The Peace Deal

Entry by: Paul McDermott

19th February 2015
The Peace Deal

“I'm homesick, Tom: I need the wind on my face, the scent of the pine forests. I'm choking on the fumes of this city!”
“ I need some … time to myself. I want to visit Sweden on my own.”
“We've had more ups than downs over the years, Tom. I've never had any reason to doubt you or worry whenever we moved on from one town to another, while you were playing gigs with your latest band. You've always looked after me properly – and us, when Vicky came along – so no complaints, no regrets.”
“I just need some space. I know you feel comfortable here in your home town, but I feel so cramped and clas... clus … tro...?” Maria struggled for a moment: Tom helped her automatically.
“Claustrophobic – hemmed in?”
“Justa, and thanks! So, is that all right? You look after Vicky for a few days, no need for her to miss school ...”
The occasional lapse between languages wasn't unusual: Tom and Maria had lived a more nomadic life than most couples, even after the birth of their daughter, while Tom plied his trade as a sessions musician. He'd followed his dream through all the major clubs and recording studios of Europe: all three were equally at ease with all the mainstream languages, and could manage a ‘tourist patois’ in a few more.
“Good trip?”
For the first time he could recall, Tom sensed he wasn't going to like Maria's answer. She hadn't said a word since getting into the car at Liverpool's John Lennon Airport, and had insisted on Vicky going straight to bed as soon as they arrived home. When Tom came back downstairs, Maria had not only made a pot of coffee: she'd also poured two glasses of Jamesons. A sealed envelope was propped up against the open bottle. Maria didn't answer Tom's question. Without looking up, she said:
“I want you to read the letter. Don't say anything until you've finished … please.”
Tom felt trapped: the envelope was totally blank, with no clue to what it might contain, but he knew he wasn't going to like reading it. Maria remained silent, refusing to meet his gaze. With growing reluctance he sat opposite her and took a large gulp from his glass before tearing the letter open.
“Tom” he read, vaguely registering the fact that it didn't begin 'Dear Tom' “ I said before I went to Sweden that I have no complaints about our life together over the last twenty years, and I hope you can believe I really mean it.”
“When I arrived in the little village where I grew up, I realised that all the travelling around we've done can't compete with the settled life my parents have had: they're still living in the same house I was born in, a house which was built by his father.”
“The very least I could do was to come back and tell you face to face, I can't carry on any longer. This isn't any easier for me than for you, but I have to go. Sweden is and will forever be my real Home ...”
There were a few more lines, but Tom was blinded by tears: his eyes refused to focus. The single sheet fell from his nerveless fingers.
Maria refilled his coffee mug and the shot glass, but remained silent. Belatedly Tom realised the significance of the only words she'd spoken since arriving home. He was expected to make the first move.
The words wouldn't come, no matter how he tried. Tom's forté in every band he'd belonged to had always been the poet, lyricist and wordsmith of the group, but now his gift failed him, just when he needed it most. All his mind could throw at him was someone else's lyrics, the final verse of a song which he'd come to think of almost as his own. Crowds of fans always requested it, and he invariably sang lead on the Kevin Johnson number:
“ … she followed me when, finally, I sold my old guitar
And helped me understand that I'd never be a star”
The fingers of his left hand flexed, shaping the chords on an air-guitar as the chorus continued inside his head. Tears continued to flood unchecked down his cheeks, and he caught himself singing the final line in a choking, sobbing, cracked off-key:
“I was always one step behind you.”
From sitting frozen in total silence, Maria's response was completely unexpected, instantaneous, violent. Thrusting back her chair she shot to her feet, seeming at least six inches taller than usual. Her nordic blue eyes were concentrated ice-cold points of fire.
“Can't you even speak to me without hiding behind the words of a song? It’s not even one of your own songs, they were written by someone else! Dan said …!”
She stopped, and flushed scarlet. The colouring on her pale skin would have been instantly noticeable even without the contrast against her natural near-albino hair.
Tom caught the unfamiliar name. The shock was enough to choke off his tears in an instant.
“Go on: what was so … interesting, or important, about whatever Dan told you?”
