So it's true, when all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.
( E. A. Bucchianeri – Brushstrokes of a Gadfly )
It's the little things that trip him up even after all this time; the little things that remind him of his lost boy. He'll catch sight of someone wearing a similar jacket in the street; or hear that ruddy song on the radio that Jason was always humming; or catch the smell of the shower gel that the lad favoured as someone brushes past him. It never fails to shock him when it happens – to stop him in his tracks – and just like that he'll be reminded that Jason is gone and the grief will hit him all over again like a freight train.
He's angry – oh God he's angry; rages against the injustice of it all. It isn't fair that someone so young (with the world at his feet if he'd only known it; if he hadn't been quite so fixated on the past) should be taken away so suddenly; it isn't fair that his boy should be gone (because he may not have been Jason's biological father – not have been his father by blood – but he's been the nearest damned thing the boy has had ever since his true father was lost). It eats at him; corrodes him like acid – burning constantly in the pit of his stomach.
He's lost track of the number of glasses he's broken; thrown at the wall when the whisky they'd contained had done little to remove the pain. How many evenings has he ended up sitting despairingly on his couch, head in his hands, trying to fight away the anger and sorrow? He's lost count; lost all sense of the passage of time really.
Destructive though the anger is though, the numbness that pervades him most of the time is infinitely worse. Then he really does lose track of the days; forgets to eat; forgets to do much of anything. He's drinking too much (way too much) and sitting here staring at the four walls isn't healthy in any way.
He can't stay here; can't be faced with the reminders of Jason at the moment; needs to get away for a while to try to get himself to the point where he can at least function. So he throws himself into looking for new sites to explore. He steers clear of the Mediterranean (too many memories attached that he doesn't want to think about right now) and looks for sites that he can take a smaller vessel to – can't bring himself to even think about looking for a site that might require the use of a sub (he hasn't replaced the one that was lost – can't think about that either). He needs somewhere different; somewhere Jason never went; where he's not going to imagine seeing his boy on every street corner.
Saint Marie is an island paradise in the Caribbean, far away from his usual sites. He's hired a mixed crew – some locals and some that he's brought from home, but all experienced in the field. Before he travels, he contacts the local Commissioner to make sure he has all the right permits and isn't going to fall foul of any local laws. The man is less than friendly at first, but Mac gathers they'd had trouble over the years with treasure hunters seeking to sell their finds for profit and removing vital pieces of history from the island. Mac is quick to assure him that that is not his intent at all; he is being sponsored by the authorities in Guadeloupe to locate the wreck of the Sainte Cécile, a French merchantman which had gone down of the coast of Saint Marie in 1742 on its way to the larger island. He reassures the Commissioner that his team will simply be looking to locate and map the wreck. A few artefacts might be brought up after recording for authentication purposes but that he is in the business of underwater archaeology rather than treasure hunting. The Commissioner is far friendlier after that (especially since Mac happily provides the details of his contact in Guadeloupe for the Commissioner to speak to himself).
By the time he arrives on the island, the Commissioner has apparently done a deal with the authorities in Guadeloupe and it is now a joint expedition with an agreement that any artefacts found will be catalogued and conserved before a decision is taken on which island should display them. Mac is relieved they have come to an arrangement – his job can be made significantly harder by local politics.
He's never actually been to the Caribbean before – has spent most of his career working in the Mediterranean – and is unprepared for the sheer beauty of the place. It's hot too; hotter than anywhere else he's ever worked (and yes that does include Greece in the height of summer) but it's better than letting himself sink into despair, staring at the four walls in a grey and dreary English winter.
Every morning he wakes up to the sound of the waves lapping at the sides of the boat as it bobs gently in the marina; every day he walks along white beaches or through the dusty streets of Honoré to buy fresh bread and fruit for the day. The sea is as blue as he's ever seen it and everywhere he looks life is colourful.
He's kept too busy in the day to think too much; the familiar routines of an expedition helping to soothe him – and if he feels the absence of Jason at his shoulder, he pushes it aside and gets on with his job; forces himself to ignore the aching sense of something (someone) missing and throws himself into his work. There are times (of course there are) when he sees something on one of the maps he pours over, or on a scanner, or even in the street as he haggles over the price of a lush, ripe pineapple, and he goes to point it out to Jason only to find that the boy isn't there – and that's when the grief comes crashing in again; the empty pit opening up in his stomach.
All in all, though, he's better than he's been in months; thinks he might finally be beginning to get through this. In the daytime he has enough to do to keep his mind busy and by nightfall he's usually so tired that he falls into bed after a drink or two with those members of the crew who aren't local; who are staying with him on the boat and don't have homes to get back to.
