It was Gerald who found the ring. He came back inside from playing in the garden and I could immediately see that he was trying to conceal something behind his back.
‘What have you got there, darling?’
‘Now, Gerald. I know it’s not nothing. You’re not taking beetles out of the yard again, are you? I told you to leave the poor things alone.’
‘S’not a beetle.’
‘So, it is something. Come on then. Show your mother.’
He shuffled reluctantly towards the table and thrust out a grubby hand. Lying on his palm was a tarnished silver ring. I reached for it and he closed his hand and stuck it behind his back, shaking his head.
‘Give it to me this instant, you naughty boy.’
I gave him one of my Looks.
‘Put it on the table’.
Slowly, he stretched out his hand and dropped the ring on the table. As I reached for it, I was surprised to see tears leaking out of his eyes.
‘There’s no need to be upset, Gerald. I just want to look at what you’ve found. As long as it doesn’t belong to anyone else, I’ll let you have it right back, darling, I promise.’
He looked hopeful for a second before a dark expression crossed his little face.
‘No you won’t.’
Without another word he stamped out of the kitchen and upstairs. I heard his bedroom door slam. Sighing to myself, I picked up the ring and examined it.
Dirty and tarnished, it must have been buried for some time. I glanced out of the kitchen window and glumly noted that Gerald had dug it up from underneath a bed of David’s beloved roses.
The ring was a simple band without a stone. It probably wasn’t worth very much. I picked up a tea towel and began polishing it.
There was a puff of rather unconvincing purple smoke and a short gentleman of Arabic appearance materialised. Startled, I was about to speak when I was forestalled by a massive coughing fit from the stranger. Eventually, he stopped hacking long enough to introduce himself.
‘I am Al-Sharrif, Spirit of the Ring, Granter of Wishes.’ Having said which, he resumed coughing.
‘Would you like a glass of water?’ I ventured.
He gestured assent, and I rose and filled a glass. He accepted it gratefully and drank.
‘May I?’ he wheezed, indicating the chair. I nodded and he sank down, exhaling heavily.
‘Right, so what’s it to be?’
I was at a loss, which must have been reflected in my expression. He rolled his eyes.
‘What, you don’t listen? Al-Shariff, Spirit of the Ring, Granter of Wishes. You found the ring, you summoned me, you get to make the wishes. So go. Wish, already.’
I was struggling to catch up with this unexpected turn of events. ‘So - you’re like, a genie?’
He shot me an annoyed look as he took out a tobacco pouch and began to roll himself a cigarette.
‘Genies live in lamps, lady. This look like a lamp to you? I’m a spirit, which is lucky for you by the way, because just to be frank, genies are wildly overrated. Bunch of stuck-up elitist snobs.’ He lit up his cigarette and blew a purple smoke ring. ‘Bastards’, he concluded.
‘And I get three wishes, or…’
He checked his watch. ‘Three, four, five–have as many as you want, lady, but could we hurry this up? I’m on a clock here.’ He took another drag. ‘You got an ashtray anywhere around here?’
I spoke out of habit. ‘I’m sorry, but this is a non-smoking household.’
Al-Shariff gave an exaggerated sigh. ‘Oh, so sorry. I mean, I’m just here to make your wishes come true. I’ll fetch you the rarest treasures from the farthest corners of the earth–but that I could dare to smoke in the pristine confines of your suburban fortress of purity–well, I don’t know what to say. Let me just take out a sword and cut off my own head in contrition.’
‘Whatever.’ He flicked the cigarette in the air, made a complicated hand gesture and it vanished. ‘So, you got any wishes, lady?’
I walked over to the window, trying to make sense of this incredible turn of events. Was this some kind of prank even now being filmed by hidden cameras for the diversion of a jaded population of TV viewers long since lost to any concept of privacy or respect? Or had the after-effects of that long-ago pill of dubious origins swallowed on a dare at a university party finally caught up with me? Whatever the correct explanation, I decided that the only sensible response for the moment was to go with the flow. Behind me, the spirit whistled tunelessly and tapped his foot.
I turned around. ‘All right, Mr Al-Shariff. To begin with–could you replace the roses in my husband’s garden?’ I pointed at Gerald’s work.
He rolled his eyes. ‘Starting big, huh? OK with me.’ He stared at the affected area, scratched his nose and blinked. I looked outside. Perfect, gorgeous blooms swayed in the breeze. Despite myself, I swore.
‘That’s bloody amazing!’
Al-Shariff grinned. ‘Yeah, to get the same effect with human labour would have taken whole minutes. You feel like getting a little more ambitious now?’
I thought for a second. ‘How about a big-screen television? With home stereo system, and DVD. And a new lounge suite?’
‘Where do you want that set up?’
‘Come into the living room. And after that…’
The afternoon went quickly.
I met David at the front door. I knew he would require a quick explanation for the presence of the new car in the driveway, not to mention the second storey on the house. I was prepared for an extreme reaction, but not for the one I received.
‘Bloody hell, Julia. Have you gone completely fucking nuts?’
‘David, calm down. There’s a perfectly logical explanation although I don’t know if you’re going to believe it…’
‘Oh, there’s an explanation is there? That’s great. I hope it’s good enough to convince a jury.’
‘A jury? What do you mean? I haven’t-’
‘That,’ he pointed at the Porsche I had asked Al-Shariff to provide as a gift for David, ‘is what I’m talking about.’
‘The car? But you always said you wanted one of those. Ever since Terry at work got one, you said how much you’d like–’
‘Not that one!’
‘Well, why the hell not?’
He sighed and spoke slowly. ‘Because, it’s Terry’s.’
Things were going too fast for me. ‘What? The make? The model?’
