Story by Warrigal Mirriyuula

Zero Sum

07 Out of The Fiery Furnace (1962)

The Humber Super Snipe purred up Barrenjoey Road from Newport, taking the climb over the headland in its smooth stride. Inside the car it was warm and comfortable. ABC radio was playing Alfred Hill’s Symphony No 8, “The Mind of Man”, and William Stafford was idly musing on the piece as he drove, noting similarities in the voicing of the orchestration that had an affinity with Arnold Bax’ “Tintagel”. Being contemporaneous composers probably explained that. Even high art has its fashions.

Catherine Stafford was sleeping in the passenger seat, her head resting on a small rough velvet cushion against the door pillar. There was the intimation of a smile on her sleeping face and William, taking a quick glance at his wife, felt that same old urgent twinge so often mistaken for the butterflies of anxiety, but which is nothing less than a visceral reaction to, and a physiological manifestation of the unexpected apprehension of love. William thought that Catherine was simply the most beautiful person he had ever known and believed himself unbelievably lucky that she had chosen him. 

Catherine had been very popular with the other young men at Sydney University. So much so that William, a very reserved young man from the country, had thought he didn’t stand an earthly chance. This sense of foregone failure must have seeped into his facial expressions giving William the caste of a poet lost in love.

He would see her in the Union, The Pleasaunce garden; always surrounded by eager young men and young women besotted with her beauty; but what William didn’t know was that Catherine, whilst charmed certainly, flattered of course, was not exactly bored, but certainly not interested in allowing these attentions to bloom into anything with the scent of spring. She had her eye on a young man with whom she had never even spoken. A physics student with the face of a sad poet.

She often spied him from the corner of her eye, and if their eyes met, it was only ever briefly. The young physics student would shuffle away as if suddenly remembering something he had to do. 

The truth was William just shattered every time he saw Catherine. How could he approach her? “I’m such a dummy!” he would tell himself. He began to believe that it was an impossible dream and, with First Year sliding towards examinations, he had better get down to the books or this “star crossing” might be the end of his University career. 

He made a point to avoid the places where he might see Catherine. If she so much as popped into his mind; something that happened unbidden several times a day; he would think of complex differential equations, hoping that the cognitive power required to mentally drive these calculations would leave little left for the winsome intrusions of Catherine’s beautiful face. 

So it was that for all of second and third year they hardly laid eyes on one another. They had no lectures in common. Catherine was studying Fine Arts. Her head was in Michelangelo’s clouds searching for the numinous. Across campus William’s head was in a cloud chamber searching for tiny evanescent particles that screwed themselves out of existence almost as soon as they had appeared. In his bleaker moments William equated these short-lived particles with his own chances with Catherine.

But just as absence is said to make the heart grow fonder; (perhaps in this case the archaic “fond” was more accurate. William certainly felt like a fool, and this programmed avoidance just made his yearning that much harder to bear); William tried but could not succeed in moving on from his infatuation with Catherine; who, in her turn, found that she spent a great deal of her time wondering and speculating about William Stafford.

Sublimation had seen them both do spectacularly in their Honours program and they were both contemplating what might be next when they both, separately, received invitations to a ball to be held at St Paul’s College to celebrate the end of the academic year.

William wasn’t going to go. He didn’t really get on with the Rugger Rowdies from the colleges. It wasn’t really him. Not that William was antisocial; it was that he was socially awkward to the point of embarrassment, and the prospect of having to make small talk, or worse, dance with a girl, filled him with dread. Besides, he assumed that Catherine wouldn’t be there so what was the point? “My God! What would be the point even if she was going to be there?” he found himself saying out loud. He’d never be able to overcome his shy diffidence to so much as even cross the floor in her general direction.