Tom's voice was cold, without emotion, and he took pains to lay a sarcastically heavy stress on the name, which to his certain knowledge didn't belong to any of Maria's relatives, or the few friends he'd made on earlier visits.
“Dan … he lives near my parents. I haven't seen him since we … left school. ”
The slightest of hesitations before the end of the sentence wasn't lost on Tom's sensitive ear. Maria might be telling the truth, and in his heart he desperately wanted to believe her, but the hiatus was all the proof he needed to know that it wasn't the whole truth.
“Maria, I've always told you I love you, always and forever, and no conditions, ifs, buts or maybes. I've also said I'd give you anything, anything at all, and I meant that, too.”
“So if you're now saying, you want your freedom: freedom to leave, freedom to go back to Sweden, back to your family, back to … to whoever you want to go back to … ”
He had to pause for a moment and fight for control.
“If that's what you really, truly want, then I give it to you. Freely. Unconditionally. And as far as I'm able, with no resentment or ill feelings. After all our years together, the only thing I can find to say is: whatever you want, I love you enough to give it to you.”
“So, here's my final line of our song, Maria. Don't unpack: don't look back. As it says in ‘my’ song, I'll always be “one step behind you” – but I hope I'm man enough to drive you back to the airport, even buy you a one way ticket – as long as we go now.”
He could see there was doubt in Maria's eyes. Perhaps she'd expected, maybe even hoped for a confrontation: anger, protest, even a stand-up fight so she could at some convenient future date cite “domestic abuse” as grounds for divorce proceedings? If that was what you were hoping for, you really don’t know me as well as you think you do, Tom thought to himself, thought it gave him no satisfaction whatsoever. I guess I never did manage to tell you how much I loved you, and I still do. Now it's too late …
“Maria, I don't want this to end … by saying goodbye when we get to the airport.”
“Tom, don't tell me you're afraid you might get sentimental, and start singing about 'Leaving on a Jetplane' or some such similar nonsense?”
“Not this time, Maria. I told you, I love you enough – I hope! – to give you exactly what you say you want. But if I still need to prove I mean what I say …?”
“Go on.” Maria tried to sound non-committal, but Tom sensed something which might have been the slightest of doubts behind the nonchalance of her words.
“We have to pass Calderstones Park on the way to the Airport. It was one of the first places I took you when you followed me 'home' from Denmark, remember? It just seems to me a much better place to say 'Goodbye' – and it'll give me a better memory to live with than a cold, impersonal peck-on-the-cheek, which I'm guessing is all I'd get at the Airport , if ...” Tom's voice trailed off: he sounded weary, defeated by the rollercoaster of emotions he'd endured over the last few hours.
“Yes: if that's what you want, Tom: but I'm not sure I can give you even that as a goodbye gesture, the way I feel ...”
“I've told you so many times, Maria, I'll do anything for you. Granting you your freedom has to be the most difficult thing you've asked of me, ever! But I hope I'll prove somehow I can carry it through ...”
Tom pulled into the deserted car park. The night was completely silent. There were perhaps two hours yet before dawn. The night birds had returned to their roosts, the day birds still not roused in their nests, and when he cut the engine the silence seemed to take on an extra subtle shroud of secrecy.
Maria started to walk towards the boating lake, the water picked out by the last rays of the setting moon: in a few moments' time, the night would be reduced to its darkest phase, as cloud cover obliterated most of the remaining faint starlight. Tom followed, the song lyric about being “one step behind” running on a constant loop through his mind, stronger than ever.
He stumbled and almost fell as his foot caught on something. Windmilling wildly he somehow managed to remain on his feet. Lost in deep thoughts of her own, Maria didn't react: perhaps she hadn't even noticed?
His mind withdraws to a distance of perhaps ten metres: once again he has the curious sensation of watching himself as in irrevocable slow motion he picks up the offending tree branch. He raises it above his head. One step behind becomes half a step, then halves again. Still Maria shows no sign that she is aware of her impending, inevitable fate. Tom swings, and even Maria’s luxuriant, cushioning mane of hair is insufficient to mask the crack! of solid wood shattering fragile skullbone.
For the first time in several hours, the music faded in Tom's ears. The last he heard was the slightly amended final line of the Chorus:
“I'm getting along with a Country song, doing what I want to do
When I was always just one step behind you”
And maybe now we can both Rest in Peace, he thought, without bitterness.