Warnings: Do NOT fiddle with your hoover while it's still plugged in. It does dreadful things to your perm.
Merry Christmas everyone.
That was Then and This is Now
The knock came LATE the night before Christmas Eve. I was slumped in front of the computer, drinking alcohol free beer- how sad is that-and surfing aimlessly to Simon and Garfunkel songs. It was past eleven pm, and well past the hour that carol singers or charity donations could reasonably expect to be welcomed. I briefly considered not answering the door, before a renewed and more urgent hammering made me abandon the site I was skimming and come downstairs.
My brother's boyfriend was standing on the doorstep.
Boyfriend is probably too mild a term, Joe and Kane have been together for over five years and I knew my big brother considered himself very happily married. He usually treated Kane like glass too. I was somewhat surprised to see Kane here alone at this hour, clearly having driven himself on what I could already hear Joe saying was one of the most dangerous driving nights of the year- and he was crying.
Not out loud, and it looked like mostly with anger, but his eyes were red and wet and he was controlling his breathing with an effort as he glared at me.
"Have you seen Joe?"
"Joe?" I blinked at him for a moment, startled. "No- what's the matter?"
Kane took a deep and shuddering breath, still glowering. His usually smooth brown hair was in his eyes and his coat hung open, despite the frost already forming on the pavement.
"Have you any idea where he might be? Has he said ANYTHING to you?"
"I haven't spoken to him in a week-" I began and reached for his arm as the tears abruptly welled over. "WHAT? What's wrong?"
"He's left me."
Once the admittance was out he hesitated for a moment, as if he'd shocked himself, then began to sob.
Seated at the kitchen table ten minutes later he was still choking, eyes streaming. I put a mug of tea down in front of him and put my arms around him, sliding into the next chair. It was so unlike Joe. My brother was predictable- reliable- dependable- sensible- he was so stable it verged on boring, he'd been like that all my life. I couldn't imagine him doing anything random or impulsive, or anything that would hurt Kane like this.
"He hasn't taken anything." Kane drew back and rubbed his eyes. "Just his keys and coat, but he's been strange for days. Quiet, not talking, he wouldn't tell me what was wrong. I woke up this morning and he was gone, his phone's off, I don't know where he is."
That was so totally out of character I had no answer except the lame ones.
"He wouldn't leave you, I know he wouldn't."
"Then where's he gone? Why didn't he tell me?" Kane pushed the tea away so it slopped, sounding bitter. "Do you have any idea what he's like if I nip out to the shop and don't leave him a note? WHY would he just fuck off in the middle of the night without a word to me- he didn't even wake me up!"
I opened and shut my mouth uselessly. Kane ran both hands through his hair and his voice broke again, tears flooding as he shut his eyes.
"Christ, Toby. What if something's happened to him? Something awful's happened to him, I know it has."
"No," I said hastily, "No I'm sure not- what's been wrong this week? What's happened?"
"Just - quiet." Kane took a deep breath. "Staring off into space, not talking, he's been moody and I don't think he's slept much- I don't know. I kept asking, he just kept saying he was tired, there was nothing wrong- maybe it's money. Maybe he's ill. Maybe he's afraid to tell me. I don't know."
I took a careful breath, trying not to think too hard about that. Then squeezed his hand.
"Have you checked if he's at Claire's?"
Kane shook his head. "It's usually you he tells if he's going to be away, I'd hoped he'd said something to you."
He and my sister were close, Claire might have been the one he confided in. I let Kane go and got up.
"Come on, we'll go and check with her."
"What about the kids?" Kane said unsteadily, getting up to follow me. I grabbed a jacket and held the front door for him.
"Claire won't mind, not if it's about Joe."
It was dark outside, and starting to rain as I locked the front door. Kane stood beside me, still sniffling, and trailed me as we abandoned his car and headed down the side alley between the rows of red brick houses, line after line of them, towards the posher end of our district where my sister lived.
"Don't you play with those Cullen kids." I heard a woman said to her son once in our street as we walked past. Five of us, all in jeans and sweaters. Claire with her hair in her eyes and the knees of her jeans torn. Joe and Tom kicking a ball back and forth between them as they walked, Neil shivering as he was always shivering at this time of year despite his battered school blazer. And me trotting at the back to keep up with their longer legs.
"Right rough they are, God knows what goes on in that house with Their Mam."
I never knew what that meant. Nothing went on in our house. After school each evening we walked, sometimes in the half light of early winter evening we assembled in the park and played football until it was too dark to see. Sometimes we hung around the docks where the watchmen's fires were, and played under the streetlights there. Sometimes I curled up and slept on the steel benches by the bus shelter while Joe, Tom and Claire played the endless football street games with other kids, and Neil read by the light of the street lamp. It wasn't really the done thing for a lad his age to sit in the street reading but no kid in our district was going to comment on it. Our Claire hit like a professional street fighter, and she didn't like people teasing our Neil.
Most nights I woke when the pubs started to empty onto the street corners, and Joe would shake me awake enough to clamber onto his back and ride through the foggy streets home. The fog rolled right off the river onto our street in winter, and haloed around the lamp posts, misting out like our breath in front of our faces. Joe unlocked our front door and we'd climb up the dark stairs, Joe would put me in front of the bathroom sink and tell me to clean my teeth, and then I'd pull my clothes off and pile into bed, listening to the muted and amicable bickering of the others as I fell asleep. Often in the night Neil would leave the room he shared with me and climb into bed with Claire, most mornings they were curled up together, two brown heads tangled up on one pillow. Sometimes I went back to sleep again. Sometimes I got up too and went into the other room where Tom and Joe slept, long and angular under the covers. Tom I knew would shove me out if he woke and realised I was there, but Joe, while he always woke, would shift over to make room for me and I'd fall asleep again under the comforting weight of his arm. It was always warmer in his bed. And some time in the night there'd be the comforting and familiar scuff of boots in the street outside, the knocker upper, banging on the doors of the men going on the early shift, turning them out of bed. They were the sounds I'd slept by all my life.
It was cold in our house in the mornings and the only hot things we ever had were bought, like the chips from the van on the dock corner. On weekends if the weather was bad the boys would set a fire in the grate in the front room and we'd feed it with wood from the park and newspaper nicked from bins. More often we walked up into town and hung around the shopping centres where it was warm, and where Tom and Joe would walk out of shops with their pockets full of odds and ends of food. Sweets. Apples. A packet of biscuits. On week day mornings we dressed, Joe made me and Neil wash at the kitchen sink, and we'd walk together to school, chewing on whatever we had left over from last night. Joe would leave me at the gates of the infants school, yanking my tie straight and running a hand over my hair to neaten it.
"Anyone says anything to you and you tell me, right?" he said every morning, and I nodded, standing inside the playground gates and clinging to the railings to watch them walk away- Joe and Tom with their ties pulled loose, blazers and knees muddy from football, trainers scuffed. Neil thin and quiet, and Claire with her hair in it's hated rubber band. She'd had a note from school about her hair, tie it back or have it cut it had said, and Joe for once had made my sister mind him and tie it back every day for school. I remembered the fight about it. Joe didn't often shove my sister the way he did me or Tom if we really annoyed him, but every day now he'd tell Claire to do her hair and she'd scowl in her daggers way but the rubber band would go on until she ran out of the playground at home time. Claire they'd leave in the Juniors' playground, and the boys would go over the road then to the Comprehensive. Neil hated it and I knew Joe and Tom stood guard over him there. He was too thin, too quiet and too dreamy, Tom said he might as well have worn a 'beat me up I'm helpless' sign on his back. Some mornings he was sick on the way to school. He never said anything but Joe and Claire would stand with him and Claire would hold his hand the rest of the way. No one ever cat called anything after our Claire.
I'd muddle through school, sleepy in the afternoons, and full of the bliss of a large and hot free school dinner. Sometimes I did put my head down on my desk and sleep while the teacher read us the chapter of whatever story we were on at the end of the day. She never tried to wake me. When the bell rang for the end of the day I went out into the playground and stood obediently again by the railings. Claire would join me a few minutes later, and we'd wait, listening, for the far away bells of the Comprehensive. Neither of us would dare to leave the playground before the others came for us, not even Claire. None of us risked getting done by Joe, not if we could help it.
"Their Mam" was a phrase I often heard in the playground. From other mams who waited outside the gates for their kids, kids in coats with lunchboxes and shiny hair and shoes. I saw the nods and looks in my direction. Claire openly returned them, often with a stuck out tongue, but I was confused. Kids from our streets were careful around us anyway, knowing Claire and Joe's reputations. Other kids I saw drawn away from me, as if I had nits.
