Hope walked through the front door in her black work clothes, and threw her bag on the sofa with a sigh. Hearing the welcome noise of her family, she smiled and went into the kitchen. Audrey was preparing a salad, casually dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt. Tanner, in his history jeans and a white singlet, was leaning against the sink, his face lit up with animated conversation.
‘I think she’s starting to be really intrigued by me, and I mean really, really intrigued.’ Noticing Hope he beamed warmly. ‘Hey sis!’
Audrey, knife still in hand, turned and gave her daughter a peck on the cheek before resuming her task. Hope went straight to the fridge and got out a bottle of white wine. As she retrieved a glass and poured a generous amount, she tried to tap into the conversation. ‘Talking about Amy?’
Tanner stopped and smiled at her. ‘Who else?’
Hope had heard it all before, and she had the recent update on the progress of Tanner’s wooing, so she decided to duck out the back.
Her dad was bumbling round the barbeque. Catching sight of her, his eyes lit up as he came over to give her a hug. ‘What are we having?’ she asked.
‘Salmon. Your mum thinks we eat too much red meat so I finally conceded and bought a fish. Looks good though, it’s coming up a treat.’ He beamed with satisfaction at his sizzling salmon portions.
As he kept poking them tenderly with his tongs he asked his daughter about her life – her work, her friends, her partner. She talked to him about these things as though everything was fine, but he sensed there was an air of unhappiness in her that she was masking. Best leave it for now, he thought; she’ll talk when she’s ready. She always talked to him – when she was ready – they were very close.
After they had given each-other the general update, Ian carefully took the salmon off the barbeque.
‘Ahhh, look at that! That looks damn good, and it will have the added bonus of pleasing your mother.’ He smiled at Hope mischievously.
‘That is what you live for isn’t it dad – pleasing mum!?’ She was being playful, but she meant it.
‘What else is there? Oh, I suppose there’s you and Tanner – you’re alright too I guess.’ She nudged him in mock offense as he shimmied past her cheekily, carrying his fish proudly into the kitchen.
Just before he disappeared she called out, ‘Do you know what play it is tonight?’
Ian spun back around and walked backward as he bellowed, ‘No idea, but I hope I get to be a villain this time!’ Hope laughed with genuine affection for her dad, as she sipped her wine.
Wednesday night was family night – the one night when all members of the Winters family came together. Tanner lived with Audrey and Ian, but he worked Thursday through to Saturday night, and Audrey and Ian had social and work commitments during the week, so they actually found it quite difficult to come together for a meal. Hope had been living out of home for years, and she loved coming back to her family home, though she had missed more Wednesday night dinners then she cared to count this past year.
The funny thing about these family get-togethers, however, was that over the years a sort of ritual had developed, born originally from the oddest member of the family – Tanner. With his all consuming passion for history, philosophy and theatrics, Tanner had started, long ago, making his family role play historical scenes and plays with him. By now it had developed into a firm ritual whereby Tanner would select a play and determine roles. After desert the parts would be handed out and each member of the family would participate in a full scale rendition of Tanner’s selected work.
This particular Wednesday was special for a number of reasons. But the main reason was because Hope had not been to a family play night for over a month.
The four family members began to gather in the lounge room after dinner. Tanner bounded out of his room, equipped with four copies of his chosen play. Audrey was already sitting down, so he emphatically handed her one. Hope came in and sat down with her glass of wine, taking a copy as she walked by. Ian, bustling around with the dishes, was the only one missing.
‘Dad! We’ll start without you!’ Tanner yelled.
‘Coming, coming!’ he boomed from the kitchen.
Ian appeared in a flurry and eagerly assumed his place on the couch next to his wife.
‘So what are we performing tonight?’ He said, with earnest enthusiasm.
Assured of everyone’s focus, Tanner handed his dad his copy of the play as he announced, ‘Tonight we are going to break with tradition somewhat, and try a Shakespearean comedy – leave the histories for once – A Midsummer Night’s Dream! Now, my character will obviously be Puk, and I’ll take a number of other minor characters, I’ll basically just fill in the gaps – you know how it works! Mum – you’re the queen, and Hope you can be the other three fairies, and Dad you have to be the King of the fairies and play the ass.’ Audrey and Hope tittered.
