Three Wishes(13)


by Liane Moriarty

She’d just finished two months in a funky inner-city apartment. All that funkiness had started to give her a headache. Here, in the settled leafy suburbia of Hunters Hill, she would be serene and meditative. She might even learn to cook.

Gemma was a house-sitter. She had a bold, boxed ad in the Sydney House-Sitter’s Directory:

Single woman in her thirties with excellent references. Very responsible. Extremely security conscious. I take house-sitting seriously! Walk back in the door and feel like you’ve only been gone for five minutes! Your home, your pets, and your plants will receive my tender loving care!

This house belonged to the Penthursts, retired doctors, who were traveling around Europe for a year. Dr. and Dr. Penthurst, Mary and Don, had taken a liking to Gemma and had already sent her a postcard. “How are my African violets?” wrote Dr. Don from Venice.

Dr. Don had a collection of six African violets with fat, velvety leaves. “You need to talk to them for at least twenty minutes a day,” he had told her. “You probably think I’m dotty, but it works. It’s documented! It’s on the Net! One theory is that it’s the carbon dioxide. Anyway. Just have a little chat with them. Doesn’t matter what you say.”

“Just water them, dear,” said Dr. Mary, out of his hearing.

“Oh no,” said Gemma. “Your house has to feel as if you’re still here.”

Now she walked up to the row of pots on the windowsill and caressed their leaves. She called them all Violet, her own private joke. “What was that locksmith’s name? Mmmm? Violet? Any ideas? What about you, Violet? Now, Violet, I bet you remember!”

The Violets were silent, as stumped as she was.

Gemma sat back down the bed and looked at her framed family photos on the bedside table. They were the only personal items she displayed when she was house-sitting. Otherwise she lived in their houses exactly as the owners left them.

Her photo collection was an eclectic mix, skidding without logic through the generations. There was her father grinning with evil black-and-white innocence at age five, next to a furious fifteen-year-old Cat, one obscene finger stuck up at the photographer. (Really, Gemma, why would anyone even keep such a dreadful photo, said their mother, let alone put it on public display? I’ll give you fifty bucks for it, said Dan. Look at that chick! Nobody messes with my wife.)

Next to the photo of Cat was an old black-and-white one of their mother at around the same age. She was on a beach, her arm slung with casual abandon over her best friend’s shoulder. It looked like they’d just come out of the water and collapsed on the sand. Maxine was smiling radiantly at the camera, her hair plastered to her forehead. It was hard to imagine that girl growing up into the immaculately irritable Maxine Kettle.

Gemma looked at the photo of her mother and the locksmith’s name reappeared right where she’d left it.

Charlie. Of course it was Charlie. What a relief.

Charlie was a joke name because it was the name of Mum’s boyfriend before Dad. The one she would have married, the one she should have married. Charlie belonged to the life their mother would have had if her ovaries hadn’t betrayed her.

There were photos of him in the old albums from Maxine’s nineteenth birthday. He was a smiley nerd with protruding teeth. Thank God you didn’t marry him, we would have got those teeth, Gemma and her sisters told their mother. Maxine sniffed and looked at them with narrowed eyes, as if imagining the quiet, tasteful daughters she would have had (one by one, of course!) if she’d married Charlie Edwards.

So that’s why the locksmith’s name was funny. But why was it sad?

“Surely I don’t feel sorry for you, Mum,” said Gemma to her mother’s photo. Maxine smiled back at her and Gemma pressed her face right up close to the photo. “Do I? Why would I?”

Enough! It was time to think about new Charlie. Charlie with the long eyelashes and perfectly adequate teeth! Charlie who was on his way over right now with the erroneous expectation of home-cooked food.

Gemma lay back down on the Penthursts’ wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed and stretched luxuriously.

What could she possibly cook for her redemption breakfast? The answer was nothing of course. She didn’t even have a loaf of bread in the house.

Twenty minutes later she woke with a start and a voice in her ear. “You’re starting to seem a little unreliable.”

She opened her eyes. A man was squatting by her bed, large hands dangling over skinny legs in blue jeans.

“How did you get in?” she asked, sleepily. He rolled his eyes. “Oh. Of course.” Gemma lifted her arms above her head and yawned. She met his eyes and her yawn turned into a laugh of pleasure halfway through.

“Hello there, Charlie.”

“Hello there, Gemma. Where’s my lunch?”

The eyelashes were just as she remembered them.

To: Gemma Kettle

From: Gwen Kettle

Subject: Hello darling

Dearest Gemma,

Frank has wired me up to the World Wide Internet. It took him a long time and he swore a lot, as you can imagine. I think we are right now. I am sending each of you an e-letter. How are you? How is your hay fever? Better I hope. Frank says that you invest in shares on your computer and that you are doing very well. Congratulations, darling, and well done to you. I told Beverly next door about it but she did not believe me. She is a very annoying woman. With much love, your Nana

To: Gwen Kettle

From: Gemma Kettle

Subject: NANA IN CYBERSPACE! HELLO!

NANA!

CONGRATULATIONS and well done to you too! Dad never mentioned he was helping you get on the Internet and I was so excited to see your e-mail pop up. We can e-mail all the time now! It’s true that I buy stocks on the Net and it’s great fun, just like playing the pokies at the club, only not so many jackpots! I’ll show you how. (It would be a good idea not to mention this to Mum if you are talking to her.) Beverly next door is a complete twit.

I am giving serious consideration to a new boyfriend. We had breakfast together this morning. (Now don’t get any wrong ideas, please, Nana. It wasn’t because he stayed the night.)

He is a locksmith. That could be handy, couldn’t it? For example, if you needed your locks changed at any time. (Do you? How is security at your place?) He drives a motorbike and his family is Italian. Sexy, hey? I might bring him over to visit soon and you can tell me what you think.