The music is loud, and the club dark and crowded, it’s hot and the smell of beer and sweat hangs like a mist. It should be repulsive, but somehow here the smell fits. Combined with a beat that runs below the floor and reverberates from the walls; the picture is complete.
A thousand conversations: mouths moving, words that flow then disappear unheard in the crowded haze of smoke and music. I watch from behind the bar, a voyeur, tasting the nights flavour through the senses of others. Unheard, my words are understood amidst all voices and music. They give me money and I give them drinks. I pour and mix, pass bottles and pints, a willing observer of the primal connection of man to music.
The colourful microcosm of the basement nightclub is captivating. Uninhibited displays of the human condition, exposed and on show. Inhibitions lulled by beer and spirits, darkness, strobes of coloured light, and loud music that pulls at desires normally bound tightly in a world of social etiquette.
I work here four nights a week, a London nightclub where the music is wild and the characters wilder. I love and hate this job from minute to minute. It’s a thrill to watch and experience the heady buzz of London nightlife, but the hours are long and I often finish feeling hung over, although I haven’t drunk a drop.
Tonight is busier than usual, its midsummer, and the city’s population swells. There are six of us behind the long bar that runs the back wall of the club. For every bottle or glass passed over in exchange for a bill there is another line of hands waiting outstretched, money at the ready. It’s hot and I’m damp with sweat as the music gets louder and the crowd thickens.
I see him at the corner of bar watching me and don’t know how long he’s been there. The DJ plays the Arctic Monkeys and the dance floor heaves. He leans against the wall mouthing the words, his head moving to the beat. ‘Bet you look good on the dance floor.’ I know this track; he’d play it in his studio on repeat. Catching my eye, he smiles and I work my way down the line of waiting drinkers toward him.
“I love your work,” he says, half smiling as I pass him a beer. He reaches a hand across the bar and tucks a damp lock of stray hair behind my ear then slants his head toward the exit sign. We play the game, I know what the sign means; it’s not a request but an order and I slip away from the crowded bar to follow him.
The Arctic Monkeys play on as I weave my way through the sweaty bodies, taken by the night, the booze and the beat. A hand finds mine and guides me to a corridor lit with dim red bulbs, leading to the stairwell up on to street level. He pushes me back against the wall, hands either side of my shoulders, forehead close to mine.
“Who are you anyway?” he asks tipping my chin up to kiss me and I feel the smile in the kiss as he brings his hands to my waist and pulls me higher to reach him. The music, the darkness, the smell and taste of him and the illicit forbidden feeling of knowing we shouldn’t, works every time. Reaching my hand to his trousers I feel the swell and am taken by a force dizzyingly powerful and erotically addictive.
I pull away and walk through the crowds knowing he will follow. This is the game.
The Staff Only sign hangs above a curtain leading back to a storeroom and bathroom. I walk quickly now; he is on my heels. The liquor storeroom is small and once inside I close the door and turn to him. A neon strip bathes the scene in cheap white light.
Evan hums the song and his head still nods to the beat whose base we can only feel now. There are times I look at him and wonder if I really know him at all, but it doesn’t matter. In these moments there is a need more powerful than knowledge. His hand circles the back of my neck pulling me in, the kiss; rough and urgent. There’s no time for anything else. Hands under my top, he murmurs as he touches skin before yanking my shirt to expose breasts to his mouth.
Flailing hands and deft fingers undo belts and jeans and he lifts me to him, legs circling his waist, back pushed up against the storeroom wall. The sex is urgent, fast and hard, and when it’s done we slide slowly to the cool concrete floor and begin to laugh. The aftermath of mania and the relief from such physical desire leaves us giddy.
Evan tidies me up, smoothes my hair, kisses each breast and sends me back to the bar. “See you at home Cinderella.”
A phone rings downstairs and I jump, sitting bolt upright in bed, disoriented and shaky. I hear a hushed voice pass by my door. “No dear, her light’s off, she must be asleep. Aye, I’ll have her call you in the morning.”
Shaking I reach for the glass of water beside the bed. The cool sensation helps return me to the present. I wasn’t asleep, it wasn’t a dream, just a clear memory. One of those hazy memories that descend before sleep comes. Memories that let themselves in when my guard is down.
Unsettled, I rise and listen for any sound from the twins next door. Usually when I wake they do and we sleep the remainder of the night together here in the big bed with its patchwork quilt and old wooden frame. The bed they were made in. The thought drops me to my knees and grief rolls in again.
Nell didn’t remember that this was the room Evan and I stayed in a lifetime ago, and I didn’t want to tell her. Part of me wants to lie here again, in this bed and remember him, maybe that’s why these memories come to me at night, crystal clear in detail.
I walk across the cool floorboards to the bathroom where the harsh light assures me I am indeed awake. The nightclub scene, the heady, illicit sex with Evan was just another memory. I turn the heavy taps in the old claw foot bathtub and strip, knowing that hot water and bubbles are a comfort to the saddest of souls. A long, free standing mirror in the corner reflects my naked image and I turn fully to face myself; pale and stripped bare. My hair falls drab and unkempt, its sheen lost. My legs and arms hang limp, barely supporting a frame that has lost something vital. Breasts once shapely droop, baggy and apologetic.
