The Professor

Her long arm was draped over his chest, and her hair tickled his nose. It was almost midday, and a shaft of bright sunlight beamed through a gap in the curtains. Her index finger traced his bicep.

‘You’re beautifully made. I’m lucky, so lucky you want to be with me. Talented too.’

Her lips brushed his neck, her voice low. ‘Why don’t you stay here today, my little schoolboy? You can practise your violin, relax, use the pool and gym. I only have to work for a few hours. When I return, we can go back to bed.’

Mark drew her closer, running his hand down the smooth length of her, the muscles hard beneath bronzed skin. The body of a woman half her age.

‘Thanks, I’d like that.’

Hilary levered herself out of bed with a long exhalation. She picked up her discarded dress and shimmied into it, buttoning it up at the front. The thick carpet muffled her footsteps as she padded to the ensuite.

She smiled and tousled his hair as she turned to leave, closing the bedroom door behind her. He listened to her high heels’ echo on the marble tiles near the entrance.

It was his first time alone in the apartment. He dressed, and practised a Rachmaninov solo, rocking on his heels, the bow almost flying from his hand with the frenetic pace, his eyes closed to the world.

She wanted him to move in. He did not sleep at his shared flat more than two nights a week, and she said it was a waste of money.

Intense concentration left him with a throbbing head. Pressing his palm to his temple, he walked through the bedroom into the vast ensuite. Floor-to-ceiling mirrors reflected Carrera marble, gleaming stainless steel, and plush biscuit-coloured towels. He searched for a cupboard above the twin sinks, but could see only mirrors. His pale angular face stared back at him, his dark eyes narrowed from the pain. Too modern to be practical, he thought, hitting the surface with his palm. A door clicked open, revealing a medicine cabinet. A neat row of prescription medication filled the bottom shelf. The foot soldiers of anti-anxiety—Xanax and Prozac. He shook his head, remembering her twitching eye, and her hand’s slight tremor when she poured wine. Several curled pieces of newspaper caught his eye, propped behind the Xanax. With great care not to disturb the bottles, he withdrew them.

‘Horror plunge—man dies in mysterious circumstances’ screamed one headline, ‘Joubert investigation casts suspicion on wife’ said another. His legs weak, he sat on the edge of the bath, smoothing out the articles.

‘Greg Joubert, 53, entrepreneur, was found on Tuesday morning at the bottom of the rubbish chute of his luxury St Kilda Road apartment block. He had fallen sixteen floors. Police are investigating possible foul play. His wife, Hilary Joubert, Professor of Musicology at Monash University, 41, in her statement to investigators, claimed her husband had suffered from bouts of depression, leading to suicide….’

Mark blinked hard, and re-read the words. They appeared to dance on the page, as if mocking him. A later article reported on Greg Joubert’s sound mental state, as well as Hilary’s computer use straight after the plunge. An autopsy revealed barbiturate in his bloodstream, and his mother told police of his aversion to prescription drugs. The case had stalled due to lack of evidence. Mark fingered the newsprint, the ink smearing his hands. His breath was shallow, and he could feel the prick of sweat underneath his arms.

Pushing himself upright, he shuffled back to the cabinet, and stared at the row of drugs. He realised he was swaying, and held on to the bench. To the right of the happy pills was an orange plastic bottle of Nembutal, made out to Hilary. He checked the date on the sticker, and his heart galloped, the rapid beat pounding in his ears. As he shoved it back, several bottles tumbled into the sink, clattering around the porcelain. The noise ricocheted around the tiled room, and he clutched his head, running into the bedroom. Bent over, hands on his knees, he took deep lungfuls of air. He changed into his gym clothes and picked up the key and gym pass card from the bedside table.

In the silent corridor, he punched the button for the elevator, shifting on his feet. The doors glided open like metal jaws. The hydraulics made a low mechanical hum as he descended, and he watched the digital display of floors with a blank mind.

Head down, he passed reception and found the gym at the end of a long hallway. At the door, he inserted the pass card. The machine beeped, and a small red light flashed, but the door would not open. The sole occupant, a middle-aged man with a stomach like a flotation ring was on the rowing machine. His face was flushed maroon, and he looked as if he were attempting to bring on heart failure. He did not react to the knock on the glass. Mark strode back to reception.

