Next Sunday would be Milo’s birthday and Estevo wanted to get him something. A party was planned and he was invited. He felt almost like a part of the family now. It was difficult to think of something suitable that he could give and he had no way to go shopping in town, unless he borrowed the bicycle. Then there was the question of money. He had given all his earnings to his mother to pay the rent.
He studied the mess at the back of the house where once a fine garden used to be. The sunlight was just rising over the house. It was better to get up early before the heat set in. He should be able to make some progress clearing the gorse bushes, but it was going to be hard work. Surveying everything before him, breathing in the freshness, he had an idea. Nothing at all to do with his job for the day, but the perfect gift for Milo, the book his mother had given him when he was little. She said it came from his father and he could read it when he was older. The curious thing was that his father knew nothing about the book. He’d asked him one time if he had read it. He told Estevo he was not an educated man and would never read or understand such a book. Estevo had started to read it himself, but he never got very far. He thought he too was like his father, not a scholar. But this should make the ideal present for Milo.
As he set to work with the shears, cutting the bushes and raking up the branches, and clearing the part of the garden nearest the back wall of the house, Milo appeared.
“You started early,” he smiled, watching Estevo work.
He looked up from the stack of gorse branches and leant on the rake. “You come to lend a hand?” He grinned at the boy.
Milo made no immediate reply. He shifted his feet and looked around. “I could help if you like. I’d probably be better at gardening than painting.”
Estevo laughed. “Oh yeah. Your painting was a disaster.”
“It was the first time. Not a complete disaster.”
“Well, you got more paint on yourself and the floor than the walls.”
“Gardening is different. You’re only cutting stuff.”
Estevo handed Milo the shears. “Okay. Have a go” He suspected he’d find it much harder than he imagined.
Milo set to work trying to chop through the nearest gorse bush. The branches were a lot tougher than they looked. Very quickly he’d worked up a sweat and had also grazed his arm on the thorns, but he wasn’t complaining, yet.
“Here.” Estevo proffered the rake. “Let me do the cutting. You take this. Before you cut yourself to pieces.”
They swopped roles.
“Can I borrow your bike?” Estevo asked.
“Yeah, sure. Just take it if you want to go to the village. You don’t need to ask. But it’s a bit worn out.”
“No problem. I wanted to pop home after lunch.”
“Yeah, well take it.”
Milo, ever curious, wondered why he was going home, but set his mind on the task at hand. Helping clear the would-be garden.
* * * * *
It was a family lunch, and everyone was there. Estevo had already asked John if it was alright to take a few hours off after lunch. So that was his plan. But not only to get the book for Milo’s birthday on Sunday. He also needed to have a serious talk with his mother.
“We could go swimming again.” Corinth was looking across the table at Estevo.
Before he could reply, her mother spoke up, “You should leave the boy alone. He’s got his work to do, and all you ever do is keep distracting him.”
Morris glanced at Marie, but it was John who replied to both of them. “I think he’s popping home after lunch,” he said gently.
“There you are,” Mariane added somewhat gruffly.
Corinth frowned but said nothing.
“Everyone ready for dessert?” Milo’s mother stood up, looking around the table.
“I’ll give you a hand.” Morris started collecting the empty dinner plates.
“Do you want to come swimming?” Amelie turned to Milo who was sitting next to her.
He smiled back, “Yeah, sure. Why not?”
That made Amelie smile as she watched him. Milo thought to himself that he would have liked it if Estevo was there too, but still, he wanted to be nice to his little cousin. He’d not paid too much attention to Amelie, although she seemed to often seek him out. Perhaps he’d ask her about that kiss, get the truth out of her, but he’d be nice about it.
Marie put down the empty dinner plates and moved to the fridge, opening the door as Morris came in.
“Just leave them by the sink,” she said as she extricated the strawberry tart. “And can you grab the chantilly?”
He moved behind her and picked up the bowl of cream. For a brief moment, a wave of cool air passed over him until he closed the fridge door.
“You heard her?” He stopped, setting the bowl down on the kitchen counter.
“Will you fetch the dessert plates? I’ve got the rest.”
He didn’t move but reached out to take hold of Marie’s arm, halting her before she went back to the table. Just then Milo came into the kitchen.
“Oh sorry,” he said, looking at them. “I wanted to get some water and ice.”
He held up the empty jug like some sort of proof, embarrassed that he’d interrupted something. Not quite sure what was going on, he felt ill at ease.
“There should be some in the fridge,” his mother said, seemingly oblivious to the intrusion and her son’s awkwardness.
Morris and his mother waited whilst Milo found the ice and filled the jug with water. He no longer held her arm.
“She’s not herself. It’s obvious, don’t you see?”
“Morris, it could simply be the heat. It can make everyone a little irritable.”
Milo hovered outside the door. He listened, before returning with the jug and sitting down at the table next to Amelie.
“Will you pour?” Amelie asked him, smiling.
Milo filled her glass.
* * * * *
He had his towel slung over his shoulder, and was standing with his two cousins as he watched Estevo pedal away down the drive. They followed after him. All the time they were walking to the river, he couldn’t help thinking about what he’d heard, and seen.