I raise a hand to my mouth in shock. My wasted frame symbolises all I have lost.
The girl in the store room, in the nightclub with Evan, full of lust, fearless and ready to run at life, she’s gone. She isn’t coming back. I stare, startled by my reflection; who is this that looks back at me? I don’t know her. So busy looking back and mourning at what’s been lost I’ve let her be, let her suffer and struggle alone.
I straighten up and take a step toward the mirror, running a hand along a thin arm, tracing the line from shoulder blade to clavicle. Pulling the limp hair from my face I examine my eyes and see that although the rest of me has changed, they remain the same. I am not the Billie of before but I carry her with me in an older, wiser body. I am a mother and a daughter, a friend but not a lover. That chapter has closed and I must focus on the chapters that remain open and hold me together.
Sliding into the hot bath I let my head submerge fully under the fragrant bubbles and hot water. As steam clouds the room and the water eventually cools, my head is clearer and my heart stronger. I realise that I am beginning to manage my grief, these snapshots of Evan are part of my journey to letting him go. That with all the good memories will come bad ones and those too might be relived then tucked away to rest, so that in time I might move on and begin again.
Gravel crunches under tires as the truck backs out of the drive. He reverses slowly, like he used to when Evie and Sunny were next door, when the thought of a stray toddler had him creeping along the driveway, checking his mirrors constantly.
Passing the Skylark house, silent and empty he feels the familiar rush of sadness. The house once full of life now barren and deathly quiet. He hits the accelerator and takes the corner too quickly, the trucks tyres skid, the road damp from a night of rain.
St. Cloud is at its most beautiful this time of day. He loves the quiet waking of the world, the first moments after the sun’s rays break over the horizon and daylight skims the ocean. Mornings after heavy rain are best, when tails of steam rise from leaves and branches. When grass sparkles and glints in the early light and the warm, damp tarmac smells like boys and bikes and summertime.
He thinks of his brothers now; Raife and Saul. You could tell they were brothers by their physical similarities, but there the resemblance stopped. Their personalities and how they had chosen to live were poles apart. Raife just a year older than Jack, and Saul five years older again. Although youngest in years Jack has always felt himself wedged in the middle of his brothers; the missing link that brought all three together. A little like Raife, a lot like Saul. He’d like to think that’s the way it is, but he wonders if the truth is that he’s a lot more like Raife than he cares to admit.
Louie and Bets sit up in the flatbed of the truck, mouths open, tongues lolling in the small breeze the truck cuts through the still air. A duffel bag lies wedged between them, and as the St. Cloud city outline becomes clear, Jack remembers the promise he made to Felix.
“Shit.” Shaking his head, he cuts across the city to Beaujangles; home to St. Cloud’s best coffee. The streets are quiet and he pulls up out front as Jed sets chairs and tables on to the wide sidewalk.
“Morning sunshine.” Jed slides the last few chairs beside the street-side tables and heads inside beckoning Jack to follow. “Haven’t even got the coffee on. No-one gets here this early!”
“I won’t make it to Felix’s. Can you let him know?” Jack shrugs and fingers the day’s newspaper on the counter.
“Where you heading?” Jed pours dark, fragrant coffee beans into the grinder and flips it on. Jacks words are drowned by the noise. Distracted by the act of making coffee, Jed’s expression is far away. He smells the ground beans before distributing a few scoops into the heavy handle that locks firmly into Monica, his red, shiny, chrome espresso machine. The fact that Jed named his espresso machine and engraved the name on the side is a source of conversation and humour in the cafe. No-one has managed to get the real story of why the beloved machine is called Monica, but most can guess.
“So where did you say you were going?” he asks raising an eyebrow before turning the nozzle on the milk frother, which makes more noise than the grinder and Monica put together. Jack sighs and checks the paper again. He’ll wait.
Moments later Jed places a perfect coffee on the counter. Just as Jack likes it. Triple shot with a single spoon of creamy milk on top. “Taking a road trip, heading out to see my folks in St. Eloise. I’ll drive to Bastille Bay then take a boat. Might drive the long way, take a few days.” Jack reaches for his coffee and mixes the dark and light shades of espresso and milk slowly with a spoon.
“Sounds good, must be a long time since they’ve seen you.”
“Too long really. I should check on them, spend a little time.”
Jed looks carefully at his friend. “You okay?”
Jack glances up quickly from his coffee. “Just need a change.”
Jed nods. “Sure.”
“The old man will drive me crazy within a half hour, but it’ll be good to see them.”
Jed smiles, stacking cups to warm on top of Monica. His next question is lost as the door opens and Dan breezes in, perfectly groomed and smelling of expensive cologne.
“You guys knew I’d be up early eh? Fixed me a welcoming party?” He doesn’t wait for an answer but addresses the espresso machine. “Monica you are the light of my life, don’t disappoint me today.” He turns his clear blue eyes to Jed. “One to go pretty boy.”
“What’s up with the crowd this morning? Usually I get this half hour to myself. It’s sacred.” Jed shakes his head. “You’re killing me.” He gets to work on Monica, smiling despite his complaints.
“What’s this I hear about Raife being in touch?” Dan turns to Jack who almost chokes on his coffee.
“What is it with this place?”
