Thursday, 29 October 2015

Being of Sound Mind


Christine often wondered if there was some kind of physic link between parent and child, one that transcended time and distance. There was no rational explanation for the feeling she got, just as she picked up the phone. When she turned the screen toward herself, the name she knew would be there, was flashing, ‘Mom’.

"Hello Mom," she said, delighted at the unexpected call. "Is everything all right?" The words had come from her lips before she could stop herself.

"Well, that's just lovely. Can't a mother ring her favourite daughter with something being wrong?" giggled Barbara, half way across the country.

"Of course, it’s just so early there, and since when was I the favourite," asked Christine, knowing her mother was teasing her. Mostly she would ring when it was after noon in Montana. Right now, it was still early morning in New York.

"I was awake and I wanted to catch you before you left for work," said Barbara.

"You did, just Mom. I was on my way out the door. Is everything alright? You sound a bit sad, “said Christine, sitting down on the arm of her couch, laying aside the coat she was about to put on. On the other end of the phone she could hear Barbara taking a deep breath.

"I guess, I’m just missing your Dad. It’s so empty in this big old place, without all of you around to keep me company. I just wanted to hear your voice, darling," she said.

"I’ll come to visit soon, Mom, I promise," said Christine, feeling guilty at the thought of her mother being all alone. The truth being known, she missed the open spaces of Montana. She’d grown up on a ranch, but all too soon the call of the city was too much to resist. In last few years, Barbara and Jim had run the ranch with an estate manager and some hired hands. Jim, her Dad, had left early one morning in the four wheel drive to mend some fencing, but still had not returned by night fall. They found him the next day, sitting against the base of a huge conifer tree, gazing out across a glinting lake. Apparently, he looked like he was taking a nap, his hands loosely crossed on his lap, his head lolling to one side. The autopsy relieved a brain aneurism, he wouldn’t have felt a thing. Christine was happy he had spent his last hours on the land he loved so much, it was the way he would have chosen to leave this world, if he had to leave, that is.

"I am glad you said that, because I’ve booked a plane ticket for you, on the 25th," said Barbara, her voice alive with devilment.

"Mom, I can't just drop everything and go running off on a whim," Christine said, imagining the huge amount of papers sitting in her in-tray, never mind the unstoppable flood of e-mails.

"Of course you can, Darling, you work far too hard anyway. Look, tell them I'm sick or dead or something."

"MOM!"

"You're so dry, just tell them you need a break," said Barbara.

"I’ll see what I can do. I got to go to work, I'll call you tonight."

"Okay, Darling. But I need you to come on the 25th, its important."

"What's going on Mom?"

"All in good time. Enjoy work Honey."

"But Mom..." the phone went dead in Christine's hand, typical Barbara.

***

Christine looked out the tiny window of the airliner as it banked sharply, lining up for its final approach. The land below was a patchwork of forest and neatly trimmed farmland, scattered among the great grey mountains of Montana. Some tiny patches of snow were still visible on the highest peaks. It really was big sky country.

As Christine approached the exit doors, she scanned the crowd waiting to greet the people arriving, and was amazed to see her brother Jonathan standing there.

"What are you doing here? Where's Mom?" Christine said, embracing her little brother warmly.

"I was summoned, just like you. Mom sent me to pick you up. Everyone else is at the house already," he said, flashing that dazzling smile of his that made him a TV smash.

"Who else is here?" asked Christine, with a worried frown.

"Everyone, the whole family."

"Tina?"

"Yes, would you believe it, even Tina came," he said, taking her suitcase and she took his elbow, as they walked toward the exit.

"What is going on, Jonathan? This is very weird."

"I know, Barbara’s saying nothing until everyone is together. Apparently, some kind of family conference. I think she’s been watching too much Oprah, if you ask me," said Jonathan. Christine clung to his arm and searched his face for changes. He was still so hansom, even too hansom, but the tiny laughter lines around his eyes has softened his look, and now, she could see speckles of grey in the hair above his ears. It was so unfair, how could years on a man could make him more attractive, where it was a constant battle for women to stay naturally young.

"And, how’s Tony these days?" asked Christine. 

"I'm afraid, I’d be the last to know," said Jonathan, the note of hurt in his voice was unmistakable.

"You guys broke up?" Christine gasped.

"Well, if you call being caught with his pants around his ankles, breaking up, yea."

"He never deserved you," said Christine, giving his arm an extra cuddle.

"Thanks sis, you say all the right things," he said, kissing the top of her head.

"What is cooking with your love life. Has Mister Right appeared on the scene yet?" asked Jonathan, turning the heat off his particular love disaster.

"Nothing steady, still playing the field," she said, but the look he gave her said he wasn't buying that.


During the ride out to the ranch, they caught up on nearly five years of gossip. Christine hadn’t realise so much time had passed since they had last been in the same place together. Sure, they’d skyped, but it’s not the same thing. Very soon, the buildings moved further and further apart, the grass grew greener, and the trees got taller. 

"I forgot how breath-taking it is here," Christine said, gazing out the window at the unfurling scenery.

"New York is fairly spectacular, in its own way," said Jonathan, who himself lived in sunny Los Angeles, and made a good living acting on a medical sitcom.

"I know, but not like this," said Christine. She remembered feeling such wonder when she first moved to the big apple; the lights, the height, the crowds. But, time had robbed her eyes of wonder. She thought of her Dad, and the way he would look at the mountains and the lakes. He was one of God's special creations, an eternal fountain of wonder, whose eyes saw the world anew every day the sun rose in the sky. She missed him so very much, it was like a hole in her soul.

