i. the meeting
“Yes. Short for Hercules.” He grimaced, clearly used to this conversation. Carolyn stared at him in disbelief. It was obvious that he thought she was making fun of him, obvious that that was a practiced smile designed to deflect his own embarrassment.
“Any brothers?” As he laughed off his older brothers’ names, Carolyn felt her stomach do a complex series of backflips.
A long time ago, a sweet shop in Lancashire, a young boy came in, regular as clockwork to buy toffee and mint humbugs. He was going to be a pilot. That, he was sure of, he was going to be a pilot and he was going to travel the world just like his dad would have wanted, and he was going to meet a lot of exciting people and do a lot of exciting things. The other children had made fun of him, teasing him for his name and his ambitions. The owner of the shop had taken pity on him and given him extra goodies, knowing what it was like to have the weight of fatherly expectation weighing over one’s shoulders.
Eventually, the sweet shop had shut. Knapp and Son had never quite been right, but once everyone else knew it too, Carolyn had just wanted to run. So run she had, and ended up in the skies just like the young boy she’d once been so fond of.
And now he was hitting on her.
And the even worse bit was, she didn’t mind.
By all rights, she should have said no. She should have been content to let him down, disappoint him about stupid opera and let him go, drift off into the ghosts of her past where he belonged. But no, her mouth had opened without her permission, what I like, is walking. And he had smiled and she had felt something dangerous, something she had promised herself to keep away from.
Smiles like that always ended badly.
ii. the car
It was raining. Carolyn had shooed them out of the house to sit in the car, promising to be along in a moment. Several moments had passed.
“Are you okay in the back, Arthur? Do you need me to move my seat forward again?”
“I’m fine, thank you. I’ve stretched!” Herc twisted round to see Arthur with his legs sprawled over the back seat. He realised that he should have expected nothing less.
Another moment passed, then Arthur asked, “Herc?”
“Can I ask you a stupid question?”
Herc glanced into the rear-view mirror and smiled. Arthur was looking at him through it too. “You know what they say, the only stupid question is the one not asked.”
“They say that? Who?”
“You know what, I have no idea. Someone must have once, and I must say that I agree. What’s your question?”
Arthur hesitated, then said “Do you really like Mum?”
Nothing like being to the point, Herc thought, trying not to let the surprise register on his face. He wasn’t sure that he succeeded, but Arthur didn’t seem to notice. He was waiting for an answer, and Herc had a feeling that there certainly was a right one. He decided to wonder why Arthur thought that was a stupid question later.
“Yes, I do. I think she’s wonderful. In fact, I think she’s brilliant.”
“Really. And you know what, I think you’re brilliant too.”
Arthur’s only response was a quiet oh, his eyes wide in the mirror. Herc tried to catch his gaze, to show him that he really meant it, that yes, Arthur might have been dopey and slow, but that he really did care. He cared about both of them more than he had planned to.
But before he could say anything else, Carolyn opened the car door and got in.
iii. the sheep
Arthur thought Herc was brilliant. And even better, he knew that Carolyn thought Herc was brilliant too, even if she pretended otherwise. Arthur wished she didn’t have to pretend, but he understood. He liked everyone, mostly, but he’d seen enough to know about trust. He knew that liking and believing the best of someone was not the same thing as trusting them.
“I thought you were getting Herc a present?” Arthur said, staring into Finn McCool’s dark, glassy eyes. He’d always felt sorry for taxidermied creatures. Gordon had had a ferret for his office that had seen better days. Arthur had called it Franz in his head and imagined it running wild and free in a field, or a forest, or wherever it was that ferrets lived.
“Yes,” said Carolyn, as though he were missing the obvious. “This is it.”
“But you said Herc hates sheep?”
“Yes, well. It’s a joke, you see?”
It didn’t feel very funny to Arthur. But Carolyn would definitely get defensive if he questioned her on it, so he assumed she probably knew best.
He decided to change the subject instead. “Mum?”
She hummed in response, too busy trying to decide what ribbon to tie on Finn’s head.
“Are you going to tell him?”
Carolyn’s eyes snapped up to hold Arthur in a steely gaze. “Tell him what?”
“About the sweet shop. You know. How you used to know each other.”
A series of emotions washed over Carolyn’s face, none of which Arthur could name. Maybe bringing this up now had been a mistake. Maybe he should have stuck to the sheep after all, and trying to make sense of that, because joke or no joke, it still seemed like a pretty funny present in a solidly not ‘ha ha’ way.
Arthur stared at the floor and started to mumble an apology, but Carolyn cut him off. “Do you think the sheep might be a bit much?”
"It’s not what I would have got him. But you probably know him better.”
Carolyn frowned, the opposite reaction to the one Arthur had expected. She muttered something under her breath, then stood up and left the room, leaving Arthur alone with Finn McCool. Arthur imagined him running around in a field with his friends. Imagined Herc and Carolyn walking past them, hand in hand. Smiling.
iv. the past
Though she was pretending to do work, she knew it wasn’t fooling Douglas, who paced her office like a caged cat. She leaned back in her chair and sighed. “Haven’t you got anything better to do than mope around here?”
Douglas shrugged languidly, coming to a halt. “Perhaps. Isn’t Hercules coming to get you soon?”
“Honestly, Douglas, it’s nothing like that sinister. It’s just a walk.”