Jed raises his palms to Jack in awkward apology. “Sorry man, I just mentioned it to Dr Big Mouth here.”
Jack shrugs. “I don’t know, he left some garbled message on my answer phone and called here. He probably needs money.”
“He always does.” Dan answers. Both men sit, coffees to hand, facing Jed who’s busy setting up for opening.
“I don’t think going to see him is a good idea.” Dan shakes his head. “He’s never easy to deal with, and you always come out worst.”
“I’m going to see my folks and Saul, nothing more, a little time out.” Jed and Dan watch him expectantly. “I need to get away. I can’t build boats, and I can’t stay in that house and be reminded every fucking minute of everything that went wrong.”
“We all miss them man,” Jed answers quietly.
Jack breathes deeply, he said more than he meant to. “I know.”
Dan claps a hand firmly on Jacks shoulder. “Go, do your drive, hug your mama, help Saul with the farm and come back with a fucking smile, or I’ll be slipping some happy pills into your morning java.”
“Right.” Jack stands, downs the last of his coffee and leaves with a wave. “Hey don’t forget to tell Felix.”
“Sure thing, drive safe.” Jed replies to his retreating back as Dan lets out a long slow breath.
They watch Jack hop into the truck and take off with Louie and Bets in tow. Dan’s eyes remain fixed on the road long after the truck disappears. “Raife Kelly,” his words are barely audible, the image conjured by the name leaves him unsettled.
There’s something about driving and music that clears thoughts of the present. Scenery, smells, and well-chosen tracks can easily turn a road trip into a journey of nostalgia or a pathway to an imagined future.
The road to Bastille Bay is a long winding journey. Easy routes and highways don’t exist in St. Cloud. The small port town is a ten-hour drive from the city on a good day. The winding route traverses the islands most beautiful points. He’ll take his time, maybe stop for a night along the way. He has his tent; he’ll get there when he’s ready. He’ll need to be ready to deal with his father.
The cab of the truck is lonely and he pulls over to let Louie and Bets hop into the passenger seat as the coastline flies by. His mind wanders, childhood memories of these beaches as a boy.
He remembers fishing with Saul, catching his first tuna, and the pride of fighting the pull on the line till finally the fish came whipping from the water, all silvery skin and flapping body. His pride turned to fear as Saul unhooked the slippery, writhing body and thrust his pen knife into the neck of the fish. The fighting and flapping on the deck slowed gradually and he’d watched horrified as that life dimmed to nothing; still, motionless and bloody. His doing; dead on the deck.
At seven he’d cried and Raife had laughed, the scene would be ammunition for boyish teasing for years. Saul had knelt down and lifted the fish to him, made him hold it and feel it. He’d told him that this was what men did, it was the law of the land and fish were made to feed men. Jack had believed him, and together they gut and cooked the tuna on an outside fire. Later when he heard Saul and Raife laughing about the incident he’d decided not to be the baby anymore.
As boys Raife and Jack were alike in height and build, from a distance easy to mistake one for the other. Closer, their differences distinct. Where Jack has his mother’s dark hair and olive skin, Raife is fair and sandy, his features finer. Raife was an attractive boy, and Jack often felt those looks gave permission to a host of normally unacceptable behaviours. Jack became the fall guy, copping the blame when things got broken, the boys were late and chores went unfinished. He never made a fuss; he too basked in Raife’s golden glow. The only one seemingly immune to Raife’s charms was Saul; solid and grounded. He favoured neither of his brothers, treated them equally, bashed them equally and made sure they were both on the right track when he could.
He remembers his mother; Amandine, young and beautiful, possessive of her boys and unsuited to conflict; an inevitable presence in three teenage siblings. Saul rarely got involved; the age gap enough to rule him out of their petty disputes over chores, food and later girls. His mother hated it. She’d yell, lash out with a wooden spoon, then resort to tears. That would always get them. They’d stop and go to her, and soon forget what had been such a big deal before. That was when they were younger. Much later, when things really became a big deal, they’d break her heart and no-one would ever really get over it.
It’s late when he pulls into the quiet cove on the far eastern side of the island; a small sheltered beach just off the beaten track. Maybe he’s delaying his arrival home - maybe not - but the extra forty minutes to get here has been worth it. He admires the surf and enjoys the feeling of being completely alone. Just Louie and Bets, and they’re easy company.
Jack sets up the small tent a short distance from the truck and wanders down to the water’s edge. Here the ocean beats against the shore, and the tide pulls strongly on retreat, the force urging him in. Cool salt water; a perfect antidote to the day’s hot drive in a truck cab with two heavy breathing dogs. It’s dusk, and the beach his alone. He strips and runs into the waves diving deep below the cool white foam, where the water is calm and the rush of surf frames the quiet undertow.
The rip tugs and pulls as he swims toward shore and he remembers Evan on the beach. A lifeless body so close to death he’d feared it was too late; but that time had simply been a practice run for the real thing. He should have seen the signs. But could he have stopped it if he’d known? Worse still, did he sense it and choose to look away? He can’t answer the last question, and again Evans death is all around, tainting the water, the beach, his memories.