Ian scrutinised the pages to find his two parts. ‘Okay, I can do that’, he said as he browsed through with interest. He shot a glance up at his son, ‘But I want to be a tyrant next time – you’ve been promising me.’ He smiled warmly at his son, after pretending to be stern.
‘Next time, promise Dad. Now, I start, is everyone ready?’
Over the next two hours the Winters family laughed more than they had laughed in a long time – though laughter was never hard to come by in that house. But that Wednesday night wasn’t just special because Hope had managed to make it. It was also special because it was the last family dinner they would have before another member came to join them in their house; a fact which each person present feared, though all for different reasons.
Dean was in the kitchen, fluffing around with ten different saucepans at once, merrily singing along to a tune to the radio. Hope sat at her mother’s dressing table, staring at her reflection. She was wearing a floral knee length skirt, red shoes and a black shirt. Attaching her earrings carefully she took in her image. Her heart shaped face looked pale and lifeless. Her rosebud lips were tight lines of indifference, and her hair presented a false sense of internal order. Her eyes were the things that betrayed her. As she looked into them she saw despair mirrored in the big blue pools. She didn’t want to do this. Finishing her last minute adjustments she let out a sigh of silent desperation. She closed her eyes and tried to summon her strength.
As if responding to her daughter’s vulnerable hidden thoughts, Audrey tapped on the door and cautiously peered in. Hope looked up at her and invited her in. Audrey came in and stood behind her daughter, placing her hands on her shoulders. They both stared into the mirror. As she looked upon her mother’s reflection the questions that had been plaguing her entered Hope’s mind again … What is she feeling? How could she have ever loved that man? Who is she? Hope tried to ignore them.
Audrey rubbed her daughter’s shoulders and cocked her head. ‘How are you feeling honey?’ At forty-three Audrey was still very beautiful. She looked nothing like her daughter. With short light brown hair, a little oval face and almond brown eyes with flashes of green in them, Audrey was a petite, elegant, feminine woman. With her long blonde hair and massive piercing blue eyes, the only thing Hope seemed to have inherited from her mother was her little perfectly shaped rosebud lips. Sometimes, before she had even learned the truth about her father, she had wondered where she had come from. The person she was closest to was her step-father, and she wasn’t even remotely biologically related to him. She thought about her real father and puzzled over the possibility of similarities unveiling themselves between them. She did not see them as possibilities at all. He was a stranger. And he was coming here, to her mother’s house, to have a dinner that her boyfriend, who she wasn’t really happy with, was currently creating. Hope felt sick.
Suddenly remembering her mother’s question, Hope formed her lips into a response. ‘I’m okay. I still think it’s a bit weird, and I really don’t know how it will go, but I’m okay.’ She was lying.
Audrey allowed a few seconds to pass, then she squeezed her daughter’s shoulders and said, ‘All I ask is that you try. We are all adults and we are all going to try to make this work. You have a right to a relationship with your father and it’s a good sign that he’s agreed to come and share this meal with us. It will be fine, you’ll see.’
Her mother’s words did nothing to reassure the mounting fear in Hope’s heart. Pushing the fear down further, Hope said with resolve, ‘You’re right – I’ll be out in a minute.’ Satisfied, Audrey smiled and left the room.
Just as she was closing the door Hope abruptly turned to her and blurted out ‘Mum?’
Audrey stopped, opened the door again and popped her head in. ‘Yes honey?’
Hope hesitated before shakily plucking up the guts to continue. ‘I can’t imagine the two of you together. Jack just seems so different from Dad, so weird, so unlike him, or you, or me’-
Audrey abruptly cut her off, ‘Don’t think about that honey. It is what it is and the important thing now is for us all to try to get along.’ Sighing with disappointed resignation Hope forced a smile and turned back to the mirror as Audrey shut the door.
