London. 22 January
Some moments remain locked in the memory, vividly and forever; they are often beginnings or endings. My first encounter with Sarah Delacour was one of those.
‘I understand you are an Australian,’ she said, with a playful smile.
‘I am indeed,’ I replied, ‘but how could you possibly have known that? Except now, of course, that I’ve opened my mouth.’
‘Oh, you don’t sound especially Australian. I can do a better Australian accent than yours – rather cruel, but recognisable.’
I remember noticing – no, it was stronger than noticing; I was smitten by her luminous green eyes and skin of palest peach.
I raised my eyebrows. ‘So how –’
‘How did I know? Neither clever nor mysterious. Kitty said there was an Australian upstairs who had started coming here regularly. She described you accurately.’
‘The woman on the front desk. I bring my mother here every Thursday – she’s an Australian too – Kitty is always looking for links like that.’ She leant over the woman in the wheelchair parked in front of us and raised her voice. ‘Mother, this is the man from Australia.’
This was my third visit to the Royal Academy, drawn as much by the place as the collection. Lost in wonder at a room full of portraits by some of the biggest names in English art, I had become conscious of a woman staring at me across an adjoining room. My immediate impression was of grace, poise and confidence. She wore a perfectly tailored dark green suit and a string of pearls at her throat. Unable to shake my habit of trying to construct a persona from an impression, I thought she might be a wellheeled lawyer, or perhaps a merchant banker, though the auburn hair falling loose about her shoulders didn’t quite fit. As our eyes met, her gaze turned into a radiant smile – a direct and deliberate smile, not the vague acknowledgement that sometimes passes between strangers in museums and galleries. I smiled back, as if this were the most natural thing in the world, to be smiling warmly at a stranger.
She was standing with her hands resting on a wheelchair in which an older woman was seated, studying a catalogue. I looked away briefly, dragging my eyes back to the painting I had been studying. After a moment, I realised she was still watching me, still smiling straight at me.
I don’t believe in love at first sight, by the way. Arousal of primitive urges, yes; the piquing of interest, yes; responsiveness to encouraging signs, yes. Whichever of these possibilities was propelling me, I needed to speak to this smiling, open-faced woman; to know who might be flashing such a clear – brazen? – signal in my direction. She moved towards me; I moved towards her; we met in front of a bronze bust.
She looked as if she could be in her mid-forties – roughly my age – and she was almost my height in her heels. Below those green eyes, she had a fine, straight nose and full lips. One of her front teeth was pleasingly askew.
Having established that I was indeed the Australian described by Kitty, she extended her hand. ‘I’m sorry. I’m Sarah Delacour and this is my mother, Elizabeth Delacour.’
I took Sarah’s hand and she squeezed mine lightly, still looking into my eyes as if no one had ever taught her the courtesy of breaking your gaze.
‘Hello, Sarah. My name’s Tom. Tom Harper. Pleased to meet you, Mrs Delacour.’
Her mother smiled up at me. I could see it was an effort for her to turn her head and I crouched down in front of the wheelchair so my face was at the same level as hers.
‘Call me Elizabeth, please. All Australian girls of my generation were called Elizabeth or Margaret, after the princesses. Except the Catholics, of course. They were Kathleen or Monica. No one was called Charlene. Or Kylie. I’m talking about the thirties. What was your mother’s name, may I ask?’
‘There you are.’
‘So where did you . . .?’
‘Sydney originally. But that was a long, long time ago, of course. I’ve spent my adult life here. Sarah is as English as the Queen.’
‘Who is, of course, more Euro-Royal than English and presides over a family even more dysfunctional than mine,’ Sarah said, dropping her voice. ‘Mother grew up on Sydney’s North Shore. Plucked from suburban obscurity by an English gentleman – not – and whisked off to his oh-so-charming and oh-so-draughty cottage in the Garden of England. I’m the product of that somewhat transient union with the infamous Rat of Kent.’
‘Speak up, Sarah,’ Mrs Delacour said rather testily. ‘I can’t hear you properly. I assume you’re defaming my ex-husband again.’ As an aside for my benefit, she added: ‘I am slightly deaf in one ear. I’m not confined to this wheelchair, by the way – I have some arthritis in my knees and I simply make sensible use of a wheelchair on occasions like this. Better than hobbling.’
Sarah ignored this, except to raise her voice. ‘I’m just telling Tom about your whirlwind romance.’ Then, to me: ‘They met in the queue for the Big Dipper at Luna Park. How romantic is that?’
Elizabeth rolled her eyes at me, without smiling. ‘I was myself well past the Big Dipper stage, I can assure you. I was merely giving my ten-year-old niece an outing.’
