She wasn't a real gypsy of course, more like a Spanish flamenco dancer perhaps. But the first time I saw her I thought she was a gypsy. She was a tall woman, almost my own height; her hair was black and shoulder length, chunky gold earrings swung about when she moved her head. The skirt she wore was split from hem to hip; wrapped tightly at her waist, it left a glimpse of her brown skin where the white blouse stopped. The blouse was low-cut, clinging to her shoulders by good luck, plunging down towards her round breasts. She wasn't young, maybe thirty, perhaps a little more, it hardly mattered since you could only judge her age by a few tiny wrinkles around her eyes and neck, certainly not by her body.
The next thing I knew she was smiling at me, quite openly, friendly; her teeth looked extraordinarily white because of her deep tan. Her lips were rounded and broad, red lipstick giving them a sensual look. Her eyebrows and lashes were black like her long hair. Her eyes, with a dark freckle at the corner of her left eye, gave the impression she was about to laugh.
From the moment I saw her I determined to chase and conquer her. There was almost no choice for me because I was uncontrollably attracted to certain women. They represented something I had to compete for, something I had to conquer. The moment I saw Gypsy I felt my heart speed up, and my mind went down the old paths of strategy like a general planning a new battle.
All this happened in the town of Ballina on the north coast of NSW. I was there to present an award to the Ballina sales team for being the most improved for 1995. Normally my job involved travelling to country towns, not presenting awards, but solving sales problems. I was the chief roving sales manager for our firm, and I had a fierce determination to be so good at my job that I would be promoted to assistant general manager, then manager.
That night we were celebrating in a small hall, there was food, dancing, drinking, jokes; and behind the bar Gypsy. She was a local who worked part-time at whatever she could--shop assistant, barmaid, photographic model.
While the others were dancing with their spouses, friends and intendeds, I sat at the bar and talked to Gypsy between customers. I even danced with her once. She moved like a Spanish dancer, her eyes flashing, looking proud and independent. And when I touched her hands, her bare midriff, or her shoulder, my skin tingled and my hands burned.
'So what time do you finish tonight?'
'When everyone stops buying drinks. Though I was told to close the bar at eleven.'
'Would you like to go somewhere afterwards, to talk, to dance? You could sit down and relax for awhile.'
'What about your wife and children?'
'No, they wouldn't want to come.' We laughed. 'How do you know I have a wife and children?'
'Oh, because it's a subject you dodge about. You live in Sydney--'
'In a house with a large swimming pool and two cars. I wouldn't think you'd need that if you were single.'
'You're right. I am married with three children, but the reason I didn't mention them was because ... well this is--you see my wife has been having an affair with my boss for the past three years. We argue all the time, but we can't divorce because she's catholic. If I complain about it she says she'll have me sacked. I just don't know what to do. It causes me such grief, and I worry about hurting my kids. I get so miserable when I think about it all.'
Watching her face closely I saw the sympathy in her eyes. It was a story I'd used often; a little role playing didn't hurt anyone, a technique I'd picked up in selling: the hurt, grieving, husband.
She said, 'I've got two children; a boy aged five and a girl three.'
'But you're not married at the moment?'
She went off to serve drinks, when she came back she just said: 'Okay. Half-past eleven?'
I was surprised at how conservative everyone was that night, no fights, no muggings in the toilets, no drunks on the dance floor, no sarcasm at the tables; just happy people. I made one short speech, and I noticed Gypsy looking across at me, so I included a couple of my borderline jokes. She laughed.
For all that I wasn't happy. I was in hot pursuit, like a chess player who's captured two knights but still has to contend with a queen. No matter how I acted on the surface, getting a woman into bed on the first meeting was something I took very seriously. The important thing was not to show it.
We went to The Watchmaker's Club, a strange little place with potted palm trees between every table, clocks all over the walls and every one showing a different time. There was a visiting four-piece Latin-American dance band. We danced, we drank, we ate. We talked till after two-thirty in the morning. I had learnt over the years that a mixture of truth and lies was the most effective. I had already told the lies about my wife and my boss. So all I had to do was talk about my childhood, teenage years, and the endless struggles at work--struggles to be number one in everything. The politics at work that made things difficult. My ambition--burning ambition--was to own the company. My next step towards my goal was to become assistant general manager; after that I figured I could become manager in another year, and buy control within two more years. I had everything planned.
