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Authors: Andrea Goldsmith

Reunion

BOOK: Reunion
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Dedication

To Jenny,
Roger and Jan

Epigraph

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.

The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.

The wise want love, and those who love want wisdom;

And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Shelley,
Prometheus Unbound

All my life I have loved in vain

the things I didn't learn.

Yehuda Amichai,
Open Closed Open

1.

On a chill Melbourne evening early in the new millennium, Jack Adelson was driving across town. The city roads were clogged with six o'clock traffic, rap music blared through the open window of a hotted-up Holden. Jack idled closer to the van in front.

The music thumped, the traffic dribbled forward, exhaust smoke hovered in the glare of headlights. Jack was about to realise a dream as familiar as his own skin, a reunion with the friends of his youth. It had been twenty years since they were last together and he should have been excited, he should have been prepared to dump the car and complete the last kilometres on foot. Instead he wanted to whip the car around, ram the accelerator and bolt into the night.

It was Ava he dreaded seeing. Ava Bryant, the woman he had loved throughout their undergraduate years in Melbourne, their postgraduate study in Oxford, and all through her long marriage to Harry. It was the sort of love as futile loves always are, that flourishes best in the absence of the beloved, sustained by dreams and memories and the
reliable satisfactions of pure invention. Jack was about to see Ava again, in the flesh and with her husband alongside, and he felt like a man driving to his own execution.

Jack was too honest to blame anyone else for his disappointments, but he was prepared to admit that if not for Harry Guerin his life would have unfolded very differently. When Harry first appeared in Oxford a quarter of a century ago, Jack had already acquired a reputation in the history and culture of Islam, an arcane but, at the time, seemingly secure corner of comparative religion. If his career had followed the trajectory everyone had predicted, he would have taken up a position at one of Europe's universities and on regular visits back to Oxford witnessed first-hand the life Ava shared with Harry. More real contact with her and her husband and his long-suffering love may have dwindled.

Jack was in Oxford and working on his first book when Ava and Harry had returned from Paris with their news.

‘We're married.' Ava put her arm around Harry and pulled him close. ‘We were married in Paris.' Jack was too horrified to speak. ‘Show him Harry.' And the two of them held up their left hands to display identical gold wedding bands. Even in the shock of the moment, Jack noticed how Harry's finger bulged above the ring. Harry Guerin had never been an attractive man.

Jack thought he would manage living just a short walk from Ava and her husband, but as reality gripped him in its practised jaws, the situation quickly became untenable. Jack put his head down, he avoided Ava and Harry, he finished his book and he returned to Australia. From half a world away, it was easy to shift Harry to the shadows while placing Ava, once again, in the high beam of his imaginings.

The letters were partly responsible. Within days of arriving
back in Melbourne Jack had written to Ava, a long humorous account of the potholes of homecoming that disguised the misery he actually felt. And she had quickly responded. The pleasure of that letter was astonishing. This written communication, Jack realised, involved the two of them in the sort of intense and intimate conversation he had always longed to have with her. Soon they were exchanging weekly letters in what would eventually become a twenty-year correspondence – not that he could have predicted this when first he began writing to her, for he had intended only a temporary move back to Australia. But by the time he had the stamina to face Ava and her husband again, universities had moved out of the ivory tower and on to the bourse, and comparative religion had either been struck off university registers or absorbed into other more serviceable disciplines.

The contemporary reshaping of universities may have had less of an impact on his career if not for his failure to publish. He had completed a second book not long after his first; but for the past ten years, with the exception of his letters to Ava, he had written nothing new. The prestigious university that had employed him on his return to Australia did not renew his contract, and neither had the less prestigious university where he was next employed. His most recent position had been at a regional university on the South Island of New Zealand, teaching a hotchpotch of ancient history, philosophy and a post-modernist piece of fluff called Religion, the Establishment and
The Sopranos
. It had been a lonely time, during which he had tended his dreams and memories of Ava more diligently than ever. So bloated had they become, there had been neither time nor inclination for his own work. Jack's scholarship had stalled long ago, but in New Zealand it stopped altogether.