He staggers back toward the tent tired but refreshed by the struggle against the rip and the swim to shore. The dogs bark and race along the sand and he lies, naked on the beach, the last rays of sun beating on his chest as he breathes, remembering the last time he lay like this, sundown on sand. The memory is jagged but absorbing. He wants to tuck it away, but uninvited it finds its way to him as the sun lowers and the dogs settle on the still warm sand.
I love you Jack. Her words are clear, heavy with emotion but he knows she’s been drinking, they all have. I love you Jack. He’s heard the words from lovers before, but never like this. Then the endless wait for the reply that never comes, the words he didn’t say.
He never told her, she never knew, never will. She’ll go on thinking that she betrayed Evan, and amidst the pain of dealing with his death she’ll never know he’d always loved her. And that one night on the beach would always have to be enough.
There was never going to be a happy ending, how could there have been? He hadn’t meant for it, he’d pushed it away, but it wouldn’t go, and there she was every day. The whole thing from start to finish was his worst nightmare. He grew up with Raife; he understands drama and abhors it. Yet all he’s done is attract it.
He’d built the boatshed and house to get away. After the mad years, after his doomed relationship with Claudia, after the haze of drink and marijuana lifted, he’d needed to be alone. Back then it wasn’t a choice, it was the only way he thought he’d get through. A simple life; he couldn’t survive anymore chaos.
It was less than a year before they arrived and the quiet simplicity he thought he wanted was gone. The Skylarks and their baggage, and their noisy, chaotic lives were everywhere. He remembered what it was to want a family, joy and pain in equal measures. He’d watched her, and loved her and their children too. He’d watched Evan like a train wreck in slow motion, knowing it could never end well, but watching - like the rest of them.
Back against the warm sand, eyes to the slowly setting sun he brings a hand over his face. What a fucking mess. Despite the regret and the sadness, the remembrance of Evan and the man he was; despite it all the facts remain the same: Jack is in love with Evan’s wife.
That’s what won’t go away, that’s what keeps him awake, and that why he can’t move on. He loves her in a way he knows won’t happen again this lifetime. And life’s kick-in-the-ass is that they have no future together. Evan is immortalised in every fucking wave that beats the sand. She’ll never be able to let go. He couldn’t have planned his departure more perfectly.
The bitter thought makes him nauseous. Maybe he needs to move away, start again. Pulling on his jeans he makes his way back to the tent waiting forlornly on the far shore. He will stop thinking about her and what can’t be. Avoiding thoughts of the past is how he’s managed up till now. He’ll avoid thoughts of her; he has to. Turning slowly back to the receding ocean he watches the glow of crimson light disappear below the horizon. As the last light leaves the day Jack wonders where to leave these thoughts of her.
We watch the boat approach in the distance, a tiny speck of black and white on the horizon, gradually finding form.
“Mommy, Mommy, the boat, it’s the boat!” Sunny is thrilled; the arrival of the ferry into Arrasaigh is a daily treat. We come to watch it dock most days, hear the horn blast as it approaches and see the passengers disembark. They walk down the gangplank to excited friends or relatives, or just head home after errands on the mainland. We count cars as they drive up the ramp from the underbelly of the ferry; the twins amazed at how many cars, trucks and people the Arrasaigh ferry carries.
Evie and Sunny are three and a half. They run around, get up to mischief, talk lots, giggle lots and whinge a lot. Their conversations are cute and funny and I love to hear them chat to one another. Most of it makes little sense but they always seem to understand each other perfectly.
Evie is the boss, she calls the shots and usually, Sunny follows. It’s not that he’s afraid of her little temper; he always gives as good as he gets, it’s just that he adores her. He happily follows her lead and together they are a team.
I gather the buckets and spades, then pull on brightly coloured rain jackets over small squirmy bodies. A familiar drizzle descends on the island as we head up from the sand to reach the terminal where the ferry will dock.
The Arrasaigh terminal comprises of one small building, home to a ticket office and a kiosk serving hot tea and sausage rolls. There are two rows of plastic benches and a table with the day’s newspapers. As the rain falls steadily we shelter inside and watch from the window. The boat now so large it dwarves the port, and as it docks it sounds the arrival horn three times.
I see her edge out of the open doors and sniff the air before heading warily down the ramp. Iris, in a yellow sundress, red sandals and a fifties hair do. Her high heels wobble under the weight of her bags and she scans the dock looking for me.
“Iris, over here!” I yell to her as she stands scanning the small crowd. Her face lights and she drops the bags and runs to envelop me in an expensively perfumed hug. We stand hugging in the rain, Iris, spectacular and colourful, me a little grey and washed out. The twins are quiet now, both holding on to my trousers, unsure of who this wild woman is that’s squeezing their mother.
Later back at the farm house with Iris unpacked and settled we sit around the kitchen table with hot mugs of tea and a plate of scones courtesy of Nell. Cam is out on the farm and the twins play on the floor with toy cars and Lego.
Iris looks around smiling; her eyes are wet but she’s not one to cry. “It’s a lovely place to stay for a while.” I nod, outside the rain falls heavily but a small fire glows in the kitchen hearth.
“I’m not sure what I’d have done if I hadn’t come here.”
She reaches out a hand and rests it on my arm; waiting for me to say more. This is the first time we’ve seen each other since Evans death, since I arrived back in Arrasaigh. I hadn’t wanted any visitors and until now I hadn’t felt ready.
