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The Din of the World

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"Tea is drunk to forget the din of the world." T'ien Yi-heng

 

Mornings are long for Simon, since things changed. Days are long, life is long. He's not practiced at doing nothing while feeling emotionally well, is only familiar with the time-consuming, obsessive boredom of depression. The temptation to phone his dealer or curl up under the covers for days on end is long gone, but he's not clear yet what other options he has. As much as losing the ULA has meant freedom, it has also left him without purpose, at sea.

He's trying books again, poetry, mostly, in those quiet morning hours. That is where he is, laid out on the sofa with Auden, trying to avoid memories of his dad, when there is a gentle knock at the door.

Simon glances out the window. Better to be safe, even though it's sure to be Kieren; no one else would knock. It's not Kieren, though. He sees the dark brown bob, mackintosh, woolly cardigan, comfortable shoes, and his quiet heart gives a little stutter of surprise. Simon combs a hand through his hair, then hurries to the door and turns the bolt.

"Sue?" Kieren's mum looks so small, standing on the lower step.

"Hello. Yes. Simon." Sue's eyes dart around nervously, her smile flits off and on her face like it pains her.

Simon tries to imagine what has brought her, alone, to his doorstep. "If you are in search of Kieren, I'm afraid he's not here at the moment. Is everything all right?"

"No, no, all's well. Kieren's home. I was hoping to find you, actually." She looks up at Simon then, and smiles, a tight, quick smile, and Simon smiles back, hoping he's hiding his confusion.

"Did you?"

She holds up a shopping bag. "Wanted to drop a few things by for you."

This is so entirely unexpected that Simon is frozen for a moment before his practiced charm kicks back in (Kieren would be rolling his eyes at him, Simon is all too aware). "Please. Come in."

Sue Walker follows Simon's extended arm into the corridor of the bungalow. Her eyes continue their appraising scan of the decor, avoiding Simon. "Don't mean to intrude, I won't stay long. It was just, after your dinner party, I got to thinking that you didn't have much. In case of visitors."

Simon leads her into the sitting room, still baffled. "Visitors?"

"You know, who can...who might like a bite of something." Sue doesn't sit, stands, still in her coat, holding the shopping bag. Simon remains standing as well.

"No. I suppose that's true."

"Well," Sue sets the bag down on the coffee table and starts unpacking- several boxes of tea, a shiny new kettle, "that's what I was thinking, that maybe you would. More often now." Milk, a box of sugar, two boxes of biscuits. Simon stares as she removes each object, sets them in a line up on the table. His mind struggles to find a response. She's been thinking about him, about what he needs. There is a sudden, unwanted ache in his chest.

"Sue, you didn't need to do this." (Hears the deep saccharine in his voice, imagines Kieren's disapproval. Yeah, don't do that.)

"Oh, I know. I wanted to." Sue folds up the shopping bag and stows it in her handbag.

(What do normal people do?) Simon swallows, and reaches for the kettle. "Well, then. Shall I fix you a cuppa?"

"Oh, no, I should be off. I don't want to be a bother."

"Not at all." Simon means it, looks at her kind, nervous face, wants her to stay. "Please." He gestures for her to sit.

"All right then." Sue doesn't remove her coat, but she settles herself on the chair, perched on the edge, tapping her toes (so like her son; Simon's chest tightens again), clutching her handbag in her lap.

"Make yourself comfortable. I'll see if I can recall how to operate one of these things." Simon retreats into the kitchen with the kettle. He takes a long moment, hovering over the sink, rinsing and filling and rinsing and filling, trying to get his mind to settle, to shake off Simon the Disciple, Simon the Fake, and access Simon, who just wants Kieren's mum to stay for a moment and have some tea.

The water heats and boils in the quiet.

From the other room, Sue calls, "I can't tell you how pleased Steve and I are that you've decided to stay."

Simon steadies himself and pops back into the sitting room to collect the tea, milk, and sugar. "That's kind of you." He returns to the safety of the kitchen and calls out, hoping he sounds steadier than he feels. "How do you take it?"

"Just milk, thanks," she calls back, and Simon realizes she's bought supplies not just for herself, but for others, as if there are others she believes will want to stop by for tea and a visit. (Simon misses his own mum so intensely for a moment that he almost drops the hot mug as he stirs, only just manages to make it back out to the sitting room to set it in front of Sue.)

Sue is holding the collection of Auden he'd been reading, scanning the pages. "I see you enjoy poetry?"

"My dad was a poet. Is."