I knew I didn't.
I only got nits once, from the boy next to me at school, and Joe brought back a bottle of stuff from the chemist and scrubbed my head with it for three days in a row. He made all the others do their heads too, and my name was mud at home for a week.
Everyone seemed to have stories about our mam. Always whispered and always stopping when they saw me. I asked Tom about it once, screwing up my courage in both hands. You didn't mention Mam or Dad to Neil, he went white and sometimes you could see his eyes start to well, and Claire thumped you if you made our Neil cry. And Claire would say nothing more than not to listen to daft old bats gossiping. And I knew somehow, it wasn't something you asked Joe.
I half expected a cuff or a growl from Tom: he wasn't the most patient of my siblings and he was still quieter than Neil, he pretty much talked only to Joe and he shadowed my oldest brother, broad, dark and missing nothing out of his heavy brown eyes. For once he put a hand out and ruffled my hair like Joe did, giving me a gentle shove away from him.
"Don't you take any notice of them. They're all mouth."
"You just tell me if anyone says anything to you." Joe told me every morning when he left me at school, the one time I was ever out of his sight. At seven I knew the vernacular- it wasn't "good morning" or "Want to play tag?" he meant. There were specific things- bad things- he was warning could be said to me, and while I didn't know what they were I still had that fear of them whenever I saw my brothers and sister walk away from me down the street.
Our Claire's house had flashing plastic icicles over the windows, and a neat holly wreath on her white front door. Her husband's car, waxed and polished, stood on the driveway and we edged past it to ring her doorbell. It took a minute for anyone to respond, then her husband's head poked out of an upstairs window.
"What? Do you know what- Toby?" he broke off, recognising us, and his head withdrew. A moment later Claire appeared on the doorstep in pyjamas, glaring as she took us both in.
"What? Kane? What's going on? What's happened?"
Her husband stood on the stairs behind her, belting on a dressing gown.
"Joe's gone missing," I told her. "He went this morning, no one's seen him since, we wondered if he'd told you anything?"
"Not a thing." Claire stepped back to let us in, and gave Kane a quick peck on the cheek as he passed. "Don't look so panicky love. It's allright Keith, go back to bed."
"Are you sure?" her husband gave me a somewhat baleful look. "If it's important enough to wake us up at past midnight then maybe I ought to be involved."
"Oh go back to bed and don't wake the kids." Claire ushered us into the lounge and shut the door on him. "What do you mean Joe's gone? When?"
Kane explained what he knew. I looked around my sister's fairly familiar and immaculate front room. Photos of her two kids were on most surfaces, some of her husband's family. One of our Tom in his uniform. One of all five of us, sitting on the railings at the beach. I was about fourteen in it, gangly and hiding behind Neil. I remembered the photo, even remembered Dad taking it. There was a photo of Dad too, with one of Claire's little girls in his lap, a smile crinkling up his eyes. He looked like Joe when he smiled.
"I haven't seen or heard anything." Claire said when Kane finished. "I don't know what he's playing at, it's not like him at all."
"I'm sorry to just turn up on your doorstep." Kane said heavily. Claire shook her head.
"It's fine, you needed to, and it's what Tobe usually does if he's panicking."
I glared at her, but she didn't look my way.
"Has he been talking to anyone? Anyone come to the house that's different?"
"No, not that I can think of." Kane sat back in the deep armchair and ran both hands through his hair, thinking. "No one, not all week. The only people that have called at all was my mum on Wednesday and your brother last weekend-"
"Neil?" Claire demanded, surprised. She wasn't the only one: our Neil lived in London and he always headed straight for our Claire first whenever he came home. Kane shook his head, looking surprised.
"No, Tom. He was home when I got back from the gym Saturday afternoon, he said he couldn't stop, he'd only got a few hours leave."
"His ship isn't in!" I objected, "I know the dates, he's not due in until the 15th next month!"
"It WAS Tom." Kane insisted.
Silence. Neither Claire nor I really doubted he'd recognise our brother. Claire finally bounced up and grabbed the phone, dialing from a number at the back of her address book. Always organised our Claire.
"Hello? I need to make an inquiry about my brother- Lieutenant Thomas Cullen, he's on board the SS Belgravia, due back on the 15th of January. Yes. Yes, I was wondering if there'd been any change in- I see. Yes. Thank you. Yes, this is Claire Phelps, nee Cullen, I'm on his registered- yes, thank you."
She paused, putting her hand over the mouthpiece. "They're checking, he says the ship is still out- yes, hello?"
I put a hand over Kane's. He looked cold and tired and thoroughly miserable.
"Yes." Claire repeated. "From- I see. Thankyou. Yes, thankyou very much."
We looked at her as she put the phone down. She looked furious.
"That was the Naval Families Services. Tom WAS home, he had a three day leave and flew back from wherever the ship is, compassionate circumstances. They can't tell me anything else. Not even where the bloody ship is."
"Why would Tom fly back and not see any of us?" I demanded. Claire shrugged.
"Who knows? Since he didn't feel like sharing it with us. Compassionate circumstances could mean anything but it would have to be pretty bloody serious to release Tom from duty to come back here. And he WOULD tell Joe, Joe's about the one person he ever does tell anything to."
"Do you think Tom's in some kind of trouble?" I asked, looking between her and Kane. "Or Joe is, and Tom came home to help…?"
"The NFS can make a connection with Tom's ship if it's an emergency," Claire said, looking at Kane. "I know how to do it, they can get him to a phone or radio. We'd need to go to their main office though. We'd probably be better trying Dad first, Tom may have seen him or Joe may have said something to him if it was important."
I resisted the urge to grunt about that. Joe rarely thought of Dad as someone who needed confiding in. Dad had commented before now that blood came out of a stone more easily than information out of our Joe. Claire pushed a book at me with a list of names and numbers.
"Copy that out of there- all of it, we'd need the lot to get Tom- and I'll get dressed."
"What about Keith?" I said, somewhat warily. Claire snorted expressively and headed upstairs. Somehow I didn't think Keith was going to get much attention paid to his objections.
Neil got ill not long after the Christmas lights went up in town.
To start with Claire made him wear a jumper and scarf, but he coughed more and more as the week went on. Joe nicked a bottle of cough mixture from the chemist and made him take it.
It was a Friday afternoon and my class were painting when a woman tapped on the classroom door and my teacher went out into the hall with her. They were gone for some time, and when she came back in I felt my stomach lurch sharply sideways as she came to me. She crouched beside my desk and took my hand, voice very gentle.
"Toby, there's a lady outside who needs to talk to you."
I got up numbly and trailed her. The woman outside wore a tweed skirt and sensible heels, and gave me a professionally kind smile. My teacher stooped to my level again and took my hands.
"Your brother wasn't well at school today, he's had to go to the hospital."
The butterflies in my stomach promptly rose.
"Where's Joe?" I asked her. If Joe was at the hospital with Neil then I couldn't get across town to the hospital by myself, although I supposed I'd have to try. I'd have to find Claire too.
The tweed woman cleared her throat.
"Perhaps I'm the better person to handle this Miss Jones?"
My teacher didn't answer for a moment, then gave me a quick hug. "I'll see you tomorrow Toby." She said firmly, more at the other woman than me, and went back into the classroom. The tweed woman held out her ringed fingers to me.
"Would you like to hold my hand?"
"No." I said frankly. "I need to find our Joe please."
"I'll take you to the hospital." The woman said sweetly. "If you'll hold my hand."
Her perfume was choking, but I wanted to get to Joe. I took her hand and she led me outside to the carpark and helped me put the seat belt on in her car.
"Where can I find your mummy Toby?" she asked me casually as she turned onto the main street.
I shrugged, staring straight ahead. The lady looked at me, with a not pleased expression that made my stomach tighten still further. Her voice however was still nice.
"I think your brother would like his mummy there if he's ill. Don't you?"
"No." I said honestly. "He'll want our Claire- and probably Joe."
"That's your sister? How old is Claire?"
"And Joe- that's Joseph? He's fourteen?"
"When did your mummy last come home Toby?"
These were the sort of questions Joe always answered for me, and I knew he'd look at me now, warn me with his eyes to be quiet and take my hand if he could reach it. I suddenly wanted him very badly.
"Don't you know?" the lady asked.
