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‘Douglas! Stop messing around and get yourself ready for school!’
 
‘I’m not messing around!’ Douglas calls in response to his mother’s rebuke, though technically neither is he getting ready for school. He has cornered Herc in the study and has him sat obediently on the desk chair, while Douglas faces him with his arms folded and a scowl of suspicion on his face. ‘So how long are you going to stay?’ he asks stubbornly.
 
‘Well, forever, hopefully,’ Herc tells him mildly, ‘that’s what fiancé means.’
 
‘Gordon didn’t stay very long. And neither did my Dad.’
 
‘That was very wrong of them, but I promise not to do that, okay?’
 
‘You said hopefully before. That’s not the same as a promise.’
 
Herc sighs, though not unkindly. He has had much the same discussion with the eleven year old Douglas every day for the last two months – since he moved in with Carolyn and her sons – but the outcome has never yet changed. Douglas is determined not to trust him.
 
‘Well, I promise that I really really will stay. Really.’
 
‘Repeating yourself doesn’t make it true. And how do I know I can trust your promises?’ Douglas is actually very tall for his age, and manages to look rather intimidating as he glowers over this intruder into his family’s life. His face is set stubbornly, dark eyes glittering with distrust as they do every time he looks at Herc. They have softened none since their first proper introduction a year or more ago.
 
‘Have I ever lied to you before?’
 
‘Yes.’
 
‘When?’ Herc can’t help but sound indignant, cursing himself for being drawn into petulant arguments with a child. Again.
 
‘Last week,’ Douglas counters immediately. ‘When Martin fell over and you put the antiseptic on his knee, you said it wouldn’t hurt but it did. He cried.’
 
Herc doesn’t think pointing out that technically that lie was to Martin, not Douglas, would help, so he tries a different tack.
 
‘I was trying to do the best for him,’ he explains gently, struggling to find a way to say it that Douglas won’t be able to pick holes in. He is a remarkably shrewd boy. ‘I had to clean it or else it might have got infected, and that would have been worse, wouldn’t it? And it didn’t hurt him that much, I p – he was just a little shocked that’s all.’
 
‘So you’re calling Martin a liar?’ Douglas jumps on the last statement immediately, and Herc prays for patience.
 
‘Not at all,’ he says carefully, ‘I just meant that…you wouldn’t want it to have got infected would you?’
 
‘No.’
 
‘And neither would he.’
 
‘No.’
 
‘Well then,’
 
‘But you still lied.’
 
‘That was…a different kind of lie,’ Herc defends weakly. A look of triumph crosses Douglas’s face,
 
‘So you admit you lied?’
 
‘I – well, yes, once, but –’
 
‘So how do I know you won’t lie again? Gordon promised to stay too, it was in his vows when they got married, but he was only here about three years. Arthur was tiny when he left.’ Herc pauses a moment now, trying to keep the sympathy out of his voice; for all he is only just about to embark on his first day of secondary school, Douglas does not appreciate being patronised and Herc knows any appearance to that effect will only exacerbate the problem.
 
‘Do you miss him?’ Herc asks quietly,
 
‘Who, Gordon? No, of course not. He was horrible.’
 
‘But he is your brothers’ dad,’ says Herc reasonably, but Douglas shakes his head, unconvinced.
 
‘Yeah, but he’s not my Dad, is he? Anyway I don’t even like my Dad, he’s an idiot. Martin’s scared of Gordon and Arthur doesn’t even remember him. He never comes round. Why would we miss him?’
 
‘It’s okay if you do,’
 
‘Well I don’t.’
 
‘Okay then,’
 
‘Good,’ Douglas asserts, though he doesn’t know why. All he knows is that this man, no matter how much he says he likes Mum now, is bound to leave eventually. Everyone else has.
 
‘So why don’t you like me then?’ Herc asks after another long pause, feeling that he might as well try to at last get to the root of the problem.
 
‘It’s not a case of whether or not I like you,’ Douglas replies; Herc notices with a tinge of hope that he hasn’t specified that he definitively doesn’t. ‘It’s just that you won’t stay.’
 
