A Brother’s Dilemma

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Author’s note.

I guess there’s different ways of writing. For me, it starts with an idea and then the storyline develops as I write, so I don’t know which way it will go until I’ve finished. This was intended to be a short story but it’s turned out to be one of my longest – but it’s dialogue rich, so you’ll find it reads quite quickly.

For our American readers, the word “Mum” might seem a little odd, but it’s just the British equivalent of your “Mom”. The sentiment is just the same!

Everyone in this story is over the age of 18.

H_S March 2019

*****

A BROTHER’S DILEMMA

We’ve all had those moments, haven’t we…in a place you’ve never been before where you don’t know another soul – and then, suddenly, you see a familiar face. Your next door neighbour, perhaps; or the bank manager, or the check-out chick who serves you at the local take-away; and you smile and greet them, and reflect the world is, after all, a pretty small place.

Not long ago this happened to me in London. I live in Abingdon in Oxfordshire, and seldom go to the big smoke. On paper it’s only a couple of hours from the city – if you pick a good day to travel – but frankly none of us have much reason to go there. My Dad, Brett Channing, works for a local IT company and Eleanor, my Mum, works for the Council.

But anyway, there I was in London on a fine Spring morning in March, walking down Edgware Road towards the Underground station. The streets were busy with crowds of people: thousands of them, each locked up in their own world, looking stressed as they hurried to get wherever they were going. I wasn’t in a rush so I was walking slowly, thinking of the new camera I’d just bought, imaging the girls around me were front of my lens – tall and short, slim and tubby, blonde and brunette. Most of them were beautiful, and every one a stranger.

And then a face swam into my focus that I knew: a little oval face as sweet as a baby rabbit’s, with a button nose and full pink lips, framed by a glossy mane of hair that would do credit to any model. She was wearing a simple dress with a touch of gold at the collar complementing the thin necklace around her neck, and her eyes were fixed on the other side of the street. She didn’t see me but there she was, larger than life. It was Ashley, my sister.

I guess I should have stopped and said hello. I should have asked her what she was doing, shared a laugh and a few words and then gone on my way; but there was something about the expression on her face that stopped me. And so I followed as she crossed the road, watching her read the street signs until she turned into the doorway of a little boutique hotel not far from the station. I waited for a few seconds, my mind full of questions before I followed her into the foyer. She was at the far end with her back to me, and I saw what happened next.

I didn’t know it then, but it was to change my life forever.

*

My Dad came from a farming family but even from an early age it was obvious he wasn’t cut from the same cloth. By five he was fiddling with computers, and by ten he was building them.

He met Eleanor May Brown when they were both sixteen and they were married in the local church two years later. They wasted no time in making a family – in fact Ashley Jane Channing was born in the cottage hospital just seven months after the wedding – an event which would have delighted the town gossips, but times were more enlightened by then.

I followed a year later – Tom Channing, a strapping nine-pounder born in the same hospital as my sister and with a pair of lungs that could apparently be heard in Southend – or so my Mum told me. I guess I gave her a hard time because that was the end of the Channing breeding cycle: just me and my sister.

We were a close-knit family: my parents were great at giving us values and direction, but canny enough to let us have the freedom we needed to grow and develop. They were also blessed with good looks, helped by the fact they’d had their family young. I remember looking at my Mum on my 18th birthday and thinking how beautiful she was, with a peaches-and-cream complexion marked only with a few lines that added wisdom and maturity to her face. My Dad was a looker too – or so the girls in my classes told me from time to time.

But it was Ashely that stole the show. She transitioned from a beautiful child to a stunning young woman with disgraceful ease. There was none of the trauma of adolescent acne, no spoiled-brat mood swings or anxiety attacks about her weight or the way she looked. She simply sailed through those difficult years, delighting everyone with her sunny personality and an uncanny ability to be friends with just about everyone, including me. It’s fair to say that we got on well, and that we were all just about as happy as any family could be. There were, I thought, no skeletons in any of our closets – well, not big ones anyway.

But as I stumbled back from that hotel in güvenilir bahis total shock, I realised that wasn’t true any more. When I’d left the house that morning the family seemed rock solid. If you’d taken me to court I’d have sworn it on the Bible – after all, my parents were happily married with good jobs, enough money and two kids who were doing OK. Sure, Ash had been a bit moody over the last month or two, but she was staring her final exams in the face and that was stressful for sure. And me? Well, I was happy enough too, with my job as a rookie freelance journalist going great guns.

