Margaret Mead took a steam packet to observe the strange habits of Samoans. What I learned of another bizarre culture, that of the well-heeled, inner-city, hip-left crowd required no travel agent or suitcase, just a mad and misplaced love.
It began years ago at a wedding, where I glanced across a candlelit table and spied a woman who wore red and an air of pensive vulnerability that was, for reasons I still cannot fully grasp, immensely appealing to a newly divorced and still-rattled man. I introduced myself and we talked and talked and talked. There was so much we had in common. Extended stints in a foreign city – golly, we’d almost been neighbours! — and neither of us harbouring any lingering affection for that metropolis. A shared love of the alpine bush, plus a pair of very recently broken hearts. By evening’s end I was very nearly in love. No, damn it, that’s not right. When you notice the curve of a woman’s neck and think it’s the most exquisite thing, you’re smitten well and truly.
Let me call her Coral and know that the way we clicked like fasteners on a suitcase still makes my heart skip a beat. It wasn’t long before we were breaking from our workaday desks to dash across town and snatch a few minutes of lunch and kisses, each gripped by a passion so strong that one day, when inspecting a summer house I was thinking of renting, we fell without a word upon a bare mattress and had it. This was love as I had never known it, not even as a teenager, and by that stage I was well into my fifties. Beneath my feet, nothing but air.
There was a problem, though: politics. Know that on my desk there is a bust of Ronald Reagan and that my views run to a libertarian conservatism. Coral was different. In her front window she had placed a large brass peace symbol — a proclamation, as she explained it, of her commitment to love, honesty and tolerance. Global warming, wind turbines, the mortal sin of failing to recycle were likewise articles of her guiding faith. Her friends and circle were of the same stamp and colour, mostly and loudly green. Never before had I encountered such a dense concentration of lockstep likemindedness, nor ever before such intolerance.
The first trouble came at a dinner with a couple who did rather nicely by pumping out glossy guff for the eco-living set. The conversation turned to plans for a deeper shipping channel in Port Phillip, a project which had inspired whale lovers and champions of scallops to mount protests in the courts and on the water. Perhaps fishing for kudos, the male of our dining partners related how he had been out that very morning with a blockading flotilla of surfboards and paddlers, all determined to save the seagrass from Big Dredge. If the channel deepening wasn’t stopped, it seemed a hard rain of blood and toads would not be out of the question.
I took the bait, explained why lowering a strip of sea floor would not prompt the flooding of St Kilda. There were shocked looks and the topic died by immediate, unspoken consent. It was always the way: stating a greenish position was enough in itself. Should that be questioned or confronted with a counter-assertion, there could be no debate. “Don’t provoke my friends with your opinions,” was Coral’s angry admonition as we walked to the car. Ah, my introduction to the speech codes of the inner-city! Noisome flatulence would have been more welcome than my heresies. As I soon learnt, only the irredeemably corrupt and morally wretched dispute “the facts” as their virtuous betters prefer to present them. Funny thing, that: a half-remembered alarum from some ABC eco-shockumentary is “evidence” while primary sources, such as the Climategate emails, are but mischief and propaganda, and quite probably forged to boot.
Our affair continued until it wilted for reasons – full disclosure! — that had much to do with my post-divorce inconsistency, but we stayed in touch every now and then, “remaining friends”, as they say. Then Coral took up with a fellow who crafted outrageously priced mantelpiece ornaments out of spare bits of forest. I thought them irredeemably twee, the modern equivalent of non-ironic flying ducks. She liked them, a chief recommendation being the prices he could get for arrangements of bright and cheerful sticks. The thought that she was with him was a torment. In my heart, as I had always known, I wanted to rekindle what had been and guttered.
Then, months later and out of the blue, a chance reunion in a post office queue led to coffees and a long chat. Something resembling the fires of old began to flare, even as Coral explained that her new swain’s daughter was to be married in Bali and she was to sit beside the bride’s father at the head table.
