Within a few moments most of the group, including James, was on the dance floor. Robert drifted unobtrusively to the perimeter of the room, where he leant with self-conscious casualness against the frame of a handsome set of doors that led out to a terrace and the back garden.
A girl drifted over too and leaned against the opposite door frame. She was wearing a pretty green dress, and she had a cloud of flame coloured hair, more orange than red, which blazed against the dark wood of the frame. Their eyes met, the girl’s magnified by her glasses. “Hi,” Robert said. She smiled. What a beautiful smile, he thought. That hair is incredible, too.
On a sudden impulse, he pushed himself off from his lounging position and moved over to her. “My name’s Robert,” he said. “I’m a friend of Justin’s.”
“Hi,” the girl said shyly. “I’m Vesna. I’m actually a friend of Sarah, Justin’s sister. I don’t know many people here.”
“Me either, to tell you the truth.”
“I saw you come in, with that guy in the white T-shirt.” She indicated James, who was dancing away with a dreamy expression on his tanned face. His eyes were half-closed but as they watched he opened them fully and looked around, smiling. Even from across the room they were striking, those eyes, as lovely as sapphires. The three girls who had approached the group earlier had him surrounded now, twining sinuously around him and each other.
“That’s my brother,” Robert said. They watched him silently for a few moments.
“I wonder what it’d be like,” the young woman said quietly, “to be that good-looking.”
“I don’t know, but I think I’d hate it,” said Robert honestly. “People always looking at you! But James seems to cope with it okay.”
“I guess he’s used to it. But I’d hate it too.”
“Your name’s ... Vesna?” Robert asked, turning to her. “Is that right?”
She nodded. “It means ‘spring’. It’s a Yugoslav name.”
“It’s beautiful,” he said, and she smiled at him again, a pleased, radiant smile. Robert felt a little light-headed, as though he’d been drinking, and something else too, like goldfish were swimming around in his chest. But it was not unpleasant. Not at all.
Over the next couple of hours he and Vesna parted several times to mingle with other people at the steadily swelling party, neither wanting to make the other feel they had to stay together. But their eyes kept meeting, from doorways and across rooms, and they were drawn back to each other again and again, to talk more, to laugh quietly and just to stand together, observing. I feel so relaxed, Robert marvelled. She’s just so easy to be with. Sometime after midnight they found themselves back in the same doorway where they had first met. The party was in full swing now, the dance floor seething. It was hard to hear each other over the racket of music and voices and loud laughter.
“Let’s go outside for a while,” Robert suggested, having almost to shout. Vesna nodded. They found a bench at the far end of the stone-paved terrace; the light from the house and the sounds of the party spilled out in a way that was attractive but not obtrusive. There were enormous pots full of shrubs and flowers placed here and there. The delicious perfume of gardenias drifted on the warm air. From their shadowed nook they could see the dark outlines of trees with the moon glimmering through branches, and a suggestion of other terraces below.
Suddenly they heard a loud splash, and lights came on somewhere below them. Standing now and leaning on the balustrade, they saw a swimming pool on a lower terrace. Someone had dived in and was swimming steadily, covering the length of the pool in half a dozen long strokes and turning. James, of course, stripped to his underpants, his T-shirt and jeans tossed over a bench.
“My brother the water baby,” said Robert. “He can’t stay away from it.”
The same three girls who had been pursuing him all evening appeared by the pool. One slipped her party dress over her head, laughing, and dived in wearing her bra and panties. A second, the blonde, took her dress off too: she wasn’t wearing a bra. Not hesitating for a moment, she pulled her panties down and stepped out of them. Her pale pubic hair caught the light for a moment, like a tiny silvery cloud, and with a shriek she jumped into the water.
“Oh!” gasped Vesna. “Gosh!”
“Don’t let those dogs in yet!” her mother called from the living room, and Olivia pushed them back with her knee as she sidled through the front door, leaving her pack on the verandah. Her mother sat on the big yellow couch looking keenly toward the door, legs tucked under her and holding a squirming something on her lap.
“Hi!” Deborah said brightly. “Guess what I’ve got?”
Olivia came closer, peering. A triangular tan and white face with a ridiculously furrowed brow and piercing brown eyes was gazing back at her, its mouth open, showing sharp little white teeth but making no sound, not the smallest yip. The small neat body seemed to have too much skin and not quite enough fur. Its tail curled perkily over its rump.
“Wow, Mum! You got a basenji! Wow! That’s so amazing!”
The expression on Deborah’s face was complicated, pleased and disappointed at the same time. “You would know, wouldn’t you? These are supposed to be just about the least common dogs in Australia.”
“They are unusual, I’ve only ever seen one! Well, a pair, actually. But Mum, they’re hard work. Basenjis are notoriously willful. Highly resistant to training.”
“Oh, Ol, really, how can you possibly know that? When you’ve only ever seen one before? And must you talk like some sort of dog association manual?”
Olivia shrugged, sat down on the arm of the couch. The pup’s eyes were fixed on her and it was struggling to get free of Deborah’s grip.
“What are you going to call him?” she asked.
“Congo. Because basenjis come from the Congo originally,” said Deborah.
“Glad you approve,” said her mother tartly.
“Well, I can try and train him,” Olivia offered.
“No!” cried Deborah, pulling the pup back close to her body. “You’ve got a bloody menagerie as it is. This dog is special and he’s mine! Everyone else in this house has things that are special, except me. And, and, things that love them, except me. And this dog is mine.”
Finally they arrived in Castlemaine and started walking again, wheeling the bike, and Grandpa was quite sure of the way but he started to get tired, and Olivia was exhausted too. She had hardly slept for the past two nights. She managed to juggle her pack and Grandpa’s bag and Grandpa himself onto the bike and actually dinked him, while she stood on the pedals, for several kilometres along the flat country road. Grandpa rested his hands on her shoulders and laughed with delight. Currawongs called to them, Arrah! Arrah! as they wobbled by. Only a couple of cars passed them and Olivia was glad of that, she didn’t want to attract more attention than she could help.
“Turn off here!” Grandpa said, gesturing excitedly. “This is the track to home!”
They had to dismount, the track was too bumpy for the overloaded bike. As they went on Grandpa started to walk a bit faster. “I used to live down here, you know,” he told Olivia.
“I know, Grandpa,” she said.
“Oh, I remember one day when I was just a little feller I found a cow standing beside this track, just right about here! She had a rope halter on. She was a Jersey, such a pretty thing, I led her home and I told Mother, ‘Look, this is Buttercup!’.” He laughed. “I thought we could keep her and she’d be my cow. Such a pretty thing. But she belonged to someone else and I couldn’t keep her after all. The farmer gave me tuppence for finding her though.”
“Did he?” said Olivia, smiling.
“Tuppence was quite a bit in those days, you know.”
The tops of the two big date palms came into view. “Over there! Over there!” he cried. When they actually came in sight of the house Alex stopped and said proudly, “Will you look at that! The old homestead, eh? I feel like I was here yesterday.”