Tonight things are different. Today they found a wreck that could well be the Sainte Cécile (they'll need to dive on it and to get a lot more evidence before Mac will be satisfied to say that it's definitely the ship they are being paid to locate) and the crew wanted to go to a beach party they had heard about in Port Royal to celebrate. Mac had felt old and jaded in the face of their excitement; their youthful enthusiasm. So he'd sent them off to their evening's entertainment with a smile and reassurances that he'd be just fine on his own; had told them that beach parties weren't really his thing anymore and that he'd got some reading that he wanted to catch up on and a bottle of whisky calling his name.
Once the crew have gone though, he's restless – unable to settle to his reading or his whisky – the silence on the boat closing in on him. He paces about for a bit before deciding to head off towards the town. After all, on this island of pleasure (they say that Saint Marie has a hundred public beaches and numerous other private ones) there must be a bar somewhere where he can settle down for the evening and drown out his demons; drown out the memories that haunt him.
The marina is pretty quiet as he makes his way up from the berth they have been allocated, along wooden walkways that lead to the shore. The sun has long since set and most of the marina's temporary residents have sought the pleasures of a beach front bar or restaurant – or headed further afield (like his crew) to find one of the dozens of parties that seem to go on each night.
The bar that he wanders into is dark (lit with strings of fairy lights and candles) but bustling. He's been here before a couple of times in daylight hours. It seems to be frequented mainly by locals (always a good sign as far as he's concerned) rather than tourists (it isn't quite flashy enough for your average holidaymaker he supposes) but the food is good and the alcohol cheap so he isn't going to complain.
Tonight the bar seems to be full of people dancing; spinning and shimmying between the tables with arms raised above their heads; a riot of colourful dresses and bright shirts; all moving in time to the loud Caribbean music that is coming from a stereo behind the bar. Mac has never been much of a dancer, so he makes his way to the darkest corner of the room (the furthest point from the dusty street) and finds a small table to sit at.
At the next table over there's a man in a suit and tie; he stands out like a sore thumb in a place where the mode of dress can at best be described as relaxed. It's never been Mac's habit to stick his nose into other people's business though (if this man wants to roast himself then let him as far as Mac's concerned) so he slides into his seat at the table without making eye contact and waits for the bar tender to notice him.
The woman, when she stops dancing, eventually comes towards him; wafts over in a wave of multicoloured fabric from her ankle length dress, a strange turban-like thing perched upon her head. He knows from his previous visits to the bar that she is the owner, although he has never bothered to find out her name. She stops and speaks to the man in the suit for a moment or two (clearly knows him) and to the woman who has joined him (his polar opposite; whereas the man is hideously overdressed, the young woman is almost aggressively underdressed – Mac didn't know they still made shorts that short to be honest). Mac frowns. All he wants is a drink – is that really too much to ask?
Finally the owner sashays over and asks for his order in an accent that is a charming mixture of French and Caribbean. He orders some of the local rum (he's never been a cocktail sort of guy) – a slight departure from his usual whisky. It burns as it slides down his throat but settles warmly in his stomach. He's grateful for it; despite the stifling Caribbean heat he's been feeling cold this evening (a coldness that comes from deep within his soul rather than the world around him; he's been frozen for months really).
He calls the bar owner over again and asks her to bring the bottle. She does as he asks but raises an eyebrow as she places the bottle down on the table.
"You will not find it at the bottom of a bottle," she remarks cryptically.
"What?" Mac growls (he sounds surly – but then he always does these days)
"Whatever it is you are looking for."
Her words hit him like a hammer blow and for a moment he forgets how to breathe. In his mind's eye he is back on his boat (so many months ago now) leaning on the side rail with his boy at his side.
"I hope you find it… Whatever it is you're looking for."
He can still feel Jason's shoulder, warm beneath his hand; still see the fragile smile the boy gave him in response, affection crinkling his eyes.
They were almost the last words he'd said to Jason before he took that bloody sub down and Mac had known – known without question – that letting him go down to look for his father's wreck was a really, really stupid idea. It was foolhardy and dangerous – and he'd known that but he'd gone along with it anyway because at the end of the day he'd never been able to deny Jason anything.
The guilt tears at him – eviscerating him from the inside; the thought that maybe, just maybe, if he'd just said no – had refused to let Jason use the sub for his own purposes – that his boy would still be here. It's a ridiculous thought really and he knows it – after all, when had Jason ever let anyone tell him what to do? If he hadn't agreed, the boy would still have found a way (of that Mac is completely sure); he had needed to know the truth too badly and was stubborn enough that he would never have given up.