It didn’t take Estevo long to reach home. For an old bike, it wasn’t too bad. He only needed to be careful and gentle with it. Leaning the bicycle against the wall of the house, he went up the step and opened the front door.
“It’s me!” he announced into the darkness.
It was like entering a cave and his eyes took a moment to adjust.
“Estevo?” his mother replied. “I’m in here.”
He found his mother sitting at the table in the one room which basically was the downstairs of the house, along with the little galley kitchen at the end of the hall, with the window overlooking the small back yard dominated by two concrete pillars and the clothes line. Behind the far wall of the yard were the backs of other terraced houses, one of which being where Olivier lived.
He walked over to his mother and kissed her, then retreated to the old armchair, from where he observed. In front of her lay a pile of forms she was filling in.
“To what do I owe this pleasure?” She smiled.
He didn’t reply immediately, thinking about what he should say.
“I want to ask you something.”
She put down what she was doing and turned her attention to her son. “What is it?”
He hesitated. “Milo’s father. Do you know him? I mean, you knew him before we came here?”
This moment had to arrive one day. Not wanting to relive ancient history she had chosen to avoid bringing it up. But circumstances had conspired against her. Albert had left, walked out. John was here all summer. She’d allowed Estevo to work at the house. She wondered if that had been the right choice, but the money was needed. Somehow the fact that her son was at least working around their house assuaged her sense of being indebted.
“Well?” he insisted, wanting a reply, an answer.
He couldn’t see her expression, but he looked over at her, waiting. The semi-darkness offered a veil to her emotions but failed to lend any cloak of protection. She was obliged to reveal her secrets, things she held hidden, buried in a fragile relationship. In her own way, she loved Albert, but theirs was always just a partnership of convenience, something she’d been led into, not a real choice. An opportunity always destined to flounder, there was no solid foundation and too much baggage.
She sighed. “He found us this house, and that’s how we moved here. Yes, I met him about six months before we came here.”
“Who is he? Why did he find us this house?”
Estevo considered what she was saying. Olivier suddenly came into his head. He was the first friend he’d made here. They had things in common, especially after Albert left. Olivier lived alone with his mother, his father had left them years ago. He remembered him telling him, “You never really know about families.” He’d taken that to mean that everyone’s family was a little different because Olivier had only his mother. But now he realised that perhaps he meant more than that. Every family has their secrets.
“He wanted to help us,” she told him.
“Yes, but why? Why would he want to do that? Why did dad leave?”
“Albert and I had our problems. And our secrets.”
She took a deep breath. This was difficult. How do you reveal a secret, something intimate and devastating? A thing you’ve locked away for years, not wanting to face.
“Look. I’m eighteen. You have to tell me what’s going on.”
She sighed, watching her son. He had a right to know, of course he did.
“I used to live here years ago. Not in this village, in town. The Duvals, that’s John’s wife Marie, and her family has always owned the country house. They used to spend every summer there. Much like now, I suppose. Except back then there was a big divide between a bourgeois family like theirs and my own. I ended up working there one summer, as a femme de ménage. It was a job, just like yours.”
He sat back in the armchair, feeling the springs beneath the worn out fabric.
“Albert was the gardener, handyman. It was then we first met.”
“And John? Milo’s father was there?”
“Yes, but not all summer. He was visiting with his friend. Only the Duvals, Marie, her older sister Mariane and Monsieur et Madame Duval, and their grandfather were there the whole time.”
“But you said you met Milo’s father six months before we moved here.”
“I hadn’t seen him since that summer. I almost didn’t recognise him. I meant, I met him for the first time after all those years, and he wanted to help.”
“Why? Just because of one summer years ago?”
His mother felt a weight pressing down on her. The gloom pervaded her, clouded her mind as old memories re-emerged. She noticed her face was damp.
Estevo stood up and came over to her. “You’re crying.”
Seeing his mother upset by his questions tugged at his heart. He sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulder.
“Something happened. That summer, eighteen years ago.” She took a deep breath, wiped at her eyes.
Estevo found a clean tissue in his pocket and handed it to her. She dabbed the corners of her eyes, wetting the tissue with the tears which she had no control over.
“George, Marie and Mariane’s father…” She had to say it. She had too. Tears welled in her eyes. “He and I…”
She didn’t quite say it. But he understood. The secret. It was out. In the darkness, just like that night. Eighteen years. Silence. Estevo couldn’t speak. His mind went numb.
“Eighteen years ago?” He cut through the murky stillness.
Like the tiny cogs in the intricate mechanism of a watch, the seconds ticked away. The wheels turned, engaged, moved the hands. Time moved forward. With precision, the little wheels connected. His thoughts connected, joined together.
“Eighteen years ago,” he repeated like a chant, as that realisation took root. “I’m eighteen years old.”
He trembled, shook. She turned and wrapped both arms around him, hugging him to her.
“I’m sorry. It’s been so difficult. I feel guilty for not telling you. I hope you understand. I just couldn’t. I…”
They stayed together, hugging each other and crying. Crying out all those emotions in the dark.