But suddenly the bedrock of our lives had changed to quicksand, and a seismic shift had moved it to a place undreamed of before. Nothing in the world could have prepared me for the utter shock I’d had. Nothing.

As I waited for my train home I played the tape back in my head, desperately searching for a logical explanation. The details were as crisp as if I was still standing there: the hotel foyer small but beautifully appointed, bathed in light from the tall windows with its wood paneling glowing in the pale spring sunshine. There were two people to one side waiting with their luggage, and the reception desk lay at the far end of the room. Ashley was there, standing with her back to me, bending forward to ask the concierge something. I saw him nod and smile, as most men did when confronted by a pretty girl; he gestured and I saw Ash turn, and I saw the man approaching her. He was stocky with a swarthy complexion and a full head of dark hair, and his face was as familiar as hers: it was my father.

And as I watched I saw her face light up in the most unimaginable joy and she ran three short steps to his arms. He enveloped her in a hug, his arms wrapped around her slender body, and she buried her face in his neck and clung to him. It was not a fatherly hug. My mind was racing – what the hell were they doing here? Yesterday Ash had told us she was going to stay with a friend in Guildford for two nights, and my Dad to a conference at Head Office in Cheltenham. Two different stories, both believable because they had reason to be going there – and yet, here they were, wrapped around each other in the lobby of a hotel where they had no reason to be at all.

But it was to get worse, for I saw them disengage and gaze into each other’s eyes for a moment or two; and then he bent forward and kissed her on the lips. And it was not a fatherly peck, as I might have expected, but the long lingering kiss of a lover. Her back arched and she pressed her breasts against him, and her slender fingers reached up to caress his face. A kiss that seemed to last forever until they finally disengaged, and he took her hand and led her to the stairs.

*

It wasn’t the best train journey home. All the way I was trying to rationalise what I’d seen – perhaps they were together planning a surprise, or he was sponsoring her for a job we didn’t know about. Perhaps he had a medical condition and she was supporting him, or maybe they were there together to buy something – a flat or a car. But even if one of those unlikely scenarios was true, why would they choose a hotel to meet, and why would he be staying there?

And then there was the smooch. The passionate kiss of lovers, the molding of their bodies as they clung to each other in that dappled, sunlit place. The desperate clutch of their arms around each other, and the long, lingering look as they gazed into each other’s eyes. There was no innocent explanation for that.

No innocent explanation. Those three words kept bringing me back to one inescapable conclusion. It was unimaginable, I know, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any other answer, and it haunted me all the way home.

I got off the train in a daze and walked through the quiet streets to where I lived. On every other night I’d have been happy to come home – but not tonight. Not knowing what I knew.

*

Mum was there to greet me with a peck on the cheek, and she looped her arm though mine and led me to the kitchen.

‘So how was your trip, Tom?’

‘Uh – yeah…good. I bought the camera I wanted.’

‘That’s wonderful! Perhaps you can show it to me after supper?’ She smiled up at my face. ‘You are hungry, aren’t you? There’s just you and me tonight so I’ve made us something special.’ She gestured at the table, laid for two with candles and crisp white napkins and a little vase of flowers she’d picked from the garden that day. ‘It’s not often I get to have a date with my favourite son.’

A date with my favourite son. Innocent enough words said in jest, but they reminded me again of what I’d seen at the hotel. I suddenly realised even the simplest day to day conversations would have hidden meanings for every one of us.

‘Tom?’ She was looking at me.

‘Uh, sorry Mum. What did you say?’

‘You were miles away. I asked if you were hungry. I’ve made a special supper for us.’

My belly felt like lead, türkçe bahis but how could I spoil her joy? I managed to nod and smile. ‘Sure, that will be lovely – but won’t your other son be jealous?’ It was a little joke we had sometimes – her way of reminding me that I shouldn’t feel too special as an only son.

‘He won’t mind, I’m sure,’ she gestured at the empty glasses on the table, ‘why don’t you pour the wine? We’ll have a drink while I finish off cooking.’

I poured two drinks and watched her as she fussed around the kitchen, chatting to me as she did so.

