PATRICK HUGHES sat by the side door of the café, deep in thought. He’d been swirling the string of the teabag in his cup continuously for at least a minute, swirling like the thoughts in his mind.
‘Why don’t you see her?’ his nineteen-year-old son, John, asked, prompting his father to return from his brief break from reality.
‘Why don’t you see her?’
‘John, it’s not. . . it’s not as simple as that. You know this. Your mother and I—we haven’t spoken in a long time.’
‘Well, I’m the same. I don’t know why you expect me to see her when you won’t.’
‘She’s your mother, it’s different. Peter’s visited her a few times already.’
‘Peter’s an asshole.’
‘Watch your mouth.’
Patrick sat back in his chair, placed both hands behind his head, and sighed.
‘How did our family become so messed up?’
‘Maybe because you cheated on her?’
‘That’s not fair. You know how difficult she was- is.’
Sans response, John looked away, swiped, tapped, and withdrew into his iPhone.
Patrick thought about how, indeed, it had come to this. How, after eighteen years of marriage, he enjoyed his wife’s presence about as much as he enjoyed a trip to the dentist, and had become involved with another woman. How his two sons couldn’t stand each other. How one of them would barely speak to him, and the other—the one presently in his company—had only seemed interested in a relationship with him when monetary concerns arose. He thought about the family holiday to Milan, the trip to Barcelona. The extended stay in Miami—the final family holiday—when the brothers were fourteen and twelve respectively, having fun, no ill feeling, only healthy sibling rivalry. No knowledge of the difficulties in their parents’ marriage, no knowledge of what was coming. He couldn’t help but feel that he was solely responsible for this mess. But he couldn’t have stayed with his wife, they couldn’t have remained together just for the sake of their children. It could’ve been ten times worse than it was now, he reassured himself, and then he shuddered at the thought of it being worse. How could it really be worse?
In that moment as he sat opposite his son he debated if he should visit her. He wanted John to visit her.
‘I called Peter,’ said Patrick in an effort to wrestle his son from the clutches of technology; a battle he was certain every parent was losing.
‘How did you get his number?’
‘His girlfriend has been helpful. She agreed to see me. She’s nice. Karen. Have you met her yet?’
‘No. I’ve no intention of meeting her.’
Patrick sat forward, took a breath, grimaced: ‘You know, you and Peter need to patch up your differences. Even if my relationship with him is beyond repair.’
He stood by for a response of some kind from his youngest son, but none was forthcoming.
‘You shouldn’t deny yourself a relationship with your only brother,’ was his final attempt.
John sat forward with little emotion defining his face, it was a face that could be pressed onto a coin. He spoke in monotone.
‘Dad, honestly, I don’t care about him. I don’t care about her. I just want to get away from it all.’
‘Central America can’t solve your problems.’
‘You’re wrong. Anywhere but here can solve my problems.’
‘You’re being naive.’
‘I’m not going to take advice from you.’
Patrick felt a swift pain in his left flank, rising and passing across his chest, all in the space of a second. He’d been getting these pains for a few weeks. Stress is what he put it down to. He refused to acknowledge the aches, though his son could see some discomfort in his father’s expression.
‘Dad, please don’t embarrass me by having a heart attack,’ he said, and Patrick couldn’t be sure if this was an attempt at humour or an earnest request.
John didn’t make jokes, thought Patrick.
‘What would you do?’ asked Patrick.
He sat forward again in what could’ve been construed as a challenging gesture. His eyes widened, he laced his hands.
‘What would you do if I suffered a heart attack? Right here, right now.’
John shrugged his shoulders, that look on his face; that teenage look that should’ve vacated the premises by now.
‘Honestly, Dad, why would I consider that question?’
‘Just give me something,’ encouraged Patrick.
John rolled his eyes, thought about it for a moment, and took a deep breath.
‘Okay,’ he began, before taking another long inhale. ‘I’d step over you and make a phone call and look at you while the paramedics made their way here. I’d reassure people in the café that you’re okay. I’d check my mail or Instagram or Reddit in order to pass the time quicker—act like it‘s not a big deal. I’d probably take a picture of you, y’know. . . just in case. Maybe I’d record you. Then I’d let them put you into the ambulance and I guess I’d have to tell Peter, and then I’d go score a bag.’
Patrick, having not taken his eyes off his son’s vacant green eyes during the long-winded response, felt a pain again. But this pain was different, and for a brief moment he considered the possibility that he had no idea who the person sitting opposite him was.
The sense of freedom Patrick Hughes felt after leaving his wife was immeasurable. This didn’t arrive unaccompanied, however, as guilt and melancholy rode quietly behind, lurking all the time so as to remind him: you can never be truly happy, we won’t allow it. He would try his best to ignore this, and his best was quite good, but their presence would always be felt; that feeling of someone watching you.
