‘I never really understood what happened when you left,’ Jess said to me. ‘I mean, why you left. Mum said you did something bad, so you had to go away, but even amidst all the yelling and screaming Mike and I still didn’t understand. We thought the police were going to come and take you away, and that’s why you went, so they wouldn’t get you.’
‘I know. I saw the confusion in your faces. I just prayed that one day you would understand, that you would be able to see past the lies that I knew she would be poisoning your minds with, and that you would somehow, eventually, find out the truth.’
‘You could have come back.’
‘No, Jess. We both know that wasn’t possible. You’ve now seen the hatred first hand, so you know exactly why I couldn’t come back.’
‘No. I don’t suppose you could have.’
‘But enough about me. What about you? What happened? And who is this mysterious Kelly that I keep hearing about?’
‘Ohhh … Mike really has been blabbing, hasn’t he?’ she chuckled.
‘Not really. All I know is that you’ve got a girlfriend named Kelly, you’ve been thrown out of your home, and that there’s a baby on the way … which, I can only assume, isn’t Kelly’s.’
‘You’ve sure smartened up since you were a kid.’
‘What can I say? I read a lot.’
For quite a while she remained silent. She was still there though, I could hear her breathing on the line.
‘Well?’ I prompted.
‘Let me guess. It’s complicated?’
‘Yeah, you could say that.’
‘Okay then. How complicated? Was it someone you know? Was it a one night stand? Were you sexually assaulted? What?’
‘Oh, Jesus, Tony. You make it sound so … so dirty.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to do that. But if you want our help, then you need to level with both Mike and me. Okay?’
‘Yeah. I guess so.’
‘I had a part time job at the local supermarket. Kelly was a friend that I was working with there.’
‘All right. That’s a start.’
‘We always got on great, but there was nothing … errr … romantic happening, even though we both kind of figured out that we liked each other, and possibly as more than just friends. One weekend about three months ago there was a party at her family’s place and some of us who worked together were invited along. I can’t even remember the reason for the party now. Anyhow, that was when I met him … Kelly’s younger brother, Bernard …’
‘Oh shit,’ I said.
Over the next half hour I received the whole story. She met Bernard at the party and they seemed to hit it off and find a mutual attraction. He was tall, dark, good looking, great body, could make you laugh, in short, he was just about everything most girls — and if the truth must be known, quite a few guys — dream of.
The only catch was, that Bernard was only sixteen, even though he looked and acted much older apparently. Of course Jess didn’t find that bit out until much later; she had assumed that he was at least the same age as she was.
While nothing earth shattering happened at the party, they did have fun together. Afterwards they saw each other a couple of times, all without telling anyone else. One thing led to another and they naturally had sex … several times.
Jess was confused, like most teens just figuring out their sexuality. She liked, and was attracted to Kelly, yet she also liked having sex with Kelly’s brother.
As things turned out, in due course she found herself to be pregnant. Not knowing what to do she confided in her friend, Kelly, leaving out the fact that the baby’s father was Kelly’s kid brother. Kelly comforted her, and also told her that she needed to tell the father, so eventually she mustered up the courage and went to do just that.
When she told Bernard he freaked out, like most sixteen year olds would, I suspect. He disappeared for several weeks, with everyone in a panic over where he may have gone, or what may have happened to him. Jess was wracked with guilt over what had happened and confessed everything to Kelly, which of course that put paid to their friendship and budding relationship as well, at least for a while.
A visibly shaken Bernard re-emerged a short time later to face the music. There was no way that he was capable of taking responsibility for a child, and before long he was off again. Kelly and Jess started talking again, then one thing led to another and the mutual feelings that they had experienced previously once again emerged, before inevitably, Jess and Kelly found themselves to be falling for each other, as crazy as it all may have seemed.
The next thing Kelly knew, our mother found out about the girlfriend — while not knowing about the pregnancy at that stage — and Jess was out on her ear, just like how it happened to me.
‘Oh, boy. You weren’t wrong about it being complicated,’ I said to her once she had finished.
‘Sorry, Tony. But you did ask.’
‘Yeah, I guess I did.’
‘Mike doesn’t know it all yet, so for the time being can we just keep it all between you and me?’ she pleaded.
