In Two Minds

by Gabrielle Blondell

He tried not to think on it too much. He thought about other things. Julianna mostly. He brought to mind her fine shoulders, the way they dipped midway and rose gently again to meet the joint of her arm. He had often rested his own arm there as they walked through the city gardens or when they rode the ferry to the mouth of the Brisbane River. That was where he lived now, where they had lived together, in Brisbane’s thickened air. That was until she was seconded to London for her job. These days it was just he in the little old weatherboard with its long slim back garden disappearing into the gloom under the mango tree. It was he alone, who sat on the back porch watching the flying-foxes fillet ripe mangoes. “I’ll be back,” she had said. Alastair did not doubt it, just as he did not doubt Julianna would accept his marriage proposal. All those things, which as a younger man, had seemed impossible had become inexplicably easier.

Still, as Alastair pushed the hire car up the mountain range toward Medlow Bath west of Sydney, an old excitement welled in his stomach and groin. It hovered inside him, outside also, swirling around his head and seeping into his lungs like an altitude sickness. He knew his reconnaissance of the Hydro Majestic hotel should have been carried out alone. He could have come, soaked himself in some childhood nostalgia, booked it for the wedding reception, or perhaps not, and left. Henry Keller, balding now and tending toward weight gain, had said, “By God, I can’t believe you are getting married. We never thought it, you know. Not once. ‘A confirmed bachelor is old Alastair’. That is what we said.” Henry had sat then quietly, as if taking in the impossible and then a smile spread across his face. “I know, let’s make a weekend of it, Al. Sandra would be in it and Tavish and Gemma, too, I’m sure. It’ll be like university days. Kind of an early send off into married life. It would be Sandy’s and my little pre-wedding gift.”

Gemma. Gemma would be there with Tavish. Of course she would. Alastair did not say yes to Henry’s plan, but he forgot to say no.

The whiteness of the old health spa was difficult to miss. It sprawled between the road and the very edge of the steep drop into the valley. It had been a yellowish cream when he had last seen it, which was years ago when it was much shabbier. Alastair had come as a child to neighboring Blackheath to see his grandmother, who was on the Hydro Majestic Preservation Society. He’d loved the hotel, the old grandness of it and had wished for ghosts while pressing his nose against the glass windows teetering over the valley below.

Alastair parked the car and entered through the doors marked RECEPTION. All at once he was back, the deep cool of the enormous day room and the view to the blue and purple mountains beyond the glass windows. He stood still watching the sun lower itself and the shadows form behind the ridges.

“Can we help you sir?” A middle-aged man in a perfectly pressed suit stood beside him also admiring the view.

“I’m joining the Kellers and the McBrides,” Alastair told him.

“Of course sir,” the man nodded. “I believe your friends are in The Red Room having a a few drinks before dinner. Why don’t I have your bag sent straight to your room, so you can join them directly?” The manager slipped behind the reception desk and retrieved a coded room key for Alastair. “There you go, sir and welcome to the Hydro Majestic.” The man indicated a door across the large breakfast room.

Alastair wandered through the door and down a short hall, through another door and into the large room which sat beneath the doomed roof. He saw himself as a child again, running the length of the old hotel, sometimes making it into the old Belgravia Wing before a staff member caught him, sometimes playing a small tune on the grand piano which had stood exactly where he was standing now.

He continued on across the floor to the door in the wall opposite. The Red Room was more of a long salon stretching along the length of one wing. Alastair’s grandmother had told him of the fashionable young people who would wander up and down or sit smoking on lounges amongst potted palms. He had tried to imagine it then amongst the dusty old furniture and worn carpets, but he didn’t need to now. Gold. Red. Black and the green of the potted palms, and for added drama, a mural of a knight on horseback.

“Al! By God, its good to see you.”

A man rose from one of the lounges and waved to him. Alastair barely recognised him as Tavish McBride. Something around the eyes and the chin perhaps was still the same, but the athletic, tanned, young man from their university days had all but slipped away.

“Come take a seat and tell me all about this Julianna,” Tavish called to him. “Henry and Sandy will be down soon and I want to get the jump on them.”

“Where’s Gemma?” Alastair asked.

