God the truck smells bad. Saul’s fish van had been the only option for escape. He’d lain for a while on the bed Jess had hastily made but sleep was far away.
With every pot hole the truck hits, another pungent wave wafts through the thick muggy air. Jack feels nauseous but maybe that’s just a result of the evening. With a free hand he rifles through the scattered CD collection on the passenger seat. Turning onto the smooth main road, a base guitar and steady drumbeat reverberate as the sound of the Foo Fighters thrum from the stereo.
He should have known. It’s always the same, although usually he might have had at least twenty-four hours to settle in before Joseph’s tirade. This is why he doesn’t come home.
Every visit since, every conversation, each moment of eye contact with Joseph: loaded. Maybe the blame is his? The expectation of inevitable confrontation willing the moment’s transformation from guilt to action. This conflict now their default position: Jacks presence highlighting Raife’s absence and everything that spiralled from there.
The night is heavy with regret. No starlight in the bleak darkness. As the van nears the coastal road a pale, insubstantial moon grazes the quiet ocean with tired light.
This wasn’t the plan. He breathes deeply trying to stop his thoughts from spiralling in regressive circles. “Damn it!” He bangs the steering wheel with the heel of his hand and pumps the gas. Actions interpreted as threatening were he not driving a strong smelling fish van with a maximum speed of 60 kilometres per hour.
Twenty minutes later the van pulls into the parking lot of a busy ocean-side bar. A snap decision, the music and dark mood have made him thirsty. Not a thirst he’s comfortable with, but recklessness is brewing along with his need for a beer.
There is comfort in the company of strangers and the bar is the small escape he needs. The beach bars’ closer to the touristy side of St. Eloise are busy and anonymous. No need for polite conversation. He wants to have a beer alone, let the dark anger brewing dangerously settle and subside.
An overwhelming lack of control jostles him through the crowd to the bar where he finds a seat and orders a beer. The woman behind the bar nods and passes him a dewy green bottle, no words needed. In this business she is only too familiar with the smell of despair.
There’s a cover band in the corner: three men in their fifties and a heavily made up woman whose cleavage attracts more attention than her voice. They start up another tired number that no-one pays much attention to.
Jack nurses his beer, trying to still his thoughts and find some calm. But stillness is elusive and the bottle which usually hits the spot, misses the mark completely. He needs another.
“You don’t look like you’re on holiday.” She smiles pushing the second beer before him. A name badge pinned to the breast pocket of her shirt reads Aubrey.
Jack smiles reluctantly, he doesn’t feel like conversation. He shakes his head before taking a long slow drink from the bottle, hoping this small action will satisfy.
“You here with the construction lot? I wish they’d stop with the condos over in La Moliets. Soon there will be more condos than beach. Man, I hate that shit.”
Her bad pronunciation of La Moliets suggests she’s another runaway. Another post college traveller in limbo, still tending bar ten years later. Career dreams forgotten; white picket fence, 2 kids and prematurely balding husband traded for eternal hippiedom in the tropics.
She’s staring at him, arms folded. “It’s rude not to answer. I’m just being polite.”
Jack blushes, caught up in his own thoughts he hasn’t said a word. Doesn’t really care to. “Sorry. No, I’m not with the construction guys.”
She smiles. “You have got a voice!” She stops drying beer glasses and thrusts a sticky hand toward him. “Good to meet you. You can call me Aubrey.”
Jack takes her hand, slightly amused by her persistence. “Jack.”
“Well Jack, what the hell are you doing here, looking like you just got done at a funeral?” She pauses, frowning. “Shit, you didn’t just get done at a funeral, did you?”
He smiles and shakes his head again. “No.”
“Aha.” She winks then claps her hands together. “I get it, the one-word answer. I’m desperate for conversation, I guess it’ll have to do.” A man hollers an order from the other end of the bar and she gives him the finger without looking around. “In a minute, I’m busy.” She cracks open a bottle of beer, leans in and clinks the bottleneck with Jacks. He can smell her; shampoo and cigarette smoke. The top of her cleavage is visible from the open neck of her shirt and she lingers a moment before moving back, smiling and heading over to the waiting order.
“So Jack, I’m right. You’re not from around here.” She shouts over the music from the other side of the bar, hands deftly mixing a cocktail. He shakes his head, a little more interested in the amusing distraction she is becoming. “That’s not even a word.” She bangs the cash drawer closed and heads back toward him. “Silent type. I like that - less complicated.”