"Yes." I said with dignity. "But I'm shy."
That stumped her for a few minutes. By which time she was turning into the hospital carpark. She made me hold her hand all the way up in the lift onto the children's ward where I recognised Disney pictures on the walls. In the corridor beyond the double doors I saw our Joe standing in the corridor, his arms folded, staring at the wall opposite. Two men were standing with him, one in a suit, one in blue coveralls with heavy, steel toed boots on, and the one in coveralls looked down the corridor towards us, then took a few quick strides and picked me up. I was intimidated enough by then not to object, and he held me comfortably and comfortingly, shifting me to one hip to address the woman.
"Thank you, that's a weight off my mind."
"Mr Cullen," the woman said meaningfully, "I've been talking to Toby since I picked him up from school and he doesn't seem to know where his mother is or to be sure when he last saw her."
"Considering he doesn't know you, I'm not surprised he hasn't wanted to talk to you." the man commented. "You've spoken to Joe here, he's clear enough. I'm afraid my wife's on the erratic side, which is why Joe usually keeps a close eye on the others for me."
"The others are being collected from school by social workers Mr Cullen, they will also be spoken to."
"They won't bloody say anything." Joe said grimly from his wall. The man holding me glanced back at him and spoke with a gentleness that startled me. I wasn't used to people using that tone to my brother.
"That's enough Joe, behave. They're upset about their brother, I'm sure you'll agree that's understandable." He added to the woman. "I can assure you, everything's fine and I'll deal with it. If you'd like to make an appointment for later this week we can talk about anything you want to then, right now I think the kids need me more than you do."
The doors opened at the far end of the corridor and I caught a glimpse of Tom looking grim, and our Claire's face, her eyes wide, her mouth open, then she pulled away from the tweeded woman holding her arm and ran down the corridor to us, shrieking.
The man put an arm around her, bent and kissed the top of her head. Tom followed her, swiftly enough that I looked at him in surprise. The man cupped his face and Tom actually let him, standing close when the man let him go and turned back to the adults still standing watching us.
"Thank you." He said pointedly to the two women and the man in the suit.
It took a moment, but finally they left. The man took a deep breath, sat down on a plastic chair and put me on his lap. And looked between Claire, Tom and Joe.
"Do you three want to tell me what's going on here?"
This was the street we'd grown up in and Claire covered the ground in the same rapid stride she'd always had, making us struggle to keep up with her. It was foggy too, the familiar fog that always rolled up our street. Claire ran up the doorstep and hammered briskly at the door. It took a moment before the door was opened. Dad looked less sleepy than I'd expected- I suppose after years of night shifts he was used to being woken at strange times. In pyjamas with a sweater pulled on over the top he was still shivering, but he stood back to let us in, kissing Claire as she passed him.
"Hello, where's the fire?"
"Have you seen our Joe?"
"What's wrong?" Dad shut the door, looked at Kane and put an arm
around him, steering him into the kitchen. He snapped the kettle on
in there and kept hold of Kane, looking from him to me.
"What do you mean where's Joe? What's happened?"
"He's gone missing." Kane said, somewhat more calmly. I was glad to hear his perceptions had changed from 'he's left me'. "He was gone when I woke up this morning, I can't track him down."
"Tom's been home." Claire kicked out a chair at the table and sat down. "He got compassionate leave and flew out from his ship on a three day pass to see Joe. Did he see you?"
"No." Dad put Kane gently down in a chair and snapped the kettle on. "Tobe, get some milk out lad. How do you know he was home? He didn't see any of you?"
"Tobe and I didn't know, and Neil would have told me. And Kane saw Tom."
"He came to the house on Saturday." Kane agreed. "He was leaving when I arrived, all I heard was goodbye. And Joe was ok then, it was Sunday evening he started to get quiet."
I put the milk on the table and sat down. Dad put mugs down on the table.
"Has anyone rung Neil?"
"I spoke to him this morning, he would have told me if he'd seen Tom or if he knew anything was happening with Joe." Claire poured milk for us all and sat back, cradling her mug. "Besides, Tom wouldn't have had time to go to London as well as come here."
"Has anyone called the police or the hospitals?" Dad said matter of factly. Kane swallowed and shook his head.
"I didn't think to."
"You haven't had teenaged sons." Dad picked up the phone directory and the phone, and sat down beside Kane. "It's basic elimination lad, don't look so worried. I'd think if he was gone before you woke then where ever he's gone he went there deliberately. Let's just check and then we can stop panicking."
The man they called Dad had a key to our house. I trailed Joe into the always dark hallway and the man flipped the light switch up and down. Nothing happened, which was why we never bothered trying them.
"Power's out." Joe said shortly. "So's the gas."
"It's bloody freezing in here." The man went into the kitchen, stumbling on the left out chairs and accumulated junk on the floor. I didn't know why he opened the fridge or cupboards, there was never anything in them. He put a hand on my head as he passed, checked the hearth and then headed upstairs. Claire went after him. Joe dug his hands in his pockets and went on staring at the wall. Tom sat on the arm of the sofa and folded his arms.
"Who's he?" I said to Joe. Joe looked down at me for a moment, face blank, then he sighed and sat down, hooking an arm around me.
"It's allright kid. It's ok. It's Dad."
Dad came downstairs again, dug a hand in his pocket and pulled out a five pound note, which he gave to Claire.
"You and Tom go and get fish and chips for five, straight there and straight back. Joe put this in the metre."
Joe silently accepted the handful of change. I sat where I was on the sofa. A moment later there was a loud clunk and lights suddenly came on.
In the light, the house looked- odd. I was used to the clutter, it was there every day, but without the shadows somehow it looked worse. Dad put his hands on his hips and turned slowly around, looking at it all from the front room to the kitchen. He looked angry, I found myself hunching deeper into the sofa cushions. Then his gaze fell on me and his face changed. He stepped over a pile of jackets and a cardboard box and held his arms out to me.
"It's allright Tobe. Come here."
Joe shut the front door, looking expressionlessly around the new and strange aspect of our lit downstairs. I slid off the sofa and went to clutch his hand. Dad dropped his hands, but managed something like a smile at us.
"Allright boys. Let's do something about the rubbish in here."
We ate off clean plates that night, sitting at the kitchen table. Hot food, and more on the plate than I could eat. Outside the back door was a pile of boxes stuffed with rubbish, and by the back door were several boxes full of clothes needing washing. When we were finished Dad took me upstairs, looked at the bath with the same expression I'd seen downstairs and brusquely ran a basin of water.
"Where do you keep pyjamas lad?"
I looked back at him blankly. Joe was sitting at the top of the stairs and my dad gave him a look, helping me out of my clothes.
"What do you all sleep in?"
"Underwear." Joe said shortly. "WHAT? He's FINE. We're all FINE."
Dad didn't say anything, just tugged my t shirt over my head. Between the tugging, the strangeness of him and the expression on his face I started to cry. Joe got up at once but Dad knelt down and pulled me close, holding me there when I struggled and talking to Joe over my head.
"No, he's my lad, I'll do this."
Joe looked back at him for a moment, then to my utter terror, he ran downstairs and I heard the door slam. A moment later the door opened again and Dad raised his voice, bellowing with a loudness and depth that made the banisters rattle.
"Claire Louise if you put a foot outside at this time of night I'll clout you!"
The front door slammed again and I knew where ever Joe had gone, Tom had gone with him. I'd never felt so abandoned in my life. For a moment I fought with all my strength to get out of the man's arm around me and run after my brother, but he held me against him and finally I ran out of energy to do any more than cry. There was a long silence. Then Claire came slowly upstairs and slid down to sit where Joe had been sitting, on the top step. Dad sat back on his heels and held his free arm out to her, still holding me against his chest. She hesitated for a moment, still scowling, then she came in a kind of rush and clung to him and to me.
"Now listen." Dad said between us. "It's going to be allright. We're going to sort this out. Joe's upset now, but he'll settle down, he misses your mam."
I looked at Claire for help, but she was leaning with her head again Dad's chest and he was combing his fingers through her hair. Our Claire never liked anyone petting her, but she didn't seem to mind this at all.
"See if there's any cloths or cleaning stuff under the sink, pet, we'll get that bath cleaned out."
Claire got up. Dad stopped her in the doorway, reaching for her hand.
"Claire? When was your mam last here?"
Claire took a deep breath, twisting her fingers.
Dad swore quietly. Then nodded, squeezing her hand.
