About The Affair
It started so innocently. But doesn’ t everyone say that?
In the opulent rooms of a Sydney specialist, Nina and James Wilde are waiting. Waiting to learn whether the rare, hereditary condition that killed James’s father will threaten not only James, but also their much loved son, Luke.
But that is just the beginning of Nina’ s torment.
She has a secret, one that is now a decade old and just as capable of destroying everything that is important to her. Memories of another time and a sweet, passionate love that should never have happened are haunting Nina. Suddenly her grasp on life and happiness seems more precarious than she could ever have anticipated.
About The Affair
About Bunty Avieson
Also by Bunty Avieson
With much love to Mal Watson and
our beautiful daughter, Kathryn Rose
7 February 2001
Nina was hit by a wall of heat as she emerged through the swinging glass doors into the bright sunshine. The doctor’s rooms were five blocks away, at the medical end of the city, and she knew she would be wet with perspiration by the time she reached them. After eleven years in Australia she was still rendered limp by the relentless humidity of Sydney in summer. She found it difficult to breathe. The air tasted stale and sparse, as if there wasn’t enough to go around. She missed the cool, parched dryness of rural Canada where every breath burst into her lungs, plentiful and fresh.
She checked her watch even though she knew the time. It was only a few minutes since last she had looked. Still, she was anxious. She didn’t want James to be waiting alone at the doctor’s.
Nina hurried, darting between the morning shoppers, and made good time, arriving a few minutes early at Kingston Medical Centre. James was already there, waiting for her in the foyer as arranged. He was a tall, well-built man, with strong, even features and closely cropped black hair, which was just beginning to grey above his ears. In his dark blue Zegna suit he looked like any of the other well-heeled professionals milling about. Only his manner set him apart. He was pacing the floor, running his hands through his hair and watching the revolving glass doors intently.
He greeted Nina with a relieved hug. They held each other closely for a moment, oblivious to the people around them. They had not spoken since that morning: they had left for work at 8 o’clock and dropped their son Luke at school on the way, as they did every weekday morning, before going on to their respective offices in the city. But this wasn’t a normal day and each of them had spent the time apart in a kind of agitated anticipation, watching the clock tick away the minutes to this meeting. They took comfort from their embrace, feeling united in their private torment.
They separated and Nina took James’s hand, squeezing it.
‘Are you okay?’ asked James.
‘Let’s do it then,’ he said, his voice grim.
Together they waited for the lift to descend, watching the numbers light up as it counted down the floors.
Nina felt the anxiety like a leaden rock in the pit of her stomach. It was a mixture of dread and hope. She didn’t want to take this lift up to the top floor and hear the doctor’s pronouncement but she knew that until she did, their life would never return to normal. They had existed in a state of limbo since the moment a few weeks ago when James’s mother had telephoned them and said the word ‘haemochromatosis’. It was the first time Nina had ever heard of it. As if losing him wasn’t enough, an autopsy on James’s father showed that a massive toxic build-up of iron in his blood, causing his major organs to fail, had killed him. It was a genetic condition, hereditary. A rogue gene. Deadly if left untreated. It was what had robbed that huge bull of a man of, first, his energy, then, his dignity and, finally, his life.
It was one of the most common hereditary diseases and one of the least diagnosed, according to the book that Nina and James had read, standing side by side in the State Library, anxious not to leave Luke at home alone for too long.
Having just buried the family patriarch they now faced the news that this defect could just as easily be lurking inside James and Luke. There was no cure. The only antidote: regular and vigorous blood leeching. The very thought of it woke Nina in the night. It seemed like something out of a horror movie. But what scared her more than the treatment was the damage that might already have begun. Both James and Luke could be well on their way to chronic fatigue, arthritis, heart disease, cirrhosis, cancer, diabetes, thyroid disease, impotence, sterility. Excess iron could injure every part of the body, including the brain.
Luke’s youth didn’t protect him. Juvenile haemochromatosis was aggressive and potentially fatal.
It was unthinkable. James, a former Australian Olympic ski champion, was as strong and fit as he had ever been. And Luke? Nine-year-old Luke lived every day for football, and nights, too, sleeping in his favourite number seventeen jersey. He was so like his sport-loving father. He had inherited Nina’s slight frame but it was James’s fierce competitive nature and tireless energy that gave him the advantage on the football field. James felt it was a cruel irony that he may also have inherited this killer gene.
Nina felt a bottomless chasm threatening to open in front of her. She had spent the past week going through the usual motions of her life, talking to clients, cooking dinner, helping Luke with his homework. But all the time she was aware that at any moment the ground could open up before her and she would be lost, free-falling through the abyss. So she had lived in a state of constant vigilance, ready in case that chasm did suddenly snap open before her. Nina had had little experience with sickness. She was healthy and no-one close to her had ever died or suffered from anything serious. The idea that the two people she loved most in the world could die was a revelation as well as a shock.
