Kieran sat up in bed, wide awake, hands clasped behind his neck, listening to the gentle hum of the air-conditioner and the distant, but constant nighttime sizzle of cicadas from outside. Just as he had predicted, he'd plunged into a deep sleep the moment his head hit the pillow, but found himself waking, fresh as a snowflake a few hours later. He’d already checked his phone, read and answered his messages and emails, had even tried Kennedy’s suggestion and watched television, but nothing really caught his attention.
Of course, he had texted Cole and Jules about the past twenty four hours; the flight—he had kept the menu as a souvenir—the amazing house Kennedy’s parents lived in with five bedrooms and its own private swimming pool, and the amazing banquet they’d served up to welcome them. Even though they seemed formal with each other, the family had been friendly and civil to him. So much so that Kennedy’s earlier belittling of his family felt brutal and unwarranted. But then what did he know? Maybe they were putting on a show for the sake of him.
Eventually he got up, went to the window and pulled aside one of the heavy blinds. Below, lights illuminated the pool still. Would he disturb anyone, he thought, if he got up and had a swim? Kennedy’s parents’ bedroom stood at the far end of the house, while Kennedy’s own bedroom was next to them. What the hell, he told himself, who would even know?
In the bathroom, he squeezed back into his damp swimming shorts and grabbed one of the plump white bath towels. With the addition of a plain white tee and flip flops, he collected his laptop and headphones on the way out and made his way quietly back to the pool.
For half an hour, he swam freestyle up and down without stopping, enjoying the freedom, the release of energy, and the water cooling and caressing his body. When he finally stopped, panting heavily, he hauled his dripping body out, ready to dry himself and relax alone at the small table where he’d left his things.
Except someone else sat there, puffing blue smoke into the night air.
“When I mentioned an early morning swim,” said Jefferson Grey, with good humour. “I was thinking more along the lines of six or seven in the morning. Couldn’t sleep, young man?”
“What can I say?” said Kieran, towelling his hair. “Turns out jet lag’s real. So I thought I’d use the time to exercise. What’s kept you awake?”
“Insomnia. Comes with age, I’m afraid. And then I heard someone swimming. Either my son or you, I figured. So here I am.” Jeff blew a cloud of smoke into the air and wiggled his cigar. “Which also gives me the opportunity to smoke one of these babies without being badgered. Do you smoke?”
“I don’t,” said Kieran, taking a seat at the table. “Well, actually I did once—cigarettes—but label myself a non-smoker now. Sometimes I have the occasional puff—if I’m stressed. Not very often. Don’t say anything to Kennedy. He thinks I’ve never smoked.”
“You’ve only just met. I’m sure there’s a lot you don’t know about each other.”
“I know he can be very particular.”
“Just like his mother,“ said Jeff, nodding and flicking ash into a plastic saucer. “You know, you’re a lot different to Patrick.”
Kieran sat back then, wanting to take advantage of the opportunity.
“Kennedy doesn’t talk about him. What was he like?”
Jeff sat quiet for a moment. He appeared to be considering Kieran’s question.
“Did Kennedy tell you what I used to do for a living?”
“You worked for the British High Commission.”
“For forty-two years. And, let me tell you, in all that time thousands of souls passed through our offices—not just dignitaries—people from all walks of life, from all nations. Something my wife will tell you about me—one of the nicer things—is my ability to sum up a person’s character. Within a short space of time, I can tell whether someone is open, honest and trustworthy. She calls it intuition, but I think it’s more a skill one builds over the years working as a public servant. Patrick was—he came across as—sullen and distant. Both times he stayed here, he barely left his room. If we managed to get a ‘good morning’ out of him over breakfast, it was cause for celebration. Not once did he thank us for our hospitality, the way you did when I met you at the airport yesterday. But they lived together, had known each other for nine years, so we assumed they were content. Their last time here, he and Kennedy argued constantly. Maybe the writing was on the wall. What I’m trying to say is, when they were here I sensed no happiness between them. I’m sure Kennedy told you we weren’t exactly thrilled with our son’s lifestyle choice, but parents still want to see their children end up happy. Five years ago, just after they broke up, Kennedy came here alone. He never told us exactly what happened between them, but I could tell that my son was changed, had put up a wall around himself. I can only assume the break-up did that to him. The whole week he was here, I don’t remember seeing him smile once, let alone laugh.”
