By Jacey Bedford
"What do you want?" he asked.
"What do I want?" I blinked and tried to think, but my brain wouldn’t work.
"That was the question."
"I . . ."
I ground to a halt. What did I want? Power, wealth, love, eternal life, good health? Possibilities rose to the surface of the bubbling pan of my mind, and sank again.
Excessive alcohol will do that to you.
"Do I have to decide now?"
The djinn swelled to twice his previous size and tried to look menacing, but I’d found the bottle, broken the seal, drunk the contents and set him free, so according to Gamma Wilkes I was safe. He was in my debt and he couldn’t harm me, no matter how fearsome he looked.
"Don’t try that on me." I suppose I should have been scared, but the booze made me cocky. "Answer the damn question!"
How much had I drunk? Too much by a long way. The kitchen table undulated and my chair kept trying to pitch me on the floor, so I figured a genie popping out of a bottle was almost normal.
I’d only just stopped myself from saying: I wish you’d answer the question. I had to avoid any phrasing he could conceivably construe as a wish, otherwise I’d be cheated out of what was mine by right. I knew that–yet my mind kept trying to twist everything I said into an expression of desire.
The djinn folded his arms across his chest, tapped his foot and assessed my kitchen. The style was supposed to say Victorian cottage, but all it said was chaos, from the greasy frying pan to the pile of used tea-bags on the sink. It had been a bad couple of days and I wasn’t my usual neat self.
"Well?" I asked.
"No, you don’t have to decide right now."
He shrank back to his original size, not much above my height, five-six. A bit short for a djinn, maybe. I’d imagined he would be something like the genie in Disney’s Aladdin, but this spirit was slender, pale and had the blondest hair and bluest eyes I’d ever seen. He wore a pale robe, like unbleached calico, but softer and finer.
Maybe it was the alcohol, but I found it hard to take him seriously.
"No pyrotechnics?" I asked. "No Shazam?"
"Is that what you want?"
I imagined my first two wishes evaporating in a puff of smoke. "No! And you know it."
"No need to get uppity with me, lady."
I might have expected clipped Arabic tones and a deep, sonorous voice, but instead I got a genie with a cockney accent.
Three wishes. What did I want?
Yesterday, I wanted George back. I wanted him back so badly that I’d been willing to look the painting of Great-Great-Grandma Wilkes square in the eye and open the trunk that lay against the wall beneath it. Under the sensible flannel nightgown, still faintly scented with lavender even though she’d been dead twenty years, was the bottle. It was mine by right. I was the last of the line.
"Gamma Wilkes," I’d said to the picture, "Aunt Alice never wanted Mum to believe in it, but I remember . . . it’s for the Wilkes women in times of greatest need, you said, now let’s see if you were right."
"Once it’s open, you’ll never have the strength to seal it again without making the wishes. Make sure you use it more wisely that I did. Make sure you use him more wisely than I did."
She’d said it in one of her rare lucid moments, delivered from the narco-haze of the drugs that were helping her out of the world without pain.
"Use who, wisely, Gamma?"
"The djinn in the bottle."
"The gin in the bottle?"
"Mmm, that too."
She was slipping back into unreality.
"Think of the future, but remember the mistakes of the past. That foolish young man . . . He didn’t think either. Djinni can be tricky.” She laughed, a low, mirthless laugh.
I was only seven, but I’d never forget.
That had been my last conversation with my grandmother’s grandmother, just before she died at the age of a hundred and two. I remember it so clearly, a wizened old lady lying in bed in the front room of our tiny house where we lived with Alice and her smelly tomcat.
I remember the feel of the smooth glass corners as I picked up the unopened bottle of Gordon’s Gin on the bedside table with both hands and handed it to my mother.
"The djinn’s in there," I said. "Keep it safe; it’s ours now."
"I don’t drink gin, sweetie." She’d patted my head. "But Alice might want a glass later."
I clutched it to the front of my sweater and carried it to the door. Alice wasn’t a Wilkes and the bottle was for us.