The doorman stood behind a marble desk. A monolithic man with a barrel chest, his navy shirt was tucked into matching pressed trousers. The fabric strained against muscled thighs. His name badge read ‘Drasko.’ His thinning blond hair hung loose to his shoulders, giving him the look of an ageing gladiator.

He glanced up at Mark with disinterest.

‘What can I do for you?’

‘My pass card isn’t working. Can you please let me into the gym?’

The man kept his eyes on a newspaper with a curlicued, unintelligible script.

‘You try rubbing it on your pants?’

‘No. Yes, I mean…look I think you need to come and see it.’

‘You try rubbing it on your pants. Try door. If not work, I come and see.’

Mark could feel pressure building up in his head. He imagined his head exploding, his brains raining over the doorman. He had forgotten to take a painkiller.

He marched to the gym door, counted to ten, and retraced his steps to the marble desk.

‘It didn’t work. Can you come and look please?’

Drasko folded his newspaper with nicotine-stained fingers, and emerged from behind the desk. Mark stepped aside and followed him down the hallway, half expecting the floor to groan beneath his heavy tread.

‘Card please.’

Drasko placed the card in the slot and left it there for a second longer than Mark had done. A low whine ensued, and he elbowed the door open.

‘Okay?’

‘Yes, okay. Thank you.’

‘Have good workout. You need to make beefcake.’

Drasko smiled, and Mark cringed at the mildewed tiles of his teeth—large and yellowed.

***

Mark had barely eaten in days, his stomach aching and knotted.

Emerging from the bedroom at dawn, he clenched his fists at the sight of her blond head dipped over the breakfast table. Unaware of his presence, she slurped her milk, her teeth working hard on the muesli.

‘Hilary.’ His voice was expressionless.

She glanced up, eyes narrowing as she examined his fifteen-year-old dressing gown.

‘You need a new dressing gown, that thing is hideous. Use the gold card and go to David Jones today.’

‘Hilary, I know what happened with Greg. I’ve read the articles.’

She stared at a point beyond his shoulder, a muscle twitching in her jaw. Her spoon clattered to the side of the bowl.

‘You found them.’

He nodded, his stomach pitching and heaving.

Her eyes seized his, as terrifying as her hands around his neck. Their blue reminded him of giant ice sheets.

‘Looking through my things, like a thief.’

‘I didn’t, I wasn’t…’

‘You did and you were. A sneak. Underhand. I trusted you to live in my home and to respect my privacy.’

He felt a rush of anger burn his throat. ‘What about my trust? You told me your husband committed suicide with an overdose. You lied to me.’

‘It’s difficult to talk about…the way he died. I say that to a lot of people because I can’t bear to think about it. His body, every bone broken, the cuts and bruises. Crumpled there in that tiny space. What would you know about loss, about devastation? Nothing. Trauma demands lies, because lies soften the trauma. That’s all.’

Mark’s shoulders drooped, and he came closer, placing his hand on her shoulder, the bones hard beneath.

She shrugged it off and stood, pulling on her trench coat. ‘Stay out of my things. If something is your business, I will let you know about it. I’m going to work.’

Mark took the tram to the conservatorium. In the rehearsal studio, he became absorbed in the Gorecki symphony he was practising. It was the same one Hilary played when he first saw her apartment. It was spare, dour, and jagged. He remembered taking in the blinding white of the apartment, its vaulted ceilings and low-slung leather couches the colour of granite. The city lay below, its glinting steel and glass towering above gridded streets. He had looked for photographs without success. The marble surfaces shone, empty save for two tribal masks on wooden stands perched on the entertainment console.

Returning home at five, he was surprised to see her. Her mouth was split in a smile and she grasped his shoulders, pulling him to her. Her lips were hard and slippery on his, her tongue pressing against his teeth. He could feel her fingernails like pinpricks on his back.

‘Hello darling. Did you go to the conservatorium today?’

He stepped back from the embrace, peeling her hands from his back.

‘Yes. I practised some Gorecki.’

‘Gorecki. So beautiful and sad.’

