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Authors: Susan Johnson

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BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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In despair, I slapped my small hand across my sister's beautiful face.

‘Don't you dare give me that bullshit,' I said. ‘You sound like you're in a B-grade movie.'

‘He doesn't love you anymore,' she said.

I laughed. ‘He doesn't mind sleeping with me.' I clenched and unclenched my fists.

‘Look at you,' she said, in a sneering voice that sounded like our mother's. ‘You always think you'll get exactly what you want, don't you?'

‘Get out,' I said loudly. ‘Get off this boat now.'

‘Gladly,' she said. ‘He hasn't loved you for a long time, you know. He said he didn't realise what love was until he met me.'

I rushed at her; she raised her hands in self-protection. ‘Tell me while you have the chance, Jane,' I said, breathing hard into her face and holding her by the hair. ‘Do you really want him or do you only want to win him from me?'

She giggled and I slapped her again.

‘Mama,' said my son, walking in, ‘are you wrestling?'

‘Yes,' I said. ‘Mama is wrestling with Aunty Jane. Now go back to your room, sweetheart.'

Jane lunged for the door, bolting up the stairs to the deck.
Scheherazade
rocked on the water.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened if my son had not come in, how far my violent emotions might have taken me.

Not long after this we left
Scheherazade
forever. I was sadder to be leaving her than to be leaving my husband, whom I had not loved, not deeply and not properly, for some time. If I still loved him at all, I loved the memory of him, of what he and I had been and what we might have become. I loved his most pure self, which I believed I glimpsed when we were first in love. It was him I grieved for, that man who once wanted only good things for me and for our coming child.

I thought I grieved most keenly for the loss of
Scheherazade
, for the community of permanent boat-owners: Russian heiresses and adventurers, shifty men from Margate, former shopkeepers from Turin. I could not stand the loss of the river in the morning in mid-winter, a white mist coming off the rippled surface of the water. I grieved for our summer life, sipping wine in chairs on the deck, the smell of potted lavender and thyme and basil baking in the sun. Most of all I mourned the loss of the rock and sway of life on the water, for the passing of my sea legs, for the taking away of that joyous sensation of being warm and dry, loved, afloat, which I believed I would never feel again.

NINETY-NINE
The second-last lover

A SUSPICIOUS WANDERER WHO HAS
spent her life wandering, flitting from here to there, from house to house, from flat to boat, looking for love in cities and villages, in endless places and faces, might count herself surprised to find that love came when she wasn't looking. Surely she had learnt that history begins and ends unnoticed and that when an inconsequential action tilts everything in an unheard-of direction men and women are most often looking elsewhere.

Love arrived smaller and more humble than advertised. Love turned out to be plain, quotidian. Love was many encompassing things, painful, conflicted. It was more terrible than publicised.

Love was in the room when her son was in his hospital bed in London, his body rigged up to machines. She would have cut it out then, exorcised it from her breathing heart, but she could not. Her son did not die but came home to recuperate and she was still suspicious of love.

She saw her lost husband once, from behind. He looked stooped, sad, walking along the hospital corridor, and she was more surprised than she could say to feel her heart swell with a tender feeling that resembled forgiveness.

Love was in the ground, in the old stones of the house, in the scarlet geraniums around her door and in the pillow placed against her lower back by her old friend Steph, who came to stay when she slipped on the ice and broke her ribs.

Love did not really stretch to forgiveness. Not for Jane or Horatia or Paola. It probably did not stretch to her husband either, now that she thought about it.

Love was a nuisance. It meant considering other people besides oneself, a difficult adjustment for a temperamental, deeply solitary person to make. In truth she did not enjoy having to consider other people.

Love was Phillip, that unprepossessing English handyman who lived two houses up. Bald, too fat, with bad English teeth and a riotous laugh, he loved red wine, the French, driving all over France and Italy even though he could barely read a map. He loved life, really loved it, the gift of eyes, of ears, of a flowering tongue with which to taste everything it offered. He dug in the earth's soil and knew the name of every bird and tree, and thought nothing of fixing for free the broken window of old Madame Morel so that she could remove the black plastic she had taped across it and once again look out over the valley. Love was the two deep lines running down each side of his face, where happiness had carved itself.

