Image: By Ruth Calder Murphy
It’s chucking it down with rain. It’s the middle of winter and might be the middle of the night, too, for all the light there is. The streetlights have come on and are reflecting grimly in the puddles, throwing fragmented pictures of splashed legs and soaked coats all over the place.
Ditti sighs over her too-milky coffee, misting the glass of the cafe window.
“‘Sup?” I ask before taking a sip of hot chocolate. There’s powder floating on the top of it. I hate that.
“Dunno Ari,” Ditty replies, lifting the skin off her coffee and placing it with some disdain on her empty plate. “Just... England. Winter. Weather. Stuff...” Her voice fades away. I grunt in agreement. Yes, it really is, isn’t it... I look from the hurrying pedestrians on the other side of the window, back to Ditty. She’s still beautiful, after all these years. She hasn’t changed at all really. But there’s no denying that English winters don’t show her to her best advantage. I can’t help thinking back to summers in Greece, Italy, Spain, flying high, changing the world... But that was before...
I’m brought back to the present by a gasp:
“Oh crap.” I follow Ditty’s gaze to where, on the road outside, a VW camper van, painted optimistically with flowers and stylised suns, has just pulled up. The blare of Carmina Burana is unmistakable as the door slides open, before being silenced, along with the engine. “It’s Festus,” she adds, unnecessarily.
So it is. Festus, Ditty’s geeky husband and my brother.
Yes, ok. So I ran off with my brother’s wife. Or at least, I didn’t run off with her so much as stayed put with her. Or whatever she wanted to do with me, really. But that was years ago. I mean, really - an eternity. I scowl involuntarily. Actually, not an eternity. Not yet...
The cafe door opened and Festus came in. He was not alone. A groan escapes. I can’t help it. Bloody Clees, our half brother and, predictably, Meths. Yes: Meths. Some people are just born to be losers. Ever since Clees went and got Meths into rehab and helped him through it - why the hell he wanted to go and do that I’ve never been able to work out - Meths follows him everywhere. Sleeps on his couch most nights. Clees is too soft to tell him to get somewhere of his own; says his liver’s still not right and won’t see him on the streets vulnerable to every bird who wants to take advantage. So here they are. Clees in his cruddy old t-shirt with the lion face on it, Meths sucking up to his shadow, Festus and… Oh surely not. He’s brought the Ranger. He’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders, that one. Or so you’d think. Actually, he hasn’t. Not any more. None of us has any more; we’re all redundant in the wake of modern technology. Oh, all except Festus. He still gets by, even if it is in a VW camper van.
I take one look at the Ranger, slouched over his own navel, talking to Festus, and get off my chair.
“Thank the gods this place has a license,” I mutter to Ditty. She smiles, wanly, as I go off to get the whisky in.
Things are less taut, shall we say, than they were between Festus and me. He sits opposite me, next to Ditty and smiles and nods as he asks me how I am. I return the niceties and he tells me about what he’s been up to. Or at least, he doesn’t. I know what he’s been up to - same as ever, but it’s not politically correct to talk about it these days. He says he’s been travelling with our other half brother (there are a few of them; blame dad) seeing a bit of the world. I almost choke on my whisky. As if he hasn’t seen enough of the world. I don’t say it. We’re grown up now. Old, even. I heard some work experience kid behind the bar call me ‘ancient’ the other day. Bloody cheek.
“Well this is nice,” I say, smiling my best brittle smile around the table. The Ranger looks away. I swear he’s about to cry into his pint. Meths smiles back, waves - yes, really - and takes a sip of tea.
“Nice tea,” he says. “Thanks.” he beams at Clees. “Clees loves tea, don’t you Clees,” he says. “I make sure he gets a nice hot cup of tea every morning before he gets up.” I raise my eyebrows at Clees, point to my ring finger questioningly, enjoy my brother’s discomfited expression. I take a sip of whisky. I’m actually feeling quite happy. “How’s your dad?” Meths says.
Everyone stops talking and shuffles a bit. I know families are embarrassing but I do sometimes wonder whether ours would win the prize. Ditty is stirring her coffee and pretending not to have heard.
“Fine,” I mumble. “Fine.”
“And how’s your mother?” Meths turns to Ditty. “Still living with their dad?”
Ditty blushes furiously and glares at him. I step in quickly.
“Dione is just good friends with dad,” I say. “Mum and dad let her stay with them; the mountain air does her good.”
“Good,” he says. I always did like your dad.” I really do choke this time; Festus actually has to get up and slap me on the back til I stop. “Oh,” he says, as if suddenly remembering something - and knowing Meths, he probably did just remember. “I’ve got a letter from him for you all. He gave it to me before I... er... anyway. You’ve probably spoken to him yourselves since then.” he holds out a manky bit of paper - or at least, it looks as though it might have been paper once. I take it. I can just about make out the words. The letter is to all of us.
“Dear all of you,” it says. I don’t blame him for not writing out all our names. Anyway, he’s probably forgotten them.
“Your mother and I thought it might be nice to have a holiday together. It’s everso quiet around here these days, especially when the Olympics finish and there’s nothing worth watching on tele. Please feel free to bring some friends, although if it’s going to be Prometheus and Atlas you’d better bring some strong drink too.
Let Hermes know when you’re coming and we’ll get things ready.
Ditty is staring at me.
“Crap,” she says again for at least the second time this evening. I know what she means. Meths pulls out another bit of paper. I think it used to be an envelope.
“Hephaestion, Heracles, Ares and Aphrodite,” it says on it. So he does remember us then.
“Thank you Prometheus,” I say. “Much obliged.”
Atlas cries into his pint.