Audrey leaned against the door and closed her eyes. Lord, give me strength, she silently prayed. Why had she been talked into this? Ian had suggested it. He thought it would give them all a chance to relax and get used to one another. Well, there was nothing she could do about it now. She had to maintain her composure at all costs. Just suck it up Audrey, for your family’s sake! She must not, under any circumstances, let any emotions surface. No, they must remain buried. She may not have been able to eradicate them altogether, but she could damn well make sure that no-one ever found them.
Audrey had been counting down the days until she got to see her sister. She had just finished her year 12 exams. As a reward, her mum and dad had promised her a trip to Italy to spend the summer with Violet. Violet, four years Audrey’s senior, had been living in Tuscany for three years. She had always been livelier and more passionate and emotional than Audrey. Audrey was the shy, introverted, careful one. Violet had finished school and gone straight to Europe to pursue her dreams as an artist, much to the dismay of their father, who had fought endlessly with his rebellious older daughter. After arriving in Italy, it didn’t take Violet long to meet Antonio – a ravishing successful sculptor. They had fallen madly in love and they lived together at one of his family’s properties in Chianti. They were getting married. Audrey would be there for the wedding.
These last few months had seemed to drag endlessly for Audrey. Now, finally, she was on a plane headed for Rome. From there she would catch a train to Florence, where Violet would pick her up. Audrey had never been overseas before. She felt more elated than she ever had in her life. She would spend six weeks in Italy, before returning home to start her teaching degree.
Waiting at the train station Audrey soaked in the atmosphere around her. What a beautiful place. As usual, Violet was running late. It was cold here, and Audrey wrapped her jacket around her tightly.
Before too long a rickety car pulled up.
‘You look like you could use a lift.’ Violet took her glasses off. Both sisters broke into giant smiles as Violet jumped out of the car and ran around to her sister, picking her up in a mammoth bear hug. The girls had always been very close, despite the age difference. In the car on the two hour drive back to the villa they talked and laughed about everything. Audrey commented on how wonderful Violet looked. She really did – she was radiant with happiness. There wasn’t much physical similarity between the girls. They were both petite and short, with pale skin and almond shaped eyes. But Violet had wavy blonde hair, blue eyes and a square face.
As the villa came into focus in the dimming light, Audrey was awe-struck. It was absolutely gorgeous – idyllic and isolated, with no neighbours for miles. It was huge as well – much bigger than Audrey had imagined it. It belonged to Antonio’s family and they had given it to him as a coming of age gift. Audrey was to stay in one of two cottage guest houses. Violet excitedly gave her sister the grand tour. Audrey was beyond impressed.
Once they were finished they stood in the kitchen. ‘Where is Antonio?’ Audrey asked, as she was dying to meet this man she had heard so much about. But he hadn’t appeared since she got there.
‘He’ll be in the studio working on his latest masterpiece. I’m not allowed to see it – it’s a wedding gift.’ She leaned in closer to Audrey and whispered, ‘But just between you and I, I may have sneaked a peak or two and I think the bride to be will be quite satisfied with the final product.’
Audrey gave her sister a playful shove. Of course she had snuck a peak, it was in her nature. She was incredibly impatient, impulsive, and could not keep a secret to save her life.
Violet led Audrey down to the studio. She knocked on the door and called out ‘Darling, Audrey is here!’
Before they could move their ears away from the door it swung open, majestically revealing a gorgeous, dark, huge man, covered in plaster. He looked at Audrey with brown, weak-at-the-knees eyes, and swooped on her, grabbing her face in his hands and kissing her emphatically on the mouth. Audrey blushed and pulled back laughing. Violet was giving her a ‘oh yeah I’ve hit the jackpot’ look. She certainly had.
After they had had a few drinks in celebration and reminisced awhile, Violet led Audrey to her cottage. It was exquisite, with a huge four poster bed and a private ensuite and a huge window that looked onto a field of sunflowers. ‘Right sis, we’ve got a big day tomorrow so get some rest.’ She hugged her and went to leave.
As she was disappearing out the door Audrey stopped her and asked, ‘Vi, who’s staying in the other cottage?’