‘Which makes you wonder what a forty-five-year-old Englishman was doing, all by himself, at Luna Park.’ Sarah’s eyes positively twinkled as she said this.
‘Being a tourist,’ Elizabeth shot back. ‘What else? As you see, Tom, Sarah is brimful of English reserve. I’m sure you don’t need to hear any of this.’
Undeterred, Sarah smiled at me again. Light seemed to emanate from that smile, like a laser aimed at my heart. ‘I was about to ask Tom where he came from.’
‘Oh, I’m from Sydney, too. Also from the North Shore, of course – where else? Meet a total stranger in a gallery on the other side of the world and she’s bound to hail from just up the road. I live in Castlecrag, actually, which is Middle Harbour rather than North Shore, I suppose.’
‘Quite so. And designed by Burley Griffin, as I recall.’ Mrs Delacour sounded dismissive. ‘Almost as many circular roads as Canberra. What did that man have against straight lines and right angles?’
I was grateful for these geographical banalities. Rising from my crouch beside the wheelchair, I looked at Sarah, fully taking her in. She was not merely beautiful – she glowed with beauty. Her voice was like velvet. And she had a very engaging mother.
‘May I buy you afternoon tea?’ I heard myself saying, without having decided to say it. ‘You probably already know it’s very good here.’
‘Thank you. Not today, though. We’ve just had a rather late lunch and I must get Mother back. If you happened to be here next Thursday, perhaps you could join us for coffee after our lunch. Shall we say two?’
‘I’d be delighted. It’s been a pleasure to meet you both.’
‘Here’s my card.’ Sarah extracted a card from her purse and handed it to me with what looked like an ironic little bow.
We shook hands again and I helped Sarah into a black coat she had slung over the back of the wheelchair. I walked beside her as she piloted her mother through a series of rooms and into the lift lobby. As she pressed the call button, she turned to face me, unsmiling now but with widened eyes. The lift arrived, and they were gone.
I read the card: Sarah Delacour, Senior Lecturer, English Language & Literature, King’s College London. Neither lawyer nor merchant banker. My impression of superb taste, let’s face it, carried connotations of wealth. Sarah looked expensively dressed; even her perfume needed money to create that kind of subtle waft. Not the kind of money a senior lecturer would normally earn. A wealthy family? (Not to judge by her mother’s rather plain cardigan and woollen trousers, or the scathing reference to the Rat of Kent.) A rich husband? (Surely not, I thought, perhaps attaching too much significance to our flirtatious little dance of the eyes: nothing impairs judgement like hope.) A successful author? (Perhaps she’s only Sarah Delacour at work; perhaps she writes erotic thrillers under a pseudonym. That could be fun, I allowed myself to think.) A simpler explanation – no dependants and enough income to indulge her taste – was too boringly plausible.
Buoyed by fantasies rich with Sarah-inspired possibilities, I returned to the portraits that had previously so engaged me, but found I’d lost interest.
Six weeks into a self-imposed exile, I was savouring the freedom from everything I had left behind in Sydney – not just the immediate crisis that had propelled my departure, but all those years spent hiding, without realising I was doing it. Now, ten thousand miles from home, I was adjusting to being out in the open.
My hiding place, my cocoon, had been the persona of a helpful, caring person. Helpful. What an effective protection from real engagement that was – from my friends, even from my clients, and certainly from the women I tried to love. Who was ever going to criticise helpful? My work as a clinical psychologist provided daily reinforcement of my armour. I felt the power of the interpreter surging through me; the delusional superiority of the professional class: we have the secret codes; we understand.
I was not naive enough to think I could shed the chrysalis of my former life in the space of a few weeks, but the process had definitely begun. I found myself sitting in cafes and watching the crowd, but no longer as an observer or an analyst. I felt cheerfully one of them; part of them. Relieved of the need for answers, I browsed in galleries, libraries, museums, churches, shops . . . open to anything, happy to respond directly to whatever – whomever – I encountered. Nothing was expected of me, even by me. It was a marvellous liberation. I was no longer burdened by the sense that I was there to help; to explain; to interpret. I was just there.
It was a dark, damp afternoon as I left the Royal Academy. I was not missing the sweltering heat of a Sydney summer one bit. Having been the recent focus of far too much attention, being anonymous was also a relief. After my previous visits to the Academy, I had crossed Piccadilly, hunched under my umbrella, feeling perfectly attuned to the muted light and muffled sounds of that wintry city. Now, the prospect of another meeting with the intriguing Sarah had shifted my perception and altered my mood. For the first time since I had arrived there, London felt exciting.
Excerpted from Infidelity by Hugh Mackay. Copyright © 2013 by Hugh Mackay.
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