As she drives along the beach road with the top down in her new car she is sure that everyone is looking at her. And so they should. It is bright red, the first car to be produced in this amazingly attractive hue The trim is brilliant, flashing chromium, seeming to add to the depth of the paintwork.
She has dressed in white, arms bare and tanned, a long silk scarf, deep navy blue, around her neck and stretching behind her in the wind of her passage. Her hair, newly bobbed, is like copper, flashing in the sun. This is very close to what used to be her natural colour, but at fifty-eight she needs the help of a salon to maintain it.
She turns onto the road that leads to the highway and threads her way smoothly through, and eventually out of, the city. Gradually the houses give way to pastures, to crops, to forests, and by lunchtime she is well and truly in the countryside. She turns from the highway, nosing her way through a small village until she arrives at the trendy restaurant featured in last weekend’s press, and where she has a reservation. She parks her new car between the Mercs, the Volvos and the Citroën that line the pavement before the restaurant, confident that her car is the one that will attract attention despite the expensive competition.
She dines alone, a light lunch with a glass of wine. She has selected the shrimp salad, the dish that had been reviewed by the critic. While the plate looks superb, she finds that it does not live up to the promise: the shrimp is dry and rather cottony in texture, the dressing far too sweet, masking the delicate flavours. Her opinion of the critic falls.
The wine, however, is delicious: cool and sharp and grassy; she ponders the wisdom of ordering a second glass, considering that she is driving. She decides that, just this once, she will break her rule. She watches as the wine is poured, and savours it slowly. She rejects the suggestion of a light desert. She feels wonderful.
She signals the waiter, a handsome young man who has been marvellously attentive throughout her meal, and he brings the bill with a smile. She pays. She thanks him, and he holds her chair as she stands. All eyes are on her as she walks slowly between the tables to the door. The waiter accompanies her and holds the door wide. She nods graciously as she leaves, feeling rather grand.
What she wants now, she thinks, is a long, winding road with very little traffic. She wants to hear the engine purr, feel the pull of cornering fast, wants to savour the sheer fun of driving an expensive, brand new car.
After a few kilometres she spies a sign pointing south, and the sign reads ‘River Road’. That sounds promising. She turns, seeing ahead that it runs around the paddocks to her right, closely following the meanderings of the river, in and out of the shade created by the towering gums that flank it. That’s more like it. She settles to the drive, and increases her speed.
For a very minor road the surface is in good repair. The road winds first to the left and then to the right, and as she drives she feels almost as though she is waltzing through the valley, a very pleasurable feeling. After a few kilometres of this she realises that it could have more to do with the wine than anything else. She eases up on the accelerator, slowing the car slightly.
As she swoops around the next bend she notices a house immediately beside the road on her right, and she turns her head slightly as she speeds by. It seems to be a very old cottage, rather run-down. Before she can return her attention to the road there is a loud bang, and a dark shape smashes into the top of the windscreen and flashes by.
With a little scream of terror she struggles to control the car which is now careering across the road, braking as hard as she can. There is a sudden crumpling collision, and the car rolls.
She cannot see properly. The vision in her left eye is tinged red, and she puts her hand to her face. She looks at her hand in horror as she discovers it is red with blood. She looks down and sees that her lovely white dress is now crimson.
She opens her mouth and screams.
A cloud of cockatoos explodes from the top of the trees by the river, their shrieking matching her own scream. She stops and closes her mouth, but the cockatoos continue with their clamour, circling madly. She is silent, listening as the birds gradually settle back amongst the branches.
‘Are you okay?’
She opens her eyes to find herself standing beside the upturned car, a young man beside her. She stares at him stupidly, unable to think of a reply.
‘Are you hurt?’
She shakes her head as though to clear it. ‘No. No, I don’t think so. I hit something.’
‘Yes. My dog, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh!’ She puts her hand to her mouth, staring at him in horror. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. I just didn’t see him.’
She thinks he is insulting her and recoils, but quickly realises her mistake. But what can she say?
‘Is she alright?’
He turns his head and looks up the road. She follows his gaze and sees a black bundle twenty metres away. ‘I shouldn’t think so,’ he tells her. ‘Look, you’d better come with me.’
‘But the car? And your dog?’
‘Yes. Your car and my dog. They didn’t go together very well, did they?’ He offers a small, apologetic smile. ‘Anyway, you’d better come with me.’
He moves to her side and takes her hand, the one covered with blood. He squeezes it gently and leads her toward the cottage. He reaches for the latch and the door opens. They are in a large, pleasant room. Still holding her hand, he leads her to a black range built into a chimney recess. A kettle is boiling on the plate. He moves it to one side. ‘I’ll make some tea in a minute,’ he tells her. ‘But you’d better take those off.’ He points to her clothes.