After an hour, the turns in the road became hauntingly familiar and the entrance to the ranch soon appeared. As Jonathan's hired car bumped up the long drive way, the windows of the farmhouse winked at them in the afternoon sun.  Farmhouse might not be a description befitting the sprawling ten bedroom mansion, but it was what they always called it. Jonathan pulled in around the back of the house, parking on the cobbled yard near the stables. Before the engine had even stopped, the back door burst open, and Barbara came rushing to greet them, her hands outstretched excitedly.

"Chrissie, your home!" she cried, yanking open the passenger door and hauling her out of the car for a hug.

"Mom," Christine snuffled into Barbara's bush of blond hair, surprised to feel emotion catch in her throat.

"It's so good to have you all together at last," said Barbara.

"It's good to be home, Mom." said Christine, untangling herself from Barbara's coffered blond hairdo. 

"Come on, everyone is waiting," said Barbara, leading Christine into the house. In the dining room, the table was extended as far as it would go, and it was groaning under the weight of the food it held. Arranged around the table were, Susan and her husband Dave, with their two boys, Sam aged eight and Curt aged ten. Then there was Tina and her husband Stan, their teenage daughter Stacy, and six year old Josh. John, Christine's oldest brother sat at the top of the table in Dad's chair, but his family seemed to be missing. Danny, Christine’s little brother, was messing around with Susan's kids, like the big kid he was. The room was alive with chatter and laughter. Christine settled into her chair, and let herself be swept up by all of it. It was like a tidal wave of joy.

Lunch lasted well over an hour, and before long the kids were getting restless, that was when Barbara said she had a surprise for them. She hunted all the kids into the yard, where the ranch foreman was waiting for them with a huge trailer of straw, hitched behind a tractor. All the kids were piled on board, and sent off for their first hay ride, with Stacy and one of the farm workers keeping an eye on the kids in the back. Once the giggling youngsters were out of sight, everyone went back to the dining room and coffee was poured.

"I guess you all want to know why I asked you to be here today," said Barbara when everyone was settled. Nobody answered, but the silence was answer enough. Barbara gathered herself and smiled at her family, "There will come a time, that I won't be here -" Around the table, nearly everyone moved or went to speak at once, but Barbara shushed them with a raised hand.

"Like it or not, it’s going to happen at some stage and I’d feel better if I knew what was going to happen to this place, and all of you." Nobody moved or said anything.

Barbara laughed and said, "If I’d known it was this easy to shut you all up, I’d have started planning this years ago. Look, I know this isn’t something anyone wants to face before necessary, least of all me. All I want to know is, what you, all of you, want to do with this place?"

Brothers, sisters, wives and husbands shared uncomfortable looks, each not being willing to go first. Barbara had to stir the pot one more time, "Should we sell the place off, or keep it in the family?" That got the ball rolling good and proper. Everyone erupted in objection at the idea of selling off their family home to some stranger. It seemed so cold, so calculated. Barbara smiled at the deafening howl of unity, even though she couldn't actually make out their individual words.

"That's decided then, we're keeping the place," Barbara said, clapping her hands in delight. "The big question is who is going to run it, all of you?" Silence fell again once more and guilty faces searched the coffee cups before them for suitable answers.

"What about you, Danny? Would you like to run the place?" asked Barbara, looking at her youngest and wildest. He was the only one of them who had not settled in any place, or job. Danny was a bit of a hobo, always moving on, normally seconds before an angry husband caught up with him.

"I guess, I could, when the time comes that is," said Danny, not exactly jumping up and down with the prospect of being saddled with the ranch, even if it happened to be worth several million dollars.

"And what do the rest of you think about Danny taking over?" asked Barbara. It was Tina who jumped into the breach.

"What do we think of Danny running the ranch, or what do we think of the ranch being left to Danny entirely." she said, her words striking to the heart of the conversation everyone else wanted to skirt.

"That's what we are here to decide," said Barbara.

"I’ve no objection to Danny running the place, and getting a wage, but I don't see why it should be left only to him. There has to be a fairer way than that." Tina said, folding her arms on the table in front of her. Tina was never afraid to face a problem head on, no matter who's feelings might get rubbed the wrong way in the process. Tina always believed in calling a spade a spade.

"Hold up there Tina, you expect me to drop everything in my life to come work for you?" said Danny, seeming to forget it was all imaginary at the moment.

"Not for nothing, you’d have your share, and a reasonable wage for the job you would be doing," said Tina, seeing only logic in her words.

"But it's hardly fair to ask Danny to spend his life working on something that can never be his. Dad would never have asked him to do that," said Christine. "If he is working the ranch, then it should be his ranch to work."

"Exactly," said Danny, feeling vindicated.

"So everyone else gives up their share, just because he is the only one not yet settled down," said Tina, turning on her sister just the smallest bit. They’d always clashed heads, no matter what, no matter when, it was their nature.

"I never said I wanted the ranch in the first place, don't make this all about me," said Danny, feeling he was being ganged up on.

"Danny's right, would anybody else like to run the ranch, if Danny isn't interested," said John, speaking for the first time.

"I never said I wasn't interest, honest Mom," said Danny, looking at Barbara like he was letting her down.

"What about you Susan?" asked John.

Susan looked at Dave before saying, "It would be a great place to bring up the boys, but it would mean leaving all their friends, and what about school and Dave's job. I'm not sure it would work for us, well not right now, but this is all in the future, right?"

"So, you’re saying that you want your share, but not the responsibility of keeping a huge undertaking like this going? Running a ranch is more than a job, it’s a life time commitment, you all know this,” said John, acting as mediator.  “I happen to agree with both Tina and Christine. Whoever takes this place on, deserves to have their name over the door. But like Tina said, which one of us is more deserving than the other. It is a lot of money at stake, after all," said John.

"Oh, come on, John," said Jonathan. "This is nonsense, it’s our home we’re talking about. Where we were born, and where we all grew up, it’s not just land, and cattle, and a house, it's our home, it's your home.  Mom, I really don't like talking about this."

