The Best Laid Plans
He got around to celibacy, eventually. It was just after another of those seasons of self-improvement when nothing worked and he needed to salvage some success from the wreckage of his aspirations. It happened every Spring when the stirrings of ambition to become a better man drove him into the gym to pump iron, shamed him into giving up smoking, again, and dragged him from his regular lunchtime stand at the bar.
As usual, he launched himself into a life of rigour with all the enthusiasm of a born-again Spartan. It was, of course, a disaster. His capacity for discipline was the shame of his life. The Nautilus machine took him out the first day with a vicious leg-press whiplash that tore his Achilles tendon so badly he could barely hobble from the gym in disgrace. His no-smoking campaign lasted two days of irritable mortification before he again convinced himself he really liked smoking after all. And the bar lured him back with the tempting promise of consolation for all his other failures.
But celibacy, now there was a possibility that had not occurred to him before. A life of chastity and lofty ideals, of stoic self-denial, of avoiding the pleasures of the flesh; that was something he could do. He would become a better man, a visionary ascetic concerned with matters spiritual, a paragon of self-control and iron willpower. A life of celibacy would make up for all the other disappointments; the depression induced by last year’s course of positive thinking, the shivering retreat from the icy waters of winter swimming, the painful blisters produced by his short-lived regimen of early-morning jogging. These were the dismal milestones of a career devoted to the corrosive belief that man was born to transcend himself. It was a faith based on the masochistic ethic of no pain, no gain, so beloved by football trainers and sadistic aerobic instructors. He was a sucker for the notion that beneath his slobbish, mundane, exterior, there was a new-age hero, fit, keen and determined to succeed with elegance and grace. Besides, celibacy would take care of the problem of women, he thought, as he lay in bed revelling in the sense of power his newfound intentions engendered. No longer would he be a mere slave to his carnal desires, the abject puppet of an over-heated libido ricocheting from woman to woman.
Women complicated his life, there was no doubt about it. The meeting them, the wooing them, the mating and marrying them, was a carnival where he never seemed to pick up on the swings what he lost on the roundabouts. There he was, scarcely ejected from the flaming wreckage of one marriage, getting more deeply involved than ever with Anita, a lovely but very determined girl who knew exactly what she wanted. What a surprise for her when he emerged in his new role as spiritual warrior, as a man clearly in control of his sensual appetites.
It would not be easy breaking the news to her. Theirs was a particularly physical relationship with a gratifying element of carnality that gave them both great satisfaction. The thought gave him an erection. Recollections of nights spent with Anita presented him with images of warm softness, teeth and tongue, breasts and swelling thighs, hair and hands. He decided it was time to get out of bed.
As befitting an ascetic he paid particular attention to washing his body under the warm spray of the shower. A clean mind in a clean body was his motto from now on. He scrubbed himself thoroughly with soap and selected a new disposable razor for a close shave. He wondered briefly why no one had yet made a steam-resistant mirror. He supposed the physics were not impossible, except perhaps that water was more universal than he knew.
The problem of how to tell Anita of his newfound state of abstinence occupied him while he dressed. They were meeting for dinner at seven, a date fixed two nights before when she promised to be wearing something new, something daring she was sure he would find to his taste. The sheer lasciviousness of her tone and earthy laugh had left him breathless, restraining himself with difficulty from jumping into the car and driving over to give her one, then and there.
She could do that to him, another reason why celibacy was a must. A man cannot be led by his cock, like a bull with a ring through its nose. It wasn’t right. Where was the sense of self, the autonomy of the individual, if every time a woman suggested a new and interesting diversion he was salivating like one of Pavlov’s mutts? Enough was enough, he given the best years of his life to the pursuit of women, now it was time to concentrate on the more rigorous disciplines of the spirit.
She finished work at one o’clock. He resolved to pick her up from the art gallery, drive her home and on the way explain with tact and finesse that from now on things between them were different.
He rehearsed the scene in his mind: he would tell her that although she was the most beautiful woman he had ever known, and that while he still loved her to distraction, from now on their relationship would have to be one of the mind, like soul brother and sister joined together in the pursuit of higher ideals. He felt sure she would understand and want to join him in the edifying search for the grail of courtly and idealised love.
But how interested was he, really? The thought pulled him up as he straightened his tie. The advent of celibacy, radical as it was, brought new emotional dynamics into being. Did he still have the motivation to put up with her possible derision of his fidelity to the path of sages and seers? She could be acutely sarcastic when annoyed, a trait he had suffered from before. What if she did not take the proffered future of the two of them journeying on to celibate nirvana but insisted on continuing the gratifications of the flesh?
