Arthur lies down on the sofa in front of the fire and he thinks.
He’s thinking really hard except it doesn’t feel that hard because it’s not hurting his head. Thinking hard is a thing, he knows this, it’s something that Mum does and Douglas does and that Martin really, really tries to do. But it doesn’t feel like a brick’s been thrown at his head like it sometimes does when he’s thinking. Instead, he feels… he feels preoccupied, as the word goes; the word Herc would use. Taken in by his thoughts. As though he’s wandering around a small fog of things in his head, a small fog of all the facts that he has to hand.
The first fact is this: Herc loves Mum. He’s told Arthur he loves her and all signs show he was telling the truth, looking straight into Arthur’s eyes and saying the words as though he was stating a fact, the same way he might say the sky is blue or you can see through windows or Toblerone croissants are the best kind of croissants. Arthur knows how to read people and he’s fairly sure that Herc wouldn’t take Mum on holiday or put up with her eating meat or be with her for so long if he didn’t love her. Mum is great, obviously, of course she is. But, she’s Mum. She’s… all Mumish. She does… Mum things, like shout at Douglas and Martin and at people who come to the house, trying to sell stuff. She even shouts at Herc. And Herc is still here most mornings, when they’ve making breakfast and he looks at Mum and he smiles.
The second fact is this: Mum loves Herc. Arthur knows she loves him because Mum tends to spend a lot of time complaining about things Herc gets wrong, but she says it in the same kind of way that she describes how Snoopadoop chewed up her slippers. Soft, with hardly any anger. And Arthur has learned by now – because he didn’t come top of his class that one time for nothing – that Mum will only talk about people if she cares about them. She spends a lot of time complaining about Martin and Douglas and all the things they do, but then she goes back to the airfield the next day and Martin and Douglas do even more things for her to complain about. But Mum doesn’t fire them. And if Mum truly didn’t like them, she wouldn’t do it. After all, she doesn’t like Dad, which is sad, but. Well. So she doesn’t speak about him, or to him, unless she absolutely has to. And - Arthur realises this now - she doesn’t like Aunty Ruth. So she doesn’t speak about her or to her, either.
And that’s the way Mum works. If she doesn’t like someone, then it’s like they’re not there. It’s as if Mum just… pretends they don’t exist and so they’re simply not spoken about.
Mum speaks about Herc a lot, at home. Shakes her head at something Arthur’s said or done and then she’ll say it, No, dear, you are to strawberries what Herc is to a field of sheep or No, Arthur, Herc also tried that and it didn’t work or Arthur, you’re being about as useless as Herc at a butcher’s convention.
There are recipe books for vegetarian meals stashed at the back of the kitchen cupboard.
She also goes around the house humming a lot more. She cleans the house and hums. She feeds and washes Snoopadoop and hums. She makes dinner and hums.
Only around Arthur, though. Around everyone else, Mum is very, very careful.
And Arthur knows what that means.
(‘Don’t call Herc her boyfriend,’ he had warned Douglas when they went to Ireland, because Douglas needed to understand this, needed to be told. If Douglas called Herc Mum’s boyfriend, Mum would. Well. They wouldn’t like it. Plus, he didn’t like the thought of Douglas teasing her about it anyway, because Mum was happy).
Snoopadoop chooses that moment to wander across and climb up onto the sofa; officially, it’s not allowed, but Mum’s not here and anyway, Arthur likes it. Snoopadoop settles herself on top of him, places her head on his stomach with a yawn and Arthur puts a hand to her head, still eyeing the fire. Herc had put it on for him an hour ago, before he and Mum had gone out and it makes the room toasty; there’s some special white stuff that he uses to build the fire up and Arthur doesn’t quite know what to do with it, so Herc did it instead.
Herc also brought him back a large snowglobe when he and Mum went on holiday together that one time. Herc panicked when Arthur ate the dragon-fruit and told him to breathe regularly, rather than tell him to pull himself together and chuck his epi-pen at him. No eye-rolls and mutters of ‘oh, you stupid lad,’ under the breath that Arthur could still hear even when he started to struggle to breathe.
