Saturday, February 16, 2008


‘Telephone Alice.’
Alice Robinson pushed herself away from the computer workstation where she was working on the Elle Decoration Hong Kong internet site. She headed back to her office and picked up the phone.
A man’s voice came over the line. ‘It’s Paul … Paul Schofield.’
Alice’s throat tightened. ‘Hello Paul.’ It had been years since she’d heard his voice. She tried to concentrate on what he was saying.
‘A car accident. Dom’s going to be okay … the whole thing is a horrible mess. A young man has died. She wants you to come.’
She took a deep steadying breath. ‘But she’s okay?’
‘Can you come soon? She’s pretty fragile.’
From her memory of her twin sister, Dominique, her fragile exterior hid a steely determination to get what she wanted. But maybe she had changed. They both had to grow up, Alice thought. ‘I’ll try to get on a plane tonight.’
Paul’s voice relaxed. ‘That’s great. Thank you, Alice. I understand it will be difficult … to leave your work and everything. Let me know your arrival time. I’ll pick you up from the airport.’
‘Don’t worry, Paul. I’ll get a taxi. I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
Alice hung up and walked on shaky legs to her boss’s office. Janice Chung, the new young, wiz kid editor of Elle Hong Kong, tended to put work before everything.
But a boy had died. Alice shivered and cursed herself for not getting more details from Paul, but she’d been too shocked by the sound of his voice coming out of the past, to think straight.
Understandably, Jamie was exasperated. No one at the magazine could write about food quite like her, she reminded Alice. And there was the next edition …
There was always the next edition. Alice did have vacation time coming, she pointed out. When Janice shrugged and capitulated, she rang the airlines and booked a seat on a plane leaving at eight o’clock. She put down the phone, wondering if her job would still be here when she returned.
Leaving Cyberport, she caught a mini-bus back to her Causeway Bay apartment. She grabbed clothes from the closet and drawers and thrust them into her case, adding a bag of toiletries from the tiny bathroom. She swept all the food from the refrigerator shelves into a garbage bag and took it down the hall to the chute, returning to prop the refrigerator door open. She had no idea how long she would be gone. A few days could turn into a month. One hand on the doorknob, she gazed around her at the small space that had been her home for the best part of ten years. The narrow galley kitchen just big enough for one. The shared roof garden off the lounge with its rows of potted Chinese herbs that her neighbour boiled up to treat sick friends.
Alice shut the door. There was a lingering smell of salty dried fish in the hall. It all seemed suddenly foreign and unfamiliar, as if she’d woken from a long sleep. But she didn’t have time to consider it. The taxi waited to take her to Chek Lap Kok. She sat in the back and tried to order her thoughts as they drove through the blue-grey fog, the leafy green giving way to the rim of high-rise under the shadow of Victoria peak and the teeming, neon-lit city streets. Crossing Victoria Harbour, she watched the bright red lights of the ferries as they cruised the choppy waters.
The cab turned onto the long driveway. Alice rolled down the car window and let the autumn sun warm her arm. She could hear the hum of bees, busy among the rusty-coloured leaves of the she-oaks. A steep, slate roof dotted with chimneys appeared above the treetops and the stone house came into view, a Century old now. Her grandmother’s house.
She’d left the day of the wedding, carrying with her images burned into her memory of coloured lights and champagne, a marquee pitched on the lawn. Dominique’s peel of laughter as her veil billowed out like a white sail in the wind.
As the taxi pulled up, Alice’s thoughts returned to the present. She climbed out, smoothing her skirt, feeling unprepared, sticky and rumpled after the long flight.
Paul came down the steps towards her, still slim in jeans and a t-shirt. ‘Hello, Alice.’ His lips brushed her face, one hand resting briefly on her shoulder. She caught a hint of spice from his newly shaven cheek as he pulled away.
‘How is Dom, Paul?
‘She’s going to be okay. We’ll talk inside.’
She watched him pull her luggage from the boot and pay off the driver. She’d expected her memories of him to be flawed, that he would in any event be changed by the years, but he looked much the same. The warmth and humour that had always lurked in his grey eyes was absent, though. It was to be expected, of course, but she found herself disappointed. His dark brows drew together in concentration as he hoisted her bag over his shoulder and set the larger case on its wheels. When he bent his head, she saw threads of white hair amongst the black. Did he find her much changed?
He straightened and turned towards her with a gentle smile. ‘How long do you plan to stay?’
‘Sorry. I can never pack light.’ She shrugged and laughed, her voice sounding hollow to her ears.
‘Dom’s looking forward to seeing you.’
She felt her stomach contract, a gnawing feeling that had begun when she had first heard the news. ‘Can I see her today?’
‘Best leave it. She’s pretty doped up. The doctor says she can come home tomorrow.’
‘So soon?’
‘Her physical injuries are healing, but she’s still in shock.’
