She pushed her chair away from the table again, and leaned back to rest her head gently against the hot wall behind her. She thought about the journey ahead of them, and the preparation she needed to do before starting back at work in three days time. She had managed not to think about it at all during the adventure of their ride out here, or during the last fun-filled week with Joe and Shelly, but now the spectre of her first day back at work, in an aged grey portakabin at the back edge of a dreary grey college site, next to a polluting grey ring-road, trying to teach a subject she knew nothing about to an angsty bunch of streetwise, disaffected sixteen-year-olds, hung over her like a black, inescapable cloud of depression.
If only she hadn’t agreed to take it on. If only she had listened to that little voice inside herself that told her she couldn’t do this; that this was a challenge too far. If only she could stay here in this land of dreams, where cares evaporated in the open blue sky, and worries wilted in the redeeming sunshine. Where the hazy, purple fortress of surrounding scrub-covered hills exuded a calm and safe tranquillity, and the very stones of the streets and buildings radiated a healthy pink glow of happiness.
“You’re never too old to make a birthday wish,” she proclaimed, wistfully.
Peter laughed a good-natured acquiescence. “Here you go then,” he said, leaning towards her, with his white Bic lighter in his outstretched hand. “Blow this out and make a wish.” He flicked the wheel with his right thumb and held the flame in front of Emma’s face. “Happy Birthday,” he said, for the third time that day.
Emma looked at Peter and tried to decide if he was laughing at her, or with her. She looked at the flame, almost insignificant against the background of brilliant brightness behind it. She thought of the birthday cakes her father used to make her when she was a child. She thought of the considerably less elegant birthday cakes she had made for her own children, when they were young and easily impressed. She thought of a photograph of her son on his fourth birthday, blowing out the candles on his Snake Cake, cheeks puffed out and big with party-sweet breath, and solemn brown eyes big with belief.
And she thought of her wish.
She leaned forward, and closed her eyes to the glaring sunshine, and to the choking, leaden reality that lay waiting for her back in England. She inhaled deeply, sucking all her fears and hopes together into a tight little space in her heart, and held her breath.
She made the wish.