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Negotiation Lunch

    The rest of the week passed slowly for Jillian. She went for her early walks, kept up her lectures, did her studies, played chess with her father, chatted with her mother, walked home with Christopher when their buses arrived together, and most lunch times read some other books on psychology, which she was finding not only a fascinating study, but also of further help in understanding Keith.
   She also took a bus to the city, during one lunch hour, and called on her father's lawyer.
   When Sunday finally rolled round, she still hadn't worked out what to wear. She finally decided not to make a statement, chose white underwear, left her hair down, and settled on a skirt and blouse with walking sandals. The day was set to be warm. She carried her usual cardigan and purse.
   Arriving at the wharf, she went straight across to Keith, who was at the same table, but sitting where she had been the previous week.
   "I thought I would save you being distracted by the boats," he said, coming round the table to hold the chair for her.
   "I wasn't certain you would be here," Jillian replied, as she sat down.
   He resumed his seat. All she could see over his shoulders was the featureless wall. She would have to crane her neck to see anything else. He's not going to be a pushover, she thought.
   He smiled at her. "I thought about not coming," He had a nice smile, sometimes. "But then I decided it would be more fun to be here. Probably." He smiled again. "I'm enjoying it so far."
   "Me too, at this moment. Funny, but I've no idea why. You are a complete grot, with a sicko streak a mile wide. I can't stand you."
   "Well, I know why I'm here. However you try to argue me out of it, I want you. That must be sick, for you give me nothing but grief."
   "Keith, you're a criminal, an extortionist. You've got me locked with you in this crazy thing, whatever it is. I wouldn't be here otherwise. It's not that much fun, believe me."
   "We're both criminals, actually." The waiter arrived and they ordered their meals. When he had gone, Keith continued, "If you're right, and we've got fifty years ahead of us, we should get to know each other. Okay?" He smiled again.
   "Okay." What was he up to? This was an odd tack. Putting on the veneer again? Genuine? Intelligent conclusion? A game move? I need more data, she thought. "You start."
   "Fine. I was born about twenty-four years ago.." He quickly summarised his life story, the death of his mother, several foster homes and step mothers, finding at school that he had an aptitude for computers, the TAFE course, and, as she had already guessed, working for his father. The rest she knew already.
   "As a child," she asked when he had fallen silent, "what did you read? And what do you read now?" He could only remember Dr Seuss and Huckleberry Finn from his childhood, Popular Mechanics as he grew older, then mainly computer technology for his work and science fiction for entertainment.
   "I've never read any science fiction. Tell me about it." He explained there were actually two types; one of them was fantasy similar to Tolkein's Lord Of The Rings, the other more like ordinary novels or adventure stories written around a world in which just one fictional invention set it apart from our own. She asked what he meant by that.
   "Suppose there was an invention that would enable a car to hover at any height, like helicopters without blades."
   "Yes?" She couldn't see where this was headed, but knowledge was power, so she kept him talking.
   "What sort of world would this be, then? Would a love story be any different? How would our drive back from Warriewood have been? Would we have gone up, high into the sky, over the storm? Would the same invention work on bicycles? Might we have come upon one in the dark at two thousand metres? What would our lives be like right now? The same? Different? How?"
   "You just don't live in the same world as me."
   "No, you're wrong. When Jules Verne wrote 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea it was seen as absolute fantasy, but now, nuclear submarines far exceed the hundred and forty thousand miles he envisaged, probably more than a million kilometres each. And the Nautilus base proved to be a prediction of the U-boat pens of World War II, which were impossible in his day because reinforced concrete was unheard of."
   "Are you saying that we'll have flying cars next?"
   "Perhaps not, but the point is, you can't predict what technical problems the future will solve, but we all know about people, so we can predict how they might behave in that world. Verne postulated a madman who would behave like Nemo, and modern submarine services take great care to exclude such people. Did you see "The Hunt For Red October?"
   "No. What's it about?"
   "Two submarines, Russian and USA, in the cold war. The psychology of their captains. Jules Verne with realised vehicles rather than 'impossible' ones."
   "So, the fascination is in predicting behaviour, as in any novel, but given one unlikely technical circumstance as the starting point? Perhaps it can be just any unlikely circumstance?"
