“We’ll be landing in an hour, sir.” The steward gently tapped Mike’s shoulder. “Would you care for a tea or coffee?” Michael opened his eyes, nodded and adjusted his first class seat from the sleeping position, taking the offered tray.
Nearly home. Mike sipped the hot coffee as his thoughts turned to what he would find there, expecting nothing much would have changed in the ten years he’d been away. His thoughts went back to his flight out of Australia to California, his long frame squashed into a seat in economy. How nervous he’d been, a twenty-three-year-old graduate, offered an opportunity to work with the best in Silicon Valley. How pleased also to leave the village where everyone knew your business. Above all though, he’d been happy to leave his overbearing father.
Let’s get this done and get out of here. He saw the City come into view and prepared for the landing.
“Michael, I can’t believe you’re actually here!” His mother smiled through her tears, overjoyed at seeing her son again after so long. He leaned over to hug her, thinking as he did so she seemed smaller, thinner, less substantial than he remembered. Glancing around to see if anyone else was there to greet him he noticed there was no sign of his father, which surprised him, but he said nothing. Taking his mum’s arm they headed to the carousel to collect his luggage.
“Let’s get you home, the car’s parked over there.” Stella and Mike crossed the busy road into the carpark. “Your Dad is so looking forward to seeing you again Darling.”
“Where is he Mum? Couldn’t bother to come?”
“No, that’s not it at all, Michael. I’ll tell you later. Let’s just have this time on our own, shall we?” Stella squeezed his arm tight. “I can’t believe you’re here at last.”
“Gee Mum, you’re driving the old Jeep!” Mike laughed as they approached the vehicle sitting out in the blazing Australian sun in the airport car park.
“Suppose you’re too high and mighty to ride in it now? Big shot!”
The hot air hit them as they opened the car doors.
“We’ll wait a few minutes for it to cool down a bit. Throw your stuff in the back, leave the doors open. Let me take a good look at my beautiful boy.” Stella looked closely at Mike’s bearded face. “When did you grow your beard? It suits you.”
“Thanks. It’s a requirement in the valley Mum,” Michael joked.
On the ride home up into the hills, the trees closed in. The car windows were open and the subtle smell of eucalypts told him he was home in Australia.
Stella chatted continuously about people Mike had almost forgotten and had little interest in. He rested his head back and closed his eyes.
“Oh, you must be exhausted after that awfully long trip. I’ll be quiet and let you catch your breath. Your brother and the tribe are coming around for dinner, you’ll need all your energy to deal with that lot.” Stella smiled at the thought of her older son’s boisterous family.
“How are James and Fiona? They must be so busy with their jobs and three kids. Do you get to see them much?”
“Most weekends, and James has been popping in more lately.”
“He told me he felt you both needed a bit of help. Is Dad not well?”
“He shouldn’t have bothered you, we’re managing just fine, don’t worry.”
As they turned into the street where Michael had been born, he saw that little had changed. The Jacarandas were in full bloom, carpets of purple blossoms scattered below the beautiful trees.
The old house appeared just the same from the outside as they pulled into the garage. It was full of stuff, camping gear, old bikes, spare tyres and various boxes filled the space, leaving only just enough room to park the Jeep.
“Come on in, let’s get you a nice cup of tea.”
Michael squeezed himself out of the narrow gap between the car and the wall, following his mother up the uneven paving. He noticed weeds pushing their way through the cracks.
“Well, look whose back!”
Michael turned to see who had called out. “Sarah, it’s you! You visiting your folks?”
Sarah had been the girl next door, literally. They’d grown up together and when they were in their teens had even thought they were in love for a while. The last time they’d met, they’d argued about his leaving, with Sarah saying that she never wanted to see him again.
“Yes, just staying for a while. So, you came home after, what is it, ten years? How long are you here for?”
“I was Just telling mum, that I’m not sure how long I can stay, hopefully long enough to see everyone.”
“Cool. Well, can’t chat now, I’m on night shift, good to see you again. You look well. America must suit you. Like the beard!” She called as she climbed into her car.
He stood watching her drive down the road until the car disappeared around the corner. Seeing Sarah again affected him. He’d forgotten, or maybe he’d never realised, how gorgeous she was. Compared to the American girls he’d been dating, she seemed so natural. She wore no makeup, as far as he could tell. Her skin glowed with health. He found he was looking forward to spending some time catching up with her. Smiling, he followed his mum inside.
“Hi Dad.” Michael looked at his father sitting on the old sofa. It surprised him that George didn’t get up to greet him.
“Oh, hello son, how are you?” It was as if his father had last seen him a few weeks ago instead of ten years.
“Great Dad, good to see you.” He went over to the sofa and sat next to George, putting his hand on his father’s arm. Glancing at his mother to assess her reaction.
Stella gave her son a look which said she would talk to him later. “Why don’t you go and have a lie down before your brother gets here. I’ll get on with dinner. You know where everything is, nothing’s changed.”
