Fresh Air

Annabel was looking forward to a rustic, quiet weekend in the country, but was it really better to travel hopefully than to arrive?

Since Monday morning, when the overhead projector failed during my major presentation, and Serena spilt coffee over the VIP visitors, I’d been looking forward to this weekend. Billy’s phone call had promised light at the end of the too-long tunnel: two days of fresh country air, relaxing in the Hunter Valley, touring vineyards, finally getting the chance to sink my teeth into my paperback copy of The latest John Grisham. Bliss!
Now, sitting in Billy’s car as he drove too fast along the country roads, I wasn’t so thrilled. The exhaust system on his throaty old V8 had developed a hole which seemed to get bigger with each kilometre, and if it wasn’t the noise giving me a headache, it was the fumes. Billy thought it terrifically funny.
“Sounds like I’ve got a forty thousand dollar engine under the bonnet!” He slapped the steering wheel, thoroughly amused by himself. Never one to take speed limits seriously, he accelerated until the shrubs at the side of the road became a blur. Luckily I’d developed nerves of steel ages ago.
“Sounds like you’ve got a bee under yours,” I muttered. I didn’t want to destroy the weekend by starting another row about Billy’s love affair with his car -we’d been having too many of those lately! When we’d first met two years ago I didn’t realise that what seemed to be an interest in making his car go faster was really an obsession. I don’t think he realised it himself. After hoping he’d grow out of the Boy Racer phase, a reasonable request to put to a man of twenty seven, I philosophically accepted him as he was – funny, loving, and mostly easy going (except about his car). We had been engaged for almost a year, and were working madly to save a deposit for a house before setting our wedding date. Billy seemed to be folding half of his savings back into his car, but that was an argument that could wait until Monday.
I wound down the window, physically absorbing the beauty and calm of a country dusk. Between the murkily dark hills a majestic swathe of apricot, pink and vivid peacock blue was painted across the sky. A cacophony of birds squawked and trilled their frantic evening messages to each other, and trees waved gracefully in a breeze that promised a crisp early autumn night. A woman was leading a little girl on a pony by the side of the road, and the child waved happily at us as we grumbled past at – for Billy – a decorous pace.
“I love the country,” I sighed, waving back. “Real land, real people.” For an instant I closed my eyes and let the image of the woman, child and pony imbed itself on the back of my eyelids; simple, uncomplicated. I heaved a massive sigh for the rotten week I’d had.
“Wish they’d get real roads,” growled Billy, wincing between potholes. “Thank God we’re nearly there. If you hadn’t worked back we would’ve been here an hour ago.” He ran a hand through his tousled mouse brown hair and caught a glimpse of my tight face. “Sorry, Annie. You haven’t even had time to change.”
I was wearing one of what Billy calls my Career Woman outfits, a long, straight cherry red jacket over a short, straight cherry red skirt, which showed the best part of my legs. I’d drawn my mud brown hair back in a tight braid and my black bag matched my black shoes.
“You’re dressed for the boardroom, not the bedroom,” Billy grinned. I giggled.
“Whose house are we going to, anyway?” I checked my face in the mirror hidden in the sunvisor. My mascara was making black bags under my eyes, so I wet my finger and rubbed at them.
“Some mate of Animal’s. It’s a weekender, I think.”
“Is it lovely and rustic? Loo out the back, fuel stove, all that type of thing?”
“Animal didn’t say. He just said he hoped it had a big fridge.” We laughed at that. Billy’s best mate Animal’s voracious appetite for beer was legendary. All his friends claimed that if Animal stopped drinking Tooheys would go broke.
“Animal’s got a new girlfriend,” Billy went on. “I met her last week. She’s really nice.”
“What’s she doing with him then?” I countered with an absolutely straight face.
With a final lurch over the mother of all potholes, we saw lights and heard, over the roar of the exhaust, loud music. Animal’s booming laugh drowned even the sound of Jimmy Barnes. My headache took on a new dimension. All that stuff about it being better to travel hopefully than to arrive started to make sense. At least Animal, whose hangovers matched his drinking capacity, would have Panadol.
Billy hoisted two cartons of beer out of the boot first. Animal roared, “Glad to see you’ve got your priorities right, mate!” and belched loudly, causing howls of laughter.
I followed him, carrying my small suitcase and three bottles of champagne – like taking coals to Newcastle, my champagne, but I was so flustered from rushing when we stopped at the bottle shop on the way I’d forgotten we were heading for wine country.
