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 from 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 to, having moved so far away from its characters, themes and sentiment. This is the fourth-last chapter, wherein Edward finally sees a light at the end of the tunnel.
Edward met Felicity at her house at eight and they walked around the corner to the local church. He had worn his only suit for the occasion, a dark blue pinstripe over a pale mustard shirt. Felicity wore a ballooning white skirt, a pale blue blouse and dark blue cardigan; her long black hair hung flat to the top of her bottom.
It promised to be a difficult sitting when they saw the uncushioned benches. Felicity curtseyed to the alter and slipped by, the hem of her skirt brushing Edward’s shin; the cotton half catching then springing away from his trousers. He slid along the bench after her.
“This is nice,” said Edward, shrugging.
The service began soon afterwards and Edward stared ahead, thinking only of the girl beside him. Neither he nor she was Catholic, but as students of Latin, this had seemed a curious excursion. It was not long before Edward was overcome with drowsiness, induced by the soft fragrance of Felicity. The slow rhythms of the Latin washed over him, spoken by an Italian-accented speaker with a cadence and elision usually neglected by unimaginative readers. The words hummed in the solid wooden pews; a language come back from the dead.
Amidst the press of Italian families, Edward and Felicity moved hardly a muscle. Forced close together, the fabric covering their upper arms touched lightly. The contact filled Edward with such a sensual languor that he was afraid of moving and breaking the spell. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Felicity was transfixed, though he did not know by what.
When at last it was over they stood up quickly to leave. It was just after eleven and they emerged into a mist of light rain.
“Well…,” Edward trailed. “That was kind of interesting.”
“I was pretty disappointed actually. It wasn’t as medieval as I’d expected.”
“Vatican Two is to blame.”
They began to move off under the dripping trees in the direction of Norton Street.
“What’s the point of Catholicism without the incense, mystery and chanting?” said Edward. “They’ve lost their schtick.”
“I know. And, hello, guitars and cow bells? Whatever…”
“Say no more.”
They hurried through the rain to Bar Italia, a busy, informal café; worn tables, ice-cream counter, movie posters and a bohemian crowd. The clash of plates and clink of spoons reverberated on the wet-footprinted tiles.
They ordered a fettucini melanzone and salata caprese to share. They drank tea and coffee and laughed about the service. When they had finished eating Felicity suggested going on a walk around the neighbourhood.
“It’s raining,” said Edward.
“But I want to get wet,” said Felicity.
She led him through the streets in her ballooning white skirt; small in stature and perfectly proportioned. All she lacked, thought Edward, was a wand trailing stardust. They came to a wide grassed pavement behind which lay railway tracks upon an embankment. Along the line of the fence an array of towering trees and flowering shrubs hung their branches to form bowers. In their romantic communal enthusiasm, the local residents had set up wooden benches, constructed from old wood, and painted with a fading assortment of blossoms.
They stood talking under an arched trellis until Edward decided to brave the wet bench. He wiped off the top slick and sat on the damp wood.
“You can sit in my lap, if you like,” he joked, putting his elbows up on the back of the bench.
“Alright,” she answered. “I should have known better than to wear white.”
“I’m sure the church-goers liked it. They love to fantasise about virgins.”
“Well don’t you get any ideas.”
She sat on his lap and he adjusted her weight until they were comfortable. Although he tried his hardest not to place his hands on her with obvious intent, the merest touch communicated more than he had intended to learn: the neat roundness of a thigh, the inward curve from hip to waist; hands where they might be in a more ardent encounter.
Felicity sat in Edward’s lap until his bottom went numb. They talked and talked and when she enthused about her favourite poets, Edward’s suffering increased tenfold. She too was a fan of the romantics, and after a time he could bear it no longer.
“I am dying to kiss you,” he said.
“What?” she said, genuinely surprised. “Oh no, you can’t say that, it isn’t fair.”
She twisted in his lap and looked at him.
“Why? I’m sorry,” he said. “But it’s the plain, simple truth.”
Edward leaned back to give her more room, relaxing his hold on her.
“But… This is such bad timing. I’ve just started seeing someone.”
“Oh? Really? I know. I mean, I didn’t know, but I should have known. That you must be, that is.”
He bit his lip.
“Someone like you would be, I guess. I wasn’t sure.”
She sat stiffly.
“You shouldn’t have said it.”
“That I wanted to kiss you?”
“Yes.” She turned her eyes away and moved further towards his knee. “It’s been a month now. It’s just turned the corner towards something more.”
