This is a chapter from a novel I wrote between 1998 and 2004 entitled Et in Antipodes, Ego. It was intended to be something of a romantic epic, but lacked sufficient gism to make it readable. Too long and slow, the romantic elements were based, at times quite painstakingly, on personal experiences I had in the period prior to its conception. The story centred around Edward Cockfoster and his uncovering of a literary controversy whilst writing a PhD on the fictional Australian author, Bryce Chapman. His unexpected, serendipitous success with his research contrasted with the failure of his relationship with the Cambridge-bound Pandora.
Whilst containing some, if I may say so myself, quite beautiful moments, there was too much pedantic and pedestrian detail which could only be described as self-indulgent. With the first draft running to 140,000 words, it was terribly overwritten, yet at the time I was too precious to take the axe to it in the way that was necessary. In retrospect, it was good “marathon training”, but not something I intend to go back, having moved so far away from its characters, themes and sentiment. This passage comes from, well, somewhere in the middle.
The Reliability of Change
“So come on then, what’s the big surprise?”
Edward was standing in a bath full of hot water and bubbles. The soft pop and tickle on his shins was a welcome distraction from the mild scalding his feet had just received. They were at Pandora’s parents’ house, having taken the opportunity of their absence to indulge in a little luxury.
“I told you I would show you once we were in the bath,” said Pandora.
“Well, how is the water?”
“It’s a bit of a shock at first, but after that…”
He began to lower himself into the bath. Pandora removed her towel and poked a pointed foot in at the other end. “Ooh, it does feel hot,” she said. Edward emitted a high-pitched whine as his testicles touched the hot water. They tingled fiercely; a delicious sensation.
“Where is it hidden?” he asked, rubbing his delicacy.
Pandora stepped fully into the bath and stood over him, smirking. Her high, pointed breasts sporting long, erect nipples.
“On the chair. Under the towel.”
She placed her hands on her hips. “Do I look like an Amazon?” she asked; sounding English, like her mother.
“You need a tan,” he said, “and one less breast.”
“Oh goodness, I forgot about that.”
Your shoulders are a tad too round as well, was Edward’s unvoiced thought.
“So come on, how about this surprise?” he said. “We are both now in the bath after all.”
“I’m not fully in yet.”
Edward tutted. “Well… I’m going to have to lift up the towel.”
“No, wait. Close your eyes.”
“Now we’re talking.”
Edward slid down in the bath so that his mouth was level with the foam. He closed his eyes to a world of red warmth. He heard Pandora lifting the towel, imagined her leaning and reaching. Then he felt a soft tap on the head; something light and thin.
He reached out awkwardly and grabbed what she was holding.
“Da da!” said Pandora, as Edward opened his eyes. In his hands was a set of plastic farm animals, still in the cardboard-backed, clear plastic package.
“Fantastic!” said Edward. “You found the duck and geese set!”
Edward stared lovingly at the packet; steamed and wet from his hands.
“Can I open it?”
He pulled free the plastic cover and released the animals: two ducks and a goose.
“These are quality ducks,” said Edward, admiring them.
Pandora nodded, then leaned over and reached for her dressing gown.
“And look,” she said, “I brought Otto and Merrylegs as well.” From the dressing gown pocket she produced a plastic sheep and border collie.
“Brilliant.” Edward lined the new animals up along the edge of the bath. Pandora placed Otto and Merrylegs next to them, then sat down in the water.
“So, what shall we call these fine ducks?” asked Edward.
“They must have names that match their aristocratic looks.”
They examined them closely for a moment.
“I think this one looks quite cheeky,” said Edward. “He might be a bit of a womaniser.”
“I think they’re both womanisers,” said Pandora. “This one’s awfully sure of himself.”
Pandora nestled further into the foam, pushing her legs past Edward’s hips. She studied the ducks a moment longer.
“Casanova,” she said. “Let’s call one of them Casanova.”
“Cool,” laughed Edward. “I was thinking of the name Rudolf.”
“Wonderful, duckest. Rudolf and Casanova it is.”
“Does it matter which one is which?”
“I don’t think so. They can be like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.”
They lay back and played with the animals; walking them over foam hills and down to popping dales. When the bubbles vanished, they swam the small ducks through the cooling water, then ran more hot and paddled it around.
After their bath, Edward and Pandora cooked pasta for dinner, then settled down to eat in front of The Bridges of Madison County. Sitting behind an oil heater, legs covered by a picnic blanket, they marvelled at Meryl Streep’s accent. When the film was finished they sat on stools in the kitchen and ate ice-cream.
“It’s a very sad movie,” said Pandora. “Beautiful and sad.”
“Beautifully sad,” said Edward, his teeth aflame with cold.
