‘I can’t think of a single Russian novel in which one of the characters goes into a picture gallery.’
The two cops were virtually invisible. Only the bobbing white domes of their helmets, floating like ghostly globes through the thick summer night, and the muted clip-clop of their horses gave warning of their approach. She hadn’t mentioned the mounted patrol when we came over the fence.
‘Look out,’ I whispered. ‘Here comes the cavalry.’
‘Ssshhh.’ Salina clapped her hand over my mouth, trembling with the effort of stifling her own laughter. ‘Get down.’
I got down. On my knees in the leaf litter, nuzzling the pom-pom fringe of her mu-mu. It was the mu-mu that first drew my eye to Salina Fleet. The mu-mu with its palm-tree motif. Then the apricot lipstick. And the terry-towel beach bag with hula-hoop handles. So playful among all those business shirts and bow ties. ‘Rode one when I was ten,’ I mumbled.
The pub was closed, the crowd from the art exhibition dispersed. And there we were, in possession of two stolen wine glasses and a filched bottle of chardonnay, hidden in a thicket of shrubbery inside the locked gates of the Botanic Gardens. This, I already suspected, was a decision I might come to regret. For now, however, I was game for anything. Ten or twelve drinks and I’m anyone’s.
‘Rode a what?’ Sal whispered.
‘Rhododendron,’ I repeated. ‘ Rhododendron oreotrophes.’ It was written on a little plaque hammered into the ground beside my foot. I said it out loud, just to see if I could.
‘Ssshhhh!’ Again her hand closed over my face. ‘You’ll get us arrested, Murray.’ Beneath the press of her palm, I opened my mouth. My tongue tasted her skin. The horses passed, so close we could have reached out and stroked their flanks. I stroked Salina’s instead.
‘Quick.’ She grabbed my hand and dashed across the path, a wood sprite disappearing into a tunnel of undergrowth where the overhanging branches were too low for any horse to follow. Her legs flashed white, darting ahead.
Playing hide and seek in the Botanic Gardens was not where I’d imagined our acquaintance might lead when Salina and I were introduced at the Ministry for the Arts earlier that evening. I was the new minister’s political adviser. She was the visual arts editor of Veneer magazine. The two of us should probably have been discussing post-modernist aesthetic theory and its impact on social policy. I fixed my eyes on her bare legs, took a deep breath and plunged into the darkness.
‘You like it?’ Sal whirled, showing her secret place. A fern gully. Dark, moist, prehistoric. Round and round she spun, noiseless, abandoned, crazy, even drunker than me. She grabbed my hand again and took off, leading me on at breakneck speed. The path forked and twisted, becoming a maze. She let go, disappeared. The night was tropical, full of sounds, water running, the hypnotic thrum of a million cicadas, bird calls, a high-pitched squeaking like a gate swinging on its hinges in a breeze. I plunged on, running headlong downhill, the momentum irresistible.
A grove of bamboo reared up, the canes as thick as my arm, a kung fu forest. She lay there on a bed of leaves, waiting. I threw myself on my back beside her, and she rolled onto me, straddling my thighs. She could scarcely have been unaware of the effect this produced. ‘ Pinus radiata,’ I said. ‘ Grevillea robusta.’
We did not kiss. It would have seemed soppy. My hands glided up her ribs, thumbs extended to trace her anatomy through the fabric of her dress. Belly, sternum, ribs. Nipples as hard as Chinese algebra. Her neck arched, her mouth hung open. Dirty dancing in deep dark dingly dell. Above, high above, the sky was a pale blur, immeasurably distant, framed by branches festooned with hundreds of brown paper bags that rustled gently in the still night air.
My shirt was open. Her dress was runched up around her waist. Fingers tugged at my belt-hers or mine I couldn’t tell, didn’t care. ‘Where is it?’ she gasped. ‘Where is it?’
‘In your hand. It’s in your hand.’
‘Not that, stupid. A condom.’
If she didn’t stop doing what she was doing with her hand, I wouldn’t need a condom. I didn’t have one. What sort of boy did she think I was?
Warm liquid trickled out of the sky and splashed the ground beside us. Rainforest soma, warm and dank. Salina arched her neck again, staring up to where the paper bags shifted and shuffled, fluttering from branch to branch, chattering among themselves, a hundred squeaky gates.
‘Bats!’ she shrieked.
Hundreds of them. Fruit bats, flying foxes, roosting high in the tops of spindly Moreton Bay figs. She leaped to her feet and we ran, she convulsed with the giggles, me stuffing myself back in my pants.
We exploded out of the fern forest into a circle of lawn. The night sky, drenched with humidity, shone like a sudden spotlight after the jungle depths. We rolled together on the grass, kissing now, all the imminence of the previous moment gone, the compact implicit, a slow build-up ahead of us. Sweet, sweet, sweet. I came up for air. ‘You think any of these are rubber trees?’
Salina pulled the wine from her bag and we drank from the bottle, getting sensible, keeping un-sober. ‘My place,’ she said. A loft. In the city. Safety tackle, more booze. I pulled her to her feet. ‘Let’s went.’
Easier said than done. Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens are approximately the size of Uganda. At the best of times, finding your way out takes a compass, a ball of twine, and access to satellite navigation. We sat down and drank some more. She watched me graze her lowlands, then we started up the hill, hugging the dark fringes, cutting through the densest thickets.
Here and there we stopped, pressed against each other in beds of flowering succulents, stamen brushing pistil, inhaling nectar. Pissed to the eyeballs. My fingers were sticky with liquidambar. My aching prick was as hard and smooth as the trunk of the ghost gum, Eucalyptus papuana, planted here by Viscount de Lisle, Governor- General of Australia, 1961-65.
Eventually, unpollinated, we found the fence at the top of the hill and followed it. An open-sided rotunda capped the crest, its cupola resting on columns topped with stag ferns cast in concrete. My sentiments precisely.
Below was the river, its banks hidden by trees. The occasional swish of a car wafted up from Alexandra Avenue. In the distance, tipping the foliage, the neon sign above the Richmond silos told the hour. NYLEX 3.08. The pub had closed at one. Time was meaningless. Across the river, the lights of the city glowed. A loft, she’d said.
‘Princes Bridge.’ She cocked her head towards where the fence was concealed in a border of hardy perennials. Princes Bridge was the nearest point we could cross the Yarra. Bliss was a twenty-minute walk away. Never again, I swore by the sacred name of Baden-Powell, never again would I be caught unprepared.
We climbed the fence and began our way across the treed lawns of the Queen Victoria Gardens. The heehaw of an ambulance siren washed through the night towards us, echoing the pulse of my horny urgency. As we headed for the bridge, the sound grew louder, insistent in the stillness, urging us forward.
At the floral clock, where the trees ended and the lawn met the broad boulevard of St Kilda Road, the sound abruptly stopped. We stopped, too, and stared.
Across the road sat the National Gallery, its floodlit facade looming like the screen of a drive-in movie, a faceless wall of austere grey basalt. Extending along the foot of the wall was a shallow ornamental moat, walled by a low stone parapet. In the moat stood a gigantic multi-hued beast with three legs and a head at each end.
This sight was not, in itself, remarkable. The gallery with its moat and its sculptures was a prominent civic