Douglas raised both eyebrows, disbelieving and unimpressed, folding his arms. “What a lucky chap.”
“Shove off, would you? What’s your problem with him, anyway?” Carolyn watched him closely, saw his mouth twitch as he tried to formulate a response, tried to verbalise what exactly his problem was with Herc. Every time Herc mentioned Douglas, he made the same face. Something had clearly happened between them long ago, and Carolyn was dying to ask.
But asking Herc to open up for her meant it would be harder to keep her heart closed to him. So she said nothing.
Arthur was right, damn it. She ought to tell him. Not that she was ashamed, not for a second – she was too old and had been out too long to feel shame any more. But she just didn’t know how to start this particular conversation, by the way, I used to sneak you extra sweeties when you were ten and the other children were bullying you! Remember?
That simply wouldn’t do at all.
At last, Douglas’ tongue had caught up with his mind, breaking Carolyn’s thoughts. “I just think you ought to be careful with him. I knew him a long time ago, and I just don’t think someone can change that much.”
Carolyn raised an eyebrow and muttered, “You’d be surprised.”
v. the lovers
“Must you say that so much?”
“What, that I love you? Yes, I think I must. I love you, Carolyn. Every inch of you.”
“You’re disgusting, Hercules Shipwright.”
“Sorry, I forgot you were allergic to emotions.”
Carolyn punched him gently on the arm before resuming her position on the sofa, leaning into his shoulder, his arm around her. Empty bottles of wine on the table, some awful opera on the radio. All things as they were meant to be.
“Still not as weird as being allergic to gelatine,” Carolyn chuckled to herself. Herc shuffled to look at her more squarely, forehead creased in confusion.
“How did you know that? I haven’t told anyone that in years.” She blinked up at him, smile fading as she realised what she’d done.
The truth, Arthur would say, tell him the truth. He won’t mind! He loves you!
And, curse him, he was right. Not for the first time, she was glad that she’d somehow managed to give Arthur the gift of emotional openness, that he didn’t seem to have any fear to tell people how much they meant to him. Not for the first time, she wished she could be more like that.
Herc had tensed, his whole body suspicious as he waited for Carolyn to say something. Curse him too, curse his patient, gentle love. A lesser person would have been angry, raised voice and deaf ears. She’d known enough lesser people to hear that conversation echo through her skull.
But Herc waited. Perhaps he had waited long enough. But slammed doors echoed through her mind, raised voices and fists. Arthur’s wide, afraid eyes.
But Arthur thought Herc was brilliant. And Arthur got so many things wrong, all the time, doors and jars and conversations, but somehow he managed to see right into the hearts of people, see their true faces as they dismissed him. And Herc had never once let him down.
“Don’t look like that, I haven’t been stalking you.”
“What a relief,” he said, seeming thoroughly unrelieved.
Carolyn took a breath. “You remember when you were young, and you used to go to the sweet shop every other day?”
vi. the dinner
There were few things as overwhelming as dinner in the Knapp-Shappey-Shipwright household. Arthur had warned him before he had arrived, given him a list of topics to avoid at all costs which included vegetarianism, sheep, planes, marriage, ice cream, music and golf. Lee liked Arthur a lot, but it sounded like his family was a nightmare.
Whatever he had been expecting, or dreading, was not what he got.
When Arthur had said they’re brilliant, but some people find them a bit strange, Lee had been expecting a weird, old couple with ‘traditional’ values, not a weird, old couple who exclusively communicated by being rude to each other. And the weirdest thing was that it worked.
At first, Lee had wondered if he had stumbled into the middle of a huge family row, but they didn’t seem angry, just combative. And they had both been so nice to Lee, welcoming him in with smiles and platitudes as if they were even trying to outdo each other on that front, playing a game of who can be nicest to Arthur’s new boyfriend?
Carolyn called him dear as they sat down at the table, and Arthur texted him slyly to tell him that that meant she was in a good mood. Lee looked at how she was frowning at Herc and decided not to wonder what she was like in a bad mood.
“So, you’re a doctor, Lee?” Herc asked, side-eying Carolyn while he smiled at Lee.
Lee tried his best to smile back. “Yeah, I’m a radiologist.”
Arthur beamed at him. “He’s so clever, it’s brilliant.”
“One of my exes was a doctor,” said Herc, scooping potatoes onto his plate.
“No, they weren’t,” scoffed Carolyn.
“How do you know?” Carolyn gave him a look and Herc held up his hands in surrender. “Alright, he was a medical student. My point still stands.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
And again, they were off, bickering. Lee glanced at Arthur, surprised to see him smiling fondly at his parents. They were in their own world now, grinning as they tried to get the last word on their debate. Lee had never seen people smile so much while telling each other they were wrong, while riling each other up and offering endless contradictions. Maybe that was the point. Maybe it wasn’t about the battle, but the fact that they’d still be smiling when it was over.
Arthur took Lee’s hand under the table, squeezing it to catch his eye. His whole face asked a question, somewhere between you doing okay? and are they too much? Lee smiled and squeezed his hand back.
It made sense now, why Arthur told such fantastical stories about his mum’s airline, said the things he did about his mum and Herc and the family they’d made on that aeroplane. What luck, Lee thought, to care so much. What luck that he had found them too.