“Do you ever let up?” He’s enjoying her now. She’s attractive and sassy and he’s just finished the second beer. Things are feeling better.
Aubrey claps her hands and laughs deeply. “Five words! I did it.”
The band plays on and slowly the night loses its hard edges, even the cover songs sound better. By beer number five he’s progressed to full sentences. This is the place he’d sworn not to go again. The crossing point where is doesn’t matter. Where everything is good and consequences happen to other people. Coated in the protective armour of the invincible drunk, Jack forgets he’s no good at this; that he’s still cleaning up the mess he made last time he lost control.
For now, everything is possible and his hazy head entertains the thought that he should be spending more time in bars; it feels good. All the stress he’s put himself though, all the work and avoidance to hold it together. Right now he believes he’s come home, and as he catches Aubrey’s eye, he knows exactly how the night will go.
At 2.00 am the bar is empty. Aubrey grabs a set of keys and a leather bag. Jack is in the same seat at the bar. He’s lost track of beers and time. There’s a dull throb in his temple; an omen of sorts. Rubbing his hands over his head he pushes the pain away till later. He’ll have this now.
She walks to the far end of the bar and takes a brush from her handbag. He watches as she pulls off her bandana emblazoned with the bar logo, and brushes. Long, wavy, bottle blonde hair. Pulling a tube from her bag she applies gloss to her lips, dabbing the corners then smacking them together. She admires her reflection, oblivious to Jacks stare.
“Going somewhere nice?” Jack asks as she walks toward him flicking lights off as she goes.
“Come on sunshine, I’ll give you a ride.”
She smiles pulling him to his feet. “You’re not driving anyplace tonight.”
“So you’ll take me home?” He lets her pull him toward the doors. Why the hell should he resist? Why stay faithful to someone he’ll never have? He needs this.
“Hell no.” Aubrey guides him out of the bar. The air feels good on his face. She turns to double lock the door and flip the switch to the outdoor lighting. He stands behind her, hands on her waist as they’re plunged into darkness. His need is suddenly insatiable, it’s been so long and now he can’t wait. Aubrey grabs his hands and places them on her breasts. He pulls her round to face him, hands moving beneath her shirt, pushing his body into hers.
“Easy,” she murmurs, pulling away gently and leading him by the hand across the deserted parking lot.
“Tell me we’re not doing this in the bushes.” Jack groans, his erection almost painful.
“Here.” She drags him around the side of the bar where a small camper van is parked. She fiddles with another key and throws open the back door. Inside is a mattress and the faint smell of incense, her home on the run. Life in a few basic possessions; clothes and a duffle bag, books and some blankets.
He pushes her backwards on to the mattress, tugging at her shirt and bra, pulling off his shirt roughly. She’s on her back naked from the top up. Jack straddles her, taking his fill of her breasts before moving to her belt. He peels off her shorts and underwear; he can’t stop or he’ll sober up enough to change his mind. His body shudders in anticipation; this is what he needs. This one physical act will cleanse him. That after this everything will be fine. This is all that matters. Right now he believes it.
She thrusts him a condom and in seconds he’s inside her. He starts slow but she urges him on and the sensation clears all thoughts from his mind. As their pace intensifies she begins to buck and moan loudly, too loudly, and it stalls his rhythm.
She pushes him on to his back and sits astride him, pulling his hands to her breasts as she moves and cries out. He opens his eyes, the air suddenly thick in the hot dark van. Pale, grey moonlight illuminates her face and form. But now her breasts seem to sag and droop as they sway close to his face and the flesh around her middle gathers in his hands. Slowly, slowly the haze in his head is clearing, and as their sweat mingles he feels a physical wrench, a vice in his chest that tightens as he longs for another body; another face; another woman.
Eyes closed, she holds her arms high above her head, moaning, hands twisting and turning, hips rising and falling gracelessly. The illusion dissolves with each awkward thrust. In one urgent movement, he flips her on to her front pushing in from behind; sickened with the sobering knowledge that he can’t finish while seeing her face.
Jack doesn’t sleep, he waits until she wakes. “I’m sorry.”
Aubrey takes a moment, eyes clouded with sleep, she sighs heavily before answering. “Don’t spoil my fun Jack. Don’t say another word. I get it and it’s okay.”