Felicity stood up and so did Edward, she walked away a few feet and turned to look at him, smiling.
“I still want to kiss you,” Edward said. “Maybe it’s not too late.”
She looked at him pityingly, moving about on the spot.
“This is so unfair. It’s so confusing.”
She giggled nervously. She walked in a circle, looking up and then around, laughing when their eyes crossed.
“You know, I had a dream about you the other night,” she said. “You came to me in a Latin lecture and handed me an envelope. Inside there was a card with a heart in it, a simple heart cut out of paper and coloured in with red pencil. I hoped you were going to turn up after class, and then you didn’t, and I realised how much I wanted you to be around. That was Wednesday.”
“Well here I am!”
She laughed again and let her voice trail off in a frustrated whine, walking away again and turning to come back.
“It’s just such bad timing all this. No one should have to make this sort of decision.”
“So there is still a decision to be made then?”
“Oh, please, Edward, no, no. Don’t keep on about it.”
“I’m really sorry. Honestly, I should never have said anything. I wouldn’t have said a thing if I knew there was someone else. Something you said gave me hope. I thought you were just out of a relationship.”
“I was. I am. But then I met this other guy. He’s in third year. Undergrad.”
Never demean the opposition, thought Edward, just keep hoping.
They were both standing, facing each other, twisting on their feet and half smiling.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know. I always pick the wrong time.”
“It’s hard to get the timing right. Things just happen when they do.”
“Are you in love?” he asked.
Felicity began to nod, then slowly stopped. Gradually her head began to shake.
“Not yet. But there’s nothing wrong. Everything is nice with us. Maybe I will be.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again. “It just seemed so right here. Normally I don’t have the courage.”
She looked up slowly from the wet ground with mischievous eyes.
“It is right, and I want you to kiss me, but…”
“Perhaps I should try anyway?” Edward’s heart was pounding beneath his breastbone. All about him water was dripping. He could hear and smell and taste the world so well.
“I guess you could try,” she said, faintly.
Edward advanced rapidly, afraid of a change of heart. He put his arm around her waist and drew her in, and she placed her hands, a little cautiously, upon his shoulders. He closed his eyes and she closed hers, and their mouths came together in an awkward, mistimed kiss. Their teeth clashed. He kissed her again and she responded, but their mouths seemed not quite to fit, and they broke away, both feeling disjointed.
“Mmm,” said Edward. “Your face is even more beautiful up close.”
She skipped away from him.
“I thought our first kiss would be better than that,” she said. “I imagined you kissing me the way Ewan McGregor kisses.”
“How so?” asked Edward, a little shocked at the critique.
“I’ll have to show you,” she said, and she came for him, taking his face in both her hands and tipping her own face to one side. He tipped his head the other way and their lips met and this time they got the kiss right, full mouth sucking full mouth, their lips softer, more pliant. Edward warmed from his brief shock and Felicity seemed more enthusiastic now.
Once the kissing had begun it acquired its own momentum, moving forwards to familiarity and then to a sort of immediate necessity. Edward picked her up in his arms and held her there, kissing her further. Her small body was almost weightless and so he held her for minutes until he felt sure something larger must come of this.
An hour later she led him into her back yard and snuck him through the window into her bedroom.
Edward reached Parramatta Road at a trot, his coat flapping. With his breast thrust out, sloughing the wind, he might have warbled like a proud robin. The rain came on in clinging beads; undecided drizzle that reminded him he wore his only suit. It had been put through the motions this night and dawn, blessed and baptised then hung from a bed-post.
He swept under the tired awnings and faded signs, slowing to pace down the pavement. In the light spread evenly by the bright grey sky, he saw and loved this dirty, great road. Bereft of cars and with its bitumen black and clean, the run-down shop-fronts and two-bit businesses pooled forgotten glories.
He smelled her in the humidity of his warming body; her scent rising from his shirt as he thrust his arm out for a taxi.
“Good morning,” he said, settling in; relishing the soft neatness of the door’s closure. The driver smiled at him, happy simply to drive. Edward rested his hands on his knees and sighed. In the taxi, all he could smell was her. He could not stop smiling, despite his exhaustion. A vision of her naked form hung behind his eyes. Had it really happened? Had they really lain together, right through to the wet sunrise? Tired in the chest, his limbs just a little numb, he flowed home unhindered through lights that stayed green.
How he longed for a hot cup of tea. How lovely then to shower and towel, and simply to be so alive at dawn.