"Where are you going with that, Dolly?" Mum called after me.
"Putting it safe."
"Give it to me, sweetie. It’s strong stuff. You mustn’t drink it."
"I hope I don’t ever have to." I gave it to my mother. "It’s Gamma’s magic djinn bottle. Remember what she told us, about the wishes and stuff."
"That was just a story." She hugged me in a cloud of Soiree perfume.
"She lived to be a hundred and two, didn’t she? I bet that was one of her wishes."
With hindsight, I knew how dangerous ill-prepared wishes could be. Gamma Wilkes had outlived both her daughter and her granddaughter, and continued on for ten years past her body’s ability to function pain-free.
What else had she wished for?
I could speculate, but I’d never know for sure. Still, it was odd that each one of the Wilkes women, from Gamma Wilkes onwards, had given birth to just one daughter, all out of wedlock, so that the Wilkes name had continued. Alice wasn’t related, of course, she was my Mum’s friend—her lover, I came to understand later.
One daughter each. Out of wedlock. Well it looked as though I’d be continuing that tradition. Thanks, George. My hand went to my stomach, still flat. I’d only had the news two days ago.
"Ah, I see," the djinn said, snapping my thoughts back into the present.
"What do you know about it?" I slumped against the table, as it started to spin.
"Everything, and nothing at all," he said. He came ’round and stood behind me and began to rub my back very gently. Mmm, I’d always been a sucker for a good backrub. His hands were surprisingly warm for an apparition and he smelled faintly spicy. "Let’s get you to bed before that gin has any unwanted side-effects."
He held my shoulders, half-lifting, half-supporting me to the stairs. I grasped the banister and pulled myself up
"Gin and hot baths," I slurred my words. "That’s what they used to say. Get rid of the unwanted side effect of falling for a man who forgot to tell you he was married. Get rid of little Georgina. It will be a girl, won’t it, Mr. Djinn?"
"Is that your wish?"
"No, it’s not my wish, but it was hers, wasn’t it?"
We’d come face to face with the portrait on the landing. I heard him draw breath. Odd, I’d not thought of him needing to breathe.
He gazed at the portrait, probably painted in the nineteen sixties. It stared back at him with youthful eyes, though she must have been sixty-five when it was done.
"Still very handsome," he said. "Let’s see, you’d be Emma’s great granddaughter. You look a lot like she did at your age, same blue eyes, though I fancy you’re a little taller."
"Great-great," I corrected him.
"Really, then we’re near the millennium? I lose track of time in there."
"Hah!" He looked skywards, "So much for your predictions, you old fraud."
"Talking to anyone I know?"
"You wouldn’t believe me if I told you."
"Why not? I’m drunk enough to believe I’m talking to a genie."
A wave of nausea hit me in the back of the gullet. I staggered to the bathroom, sank to my knees by the toilet and heaved at least half of the gin down the pan. That should get rid of djinni, pink elephants, and any six-foot white rabbits that were lying in wait.
He handed me a damp washcloth.
"Are you still here?"
"Of course. I’m here until you’ve had all three wishes. Do you want me to go?"
I was about to say yes but . . .
"Hey, you’re not getting out of it that easily."
This wasn’t logical. I’d thought he was a figment of my alcohol-fuelled imagination, but . . . I’d called him out of the bottle by drinking the contents. So calling him up had been the root cause of me being drunk, and now I didn’t believe in him because . . .
It was too much for my logic circuits to cope with. I needed to lie down.
He guided me to the bedroom, threw back the duvet, and let me flop back on the bed. Then he removed my shoes and pulled the duvet over me. Neat trick, keeping his balance while the bed spun so fast.
Not to worry . . . I made myself breathe deeply and tried to be rational. He wouldn’t be there in the morning, once the gin had worn off.
But he was.
I awoke, with a clear head. Sunlight streamed in through the white gauze of my curtains. I sat up and saw my djinn standing by the end of the bed with a breakfast tray in his hands. A delightful smell of hot buttered toast and fresh coffee hung in the air between us.