“I don’t normally drink… I didn’t mean…” she holds a palm up to his mouth, sealing in the words that will follow. Moving her hand into his she turns on her side, back to him, pulling his arm around her, forcing the hold that must end soon.
“Just stay a while.” She draws him closer, and as they lie she strokes his hand. “Don’t say anything else. I know I’m not her, whoever the hell she is, but it’s okay. I had a good time.” She squeezes his hand and falls quickly back to sleep.
Dawn brings sadness. Steadily brightening light and darkening despair. He lies behind her, not quite touching aside for the hand she clings to. He’s another one of those guys - the bastard who takes what he needs and leaves. Bitter daylight reveals truths carefully hidden in the night’s black cloak of acceptance. When it’s late, and the world is quiet and dark and you believe for a time that comfort and release, however it’s found, is yours to take as need beckons. He’ll never see her again. She won’t remember him, it doesn’t matter…but somehow it does.
It does. And as the light brightens through the grimy camper windows, it matters more that he’s here. That it’s come to this. That he used her to fill a space. The fleeting satisfaction a poor reward for the heaviness that lies in his heart.
What the fuck was he thinking?
Prising his arm from her, he pulls the clothes he can find from the mess around them. He needs to be outside and away from this unsettling chaos. She rustles as he leaves but doesn’t wake. Cool morning dew embraces his shaking arms as he gently closes the door. He won’t say goodbye, she’ll expect him to be gone when she wakes.
He stands in the low light for a moment - maybe more - eyes closed, face raised to the cool air and gentle light of dawn. He tries to breathe steadily but his head pounds and his body aches from guilt and alcohol. With quick urgency he runs, heading for the bush that leads away from the bar down to the sandy undisturbed beach. At the tree line he doubles over, hands on bent knees and vomits.
When it’s done he walks till Aubrey and the bar and the booze are far away. Jack keeps walking, till the incoming tide laps around his body and the waves try to wash away the night before.
Santos is crowded when they arrive. Virginia gets there first, Dan’s vintage Chevy no match for her sports car. Making her way to the bar, she smiles and greets the local faces she recognises. It’s hard to be anonymous in her profession and Virginia likes it that way.
Virginia waves across the bar where Josefina is leaning on her elbows chatting. When she catches her eye, Virginia blows her a kiss, gestures to the beer fridge and holds up two fingers. Josefina winks and heads toward her collecting two bottles of cold Corona on route. Beers in hand, Virginia weaves her way through the crowded bar to find her friends. She’s relieved to see them huddled around their usual table. She sighs, “Shifty up then, I’ve had a hell of a day.”
Sadie nudges Jed who shuffles along the cracked leather bench. “How was it?” She asks laying a hand on Virginia’s arm as she sinks into the soft seat with another loud sigh.
“Okay. I think it’s all ready.” She tips the bottle to her mouth taking a long, slow sip.
“Those both for you?” Jed gestures toward the beers lined up in front of her.
“Dan’s on his way.”
Jed frowns. “Doesn’t he have the show tonight?” He looks at Sadie, then back to Virginia. “He never comes in on a Thursday!”
Sadie laughs and nudges him, “What do you care?”
“I don’t, I just…”
Dan emerges from the crowd looking tired. Seeing them, he grins and makes his toward their booth. He leans over and kisses Sadie on both cheeks before sinking into the leather seat opposite.
“What about me?” asks Virginia, proffering her cheek forward in anticipation of a kiss.
“Twice in one night? Ginny, you’re wearing me out.” He smiles, reaching for the beer she pushes toward him. “Where’s Felix?”
“On his way with Zoe,” Sadie answers scanning the crowd. “Her Mom’s in town so they’re making the most of the free babysitting.”
As if on cue the couple enter the bar, Felix’s blond head clearly visible over the crowd. He waves and shouts something in German to Bastian, then cuts a path toward them, Zoe and her protruding tummy tucked safely behind. Seeing them, Zoe rushes forward to kiss everyone before squeezing herself in beside Virginia. Felix grins and pulls a stool over to the edge of the crowded booth.
Bastian arrives with a pint of dark brown beer of German origin and an iced tea with mint and lemon. “Bastian, you shouldn’t have. Table service isn’t necessary.” Zoe smiles grabbing the pint glass.
“Hey you, pass that here!” Felix calls across the table.