   "Yes. Yes, that's right. What it does to the people. Fascinating."
   Their food arrived. As she ate, Jillian also chewed over what she had heard. Was the Parkway cyclist her own private 'unlikely circumstance'?
   "Is that why you're blackmailing me?"
   "You've had an 'unlikely circumstance' dropped in your lap, and now you want to follow its plot in real life?"
   "Not at all. I'm just trying to use it to jump your bones."
   "God, you are so crass."
   "Well, we seem to be letting it all hang out, and anyway, what have I got to lose? You hate me already." He face became thoughtful. "In fifty years you will have become used to it, or I will have changed, or it will still disgust you. Them's the options."
   "There is another option."
   "What's that?"
   "We might have parted. For whatever reason." She couldn't help looking at him, the wall behind him was just so boring. Maybe he did have some of it worked out, at that. How can I possibly tolerate being stuck in this living nightmare for fifty years? Why did I ever tell him he had plenty of time? Stupid, stupid, stupid. Almost everything I say to deflect him comes back to make it worse for me. I think I've been smart, think I've won some stupid little point, then find I've dug myself in deeper. The shock tactic only bought me twenty four hours of respite.
   "True. But only when I've done with you."
   "You really think that you've got it all worked out?"
   "No, not at all. In my fantasy you were naked on your back, pleading for mercy or pleading for more, I didn't much care which. Not like this, having a respectable Sunday lunch." He fell silent, then suddenly added, "Besides which, it would have to be a fictional circumstance, and this one isn't at all unlikely. It's fact. You did it. Face it."
   "Fifty years is much more than I would get for manslaughter. Put some bounds on it."
   "Why? It's your choice which option you take. It's only been three weeks, anyway."
   "Only three weeks, so far."
   "You can end it at any time." His smile wasn't so pleasant, now.
   "But you know how it would turn out, for me, then."
   "Oh, yes. But then, how is this hurting you? You say you hate me, and then you ask me what I like to read. What do you like to read?"
   "The classic novels, that was more when I was at school. Now it's all been course work, sciences and medicine, mainly."
   "I've become interested in psychology lately."
   "All right, the last few weeks."
   "And what, exactly, have you been reading about?"
   "I started with Sexual Hygiene and Pathology, then went on to psychotic disorders and the controlling personality. Next, I'm going to find something about motivation and attitude change."
   "Clever Jillian. And you applied what you learnt, didn't you? Twice, now I think about it."
   "I did my best."
   "Well above the good-enough line. But why tell me your plans? That gives me an edge. Knowledge is power."
   "And absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely?"
   "Such sophism, in one so young, so pure, so incorruptible."
   "I wish. You've soiled me. Tainted me. I am corrupt. I lie to my parents. I lie to everyone. My whole life is a lie." She felt the pressure of tears behind her eyelids.
   "Do you lie to me?"
   "Not any more."
   "Why not?"
   "What would it gain me to lie? I must discuss my worst fear with someone, and that's you. I knew that and hated it, the very first day."
   "Do you lie to yourself?"
   "I did."
   "Not now?" He had stopped smiling. He looked almost gentle, she thought.
   "I try not to now. It's my own fault I'm corrupt. It's not you at all, I shouldn't have blamed you. I'm the killer. I'm the one who chose the cover-up. I made of myself a victim. You are just a vehicle for the retribution of the gods. But you are evil too. The gods will give you yours, in their own time."
   "I never knew you had a religious bent."
   "I don't. But I've had some thinking to do. This has changed me. For the worse, I think. I don't like what I've become. I'm being punished, no doubt of that. Maybe I'm punishing myself."
   "You don't think I'm punishing you?"
   "You? You are just a selfish, sick opportunist. In the right place at the wrong time. Or the wrong place at the right time. You are just a pawn in the game. Blind as a bat. Damaged in your childhood. Poor Keith. Poor Jillian. We really are a sad-sack pair, aren't we? Suddenly I wish I could just die, be done with this all."
   "Would you like me to get you a pile of sleeping pills?"
   "Are you trying to encourage me to suicide?"
   "No, just testing your resolve. I don't want to lose my best toy ever. If it's getting too hard for you I might have to change the rules. I don't want you giving up the game."