‘Your Dad phoned,’ she said. ‘He’s been delayed in Cheltenham for another night – won’t be home until tomorrow.’

‘What about Ash?’

‘I haven’t heard from her, but didn’t she say she was staying with Nikki until Friday?

‘That’s tomorrow, right?’ I knew it was, but I was just confirming they were coming home on the same day.

My mother nodded. ‘Yes, that’s right. I remember she said Friday because she’s got something else on at the weekend. Still, it’s good that she can spend a bit of time with a friend – see seems to have been very quiet the last few weeks, not like herself at all. Still, we’ll all be together as a family again. Now, can you lift this off the hob for me? Be careful, it’s heavy. Put it over there.’

I did as she asked and watched in silence as she tossed a bowl of salad, her movements neat and dexterous. She looked happy, and I dreaded the day she would learn the truth about her husband and daughter. I wouldn’t ever tell her of course, but she would find out. You can’t keep a secret like that in a family as close as ours, and I knew it would just about destroy her.

And then the thought occurred to me that perhaps I could stop that day from ever happening. Perhaps, if I spoke to Ash and my Dad, they would come to their senses and stop this madness. And if that happened, we might – just might – be able to sweep it under the carpet and all move on with our lives.

It was the only bright thought I’d had in the last five hours, and it was enough to cheer me up a bit. Enough to have a nice meal with my Mum, who was one of the kindest people I knew and didn’t deserve any of this.

*

‘Ash, I need to talk to you.’

She’d arrived home an hour ago, looking tired, and it was the first opportunity I’d had to talk to her.

She flashed me a smile. ‘Sure Bro, I’d love to! But not right now. I’ve got to get things ready for tomorrow.’

‘I really think you should make the time, Ash.’ I dropped my voice. ‘It’s about what you and Dad are doing.’ I watched the smile slide from her face to be replaced by a fleeting expression of guilt. Just a flash, but I was expecting it.

‘What about us?’

‘Not here. We need to go outside.’

She nodded, a brief bob of the head, and we let ourselves out and crossed the road before settling on one of the benches in the little park opposite our house. There wasn’t another soul around, which suited me.

‘What’s this about, Tom?’ Her hands were clenched in her lap and she wouldn’t meet my gaze.

‘I saw you together in London, Ash. You and Dad.’

‘I see.’

‘So what’s going on?’

‘Nothing. I just needed to talk to him about a money problem I have. It’s not something I wanted the rest of the family to worry about.’

‘I thought you were staying with Nikki for a few days?’

‘I did – but Dad called me to say he’d have a couple of hours to spare if I wanted to catch up. It was only a train ride, so I took the opportunity.’

‘So where did you stay last night?’

‘Back with Nikki. I was at her place by five, and I left there this morning.’ She looked at me for the first time. ‘Why are you asking me these questions? I didn’t do anything wrong!’

I kept my voice even. ‘You know one of the things I love about you, Ash? It’s that we never lied to each other, and we never thought the other was a fool. I guess that means we respected each other, right?’

‘Yes. But I’m telling you -‘

‘No! You need to listen. I called Nikki this morning and she told me you’d been with her the whole time. All of it. I said I thought I’d seen you somewhere on Thursday morning and she laughed and said I couldn’t have, as you were both shopping in Guildford all day.’ I stopped and examined my sister for a moment, but she was quiet, her eyes downcast. ‘She’s your friend Ash and I get that she wants to cover for you, but she was lying.’

‘She’s confused, Tom. I was with her except for those few hours I had to meet with Dad.’

‘She was very explicit, but let’s talk about Dad for a moment. I called him last night – that’s the same day I saw him in London with you. He said he was still in Cheltenham, locked in the conference he’s been at for three days. He said he’d been flat out for the whole time and he was looking to getting home tomorrow as he hadn’t even had time to eat properly.’

Ash looked at me without speaking, so I pressed on. güvenilir bahis siteleri

‘This morning I phoned his office in Cheltenham, which is the day he told me he was finishing. I spoke to a girl called Angela who was very helpful – probably more than she should have been, but there you go. She told me the conference ended after breakfast yesterday and Mr. Channing had departed pretty much straight away. She thought he’d gone home. So why do you think Dad would spin me a story about being stuck in Cheltenham when he wasn’t? And why did he go to London to be with you?’

