As Tim and Guy pulled their vehicle to a stop in front of the garage, the three of us were waiting for them. From the moment they laid eyes on me and recognised me I knew instantly how I would be received by the pair of them.
Tim’s frown said most of what I needed to know, while Guy’s smile said the rest.
‘Here goes nothing,’ I whispered to Luke as I brushed past him and headed for the drivers side door from which Tim was now emerging. I figured it would be best to get the more daunting of the two greetings out of the way first.
Just like both Luke and Matt, these guys had changed as well, filling out in their bodies and now looking more like men, not the boys I had first gotten to know. I guess we were all changing from the kids we had been not so long ago, into the grown-ups we were destined to be. And in another ten years we will, no doubt, have changed yet again.
‘G’day Tim,’ I said as I thrust out my hand toward him. ‘It’s good to see you again.’
‘Tony,’ he said rather curtly. ‘It’s been a while.’
‘Too long, mate. Far too long,’ I replied.
By this time Guy had come around to our side of the vehicle. He was all smiles as he took my offered hand, then pulled me into a hug.
‘Damn, boy. Where the hell have you been?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, around,’ I replied.
I pretended not to hear Tim’s comment of, ‘I’ll bet,’ which only earned him a thump in the shoulder from Guy.
‘Well, it has been far too long, but it’s great to see you again,’ Guy added. ‘Now why didn’t you let us know you were coming, and how long are you staying for? Have these guys told you our news?’
‘About the house? Yes, that’s fantastic news, and, as a matter of fact it’s kind of why I came back, even if I did only find out about it today,’ I said.
‘What?’ Tim asked, sounding slightly confused.
‘Well, Luke told me a while back that it has been almost ten years since you moved in here … actually he said that there was going to be some sort of celebration to mark the occasion, but when I got here he said nothing had been planned.’
‘That’s bloody typical,’ Guy laughed.
‘I told him I didn’t want the trip to be wasted then, so, what do you guys say to a slap-up party next weekend? It can be part anniversary and part house-warming do, for the new landlords?’
Tim and Guy looked at each other, and while Guy was grinning I was finding it difficult to read Tim’s expression.
‘It’s all his idea, honest,’ Luke added. ‘And we think it’s a great idea, as it’s the long weekend anyhow.’
‘Well, it’s fine by me,’ Guy said. ‘We should ring Ben and Sam and see if they can come down too!’
‘The more the merrier, I say,’ added Matt.
That only left Tim to respond, which he did by rolling his eyes and saying, ‘Fine, whatever!’
‘That’s fantastic,’ I replied. ‘I can’t wait.’
‘You still didn’t answer my question though,’ Guy prompted. ‘How long are you staying?’
‘I’m not really sure just yet. I have a book thing to do this week, then now there’s the party, but after that things are pretty much open ended. And before either of you ask … no, I haven’t seen Aaron yet, but I have every intention of tracking him down and setting things right with him.’
‘Bit late for that, don’t you think?’ Tim snapped.
‘Tim!’ Guy scolded. ‘Play nice!’
‘No, it’s okay Guy. I probably deserve everything I get, and I suspect I’ll cop more than that by the time I shoot through. I’m not here to upset anyone, and if that happens I’ll just pack up and leave. I can’t apologise enough for what happened with Aaron. I was a fool, and everyone knows it. I cared … no, I still care, a great deal about him, and given the chance I intend to prove that, even if he doesn’t ever want to speak to me again.’
‘Good luck with that, then,’ Tim announced, before abruptly turning on his heels and heading for the house, leaving the rest of us standing there in silence and with our mouths wide open.
‘I wouldn’t take any notice of him,’ Guy said, while stepping forward and offering me a hug. ‘We all know what happened between you and Aaron. What happened after you left …’
‘Ummm …’ Luke stated to say, cutting Guy off before the realisation dawned on him that I hadn’t been told the full story yet.
‘Oh, shit. He doesn’t know it all?’ Guy asked Luke.