Tavish smiled. “She was at the bar. Didn’t you see her on the way in?”

“No, no I didn’t.” Alastair sat across from Tavish, who pushed a full scotch glass across the low table between them.

“Drink up, boy-o,” Tavish said, raising his own glass and taking a large swig.

Alastair drank. “Ah Tavish, I’ve missed you mate,” he said, for this was true.  He really had.

Sandra dropped down on the sofa beside Alastair and pecked him on the cheek.”So you’ve finally arrived, Al,” she said. Then looking over to her husband, who had followed her in, Sandra joked, “He always was late, wasn’t he Henry?”

“Yes, always late,” Henry agreed, taking a seat next to Tavish.

“So where’s Gemma?” Sandra asked.

A small frown appeared briefly on Tavish’s brow and was quickly gone. “So,” he said, “tell us about your bride-to-be. It’s Julianna, isn’t it?”

“Yes it is,” Alastair said quickly. “She’s a financial analyst.”

“Good god, man. Then what’s she doing with you?” Tavish asked.

“His taxes,” Henry answered.

Alastair laughed. Financial responsibility had come late to him, it was true.

“Here’s Gemma,” Henry said, looking over Alastair’s shoulder toward the door.

Alastair swivelled in his seat and watch Gemma enter the room with a glass of wine in her hand. His stomach lurched at the sight of her. She was older, yes. Crows feet around the eyes. Frown lines. But still the same blue eyes, the dark brown hair. The legs. She came at him, like those who had paraded through the Red Room so many years ago. She was beautiful and the old grief returned.

Gemma stepped around the low table in front of Alastair and Sandra and bent to kiss him on the cheek. She took hold of his arm to steady herself and held her glass of wine aloft to keep it level. “It’s so good to see you again,” she said with a strange formality.

“You too,” he replied.

Gemma moved to stand upright, squeezing his arm to maintain her balance. Alastair looked into her eyes then, but Gemma had already looked away.

She retreated to a single armchair beneath a potted palm.

“So where were we?” Sandra asked. “Oh yes, we were learning about the amazing Julianna. Did you know she is a financial analyst, Gemma?”

“No, I didn’t,” Gemma said, taking a sip from her glass.

“She’s in London right now, isn’t she?” Sandra asked.

Alastair nodded.

“So you will be organising the wedding, then?” Sandra asked. “I don’t know if I’d be alright with that. What about you Gemma?”

Gemma looked up from beneath the palm and Alastair caught her gaze. Her round eyes widened further before she looked over at Sandra. “I’m sorry. What were you saying?” Sandra’s eyes flicked from Gemma back to Alastair and then to Gemma again and a small silence grew.

Alastair turned his scotch glass to and fro to catch the light and prayed for a miracle. A waiter appeared to tell them their table in the dining room was ready.

#

The sun was almost gone now, a halo above the dark purple mountains. Tavish, seemingly unaware of the awkward moment in the bar, was enthusiastic. “Make sure you book this place for the reception, boy-o. It’s perfect! Do you mind if I take this seat?” he asked, pulling out the chair at the head of the table. “I want to see the last of the sun.”

Sandra and Henry took one side of the table and Alastair found himself in the remaining chair beside Gemma. She sat perfectly in her seat, her arms held in close to her sides. Still, Alastair felt her presence, the warmth of her from shoulder to ankle.

“Shall we try the three course meal, Al?” Henry asked. “It seems like a good selection, don’t you think?”

Alastair brought his attention to bear on the menu, but he knew when Gemma took up her menu and slowly turned the pages.

“We could try most of them between us,” Sandra suggested. “I’m fond of scallops for a starter and I’d like the chicken breast for a main. I know Henry is mad for lamb, aren’t you love?”

“Yes, I’ll have the lamb for sure,” Henry said, excitedly. “This will be fun.”

“It will,” said Tavish. “Just pick mine for me from what remains. I will literally eat anything. Isn’t that true, Gem?”

“Yes that’s true,” said Gemma. “I can try out the vegetarian selections if you like, Al?”

Alastair was relieved by the sudden warmth in her tone. The awkwardness seemed over.  He nodded to her. “That would be great, Gemma.”

