpsed her lined face and wrinkled neck. She seemed tiny next to Robert who was so big his thigh touched the handbrake and his cape spilled over the cup-holders. It was as if during the course of their marriage she’d withered away to skin and bone while Robert had become huge, like some massive eucalyptus, his greedy roots sucking up every drop of moisture for himself, leaving nothing for her.
“This hasn’t been easy for me either you know, Mary,” he said, seeking – incredibly – her sympathy.
“No, I’m sure it hasn’t been, Robert. I’m sure it was torture for you last night when you were fucking Amanda in your hotel room. Absolute torture.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Mary, grow up.”
“Me grow up! I like that. You’re the one who’s regressed to horny adolescence, Robert, not me.”
There was a prickly silence.
“So?” she asked at last, unconsciously lifting her chin in defiance. “You were going to make a decision. What have you decided?” Her features suddenly soured and she added in a voice full of scorn, “Don’t tell me, I already know.”
Robert cleared his throat and Mary suddenly felt like an accused in the dock waiting to hear her sentence.
“I want a divorce, Mary. I want to marry Amanda.”
Mary had known it was coming and yet the words still pulverized her. She felt as though something were burning inside her chest, shrivelling to nothing (was this, she wondered, what it felt like when a woman’s heart melted?). Hot tears welled up in her eyes and she had to blink rapidly to dispel them. She had the words, but for the moment she couldn’t physically speak.
Some part of her, some small part of her, had refused to accept that he could ever leave her. Even though he’d grown into this narcissistic monster, she couldn’t believe that he’d ever forget their early years together when Simon and Craig were babies and no one was interested in buying Robert’s work. It had been a hellish time. They’d barely had enough money to live on and Mary’s parents were constantly trying to persuade her to leave and move back home. But Mary had stood by him, she’d believed in him, she’d never doubted his talent. She’d looked after the boys during the day and given piano lessons in the evening so that Robert wouldn’t have to go out to work and could dedicate himself to his painting. She’d ate, slept and drunk art and become an expert in her own right so that she could talk to him about his ideas as an equal. It was Mary who’d persuaded him to give up his experiments in abstraction and return to figurative painting and it was the huge posterized portraits he’d painted after that conversation that had finally caught the attention of the art establishment. The breakthrough when it came had been their breakthrough, a product of his genius and her faith, her love, her dedication…Somehow, Mary thought, no matter how vain and selfish he became, he’d never forget the debt he owed her.
“I’m an artist, Mary,” Robert intoned, as though this one magical word explained everything. “I can’t be tied down by your stultifying middle-class mores any longer. I’ve got to be free to change, to experiment, to throw off all the orthodoxies so that my imagination can flourish. I’ve got to follow my instincts as a man and as an artist if I’m going to paint the pieces that will be remembered by posterity. These last few years I’ve been treading water, I’ve been repeating myself. I can’t carry on like this – I’m not getting any younger. ‘Ars longa, vita brevis’, Mary – art lasts forever, but life’s short. I have to produce work that will pass the test of time and I can’t do it fettered by this marriage. I’m suffocating. I need fresh air. Amanda is a muse to me. She re-energizes me. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is.”
Mary wiped a scalding tear from her cheek with the back of her hand hoping Robert hadn’t seen. After some difficulty she found her voice again.
“So because you’re ‘the great artist’, you want benefit of clergy, you want to be exempt from the standards of civilized behaviour that the rest of us have to live by. One law for men and one law for Gods. Is that it, Robert?”
Robert gave a long, impatient sigh. It eloquently conveyed his view that all this soap-opera melodrama was beneath him. It was beneath him, like the day-to-day family finances had been beneath him, like cleaning the house, taking care of the garden and playing with the boys had been beneath him. It was petty, trivial, it wasted the precious reserves of his mental energy which had to be saved for higher things. For his Work. For his Art.
“Look, Mary,” he said, “My best work’s still ahead of me, I’m convinced of that. Everything I’ve done up to now has just been an apprenticeship for the series of paintings I’m going to do next. I need to be with Amanda to do this. She gives me a new lease of life, she rejuvenates me. We talk – we talk endlessly – you and I don’t talk to each other anymore.”
“Talk! You’ve only ever been interested in talking about yourself, Robert.”
Robert went on as if she hadn’t spoken. “I know I’ll never complete this work if I stay with you. We’re stale, we’re tired. We’ve had our time, so why don’t we just let it go and move on? Thirty-five years, for God’s sake. Life is about renewal and change. That’s the theme of my new paintings – renewal and change. A series of giant triptychs that interrogate every aspect of renewal and change.”
“Pathetic!” Mary hissed. “Do you really believe all the shit you spout? Do you really believe this is about your art? This isn’t about art. This is about your massive ego, your overweening vanity. You’re no different to any other man who walks out on the poor bitch who’s stood by him through the hungry years and changes her in for a younger model. You’ve become a cliché, Robert, a cliché! And what’s worse you’ve turned me into a cliché too!”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Robert said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “You’re not creative. You never have been. You could play the piano but you could never compose on it. You don’t have a creative bone in your body.”