Maybe a short note explaining why he could not see her any more would be better. Or a friendly but distant phone call terminating their affair. He was still tossing around the options when he left for work. On the way down the path he was whistling, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.
In bright sunlight, under blue sky, along crowded traffic lanes, he drove slowly, relaxed, with the clarity of mind that comes from new and untried beginnings. At the traffic lights a white Mercedes sports drew alongside, the driver, a sleekly coiffeured blonde, elegant and cool behind the wheel. He watched as she checked her make-up in the rear-view mirror, compressing her cherry-red lips, touching her mascara with a slender manicured finger. Her neck craned, slim and shapely, as she turned this way and that. From the corner of her eye she caught him staring and he suddenly found himself in contact with a pair of electric blue eyes, wide-set and evaluating. He waved cheerily, guiltlessly, without a hint of his usual leer and received a dazzling smile from perfect teeth before she put the car into drive and left him behind.
He drove on, unhurried, one arm draped over the window, replaying the vision of her. How different, he mused, was the enjoyment of women once removed from the lustful desires of the sensual slave. Now he could admire them as he would beautiful paintings, icons to femininity, his thoughts removed from base motives, undefiled by lasciviousness.
Longhaired schoolgirls wearing colours and short skirts skipped through the stalled traffic in front of his car, giggling and skylarking. Lovely, lovely, he thought, following them with his eyes. How nice to be able to study the female form in all its marvellous variations, its adornments and delightful whimsicalities without sullying the contemplation with thoughts of seduction and possession.
On his way from the car park to the office he met Barbara Williams who smiled at him with her customary, beguiling, confusion. A round-faced, dark-haired girl from the mailroom, she wore the tightest imaginable sweaters and skirts over an awesomely pneumatic body. She blushed furiously whenever they met. There was always a possibility with Barbara he knew, no one could be that flustered without good reason. She teased him in a wide-eyed, disingenuous way and he flattered her by pretending to be hopelessly infatuated. It was a game they played, a ritual of flirtation with a mountain of probability stacked against it. Now out of bounds completely, he realised. He was, after all, celibate.
His first appointment was with Evette Joly, a tall, blonde, French girl who strode into his office with her usual cheery smile. She wore her everyday business purdah of over-size linen jacket, bulky sweater and loose jeans. She still managed to look gorgeous. Her well-washed face was, as always, devoid of make-up, lit only by clear grey eyes and her smile. A waft of expensive perfume inveigled itself into his nostrils. She represented a European firm and tried to sell him their latest software. He was sure that beneath her extravagantly unappealing clothes there was a body of wonderful proportions. At the beginning he had fantasised about exploring the interior but she kept him away with a frustrating friendliness that gave no encouragement. Today she was her customary elusive self and despite his efforts at conversation, got up to leave as soon as practicable.
Her departure left him with a vague feeling of irritation. She could be a little friendlier, he felt. Surely it must be obvious that his interest in her was now strictly platonic and business-like. He was, after all, a celibate. Couldn’t she tell? To be on guard so resolutely against personal overtures was even bad salesmanship. He resolved, with a feeling of high-minded distraction, not to let it worry him and instead to savour the lingering echoes of her French accent.
At the photocopier he waited while a girl from advertising reproduced the entire contents of a glossy foreign magazine. She was new to him, which meant she had joined the company recently. He prided himself on taking a personal interest in all the employees of the firm, although he would have denied that the main tally he kept was of young and possibly available women.
They chatted while she worked, approving of the capabilities of modern copying machines. She had hazel eyes, golden reddish hair falling in casual abundance, a friendly open smile. His pulse beat faster whenever she lifted her eyes and glanced at him from beneath opulent lashes. They talked of her work, of socio-economic target groups, of structural marketing analysis. She seemed very bright, and insofar as he could tell, was built like a Reuben’s matron. He noted with approval her substantial line of thigh when she bent to refill the paper tray. He was impressed with the strain her blouse was subjected to when she stood up.
She lingered while he ran off a few copies of a sales report. They strolled back together towards his office, laughing over a movie they had both seen recently. It seemed they shared the same sense of humour. They parted in the corridor with glances of, what seemed to him to be, mutual satisfaction that they would see one another again, soon. Her departing smile hit him like a nuclear shock wave. He stood watching her walk away, moving his head slightly in time with the sway of her hips. The mesmerising roll surely had to be an exaggeration. Before she disappeared she turned and caught him standing there. Oh she knew all right, she knew everything about him.