The world turns no matter the pressing concerns of the love lost; and so, in the week before the ball he had unexpectedly seen Catherine in the Quad resulting in the usual sudden sense of weightlessness such sightings brought forth in him. A friend with him at the time noted the look of confusion that swept across William’s face at the sighting, and quickly turned to spy the cause. The young woman coming out of the Nicholson vestibule was absolutely gorgeous, and he turned back at his friend with a look of respect, impressed that William had set his sights so high.

“You never know, Billy Boy; faint heart and the fair maiden, what?” His friend always affected silly British locutions, but William had to admit he was running out of opportunities, and excuses. He was going to take Lady Macbeth’s advice and screw his courage to the sticking place, and then hope like hell that things turned out better for him and Catherine than it did for the Macbeths. That was the problem with these old literary saws. They often came from places that didn’t really support their contemporary usage; a different world. 

William nodded to his friend, a gesture of both confirmation, and parting. He strode down the cloister on the western side of the quad towards the MacLaurin stairs. He had to go to the library anyway. He could fake a meeting he thought. Just run into her. It was a clumsy plan and didn’t take into account the fact that Catherine would almost certainly see right through it; and what would he say anyway?

As it turned out Catherine had seen him coming and planned her own cute meeting. She would call out to him and open with a question about X-Rays and their application in certifying the authenticity of old masters. Catherine had discovered that William was fast eclipsing his professors in the area of x-ray diffraction. 

One of William’s tutors, no doubt hoping to ingratiate himself with the beautiful Catherine, had let on that no less a person than Sir Lawrence Bragg, Australian head of the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge, youngest recipient of the Nobel for physics and world expert in X-ray crystallography, had offered William a position at that prestigious lab.  

Catherine had been working on “the first question” for some months. She wanted something that could combine their two separate interests and after receiving the intelligence on William from his tutor, she had finally settled on x-rays as the key to open the lock on William’s sociability. She hoped that it might help her see inside the diffident young man, draw him out so she could engage him in conversation.

So, like two of Williams accelerator particles, each with their own energy, each with their own purpose, they collided at the bottom of the MacLaurin stairs and something new was created between them. It had been just a light bump, followed immediately by hurried apologies and innocent smiles. William of course was then simply struck dumb, so Catherine piled up her courage and asked William about x rays and old masters. William, feeling on more solid ground here, burst into a speech giving Catherine all that he knew about x-rays and x-ray crystallography. 

It would have been obvious to any observer that Catherine was only understanding a tiny fraction of the information that flowed from William’s babbling lips. Yet she seemed to maintain a look of earnest interest; her eyes moving all over his animated face. She was trying to see through the young intellectual palimpsest. To see the William that only this morning she had admitted to herself, she loved. She knew it was silly. How can you love someone you’ve never really spoken to; but she was certain this was love none the less. 

She loved the way William spent a great deal of his time alone with his head in a book, occasionally looking up, as if to speculate on his reading, before looking back down and carrying on. She loved the way he walked around campus, his confident stride, his expressive face, curious and alive to all that was happening around him, but most of all she loved him for his version of “The Arab’s Farewell to His Steed” which she had seen him perform at a Victoriana night held in The Great Hall. 

His spoken performance had been accompanied by sentimentally sad piano; the accompanist dressed in full evening togs. William had on brown face and suitably draping Arab costume with a keffiyeh on his head. His rendition was full of hammy emotion fully appropriate to the Arab’s loss; his arms wide, his face to heaven, a picture of that loss; and as he spoke the lines, “I could not live a day, and know that we should meet no more!” Catherine had felt a powerful shiver move through her leaving her quite excited. She knew the line referred to the Arab’s steed, but my goodness! it had started something in her. Even her girlfriend noticed.

“Are you alright Cat? You aren’t feeling feint?”

“Oh, yes. A little.” Catherine let out a slow nasal breath. “No. It isn’t that. I’m alright. I’m fine.” A broad and quite frank smile took up post on Catherine’s face.

She was still reliving William’s performance, and its affect on her, when she realised that William had finished rattling on about x-rays and was looking at her with a certain expectation of response. She just smiled at him and that turned out to be the end of their beginning.