"Allright love. Go on, let's get this place cleaned up and you two at least bathed."
He put us both to bed in mine and Neil's room that night. The room looked severely tidy- the floor cleaned of clothes and junk, the beds made. He covered Claire over, kissed her, and stopped beside me as I pulled the covers up quick, burrowing away from him.
"Goodnight Tobe. Don't worry about the boys, they'll come back when they calm down a bit."
We lay there for a while, listening to the faint sounds of the radio downstairs. It was foreign. As was the light coming up the stairs.
It was hours later when the front door opened and Dad's voice was quiet downstairs.
"It's past midnight you two, get straight upstairs and to bed, we'll talk in the morning."
It took a while before all the movement stopped, and from the creak in mam's room, Dad had got into her bed. I waited until all was quiet before I slid out of bed and went into the other room. Joe was awake, staring up at the ceiling. For the first time in my life I hesitated beside his bed. My brother never lost his temper. He never stormed out of the house in a sulk. I'd never seen him act as he had today. He gave me a brief smile, moved over and when I cuddled up, put an arm around me, pulling me close.
"It's allright kid."
Nothing at all felt right.
I burrowed closer to him and there I managed to fall asleep.
"All clear." Dad put the phone down and patted Kane's arm. "Breathe out son. What about his cell phone?"
"It's at home, he didn't take it."
"Then there's nothing we can do for a few hours." Dad got up and picked the cups up. "We can't go down to the naval office at this hour, and it isn't a true emergency. Yet." He added as we looked at him. "We DO need to get some sleep."
"I can't, we don't know where he is!" Kane said hotly. "He could be anywhere, anything could have happened-"
"Joe's a large, tough, intelligent man and he'll take good care of himself." Dad said firmly. "He isn't the kind to do anything random or stupid, there'll be a good reason for this, trust me. Come on, there's plenty of beds, let's get some sleep."
Kane dropped full length on Neil's bed upstairs and folded his arms over his eyes. I sat down on the bed beside him. This was my brother's husband. His lover. His friend. Kane knew things about Joe that I'd never know, he knew a side of Joe I'd never know. And he loved Joe as much as I did. I put a hand on his shoulder and he pulled his arm down to look at me. Tearless but white.
"I don't know why he'd do this, Tobe. He WOULDN'T do this to me, I know it, there'd be no reason. He wouldn't just go without telling me."
"He can be moody, Joe. He always was, right from a kid." I said gently. "He used to go off alone all the time when he was upset."
That didn't help, I could see it not helping. Kane gave me a weak nod and rolled over, wrapping his arms around the pillow. I lay down on my old bed opposite. It was only a few years since I'd lived in this house, since Dad and I had been the last two left of what had been a houseful of six people. It still felt the safest place, especially with the lights out and the quiet breathing of people around me.
Claire and Dad both had the information we needed for the Naval Family Support centre. They had Christmas decorations in the outer office and it was only by ringing the emergency line we managed to convince them we needed a duty officer sent out, despite it being Christmas Eve. That took a while. Outside Kane restlessly rang his home, his parents home, their friends homes, anywhere he thought Joe might be. Finally a civilian Jeep drew up and a tall, dark man in a navy uniform who introduced himself as Captain Steven Denham, shook hands all round, unlocked the office and listened sympathetically to our explanation.
"So you see," Claire said at the end of it, "It's important we talk to my brother."
"It sounds extremely out of character for your brother- Joseph? To have gone missing like this?" Denham said quietly, writing. Kane nodded, very white faced next to Claire.
"Totally. Tom is the only link left we haven't been able to follow up, and it seems very out of character for him to apply for such urgent leave without any other family member knowing what was happening."
Denham turned back to his computer for a while. Then sat back.
"It seems that Lieutenant Cullen applied for leave to break some serious family news."
There was a moment's silence. Then dad said quietly, "Then it would appear that news was only given to our Joe, and it was serious enough to cause him to take off. I think Tom needs at least to be made aware of that."
Denham hesitated a moment longer, then said gently, "Mr Cullen, I think you should know. Usually it would only be news of a death or serious illness that would be serious enough to grant this kind of emergency leave."
There was a moment where we took that in. Then dad cleared his throat.
"Then we need to know that Tom's allright too."
"I can see this is very worrying for you." Denham said gently. "I'll start the procedures now, I'd imagine it will take a couple of hours to get this agreed and to get the connection made to the ship. They should then be able to get Lieutenant Cullen to a phone or to a radio."
Dad took me and Claire to school in the morning, and he brushed both Claire's hair and mine. It was an odd experience. I caught sight of myself in the hall mirror as we went out of the door and saw a boy with smooth, clean hair and a brushed off school blazer. Claire's hair was plaited and tangle free. In the playground he bent and kissed me, a swift and unfamiliar pressure on my forehead that left me staring at him.
"I'll collect you at three." He told me, took Claire's hand and walked with her in the direction of the Junior school.
He was as good as his word. When I came out of school that afternoon he was standing at the gates, hands in his pockets, smiling across the playground at me. It took a while to make myself walk over to him.
Home looked nothing like when I'd left it that morning. It was clean, tidy, warm. Food was in the cupboards and the fridge. Upstairs when I looked, the beds were made, the sheets were fresh, and the bathroom gleamed. Dad sat me down on a kitchen chair, took a pair of scissors and cut my hair, while Claire watched Blue Peter on a colour tv that had appeared in a corner of the front room. In a box under the stairs I found assembled a collection of toys- some, precious to me, usually lived under my bed and travelled with me in my pocket. Some I hadn't seen before, although they were old and battered. I sat beside the box and sorted through it, keeping an eye on the man in the kitchen who was cooking. Meat and real vegetables were going into pots, and the whole house smelled warmly of dinner.
"Where did you come from?" I asked him when we sat down to eat. He'd put knives and forks and plates on the table, a jug of milk and cups. There was an order to it that was attractive. Consoling. He pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped my face, despite my flinch away.
"The hospital rang me and told me our Neil was poorly. They said they couldn't find your mam, no one knew where she was, and I needed to come and look after you all."
"Where were you before?"
Claire swung her legs quietly, kicking at the table, her eyes down. Dad looked across at her.
"I went back to Manchester love. Your mam didn't want me to visit. She thought it'd upset you too much."
That didn't seem to make Claire any happier.
I didn't have a clear picture of our mam. Adults in the kitchen sometimes, when Joe took me past and upstairs to bed. Talking. Cigarette smoke. Giggling from behind the closed bedroom door.
"I'm going out to find the boys." Claire said after dinner. I knew the way her chin was up, this was the point even our Tom started being careful what he said to annoy her. Dad paused in the lifting dishes over to the sink, sounding very decided.
"No you're not my girl, it's dark out there. Bad enough the lads running around the streets, I won't have you two out as well."
I hesitated in the kitchen doorway, not liking his tone or Claire's.
"I've been out after dark every night for months." Claire said sharply. "On the docks, and in town."
"Aye, and you wouldn't have been if I'd been here. So you'll not now." Dad said flatly.
"You can't tell me what to do." Claire snapped back. Dad put the dishes down, turned her around and slapped her leg. She was wearing jeans so it couldn't have hurt that much, and I'd seen her hit and be hit an awful lot harder a hundred times in a hundred fights, but she burst into tears. Our Claire in tears. Then Dad sat down and put his arms around her, and I retreated back to the hearthrug and the box of toys, trying not to hear either Claire's sniffling or Dad's voice talking to her.
He took me up to bed at eight, which surprised me a lot. Claire, quiet but calm, was lying on the settee, watching television, and Dad left her there. He helped me undress, sent me to wash and once again I dived under the covers out of his reach. He ruffled my hair but got up off the side of my bed to my relief.
"We'll get you some pyjamas this weekend lad, something proper to sleep in. Goodnight Tobe."
He left the door ajar. A while later I heard Claire come to bed, then a long time of the tv talking softly before the front door opened. Dad sounded calm, his deep voice steady.
"I told you two to come straight home."
The boys' voices weren't strong enough to reach upstairs. I did hear the clink and scrape of china and knew dad was heating dinner, had sat them down and fed them. I wondered what Joe thought of a cooked dinner on plates at the table. When I climbed into bed with him later he didn't react or look at me. He was lying very still, staring up at the ceiling with his whole body stiff. When I lay down beside him I could feel sometimes a tremor that ran all the way down him, from head to feet. I put my arms around his neck and hugged him, wondering if he was crying- except Joe, the biggest and toughest of my brothers, never cried. I couldn't imagine a tragedy that could make him cry. He did put an arm around me though and held on tight.