Back at his desk a few enquires yielded him her full name, Katherine Hewitt, date of birth, location in the building and a favourable opinion of her as one of the bright rising stars of the advertising department. He was even more impressed. A forcible sense of determination charged the rest of his morning, but whether it had to do with the preservation of his nascent celibacy or the well-rounded figure of Katherine Hewitt he wasn’t sure. Somehow they seemed inextricably entwined.
Thinking of his state of celibacy brought him to guilty recall of Anita and the impending declaration of his ascetic life. It was not something he was looking forward to but he consoled himself with the reckoning that no great achievement was attained without sacrifice. It would be unthinkable to take her to dinner under false colours, without letting her first assimilate the implications of their new relationship. There might be a scene. He could imagine she would argue the point but he would be resolute in his principles. The offer of dinner tonight would stand, no matter what, provided she knew that afterwards he would leave her with a chaste kiss. He was, after all, celibate.
His meeting with John Heard from the museum at the Dolphin Hotel was for twelve o’clock. They were lunchtime partners and frequent carousers of long standing who shared a common appreciation of wine and women. Neither of them were particularly musical. Heard had a photographer’s eye for the beauty of the female form and a randy leaning that found no outlet in his work at the museum. Taking photographs of fossils engaged in prehistoric copulation merely whetted his carnal imaginings.
A tangle of traffic along Cleveland Street meant Heard was well into his first schooner when Martin arrived. The bar was packed and as he jostled his way through the crowd he noticed a woman sitting on a stool near the fireplace. She looked familiar but he could not place her. She was obviously waiting for someone, her eyes occupied with a small, loosely bound book, the pages of which she turned absentmindedly, a drink beside her scarcely touched.
Her hair was dark and shining, caught in a smooth swirl along one side. Strong prominent cheekbones gave an Indian cast to her features. A well-shaped mouth slashed vermilion against her sallow skin. She was stunningly beautiful, composed and reserved, untouched by the swilling crowd in the bar. Heard caught the direction of his interest.
“Great sort,” he said, with a guiless expression, nodding casually in her direction.
“I know her from somewhere but for the life of me I can’t think where,” said Martin, puzzled.
“She’s not the type you’d forget if you ever got to know her really well,” said Heard, crinkling his eyes in the way he imagined women found attractive.
Her identity lurked beyond recall. He knew her fairly well; it was a familiarity beyond the haphazard glance of strangers. As he watched over the rim of his glass, she looked at her watch and glanced around the room, her non-committal gaze flickering once as she passed over him.
He remembered. Her name was Jaqui, a friend of his ex-wife, married to a guy with glasses who was something in computers. She worked for the same interior design firm as his wife, a fashionable clique with a penchant for Swedish light, that charged exorbitantly to protect the wealthy from bad taste. The four of them, his wife, Jaqui, the guy with glasses and himself, had been something of a foursome, meeting for dinner occasionally and attending the same parties. She looked better than he remembered.
“See you in a while, John,” he said to Heard, who, seeing how the wind blew, shrugged resignedly.
“Hello, Jaqui,” he greeted, as he edged in front of her, “Long time no see, how are you?”
“Martin, what a pleasant surprise. I thought it was you but I couldn’t be certain.”
She seemed genuinely pleased to see him, smiling warmly with expensive teeth, folding away her book.
“Can I get you a drink?” he asked, indicating her half-empty glass.
“No, thanks. I’ve a luncheon date in front of me and I’ll need a clear head. What have you been doing with yourself? It’s been so long. I heard about you and Samantha. A pity, but sometimes it’s for the best.” This last came with a friendly hand laid on his arm in consolation.
“Oh, well, it was over long before we actually got around to splitting up,” he said dismissively. “But what about you? Tell me what’s been happening.”
Theirs had been one of those flirtatious, semi-serious relationships married opposites often enjoy. Lots of jovial embraces and light-hearted teasing defused the certainty that if they ever got serious it would be dynamite. One night at a party in North Sydney, against the wash-hand basin inside a locked bathroom, they had almost come to a torrid consummation but for the increasingly despairing wailings of some maniac at the door. The memory of her panting on his shoulder, with her short leather skirt up around her waist, stirred him as they stood talking in the bar. He had not seen her since shortly after that night but the old familiar attraction was as strong as ever.
He dragged his attention back to what she was saying. She was no longer married to the serious man in glasses.
“It was like you and Samantha really. Two people with absolutely nothing in common. He became so boring I thought I’d scream every time he opened his mouth about hardware, software, mega-bytes and floppy discs. Sometimes I think we’d have been better off if Samantha and John had married one another instead of us. They suited so well. Remember how they’d drone on at dinner?”
