IN A BOAT SHED BY THE BAY...
"Later, Rupert could carry in his head a host of sensations arising from the time he spent in the boat shed waiting for Violet. The wafting smells of sawdust, turpentine, varnish and tar, and softness beneath his feet where drifts of wood shavings made a cushion between his boots and the floorboards. When a fantail swept in through the boat-ramp doors, perched on a ceiling beam and fluttered out again, he heard the tiny thrashing of its wings.
Gregg’s workers had left for their noonday dinner. Rupert could see they were midway through building a sailboat. He ran his hand along a curved piece of planking, admiring the workmanship. He picked up a dry paintbrush and thrummed its feathery ends against his other hand. Tools hung on hooks on the wall, neatly arrayed. A chisel had been left on the workbench. He tested its gleaming tip with a finger, felt its keen edge.
His own dinghy, the little Iris, was stowed at the back of the shed, propped on its stern and leaned against the wall so that only its blue hull was showing. It was one of his few assets. He could see it needed scraping off, sanding and repainting. If only he had the spare cash he would get Gregg to do it. Instead, he’d have to roll up his own shirtsleeves over the winter to get the job done. Or he might sell it.
He was constantly surprised by how his salary melted away each month. He spent it — guiltily, but with such ease — on things he should shun, the things his mother had always hounded him about: the brandy that took the edge off his empty evenings, and the bounding, beautiful horses. He rued the bet he’d made after hearing Tartan Davy would win the first race at Katikati the previous week. Instead, his purse had been lightened by five pounds.
As for Violet Sutton, now there was a beautiful mare. Slender flanks, shining hair. How he would love to see it springing loose like a mane, instead of bound up so tightly in plaits and knots. He took out his watch. Twenty-five minutes past the hour. She was not coming. How foolish to think she might.
But as he turned, there she was. The aromatic shavings on the floor had silenced her tread. She wore a demure dress of grey-blue lawn, a colour so drab that it seemed she might have worn it on purpose so as to cause little notice as she slipped through the dozing town. She had a covered basket that she placed on a tool-strewn table. ‘Good afternoon,’ she said.
‘And here I was thinking you would disappoint me.’
She looked around the shed at the stacked timber, coiled ropes and rolls of canvas. ‘Would I have, if I’d failed to be here?’ She moved past him, away from the sunlit windows into the shadows at the back of the shed. ‘Ah, there it is.’ She spotted the upturned Iris and patted its keel. ‘Scene of my crime. Were you very angry when you heard about it?’
‘I’m not altogether sure what did happen. It was all just rumours, but then my missing oar was a kind of proof. I knew then that it had to be you. I was frightened for you rather than angry. And guilty too. I should never have let you persuade me. Is it true about the trousers?’
‘Are you shocked?’
He grinned. ‘More disappointed that it’s a sight I missed.’
She laughed. ‘Thank heavens you did. I looked a fright. But oh, Rupert, you’d not believe how a change of clothing could bestow such a sense of freedom.’
His hand went out to touch her dress but she moved away, back to the sunlight. The intensity of their last meeting, in moonlight, seemed to have melted in the raw brightness of day. She took the cloth from the top of her basket. ‘As you mentioned lunchtime in your note I’ve brought some pound cake. I thought perhaps, as a single man, you don’t get to eat cake very often.’
‘You’re very thoughtful. As well as beautiful.’ He broke his gaze for only as long as it took to reach for the knapsack he’d left on a chair. ‘I have only the last of my butter fruits. This one feels ever so slightly soft so perhaps it is ripe for the eating. Shall we see?’
Unclasping his penknife, he inserted its tip deep into the fruit’s skin and drew the blade round in a circle to cut it in half. Then, with a twist of his wrists, he coaxed the fruit apart. The green, oily inside of it was unblemished, one half centred with its single dense brown stone, the other with its flawless cavity.
‘They’re strangely handsome,’ she said.
‘Did you know this is said in some societies to be beneficial for the skin?’
‘I had heard that, yes.’
‘I’ve not tried it for that purpose, have you?’ She shook her head. ‘Well, shall we?’ He scooped out a knob of the fruit with his finger and turned mock obsequious. ‘If madam will allow?’
She proffered her right hand with an odd sense of déja vu. It reminded her of her experience with Madam Francini. But the two occasions were so very different.
Rupert had no interest in the lines that crossed her palm. Instead he applied a knob of green and smeared it over her skin, massaging it with both of his hands. The fruit’s oily flesh melted under his touch. Their palms slipped and slid as he rubbed. Then, gazing at her face, he gently tugged at her thumb and each finger in turn before lifting her hand to his lips and slowly taking her forefinger in his mouth, sucking it clean.
She gasped a little.
He dropped her hand and stepped in and this time when their kiss began it did not stop. She moved back with the momentum of his push until her lower back thudded against a table spread with charts. Still kissing her, he reached down and plucked at her skirt, pleating it up with urgent fingers, diving into the layers of cloth until he could press his palm against her lawn pantaloons and the mound beneath. Wet, it was. Good Christ, Rupert thought, she is ready for this. They broke for air in the same instant, eyes wide, mouths open, panting.
And then both their heads whipped round at the sound of heavy boots trudging up the steps to the door. Rupert spun away and Violet frantically swished her skirt into place. By the time Gregg’s apprentice carpenter stepped back into the shed to begin his afternoon’s work, she was merely a pink-cheeked housewife with her basket, offering Rupert flyers about an upcoming concert. ‘I know Mr Gregg’s partial to music,’ she was saying, ‘so perhaps you could give him this? You might like to come along yourself. Oh, and my Hester heard he was very poorly with his gout so she sent along some cake for him.’
She took it from her basket and laid it down, fragrant in buttery brown paper, giving both Rupert and the carpenter a teasing caution. ‘Be sure not to eat it all up yourselves before it gets to his door.’
‘Mrs Sutton,’ said Rupert, reproving. ‘What do you take us for?’
She clicked her tongue as she departed. ‘It’s my observation that most men find a sweet slice of something very difficult to ignore.’
The carpenter’s mouth twitched with a sly grin.
‘Have some respect,’ snapped Rupert. ‘Get on with your work now so I can report to Mr Gregg that all is well.’
As Violet walked along The Strand the breeze got up, chilling her well-buttered right hand. She quickly wiped it with the cloth from her basket. It was foolish, of course. How could anyone know or even care that she had been trying out an exotic but harmless salve from a local garden. What harm was there in that?
She glanced down. The massaged skin looked unchanged, but still tingled from the sensations she’d felt as Rupert slowly rotated his firm thumb in the soft cup of her palm. He’d ignited her desire with that lingering, impudent suck. His bright hair, sunstruck, had dazzled her eyes as his hand slid between her thighs.
She kept her face formal and polite as she passed people in the street so that nobody could sense the heat she felt inside."
GOT ANY QUESTIONS?
This excerpt is one of the saucier passages from Scarlet & Magenta. :-) But the book is about much more than 19th century boy-meets-girl encounters. Life was complicated then, with settlers struggling to get on in a new world while still trying to follow rules set up to suit society in distant lands they'd left behind. If you have any queries about colonial life and how our ancestors lived, I'm happy to hear from you. Feel free to email me.