* * *
Visions of a back to basics country weekend communing with nature vanished like the sun. No rustic cottage, this. An enormous, modern, split level house, painted brilliant white, with a huge pool in the back yard and not a fuel stove in sight, was slowly becoming a deposit station for beer cans, clothing, towels and bodies. Inside it was monochrome underneath the paraphernalia – shaggy black carpet, white walls, with massive white leather sofas in the living room and a large black and white cowhide rug on the floor. Gazing at the ceiling I lost count of the downlights. A garish collection of prints of girls on motorbikes and draped over blood red Ferraris covered one living room wall. A bar with every spirit known to man covered another. The coffee table was a dubious collection of glass held up by what seemed to be bicycle parts. Peeking into the (black) kitchen on the way down the hall I saw it was filled with the latest expensive Italian appliances and a black fridge and freezer big enough for a family of six.
“It’s my boss’s house,” yelled Animal over the music. “He reckons he’ll move up here full time one day. Loves the country. Totally different style of living, you know? Really relaxing. But not this weekend – we’re gunna party for the next two days!”
Billy and I were given a black and white bedroom that was obviously an office with a sofabed. Cables crisscrossed the floor between a PC, fax machine and printer. Another brightly coloured print, this one of two girls hotly kissing each other, hung above the black melamine desk. When we opened the bed there was a full centimetre between it and the bank of filing cabinets. I got the giggles when the fax machine started to spew out sheet after sheet of paper. I’d hate to see what his life was like when he wasn’t getting away from it all.
A short, plump, balding man with a Roman nose raced into our room and plucked the fax from the floor, scanning it intensely.
“Bellissima! This is very good, more orders for my business!” He had an Italian accent and was dressed in white from head to foot. It made his tanned olive skin seem very dark. He shook Billy’s hand so hard that his stomach wobbled. “I am Pepe, this is my new house. Isn’t it beautiful? I build it to escape from my wife. I’m ver’ glad you are here. I say to Animal, you do good work, come up for the weekend, and suddenly he brings a party! We all enjoy ourselves! You are Billy and Annabella, no?” he said proudly, showing even white teeth in a broad grin.
“Annabel,” I said, liking Pepe in spite of his taste in furnishings. My hand wasn’t shaken but swiftly whisked to Pepe’s lips. I hoped he didn’t notice it was covered in hand cream.
“Mees Annabel, you seem to have come straight from work,” Pepe exclaimed. He looked me up and down; I towered above him and when he looked straight ahead his eyes rested on my cleavage. “You must take a shower. We have all the con mod’s here. None of those old heaters with the wood fuel and the rain water tanks. Come, come.” He virtually dragged me and my overnight bag down the hall to a shiny bathroom in now familiar colours and gave me a huge black towel. I wasn’t surprised to find the bath was filled with ice and beer cans. The shower was big enough for three people and had two water jets which, when turned on, sprayed hard enough to almost count as punishment. I assumed Pepe, in his no-expenses-spared retreat, had an extra-large water tank or two.
* * *
Later, rejuvenated and wearing black leggings, flat black shoes and,so I didn’t blend in with the carpet, a long, loose, electric blue sweater, I wandered back to the kitchen. Billy was outside making up for lost drinking time with Animal, as far as I could judge. Animal, boisterous at the quietest of times, was holding forth in grand fashion, looking as always like an amiable ape with his long mane of fluffy brown hair, dark beetling brows, hairy arms and heavy beard. There were only about twelve people at the house but they made enough noise for fifty.
I found my champagne without any difficulty. Together with ten bottles of imported Italian spumante, it was the only alcohol in the fridge apart from beer. I hunted out two Panadol and washed them down with a glass of Yellowglen, and cast my eyes around the party from the sanctity of the kitchen.
Animal’s girlfriend was apparently called Tracey; she wore the latest seventies revival orange skin tight hipster trousers, platform soled mules and a violently lime midriff top. The ensemble would have worked better if she was thinner. She was nestled against Animal with her crinkly blonde hair fluffing under his chin. I thought of Gorillas in the Mist and got the giggles again.
“They’re more amusing to watch than to talk to, I think,” said a voice behind me. I jumped so hard I spilled half my drink down the sink.
Turning carefully, I saw a tired-looking dark haired man sitting on one of the white sofas and wrenching his tie off. I took my glass and bottle and sat next to him.
