Adelaide, February 2006.
The crowd slithered snake-like through the usually deserted Victoria Park, it crackled with the same excitement Laura felt. Attending the Music festival free opening concert was a rare treat and Laura drank in the dusk skyline shimmering like a grey scrim curtain with pink highlights. A perfect night for an outdoor event. She glanced at Tom and frowned.
They were meeting their friend Peter and his second wife, Abbie, but finding them in this throng would be difficult. Tom suggested they stop near the back but his reluctance provoked her annoyance. After thirty-seven years of marriage, it should be easier. Laura fought the contagion of his sour mood. The laughter and friendly banter of the other couples and family groups made her heartache.
She rang Peter. His cheerful voice restored her joyful anticipation and she followed his shouted directions deep into the crowd until she saw him waving from the main aisle. Abbie stood beside him, unsmiling and rigid, and Laura hesitated. Eva, Peter’s first wife, was Laura’s best friend and it created tension with Abbie.
Peter kissed Laura’s cheek and gently squeezed her shoulder. His hair had greyed since she’d last seen him but his tight smile was the same. Tom maintained his angry silence. He left Peter’s projected hand unclasped, grunted a greeting to Abbie then set up his chair at the outer edge of the space.
‘Are you OK?’ Abbie asked Tom. ‘You look pale.’
‘Just a headache and a sore arm from lugging all this stuff,’ Tom grumbled.
Laura struggled into the low beach chair. She rummaged in her handbag, extracted painkillers, and offered them to Tom. He barely nodded an acknowledgement then turned and stared ahead. He obviously wasn’t ready for peace yet.
It hadn’t always been like this. His retirement, eighteen months ago, hadn’t gone to plan, at least not for her. Instead of day trips, lunches with friends or spontaneous fun, Tom burrowed away in his study, researching and investigating a mystery he didn’t share with her. She’d expected them to draw closer once the children were grown and had left home, but instead, he’d become surlier and more withdrawn. He hadn’t been ready to retire even if his office said he was. Now, his hurts, disappointments, and needs, dominated their lives and she admitted to her resentment. She was losing patience.
She shifted her chair closer to Abbie and Peter to hear better and the gap between her and Tom became a chasm.
‘Where’s Katie tonight?’ Laura asked, hiding her hurt behind small talk.
Abbie’s first child, Katie, was Peter’s third.
‘She’s with Peter’s boys tonight. They’re here for his birthday,’ Abbie explained.
Peter’s sons, from his first marriage to Eva, were close to Abbie’s age, with families of their own. Living in Brisbane meant they didn’t often encroach on Peter’s new life and Laura rarely saw them.
‘They’ve taken her and the grandkids to visit Eva.’ Abbie smirked and then laughed, ‘McDonald’s or KFC tonight probably.’
‘Now, now, that’s enough.’ Peter said quietly.
Laura looked away. Abbie’s animosity perplexed her, after all, Peter had chosen Abbie over Eva and his family. Laura accepted a glass of wine. Peter stepped behind her and offered Tom a glass too but Tom declined ungraciously and sunk further into his beach chair.
Peter clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Let it go. We’re here to enjoy a social evening.’
‘You’d like that,’ Tom replied.
As Peter moved back to his seat, his hand brushed along Laura’s shoulder and its warmth was reassuring. She glanced at Tom’s huddled figure. He was at war with everyone. Tom’s anger at his old workplace, and Peter, had intensified with the Cole Commission hearings that had started last month. The investigation into the Australian Wheat Board corruption was stirring up their old conflict and its findings would prove one of them right. Tom had taken the moral high ground and railed against their company adopting the Wheat Board style contracts. Peter had supported them.
Laura and Abbie’s conversation fell back on Laura and Tom’s four adult children. As they talked, Abbie poured a glass of wine and offered it to Tom. This time, he accepted.
In front of Laura, the multiple stages rose in wedding cake layers with several smaller stages nestled beside them. Tall gum trees formed a majestic backdrop. The lights dimmed and a hush settled over the crowd. She yearned to reach out and touch Tom’s arm, or better still, cuddle into the crook of his armpit and call a truce, but the look on his face warded her off and she turned her attention to the Artistic Director’s opening address.
The floodlights dimmed and the throb of drums cascaded into the night air. It drew her in. A fire wheel swirled arcs of flame as performers strutted into the light, fire flared from their heads and backs and a tribal rhythm underscored the dancing. Flames licked and danced in time to the music. She stared, transfixed. Strong unwelcome emotions rose unbidden and threatened to overwhelm her. She fought the urge to get up and run; to be carefree and careless. Instead, she watched as the dancers threaded gracefully around the stages, some on stilts and all aflame; their control and precision almost suffocating. Their white fire suits eerily juxtaposed with the dark backdrop and the towering trees. The crowd’s gasps filled any short silences.
Through the evening, the acts spun intricate patterns and tunes, each different from the one before yet eerily the same, creating a harmonised yet diverse performance. Smoke laced the air. Laura’s attention was commandeered by long trumpet-like instruments wailing into the air, rising above the drums, and she lost herself in the noise and spectacle. Her heart raced as flashing flares of flame and light illuminated everything, even the dark corners of her mind.
A flare briefly cast light across the audience and she glanced at Tom. She thought she saw him smile and finally, Laura smiled too. He was enjoying himself at last. She let the furious beat and dancers pull her attention back to the show.
Then, as the evening drew to a close, it burst into a crescendo of the biggest fireworks display she had ever seen. Colours and light sprayed patterns across the inky sky. A familiar lump choked in her throat and she fought back tears. Fireworks made her emotional; she didn’t know why. Blossoming streaks of colour erupted onto the dark backdrop, turning it grey with tufts of smoke. The colour and whizz of the golden rockets overloaded her senses. The crowd oohed and aahed, erupting into applause as the hour-long show came to an end. Laura closed her eyes, trying to imprint the unbelievable beauty of the fireworks on her mind and capture forever the spectacle in her memory.
As the applause subsided, Laura reluctantly opened her eyes. The area spotlights’ glare blinded her momentarily and she resisted the pull of those around her as they gathered their belongings and prepared their exodus. She looked up at Peter, confused by his open-mouthed stare and followed his gaze. Tom, his strange pallor revealed by the full lights and that grimace she’d mistaken for a smile, fixed on his face, sat still. His arm hung limply at his side, touching the ground in an unnatural pose. His head tipped back. If his eyes had been closed, she’d have thought him asleep.
She reached out and touched him, murmuring, ‘Tom. Tom, it’s—’
He didn’t stir. She recoiled, struggled out of her chair then shook him. He was asleep, wasn’t he?
At her touch, he slid sideways and slumped to the ground. It couldn’t be happening.
Peter was on the phone. The people immediately beside them stood and stared while the crowds beyond them pushed and jostled as they tried to leave.