Audrey sat at her vanity powdering her face. As she ran the brush over her skin she began to take in her image in the mirror. Abruptly she stopped brushing. She stared at herself, something she rarely found time to do these days. Who was it that she saw in the mirror? She saw a woman in a pretty black dress, with neat tidy hair and perfect make-up. She saw a woman getting ready for a party. Her party – the celebration of her 25th wedding anniversary to the man that she had bound her life to. She was happy with him, wasn’t she? Hadn’t she been happy with him? Hadn’t he been good to her for all these years? Hadn’t he been a blessing to her, and a wonderful father to her children? Yes, he had, without one skerrick of a doubt. He was a good man. He was more than a good man – he was a wonderful man. And she loved him. But still, as she sat staring into her own eyes, she saw her heart reflected in the mirror, as an image of Jack flickered in the glass.
After a feast of monstrously delicious proportions, Audrey, Jack, Violet and Antonio sat in the enclosed alfresco area drinking wine as the rain came down. Audrey was fairly silent as the others laughed and reminisced together. She found it quite fascinating just listening to them – the adventures they had had together. What fun, fulfilling lives they were leading. She was, however, most interested in what Jack had to say. She found herself drawn more and more to him. He intrigued her. He had met Antonio when he was studying abroad here seven years ago. He was studying the architecture of Florence as part of his honours degree. Since then he had joined a firm in New York. It was the third time he had been back here. He was so passionate and excited about his work, though he was not as extroverted as Violet and Antonio. Every time he opened his mouth Audrey found herself more interested.
Audrey lay in bed that night and thought about Ian. She pondered the possibility of a future together when she got back. Is that really what she wanted? She thought she did. Yet for some reason her mind kept drifting to the image of Jack. Ridiculous though – he would never be interested in someone young and boring like her, even if she did like him. With that she put him out of her mind, only to find him again in her strange dreams.
Chase stared vacantly at his closet. Maybe he shouldn’t go. No, not maybe – of course he shouldn’t go. What place was it of his? To go to an anniversary party of a couple he didn’t even know, the only link being his weird acquaintance with their son, who was over ten years his junior? Absurd! So how do you know the family Chase? Well, Tanner and I draw pictures by the river together on Monday’s at 1pm. I see. Absurd. Outrageous. Ridiculous!
He would wear the red shirt.
This was definitely the place, Chase thought as he pulled up. It wasn’t so much the cars lining the verge that gave it away; it was the steady entourage of middle aged people flocking towards it, dressed in their Sunday best. Chase took the keys out of the ignition. He then seriously considered putting them straight back in and driving far, far away. But where to? He didn’t want to go home to the usual thoughts that lurked there either. But what were the chances of Tanner even opening the door? Next to none, surely! Preposterously low. Chase was a stranger, and his mere appearance at the door would expose him as such. He would be exposed as an imposter and forced to scuttle out in shame. He didn’t even know what the etiquette for family affairs such as this was, because he’d never been to one. Should he have brought something? Of course he should have – a present, a bottle of wine, SOMETHING! Damn fool, it was the height of rudeness to show up with nothing surely. Well, that settles it, he thought. No, he couldn’t very well show up at a stranger’s house bearing absolutely nothing, and on an important night no less. No, he would go home to a nice bottle of scotch and some well-timed Valium.
Happy with his decision, Chase went to turn the keys in the ignition just as a hand slapped against his window. To his embarrassment Chase recoiled in shock and let out a frightened sound that was just a little bit too girly. Then he saw Tanner’s beaming face at the glass. Instead of getting out, he wound down the window.
‘Were you planning to extricate yourself from your vehicle any time soon?’ Tanner asked cheerfully.
Chase looked down in shame. ‘Yeah, I was … just’ He looked at Tanner, who was clearly not fooled, and who was also finding the situation quite amusing.
‘You were going home weren’t you?’ He smiled as he made the accusation.
Chase fumbled for a decent explanation. ‘No, I wasn’t, I was … oh, what’s the point?! There’s no point in trying to fool you – you perceptive little shit.’ Chase laughed and shook his head.
Tanner beamed wider, and then assumed a more serious look. ‘Get out of the car you jerk.’
Chase began a process of stalling. He gathered his things up clumsily and half opened the door muttering. ‘Are you sure it’s okay? I mean this is a family thing, I don’t want to impose on’ –
Tanner threw the door open. ‘Stop whinging and get out of the car man!’
Chase frowned at him and quickly got out. ‘Okay I’m coming!’ Tanner was dressed in a loose white shirt, and, very strangely Chase noticed, black pants.