“Have you driven up from Sydney too?” I said sympathetically, thinking of the potholes
“Yes, but looking at this place I’m beginning to think I never left it.” He rubbed his neck, then his eyes, then ran his hands through his thick, well-cut hair. “I’m Tom Halston, by the way.
“Annabel Carter. Would you like some of this? Otherwise there’s cold beer and a wall of Scotch… but I can’t drink all this by myself and I can’t see any of the others wanting any.” He smelt faintly of expensive cologne and I noticed the tie was silk. His briefcase, on the floor next to him, was open with a copy of Michener’s Alaska on the top. Perhaps I’d found someone who wouldn’t be offended if I sat down and read a book at some stage of the weekend instead of doing the regulation partying.
“I’d love some. No, don’t get up, I’ll find a glass. How do you know Pepe?”
“Well, I don’t,” I confessed, “My fiance’s best friend Animal works for Pepe as a foreman, and I think the people here are either Animal’s friends or from the factory.”
“What does your fiance do?” Tom poured himself a glass and drank it in one long gulp. “Sorry. That was a bit of a waste, wasn’t it?” He topped our glasses.
“That’s okay. I brought it to drink. Billy’s in insurance and works in the claims department. That’s him on the left of Animal. Animal’s the hairy one with the blonde.
“I’d never have guessed,” said Tom drily. He looked around him. “God, this place is hell. Pepe’s certainly an inferior decorator.”
I giggled. “I know. I was expecting a rustic cottage. I was even looking forward to roughing it on the floor in a sleeping bag beside a fuel stove,” I said wistfully. “Now you. How do you know Pepe?
“I’m a barrister. Our company looks after Pepe’s business. It’s hard work keeping him out of trouble,” Tom grinned. He had laughter lines around his eyes and slightly crooked teeth. They made his face just enough short of truly handsome to be attractive and trustworthy. Any juror would be putty in his hands.
Billy, bent double at one of Animal’s jokes, staggered in from the deck. “God, he’s in good form tonight, Annie. You should hear some of the jokes. Tracey knows some great ones, too. I didn’t realise it, but she’s got a V8 Commodore. Does all the engine work herself.” He grabbed a couple of cans from the fridge and hiccuped. “C’mon out, Annie. Have some fun. You’re not at work now.” He grinned, waiting for me, knowing I found it hard to resist when those wicked blue eyes gazed into mine.
I couldn’t be bothered getting up. The sofas looked awful but they were wonderfully comfortable, and Tom Halston was, I felt sure, going to be interesting company. “Not just yet, Billy. I’ve still got a headache and the music’s really loud out there.” Someone had lugged Pepe’s giant speakers out to the deck and was filling the beautiful valley with The Lemonheads.
“Suit yourself. Animal’s starting up the barbie soon. Cheers.” He raised his can to Tom and me, and was welcomed into the fold of Animal’s cheer squad. This was the side of Billy I didn’t like, the one-of-the-boys guy who talked cars and, seemingly, nothing but cars all night and guzzled beer where usually, when we were out alone, he drank dry white and not much of it. I squirmed under Tom’s inquisitory gaze.
“Your fiance?”
I turned Billy’s ring around on my finger. The diamond suddenly looked very small and a bit forlorn. “Yes. He’s not normally so…well, ocker. Only when he’s with Animal.”
“That sounds a bit defensive, Miss Carter.” I met his eyes and found them muddy khaki brown and very mocking.
I suddenly felt I was being very disloyal to Billy. After all, I was going to spend the rest of my life with him. I picked up my glass. “I think my headache’s better. I might go outside after all. Why don’t you come along, Tom?”
“Oh, I think I’m quite happy here.” He picked up his copy of Michener, a laugh hidden behind his eyes. “Come back in when you’ve had enough noise.”
It was only after I’d met Tracey, whose strong perfume created a three metre deep aura around her, and suffered one of Animal’s furry embraces, that I remembered just how much I hated The Lemonheads.
* * *
I drank my champagne and chewed at one of Animal’s overcooked steaks. Billy, Animal and Tracey were still talking engines, a subject that left me underwhelmed. I drifted from them and met two Italian girls, who, with a sigh and shrug, switched the conversation from Italian to English as I walked over. They were talking about someone called Paola who was having a baby, and didn’t even pause for breath to let me say hello, but huddled together in earnest conversation. When I moved away they unleashed a torrent of giggling Italian again. A couple was kissing in the dark shadows behind the pool, and five of Animal’s workmates were noisily playing poker for ridiculous stakes such as someone else’s leather steering wheel, one of Pepe’s girl-on-car posters, and a girlfriend’s lacy underwear.