Violet popped her head back in. ‘No-one at the moment. In a couple of weeks Antonio’s friend Jack will be staying there. He’s American – coming over for the wedding – they knew each-other at college. He’s going to be staying for two weeks.’ Violet blew her a kiss and closed the door.
The dinner which Audrey and Jack were presently at, was naturally, incredibly awkward. Only Tanner and Dean seemed remotely comfortable, and luckily for the rest of the party, they managed to keep the conversation flowing, making the night marginally bearable. They talked of superficialities – work, travel destinations – but most of all the subject turned to culinary matters, as each dish of Dean’s was seen as a convenient excuse for chatter. Dean was very interested in the food scene in New York and he seized upon Jack as a bearer of fresh knowledge. Tanner was intrigued by the ancient buildings that Jack had seen on all his travels. The only time that Jack showed any spark of emotion or warmth was when he was talking about beautiful old buildings, describing them in detail and discussing their historical significance. Otherwise he seemed to Hope, as always, extremely cold and uncomfortable. It made her wonder even more why her mother had ever been with such a cold, passionless man. Her dad – or rather Ian – was so warm and gentle and loving. It was a puzzling contradiction that she couldn’t get her head around. Tonight was merely consolidating her thoughts on the matter. She saw nothing of herself in Jack, nor did she really want to. Why was she even bothering? Things had been so much better when Ian was her dad. She wished they had never told her.
During the next few hours, only Tanner was perceptive enough to cotton on to the deep emotions stirring within the hearts of all at the table. Though he went along with the small talk and the polite friendly conversation, Tanner saw the frustration bubbling under the surface of Hope’s stony exterior. He saw the distraction in Dean’s mind. He saw the worry written on his father’s face. But most of all, he saw a glimpse of the deep emotions struggling for recognition within his mother, and within the man she had once loved. Tanner wondered what it was that had happened between them all those years ago. Whatever it was, it was extremely powerful – for it left traces even now.
Hope was relieved to see Jack out. As he went to walk out the door he stopped and paused. ‘Hope, I was wondering if maybe you’d like to come out on my boat sometime. You can bring Dean, and even Tanner if you’d like.’ Hope looked down awkwardly. ‘Will you consider it?’ There was almost a trace of hope evident in his voice.
‘Okay, I’ll think about it.’ Jack smiled and for a fleeting instant Hope saw warmth in his face.
Once safely inside his car, Jack let his head fall onto the steering wheel as he let out a deep sigh. The night had stirred up so many memories within him. He remembered it all … oh, how he remembered!
The next couple of weeks were glorious. Audrey accompanied her elated sister to all her appointments and helped her pick out cakes and food and her dress. She got to see so many exquisite places – quaint little towns with the best food she had ever tasted and the friendliest people in the world.
Out at lunch one day Violet playfully broached the subject of her little sister’s love life. Audrey smiled bashfully and toyed with her fork. Violet laughed, ‘Oh I can tell there’s someone! Waitor, vino rosso per fore vor!’ She leaned in to Audrey. ‘So, tell all lil sis.’
Audrey smiled back at her. ‘Well, no there’s nothing happening … But there is this one guy.’
Violet leant back and swigged her wine, ‘I knew it, go on!’
‘Well, so you remember Ian from school?’
Violet furrowed her brow in thought. ‘Oh yeah, the nice, quiet, cute guy. I always thought he had a crush on you.’
‘Yeah that’s him. We were friends when you left, but not really close. Well, we got closer in final year and I’m pretty sure, well not certain, but pretty sure, that he likes me. He hasn’t said anything though, it’s quite frustrating, he’s so shy. But I can sense he has feelings. I’m just waiting for him to do something about it.’
Violet was puzzled by this. ‘Why don’t you just do something if you like him?’
‘I can’t Vi, I’m not like you, I’m shy too. And what if I’m wrong? No, he needs to make the first move.’
‘But you do have feelings for him?’
Audrey pondered the question more seriously than she had before. ‘Yes I do. It’s been a slow build up, but I think just recently I realised that I do have deeper feelings for him. I just need to know that he feels the same way about me.’