I rubbed my eyes. "I should be feeling lousy."
He put the tray down on my bedside table.
"Yes, you should. A whole bottle of gin. That’s dangerous. Good job you didn’t keep it all down."
"You didn’t make me better, did you?" I asked.
"What do you think?" He sat down again, nudging my leg sideways to make room.
"That wasn’t one of my . . ."
"Wishes?” He shook his head. “No, consider it a small gift. If we’re going to make any progress, I don’t want you wilting with a hangover all day."
"With your three wishes.” He passed me a mug of coffee. “You still want them, don’t you? Until you’ve had your last one, you can’t bottle me up again."
I took a sip from the mug, strong and sweet, just the way I like it, and felt the caffeine begin to kick in. Three wishes . . . I had to be careful.
"If I say yes, that’s not one of my wishes, is it?"
"What’s the matter, Dolly, don’t you trust me?"
His face was a picture of wide-eyed innocence.
Dolly: No one had called me that since my mother died, it was usually Thea, for Dorothea. Stupid name.
Did I trust him? No.
Did I trust anyone? Probably not.
He didn’t seem to need an answer, however. "It would have been much better to have got them over with last night while you were . . ."
He handed me a piece of toast.
I took a bite and chewed, not really tasting it. "I want to think about them more than she did. What was her third?"
"That’s not for me to say."
"Oh, come on, I’ve probably worked out two. Living to a hundred and two must have been one, and for some weird reason an illegitimate female baby for each generation must have been the other, otherwise it’s too much of a coincidence. What was the third? Not money; she never had much in the bank, though she always had enough."
I stared at him, "Enough for her needs, but not enough for her wants. She made a mistake there, didn’t she? What did she wish for, as much money as she would ever need? So she got what she asked for, not a penny more, not a penny less."
He just smiled at me.
"And so I have to be careful what I wish for in case I get it, is that it?" I finished my toast and licked the crumbs from my fingers.
"That’s generally the way it is."
"So I could wish to be healthy, wealthy and wise and . . ."
"That would count for three wishes, and you’ve still not covered happiness."
"And what about this." I rubbed my belly. "Can I wish to be rid of little Georgina?"
He shook his head.
"Can’t you make it so it never happened? I thought you could do anything?"
"Anything except contravene a wish already granted to another."
"So it was one of Gamma Wilkes’ wishes." I’d suspected as much. “Looking at our family history, you’d have to suspect that there was something more than random chance at work.”
"How do you mean?"
"All the Wilkes women have had bastards."
"All the Wilkes women?" He sounded a little puzzled and seemed shaken.
"Where have you been?"
"In a bottle.” He stood up and walked to the window, but I’m not sure he was really looking at what was outside. “Why didn’t someone call on me?"
"What could you have done?"
"Enough–if whoever called me had thought carefully before wishing."
I shrugged. "I’m not sure the others knew. I guess she didn’t tell anyone about you until she knew she was near to death. Then she told us–me and my mum. We were the only ones left, because by that time she’d outlived her daughter and her granddaughter."
He tilted his head to one side as if trying to make sense of everything.
"Look, you must know all this," I said. “You did it.”
"I grant the wishes, I don’t have the final say in how they’re fulfilled."
"So you’re saying she didn’t wish for bastard daughters?"
"I’m not allowed to say, but you are allowed to speculate–so think hard about it.” He came and sat beside me again. “Why should she wish for all her descendants to be illegitimate?"
He was right, it didn’t make sense, unless she thought that what was good enough for her was good enough for the whole of the Wilkes line. The Wilkes line—that was it.
"She was an only daughter. She wanted to carry on the line and she was prepared to have a child out of wedlock to do that. How brave. At that time, at the end of the nineteenth century, families were throwing women into lunatic asylums to avoid the disgrace of unmarried pregnancy."
"She was a strong woman, your Gamma Wilkes."
I took a deep breath, suddenly certain. "I’m ready with my first wish."