Tom had abandoned Michener and was discussing Italy with Pepe. Far more interesting than engines. I’d been to Italy and Greece once on an extended end-of-university holiday, so the three of us discussed adventures, tourism, and the merits and demerits of Italian wine. We laughed so much my face ached.
“I love spumante,” said Pepe sadly, “but everybody here thinks it is terrible. They say I ‘ave no taste buds.” By now he was on his second bottle of spumante and smoking smelly cigars. He’d mercifully wrested control of the music back from Animal and Don Giovanni floated, at more decorous decibels, over the pool and far away, caressing the trees and nuzzling the vines in the valley below. While I wasn’t terrifically keen on opera, it was a vast improvement.
“Wine’s a matter of personal taste,” said Tom diplomatically, “Speaking of which, why don’t we go around the vineyards tomorrow?”
“Great idea,” said Pepe, cheering up. They both looked at me. “You come too?” Pepe asked hopefully, his eyes still on cleavage level.
“Billy and I would love too,” I said firmly. Tom gave me one of those mocking looks again but I ignored it and held out my glass for a refill. My second bottle of Yellowglen was quickly running out.
Pepe, getting up to change the CD, flicked a switch and spotlit his deck and pool area so that it was bright as day. Moths destroyed themselves against the halogen globes and guests squinted at the light. The couple in the bushes glared and rebuttoned their clothing.
“Ooooh,” groaned Animal loudly. “My head.”
“Pepe’s idea of ambient lighting,” grinned Tom. “It’s that time of night when people pair off so Pepe thought he’d do something romantic.”
Pepe had changed the music again and was singing along with his CD player. “Volare, whoa-o.” He looked a bit like Pavarotti but that was where the resemblance ended. “Nel blu dipinto del blu…”
Animal groaned again. “Oooh, my ears. That’s shocking music, mate.”
“It’s Italian,” growled Pepe. “We are talking about Italy; I build my house here on this beautiful hill to remind me of my hill back in Italy. I think, Animal and his friends don’t want to hear another opera, I put on other music. My mother’s favourite song. From Italy. Bella Annabel, Annabella, she likes Italy too.” He stuck another cigar into his mouth with a fierce gesture.
“I like Italy,” lurched Billy, opening another can and tripping over one of Pepe’s potplants, finally ending up by my side. “They make Ferrarish there, and Lanshias, and Alfash, and Lamborghinish. The mosh beautiful carsh in the world are ‘talian. Annie’s been to Italy, you know – haven’ you, Annie? – but she didn’t get to Manarello, I mean Maranello.”
“I’ve told them,” I said, turning red. Billy’s eyes were glazing over and he was drinking mechanically. I longed to slide under the table and make an escape to the sanctity of my bedroom.
“I’ll do the chicken song!” roared Animal, starting to dance, flapping his arms. “It’s Italian! La la la la lala LA, la la la la lala LA…”
Tracey was doubled up in peals of laughter, and Billy said, “Animal really makes a party happen, doeshen’ he?”
Animal suddenly overbalanced and fell with a thunderous splash into the pool.
Tracey screamed. Billy cheered. I saw Animal flailing to the surface, swearing at a million miles an hour, grabbing everybody’s attention, and it gave me the chance to vanish into the house.
I grabbed my John Grisham, found some Coke in the fridge, and settled down on the white sofa with its back to the deck, lying on my side so nobody outside could see me. Animal and his rowdy entourage faded into oblivion.
* * *
Visions of far away lands floated in front of my eyes as I fought unsuccessfully to keep them open. I dreamed I was back in Italy, but instead of being with my girlfriend Alison, who’d shared my adventures five years ago, it was Tom who roamed the Uffizi with me, Tom who sipped wine on a Tuscan terrace at twilight, laughing as I tried to catch the fireflies flitting past my face. We drove along incredibly winding roads in a Ferrari with a broken exhaust, and Billy swept past us in a Lamborghini with Animal in the front seat singing the chicken song. Tom laughed at them, and I huddled closer to him, feeling warm and treasured in his company. He leaned over and kissed the top of my head. It was one of those vivid dreams that almost seems real. “Tom,”I breathed. “Tom, hold me.”
Talking in my sleep woke me with a start. I opened my eyes to find I wasn’t on the sofa, but in a completely strange bed. I had my arms around a male body that definitely wasn’t Billy’s, and when I tentatively raised my head my eyes met Tom’s amused ones.