“It’s okay.” I clasp her other hand across the table. This is what I knew I’d have to be ready for; to comfort others who arrive to comfort me.
“Don’t be, it’s okay.”
“Ah, but it’s not really is it?”
“No,” I shake my head feeling a rogue tear slide down my cheek. “But it will be.”
Iris nods and we hold hands, and I ask her about her fiancé Marcus, her life in Dublin, and her family. We chat for a while, sipping hot tea, eating Nell’s home baking, and for a short time I can almost forget why we’re here. That Iris has come to visit me, not to tell me about her life, and her exciting future and upcoming wedding. But that she’s here to try and comfort me because my husband killed himself a few months ago and I have two small children and an uncertain future.
We don’t talk about any of that the first day, or the second. We enjoy each other’s company, enjoy the twins, walk, bake, sit by the beach and reminisce. But even that has its dangers; our shared memories of university involve Evan.
Iris stays for four days before she has to head back to work, her visit has lifted me. Her vivacious presence and infectious source of energy are a tonic. The twins adore her and I feel some of her colour seeping into me.
On our last evening we stay up late after everyone has gone to bed and the farmhouse is quiet. We drink wine and finally we talk - we talk about Evan.
I tell her everything; how I miss him, how I loved him and hate him. How I’m so angry with him and myself. I tell her how afraid I am, and how there’s a hateful part of me that amidst the grief feels relief. Relief that maybe now he’s finally happy, and that I am not responsible for his happiness any more.
I tell her how I screwed up, and I’m afraid the weight of that will never leave. That he was too much for me in the end and I wasn’t coping, but hadn’t told anyone and didn’t know what to do.
I tell her of all the events leading up to Evans death; of the depression and darkness, the drinking and the night he almost drowned. I talk till it’s all out, and finally I tell her about Jack.
When eventually I stop talking the wine is finished and Iris sits holding my hands, still listening intently. She lifts her glass to her lips, drains the last mouthful and sits the empty glass carefully down on the table.
“I’m going to say a few things now Billie, and you might not like them, but you’re going to listen.” Her voice is firm. “You are to blame for nothing, do you hear me? Evan’s life was not yours to watch over, and no matter how much you loved that man, it wouldn’t have mattered. Evan’s path was his and you didn’t push him there.”
She takes a breath and squeezes my hands. “He made choices, he was sick, and if you carry on taking the rap for how things turned out you’ll get sick yourself. And I mean sick! Those kids rely on you, you can’t fall apart, and you will if you never find a way to move on.”
I can’t look up. She squeezes my hands again. “Do you hear me Billie? You have to find a way to move on.” I know that I’m crying but need to hear her out. I blink away the tears and urge her to go on. “Evan loved you, anyone could see that, but love wasn’t enough to stop any of what happened and Evan wants you to pick your ass up and live!” I nod as she speaks, her hands so tight over mine I lose sensation in my fingertips.
“Take those babies, his babies, and find a way to parcel up that grief. Remember what’s real Billie. Evan was no angel, don’t give him wings. He screwed up more than once, and you were there to pick up the pieces each time. I know it hurts, but he screwed up again, and you can’t fix this one. But you can forgive him and move on. That’s what he’d want, just that you’d love him, despite it all.” Black droplets course down her cheeks as mascara marks trails of tears.
“So love him Billie, for what he was, but know he’s gone and it’s time for you to go on too. Start again. Go back and do what you have to do to make a new life. Take your time - maybe it’s Jack, maybe not. Go slow, but go. I don’t think you can wallow here anymore.”
She stops abruptly and raises her empty glass to her lips, parched from the long soliloquy. She sniffs and dabs her stained cheek with the back of her hand. “Jesus, pour me another drink will you?”
My head is spinning with her words and I’m dizzy with wine and the relief of talking it over. How heavy all those unsaid words had become. I open another bottle and refill our glasses. When Iris sips, the red wine leaves a rim around the top of her mouth that looks like a smile. I gesture to her face and she shrugs taking another sip.
Suddenly I feel the need to laugh rather than cry, to laugh like I might never stop. Iris stares at me warily, anticipating a flood of tears, her lipstick smudged, her face striped with black and her fifties hairdo collapsed on one side. I feel my mouth twitch and her eyes open wide in surprise. Then it starts. The belly laugh that is as cleansing as six months of tears. We laugh until we ache, then later, after the wine and the talking and the laughing we hug and head to bed, grateful for each other and the power of friendship.
Jack sits on the deck with Louie and Bets at his feet. St. Cloud fades into the distance as the passenger ferry makes its slow and steady journey to St. Eloise. It’s a six-hour boat trip but not unpleasant, he’ll stay on the deck and watch the ocean, maybe sleep a while. He hadn’t settled well last night after the ocean and the thoughts of his family then Billie. He woke early after a night of broken dreams and dark imaginings.
The quiet of St Eloise will be welcome, it’s a small island; too small for most, the community tight knit but prosperous. You either fish or live somehow from tourism. It’s an island of contrasts: the older side is full of fisherman, markets, small community and farmland; the newer more recently developed side a small but exclusive tourist haven. Only the wealthiest tourists go there, mostly for privacy and guaranteed sunshine.
