Meghan imagines Simon and Petra sitting together in the café on the avenue where the Jacaranda bloom.
‘Just friends,’ Simon assures Meghan, ‘we are just friends. We talk about work; she knows work is our focus. I’m mentoring her. She’s bright, she’ll do well. If Petra was a Peter you wouldn’t worry.’
‘She,’ says Meghan, ‘is younger than me, she is beautiful, she is vulnerable and she doesn’t know your history.’
Simon holds up his left hand, the white gold ring on his ring finger a thin shield. ‘I have changed. You know that,’ he says.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra’s heads bent together, discussing work over half filled cups of coffee and a single white plate, empty except for cake crumbs and two cream smeared cake forks that sit on the side of the plate.
‘You told her, you told me, you had “feelings” for her,’ says Meghan.
‘I was trying to be honest to all of us,’ Simon says, ‘you most of all, to myself and to her, of course. She’s not threatened. She knows I will never act on my feelings. I’ve changed.’
He says, ‘I’ve changed,’ again and Meghan imagines a phalanx of men holding aloft torches that flare like lies as Simon, on a high podium, shouts ‘I’ve changed,’ into a microphone. The men roar back at him, ‘You’ve changed, you’ve changed,’ their arms in stiff accord, their torches assaulting the darkened sky.
Meghan imagines Petra crying in the café where the Jacaranda bloom. Petra weeps often, especially when Simon is with her; there is always something happening at work, something that upsets her. People are mean, they don’t understand her. She works at a different pace to others, she talks to customers differently, she respects people. That’s why Simon has feelings for her, why he watches her working at her desk, a Botticelli nymph, Simonetta Vespucci captured and in thrall to a computer. Her gaze is dreamlike, her lips are slightly pursed as she caresses the mouse and produces delicate, diaphanous, vaguely decadent images for her clients. ‘Sure,’ says Simon when he comes home from work, ‘she takes longer than others to finish her projects but her clients are always happy. She is the real thing, Meghan,’ he says. ‘An artist.’
And so Simon supports her, that’s all, nothing more. And if Petra phones him at ten of an evening, in tears, he walks away from Meghan to soothe Petra. He doesn’t leave the room but turns the television sound down, so he can hear Petra’s laments, reedy and importunate, over his mobile. ‘It’s all out in the open, isn’t it?’ he says to Meghan when he has finished consoling Petra. He turns up the television, he goes to bed with Meghan, he makes love to Meghan because it is Meghan he lives with.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra, smiling at each other over the coffee cups, talking about work, their hands not touching, their eyes neutral the way friends’ eyes are neutral, their laughter light and convivial, like friends’ laughter. And then she imagines the intimate, fearless opposite, as if a puckish movie maker has infiltrated her mind and he’s filmed two different scenes that run over and over, a hellish loop of ‘this is what it is, this is what it could be’ until Meghan doesn’t know what is what.
Meghan imagines Simon and Petra leaving the coffee shop, the dropped Jacaranda petals an imperial tide lapping their ankles. She imagines them hugging, because that’s what friends do even if one of them has “feelings”, and the other one knows, because we live in such a modern, such a civilized, such a sophisticated era where hugs are the neologism of the age.
Meghan scans the internet, another neologism, and reads, ‘It is best, when in a relationship, to keep your feelings for other people in check. Even a Platonic friendship calls for time and energy, which is energy stolen from your wife or your husband.’
Meghan imagines her relationship, a Charybdis into which her time, her energy, her precious work, drains. She wonders if she should phone her lawyer or finish the portrait she’s worked on for months. She decides to complete the portrait and then she will phone the lawyer.