“Oh my God!” I jumped back so quickly I fell on the floor, dragging sheets and pillows with me, my heart thudding faster and harder than Billy’s engine.
“Good morning, lovely lady. Pleasant dreams?” Tom raised himself up on one elbow, laughing, tousle-haired and all too attractive for comfort, wearing only a pair of green satin boxer shorts.
“What am I doing here?” I stormed, feeling my face was on fire. “Did you, I mean – did we -?” I threw the pillow at him and missed.
“I’m not into necrophilia, Annabel! You were out like a light so I took you into your bedroom. I couldn’t leave you to the poker players – they’d have used you for stakes! Unfortunately Billy had passed out on your bed and was snoring like a tapir with a head cold. Not a pretty sight, so I brought you here. Intact.” He reached over and tugged at the sheet I’d pulled off the bed. Underneath I was still wearing my leggings and the t-shirt I’d had on under my sweater. I breathed a loud sigh of relief.
“Er… thank you, Tom.” Thoroughly embarrassed, I didn’t know what to say. My heart had slowed down to almost normal and I dragged my shoes and sweater back on.
“Don’t mention it.” He leapt out of bed, threw the curtains back and winced at the light. So did I. “What a beautiful morning! Breakfast on the deck, I think.”
“As long as it’s not greasy bacon,” I retorted, regaining my composure. Hell, Tom had a nice body. A few muscles, but not enough to confirm the vanity of a life spent in the gym. Not skinny, not fat. An attractive Mr Average. His tanned brown back was turned towards me. It was almost enough to make me forget I was engaged. Maybe I was still dreaming. I heard the sounds of someone violently throwing up in the toilet down the hall, which must mean I was very much awake. “I’d better get back to Billy. He’ll wonder where I am.”
“He’ll still be out to it,” grinned Tom. “See you at breakfast. And thanks for the cuddle.”
I threw the pillow again and had the satisfaction of seeing it hit him right on the boxer shorts as I shut the door behind me.
* * *
Billy lay face down on the bed, grey faced, the sheets tangled and pillows flattened. I put my hand on his back to find out if he was still breathing. He’d been so revoltingly drunk last night I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d died in his sleep from alcoholic poisoning. Boy, would he have some answering to do when he woke up! He knew how much I hated him drinking heavily. And if I wasn’t mistaken, hadn’t he actually flirted with Tracey? Men have perished for less! An apology was definitely in store, followed by a day spent winetasting with not one car-related word passing my fiance’s lips! Grinning, I sat on the bed beside him.
“Darling,” I said winningly, rubbing his back, “I’ve hidden the car keys. And you’ll never, never find them unless you’re very nice to me.”
He groaned: “Tracey. Mmmm, that’s good.”
Tracey! I almost hit him.
And then IT hit ME. That sickly scent of Tracey’s, pervasive in the air!
I sniffed one of the pillows in disbelief and then certainty. It was my morning for throwing pillows. I walloped this one on Billy’s head again and again until he surfaced, pleading for mercy.
“Annabel! Jesus, my head! Stop hitting me! Let me die!”
“Die?” I hissed. “I’ll personally supervise your execution! You had Tracey in here last night!”
“No I didn’t!”
“Then why did you call me Tracey and why does this pillow have her rotten perfume on it?” For good measure, I hurled it at him again.
“I was dreaming,” he mumbled, “We were all in Italy, you, me, Animal and Tracey. We were driving along in this Ferrari and Tracey was saying something when you woke me. We’d just driven in to the Ferrari factory,” he finished plaintively, rubbing a hand over his face. “As for the pillow, I have no idea. Animal and Tracey had to help me into the bedroom. You were asleep on the lounge. I wasn’t very with it by the time I went to bed.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I snapped, gathering my towel, clean clothing and my cosmetics bag. “Perhaps she helped you undress?”
Billy didn’t answer that one. “What does that old guy do? The one with the posh voice?”
It took me a few seconds to realise he was talking about Tom. Old? He wouldn’t even be forty! “He’s a barrister.”
“About as interesting as watching paint dry,” muttered Billy, snuggling his pillow closer. “I’ll see you later, Annie, I’m going back to sleep.”
“HE probably thought YOU were boring, too!” I growled, but Billy had drifted off again.
Something glinted under the edge of the pillow. I pulled out one of Tracey’s dangling earrings and found the other one under the bed.