He did, and also the games of footsies Jaqui and he played while the other two solved the problems of the world. From the half-smile on her face it was obvious she recalled them too.
“Look, we must get together sometime,” he said. “Maybe dinner one night.”
“I’d love to, after all we’re both free spirits again,” she said.
They exchanged addresses and telephone numbers. He did not feel it appropriate to bring up the subject of his celibacy. That problem could be faced later on. Shortly afterwards a man in suit came in and took her off to lunch. She kissed Martin on the cheek as she was leaving.
“Don’t forget to call me,” she whispered in his ear.
He drove like a man possessed though the snarling traffic of lunchtime Oxford Street. The time had slipped away talking with Jaqui and now he was late. He gunned the car between lanes, gripping the wheel with impatience.
The tyres screeched as he swung into the tree-lined Paddington Street where Sondheim’s art gallery carried on its esoteric trade. He stopped with a jerk outside the glass-fronted shop and hurried into the pristine interior of polished floors and obscure oils under lights, which was, as always, deserted. In more reflective moments the continued existence of the gallery was a matter of speculation for him. In the five months Anita had worked there she had sold a bare dozen works, yet they paid her well and never seemed worried at the lack of patronage.
She was reaching for her coat as he entered the office at the back of the gallery. As ever he was struck by how wonderful she looked. Her blonde hair fell to her shoulders like a halo around her head, her face was stunningly beautiful with perfect features and bright blue eyes of startling intensity. He had never known anyone who so perfectly matched his ideal of a woman.
She was delighted to see him so unexpectedly and came across the room to throw her arms around his neck, kissing him thoroughly. He tried to restrain her but as her long body pressed against him he felt it obligatory to respond. Even a day away from her made him forget how good she felt, how fine her golden hair smelt. Her tongue avidly massaged his teeth as she held him tight. With an effort he eventually pushed her away, forcing her back to arm’s length. She gazed up at him, her face flushed and shining, her eyes sparkling with pleasure.
“I want to talk to you,” he said, sounding grave. “Are you ready to leave?”
“Yes, of course, I’ve just got to lock up. What’s the matter, is anything wrong?” she asked, catching his mod.
“We’ll talk in the car,” he said, mysteriously.
Once seated and underway he began like a man with a mission, considering his words, using all the little phrases he had carefully rehearsed on the way.
“It’s this way,” he began, portentously. “There comes a time in a man’s life when he’s forced to stand back and take a long look at the way he’s living, at who he is and where he’s going. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking recently about my life, and about us, and it seems to me that some changes have to be made for both our sakes. We can’t go on like this.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“Like this, taking everything casually, as if nothing matters except enjoying ourselves. It’s a frivolous, hedonistic approach to life that’s not worthy of you or me. We should be a lot more serious about the direction of our lives.”
“You’re not proposing to me, are you?” she asked with some alarm. “Because if you are, don’t you think you’d better get divorced first?”
He looked at her aghast. How could she misinterpret him so completely?
“No, I’m not proposing to you. I’m trying to tell you I’ve decided that from now on the only way I can live with purpose and reality is by becoming a celibate.”
She registered the news with a look of stunned disbelief that quickly gave way to hilarity as she threw back her head and laughed.
“You, celibate! But why?” she asked.
He persevered, battling the innate absurdity of telling her that he couldn’t sleep with her because …well, because a decision had been made, a decision that was irrevocable so far as he was concerned, even if she found it hard to understand. He extolled the virtues of a chaste and pure love, a love that would be tested by and triumphantly survive the fires of abstinence.
She listened in silence for the most part, interjecting only once when he said he wanted to get back to basics and make his life simple.
“Simple! You call this simple?” she asked, incredulously.
She lived in a flat on the seventh floor of a building that breached the skyline of Kings Cross. He was still explaining his position as she led him inside. By now he was saying she should not doubt that she was the most desirable woman he had ever known.
The door had barely closed behind him when her skirt followed her coat to the ground. As he turned her hands slipped his jacket from his shoulders. She kissed him softly, melting against him. His hands, with a mind of their own, reached for her bare hips. She pulled at his tie, her perfume overwhelming him. Her shirt slid uncovering a bare, sculpted shoulder. She sank, flowing, her fingers busy at the waist of his trousers. He followed, enveloped in the luxuriance of her hair. Her breasts were warm and soft, her body alive with promise. They intertwined on the floor in a whirlpool of sensation.
Just once he drew back, hesitating, looking down at her as she lay reaching for him. He stared at her intently. Her eyebrows arched in innocence. She looked wonderful. He gave up, admitting defeat.
Some plans are just too well laid to succeed.