Side by side, they’d climbed the MacLaurin stairs to the library and made their way down to a table in the back, for privacy; where they had spent the next several hours just talking, very quietly of course. 

William had found it surprisingly easy to talk to Catherine and his reserve was gradually replaced with an eager, almost boyish enthusiasm; and she had found, confirmed at last, that he was more than just a handsome young physicist with a yen for bad Victorian poetry. He was blindingly bright, sharper, more incisive than a microtome. He seemed knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, but he was also gentle and kind hearted, he was empathic and seemed most concerned that Catherine should be comfortable with him, that she thinks well of him. He need not have worried on that account. 

In the course of their peripatetic talk they covered an enormous amount of territory between them, finding commonalities and likenesses, shared tastes, values and similar aspirations for the future; and they discovered that they had both received Paul’s Ball invitations. So it was that when the librarian came to tell them it was closing time and they’d have to leave, both William and Catherine had begun to make certain basic assumptions about each other and their shared future. They didn’t discuss these assumptions. They didn’t need to. They had found one another.

At the ball they had sat alone and talked, they had laughed together, made silly intimate jokes together, even danced to some of the slower tunes played by the small orchestra. It had all turned out to be so simple, so easy. 

William was surprised how quickly he picked up the steps and by the end of the evening he had begun to think that he didn’t mind dancing at all. It wasn’t so hard and his occasional clumsy missteps were soon forgotten holding Catherine in his arms, the couple seemingly existing inside their own bubble of young love. It was a Champagne night that William and Catherine had toasted to the dregs.

As the night drew to its inevitable close, they picked their way through the debris of the ball, the tired orchestra playing a ragged “God Save The King”. Stepping over inebriated undergraduates they both realised they too were a little tiddly, but neither wanted the magic evening to end. It was late and they thought they might go into town, perhaps a bite and a glass of Frontignac at Lorenzinis. In its turn, but only after a few Frontignacs, more talk and long pauses where they simply looked at one another, even Lorenzinis closed.

William and Catherine found themselves sobering as the sun rose. They’d walked and talked their way down Elizabeth Street and finally to the Quay where the early ferries were steaming up, the warming morning air filling with sooty smuts as the boilers came to pressure.

The day shift was just coming on at the Maritime Services site as William and Catherine, leaning over the sea wall, looked down into the water filled with flashing and darting juvenile Yellowtails and sinuous swaying sea weed. William was trying to model the chaos of the water as it slapped against the slimy seawall while Catherine saw only the beauty of the fish and their weedy resort.  

They must have looked a sight amongst the early hurrying workers, William in his tailed dinner suit and Catherine in a ball gown and short cape. Some of the Maritime Services workers, noting the line of Catherine’s bottom as she leant over the sea wall, showed their appreciation of Catherine’s beauty with shrill wolf whistles; and when Catherine turned to acknowledge the men with a beautiful smile and a wave, they had spontaneously erupted in applause. William, at first put out, then awkward, relaxed and acknowledged that the men probably had no choice, just as he William felt he had no choice. Catherine was simply that beautiful.

William had not taken up the PhD offer from the Cavendish, instead he had taken up a late offer from a private philanthropic trust that had offered William a free hand and an open bank account to study Folded Space Time. It wasn’t what William had been working on but the offer, made by the man who would be his supervisor, and the possibilities the research program offered, sounded absolutely fascinating and so William had accepted. It would be a new adventure befitting William’s increasingly adventurous bent.

Catherine had decided that she wouldn’t pursue an offer from the Coulthard Institute in London. It had been very flattering that they had thought so highly of such a young woman; but if William was staying in Sydney, so would she.