"I know this is hard, Jonathan, but I think Mom is right. Do you think it would be easier to leave it all up to her? We can't even decide among ourselves what we want, and remember it’s about what we want, all of us together," said John, as if he was chairing a meeting or something. He was always so serous.

"And what about the kids?" said Susan.

"What kids?" asked Jonathan.

"The Grand-kids. Should they not be considered as well? After all, it is the family shareholding we are speaking of, it’s as much their inheritance as ours," said Susan, making big cow eyes across the table. Christine saw Dave laying a reassuring hand on her arm, telling her she had said the right thing.

"Are you saying, you should get a bigger share than me, because you have kids and I don't," said Christine, not quiet believing what she was hearing.

"It’s not like that, but I don't think they should be forgotten. Tina's or John’s either," said Susan, looking wounded at being thought of as greedy. Christine didn't miss the look that passed between Tina and Susan, it seemed alliances were being forged, where only seconds before, nobody even wanted to discuss the subject. Christine looked up the table to where Barbara sat, her cup was raised to her lips, the coffee within remained untested. Her eyes were huge and frightened.

"I'm with Jonathan on this,” said Christine. “I don't think we should be talking about this. It’s upsetting Mom, even if she isn't saying so," said Christine, pushing her chair back from the table and gathering the dishes from in front of her. Slowly the rest of the group dispersed, mainly in silence. Barbara soon appeared at Christine's shoulder where she stood by the dishwasher.

"That was harder than I’d imagined," Barbara said quietly.

"There’s no need to ask anyone what to do, Mom. Just do what you want with the place, we’ll all be happy with whatever you decide," Christine said, taking Barbara in her arms.

***
The next few days passed in forced normality. It was as if the discussion during that first lunch had planted a toxic seed, in each of their minds, the roots of which were now so firmly dug in, it was hard to imagine they would ever see each other the same way again. The following evening, Christine found Jonathan sitting on top of a fence admiring the setting sun, and wandered up to join him.

"Penny for your thoughts," she said, as she threw her leg over the top plank of the fence.

"I'm not sure they are worth a penny," said Jonathan, sadly.

"Is it about the ranch, and what Mom said?" she asked.

"Yea. I don't really care about the ranch itself, but I can't imagine this place without Mom," said Jonathan.

"Or Dad, but it happened," said Christine. Jonathan didn't say anything, his head just dipped a bit.

"Would you let Danny have the whole place if he wanted to run it?" she asked.

"Honestly no, and not because I want a share. I’d worry that he’d lose the whole lot running after some get rich quick scheme. You know what his record is like," said Jonathan. Christine had to agree. 

"It could be what he needs, to settle him down," said Christine.

"I don't think Tina is going to be so generous. There’s no way she would just hand over what she sees as her birth right. If I’m to be honest, I think a little bit the same but, only I don’t think it’s worth fighting over," said Jonathan.

"I was amazed at Susan, did you see that passive aggressive move she made, with the kids, trying to carve out a bigger slice for herself," said Christine, who was still annoyed with her sister.

"You need to take a closer look at Dave, for that move. I heard them discussing it after bed, last night. I get the impression that things might not be as rosy in the garden, as they are letting on. That, or they’re seriously greedy. All I could hear was, money, money, money, late into the night," said Jonathan, sadly.

"I just don't think it’s doing Mom any good, watching her kids pick over the bones of her life like vultures," Christine said.

"Your right, that's a sight normally reserved for the undertaker, or the lawyers, before the body is even cold," chuckled Jonathan. His humour was so dark sometimes.

"You're terrible," said Christine, play-punching him in the arm.

"I can't wait for Monday. I know it horrible, but I can’t stand looking at them anymore," said Jonathan, turning serous again. "All I see now, is greed, not my brothers and sisters. I wish Mom had never brought it up in the first place."

"It's Pandora's box, once it’s been opened, it can never be closed again," said Christine, now wishing for Monday herself. 

***

It wasn’t long before the trip to the ranch was buried under a mountain of everyday concerns, and Christine had all but forgot the, 'weekend of the long knives', as Jonathan referred to it in his e-mails. It was a shock when Barbara rang to say she was in New York, and wanted to meet up for dinner. She’d never even said she was coming, and why didn’t she ask to stay with her?

They arranged to meet in a lovely little Italian restaurant, in the Village, which Barbara always insisted on visiting, every time she came to the city. Unlike the weekend trip to the ranch, the meal they shared would forever be locked in Christine's memory as a treasure. Barbara was positively glowing, they laughed so much that night, it was like an outing of sisters, not mother and daughter. Towards the end of the meal, Christine felt she had to apologise for the way they had all acted during the visit to the ranch.

"Don't pay it any-mind sweetie, I sure didn't. If anything, it helped me get up off my tushie and grab life by the throat," said Barbara with a mile wide grin. "Speaking of which, what about another bottle?" she asked, wiggling her near empty wine glass.

"I don't know, Mom. I got work tomorrow," Christine said, checking the time on her phone.

"If you can't play hooky with your Mom, what's the world coming to?"

"Oh, go on. Just one more glass for me, then I have to be going," said Christine, raising her hand to the waiter who was hovering close by. The problem with opening a bottle, it just has to be finished. By the time they were hailing a cab, Christine's head was swimming and she knew she’d pay dearly in the morning, for this wonderful night, but it was a price worth paying.

"Where to?" asked the cabbie over his shoulder.

"Manhattan Cruse Terminal, please," said Barbara.

"Why are we going there?" asked Christine.

"That's where my ship is parked, darling."

"Ship? What Ship?"

"Didn’t I say? I’ve been cruising up and down the length of the states, visiting your brothers and sisters as I was going. You know, I even saw some polar bears up near Alaska, they’re huge, cuddly looking, but huge."