When they entered the house, the first thing that struck her was the quiet. She followed him into the wide hallway past the marble statue of Pan on its plinth. Dominique had inherited it along with the house from their maternal grandmother, Cècile. All the women in the family had been given French names, right back to their French, great-great-grandmother. It was a tradition that Alice and Dominique were expected to carry on. But such an edict from strong-minded Cecile had seemed to Alice like testing fate, and here they were over thirty and both childless.
She followed Paul up the stairs. ‘Has Dom remembered anything more?’
‘No. Shock induced amnesia they’re calling it.’
Leading her into a bedroom on the first floor, he threw her suitcase onto the bed, as if it was empty, instead of crammed with clothes. She wasn’t sure what was in it now, she had packed in such a panic. She wasn’t particularly good at packing, even with time to plan she always threw in too much, just in case.
This had been her room, since Cècile had taken them in when their parents died. She and Dom were thirteen. There was nothing of her that remained here. You can’t come home, she thought, and pick up the pieces of a discarded life. She looked around the bedroom at Dom’s careful decorating. A lovely old dresser, an expensive Oriental rug, a chair upholstered in blue and white striped chintz placed in the alcove. A dainty table beside it held coffee-table books and magazines, forming an inviting nook. The brocade drapes at the window had been recently pulled back, and stirred-up dust motes rode the rays of the late afternoon sun. Dom used to be an assiduous housekeeper.
Paul gave the room a satisfied glance. ‘I think you’ll be comfortable here.’
Alice leaned back against the wide window ledge. Below her, the cliff fell away to the sea – azure blue near the coast deepening to indigo further out. A huge container ship squatted on the horizon. ‘Did you remember that this was my room when Cècile was alive?’
He glanced away towards the door. ‘I’d forgotten to be frank. I’ll leave you to unpack and rest. You’ve had a long journey. Come down for a drink later and we’ll order takeaway.’
If he’d been aware of how desperately she’d loved him once, he’d certainly forgotten it now. Paul had been a handsome young law student, who had made her laugh. She knew he had his own law practice now, in Newport, acquired after he married her twin. Was it a good marriage? As the door closed behind him, memories she had blotted out that had no business intruding now, made her sink onto the bed, her limbs leaden. Her journey seemed to stretch back over years, far longer than the twelve hours it had taken to get here.
She kicked off her shoes and propped a musty-smelling pillow under her head. Ten years! She’d been twenty-two when her undeclared and unrequited love for Paul Schofield had thrown her life completely out of kilter and set her on quite a different road than the one she’d planned.
She was jolted out of a dream and sat up too quickly, her head spinning. The room had grown dark. An overhead light flashed on, blinding her for a moment, and then her eyes focused. Paul stood just inside the doorway. ‘It’s eight o’clock – I wasn’t sure whether or not to wake you.’
‘I’m glad you did.’ She’d been dreaming that she was falling – that awful sickening drop, never reaching the bottom.
‘I’ve taken the liberty of ordering some Chinese. Hope that’s okay. It’ll be here soon.’
She pushed her legs over the side of the bed and jumped up. ‘Oh, you must be starving. I’m sorry. I’ll be down in a moment.’
She combed her mussed hair and reapplied some lipstick, then made her way down stairs. The lofty rooms echoed emptily as she crossed the polished floors. She found Paul in the formal lounge. He’d left the chandelier unlit, preferring the small lamps dotted about the room. A fire blazed in the fireplace. It wasn’t a cold night, but the warmth was soothing. On the coffee table in front of the fireplace were two plates laid out with napkins. A bottle of soy sauce sat incongruously beside the Wedgwood china.
Paul stood as she came into the room. ‘You still look so much like Dom,’ he said, sadly, she thought. ‘Same white-blonde hair. Dom wears it short now. Seems a shame to me.’
‘Same damn freckles.’
‘You should stay out of the sun. Wine?’ He held up two bottles.
She nodded. ‘Red thanks. I try, but in Hong Kong?’
‘Just a sprinkling,’ he said. ‘They suit you. Dom doesn’t go out in the sun much.’
‘She used to love the beach.’ Aware that he was studying her, her hand went to her neck, threading her silver chain through her fingers.
Paul pulled the cork and poured. ‘Not anymore.’
She took a sip from the glass he handed her and settled back on the cream damask settee. It was good wine. ‘Can you tell me more about what happened?’
He poured himself a glass of chardonnay, a cool, golden swirl in the crystal wineglass. ‘Not much more than I told you on the phone, I’m afraid. I hated Dom coming home so late from work. But there’s no telling her is there?’
Alice shook her head. Dom hadn’t changed.
'She was afraid she wouldn’t be ready for the exhibition. It was past midnight when she drove along the highway, just before Avalon where the road curves in an arc above the beach. You know the spot.’
She nodded.
