There were two couples. Harvey, who was middle-aged, and his thirty year-old wife, short, plump Christobel; and Kees and Chloe who were about Christobel’s age. Harvey was a writer, still physically fit for his age, but doggedly cynical about anything non-intellectual. Kees, tall and strong, operated a gardening service, and although he could afford to take it easy he liked tackling the hard manual work. His partner, tall, willowy Chloe, always wore black and often referred to people’s bodies, her own included, weaving these references into whatever conversation was current. Christobel had a soaring I.Q., ran her own travel agency, and had been studying part-time for years. Harvey liked to joke that his wife collected degrees and diplomas like other women collected recipes. Christobel knew some people resented her capabilities, but she also realised that Harvey, simply because he was a writer, was the one they found more interesting. This was both convenient, because fewer demands were made on her attention, and she saw how the pressure of this demand sometimes debilitated Harvey when his opinion was constantly sought then argued with, and, at the same time, irritating, because she was only human, despite her soaring I.Q.
The couples had met after Chloe, who was a social worker feeling harassed because the only job she could get was in child protection although she fancied herself as a poet, had attended a reading when Harvey read a rambling piece of fiction-in-progress which she had laughed at in the right places. Christabel had been at the reading, but Kees would never attend anything like that.
Kees had few opinions about anything. He said little, and was easygoing and agreeable. Christobel liked him as much as she could like someone who bored her. So did Harvey who pretended to be more ordinary than he really was whenever he was with Kees. Chloe, who could make Kees do anything she wanted, was the most volatile of the four of them. Sometimes she stayed at Kees’s house, and sometimes she lived alone at her rented house in the bush not far from a small town.
The first time Harvey and Christobel had visited them at Chloe’s house, before the two couples had hardly got to know each other, Chloe played her harp. She could only play two pieces, and after she had repeated these several times she had suggested a swim. Harvey had been mopping his face and joking about the heat.
‘The creek’s not far,’ Chloe said. ‘Just up that rise and down the other side at the end of a lovely bush track. I’ve even got my own small beach.’
Christabel shot Harvey a look that said trust you and your big mouth, a look with a suggestion also of the knowledge of what was coming next. But it was not a look of blame, more one of inevitability.
‘You don’t need swimmers,’ Chloe enthused. ‘I always swim nude.’
‘I don’t care if I don’t swim,’ said Christobel. ‘You go. I’ve never been keen on swimming.’
‘Oh, come on! It’s gorgeous there. It’ll cool us down beautifully. Harvey looks so hot!’
‘Poor Harve,’ muttered Christabel, cracking a wry smile. ‘I’m really quite cool here. There’s a lovely breeze.’
Kees looked around as if he might see this phantom breeze.
‘I’m glad you can feel it,’ he said, but in a gentle tone. Then to Chloe: ‘Lend her your old togs. They’d probably fit.’
Harvey knew Christabel didn’t care for Chloe’s quick, straightfaced glance which seemed to take in her entire body and find it below standard.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Let’s have this swim. It is bloody hot enough, although I feel a bit of a buffoon skinnydipping at my age.’
‘All right,’ Christabel said, standing. ‘And I won’t need your swimmers.’
The whole time they were collecting towels and fruit and drinks, and then when they walked in single file along the bush track, Harvey sensed Christabel worrying about undressing. She told him later that she had intended stripping to her pants when she had capitulated before she thought she might make a fool of herself by protesting any longer, but then she realised that not only would this look silly, but her pants would become transparent as soon as they were wet. She had never had any trouble undressing in front of boyfriends in the past, and she sometimes worked herself up to an excited state by flaunting herself in expensive lingerie for Harvey if she thought he had been too preoccupied with his work. They had been together long enough for him to realise that her anxiety annoyed her because it didn’t stand to reason, and then her annoyance increased the anxiety. He guessed she would rather be at home studying instead of trudging along the track through the bush which Chloe described as `lyrical’, the track which ended at a beach sure enough. Whitish sand. Yes, even idyllic in a way, as Chloe had insisted.
‘Here we are,’ said Chloe as Kees turned his back to the others and pulled his T-shirt off. He was naked in seconds.
They all watched his brown back as he jogged towards the water. His small buttocks were a lighter shade of brown. Not one of the other three had started to undress. Then Harvey got rid of his clothes quickly. Christabel noticed that Chloe turned away as Kees had done, to shed her black clothes. Christabel only hesitated a moment before taking her pants off. Nobody looked at her, not even Harvey. They were looking up at a cloud the colour of charcoal which had covered the sun as she sauntered into the water as if she did this all the time. Then they all splashed each other. The creek was only about a metre deep and most of the time they kept their bodies underwater.