"You could have said," said Christine.

"Trip of a lifetime honey. You can come if you like, plenty of room in my cabin," she said, slightly slurring her words.

"Ha! The boss would love that!"

"Don't tell him, just come. Life's too short by far to worry about the boss the whole time," Barbara said, as the first of the city size ships came into view. When Barbara got out of the cab she did a little speed wobble in her high heels.

"Blasted things," she said, kicking them off and picking them up by the straps. "Night my baby, Chrissie," she said, kissing each cheek deeply.

"Night, Mom," Christine said, the wine was making her teary.

"And promise me you’ll see the world one day, before it’s all messed up," she said with a wink.

"I will, Mom, promise."

Christine watched her pad away on bare feet, like a teenager coming home from  prom, with her heals thrown over her shoulder by the straps, and not a care in the world.

***

If Christine had known that was the last time she’d have ever seen her mother, she would have got on the boat, without a second thought. But she didn't, how could she have known. Four weeks later, anchored off the coast of Brazil, a housekeeper found Barbara, still in bed, having passed away peacefully during the night.

It came as an awful shock to everyone, but Christine more than any, because she was the last person in the family to see, or speak with, Barbara. It took a few weeks for the authorities to release her body, and John flew to Rio de Janeiro, to bring their Mom home. Everyone else was waiting at the ranch, when the long black hearse pulled into the yard. In the back, an aluminium coffin lay still and silent. It was impossible for them to imagine that their larger than life mother, was contained in such a thing. It was unnatural.

The following day, friends and neighbours began to gather by the hundreds, until the house was filled to bursting. That evening, they made their final journey together, with Barbara, leading a huge cartage of vehicles to the local church, where mass was said. The following day, Barbara rested in the arms of her Jimmy, eternally.  


Days passed in a blur of well-wishers, and tears. The house was always full, but always so very empty. John and Tina had just begun talking about returning home, when a tall stranger appeared at the kitchen window.  He waved and walked toward the door.

"My deepest apologies for intruding on your time of grief. My name is Simon Philips, and I was your mothers attorney. I wonder if I may have a few moments of your time," he said when John went to answer his knock.

"Of course, come in," said John.

The tall young man nodded to everyone in the room, and said, "I am so very sorry to come without calling ahead, but your Mother made some very exacting demands on how her will was to be delivered."

"Her will?" asked John. "Did she make a will?"

"Oh my, yes. One of the most unusual ones I have ever been party to," said Mr Philips.

"Will all the family be here tomorrow? The will can only be read when all are present. It’s a stipulation Barbara was very insistent on," said the man.

"I was due to fly back tonight, but I can reschedule. Yes, we can all be here," said John, a bit shocked. Nobody had thought that Barbara had actually went ahead and made a will. 

"Excellent, shall we say mid-day?"

"I'm sure that will be fine, what’s the address of your office?" asked John.

"Oh no, the will must be read here, another stipulation. I’ll be out about eleven to make preparations, is there a room I can use?" asked the man.

"The parlour would be best," said Tina.

"Would you be so good as to show it to me?" asked the man. Tina led the attorney into the parlour, where the rest of the family could hear him say, "Splendid, this will be perfect."

***

The next day, at eleven on the button, Mr Philips turned up with two helpers. He asked the gathered family to wait in the kitchen, while he ensured everything was in working order for a seamless presentation of the will. It all seemed like a lot of hot air, surely all the man had to do was read out a few paragraphs, possibly get a few signatures. On the dot of twelve, Mr Philips appeared at the kitchen door and called everyone inside.

The furniture had been arranged in a semi-circle, allowing enough seating for everyone. At the centre of this, was a very large TV on a stand, which Mr Philips aids must have taken from the back of the van they were driving. Once everyone was seated, Mr Philips smiled and gestured toward the screen, where Barbara appeared grinning, and as large as life. It was such a shock to see her smiling down on them all, that Christine couldn’t help bursting into tears. Mr Philips paused the recording while Susan went to comfort her sister. When the shock had worn off, Christine said, "Sorry, I'm ready now, sorry."

Mr Philips smiled, and activated the movie again, with a nearly invisible remote he held in his hand.

"Hello, my darlings," said Barbara, smiling down on them all. "If you're watching this, I must be gone on to bigger and better things. Where ever I am, I can be sure my Jim will be waiting to take me in his arms, once more. I can’t tell you how much I have missed him, but all that is over with now," she said smiling her dazzling smile. "Please don't be sad for me, even though I know you have been, it will pass, it’s the way of the world. I’m sure John has been keeping you all marshalled, taking care of things that need doing. You were always my rock, John. Always taking so much on your shoulders, so others wouldn't have to. Then there is my little miss fire cracker, Tina. Never afraid of a fight, or to say the things that needed saying. You guys think she is so tough, but I have listened to her crying when she thought nobody could hear. Sometimes she just cares too much," said Barbara, choosing that moment to move her head and pick out the exact seat Tina had selected. It was eerie, and when Tina cried, it was Jonathan that put his arm around her. 

"Then there is you, my lovely boy, Jonathan. You always love with all your heart, it’s such a brave thing to do. That might be why the world seems to delight in testing you, my love. I happen to believe it’s saving something very special for you, don't worry, it will come when the time is just right. Then there is Susan, if there was ever a younger version of me, it is you. Every time I looked into your eyes, I saw my own joys and fears looking right back. You are a true Momma Bear, aren't you sweetie, always defending your cubs. They are so lucky to have you, sweet Susan. And, my Chrissie; so driven, so kind, so amazing, you are the only one who can’t see how special you are. I wish and pray that one day you get everything you long for, I’ve a feeling it might be closer than you might imagine. Which leaves my baby boy, Danny. What a scamp you are, breaking hearts and rules all your life, running from one great adventure to another. A mother worries you know, but the girl in me, just wants to run right along by your side."