Violet beamed cheekily. ‘How could he not sis, you’re gorgeous! I’m sure he’s madly in love with you – I thought so years ago, and now he’s a man … But in the meantime you are technically available for perhaps a little summer, well its winter here – winter romance?’ She gave her a cheeky mischievous grin.
Audrey blushed. ‘Yes I suppose I am, but I seriously doubt that will happen.’
Audrey had no idea just how wrong she was.
Long after the dinner party had finished, the souls who had been present at the table, all at different times, and in differing ways, retired to bed. Once asleep they drifted into the subconscious dream world – the place where they had no control – and the pictures that greeted them there were so very different from the ones painted at dinner.
Hope dreamt that she was standing in a crowded room, full of people she recognised as friends, family members, and acquaintances. She was wearing a long black dress. Dean was with her in a white shirt and dress pants. He was holding a wooden spoon. Slowly Hope began to realise that the people around her were transforming into strangers. Their bodies morphed into monster like vacant faces and forms that were barely recognisable as human. Hope grabbed Dean’s arm and cried out, terrified, ‘Dean, look! What’s happening to them?!’ Dean looked around unperturbed, his face blank and as emotionless as the strangers enveloping him. ‘What? I don’t see anything.’
Dean, on the other hand, dreamt that he was happily licking cream off a rather large statue of Venus, with a crowd of happily ignorant people around him.
Ian dreamt that he was in the darkness, dressed in a red suit. The scene suddenly lit up and he saw his family – Audrey, Hope and Tanner – walking down a long path lined with trees that swayed gracefully in the wind. He ran after them, and spun Audrey around to face him. She greeted him with a blank face. Deeply confused and upset, he asked her, ‘Audrey, where are you going?’ Audrey stared at him with vacant eyes. ‘Who are you? We do not know who you are.’ She turned and led her family away down the path, as Ian collapsed in the dirt.
Jack dreamt that he was back in his apartment in New York, sitting in a chair and wearing a red robe. He was in his bedroom, sipping a cognac, as sunflowers sprang up from the carpet and began to grow quickly toward the ceiling. His ex-wife stood glowering in the middle of the room as the flowers slowly engulfed her.
Audrey dreamt she stood naked, wearing only a white blindfold, in endless fields of sunflowers, as rain poured from the heavens.
Tanner dreamt that a mob of over-excited, personified, giant coloured cubes were chasing him down a desolate urban street lined with grey skyscrapers. As they started to gain upon him, he chanced a look behind and saw the red leader of the pack brandishing a black cube suit that was just his size. He picked up his speed and ran to the edge of the city and out onto a jetty, with the cubes in hot pursuit. Without pause he dived off the jetty into the water. Surfacing, he bobbed in the warm ocean, still in his white shirt and his beloved history jeans. He watched as the cubes came to an abrupt standstill at the edge of the jetty. With a collective disgruntled sigh of disappointment they began turning around and slowly shuffling back to the city, with cube heads held low as one muttered ‘We’ll get him, sooner or later.’
In a different place, at the same time, another man was also dreaming.
In his dream Chase could see the hands … Her hands reaching out, withered and broken. Grey mist was swirling menacingly around his feet, engulfing his very being. He felt sick. There were piercing eyes staring into him. ‘Why don’t you help me?’ Pleading eyes … they are desperate. He moves away from her. He is being dragged into darkness – into a wilderness of desolation. Seething grey forms are burrowing into the earth around his feet. He is barefoot, in white pants with no shirt. The dirt is so cold. He is sinking. ‘Chase … help me!’ She is too far away. Nausea wells up in his stomach. He is heaving. On all fours in the dirt, heaving. A huge, slug-like presence slithers up his throat. He is vomiting it up. Birthing it into the dirt. He looks down. A dead hand lies in a pool of blood. He is crying. Tears fall on the fingers. They are slowly dissolving … turning to ash. He is frantically scrabbling at the dirt. Where have they gone? Digging, scratching, searching … endlessly …