Jack grew up on St. Cloud, but his parents moved to St. Eloise fourteen years ago after the shit hit the fan. By then Saul was already there; his wife Jess had grown up in St. Eloise and together they took over Jess’s family farm. It’s a small holding with only a few animals but they make their money on island fruit and fish. It’s more of an orchard, with a profitable side-line in fresh fish. His parents, Amandine and Joseph, moved over and Saul built them a cottage on the far side of his land. That way he had privacy but could watch over them. St. Eloise was what they needed; a quiet life.
Tall palms and golden sand frame the island, and as the ferry approaches, it rises up picture perfect from sparkling aquamarine water. Imaginings of the tropics, crystal water, tall palms and white beaches end here; this small island is paradise. So far only touched by tourism and too small for business or industry, St Eloise makes St. Cloud feel like a thriving metropolis.
He sees Saul’s van from a distance away. He knew he’d be here waiting; always dependable. The image of his brother, tall and unkempt leaning against the old beat up van makes him smile. Jack raises a hand in acknowledgement and Saul salutes. Once the boat docks Jack jogs along the dock, the men embrace and Saul steps back to look at him, cupping a hand to the side of his face. “Good to see you.”
“Room for three of us?” Louie and Bets jump and bark excitedly at Saul’s heels as he opens the van doors. “Jesus Saul, do you ever wash this thing out?
Empty fish crates are stacked against the back wall and the odour is overpowering. “You get used to the smell.” Saul grins throwing Jack’s bag in the back with the fish crates, beckoning the dogs to follow. Even Louie and Bets recoil slightly but Saul claps his hands and they’re up and in, tails wagging.
Jack enjoys the easy silence that rests between them. They drive along the narrow roads, busy at first as tourists embark on to coaches that will take them to the other side of the island. Saul turns on to a coastal road and beach after beach speed by until the road turns to gravel and the ride becomes bumpier.
“How long you here for?” Saul asks, eyes on the dusty road.
“Don’t know, probably just a few days. Thought I’d check in, Mama called giving me a hard time.” Jack glances over at his older brother, similar in build and colouring, but with distinctly different features. Saul’s eyes are pale green and his features soft, his face has a permanently gentle expression although his manner is not always so. Jack can testify to that.
“Listen before we get home I need to talk to you about Raife.” Saul steals a quick glance across the van cab at Jack.
“What about him?”
“Damn.” Saul bangs the heel of his hand on the steering wheel. “I don’t like the way you say that: what about him?” He imitates the tone and Jack bristles, feeling like he’s fifteen. “The ‘what about him’ is that I think he’s in trouble again and we need to find him.”
“There’s no we in this Saul. You want to find him? You go find him. I’ll stay here and take care of things for you but I’m not going looking for him - not this time.”
“Shit Jack, I knew you’d react this way.”
“Then why are we having this fucking conversation? If Raife wants to talk, he knows where to find me. I’m not the one who ran away.” Jack turns to Saul. “As far as Raife’s concerned I screwed up his life, so when you ask me to go look for him you can sure as hell bet my answer will be no.” He turns to the ocean trying to get a breath of air amidst the smell of fish and confrontation. Louise and Bets bark as the van hits a bump.
“I get it. I do. But he’s our brother.” Saul hits the gas and the old van complains. “Raife’s been stewing on the past for too long, behaving like an asshole; feeling like the world owes him something. He needs a kick up the ass!” He sighs running a hand through his tangle of dark hair. “He needs another chance Jack.”
Jack shakes head. “He’d never take one, he made his decision years ago. If he needs us, he’ll come to us.”
“And you’ll give him another chance then?” Saul’s voice is even. Jack leans back in his seat, trying to breathe evenly. How can he say no? All Saul’s ever wanted was harmony between them all. But Raife is another story. Raife won’t ever ask for help, especially not from him. He feels secure when he answers “I will,” knowing he won’t ever have to.
The rattle and bump of the van’s tired suspension punctuates the silence as they turn on to a dirt road and the farm comes into view. Saul glances at Jack. “Listen, I meant to talk to you about Mama…” He’s interrupted by Ziggy Marley singing from his mobile phone, his ring tone of choice. He sighs and answers, quickly distracted by details of a new fish order from a local hotel, present conversation forgotten.
“Hey, hey, my baby’s home!” Amandine rushes to Jack holding him tightly and he’s transported in time; boyhood in her touch and smell.
“Mama.” He bends to plant a kiss on her forehead as she smiles dabbing her eyes with a cotton hankie before she drags him through the small house to the back porch where his father, Joseph, sits smoking and reading. The greeting is awkward and formal. His father stands extending his arm for a firm handshake.
“Good to see you son.”
“You too.” Jack clasps both hands around the one his father offers, hoping this small gesture will somehow convey the words he can’t say. “You look well.”
“You don’t. You need a haircut and some new clothes,” he gestures to Jack’s ripped jeans and work shirt, shaking his head at his unkempt hair. “You’re as bad Saul.” His father sighs, sinks back into his chair and reaches for his pipe.
“I heard that?” Saul emerges on to the porch with a large slice of watermelon. Amandine fusses, taking Jack by the hand to a small tidy bedroom with a single bed, washstand and fresh towels. No-one mentions the fact that Jack hasn’t been home in four years. No one acts like it’s been that long and for that, he’s grateful. Saul heads home to work promising to return with Jess at eight for dinner.