Tom's voice was thin over several thousand miles of land and sea, gruff as it was always gruff, and anxious.
Denham leaned over the table and handed my father the phone, turning on the speaker. Dad took it gingerly, half turning his back on the navy officer. Tactfully he got up and withdrew to the far side of the room.
"Tom? Hello lad. We're all safe here, don't worry."
"We're NOT." Kane said quietly. I put a hand over his and he jerked away, folding his arms. Claire went to stand beside Dad, sharing the receiver.
"Tom, it's Claire. We know you were here at the weekend, and our Joe's gone missing."
Tom swore, quietly. Dad put Claire gently back.
"Whatever you told him lad, it doesn't seem to have gone down well. We need to know where he's gone."
The silence went on for a moment. The line crackled. Then Tom cleared his throat.
"Is the families officer there?"
"TOM, just bloody SAY-" Claire began hotly. Dad hesitated, then turned and held out the phone to Denham.
"He'd like to speak to you."
Denham took the phone impassively, and turned the speaker off. Tom spoke to him for a moment, and Denham did nothing but murmur assent, then handed the phone back to Dad, switching it back onto the speaker. Tom sounded still gruffer on the crackling line.
"I'm sorry. I'll be home soon."
"Are you allright lad?" Dad sounded concerned. "You swear to me you're allright."
"I'm ok Dad, the officer'll explain. I'm sorry. I've got to go. I'll write to Claire, tell her I'll write."
"Love you." Dad said equally gruffly. "You take care of yourself."
We heard the crackling cut off. Dad handed the phone to Denham and he put it down, taking a seat behind his desk.
"Mr Cullen, your son asked me if I'd inform you face to face, he didn't feel this should be said over the phone. He told me the news regarded your wife. He asked for compassionate leave to come home and break it to the family that he'd heard, through your wife's current husband, that she died a few weeks ago in Spain where she was living. I'm very sorry."
I looked at Dad. He looked surprised more than anything. I had no idea when he'd last seen my mam. Kane looked shocked. Claire met my glance and I recognised her expression. Neither she nor I had any clue what to feel. I had no idea if Claire's memories of her were any clearer- I had trouble gathering any clear image of her at all.
"He told your brother." Denham said gently. "Apparently your brother felt he wanted to break the news to you in his own time."
"And a right bloody hash of it he made." Claire said savagely. My Dad put out a hand and held hers. Denham looked around each of us in turn. His eyes were a dark brown, soft and startlingly kind as they touched mine.
"I'm very sorry, I can only imagine how much of a blow this is to you."
There was another long silence, then Dad cleared his throat, running a hand over his moustache. "Actually not as you think, but thankyou. My wife left us a long time ago, I'd think it's only Tom and Joe that have clear memories of her. She - er - met another feller in town. In the end she cleared off and left the kids to fend for themselves, they were two weeks on their own before anyone told me."
There was another silence. Dad cleared his throat.
"It was Joe who looked after them."
"Have you any idea where your son might have gone?" Denham said gently. "In my experience Mr Cullen, when I've been asked to help locate a serviceman who's vanished during a family crisis, they very often seek out familiar places, somewhere that has associations or memories for them."
Kane looked fiercely at us. My Dad turned and looked from me to Claire while we thought.
"Was your son close to his mother Mr Cullen?" Denham asked. Dad hesitated, then looked again at us.
"I really couldn't say. I have no idea what contact any of the kids- any of you have had with your mam since she left."
None whatever. I knew Claire and Neil would say the same as me and she was already shaking her head. We hadn't known where she was, what she was doing, whether she ever thought of us. I had no idea about Tom or Joe. Whether they'd met with her, talked with her, and when. If she'd ever asked them how we were. What I looked like now. Whether I'd like to meet her.
"The last time to my knowledge," Dad said heavily, "That any of them saw her, was four weeks before Christmas, 1981. And they just woke up and found her gone. Joe was afraid of them all being put in care and told them none of them to say anything. It was social services found me two weeks later when they realised the kids were on their own."
Claire's eyes met mine and we both looked down. Kane glanced over at me, and his already furious eyes burned even hotter.
"Nothing, sorry." I said at once. Kane got up, arms still tightly folded.
"I saw that."
"If you know ANYTHING about where Joe might have gone-" Kane began, in a threatening tone that completely belied his slight build and usually gentle nature. Denham put out a hand towards him, and he stopped, but didn't move away. Denham looked at me, eyebrows slightly raised.
"Toby, isn't it? It was about this time of year that your mother left? Approaching Christmas? Would you remember where you last saw her?"
I opened my mouth, then closed it and looked appealingly at Claire. Dad was looking at us both, frowning slightly.
"What lad? Come on, out with it?"
Claire got up and held out a hand out to me. "Give me your phone, I'll call our Neil."
I handed it over and she took it outside. Kane swung around and kicked his chair in pure frustration.
"You and YOUR BLOODY FAMILY SECRETS AND MUTTERINGS-"
"It's allright lad." Dad got up and took his shoulders, still looking at me. So was Denham, his kind eyes quizzical. I flushed hotly and stared at the floor.
I was half awake when Claire slid into bed beside me, her cold feet jabbing me painfully.
"Move over, it's cold."
"Shhh." Tom climbed onto the bed on the other side. I turned over with difficulty. I'd climbed in with Joe some time ago. Dad's steady snores in the distance indicated that he was soundly asleep. Joe was propped up on one elbow, his back against the wall, his eyes glinting in the faint street light through the window. I turned over and let my heavy eyes close again, hearing their whispered voices over my head. Someone was coming. A woman. Wanting something about talking to us.
"I said two weeks." Claire said once, sounding ashamed.
"What about Neil?" Tom asked softly.
"Neil won't say anything 'til he talks to me."
Eventually someone shook me gently, Joe, his voice low and urgent.
I blinked at him, struggling over between him and Claire. Tom was still sitting on the end of the bed, all three were looking down at me. Joe spoke, softly but very clearly.
"Tobe, if anyone asks you when we last saw Mam, it was two weeks. Understand? Two weeks. We woke up one morning and she'd gone, and we didn't want to tell anyone."
"How long was it?" I said sleepily, confused.
"Two weeks." Joe said again. "It was two weeks, that's what you say."
"Toby." The lady in the tweed skirt said, sitting on our sofa with a cup of tea. "Do you remember when you last saw your mummy?"
I slid further behind Claire. Our front room was always clean now, the fire was on and it was warm, tidy, and I was fidgeting in clothes that were new and strange. Dad had forcibly binned most of our ragged jeans, oblivious to the protests of Claire and Tom. Joe hadn't commented. He barely spoke at all when Dad was around and he spent hours outside, escaping from home or school as soon as he could. Tom, ever loyal, went with him. I hated it. I wanted to go with Joe too, there was nowhere else I'd rather be, but Dad wouldn't let me or Claire go out at all after school and I was too afraid to protest. This man was an unknown quantity to me, I had no idea what his powers were if he could vanquish our Joe like this.
Dad reached around Claire now and picked me up, sitting me on his lap. He was nervous, I knew he was nervous, although I didn't understand why.
"Toby, tell me. When did you see your mam?"
I shook my head. He put a gentle hand under my chin.
"Look at me son. When did you see your mam?"
"Two weeks." I said, just like Joe told me. He nodded and let me slide off his lap. Upstairs, Joe and Tom were sprawled on their beds and their silence told me they'd been talking before I came in.
"That woman's here." I said to Joe. He grimaced but didn't answer. I sat on the floor close to his bed and waited, not at all sure what I was waiting for.
It was some time later that the door shut and Dad called from the foot of the stairs.
"Allright lads, come down here."
I went, Tom followed. Joe finally rolled off his bed and went to the top of the stairs. Dad was there and his eyes were very kind.
"It's allright, she's gone. She'll visit a couple of times in the next few months, but there won't be any more hassle."
"Does she know where Mam is?" Joe said tightly. Dad shook his head.
"I'm sorry lad. No. We don't know where she's gone."
Claire came back with my phone looking white, but she nodded to me as she handed it back.
"Agreed what?" Kane snapped. "How LONG are you going to screw around?"