‘Any reason for that?’
‘He and Bernie know each other. Let’s just say I don’t want him going after Bernie or doing anything stupid like that. Mike can have a bit of a temper sometimes.’
‘Yeah, he has been known to go off, although he’s much better these days. Bernie is still a sweet kid and I like him a lot, so I would just hate to see Mike go and do anything silly, that’s all. And until Kelly and I work out what we are going to do ourselves, I just want things to remain simple.’
‘Okay. That’s fair enough. He will find out one day though, you do realise that don’t you?’
‘We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it.’
‘So … what are you two going to do? Where do things stand at the moment?’
‘We’ve got a small flat. We’re both still working, so it’s not too bad for now.’
‘But you won’t be able to keep working though, will you? There’ll come a time when you have to give it up.’
‘Let me guess … you’ll cross that bridge when you get to it.’
‘Something like that,’ she replied. ‘Anyhow, what’s happening with you and Aaron? Mike said you’re both talking again, so are things looking up?’
‘Yeah, they definitely are,’ I replied. ‘We’re actually going out to dinner in a little while, so we’ll just have to see how things go. In the meantime, however, I’ve been thinking about moving back here. I didn’t realise just how much I’ve missed the place.’
‘And Aaron, I’m guessing,’ she chuckled.
‘Yeah, well there is that too. Anyhow, I had a thought. If I can find a place around here, what would you say to coming and staying here for a while? Who knows, you might even like it.’
‘Ummm … Tony, I really don’t know if that …’
‘I’m not saying it’s definite yet, but it’s just something that has been gnawing away at me for a few days now. Anyhow, we can talk it over later. Did Mike tell you we were all thinking of going down to see you guys in the next little while. Luke is excited about seeing his other cousins again. And we might even be able to help you get your stuff back if need be.’
‘That would be great. I know Mike and I would both love to see you again. And thank you for the offer. I’ll have to talk it over with Kelly, of course.’
We talked for a little while longer and I got her address and contact details from her, which I didn’t previously have, then when I heard the first of the guys’ cars pull up outside I said that I needed to get going.
‘Thank you so much for calling, Tony. It really means a lot to me.’
‘What are big brothers for?’ I replied. ‘I’ll call you again as soon as the boys and I work out when we can get there. Okay?’
‘Okay. That’d be wonderful. Thank you.’
Shortly after I disconnected there was a knock at the door and I heard it slide open.
‘You there, Tony?’ I heard Luke ask.
‘In here, mate.’
Seconds later his head popped through the bedroom door.
‘How was your day?’ he asked.
‘To tell you the truth, it was bloody exhausting, but still the best day I’ve put in in ages.’
He sat down next to me on the bed and I told him everything, from when Aaron met up with me at the house on the hill, to our picnic lunch by the lake, to my telling Aaron about the missing month in my life that I had kept secret from everyone.
‘Matt and I suspected that it must have been something like that, but eventually figured that if you ever wanted to talk about it you would, otherwise it was just one of those things that we knew you would deal with in your own way.’
I then told him about Jess and her adventures.
‘Holy shit. That’s all a bit close to home, isn’t it?’ he exclaimed.
‘You’re telling me! I also told her I was thinking about moving back here and offered for her and Kelly to come and stay for a while, once I found somewhere.’
‘You are? Why hadn’t you mentioned it earlier?’
‘I think I only really made my mind up about it today,’ I chuckled. ‘Just keep quiet about that for the time being though, please. I’ve got Harry on the job looking into some stuff for me first, like my contracts and the like, and how I can get my hands on some money to do it, so if things fall into place I’ll let everyone know in due course.’
‘Now, about that trip to Sydney,’ Luke said. ‘What do you say about going down on Monday? It’s a public holiday, so if we go down Monday morning the traffic should be light. I’ve spoken to Matt and we can both take Tuesday off and come home then, when, again, the traffic should be okay. I know that the freeways get clogged on the long weekends, so this way we should be able to avoid most of it.’
‘That sounds perfect to me,’ I replied.
‘Oh, and mum called me today. She and dad will be here on Saturday, and apparently they know about Jess as well. Dear Aunt Margaret has been spreading the hate. Mum wanted to know what we were going to do about it.’