Mary let out a cry that was more animal than human and gripped the wheel so hard her arthritic knuckles swelled like nuggets of white gold beneath the translucent skin.
“Not creative! I created your two sons, you ungrateful bastard! Two sons! I’d say that beats anything you’ve ever daubed on a canvas. I created a happy home – clothes washed and ironed and folded away in the drawers, chocolate eggs at Easter, pumpkins at Halloween, decorations at Christmas – did you think all that happened by magic? I created the meals you sat down to at the end of every day, the cookies and brownies you gorged on at the weekends. Wasn’t that ‘creative’ enough for you?”
“It’s not the same,” he said, impatiently dismissing this new piece of ridiculousness. “It’s not the same at all.”
Mary entered the small town she’d become so familiar with over the last fifteen years and drove past the post office, the bakery and community hall at a cautious fifty-five. Taking a left she began the long descent into the valley – their valley. It was plunged in darkness save for the fluorescent necklace of a train she glimpsed every now and then in the distance to her right, snaking its way along the valley floor. She passed the last house before the forest began again, a weatherboard cottage with its porch light on. Mary glimpsed a trampoline and a kid’s bike left out on the lawn, and she thought about Simon and Craig. She hadn’t known back then what motherhood would take out of her, what she’d have to give. When they were first married she’d been unsure about children, she’d wanted to wait, but Robert wouldn’t take precautions, he’d been blasé about her getting pregnant. Mary wasn’t a natural mother, it hadn’t come easy to her – none of it had come easy to her. Robert had no idea of the sacrifices she’d made for their happiness. Men like Robert never did. It wasn’t just her musical career she’d given up, it was much more than that. It felt as if she’d given up her life for her family, that she’d had to kill something in herself in order to be able to carry on. It had been an exchange – her life for theirs.
She remembered the first time she’d seen Frida Kahlo’s painting My Birth. It was a graphic image of a woman lying on a bed with her knees raised, a baby’s head emerging between her legs. What had immediately caught Mary’s attention, however, wasn’t the baby, but the mother’s face. It was covered by a white sheet as if she were dead. And Mary’s first thought had been – ‘that’s me’. When she looked back on her life now she felt as if she’d been martyred in some obscure way. She’d been the soil out of which the boys had grown, she’d nurtured them, she’d nourished them, and now she was left as desiccated as a dam in drought time. And the irony was, while she’d sacrificed everything for them, it was Robert they loved, Robert they idolized. He’d only ever had a perfunctory interest in the children, his affection was capricious – sometimes he was cold, sometimes stupidly sentimental with them – and when he was working it was as if they didn’t exist. And yet it was him they revered, him they looked up to, not her. He was Prospero, he was the magician, he was on TV and radio, he was on the news and Q and A. It was Robert they adored, it was Robert they wanted to be like. And like him they were. Chips off the old block, as hard as granite and as cold as marble. They were men in their thirties now, competitive and successful like their father. Simon worked for Sotheby’s in London, Craig was a software consultant with IBM in New York. When they Skyped home and she answered she never failed to see the flicker of disappointment on their faces. And their first question was always, ‘Where’s Dad?’
“We’ve had our time,” Robert repeated sullenly. “Just let it go.”
The final section of the hill was extremely steep and Mary had to keep a steady pressure on the brake. She could see the train more clearly now. It was skirting the edge of the huge pine plantation, speeding towards her at more than a hundred kilometers per hour.
The railway crossing had long been a cause of concern to the locals. There were no lights, no barriers and it was often said that a stranger could drive straight onto the tracks before they realised what they’d done.
Mary slowed to a standstill and waited for the train. It hooted and her schooled musical ear identified the note – C sharp. She thought it was the saddest sound she’d ever heard. On the ‘Look for Trains’ sign someone had drawn a cock spurting gobs of semen and Mary smiled faintly to herself. Wasn’t that really the truth, she wondered, wasn’t that what it all really came down to? It was a sham – all the Art, all the openings and exhibitions, all the highbrow exchanges and sensitive observations, the world of ideas she’d so naively bought in to, it was all just a sham – the real drives remained primitive and ugly, unchanged by thousands of years of ‘culture’. In the end all the art ever painted was as meaningless as the medication-induced hallucinations of her dying mother. In the end we remained animals, animals dressed in black tie and evening gowns, fucking like dogs in a back yard. Robert was just another alpha-male beating his chest and displaying his power, and Amanda just another submissive female presenting her backside to him to fuck. Maybe, Mary thought, that scribbled marker-pen cock was the most honest piece of art she’d ever seen.
She waited until the train had rounded the plantation and was only some 500 metres away, then squeezed the accelerator and eased the Land Cruiser gently forwards until it was straddling the railway lines.
Robert, who’d started to doze, suddenly shook himself awake with a jerk.
“What are you doing, woman? Have you gone mad?”
Mary looked towards the train bearing down on them. Its headlight blazed like the sun in Turner’s Regulus, flooding the car with a dazzling, forensic glare. The train hooted a warning and started to brake but it was too late to avoid a collision now. Mary seized Robert’s hand as it struggled frantically to release his seat belt.
“Ars longa, vita brevis, Robert,” she smiled.
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