"This is nothing to do with you!" Claire snapped back. "This is about our Joe-"
"He's MY bloody partner!" Kane wrenched free of my Dad and for a moment I actually thought he was going to square up to her. "This has EVERYTHING to do with me, I don't give a damn about anything but where he is and what's happening to him! I don't care about ANY of you!"
"Claire." My Dad said in the tone that used to make the boys stop quarrelling on the word and settle down.
Claire looked at me and took a deep breath.
"We don't know when Joe last saw Mam. Or where."
"Has he had contact with her recently?" Dad demanded. Claire lifted her hands.
"I don't know. I mean when she left."
"You all woke up one morning and she was gone." Dad repeated. Claire shook her head slowly, again looking to me for support.
"We agreed that was what we had to say. Really it wasn't like that."
"What was it like?" Dad said quietly when she didn't go on.
Claire's eyes stayed on mine and I could see the effort it took her to say this. She almost had to force it out past years of a pact we'd made and agreed on and never mentioned again.
"She went some time in the summer."
I saw the shock hit Dad like a physical blow as he thought about that.
"Six months? You kids were there six MONTHS on your own?"
Claire sat down and I could see her hands shaking. She was talking quickly now, as if a dam had given way and words were rushing free.
"She went to live with this man in town. I didn't know that then, Joe told me years afterwards. She said she'd check on us, she didn't need us all to live in one house. She wasn't there much for months before that, but it was in the summer she actually left. I remember her saying goodbye."
"Three kids under twelve." My father said eventually. "Two kids under TEN for Chrissakes. The house looked as though a bomb had hit it. I knew she didn't bother much, I never thought it was you kids trying to manage for yourselves."
"I think Joe knew where the house was, or knew where to find her." Claire went on almost timidly. "I'm sure he was the only one who did, I don't think even Tom knew."
"No." Dad said heavily. "My poor Joe, he always did feel responsible for the whole bloody lot of you."
"He said to us she was allright, that she'd keep an eye on us and she'd be back when she could." Claire folded her arms as if she was cold. "At least at first he said that. After a while we just talked about what we had to say to make sure we weren't taken into care. No one could find out."
"Where were you during this time Mr Cullen?" Denham said gently. He'd been listening to this in silence, without shock, with a genuine and warm concern in his face that made him feel far less like a stranger in our midst. To me at least it didn't seem at all odd that he should be here and part of this.
Dad looked set faced for a moment, then he sniffed and I realized with a shock that he was struggling for self control. His eyes blurred and reddened, then he took another deep breath and his voice came out fairly steadily.
"I was in Manchester. There wasn't much work around at the time, benefits wouldn't stretch to lodgings so I went back to my family. My wife had made several threats about taking the kids and vanishing if I tried to see them, and there was another man involved. There was always another bloody man involved. Our separation was quite nasty. I hoped if I gave them some space she'd calm down and I'd be able to keep some contact. And I thought at least they had a chance of her settling down WITH this other man, some kind of stability. I had no idea- NO idea she was capable of just-" he looked at me and shook his head in defeat. "Tobe was just seven. How the hell do you abandon a seven year old child? How the hell do you LEAVE four young kids in the care of a fourteen year old child?"
"And you only found out when Social Services tracked you down and notified you?" Denham went on. Dad nodded, taking another deep breath.
"Our Neil was hospitalised with pneumonia, the school had him admitted when they couldn't find any adult contact to talk to. Social Services tracked me down through the benefits office and thank God tried my parents' home address."
"And do you think Joe had contact with his mother over this time?"
Dad shrugged and looked to me and Claire. Claire shook her head.
"I don't know. I don't think so. He never went anywhere alone, we only ever split up to go to school. The rest of the time we stayed together, he would have killed me or Tobe for wandering off even to play on our own out of his sight. He was responsible for us."
"He went off alone all the time after I came." Dad said wryly. "He wasn't happy with me." He added for Kane and Denham's benefit. "Partly for leaving in the first place, he was very much on his mam's side, and partly the basic pack leader battle you get with a lad that age anyway. It was his house, his kids, his responsibility, and I was getting in the way. It took months to win him and Tobe around."
Denham looked at me and I flushed. Dad's voice gentled.
"I don't think you even knew who I was, did you lad? Too young to remember me."
"Joe didn't know where Mam was." I mumbled. Claire looked at me, surprised. I shrugged, trying not to look at her, or Kane's increasingly accusing face.
"Remember I went with him that night he ran off? He didn't know where Mam was then, I'm sure of it."
"Do you remember where he took you?" Denham asked quietly. "Toby? Where did you go?"
Our Neil came back from hospital white and quiet and thin, and lay on the sofa for the next few weeks while we went to school. He frankly clung to Dad from the first and no one held it against him. Not from fear of our Claire either. Dad spoke to our Neil gently, he could get him to eat, he knew what to do when he was sick or coughing or tearful. We could all see the rapid difference in Neil. As he got less pale, chattier, livelier, our Joe got quieter and grimmer. Claire went with Neil as she always did, they both behaved as though this peculiar life with Dad was completely familiar to them. Possibly it was. Possibly they remembered further back than I did.
I do remember the final split in loyalties.
It was no more than a few days to Christmas and Dad met me at the school gates as he did every day now, walking with me down to the gates of the junior school to meet Claire and a few minutes later, our Neil. He had no reservations whatever about the dignity of walking with us, and I knew too he wasn't being sick on the way to school any more. Tom and Joe we never saw now at this time of day. Dad said at their age they needed to be with their mates, and let them get on with it, although he'd told them clearly to be home by dinnertime. Oddly enough they both obeyed that. They appeared in time to eat with us, both quiet, Joe virtually silent, and after a muted discussion one night which I heard part of, they stayed in afterwards, although mostly upstairs, and I got an earful if I tried to go into their room.
Then Dad got a letter through the post from the Comprehensive. He took Claire and me with him into the school one night and we sat in the gloomy corridor outside the headmaster's office while Dad spoke to him behind the closed door. This school always seemed huge to me. Full of black blazered boys who were big enough to look to me like men, big like my brothers, who did complicated stuff like the art work on the walls and the woodwork in the workshops, and who sometimes I saw gathered in large crowds outside in the field visible from the playground railings, a circle of boys and the far away chant of "Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!"
Dad emerged from that office looking grim, and we trailed him home, feeling the residual fear of that building. Anyone doing anything really awful at my school I knew risked a slap across the backside or at worst a few strokes from the headmistresses' slipper. But misbehaving boys at the Comp were sometimes caned. Joe and Tom I knew, more than once, had been caned. Usually for taking part in fights. That thought terrified me. I understood why our Neil hated school.
Dad made dinner that night and we were sitting at the table when Tom and Joe appeared, dropped their coats in the hallway and perfunctorily washed their hands. I suppose I should have understood the meaning within that gesture itself- it was something they'd never done before Dad and that they did now without question every day.
"I got called into school today." Dad said when the plates were filled and we were eating. "No teacher in the comp's seen any homework from you in months Joseph Cullen. They've heard a lot of excuses and seen a lot of scowling, but not much else. And they're wondering how our Tom's come with so many notes from his mam about not being able to do homework when they know for a fact his mam doesn't live here."
Joe stared at his plate. Tom gave Dad one quick look and I saw him start to flush from his face down to his neck. Dad leaned on the table, voice stern enough that I slid down in my chair, scared stiff. I'd never heard anyone tell my brother off before.
"You and Tom and I ALL have a meeting with your headmaster tomorrow morning to try and sort this out before a welfare officer gets involved. I promised I'd see to it that you two sit down and get your work done nightly where I can see you, and that starts tonight. You're bright lads, both of you-"
"I don't have to listen to this." Joe snapped, pushing his plate away. I jumped when he got up. Tom started to move too and Dad put a hand on the table towards him.
"Tom, sit down."
There was a minute's silence. Neil looked almost green. Claire was staring at Joe, who was half out of his place and looking at Tom. Tom hesitated for a moment and I could feel the silent battle going on around the table. Then something won and Tom dropped his eyes and sat down again. Joe swore and headed for the door, grabbing his jacket up on the way. Dad left the table and went after him in a few quick strides that covered the ground even faster than my brother. I slid down from my chair and went to the open front door as the two of them vanished into the street, Dad just behind our Joe. He caught him just beyond the doorstep. They wrestled for a moment, Joe fighting to get his collar free of my Dad's hand, then Dad swatted him hard across the seat of his jeans. It stopped Joe dead. He and my Dad stared at each other for a minute, then Dad let his collar go and moved the hand to his shoulder, with that same, stern tone as before.