"You know nothing about it," he snaps bitterly at the bar owner.
Out of the corner of his eye he sees the young woman at the next table bristle at his tone and feels a brief surge of guilt at his own rudeness. He looks away and mutters an apology.
"People come to my bar for many reasons," the owner says softly. "Some come to dance; some to enjoy a drink with friends; some even come for a cup of tea." She turns and glances at the man in the suit with an amused expression. "And some come to try to forget," she adds, turning back to look at Mac seriously. "They think that they can wash away their problems in drink… but it rarely works like that."
"It really isn't that simple," he finds himself muttering, unsure why he's even striking up a conversation with this woman (he rarely talks to people beyond conversations about his work these days).
The woman takes his answer as an invitation to sit down (which it wasn't in any way – he doesn't think he's fit company for anyone this evening after all).
"So tell me what it is you are trying to escape from?" she asks. "I am Catherine, by the way. Catherine Bordey… and this is my bar."
"I know," Mac answers. "I've been here before."
"You have," Catherine replies. "With a group of young people who are not with you tonight."
"They work for me," Mac says.
"You are from one of the boats?"
"Yeah. We're… uh… we're searching for a wreck. The Sainte Cécile. Went down in a storm in 1742."
"Ah," Catherine remarks. "You are treasure hunters."
"No," he growls. "Archaeologists. It's a joint venture between the authorities in Guadeloupe and here in Saint Marie. Treasure hunters keep whatever they bring up and sell it to the highest bidder. We don't."
"I meant no offence," his companion apologises.
Mac waves her apology away and pours himself another glass of rum, setting the bottle back down on the table with a distinct bang.
"The crew went to a beach party," he mutters, still not entirely sure why he's bothering to talk to this woman.
"You should have gone with them."
"I'm not much one for parties these days," he says.
"Surely it would be better than sitting alone and drinking yourself into a stupor though, wouldn't it?" Catherine asks.
"I'm not," Mac protests, although his words ring hollow to his own ears – after all, isn't that exactly what he intended to do? To drink enough for his brain to switch off and for him to forget for just a few hours?
It's clear from the look that Catherine gives him that she doesn't believe him either.
"So what are you doing then?" she asks.
"Nothing," Mac growls. "Just trying to enjoy a quiet drink in peace." He gives the woman an irritated look which she returns coolly, completely unfazed by his glower.
"You English!" she retorts. "Always so repressed. Why can you Brits never say what you mean? How you feel?"
"How I feel is none of your damned business!" Mac snaps, stung.
He sees the woman at the next table start up as though she intends to intervene and grimaces at his own bad manners.
"Sorry," he mutters.
"You never told me your name," Catherine says softly.
"James McKenzie," Mac answers offering her his hand a little ungraciously. "But everyone that mattered called me Mac. Calls me Mac," he tries to correct himself. "Everyone that matters calls me Mac."
"No," Catherine says, not letting go of his hand. "I think you were more honest the first time. You have lost the person that mattered to you the most."
"I didn't say that," Mac protests.
"You didn't need to," Catherine replies. She smiles at him. "It was your wife?" she asks.
Mac snorts loudly.
"Never been married," he retorts. "I wish it were that simple."
Catherine raises her eyebrows and exchanges a glance with the young woman at the next table. Mac can't help noticing that her overdressed companion is watching him, hawk-like. He takes a slow sip from the cup of tea in front of him and carefully puts the cup back in the saucer, still watching Mac with that sharp gaze.
"How old was your son when he died?" he asks bluntly.
"Richard!" Catherine admonishes sharply – but Mac can't help noticing that she turns back expectantly to him all the same.
Mac barks a bitter laugh – he had come here to drink himself to the point where he could forget the past, not to be forced to remember it by a group of overly nosy strangers.
"I never said I had a son," he growls. "Or that he died."
"Yes, but you didn't deny it either," the other man, Richard, states flatly. "It was obvious. You snorted when Catherine asked if your wife had died and said you had never been married. You could have had a female lover of course, but the snort and the wish that it were 'that simple' told a different story. So, the person you had lost was another man. Once again it could have been your lover but on the balance of probability it's more likely to have been your son."
"Jason wasn't actually my son," Mac murmurs without thinking. "He was my best mate's son. Only, his Dad disappeared – died – when he was just a kid and there wasn't anyone else… Jason's Dad always said that his Mum died when he was born and there wasn't any other family… so I brought him up."
"A child does not have to be related to you by blood for you to be their parent," Catherine says softly. "You adopted this boy?"