‘No, not yet,’ Luke replied.
I looked from one to the other and said, ‘Guys, will someone please fucking tell me what’s going on here? From the time I got here this afternoon all you guys have been doing is pussy-footing around the issue like a bunch of old women.’
‘All right,’ Guy answered. ‘Come and sit down and we’ll fill you in. I think it’s best you know what he’s been through before you see him, lest you might put your foot in it by saying something you shouldn’t.’
As I followed Luke and Guy over to the outdoor tables and seats, Matt headed inside, muttering something about lighting the barbeque and starting dinner. The guys sat me down and just looked at me from across the table.
‘Okay lads, you’ve got me where you want me, now spill!’ I demanded.
It was Luke who began.
‘Mate, after you left Aaron actually seemed okay,’ he said. ‘I mean, he was down in the dumps and he was upset, of course, which we had all pretty much expected, but for the first week or so he seemed to be managing all right.’
‘Yeah,’ Guy continued. ‘We were all surprised at just how well he seemed to be doing, but it wasn’t long after that when things seemed to start to go downhill.’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘He started drinking,’ Guy said. ‘At first we just thought, yeah, it was fair enough, given the circumstances. We gave him some space, but kept an eye on him, but then, after that things started getting worse and worse. When we tried talking to him we soon found out that there was more to it than just his having had you leave.’
‘Which was?’ I asked.
Luke and Guy exchanged glances, forewarning me of something ominous.
‘You remember his folks, don’t you?’ Luke asked, somewhat cautiously.
‘Jesus, how could I forget them?’ I replied. ‘Did they have something to do with it?’
I remembered Aaron’s parents all too well. I know that hate is a strong word, but from what I recall that was close to how Aaron felt about them.
I lost count of the number of times I saw them drunk, or saw them at the local club putting their rent or food money through the poker machines. I remember all too well the number of time Aaron and his kid brother went hungry, and the times I had to hold him, and comfort him, when emotions would get the better of him.
It was little wonder that he was embarrassed to take me to the place that was supposed to have been his home, so if they’d also had something to do with his going off the rails, then I wouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest.
‘It seems,’ Luke began, ‘that at about the same time you left, they cleared out as well. They just packed up and went, without so much as even a goodbye to Aaron.’
‘What? You can’t be serious?’ I asked.
‘We’re absolutely serious,’ Guy said. ‘We all know that he didn’t get on all that well with them anyhow, and to be honest we all know that he rarely even went there to see them, as you would know from when you were still here …’
‘But one day after you had been gone for a couple of weeks,’ Luke continued, ‘Aaron apparently decided to pay them a visit. When he went there he found someone else had just moved into the house. His folks were gone, his brother was gone, all his belongings had been packed up and were gone too.’
‘Holy shit! For real?’ I asked.
‘For real!’ Luke replied. ‘First you leave, then his folks abandon him. The poor kid was totally gutted.’
‘But … why the hell didn’t someone tell me?’
‘He forbade it. He said you were gone and that he didn’t want you to feel sorry for him and come back. That would have meant that you wouldn’t have been able to follow your dreams. Despite what he was going through, he didn’t want that on his conscience either,’ Guy answered.
‘What a crock of shit!’ I spat.
‘It’s true,’ Luke said. ‘He said if you came back he would know we told you, and if that happened he wouldn’t speak to us again.’
Getting to my feet I started pacing around, unable to quite comprehend what Aaron must have been going through, with first his boyfriend, and then his parents, all deserting him at roughly the same time. No wonder people like Tim were pissed with me.
Doing some quick arithmetic in my head I worked out that I was about twenty-one years old when I had left, which would have made Aaron only been about twenty. Sure, there are plenty of twenty-year olds out there who can fend for themselves, but they wouldn’t be like Aaron. I knew him better than almost anyone, I thought, and I also knew that while he had handled some of the earlier issues he had faced with a surprising maturity, deep down he was, or had been, a different person; one who was far more insecure than he usually showed on the outside.