"Is he?" She sips the tea and sets down the book.

"I imagine he still writes. Hope he does," Simon adds.

"You don't see him, then."

"We don't get on." Simon knows that if he's going for honesty, he can't let himself get away with that grand understatement, so he adds, "I wasn't an easy son."

"Well, that surprises me. You've shown nothin' but kindness to us. And our Kieren."

The ache in Simon's chest throbs. The easy escape of drugs, the single-minded mission of the ULA, all his life trying to find a way to make sense of it all, and here he is, being offered clemency over a milky cup of tea.

Sue sets down her tea, her eyes fixed to the floor. "Do you know about...has Kieren told you? How he...what happened when he left us? And after?"

Her pained, pinched tone, how she can't meet his eyes, a slight tremble in her hands; Simon realizes asking this is why she is here. "He has. Not all of it. But most, I think."

Sue nods rapidly, looks up at Simon with a little sad smile. "Has he? Good. That's good." She sips her tea, her shoulders relax a fraction, and words start spilling out. "We get so scared, sometimes, knowing what he did. And now with you. I'm not someone who knows what to say. We don't...Steve and I...we're so...we've never known...others like you. I try to understand who he is, but I know I'm always getting it wrong. I just love him so much, but I know that's not enough. Wasn't enough." Sue falls quiet, her hands holding her mug of tea shaking as she sips again and stares past Simon into the distance.

God. Simon the cynic wants to call her out on all of her guilt and fear. Simon the disciple wants to lay a hand on her knee, lean in, and tell her she is loved, that she can break free of this, that she doesn't need to be scared anymore. But this new Simon, real Simon, let's himself be quiet for a long moment, lets her words swirl around him and settle into place in the puzzle of Kieren's life, and Simon knows he has to do better than that. He doesn't touch her, doesn't move, just says, "I love him, too."

"Do ye?" Sue asks. Simon nods, and Sue's eyes are moist, she lets a real smile dart across her face before she looks away and sips her tea, swallows, looks out the window. "Well, then."

It's quiet again, but an active, vibrant quiet, as if a new door has been opened and the two of them are looking through together to see how the world looks on the other side.

The door knob rattles, and both Simon and Sue startle and turn to the corridor towards the noise, the moment dissolving.

"Simon! You didn't do the bolt again..." Kieren's voice echoes from the entryway. Simon can imagine him loosening his boots, toeing them off and hanging his coat. "Simon?" Sue looks at Simon, raises her eyebrows conspiratorially.

Kieren comes round through the doorway and stops still, his wide eyes roving from Simon to his mum and back again, his mouth open to speak. Simon folds his hands in his lap and lets him look (love is a brilliant feeling, Jesus). Sue takes another sip of her tea.

"Mum?" Kieren's brow is creased, his expression searching Simon's. Simon gives him his most placid gaze in return, trying to reassure.

"Hello, sweetheart," Sue replies, setting down her mug.

"What are you doing here?" Again, asked mostly to Simon, who gives a little head shake and smile, hoping to convey comfort. "What's happened?"

"I just stopped in for tea."

"For tea?"

Simon sits up then. "Your mum brought me some. For visitors."

"Oh." Kieren is still trying to pry answers out of Simon through force of his gaze. "All right."

Sue stands then, runs the strap of her handbag over her shoulder. "But I should get back. I've shopping to finish." Simon stands as well.

"What have you been talking about?" Kieren asks.

Simon hears Sue's business-like reply of, "Oh, nothing much," at the same moment he looks right at Kieren and says, "You."

Sue catches Simon's eye and they share one last, private smile, a new understanding solidifying between them, and Simon aches, and it feels real, and wonderful.

Kieren however, looks horror-stricken. "Jesus."

"You comin' home later?" Sue asks Kieren, swiping a kiss on his cheek.

"Maybe."

"Phone if you won't be."

"Yeah."

Simon watches them, mother and son, the most meaningless of moments, and relishes that hard ache in his chest.

Sue turns her gaze to Simon. "Thank you for the tea." Simon means it when he says, "I hope you'll stop in again," and he is certain Sue means it when she replies, "I will."

The door shuts behind her, and Simon turns the bolt. Kieren is still standing, arms crossed, in the middle of the room. "My mum?" Simon crosses his arms, too, to stop himself from wrapping his arms around Kieren when he clearly needs to talk. (But god, does he want to pull him in, kiss him all afternoon.) "Do I even want to know what you said about me?"

Simon smiles. "Don't worry. I'll tell you sometime." The room smells of tea.