So, with a backward glance at his dad who was still sitting quietly on the sofa, staring into space, Michael grabbed his bags and went upstairs into his old room.
He must have dozed off, waking when he heard noises from downstairs. He lay listening to the voices of his brother’s family for a few minutes, then forced himself to get up and get out of the clothes he’d been in for over twenty-four hours and into a welcome shower.
“Hi Bro’. Welcome home.” James got up from the sofa as Michael came through the door. The two brothers embraced warmly and James’ wife and kids bombarded him with questions. At last they all sat down to dinner.
“So Dad, what’s with letting Mum pick me up in the Jeep, I remember a time you wouldn’t let anyone else drive it?”
George seemed confused, looking at Stella, as if asking for help.
“Oh, it’s the road system, it’s all changed, your Dad gets confused. I wanted to pick you up myself, anyway.” Stella quickly changed the subject. “Tell us more about your life, we want to know everything.”
The dinner passed happily; the wine flowed and Mike told anecdotes of his life in Silicon Valley. There was so much chatter from the kids and questions from James and Fiona, his father’s quietness didn’t concern Michael too much.
Strolling back to the house after waving his brother’s family goodnight, he was still as puzzled as ever by his father’s odd behaviour. Maybe the folks are splitting up and didn’t know how to break it to me? He thought.
Stella was in the kitchen finishing clearing up after dinner. “Come on Mum, talk to me. Where’s the old man?” Michael asked.
He’s gone to bed dear, he gets tired these days. Would you like a nightcap, a drop of whiskey to help you sleep?”
“Gee, better not, dad’ll go mad, does he still mark the bottle?” Mike laughed, recalling how he and James used to have a nip or two and top the bottle up with water, so their father wouldn’t guess.
“No, George is not the same, there have been changes, son.” Stella sighed. “I didn’t want to worry you.”
“What’s up mum, he’s not sick is he.” Mike looked concerned.
“I’m sorry love, your dad’s got Alzheimer’s.” Stella’s voice shook.
“Christ, no! How long has he been like this?”
“It’s been coming on gradually for a long time. I started noticing things a couple of years ago. Things which normally would have got him riled up, seemed to hold no interest for him. Even when Donald Trump was sworn in, he said nothing.” She gave a rueful smile.
Mike’s eyes filled with tears. “I knew something was up, he’s so unemotional. Gee, mum, I never thought having a calm, even-tempered father could scare me so much.
“I need help son, I’m out of my depth, he needs so much care now. Stella’s voice caught in her throat. “I can’t ask James to do more, they have so much on their plate already.
“I’m here now mum, I’ll do what I can. I only wish you’d told me sooner.”
“I went for a walk around the village this morning, mum. Nothing much changes in Darlinghurst does it?”
“Well, you know what the villagers are like, they try to keep things much the same. It’s not a bad thing really, we have kept that village feel. The biggest topic this year has been street lighting and kerbs! So exciting, you don’t know what you’re missing.” Stella smiled at her son, who was raising his eyes in mock horror.
“Is it okay to borrow the Jeep tonight, I thought I'd pop down the local for a pint”
“That’ll be nice, dear. Why don’t you ask Sarah from next door if she’d like to go for a drink too?”
“I spoke to her when I arrived. She doesn’t still live with her mum, does she? I thought you wrote and told me she was engaged and living with a doctor.”
“Oh, they split up last year. She still lives in her flat in town, but she’s been staying with her Mum for a while since Evelyn slipped and broke her ankle. I’m sure she’d love catch up with you.” Stella coaxed.
“I’m not sure she’d want to spend time with me anyway, we didn’t leave on good terms when I went away.”
“Oh, that’s years ago, you’ve both grown up since then. Make us all a cup of tea, while I get your father ready for the day. James is popping in later, he didn’t have time to talk to you properly last night.”
“No, let me sort Dad out this morning, you sit down and have your breakfast,” Michael placed his arm around his Mother’s shoulders, giving a squeeze.
Going into his parent’s bedroom felt strange, this had always been off limits to him and his brother when they were kids. Their father had a multitude of strict rules which he’d expected to be followed with no arguments. The penalties for disobedience had been swiftly metered out. He’d been the boss and there were to be no arguments.
“Come on Dad, let’s get you up and dressed, then we’ll go for a drive. How’s that sound?”
George looked at his son and smiled with a childlike innocence. Michael felt sad suddenly, and needed. His love for his father was still there, he realised.
That evening in the local pub, Michael was just finishing a game of pool when the bar door opened and Sarah walked in with a friend, they were laughing, sharing a joke.
“Game Sarah? I remember you were pretty good at this.” He waved the pool cue in her direction.
After a few games Sarah’s friend left and Michael offered to drop Sarah home. They stayed talking until closing time catching up with the lost years.
“So, when are you going back to the States, Michael,”
“I don’t think I can go back Sarah, my parents need me.” Maybe coming back home wasn’t such a terrible idea. Michael thought, reaching over and gently touching Sarah’s hand.
Word count 1980 words