She ushered him to the modular sofa, and he sank into the cushions. He swallowed and watched her face, different expressions flitting over her features. It unsettled him, as none of them stayed.

‘Mark, I need you to stay in the apartment for a while. You can’t go out, and you can’t use your phone. I have put it in the safe. I need to keep an eye on you, as you have betrayed my trust. You will be compensated.’ Her long fingers stroked his inner thigh, and she edged closer, her lips brushing his neck.

He went hard, but his heart beat an erratic rhythm in his chest. ‘You are imprisoning me.’ His voice sounded as if it were coming from a distance.

Her voice was a low whisper in his ear. ‘It is a gilded prison, full of pleasures. You will be released soon. Give me your keys.’

‘No, I won’t.’

‘Give them to me.’ She placed her knee between his legs, too close. Her lips stayed at his neck, and he jolted as she took a fold of skin between her teeth. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the keys, placing them in her outstretched hand.

‘Thank you. Now I would like some dinner. I have bought some salmon fillets and some watercress.’

***

At first, he thought it was a joke. They spent hours in bed, or eating the meals she told him to prepare. On the third day, she returned to work and he was left alone. He tried the door and it was locked. He rattled it around in its frame, then smacked it with his palm. Pacing up and down he laughed to himself, but could hear a manic edge. Hilary did not have a landline, and his phone was in a safe with a password unknown to him. Her laptop was not in its usual place in the study, and she had hidden his, or perhaps taken it with her.

By the time she arrived home, he was wired with an odd combination of boredom and panic. She was weighted down with green shopping bags, and dropped them with a clink on the island bench.

‘Hello love. How was your day?’

He gritted his teeth. ‘How do you think, you psycho? I need to get out of here! They need to know where I am at the conservatorium. My parents are going to worry if I don’t call them soon.’

She unloaded the groceries. He noticed fifteen bottles of San Pellegrino mineral water.

‘Now, don’t have a fit Mark. I told you this is temporary. I had no idea you were such a Mummy’s boy—it’s only been a few days. If you like, I can call the conservatorium and tell them you have the flu.’

He shook his head and exhaled, the air whistling between his teeth. ‘Please. Do that. What’s with all the groceries? Why do we need all that water?’

She beamed. ‘I thought you’d never ask. I am having a dinner party for ten. Tonight. Go and put that tailored suit on—we have an hour until they get here and I need you to start cooking.’

‘What am I cooking? Boiled bunnies?’

Her eyes narrowed. ‘That’s not funny Mark. You are cooking parpadelle with a Moreton Bay Bug burnt butter sauce. Remember you made it the other week? And chocolate puddings for dessert. Does that meet with your approval?’

‘Does it matter what I think?’

‘No, I guess not. Good point. Now go and get dressed please.’

Mark searched through his side of the walk-in robe for his tailored suit. The coat hangers screeched along the metal pole. It was hidden at the end, still in dry-cleaner’s plastic. Hilary had sent him to Mr Poh to have it made. It was a fine grey wool with Mr Poh’s perfect stitching along the edges.

He pulled on the trousers and a faded t-shirt, leaving the jacket and a white shirt on the bed, before patting aftershave on his neck. He would get changed after preparing dinner. At the kitchen bench, he fastened an apron around his waist. Opening the fridge door, he peered inside and retrieved the paper package of bugs. The bugs curled up as he sautéed them, the butter and garlic sizzling beneath.

Hilary stood at the bench, dunking a celery stick into a plastic container of tzatsiki.

He turned to her. ‘Would you mind stirring these for a moment while I get my shirt and jacket on?’

‘There’s no need for you to get changed. You look fine.’

‘I’m wearing a t-shirt with dress pants. How is that fine?’

Her eyes were downcast, as if she were studying the dip for mould.

‘It’s fine. Stir the bugs, I think they’re burning.’ There was a loud crunch as she took another bite of celery.

Mark shifted the pan to the side and glared at her, before going to the bedroom and putting on his shirt. He rolled up the sleeves and tied the apron back on.

The first guests arrived as he was finishing the sauce. He turned the stove off and made towards the door to greet them. Hilary flicked her hand at him, her mouth a thin line of disapproval, and he edged back to his position at the stove.

