You don’t have to speak or make love to someone to become friends. You don’t even have to see each other in person, although it occasionally helps, if only from a distance. Heaven knows, it is even possible to conduct a friendship without the writing or exchanging of letters – even though it is true that correspondence across oceans has provided great intimacy for many separated couples. No, in some unusual circumstances it may be just vas much use for two people to merely read the same book, or hear the same song. In the mute sadness of a few special lines in the final chapter, the same chill can ripple across both bodies, and this we can call a friendship. Certainly this is how it began for myself and Frances. She once lent me her copy of the only published work of Cevio, an Italian poet from the time of the Renaissance. I read it quickly and cannot recall discussing it with her. Indeed it escapes my memory why I wished for that book, or how I came to single it out on her shelves, for I am not an adventurous reader. But I know it left its impression both our lives.
Frances and I only ever met twice, and we were never alone in the same room together. On both evenings there was a mutual friend in attendance, a certain Peter Petronius, who was vague and scholarly, an expert on many matters. After a few glasses of red wine he did most of the talking. Nevertheless I noticed that Frances and I took a keen interest in each other. Her firm gaze would follow my hand as it reached for an ashtray. I paid special attention to her most casual remarks, and I was alert to minute variations in her tone of voice. Apparently, after one of these nights, Frances came to my house to visit me; and after the other I went to hers. But on both occasions, as fate would have it, neither of us was at home. We were each out sharing the company of others, the same ones who have now long since drifted from our lives.
After reading the book she had lent me, I began to slowly piece together information about Frances. Through casual conversations with others I constructed a picture of her life. I never aroused our friends’ suspicions by investigating directly – I knew if I did that then our names would be linked romantically, and that was the last thing I needed. Instead I delicately encouraged people to discuss themselves in relation to Frances. They always seemed to enjoy this, and after a while would let slip all sorts of choice particulars.
She came of course from a very comfortable background but had become a renegade in her final years of schooling, even to the extent of choosing to attend one of the “experimental” schools fashionable at the time. Her parents, like many others from the well-heeled middle classes, brooded disapprovingly but were ultimately compliant through their indecisiveness. As I understand it Frances ran amok in her adolescence, eloping with itinerant beach characters, who no doubt introduced her to the various sins and temptations, all against a sunbleached setting of seaside holiday shacks and the imprint of bare limbs upon sand. It is worth mentioning that these were also periods of enthusiastic experimentation in the use of recreational drugs, and that the widespread emancipation of the flesh was wanton and shameless.
But Frances, whatever else she may have been, was never one to remain enslaved to flimsy doctrines of pleasure. After removing herself from these nomadic coastal escapades she returned to the city. Here she set about the rigorous study of the Romantic languages, and she achieved academic distinction in her translations of obscure Spanish and Italian verse. She worked selling industrial chemicals, and as a nightclub waitress and a library assistant, even I hear as a publicist for the Metropolitan Water Board. Within a year she had taken out the leases on two coffee shops in the centre of the city, one of which was quite a meeting place for the young bohemians of the day. Frances herself seemed uneroded by the acquisition of goods and power. Her dresses did become more forthright and respectable, but there was a lack of solemnity in her manner and an air of impermanence in all her dealings.
Over the subsequent months I became familiar with the names of her numerous lovers, but I was not intent on joining them. I remained intrigued – and I admit, a little bewitched – from a safe distance. But I was happily occupied elsewhere. As a part of my job in a thriving travel agency I went abroad a great deal, and enjoyed the perks of a sophisticated life style, the lush carousel of plastic money and fine food. As for my love-life, it was modest, but for me more than satisfactory. For the time being I rather enjoyed the fact that Frances and I could remain – at least on the surface – relatively unacquainted in such a small, parochial city.
I knew that eventually Frances intended to use her savings to travel. Like many young Australians she perceived the journey to Europe as a sort of nebulous pilgrimage, necessary for her future survival in Australia. To her Europe was a place where the light is different; not so harsh, somehow fictional, musical. Where if you walk down a Parisian boulevard, a thousand words have been written, and a thousand pictures painted, to describe your every step; where each inhalation of thick, aromatic air has been countlessly defined and redefined, imbued with a magic and a sense of history unknown of in Australia. Your every movement seems wonderfully foreshadowed, haunted; you are rid of the colourlessness of yourself and you are in a world heavy with old pages and paint. The emptiness and dull glare of your own innards are not reflected so sullenly, so bleached of eloquence, as they are in Australia. I even once heard Frances herself let slip a telling and droll little aside on the matter: “There you don’t breathe the air”, she said, “you inherit it.”