"No," Mac admits. "I'm not sure why I never did to be honest. The time never seemed right… only now… now I wish things had been different."
"You loved him very much."
"Yeah. Yeah I did… but I never actually told him."
"He knew," Catherine says firmly.
"Did he?" Mac asks. "Because I can't help thinking that if he did, he'd still be here now. Instead, I never told him how much he was wanted and he went off to chase a ghost and…" He breaks off and looks away.
"A ghost?" Catherine murmurs curiously. "You believe in the spirit world?"
Mac snorts again.
"Please!" he mutters. "I didn't mean an actual ghost." He sighs. "Jason's Dad was an archaeologist like me… he was on a site and he went down in a sub to have a look around. Only something happened. There was an accident and the sub was lost. I wasn't with him for once. The authorities searched until there was no hope left. He died down there… leaving a lonely, confused little boy with no-one to care for him but me… a grumpy bachelor who spends half his life at sea. It's no wonder that Jason…" he breaks off again and swallows hard. "He couldn't let go," he admits. "He told me he had to know what had happened… and I let him… I let him go. I arranged the expedition… even set up the sub myself…"
"What happened?" Catherine asks gently.
"I don't know," Mac says desperately. "I don't know what went wrong. We lost contact with the sub not that long after Jason took it down. When it was clear that something was wrong I sent down a remote to find it. The front of the sub was smashed in… the glass was gone… but Jason wasn't there. My boy drowned down there and I don't even know what happened to his body. It's all my fault. I may as well have killed him myself. If I'd just said no when he came to me with that bloody hair-brained plan to go looking for what happened to his Dad…"
"Would it have stopped him if you had said no?"
Mac's head whips round to face Richard at the man's blunt question (and he really does look ridiculous sweltering in that heavy suit and tie in this heat).
"Excuse me?" he demands.
"You said that your son could not let go of the past; that he felt that he needed to know exactly what had happened to his biological father. That strikes me as being obsessive… and people with obsessions won't usually back down even if their desires are rejected."
"Jason wasn't obsessive," Mac protests, not bothering to try to correct the other man's reference to Jason being his son this time. "He was stubborn… if there was something he believed in passionately he wouldn't back down… and he desperately needed closure where his Dad was concerned… but I wouldn't have described him as obsessed." He pauses for a moment, reflecting. "He was good at what he did. Bright, funny, passionate, kind. Everyone liked Jas... but he never seemed to let anyone get too close, you know? Never really had close friends… and I think maybe that was my fault. See when his Dad first disappeared… I didn't want Jason." He swallows hard. "I'd never wanted to be a parent and here I was stuck with a child who wasn't even mine. He wasn't a difficult little boy at all… sunny natured… not demanding… but it didn't alter the fact that he wasn't mine and I resented having to be responsible for him… I tried not to let Jason know that but I do wonder if he picked up on it somehow. He never said anything to me but it haunts me… the thought that somehow he thought he was unwanted; a burden… because it wasn't true – it wasn't true at all. Yeah, there was a short time when I was less than thrilled about inheriting the responsibility for him but it really didn't last more than a few weeks. He was such an easy child to love you see… and I did… I did love him so very much."
"You should not feel guilty," Catherine murmurs gently. "It is clear that you loved him and I have no doubt that he knew that too."
"I wish I could be so certain," Mac mutters thickly. "You're right though," he adds, looking back at Richard. "Jas needed to know the truth so much… if I'd said no he'd just have looked for another way… and he had enough friends – enough colleagues – that owed him favours. He'd have found some way of getting to the wreck of his Dad's sub even if I had said no."
"And that doesn't sound obsessive at all," Richard answers, rolling his eyes.
"Richard!" the young woman in the very short shorts admonishes sharply (and Mac still hasn't caught her name) before murmuring something to Richard, standing up and weaving her way through the tables to the back of the bar.
Mac barks a sharp laugh because actually he finds the other man's abrasive attitude refreshing; he's had months of cloying sympathy; of useless platitudes from people who don't know him (who didn't know Jason); of people he thought of as friends crossing the street to avoid him because they don't know what to say or are embarrassed or something.
Once he's started laughing, he can't seem to stop – although he doesn't know why. It occurs to him, as he's chortling helplessly, that Jason would have been upset if he could have seen the way Mac's been for the past few months. He spots his companions exchanging glances (knows that he probably looks more than a little nuts right now) and attempts to sober up.