The Suspicious Wanderer had grown fat too. Her belly flopped over the waistband of her skirts and if she had once, long ago, possessed graceful ballerina legs, she did not now. She had grey in her hair and yellowing teeth and a couple of scars that she might tell you about if she had knocked back a few too many happy glasses of
vin de pays
.

Sex with Phillip was a bit of a laugh. They prodded each other's fat bellies with their fingers.

‘Watch it,' he said once. ‘Thirty years ago I was out of your league. Thirty years ago I was a god.'

She laughed. ‘Thirty years ago I wouldn't have looked twice at you either,' she replied.

And she wouldn't have. She preferred herself now, less succulent and more loving, humbled, loved.

THE HUNDREDTH LOVER

TICK-TOCK. TICK-TOCK,
the body remembers. A human lifespan is less than a thousand months long, really, just a single gleaming day.

My body, mine at last.

I am wearing a red shirt.

I was here, an ordinary citizen of the sated world and nothing exceptional ever happened to me, save the commonplace and extraordinary fact that, like you, I was born, I was born, I was born.

C'est la vie
, so thrilling, so terrible, that I stand before it, hopelessly ardent, saluting before I forget. Every day unique in its details, already passing, vanishing, like breath.

Acknowledgements

THIS BOOK HAS HAD A
long gestation. I would firstly like to thank the fantastic team at Allen & Unwin for their patience and understanding, most especially Annette Barlow. Patrick Gallagher was always supportive and the editorial team of Christa Munns and the brilliant editor Ali Lavau saved me from my worst excesses. My long-time former agent, Margaret Connolly, encouraged me through thick and thin, and I'd like to thank her and her husband Jamie Grant for many years of unflinching support. My friends Sandra Hogan and Emma Felton continue to be the anchors of my life, as do their husbands Danny Troy and Kevin Hayes, who have become my dear friends too. My mother Barbara Johnson, and my brothers Steven and Ian, and their wives Janet and Michelle, continue to be rock solid, and I thank them. My sons, Caspar and Elliot Webb, provided much-needed distraction. I'd also like to thank everyone in BrisVegas who helped our coming home during a difficult time; in particular, the brilliant author and editor Matthew Condon, who changed my life in giving me my lovely job at
Qweekend
at
The Courier-Mail
. Thanks, too, to David Fagan and Michael Crutcher and to my fab colleagues Sandra Killen, Leisa Scott, Frances Whiting, Anne-Marie Lyons, Phil Stafford, Alison Walsh, Amanda Watt, Matthew Fynes-Clinton, Trent Dalton, Mike Colman, Russell Shakespeare, David Kelly, Genevieve Faulkner and everyone else on that mighty team. BrisVegas locals are some of the friendliest and most generous people on the planet: big thanks to Rob Hugall and Issy Hugall and Meg Hinchcliffe; Chris Strew; Kristina Olsson; Janet and Bob England; Cathy Jenkins; Rosa Hogan and Annette Hogan; Chris Whitelaw and John Hook; Paul Reynolds, Ross Booker and the fine team at Education Queensland, including the unstoppable Lyn McKenzie; Cameron Belcher and Jennifer Brasher; Donna Wright; Joan Wilson-Jones; Maria Comninos; Susan Oakenfull and Ian Oakenfull; Judy McLennan; Robyn Flynn; Billy and Nikki Webb and everybody in Sydney and Melbourne who were there too, including Anna, Maddy-Rose and Tom MacClulich, Tracey Callander, Leigh Hobbs, Dmetri Kakmi, Jim Pavlidis, Megan Backhouse, Ross Tanner and Elizabeth Minter, all of whom helped make the transition from London to Brisbane easier for me and the boys.
Merci
Marion Cabanes for helping with my French. Special thanks to JH, who knows what for.

BOOK: My Hundred Lovers
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