   "Funny, I've had the same feeling about you."
   "Jillian, are you saying that we both want to keep the game going?"
   "No, but I don't want you getting fed up and turning me in, or killing me."
   "Killing you?"
   He hadn't considered that, she realised. Once more I've been stupid. Stupid. But at least I have thought ahead, a little, this time. "I'm a danger to you. I'll get to that in a moment. My main point is that I'd rather we didn't play at all. I'd rather we both kept each other's secrets without conditions. Preferably, never saw each other again."
   "Each other's secrets?"
   "You are a secret blackmailer. You might be safer with me dead. If you turned me in, I'd tell your secret, too. I'd take you down with me, make no mistake. You would serve longer time than I would, for sure. You already have a record, too. I might even get a suspended sentence, as I'm a blackmail victim. Right now I'm not prepared to take that risk. I might get to that point yet, though. It's all in the envelope at Dad's lawyer's, to be opened upon my death or disappearance."
   "Oh, Jillian, perfidious Jillian."
   "Me? Me untrustworthy? Because I get legal advice? Because I'm suspicious of a self-confessed blackmailer? Give me a break! Get back into the real world!"
   "You weren't going to tell me all this, were you." It was a statement, not a question.
   "I didn't plan to rub your nose in it at the earliest opportunity. But I had no problem talking about it if it came up, as it did."
   "So, as soon as you can be assured of a suspended sentence, you will turn me in?"
   "Not impossible."
   "You're playing with me, aren't you? Aren't you ashamed of yourself? Doing that to another human being?"
   "One, I'm not sure that you come into that category. Two, I'm almost terminally ashamed of myself already. Any guilt about my treatment of you pales into insignificance. Three, you deserve it."
   "Why aren't you turning me in now, then?"
   "I've already told you. Besides, I might want to have some fun with you. You do the terrified victim delightfully well."
   He had the good grace to blush. "When did you cook this up?"
   How sweet he looks with that blush, she thought. He's an odd mixture. If he weren't such a grot I might have liked him. "I didn't cook it up at all. It only came into my head now, out of my reading and what we discussed a few minutes back. Not premeditated at all. Not like you. Well, perhaps just like you. Opportunistic. Lucky. You dropped into my outstretched hand." She made the gesture. He winced. She winked at him. He looked ill. "But I'm not quite as bad as you. I only killed someone accidentally, unavoidably. You are a blackmailer, feeding on the guilt and misery of others, the lowest form of snake that our law recognises. Maybe I'm the gods' retribution on you. I want a drink. Get me a liqueur with my coffee."
   "Please what?"
   "Say 'Get me a liqueur with my coffee, please?'"
   "Go fuck yourself."
   Keith looked at her a long moment. Shrugged. Gestured for the waiter, ordered their drinks. When they were alone he accused her, "You've turned into a right rough piece, and so quickly, too."
   "Depraved. That's your doing. But still my fault. I gave you the chance."
   "I'd hardly say depraved. You're still a virgin, if you told the truth last week, and if you've been faithful to me since, of course."
   "You really are a right little shit."
   "But not a rapist."
   "No, I concede that. So far. But only because I forestalled you. Not for lack of intention on your part."
   "Guilty, but unrequited, Your Honour."
   "What am I going to do about you, Keith?"
   "Just love me."
   "No, I'm serious. Are we to lunch together each week for the next fifty years? I admit the conversations have their challenging moments, but it's not exactly what I had planned."
   "And what exactly had you planned, Jillian? For your Sundays, for the next fifty years?"
   "Ouch. I had nothing planned, all right? To take them as they came, I suppose."
   "In the context of your life as it progressed?"
   "Of course."
   "And what was that to be?"
   "I'm going to be a doctor. You know that."
   "Ah, but what led to that decision? Tell me about your life. The life of little Jilly. Up till you met me."
   "We were living at Abbotsford when I was born, then as now an only child, until just before I started high school, when we moved to Hunter's Hill. I went to public schools: Abbotsford Primary and then North Sydney Girls'. I really was a good, quiet, little girl. Played with my dolls and read acceptable books. Mum and Dad were quietly happy. They never seemed to argue much. Now I think that he plays Mr. Bennett to her Mrs. - not a lot, but it's there if you look for it."