‘No history pants?’
Tanner led him toward the house. ‘On very special occasions I sometimes take them off.’ He smiled widely at Chase, who found it impossible not to smile back, despite his mounting nerves.
Well into the event Chase stood in a sea of gleaming, happy strangers. He felt oddly warm and secure, which was ridiculous, considering that he was an imposter in this jolly group. He was the one who didn’t belong, the one who didn’t know any of the other faces, who didn’t have a life that included this kind of family solidarity. He was the one who was plagued by demons, the only one who was not happy. There were only a few other people around his own age, and they all appeared to be sickening stable, organised and together – married, with nice, neat houses and good, steady jobs.
The warmth with which Audrey and Ian had welcomed him had caught him quite off guard. They were such nice, genuine people. Of course they were – after all they had produced the most genuine offspring humanely possible – Tanner was a beacon of truth in a seemingly endless, ignorant plethora. Still, given the kid’s highly odd, idiosyncratic nature, Chase had expected his parents to also be strange, esoteric even – like mad hippies or something. They seemed so perfectly normal. But, in fact, that he supposed, was the odd thing about them. In today’s day and age of broken, dysfunctional, abusive, mixed, unconventional families, the rare occurrence of a happily married couple celebrating twenty-five years together was indeed a most unusual thing.
Chase was immersed in these thoughts when Tanner dashed past bearing champagne in both hands. Noticing Chase he halted himself clumsily, spilling some of the wine. ‘Hey man, all good?!’ He leaned in closer to Chase. ‘Talk to people, it’s okay, it might surprise you to learn that some people can actually be friendly.’ He was poking fun at him, and rightly so, as usual. Damn him.
Tanner was about to say something else, but before he could, a particularly well-groomed guy about Chase’s age bounded up, carrying a plate of odd looking tiny food samples. ‘Hey Tanner, have you seen Hope?’
Tanner looked around. ‘Ahhhh I saw her a few minutes ago outside. Hey Dean this is a friend of mine, Chase. Talk to him will you, he doesn’t know anyone.’ With that embarrassing introduction, Tanner leapt off like an over-excited antelope.
Dean transferred his tray of odd food to his left hand and held out his right. Chase shook it, ‘How’s it going?’ It was the first time Chase had been introduced as one of Tanner’s ‘friends.’ Chase wondered what this Dean character was thinking. Why is Tanner friends with this clown? Look a him – he must be at least thirty! Chase quickly rattled his brain to try to come up with some excuse for knowing Tanner that didn’t involve drawing soulful pictures by large bodies of water.
Luckily for him, Dean seemed completely unperturbed by their strange friendship. Smiling he held out the plate to Chase, ‘Smoked salmon tartlet with camembert?’
Chase looked at the round, unrecognisable shapes dotted neatly on the plate, ‘No thanks.’
‘Are you sure? They’re quite good, made them myself.’ Dean emphatically jutted the plate toward Chase.
Chase, not wishing to be rude, politely took one and ate it in one gulp. Dean tried not to look horrified by this disrespectful treatment of his mini masterpiece. They actually did taste quite good Chase thought, raising his eyebrows. Dean stood with baited breath, a hopeful gleam in his eye, clearly waiting for some special accolades. ‘Yeah, they’re actually … really good,’ Chase murmured.
Dean beamed and relaxed. ‘Thanks. I’m a chef. I’ve just taken a job as sous chef at Café 33. We are really shaking things up now with new management, you should come by and I’ll make you something that will change your life.’
Chase smiled back at him. My god, the guy actually believed what he had just said. There certainly was a kind of genuineness about Dean, but for some unidentifiable reason Chase disliked him immediately.
After delicately sampling one of the tartlets himself and making a face of quiet pride, Dean turned his attention once more to Chase. ‘So what do you do for a crust?’
Ah, indeed, the most obvious and common question asked in a new meeting situation. Chase nonetheless found himself unprepared for it, having not been asked it since he quit his job. ‘That’s actually a tricky one. I was working in finance, but I recently quit. Now I’m doing some casual bar work while I try to figure out my next move.’
To Chase’s surprise, Dean seemed quite impressed by his answer. ‘Good for you mate! You know, I used to work in insurance. Hated it, absolutely hated it, but it was secure and good money, you know? But then a couple of years ago I thought – what the hell am I doing? I hate this shit. So I quit, took some time off and worked out that food was my true passion, and here I am!’
Chase raised his eyebrows. ‘Is that right?’
