Climbing the slow rise of oak stairs to his room, Kennedy remembered the sounds and smells of the old house only too well. Even though he had only lived there until the age of ten—after that he had been packed off to boarding school in the UK—he recalled the pungent smell of pine floor polish, shuttered windows diffusing the fierce daylight, the constant thrum of ceiling fans running throughout the house—now replaced by almost silent air conditioners—the unique heat of each day except when the respite of cooling monsoon rains hit, and the sound of geckos chit-chatting and toads croaking throughout the night. As memories went, they were not bad ones. But this was no longer his world—never really had been.
Matius, the Indonesian housekeeper, walked ahead of him insisting on carrying his bags. Before his death, Matius’ father, Agus, had run the household. Matius would have been only twenty-five when Kennedy was bundled off to England. Now married with his own son and daughter in their twenties, he and his wife, Maya, continued to work for the family. Live-in domestic help was a way of life in Singapore—in many Asian countries—with the huge disparity in wealth between the rich and poor, and high unemployment forcing people to seek overseas jobs simply to survive. Although many of Matty’s relatives still lived in Bandung—south of Jakarta—for over two generations his family had resided in the two bedroom apartment above the kitchen in the outbuilding at the side of the house. Most houses and apartments came with what they called a wet and a dry kitchen. Usually the wet one stood unenclosed by walls, open to the elements, where wok cooking happened, allowing the potent Asian spices to dissipate into the air. Dry kitchens were used primarily to prepare food for cooking and, in the case of the Greys, to house a large oven, fridge and other electrical appliances.
“My wife, Maya, cook for you tonight, sir,” said Matius—Matty—turning into Kennedy’s room, and dropping the bags at the foot of the bed. Apart from the squeals of Kennedy’s nephews playing in the swimming coming through the half open bedroom window, Kennedy could already smell the delicious aroma of cooking from somewhere outside. Matty had his trademark cheeky smile on his face as he spoke. “As you know, she is very good cook—only reason why I marry her. She cook your favourites. Satay chicken, chilli crab, tiger prawn, beef rendang, gado-gado. She even has cendol for dessert. Hope your friend will like, too. Or is he like Mr Patrick?”
Kennedy smiled. On the two times Patrick had visited, he’d been singularly unadventurous with food, often requesting a simple omelette or sandwich for dinner. Local food had been a staple of Kennedy’s childhood and chilled cendol—green rice flour jelly, red beans, coconut milk and palm sugar syrup—had been a true luxury after a sweltering cycle ride home from school.
“I’m sure my friend will be fine, thanks Matty,” said Kennedy, holding out a hand. Polite as ever, Matty shook his hand and bowed a couple of times. Years ago, Kennedy had given up asking Matty to call him by his given name, because Matty found three syllables too cumbersome to get his tongue around “By the way, I’m sorry I couldn’t get back for your father’s funeral.”
“That’s okay, sir. I know you are busy man.”
“It’s not really okay. Your father was very special, a kind and caring man. Especially to me. I’m honoured to have known him.”
The sort of man a father ought to be, thought Kennedy. Agus had been his go-to whenever his own father had ridiculed or scolded him. After dinner, on the night Jeff had casually thrown into the conversation that Kennedy would be going to boarding school in England that autumn term, ten-year-old Kennedy had listened without speaking or reacting—a rule of the house for children at the dinner table—but as soon as they had been excused, he had gone straight to Agus and cried. Kennedy remembered his words well, about being strong and the importance of honouring a father’s wishes, but he knew Agus was just as upset, could not understand why a father would want to send his only son away. Kennedy missed his simple kindness.
“Thank you, sir. He was very happy here.”
Once Matty had left, Kennedy sat on the edge of the bed and looked about his old room. Nothing remained of his childhood except for the view from the window, showcasing the old mango tree. At one point, Agus had hung a swing from a lower bough for him and his sister—until a few weeks later, Kennedy’s father had demanded he take the eyesore down. Now his room stood unrecognisable, completely redecorated since his last visit, a guest room with the addition of a double bed and stylish antique furniture. But then Kennedy spotted a painting of his on the wall, a watercolour of his old dog Chester, a black Labrador they’d had as children. He’d been eight when he painted the picture, something Matty had helped frame and hang on his bedroom wall. His mother must have decided to keep the memory. Interesting.
Showered and changed, he stood outside Kieran’s room at the far end of the corridor, at the back of the house overlooking the pool, and knocked lightly on the door.
“Come on in.”
Kennedy turned the handle and stood just inside the doorway, his hand still on the door knob.
“Are you decent?”
“Never have been, not going to start now,” quipped Kieran, coming out of the bathroom smiling, wearing a white cotton shirt and khaki chino shorts. As looks went, this one suited Kieran well.
“Best behaviour,” said Kennedy, suppressing a smile.
“Yes, sergeant major. I can’t believe your family house. Not only do I have my own bedroom, but it comes with an ensuite bathroom and a huge bed. Hey, I’ve got my swimmers on under my shorts. Do you think your dad’ll let me have a dip a bit later on?”
“After dinner, maybe. By the way, are you okay with Indonesian food?”
“I—uh—I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it before. But if that’s what I can smell cooking, then count me in.”
