Eliyahu’s Mistress is the engrossing debut novel by Roger Mendelson, a Melbourne lawyer and businessman.
Set in present day Melbourne, the book is a seductive love story about Steven, a dynamic marketing man, Jewish but not religious, and Frances, a middle-aged practising Catholic woman who lives in the Dandenong Ranges.
When Steven begins developing a new business strategy for an established chain of Church-run op-shops, he quickly forms a strong working relationship with Frances, one of its board members.
Just like near the end of a long flight, when near-comatose passengers come to life, stretch, check their belongings and become artificially friendly and chatty with their neighbours, Frances and Steven began to re-energise as they entered the Ballarat city limits. They headed towards Lydiard Street and on to Craig’s Royal Hotel.
It certainly looked imposing from the outside and Steven commented to Frances that at the time it and some of the other grand Ballarat buildings were built, in the 1850s and 1860s, they must have been hugely impressive to the townspeople. At that time, with the gold rush in full swing, Ballarat was one of the most prosperous cities in the world.
Frances directed Steven into a back lane and then around to a parking area at the rear of the hotel. They then collected their bags and made their way through to the reception area. Frances was visibly impressed with the ornate features and the scale of the building, whereas Steven was less so. He would have preferred a modern, luxurious hotel but he didn’t really know of any in the city and Frances was so enthusiastic about Craig’s that he was happy for her will to prevail.
After checking in, they made their way to the second floor by the rickety and creaking lift and then parted ways. Frances had taken a larger room, overlooking the street, whereas Steven had opted for a smaller but more modern room in the added-on section at the back of the building.
They had agreed that they would meet up for dinner at seven, in the downstairs dining room.
Frances explored her room with the enthusiasm of a young child on holidays. She loved the quirky period fittings and furniture but winced when she saw that much of it was inauthentic. She checked out the various features, including the mini-bar and the tea-making facilities. She did not travel often and when she did, she regarded it as a great treat.
After unpacking her few items of clothing, she ran a bath in the ornate bathtub. As the steamy water was noisily rising she rifled through the various bottles displayed on the vanity bench until she found what she had hoped would be there: a bottle of bath salts.
Whilst waiting, she looked at herself in the mirror, which by this stage was becoming quite steamy. She then undid her blouse, unhitched her skirt and slipped out of her pantyhose and underwear. Turning around, she caught a glimpse of her naked self in the mirror.
Being naked was an experience she enjoyed. It gave her a sense of primeval freedom and it allowed her body to relax, unconstricted.
After pulling her hair into bunches, she stepped over and lowered herself into the inviting warm foam. As she lay back, she allowed her face to immerse in the water. She imagined the little stresses and tensions leaving her body, like little birds flying out of a nest. She closed her eyes and felt comforted by the all-embracing, womb-like warmth which encased her.
The prospect of dinner with Steven excited her but made her nervous at the same time. In her mind, she conjectured that Steven would probably find the idea of having dinner in a provincial hotel with a female work colleague six years his senior as being an event to get through, rather than being an occasion to anticipate.
Her mind went through some of the events of the day, like a video camera replaying recent scenes — until she reached the point of emptiness, which she loved reaching. It was a point where thoughts simply ceased turning over in her head and she became conscious of the absolute here and now. Of her lying in a warm bath, her body seemingly floating on the water, the incessant drip of the tap, the muffled sounds from the street outside, which had become quiet with the offices and shops now closed and the workers and shoppers having departed.
Frances had allowed plenty of time to get ready. Her dressing and preparations comprised a well-practised routine. It was something she enjoyed and she did not want to rush it. For her it was all a part of the night ahead. Dressing appropriately in clothes she liked wearing, and then doing her makeup, her hair and putting on her accessories, was an act of self-indulgence for her.
When the clock on her bedside table indicated 7 o’clock, she rose and made her way to the lift and then down to the ground floor dining room.
There is a palpable sense of excitement at the start of meal sessions in most restaurants which are regarded by both patrons and staff as being destination restaurants, as opposed to being just practical eateries. The feeling is similar to the sense of anticipation that builds in the audience before a concert. The prelude to a live performance but with the diners being a part of the act.