Furious, I shook Billy’s shoulder. “Go ‘way, Annie. I’m not very good.” He groaned and pulled his pillow over his head.
“No, you’re not!” I shouted. “Not very good at all!” Slamming the door, I rushed to the bathroom, locked myself in, threw the earrings down the loo and burst into tears. The bath still had a dozen beer cans in it so I hurled them out the window one by one, and felt a lot better for it.
* * *
I wore my sunglasses to breakfast so Tom couldn’t see my red eyes. The delectable aroma of freshly ground coffee wafted in from the deck, and, taking a deep breath, I sat down with Tom and Pepe. Tom looked freshly showered and wide awake, leaning back in his chair with his arms clasped behind his damp hair, his face turned up to the sun and Michener lying face down on his legs. Pepe, on the other hand, seemed a bit worse for wear. He was unshaven and his hair stood in a rumpled halo around his rather large bald spot. They both smiled at me.
“Good morning, bella Annabel,” said Pepe warmly, looking at me over the top of his black sunglasses.
“Good morning – again,” grinned Tom, bringing the front of his chair back to earth with a thump.
“Morning, Pepe, morning, Tom,” I said mechanically, pouring myself a cup with a surprisingly steady hand. Someone had thoughtfully put a pack of Panadol on the table so I crunched two of those as well. I looked around me. “God, what a mess. Who’s going to clean up?”
Pepe surveyed the beer cans, plastic plates, food and cutlery strewn around and in the pool. He shrugged. “I do it later.” He slapped butter on two slices of toast and bit into them hungrily, holding them in one hand while he ran a battery powered shaver over his cheeks with the other.
I found I was actually hungry, despite having a stomach churning in hurt and anger. I helped myself to some toast and found Pepe and Tom watching me in approval.
“We three appear to be the only living beings at the moment,” said Tom. “Or certainly the only ones without a major hangover.”
“That Animal,” Pepe shook his head. “All night he is up, puking and puking in my toilet. I find he misses the bowl a bit, but he can clean up himself when he wakes. Your Billy drank too much, too.”
“Yes, I know,” I said in a small voice.
“He and Tracey, they swim in the pool at 3 am,” went on Pepe artlessly. “Woke me up.” There was a shuffle under the table and Pepe looked startled. I think Tom had kicked him.
Tom looked at his watch. “The vineyards’ll be open soon. Why don’t we head off and get a hair of the dog? Or at least get out and enjoy the country a bit. Get a breath of fresh air.”
“Good idea,” agreed Pepe heartily, finishing his chin and his coffee at the same time. “Come along, bella Annabel. You’re coming too.”
“I’m quite happy to sit here and read,” I protested. These two were too perceptive by half. They could see something was wrong and if I spent the day with them they’d get it out of me one way or another. Some stupid loyalty to Billy forbade me to say that I’d like nothing more than to hurl my engagement ring into the bush, and drive away forever.
“You can read later,” said Tom firmly, taking my hand and pulling me to my feet. “We’d love your company. Anyway, this place smells like a pub. Do you really want to be here when Animal pours beer on his cornflakes?” I met his eyes and laughed in spite of myself.
“And you can make Billy jealous,” added Pepe. I raised my eyebrows. “He didn’t like you talking to us all night, so he talk to Tracey. If you spend the day with us, it’ll bring him straight to heel, like a good puppy. Mees Tracey, she is nothing on you, bella Annabel.” He was a wicked imp with kind eyes; like a favourite brother. What else could I do but get my bag? And maybe a bit of competition was all Billy really needed. Perhaps Tracey’s earrings had fallen off as she and Animal had put him on the bed. It was probably all very innocent. And wasn’t trust the most important thing in a relationship?
As we headed out to Pepe’s black Alfa 164, I heard Tracey screaming: “Billy! Billy! Wake up! Why did you put my earrings in the toilet?”
Pepe and Tom exchanged glances, grabbed a hand each and bundled me into the back of the car.
* * *
By lunchtime we had visited two vineyards. Tom insisted on buying me a case of champagne to make up for the bottles he’d helped drink. We chatted in the back seat while Pepe drove in, I think, a silence borne of queasiness. I didn’t have time to think about Billy. Until we broke for lunch at a BYO cafe.
“Country omelette,” said Tom, closing the menu.
“Sounds marvellous,” I agreed.