"You’ve worked out all the angles?"
"I hope so."
"Look, I’m not supposed to help you with the wishes, but make sure that you work out what someone with a really wicked sense of humour could do to twist a perfectly sensible wish."
He stood up to leave, leaned forwards and brushed a stray bit of hair back from my face. "Don’t tell me yet. Get up, get dressed, and tell me when you get downstairs."
I splashed myself for a few minutes in the shower, towelled my hair semi-dry, tied it back and pulled on clean jeans and a T-shirt, before going downstairs.
He was sitting at the kitchen table. The work surfaces behind him gleamed and clean pots and pans drained neatly on the side of the sink.
"I don’t have that kind of magic. I needed something to do. I don’t usually get so much time topside."
Where did he go to in-between appearances? Was he really imprisoned in that bottle, oblivious to everything that was happening in the world? It’s a wonder he was sane . . . or maybe he wasn’t.
"I’m ready for my first wish."
"’Right then, I have to tell you the rules, officially."
He stood to attention and cleared his throat. His voice, previously light and teasing, took on a stern tone. He bowed formally.
"Dorothea Wilkes, you have three wishes. Once wished, a wish cannot be retracted and may only be amended by another of your three wishes or mitigated, but not negated by the wish of another. You must wish for one thing and one thing only at each wishing. A wish for extra wishes is invalid and that wish will be forfeit. Once wished, your wishes must not be revealed to any other living mortal. Do you understand?"
"I do." I found myself answering him formally.
"Then state the first of your three wishes."
I hoped I’d worked this out right. "I wish for my baby to be a boy."
"Wish granted." He relaxed visibly and smiled.
"Did I get it right?"
"That’s for you to decide. I only . . ."
"Only grant the wishes, I know."
I sat down on the kitchen chair facing the window.
"Cup of tea?" he asked.
"I’ll make it, it’s about time I did something instead of sitting around in a blue funk. That’s all I’ve done for the last two days, you know, since George walked out on me."
"George is . . . ?"
"My baby’s father, at least I presume so, you didn’t have anything to do with . . . Of course not, you only grant the wishes, you don’t fulfil them."
"You’re getting the hang of it."
I stood up, switched on the kettle and busied myself getting out two mugs, milk, and tea bags. There were hundreds of questions I wanted to ask, I mean, it’s not every day you get to talk to a real live djinn is it?
"Gamma Wilkes didn’t specify, did she?” I asked. “She just said she wanted the Wilkes name to carry on and she was prepared to have a child out of wedlock in order to do that, but she didn’t specify that child should be a boy."
I looked at him again. I was near the mark, I could sense it, but he still said nothing.
"And Gamma Wilkes’ wish trapped all the Wilkes women into the same fate for the sake of keeping the name going — so here I am, pregnant and still a Wilkes, and all because Gamma Wilkes never thought to specify boys."
The kettle boiled and I filled the teapot, reached for two mugs and then stopped. "Do you . . . er . . . I mean are you allowed to drink and eat?"
"While I’m topside, I’m almost as human as you are. Make it strong, please, with two sugars if you don’t mind."
I put the tray down between us and waited for the tea to brew. "You mean you’re not immortal or anything like that?"
His face went even paler.
"Oh, sorry, is that not an appropriate question?"
"You can ask, but I’m not always allowed to answer."
We sat silent for a while and then curiosity got the better of me. "Where do you go when you go back inside that bottle? Are you allowed to say? Back to the Sultan’s harem?"
He sighed. "You don’t know how tedious that can be."
"Oh yes, I’ll just bet."
"No, really," he leaned over and covered my hand where it rested on the scrubbed wooden table. "Be careful, Dolly, be very careful what you wish for. You’ve made a good start, a safe start, but you’ve got two more chances to make the worst decisions of your life."
I looked up straight into his eyes and I read something in them that maybe wasn’t meant for me, or maybe it was.
"Is that what happened to you?"
"Djinn can be tricky creatures to deal with."