Harvey wrote a story at a time when he was struggling for ideas. This was after the two couples had got to know each other well. To get started he used some obvious concrete details from Chloe’s and Kees’s life — their type of employment, the way they lived — to build believable characters. He also included other information, more personal incidents involving a harp, a private beach, and some sexual specifics from his own life, but no secrets. Some of these details he had gleaned from what they had told him, and the rest he had sensed or guessed. Like most of his stories, this one also contained other remembered scenes, both from his life, and from the lives of different people he knew. Some of it was made up. Unlike most of his stories, this one seemed to work without much re-drafting, so he left the original details he had plucked from his friends’ lives as they were. He assured himself that there was nothing derogatory or humiliating in this harmless record, and he even thought his friends might be flattered.
He entered the story in a literary competition where it won first prize — a small sum of money and toned down publication in a newspaper. Over the telephone Chloe exclaimed to Christabel about Harvey’s success. She had just read about it in the paper. She had the story, with its unflattering photograph of Harvey that Christabel had given the editor along with the potted details of his career, right in front of her. Then she put Kees on.
‘I reckon I should get the royalties.’
‘That would come to about five cents, Kees,’ Christabel responded, matching his jokey tone. ‘Going by the amount of money most writers earn.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
Then they went on to other matters. Kees handed the telephone back to Chloe who invited Harvey and Christabel to a party. By coincidence, Christabel was planning to invite some friends around not long after Chloe’s party so she accepted and then immediately invited them to hers. Acceptances and offers of help all round.
Both of these social gatherings went off hitchless until about two hours into the return engagement, a warm day with guests sitting in Harvey’s and Christabel’s garden. It was an afternoon affair and they had all eaten too much lunch. The wine had been opened and people were spread too far apart in order to sit in the shade. From several metres away Chloe, who had come without Kees who was working, caught Harvey’s attention and asked him what he was writing now. The other guests were already talking so they hardly noticed this new conversation beginning. Harvey, straining to hear Chloe who would never raise her voice, tried to explain about something he had been working on, an essay in which he happened to refer to an incident involving friendship, with Chloe and Kees in mind.
‘Now, these are not characters. It’s non-fiction, so I’m actually writing about you and Kees,’ he said, making conversation by deliberately alluding to the prizewinning story.
‘Do you think that’s ethical?’
Harvey had always refused to flatter Chloe, or even take her seriously, and he often had trouble understanding exactly what she meant. He realised that her vagueness increasingly irritated and bored him, and that he had been subtly avoiding her. Because his reference to friendship in the essay had been a kind one, and also because she hadn’t seen it, her question struck him as typically odd, but he was quick to recognise her peevish tone. He did his best to explain, taking care to make good sense, where he stood regarding whether or not a writer is justified in mentioning people he knows in a work of non-fiction, but she would not be put off.
‘So you reckon it’s all right to use your friends like that?’
‘Yes. Provided you’re not saying anything obviously unkind, or divulging confidential information.’
‘Don’t you think you should have asked our permission before you wrote that story?’
‘What? Are you talking about the fiction now?’
‘Yes. That story that was in the paper. You know what I’m talking about.’
‘No, I don’t believe I should ask anyone’s permission when I write fiction. What’s wrong with that story, anyway? There’s nothing offensive in it, surely. It’s meant to be uplifting… I think, with reasonably attractive characters. The judges liked it.’
‘It was wooden. What about the passion? You left that out. You know it was about us. Other people think so, too. My father told Kees he should get the royalties, and my sister said she wouldn’t want anything to do with you. She reckons you’re sick.’
‘Even though I obviously used some details from your life, it wasn’t about you. It certainly didn’t end up about you. It’s fiction, for Christ’s sake. What do you want me to say? I’m astounded that you quote the opinions of your family as if they’re literary critics.’
Just then one of the several children present fell and let out a loud shriek of pain which interrupted this conversation and all the other conversations that had been going on around Chloe and Harvey. He was glad of the interruption. His bladder pressed him, and Chloe’s sudden attack had, by its utter surprise, unnerved him. Some guests who had to leave early started saying goodbye to people and Chloe left at the same time. She shared these goodbyes as if nothing upsetting had occurred, and years later, long after he had heard that she had left Kees (and the next two men in her life) and long after he had grown weary of Christabel and her soaring I.Q., and had drifted away from her to search, fruitlessly, for a more exciting partner, he would remember as he sometimes sat alone gazing into the window of the past, that he had believed at the time that Chloe, who had been dressed in black, as usual, had slipped away from that garden party like a successful assassin.