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April 13, 2010

Goodnight Vienna

By James Gray

They were sitting together on one of the oversized sofas in the poky hotel lobby the first time Jake saw them. He knew instantly it was them, just from the cursory glimpse he ventured as he passed through the revolving doors and made his way to the reception desk. Jake decided to double-check with the concierge first, however; no point working himself up and introducing himself to two complete strangers as their brother. Although that’s exactly what they were – strangers.

Jake told the gentleman on reception, a middle-aged man impeccably turned out in black waistcoat and bowtie, that he had arranged to meet Mr. Parsons and would he please dial through to his room and tell him that Mr. Parsons had arrived. The concierge confirmed Jake’s initial suspicion by merely gesturing toward the sofa where the couple sat united.

Still facing the concierge Jake closed his eyes and took a deep breath, then turned as confidently as he could toward the pair. They had at least shown him the courtesy of responding to his invitation and at least he was on home ground.

Finding them hadn’t been as difficult as he’d imagined. Jake knew from what he’d picked up from conversations between his parents over the years that Bob had set down roots in Southampton, so that’s where he started his search. He thanked heavens for the internet and Google. Within minutes Jake had been faced with a list of namesakes, any one of whom could have been his big brother. Camberley Road – was he the sort of person to live in Camberley Road? He figured him more of a Warwick Park or an Ash Tree Close. Bollocks, there was nothing else for it, he’d have to start at the top and work his way down. He reasoned he’d been through enough for one day, though – why do today what you can put off til tomorrow? – and printed off the list.

“Here’s his e-mail address. The rest is up to you,” she’d said, days later. Jake’s wife had a knack for making things sound that simple. And he guessed now it was. She’d presented him with the key to a potential Pandora’s Box, having taken matters into her own hands to help her husband in her own way. She’d made the call. She’d spoken to Bob’s daughter. What Jake now held in his hand could open the door to a whole new world of magic or, as the pessimist in him feared, mass destruction.

Jake was based in Vienna now and although the Southampton lead had yielded results, it emerged from the conversation with his daughter that Bob was now also living the ex-pat life in Spain. Two days after hitting the “Send” button he received a curt response, telling him that Bob and his sister, Rose, were due in Vienna in two weeks and suggested they meet at his hotel. Bloody nice one, too, Jake noted, and in the swish first district, no less.

He looked at them now, the home advantage gradually seeping away, cleared his throat, extended his hand and said, “Hi, I’m Jake.” Bob slowly lifted his slight frame from the sofa, the twenty-year age gap becoming apparent now. Taller than Jake had imagined. More hair than him, too. As the two brothers shook hands for the first time, Bob smiled. A familiar smile from beneath a grey moustache which failed to disguise the crookedness of his mouth, an expression Jake knew from his father’s own face whenever it had taken a while for the penny to drop that his dad was actually taking the piss. Jake observed his brother’s wispy grey hair, falling across his forehead in a Superman curl. Looked into grey-blue eyes he knew only too well. The lines that furrowed his brow, the bushy nasal hairs you just wanted to clip. He’d seen it all before. Bob released his grip and took a step back. It was all Jake could do to stop himself from saying, “Dad.”

Bob drew back, Jake almost jumping as another hand took his arm. His cheeks flushed and he cursed himself as Rose now stepped into the picture and put her arms around him. He held her, gently at first, then more tightly than perhaps he should as thirty years of anticipation now welled up inside him, finding its release through his arms, his finger tips.

Rose was also a good twenty years older than Jake and although he saw at once the facial similarities between his siblings, he struggled to find his father’s face in hers. Perhaps Rose took more after her mother. Unlike Bob, Rose was short and heavyset and her strong arms held him tightly in return. She kissed Jake on the cheek and said, “It’s been a long time coming.” Thirty years, thought Jake.

Rose smiled, her brown eyes moist, and Jake noticed the only makeup she wore was a subtle lipstick over full lips which perhaps she had inherited from dad after all. Her shoulder-length hair was tawny brown but greying and the way it framed her face, combined with the warm smile she now gave him and her apple-red cheeks, made Jake feel as if he were with his mother and father rather than his brother and sister.

Bob and Rose, two names that were as familiar to Jake as Little and Large, Morecombe and Wise, Cannon and Ball, and yet he’d known more about the funnymen than he ever did about his father’s other two kids. Jake had never seen so much as a photograph while growing up, and because his own mother dismissed them so readily and his father always seemed so reluctant to talk about them, it took several years for Jake to pluck up the courage to satisfy his curiosity.