“I can’t think of when I’ve enjoyed lamb more,” said Henry, once they had sampled almost everything. “I just loved it and the eel starter was great too…and this….” he said pointing down to his chocolate mousse dessert, “….is amazing.”  Henry looked over to Gemma.  “What about yours? How do you think the vegos will like it?”

“It was scrumptious, Henry. All the vegos would be very happy with it,” she said, laughing at Henry.

Alastair heard the alcohol in her voice.

“Really it was lovely,” Gemma said directly to Alastair.  She squeezed his hand under the table and then left it resting lightly on his thigh during the rest of the dessert course. Alastair dared not move. Every so often, her fingers fluttered against the back of his hand and he felt their smooth warmth. It was electrifying. He fought the urge to grasp her hand and bring it to his mouth.

“Al….Al.”

Tavish had said something. “Sorry, you lost me there,” Alastair said, as Gemma’s hand retreated to her own lap.

“I was just saying,” said Tavish, “that you might be able to give us a bit of a tour.”

“Yes, that’s right. You used to come here as a child, didn’t you?” asked Henry.

“I did,” Al said. “Let me fix the bill and I’ll give you tour of as much as I can remember.”

“No way. You won’t be paying. We’ve already decided, we are all going to cover it,” said Sandra standing with her purse in hand.

“That’s right,” said Tavish, also rising from his seat.

Henry, Gemma and Alastair remained at the table looking out at the view. Alastair found Gemma’s hand close by again. His palm lay open in his lap and she very gently grazed her fingers across it. It astonished him, more than any other thing she had done in all the years he had known her. This was the first seductive caress and he wanted to be angry. He wanted to pull his hand away and tell her off. He wanted to reject her in the way she had rejected him, but he didn’t. His mind had gone and his blood fizzed in his veins.

“Right then,” said Tavish, approaching the table, “I’m considerably poorer.”

“Oh shut up,” said Sandra. “You’ll make Al feel bad.”

“No, I won’t. He knows I’m only joking, don’t you boy-o?”

Beneath the table, Gemma snatched her hand away. “Sure,” Alastair said, more gruffly than he intended. “No really, I know you’re joking,” he said, smiling at Tavish.

“Good-o then, let’s get this tour on the way,” Tavish said.

Alastair stood on shaking knees.

“You okay, mate?” Henry asked him.

Gemma rose from her chair and looked away.

“No, I’m good. Just a bit much to drink, I think,” Alastair said.

He walked them through to the room under the domed ceiling. “This used to be called the Casino,” he said, “although it was never used as one. My grandmother told me it was where the big bands played and the sopranos sang.”

“It’s beautiful,” said Sandra.

“It wasn’t the last time I saw it,” Alastair said. “She was a very tired old lady back then.”

“Do you think your grandmother would approve of the renovations?” Henry asked.

Alastair thought on this. “Gran was a tough and discerning old lady, but I think so yes.”

They wandered back past the bar into The Red Room and Alastair told them how the wealthy sat about or took walks of the long salon to showcase the latest fashions, while Gemma trailed behind.

“So they were just showing off then?” Tavish asked.

“Yep. Just showing off,” Alastair agreed.

“Well, I think I might shuffle off to bed,” Tavish said. “I’m not the party boy I used to be, I’m afraid.”

“We will say goodnight too,” said Henry. “I was never a party boy.”

Alastair nodded goodnight to them. He watched as the three of them moved off past Gemma who was standing in front of the mural of the knight on horseback. He studied her while she studied the painting and he knew she was as aware of him as he was of her. He felt the memory of her fingers on his palm. Instead of moving on past her to find his room, he took the door leading out to the balcony instead.

#

Alastair stared out into the warm night sky. The fresh air cleared his head and he felt more himself than he had since the weekend had begun. He brought to mind Julianna’s face, her long fingers, the one with his ring encircling it. She would be home soon, he told himself. They would marry and start all over again and it would be as if none of this had happened.

He followed the path of a set of tiny car headlights in the deep valley below. They disappeared, hidden from his view behind tall trees or on a tight corner perhaps, only to appear again exactly where they should be. It was strange to feel relief for those strangers in the car, but he did feel it. He took a deep breath and exhaled and the tension he had built up over dinner loosened its grip. That was when he heard the door to the balcony open.   Then, Gemma was there beside him at the railing and he was kissing her in the way he had always wanted to. His arms curled around her body and drew in her warmth. She was more familiar than he had ever imagined.