I expressed a faux happiness for her. Marriage, I asked? My heart sank at the thought she would soon be lost to me, finally and forever. The hollow where shoulder meets throat, those peculiar lips and perfect ears, I wanted in that moment to kiss them all once more and make the calendar run backwards. Something similar was stirring in her breast. As we talked and texted with greater frequency over the next few months, she began to detail where her new partner fell short. He was consumed with guilt for the infidelity that ended his first marriage, she said, could talk only of his “pushy, go-getter” daughter, his wine collection and his shame. Worse than that, he had been financing his wooing with credit cards. I didn’t ask, just assumed, she had been peeking at his bank statements. That thing with money again.
“But your friends find him acceptable,” I ventured, “which is more than they ever thought of me.”
“But it’ll never be what we had,” she said.
Her mother, a retired teacher and veteran lefty, approved of him, and that was no small thing. “A simple footy club kinda bloke” who would never challenge Mum Cheryl’s command of those beloved and selective “facts”. My politics, on the other hand, prompted maternal cautions that Coral risked becoming “a right-winger”. As her mother was ailing and there was a considerable inheritance at issue, these objections probably carried more weight than I realised at the time.
The lines of communication slowly re-opened: emails, phone calls, long snail-mails examining where we had gone so wrong. Just before that year’s Easter, she asked if I wanted to go with her to an “alternative lifestyle” festival, of all places, in southern NSW. I joined her on the sly, her lover led to believe she was with a girlfriend. He would have been much chagrined to know I set up the tent he loaned her and that, as I hammered its pegs, she joked about how neatly it had been packed and folded. “Boring Bob,” as she called him, “would have enjoyed putting it away properly.” We giggled and soon fled the hippies to shack up at a beach house whose keys I borrowed from a mate. It was there she told me she would leave him, that she would die of boredom if she didn’t, and several weeks later she made good on her word.
Instead of accompanying him to Bali, she went with me. I was higher than the plane from Tullamarine to Denpasar.
And so we resumed through stops and starts, though never with the same mad passion as before. My transgressions from our earlier incarnation had bequeathed not-quite-buried resentments. And there was politics again. Alone we were fine, able to speak freely and frankly about everything and anything, but that wasn’t the case when I accompanied her to parties and the like. There could be no rational discussions, not within earshot of her righteous circle.
At her 50th birthday party, she begged me not to come. I did as bid and waited outside to drive her home. At another party, the wag raising the toast made derisive mention of Andrew Bolt, a gag apropos of nothing relevant to the day but which drew an immediate gale of Pavlovian howls. These people applaud on cue, I thought; they applaud to be seen applauding. Very much alone in that crowd, to my ears the laughter sounded more like the bleating of a particularly inbred and extraordinarily self-satisfied flock. As I drifted alone and un-introduced through the throng – Coral always made it a point to abandon me on such occasions – the topics of conversation might have constituted any ABC midday news bulletin: the wickedness of the Coalition, the cruel plight of those in Nauru’s “concentration camp”, the heroism of Julia Gillard, our poor planet’s ongoing degeneration. But I loved Coral, believed there was so much more to her than could be found in any of any of her shallow pals. Love does that, makes excuses most of all.
As to her friends, she kept my profile with them even smaller than before. There was one exception, though, a couple whose acceptance I had earned, or so I suspect, by biting my tongue when they fretted about global warming and, inevitably, the flesh-crawling presence known as Tony Abbott. Don’t get me wrong, they’re nice enough people, but entirely of a very predictable kind. He did something lucrative with computers and had recently spent six months on transfer in Europe, were Coral joined them as a third wheel for a jaunt through the south of France. Her delight as I chauffeured her to the airport was that, while a couch might be uncomfortable, only a few days’ accommodation in the month-long trip would come out of her own pocket. Always, that thing with money and personal advantage.
I must admit the month apart was something of a relief, for while I had wanted the relationship to resume with the ardour of before, it had taken a less satisfying tack. It seemed to me – and this is, obviously, an entirely subjective view — that she took markedly less interest in me, my life, work and projects than before. My chief value was as a listener when she poured out her worries, tribulations and, most of all, a slate of insecurities. Her boss (“such a bitch”) sometimes placed her name last on group emails, so did that mean she was out of favour? Her workmates couldn’t be trusted, were probably telling tales to the boss in order to make her look bad. Her employer’s chief client, a large consumer business, wasn’t doing well and what would that mean if the receivers were called in? I held her tight because I loved her — these days she was seldom receptive to more than that — and I cooed that she shouldn’t worry, that she was smart enough to set up shop on her own. One night, when the light caught the colour in her hair, I told her she was beautiful and it was met with an icy stare. Like other frostiness and rejections, it came after a social function at which the embarrassment of being seen with a conservative, judging by her reaction, must have been near unbearable.