He took a sip from his glass and she saw his hand tremble. ‘An SUV came up beside her – no one else around – and proceeded to deliberately push her off the road.’ He paused as if to acknowledge the horror of it. ‘When they banged into the side, she spun out of control and rolled it. Her car came to rest just above a sheer drop. Her petrol tank was close on empty. It was that, the police said that caused the car to burst into flames, fumes apparently. At first, they thought she’d been thrown out, but she pulled herself out, evidently. She was found in amongst the trees, three metres from the car.’
‘And the … body?’
‘Still in the car.’
‘The police still haven’t identified him?’
He shook his head. ‘Too badly burnt. It’s going to take some time. A hitchhiker. Dom picked him up a few kilometres back.’
‘She didn’t see who was at the wheel of the other vehicle?’
‘No. Too dark, presumably.’
‘Or she can’t remember.’
They sat silently for a moment, staring into the fire, until the door bell rang.
‘That will be the food,’ Paul said, rising to his feet. ‘We have some good takeaway outlets around here now. It’s been great for me, I hate cooking.’
She found she wasn’t the slightest bit hungry.
They ate with just the crackle of flames breaking the silence. To Alice, the Satay prawns tasted like paper and she pushed them to one side. She forked rice onto her plate and sprinkled Soy over it.
‘I’m sorry it’s Chinese, I didn’t think,’ he said, running a hand through his hair. ‘It probably isn’t very good.’
‘It’s fine. I’m mainly vegetarian these days.’
‘I wish you’d told me.’
‘You had more important things on your mind.’
‘I’m glad you’re here. It’s eased my mind. Dom used to rely on you quite a lot as I remember.’
‘Not after she met you.’
‘No.’ He looked down at his meal and pushed the food around on his plate. ‘I felt bad that you two fought and separated the way you did. For a long time I hoped you’d make it up.’
‘Well, I’m here.’
He looked relieved. ‘Blood’s thicker than water.’
She put down her empty glass. ‘Yes.’
She shook her head. ‘Not a good idea. I’m a bit jet-lagged.’
He smiled. ‘You were always the sensible one, Ang.’
He meant it as a compliment, she supposed, but it smote at her, mixing uncomfortably with his use of Dom’s pet name for her. No one called her Ang or Angel anymore. Not since she’d left Australia. Like most pet names, it arose from a joke and stuck. Did it mean she was to resume their former role-playing? She the sensible one, Dom allowed to behave badly, after all, she was a talented artist. I must be tired, Alice thought. I’m sounding childish. ‘How is Dom’s career progressing? I’ve tried to keep up with it via the internet. She’s had some very good press.’
‘She now has a backer.’ His mouth curved down in disdain. ‘A patron of the arts. He believes her to be one of the best contemporary artists working in Australia.’
‘That’s high praise indeed.’
‘His name is Hew McBride.’
‘We haven’t heard of him in Hong Kong.’
‘Big fish in a small pond. Throws his weight around a lot in Sydney and into many things other than art. Some of them questionable.’
‘And you don’t like him.’
‘No, I don’t like him.’ Paul frowned. ‘He’s a well heeled, well mannered, thug. You’ll get to meet him, no doubt. He comes here often. Dom does a bit of work at home, in the studio we built in the garden.’
Paul sounded jealous. It was clear he still loved Dom. Not surprising. She had always been exciting and unpredictable, attracting both men and women to her in droves.
‘I want to hear about you. Your life in Hong Kong and your work,’ he said emphatically, breaking into Alice’s thoughts.
‘Nothing much to tell, really. I write culinary articles for a magazine as you know.’
‘But you do more than that, don’t you? You photograph it, too, I believe.’
‘How do you know that?’
He smiled. ‘I use the net too.’ She laughed as he said, ‘And many a lonely evening, eating my takeaway, I’ve lusted over your gastronomic delights.’
A feeling of warmth spread through her not just from the fire. ‘I’ve been offered a coffee-table book deal, actually.’
‘You’ll do it, of course.’
‘It will help pay the bills.’
‘Will you ever come back to Australia to live, do you think?’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think so. I might go to England, though.’
He held up the wine bottle again. ‘One more glass can’t hurt.’
She relented and watched him pour.
‘Why haven’t you married?’ he asked her.
The suddenness of the question made her start. She spilled a few drops of wine as she raised the glass to her lips.
‘There was someone.’
‘Past tense?’
She merely nodded, too exhausted to tell him about the wasted years caught up with her much older boss, her mentor in her lonely, foolish early twenties. And it suddenly didn’t seem right to be cosy here with him when Dom was in hospital. She took another quick sip of wine, then put down the glass and rose.
‘Forgive me, Paul. I’m still tired. Thanks for dinner.’
He stood and took her hand. ‘Welcome home. I wish it were under better circumstances, but some good has come from this tragedy.’
I hope that’s true, she thought, as she climbed the stairs to her room, but she wished she felt more confident about it.

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