“Just a tiny taste?” Zoe lets the beer touch her lips and sighs. “God I miss beer.” Felix reaches over and commandeers his pint, pushing the iced tea in front of her. “Bleh!” She smiles up at him, foam from the beer coating her top lip.
Felix shakes his head reaching over to wipe her lip with his thumb. “Hey Bastian, pull up a chair.”
Bastian is already heading back to the bar. “Too busy, maybe later.”
“Hope you’re tuning in to the show tonight.” Dan calls after him, “I got a great line up of music.” Dan turns slowly and winks at Jed who looks mildly alarmed.
“We’ll have you on full volume.” Bastian glances briefly over at Josefina. “Just promise me no country music. She’s been playing Garth Brooks and Shania Twain for weeks. It’s driving me crazy.”
“You bet, no country music. I have my standards.” Dan pretends to look offended. Bastian gives him a thumbs up and returns to Josefina’s side behind the bar.
Half an hour later Dan rises to leave, blowing a kiss to the table as he departs. “Full volume, don’t forget.”
“Yeah, yeah. We hear you!” Zoe says. “Don’t worry - the world will stop and we’ll all hail when the show starts.”
“Easy fatty.” He quips retreating before she can throw something at him. He turns briefly raising his eyebrows at Jed who nods quickly, his face pale and distracted.
Zoe turns to Virginia. “So the house looks okay?” Virginia nods and smiles. Zoe continues, “They’re on their way right now, this time tomorrow she’ll be home. It’ll be so good to see her.” She hesitates, “Will it be okay to talk about it?”
“Of course.” Virginia is reassuring. “Billie has had time and she’s strong. We can’t avoid it. She’ll want to talk and we have to be here for her. We have to do our best to support her, help her to move on.”
“I wish Jack were here.” Zoe pauses. “But maybe it’s good he’s not… oh, I don’t know.” She looks at her hands and twists her wedding band. Virginia is about to reply when Jed stands abruptly and pushes past them, knocking over a beer as he goes.
“Jed!” Sadie calls after him. “Where are you going?”
“Forgot something at the cafe, be back in a minute.” As he jogs from the bar, Sadie shrugs and carries on her conversation.
Out in the street Jed grabs his skateboard, overcome by a rash of nervous energy, he takes off on the wrong side of the road at full speed. Luckily there’s hardly any traffic and he’s a skilled boarder. He lets out a crazy guy wolf call and boards like a mad man, weaving around the scattered traffic toward Dan’s studio where the nights broadcast is about to begin.
Back in Santos the crowd has thinned considerably and they can actually hear each other speak without shouting. Bastian arrives with a pitcher of dark brown beer, some glasses and a basket of unshelled peanuts. He pulls up a stool and pours himself a glass, launching into conversation as Josefina turns the volume up on Dan’s show. Dan’s voice is smooth as he introduces the show before playing the first track of the night.
“Where’s Jed?” asks Felix.
Sadie starts, deep in conversation with Zoe. “He should have been back by now, said he had to pop over to the cafe.” Josefina interrupts arriving with another round of drinks. Jed is momentarily forgotten and conversation continues until Dan’s voice becomes annoyingly loud through the speakers.
“Calling Santos! Are you guys listening? Bastian? I told you to turn the volume up. Don’t let me down man.”
Bastian looks around sheepishly as though somehow Dan must be able to see him. “I turned it up!” He opens his palms to the speakers as though to placate the demanding Dan.
“Okay then, tonight I’m going to dedicate a track to our dear friend Billie and her kids who are on the way over the oceans as we speak, heading back home. Billie we can’t wait to see you. This track is also for Evan our dearly departed friend. Hope you got some aerodynamic wings up there buddy. We miss you. Bastian, don’t turn me down, you hear?”
Bastian keeps looking around like Dan must be sitting in the bar somewhere watching him. “My hands are on my beer!” They all laugh, the track begins, and people nod and smile, recognising the music and understanding its significance. When it finishes Felix calls out a toast to Billie and Evan and they raise their glasses.
Dan chats on, entertaining with snippets of local news, gossip and some well-chosen music. He introduces a new local reggae band, plays a few of their tracks and takes some local calls. As the show comes to its conclusion there’s an awkward pause, silence as the last track concludes. They imagine Dan taking a long slow breath. When finally he speaks his voice is tight, the pitch a little tense. His unusual tone has everyone’s attention.