‘Oh dear! It’ll be good to see them though.’
* * *
We filled Matt in on our plans when he arrived home a short while later, which he seemed excited about. I knew that Luke would also fill him in on all the other details later on.
Thankfully I managed to shower and change in time before Aaron arrived and I was sitting on the back deck enjoying a drink with all the guys when he pulled to stop in the driveway and stepped out of his truck, dressed in what must have been his Sunday best, of dark blue pants and a lighter coloured blue dress shirt, and wearing casual slip on shoes. It was certainly a different look to his usual boots and khaki work clothes.
‘Woo-hoo,’ Matt called out to him. ‘You certainly scrub up all right!’ he teased.
Even from across the yard we could see Aaron blushing as he came toward us.
‘Don’t pay any attention to Matt,’ I whispered to him, as I met him half way across the yard and hugged him. ‘You look bloody fantastic. He’s just jealous it’s not him who is about to be wined and dined.’
Aaron looked up at me and smiled, then we walked back to the others hand in hand and stood at the bottom of the steps.
‘Wow, you’re looking pretty hot there, Aaron,’ Guy said. ‘Do you think this guy you’re dating is worth the trouble?’
‘I reckon so,’ he replied.
‘Well, all I can say is that you should go for it. They tell me he’s loaded, so he should be a nice catch,’ he added, which only caused me to wince. The last thing I wanted was for money to become an issue between us, especially when I was doing quite well and Aaron had always had to battle for every cent that he had ever made.
Aaron shot a curious glance in my direction, but said nothing.
‘Well guys, we’d love to stay and chat, but I believe we have reservations at the finest establishment in town,’ I said to them. ‘So if you’ll excuse us, our chariot awaits.’
They watched us and gave us a wave as we headed out the driveway. I looked across at Aaron as he drove, silhouetted by the last rays of sunlight before the sun dipped behind the mountains. The view took my breath away.
‘You don’t know how much I’ve missed this,’ I said to him. ‘Days like today, and having you all to myself.’
He looked back at me and grinned. ‘Actually, I think I do.’ he said, as we slowed for the intersection with the main road.
After we turned he asked, ‘So, did you call your sister?’
‘Errr … yeah,’ I replied. ‘She’s sure got herself in a stew.’
For the next few minutes, until we pulled up outside the Golden Lantern, I gave him the abbreviated version of Jess’s story. He looked back at me a few times with raised eyebrows, but didn’t say anything until we had parked the truck and climbed out.
‘How old is she?’ Aaron asked as he joined me on the sidewalk.
‘Eighteen, I think.’
‘And how solid do she and Kelly seem to be, do you think?’
‘That’s hard to say. I might have a better idea once I actually get to meet them. And speaking of which, do you feel like a road trip to Sydney? Down Monday and back Tuesday, we were thinking?’
‘Of course. Anytime,’ he replied.
‘Good. It will be handy to have you guys there.’
‘No … bodyguards, just in case my mother finds out!’ I joked.
We walked to the front door of the restaurant and I pushed it open for Aaron, then I followed him inside. The place was still exactly the same as I remembered.
A young Australian girl hurried over to greet us.
‘We have a table booked in the name of Wagner,’ Aaron said to her. I looked at him in surprise, as I hadn’t actually made any booking, figuring that on a Monday night it would be quiet enough.
‘Of course. Right this way,’ the waitress replied, before then showing us straight to a table toward the back of the restaurant, sitting behind a large fold out silk covered screen, adorned with oriental scenes.
I looked at the waitress with what I hoped was a quizzical expression.
‘Please take a seat. Mr. Charlie will be with you shortly,’ she said, as she offered a knowing smile.
‘What’s all this about?’ I asked Aaron, as we sat ourselves down at the table, which had already been set with plates, cutlery and a jug of orange juice, with glasses.
‘I rang and made the booking and put our order in. Old Charlie had heard you were back in town and was hoping you would come in at some stage, but being old school he didn’t want to be so forward as to try and contact you. I know you may not realise it, but seeing you back here again is kind of a big deal for some of the folks who knew you before. The town doesn’t exactly have too many people who have made a name for themselves out there in the big wide world, and while you may not have been born here, you were definitely from here.’