On the screen, Barbara composed herself before continuing, while everyone else in the room tried to get the flood of emotions she had just caused, under control.

"Well, enough of that. Down to the matter at hand. I have some good news, and I have some bad news. The good news is you are all still in the will," which caused a ripple of emotional laughter to run through the room, even Mr Philips smiled.

"The bad news is that I was making a damn good fist of spending a lot of your inheritance before I ran into a road block. You see, that weekend I called you all to the ranch, I knew there was a good chance this day was coming, soon." 

Barbara tapped the side of her head, "A week spot on an artery, deep inside here."

"That weekend, I realised that the ranch, the house, none of it mattered. What mattered was you, your connection to each other, our family. That was why I sold the whole bloody thing, lock, stock and barrel."

A shocked murmur ran around the room, while Barbara sat smiling at them from the screen. The room was just beginning to grow silent when Barbara spoke again, "You have all met Mr Philips. He arranged the whole thing and got me a hansom price as well. The deal included a clause which allowed me to remain living in the house for the rest of my days. I'm sorry to say, but you all have to be out by the end of the week," she said with a wicked smile. In the corner John said, "Typical Barb, always having the last laugh," which made everyone else laugh.

On the screen Barbara continued, "So what are you all going to get. Straight off the bat, Mr Philips has a check for one hundred thousand Dollars, for each of you, to do with as you like, and no Susan, the Grand-kids don't get checks. They can make their own in time." This time, it was Danny that laughed, "Ha! She got you good, sis."

"There's more. Mr Philips, please," said Barbara. Mr Philips smiled and sent one of his aids outside.

"In no particular order, I have a few small gifts for you all. To start with, Danny, my lovely wild boy. I saw how pained you were that day, when your brothers and sisters, tried to tie you to the ranch. You are like one of those wild horses, galloping across the plain. It would be cruel to try and saddle you in any particular place. My gift to you is this," said Barbara smiling, and Mr Philips walked forward and dropped something small into Danny's hand. It was key, outside a heavy engine roared to life and everyone craned to see what was making all the noise. In the yard, a shining vintage convertible mustang with wire spoke wheels roared.

"Go where ever the hood is pointed Danny, and I will be riding right along with you," said Barbara. "Now for you, Mr Serous," said Barbara pulling a face on the screen. Mr Philips produced a box tied in a ribbon. He handed it to John while Barbara sat patiently on the screen. Inside the box was the most heinous Hawaiian shirt you ever did see.

"Put it on, and let me see if it fits," said Barbara. John took off his jacket and tie, slipping the shirt on over the one he was wearing. The gathered family couldn’t help it, the room erupted in laughter, as John stood dumbfounded in the middle of the floor.

"I think it’s a hit," said Barbara. "Life is serious, but only if you let it be, John. Take some time to laugh at the world, at yourself, and you just might start to enjoy life again. You're a good man, John, but you can still have some fun. Check the pocket. John patted the chest pocket. and withdrew a folded piece of paper.

"It’s two weeks in Hawaii, for you, Mary and the kids. Mr Philips called her earlier, and made the arrangements. Being my last request, she could hardly refuse, but mark my words, John. Sweep that woman off her feet, if you want to keep her." John broke down in tears, the first time any of them had seen him cry since, well, since ever. He walked up to the screen and kissed his mother’s face, then he ran from the room. Everyone was so stunned they hardly heard Barbara continue with her bequests. Mr Philips walked over to Tina and Susan, handing each an envelope.

"To my darling girls, I give you the gift of wisdom. Susan, I’m sending you back to college to finish off what you started all those years ago, interior design, I believe. Your tuition is paid in full, so no excuses. Tina, I'm not sure you’ll like this, but it’s for your own good. I’ve signed you up to a two week, all inclusive trip to a monastery, for meditation and mindfulness training. Let’s be honest, it was either that or anger management classes. Sweetheart, sometimes the fight just isn't worth it."

Mr Philips walked up to Jonathan and handed him an envelope. On the screen Barbara smiled, "To the king of hearts, I give the city of love. I fear our country is far too young to ever truly satisfy a soul as old as yours, Jonathan. When I asked myself, what place in the world could ever come close to matching you for sophistication, class and passion? Only one came to mind. Paris, my dear, Paris. It’s yours, with all my love. Now, I’m sure that Tina and Susan have been busy totting up a running total of my spending and have realised it is nowhere near the value of the ranch. So it is about time I revealed my main bequest.

I want to give you all the gift of family, too that end, I have formed a trust with one specific function. This trust is to be used to pay for a Thanksgiving Holiday for all of you, and your families, every year here in your homeland, Montana. You are all the family you have left, don't ever let petty squabbles or differences stand between you. Fight, but make up, disagree, but understand, love, and never let go, that is my gift to you all. I want to give you each other."

On the screen, Barbara sat back and scratched her head, "I'm sure we’re forgetting something, Mr Philips. Can you check your bag and see if there is anything left in it?" Mr Philips lifted a large green rucksack and turned it upside down but nothing fell out. All eyes in the room turned to Christine, surely her mother hadn’t forgotten her, out of all of them. 

On the screen, Barbara smiled that half wicked, half cherub, smile of hers, "Of course I’ve not forgotten you, Chrissie. This is for you." Mr Philips handed her the empty rucksack. Christine looked inside, and it was indeed empty.

"That's right sweetie, it’s empty. I want you to go fill it up. Fill it with memories and experiences to last a life time. I want you to see the world before it’s too late. Money is not what you need, nor things. You need life, in your life, and the only place you’ll find it is out there. Don't be afraid, you can always come home." Christine felt her eyes fill with tears. All along, her mother was the one that knew her best, even better than she knew herself.