She drew back from the kiss and out of his arms. “I wish I was happy for you,” she whispered. “I can’t be. I’m sorry.” And then she was gone.

#

Alastair awoke to knocking on his hotel room door. “Just hang on,” he groaned, struggling into shorts and a T-shirt. When he opened the door, he discovered an envelope sitting neatly on the hall carpet and glimpsed Gemma hurrying away down the hall toward the stairs. He crammed the envelope in his back pocket and caught up to her as she reached the breakfast room.

Alastair took hold of her elbow and steered her toward the large glass doors leading to the garden. He walked her rapidly along the path toward the tennis courts. They entered onto the playing surface behind an old stone wall and he took her to the very edge of the ridge. All that was between them and the valley below was the diamond mesh of the court fence. He released her then and they both gripped the fencing with clawed fingers, flirting with the drop.

“I wanted to say I was sorry for last night,” she said, not looking at him. “Did you read the letter?”

“No,” he answered her.

“I guess not,” she said.

Alastair looked at Gemma in profile. “I don’t know if I want you to be sorry,” he said. He had meant to tell her to fuck off out of his life or something similar, but this felt truer, inevitable.

She was quiet, as if she hadn’t heard him. Her face didn’t move for a while. Then she turned her head with her fingers still looped in the fence, so close to his own. “Yes, you do,” she said simply. “You know that you and I are each other’s fantasy. We have always been. It’s not real.”

This hit Alastair hard. He looked down through the fence and he felt as if he might be falling. He brought his gaze to the mountains ahead and levelled himself. “But you are not happy,” he said. “I know it.”

“Maybe I’m not,” she answered him. “But we can’t keep hanging onto this, Al. It’s in the way of the things we need to do. Things I need to do.”

He glanced over at her. “Like what?” he asked quietly.

“You’ve lived in my head for so long, I don’t know, but I need to let it go…and you need to as well or you won’t make a proper go at it.” She too dragged her gaze from the valley to the distant mountain. “I know that from experience,” she whispered.

Alastair dropped his hands from the fence and faced her. “Are you sure about us?”

Gemma nodded. She pushed herself away from the fence. “Yes.”

He knew she was right, but she was gone before he was ready. He hurried back through the gap in the stone wall and searched the path for her. He came around the corner of the large white building and onto the asphalt car park at the front of the hotel.

Tavish was loading overnight bags into the boot of their car. “We need to get back to the city by lunch, so I guess this is goodbye, Al.”

Both men stood apart.

“I’m glad to see you, boy-o, and I’m happy for you,” Tavish said, stepping in to shake hands with Alastair and then hugging him instead. “You’ll make a good husband, Al.”

Alastair had to ask, “Why do you say that?”

“Because you are a good man,” Tavish replied. He pulled away from Alastair and turned to shut the boot of the car, but not before Alastair saw the truth of it. Tavish knew. Perhaps, he’d always known.

“Goodbye mate,” Alastair said, gripping Tavish’s hand again.

Gemma slipped on her dark sunglasses as she came out through the reception doors. She circled the car and pecked Alastair quickly on the cheek. “Good luck,” she said.

Alastair nodded, seeing only himself in her dark glasses. “Good luck to you too.”

He stood watching as the Tavish backed the car out of the park and turned it onto the road toward Sydney. Once it had disappeared into the stream of city-bound traffic, he pulled Gemma’s crumpled letter from his back pocket. He looked at the envelope, the curve of her writing. He ran his fingers over the letters tracing their path from beginning to end.

Henry and Sandra waved to him from their breakfast table as he entered the hotel. “Won’t be a minute,” he called to them.

The same concierge was in attendance at the reception desk. “Good morning, sir,” he said. “I hope you enjoyed your night.”

“I did,” Alastair said. “I will be checking out soon, but I was wondering if you could dispose of this for me?” Alastair handed him Gemma’s unopened envelope.

“Certainly sir.”

Gabrielle Blondell © 2017

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