"If I ever hear language like that from you again my lad, you'll be across my knee. No one is swearing. No one is storming off. You need to calm down, come inside and finish your dinner."
Joe stared at the pavement, panting. Dad held his shoulder and waited. It was as if they were doing something they'd choreographed a long time before, something familiar to them both. Then finally Joe moved silently back over the doorstep, head still down, and he and Dad sat back at the table, Dad giving me a look that made me scuttle back to my place with all speed. Joe ate nothing more but he didn't say a word for the rest of the meal.
I came downstairs that night, wanting a drink, and found both my brothers sitting at the kitchen table, Tom working over text books and exercise books while Joe sat there and stared at the table top, and my Dad read the paper at the head of the table.
He went with them into school in the morning and I never did find out what happened. Whether Dad managed to convince the school of our home situation, or just promised closer supervision, Tom and Joe got into no more trouble, and every night they sat at the kitchen table, Tom working on problems that I couldn't even read and Joe sitting in silent mutiny in front of his books.
It didn't make him any happier. When I tried that night to get into bed with him, he didn't protest but he rolled over on his side away from me, and wouldn't respond to my questions or my pleas.
Christmas Eve was frosty that year, and Tom and Neil made slides in the street, balancing on their feet while they slid down the long and shining ice patch that ran more than twenty feet. Claire slid too, keeping her feet without effort. Joe wouldn't slide at all. He sat in silence on the kerb at the far side of the street with the same expression on his face that our Claire got when she was ready to hit someone. I sat with him, out of reach, but unable not to be near him. The world was falling apart. Tom and Neil and Claire chattered to Dad who ran our house and our day in a routine that had appeared from thin air. The house looked different. And my Joe was miserable. Yesterday Dad had brought home a tree which he and the others had decorated and covered in flashing lights with obvious delight. While Joe lay on his bed and I sat on the top of the stairs, feeling increasingly sick on the growing tension. Several times Dad passed me and went to sit with Joe. What they talked about I had no idea, but every time when Dad left, Joe still lay there.
Other kids came and went over the morning, joining the slide, and sooner or later as always, friction bubbled up. I never did understand why fights started. What I did see was Tom shift his weight and take up that stance with his legs slightly apart and his shoulders square, and Claire put her hand in her pocket, pull out a rubber band and tie her hair back. In this neighbourhood that was a well known gesture, and it meant the Cullen family clearing the decks for action. Neil got out of the way quick, but Joe came to life for the first time that day, got up and went to stand between Claire and Tom, not joining in the growing argument- he never did- but waiting silently for the first blow to fall. When it did, he met it with the set to his face and the duck of his head that I knew, and his fists went to work with his usual swift and skilful dispatch.
Whether Dad heard or whether Neil went and got him, I don't know. I was too busy watching the battle raging in the street. Then Dad was jogging across the frosty asphalt and he shoved his way through the combatants, pushing kids out of his way until he could shove apart our Claire and her combatant, and reach Tom and Joe. Tom fell back at once, but Dad had to push his way between Joe and the older of the other lads, jerking his head at the house and raising his voice to reach us all.
"Inside, the lot of you. Move!"
Claire, Tom and Neil moved. Joe was panting and blood was running from a split lip. Dad held onto him with one hand and spun around on the other kids, voice raised.
"And you lot can clear off too, go on! Season of Goodwill this is, not a bloody free fight zone!"
Oddly enough they moved. And our Joe moved too, yanking out of my Dad's reach and running his sleeve over his split lip.
"In." my Dad said sharply, to him and to me. I didn't move, too alarmed by the white of Joe's face and the baring of his teeth. Then Joe turned on his heel and bolted, not towards our front door but down the street. I wasn't quick enough. Dad grabbed me and I kicked out at his shins, copying what I'd seen of our Claire's mad cat tactics. When I threw myself to the ground he lost his grip and slipped on the frost, crashing down far more heavily than I had. That was my chance and I took it. I got to my feet and ran, taking off down the steep and slippery pavements down the hill and after my brother.
Joe was out of sight but that didn't matter. I knew where he'd gone.
The chip van was where it had always stood, lighting a patch of darkness by the dock gates. Claire planted her elbows on the counter and gave a half grin to the elderly man behind it.
"One large chips in five bags please mister."
The man stared back at her for a minute, then grinned in return.
"You're never little Claire Cullen!"
Claire laughed and the man shook his head.
"I'd remember you anywhere, cheeky little madam that you were. Body of a whippet and teeth like a bulldog. I thought your dad wouldn't let you down on the docks any more?"
"Brought him with me." Claire said impudently, nodding at Dad who was standing at the back of the group, hands dug in his pockets. "Have you seen our Joe down here? Do you remember our Joe?"
"Ah love, it was more than ten years ago!" the man protested.
"Nearer twenty." Claire said dryly. "Seriously. Big, sandy haired, brown jacket."
"6'1, grey eyes, 13 stone." Kane said tonelessly behind her. "Here."
The man glanced down at the picture Kane took out of his wallet and shook his head.
"I'm sorry lad, I haven't. If I see him I'll say you're looking."
"Is this where you had in mind?" Denham said quietly to me at the back of the crowd.
I'd been surprised he'd come with us. He'd locked the door on his office in the gathering gloom of early evening- at three thirty it was nearly dark- and without a word had walked down with us from his office onto the red cobbles that led to the docks.
I shook my head, evading his eye. Denham turned slowly, taking in the few large ships moored in the distance, the packing crates stacked around us, the white painted bollards marking the water's edge.
"Do you know where to go?"
I nodded again, more slowly. Denham watched my father move closer to join Kane and Claire as they asked for directions from the chip man, then took a slow step back to me, taking my arm.
"Quietly then. Lead the way."
I was surprised enough to do as he said.
I found our Joe sitting behind a heap of packing crates by the end dock, where the river moved out in search of the sea. The wind was coldest here, and he sat huddled on the ground, his arms wrapped around his knees. He looked up in shock as I sat beside him, pushing close to him to share warmth against the night wind. It was freezing out here.
"Tobe? What are you doing here? You're not allowed down here."
"Dad's looking for you." I said into my knees, wrapping my arms tightly around them in imitation of him. He swore softly, leaning his forehead on his arms. And we sat, in silence, watching the dark glitter of street lights on the river as it slipped away and slipped away beneath us. After a while he put an arm around me and pulled me against him. The blood from his split lip had dried dark on his face.
"You should go home." He said once. I shook my head fiercely.
"Not without you."
"Oh Tobe you don't understand."
What was there to understand?
It was a long, long time later that a torch shone down on us both from the side of the dock, and caught us, blinking, our faces stiff with cold. My Dad came no closer, his hands dug in his coat pockets, his voice quiet.
"Come on lads. Home."
"I'm not coming." Joe said bluntly. Dad crouched down on the cobbles, watching the water beyond us. I leaned against Joe and stared at him defiantly. I wasn't going either.
"Joe." Dad said eventually. "It's past eleven. You shouldn't be out here now and neither should Toby."
"We're ok." Joe said tightly.
Dad shook his head. "It's dark. It's cold. This is no place for young kids. He won't go anywhere without you Joe, are you going to keep him out all night?"
"Toby go with Dad." Joe ordered me. I didn't move. After a minute Joe gave me a rough shove. "I said go with Dad!"
I folded my arms still tighter and stood my ground.
Dad took a seat on the cobbles with a grunt of discomfort. "Looks like we're all here for the duration then."
"I don't want to talk to you." Joe said curtly.
Dad sniffed, sounding wry. "I gathered that."
"Mam'll come back you know? She will."
I looked up at him, not very comfortable with that statement. Joe sounded furious. But the thought of the house again cold, unlit, filled with the smell of rubbish and stale air, that was in itself alarming. The thought of Dad being vanished- leaving us - Dad caught my eye and shook my head, his voice calming.
"I won't leave Tobe. I'm not going to leave again."
"You will." Joe spat. "You'll bugger off just like you did the last time, and I won't know where the hell you are or what to do. I won't know nothing except being fucking scared of fucking social workers taking the kids and splitting us up- they'd have split us into fucking children's homes, you wouldn't have cared! What makes you think you can waltz back in here now and make everything fine? It isn't fine. I hate you. I hate her!"
His voice cracked and my Dad got up, coming unhurriedly over to us. I got out of the way but Dad wasn't interested in me. He stooped instead over my brother and Joe hit out at him with both fists, teeth bared.