On the screen, Barbara sat back in her chair, "I think my job is done here. I love you all so much, when you meet on your yearly holiday, I want you to set two chairs at the table, one for me and one for your Dad, because as long as you have each other, no ones ever truly gone. See you in the fall, Love you." 




The screen goes dark.    




Monday, 19 October 2015

Moll's and Gangsters




Chapter 4

Darren drove in silence, letting his mind pry at the latest crazy stunt John and Tony had gotten him dragged into. In truth, Darren knew his brothers were feral, and would get him killed one day, but that didn’t mean he had another route to take. Like it or not, he was a Griffin from skin to bone, nothing would ever change that. He knew he could see the world differently than his brothers, that didn’t mean he could change the path that had been laid out for him. He might see the doorways to a peaceful existence passing him by, but just as surely, he knew they would be slammed in his face, if he ever had the audacity to try and take one of them. Not only that, but it would also mean cutting himself off from the world he knew, the world which accepted him, as he was. Such vision was just as much as curse, as it was a blessing. John never worried about such things, he like the life he was living, and would never seek out any other.

By the time Darren dropped John outside his house, he had made peace with the war they'd started today. What mattered now was to win at all costs. John opened the door of the car but paused before getting out. 

“Are you alright?” he asked Darren.

“This isn’t the way I would chosen things to be, John, but it’s the way things are,” Darren said. John smiled and got out of the car without saying a word. Darren drove away, feeling neither fear nor excitement, anticipation nor dread. He merely accepted what would be, would be. He abandoned the car with the keys in the ignition, and the door open. Darren knew it would be wrecked, or torched, before he even reached his flat. Darren strode along the street, streets which were more his home than any house, trying to figure out where this would all end up. He glanced over his shoulder, now and again, more out of habit than fear, but its better to be safe than dead, he hated being on edge all the time.

He checked behind him once more when he reached the cast iron gate that guarded the entrance to his apartment block, nobody was following. He pressed a code into the keypad, and the electromagnet released the gate. Darren climbed the stairs until he reached the top floor, his floor. It might be a flat in a north Dublin suburb, but it rivalled any other flat in Dublin in its finish. The door was four inch thick, solid mahogany, with a mirror finish. Inside, the flat was a vast open plan space, bedecked with stylish furniture and d├ęcor.  Clare was standing behind the ironing board, a sizeable stack of folded clothes were already done and waiting to be put away, while a hamper, half full, still lay at her feet. She rested the steaming iron in its holder, when the solid door closed behind Darren.

“You were gone a long time, I thought you were only going to meet John?” she said, concerned but not nagging.

“I did, earlier, but he had something he needed doing,” Darren said, sliding behind her to give her a hug and a kiss on the neck. She tilted her head away exposing that little place behind her ear that she to have touched, by finger or lip. He felt her melt back in his arms and he could feel the tiny fluttering of her heart under his encircling arms. A faint hint of perfume lay sweetly on her skin, complementing the most wonderful smell on the planet, her smell. Darren inhaled deeply, rubbing his nose along the line of her neck, where it vanished into the thick forest of blond hair that cascaded down her back. He drew her wonderful aroma deep inside his lungs and held it there, holding her essence deep inside his body, knowing that nothing else would ever make him feel as alive as the sensation of having part of her within him. When he exhaled, he imagined a sliver of her soul passing over his lips, and out into the universe. It reminded him that in the end, we all only borrow time and happiness, it can never be owned. He rested his head on her shoulder and let worry cloud his mind once more.

She rested a hand on his arm, and stroked the lean muscle that twitched beneath his pale skin, “Are you alright, Darren?” she asked, her voice sweet and serene. He didn't answer straight away, causing her to turn in his embrace.

“What is it, Honey?” she said, stroking his head as it rested against hers.

“John wants to expand the business into O’Connell Street,” he said, without lifting his head.

“O’ Connell Street belongs to Kingston,” she said, drawing away from him a little, her face creased with concern.

“I know,” said Darren, straightening up and running his hand through his hair.

“I hope you put him right?” she said.

“It’s too late, he already made the first move.”

“Without telling you, without asking what you thought.”

“He knew what I’d say, I guess that was why he didn’t ask,” Darren sighed.

“There must be something you can do to stop John, it’s too dangerous to try and take over a patch like that. Jimmy Kingston will never let O’Connell Street go. It’s too valuable.”

“John isn’t asking, he’s taking. Tony knocked over Kingston’s man in Zoe’s a few nights ago, and today we hijacked his main supply drop. Like I said, it’s too late.”

“Oh God, what's he done?” Clare said, walking away, holding her face in her hands and sitting on the couch, the forgotten iron, spitting clouds of steam into the air at regular intervals. Darren didn’t say anything, but he moved over to sit beside Clare, resting a comforting hand on her back, as she searched for answers that weren't to be found.  She turned to look at him, her face was ashen now,

“Don’t get involved with this, Darren. It’s John’s mess, let him deal with it.”

“I can’t do that, and you know it,” Darren said, removing his hand from her back.

“Why? Why must it be you?”

“It’s who I am. It’s who we are. I, we, are the Griffins. They need me, and I need them just as much, can’t you see that. If we don’t stand together, we have no chance at all. You knew who I was when you decided to be with me, nothing has changed,” he said, a little steel creeping into his voice.

“Yes it has, everything has changed, Darren. Can’t you see that? I love you, Martin loves you. What kind of a life will it be, if every time you walk out that door, it might be the last? It'd be like having my heart ripped out every day, again and again, until it happened for real. Please, Darren, Please don’t do this to me,” she said, throwing her arms around his neck, and he felt her body shudder, as the tears came.

“Come on, Clare. It’s not that bad,” cooed Darren, taking her in his arms and squeezing her tightly.

