Pokolbin. Saturday, 9.05pm
Sara is young and quite the expert on dogs. Mention ridgeback or collie and her face, pretty to start with, becomes radiant.
‘I have shown ridgebacks, you know,’ she announces to the table. ‘But I prefer collies. They’re smarter.’
I’m not into dogs that much, smart or stupid. I don’t dislike them; as a boy I spent many happy days with the family kelpie, just she and I roaming the mullock heaps of Gympie looking for gold and hiding from Apaches.
But that unconditional love, that panting eagerness to please, unsettles me. It’s part of a dog’s nature. If you are condemned by your nature to love without reservation, what value has it?
Sara’s boyfriend, William, has puppy eyes of adoration flashing from beneath his modern swept-to-one-side fringe. He hangs on every canny canine word Sara says. He holds her hand under the table. His other hand fidgets with a glass of white wine and pats down his fringe.
William has fidgeted his way through a bottle of local semillon and that glow on his stubbled face may not all be due to his undying love.
There are four or five wine bottles on the table, whites and reds. We’re in a winery in the Hunter Valley. (Vineyards keep the coal mines separate.) By chance I’m at the winery’s birthday function, celebrating with staff and shareholders. Free wine and free food. How lucky am I?
‘There’s two things I really want to do in my life,’ William suddenly says, slicing into the canine conversation. ‘I want to marry this gorgeous woman beside me, and travel the world’.
Sara blushes. And smiles awkwardly into the silence.
William rises from his chair (a little unsteadily), adjusts his fringe and walks away. I guess he’s starting his travels.
Opposite Sara and the empty chair sit Ian and Catherine.
Ian is middle-aged, trim, and wears a silver bangle on his right wrist. I couldn’t see, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the bangle said ‘Ian’ somewhere in its expensive ornamentation. Ian is in finance. Good with numbers, he told me.
Ian leans across his wife to speak to me. She recoils, leaning back with a grimace, as if allergic to his touch.
‘I believe marriage is a percentage game. There is no Mr or Mrs Perfect. It’s a trade-off. A good marriage is about 75 per cent. Isn’t that right, Catherine?’
Catherine makes a small sound through tight lips. Hard lines moor her grimace in place and indicate the tension required to maintain this emotional botox. Her face is expressionless – except for her eyes. They’re alive but furtive, darting about like birds in a shed.
Those eyes briefly land on me and reveal the awful truth: She is not in love. Not 75 per cent, not 50 per cent, not at all.
Catherine doesn’t want to hear about her 75 per cent marriage. Catherine doesn’t want to hear his voice. Catherine has had enough.
Ian spies an old client at another table and leaves to talk numbers with him. Catherine exhales a held breath and reaches for the white wine, but the bottle is empty. She stares at the empty bottle, her hand grasping its neck.
William wobbles back. He hasn’t started his world travels after all; he’s hunted down another bottle of semillon. (Not that hard. Behind me is a wall, five metres high, of stacked pallets of bottled wine. How lucky am I? )
William fills Sara’s glass. He raises the bottle to Catherine as a question. She slides her glass towards him and he fills it.
‘So, Catherine,’ Sara asks, leaning across the table to Catherine, ‘how long have you and Ian been married?’