She shrugged. ‘I have no idea. All I know is that he called me on Thursday morning to say he was on the way to London and had a couple of free hours in his schedule if I wanted to talk.’

‘So what’s this financial problem that’s important enough to go to the city to talk about?’

‘That’s really none of your business.’ Ash stood up. ‘Well, if there’s nothing more you want to snoop into I think I’ll get back.’

‘Sit down, I haven’t finished.’ I watched her sink back onto the bench. ‘You were in a little hotel, Ash, off the beaten track. I saw you go in and I saw what you did. It wasn’t a little kiss, was it? I saw him hug you like he couldn’t wait to get into your pants, and saw you go upstairs, together, arm in arm like a couple of lovers.’

Ash was pale. ‘Tom – I…look, it isn’t what you think,’ she whispered. ‘We -‘

But I didn’t let her finish. I could see the trapped look in her eyes and sense the lies ready to sprout from her lips. I needed her to be honest.

‘I waited in the foyer for a while,’ I said. ‘But you didn’t come down, so I spoke to the concierge. I told him that I knew the pretty lady who had gone upstairs and I was concerned for her safety, and I was about to call the police unless he could convince me otherwise. He was pretty cagey at first but a few quid and the unpleasant thought of having the Bobbies crawling over the hotel persuaded him to talk. The room was in the name Brett Thomas and had been booked for one night. Apparently Mr. Thomas had paid cash and seemed to be a very respectable fellow so I shouldn’t be worried.’ I examined her face closely. ‘Why would Dad lie to me about where he was, and then book a room in a small hotel under a false name so he could meet you?’

She didn’t answer so I pressed on. ‘I hung around the hotel for a while, trying to figure out what the two of you were doing and I couldn’t – so I went up to your room. I was going to knock on the door and ask what was going on, but I heard you first. You sounded like…well, you were both busy. So, I’ll ask you again – what the hell do you think you’re doing?’

Her shoulders sagged as if I’d let the air out of her body. ‘I…I can’t tell you Tom,’ she whispered, and she reached forward to grasp my arm. ‘Please don’t ask me. Let this one go…please.’

‘I don’t think so. If it was just you and him I would. I wouldn’t like it much but I’d figure it was none of my business – but there’s Mum to consider. Can you imagine how she’d feel if she knew what was going on between you?’

‘You wouldn’t tell her!’ Ash’s voice was shocked.

‘I wouldn’t need to. Secrets like this always get out – someone sees you together or you’re careless with a text message, or people simply put two and two together when their behaviour changes. I mean, Jesus, Ash – I saw you, so don’t you think others will? Don’t you think, sooner or later, that she will figure it out too?’

‘I suppose.’ She released my arm and sat back, her face pale and drained. ‘But it isn’t what you think.’

‘So tell me what it is. Tell me what’s going on.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Well that’s not good enough. I’ll ask Dad when he comes home later today. Perhaps Mum should be there too.’

‘No!’ Her voice was almost a wail. ‘No, don’t!’ Her head moved from left to right, almost as if she was looking for somewhere to run. But there was nowhere to go and she knew it. We sat there for a few moments in silence until she let out a big sigh, almost as if I’d deflated her.

‘All right,’ she said at last. ‘I’ll tell you, Goddammit. I’ll tell you what we were doing and why, and how it happened – but you must promise to keep it a secret.’ Her big grey eyes were on mine, brimming with tears. ‘Promise me.’

I thought about it for a moment. ‘I can’t promise that, Ash, but I will promise to try and keep it between the three of us for as long as I can – preferably for ever.’

She stared at me for a moment, then nodded. ‘All right. But I can’t tell you now, Tom. I…I need a bit of time to think, to get myself together. I’ll tell you tomorrow.’

‘So you can hatch up a story with Dad? I don’t think so.’

‘I won’t. We’ll talk in the morning, and I promise I’ll be truthful.’

‘All right. We’ll go for a run together at seven.’ I lapsed into silence for a moment, watching her rise to her feet. She looked as if she’d just been hit by a truck, and I wondered what sort of night she was going to have.

‘One more thing, Ash,’ I said. ‘I’m not doing this to hurt you or Dad. I’m doing this to try and protect Mum – but I need to know exactly what we’re dealing with here. You know that, don’t you?’

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