“Okay guys, this is it. It’s a first and I want you to move to the edge of your seats while you’re listening. If you’re driving, pull over and cross your fingers, because my friend here is doing something crazy. Something brave and something you probably won’t hear again on my show.”
Zoe raises an eyebrow and motions everyone to be quiet. Conversations stop and ears are trained on Dan’s voice, wondering what he’s about to do. Who is his friend and what’s going on?
“I’d like to welcome my buddy Jed here to the show, a guy we all know and love, artisan of the finest coffee in the South Pacific, owner of Beaujangles cafe downtown. If you haven’t been there, you shouldn’t be listening to my show; so turn off your radio and don’t come back till you’ve tasted Jed’s coffee.”
At Santos, everything has gone quiet. Those drinking in booths or at the bar all know Jed, and now everyone is wondering what’s about to go down.
Felix nudges Zoe, “You know what this is about?” She shrugs looking bewildered and reaches out a hand out to silence Felix as Dan continues.
“Well, I’m going to put Jed on then pour myself a stiff drink, and thank God I don’t have to ever go through this. I’m hurting here Jed, the floors’ yours.”
There’s a sound of someone clearing their throat, then the familiar tone of Jed. His voice a little strained, not the usual relaxed guy they’re used to.
“Hey out there.” There’s a pause like he expects an answer, then a short nervous laugh. “Santos bar, I’m hoping you’re all listening. In fact, I’m hoping one person in particular is listening. Her name’s Sadie.” There’s a pause as Jed takes a breath.
In Santos everyone is listening; Virginia casts a quick glance at Sadie who is completely white aside from two red blotches on her cheeks. Felix starts to laugh and Zoe nudges him again.
“Sadie… this is crazy I know. But I’m here on Dan’s show tonight to ask…”
There’s an awful pause like he’s about to chicken out of asking the question they suspect is coming. Sadie’s eyes are wide and she stares at her hands.
“…to ask if you’ll marry me.”
The bar is silent, all eyes on Sadie who doesn’t move or look up.
“I know I won’t hear your answer till I see you. I’m going to skateboard over right now. So get ready baby. I love you.”
Dan’s voice returns and is quickly replaced by another well-selected track. All eyes in Santos are on Sadie. When she finally raises her head, she has the look of a deer in headlights and no-one knows what to say. It’s beyond awkward because she’s not smiling and they know Jed is on his way to hear her answer.
“Oh fuck…” Felix mutters under his breath and receives another nudge from Zoe. Josefina hurries over with a tray of drinks trying to break the tension around the table but Sadie stands quickly, apologising, climbing over legs to get out of the booth and exit the bar before Jed arrives.
As she reaches the swing doors Jed bursts through, meeting her face to face. He’s all smiles, positive expectations beam from his flushed face. But her dark expression stops him in his tracks. She pushes past him as he stands frozen in the doorway. “Damn.” Jed sucks his breath slowly through his teeth then turns on his heel to follow her.
She is running down the street and when he catches her she’s crying. “Shit Sadie, what is it? I’m sorry, I thought…”
“What the hell did you think Jed?” She stands with her back to him, shoulders slumped.
Jed pauses, reaching a hand to her shoulder, turning her around to face him. “I thought you’d say ‘yes’.”
She bangs a closed fist on his chest. “Christ Jed, you dumb ass! That was the single most embarrassing moment of my life.”
“Is that a ‘no’?”
She grabs the skateboard he holds under his arm, turns on her heel and sprints down the street, throwing the board to the ground and jumping on, full pace, heading away from Santos, from Beaujangles and Jed.
“Shit.” Jed brings his hands to his mouth. “That went well.”
He stands for a moment, watching her speed off on his board. “Fucking Sadie.” He says it aloud, then repeats the words again, louder the second time. Sinking his hands into his pockets, he retreats back to Santos where he receives a standing ovation, some conciliatory back slaps and a few complimentary beers.
“One never reaches home. But where paths that have an affinity for each other intersect, there the whole world looks like home, for a time.”
The low drone of the plane has finally lulled Evie and Sunny to sleep; now it’s my turn, but I can’t settle. We are heading back to St. Cloud. Arrasaigh, Cam and Nell are far away and presently I am somewhere between homes; somewhere above another vast ocean, somewhere between two lives, anchored by my children.