“There was a lot of truth in that movie,” said Pandora. “That line about change being the only thing you can depend on in life, and not to be afraid of it. It really is true.”
“I suppose. For better or for worse, change happens.”
“And if it is for worse, then next time it might be for the best.”
Edward switched on the electric jug and stood with his eyes lowered. He did not look up when Pandora touched his shoulder.
“Duck,” she said, “are you alright?”
“Of course. I was just thinking about the movie.”
“It really was very good.”
She took two teacups from the cupboard.
“You look sad,” she said.
“I feel a bit sad,” said Edward. He looked at Rudolf and Casanova, sitting on the kitchen bench. “I don’t want things to change. I want things to stay the same.”
“Poor, sad duck.” She took his upper arm and turned him to face her. “Your little squirrel still loves you.”
Edward stuck out his lower lip.
“But you won’t always be my little squirrel, will you?”
“What do you mean?”
He rubbed his nose.
“I mean, if you do go to Cambridge. Everything will change and you’ll leave me for someone else.”
“Edward, that’s a horrible thing to say. What makes you think I’ll leave you?”
“I don’t know. You said that when you got overseas you’d have to think about everything again. Re-evaluate how you relate to everything.”
“Well, firstly there’s no when about it. And anyway, what sort of person do you think I am? How do you think that reflects on me?”
“I don’t mean it like that.”
“Don’t you think I’m telling you the truth when I tell you I love you?”
“That’s not what I mean. It’s just that you’ll be far away and you’ll meet other men and you’ll forget about me. Change. It’s inevitable – the one thing you can depend upon.”
“Edward, that’s a horrid thing to say, when you make it mean that.”
Pandora’s eyes went moist and her lip faltered.
“You’ll just as soon find another girlfriend,” she said, her voice quivering. “If anyone’s shown evidence of poor character in the past, it’s you, Edward.”
“No I won’t,” he said. “I don’t ever want another girlfriend.” He reached out toward her and she pushed his hand away.
“I’m sorry, Panda. I didn’t want to make you upset. It’s just I was thinking about what you said the other week – that you would have to think about everything again. I’ve been despairing about it ever since.”
“Why do you have to bring that up now?”
“Why did you have to say that in the first place?”
“What you said was cruel.”
“So was what you said. You know how afraid I am of you going.”
She pushed back her hair and folded her arms.
“But you’re always pressuring me to reassure you. I have to be realistic. And anyway, I didn’t necessarily mean I’d have to think twice about you.”
“Well, what did you mean?”
“I don’t know, Edward, I don’t know. I don’t think you should have said what you did. You’re the one who’s going to find someone else if anyone is.”
“Well if I’m of such poor character, why don’t you leave me now? If that’s what you think, how do I know you won’t try to get in first?”
Pandora began to sob, shaking her head. The electric jug clicked and Edward inclined his head toward it, Pandora’s eyes followed his and they both stared at the steam pouring from the lip of the jug. Pandora tried to hold her position but had to unfold her arms to wipe her tears and rub her eyes.
“Why do you have to ruin everything, Edward? I don’t need all this extra pressure. It’s hard enough as it is, waiting and not knowing.”
Edward set his jaw. He felt as if he was falling and was uncertain how hard the ground might be.
“Well I’m in the same boat. Except whereas you stand to win, I only stand to lose.”
“Well that isn’t my fault! So stop taking it out on me.”
She stared at him with her red eyes wide and cheeks blotched with anger and Edward could not meet her gaze. He looked again at the jug and felt ashamed.
“But can’t you stop making me feel so insecure?” It was a measured half-whisper, keeping his eyes low.
“You started this. I’m not the one who should be making concessions.”
Edward moved towards the jug and poured the hot water into the two cups.
“Do you still want tea?” he asked. She stared at him and said nothing, so he turned around and tried to meet her gaze, but again he felt ashamed and cast his eyes to the floor.
“I’m sorry, Panda. I didn’t want to have a fight.”
“Well what did you expect?” she snapped. “You can’t just say things like that and expect me not to react. You should have said nothing at all.”
He nodded solemnly, easing himself into penance.
“I’m sorry. I don’t want to argue any more.”
“I never wanted to argue in the first place. You have to stop torturing me about this – and yourself. Even if I’m going I don’t start until October, and that’s six months away. How do you know whether or not things will change?”
Edward shrugged weakly and picked up the jug. He poured both cups in silence, then jiggled the tea bags. It was true, he didn’t know if she was going and worrying about it would change nothing. Then again, he thought, staring into the worn and holed yellow stove-mit hanging from a hook in front of him, for better or for worse, change was the one thing upon which he could depend and, from a starting point of rare happiness, things could only get worse.