The lift arrived and they shuffled into it with the pack. Kingston Medical Centre was a busy building. The lower floors contained various medical services, radiology, X-rays and the like. Ten years ago Nina and James had glimpsed their first view of Luke on the fifth floor, in the ultrasound department. He was just a swirling blob on a screen. The technician had happily explained which part of the blob was his head and which was his body. Nina had posted the photograph of that little blob to her parents in Canada. The first photo of their first grandchild. They had placed it proudly on their refrigerator, under the Opera House magnet Nina had sent them. Nina had tried to explain, over a scratchy telephone line to her mother, what the technician had told them.
Her mother had been in awe.
‘You can tell from that picture that it’s a boy?’ she had asked, her voice a mixture of disbelief and wonder.
Nina watched a young couple get out at the fifth floor. They would have been in their twenties. They looked half terrified. Just like Nina and James, all those years ago.
Luke hadn’t been planned. In fact he had been growing quietly inside her for three months before she became aware he was there. It had been a surprise to them both. The realisation that they would be responsible for a new little life had d
When Luke was two they had decided to try for a little brother or sister, but it had never happened. They told themselves it didn’t matter. Luke was their little miracle and together they were a family. They didn’t need anybody else. The three of them were a complete and self-sufficient unit.
As the lift climbed past the fifth floor Nina wondered if James was remembering that time, but she didn’t trust herself to speak. She was holding herself together with every ounce of willpower she could muster.
She dared not think about the possibility of life without James. Her whole world revolved around him. And she knew how worried James was about the thought of their beloved boy, good-natured, cheeky little Luke, carrying a time bomb in his genetic code. It threatened James’s very core.
Nina had nearly walked away many years ago, before Luke had appeared in their lives, and when her loneliness in this foreign country had been so acute that she did not think she could bear another day. She had betrayed James then and on the few rare occasions that the memory rose unbidden in her mind, she felt great shame.
The lift emptied as it rose and stopped through the building until just Nina and James remained for the final few floors. The doors opened onto a wood-panelled reception area. Up here the rooms were rented by medical specialists, top surgeons and doctors, whose outrageous fees were reflected in the rarefied atmosphere – cool and quiet behind the double-glazed windows, a complete contrast to the hot, frantic city streets below. Blinds on the windows and occasional lamps kept the lighting dim and restrained.
James and Luke had been referred by their family doctor to the clinic on the seventh floor where, a few days ago, they had had their blood tests done, administered by a kindly nurse. To discuss their results they would see a specialist, a haematologist named Dr Jones.
Nina approached the receptionist, a respectable-looking middle-aged woman with neatly coiffured grey hair, sitting alone behind a large desk. There was no-one else around but Nina felt oddly conspicuous and ill at ease in the sombre surroundings.
‘We are here to see Dr Jones,’ she whispered.
‘Please take a seat,’ whispered back the receptionist.
Nina perched next to James on an uncomfortable upholstered bench. He passed her a magazine, Town and Country, British edition, and opened one himself, leafing through the pages without stopping, making a rhythmic flicking sound that played on Nina’s already stretched nerves.
‘Mr and Mrs Wilde?’
The receptionist had moved silently across the thick burgundy carpet to stand in front of them. She motioned them to a closed, heavy-looking multi-panelled door.
‘Dr Jones will see you now,’ she murmured. Her voice was so quiet and reverential that for a moment Nina wondered if she should curtsy.
Nina and James were ushered into a large, cool, light-filled room. The contrast from the shadowy reception area was so great they were momentarily blinded. The doctor’s office faced east, giving him a breathtaking view across the domed roof of the Conservatorium of Music to the Botanical Gardens; then Sydney Harbour, busy with the morning’s traffic; and to the Heads beyond. It was 10 am and just as they entered the room the clouds moved apart, revealing the full force of the morning sun, which flared through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, dazzling Nina and James and creating a bright halo around the man behind the desk. From where the doctor sat he could swivel his high-backed olive-green leather chair around and gaze out the window, watching the boats on the harbour and the weather coming in from the east. Or he could turn his back on the view and face across the desk, to his patients, as he was doing now.
The warmth of the sun didn’t penetrate the thick double-glazed windows, and Dr Jones’s office seemed unnaturally cold. Nina, in her light summer shift, felt a chill. It was more like a gentleman’s study than Nina had expected of a specialist’s rooms. Instead of posters and medical paraphernalia, the walls were lined with opulent, jarrah wood panelling. A beautifully polished nineteenth-century silver microscope sat in a glass case in one corner. Another wall was lined with leather-bound books.
Nina felt out of her depth. James sensed her unease and took charge. It was how he coped best, worrying about Nina so he didn’t have to notice his own beating heart, pumping the adrenalin around his body. He was alert and wary, mentally reining in his energy, like a boxer, bouncing on his toes, ready for that first punch. The cost of his self-control was evident in a small tic beneath his left eye where a nerve had gone into spasm. It tensed and relaxed with each beat of his heart. He was completely oblivious to it.