This time tomorrow we will be back in Frontiere Point, back in our home, starting again. Moving back was never a question. My heart is in St Cloud, it’s where our children were born, where Evan died and where my life needs to begin again. I need our friends and the familiarity of our house, the view, the beach and the sights and smells of St. Cloud. Despite the knowing, despite my certainty about this next step, our new beginning; I am afraid.
I’m afraid of how I’ll feel when I walk in the door.
Will I be overwhelmed with crippling grief? Will it be like I never left, the weight of tragedy leaving me helpless again? These past few months I’ve begun to see things differently, to understand a little more clearly. I’m not angry anymore. I’m not angry with Evan or myself. All that anger passed to wracking grief, then more gently to sadness. The sadness never leaves and I don’t want it to. It reminds me of him, of us, of what we had and what we lost. I can live with the sadness, I can function for Evie and Sunny without fear of crumpling under the weight of guilt and despair. Sadness colours my world but allows the light to filter through. I know now I’ll make it.
I think of Jack and am torn still with longing and guilt. I know now that nothing I could have done drove Evan to his death. I understand he was ill and fate led him to the cliff, and that circumstance conspired to end his life early.
What would he have told me now? I have imaginary conversations with him. I ask him what I should do, where I should go, how I should start again. And I have to trust that the intuitive feeling I experience regarding what to do and how to be are a guide from him. Because despite it all, Evan loved me, and I know he wants the best for us now.
For now, here in the dimly lit plane I’m not sure what that best will mean. I still don’t know how I’ll feel back in St. Cloud, but I know I have to go home. Home is the start point for everything.
I signal the airhostess and politely ask for some wine. I need to sleep. I chug the glass faster than considered proper and close my eyes, one arm round each child. Letting my mind drift to thoughts of St. Cloud. I ache for home.
The airport looks different but I can’t figure out why, I’m too busy rounding up bags and children, feeling flustered and suddenly unsure. Everything is bright and shiny and anxiety rises in my chest as I look around, hoping to see something that feels like home.
A crowd await arrivals and every face is unfamiliar, I feel panicky and unclear on why we’re here. Then, I see him. He stands, hands in pockets, a head taller than everyone. His eyes are on us and his careful smile fills me with relief. It will be okay. I’ve done the right thing - this is home. I walk warily pushing my luggage and the twins through the concourse. The crowd seems to move for me. All my uncertainty over the future is gone, there’s no grief or anger and no guilt. Each steady step toward him feels right, an inevitable path to my new future. A future that was always mine to take.
Jack waits for me, his dark eyes intense.
The twins are so quiet; the calm certainty of the moment seems to have affected them too. I stop the trolley and walk round to stand in front of Jack who looks just like he did the day I met him. He opens his arms and I move toward him, suddenly desperate to hold him. Pulling his face down to mine I kiss him. The kiss is needy. I pull him to me and kiss him till I’m out of breath. This time he doesn’t stop me and there are no words. All sounds have dimmed to nothing, only the noise of blood rushing in my ears.
A loud Bing Bong sounds all around the terminal and I pull away from Jack to see things moving in slow motion. The crowds have cleared and the pilot approaches, cap on, head down, flanked by gorgeous air hostesses. They walk in a line, a procession of perfection, suited and suntanned, pulling along wheelie cases. Entwined in Jacks arms I turn to watch, disoriented. As the pilot passes he tips his cap and winks; Evan.
I drop to my knees as he keeps walking, an airhostess gently stroking his back. Pressing my eyes closed I try to reboot the scene. But when I open them the airport tannoy is playing YMCA at full volume. Evan spins on his heel, throws his airline cap in the air and starts singing “Young man…”, pointing to Jack who is now wearing a hard hat and builders vest, his arms in the air joining in with the actions.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy…”
Oh God what now, where am I?
“Mommy, Mommy?” I jump sending the empty wine glass resting on the tray table into the air.
“Shit…” Evie is pulling on my sleeve pointing to the window, the shade half up, sunlight streaming in through the gap. The fasten seatbelts sign flashes on overhead and I take a deep breath, not sure whether to laugh out loud at my dream or worry over its interpretation. I kiss Evie on the forehead. I can tell she is trying to work her mouth around the cuss word I’ve just uttered. Sunny sleeps on, relaxed and unaware of the next big change on the horizon.
St Eloise is hellishly hot. Hotter than St. Cloud, but maybe it’s just his mood. He’s been angry and frustrated for days.