‘No. The car. It’s not that it’s the same make, same model, same year and same colour as Terry’s. It’s more the fact that it has the same license plate, registration and ding on the driver’s side door. It’s the same bloody car, which might explain why I heard Terry swearing as he roamed the car park this evening looking for it.’ His voice softened and he took my hand. ‘Julia, why did you do it? Are you having some sort of crisis? Is it hormones? Or–’ His eyes finally registered the refurbishments to the house and his voice trailed off ‘unk?’
‘David, I don’t know how to tell you this. Come inside.’ Neighbours were starting to whisper and point. As I took David inside, I could discern a few of the things they were saying.
‘Terry’s car for sure. Even the–’
‘Pool out back looks just like the one from the Stillman’s place. I could swear…’
‘Just like mine. It is mine! That’s my fucking air-conditioner!’
‘Look, I don’t know what to tell you folks.’
We had made it to the evening without the arrival of the cops, but it could only be a matter of time. We’d hidden Terry’s car, but since it was inside Marge and Henry’s new double garage, it didn’t seem a viable long-term solution. David had struggled to believe my story, but after I’d pointed out the difficulties inherent in one slightly-built 37 year old woman single-handedly making off with three container-loads of luxury goods from the immediate neighbourhood, he’d been forced to concede that something of a supernatural provenance must have been afoot. It had been his idea to summon Al-Shariff again, which had taken considerably more effort this time. However, after twenty minutes of furiously buffing the ring to a high sheen, he had made an appearance and was now lounging on a very comfortable three-seater sofa that no doubt someone nearby was at this very minute describing to the police.
‘I don’t know what gave your wife here the idea I could somehow summon crap out of the thin air – ah, David, was it? I’m not a magician. She asked for things, I went and fetched them. That’s my job.’
‘You never said anything about stealing!’ I yelled. David put a restraining hand on my shoulder. I was feeling a little overwrought.
‘Getting things without paying for them? What did you think this transaction was about? I’m not Santa Claus, lady–and by the way, I won’t even tell you about what that guy’s into.’
David spoke in a tone of pronounced calmness that meant that he was right on the edge of a meltdown. ‘It didn’t occur to you that the people you were stealing from might notice?’
Al-Shariff shrugged. ‘Not my concern, chief.’
‘And you didn’t even think of travelling a little farther away for your– acquisitions?’
He laughed. ‘Dave, you ever try lugging a sofa twenty miles? I may have mystical powers, but I’m not Superman.’
I exploded. ‘Listen, Al-whoever. I don’t care about who you’re not, but I do care about what you’ve done, and I’ll tell you what you’re going to do. Right now you are going to take everything you’ve stolen straight back to where it came from, all right? And then you are going to go away and we will never see nor hear from you again! Is that quite understood?’
I stood in front of what I belatedly recognised as our next-door neighbour’s stereo, panting. Al-Shariff looked thoughtful.
‘Well, I’d love to help you out, truthfully I would. But you see, returning things, it’s not really my area of expertise. I’m more into acquisitions and removal. I suppose I could subcontract it out, but you know what those guys want paying these days. Maybe if–’
David cut in. ‘How much?’
‘Whatever do you mean?’
‘Listen, buddy, I may not know much about the supernatural realm, but I recognise a bite when I hear one. How much?’
‘Twelve - and that’s my final offer.’
‘Sixteen - and my, is that sirens I hear outside?’
Al-Shariff shook David’s reluctantly outstretched hand and blinked twice. We regarded our now starkly empty living room.
‘What about our old stuff?’
He shrugged. ‘We’re not responsible for any breakages or losses incurred during shipping. Now, about the money, just make the cheque out to Al-Shariff and Associates, Ltd. Send it to this address,’ he snapped his fingers and a PO box number was burnt into the living room wall, ‘by the end of the week or–well, I’m not a vengeful man but…’
‘You’ll get your money. Now get out. And take your goddamn ring with you.’
David threw it at the spirit’s chest. He let it hit him and roll onto the floor.
‘You just hold onto that. You never know when it might come in handy. And no hard feelings, huh, folks? Just business.’
He vanished. I fell into David’s arms, sobbing apologies. He stroked my hair, eyes fixed on the address scarring the paintwork.
‘We’ll get that son-of-a-bitch. I swear. We’ll get him.’
‘David, no. We were lucky to get out of this. Let’s just leave it alone.’
The childish voice sang across the room. I looked up to see Gerald picking up the ring.
‘Gerald, no!’ David’s voice rang out authoritatively.
‘But Mum said I could-’
‘Listen to your father, darling. That ring is not ours. I’m sorry but we can’t…’
His eyes narrowed and he hurled the ring across the room.
‘Knew it! Hate you! Hate you!’ Sobbing, he ran out of the room.
I sighed, exhausted. ‘He’ll get over it. And I guess we’ll find the money somehow, right, honey? Honey?’
David’s eyes didn’t leave the ring.
I met David outside the hospital. We hadn’t seen each other since the divorce. Even since Gerald had been diagnosed, we’d timed our visits to avoid running into each other. I suppose it was bound to happen eventually.
‘Hi, Julie.’ There was a pause. ‘What’s the latest…’
I hadn’t meant to cry, but the pressure of the last few months were too great. Between gasps, I managed to let him know the latest prognosis.
‘But if he gets a transplant…’
‘David, you know what the odds are. The waiting list for a heart transplant is - what is it?’
The temperature seemed to plummet as he brought out the ring.
I spoke very quietly.
‘That would be murder.’
He didn’t say anything. He just reached out and pressed the ring into my hand. I let him do it. He turned and entered the hospital. I stood outside there on the pavement, thinking of my son lying upstairs inside of a web of machinery and tubes and stared at the plain silver band.