“Steak and kidney pie,” ordered Pepe, rubbing his stomach in anticipation. “Will make me feel better. Bella Annabel, there’s something I must say.”
He and Tom said it simultaneously: “You can’t marry him!”
“What?!” Outraged, I pushed my chair back from the table. The heads of other diners swivelled in our direction and Tom pulled me towards him.
“Cool it, Annabel. Listen to us.”
“You’ve been discussing me!” I hissed. “How dare you?” I took at gulp of the crisp, fruity chardonnay Tom had opened and glared at both of them.
“Because you’re worth it,” said Pepe. “We see what goes on with Billy and Tracey. They are like souls. They talk about cars. They are similar in the mind. They want similar things in life. I listen to them. Billy wants a life tinkering with his noisy car. He is afraid of your job, you earn more than he does. He does not tell Tracey he loves you. He flirts. You like to travel the world, he like to travel to Canberra to see the Street Machine Nationales. You similar young people when you first meet, but then you grow up. He doesn’t. You are more intelligent. There is an intellectual gap that would destroy your marriage in the end.” He had fiddled with his cutlery and made a paper boat out of his napkin.
Every word of Pepe’s was like a knife twisting deeper and deeper into my heart, but I had that horrible, cold feeling that he was telling the truth. I was about to bite back, to say: That’s all nonsense! We love each other! We get along perfectly. We’re saving for a house. Sure, we’ve got our differences, but if we both liked everything exactly the same we’d be very boring to each other.
Instead, I found myself saying, “Tell me something, when Billy got taken to bed last night, did Tracey go with him?”
Tom intently studied his wine glass and Pepe seemed to have a deeper than normal interest in the dessert menu.
“Thanks,” I said sarcastically. “I suppose you were going to bring that up over coffee?”
The waitress brought our orders and we ate in moody silence. The omelette was probably delicious but I didn’t taste any of it.
I looked up from my plate to discover Tom was watching me with unfathomable eyes. He reached over and squeezed my hand and that one friendly gesture was enough to send me into floods of tears again. Tom’s arm went around my shoulder and he buried my face against his shirt. He stroked my hair briefly. I could feel his heart thudding under my cheekbone and, for a moment, his chin resting on my head.
“I’m crying into your omelette,” I hiccuped, embarrassed.
“It needed some extra salt,” Tom said gently, and wiped the tears from my cheeks with his handkerchief.
“The home truths, they are hard to take, yes?” mumbled Pepe through a mouthful of pastry.
I smiled wanly. “Very.”
“He give you lousy ring, anyway.” Pepe’s stubby fingers were encrusted in heavy diamonds and he waved dismissively at mine.
“Pepe!” I exclaimed, shocked, and then somehow we were all laughing. I think everybody else thought we were drunk.
“I suppose I couldn’t really marry a man who wanted a house with more garages than bedrooms,” I mused.
“This calls for a toast to new beginnings!” declared Pepe, filling our glasses and clinking the bottle on the top of each glass. “To bella Annabel, may she find a man worthy of her! To me, and my new house! To Tom….” Pepe frowned and shrugged. “….May he find someone to love too! To us!”
“To us!” We raised our glasses noisily and people started to look at us again.
“It’s Annie!” Billy, sotto voce, spoke from behind me. “And the stuffed shirt!”
“Where?”
I could smell cheap perfume and spun around. Tracey and Billy stood by the reception table. She whipped her hand away from his. They both looked extremely guilty.
“Oh boy,” said Pepe faintly. He hurriedly threw a handful of notes onto the table. “Why don’t we leave? Lots more vineyards to see.” He was on his feet so rapidly he was almost a blur.
“Coward,” said Tom amiably, leisurely scraping his chair back.
Billy and I stared at each other. To my amazement, I felt absolutely nothing, except maybe relief that I could have things out with him so soon and put it behind me. I saw a young man in a crumpled denim shirt and jeans, with a grey, not terrifically intelligent face, dissipated red eyes and hair that looked uncombed…or recently tousled by someone else’s fingers. I guessed he hadn’t spent the morning in bed alone. For a moment he looked like a stranger, as if I had only just met him and Tom was the man I had spent the last two years with. Had I ever really been in love with him at all?
“Hi darling,” he said brightly. “I thought we’d find you here. Animal’s asleep in the car outside. We’re doing vineyards this afternoon with dinner at the pub. They’ve got a band playing.” He was gabbling. “Come and join us. It’ll be great.”