Jess has him working around the farm and the physical labour has been good. In one month he’s built her most of the furniture for the nursery. He’s happy to do this. It makes him feel good; one light amidst a dark few months.
Most of his days he’s been outside with Saul in the orchard or on the boat. The time with his brother is exactly what he needs. Saul is grounded and Jack hopes some of that steadiness might rub off. Not so far. It’s been a long time since he’s felt this way, dark and restless, stuck with a head full of regret and a future he can’t see.
“How’s it coming along in here?” Jess breezes into the nursery, a tray with coffee and cookies balanced above her small bump.
Jack’s smile is warm. “You tell me boss, what do you think?” He stands back, dusting off the small dresser, opening out the top surface on brass hinges. The dresser now a sturdy baby change table.
Jess breathes out slowly, lowering the tray to the floor. “Jack.”
“Is that ‘Jack it’s pretty good’ or ‘Jack I hate it’?’”
Jess’s hands cover her mouth and her eyes fill as she takes in the lovingly carved dresser. Pressing her lips together she fans her eyes for a moment. “It’s perfect.”
“Then what’s with the tears?” He pulls her into a hug as she stifles a small sob.
“God, I’m a wreck.” She pulls away and sniffs. “Sorry, you’ll get used to it, I just cried over a batch of burnt cookies before. I’m hoping this phase stops pretty soon.” Bending down she passes him a mug and offers the plate toward him. He raises an eyebrow. “Don’t worry, these are the good ones.”
They sit down on a few upturned crates and look around the nursery. “It’s hard to believe.” Jess sips from her mug, eyes fixed on the cream coloured walls and crib. “We’ve been trying for a long time… I just never thought it’d happen.” Jack smiles. “I thought maybe there was something wrong with me. God, or worse still, wrong with Saul. Can you imagine him in a fertility clinic?” She rubs her belly and carries on. “He’s so happy Jack, I’m just…”
“I’m afraid it won’t be okay? There’s still a ways to go and… well Saul’s pretty sure it’s a done deal. He’s sure it’s a boy. He’s bought a little fishing rod and has a name fixed and…”
“Hey.” Jack lays a hand on her arm. “It’ll be fine, you’ll be fine. You’ve come this far, that baby will be a stubborn little guy like his Dad, he won’t be going anywhere.”
“It might be a ‘she’.”
“Most likely.” Jack grins again. “Saul will teach her to fish anyway.”
Jess nods. “Thanks Jack.”
“For what? My great advice?” He stands up and moves to the dresser, running a rough hand over its smoothly sanded surface. “I’m the last person to listen to around here. I’m an expert on screwing up, but not much else.” She raises a hand to silence him but he carries on. “That baby is a blessing and you guys will be great parents.”
Jess sits quietly, looking around the nursery while Jack sips his coffee, gaze fixed on his brother at work at the edge of the orchard. Despite the open window and glimpse of cool ocean, there is no breeze. Heat radiates from the ground, and the air is heavy and still.
“I want you to do something for me.” Jess speaks carefully. He doesn’t turn around, he knows the tone, and he knows the topic. He doesn’t feel like talking about this. “I feel like we’ve given up on him.” She speaks tentatively, as though she’s rehearsed the line many times before.
His jaw tightens but he doesn’t look around.
“When he called, a few months back, he sounded different. I think he’s asking for help Jack.”
Jack lets out a breath, eyes moving from the sun drenched orchard to the dusty floorboards. “Of course he’s asking for help Jess, nothing’s changed. The only time we hear from him is when he’s in trouble, when he needs money or a place a stay.” He puts his mug down on the windowsill and turns to her. “Don’t worry about Raife. He’ll be fine.”
“But he’s not.” Her words bristle. “He isn’t fine. Don’t pretend you believe that because I know you don’t. You know the truth: Raife’s still running.” She pauses and takes a slow, calming breath. “This is what families do. We support each other…” She stops, breathless, cheeks flushed, “…through everything.”
The close scrutiny makes him uncomfortable but he doesn’t respond. He won’t give an inch, not yet.
“Will you look at me?”
He raises his eyes, he’d like to make a joke to clear the tension but her eyes flash in warning.
“We support each other…through everything.”
He nods needing to pacify her, calm her down. And she’s right, that’s what families are supposed to do. It’s what he wants to do and he’s ashamed that he can’t.
