Peaceful Times

Be careful what you wish for…in case your wish comes true. Is “may you live in peaceful times” as much of a curse as “may you live in interesting times”? Ask Tom….

Tom sighed and tried to block out the combined noises of the children shrieking, the TV blasting out a soap opera and Linsi singing as she cooked.
The house had been a folly, he knew it. What solicitor – hell, partner now! -would buy a house that didn’t have a study? What lawyer would work at home on the dining table in the living room? What sensible legal eagle would buy a place where the only corporate entertaining area was around the BBQ in the back, because the cottage didn’t even have a separate dining room?
But the cottage had taken their hearts the first time they saw it, picket fence freshly painted, front garden an orderly riot of roses, cosmos and snapdragons, and golden sandstone building glowing softly in the light of spring. The tasteful additions at the back the previous owner had completed gave the cottage a living/family room that stretched its width and lit it with winter sunshine. Most of all there was an overall sense of peace, of strength, of age. The cottage had been there a hundred years. It would still be standing long after they’d gone.
They hadn’t really considered Hunters Hill; it had always been out of their price range. But Tom’s sudden lunging climb up the corporate ladder and the success of Linsi’s catering business made the dream cottage affordable. They’d sold their bigger house at Carlingford – which HAD a study – and shoehorned themselves into the sandstone cottage. Tom loved the stress-free ride to work on the ferry, enjoyed striding to the bus stop in all weathers instead of fighting the traffic on the roads. There was always something to look at, something to admire as the bus chugged to Valentia Street; a garden, a tree, a house, or (and he’d never admit it to Linsi) the shapely female joggers who steadfastly stared straight ahead as they bounced down the footpath.
The only time Tom had any regret at all about moving to a smaller house was now, when he was desperately trying to work at home amid the cacophony. Admittedly Linsi had a good voice, but as for the rest of the racket -!
“Can you keep it down please?” he yelled finally at their two daughters, who were busily fighting over some bits of twig or seeds or some other kind of plant matter they shouldn’t have in the house, he noticed.
Linsi zapped the TV onto mute, tossing the remote down near the TV, and continued with her Mariah Carey repertoire sotto voce, the stir fry spitting and crackling louder than her pleasant mezzo.
Claudia and Roberta kept it down for the requisite thirty seconds, but their hushed, hissed voices rose steadily. For Tom it was like the Chinese Water Torture, waiting for one or the other to burst into an angry wail.
It had been a long day. He’d had the Clients From Hell all morning and was still working on their papers now and would still be working, he estimated, till around midnight. He couldn’t concentrate with the girls squabbling at his feet. Finally he sighed, stretched and walked over to them as the first keening wail (“She touched me!”) issued forth.
“What’s this you’ve got?” He picked up the mess on the floor. Not twigs, but seeds from a tree. Liquidamber? he wondered, although his knowledge of plants began with daffodils and ended with roses and really didn’t have much in between. Big round prickly seeds, two on a stem together like cherries. He imagined the graceful, sky-reaching trees that lined Alexandra Street and thought the seeds belonged to them.
“Found them,” said Claudia excitedly. “You burn them.”
“You make a wish with them,” declared Roberta.
“You throw them on the fire –”
“And you make a wish!” His daughters, six and seven, presented him triumphantly with an even larger handful of the big seeds that appeared mysteriously from pockets he didn’t know they had in their clothes.
They clambered onto him, grabbing his legs, treading on his feet, shouting happily at his face. “Make a wish!” “Throw them on the fire!” “Make a wish!” “A wish!” “A wish!” “Wish!”
Tom lumbered over to the open fireplace (another reason they bought the cottage), a daughter clinging leechlike to each leg. En route Claudia trod on the remote control Linsi had thrown on the floor and the TV blared back to life. In the kitchen Linsi shrieked a sudden high C at the unexpected noise.
Tom felt the beginnings of a headache insinuate itself in a tight band around his forehead. “I wish,” he said loudly and clearly, “For peace and quiet.” For one guilty split second he wished too that he were single again, able to go about his life without baggage or interruptions.
He threw the seeds onto the fire and jumped back in alarm as they cracked like fireworks, one after the other, the jumping jacks of the horticultural world.
For a moment he stared at the fire, savouring the sudden silence that was broken only by the hungry crackle of flame eating wood.
That shut the kids up, he thought with satisfaction, and turned to check that the noise hadn’t frightened them unduly.
They’d gone. So had Linsi.
Tom gaped. Even the furniture was different. The big, squashy lounge they all huddled up on to watch TV had metamorphosed into a couple of sleek brown leather two-seaters. The TV itself, usually with kids’ videos piled around it, was now housed in a sleek wooden cabinet instead of the old black veneer one they’d been meaning to replace.
“Linsi?”
Tom walked unsteadily over to the kitchen. The exploding seeds must have hurt his eyes, or his headache was playing tricks with his mind. “Lins?”
The fridge was bereft of the clumsy, colourful paintings that usually covered it. As if to ram the message home, a quick glance at the living room walls showed tasteful monochrome modern art studded at regular intervals, carefully lit with downlights. Tom’s small jewel-like Pro Hart and the large Australian landscape his parents had given him were nowhere to be seen.
The detritus of childhood was missing, too; the jumble of toys, the dolls, the dolls’ house that lived in the corner. Claudia’s plastic jewellery that usually found its way onto the kitchen bench was nowhere in sight, and Roberta’s schoolbag wasn’t in the house to spill its contents onto the floor in front of the TV.
“I don’t get it,” he mumbled to himself, opening the fridge and discovering the contents were distinctly adult and most of them alcoholic; not a kids’ Popper drink or lime jelly in sight. “I must be dreaming. I’ll wake up soon.”
He walked through his house, hating the unfamiliarity of it, unused to the total silence. Claudia’s room wasn’t hers any more; it was his study, lined with bookshelves and with an expensive executive desk in place of his daughter’s bed. Roberta’s room was a spare room, he could tell from the careful, impersonal décor and the “hotel room” feel about it. The front bedroom, his and Linsi’s, was apparently only his. Tom felt a jolt like a block of ice hitting his stomach. There was no evidence of his daughters or wife in the house. Linsi’s clothes, her makeup, her very essence was missing. The front bedroom was a man’s room, slightly untidy, dark sheets on the rumpled, badly made bed, a packet of condoms in full view on one of the bedside tables.
Tom shook his head at the suggestive picture on the wall above the bed. This whole house wasn’t his taste…it was as if he’d asked an interior designer to come in and design a sleek bachelor pad. The charm of the cottage had been replaced by an inner city hardness.
He jumped as the telephone trilled, breaking the silence, and fairly ran down the hall to the living room, his feet loud on the polished floorboards.
“Hello?”
“Tom?” The voice was warm and familiar and he exhaled a sigh of relief that almost took every bit of air out of his lungs.
“Linsi! Where ARE you? What’s happened?”
“We’re on our way. Bruce seems to have picked up a nail near Blacktown though, he’s just changing the tyre.” In the background he could hear the whoosh and roar of M4 traffic sizzling past.
“Bruce? My brother?” That was the only Bruce Tom could think of.
“Of course, silly. You do know who this is, don’t you? Linsi, your sister in law. Bruce’s wife.” She giggled. “Have you been drinking, Tom?”
Tom’s head was reeling but it wasn’t from alcohol. “No, no, of course not. I’m…um…just a bit off colour. Touch of the flu.”
“You did remember we were all coming over tonight for dinner, didn’t you?”
“What? Eh?” Tom was still trying to come to terms with “sister in law”.
“You forgot.” Linsi sighed heavily. “Don’t worry, we’ll pick up something on the way. See you soon.” And the phone went dead.
“I’m dreaming,” Tom told himself. “Any second now I’ll wake up.” He pinched himself on the arm in the hope that the nightmare would cease and he’d awake to find he’d dozed off at the dining table, his head in his papers, and that Linsi and their daughters were busily setting the table around him.
Instead he paced around his house until a car pulled up in the street outside. He heard his wife’s voice telling the kids to be careful as the gutters were a bit bumpy and funny.
How had Bruce wound up with his kids? he wondered. Had he divorced Linsi? Had she remarried to his brother? Had he himself been in a coma for years or under a delusion that he had a wife and daughters? Or was tonight an elaborate joke between his brother and his wife? If so, Tom had lost his sense of humour.