She looks down, sees the blood already darkening. ‘Yes,’ she says in confusion.
‘Here, let me.’ He undoes the button at her right shoulder and slides the top of the dress to one side. He lowers it to the floor and she steps out of it, still holding his hand for balance. There is something odd about all this, she thinks, but she is uncertain what it could be.
He drops to his knee. ‘The shoes?’ he suggests.
She lifts first one foot and then the next, and he gently removes her sandals. Blood is drying between her toes. She can see that her sandals are ruined.
He stands once more and his hands move to her neck. Very gently he unties the simple knot of her scarf, and draws it from her, letting the trailing material drift across her shoulders. ‘This too,’ he says, and she can see he means the brassiere, normally the colour of her skin, more or less, but now blackening and stiffening. She moves to reach behind her but he stops her. ‘Let me,’ he says, and she turns and allows him to undo the clasp. He makes a small self-deprecating sound as he struggles with the hooks, and she smiles. She feels the release of pressure as he manages to release the hooks at last, and she moves her arms forward to allow him to remove the brassiere.
She looks down. ‘These too, I suppose.’
‘Yes, I think so.’ He kneels at her feet once more and she steadies herself with a hand on his head as he draws her knickers down. She steps out of them, and stands to one side as the dress, the sandals, the brassiere, the knickers and the scarf are popped into the flames. She smiles as he turns to her.
‘Shall we have tea first, or would you like a bath now?’
‘Oh, tea first I think, don’t you?’
He prepares the pot, adding three large spoonfuls of tea. He fills the pot and leaves it there on the warm side of the range while he prepares two cups, milk, brown sugar and four biscuits. He places them on a round table in the middle of the room. ‘You look very nice,’ he says.
She smiles. She is not a vain woman, but knows that she has always ‘looked nice’.
She shakes her head. ‘No thank you,’ she says.
He offers a biscuit instead, which she accepts.
There is a breeze blowing through the room through an open window. She can see a sunlit garden, full of flowers. The warm air brings the perfume into the house. She wriggles her shoulders in pleasure, as though the breeze is caressing her skin. She is relaxed.
‘I’d better phone,’ she tells him.
His eyes narrow slightly. ‘Oh, I don’t think there’s much point in that, do you?’
Again, she feels something strange is happening, but she can’t quite put her finger on it. ‘I’d better,’ she says.
‘But look, I don’t have a phone.’
‘Oh,’ she says. ‘Then what shall we do about the car?’
He drains the last of his tea from the cup. ‘A bit late to worry about that, don’t you think? More tea, or is it bath time?’
‘A little more tea, I think. I’m very thirsty.’
‘I’m not surprised, after what you’ve been through.’ He pours another cup, and she sips it slowly.
‘Have you lived here long?’ she asks him.
He really is a handsome man, she thinks. More handsome than the waiter at lunchtime, and of course, much more mature.
‘Oh yes,’ he smiles. ‘A very long time.’
‘Such a shame about your dog,’
He nods. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘Mind you, I wasn’t that fond of her.’
She puts her hand on his, a gesture of understanding. ‘Oh, perhaps you can get another? A puppy? That would be nice.’
He puts his other hand on top of hers, stroking. ‘Perhaps. In time. Not just yet.’
She drinks the last of her tea. ‘Well, that was nice. Bath time, I think.’
He leads her upstairs. ‘It’s a little small,’ he apologises as he opens the bathroom door. She looks inside and then at him, laughing.
‘Small? It’s far bigger than mine at home.’
In fact it is a huge room. In the centre is an elevated bath, three steps all around it, lushly carpeted. The bath has somehow been filled already, heavily scented foam piled over softly steaming water.
He gestures beyond the bath to where she can see a shower. ‘Perhaps we might get the worst off before the bath?’
‘Good idea,’ she agrees. So large is the tiled area beneath the shower-head that there is no need for walls. As they move under the shower, warm, foaming water begins to fall on them, the perfect temperature. She turns to him and smiles. Though he is standing beside her under the shower he is not getting wet. She realises that this is somehow strange, but is not concerned. His hand moves to her face and brushes away the blood, softened now. His hand is very soft, and he moves it to her shoulder and down over her back.
‘That,’ she tells him, ‘is very comforting.’
There is no wall at one end of the bathroom. On the road below she can see a bright yellow car, very badly damaged, upside down and burning now. Beyond, there is a black bundle of something on the road.