"You’re a djinn."
"I am now."
"How . . ."
He held his hand up and pushed his chair back. "Can we go outside?"
"Anywhere you like."
Tea forgotten, he followed me to the back door and out into the garden. I’d been lucky when I found this house. It was a Victorian brick semi on the edge of the city and it had a long enclosed garden with high, ivy-clad walls and lots of little secret spaces that surprised you with their tranquility. The sun was shining through the glass of the shabby back porch, and as he stepped out into it, the djinn breathed in deeply and tilted his head back to the warmth. I hadn’t noticed his feet were bare beneath his robe until he walked out on to the lawn. I kicked off my shoes, too, wriggling my toes in the short mown grass, feeling the individual blades tickling all the sensitive spots under my feet. He laughed and did the same.
I led him through a small wooden gate and beneath an arch to a second area where the house’s previous owner had grown vegetables. I’d tried to keep it in good order, but there was grass growing between the lettuces. The djinn bent down and pulled a clump of grass, shaking it so that all the soil fell back.
"Ah, Dolly, I love the smell of earth. It’s been a long time since I pulled weeds."
I imagined someone wishing for a garden that was eternally free of weeds, kind of like requesting a magical version of one of those TV garden makeover . But he only granted wishes, he didn’t carry them out. So when did he pull weeds? Should I ask? I looked at him and asked something else entirely.
"How old are you?"
He thought for a while.
"I was twenty-seven . . . in 1837."
I stopped, quite taken aback. I guess I’d expected him to say, five thousand years, or give me some cryptic answer like “as old as the hills,” or just to say that he wasn’t allowed to say, but that was so specific and so comparatively recent that it didn’t fit with what I’d imagined about djinn.
He still looked about twenty-seven, until you looked in his eyes.
"You were born human."
It wasn’t a question and it didn’t need an answer. He’d been born human and now he was a djinn, trapped forever inside a bottle.
"How did you get into the djinning business?"
"That’s . . ."
"One of the questions you’re not allowed to answer."
"I’ve said too much, enjoyed your company too much." He touched my hand and a little tingle ran through me. "I should be encouraging you to make your other wishes and get back into my bottle."
There was a “but” in his voice, even though he didn’t say it. I think he really was enjoying my company and against all expectations I was enjoying his. He seemed too ordinary to be a magical entity and yet, I’d seen him emerge from the bottle with my own eyes.
With my own drunken eyes.
What if someone was playing a trick?
"Prove that you’re really a djinn," I said.
"I’ve granted your first wish, haven’t I?"
"I don’t know and it will be another eight months before I find out."
He spread his arms wide, palms upwards. "You released me from the bottle."
"I was blind drunk."
"What do you think I am?"
"I don’t know . . . an actor, sent by George to get me off his back. He knew about the bottle. He said he didn’t believe me, but he did know."
"Dolly, I am a djinn."
"A djinn who likes gardening."
"I haven’t always been a djinn. I told you, djinni are tricky"
"Oh, I see, you were human, but you were tricked into changing places with the djinn who came to answer your three wishes."
There was a long silence.
He took a deep breath. “There are some things you should never wish for. I was young and I was very foolish."
Some things you should never wish for. I shivered. Gamma Wilkes had lived ten bedridden, painful years beyond her body’s capabilities. What if she’d wished for immortality? Would she still be here in that fearful aching shell of a body, or would she be asleep in some bottle somewhere, while my wistful gardener ran around free?
"What would happen if someone wished you free of your bottle?"
He just shook his head. "You still have two more wishes."
He turned and walked back up to the house.
Two more wishes . . . he seemed happy with my first wish, for my baby to be a boy. Good! But if djinni were that tricky, could I even trust him to tell me when I’d done well?
What about my son’s children? Gamma’s wish–I’d begun to think of it as the Wilkes curse–meant that the Wilkes line would go on. My son would have at least one child and if that child were a girl, the cycle would begin again. My second wish had to be for the future generations. Damn, I could have taken care of them, and me as well, in one wish–meaning I’d wasted my first wish by not thinking it through. I thought I’d been so clever. Never mind, the future generations needed my protection . . .but that would leave only one wish for me.