"Sorry," he says, wiping away the tears that have leaked out of the corner of his eyes. "It's just it suddenly struck me just how bloody absurd this all is. If you knew me at all, you'd know that I'm don't usually talk about feelings or any of that… yet here I am pouring my heart out to complete strangers." He pauses, becoming more serious. "Jas would be upset with me if he was here," he adds softly. "The way I've been the past few months… half the time I'm so angry I just want to tear something or someone apart and the other half I'm so damned numb that I can't tell what day of the week it is. Jason didn't like to see anyone upset. Reckon he'd give me a kick in the pants to shake me out of it… of course if Jas was here I wouldn't be like this."
"You are grieving," Catherine points out gently. "It is only natural."
"He'd have loved it here," Mac says. "Jason would have loved the colour; the vibrancy; the heat. Even as a little boy he hated the cold."
"Strange child," Richard murmurs. "How anyone can enjoy this sort of unremitting heat is beyond me. Give me some proper English drizzle any day."
Mac can't help grinning at the ludicrousness of the man.
"Well I guess that when you spend a couple of months every summer in the Med, right from early childhood, you get used to the heat," he says. "Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece – I've worked in them all… or at least off the coast. Spent most of the time in the Aegean though – lots of archaeology under the water in the Aegean. Wherever I went I took Jason with me. He grew up on the boats… in and out of the water. He loved it. I mean, what kid wouldn't? Most kids get a week on a beach if they're lucky… but Jas had a couple of months completely immersed in the culture – the food; the language; the people. It was a real life adventure… and he took to it like a duck to water. Didn't always like having to come home at the end of the summer… going back to school on cold dark miserable mornings – it's hard on a kid to have to go back to reality… and like I say, Jason hated the cold. Can't say I blamed him really – I've never been all that fond myself."
Richard shakes his head and mutters something to himself about there being no accounting for taste.
Mac's grin widens and it occurs to him that he's probably smiled more this evening than he's done since the sub was lost and Jason died. It comes as a bit of a shock. There had been a time in the weeks after his boy had been lost when he had been fairly certain he'd never smile again. Yet here he is, grinning away at the absurdity of a complete stranger. Somehow, he thinks Jason would have approved – his boy had always had a wicked sense of humour after all.
He sees Catherine watching him with a knowing smile.
"Have you eaten?" she asks.
"Not since lunchtime," Mac answers. "I was going to get myself something once the crew had gone off to their party but in the end I couldn't really be bothered. Just wasn't all that hungry."
"You should eat something to soak up the rum," Catherine says. "Can I cook you something? Callaloo? Boudin? A nice crab salad? I have chicken with rice prepared in the kitchen."
"Oh… well," Mac replies. "Chicken with rice would be lovely."
He means it too; has developed a taste for the local food in the weeks he has been here. He smirks as he hears Richard muttering under his breath about how much better good old fashioned English food is.
As Catherine stands, Mac grabs her wrist gently.
"Thanks," he says honestly.
"It is no trouble," Catherine replies. "This is a restaurant as well as a bar after all."
"No. That's not what I meant," Mac protests mildly. "It's been nearly eight months and I haven't really talked to anyone about Jason since… Well, we had a memorial and I know some of the guys went out for a drink afterwards but I just couldn't face it." He swallows hard. "I was never very social before but the last few months I think the only thing I've been able to talk about with anyone is work… It's all I've been able to face. I came to Saint Marie to escape the memories of Jason; to be somewhere where he'd never been so that I wouldn't imagine I saw him all the time. And, yeah, I've been able to focus better – been able to throw myself into my work – but I still couldn't talk about what happened… and there have still been times when it all crept up in me – like tonight. I came here tonight intending to drink enough that I could forget; that I could have some peace. I never thought… I never even imagined… well… I'm not one for talking a lot about feelings and the like – never been touchy feely – so I never dreamed I'd end up telling complete strangers about Jas and about what happened."
"And has it helped?"
"I think so, yeah," Mac answers thoughtfully. "I think now I can begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel. So, thanks."
"You are very welcome," Catherine says softly. "I will go and get your food. Perhaps you would like to dance while you are waiting."
Mac eyes the dancers dubiously.
"Erm, thanks but no," he says. "I don't dance. I've got two left feet and on the rare occasions I have been dragged up onto the dance floor I've bumped into tables and trampled on some poor sod's feet. I'll just sit here and watch."
He settles back in his chair as Catherine sashays away, noticing as he does that Richard has returned to his tea and his conversation with his female companion, newly returned from wherever she has been. It still hurts a great deal to think about Jason (of course it does) but these people have helped him to put things in perspective (at least for now) – and maybe one day, if he's really lucky, he'll be able to think about his lost boy and smile.