Dean beamed. He had quite an annoyingly infectious smile. ‘Yep. I say good for you man, think about what you really want to do and go for it. Life’s too short.’ He slapped Chase on the back in a gesture of manly comradery. Suddenly Dean spotted someone in the crowd. He stretched his head up like an excited meerkat, turned to Chase and said, ‘Ah, there’s the lady in question! Well good to meet you and good luck with it.’ He smiled warmly and bounded off with his tray of delicacies. His enthusiasm bothered Chase and he shuddered involuntarily. Right, he thought, where’s the booze?
Chase meandered toward the kitchen in the casual pursuit of liquor. As he was walking through the doorway he was momentarily distracted by the oddest and loudest laugh he had ever heard. He turned as he was walking to determine the source of the strange noise, and then felt his body smack into something warm. Abruptly turning, he came face to face with a woman – a very beautiful woman no less – who was looking down at her red dress, which Chase discovered as he followed her gaze, was now sporting champagne on it. ‘Oh shit, I’m so sorry,’ he exclaimed.
The woman leant around Chase and put her glass down as she surveyed the damage, brushing at the front of her dress. She looked up and their eyes met. She had big, pale blue, piercing eyes. She smiled at him. ‘Oh, it’s okay, don’t worry, it was bound to happen at some point, just maybe not quite so early in the evening!’
Chase found himself quite distracted by her haunting beauty. Quickly shaking himself out of it he introduced himself. ‘Let’s start again – hi, I’m Chase.’
She brushed her hair back from her face. ‘I’m Hope.’ Looking at him she frowned slightly, as though trying to place him.
Reading her confusion he explained, ‘I’m a friend of Tanner’s. He invited me along, but I feel a bit out of place, not knowing a single other person, not even the celebratory couple.’ He was babbling. Stop it you fool!
Hope smiled. ‘Typical Tanner,’ she laughed. She grabbed a napkin and continued to dab at her dress.
Chase had a moment of recognition. ‘Hope? Tanner’s sister Hope?’
She looked up at him and threw the napkin down. ‘Indeed, I’m the daughter of the celebratory couple, and Tanner’s big sister.’
Chase let out an ahh sound as he realised why her eyes looked strangely familiar – they were just like Tanner’s – brilliant blue and wildly perceptive.
‘Drink?’ she asked.
‘Please’ Chase replied in earnest.
Hope led him into the kitchen and poured two glasses of champagne. Handing one to Chase, who moved forward rather awkwardly to take it, she leaned against the bench and took a long sip. For a second Chase wondered how rude she would consider it if he took the whole bottle of booze sitting next to her and drank it straight. Just shut up and drink your glass! Folding her arms, her glass dangling from her hand, Hope gave Chase a studying look.
Picking up on it Chase turned his head slightly and squinted. ‘What?’
Hope looked away quickly, ‘No, sorry, nothing.’ Then she looked back with the same intense gaze. ‘It’s just, well, you look a bit old to be a friend of Tanner’s, so I’m wondering what the connection is.’ Moving to refill her glass she tried to be casual about it and threw in, ‘Not that anything my brother does really surprises me.’
Right, thought Chase, the line of questioning he had been dreading. What to say? For some reason he decided to tell her the truth. ‘Well it is a bit odd I admit, and kind of embarrassing.’
Her eyes widened with interest. ‘Oh really? Do tell’ she laughed.
Chase toyed with his glass and sheepishly began. ‘Well, to be frank, a couple of months ago I spontaneously quit my job and was down by the river having a mini meltdown when I saw Tanner, just sitting there drawing this amazing picture. I asked him what he was doing and then somehow, I’m still not really sure how it happened, we ended up making it a weekly thing and we’ve sort of become friends I guess.’ He took a swig of wine, waiting for some look of confusion or something unsavoury to appear on her beautiful face.
Instead she laughed softly and shook her head. ‘Yeah, that sounds about right.’ She paused. ‘So you needed rescuing?’
The question, and the casualness with which it was presented, surprised Chase. Damn it he was getting sick of being surprised tonight! He thought about the question. ‘Rescuing? I don’t know about that. No, I don’t think so, what makes you think that?’ He was genuinely intrigued, and slightly embarrassed.
‘Well, you said you were having a mini-meltdown, and my brother helped you, yeah? That’s Tanner for you, a little knight in shining armour.’
Chase suddenly felt very emasculated. But then the kid had helped him, he couldn’t deny it – he was helping him. My god it was true, the little bastard was a knight in shining armour. How utterly embarrassing.
Hope seemed to register his discomfort. ‘You know, it’s weird how people come into our lives just at the right point. Makes you wonder.’ She turned and started gathering glasses and putting them in the sink.