"You get off me! Piss off back to where you came from, we don't need you! I don't care if I never fucking see you OR her again-"
Dad didn't seem to feel the blows that were landing. There was a minute of confused wrestling like I'd seen on the street the night they fought about homework, then Joe was locked inside my Dad's arms and I heard him start to cry like I did, hard and aloud, in a way that took all his breath. Dad slowly sat on the cobbles and put his back to the packing crates, stroking Joe's hair and rocking him. I could hear his voice, out of breath with the effort of the struggle but deep and soft.
"Allright. Allright my lad, it's allright now."
There were no packing cases on the end dock. Just my brother. Sitting silently on the railings looking out over the river. I stopped at the sight of him and Denham stopped with me, following my gaze.
"Is that him?"
I nodded, my eyes starting to sting. As a child I'd run to join him. This time, I knew, it wasn't me who was wanted here. Denham put a gentle hand on my arm.
"I'll keep an eye on him. Go get the others."
It took Denham and I both to stop Claire. And she stamped but turned away, folding her arms and glaring. Kane's increasingly rapid stride looked close to breaking into a straight forward run. Then I saw him gather himself and he slowed, matching his pace to my father's as they went on down the dock towards that lone figure.
Whether we were close enough to hear or whether the wind carried their voices back to us I don't know, but my father stopped a few feet back, his hands in his pockets, and let Kane reach him alone. Kane's voice was agonisingly casual as he leaned on the railings beside my brother.
"What are you doing here you silly beggar?"
Joe looked down at him with the same start as if he'd been suddenly woken. Kane ran both hands gently over his thighs and pulled at his jacket.
"Come down here. Come on."
Joe still looked at him, sitting where he was. Then let Kane manhandle him to the ground and stood numbly in front of him. Kane ran both hands through his hair, pushing it back from Joe's face and cradling his head. He had to reach up to do it, but my big brother stood passively, his eyes fixed on Kane's.
"We know about your mam." Kane told him softly. "I'm so sorry."
Joe's hands lifted to hold Kane's wrists, but it was a slow, spaced out movement, there was no animation in his face. Dad went slowly to join them and ran a hand down his back, less a gesture than an absent and familiar caress, it was one of the few gestures Joe had tolerated as a teenager, wary of overt affection. Joe looked across at him without surprise. He and Dad were much the same height now, they stood eye to eye where Kane stood shoulder high to them both.
"She lied to me." Joe said to him. My Dad didn't argue, just leaned on the railings and looked out over the river. Joe took a deep, shuddering breath and looked down again into Kane's face.
"It was all my fault. I did it."
"You didn't do anything." Kane said softly. "It's ok Joe. I'm here, I've got you, it's going to be fine."
"I did. I did it." Joe repeated. He sounded faintly surprised about it.
I moved slowly closer, standing as I had done twenty years ago, watching my father and Joe by this river. In profile, in this light, their faces were so very much the same. Kane, by contrast, looked strained. Anxious.
"What did you do honey?"
Joe hesitated for a moment. Then he turned gently out of Kane's hands and leaned on the railings. I watched him rub his own hands together, pushing at the knuckles as though he was washing something off them. He had his back to both of them, but he spoke to my father.
"I knew she was seeing that man in town. She used to tell me how to lie to you about where we'd been and what we'd done, and I'd play with the kids in the park while she talked to him. Or look after the kids when she went to sleep with him. I knew, she told me everything. She told me you didn't care about us, that you'd leave, and then you did… "
"You were only a kid. You weren't even twelve when I left." My Dad said gently. Joe shrugged.
"I did it. I helped her to get rid of you. And when I'd done that, there was another man. And another. And another."
I saw Kane and my father exchange glances. My Dad sighed.
"Yeah. I know lad. It was the way she was. It was always the way she was."
"And then the man she left us for." Joe said tonelessly. "She told me he was nervous about kids, that he needed some time to get used to the idea, and that we'd live at the house and she'd visit every day. I just had to look after them all. She gave me the address where I could find her. And she left, and I tried to look after them, and she never came back. I bunked off school when I ran out of money and went to the address she'd given me."
Dad didn't say anything but I saw his hand move under my brother's jacket, rubbing across his back. My brother's voice cracked.
"She'd given me a false address. They'd never heard of her. I looked all over that district. I don't know she was even in the town any more. She'd just left us. She was gone from mid August, I made the kids lie to you too. We weren't alone two weeks, we were alone nearly six months. Then Neil got ill and nothing I did made any difference-"
"Joe, sweetheart, you were only a kid yourself."
"I shouldn't have let him get ill. I was the one who took them out every night, I should have taken better care of them."
"With no lights at home, no heating, no food." Dad said quietly. "You did the best you could."
Joe shook his head. "I never really believed she wouldn't one day come back. She'd have a reason, she'd explain and it would all make sense. It wouldn't be her fault. Then Tom came home to tell me she'd died, and that's the end of it. No second chances. I got rid of you, I helped her ditch us, I kept the kids away from you, and some part of me actually believed all this time that I was doing the right thing. How stupid is that?"
I took half a step towards him, aware my eyes were running. I was just about keeping quiet with an effort. Denham put an arm over me, holding me back against him and for some reason I stood still and let him, waiting in the circle of that arm.
"You were a kid." Kane said softly. "Only a kid. Kids are trusting. And loyal. And she was your mam."
"I don't feel like I've ever been right about anything in my life." Joe said deadly. He lifted his head and looked directly at Dad. "I don't feel qualified to know anything at all. I betrayed you and I knew all along you were the only one decent enough to stay with us and care what happened to the kids. If I had any bloody guts I'd be in that river, not standing by it."
"My marriage and my kids weren't your responsibility." Dad said steadily. "You can't possibly have betrayed anyone or anything, it was never your problem to begin with."
"I bloody colluded with her."
"She used you." Dad said gently. "She used you Joe. She used the fact you were a nice kid who loved her, and who could be trusted. And who didn't understand enough of what was happening to be critical. I'm never going to blame you for that son."
"It feels to me like betrayal." Joe muttered, turning back to the railings. Dad put a hand behind his head, pulled it over and kissed his cheek roughly.
"Well it doesn't to me. The only people to blame in my marriage is your mam and me. And the only person responsible for my kids is me. You did nothing wrong Joe. You never have."
He dug his hands in his pockets and walked away, slowly back to where Claire was waiting, shivering. Kane stood with an arm around my brother's waist, his face against his shoulder.
"Come on." Denham said in my ear. I shook my head, tears still running. Denham pulled and I found myself turning around, walking slowly within the shelter of his arm.
"I'll walk you home." Dad was saying to Claire. "Your Keith'll be wondering where you are."
"What time is it?"
Down on the dockside I saw Joe slowly turn around and wrap his arms around Kane, his head sinking onto Kane's shoulder with a weariness and a weight that told me the depth of what he gave to Kane. There were parts to my brother that even I was never going to know. Kane's eyes met mine over his head, his fingers tangled into my brother's hair.
"I don't think we're wanted any further." Denham said beside me. "Where would you like to go? Home?"
I opened my mouth automatically to protest independence. Then realised belatedly I was still huddled against him and I'd been crying on his shoulder for a good quarter of an hour. He gave me a faint smile out of those soft brown eyes.
"Walk back to the office with me and I'll drive you home."
"I don't know you." I said feebly. The smile deepened and he pulled an ID card out of his pocket.
"I'm in uniform sir. I'd be happy to offer you a safe escort."
"Are you alright Tobe?" Dad said mildly. I looked once more at Joe and Kane, then back to Denham, and nodded.
"Yes, I think so."
"I'll see you tomorrow lad."
Claire waved a hand to me and she and Dad began the long walk back down the docks towards her district. Denham's arm squeezed around my shoulders and I walked with him in the opposite direction, back towards the NFS offices. At the foot of the steps I paused and looked back.
Two boys and a girl were playing football under a street light further down the dock, silvered in the foggy gloom. They were smaller than I remembered, no more than children, scruffy and noisy and oblivious to the danger of the nearby water. A third boy sat on the back of a cast iron bench, reading a book propped on his knees, and at his feet a small child lay curled in a foetal ball against the evening chill, asleep.
"All done?" Denham said gently. I blinked and the children were gone. Only my brother was left, tall and solid, walking slowly hand in hand with Kane under the streetlight and towards their home.
"Yeah." I said unsteadily. "I'm all done here."
~ THE END ~