‘So, where was he staying when all this was happening?’ I suddenly asked. ‘I mean, between when I left and when he found his folks gone? Surely he must have gone back there to sleep, or change clothes or whatever … although I know he did still have some of his things here, didn’t he?’
Luke and Guy glanced at each other.
‘For part of it we’re not sure,’ Luke answered. ‘Yes, he had stuff here and he came here quite a few times. We told him he would always be welcome. We know he went to Scott’s quite a few times as well, but for the rest of the time he just said he stayed wherever.’
‘And you said he was drinking?’
‘Yeah, he hit the bottle quite a bit, apparently,’ Guy said.
‘Justin found him passed out on the beach a couple of times when he went for his morning surf …’ Luke added.
‘So he was sleeping on the beach?’
‘And you still couldn’t tell me? Not then … or in the five years since? This is just un-be-fucking-lievable!’
‘We know, mate,’ Guy said. ‘You can’t say anything to us that we haven’t said to ourselves a million times over. But once he started to get himself sorted out, I guess we figured all was well that ended well.’
‘Justin really needs to take all of the credit,’ Luke added, ‘seeing as he had already been there himself.’
I knew Justin’s own story, as he had had his own issues when growing up, and had to concur that that was the best way to go.
‘We all agreed, though,’ Luke continued, ‘that it wouldn’t serve any real purpose to be continually talking about it, to Aaron, or anyone else for that matter; and that includes you. Aaron needed a chance to get things straight in his own head without the rest of us sticking our two-bobs worth in, as that wasn’t going to help him any, but we were all still there, though, to help him out should he ever need it.’
For a long while I just stood there staring at them, while inside my head there were thoughts flying around at speeds that were almost incomprehensible.
I was seriously pissed, but I knew that in some ways they were right, of course.
If I had returned it would have meant giving up on my own dreams, and if I had stayed and missed out on the opportunities I did received, then chances were that in the end I would have resented him for that.
On the other hand, if I’d have known what was going on I would have gladly returned to do whatever I could for him, because deep down I loved the guy, and even now I know that the embers of those feelings are still smoldering away inside me, just waiting to be fanned into life.
‘Tony, say something please,’ Luke pleaded, which seemed to snap me back from whatever dark place I was in.
‘What? Oh, sorry guys. I … I think you were right of course,’ I said.
‘We were?’ Guy asked.
‘Yeah,’ I said, as I sat back down. ‘Look, Aaron needed to know that he could trust someone, so by not telling me you guys proved to him that you could be trusted. My knowing probably wouldn’t have made any difference … in fact, it more than likely would have just given him something else to be angry about.’
‘You’re probably right there,’ Guy said quietly.
‘The important thing though, is that he had people around him who cared about him and that he managed to work though his issues. I’m just grateful that he eventually got through it all okay.’
‘Yeah, mate. So were we,’ Luke replied.
* * *
While we had all been talking Matt had lit the new gas barbeque and as it was heating up he started to bring out all that was needed for our meal, with Tim also helping him, while casting curious glances in our direction as he did so.
I could see that Tim still didn’t exactly appear to be happy to see me, which was of course totally understandable given the circumstances, so I knew I would have my work cut out for me in trying to get back on side with him. All I could do was try, I figured, then the rest would be up to him.
While Matt and Luke fussed about with dinner I retrieved my carry-all, which I’d left sitting near the steps to the deck at the rear of the house, then took it into the Guest House, dropping it onto the double bed in the bedroom furthest from the house, seeing as, I figured, it would be the one to receive the first of the early morning light.
It had been a long day, since having to catch my flight in Brisbane this morning, and I was starting to grow tired. I guess it hadn’t been helped by the revelations and goings on of the last hour or so, after everyone had arrived home, but I had to admit that I was already looking forward to being able to crash after dinner. I suspected, however, that Matt and Luke, and possibly Guy, would want to stay up chatting and drinking until all hours. I just hoped that they would understand when I excused myself early.