“Look, the last thing anybody wants is a running battle on the streets. There might be a way to reach some kind of compromise, and I promise you, if I can, I will get the boys to look for a way out of this. But I have to stand with my brothers, Baby. I can’t desert them, just like I could never desert you. Nobody is going to take me from you, I give you my word,” he said, lifting her head and kissing her quivering lips hungrily. 

She pulled away from him after a while, her mascara running in dark rivers down her face.

“Promise?” she said.

“I promise,” he said, and was rewarded with a weary smile.

Inside, Darren knew it was a promise that was going to be nearly impossible to keep. Clare was right, Jimmy Kingston would never give up O’Connell Street, and John would never back down, once he had put his mind to something. Darren could only hope that some of them would be left standing by the time it was all over. For a second, he considered taking Clare and Martin, and running away from the whole thing, but that feeling passed as quick as it had come. His destiny was not written in the stars, it was written in the grime and filth of the streets he had been born on, the ones he still called home.  His tribe needed him, his time to be counted had come, and Darren would not falter in the face of the enemy, no matter what.

***
Across the city, Pete sat alone in his Jaguar, listening to the radio, while he watched children fight over the highest position on the climbing frame in the playground at the center of the park. Jimmy’s car glided up beside Pete's passenger door, and stopped. Pete was about to get out, but Jimmy’s door opened and he got out looking around, checking the few cars parked in the tiny gravel area for occupants. Pete knew they were empty because he had done exactly the same thing fifteen minutes ago. Once Jimmy was happy he opened Pete's passenger door, and ducked his head inside.

“Fancy taking a walk?” he said. It wasn’t a question that needed an answer. Pete got out of the car, clicking the button on the key, remotely locking all the doors. He followed Jimmy’s as he slowly strolled through the gate and into the park.

“Did you get it all stored away, boss?” asked Pete when he was level with Jimmy’s shoulder.

“Yea, it was all there and safe as houses. I sent out a new delivery, to replace what we lost this morning.”

“How much did they get?” asked Pete, pulling up the zipper on his jacket a little more to keep the cutting breeze out.

“Eighty thousand, street value.”

“Scum,” snarled Pete, his noes wrinkling up.

“You know what I can’t figure out, how they knew were the drop was going to happen,” said Jimmy. Pete knew better than to offer anything. He just walked along, shoulder to shoulder while Jimmy let his mind worry at the problem at hand.

“I think we have a snitch, Pete,” he said at last.

“But who'd do that?”

“There were only a few people that knew where that drop was going to happen. Me, you, Kenny, Niall and Fergal.”

"Any chance someone could have told someone else?” said Pete, and he quickly added, “I know I didn’t.”

“Could have, I guess, but its more than likely someone who knew for sure, and I sure as hell know it wasn’t me,” said Jimmy, giving Pete a chilling look.

“You don’t think it was me?”

“Don’t be stupid, of course I don’t. But we better keep an eye on Niall and Fergal.”

“Niall's still in the hospital with a crushed leg, and they nearly beat Fergal to death when they took down the score, they'd hardly do that to someone that was feeding them info.”

“They might have been trying to cover their tracks.”

“Hell of a way to do that, nearly killing them both.”

“Just keep an eye on them after they come out of the hospital. See if they do anything out of the ordinary.”

“I will, do you want me to pay the lad’s a visit in the hospital?”

“Na, just keep an eye on things. Don’t go tipping our hand. If we knew who it was feeding the Griffins info, we could use it to our advantage,” said Jimmy, walking on like he had nothing better to do than taking a stroll in last hours of sunshine. Across the park, the excited squeals of the playing children, filled the air with unbridled joy. Jimmy looked at them and smiled in the direction of the playground.

 “Can you ever remember being that young, Pete?” Jimmy said, nodding toward the playground.

Pete looked across the park and frowned.   “Do I remember being a Kid, you mean?”

“Yea,” said Jimmy, still smiling.

“I guess I do,” said Pete, not understanding what Jimmy was on about. Sometimes Jimmy had a habit of talking in riddles. Pete didn’t always understand him straight away but Jimmy always got to the point, at one stage or another. Pete knew he just had to wait and all would be revealed, that was why Jimmy was the boss.

“Everything seemed so simple where we were kids. Look at them, pushing and shoving each other down the rungs of the frame, always trying to be king of the castle,” said Jimmy, stopping and giving the playground his full attention. “It seems nothing's changed, after all, we're still trying to get to the top of the climbing frame, and when we're there we will do anything to stay there, Pete. These Griffin’s want to knock me off the top of my castle, and this time, there'll be more than a few scraped knees to show for it.”

“I guess so, boss,” said Pete, still not getting what the Griffins had to do with a playground full of kids.

“How do you stop people trying to knock you off the top of the climbing frame Pete?” asked Jimmy, turning to face Pete.

“Push them back down?” asked Pete, feeling sure he was right.

“No, Pete, not them, him. You get the first little runt that has the balls to try and climb to your level, you get that first dozy bastard, and you throw him all the way to the bottom, as hard as you can. That’s what you do, and let everyone else in the playground see it happening, that is how you stay King of the Castle,” said Jimmy, his eyes alive with cold fury.

Pete understood what Jimmy was saying, and nodded. Jimmy patted him on the shoulder before striding away toward the car, leaving Pete alone in the middle of a kid’s park, thinking dark thoughts of blood and death.




Thursday, 15 October 2015

The Devil's Bridge

The Devil's Bridge

In the depths of a German national park, stands a structure so beautiful, it never fails to stun a viewer into silence. Your first glimpse of the Devils Bridge, and its mirror reflection, is something that will stay in your memory forever.

One fine day, a group of backpackers were staring, awestruck, at the impressive sight, while an elderly grounds man pruned some nearby bushes. The grounds man had seen the bridge a thousand times but never tired of its beauty, nor the affect it had on people.