Amandine pats the bed spread and fluffs the pillow, glancing out of the window distractedly. She seems smaller and it makes his heart ache. She has grown thin since he’s been away, her diminished frame chides the neglectful son he knows he’s become. As a boy his mother was his world, her willowy frame and long auburn hair, beauty personified. Amandine was the gentle contrast to Joseph’s hard edges and in her presence Joseph had been softer. But it’s been a long time since Jack’s seen the softer side of his father. A bitterness descended after Raife left, sadness turned black. A smouldering seed of anger that burns brightly in Jacks presence.
Amandine sits on the bed, forehead furrowed in a frown, hands knotted on her lap.
“Okay Mama?” Jack sits, placing an arm around her shoulders, her frail frame a shock to his hands.
She starts as though from a daydream and smiles pulling his free hand into hers to rest in her lap. “So good to have you home.” She kisses his rough fingertips and stands smoothing her skirt, gaze fixed on the view from the window then clicks her tongue in annoyance. “He’s here again, what does he want this time?”
Jack follows her gaze to the yard. “Who?”
“I don’t like that man. I wish he’d stop bothering us.” She shakes her head, walking briskly to the door. “I’ll tell your father, he’ll get rid of him.”
Moving to the window Jack sees Saul alone in the yard throwing a ball for Louie and Bets. When he turns she’s at the door, and he catches the words he’s about to say. He’s confused, uncertain if he missed something or simply misheard her. But as he stands by the window, watching Saul and the dogs in the late evening sun, confusion is eclipsed by denial, and Jack Kelly does denial pretty well.
Jess breezes through the door at eight, dwarfed by the casserole she carries. “Jack!” She squeals happily, pushing the large dish into Saul’s arms she throws her arms around him. “Where the hell have you been, and why do we have to wait this long to be graced with your company?” She throws her hands on her hips and for a second he thinks she might really yell at him, but the frown is quickly transformed to a smile brimming with affection.
Jess really is Saul’s perfect match; together since their teens, it’s hard to imagine one without the other. They are one of those unique couples who seem to complement each other in every way.
It’s only as she envelops him in a bear hug that he feels something different, and as he pulls away holding her at arm’s length he shakes his head turning from her expectant smile to Saul’s.
“And you guys were going to tell me when exactly?” He gestures to the compact bump Jess had cleverly concealed behind the casserole dish. He pulls her into another hug, gentler this time then claps Saul hard on the back. “Congratulations, I can’t believe you managed to keep this from me all the way home in that stinking van! And you…Mama, not a word? What’s with that?” He hugs Jess again.
“She made us promise,” Saul gestures toward Jess who smiles brightly. “Wanted to tell you herself…good thing you didn’t wait another year to come home.” Saul grins and cracks open a beer and Jess pulls Jack by the hand to the sofa.
Much later at the dinner table the atmosphere is one of togetherness and Jack feels happier than he has done in months. It’s been wrong to stay away so long, he has missed this. Perhaps the tension and implied blame were never that bad. Maybe time has added weight to his dread of home and family expectations. No-one has brought the conversation round to Raife - not yet.
The thought seems to pass via the wine bottle from him to his father. Joseph has been in good spirits but has drunk too much, and as he pours himself another glass, Jack catches the brief exchange that passes between Saul and Jess.
“So, you built me a boat yet Jack?” Joseph asks, tone laced with an edge of frustration.
Jack shakes his head smiling. “Not yet Papa, but I will, one of these days, and when I do you…”
“I’ll what, son?” The loaded reply is a blow.
Jack lowers his head, knowing what happens now. Joseph pauses dramatically as if waiting for Jack to answer, knowing he won’t. His eyes are clear, ignited with bitterness, in anger he is alive, vital and resolute.
“I’ll be happy? I’ll forgive you? Is that what this little visit’s about? Grace us with your presence, clear your conscience? Your Mama…” he gestures toward Amandine who examines her hands clasped tightly in her lap. “Your Mama, she waits for you.” He takes a deep breath then turns the corners of his mouth down slowly, deliberately, in disgust. “I say, Amandine, why wait for him to come home? Jack will do what he’s always done, take care of himself.” Joseph stands, hands gripping hard edges of the table, leaning heavily as the bitterness finds voice.
Saul reaches a hand toward his father. “Papa, sit down.” Joseph’s balance wavers a little as he swats Saul’s hand away and continues undeterred.
“Build me a boat eh? That will be the day.” He points a shaking finger but Jack isn’t watching. His eyes are pressed tightly closed, head still lowered, fighting to retain control.
“Joseph stop.” Amandine stands and moves toward Joseph, reaching for him, but he dismisses her with a toss of his head.
“Stop what? Stop trying to tell him to sort his life out, stop wasting it away like a hermit?” Fingers twirl the stem of his half empty wine glass, mouth twitching as he listens to the internal conversation directing his conduct. He looks up, glazed eyes on Jack. “Of all the things you could have done…look at you?” He points a shaking finger as Saul stands abruptly and puts a hand on his father’s shoulder.
“That’s enough to drink Pa, you’re out of line.”