   "What do you mean, Mr. Bennett?"
   "In Pride and Prejudice."
   "Oh. Yes. 'Now', you say?"
   "In the last three weeks. Since the Parkway. I'm seeing things differently now. I've been torn out of my shell. It's been a shock."
   "You've passed some of that shock on to me, too."
   "Oh, you! You put yourself in the way of it. Play with fire, see what happens."
   "You weren't fire, then. More like ice."
   "So, why medicine?"
   "Why computers?"
   "I told you. Aptitude. Showed up at school."
   "So you did. How did it show up? Vocational testing, or what?"
   "Stop it, Jillian. I thought you were going to be honest?"
   "I said I try not to lie to you any more."
   "It's the same thing."
   "No. Not telling isn't the same as lying. Maybe not honest, but certainly not lying. You taught me that. Over coffee, in the car, at the Chatswood Interchange."
   "Lying by omission."
   "I was taught by the master. I don't want to tell you, that's all."
   "You're going to."
   "How do you know."
   "It's in your eyes. You glance up and away when you work out how to say something, and that's what you were doing now. So when you've worked it out, please tell me."
   "How do you know that?"
   "I watched you. It's called a 'tell' and everyone has their own. You just watch for a while and you soon spot them."
   "Where did you learn that?"
   "Poker. Professional poker."
   "Do you play?"
   "I tried. No good at it. Lost a lot of money. Dad got me started. He's no good at it either."
   "Is that why he pulled the scam on us?"
   "You're supposed to be telling me about 'why medicine'?"
   "Damn. I'd hoped you had forgotten. I don't want to tell you."
   "Why not?"
   "I think I'm ashamed. Isn't that stupid? To be ashamed of a humanitarian career?"
   "What are you ashamed about?"
   "What a silly little goody-two-shoes I was. I wanted to do medicine so I could save the world. Join the Leper Doctors, that sort of thing. It was my holy vocation. If I'd believed in a god it would have made me feel closer to him. Her. It. I don't know, it's all a mess." She stopped, once more staring at the wall behind him. He was sure she wasn't seeing it.
   "Go on."
   "How is it all a mess, to have a vocation for medicine?"
   "I couldn't have stood it. I wasn't anywhere near tough enough. The wheels started to spin when we began professional year, and I had to study the real body, parts, diseases, the hard truths. I had been getting good marks, but it was taking longer and longer each day to get the facts into my head. I had to memorise things I really didn't want to know about. It was sentimentality, not a genuine drive."
   "So I'm not the only one out of touch with the real world?"
   "Was. Were. Not now. Not me. No longer. I told you, I've been torn out of my shell."
   "How do you see medicine now, then, without your shell on?"
   "Oh, a job. A career. Messy. Hard work. Good pay, eventually, if I play my cards right. Might do some good for the world. Medicine often does, even when it's driven by the profit motive. I need much less time to do better study, now."
   "That's a big change of attitude."
   "I told you -"
   "Yes, I know, you've been torn out of your shell."
   "Any thoughts about specialising?"
   "Only that puerile Mother Teresa fantasy. Until two weeks ago." She looked at him. Smiled.
   "Don't tell me. Psychology?"
   "With a medical degree they call it psychiatry. And the pay is so very much better. If I can grind my way through I will end up very well off. I suppose I should thank you for that. But it will be years before I am able to specialise."
   "I can wait."
   "For what"
   "You said you should thank me."
   "There may be a small fee. When you can afford it, of course."
   "Forget it, buster. I'll see you in hell before I pay you a brass cent. For that I'd rather go to jail. You are demanding sex, not money. I don't do sex for money, they're not equated that way in my mind, and I'm not going to let you put them to me as such a transaction, either."
   "That's a hypothetical, isn't it?"
   "What do you mean?"
   "You don't do sex for money? Ha! You don't do sex at all, period. Talk about Mother Teresa!"
   "I'm getting stiff, sitting for too long. I want to go for a walk."
   "Don't push your luck. Pay the man." She walked out to the wharf-side. There was nobody coiling ropes today. A different boat was at that mooring. It wasn't as bright as the previous week, either. Hot, but hazy. Bush fire smoke. Early this year. So hazy that the sun wasn't visible, even as a brighter patch of haze. She could hardly see the far shore of the harbour.