With the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and terrorist attacks across the globe, his career's backward slide had recently reversed. And while he was not the only scholar of Islam whose work was suddenly receiving attention, he was one of the few who spoke English without an accent, making him a favourite with the press. The renewed interest in his early work had done little to dispel his own intellectual doubts, but it had swept him out of New Zealand and back to Australia and he was grateful for that. Conrad and Helen had come home too, lured, as he had been, by the Network of Global Australians.

The Network of Global Australians – NOGA – was Harry Guerin's domain, and unsettling to Jack that the person responsible for his present resurrection had been the one to kill off his prospects in the first place. Jack had never associated Harry with serious work. Harry collected corkscrews and barbed wire, he considered himself an aficionado of cheese and an expert in the evolution of the computer. Harry's interests were diverse, obscure and, from Jack's perspective, useless, although on a number of occasions he had actually managed to turn them into paying jobs. His knowledge of French artisanal cheeses, for example, had earned him money over the years, and his passion for computers had helped secure him the NOGA job. The hobbyist had become a planner and organiser. Hard to credit in such a man. Hard to credit that Harry Guerin would ever be in demand for anything.

In the intellectual world there are two types of people, so Jack believed. The first are those who leave their mark, scientists or artists, the true originals. And there are those who make it possible: the housekeepers and trench-diggers. Jack would not hesitate in assigning to the first group Ava Bryant, novelist; Helen Rankin, molecular biologist; and Conrad
Lyall, philosopher and contemporary soothsayer; while he, Jack, might at a pinch scrape into the second – along with the newly fashioned Harry Guerin. It was not a congenial thought.

 

There was nothing about this reunion Jack would have chosen – except the night. Thursday had been their Laconics night back in their student days, but instead of gathering at a pub as they had when members of the Laconics Society, Ava and Harry had offered their home. Jack would have preferred anywhere else. In a rash of emails he had appealed to tradition, he had resorted to nostalgia, but his friends had opted for comfort and he had been overruled.

The internet had allowed Jack to keep track of the public Ava; she was his screensaver and he kept updating her. But whenever he imagined her, he knew it was a two-dimensional Ava he saw, carefully positioned against a range of self-serving backdrops. He tried to prepare for the real encounter by rehearsing various possibilities and practising potential conversations, but in the end he settled for delay, returning from New Zealand while Ava was away in Kyoto as a writer-in-residence. She had arrived back in Melbourne just the previous week and within hours she had telephoned him, eager that they get together. But still he delayed, for while he might have settled himself sufficiently to talk with her on the phone, he did not trust himself to be alone with her. However, he knew he needed to see her before the reunion, to cushion that first face-to-face shock. So every morning since her arrival home, and despite his flat being on the opposite side of the city, he had visited the street where she and Harry lived, across from the cemetery, in order to catch a glimpse of her, in order to prepare.

Jack had taken up running as a serious preoccupation around the time of Ava's marriage, attracted to that hard pain that manages so effectively to evacuate the mind. Each morning, camouflaged by the crowd of early walkers and joggers, he would coast around the cemetery circuit, slowing his pace as he passed Ava and Harry's house.

It was a large, free-standing Victorian dwelling, which loomed even larger in the vague pre-dawn light. Built of bluestone and hawthorn brick, it had an ornate tessellated tile verandah and a small cottage garden. Like most Victorian dwellings, there was a fence of wrought-iron railings more in service to aesthetics than privacy. Jack would pass the house puffed up with expectation; a glimpse, just a glimpse of her was all he needed. But the curtains were always drawn, the newspaper lay in its plastic wrap on the porch, and the occupants were nowhere to be seen.

In one of her letters, Ava had described how the house had materialised,
fallen to us
, she wrote, as things so often did with her and Harry. On their return to Melbourne two years earlier, they had been introduced to a man at an arts function, a well-read fellow who was also well-endowed with real estate. He rather fancied having a renowned novelist living in one of his properties and had offered the house to them for as long as they liked.