He would find himself in bars on extended holidays in exotic places. He would find himself with twenty-five year-old legs wrapped around his body like eager vines. He would find himself spending his vast earnings frivolously. He would find himself at the bottom of a bottle of expensive scotch every other night. He would find himself drunkenly calling his ex-wife and discussing how they had met, their most memorable dates when they were both still young with effervescent thoughts of the future foremost in their minds. No matter how he enjoyed himself, he would always come back to his broken family, and this, in fact, caused a mammoth sense of relief in him: This meant that he wasn’t despicable. Not good, perhaps, but not entirely pernicious.
The trickle of tea found its way down the cup as Patrick took a sip before patting the cup dry with a napkin. He watched his son who stared out the window, and wondered how such a sour, tired expression could form in one so young, with so much time, so much life, ahead of him.
‘John, how’s your friend?’ asked Patrick gently, attempting to stimulate a “normal” conversation.
‘What friend?’ asked John.
‘Your friend, the one who’s sick, too.’
‘Eric? He’s not my friend, Dad.’
‘But you know him, right?’
‘I’m aware of his existence, yes.’
‘Peter told me you were in the same class.’
‘Why would you and Peter be discussing my former classmates?’
‘We heard about Eric, it came up. It’s incredibly sad. You know your brother had nothing but nice things to say about him.’
‘I never said anything bad about him, did I? I just said that we weren’t exactly friends.’
Patrick’s mind found itself imagining his youngest son in a hospital, hooked up to machines, his moribund eyes looking up at him, his complexion pallid, his head a piece of barren land. Then he thought about his ex-wife, and how in that moment that was probably how she looked, and he felt his stomach clench.
He looked at John once again.
‘You should visit her,’ he said with a guilt-ridden sigh.
John ignored this comment like one would ignore a disorderly drunk on a bus: perfectly aware, silently irritated, wishing they’d get off as soon as possible.
In October 2011 John is thirteen. John is in his father’s new home sitting outside on the grass, languorously tossing pebbles into the pond by the bronze fountain which is ceaselessly regurgitating water in the summer sun. The garden is filled with life; Aubrietas, Sanciles and Ferns surround the grass and path and pond and fountain. Patrick, watching from the patio, considers how everything in the garden appears vibrant and eager, apart from his son.
He joins him on the grass—a new team member in the pointless but somehow rewarding game of pebble throwing.
‘Things won’t be so different,’ he tells John. ‘You’ll still see us both, all the time. And your brother. We’ll still be a family.’
This is not the first or last time he’ll lie to his youngest son.
‘So, tell me,’ Patrick began as the café became busier, and John was engaged with his iPhone once more. ‘What’s Central America all about? Of course, I understand it’ll be a wonderful experience. I think it’s great, really. But only if you’re going for the right reasons.’
‘What would be the wrong reasons?’ asked John, slapping his arm instinctively after sensing something crawling along it, not looking or caring to see what, if anything, was there.
‘Come on, John. You’re old enough. You shouldn’t be going just to get away from a situation you’re unhappy with.’
‘Why shouldn’t I? See, people who stay in places where they’re unhappy, they’re morons. They wait for things to change for them, hoping they will. They’re afraid to take the initiative.’
‘Okay,’ Patrick raised his hands. ‘I won’t argue with that. And I’m not saying sowing wild oats is something you shouldn’t do, either. It’s something you should definitely do, actually. But maybe you should tie up some loose ends before you leave.’
‘i.e. see her,’ replied John immediately.
‘Yes, see her. See your brother, too. Talk to him. Clear the air. If you still don’t get along by the time you go, fine. At least make an effort.’
‘But not for me.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘You want me to tie up some loose ends so it’ll make you feel better. So you’ll feel a little less a failure of a father.’
‘How about you feeling a little less a failure of a son?’ The response arrived without consideration, and for a moment Patrick felt remorse for his outburst.
John produced a smile, something Patrick was eager to see in a less abrasive situation.
‘That’s the funniest thing you’ve said to me in years.’
But Patrick no longer assumed control of his emotions; the captain had left duties to the less experienced and somewhat unreliable third mate.
‘I’m getting sick of your attitude. Sick of it,’ began Patrick, his fist clenched, resting on the table, as he felt another pain begin in his flank. ‘You can’t be against me for the rest of my life. I’ve tried and tried. I’ve been patient, and all I get from you is a bitter glare and childish remarks. You don’t think I’ve tried with you? My boy? Do you not think it’s been difficult for me—breaking up a family? Do you not think it’s been a burden on me for the past seven years?’ Patrick lowered his voice. ‘And now my wife is dying,’ he choked as he looked away, out the window, and what he saw outside was normality. He took a deep breath in an attempt at composing himself.
Still, John sat, seemingly unaffected.
‘Ex-wife,’ he eventually replied.
Patrick looked at John. The father looked at his son. The look was not so much penetrating, but merely observing. It was a look of concession, somewhat disappointed, mostly resigned.