‘I … I never really thought about it like that.’
‘So … just sit back and relax. I’ve got this. All you’ve got to do is have a chat with old Charlie, for old time’s sake, then enjoy a good night out.’
‘You know, I could kind of get used to this. Do you have a boyfriend? Because if you don’t, I might just have to come a calling.’
‘You can be such an arse when you want to be,’ he laughed.
‘For you, mate, I’ll be anything you want me to be,’ I said, as I reached across the table and took his hand in mine. He ran his thumb across the top of my hand and gazed into my eyes, just as he had done so many times before. It was like we were falling in love all over again. It was exhilarating.
‘Can I ask you something?’ Aaron asked. ‘You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to though.’
‘What did Guy mean, when we were back at the house?’
I knew that this would come up eventually, although I really didn’t think it would make any difference to our relationship. The only thing I feared was if Aaron saw himself as a failure because of what he did for a living.
‘You mean when he said that bit about me being loaded?’
‘Well, you know I’ve done okay with the books?’
‘Yeah. A guy would have had to have been living under a rock for the past five years to not know that.’
‘That’s true, I guess. I don’t exactly make a lot of money from them directly, especially after everyone else takes their piece of the action. I usually get an advance, which is little more than a bribe to get me to write the book, then I get a very small cut from the sale of each one, but I do a lot better with other stuff.’
‘Other stuff? Like what?’
‘Like the movie deals. That’s when it starts getting scary.’
It was just then that an old Chinese guy came through the bright red doorway nearby and shuffled toward our table, interrupting our conversation.
‘Charlie! It’s so good to see you again,’ I said as we both stood up and greeted him, shaking his rather frail hand.
‘And it is good seeing you also, Tony-boy,’ he replied, using the favourite term he had often called me in the years gone by. His voice was still accented even after all these years of living in Australia. Aaron pulled out a chair from our table and helped him to sit down.
I couldn’t quite get over how he seemed to have aged since I had seen him last.
‘Yes. Yes. It is good to see you, Tony-boy. You have been gone far too long.’
‘I think you are right there Charlie. But, how are you? How is your business? And how are your beautiful wife and daughter?’
‘All very good. But I am getting old, and my grand-children have all grown so much. I cannot keep up with them.’
‘And are you still cooking the best Mongolian Beef this side of Shanghai?’
‘Ah, that was always your favourite,’ he said with a chuckle. He was right, of course. ‘This town, it is proud of you, you know,’ he added. ‘Now everybody knows us.’
‘Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?’ I asked.
‘That depends on who you ask,’ he offered, with just a hint of a smile. ‘You have become famous, I am told. That has made us famous also. This is a good thing.’
‘The part about being famous isn’t so good for me sometimes, but at least the town is being helped with more people coming. I am happy about that.’
‘And when are you going to return to this place that made you famous, and stay here?’
‘Well, I’m not sure when exactly, but I have been thinking about it.’
‘You have?’ Aaron said, sounding quite surprised. I glanced at him and gave him a wink, then smiled at Charlie.
‘You two. You should not be apart. You are good for each other. But you are so blind.’
‘I’m beginning to see that, my friend.’
‘Then you must do something about it,’ he scolded. ‘You must be happy in life, or there is no magic!’
‘Yes Charlie. I think you are right,’ I said, as I reached across the table and placed my hand over Aaron’s.
‘Always good boys,’ Charlie said. ‘Always good boys.’
We chatted for a little while longer but pretty soon we could hear the activity starting to build up on the other side of the silk screens, as patrons started rolling in.
‘Now, I must work. Your food is coming, so you must enjoy yourselves, my young friends.’
‘Thank you, Charlie. We always do!’
With a nod the old Chinaman rose from his chair, then shook our hands once more, before leaving us and retreating to the kitchen.
‘Shit, he’s starting to get old,’ I said as we watched him disappear through the door.
‘It happens to the best of them,’ Aaron remarked.
‘Yeah. I guess it does.’
Before we had even had a chance to sit back down a tray of spring rolls and other entree’s was brought to us and placed on the table in front of us.
‘What exactly did you order?’ I asked him.
‘Oh, I just asked Charlie to surprise us.’