Chase was even more intrigued. He was just about to question her further when he heard the chink of a wine glass, and a loud voice booming, ‘Speech!’ Damn, this girl was interesting and now they had to go listen to some stupid speech. Chase had never heard a good speech in his life, and he certainly wasn’t drunk enough to find a bad series of inappropriate anecdotes amusing. Quickly, more wine! He grabbed the bottle and filled up his glass.
Hope laughed, ‘Come on’, she said as she led the way back into the living room, throwing him a smile as she left.
Chased downed the wine, and when he was certain she was out of view, quickly poured another and went to join the massing crowd. Shit, there must be at least sixty happy campers jammed into this, under normal conditions, very generously spaced room. Chase saw Hope standing over on the wall and casually went to join her without getting too close. He really wanted to finish their conversation. The crowd was busy gathering itself, people laughing and chatting, wine glasses filling, small titters and whispers emanating.
Before long a tall man that Chase recognised as Ian raised his hands to silence the crowd.
‘Here stand on this! Someone yelled.
Chase couldn’t see what the shouter was referring to but all of a sudden Ian became significantly taller. He was an attractive man, with his dark wavy hair with slivers of grey, and his kind, deep blue eyes. Silence settled slowly amongst the mass. Assured of all ears, Ian looked out at the sea that comprised his friends and family, with humble happiness.
‘On behalf of Audrey and myself I’d like to thank everyone for joining us here tonight to celebrate this most auspicious occasion.’
He looked into the crowd and smiled at someone who could only be Audrey, as there was nothing but love in his eyes. ‘Twenty-five years ago today I became the luckiest man on earth, for this beautiful, intelligent, funny, wonderful woman agreed to become my wife. I have often had cause to stop and pause over the years to wonder why me? And to reflect on just how lucky I have been, and am, to have Audrey as my wife. We have been blessed with two beautiful children, Hope and Tanner, who we grow prouder of every day. And now, with our youngest, Tanner, about to make that step into manhood, we have not two youngsters, but two adults who are making their own legacies. As they make their journey through life I can only hope that they find the kind of love that I have, and that they keep it and treasure it for all their days.’
He looked again into the crowd, and then back to his wife. ‘Audrey, thankyou for putting up with me for twenty-five years, please continue to do so for at least another twenty-five! Cheers!’
He raised his glass and the crowd enthusiastically followed, clapping and cheering. People immediately began moving around again, and the hum of chatter filtered into the space once more. Hope had moved before Chase registered that she had gone, damn! He turned away to retreat outside to have a well-timed smoke. As he was leaving he saw Ian move toward Audrey with a look of such utter love and devotion that Chase was quite unexpectedly moved. So, some people did stay together forever, how remarkable.
After he had left, standing in the midst of the crowd, Hope found herself wondering why this strange, brooding, dark, extremely good looking guy, had been so moved by what her dad had said. There was definitely something about him.
Her reverie of intrigue was broken by Dean bounding up to her. Giving her a kiss he announced ‘I’m going to head out now. Are you coming or staying?’
Any thought of Chase vanished, and Hope became immediately irritated. ‘What? Where are you going?’
Dean was fumbling in his pockets checking he had everything he needed. ‘I’m going into town to meet Phil and some others. The speeches are over, so I’m good to go. You coming?’
Hope glared at him. He didn’t seem even slightly aware of the fact that it might be considered very rude of him to leave. He’s a fool – what was she doing? His happy, beaming, completely unaware face sent a shiver of revulsion through her. As always, she hid it fairly well. ‘No I’m not coming, it’s my parent’s twenty-fifth wedding anniversary – I can’t just leave!’
If he had any inkling that she was annoyed he didn’t show it. Instead he kissed her on the forehead and went off to seek out Ian and Audrey. Hope watched him dash off and felt sick. What was wrong with her? Why did she suddenly feel so hostile toward her boyfriend? He really didn’t deserve it, yet she couldn’t help it. She puzzled over it as she went into the kitchen to retrieve more champagne. Pouring herself a glass she swung it back and poured another. What was happening to her? Why this sudden hostility? It’s not like he was any different. Things were the same – they weren’t even having many fights. Maybe that was the problem, that it was always the same. And maybe they didn’t have a chance to fight much because he was hardly ever home!
Hope had just reached this conclusion when she looked out the window. The thinning crowd was limiting itself to the inner confines of the house, yet someone was sitting out by the pool, alone. It was that guy – Chase. Hope topped up her glass. Well maybe she’d just join him.