“Get your hands off me Saul, I’ll be the judge of when I’ve had enough. I’m still the man in this house.” He glares at Saul who takes a deep breath and sits down slowly. Joseph’s flabby expression is transformed; rigid with anger. They sit quietly, the scene too familiar, childhood memories cripple adult reactions. It’s always been this way, this undercurrent of volatility. He used to keep it under control, know when to stop, but since Raife left he doesn’t bother trying.
Air is sucked from the room, all eyes on Joseph, each carefully anticipating what comes next. Joseph shakes his head then looks back to Jack his gaze barely focused. “I’m making a point Saul. I’m making a point to Jack and he’s going to listen.”
Jack doesn’t look up, he’s trying to breathe and not react. It’s all coming back, this is why he’s stayed away.
“Where’s that wife of yours anyway? What sort of a marriage was that? What the hell were you thinking? That’s always been the problem with you Jack, never made a smart decision in your life.” The words are teasing jabs, the beginning of the inevitable boxing match. “Look what your decision did to your brother,” he pauses, “and that poor girl.”
Jack looks up. Anger turned to sadness he sits like a remorseful teenager waiting for the punishment, taking the blows.
“Stop it!” Amandine is crying and Jess looks afraid. Joseph hears no one, taken by anger and thrilled by the audience and opportunity to unleash it on the son he knows won’t fight back.
“Are you so ready to forget Raife? If it weren’t for you he’d be here, he’d have a family, he’d have a life. Look at him now, stupid son of a bitch is going down the tubes and anytime you care to remember him, remember this…it’s your fault.”
“Stop it Pa! Jesus Christ, stop it.” Saul stands to face his father and Joseph turns to him squaring his shoulders. Jack is on his feet. He won’t see them fight over him.
“Go home Saul.” Jack’s voice is low, he gestures to Jess who sobs openly. Saul’s hands, balled into fists are white at the knuckles. He nods warily, guiding Jess to her feet and out through the kitchen door.
Suddenly Amandine starts to sing, not a soft hum that might distract and diffuse the atmosphere, but a jolly TV jingle. Jack stops in his tracks turning from Joseph to stare slack-jawed at his mother, whose eyes are closed, fingers drumming on the cotton tablecloth, singing the Luxaflake laundry detergent commercial loudly.
The sight knocks the wind from his sails, anger fading to confusion as he watches, trying to find an explanation more palatable than the one he suspects to be true.
Joseph holds his ground, seemingly unfazed by Amandine. Either ignoring, or so used to the strange scene he pays it no mind. He wants to carry on where he left off.
“What are you going to do son, hit me? For telling you how it is? Go on, give me your best.” The old man sticks his chin toward Jack, eager for the blow. Jack turns slowly, running his hands over his head as though to erase the evening and start again. Joseph juts his chin out again, awaiting the sharp thrill of the blow.
“Mama, I’m sorry” he bends to his mother who smiles happily, she has stopped singing. “I’m going to go.”
“I know.” And she really seems to, she shrugs her shoulders like she’s got it all figured out, then stands to begin clearing the table. He turns to leave with a last glance back at his parents, heart heavy and mind racing.
His father has slumped back into his chair scowling silently as Jack leaves the room to reach the small bedroom. He grabs his bag, whistles to the dogs and leaves. Amandine is by the door.
“I love you Mama.” She nods and silently mouths her love in reply as he descends the steps and walks out into the dark night.
Saul is waiting at the gate, and without a word joins step, guiding Jack across the farm to his place where Jess has a bed ready.
“Fuck Saul, what am I doing here? It’s always the same.”
“I don’t know why you came home, but I’m glad you did.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about Mama?”
Saul shrugs looking awkward. “I meant to, then we didn’t have the chance. It’s just sometimes. She’s okay but when she’s tired she gets confused.”
“How long has she been like this?”
“A while. It’s been worse lately, but hell, she’s seventy-four. I lose track of things all the time, at her age she’s entitled to forget. It’s par for the course right?”
“Is it?” Jack rubs a rough hand over his face. “What does Papa say?”
“Won’t talk about it.”
Jack shakes his head, hands pushed deep in his pockets, reeling from the evenings turnaround. Here is a new layer to an already weighty reality. They walk in silence the rest of the way, knowing there’s too much to say.
At the gate to Saul’s drive they stop and Jack lets his bag fall to the ground where he bends to rub Louie and Bets behind their ears and feel the unconditional love they offer. “I’ll go. I’m making everything worse. I need to think. I can’t be around Papa, it’s bad for both of us.”
Saul’s stands arms folded, blocking the path. “Don’t leave feeling like this. Screw the old man, his resentments are so big he doesn’t know what he’s angry about anymore. Come home with me, spend some time at our place. I could sure do with the help and Jess would kill me if I let you head home. She wants you to stay a while.”
“I can’t Saul, you saw what me being here does to him.”
“I don’t give a shit about him. We’ve all pussied around him for years. I’m not giving you a choice, besides he never leaves the porch, you won’t even see him.”
“I’ll stay the night and we’ll talk tomorrow.”
“You make a plan with Jess. She’s a got a few weeks work in mind for you and you can’t say no to a pregnant woman right?”
Jack shakes his head; story of his life.