They found his mother, father and sister sitting at the back of the house, next to the swimming pool, in a horseshoe arrangement of comfortable sofas around a Thai style coffee table. His nephews played happily in the shallows. Beneath the back porch, Kennedy spotted the large dining table which had already been set up. Kieran wisely stood behind Kennedy, while he got his hugs and hellos out of the way with his sister and already squiffy mother. After that, Kennedy introduced Kieran, who charmed them both the way he had done with his father. Once seated, they shared a few pleasantries about various general subjects—the flight over, Reagan’s boys, life of retirement in Singapore—until the inevitable fun and games began.
“When’s the last time you were home, darling?” said Claire, pouring them both a long, tall glass of something opaque. When Kennedy held the glass away from him quizzically, Reagan mouthed the word ‘mojito’.
“That would have been the day before yesterday. The day before I flew here.”
“Don’t be smart with your mother,” said Claire, curtly, over the rim of her glass. “You know what I mean.”
“Five years ago,” said Reagan. “The same year misery left him.”
Kennedy flashed her a warning glare. None of his family had warmed to Patrick, found him too precious and standoffish. Moreover, he didn’t want the conversation to focus on his ex.
“Where’s Bernie?” he asked.
“Working, of course,” she said, irritation clear in her tone. “In Cape Town right now, covering some rugby tournament or another. So what do you do for a living, Kieran?”
“Right now, nothing. I worked for an estate agent in London but times got tough, and half of us were let go. I’m punting around for work, but I’m also finishing up my master’s.”
“Master’s?” said Reagan, surprise clear on her face, before throwing a glance at Kennedy. “With a focus on which particular area?”
“International business management. I’ve got two modules to go before I finish the degree, and then I’m going to following through for my MBA. Another six modules.”
“What would be your ideal job, Kieran?” asked his father. Kennedy was mystified by how quickly he had taken to Kieran. Both times Patrick had come to stay, the two had barely spoken.
“That’s a good question, Jeff. Something I love about the master’s is that you get a chance to dip into all areas of business management. And even though I take to the finance subjects like a duck to water, the area that really floats my boat is marketing, especially e-commerce.”
“Smart choice,” said Jeff.
“Our group used Kennedy’s company, Grey Havens, among others, for our group assignment in marketing. An example of a well-managed, innovative family business. Quite an inspiration for would-be entrepreneurs. Best of all, we got a high distinction, and a special mention from the tutor.”
“Are you serious?” asked Reagan, grinning at her brother.
“Absolutely,” said Kieran. “Your brother here’s the Richard Branson of commercial security systems.”
Reagan laughed aloud, and even his mother couldn’t help grinning.
“Hardly,” said Kennedy, trying to downplay the compliment.
He felt himself reddening, something that never happened. If Kieran had been sitting closer, he might have tapped his ankle with his foot, but perhaps the awkward silence would do the trick, help change the subject.
“So how did you two meet?” Reagan asked Kieran, mischief lighting her eyes. In the short time, she appeared to have taken to Kieran, but Kennedy stalled for a moment. They hadn’t discussed how they would handle that particular question. About to intercept, Kieran began speaking.
“We met in a coffee shop, of all things. I was trying to finish off an assignment and Kennedy was knocking back espressos and taking phone calls, as always. We got talking and—well—just instantly connected.”
Brilliant, thought Kennedy. Stick with the truth—or as close as possible—and you can’t go far wrong.
“Is that right?” said Jeff, a little suspiciously. “When was this?”
“A month or so ago,” continued Kieran.
“That’s not very long, is it?”
“The thing is, Jeff. When you know, you know,” said Kieran, with a shrug, before turning to Kennedy, winking, and flashing him a warm smile. Kennedy found himself smiling back, something Reagan didn’t miss.
Interrupting them all, Maya came to the head of the group and quietly informed Claire that food was ready to be served. Immediately, Reagan leapt up and started yelling at her brood to get out of the pool and get dressed for dinner.
Kennedy missed eating outdoors, something that rarely happened in England. In his childhood in Singapore, beneath the porch, they would even sit al fresco when torrential rains hit—as long as no strong winds accompanied the downpour—pulling down the blinds to stop errant raindrops hitting them. Kennedy had enjoyed those times, the cooling rain bringing down the temperature, the clatter of rain filling the silences at the dinner table.
After the excellent meal provided by Maya—something Kieran enthused about after having seconds of each of the dishes—Kennedy relaxed back on the sofa while Kieran swam and played in the pool with Reagan’s boys. His sister appeared unhappy about something, became a little distant every now and then—very unlike her—but when pressed, she laughed off his concern. That particular trick she had learnt from their mother. Most importantly, though, they liked Kieran, so that was one battle he would not have to fight. By ten o’clock, Reagan decided to drive the boys home to bed, prompting everyone else to turn in. After wishing his parents and Matty goodnight, Kennedy strolled up to the top floor with Kieran, each of them carrying a large bottle of water.
“You did well today,” he said, trying not to sound too condescending. “My family aren’t the easiest people in the world to get along with, but they seem to like you.”
“I like them, too. They’re easy company. Even your dad.”
“You’ve been here half a day. Don’t judge too quickly. Now, if you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, the remote for the television is in your bedside cabinet. Top drawer. Just keep the volume down.”
“Don’t worry about me,” said Kieran. “I’m going to sleep like a demon tonight.”
Thanks for reading.
One of three more chapters until we’ve completed the second part of the four part novel.
Loving the comments, suggestions and reactions - so keep them coming.