'Why do you want to own the company?'
I stalled for a moment. That was a question that no one ever asked--like being asked do you want to win Gold Lotto. The answer was self evident. To be number one, to be the top dog, to be in control of everything that happened. So I could own it all, so I could give the orders, so I could be rich. I had to be the best, because competition was in my bones from the day I picked up a football, from the day I had a fight with my mate over a girl. Because my wife had an insatiable appetite for clothes and money. Because I couldn't stand the thought of my brother-in-law buying a beach house before me. Because two of my neighbours had BMWs and I still drove a Calais.
I said, 'Because of the challenge. Not because of the material things--they don't mean anything. It's the challenge of testing myself to the limit, and because--I know this will sound strange--because I care about the people who work at the firm.'
'Crap. You're doing it because you're greedy, because you're hungry for power. Why do you bullshit so much? All night you've bullshitted to me. Stop right now, or piss off. Which is it?'
'I'll stop. God's hon--oops!'
'Come on, do you want to go to bed with me or not?'
'Then follow my Mini back to my place.'
'What about your kids?'
'No, they're too young to watch.'
This time I was the one caught off-guard. She had surprised me telling me I talked crap. I thought I had taken her in. Now she surprised me again, by not surrendering after a battle, but at the first skirmish. And I wondered: did she surrender because she saw it was inevitable, or was I being encircled?
Although I had always enjoyed chasing after women, the one thing that terrified me was being caught in a long-term relationship; tearful scenes, promises of forever; love means never letting go. Besides I already had a wife and three kids.
Gypsy lived in a run-down block of seaside flats, they were fibro and wood. The outside was painted some kind of blue colour, and I saw the name tacked on the front: SEA VIEW. She parked the Mini in the driveway while I parked my Calais in the street. I was at her side as soon as she got out of her car, and I put my arm around her narrow waist as we climbed the few steps to the front door. It had a big porthole of frosted glass in it.
She had three rooms, with creaking floorboards, unscreened windows, more frosted glass and a shared bathroom. To be honest the place was a dump. Yet it intrigued me.
My own house, worth almost a million dollars, was crammed full of useless bric-a-brac, thousands of dollars worth of electronic gadgets that neither I nor my wife could operate properly. Carpets that had to be steam cleaned, lawns that required a mowing service, beds of exotic plants that died unless protected from the sun, furniture that needed polishing to stop it cracking, dogs to be exercised, cats to be pampered; telephones that interconnected into every room with recorded messages, they could transfer calls, receive faxes, and interworked with burglar alarms. There were security devices everywhere, each with its own PIN--doors, phones, credit cards, burglar alarms--a hopeless jumble of changing numbers I couldn't remember. There were phones in both cars, a cordless phone that would annoy me by the pool, computers at work, a laptop for the car, and another at home for the weekend. Each year the software was updated, every two years the hardware was replaced. Always we were sold a simpler, more user-friendly system that was as simple as relativity. I had a hundred CDs that I never had time to listen to. Every year my life became more complicated. Each year I rose higher in the firm the intrigues became more sinister and my wife, Jennifer, more bitchy.
Gypsy's life was simple: no beds, but mattresses on the floor, an old fridge, a portagas cooker, some homegrown vegetables and a run down Mini held together by wire. Even the TV was a black and white portable. Not even a video.
I wondered more and more about my conquest, her surrender, or my encirclement. There was no long drawn out seduction--she was very direct. She closed the door, took her clothes off and got into bed. There the struggle began, I had every intention of remaining dominant, and I did. It was a battle of strength, rolling across the mattress locked in union. I won that first test, but it was all I won. Soon I was in full retreat. She had endless desire and tireless energy; she enjoyed every minute, laughing and moaning, while I tired, drained, and weakened.
I felt like General Custer.
In the morning I slipped away while she slept. That had always been my custom. No names, no rank, no forwarding address, no telephone numbers, no tearful promises. I had got what I came for--now I wanted out.