That she loved me I didn’t doubt and still don’t. Alone together in the bush or at a weekend cottage, it was the old days reborn. Back in the city, the inner city to be more precise, I was a social liability. When love is not blind it remains myopic, so I shrugged off my doubts and tried harder to be the man I thought she wanted. Landscaping and re-building her backyard, for example, was not so much a chore but an act of repentance for my fecklessness of years earlier. What the heck, eh? I could use the physical exercise. It was a happy fool’s serenade to the accompaniment of spade and sledgehammer.
Then came the dinner party that ended it all, the Night of the Disastrous Ducks.
The evening began well and continued on that path for some time, all cheerful chatter and inconsequential gossip, much of it, once again, about people not present and their money, trips, whatever. He – let me call him Sprocket – was a mad cyclist and regaled us over my canard l’orange with tales of kilometres covered, plus his purchase of yet another remarkably expensive bicycle. He told us that he now had nine of them and made that revelation with the mock-apologetic air of a dipsomaniac presenting his inability to pass an open bottle as an endearing weakness. I smiled as the cost of the machines was detailed. More money talk. Yawn. Perhaps it was my imagination but it seemed his wife was gloating just a bit as the details of wealth and conspicuous consumption unfolded. “She didn’t get to have kids but she got the life she wanted,” Coral had said of her old classmate, whose pedalling partner already had a couple from a previous marriage. “She was always going to get to the money somehow.”
And there the night might have ended had it not been for a random mention of TV’s Waleed Aly, whom both our guests agreed was just the most wonderful man. Maybe my restraint was loosened by the impish thought that two people who could decry inequality in one breath and boast of a five-figure bicycle shed in the next would benefit from a gentle goosing. Or perhaps it was the wine. Most likely it was both.
I noted that Aly had written of Islamic terrorism as being no worse than “a perpetual irritant” and could always be expected, after every latest massacre, to emit a stream of pious pablum. Straight away, sure as night follows day, came the rote and instant accusation of Islamophobia. A suspicion of Islam, I countered, was no groundless fear but the logical response to repeated attacks by the more ardent adherents of a political order presenting itself as a religion.
Things escalated, the exchange staying barely this side of civil.
How could a modern woman of the civilised West defend a creed that has misogyny woven into its very fabric, I wanted to know, especially a woman who loudly despised Abbott for the same alleged offence?
Muslims were no different to Italian migrants of the Sixties, who were said by the bigots of yore to carry knives, but just look at what good people those Italians are these days! Muslims would follow the same route and were doing so already, she continued, again citing Aly as the example that made her case.
“Perhaps they did have knives,” I countered, “but they weren’t used to genitally mutilate their daughters.”
Hasty farewells followed in short order. I turned to plant a kiss on Coral when the door shut behind our departing guests, but she retreated and half-hid her face behind the collar of her cardigan so that I couldn’t see the words forming — the few short syllables that ended it there and then, whatever it was we had. Basically, it boiled down to this: she couldn’t share her life with someone like me. Her timing said the rest: the esteem of her friends was valued far more than a lover from the wrong side of the political aisle. I stormed out in a huff and we haven’t seen each other since, although an exchange of text messages clarified the sticking point: “Your opinions!” she wrote in screaming block letters. Oh, and my interest in Australian Rules, too, which is apparently a decidedly bogan passion.
Since then, the old beau has returned and no surprise. He’s come into money, as she told me with approval some months earlier while swapping pillow talk of old loves and lovers. Plus, he’s good with tools and her house needs a new verandah to shade that peace symbol in the front window. I just hoped she washed the dressing gown I left at her place before re-gifting it. I might have left some opinions in the pocket and they could be contagious. Wouldn’t want another love affair ruined.
Bill Wyndham lives in Victoria. All names and identifying details in this memoir have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty