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The Talon House

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Chapter One.

 

The trees cast dappled shadows in long streaks, striping the ground and breaking up the sunshine, a stark contrast to the clear, pale blue sky. A hint of damp lent a chill freshness to the early morning air, which promised to disappear with the heat of the day. Milo pushed the hammock and watched it swing sluggishly back and forth. Devoid of life. Left abandoned as if grieving its own emptiness. How would he survive the entire summer, alone, waiting, like the hammock?

No one else was awake; he was by himself. The only sounds were those imbued by nature. The tap, tap, tap, of a woodpecker resounded from somewhere inside the forest, but he couldn't see it, hidden as it was by the dense shade. The deeper you went, the more sombre it became. He tried not to think about it, not to dwell on the darkness, but when he was alone like this, it troubled him. It was almost inevitable that his thoughts would drift there.

“Milo! Milo!”

Turning at the sound of his mother's voice, “I’m coming, maman!” He reluctantly moved a step towards the rear veranda of the old stone house.

“You should wear a jumper outside,” she smiled.

His mother, as usual cheerful, was putting the bread and freshly brewed coffee on the rough wooden table. Like the house itself, that old table must have reigned centre stage in the kitchen for centuries. There should be a certain reassurance given by those things, places, and objects, that have stood the test of time. But the old house had always scared Milo. As a child, his imagination had warned him of hidden monsters lurking in abandoned corners or watching from the shadows of the forest.

“Your uncle will be here today,” his mother announced as she placed the blue and white ceramic butter dish next to the loaf of bread.

Sitting at the table, he recalled his cousins pushing him into the attic and shutting him inside, in the cobwebby gloom. They'd made fun of him when he cried, calling him a sissy and crybaby. They had always bossed him around. His uncle, like his father, was kind but distant. The two men spent their time in each other’s company, joining the family for meals and an occasional outing. But even on those rare occasions Milo usually found himself surrounded by women, his mother, her sister, and his cousins.

Left to his own devices, he would dream of imagined worlds where brave knights rode stallions and defeated fiery dragons, cut down ugly monsters and set the world to rights. However, his cousins would drag him reluctantly into their fantasies. Dress him up as a baby, or give him the role of a servant. In their more risqué adventures, he would be the patient. His eldest cousin was the doctor, the younger, the nurse.

“Eat something, it’s a long time ‘til lunch,” his mother said, having already laid out jam, cheese, and ham.

She looked at him. Moved closer and brushed the hair back from his forehead. “I think you need a haircut. You can’t stay all summer looking like a street urchin.”

A street urchin, he pondered the words. It was like a description straight from a novel by Dickens. His mother always had an inexhaustible vocabulary when it came to these sorts of expressions. It was easy to imagine they had been handed down from one generation to the next, like family heirlooms.

“Tomorrow!” She exclaimed somewhat excitedly as if suddenly struck by a revelation. “Your father is going into town. I’ll telephone and make an appointment.”

It was settled. No point arguing. In any case, he had nothing else to do, and he could escape his cousins. He finished buttering the slice of bread and reached over for the jam. His mother left the room, satisfied everything was in order.

The town wasn’t really a town at all, just a village. It had a tiny weekly market, post office, general store, and baker. This set it apart from many other French villages where the last shop had long since disappeared. Those were ghost villages where all that remained were a few elderly people and a majority of holiday homes which only saw anybody during the summer.

There were a rather large number of hairdressers for a village, as if the French as a race were preoccupied with their coiffure, which undoubtedly was true. His mother would visit the hairdresser regularly, a fact that made it all the more surprising he was being sent alone. Invariably she would accompany him, forcing him to sit and wait for hours, enduring the unwelcome attention of Maurice. It was bad enough sitting in the barber’s chair having the middle-aged hairdresser’s hands roaming all over his head. When accompanying his mother, he also succumbed to the piercing eyes scrutinising his body, which made Milo feel as if he were being appraised. No doubt, he was. Although Maurice was a harmless, but incorrigible old folle. His mannerisms and affected speech left no doubt that he was as gay as Gay Paris, from where he originated. The only question in Milo's mind was, how he ended up in a tiny village in the South of France married to Madame Fournier? That would remain a mystery forever, because he was neither willing to engage Maurice in conversation, nor to raise the topic with his mother.

There were boys his age in the village, but he never felt the need to seek out their friendship. He was content with his own company and happy to spend the day in a comfortable spot reading. He could get lost in a good book, in another reality, in someone else's life. He'd had to walk the old bicycle he'd borrowed from the shed the three kilometers back home from the village one time when it had got a puncture. He hadn't even tried fixing it.

Other people’s problems seemed more easily solved than his own. Their lives much simpler, their difficulties minor. How long could he remain a bystander watching life pass him by? Hiding from everyone. Though he didn't like to admit it, he suspected not for much longer. He was growing up; things were expected in the natural course of life. Natural. What did that even mean? Was he unnatural? No way was he the same as Monsieur Fournier.

The shade had all but disappeared, replaced by sunlight which covered most of the gardens around the house. The hammock was protected by overhanging branches, offering a cool respite from the rapidly rising temperature. Milo slowly heaved himself into place, careful to maintain a balance. Propping a cushion behind his head, he picked up the book and flicked it open.

“A large cask of wine had been dropped and broken, in the street. The accident had happened in getting it out of a cart; the cask had tumbled out with a run, the hoops had burst, and it lay on the stones just outside the door of the wine-shop, shattered like a walnut shell.”

Milo was lost in the world of eighteenth-century France and the machinations of a convoluted plot. Only reluctantly did he put the book down when disturbed by the noise announcing the arrival of a car. No doubt his uncle, aunt, and cousins. Slipping out of the hammock, he found his flip-flops, picked up the book, and made his way back to the house.

“Milo!” His aunt pulled him into a hug as Corinth and Amelie stood watching.

Uncle Morris was embracing his father and shaking hands. Everyone making the usual small talk.

“My, how grown up you look!” His mother kissed Corinth, then Amelie, the younger of the two.

Then it was Milo’s turn, he quickly kissed each girl and stood back watching the scene. They migrated towards the house, leaving their luggage in the car. Milo’s mother invited everyone to sit down at the old kitchen table. It had been moved outside onto the veranda, where it would stay all summer.

“You got a girlfriend?” Amelie asked Milo, grinning at her older sister.

That’s it. They’ve started. Milo was determined not to acquiesce to the girls’ games. “No, I don’t,” he replied curtly.

Amelie frowned. Corinth clucked her tongue. They both turned in unison to find a place at the table that suited them. For the rest of the lunch, Milo ignored them, content to let everybody else talk. Which mainly meant his mother, aunt, and cousins at one end of the table and his father and uncle at the other. He did listen when there was anything to listen to other than gossip. He replied politely when addressed, but otherwise was quiet.

That afternoon Milo was left alone. His cousins were occupied with unpacking, amongst other things. His parents were probably catching up on events with the family. He was back in the hammock, lost in his other world.

“Tellson’s Bank by Temple Bar was an old-fashioned place, even in the year one thousand seven hundred and eighty.” Milo smiled to himself, relaxing in the warmth of the afternoon sun, certain he would not be disturbed until later. “... the partners in the House were proud of its ugliness, proud of its incommodiousness. They were even boastful of its eminence in those particulars, and were fired by an express conviction that, if it were less objectionable, it would be less respectable.”

Milo wondered if his mother thought the same about their family house. Did she like this place because of its ugliness? Was she proud of its incommodiousness? He rather thought not. She simply accepted it as it was, as it always had been. It was in fact not at all ugly, but attractive in a sort of tatty chic kind of fashion. Objectionable? That word stuck in his mind. Was he respectable by way of being objectionable? Exactly like his cousins, but in an entirely different sense. He let the book drop to his side and drifted off with his thoughts into an afternoon siesta.

It was the violent rocking that brought him tumbling back into the world of the living. The face that greeted his opening eyes was that of Corinth. Alone, he observed as he regained consciousness and took in his surroundings.

“What are you reading?” She leant over him to pick up the book without waiting for a reply.

Her arm brushed across his thighs, which suddenly embarrassed him. He realised he was hard, which caused him to blush and attempt to sit up.

“Dickens,” he spluttered, trying to regain some sort of composure.

“I can see you are growing up,” she smirked with her own cleverness.

“A Tale of Two Cities,” he continued, ignoring her remark.

“I wonder what you get up to without a girlfriend.”

She examined the book in her hand as if it held some interest. Surprised and feeling exposed Milo practically fell out of the hammock and stumbled into his cousin, but managed to regain his balance.

“Sorry,” he attempted a smile.

Her hand reached down, and she rested her palm against his groin. “How big are you?”

He blushed again. Wasn’t it incest or something having sex with your cousin? Not that he wanted to do that, but she was definitely feeling him up.

“What do you mean?” He replied, rather meekly.

It was then he felt his cousin touch him through the thin material of his shorts. He breathed in, shocked, and yet excited at the same time.

“You remember when we played doctors and nurses?” Her hand was still holding him.

Milo could only nod.

Corinth smiled, “Perhaps I should examine you?”

“Eh! I don’t think so,” he pulled away, grabbed his book from her and pushed past, moving quickly back towards the house.

His mother, aunt, and Amelie were still at the table. Milo walked into the house, up the stairs, and into his bedroom. He wondered about what had just happened. That was more than doctors and nurses. What was his cousin up to? The large, almost empty bedroom gave back no answers. He lay down, staring up at the ceiling. A crack zigzagged from one corner, attempting to reach the centre ceiling rose. It failed, fading into nothing. The once white canopy was a discoloured tone of cream, although calling it cream did an injustice to that colour. It was flaking and patchy. In some way calling to the imagination like puffy clouds in a grey sky.

Milo sought refuge in his constant companion, picking up the book and continuing the story. “Over the prisoner's head, there was a mirror, to throw the light down upon him. Crowds of the wicked and the wretched had been reflected in it, and had passed from its surface and this earth’s together.” But he could not concentrate. Something niggled him. Gnawed, and chewed through his thoughts, leaving him tense and ill at ease.

Tomorrow is another day. One of those phrases his mother would quote to him; a meagre source of comfort. His cousins would still be here, and he would still be wrestling his emotional turmoil, playing hide and seek with life, dodging reality in the pages of literature.

Edited by Talo Segura
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  • Talo Segura changed the title to Milo by Talo Segura

Chapter Two.

 

He never slept late, the light creeping around the faded curtains was a natural reveille. The windows were fragile; that was his mother’s term, you could open them with extreme caution. The correct term would be rotted, and the shutters were permanently fixed to the walls, they most definitely would fall apart if you ever tried closing them. Probably collapse on someone’s head as they stepped off the veranda, Milo’s bedroom was just above where the veranda roof finished. That was one reason why he always woke early, it faced east.

The sunlight made a weird display, like a halo lighting up the window frame, announcing a new day. A new day which would be a repeat of the previous and identical to the next, save for the interactions that occurred between dawn and dusk. Those variations on a theme, but what theme exactly, what song was playing today? Milo’s thought process was convoluted, but there was indeed music playing. His mother must have the radio on.

Breakfast was on the veranda where the table had taken up residence since yesterday, the covered terrace offered welcome shade from the heat of the day. Corinth and Amelie were eating and drinking, Milo sat himself down. His mother was not there, nobody else was up.

“What did you do last night?” Corinth studied him as he poured a mug of coffee.

“I went to bed and read.” Milo was tempted to ignore both of them, but on reflection decided to be polite.

Amelie looked at her older sister, a sort of conspiratorial glance. He wasn't paying much attention until Corinth leant across the table.

“Did you play with yourself?” She spoke softly, her tone halfway between secretive and sexy.

“Did you play with yourself?” Milo repeated, throwing the ball back at her.

She didn’t move, didn’t flinch. Resting her elbows on the table and supporting her chin, she pouted her lips and batted her eyelids.

“I could do that for you,” she offered like some kind of cheap sluzzy.

But he was used to their games, although yesterday she had certainly cranked things up a notch when she grabbed a feel. He wasn’t falling for it, he was not that stupid, but he played along.

“I bet you could,” he smiled sarcastically.

“You’d love me to play with you, wouldn't you?” She pointedly placed her index finger between those ruby lips, sucking it lasciviously.

“Screw you,” he whispered under his breath and returned his attention to the mug of coffee.

“You’d like to do that, I know.”

She sat back down smiling, her little sister giggled.

Milo stood up and wandered down the steps into the garden with his coffee. As he was standing there looking towards the forest, his mother called out from the window of her bedroom.

“Ten o’clock, Milo,” he turned around and looked up. “The hairdresser, ten o'clock.”

He waved, and she moved away from the window disappearing inside the house.

 

▪ ▪ ▪

 

“Are you ready, Milo? Because we need to leave now.”

His father was standing next to the old Peugeot. Milo hurriedly crossed the garden, opened the door, and climbed in. As his father joined him, he smiled. “Let’s go then,” he turned the key in the ignition. The engine coughed and sputtered, complaining like an old man getting out of bed before it growled into life.

They drove out through the gate posts. The gates themselves were broken relics adorning each side of the track. Milo was quiet, he made no attempt at conversation, preferring to study the two-tone interior of the old car or gaze at the countryside. The track turned sharp left as it twisted towards the main road and they bounced over a bump.

The route to the village was bordered by farmland interspersed with the occasional house. The river that meandered along the valley was invisible from the road. Milo studied the tall poplar trees that followed the banks of the river, lined up like soldiers in uniformed rows. Tall and sleek their branches started up high, leaving an impression of looking through a field of thick poles. These were the only viable plants for the marshy, sodden ground, which easily flooded.

The early morning sun made the windscreen look like smoked glass that needed cleaning. Milo kept those thoughts to himself, not wanting to be given car washing duty. His father had the sun visor down, but that did little to fight the glare. Reaching across into the glove compartment, he fumbled around until he found what he was seeking. He flipped open an old pair of tortoiseshell Ray Bans and put them on. Milo wasn’t sure whether his father looked more like Bob Dylan or Kennedy, but he veered towards John F Kennedy. It was perhaps the crow's eyes and lines on his forehead that decided it.

Pulling into the village square in front of the church, his father switched off the engine. The hand brake squeaked as he pulled it up, complaining like the rest of the car which always made odd metallic noises.

“I’ll meet you back here,” he told Milo.

Taking his cue, Milo got out, stretched, and headed across the square back in the direction they’d arrived from. Towards the hairdresser.

It was too early, and Monsieur Fournier had someone in front of the mirror with whom he was engaged both in styling her hair and deep conversation. “...yes, I heard that too. And she doesn't have the money.”

Milo sat down in one of the old wooden chairs by the window. Monsieur Fournier turned his head smiling at the boy and continuing chatting to his customer. “...What can I do? I'll just have to wait. I’m not going to turn them out on the street.”

The shop was empty other than for the three of them, Milo looked around, taking in the stack of old magazines on the little table. Their edges turned and worn, he suspected they had been read many times over. The cat was curled up in the chair the furthest away. A fluffy grey and white monster with a squashed face that looked up at him, but ignored him, curling back into a ball of fur. The image of Maurice Fournier stroking the fluffball whilst sashaying around in an embroidered dressing gown, presented itself to Milo’s imagination. Probably inspired by the magazine cover with a picture of a Chinese Mandarin sitting on some ornately carved throne. Maurice was the king of the hairdressers, the oldest and longest established in the village.

Milo turned his attention away from the shop and found the place where he had left the story. He started reading his book. “...it was certain the prisoner had, for longer than that, been in the habit of passing and repassing between France and England, on secret business of which he could give no honest account...” The snipping of the scissors along with the conversation became the soundtrack, the shop took on the air of a scene in an old black and white movie, as Milo disappeared into the eighteenth century Dickens was describing. “That, if it were in the nature of traitorous ways to thrive (which, happily, it never was), the real wickedness and guilt of his business might have remained undiscovered.”

He took his place in the now vacated throne, as Maurice rang up the sale on a cash register that was the same age as the shop and the rest of its fixtures and fittings. He waited, mulling over in his mind the thought that he, himself, was in some fashion involved in secret business. That he was a traitor, who hid his treacherous ways. That perhaps it was inevitable that his own business would not remain undiscovered.

“And how might I help you, young man?” Maurice was fluffing around, brushing his hair with his hands whilst looking at Milo in the mirror.

“Maman said I can’t stay all summer looking like a street urchin.” Milo looked at Maurice's reflection. He saw the man smile before moving to one side and instructing the boy to follow him across to the wash basin.

“Let’s see what we can do.”

 

▪ ▪ ▪

 

The little bell rang as he closed the door behind him. Walking back to the square, Milo noticed a group of youths in front of the church. One of them was standing on the stone bench. They were playing around, pushing each other, being loud. He headed towards the cafe, if his father had finished his business, that’s where he'd be.

There were a few people inside. The owner, Pierre, was at the bar talking with one of the customers. At a table on the left, another man had his head in a newspaper, sipping an espresso. His father was there. On the other side, standing, talking to someone at the table next to the baby-foot. He moved across the room. His father had his back to him obscuring who he was talking to.

“Papa!” he announced his arrival.

Milo’s father stood back and turned around. “Your mother will be happy,” he grinned. “You’re looking respectable.” He brushed his hand across Milo’s forehead.

Milo dodged away, at the same time taking in the guy sitting at the table. He stared, taken aback. In front of him was a beautiful young man, short black hair, olive skin, small ears with a piercing. He wore a red and white t-shirt with broad horizontal bands. Their eyes locked for an instant before Milo turned away. Those eyes were a hypnotic deep green. Milo suddenly felt very nervous.

“This is Estevo,” his father announced oblivious to the mixed emotions coursing through his son’s body. “He's going to be doing some work for us at the house.”

Milo gulped, looked at the floor. He felt that the young man’s eyes were boring a hole through his chest. His face felt hot.

“I have one more errand to do,” his father’s hand touched Milo’s arm. “I’ll meet you back here in twenty minutes.”

With that, his father left them and walked across the room. Milo followed him with his eyes, noting Pierre was still in the same place behind the heavy polished counter, talking to the same customer. Milo stood there, paralysed.

“Sit down.” The voice was soft.

Milo looked once again at the young man sitting at the table. He was sure he was blushing. Embarrassed, he quickly took a seat opposite Estevo. There was a silence. The little noises of the cafe seemed to leave them enveloped together in a tiny bubble of solitude.

“Are you happy to be here?” Estevo broke the silence.

His remark left Milo unable to interpret the meaning. The expression on his face must have shown his confusion.

“To be on vacation, I mean.”

Milo made no reply. He didn’t know what to do. Maybe he should get up and leave, but that was no answer, and very odd.

“You alright?” Estevo too seemed a little ill at ease.

“I’m sorry,” Milo finally managed, but he still couldn’t bring himself to look directly at Estevo. He thought the young man would see straight through him.

“Do you want something to drink?” Estevo regarded the boy.

Milo finally regained some composure and forced himself to look up. “Nah, I’m fine,” he replied. “So you’re gonna be working at our house?”

Estevo grinned, looking a little more relaxed. “That’s the idea. Your dad offered me a job for the summer.”

“You live in the village?” Milo was driven to find out all he could about Estevo.

“Yeah, with my mother. You sure you don’t want a coffee or something?”

“Okay then, a coffee, thanks,”

Estevo stood up and walked over to the bar. Milo watched. His eyes took in the tight blue jeans and a well-worn pair of sneakers. Milo waited. The coffee machine whooshed and sputtered. He desperately tried to think of what he would say when Estevo came back. He turned to the table and placed his book down on top.

“So,” Estevo put two coffees on the table. “Your vacation, you enjoying yourself?”

Milo studied his coffee.

“I got two large coffees... with milk. It’s less strong. Lasts longer.”

There was a certain hesitation in the young man's voice.

“It’s fine,” Milo looked up and smiled. Now he noticed the worried expression on Estevo’s face. “Are you, okay?” he asked, returning the question Estevo had posed.

“I’m worried,” the young man admitted.

“About what?”

“About a lot of things, but right now, about you.”

Milo watched the man sitting across the table in front of him. “About me? I said I’m fine.”

“I know, but...” Estevo hesitated. “Something’s going on here. Your dad offered me a job and then... Well, it just got odd.”

“Sorry,” Milo sipped his coffee. “Thanks for the coffee.”

Estevo watched him.

“Let’s start over.” Milo was more at ease now. “How old are you?”

It was a banal question, but ordinary, normal.

“Eighteen,” Estevo replied. “You?”

“I’ll be sixteen in two weeks.”

"And you always spend your summers here?"

"Yes, always. With my uncle, aunt, and cousins."

"You must know the place then. Have friends here?"

"I guess I know the place, but we are usually just at the house. Sometimes we go out, for a picnic or to visit somewhere."

"It's just you and your cousins then, all summer."

Milo grinned, "pretty much."

They fell into a silence, each drinking their coffee. Milo didn't know what questions to ask or how to maintain the conversation.

"So you live here with your mother?" He finally broke into the void.

Estevo smiled and nodded. "Since nearly a year."

Milo was desperate to talk and find out more about Estevo, but he felt uncomfortable, self-conscious, and scared about saying the wrong thing.

"You like reading?" Estevo tapped a finger on the book.

"It's Dickens" Milo announced.

"A classic," Estevo smiled reassuringly.

"Have you read It?"

"No, I have not yet had that pleasure."

“All done!” Milo’s father placed a hand on his shoulder. “You two got acquainted?”

Milo looked up over his shoulder, but it was Estevo who answered. “Yes, your son was just going to start telling me all about Dickens.”

Milo’s father chuckled. “You’d be here all day once he started. It will have to be another time. We need to get back. I’ll see you at the house tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir,” Estevo smiled.

“Please, call me John. Sir makes me feel much too important and much too old.” He squeezed Milo's shoulder and winked.

“Yes, John. Tomorrow.”

Edited by Talo Segura
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Chapter Three.

 

“What in God’s name do you think you’re doing?” Mariane almost spat the words in his face.

“Nothing. I don’t know why you’re reacting like this.” Morris was staying calm.

“Why I’m reacting?”

“Yes, why you are upset about nothing.”

“That’s rich. Upset about nothing." She was angry. "Do you really think I don’t know what’s going on?”

“Nothing is going on.”

The voices rumbled down the hallway like thunder. Corinth could hear the argument from her room. It wasn’t the first time her parents had been angry with each other, but this sounded worse than before. She stood with her bedroom door ajar, listening. It was clear her mother was upset and that her father was attempting to calm things down, denying there was any problem.

“This isn’t the first time." She continued her attack.

“What do you mean by that?”

Morris attempted to rebuff his wife's accusations. He insisted she was misinterpreting things, but Mariane was having none of it. She told him this time he had gone too far. Worse it was here, right under her nose. He insisted she had got things wrong, but she would not listen.

Then he pleaded with her for an explanation. “What exactly am I supposed to have done?”

“Done! With my own sister. I can smell her perfume on you.”

“So? Your sister uses a strong scent.” He was flailing under the onslaught.

“Oh please, Morris. Don’t make excuses.”

“I’m not.”

“This affects everybody. Not just you and me. The whole family. The kids. What about our daughters? Milo? Did you even think about them?”

Corinth knew something was seriously wrong. She understood what they were arguing about, and it was a shock.

“I need some air," Morris said.

The door down the hallway banged shut. Corinth listened to her father’s footsteps. She heard him go downstairs. Quietly, she closed her bedroom door and flopped down on the bed. Would they separate? Get divorced? There were girlfriends at school whose parents had split up. It wasn’t so uncommon. But she never imagined it might happen to them. Should she go and see her mother? Corinth lay there, trying to think through what might happen. Perhaps nothing?

 

▪ ▪ ▪

 

Milo spotted Uncle Morris walking down the steps of the veranda. He watched him get into the car and start the engine. The tyres threw up a cloud of dust from the dry ground as the car pulled away. For a moment, he wondered where his uncle was going in such a hurry. But his thoughts quickly returned to the subject of his preoccupation, Estevo. He would be here today. Milo decided to hang around the house and wandered down into the garden.

In reality, the label 'garden' no longer applied, the bushes had grown wild, the plants that pushed up through the baked earth were those that survived without watering, mostly weeds. The outline of what was once a splendid garden, like the house itself, was still there. You just needed to look hard to see it. Milo wondered what his father wanted Estevo to do. One person alone could not reverse years of neglect.

The sun was reaching its zenith. Lunch would be on the veranda, but no one was about. At least he saw nobody, until he found his way to the rear of the property. The grass was taller there, interspersed with weeds and gorse bushes. Those needed to be dodged to avoid the sharp prickles which would scratch and cut your legs. A path of sorts existed, leading towards the back door. Actually two doors side by side. A wooden step led up to the rear entrance of the house and another door led into the basement.

Milo had been into the basement. As a young child, it offered mystery and adventure, but it was an empty space that an adult had to move through bent double. The uneven earth floor and low beams meant you could not stand up. The basement was another part of the house long since abandoned. Left as a home for the bats.

He was surprised to see Corinth sitting alone on the rear step. He had imagined making a tour of the outside, he might find Estevo. He had not seen him arrive. As he drew closer, his cousin looked up and wiped her eyes. It was obvious she had been crying.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

There was silence. Milo took a seat on the step next to her. He sat a while before speaking again.

“Is something wrong? Did something happen?”

Corinth turned her head away but otherwise did not move. Milo was almost touching her.

He decided on a different approach. “You know I like both my cousins. Even if you both tease and play about.”

It seemed she relaxed a little. Although she didn’t look directly at him, she did turn her head back, but still kept silent.

“What do you think we’ll have for lunch?” He was trying hard to lift her spirits but was obviously not very good at it.

“I couldn’t care less,” she finally replied. “I don't care.”

“Oh, okay.”

“I think my parents are getting divorced.”

That statement came out of the blue, like a summer storm, a shock. A shock for Milo, but not for Corinth. A summer storm was at least predictable. You could see the storm clouds gathering, you just didn’t know when it would hit.

“What happened?” Milo shuffled a little closer. He wanted to give his support.

“They were arguing. It’s been going on for some time. Before we got here.”

“Arguing about what?”

Corinth felt the touch of the other body next to hers. She stared out across the overgrown lawn.

“I think it was about my father and your mother.” She didn’t want to be too brutal. She didn’t want to straight out tell him it was about them. Even though she knew, she’d heard the argument.

“What about?”

Now she turned her head and looked at him. “You sure you want to know?”

“Of course, I want to know.” Why would she say that? he thought to himself.

“Something’s going on between your mother and my father.”

“Going on?”

She sighed. “Milo, you can be so slow sometimes. It’s easy to tease you. You never see anything. Don’t get it,”

“Don’t get what?” He was a bit annoyed.

“My father, your mother. Together.”

He still had to think about it for a moment or two before the penny dropped. “You mean they’re...” He didn’t know how to finish, but if he understood her, she was telling him his mother was having an affair.

“With Uncle Morris?”

Corinth felt exhausted by the explanation. “You got it.”

“No, no, can’t be true. I’m not falling for your games.”

“Whatever. You asked. I’m not playing. Not making it up. I heard my parents arguing about it.”

At first, he didn’t reply, but something felt different. This time he believed her. She was serious. She’d been crying about it. Before he even got here.

“Okay. What if I do believe you?”

“Nothing. Nothing, Milo. I’m just saying what’s going on. It upset me. Not at first, but thinking about what might happen. If they do split up. What will happen now? This summer? It seems like it might be over before it starts. I can’t see us staying here all summer together. Can you?”

He thought about it, “No. I suppose not.”

Corinth turned to face him, moving her head closer. She moved her arm onto his back, leaned forward and kissed him on the lips. She caught him off guard. He was contemplating the revelation, not paying attention to her. The first he knew, was the soft, moist touch of her lips against his. He jumped back, surprised. It took Milo a moment to recover.

“Look, Corinth, I wasn’t lying about liking you both, you and Amelie. But I like you like cousins, sisters even, not in any other way.”

She didn’t push herself on him but instead shuffled further apart. “Okay, sorry.”

“Forget it. No problem. Just so we understand each other. Okay?”

“Okay,” she gave him a weak smile. “And I’m sorry for teasing you and all that.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s all cool.”

“Still, why wouldn’t you want to kiss? It doesn’t mean we're in a relationship or anything. It’s only a kiss. Boy, girl.”

Milo felt himself blush. “I just don’t want to do that. We’re not kids anymore.”

“All the more reason. Just try kissing between grownups.”

“Well, I don’t think we’re grownups either. And it doesn’t feel right doing stuff with my cousin.”

Corinth was silent. She was again staring out across the once fine lawn.

After some time just sitting there together Milo spoke, “Have you seen the guy who's working on the house?”

“What guy?”

“Oh, my father employed this young guy to do some work here. I haven’t seen him around and was wondering if he’d shown up.

“Well, I haven’t seen him either. Let’s go take a look.”

It was amazing how quickly his cousin could slip from one mood into another. From one person to another. Perhaps a unique quality given to some but not others, he thought. They stood up together and smiled at each other. It seemed to Milo that they’d reached a new understanding. He hoped everything wasn’t as bad as the picture she painted.

“Which way?” She asked.

“I’ve done the tour of the outside. Let’s take a look around inside.”

They turned, opened the door, and went into the house.

Corinth led the way along the narrow hall. There was music playing in one of the rooms. The radio was on...

Qui a le droit, qui a le droit

Qui a le droit d' faire ça

A un enfant qui croit vraiment

C' que disent les grands

On passe sa vie à dire merci

Merci à qui, à quoi

A faire la pluie et le beau temps

Pour des enfants à qui l'on ment

(Who has the right, who has the right)

(Who has the right to do that)

(To a child who really believes)

(What the adults say)

(We spend our life saying thank you)

(Thank you to who, for what)

(Bringing the rain and the good times)

(For the children we lie to)

Corinth turned into the open door with Milo right behind her. The large room was empty save for the ladder resting against the far wall with the young man halfway up it, singing. Singing along with the radio. Milo thought he had a beautiful voice. Estevo was shirtless, stretching, scraping the old wallpaper from the wall. The floor was spotted with scraps of wallpaper showing pictures of faded flowers that had once weaved their way around the room. Bare floorboards gleamed with a shiny dark wetness from the moisture spilled off the wall. One large strip of paper, soaked and damp, was all that was left of the decoration.

A toi aussi, j' suis sur qu'on t'en a dit

De belles histoires, tu parles que des conneries!

Alors maintenant, on s' retrouve sur la route

Avec nos peurs, nos angoisses et nos doutes

(And to you as well, I’m sure they told you)

(Beautiful stories, all bullshit!)

(And now, we’re left alone)

(With our fears, anxiety, and doubts)

Corinth approached, bent down by the ladder, and turned the large knob on the black and chrome transistor radio. Patrick Bruel faded into the background. Estevo stopped, turned his head, and looked down at her.

“How long have you been here?” Milo demanded.

Estevo glanced across the room before turning his attention back to Corinth.

“Not long,” he replied.

“You must work quickly,” Milo was watching him. Watching him looking at Corinth.

“What are you doing?” Corinth smiled up at him. She was quite taken by the lean, tanned young man in faded jeans and old sneakers.

He laughed and held up the scraper with which only minutes before he’d been tearing off the last remaining vestiges of wallpaper.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

His smile was contagious and brightened Corinth’s mood. She was no longer thinking about her parents or Milo. Milo, on the other hand, was less pleased. It seemed there was something between the two of them, Estevo and Corinth. In any event, it was certain that Estevo was more taken with her than him.

“You’re here all day?” Milo asked as he was leaving.

Estevo looked at him. “Yeah, I’m staying here. To get the work done for your father.”

Milo thought that was typical of his father. The house was falling apart, and he’d asked Estevo to decorate an empty room that they didn’t even use.

“I’ll see you later then.” He walked back out, leaving Corinth and Estevo alone.

As he reached the end of the hall and went back outside, he heard the radio once more, blaring from the house.

Milo wondered if he was jealous. But why? What of? He walked along the overgrown path back around the house, towards the hammock.

 

 This chapter features a song by Patrick Bruel, Qui a le droit. https://youtu.be/tQVwCTIT5f4

 

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Chapter Four.

 

“You like him?” Milo asked Corinth, which immediately grabbed her sister’s attention.

“You’re talking about Estevo?” Amelie leaned across the table, reaching for the potatoes.

“Who else?” Milo pushed the bowl to her.

“Where is he anyway?” She served herself.

Even in the shade underneath the veranda, it was hot. Nothing moved, the air was completely still, not even the hint of a breeze. Milo could feel his damp hair sticking to his forehead.

“He’s gone to get some paint,” Corinth announced. Then she took her serving from the large glass bowl. She smiled at Milo, passing it back across the table.

“Is everybody served?” Milo’s mother placed the salad in the centre of the table.

“It’s just us?” Milo asked.

She sat down next to him and began helping herself.

“Your father’s gone into town with Estevo. I don’t know where Uncle Morris has gone, and Mariane is not feeling too well with the heat. Your aunt is resting.”

Lunch passed quietly. Corinth kept her thoughts to herself about her parents and about Estevo. When they’d finished eating, and Milo was helping clear up, he got the chance to pose his question again. He and Corinth were alone in the kitchen.

“You do like him, then?”

“Look who's getting all curious,” Corinth teased.

Milo ignored the comment, occupying himself with drying and stacking the plates. Turning back to take the glass bowl from Corinth, he replied, “Just wondering, that’s all.”

“Well, you had your chance for a kiss.” She pulled the plug, and the water gurgled away, escaping the sink as easily as she slipped away from Milo.

Leaving him thinking, She does find Estevo attractive. He knew it all along. From the moment he left them in the room.

* * * * *

“You know, I don’t know why you are helping us.” Estevo was staring out of the passenger window. He was focused on the fields and trees, watching the countryside slide past. Milo's father was sat next to him, wondering how to respond.

“Let’s just say because I want to,” he said, glancing at the boy. He couldn’t help making the comparison between Estevo and his own son. Milo always had his head in books, Estevo was much more the athlete.

The town was some twenty minutes away in the opposite direction to the local village. It was the only place where you could get paint and building materials. The hardware store in the village sold lots of things, but the choice was limited, and his wife wanted rose. Pink walls. They'd debated it. He thought she was humouring him. They’d settled on white with a hint of rose, and of course, that meant a trip into town.

As they pulled up outside the building supplies shop, John turned to Estevo. “I’ve known your mother for a long time.”

This surprised Estevo, he had never met this man before the summer. Maybe he’d seen him in the village before, he couldn't remember.

“But we’ve never met. Not until a few days ago.”

They got out of the car and walked together into the shop. John didn’t say anything. He headed towards the paint section. Estevo let it drop, he didn’t want to spoil things. Having a summer job, having this man helping his mother, it was too good. But he would have to ask her.

This wasn’t a huge store, although bigger than any shop in the village. Estevo doubted the choice was any greater, but it did have the paint mixing machine. There were two checkouts, but only one was staffed, and the lady working was busy talking on the phone. No one was in the place, except an elderly gentleman lost somewhere near the end of one aisle. At least he looked lost to Estevo, looking up and down the shelves, then picking something up. He seemed to study each item before carefully replacing it. Like a treasure hunt for an elusive magical piece.

He had to leave the old man to his quest as the paint had been mixed and they’d already picked up a few other things, including brushes, filler, and a spatula. The checkout lady was off the phone as they arrived to pay. After loading the pots of paint and supplies into the boot of the old Peugeot, which John had to bang with his fist to get open, he led Estevo across the road to Le Chat Qui Pêche. You might think "The Cat Who's Fishing" is an odd name for a restaurant, but maybe you’d be wrong. Perhaps the feline is trying to hook lunch?

“You might ask Milo to help,” John looked up from his plat du jour.

“With the decorating?” Estevo wasn’t sure the boy would want to spend his holiday decorating the house.

“Yes. It would get him out from burying his nose in books all the time.”

“That’s not a bad way to spend your time.” Estevo wondered where this conversation was heading.

“No, but not all of the time. He needs some activity. And something else to do.”

“Sure. I’ll ask him.”

John smiled. “I’ll put a bed in the room next to his when we get back. That way, you can both share the bathroom. Have to be the fold up, but I guess you won’t mind?”

Estevo nodded. “No problem. I’m very pleased to have the job. Staying over is a bonus. Not having to go back and forwards to home. It’s really very kind of you.”

* * * * *

Milo’s father grabbed the paint and Estevo the bag with the other supplies. Together they marched up the steps onto the veranda.

“I’ll take everything if you leave it here,” Estevo suggested.

John nodded. “I’ll leave you to it then and go sort out that bed for tonight.”

Estevo disappeared into the house. Milo’s father sat down at the table, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket and wiping his brow. Between two and four was the hottest time of the day, and today was no exception. It seemed as if the world was completely static, the silence was uncanny. He appreciated that aspect of living here, but was still struck by the almost total absence of any sound. Perhaps though, tranquillity had its price. Certainly, it would not endure eternally.

Inside the house was a little cooler. Still, the previously soaked walls of the large empty back room were bone dry. Estevo pressed his palm against them in several places to check, before returning to collect the paint left on the veranda. Milo’s father had gone. Estevo decided to occupy the afternoon by filling all the cracks. That way he thought he could get to painting the walls first thing in the morning and he’d ask Milo if he wanted to lend a hand tomorrow.

By late afternoon the whole room was finished. The spaghetti lines that had crisscrossed the plaster work were, if not invisible, suitable for painting over. It might, he thought, even make for a nice effect. Perfect and new wouldn’t quite blend with everything else. Pleased with his progress, he switched off the radio, picked up his t-shirt and threw it over his shoulder. Exiting out the back door it was still incredibly hot, although the intense heat had waned a little. He followed the rough path making his way around the house and along the drive to the gate and road. Not sure whether to turn left or right, he chose left along the road until he was near the poplar plantation. Soon he came across a track leading straight into the plantation. The hot air shimmered, making the trees waver off the ground in the distance. Insects buzzed, an occasional slight breeze rustled the leaves. Twittering birds indicated the world was emerging from its stupor. Once beneath the trees, the dappled shade broke up the sunlight but failed to do much to alleviate the heat. The track suddenly turned sharp left, so he cut across through the last row of trees and headed for the river. It wasn't very far.

Corinth and Amelie had the same idea, understandably drawn to the one place offering some respite from the heat. The one thing the old country house did not have was a pool. Corinth was swimming in the cool water across on the far side of the river. Amelie sat on the edge of the curved stone wall, her head slung back, the heat drying the water from her skin. This was a point in the river where a small dam had been constructed. The stone wall crossed from the far side of the river, where it crumbled into an earthen bank. But where Amelia sat, it formed an edge above the river until once more merging into a grassy bank. The river was broad at its entry, about three metres wide, and opened out into a large shallow pond after it dropped over the little dam. A rusty metal sluice gate held back the water which later continued, dividing into two. Neither girl knew who had made the dam or why; their father had said it was for irrigation and to control the flow of water. They thought that idea took no account of the flooding and it didn't look like the sluice had ever been opened.

“Why didn't you ask Milo to come?” Amelie shouted across to her sister.

She turned and swam back towards the wall. As she arrived, she splashed Amelie who screeched and laughed, plunging back into the water.

“He had his head in his book, lying in the hammock when I went to find him.”

“Still, you could have asked?”

“I did,” Corinth said, pulling herself up onto the wall. “He said, maybe later. You know what he’s like.”

“Somebody's coming.”

Corinth shaded her eyes and looked along the river bank. Estevo had found their swimming pond.

“Well, ladies,” he grinned as he approached along the river bank. “This looks like a great place to swim.”

“How did you know we were here?” Corinth smiled.

“Or how to find it?” Amelie added.

“I heard you shouting and screaming.”

He dropped his t-shirt on the grass next to Corinth and unbuttoned his jeans.

“I was walking along the river and... well, here I am.”

He smiled broadly as he stepped out of his jeans the sat down next to Corinth.

“It's so hot.”

Neither girl disagreed with that. They had both been struck dumb, engulfed by the vision of this fit young man casually undressing.

“Yes, it is.” Corinth could not help staring.

“Well, excuse me while I cool off.” Estevo slipped off the wall and swam past Amelie across to the far side.

Milo had finally decided to follow his cousins down to the river. He thought to look in on Estevo and see if he wanted to come but decided not to. Then as he arrived, he saw Estivo walking along the river bank. He stopped and watched, not really hidden, but no one was looking back in his direction. When Estevo stripped off and sat down next to Corinth on the wall, he hesitated before making up his mind to leave them alone and turn back.

Corinth stared across the water. The sunlight glinted on the ripples left in the wake of Estevo’s passage. Amelie swam out into the middle as Estevo returned across the pond. The three of them spent some time joking and chatting, alternatively plunging into the river and lying on the bank. Milo heard their laughter as he reached the road. He felt as if submerged by a thundercloud, destined to be swept up and thrown down in a raging storm.

* * * * *

Supper was a family affair, and tonight, everyone was there. Uncle Morris and Milo’s father had both returned. The heat of the day did not lend itself to large meals, but the evening was different. It seemed that Mariane and Marie, Milo's mother, had worked their magic together because the dish they brought to the table wafted aromatic scents into the air that titillated the taste buds. Both sisters working together had created a magical feast.

This evening the two families were evenly balanced, Estevo had joined the ranks of the Cage family. The field of battle was prepared, Uncle Morris was at war with his wife over Milo’s mother. The Prince Estevo was finally separated from his courting Lady Corinth. They were kept apart by the full length of the table. Her younger Maid Amelie had also been confined to the far side. Leaving the ignoble black Knave Milo to take his rightful seat next to Prince Estevo.

“Did you enjoy your swim?” Milo spoke quietly to the young man sitting next to him.

“We thought you were coming, but you never showed up,” he replied, turning his head to glance at Milo.

“I came, I saw, and I left.”

“But why?”

The chatter at the other end of the table was animated and loud, both Corinth and Amelie were laughing. A scene which did nothing to improve how Milo was feeling.

“I didn’t want to intrude,” he continued, looking up at Estevo from the corner of his eye.

At the same time, he tucked into the salad, one of his favourites, topped with walnuts and warm goat's cheese. For a moment, Estevo did not reply.

“Have I done something wrong?” He had finished eating. He looked at Milo, waiting for a response.

Milo's father was filling everyone's glass with the lovely rosé, Moulin Caresse. The perfect wine for the end of a long hot summer's day, fresh and soft. It comes from one of those inimitable French chateaux vineyards where generations of the same family have produced the grapes and bottled the wine for centuries.

Milo finally relented. “No, not you.”

“Who then?”

Milo thought Estevo seemed anxious, or perhaps just concerned, but why?

“The girls then?” Estevo ventured.

“No, not even them. It’s nothing.”

Milo interrupted the conversation by getting to his feet and helping his mother to clear the table. She smiled at him, “Thank you, Milo.”

When they returned from the kitchen, the centre pots were uncovered revealing their wonderful contents and more intense olfactory odours. Uncle Morris filled their plates with the steaming concoction of tender lamb and haricots blancs, in a rich sauce with onion, garlic, and a wafting fragrance of thyme.

As he sat back down, Milo's mouth was watering. Estevo watched him with a frown.

“It can’t be nothing,” Estevo told him.

“Just enjoy the meal. I don’t want to talk about it, and I don’t want to spoil tonight.”

A frog croaked out in the garden somewhere and was answered by another. It made Milo smile as if the Prince and the Knave had been transformed at the touch of a wand. Seeing his smile reassured Estevo, and he let his questioning drop.

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Chapter Five.

 

“What do you make of Estevo?”

John and Marie were the only two left on the veranda. John was relaxing in one of the two comfy wicker chairs. His wife was in the other one, swallowed up by the soft cushions. They each had a glass of wine. Marie placed hers on the little table between them. Reaching out, she took hold of her husband's hand.

“He seems to be a nice young man.”

She sank back further into the cushions, listening to the sound of the crickets and looking up into the night sky. The celestial curtain wrapped them in its splendid canopy of shining stars, twinkling gently overhead. Moonlight shadows played across the veranda, a pale imitation of the daytime, but rather beautiful and romantic.

She squeezed his hand, “I think it’s a wonderful thing you’re doing. Even if I’m not at all certain how things will work out.”

“The easy part, well I suppose easier, was getting them here. But on the money side, things aren’t so great.”

“We can only do so much, you know. Much as it would be perfect if they were set up securely, well, we don’t have the means, do we?”

There was a pause as the crickets played their symphony, and they both listened and sipped their wine, savouring the moment together.

“And Milo?” John changed the subject.

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll work things out. He is a sensitive child, though, and I hope he doesn't get hurt.”

“I wish he’d get his nose out of his books for a bit and get more involved, go out, enjoy the summer.”

“Perhaps he will with Estevo being here. I saw him heading off this afternoon in the direction of the river.”

Once more, they let the conversation be submerged by the nighttime cacophony. John leaned over towards Marie and gently kissed her.

“I love you,” he spoke softly.

She smiled in the dark. Rather reluctantly, they both got up and made their way inside the house. The sounds of crickets faded behind the closing door.

* * * * *

“Oh! I’m sorry.”

Milo walked into the bathroom and stopped, confronted by Estevo standing at the sink in only his boxers. Estevo spat out a mouthful of toothpaste before standing up.

He smiled, “No problem. Come in, I’ve finished.”

Milo felt a little self conscious in just his thin cotton pyjamas bottoms. Estevo stood back allowing him to take his place. As he stood over the washbasin, he raised his head looking into the mirror. At that moment, their eyes met for the second time since they had encountered one another. This time Milo, a little more relaxed by the wine over dinner, did not look away. Estevo moved a step closer behind him. He too did not avert his gaze. Milo’s heart was beating loudly in his chest, his mouth was dry. The feelings and emotions he felt were almost overwhelming. What is happening? He asked the question, but the only reply was his own heartbeat. He leant, both arms outstretched, supporting himself on the washbasin. A door banged somewhere in the old house. The sound breaking the silence, shattering the moment.

“Goodnight then.” Estevo smiled at the reflection in the glass.

He turned and exited to his bedroom.

“Night,” Milo answered almost painfully, like a lament. A single word that trapped and imprisoned his feelings.

The door clicked shut.

* * * * *

All the family did not as a rule find themselves having breakfast together, but this morning was an exception. Milo, usually up early, was late rising. He had found it difficult falling asleep, with too many thoughts buzzing around inside his head. When finally he fell asleep, it was fitful and charged with strange dreams. He had woken up with a start and remembered what he’d dreamt that night.

Starlight glinted off the water. Gazing up into the sky he was mesmerised by the full moon, a giant white ball which almost engulfed him. Its light illuminated him like the spotlight in a theatre. Suddenly he was wading through a river, the water up to his chest and getting higher the further he went. He had to reach the far bank because he knew he must be somewhere. He thought he might have to swim and his clothes would make that difficult. They dragged at him with the sodden weight. Despite the encumbrance, he forced himself on and eventually, to his relief, hauled himself up, out of the river. He stripped out of the wet garments, discarding them, and hurriedly moving on. Hoping no one would be about, no one would see him in the moonlight. There was a door which appeared in front of him. He didn’t know how he had arrived. Opening the door, he found himself centre stage in a theatre. The moon had been replaced by a spotlight trapping him like a prisoner in its beam. He was petrified, all he could do was cover himself with his hands as an unseen audience cheered and clapped. It was the shock that had woken him up.

“Sit down, Milo,” his mother smiled. “You look like something the cat dragged in.” She turned, bringing a fresh pot of coffee to the table.

The aroma reached his nostrils and stirred his senses. “I slept badly,” he told her.

“That’s hardly surprising given how hot it is.” She poured a cup of coffee and passed it to him before sitting back down.

“I was thinking of a picnic for lunch. What do you think?” His mother was addressing everyone. Everyone except his father, who was the only person absent.

Corinth smiled enthusiastically, “That’s a splendid idea,” she said.

Milo sipped his coffee, thinking to himself his cousin sounded like a character from Dickens. He could picture her amidst the rest of the people he’d come to know so well. That’s a splendid idea, a turn of phrase that fitted exactly. Thinking about the book brought to mind a sentence that had struck him as an apt reflection of their situation. “We are quite a French house, as well as an English one.” It was Mr Lorry, if he remembered correctly, whilst having breakfast in Dover.

“I don’t think I’m quite recovered enough for a picnic,” his aunt replied.

Incredible, Milo couldn’t help giggling, it wasn’t because his aunt was unwell, but his frame of mind this morning had them all playing their part in his novel. Not quite recovered, he mused.

“Milo!” His mother gave him an angry frown.

“Sorry, I just thought of something amusing.”

He turned his attention back to his coffee. Obviously, his mother thought he was behaving poorly, giggling when his aunt was saying she didn’t feel well. The day was not starting out too well for the boy.

Amelie whispered something to her sister, but nobody heard or paid any attention, except Milo. He noticed and wondered what little secrets they were sharing. He didn’t have long to wait for an answer.

“Can Estevo come too?” Amelie asked.

“Of course. I don’t see why not.”

“I really think I ought to get on with the painting,” Estevo said, looking at Marie.

“Nonsense. one afternoon won’t hurt.” She was emphatic in her statement. There was no debating it.

* * * * *

After the breakfast things had been cleared away, Marie set about preparing the picnic. Morris was hovering in the kitchen. It was evident he wanted to talk.

“We’re alone Morris. What is It?”

He moved to stand by the sink, turning to look at her, watching as she picked things up and packed the picnic basket.

“I think your sister is getting worse.” He leant against the sink.

She stopped her packing and turned to look at him. “What? I mean, how exactly?”

“Yesterday, for example, she convinced herself we are having an affair.”

Marie looked directly at Morris and frowned. “That fits with her fatigue. It’s another episode. I know how difficult it must be for you.”

He paused, shifting position, glancing through the window above the sink without really registering what he was looking at.

“I’m concerned about the girls. For us all. This last time I had to get out of the house. I drove and sat in the middle of nowhere trying to work out what to do.”

She moved next to him and reached out to squeeze his shoulder. It was a gentle, reassuring touch. He gave a little smile.

“I really don’t know if I can continue like this. I thought being here might change things, but it seems to be getting worse.”

“We have to leave her, I think. And wait... she will come out of it.”

“Do you think so? I’m not so sure. The fatigue and depression I can deal with. But this is different. I’m almost frightened. Scared about how she might interpret anything. Worried about what she might do. It’s practically a relief she spends all day in our room. But it can’t stay like this.”

Marie let her hand rest on his arm. “Let's try to give it a little time. See how things go. Before we get help.”

He looked at her hand, resting on his arm. He knew he had his sister-in-law’s support. He always had. She and John, they were always there. He nodded.

“Maman, do you need any help?” Milo asked as he entered the kitchen.

She turned, removing her hand, and smiled. “No thank you, Milo. Your uncle and I have everything sorted.

He'd seen his mother's hand resting on his uncle's arm, and the idea that Corinth had planted in his head earlier re-emerged.

“I’ll be in the garden reading. Come and get me when it’s time to go.”

“Of course, Milo.” She watched him disappear.

Milo was concerned but also relieved to escape the situation. He wasn’t certain about what he had witnessed, but it did look like Corinth was right. He didn't know what to do, so he tried to put it to one side.

Morris smiled weakly at Marie. “It affects us all. I worry about the children, if I should say something.”

“For now, Morris, I don’t think so. Let’s see if we can’t enjoy this summer.”

He was not entirely convinced, but her support was invaluable, and he was willing to go along with her, to try a little longer. It was true that at least he was not entirely dealing with this on his own. Not so long as they were all here, together, on holiday.

“I’ll go check on her.” He turned and left.

Milo's mother continued preparing their picnic, her thoughts, however, were focused on her sister.

* * * * *

Milo was lying in his refuge, allowing the hammock to swing gently from side to side. The book in his hands: “His hands released her as he uttered this cry, and went up to his white hair, which they tore in a frenzy. It died out, as everything but his shoemaking did die out of him, and he refolded his little packet and tried to secure it in his breast; but, he still looked at her, and gloomily shook his head.”

He'd read the same passage twice, he couldn't concentrate on the book. His thoughts kept returning to the kitchen. To Uncle Morris and his mother.

“Milo, there you are!” Estevo smiled, looking at the boy stretched out on the gently swaying hammock.

He approached and stood next to him, looking down at the book he held in his hands.

Milo was surprised. Letting the book drop onto his chest, he turned his head to face Estevo. “Hi,” was all he said.

“Still reading Dickens, I see.” Estevo moved around to the foot of the hammock to look directly at Milo.

Their eyes took in each other. Those deep green eyes stared at Milo, trapped him as if a spell were cast upon him. A silence between them gave room for nature's sounds to become apparent. The birds were talking, perhaps even the crickets, but Milo was lost for words. He silently cursed his inability to speak.

Estevo did not seem aware of Milo’s predicament. It was as if he didn’t notice the silence between them, or it simply didn't bother him. He walked around the foot of the hammock, his hand gently resting on the rope. Milo felt the slight movement of the hammock and his emotions. Feelings that once more were about to overcome him. His mind now focused on Estevo, he would have liked that hand to touch him. Somehow there was a connection, between rope, hammock, Milo, and Estevo.

“You alright?”

“Oh, yeah,” Milo snapped out of his revelry.

Estevo’s hand moved from the rope to lightly touch Milo’s leg. “Sure?”

Milo smiled and croaked out a confirmation. “Sure.”

That touch made him shiver, tremble. The feeling, that bond, it sent a little shockwave through his body.

Estevo smiled.

At that moment, Corinth appeared, "I came to get you," she said, ignoring Milo, looking instead at Estevo." “We’re ready to go,” she announced, smiling broadly.

Estevo's hand retreated from Milo, and he gripped the side of the hammock with both hands, tipping it up, laughing and sliding Milo off. He stumbled backward, surprised, trying to regain his balance. Estevo stepped forward and caught him in his arms. Leaning forward, he held Milo tightly with both arms, the only divide between them being the hammock.

Milo was at first annoyed, but that was quickly forgotten in the embrace of the young man. He regained his balance, but not his head, which was a swirl of conflicting thoughts.

“Let’s go,” Corinth once again interrupted the moment, seemingly oblivious to Milo’s feelings, although she frowned slightly at their antics.

Estevo patted Milo with both hands, “Sorry,” he whispered.

Milo turned, smiling.

 

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Chapter Six.

 

“You’ve been more than a help,” Estevo's mother told John.

“I only wish we could do more.” He said, looking her.

She was an attractive woman, some years younger than himself. He could not imagine how his father-in-law could have done what he did, then keep it a secret for so long. It was the kind of thing which could destroy a family. When they had discovered the secret, he had felt compelled to find her and somehow attempt to make recompense for the wrong.

Marie had said that it was not something that fell properly on his shoulders, it was her family, her father. He had simply confirmed that it was their family when he married her, he took on everything. She had smiled and kissed him softly. He knew that she in some way agreed, although it ignited strong emotions in her. She had not spoken to her father since. The rupture was painful, but she could not bring herself to forgive him. She wondered if her mother knew; they had never had the chance to discuss it.

Everything had happened so suddenly. Would she have had the force to talk to her mother? But circumstances overtook events and she was gone. Lost to that despicable disease that lurks in all of us.

“You gave Estevo a summer job. You've driven me to Montpellier. I think you’ve done a lot.”

She gestured for him to sit down. It was dark inside. Coming from the intense sunshine, it took a while to adjust to the gloom. Like every house in the village, the shutters were closed, to keep the heat out and maintain a coolness inside. The towns and villages in the South of France resembled ghost towns during the day. The closed shutters gave the impression of boarded-up buildings, not a soul on the streets, not even a cat. You might easily think the bomb had been dropped and all life wiped out.

“And Monsieur Fournier?” he asked, changing the subject.

“Well, no doubt tongues are wagging. But he’s a gentle old soul and has been very patient. He’s not going to throw us out on the street.”

“Why won’t you come and live at the house?” He tried again to raise the topic although she had already said that would not work. It would not be right and would pose difficulties. It was a long walk to the village and she had no transport.

They had been through all these arguments. He knew it wasn’t true. Estevo could cycle into the village. It wasn't far, she could walk. Still, he wouldn’t insist.

“If you won’t change your mind, then let’s hope you get the job.”

She smiled, “I think I will. And I’ll be able to pay back Maurice. Monsieur Fournier.”

“And Estevo? What does he think?”

Alice stood up, “Would you like a coffee?”

He nodded.

“I haven’t mentioned anything. No point, until we know.”

“But how will he react to moving to the city?”

She filled the kettle and spooned some coffee into the cafetiere.

“It won’t be the first move. It will be fine.”

“I do think you should talk over everything with him. Tell him the whole story. He’s eighteen, an adult.”

John watched her pour the boiling water into the cafetiere, then slowly press down on the plunger. She brought it over to the table, returning to take two cups from a cupboard in the kitchen. Finally she joined him, sitting down.

“I will explain everything, of course, I will. But he’s working at your house now. Why risk spoiling his summer.”

She poured out the coffee and took a cube of sugar, stirring it slowly in her cup.

“But it was spoiled when Albert left.”

“Thank you for reminding me.” She sipped her coffee, looking at him, cradling the cup in both hands.

“Have you heard from him?”

“A phone call. Said he was fine, but not where he was, or if he was coming back.”

“It's a mess,” he picked up his coffee. “What did you say to Estevo?”

“That we needed time, some space.”

“And how did he take that?”

“Badly. I think he thinks his father walked out on us. But he didn't ask why.”

They drank in silence for a while.

“You know what I think. You should sit down together and explain everything.”

“And if Albert comes back?”

“You think he will?”

“I don’t know. Can we drop it for now?”

“I’m sorry,” he told her. “I know it’s difficult.”

She nodded.

“Well, let me know when the job interview is.” He stood up to leave. “Thanks for the coffee.”

“You’re welcome. And I’ll let you know the day.”

As he stepped out into the sunlight, she added: “And I will talk to Estevo.”

“Alright.” He wasn’t at all certain she would talk to the boy, but it wasn't his place to interfere.

* * * * *

Milo's father was back in time to join everyone for the picnic. The old Peugeot clattered up the drive just as they were all about to set off. Milo's mother was pleased to see him, as it meant they could all bundle into the car and take off for the Lac du Salagou. This was a favourite spot of his mother's, and Milo also loved the place. It was simply special, unspoilt, and offered everything from beaches to walking and fantastic views. He well remembered when they had trekked up Mount Liausson at the southern end of the lake. It was the highest point at something over five hundred meters. That trip had taken all day, but the panorama and views had been worth it.

Milo's father flung open the doors, they packed the picnic basket in the back and Amelie squeezed in alongside, propped up with a large cushion to rest against. The car was only meant for five people. Milo sat in the middle of the rear bench seat with Estevo on one side of him and Corinth the other. He smiled to himself, pleased the ignoble Knave had separated the Prince and his Lady.

The engine growled into life. They swung around the drive heading back out through the gate posts and onto the tarmacked road. Estevo wound down the window, as did the others, and a hot breeze flew through the car as they picked up speed. It was never the most comfortable of vehicles, and fully loaded, with three teenagers on the back seat, the springs complained along with the rest of the car.

But Milo was happy squashed up next to Estevo, their legs touching in an almost intimate embrace. Whereas on the opposite side of him, Corinth hugged the window trying to avoid touching him, although that was not really possible.

They eventually arrived at a spot next to the lake on the edge of a hamlet. To get there, it was a drive down a dirt track where they were thrown together as the old car bounced around. Milo could not decide if anyone actually lived in the hamlet. Apart from the church, most of the buildings were ruins without roofs or otherwise derelict. They weren't alone though, there were three camping cars, four, if you counted the old VW campervan.

They fell out of the car, stretched, dragged out the picnic basket, and headed on foot towards the lakeside. There was a massive square stone pillar the other side of the barrier that blocked anyone continuing by car along the track up to the water’s edge. It was set in the middle of a flat piece of ground, with a little wall on one side next to the track. At some time in the past, a cross would have adorned the top of the pillar, but that had long since disappeared, probably like most of the inhabitants.

They followed the track down to the lake where it vanished into the water. This was not a natural lake. It had taken five years to complete the dam across the valley, which was finished in 1969. Sceptics had predicted it would take years to fill the lake, but one huge storm half filled the whole valley the same year it was completed. The lake was some seven kilometres long and two kilometres wide. Several hamlets and even an entire village were lost forever under the water.

Milo’s mother laid out blankets to sit on and a table cloth, ready for the picnic. Corinth asked Estevo if he wanted to take a walk before lunch, but he had other ideas.

“Come on, Milo. Let’s go for a swim!”

His invitation caught Milo off guard, but seeing how he’d rejected Corinth, he had to accept. The two boys headed to the water’s edge where Estevo stripped down to his boxers. Not to seem like a wuss, although a little embarrassed, Milo did likewise. Estevo went charging into the water whilst Milo stood still, watching.

“What you waiting for?” Estevo shouted back.

This prompted Milo to join him, walking in up to his waist. Estevo laughing, splashed him and dived into the water. Milo shouted at him and took the plunge. It was cold, the difference in temperature accentuating the chill, but it was also a pleasant respite from the heat. They swam around, with Estevo joking and smiling, circling the boy like a shark about to take a bite. Milo saw a sparkle in the young man’s eyes that he hadn't noticed before. When Estevo swam up close to him and grabbed him around the waist, his heart started pounding in his chest. Being so close, touching, Estevo’s skin pressing against his body, Milo was oblivious to the world. At least until his father called his name and he turned to see him standing on the bank.

“Come on, lunch is served!” his father shouted.

Estevo made his way back to the shore with Milo right behind him. Together they followed his father up the track. The picnic was laid out ready, they even had glasses for the wine. His mother was great with picnics, she’d thought of everything. She had brought towels and handed one to Estevo.

“You two dry off a bit. I don't want the lake on the blankets,” she smiled.

Estevo stood there quickly drying himself watched closely by Corinth and her younger sister. Then he passed the towel to Milo, who smiled at him complaining it was too wet to use. So Estevo grabbed the towel and started rubbing his hair, whilst laughing and making Milo giggle. Corinth turned away, losing interest in the boy's antics, whilst Milo snatched the towel back to finish drying himself.

After lunch, everyone relaxed before either paddling or swimming in the lake. Corinth seemed less than pleased when Estevo left her and Amelie in the water and went to join Milo, lying down side by side sunbathing.

“You know something, Milo?” He propped himself up on one elbow, looking over at the boy.

“What?”

“You can be a lot of fun when you want to.”

Milo grinned, he was happy, his Prince had joined him and was being nice to him.

“Is that a smile?” Estevo leant on top of Milo and began tickling his sides.

This made Milo wriggle and roll about trying to escape and getting a fit of giggles at the same time.

“No, no, stop... please,” he managed to say between attacks.

Estevo relented, staring into Milo’s eyes. Those deep green eyes captivated him, he was caught by a magnetic attraction and unable to move. He could feel Estevo's breath on his face and then... the lightest touch of his lips against his own.

Milo gulped, almost unable to breathe. Did that really happen?

Estevo looked a little worried, he’d retreated back, but was still looking at him.

“I’m sorry,” he told Milo. “I… I don’t know… sorry.” He stood up and brushed the dirt off himself, then quickly walked away.

Milo watched, instantly overcome by a dark sadness, an immense feeling of loss. What had he done? Why didn’t he say something? Anything.

Corinth joined Estevo by the side of the lake where he was standing staring out at the water.

“Haven’t seen much of you,” she said to him, which startled him out of his contemplation.

“Nah,” was all he replied.

But even though he was less than receptive Corinth remained, doing the talking for two as she rambled on about nothing. He heard her talking, but whatever she said didn’t actually register.

Milo decided he needed to find Estevo, to tell him everything was okay. But when he went back towards the lake he saw him standing there in deep conversation with his cousin, so he turned and wandered off towards the old ruined houses. He needed to think.

 

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Chapter Seven.

 

“I talked to Morris,” John told Marie.

The sun had disappeared behind the house, a fire of red and orange filling the sky before fading with the promise of another hot day to come. Although the temperature must have fallen, it seemed hardly a noticeable change. It would be another very warm night.

“How is she then?”

“Your sister's mood swings are violent. He's finding things difficult. What he actually said is that one minute everything's fine, then she might get angry. With no apparent reason. She started to accuse him of abandoning her and the kids.”

Marie looked thoughtful. “Perhaps we should get some professional help?”

“Call Alain?”

“I think so. I think she needs to see a doctor first.”

“First?”

“Well, yes. If it’s bad... or getting worse, then she needs to see someone. A specialist, but first a doctor.”

“I’ll have another chat with Morris in the morning.”

Marie picked up the half-empty bottle left over from their light supper. “Shall we?” she asked him.

He grinned, “It’s becoming a habit, don’t you think?”

“The wine, or late nights on the terrace watching the stars?”

“Both I guess.”

An owl hooted loudly from somewhere in the shadows, cloaked in darkness and completely hidden from view. She refilled their glasses.

“Milo and Estevo enjoyed themselves today.” She had noticed how well they were getting along.

“Yes, I saw their antics. I’m not sure it put Corinth in the best of moods though. I rather have the impression she has her eye on him.”

“Estevo is an attractive young man. And Milo?”

John sipped his glass of rosé which had long since abandoned its cool freshness, overcome like everything by the heat.

“You mean...”

“Yes, you know what I mean. Milo and our young handyman.”

“I’ve never given it much thought.”

“But he did seem rather taken with Estevo.”

“You don’t think anything's going on there, do you?”

Milo's mother smiled and raised her glass to her lips, she studied her husband a moment. “Would it bother you?”

He thought about that. “So long as he’s happy.”

“Do you mean that?” she asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“Yet, you have your opinion about him spending too much time with books.”

He looked out into the darkness, studying the nondescript shadows painting images in the moonlight, and listening to the sounds of nature.

“That’s true,” he finally replied. “But I do only want what’s best for him. I think I always have.”

She reached out and took his hand in hers. It was like the other night when they’d lingered outside, reluctant to end the day and retreat into the house.

“I know you do. You want the best for everyone.”

She leaned over the table and kissed him gently. He took her head in both hands and returned the kiss passionately.

* * * * *

“Did you know it’s my birthday next week?” Milo was in the bathroom with Estevo.

The young man smiled broadly, “I think you told me.”

“I did?”

“Yes, the first time we met. In the café.”

“Oh, yeah. You remembered.”

Estevo moved close to him, almost, but not quite touching.

“I remember everything about you.”

Milo turned to look at him. “But you like Corinth, don’t you? I always see you with her.”

“That’s nothing,” Estevo said, moving to the washbasin and picking up his toothbrush.

“It’s confusing.”

Estevo looked up, turning around to face him. “It’s you I really like.”

Milo's heart thumped in his chest, his mouth was dry. He felt oddly excited, and not for the first time. He looked away, blushing, slightly embarrassed. Estevo reached out and pulled him into a hug, wrapping both arms around him.

“I like you,” he repeated as if he were trying at once to convince Milo and at the same time confirm something to himself.

Milo looked up into those emerald green eyes in whose depth he could lose himself, his whole being, his very soul. Is this love unfolding? Is it something true, honest, pure? How could he be sure? Was Estevo even certain himself? He freed himself from the young man’s arms and stepped back towards the moonlight which shone a long pale beam through his half-open bedroom door.

“Milo.” Estevo's voice was almost a plea.

“I...” No more words came out. Milo looked for a long moment, standing motionless, frozen between two worlds, two choices.

Estevo stepped towards him, “Milo,” he said again.

Milo hesitated. His heart was crying out, his mind was a confused mess of tangled emotions and swirling thoughts which he was unable to hold onto. He trembled. Estevo took one more step and once again wrapped his arms around the boy. He felt him shaking and held him tight, burying his face in Milo’s hair, moving down to softly touch his cheek with a kiss of his lips, as gentle as the lightest breeze, like a whisper in the night.

* * * * *

When he woke with the early morning sunlight, Milo couldn’t believe it hadn't been a dream. Had that really happened last night? He was alone in his bed, but he could almost feel the warmth of their embrace, as though he were still in Estevo's arms. Thinking about what had happened sent waves of excitement through his body. He felt full of energy, charged up. So charged up he thought he might explode. He jumped out of bed and went straight to the bathroom. Then nervously, very slowly, opened the door to the adjoining room. He peered in and looked at the little camp bed his father had set up. It was empty. Estevo was not there.

He closed the door and quickly stepped out of his pyjamas and into the shower. He stood under the spray of warm jets which caressed his body, and his thoughts turned to Estevo. Throwing on a t-shirt and shorts, he went to look for the young man. But before having a chance to explore the house, he bumped into Amelie.

“You’re in a hurry,” she grinned, blocking the staircase.

“I’m trying to find Estevo.”

“What for?”

He frowned at her, annoyed at being held up by her stupid questions. “Have you seen him?”

“Yes, I might have.”

She is almost as bad as her sister, he thought. I wonder where she learned that?

“Amelie, have I done something to annoy you?”

The question made her think, pausing for a moment. “Well, I’m not sure. But you know something?”

Now he was intent on finding out why she was acting like this and what was going on.

“No, what?”

“If I tell you... but I’m not sure I should.”

Milo sat down on the stairs. Obviously, she had something to say to him. But what? He wanted to be nice to his little cousin, and he didn’t want to ignore her. She, on the other hand, might have felt he had ignored her. They had not spent much time together this summer. Well, he was listening now.

“Come and sit next to me, cuz,” he patted the step.

She looked at him, hesitated a moment, then sat down next to him.

Glancing at her he said to her “Tell me what’s on your mind.”

“Are you sure you have the time?”

Ouch. That was a little dig, but he ignored the remark. “Come on, out with it. Of course, I have the time. I’m sitting here, aren’t I?”

“Well, you probably won’t believe me anyway.”

“Try me.”

“I saw your mother and my father together.” She had her head down and was speaking in a low voice as if talking to her knees.

“And?”

“And,” she repeated to emphasise what she was about to reveal, “they were kissing.”

“Kissing?”

“Yes, kissing. Your mother was kissing my father.”

“How?”

“Like this.” She looked up at him and pouted her lips, making a smacking sound.

“Are you sure? You’re not making this up, are you?”

With that, she poked her tongue at him, stood up, and rushed upstairs. Milo was left sitting there, wondering.

“Ah, Milo. What are you doing sitting here?” his mother asked.

“Oh, ah, nothing. I was looking for Estevo. Then Amelie stopped me.”

“Well, could you please do me a big favour?”

He looked down at her, standing at the bottom of the stairs. “What?” he asked.

“Your father forgot his cheque book. He’s gone into the village. Would you go after him?”

She climbed up to where he was sitting and held out the cheque book.

“Do I have to?”

She gave him one of her stern looks. “Milo, you’ve got nothing else to do.”

“Well, I was going to go find Estevo.”

“Estevo has got work to do. You can find him later.”

There was no point arguing. She was his mother, after all. He stood up and took the cheque book from her.

“Where will he be?”

“I’m not sure. You could try the doctor.”

“The doctor?”

“Yes, he may be with Alain. Or if not, Monsieur Fournier. Just look around, you’ll find him.”

Resigned to his task, he moved on down the stairs and went to find the old bike. It was very hot again, and he didn’t feel like walking the three kilometres.

* * * * *

There was a shed of sorts, a kind of lean-to that was about as dilapidated as everything else. The bicycle was there, leaning against some garden junk. Milo extricated it and surveyed its condition, which was not great. For one thing, the tyres were flat. The pump, luckily, was attached to the bicycle, so he set about inflating them, hoping that they would be good enough for the ride into the village.

It was as he finished preparing the bicycle that Corinth appeared. Grinning, she asked, “Seriously, Milo. You’re not gonna ride that thing?”

“I don’t feel like walking to the village. So yeah.”

“If you’re not back by supper, we’ll send out a search party,” she chuckled, turning away.

“Your sister told me something.”

That statement stopped Corinth, who turned back, looking at him. “Yeah. What exactly?”

Pushing the bicycle towards her, he frowned. “I don’t know if she was making it up, but she said she saw Uncle Morris kissing my mum.”

“Don’t believe it. She’s playing stupid games. Probably annoyed with you.”

“Why? What have I done?”

“Nothing Milo, but that’s the point. She feels left out since Estevo arrived.”

“Oh, come on. He’s only been here a couple of days.”

“Yeah, well. I don't know.”

“And if it's true?”

“If it’s true, then it’s what I told you before.”

“Getting divorced, you mean?”

“Guess it has to be a possibility. But I’m not thinking about it anymore.”

Milo gingerly got astride the old bicycle. “No?”

“Bon voyage,” she laughed, watching as he pedalled down the drive.

Maybe he too shouldn't think about it? Corinth easily moved from one state to another. If something troubled her, it didn’t rest long on her mind. He, on the other hand, over thought things and brooded, leaving him incapable of doing anything.

With a metallic clunk, he managed to change gears as he hit the road and picked up speed. Now he thought what a good idea the bike was. There was no traffic, just the open road, along a meandering stretch of tarmac that shimmered with the rising heat. The good thing was it was flat, with no hills on the way to the village.

There was no sign of the old Peugeot when he arrived, but he did notice the same teenager he’d seen before playing around, that first day when he’d visited Monsieur Fournier for a haircut. The boy looked at him and smiled, which Milo thought a little odd, but he stopped. He waited as the stranger crossed the square and came up to him.

“Bonjour,” he said, greeting Milo.

“Hi. I’ve seen you before, haven’t I?”

“Maybe,” the boy replied, giving a sideways glance.

Milo noticed someone leave the café across from them. He wondered for a moment if his father might be there, but the car certainly wasn't.

“Yeah, you were mucking around with some mates. Over there.” He pointed to the stone bench.

“Estevo's working at your place.”

The statement took Milo by surprise. He nodded, watching the boy.

“I’m Olivier,” the boy announced, extending his hand.

“Milo.” Milo shook Olivier’s hand.

It was a firm handshake, and an actual handshake not a fist bump. Milo thought the boy held his grip a long time. He felt he was being scrutinised.

“It's great,” Olivier said, letting go of Milo.

“Great?”

“Yeah, because they really need the money.”

This made Milo reflect on things.

“Your dad’s over at his house. If you're looking for him?” The boy smiled again. He had a nice smile, and he seemed to know everything. Milo figured being a small village, everybody knew everything that went on in the place, but he’d never given that idea much thought. He was surprised, though. What was his father doing at Estevo’s house?

“I guess I’ll go and find my dad.”

“You know where he lives?”

“No,” Milo blushed, feeling rather stupid. Olivier didn’t seem to notice or mind. He only smiled.

“Come on then. I’ll take you.”

Milo walked back across the square, accompanied by Olivier.

“Have you known Estevo long?”

“About a year. Since they arrived.”

They walked on in silence. Milo thinking how different things were. He’d never talked to anyone in the village before, anyone his own age that is. Olivier seemed really nice as well.

The boy stopped and pointed. Looking along the road, Milo spotted the Peugeot.

“Maybe see you around.” Olivier turned back, leaving him standing alone.

Just at that moment, he saw his father come out the front door, kiss a lady, whom he assumed to be Estevo's mother, then get into the car. He watched as his father drove away and Estevo’s mother went inside. Curious, he continued along the road, wanting to see the house.

It was a house that looked like any other, not very different from those on either side. A stone step led up to the front door, and there was a metal grill at pavement level in the middle of the wall. There was a large front window with the shutters not quite closed. Milo stood there, staring at the house. Why was his father visiting Estevo's mother?

He turned and walked back to the square pushing the bike, running a lot of different thoughts through his head. Olivier had gone, the whole place had an air of complete desertion. He walked past the café, idly peering in through the large glass window. He caught the recognisable shape of Pierre with his back to him at the far end of the counter. If he wasn’t mistaken the only other occupant was the same man he'd seen when he first met Estevo. He was sitting at probably exactly the same table, he imagined, with a newspaper spread out in front of him. Some things never seem to change.

But for Milo, things felt different, like a page had been turned. He couldn’t explain it, it was just different. He got on the bike and headed back home.

 

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Chapter Eight.

 

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.

“What happened?”

“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...”

Silence again.

They stayed together, hugging each other and crying. Crying out all those emotions in the dark.

 

 

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Chapter Nine.

 

On the inside of the book cover was written "George." Estevo stared at the name, he felt betrayed. He never expected his mother would lie, not to him, and she had. They were very close. He loved his dad, but when Albert had left, there were just the two of them. It was a battle which they had been losing until Milo’s father intervened.

He sat on the back step looking at the pile of gorse bush remains, weeds, and other vegetation he’d been cutting down, pulling out of the ground and raking into one huge pile. All afternoon he’d worked with a fury that didn’t seem to have had any effect on the rage boiling inside him. She told him that the book was from his father. How ironic, of course it was from his father, only his father wasn’t Albert. It all made sense. Why he’d left. But not exactly, because he knew Albert loved him like his son, even if he wasn't. This changed everything. Christ, he buried his head in his hands, Milo’s mother and aunt were his half-sisters!

It was a very ill-chosen moment when John appeared. Estevo was so caught up in his thoughts he was oblivious to the world and hadn’t heard anyone approach.

“You’ve been working very hard,” John smiled, looking down at the young man on the step.

Estevo on hearing his voice jumped up. “What’s going on between you and my mother?” His tone was full of vitriolic accusation.

Milo’s father was taken by surprise, he was not expecting a furious confrontation.

“Whoa! Calm down. Nothing’s going on,” he replied, trying to keep a steady voice.

Corinth, Milo, and Amelie were coming up the drive, back from their afternoon at the river.

“That sounded like Estevo shouting,” Corinth glanced at Milo.

“And your dad,” Amelie added.

They carried on walking, Milo said nothing, but wondered what was going on. Corinth and Amelie marched up the steps onto the veranda and disappeared into the house. Milo hung back and skirted around to the rear. He stopped at a distance and listened.

“You’ve been seeing my mother.” Estevo threw the accusation at Milo’s father.

“No, not like that. It’s nothing like you might be imagining.”

“She told me everything.”

Estevo's face was screwed up in anger. Milo had moved a few steps closer and could clearly see the two of them. His father happened to glance back in his direction.

“Milo, can you go inside, please?”

His father’s voice was composed but very firm. He wasn't about to argue, and turned to leave them alone.

“I don’t understand how you can be like that,” Estevo accused him, glaring at him like he was a guilty man in the dock.

Milo heard that, before quickly moving back to the veranda and going inside.

“Your wife’s father and now you,” Estevo spat out.

“No, Estevo,” John stepped towards the boy. “I have only been helping your mother. To sort things out. I drove her to Montpellier because she needed to get there. Only helping. There is absolutely,” he said that word very slowly, “nothing going on between us.”

“Why should I believe that? Everybody lies. Even my own mother. Why are you any different?”

John felt immensely sad, full of remorse for the boy, for what had happened.

“I promise you. I swear that there is nothing going on. I’m very sorry. Your mother didn’t warn me about this.”

“Warn you? What? So you could prepare some story.” Estevo turned away.

John thought he was going to leave. “Wait. Please wait.”

He didn’t feel like waiting. He didn’t feel like listening anymore. He felt only that he wanted to get away, but he hesitated a moment.

“It’s true we feel responsible. I want to help. You know I couldn’t say anything. No one could.”

“Who knows?” Estevo angrily faced him.

“Marie and myself. Nobody else.”

“Do I believe that? Does it even make a difference?”

John wanted to reach out to him. He simply didn’t know how to. Marie had said he always wanted to help everyone. But that doesn’t always mean he got it right or even did the right thing. Who knows? Maybe it would have been better forgotten about.

“Maybe I did the wrong thing,” he looked at Estevo.

“The wrong thing?”

“Yeah. I shouldn't have done anything. Shouldn't have interfered. Tried to help. You and your mother.”

Estevo sat back down on the step, almost collapsed. Suddenly the anger was gone. His fury had simply evaporated, like water vaporised by the sun, it vanished. John moved and sat down next to him. They didn't look at each other, didn't speak, just sat there vaguely staring at the cleared ground and pile of vegetation.

The table was laid for dinner, nothing grand, a quiche, cheese, and salad. The crickets were playing their usual chorus. Mariane and Morris were talking, she seemed in good spirit. Corinth and Amelie were helping, bringing a bottle of wine, water, and plates from the kitchen.

“Milo. Can you go find your father and see where Estevo is.” His mother placed the quiche down centre table.

Morris was saying, “Someone told me the crickets only make music at night, but it’s not true. I heard them lunchtime.” He laughed and touched his wife gently on the arm. “What do you think?”

She grinned, “About the crickets coming out to sing in the day or whether I’d call it music?”

Milo was standing watching all this, wondering about going to find Estevo and his father. Trying to work out what they had been arguing about. Was it about him? No, he shouldn’t be paranoid.

“Milo, supper is ready. Go and find your father.”

He gave her a little smile and headed off towards the back garden. His father was sitting on the step but stood up when Milo approached.

“Supper’s ready. Maman said to come and get you both.”

Estevo stood up and glanced at Milo. Obviously, something was wrong. He didn’t need to speak, the look said it all. They walked back in a sort of icy silence. Milo’s mother looked up at both of them but did not comment as they sat down opposite each other. Estevo hardly ate and said nothing throughout the meal. He seemed only to get annoyed when Corinth and Amelie asked questions. Luckily, Mariane told them to behave and “Leave the boy alone.”

Milo would have liked to say something to Estevo, anything, just to find out what happened. But the tension was almost palpable, so he kept quiet. Later, he listened at the door of the bathroom until he was sure Estevo had finished before he entered. In bed that night he couldn’t stop wondering about what might have happened.

* * * * *

Sunday was his birthday, but although he was looking forward to it, there were also dark clouds in the sky. Would Estevo stay for his birthday? Usually, he went home at the weekends and with the argument he’d overheard, it was possible he wouldn't come back. It had sounded serious. What about himself? What should he do? He’d avoided Estevo and his father. On the one hand, he wanted to know what that dispute was all about, but on the other, he was concerned it might involve him. What if his father thought they were too close? Or worse, if he’d found out something was going on between them. But there was nothing going on. Although Milo definitely had thoughts in that direction, he still wasn’t certain how Estevo felt.

His mother had told him they might have their little celebration inside, as the forecast for the weekend was a risk of heavy showers. Standing on the veranda, he surveyed the clouds rolling across the sky. They didn't look too ominous but did lend to the gloomy atmosphere, when usually there were clear blue skies.

It occurred to him that he had sorted nothing out with Amelie, and what she did or didn't see. When he thought about her, he wondered what other rumours, true or not, she might have been spreading. He wouldn't put it past her to say something about him. But that aside, he probably — no, definitely — needed to find some courage. First, he needed to deal with his big issue. He couldn’t solve other people’s problems if he didn't look to his own first. None of these thoughts helped lift the gloom of the afternoon.

“What’s going on with you?” Corinth had sneaked up on him whilst he was in a world of his own, thinking.

Startled, he turned around. “Oh, it’s you.”

“Were you expecting someone else?”

“No. Of course not,” he frowned.

“Well, don’t get all upset. I only came to see what you were doing.”

“Uh! What I’m doing? Nothing. Thinking. Staring at the clouds. Wondering about everything.”

“Oh, I see.” She gave a little smile.

“You probably don’t. You don’t dwell on things.” He looked at her. “It’s my birthday Sunday and...”

He didn’t finish, she moved a step closer. They were practically standing face to face.

“If you can’t change it, don’t let it worry you.” She sidestepped to lean against the wall of the veranda.

“But I do...,” he paused, “let it worry me. Everything.”

She turned her head to look him in the eyes. “And what, might I ask, is everything?”

He sighed, “You know half of it. My mother and your father. The argument between Estevo and my father. And all the rest.”

“Now is the winter of our discontent made glorious summer by this sun of York; and all the clouds that lour’d upon our house.” She turned away from him and stared off into the distance, watching the breeze rustling the leaves in the tree tops.

“So now you’re quoting Shakespeare at me,” he laughed.

“Well, it seems to have made you smile.”

She did always have a way to lift his spirits. It was as if the ease with which she herself moved from the shadowy gloom to the light, she was able to share and pass on to others. At least to him, anyway.

“It is kinda apt. And the last thing I expected to hear from you.”

She turned around and faced him again. “I sort of started all this off if you remember. You found me tearfully contemplating our parents' possible divorce and the end of our summer. But we’re still here. Although the summer looks like it might rain on your party.”

That made him laugh. He reached out and touched her arm.

“I do like you, cuz.”

“Yeah, I know. Even if we are rivals, huh?”

“Rivals?”

“Oh, come on Milo. Don’t do the innocent stuff. Yeah, rivals.”

“About what?”

She tutted her lips. “Over the young man who is right this minute working in the house.”

Milo felt himself blush.

“There, you see. You can’t hide your feelings. Not from me. We’ve known each other far too long.”

He thought about that. It was odd it had not occurred to him before, but she was right. They had known each other since they were little, and they had shared countless summers together, growing up.

“That’s one of my problems,” he confided.

“What is? Not being able to hide your feelings from me? Or is it what those feelings are?”

“Both. And not only from you. From everybody. And of course what they are.”

“And how does Estevo feel?”

“You tell me. I don’t know, do you?” he smiled at her.

She had succeeded in both lifting his gloomy thoughts and freeing his tongue to talk about himself and his emotions.

“My opinion?” she asked.

“Yes. I trust you.”

“You do?”

“Of course I do. So tell me.”

“It looks to me as if it’s all in the balance.”

“All in the balance?”

“Yes, Milo. If you think I am the fountain of all knowledge and have an answer for you, I don’t. I’m not your mother. I don’t have a crystal ball, and I don’t know what Estevo feels. Any more than I know exactly what’s going on, or if these clouds will bring a storm. Sorry, but I have no answers.”

“Never mind. I have to work it out myself.”

She moved in closer, leant forward, and planted a kiss on his cheek.

“I’m sure you will. We all will.”

She turned and walked back inside the house. A distant rumble disturbed the darkening sky.

 

 

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Chapter Ten.

 

Milo was up early and thought there would be no one else about yet, but he was wrong. His mother was sitting alone at the table on the veranda. He watched her a moment as she drank her coffee.

“Milo,” she said, turning her head. “Would you like some coffee?”

She must have that sixth sense that mothers have, because he hadn’t made any noise and was standing motionless behind her.

“Morning, maman.” He moved to sit next to her. “And yes, thank you.”

She smiled and poured him a cup. The table was laid ready for breakfast, but he noticed only seven places were set. Knowing that his mother only ever drank coffee in the morning and rarely ate, someone was absent.

“Estevo's gone home,” she mentioned, whilst sipping her coffee.

That explained who was missing. He stared out across the drive and garden, listening to the early morning twittering of bird calls.

“He'll be back?” He asked, uncertain in the light of what had been happening.

She poured herself another cup of coffee, picking up a sugar cube and dropping it into the cup. He watched her twirl the spoon distractedly. It seemed to him that she was miles away.

“Maman! He’ll be back?” There was a certain anxiousness in his voice.

This jogged her attention. “Oh, yes. He will be here for your birthday tomorrow.”

There was a silence that left the stage for the birds to chirp and a frog to croak. All of a sudden he felt the chill in the air. The weather had changed, the sky had been invaded by clouds.

“He wanted to know if he could bring a friend,” she said, interrupting nature’s orchestra. “Of course, I said yes.”

Of course, he repeated to himself. What friend? He didn’t feel much like eating, but nevertheless, he took the loaf and cut himself a slice of bread which he buttered and spread with strawberry jam.

“What friend?” he asked.

“Oh, I really don’t know. I didn’t ask. He did say he’d call you.”

“Call me?” Why didn’t she say that before? The morning no longer seemed so gloomy. Nature was heralding in a wonderful new day with her usual sing-song, and who cared about a few clouds in the sky?

His thoughts rested a moment, reassured, but quickly overtaken by other concerns.

“Why is father seeing Estevo’s mother?” He was going to add, all the time, but decided to be a little more circumspect. He’d learnt a thing or two about conversational interactions from reading Dickens. He knew not to lay all his cards on the table.

“He’s offering some help.” She paused, thinking. “Did you know his father left them?”

“Yes. Well, he said he lived alone with his mother. I don’t think he actually said his father left.”

“Yes, well, he did. And we wanted to help.”

He heard some laughing coming from inside the house. His cousins must be up, and soon they would join them for breakfast, so he should ask his questions now.

“Why did you decide to help? I mean do you know Estevo and his mother? I just assumed he was a boy from the village looking for a summer job.”

She put down her coffee and turned to look at him. “It’s complicated.”

Corinth and Amelie came running onto the veranda, giggling.

“Morning, Milo, Aunty Marie.”

They spread themselves out at the table, Corinth opposite Milo, and Amelie next to him. He was running through his mind that final word, complicated. Wasn’t that what adults always said to avoid going into detail. In effect, he was no wiser, he knew only that his parents wanted to help, but not why. Not being in the mood for his cousins' antics, he excused himself and left them chatting with his mother.

* * * * *

Just before lunch Uncle Morris came to find Milo. Estevo had phoned and he said he wanted to see you, he told him. That afternoon when lunch was over, Milo took the old bicycle which Estevo had left at the house, he must have walked home. He was excited, but also nervous. Too many unknowns. Why did he want to see him? Why not say something before? Why the phone call? Was his friend he was bringing on Sunday, Olivier, or someone else? Maybe he had a girlfriend? Did he ever ask? He’d said he liked him. Milo overthought everything. His mind worked like a machine trying to compute all possible eventualities and find the most probable, the answer. It was impossible, far too many variables, but that did nothing to stop his mind working overtime.

Heavy splats of rain hit the road in front of him and he realised he hadn’t given much thought to the changing weather. He started pedalling faster, but the splats of rain became more frequent and much closer together. There wasn’t far to go. A rumble growled loud and quite close, then the heavens opened. Water flew off the tyres as he pedalled. Rivulets swam across the road pouring water into the fosse where a torrent rushed along next to the road. He made it into the village with the thunder crashing overhead. He looked around, peering through the rain. Too late to take shelter he was completely soaked to the skin.

As quickly as it had begun, the thunder receded into the distance and the rain eased, then stopped altogether. The sky cleared enough to return a semblance of daytime and he heard laughter. That was when he noticed Estevo and Olivier. He had no idea where they’d been hiding, but now they were standing right in front of him.

“It’s not funny,” he complained. “Who's stupid idea was it to get me to ride here?”

Estevo approached the boy and put an arm on his shoulder. “Come on. You better come home and get dry.”

“We weren't making fun of you,” Olivier said. “But you look...”

“Yeah, don’t say it. I’m soaked.”

He wasn’t angry, it wasn’t their fault. He was actually pleased to see them both. He got off the bike and followed them along the road to Estevo's house. Leaving the bike outside resting against the wall, he stepped up through the front door, following Estevo.

“You better get undressed here, before you flood the house,” he said, smiling.

Milo would usually have been embarrassed to undress in front of two boys he hardly knew. Maybe not in front of Estevo, but he’d only met Olivier that one time. However, he didn’t give it much thought, just kicked off his moccasins and pulled his t-shirt up and over his head.

“I’ll just go get a towel,” Estevo told him.

Milo stepped out of his shorts and stood there in his underpants with Olivier watching him and grinning. It was rather gloomy inside the house which probably offered a false protection for his modesty. He shivered, it was cold standing there on the wooden floorboards. Estevo returned with a large fluffy white bathroom towel.

“Ur, you better take those off too.” He looked at Milo, who blushed.

With Estevo standing in front of him holding the towel, and Olivier behind, it wasn't as if he could hide. Quickly he slipped off the last item of clothing and as he stood up Estevo wrapped the towel around him.

“I’ll take these,” he said, picking up the pile of clothes. “Take him into the kitchen,” he told Olivier.

The other boy squeezed past Milo and led the way along the hall. They sat down side by side, each on a wooden chair at the table. Milo looked around, then glanced at Olivier.

“Guess I chose the wrong time to cycle here.”

A huge smile lit up Olivier’s face.

“Oh, I don’t know. You look kinda cute, all wet and everything.”

This only served to make Milo blush again, and he wondered if it was visible in the dim light.

Estevo came in and went over to the sink, picking up the coffee jug. He placed it under the tap.

“I’ll make us some coffee.” He turned back to look at Milo. “You okay?”

“I am, now,” he replied, pulling the towel closer and drying his hair with one of the corners.

Nobody said anything whilst Estevo prepared the coffee.

Milo broke the silence as the water started to percolate through the filter. “Why did you ask me here?”

Estevo glanced at him. “I’ve got stuff I need to talk to you about.”

“But you could have talked to me before you left.”

Estevo sought out three mugs from the kitchen cupboard, placed them on the table, and then fetched the coffee jug , sugar and spoons. He sat down opposite Milo.

“Do you mind Olivier being here?” He looked intently into Milo’s eyes.

How could he mind anything? Those eyes held him almost in a trance.

He glanced at Olivier. “No, I guess not.”

“I’m not sure how to tell you this.”

As if some divine presence were listening in from above, a loud crack of thunder erupted, followed very quickly by heavy rain. Milo waited for Estevo to continue as he listened to the rain pounding the roof and yard, making loud clacking sounds as it fell onto the little porch over the back door.

“Well, your father has been sort of helping us. My mother and I.”

“Yeah, I know,” Milo interrupted. “I wondered what was going on. I’d seen him visiting here.”

Estevo looked visibly surprised. “You did?”

For the first time Olivier joined the conversation. “I brought him here. The first time we met. He was looking for his father.”

“I have to say I wondered,” Milo told Estevo.

“Wondered? About what?”

Milo didn’t want to say it for fear of offending Estevo in front of Olivier. He glanced again at the other boy sitting next to him. Estevo caught the glance.

“He’s my best friend. It’s okay, go on.”

“I wondered if my father was... you know, like seeing your mother. They kissed goodbye.”

Estevo lifted the coffee jug and carefully poured out three coffees.

“It’s nothing like that,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. I talked with my mother this morning. She said he was... they were helping you out."

“I thought the same thing. When your father kept coming here.”

“What I never got to find out was why. Why he would want to help.” Milo suddenly realised how that sounded. “No, I mean. I don’t mean we shouldn’t be helping.”

“It’s alright. I know what you mean.” Estevo smiled.

Milo relaxed, but was suddenly conscious he was only covered by a towel.

“Do you think my clothes will dry?”

With perfect timing another rumble of thunder answered that question, and made Olivier chuckle.

“I doubt it,” Olivier said. “You might have to cycle home naked.”

Milo turned to look at him. Then at Estevo.

“Do you have anything I could borrow?”

“Sure, don’t worry. Olivier is a joker.” He gave his best friend a studied look. “I’ll just come straight out with the truth, and tell you. None of this I knew until a few days ago. Like you, I asked my mother.”

Milo was listening intently, aware he was about to hear something very important. He guessed Olivier already knew.

“One summer, about eighteen years ago, my mother worked at the house. At your house. In those days your mother's family used to spend all summer there. I suppose that hasn’t much changed. Anyway, my mother was working there and so was my father. That’s how she met him, but that isn’t the story. Before she met my father she had a liaison with your grandfather, George Duval.”

Estevo slowly unravelled the rest of the tale. How his mother had married Albert, probably why his father had finally walked out, and then the coup de grâce. “So, Milo, that makes me... your uncle. Half-uncle to be exact.”

Milo stared at Estevo in shock, then turned towards Olivier, his eyes almost pleading, searching for some sort of reassurance. Estevo remained silent. Olivier felt Milo's pain and emotion, he put his arm around his shoulder and held him.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” he tried to offer some comfort. “Doesn’t matter now.”

A tear escaped the corner of Milo’s eye. It slid over his cheek as he lowered his head, staring at his empty mug of coffee. “My uncle!”

“Half-uncle,” Estevo corrected, then felt stupid for saying that.

“That means we’re...” Milo looked up at Estevo, “we're related.”

“Yeah, we are.” Estevo pushed back his chair and stood up.

He walked to the sink and looked out at the yard. Steam was rising off the concrete in wispy sheets as the temperature improved after the storm. He turned back, then walked out of the kitchen into the hall. Milo watched him leave.

“Is he alright?” He asked Olivier.

The boy squeezed his shoulder. “Sure. He's a tough cookie.”

Milo frowned, and turned to look at Olivier.

“What is it?” Olivier asked feeling a little worried.

“Do you think all this changes everything?”

Olivier smiled at Milo. “Estevo is a great guy, Milo. I don’t think it changes anything.”

Estevo came back carrying a bundle in his hands. “Here, try these, might be a bit big.” He pushed the clothes into Milo’s arms.

Milo got dressed, the clothes were somewhat too big, but better than no clothes. They all laughed at that. With the passing of the storm the atmosphere lifted and Milo headed home feeling okay, if not completely reassured about what had been revealed about their new relationship. It seemed odd. Very odd. He wasn’t sure it didn't change things. He wasn’t sure about anything.

Estevo and Olivier should be there on Sunday, for his birthday party.

But he wasn’t even sure about that.

 

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Chapter Eleven.

 

“I spoke with Alain.” John was in the kitchen, hovering, as Marie worked.

“Don’t get in my way please,” she said, sliding past him to get the eggs from the fridge.

“Sorry, I can see you're busy.”

“There’s a lot to prepare. I want to make it a good birthday.”

“I should go and help with the decorations.” He turned to leave.

“What did he say?” She stopped in the middle of the kitchen.

John looked around, as if he wanted to be certain they were alone.

“Well. He would like Mariane to see a specialist. She needs a full diagnosis and a treatment plan.”

“Yes, alright. But for what? What does he think is wrong?”

“He wouldn't really commit himself. But he said that she is exhibiting all the symptoms of bipolar disorder.”

Marie put the eggs down and wiped her hands.

“It would explain the mood swings, fatigue, and even delusions. What she imagines might be going on, but isn't. It’s not really so bad, just means she interprets things to the extreme. So she might accuse Morris of something only from what she saw, but blown out of proportion. Am I explaining myself?”

“I think I get the gist of it. And?”

“With treatment it will improve. He said it doesn’t sound bad enough that she would need hospitalisation. Usually, it’s something people live with. But she needs to see someone and he recommended we do that as soon as possible. When we get home.”

“And have you spoken to Morris?”

“Yes. He actually seemed relieved to have an explanation.”

“How urgent is it to see a specialist?”

“Alain only said that without treatment it will probably get worse. So I assume, the sooner the better.”

“Alright. We'll deal with that tomorrow. Right now I need to get on.”

He smiled. “Okay, I’ll leave you to it.”

* * * * *

Looking through the tree tops Milo watched the clouds scudding across the sky and listened to the leaves rustling in the wind. He had been given precise instructions to stay out of the way the whole morning, and not to come back to the house until lunch time. Corinth and Amelie had been despatched to keep an eye on him, but soon became bored. Milo had taken up his domain in the hammock, intending to idle away the few hours until midday. He was content when his cousins wandered off leaving him alone. But he couldn't concentrate on his book. He was disturbed by two things, or perhaps three, if he were to give any credence to Amelie.

Would Estevo and Olivier show up? He tried to convince himself that they definitely would. Because for one thing, it would be rude not to, after being invited, and requesting to bring a friend. Olivier was Estevo's best friend, he seemed nice enough. Yet still a tiny demon of jealousy niggled at his brain.

His mother had said that they, well his father mainly he supposed, were helping Estevo and his mother. He knew why. That was something he really must talk to her about, but not now. She had to be busy, like every year, preparing the food and birthday cake. She was a great mother, ever since he could remember, she’d always made a big effort for his birthday.

There was the year when he turned six. His big interest had been trains. He'd had Thomas the Tank Engine read to him, and that smiling blue face on the locomotive had become his favourite. That year his mother had made a chocolate log with wheels and a funnel. Swirls of cream covered the top, like the smoke from the steam train. Leaning over the table to blow out the candles, held by his father, he had gotten cream all over his face.

Amelie, he was almost convinced, had made things up or exaggerated them. That’s what he told himself. Perhaps everything was not quite right with his aunt, that much was obvious, but the rest of the speculation about an affair and getting divorced, couldn’t be true.

“Milo. You haven't moved all morning.” Corinth had returned, but without her younger sister.

“What did you do with Amelie?” he asked.

Corinth grinned: “She’s helping your mother.”

“Really?” Milo pushed himself off the hammock, which swung free behind him.

“Well, helping, I’m not sure,” she laughed. “But she is in the kitchen.”

“I can probably expect a disaster then,” he smiled.

“Let’s hope not.”

He looked up at the sky as a distant rumble of thunder blotted out the sound of the rustling of the leaves.

“I don’t think it will rain,” Corinth said, reading his thoughts. “Now tell me something.” She looked at him standing there in front of her.

“Tell you what?”

“Let’s walk.” She took his arm in hers and led him away from the swinging hammock. “Estevo’s friend. What’s his name?”

“Olivier,” Milo replied as they strolled together arm in arm around the house.

“And you’ve known him how long?”

“What is this? Twenty questions,” he laughed. “I don’t know him at all.”

“Mmm. Then how come you invited him?”

“I didn’t.”

“So, he invited himself?”

“No, don’t be silly. Estevo asked if he could bring a friend.”

“And you said yes?”

“No, my mother did.”

That made Corinth laugh. “Sounds about right. So have you met this Olivier?”

“Yeah, a couple of times.”

“Ooh, really?”

“Yes, really. Now tell me something. Why the interest?”

Corinth shook her hair and turned back towards the house.

“I think it’s time,” was all she said.

* * * * *

It was a sort of surprise, if expected, because the tradition never faltered. He was, however, very pleased to see Estevo and Olivier with the rest of the family around the table. Everyone clapped as he made his entrance accompanied by Corinth. The table was laid out almost as festive as a Christmas lunch, though less copious. It was summer, after all.

For starters there was one of his favourites, a walnut salad with warm goat's cheese. The main course was another favourite, duck breast in dark Port sauce with green beans. There was a lot a chatter over lunch and everyone seemed in a great mood. Milo glanced from time to time at Estevo who was sitting with Olivier across the table from him. At one point in the meal he felt mesmerised by those deep green eyes. He blushed at his reaction, and wondered if anyone had noticed.

His two cousins were sitting on either side of him. Corinth, of course, noticed Estevo, and she caught that long stare into each other's eyes between Milo and him. But she was preoccupied with Estevo’s friend Olivier, who held nearly all her attention.

John also noticed Milo’s long gaze, as he was sitting next to Estevo. He turned to his wife, who was at the head of the table, leaned over and whispered: “It seems we may have a touch of young love in the air.”

She held her hand over her mouth to hide a fit of giggles. “Which pair?” She asked him softly. “Milo and Estevo? Or Corinth and Olivier?”

He laughed out loud and clapped his hands, much to everyone's amusement.

“More wine, anyone?” he asked.

When his mother got up to clear away the lunch, Milo insisted on helping.

“It’s your birthday,” she told him. But he still followed her into the kitchen, carrying some of the plates. Amelie was right behind, also lending a helping hand.

“It's a lovely birthday party,” she said to them both, and gave Milo a big smile.

“Can I tell you a little secret,” she whispered as his mother stacked the dishes.

He bent down to her height and smiled back at her.

“What is it?”

“I made up the kissing I told you about.”

She looked a little ashamed of herself, but Milo was relieved. Besides it was his birthday, he couldn’t be angry with anyone, quite the contrary.

“That’s alright,” he told her. “Never mind. Go and enjoy the party.”

She almost skipped out of the kitchen, leaving him alone with his mother.

“Maman, we never finished our chat about helping Estevo and his mother.”

She stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him. “What didn’t I say?”

He looked at her and smiled. “He told me everything. You don’t need to say anything more. I think it’s good that you and father want to help them. And I like him a lot.”

Moving a step closer she reached out and brushed a hand through his hair, pushing it back off his forehead.

“I know you do,” she said.

Milo wanted to talk to her about how he felt, but it was difficult to try and find the words.

“Maman. I don’t want you to be cross, but...”

She suddenly embraced him, hugging him to her with both arms.

“Oh, Milo. I would never be cross with you. My darling, darling boy. We love you, your father and I. You don’t need to say anything. It’s as plain as daylight.”

She moved her head and gently kissed him on the cheek.

Milo looked at her surprised. “It is? But you don’t know what I wanted to say.”

“That you have certain feelings towards Estevo.” She said it for him. Her voice soft with warmth and emotion.

He blushed: “And you don’t mind?”

“Of course not.” She finally let go of him. “Now come on. Help me with the cake.”

Milo felt light headed. As if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Something he knew he carried, but which, until just this moment, he hadn't realised how heavy a burden it was.

“Can I ask you something else?”

She once again turned her attention to her son. “Of course, anything.”

“We’ve been a little worried, Corinth and I. About Uncle Morris and what’s going on.”

A puzzled look come over his mother, she wasn’t sure what he was referring to.

“About Uncle Morris?”

“Well both myself and Corinth saw you together, a couple of times. You were sort of...” He wondered how to say it. “Secretive.”

“Oh, I see.” Now she thought she understood. “Your aunt is not too well. Your uncle and I have been concerned. Sometimes your aunt is very tired, other times a little down in the dumps, and occasionally she gets very angry. She has had arguments with your uncle that... well, that are misplaced. She gets a little confused. Misunderstands things. It’s nothing to get too worried or upset about.”

Milo took all this in.

“Corinth thought they might be getting divorced.” He looked at his mother.

“Oh. We need to talk to her. Her and Amelie. We have rather kept things from you. Your father saw Alain and he believes your aunt needs treatment, but as I said it’s nothing to worry about. With the right drugs she’ll be fine. And Morris has already telephoned to make an appointment to see someone when we get home.”

That seemed to explain everything. While he wasn’t any the wiser about exactly what was wrong with his aunt, he believed what his mother had told him.

Corinth entered the kitchen, accompanied by a loud rumble of thunder.

“Everyone's waiting.” She looked from Milo to his mother.

“We better get the cake then.” His mother opened the fridge and produced a splendid strawberry cream cake.”

Milo followed them out onto the veranda. The cake was placed at the head of the table and Milo’s mother lit the sixteen candles.

Another loud thunder clap boomed out.

“You better blow them out before the storm,” Estevo joked.

Then everyone started singing: “Joyeux anniversaire, joyeux anniversaire. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.”

Milo took a deep breath then blew out the candles.

“You didn’t forget to make a wish?” Olivier asked, winking at him.

The cake was served and eaten, and just in time, before the thunder sounded once again. This time it was directly overhead, and the rain came down in sheets. Water cascaded off the roof of the veranda like a flood over the top of a dam. The sky was black, and the wind blew the rain back towards the house. They quickly retreated inside, laughing.

* * * * *

Milo stood in the bathroom, in front of the mirror. He stared at his reflection without really seeing it. The space was charged with tension. He could sense the presence of Estevo, coming closer. He shivered, trembled, and his pulse raced. The young man stood behind him. The silence was broken only by the faint rumble of thunder somewhere in the distance.

“I’m glad it didn’t rain until the end of your birthday,” Estevo said, looking at Milo in the mirror.

Milo’s breathing was laboured, he gulped in air, he had to know. This was the moment.

“Do you like me, or is it Corinth?” He didn’t look up. The question was almost a whisper.

Estevo moved a step closer, almost touching him.

“It’s you,” he said.

Those two words were like a thunderbolt. Milo felt the shock coursing through his body and he could not control his reaction. He was excited. He blushed at the realisation.

Estevo reached a hand around Milo and rested his palm on Milo’s stomach. He trembled at the touch and his body responded.

“Really? You do like me?”

One more step. And Estevo was pressed right up behind Milo. His hand fell lower. Milo felt it. Everything. There was no doubting. Both boys were excited.

* * * * *

Milo stirred with the sunlight creeping into the room. He remembered falling asleep to the rumbling of thunder. He would have thought it was a dream, only a dream, but the rhythmic breathing was real. Everything was real. He turned and silently watched the young man still sleeping. He wanted at once to embrace him and at the same time to leave him asleep, so that it would never end. He was both scared and elated.

Everything had changed, he was no longer the child he once was.

He was sixteen and... he had fallen, deeply, in love.

 

 

The End.

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