James led Nina to one of the large leather Chesterfield armchairs facing the huge mahogany desk. Seated, she looked small and vulnerable, half-hidden from him by the wings of the chair.
Nina felt her eyes water from the sunshine as she looked at Dr Jones’s silhouette behind his desk. She steeled herself for whatever he might say, trying to be ready in case, with a few words, he tore apart her world.
The doctor seemed such a long way away, across a wide expanse of wood and leather. He didn’t appear to be a big man, dwarfed by his own desk and chair. He had a high forehead with receding hair but, against the harsh sunlight, Nina couldn’t see his features clearly.
‘I have the results of the tests performed on you, Mr Wilde, and the boy, Luke,’ Dr Jones said.
He was so stiff and his speech so formal that it took Nina a moment to catch up. She had given no thought to what the doctor might be like. He had been a vague, white-coated figure that loomed somewhere in the enemy camp of the medical world. He had a soothing voice, a doctorly voice, meant to put a patient at ease. But the way he was expressing himself caught Nina off guard and she flinched involuntarily. Her hand moved suddenly to her face, as if to ward off a shock.
‘Nina …?’ asked James softly, bending his head towards her.
Dr Jones paused, studying what he could see of Nina’s downturned face, trying to read what she was thinking. He willed her to look up but she stared fixedly at her lap.
The two men looked at Nina and the only sound in the room was the steady hum of the air-conditioning as the frigid air was pumped into the room from discreet vents in the ceiling. It was a low mechanical rumbling sound that helped muffle any vestige of noise from the world outside, enclosing the doctor and his patients inside his vast, private chamber.
Dr Jones had been watching Nina closely since she walked into his office and he noted the sharp reaction when he spoke. Every day he sat just where he was now, often delivering bad news to patients. He got better at it, more efficient some would say, but it never became routine. Nevertheless, any way you looked at it, this case was different. And the doctor, usually so in control, found himself unsure how to proceed.
The couple looked worried and anxious, which is what he would expect under the circumstances. Nina’s hands had moved to chest level where they gripped each other tightly. The husband had a tic below his left eye. Dr Jones couldn’t know if that was always there, or whether it was evidence of the stress he was under. But there was no mistaking the couple’s shared anguish. It was obvious in the tiniest of gestures – James gently stroking the underside of Nina’s arm, the tender skin near the elbow. His touch was instinctive and protective. It was so subtle, it would almost certainly have gone unnoticed by an observer, except that Dr Jones had been watching for it, or something like it. It told him exactly what he wanted to know. Often couples sat in front of him, side by side, yet a world apart. The sort of news he was often forced to deliver could break the strongest bond.
Dr Jones wondered, as he had wondered a lot in the past few days since the Wilde medical file had landed in his in-tray, just how strong was the bond between Nina and James.
Two folders lay on the desk before him: WILDE, James and WILDE, Luke. Dr Jones felt the cold hard plastic beneath his clasped hands. The blood tests had been done. And the genetic tests. Dr Jones knew, without any shadow of a doubt, that t
Ten years before, Friday, 18 January 1991
Nina huddled against the wall, trying to avoid the heavy drops of sudden summer rain that bounced off the awning and splashed onto the footpath, sending little wisps of steam into the air. Her light summer dress was already soaked. She wasn’t cold, just uncomfortably sodden. She could picture her umbrella lying on the back seat of the car. Not much use to her now.
Rain dripped from the ends of her short dark hair onto her neck; water ran down her back in little rivulets.
It had been a hot and humid Friday afternoon when a sudden, unexpected storm had erupted across the city, bringing down the temperature and causing chaos. These were the worst possible conditions for finding a taxi. But Nina was the only person at this taxi rank so she hoped she wouldn’t be there long.
She set the plastic shopping bags on the ground and settled in for an unpleasant wait. A low rumble of thunder rolled across the sky from the south, followed quickly by a flash of lightning. The full force of the storm wasn’t far away and Nina hoped she would be home before it hit.
A man splashed across the road towards her. He looked slightly comical, his trouser legs tucked into his socks to avoid the puddles. He held a newspaper over his head as he sprinted through the traffic and leapt onto the footpath, taking shelter beside her against the wall.
‘Are you waiting for a taxi?’ he asked.
Nina nodded, sending fresh droplets of rain into her eyes. She wiped them away with a wet hand.
The man laughed. ‘You look like you’ve been swimming,’ he said.
‘I feel like I have been,’ replied Nina, smiling back.
The man tried to shake the water off his newspaper. It was a soggy mess. As he attempted to smooth the pages, shreds tore off making little balls of newsprint. He gave up and tossed it into the bin, laughing at himself as the paper balls stuck to his hands.