“I’ve grown out of rock bands in pubs,” I said slowly, hoisting my bag over my shoulder, walking towards him. “I’ve grown out of a lot of things. Mainly engines. Even you. You can have this back.” I tugged at my engagement ring and dropped it into the pocket of his shirt. “It might pay for your exhaust repairs.”
“It’s a ve-r-ry small diamond,” said Pepe reproachfully, scuttling out the door. Tom and I followed at a more relaxed pace.
“You can’t do this,” Billy wailed, running after us. “We’re getting married! Did that boring barrister talk you into this?”
“Wedding’s off, Billy,” I snapped. “I’ll collect my things and my money from your place on Monday.”
“What have I done?”
“Apart from sleeping with Miss Commodore V8?”
“That was only a fling, Annie! It meant nothing!” he pleaded.
“Billy!” Tracey hit him over the head with her bag. Hard. “You said you’d fallen in love with me!” She hit him again and again. “You said I was the best you’d ever had!”
I laughed. “To quote some movie or other, get a life, Billy,” I said, and strode to the car, deeply breathing in the lovely, fresh, sunny air and feeling an enormous weight that I didn’t know I had lifting from my shoulders and flying away.
* * *
I settled into the back seat and Tom sat beside me, all warm body and firm brown arms. He put one of the arms around my shoulder; it was sinewy and quite exciting. Unconsciously I nestled against him.
“We’ll go back to Pepe’s and pack our bags. I know a great hotel we can stay at tonight, it’s very rustic. Very old fashioned. Wrought iron beds and all that. Even a loo down the hall if you want. And log fires and fuel stoves.”
“Tom!” I protested in mock anger, “Aren’t you rushing things? You haven’t even asked if I want to go!”
“Do you? I’ll book you a separate room at the hotel if you like. But you can’t spend tonight back at Pepe’s, after this. And I’d like to get to know you better. Especially over dinner for two.” Those eyes held mine like a rabbit in the glare of Pepe’s spotlights and I knew I was gone. I’d been gone since last night, I realised. That very French occurrence, a coup de foudre, had struck me at an Italian party. I owed Billy and Animal thank-you cards for this weekend.
“One room between us will be fine, Mr. Halston,” I said primly, trying to look po-faced and failing, my mouth stretching helplessly into a grin. He reached over and kissed the top of my head, his lips lingering gently. It felt the same as in my dream and I knew then that I hadn’t dreamed the kiss.
I nestled against him and raised my face to his, and that wonderful sensation, the first kiss, made Billy’s violent tapping on the car window and Tracey’s screaming non-existent….
Someone was shaking my shoulder. “Wake up, Annie! Come on, darling! We’re here!”
I opened my eyes and only just managed not to shriek. Billy’s face was only centimetres from mine. And what was I doing sitting in his car, and not Pepe’s shiny black Alfa? It took me a few seconds to realise what had happened.
“I was dreaming,” I said dazedly. “I had the most amazing dream! I could swear it actually happened. You know when you get those dreams where you can touch, and feel…?””
Billy pulled me out of the car and hugged me. “You’ve been asleep ever since Hornsby, sweetheart. I didn’t have the heart to wake you, you looked so sweet curled up there. And I suppose the exhaust fumes gave you nightmares. It’s lucky I didn’t poison you. I’ll get it fixed next week, promise! Come out and get some fresh air. I’ve taken your bag into the house and put the champagne on ice. It should be a great weekend: there are only six of us.” This was the Billy I knew and loved and trusted and was going to marry. Tom, Pepe, the party, Billy’s awful behaviour and Tracey had only been figments of my imagination. I couldn’t even remember what they looked like. The dream had vanished instantly, as dreams do. I returned Billy’s kiss eagerly.
Hand in hand we ran towards the cottage. It was a sprawling wooden shack with floral curtains glowing at the windows, a real kerosene lamp lighting up the verandah and –
“Billy!” I stopped. “Who’s that man sitting reading on the verandah?” The dark hair, tanned arms and tilted back chair looked v-e-r-y familiar.
Billy shrugged. “Tom Somebody. Some solicitor friend of Animal’s boss. About as interesting as watching paint dry,” he finished dismissively, and ran up the stairs and into the house. “Come inside and meet Tracey, Animal’s girlfriend!”
I followed him through the front door, aware of a pair of mocking khaki eyes on my back. It was going to be one hell of a weekend.
the end
© Copyright 1994, Caroline Sully
Reproduction without the author’s permission is strictly prohibited.

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