He gaped when the family waddled in through the front door. Bruce had always been big, but in the seven months since Tom had seen him at Christmas, he’d added kilos to his ample figure. “Mate!” Beer bottles rattled as Bruce slapped Tom’s shoulder.
But behind him….Linsi? Tom felt his legs buckle at the knees. It was Linsi, but it wasn’t Linsi. It was her face, and her voice, but nothing of the rest of her. This Linsi weighed almost twice as much as the one he knew, and wore a slightly grubby tracksuit (Linsi abhorred tracksuits unless one was jogging). Her hair was lank and unfashionably cut unlike the elegant Linsi he knew.
“Got dinner,” she grinned, holding up a large bucket of KFC. “Enough to feed an Army. Or us.”
Behind her, the two slim, excitable girls Tom had been proud to call his own had become pudgy, white slugs in miniature versions of their mother’s tracksuit clothing. “Hi Uncle Tom,” they dutifully droned in stereo, as if the visit itself were a nuisance and they’d much rather be home. They scuffed down the hall to the living room and by the time Tom’s legs decided to work again and he caught up with them, the two girls were sitting on one of the leather lounges engrossed in their Game Boys.
“Nothing like a good feed,” Bruce declared, opening a stubbie for himself and swigging from the bottle. Tom looked on dumbly as he opened another and poured it into a glass for Linsi, who said, “Thanks Darl,” as she heaped chicken and chips onto Tom’s smart dinner plates (which he’d never seen before in his life). Since when did Linsi drink beer? Or say “Darl”?
Tom found himself gravitating to the fridge. There was an open bottle of white wine in there and with trembling fingers he poured himself a very large glass indeed.
He found himself observing his family – or was it now Bruce’s family? – as they wolfed into their food. The girls’ faces were slightly different, taking on physical characteristics of Bruce rather than Tom in the shape of their eyes and mouth and teeth. He came to the conclusion that Bruce was indeed their father; all three had an identical manner of shoving handfuls of chips into their mouth as if they’d been starving for days.
Linsi didn’t say much. She was too busy eating, devouring the chicken skin as Tom had never seen her do. When she did speak, it was to the children: “Claudie, don’t wipe ya hands on the tablecloth. Bobbie, it’s rude t’chew with ya mouth open.”
Tom was totally bewildered. He couldn’t take his eyes off the woman who was his wife and yet not his wife. Was this the route her life would have taken had she married Bruce? Both men had known her years ago but it had been Tom she’d dated and married. Or had it?
Tom rubbed his eyes and tried to remember earlier in the day. The kids shrieking, the TV, the seeds…
“The seeds!” he exclaimed. “Claudia, Roberta, do you have any big tree seeds in your pockets? Have you been collecting them?”
The two girls fixed him with basilisk stares that told him they wouldn’t go playing outside if you paid them, not when they had Game Boys. Tree seeds? Huh?
“I need tree seeds,” muttered Tom. “I have to wish you back the way you were.”
Bruce and Linsi exchanged glances. “You’ve got a pretty stressful job, mate,” Bruce said, “Have ya thought about seeing a doctor? You know, for some pills to calm ya down a bit?”
“I don’t need pills,” Tom said icily, “I need tree seeds.” He was aware of how loony it sounded, but it jumped out before he could stop it. He’d made a wish, he’d thrown the seeds on the fire and BANG! Everything had changed. He just had to change it back.