“It’s wonderful,” said one girl, turning her head, this way and that, to take in the view from all angles.
“Amazing,” said another of the college kids.
“I love the way the reflection completes the structure,” said a small spotty faced guy, in a way that left the statement hanging, begging someone to question it. Foolishly, someone did.
“How do you mean, completes the structure?” asked one of the other boys. He was tall and handsome, but his eyes lacked the sharpness of wit.
“It’s obvious, the entire meaning of the structure, is the reflection,” said Mr Spotty with derision. “Just look at it, the combination of rock and water, combined with the perfect circle, half in reality, half in reflection, is a comment on the yin and yang of life. It’s a classically Japanese interpretation of being, capturing the ever changing pull of the universe.” 

The tall youth pointed to a sign nearby, and said, “It says there, that the bridge was built as a bet with the Devil, which he lost, sending him back to hell.”

“Complete codswallop,” said Mr Small and Spotty.
“You can’t just discount religion in this, Barry, after all, religion is the foundation of many fantastic construction projects,” added another student, clearly warming to the growing debate.

“Yes,” said another, “and, I disagree with your reasoning behind the intent of the structure. Surely he built it to display the possibility of multiple universes, existing side by side, with the one we inhabit.”
“I just think he wanted to get to the other side,” said a girl with a giggle.

“I still think it’s representing Heaven,” said the tall man. “Perhaps he intended it to be like the gateway into Heaven?”
“A gate, that’s it. It has to be a portal, built by aliens, to transport people across space,” said a guy wearing a Starwar’s tee-shirt.

“Cop on Gavin,” said Mr Spotty. “This is real life, not a movie.”

“It’s just as probable as what you said,” whinged Gavin, his feelings clearly hurt.

“What I said is a proven facet of world art history, not some pesents fairy-tale, not a depiction of a greater power, and most certainly not a magical portal built by little green men,” said Mr Spotty, resting his hands on his hips, dominating the rest of the group. 

As the grounds man listened to the unfolding discussion, he decided that the small guy was nothing short of a bully, and needed putting in his place.  He slowly got to his feet arching his aching back. Up to that point, the group seemed to be oblivious to his existence. “I can tell you the real reason the bridge was built, if you like,” said the old man.

“Please, do,” said Mr Small, with a wave of his hand, fully expecting to be proven right.

“As it happens, it was my great grandfather that designed and built that bridge. He brought me here to see it, when I was little more than a child. I remember asking him why he had built it,” the old man said, before bending to gather his pruning tools.

“And? What did he say?” asked Mr Spotty, impatiently.

The old grounds man turned him and smiled, “He said, he built it, because he could.”

At the back of the group, a small impish girl, who had not spoken once during the heated argument, smiled a dazzling smile. The grounds man smiled back at her before walking away. He was happy that at least one of them could see that sometimes, the simplest explanation, is the hardest to understand. 

Monday, 5 October 2015

A Spectre Appeared

It begins with me, being a complete asshole as always. Why she ever agreed to marry me, is beyond my understanding. Thinking about it now, all the reasons I fell in love with her, were exactly the same reasons I started taking her for granted. She was just too nice, you know what I mean? There was no challenge in her: in my marriage, in my life, and I blamed her for it all.

It wasn’t long before I hated the way she ate; the way she slept, the way she looked at me when I was being a complete arse, and the way she never stood up to me. It was all her fault, it had to be. Who could blame me for spending my nights getting drunk in the scum-filled bars of town, hoping to get a knee-trembler from some gin soaked skank at the end of the night, before stumbling back to my miserable life, and I did, you know, more than once.

That’s when it happened. I did what I always did, I opened my big bloody mouth when I should have stayed dumb. He looked normal, nice even. He listened to me whinging most to of the night, while our glasses went from full to empty, to full again. I’m not sure when he asked me the question, but I sure remember the answer, “God damn right, I wish she was gone.” He looked so normal.

He left me there, drinking, talking shit, and trying to get lucky. I was so drunk by the time I got home, I didn’t even notice if she were in the bed, or not, I just passed out. When I woke, strong mid-day sun was streaming through the window. I looked over and the bed was empty, I tried to rub the pain from my head and the dust from my mouth, but that was a permanent fixture of my life of late. Instead, I slept. When I woke again, the light was weaker, and the house was silent.

I didn’t worry at first, I just enjoyed the silence. When night fell and the front door was open, I began to worry. Her car was in the drive and all her clothes were in the wardrobe. Inside me, something was struggling to raise its head from the drunken swamp that was my life. By the next day, I had to call the police. Her phone was on the bedside table, her wallet was in the kitchen, that was when I remembered him, the normal guy.

The questions came in the thousands, the answers were all the same, “I don’t know.” Days went by, weeks, TV cameras gathered, and I stayed hidden. I wondered how he had done it; I wondered if it had been quick, or if he had taken his share before it was time. Most of all, I wondered if they would blame me for it all. That was when it happened.

She appeared before me like a spectre, her face white with rage, the normal guy standing by her shoulder.

“You’re alive!” I yelled standing with my arms outstretched to hold her. The steel flashed through he air like a spark, I nearly didn’t feel the sting of it, bite into my wrist. My hand fell to the table with a wet thud, blood spat into the air from the stump I still held aloft. She looked at me with nothing but hatred, the samurai sword trembling in her grip, her lip quivering with emotion.

“You bastard,” she said, lifting my lifeless hand from the table, feeding my blood soaked finger into her mouth, before sucking greedily. She yanked my dead flesh from her mouth, and dropped it on the table before me. She spat a ring of gold into her palm, and said, “This is mine.”


They ran hand in hand from the house, giggling like high teenagers. She ran into the night, clutching something shiny, damn her to hell.