He was already seated at the kitchen table when I walked back in. He’d poured the tea, stewed and thick, which was probably the way he liked it, but I couldn’t drink the acrid brew that he pushed towards me. He sipped at his, with both hands around the mug as though he was cold.
"I’ve made up my mind about the second wish."
He said nothing, but put the cup down and stood to attention again.
"My wish is that in each generation of Wilkes, from now on, there should be at least one Wilkes boy whose children will carry on the family name."
"Wish granted." This time he didn’t smile, he merely sat down and continued to sip his tea.
"Well, did I get it right this time?"
He nodded. "A very noble wish. But now it gets more difficult, doesn’t it? You have one wish left. What will it be, Dolly? Success in business? Luck in love? Or maybe health for your baby boy, or riches and . . ."
"Stop it." I put my hands over my ears until his mouth stopped moving. "I’ll make up my own mind, thank you."
"Only trying to be helpful."
"No, you weren’t. You’ve already said that djinni are tricky. Why should I trust you?"
"Because . . ."
"You can’t answer, can you?"
"I’m not like the rest."
"Oh yes, that has to rank with one of the most frequently used lies in the English language along with: Of course I’ll respect you in the morning." I scowled at him.
What did I want for my third wish? I guess I wanted not to be alone. Yesterday I would have asked for George, but George had let me down once and if I gave him another chance, he’d do it again.
What I really wanted was the opportunity to make a family life for myself and my son, but I couldn’t wish for a perfect partner and expect a lifetime of married bliss to fall into my lap. I had only one wish left, so how could I phrase what was in my heart? I want a partner I can love, who will love me and my son, and stay with me for the length of our natural lives without leaving or dying young or suffering a dreadful illness, or losing his career and having a nervous breakdown or . . . How many separate wishes was that? How many eventualities did I need to cover to be safe?
I might get all that, I might not, but wishing was no substitute for going out and making it happen. I had as much chance as the next woman, pregnant or not, No one really worried about one-parent families these days. I had a little money put by and I could go back to my job if I found a good child-minder. I never had much money, but I’d always managed, always had enough for my needs.
Enough for my needs.
Gamma Wilkes, you clever old biddy.
The Wilkes women had always had enough for their needs. Even if there had been times when we hadn’t known where the next penny was coming from, something always turned up.
So, I needn’t wish for wealth. That had been taken care of. Enough and no more.
Health? I’d take that one day at a time.
The djinn tapped his foot. "And your third wish? Come on, Dolly, make your mind up or I’ll start to age like a human."
"Is there a time limit?"
"No, but you can’t return me to the bottle until you’ve made your third wish."
"Do you want to go back?"
There was a long pause.
"Well, do you?"
"No, but . . ."
"Can my third wish set you free?’
I heard myself ask that question and I could hardly believe I’d said it. Djinni were devious: what if all his little hints about his past were just to get me to choose unwisely, to waste a wish. Or worse, still, what if by choosing to set him free I was choosing to take his place?
No, if that happened Gamma Wilkes’ wish would be broken and he couldn’t do that.
"You can only set me free by wishing someone else into the bottle in my place."
George. I thought of George in cream robes and found it gave me great satisfaction. I dwelled on the image for a while, but, though I hadn’t known it until two days ago, George had a wife and two sons.
"So I can’t return you to the bottle until I’ve made my third wish. And if I don’t make my third wish you can stay topside and live and grow old like a normal human?"
He grinned at me, a cute lopsided grin.
I wondered whether I’d have the self-discipline never to start a sentence with, “I wish.” And right then and there I wished, in my head, that I’d not wasted my first wish and that I could wish never to say that phrase again.
But I couldn’t.
I took a deep breath. I’d have to take the future one day at a time, and so would he.
© By Jacey Bedford