‘What can I do to convince you that I will?’
 
‘Nothing.’
 
‘I love your mother very much, you know.’
 
‘You don’t act like it. You’re always arguing.’
 
‘We don’t argue, we have…discussions.’
 
‘They sound like arguments,’
 
‘They’re healthy debates.’ Herc cringes as he hears Carolyn calling again from downstairs, inwardly debating which one of them he would least like to get on the wrong side of. Staking his hopes on the fact that his efforts with Douglas are for a long-term goal, he resolutely remains sat where he is.
 
‘Is this a healthy debate?’ Douglas asks,
 
No, it’s the Spanish Inquisition, is what Herc thinks.
 
‘It’s a conversation,’ is what he says.
 
‘I think we’re having a debate,’ Douglas replies firmly. A look of distaste clouds his features. ‘Does that mean you love me very much as well?’
 
‘I love you all,’ Herc replies, without hesitation. Douglas snorts in disgust at this ridiculously sappy statement.
 
‘What about Gordon? And my Dad? Mum argued with them too. Did she love them?’
 
‘She did once,’
 
‘Not anymore?’
 
‘I don’t think it’s quite as simple as that.’
 
‘Don’t you know? You’ve got ex-wives haven’t you?’
 
‘Yes, I have, but every case is different. It’s not as easy as loving somebody one minute and not loving them anymore the next.’
 
‘But it could happen? You and Mum could decide you don’t love each other anymore and then you’d leave. Or you’d still love each other, but you’d leave anyway for some other reason?’
 
‘That won’t happen,’ Herc vows sincerely.
 
‘How do you know?’
 
‘Because I do. It’s just something that happens Douglas…you’ll understand when you’re older.’
 
‘I’m not stupid; you don’t have to treat me like a child.’
 
You are a child.
 
‘What about…what are you going to be when you grow up?’
 
Douglas shrugs, ‘I don’t know.’
 
‘Alright then, bad example. What about Martin? What’s Martin going to be?’
 
‘He says he’s going to be a pilot.’
 
‘And is he?’
 
Another shrug, ‘I don’t know. Probably. Either that or he’ll just keep trying for his whole life.’
 
‘How do you know that? How do you know Martin isn’t going to change his mind?’
 
‘I just kn – hey! That’s completely different, that’s – you’re cheating!’ Douglas exclaims, while Herc sits back and tries not to look too smug about outwitting an eleven year old.
 
‘What about my promise then? Do you believe me now?’
 
Douglas looks thoughtful. Herc groans; he knows that look. Carolyn gets that look on a regular basis, and it never bodes well for him.
 
‘You have to promise me something else. And you have to keep the promise. And then I can know that you can be trusted to stick to your word.’
 
‘That sounds fair; what would you like me to promise?’
 
‘It can’t be something silly,’ Douglas starts, cutting ahead of any thoughts that might already be forming in Herc’s mind, ‘you can’t promise me you’re going to brush your teeth or something you’d do anyway. You have to promise me something proper.’
 
‘Alright,’ Herc agrees, all too aware that he has very little choice if he ever wants to win the favour of his soon-to-be wife’s eldest son, ‘how about…if you behave at school all year, you get good grades, don’t get into trouble – I’ll buy you a treat?’
 
‘An x-box,’ says Douglas instantly. Herc has the horrible feeling he has planned this all along.
 
‘That’s really quite a big treat, don’t you think?’
 
‘You’ve got money. And it has to be something big or how will I know to trust you on big things?’
 
‘What about your mother? I’ll have to ask her.’
 
‘Fine.’
 
‘And you’ll be good all year?’
 
‘I’m always good.’
 
Heaven knows that’s not true, but Herc plays along for the sake of peace.
 
‘Okay then; we have a deal.’
 
‘But I can’t trust you till the end of the year then.’
 
‘Why not?’ Herc protests,
 
‘Because you won’t keep your promise till then. If you buy it sooner I’ll trust you sooner.’
 