As more filed in, a few waved in his direction, and some tried to take a seat at the island bench. They were deflected by Hilary, who guided them towards the sofa, pressing champagne flutes into their hands.

Mark strained the parpadelle and placed another bottle of champagne in the ice bucket. He balanced the platter of smoked salmon crepes on his arm, and took them around.

‘How’s your course going Mark? Are you still working on the Gorecki symphony?’

The woman was a colleague of Hilary’s, with a sleek helmet of black hair and red glasses.

He could feel Hilary’s eyes drilling into his back. ‘Yes thank you Annabel, it’s going well. It is a challenging symphony though.’

She was at his side, her hand on his elbow. ‘Now Mark, keep circulating please, we have some famished guests.’

Heat suffused his face and he moved away, the platter a security fence, blocking interaction. He stared into the distance, allowing the weave of voices to pass through him. Glancing at the balcony, he imagined hoisting his leg over the glass.
He felt empty—as if his emotions had leaked out, leaving a dried husk.

A cloud of steam billowed in his face as he served up the parpadelle. The bugs were soft pink coils, perched on the top. The guests had stopped trying to converse with him, and did not look up as he placed their meals on the table.

A man with a gleaming bald head and multiple chins held out his wine glass in his direction, maintaining eye contact with Hilary. Mark picked up the bottle of shiraz and refilled it.

Hilary pushed her bowl away and waved him over. ‘Mine’s not warm enough. Can you heat it up please?’

Annabel’s chair screeched on the tiles as she stood and flung her napkin on the table. ‘I’ve had enough. I don’t know what you’re playing at Hilary, but I don’t want any part of it. I’m going. Bye Mark, take care.’

She kissed him on the cheek and made for the door. Hilary shrugged and kept her eyes on Mark. He was paralysed, staring at the door as it clicked shut, his shoulders drooping forward.

‘Well don’t just stand there, heat it up.’

He leaned over the table to reach her bowl and she raised her hand, palm facing outwards.

‘It is rude to lean over a table. Helen, you don’t want Mark’s armpit in your face, do you?’

Helen chuckled. ‘Well, maybe I do, but it’s just not correct, is it? I mean, like in a restaurant.’

‘Go around, that’s it, no, go the other way…Here you are.’

Mark lifted the bowl, noticing his trembling hands. He made his way back to the kitchen and placed it in the microwave, pressing the numbers without thinking.

The conversation was gaining volume, the voices jarring like out of tune instruments, their varied pitches discordant. Hilary was telling a travel story, her laughter braying, dominating the table.

He poured himself a shiraz and withdrew the pill secreted in his pocket. A yellow Nembutal. Taking a large gulp, he swallowed it. The microwave beeped three times and he took out Hilary’s dinner. It was sizzling, the parpadelle crisped and the burnt butter sauce almost black. It gave off an acrid smell.

He carried it over and stood behind her, presenting it with a flourish. Her expression darkened, her knuckles white as she clutched her napkin.

‘Is there a problem?’ he asked, watching the domino effect of open mouths and hearing the intake of breaths.

‘It’s smoking, you idiot. Take it away. You have ruined my dinner.’

‘Oh, I’m terribly sorry. Let me take it for you.’ He slid the bowl onto her lap, the sauce flooding her silk top before she could hold it. It soaked up the oil, leaving a kidney-shaped stain. The plate dropped to the floor, where it spun around in an endless arc. It came to a halt, and a terrible silence permeated the room.

Hilary stood and faced him. Her face was blotched red, and she seized his arms.

‘Get out! Get out of here!’

‘I’d love to. See you everyone. Enjoy.’

Some of the guests huddled near their host, dabbing at her top with napkins. He could feel the frigid wave of their loathing. Others appeared desperate to join him, hunched over and awkward, their eyes fixed on the exit.

He took the lift down to reception and the doors glided open. His footsteps reverberated on the granite tiles, and Drasko nodded as he passed.

The air kissed him with a mist of rain and he extended his arm for a cab. He tipped his head back and gulped it into his lungs. There was a flash of yellow as the car pulled over, and he fell onto the vinyl. He mumbled the name of his friend’s suburb.

A drowsy haze washed over, then blackness.

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