Edward slipped his arms through the dressing gown and pulled it across his chest. He was nearly out the bedroom door when Pandora mumbled: “Do you have to be such a big, noisy monster, Duck?”
“Sorry,” he breathed. “I have to go to the toilet.”
She said nothing more and he closed the door behind him. After going to the bathroom, he was taken with the idea of a cheese sandwich and walked on through to the kitchen.
Edward’s thoughts had kept him awake for some time and eventually he had found the effort to lie still too taxing to endure. He was heavily prone to insomnia. At home he would lie awake for hours, sweating tight little beads. After a time he would throw the sheets off and listen to his heartbeat, all the while trying to concentrate on breathing steadily and doing anything other than listening to his heartbeat. At night everything seemed so impossible, but when the morning came and everything was possible again, he would be too tired to address whatever had kept him awake. The inefficiency of it was maddening.
He took bread and butter from the fridge and began to search for cheese. A moment later he spotted a hunk of neatly-wrapped cheddar.
What had compelled him to ruin the evening with Pandora? He should have known what would come of raising the question of her departure again. Again, the inefficiency of it all was maddening. All he had hoped for was a night of lovemaking and a long, easy sleep. He and Pandora rarely spent the night together anymore, not that they had ever done so very often. The habit had formed at Pandora’s instigation, for she did not like to have her rest disturbed and tended to sleep an hour or so later than Edward, who hopped up shortly after dawn.
He took a plate from the cupboard and began to slice the cheese.
Their first ever night together had been an awkward squeeze in Edward’s bed and neither of them slept a wink. At five that morning a flatbed truck had huffed and clanked into the back lane and Vietnamese voices unloaded huge sacks of flour for the bakery next door. Fatigue was the talking point of the coming day and the following night they slept apart.
Edward buttered the bread and began arranging the cheese on his sandwich. In those first few late November days, now more than a year ago, all Edward had longed for was a holiday from work and good sense; for the chance to plunge into love. Having yearned for Pandora to the point of distraction for so many months beforehand and having found his feelings requited, he had rather hoped that the intensity of his passion would also be requited. Yet soon the exhaustion of the chase became matched by the exhaustion of the beginning and their love-life began in syncopation; halting progress and mounting failure. Such was Edward’s concern to get things right that he was unable for many weeks to rise to the occasion. Deeply disappointed by this and considerably embarrassed, despite his attempts to dismiss the paradigmatic anxieties of masculinity, the more he failed, the harder he was inclined to try. Every time he went home alone was a missed opportunity to prove his prowess or, at least, his basic competence, until, exhausted by desire and unable to convince Pandora that they should spend the night together more often, he was forced to admit that sex was a lesser priority and to agree that sleeping soundly made more sense than lying awake in discomfort. So it was that Edward went back to masturbating, and with the steam let out, everything began to go more smoothly.
He finished the preparation of his sandwich, cut it down the middle and, poured a glass of milk.
For all his agonising over their sex life, Edward was over the moon to be with Pandora in those first months. When she moved from her old room to a new and furnished flat in the same suburb, acquiring a double bed in the process, Edward was allowed to stay at weekends. By this time, however, he had become so used to parting at the end of the night, even after lovemaking, that he rarely did stay over. When he did, he rose early and left first thing to avoid being reprimanded for reading too loudly. The new discipline they came to encourage in each other had entrenched itself, and the anxieties of the beginning had passed sufficiently to smother the desperation for her to be there always. Needless to say, he preferred it when she was.
How long it now seemed since they had established these rhythms. How certain he was that change must come. Why this must happen, even when a flawless happiness had been so painstakingly established, was anyone’s guess.
Edward chose to eat in the lounge-room. Before him the dark windows swayed with liquidambar. Starlight flowed across the floor like the glimpse of a river through trees and ran to the low shelves alongside the hearth. Edward traced the paintbrush curves to a set of bold letters, stark against a dark spine on the shelves: The Atlas of the Viking World. He squinted at the title a while, then took this quarto volume and placed it in his lap.
Below the title he could just make out a photo of a grass-roofed bungalow, built of stone and sunk in soft dips of hill. From the grey chimney rose a long rope of smoke, barely visible against the grass and overcast sky. Inside he imagined a warm fire and a long table, a double cot and a smoky smell at dawn in the high places. It was coziness and isolation; a nest for lovers who needed nothing more than each other; where even through acres of grey, the sunlight fell, if muted. There everything was narrowed to simplicity; and there, across oceans of time and distance and under a roof of grass, Edward might know that they were together for good.
He chewed into his sandwich with a thick throat, wondering what on earth there was to eat in those empty hills.