“He laughs now. Usually at me. He has a pretty cool sense of humour.”
Key West, indeed, thought Kieran, remembering and smirking.
“He’s different with you.”
“Is he?” Why did that observation send a small thrill through Kieran? “How do you mean?”
“Calmer. As though he has less to prove. As though he can trust you, I suppose.”
Kieran deflated. Of course Kennedy would be calmer, Kieran was being paid to be there, a little snippet he would definitely not share with Jefferson.
“And I get the impression you like him, too,” added Jeff.
“I admire him.”
“Admire? For what?”
Kieran sighed, grabbed his laptop and flipped the top open. Within seconds he had opened a browser and brought up a number of windows showcasing Kennedy’s achievements. He’d already saved many to his personal favourites. When Jeff explained he couldn’t make out the text in the articles without his glasses, Kieran obliged by reading them out loud to him. Twenty minutes later, Jeff sat in quiet contemplation.
“You know, when people ask me about my son, I have no idea what to tell them, because he’s never let me into his life. I know I was a strict father—like my father was with me—but I was equally strict with Reagan, and she never shut me out. Thank you for showing me this. We knew he ran the business capably, but had no idea he’d been this successful. And he did all this without my help, financially or otherwise.”
“Hope you don’t mind me saying this, Jeff, having only just met you. But I sense that all he ever wanted from you was your approval.”
“Sounds to me as though he doesn’t need it, or that it’d be too late, anyway.”
Kieran tilted his head back and stared into the night sky.
“I had this English Lit teacher at school, tough as nails and as straight as they came, teaching my least favourite topic. But I needed to get a good grade to get into the college of choice. For me, Shakespeare was like trying to understand a foreign language, and kept dragging my overall grade in the subject down. I could never get past a B minus. Didn’t help that I thought she didn’t like me, but at least she was consistent, because everyone else in my class thought she hated them, too. So I threw myself at the main problem—Hamlet, of all bloody plays—read everything I could get my hands on, studied weekends, evenings, saw multiple remakes of the film, and even sat through a couple of performances at the Old Vic. Kind of got to love the story in the end, got to see so many human flaws in Hamlet, the man, and so many subtle themes running through the play. And when she read out the class results of the mock exam, announced that not only had I got an A, but that my essay was something everyone in the class should aspire to, I almost burst with pride. Managed to get A stars in four other subjects, but that was the one I was most proud of. What I’m trying to say is; it’s the people we least expect to hear praise from, whose praise we value the most. Does that make sense?”
Jeff stared at Kieran for a moment, before his gaze dropped to Kieran’s shoulder, and became unfocused.
“For someone so young, you are wise beyond your years. Yes, what you say makes perfect sense. My father preferred to point out our shortcomings and ignore our successes—said that’s what makes a man—and I suppose I adopted the same method with my children. Looking back now, I almost feel as though they’ve both succeeded in their own way, in spite of me, not because of anything I said or did.”
“You’re proud of them both?”
“Of course I am.”
“So I guess the only question you need to ask yourself is, do they know?”
After a final toke, Jeff stubbed his cigar out repeatedly, his gaze trained on the saucer. Even though he said nothing, Kieran could tell he’d processed the question. Maybe Kieran had gone too far.
“On that note, young man, I’m heading back to bed. See if I can grab a couple more hours before breakfast. I suggest you do the same.”
“I will. After I’ve dried off a little.”
Jeff stood and went to leave, but then hesitated and turned back.
“I never asked about your own father. What does he do?”
“No idea. He walked out on us when I was seven, just before my brother was born.”
Jeff said nothing then, just raised his head to the heavens, gently shaking his head.
“What kind of man would do that to his children?”
“You see, Jeff? You’re already well ahead in the fatherhood stakes.”
Jeff sighed deeply, and began to walk away, but once again, faltered.
“I’m glad you’re here. Good to see my boy finally finding someone sociable and genuine. And I get the feeling he needs you by his side right now. To bring a little sunshine back into his life. Good night, son.”
After Jeff departed, Kieran sat staring at the ash filled saucer, feeling like a total fraud.
Thanks for reading.
The penultimate chapter until we’ve completed the second part of the four part novel, and move on to the cruise.
Loving the comments, suggestions and reactions - so keep them coming.