‘How much sooner?’ Herc asks in a resigned voice,
 
‘Halloween.’
 
‘Christmas.’
 
‘Deal,’ Douglas sticks out his hand – finally uncrossing his arms – and shakes Herc’s confidently, grinning.
 
Hercules!
 
Both of them jump at the sound of Carolyn’s voice, and Douglas offers Herc a rare glance of a sort of pained camaraderie before scurrying off with a grin to search out his school jumper. Herc hurries downstairs to placate his fiancé.
 
X
 
‘Oh Arthur for goodness sake, wipe that chocolate off your mouth and go brush your teeth,’ Carolyn scolds distractedly, carrying a stack of plates to the kitchen, ‘who even gave you chocolate at this time in a morning?’
 
‘Douglas did!’ Arthur replies happily, beaming as he hops down off his chair, fingers leaving sticky chocolate prints on the edge of the table. Noticing apparently for the first time the state his hands are in, he goes to wipe them on his trousers and Carolyn jumps forward to stop him, too late.
 
‘Arthur no – oh fantastic, it’s your first day of school, don’t you want to look smart? Hercules! There you are; where on Earth have you been? Go and make sure Arthur gets changed into his spare school trousers and tell Douglas to hurry up and get down here. Have you seen Martin?’
 
Herc, who has scooped Arthur up into his arms (carefully so as not to get covered in chocolate himself), glances around as though expecting to see Carolyn’s middle son hiding under the sofa,
 
‘I’ll make sure he’s out of bed,’ he tells her tactfully, edging from the room as quickly as possible while making faces at Arthur as soon as his back is turned on Carolyn. Arthur giggles and crosses his eyes in response, forcing Herc to stifle a laugh, which only amuses Arthur further.
 
They are halfway up the stairs by the time Douglas barrels past at top speed with a mischievous grin on his face (which could really indicate any number of misdeeds as yet undiscovered), almost knocking Herc over on his way past. He slows down before he goes into the living room though, where he has evidently realised Carolyn is waiting.
 
‘Mum, where’s Martin?’ he asks, flopping onto the sofa and grabbing the TV remote, ‘he’s got my Gameboy.’
 
‘Probably still in bed, since you didn’t get him up when I told you to,’ Carolyn retorts irritably, then turns to actually face him. ‘Good Heavens Douglas what have you done to your hair?’
 
‘It’s spiked,’ Douglas replies defensively, touching a hand to it with an edge of defiant pride.
 
‘Well go wash it out right now, you look like a hedgehog.’
 
‘Oh but Mum –’
 
‘Don’t oh but Mum me, where did you get your hands on hair gel in the first place?’
 
‘But Herc’s in the bathroom,’
 
‘There’s another one. For goodness sake just go and do it before I do it for you.’
 
Douglas slouches moodily from the room and down the hall, muttering under his breath and scuffing his feet across the carpet, going as slowly as he can. Halfway down, he hears an odd noise coming from under the stairs and stops outside the cupboard door.
 
Vague notions of very large mice cross his mind, which he dismisses almost as quickly as the momentary thought of finding a boy wizard hiding in there. Or perhaps, a more adventurous part of his mind offers, he’s the wizard, and he doesn’t have to go to stupid secondary school anyway, he’s going to go away and learn magic.
 
This notion doesn’t last very long either before he shakes his head to clear it – what a very childish thing to think, he scolds himself. It’s probably the mice after all.
 
What he sees when he opens the door, however, is not a mouse or a boy wizard. It’s Martin.
 
Actually, it’s Martin’s folded arms and bright ginger hair, because he has backed himself into the furthest corner (though, the cupboard not being very large, this isn’t far away) with his knees drawn up to his chest, arms wrapped tightly around them, and his forehead resting on top of them.
 
‘Mum’s looking for you, she thinks you’re still in bed,’ Douglas announces immediately. Then, ‘have you got my Gameboy?’
 
Martin sniffs loudly and looks up. His eyes are huge and red-rimmed, his cheeks blotchy and tear stained. He suppresses a hiccup.
 