He hunted under the lounges for any seeds that may have dropped, but the floor was efficiently clean.
“Let’s get going, kids,” Linsi suggested. Her voice had an “Uncle Tom’s not right in the head” tone about it.
“Don’t go,” Tom beseeched her. “Tell me, when did you marry Bruce? Did you divorce me? How old are you? Are the girls mine or his?”
“Jeez, Tom, did you lose ya memory or something? You ARE sick, aren’t ya? Promise me you’ll go to the doctor tomorrow and get some help. Promise.”
“Yes I promise, but when did you marry Bruce?”
Linsi stared at him, her hands full of his plates and cutlery. “When I was twenty. We’ve been married nearly fifteen years. You know that full well.”
Tom slumped onto the lounge, hating the new leather smell and the hard coldness of it under his body. He didn’t even hear them leave the house.
Late night dog-walkers that evening wondered about the man climbing the trees on Alexandra Street, apparently filling checkout bags with tree seeds. The man – brown haired, in his thirties, well-dressed – also scrabbled around the tree trunks picking every seed off the ground and gutter.
Were they the same seeds? They looked similar. Tom couldn’t be certain if they were identical but by God he’d give it a go. He didn’t recognise himself in the mirror when he returned with two carrier bags of tree seeds; his face was smudged with earth, his hair mussed and dressed with bark, his clothing dirty and his trousers ripped. He looked like a madman and thanked his lucky stars none of the dogwalkers had reported him.
He built up the fire until it crackled and snarled happily, awaiting further fuel.
“I wish,” Tom said shakily, picking up a handful of the seeds, “My life would go back to how it was before tonight. I wish I was married to Linsi and the girls were ours, like life used to be.”
There was no hungry gunshot, no exploding seeds, and no sudden reappearance of his family behind him. Tom looked around wildly to find the house still interior-decorated and very solitary.
He repeated his wish, and threw another handful of seeds onto the fire. And another. And another. He sat in front of the flames feeding them seeds and weeping his wish until the bags, and he, were empty inside.
* * *
The police report and the fire brigade agreed that the fire had probably been an accident. The man in the cottage had possibly been inebriated, although an autopsy on his char-grilled corpse would confirm it. Or had he fallen asleep in front of the fire, they wondered? The smoke inhalation and the fumes from the fire had certainly done for him before the flames had, they assured his wife.
The cottage wasn’t too badly damaged as the man’s wife, who’d been asleep in the front bedroom, raised the alarm swiftly when the smell of smoke finally making its way under the closed living room door and down the hall had awakened her. It was too late to save her husband, however, and he’d died in the wrecked living room. The front rooms and the rest of the family had survived physically intact.
Linsi huddled her tearful daughters around her. Tom had been a little distant lately, and the new stresses that came with the legal partnership had been taking their toll. He’d been a bit forgetful, and snappy with the kids, and working too hard late at night. Like he’d been tonight, eating his delicious stir-fry dinner like an automaton and desperate to go back to his papers straight afterwards. Recognising his need for peace, Linsi had rushed the girls into their baths and into bed and had herself retired with a book, leaving Tom to his work.
She couldn’t explain the empty tub from KFC – they NEVER ate KFC! – and the beer bottles sitting on the kitchen bench….and she hadn’t a clue why the hall was strewn with seeds from the big trees in Alexandra Street.
The end
© Copyright Caroline Sully, 2001 Reproduction without the author’s permission strictly prohibited.

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