The night I spent with Gypsy was five years ago. But since then I haven't been able to forget Gypsy for ten minutes. Something went horribly wrong. I never stopped thinking of her, whatever I was doing--waiting at traffic lights, kissing Jennifer, making a sale, or delivering a speech. From the moment I left the flat by the ocean I thought of nothing but her. The things she said at The Watchmaker's Club, the natural easy way she talked, the unpretentiousness, the openness. The simple life she lived, not one PIN, not one computer, no insurance; she didn't lock her car or her flat. She was open because she was strong. She didn't have to hide behind pretentiousness, role-playing, or sneaking away at first light.
Even by the time I arrived back at work I was convinced that I hadn't conquered her. There had been no passive resistance, no struggle, no contest. It had been an ambush. She had taken from me what she had wanted. And I don't just mean in bed. It was after many hours of thought I realized that all the talking I did, all the confession--for I did tell a lot of personal stories about my growing years--this was what she wanted from me, this was what she was interested in, because she was interested in people.
A month after getting home I felt I had been out-manoeuvred, and began to wonder about all my previous conquests. What were they other than incompleted affairs? What was I running away from? Why did I want to own the firm? What did it matter?
Before long everything fell apart. I lost the competitive drive. I was a salesman without motivation, and my career stalled. I didn't get the advancement I expected. I held my job for a year before I was moved sideways, then backwards into a dead-end position.
My wife, Jennifer, was horrified. My brother-in-law moved up to a Mercedes, a beach house at Dee Why, a unit at Surfers Paradise. I moved down to a Toyota Corolla. Jennifer felt she had backed a looser and wanted out. It was only then I realised I had married someone with the same aspirations as myself: hunger for money, prestige and power. Now that my career was in reverse I was only a sea-anchor to her.
What did it all matter? If someone wanted to buy our competitor's product they probably had a good reason. Perhaps it was more suitable, or they got a better deal. And what did we need with a beach house or a Mercedes?
Material things seemed pointless by themselves. They needed to be part of a human relationship to give them a reference. My love-life shrivelled up. I chased after no one, not the spunky new secretary or even my wife, who soon felt insulted and moved out. She then sent a whole sheaf of letters from her solicitor. I ignored them.
The firm ran into difficult times, and I became part of their "fiscal downsizing program". I collected my severance pay, and with the same sort of relief I got leaving my dentist, was cut adrift from the office.
I packed a few things into my Corolla and drove back to Ballina. I smiled all the way. I headed straight to Gypsy's flat. To my horror it had disappeared. The old wooden flats had been replaced by modern units. There was nothing left of the original street. I went back to the Ballina office where I had assisted them in my hey-day. It was closed and vacant, tattered scraps of paper lay on the floor behind the dirty glass windows.
For a week I moved from hotel to hotel, questioning patrons and bar managers. No one had heard of Gypsy, no one knew her, no one cared.
Then in a moment of inspiration I went back to the area where her flat had been. There was a small convenience shop nearby. Yes, they remembered her. They thought she had gone further north, to Byron Bay.
I knew that if she still lived in Byron Bay and I spent time in the main street, then sooner or later I'd see Gypsy. At Byron Bay I found a cheap flat close to the ocean. I moved in and spent weeks dozing in the sun, thinking about the life I had left behind; it had all been for nothing. The conquests, the money, the possessions, it was all a black void.
I did find Gypsy though. It was five months later in the supermarket. She was in the neighbouring checkout, arguing bitterly with the girl about the price of butter. It was a marvel that I recognized her at all. It was because of the dark freckle at the corner of her left eye. Not her voice, not her hair, not her clothes or earrings. No one would have recognized her from those. She sounded and looked very English, very prim, and tense. I waited for her by the door.
She sailed right past me her nose in the air.
'Gypsy, I know it's you. Stop. I've got to talk with you.'
'Who are you? If you think you can pester me for money I'll call the police.'
'You're Gypsy, don't deny it!'
She stood silent a moment. 'Gypsy's dead. Who are you?'
'Martin Shure. Remember the night we spent together in your flat at Ballina? SEA VIEW. You must remember! Your children were--'
'I have no children. Look Martin whatsyername, don't make me break role. I'm an actress. I role play before I go on stage, before I do a movie. It's homework, Stanislavsky; I live the part in real life. Gypsy was a bit-part I played in a movie years ago. I don't even know if it was released, probably all for nothing. Gypsy might have spent the night with you buster, but I didn't. I don't even remember you. Face it mister, Gypsy is not only dead, she never existed.'