‘What’s the matter with you?’ Douglas demands, not moving from his position by the door. He hopes it’s not something he’s going to be blamed for. He usually is, and the fact that it is usually his fault is beside the point – he hasn’t done anything this time! He’d better not be going to get into trouble because Martin has decided to blub all over the place.
 
‘I don’t want to go to school,’ Martin whispers in a shaky voice,
 
‘Me neither but I still have to,’ says Douglas carelessly, ‘I thought you loved school anyway? I thought you couldn’t wait to get back?’
 
‘I hate school!’ Martin exclaims suddenly, drawing back his arms with his hands balled into fists but not standing up, ‘I h – hate it and I don’t e – ever want to go back and I want to stay here and Herc can teach me to be a p – pilot so there!’
 
‘You don’t hate school,’ Douglas corrects calmly, a little of his former pomposity leaking away as he approaches his younger brother. ‘You hate Becky Garfield.’
 
Martin nods and buries his head in his arms again amid a fresh wave of tears. Douglas sighs and moves to sit down beside him, placing a hand awkwardly on the six year old’s shoulder,
 
‘She’s stupid,’ he says quietly, but the shaking of Martin’s shoulders doesn’t stop. ‘She’s just jealous anyway, because our Mum runs a sweet shop and her Mum’s a troll.’
 
Martin lets out a weak, involuntary giggle.
 
‘Her Dad’s a goat, too,’ Douglas continues, heartened by this response, ‘her Mum kidnapped him when she lived under a bridge years ago, so she’s half troll and half goat. And her brother’s a pig.’
 
‘How – how come her brother’s a pig if she’s half a troll and half a goat?’ Martin asks innocently, looking up and wiping his eyes.
 
‘Because a witch cursed him,’ Douglas replies instantly, ‘and she’ll curse Becky too, one day.’
 
‘But Becky’s mean,’ Martin mumbles miserably. Checking the door to make sure no one is about to see him do this, Douglas puts his arm all the way around Martin’s shoulders and pulls him into a hug. Well, he is the oldest. It’s his job to do this sort of thing, even when Martin sniffing and crying on Douglas’s brand new school uniform is gross. ‘She calls me names,’
 
‘She won’t call you names this year,’ Douglas promises,
 
‘How do you know?’
 
‘I have my ways,’ says Douglas mysteriously, ‘I’m in secondary school this year. That means people have to do what I say, so she’s not allowed to pick on you anymore.’
 
‘Really?’
 
‘Really. And anyway, you’ve got to be Arthur’s big brother now, he’s going to need somebody to look after him. You know what Arthur’s like. And nobody messes with big brothers.’
 
‘You’re just saying that.’
 
‘No I’m not. Has anyone ever messed with me?’ Douglas stands up now, feeling quite proud at the awestruck way Martin looks up to him – literally and figuratively.
 
‘But – but that’s different. You’re cool.’
 
‘Yeah,’ Douglas agrees nonchalantly, ‘and nobody picks on cool people’s brothers, or else they’re not cool, are they?’
 
‘Do you promise?’
 
‘Of course I do.’
 
‘What if you’re wrong?’
 
‘Then I’ll get the witch to come and put the curse on her early. What do you think she should be?’ Douglas holds his hand out for Martin to take, and pulls the younger boy to his feet,
 
‘A slug?’ Martin suggests, half a smile flitting across his face,
 
‘Nah, too boring. I always thought she looked a bit like a flatfish.’
 
‘What’s a flatfish?’
 
‘They look like pancakes and they have both eyes on one side. Like on Finding Nemo.’Martin giggles again, and Douglas leads him out of the cupboard by the hand, ‘or she could be an ogre.’
 
‘What’s an ogre?’
 
‘Like Shrek,’ explains Douglas, who really quite enjoys having to answer his brothers’ questions – though only if he can at least pretend to know the answer. He enjoys seeing their wonder at his infinite wisdom, ‘only not just at night, she’d have to be one all the time.’
 