   Keith joined her. "Over a hundred fires burning at once today, all across the countryside, a half million hectares of firebush going up in this state alone. Terrible. Tough for the people affected, too."
   "How can you sound so concerned about anyone else's welfare while you are being a rapist blackmailer? You amaze me."
   "I'm not all bad."
   "Open to question. Come on, walk. I want afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, damn you."
   "I suppose a 'please' is out of the question? You've really changed."
   "Your fault as much as anyone's."
   "If I'd known you were going to turn out like this, I might have done things differently."
   "If you had known? If I had had the slightest idea how everything was going to change I would have.." she walked on in silence.
   "Would have what, Jillian?"
   "I think I would have picked that poor guy up - made you help, no doubt - shoved him in the back seat and roared off to North Shore Casualty. I'd have made you drive then and tried to do something for him. Of course I would have failed. But it would have been much faster than waiting for an ambulance, and I'd have been called a saint for my thoughtfulness and dedication despite his being dead, and most of all I'd feel heaps better about myself and be spared all your shit into the bargain."
   "Why didn't you, then?"
   "You know very well. I was a total wuss. Hopeless. Wee, cowrin timorous mousie. It took the consequences of my failure then, to make me strong enough now, to deal with it if I had my time over. Which I can't. See under: 'paradox'. Ha!" She lengthened her stride. Stepped out energetically, radiating anger, pushing up toward the ridge beyond which was the Botanical Gardens gate.
   He ran a few steps to catch up, then settled into their new cadence with her.
   Finally, looking straight ahead, marching like a machine, she said, "I still don't know what I'm going to do about you - and I can do without your crap about 'just love you.' You? Ha!"
   "Yes, it's going to take some thinking about." He was getting breathless.
   "If you're going to have anything to do with me you're going to have to get fitter. I am, too. I've been too soft for too long."
   "Did you play sports at school?" He grabbed her arm, pulled them both back to a walk.
   She glared at him, but accepted the change. "Not much. You?"
   "Nope. Why start going for super-fit, now, then?"
   "It just feels right. I've discovered that I've got instincts. And I've learnt they can be trusted. And this is one of them. Like it or lump it."
   "You're getting very stroppy." He was breathing more easily. They had crested the ridge. It was all downhill from here.
   "Aggressive. Argumentative."
   "Am I? I suppose I am. How does it grab you? How do you like this creation of yours?"
   "That's hardly fair."
   "What's fair got to do with it? If you had just taken me home with a genuine promise to say nothing, I'd probably be a quivering little jelly-mouse still. Wishing I had been raised RC so I could go to confession and not be kept awake all night racked with guilt. But no, you had to torment me, light a bomb under me, tear off my shell. And this is what we have found underneath that shell. Tough. Now, nice and clear for the tape, how do you like your creation?"
   "More interesting, for sure. Daunting, though."
   "Good. I hope it chokes you."
   "Why do you talk about yourself in the third person? And as an object?"
   "What? No I don't."
   "Yes you do. 'How do you like your creation - I hope it chokes you.' Your words."
   "Maybe. I don't think you are as happy about what you've become, as you try to make out."
   "I'm not happy. I told you that. I've changed for the worse. I'm corrupt. I'm ashamed. But if there's any compensation, it's that this is hard on you too. You deserve it, and then some."
   "Oh, I'm managing."
   "We'll have to do something about than, then, won't we." They were nearly at the Rotunda. "I don't feel like anything to eat now. I'm going home." She turned onto another path.
   "Where are you going?" He had been caught by surprise, left behind. He ran again to catch up.
   "Bus stop, of course."
   "What about next week?"
   "Oh, I suppose so. Don't bother coming with me now. Go back to your flat. Or whatever." Why won't he just stop?. Go off the other way? "Keith. Stop. Stand here with me for a moment. I'm going on now. You're not. We have to maintain some order or we won't be able to keep this up, fitted into our ordinary lives, will we?"
   He nodded, shoulders drooped.
   "Stay here. I'm going on. You're not. Okay?"
   He nodded again. Watched her until she was out of sight. Then he turned and walked slowly away, head down, lost in thought.

Copyright © 2003 Peter Leon Collins
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