They had married soon after in a local magistrates’ chambers. A small affair; just the happy couple, her parents, and Catherine’s great aunt Primula Gilfilian, or Mrs. G; as the family always called her. William’s father had not been able to attend. He was dealing with flooding on the family property. He sent his best wishes to them both and hopes that he’d be able to see them soon. He came a few months later, to much fanfare and feasting.

Mrs. G let go a bombshell over coffee at the end of the first family dinner, a kind of second wedding feast with William’s father as special guest. Given who they were the discussion, prior to Mrs. G.’s bombshell, had been lively and at times humorous, was none the less serious.

They’d been talking about education spending and discussing the Education Minister, Bob Heffron and his plans to establish more universities, particularly in the country. The general consensus had stabilised at “Good Thing” when Mrs. G, ’til now not really having much to contribute, piped in.

“Education is so important.” said Mrs. G in her brogue. “In no time you’ll be havin’ to make decisions aboot the wean.” Mrs G was looking at Catherine’s tummy. Catherine’s mouth was hanging slightly open. She still managed to make her way to Mrs. G’s meaning.

The rest of the table just looked from Mrs G to Catherine and back again.

“You didn’t know…, none a ya?” Mrs G asked the table. Catherine, her face moving from speechless immobility to a slow shake, mouthed “No.” The others just seemed stunned though smiles were beginning to crack across the faces.

“Oo, I am sorry to let the cat out of the bag like that; but y’are.” Mrs G took a sip of her soda water. She never drank alcohol.

William took his left hand off the Humber’s wheel and pushed it through the already greying hair at his temple. That was nearly ten years ago.

He looked at Catherine again and saw that she had been looking at him.

“We’re nearly home.” he said and smiled.

“Mmmmhmmm…..” was all Catherine said as she wriggled herself up straight in the seat.

They pulled into the drive of their home at Whale Beach. William turned off the ignition and took the key out. He was about to open the door when he saw someone in the shadows of the front veranda idly sitting on the swing seat there. William couldn’t make out who it was.

“I think we have a visitor.” he said to Catherine with an uncertain tone in his voice. “Strange time to come calling.”

Catherine, becoming a little more alert after her snooze during the drive home, looked in under the veranda. “Mmmmmm…” she said. Not committing to any particular feeling for their late night visitor.

William came round to Catherine’s side of the Humber and opened her door, offering is hand. She stepped out of the car and straightened her gown with a few brushes of her hands on the folds of the skirt. She kissed William briefly, a perfunctory kiss.

“You’d better see who it is.”


William stepped up onto the veranda, still not able to make out who it was that was sitting on the swing. Suddenly the light came on and the front door opened. It was the babysitter, Mrs. Morrow.

“I thought it was you two.” she whispered, “Ssshhh, I’ve only just managed to get Bess off to sleep.” Mrs. Morrow then spied the man on the swing. A look questioning his presence crossed her face. She gestured to Catherine to come in, mistrusting this late night assignation. Catherine, with a look like she should know the man but just couldn’t place him, followed Mrs. Morrow inside leaving William on the veranda.

“Hello Will. Long time no see. I don’t think Catherine recognised me.” He didn’t get up.

“Eric…,” William turned to look for Catherine but she had already gone inside with Mrs. Morrow. “This is an unexpected surprise. I thought you were out of the country.”

“Just got back earlier this evening.” Eric’s tone was unusually serious, so William would be serious too.

“Well hello, Eric. To what do we owe the pleasure of your nocturnal presence. It must be more than five years….”

“Too long between drinks, I’ll grant you; and I wouldn’t normally dream of intervening in Catherine’s and your domestic idyll if it weren’t of the most immediate and urgent importance. There’s nasty work afoot Will and I’m afraid I need the Stafford family, and your very particular talents, to see us through to tomorrow; but first there’s some very difficult and confronting things we have to deal with.” Now he stood up, straight.

“Cup of tea….?” William had been hooked on the mystery of the thing.”

“Something stronger, perhaps…..” 

The mystery thickening as William, his hand in the small of Eric’s back, took them both inside.