The four friends are atheists. Conrad, Helen and Ava arrived at atheism via Christianity, Jack from Judaism. Yet over the years, as fortune has shone ever more brightly on Ava and Harry, it has occurred to Jack that only a God could be behind such consistent good luck. A large house on a pepper-corn rent, a non-teaching university fellowship for Ava, the NOGA position for Harry, financial security and excellent health for both, marital commitment with extra-marital side trips for Ava, it was not surprising that Jack was tempted by the
long arm of the Almighty. From his increasingly barren existence, Ava and Harry had it all. And maybe that's why he never bothered to inquire too deeply into Harry's role at NOGA – none of the friends did. Not that Jack had ever been interested in Harry's work. When you loved another man's wife as he had loved Harry's for close on a quarter of a century, it was preferable not to think about him at all.

In one of those sad ironies, or perhaps, again, the mysterious hand of God, Jack had introduced Harry to Ava. It would never have occurred to him that Ava, who could have had any man she wanted, would be attracted to so innocuous a fellow. Harry was reading geography at Oxford but was no scholar, he was Australian but came from Adelaide, he was their age but Victorian in manner, and, unlike the rest of them, he came from money. Indeed, there was so much Guerin money that apparently Harry could have passed his entire life in a leisurely tinkering with his collections. But for some years now, according to Ava, he had been earning a substantial amount on his own account, and for the past two years there had been his work with NOGA.

Throughout their correspondence, Ava had provided regular reports about Harry, and while Jack would prefer that she didn't, neither did he complain. For he loved receiving her letters and he loved writing to her. If words were the only presence, then he and Ava had never been separated – or so he would like to think. No matter where in the world they were, no matter how their other passions were taking flight, they had shared ideas and private confidences, news and gossip, with the intimacy and romance unique to an epistolary relationship. Ava believed they had the best of each other, a friendship without limits. But there were limits: she was the love of Jack's
life, while Jack was her beloved friend. And he knew it was better they had lived apart; face to face his love would incinerate the friendship.

2.

The Network of Global Australians truly was Harry Guerin's kingdom. He had conceived it, defined its role, and lobbied the right people for funds and influence. Two years ago, with the planning phase finished, he and Ava had returned to Australia so he could set up the organisation. NOGA's primary objective was to tap into the skills and knowledge of Australians working abroad. Or, in Harry's special vernacular: ‘NOGA will ensure that information is effectively sourced from the wealth of Australian talent working overseas.' Into the NOGA offices flowed news from Australians working across the globe, fewer than one hundred members to begin with, but by the time of the reunion, numbering in the thousands. The information was studied, sorted, stored or disseminated as Harry thought best, particularly in light of the organisation's second objective: ‘By making extensive use of state-of-the-art technology, NOGA will provide the means to connect people and nations in a way political strategies cannot.'

There was a daily online Australian newspaper, as well as a weekly online journal containing news and articles from business people, politicians, senior bureaucrats, diplomats and NOGA members themselves. NOGA also funded a fellowship program that brought selected specialists home to Australia for periods of up to two years. The fellows would work on their
own research, but at the same time, through occasional lectures and consultancies, were expected to provide the public face of the organisation. Jack Adelson, Helen Rankin and Conrad Lyall were the inaugural NOGA fellows.

Harry was NOGA's chief executive officer, a position Jack had confined to the organisation's factotum until a few weeks ago when he saw him on the evening news, a fatter, balder version of the younger Harry, sporting the sort of moustache that had made David Niven appear elegant but looked vaguely sinister on other men, a suited figure in a suited cluster coming out of a highfalutin meeting. It struck Jack as extraordinary that Harry could belong in the corridors of power. The rest of them had their particular talents: Ava her fiction, Connie his philosophy, Helen her microbes, and his own once-noteworthy history of religion, while Harry was a fellow of shallow currents who always seemed out of his depth with the likes of them.

When first they met him at Oxford, they tolerated him with the sort of good humour that comes easily when a person is of little consequence. Harry was so unprepossessing, a squat chest-of-drawers sort of man, with thinning hair, pasty skin and red parallel lips reminiscent of a ventriloquist's doll. Glasses would have improved him but his vision was excellent. Even when his passion for Ava became obvious, Jack, Helen and Connie would, without malice, refer to him as her homunculus, a description that nailed him firmly to the lower rungs of their world. But any goodwill dissipated when a year later Ava married him.

BOOK: Reunion
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