The subject had been all but taboo during Jake’s childhood. His mother, it had later occurred to him, had actually been “the other woman” who had come between his father and his first wife. It was only after his father’s funeral that Jake’s neat image of his dad’s first marriage as being short enough to rival Jessica Simpson’s was shattered by the revelation that it had been an eighteen-year union and not a hundred yard dash to the marital finish line.

“Spineless” was the word his mother had used. “Bob and Rose haven’t a backbone between them. Don’t you turn out like that,” she’d say, mostly when Jake had committed a crime so heinous that it warranted a good hiding with the wooden spoon. Jake never asked any questions. There was no point. The innocent curiosity had been beaten out of him early on and it was only now beginning to rise like the lava from a volcano that has been dormant for far too long.

The argument with his mother, shortly after the disease had robbed Jake of his childhood hero, hadn’t been the reason for his actions now, but certainly a trigger. Like admitting that perhaps you did need glasses after all, Jake could see the finer details so clearly now, could see his life from a new perspective. He was angry. Angry with himself for not having asked more questions. Angry that it was now too late to ask his father the really important questions. Angry with his mother for painting the picture he’d become so used to walking past for so many years without stopping to look at the finer brush strokes.

Jake felt now for his father. He wanted to talk to him, look at his face just one more time, tell him how much he loved him. Had he ever done that? Surely his dad must have known. Jake felt regret for his father at having missed out on twenty years of his kids’ lives. How had dad ever coped with such detachment? Jake felt sorry for himself – nobody had asked him whether he wouldn’t mind a big brother or sister.

After the argument, a silly argument which had escalated to his now being disinherited – what did he want with all those crappy ornamental plates anyway? – a threat that his mother had dangled in front of him like a rotten carrot many times during his childhood and about which he felt almost relieved now that she had finally kept her promise, Jake had seen a side of his mother that he didn’t much care for. The judgemental, resentful and bitter side that had finally risen to the surface and taken hold of her. Fuck her, he thought. I have a brother and sister out there somewhere and if I want to find them then I bloody well shall.

Bob placed an arm around Jake’s shoulder now as they left the hotel lobby and the dust of the old Viennese hotel seemed to lift, the chandelier casting a cosy light instead of the dark Dickensian glow where secrets lurk in the shadows. Jake suggested a restaurant a few minutes’ walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a favourite of his where he knew they’d be able to find a quiet table and begin to fill in the gaps of the last thirty years.

Da Capo was moderately busy for a Thursday night and the waiter led them to a table set for four tucked neatly under one of the brick alcoves that lent the restaurant its characteristic wine cellar atmosphere. The three siblings watched as the waiter cleared away one set of cutlery and Jake glanced across at Bob, who caught his eye and returned a crooked smile. The waiter disappeared and Jake waited for Bob and Rose to sit before taking his own place.

Jake pulled in his chair and, resting an elbow on the table, made a gesture with his finger that suggested some pearl of wisdom was imminent, though he was relieved to be cut short by the waiter, who had arrived to take the drinks order. Bob ordered a glass of sparkling mineral water – he had an allergy to beer, he explained, and wasn’t so keen on wine – while Rose took a walk on the wild side by ordering a Baileys with ice. Jake was comfortable with a beer in his hand. A nice, cool Austrian Weizenbier would do the job nicely, thank you very much.

His thoughts barely gathered, Jake desperately wanted to avoid pathetic chit chat, after all there were important issues to discuss. His mind was numbed with the questions spinning, tumbling around in his head, but as soon as he opened his mouth he could see them slipping away, watching helplessly as if trying to cling to the last remnants of a dream that is evaporating before your very eyes. Gone.

“So you arrived in Vienna last night, then?” Jake offered. What a startlingly brilliant question, he thought. “You were lucky to find such a nice hotel.” He winced, pinching his brow between thumb and middle finger.

Bob cleared his throat, leaning both elbows on the table and steepling his fingers. Jake smiled to himself again.

“Actually, we booked this trip six months ago.”

Jake felt the blood swelling his head, he began to spin his beer glass round and round, his fingers already wrinkled from the condensation. He’d only sent his e-mail two weeks ago and had been arrogant enough to think that they were here now solely because of his invitation.