“I just think you’d feel so good if you went to him, to see if you could help. Saul and Raife were never close, and I think you’re the only person he’ll listen to. You need to give him a kick up the ass Jack. God knows he needs it. It’s time to move on. It isn’t healthy. And we could do with the help around here, Saul is pretty much on his own right now.” She gestures toward her belly. “You need to go tell him we need him, that his family want him to come home.”
She stands wearily holding her hand out for his empty coffee mug, “I don’t think we can wait on this.” The anger is gone, replaced with sadness. “Raife needs to know about Amandine.” She holds his gaze and he nods quickly before looking away. Her certainty adds weight to his worry. His mother is slipping, and Jess is right, his brother needs to know.
Jack closes his eyes and sighs heavily. “Jess, if I thought for a moment he’d listen, I’d go tonight. But you know him, you know what he’s like now. It’d be a waste of time.”
“Maybe, but don’t you think he deserves one last chance? He’s been through a lot. Yes, he’s a mess, but maybe, if you could stop moping around, you’d see he’s asking us to help him.” She barrels on before he can interrupt. “You might get there and find you can’t help, he won’t let you, whatever. But you’ll know you tried. You did your bit. Then, you can head back to St. Cloud and feel sorry for yourself…or whatever.”
He listens, arms folded. “Are you done?”
She mirrors his pose. “Yes.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes…I need to go pee.” She gives him a quick smile and hurries from the room.
“Damn it.” Jack begins sanding again, knowing there’s truth in her words, knowing that right now he probably is the only one who can help Raife. Hearing Amandine in the garden he looks up, she’s crouched over on the deck speaking in hushed tones. He makes his way out to the garden to see her. “Mama…”
“Jack!” She turns, her smile bright. “Darling, so good to see you.” She reaches up to kiss both of his cheeks. “I was just feeding Saul’s cat.”
“Come in, Jess has just fixed some coffee.” He leads her by the arm toward the house, glancing back he sees one of Saul’s running shoes stuffed with scraps of food.
“Give me ten minutes.” Saul nods as Jack hops from the van and jogs toward the house. Ten minutes to say a quick good bye. He heads to the back porch where he knows Joseph will be sitting, puffing on a pipe, ensconced on the swing seat.
“Finally.” The voice calls out to him before he’s even up the stairs. Joseph has been expecting him. Jess must have told them about his plan. “What took you so long?”
“Papa I’m leaving.” Jack doesn’t want a lecture or any harsh words between them. “I’m going to visit Raife and spend a little time with him.” He stands facing Joseph, hands pushed deep in his pockets.
Joseph doesn’t look up from his newspaper. “I heard. It’s a good idea.” Jack nods, Joseph’s support unexpected. “Have you spoken to him?”
“No, but I know where he is.”
Joseph looks up, softness in his tired eyes. “You talk to him Jack, bring him home.” Wearily he extends a hand but doesn’t stand.
“’I’ll try Papa.”
“Don’t tell him about your mother.”
“I don’t want that to be the reason he comes home.” Jack extends his hand and Joseph grips hard, bringing his free hand to rest on Jacks’ forearm, squeezing in uncharacteristic tenderness. “She’s asleep, don’t wake her. I’ll tell her you’re gone. It’ll be easier that way.”
Joseph’s hand feels small and unsteady and Jack holds it firm, thrown by the unfamiliar intimacy with his father. He leaves moments later in the van with Saul, heading for the boat, then the airport; unhinged by the ties of family and bonds that bind them.
He’ll find Raife, he knows that much; the man leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. It’s not the finding that keeps him awake through the long flight to Los Angeles. Raife wants to be found, but what else does he want and why now?
From a notebook he pulls out a page covered in pencil drawings, beginnings of ideas for his new project; a boat gathering dust in his workshop back in St. Cloud. He turns the page over and begins to write. He writes to Billie; another letter he won’t send. He tells her of his mother and father, Saul, Jess, the baby, St. Eloise and Raife. That he’s going to find his brother and doesn’t know when he’ll be back. And that he’s sorry - sorry for everything.
Touching the page, he imagines the reply. The letter she won’t write him, because there is no hope for them. There never was.
Exiting the plane, he crumples the paper into a tight ball, stuffs it into a garbage can and turns to face the chaos of Los Angeles International Airport. Weaving gracefully through the mass of travellers and tourists he emerges, determined but unsettled out into a dark red smoggy sunset.