Hardly Beach Weather

by Bernard Cohen

Extract

Day One

Maria is travelling lightly. This means she is bringing the same amount of stuff as usual, but is in a relentless good mood. I am travelling heavily. The contrast is the story of my relationship with Maria: I set out with good intentions, and she ruins everything.

I am sitting in my car as the back seat slowly fills with Maria's soft bags full of underwear, picnic utensils, bottles of drink, a hefty camera bag. Maria's a photographer, she says. She's sold a few photographs. A few. To be fair, my suitcase takes up most of the boot, but I'm not disposed to be fair: the back seat will soon overflow with Maria's things, for which I feel unjustifiable contempt.

I am sitting in the car because my relationship with Maria has progressed beyond simple obligation. I did not offer to help her with her luggage and (goes without saying) she didn't ask for my assistance. She waved from the door when I drove up, in lieu of inviting me in. Thus I learnt that our relationship has also progressed beyond entering each other's houses. This is the latest of many sometimes tiny, sometimes almost imperceptible steps in the unpicking of her life from mine.

For a while after our break-up, we talked on the telephone every few days. I tried to be heavy in a light sort of way, and she laboured over her lightness. I'm sure it was tremendously healthy, to work through things as we did, and I'm certain it did me no end of good, having all that time to relive and reflect on what had gone wrong, to mull over the last months of our time together, and to apportion blame to Maria.

Maria seemed unable to benefit from this process at all, always trying to sound cheerful, but underneath it just too defensive to admit anything. I apologised to her, all the time. I asked what she'd like me to apologise for and I apologised for it. I admitted I'd been less than ideal at times. She never admitted anything, no matter how often or how clearly I pointed out her failings. After a time, our conversations became shorter and shorter until hardly existing at all. This was also Maria's doing. She says she's one for visible progress and, whether bloody-mindedly or not, she was unable to discern any improvement in me. So, she was always on her way out, or in the middle of something, or busy with 'other matters in her life'. In this manner, she helped neither of us.

All the time, I tried to rescue our relationship, to build annexes to what had been, to invent other directions, other possibilities. I wanted our mutual return of keys to take on a ceremonial aspect, or at the least to involve a few drinks and some reminiscence, whereas Maria wanted only to 'stick them in the post'. I hoped and suggested we might continue to share our mutual interests in reading and music. Maria wanted to return the three books and four compact discs I had chosen for her as presents, and for me to give back 'the shelves full' she claimed she had merely lent me. I wanted to introduce her to any new friends I might make; Maria insisted that her social life had very rapidly recovered and exceeded its former state, and that she was so busy making new friendships and strengthening old ones that if she were to take up my suggestion, she would spend nearly every waking moment with me.

This, thought Maria, would be too much.

While I found Maria's general negativity disheartening, I nonetheless continued my efforts towards her. Negativity was an attitude; maintaining an attitude did at least indicate a relationship existing and, I reasoned, a negative relationship is no worse than one which has failed and dissolved; a negative relationship must be preferable to a negative non-relationship. Waiting for Maria in the car on this hot December day, it occurs to me: the worth of my persistence will be measured during this journey.

As if my thought patterns were providing cues, finally Maria climbs in to the passenger seat, looks across at me.

'Are you okay?' she asks.

'Do I look like I'm convalescing?' I demand. 'There's nothing wrong with me. You don't have to use that tone.'

'Calm down, it was a straightforward question. Jack, seriously, would you rather I went by bus? I still have time to get the overnight one tonight. I'd rather you said so, anyway, if that's what you mean.'

'It's fine and I'm fine,' I say. 'I'm just impatient to go. It's hot.'

'Okay, okay. Good. Let's go then.'

I start the engine, pull away from Maria's house and head towards Parramatta Road. We're setting off much later than I had predicted, and I would have predicted we'd run late. Through a combination of additional cups of coffee, half-hour waits for news reports on bushfires en route (not good) and short telephone calls of minor deferral, mid-morning has become mid-afternoon. I accept some of the responsibility: I drank, I listened, I telephoned. For her part, Maria waited for me. She did nothing to speed the process. It's past four o'clock by the time I turn left onto Parramatta Road, away from the city.

'Sorry,' I say (see what I mean). 'I just started to feel kind of queasy. The heat, I guess.'
'It's okay. Thanks for the lift.' She grins and winds open her window. She pulls a tube of sunscreen from her shirt pocket, and massages it onto her face and left arm. She offers the cream to me, but I decline.

'Maybe a little apprehensive too,' I confess, after a moment to decide that the admission will act more as a licence than a weakening.

'I'm glad you said that. I am too.'

'Yes, it's a positive start,' I comment, 'the two of us bonded in mutual fear.'