‘What about a donkey?’
 
‘She looks like a donkey anyway,’
 
‘I thought she looked like a flatfish.’
 
‘She looks like a flatfish and a donkey. That’s how ugly she is. That’s why she’s jealous.’
 
By the time Douglas has tidied Martin up a bit and lead him back through to their mother, Carolyn’s mood seems to have improved immeasurably, and she makes no further mention of her eldest son’s hair. Douglas can’t quite figure it out but isn’t going to complain. Carolyn doesn’t let on that she heard the entire conversation.
 
X
 
Fifteen minutes later, Arthur is properly washed and dressed. Five minutes after that, Douglas is coaxing both his brothers into finding snails from the garden so they can race them before going to school. Another two minutes and Carolyn has firmly stamped on this idea by threatening to literally stamp on any snails they try and bring in the house.
 
When Hercules leaves for work, Arthur and Martin have a fight over who gets to hug him goodbye first and Douglas for the first time permits a handshake, which causes Carolyn to bestow a rare smile of congratulations on her fiancé over Douglas’s head. All three children stand in the background – the younger two shamelessly encouraged by Douglas – pretending to vomit when Carolyn kisses Herc quickly on the cheek as he gets into his car, waving and wishing them good luck at school.
 
The usual argument ensues over who gets to ride in the front of Carolyn’s car when she drops them off, which Arthur wins by virtue of the fact that it’s his very first day.
 
‘It’s my first day at a new place too,’ Douglas complains, adopting his trademark folded arms posture in the seat behind Carolyn’s, ‘how come Arthur gets to go in front?’
 
‘Because you’re supposed to be old enough to let him,’ Carolyn replies as they reverse out of the drive. ‘Now are you all sure you have everything? Arthur, have you got your lunch? Douglas for the last time put your tie on straight, and Martin –’
 
‘Mum I’ve forgotten my pencil case!’ Martin shouts suddenly, already fighting with his seatbelt and trying to throw open the door. While Carolyn takes Martin back inside to search out the pencil case, Arthur peers around with an excited grin on his face, literally bouncing in his seat with eagerness,
 
‘What’s that?’ he asks, pointing to a black and white bird perched on the wall,
 
‘It’s a magpie,’ Douglas replies,
 
‘What’s a magpie?’
 
‘A bird.’
 
‘Why’s it called that?’
 
‘What, a bird?’
 
‘No, a magpie.’
 
‘I don’t know,’ Douglas shrugs grumpily. He doesn’t like being asked questions he doesn’t know the answer to, and can’t think of a suitably amusing explanation for magpie to justify the effort of making the detail up. Carolyn and Martin return to the car and the former again checks that all three children have remembered everything they need,
 
‘Will we learn at school?’ Arthur asks, undaunted,
 
‘Maybe,’ says Douglas.
 
‘Are the people nice at school?’
 
Martin opens his mouth, looking doubtful, but Douglas cuts in.
 
‘Of course they are. They get cursed if they’re not.’ Carolyn continues her pretence at ignorance when Douglas winks at Martin. Arthur’s eyes widen to saucers.
 
Really? Are the teachers magic?’
 
‘Yeah, course,’ Douglas replies, by now rather enjoying himself.
 
‘Brilliant!’
 
Carolyn rolls her eyes, but smiles, as the interrogation continues all the way to the primary school, where Arthur and Martin hurry off together, and Douglas waves them away with an oddly apprehensive look on his face.
 
‘You’ll be fine too you know,’ she tells him gently as they get back into the car and pull away to head towards his new school. Of this she is sure; if anyone can make a success of themselves without even trying, it’s her eldest. She allows her pride to show in its fullest on her face for his benefit.
 
‘I know,’ Douglas replies.
 
‘It’s okay if you’re going to miss being at school with them.’
 
‘I’m not going to miss them!’
 
‘Of course you won’t.’
 
Carolyn shakes her head. Douglas doesn’t think she sees him craning around to watch his brothers in the back window until the very last minute, but she does.