The Craig’s dining room was grand in its proportions and the patrons were clearly, to Frances’s mind, largely Ballarat and surrounding area residents. Most would have known of Craig’s all of their lifetime. For them, to dine there was a treat and an event to be savoured.
Frances immediately picked up on an excitable pitch as she entered the dining room. Most tables were already filled, because this was a weeknight and people in regional cities tend to be early eaters.
A waiter approached her but she spied Steven already sitting at a corner table. She waved and made her way over. He was dressed in casual but smart attire, in deference to the fact that they were attending a reasonably formal dining room.
Frances noticed that he seemed more relaxed, younger, even somewhat boyish looking but that notwithstanding his casualness, he was still the best dressed man in the room in his fitted jeans, open-neck checked blue and white shirt and stylish navy jacket.
He rose to greet her and then leant forward and gave her a kiss on both cheeks in the European manner, whilst the waiter held out her chair for her in exaggerated deference. The attention pleased her.
She was wearing what she would describe to herself as my little black dress. It suited her and accentuated the features she wanted to accentuate: namely, her slim limbs and her elegant posture, and it minimised her tummy area.
When a group of diners enter a restaurant and sit down, there is invariably a period of ten minutes or so of fluster. After places are found, menus handed out, preliminaries dispensed with, drinks ordered, survey of the venue and polite formalities made, a settling-in period follows. As the drinks and food arrive the level of unease dramatically reduces and a comfortable air becomes apparent.
The settled phase was reached early with Steven and Frances because they merely had to catch the lift down from their rooms, and they were out-of-towners so they did not have to conjecture about seeing people they didn’t want to see. They would not be seeing a nasty neighbour or acquaintances they may have known but whose names they’d forgotten. Besides, Steven was a highly practised diner and felt very much at home in restaurants. Thus, he was well within his comfort zone in this dining room.
Looking around the room, Steven observed that the diners seemed very much to be locals. The general dress code could be described as regional. Many of the men looked to him to be ill at ease, wearing aged suits and ties that exposed the fact they did not dine out a great deal and were unaware that ties in restaurants, even fancy ones, were much out of vogue.
He was struck by the ruddy cheeks on their faces, which indicated that they spent much more time outdoors than people from big cities, and by the feeling of gaiety and expectation in the air. Many tables comprised groups of two or three couples and there was a feeling emanating from many tables that these were old friends, comfortable in each other’s company and planning to have a good laugh together.
After placing their orders promptly and with a minimum of fuss, Steven raised his glass. Frances surmised to herself that he was looking cool, handsome and confident. As they chinked glasses, he toasted ‘to a successful conclusion to the project.’ Frances beamed and nodded in agreement. She felt proud to be his dining companion.
‘What is the Jewish word for cheers?’ queried Frances.
‘L’chaim (la-hyam). It means, “To life”.’
Frances raised her glass again. ‘L’chaim and thank you Steven, for the wonderful job you are doing for us. I’ve learnt so much from observing you and being with you and I can see that without a new strategy, Family Helper will slowly wither away and become irrelevant.’ Her words were carefully thought out for the occasion.
Steven sighed and then put on an intentionally silly expression, which conveyed: don’t be so pompous and formal.
She smiled in tacit acknowledgement that her little prepared comment was neither appropriate nor needed. ‘You know, I am feeling really good tonight … rather like being on an extra holiday I hadn’t planned, which has just come up.’
‘So, tell me a little more about yourself,’ Steven said, looking at her expectantly.
‘Oh, nothing to tell really.’ A flippant, teasing response. ‘By the way, when the waiter recited the specials tonight, did you take any of it in or were you focusing on the waiter himself and his delivery?’ She was being mischievous.
‘I have no idea what the specials were and had no interest in them. As soon as I saw roast beef on the menu, I went for it … and I was not impressed with his recitation. Deadpan and hurried. But I’d like to know more of your story. Why don’t you tell me more about where you came from, and your family … and what brought you to Australia.’
‘I could see that you weren’t taking the specials in,’ she said with a note of triumph. ‘You really are interested in the details, aren’t you?’ Steven nodded.
- This is an edited extract from Eliyahu’s Mistress, by Roger Mendelson (RRP$24.95), available now at all good book stores, and by clicking here.