“Shit,” said Jake, realising he’d actually spoken aloud. “So you were coming to Vienna anyway.”

“Yes,” said Rose. Jake, reassured by her calm voice, set his beer to one side. “Coincidence?” she said.

“This is your first time in Vienna?”

“We fancied something different and somehow came up with a city break in Vienna,” said Rose.

“God, we could have passed in the street tonight and we’d never have known,” said Jake, to no-one in particular. Jake didn’t believe in coincidences, he was a fatalist, whatever happens happens, but this he chose to take as a sign. Had dad made it happen, brought them together? He’d certainly like to think so. It was a revelation that set the tone for the rest of Jake’s evening. Now he could relax, open up, he thought, now that he had his dad’s approval.

Jake chatted with unaccustomed ease for the rest of what turned out to be a wonderful evening. He openly admitted his fears of making contact with Bob and Rose, conscious of the fact he was spawned by a marriage which had seen their father effectively abandon his brother and sister for a new life where the grass was supposed to be greener.

As they talked, Jake began to learn more about his father in his early years, about the kind of man he’d once been, and it occurred to him that Bob and Rose had shared the first half of dad’s life, while the second half had belonged to him. They shared one father, yet two different men. Bob and Rose described a party-goer, while Jake saw the pipe and slippers side of him. His dad had been eighteen years older than his mother, so he could see how he might have slowed down a bit by the time kid number three came along twenty years after the last one.

Bob and Rose’s had been a hands-on dad, he’d taken them places, taught them things, shown them stuff. A popular guy, your go-to geezer. A role model to his son, worshipped by his daughter. Jake’s dad had been happy to sit on the sidelines while his mother took the lead. He’d taken him to the cinema once, The Jungle Book, but all Jake could remember was his dad falling asleep right after the Pearl and Dean jingle.

Their dad had gone to parties, Bob recalling one night he’d gone with his dad, sniggering outside the phone box while he rang home to say he’d had a breakdown and was very sorry but they wouldn’t be coming back that night after all. Jake’s dad had been content to settle into his favourite armchair and fall asleep with the paper in his lap, oblivious to the growing wet patch on his jersey as the cat pumped and suckled, pumped and suckled. But that didn’t make him any less of a hero to Jake.

Rose still had pictures of her and her dad on her bedroom wall, she said. She was fifty years old and hadn’t seen him in thirty years. Jake watched her wipe the moisture from her cheek and looked into her glassy eyes as she said, “I always thought I’d see him again.”

“So what stopped you?”

“We were always told he wanted nothing more to do with us, never wanted to see us again,” said Rose.

“As I understand it, he always believed you wanted nothing to do with him after the divorce.”

“Mothers,” said Rose.

Bob half smiled. “You know I lived with dad and your mum for a while after the divorce. It beats me why now, but your mum and I had had some kind of falling out and when I came home from college one night soon after, I went up to my room and my bed had gone. When I came back down she was just standing at the bottom of the stairs, smirking, arms folded. I thought fuck it and went off to live with my mum. I didn’t speak to dad much after that.”

Jake reflected on the influence his mother must have had on his dad. Was that why he had become such a quiet man, anything for an easy life? Jake shook his head and frowned, turning to look at Rose.

“You know, this really could have gone either way,” he said. “I wasn’t sure – ”

“I’m pleased you came and found us,” said Rose.

Jake inhaled deeply, allowing himself a smile. “Me too,” he said.

It occurred to him that Bob and Rose, despite what they had believed over the years, had been able to move on in a way that his mother never had. Funny, the things he was now remembering. Comments that he eventually learned to let wash over him. “Don’t scrape the butter over your toast like that, Jake, that’s how Bob used to do it. Don’t use that word, that’s a Bob word. Don’t you lie to me, unless you want to turn out like that Bob.” Jake thought of the vanishing bed. After seeing a side of his mother emerge recently that he didn’t much care for, nothing surprised him any more.

But here, now, he had been given an opportunity to get to know his brother and sister, and perhaps they could help each other piece together the dad-jigsaw. There were still several pieces missing, bent at the corners, torn in two, chewed by the dog, but Jake felt like a little boy again and would be happy however far they got with the puzzle. Just as long as they did it together. His dad, he knew, would be proud of his kids.

Copyright – 2010 James Gray

All Rights Reserved

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