Third time lucky, people say. Arthur twists his mouth at the thought; not because he’s cross, but again, because he’s thinking. Mum had been married once before she had married Dad (and Arthur thinks that’s really weird, because if Mum had stayed with Ian – who still sends cards for Christmas and who ruffled Arthur’s hair on meeting him and called him a good lad - would he have been different? Different eyes, different hair, different teeth? Would he not have such a good Australian accent? Would he be more or less of a clot? Would he be Arthur?) and now. Well.
He takes one of Snoopadoop’s ears and massages it in his palm. She twitches, her nose against his belly. Herc always pats Snoopadoop’s head very tentatively when he comes over; it’s quite funny really, because she only wants to be his friend and say hello, but the way Herc pets her is a little similar to how Sherlock Holmes might try and say There there to a distressed person. Still, he pets her all the same. And Snoopadoop doesn’t seem to mind him; she always gives him a good sniff when he comes around, his shoes and trousers and uniform, running her nose over everywhere he’s been; like a detective’s dog, as though checking he’s not carrying any bombs or guns before he comes any further. She could have been an airport dog; Arthur had once suggested it, but Mum had had some things to say about that.
And yes, alright, it was a bit not good when Snoopadoop got her paws – or rather her teeth – into his hat. But Herc hadn’t tried to kick her; he had just let Arthur chase Snoopadoop around and tug the hat out of her teeth and then he had just gone into Mum’s room for a while with Mum and Arthur had heard the strange sounds of wailing, heard his Mum’s oddly gentle tones of ‘There there,’ which she usually saves for when Arthur or Snoopadoop are ill. But there had been no shouting or kicking. No demands that ‘that wretched dog needs to be put down right now, dammit, or I’ll do it for you!’ No, Herc had just… got the hat fixed and that had been that.
He starts a bit as Snoopadoop licks his hand; it takes him out of his fog a bit, so wrapped up is he in his thoughts, and he stares down at her, resting on top of him.
‘What do you think?’ he asks, because she might know. She simply yawns, sprawled sideways in his lap as she is and gazes up at him with her lovely big eyes. Arthur yawns too; being here is making him sleepy. Herc really is brilliant at making a fire.
He has to make a decision, though. Mum and Herc will be back soon. He huffs and reaches out to the coffee-table, to the magazine he’s been staring at for the last hour; turns over page after page of engagement rings for sale. There’s so many to choose from.
What do you think, Arthur? Herc had held the magazine towards him, waiting for his opinion. Is it alright with you?
Dad has never asked his opinion. On anything. But Herc had handed him the magazine, shown him the pictures, waited for a response. What do you think, Arthur? He had looked at Arthur, his face – softer, Arthur has always thought, somehow gentler than Dad’s; maybe it has something to do with the fact that he just… doesn’t frown as much, or speaks more quietly, or something.
What does Arthur think?
He looks at the rings for a moment more. They’re all so pretty, each and every one, sparkling even on the page; anyone of them could look good on his Mum’s finger.
Herc thought Arthur did a good job on their very first meeting.
Herc doesn’t shout and speaks quietly and calmly; Arthur doesn’t think he’s ever heard him get angry. He finds he can talk to Herc and not get scared, or stammer over his words. In fact, he can talk very well.
Herc stops to chat to Arthur in the mornings and always offers to make him tea. Which is nice, but actually, that’s Arthur’s job, so Arthur makes Herc tea instead. And Herc never sends it back or tells him it’s too sweet, or too milky. Herc drinks every last gulp and says thankyou.
Herc loves Mum. And he makes Mum happy. Mum hums and buys more fruit and loves nothing more than having a few annoyed grouses about people and she grouses about Herc more than anyone. So, he must make Mum happy, because it means she’s always thinking about him.
And yeah, Arthur’s not completely stupid; he knows his Mum is scared. Scared of falling in love again. Scared of what might happen.
(He won’t ever say that, though, because it’s Mum and, well. He’s not completely stupid, not at all).
He hears the front door open; Snoopadoop is clever, she immediately jumps off his lap and Arthur only has a second or so to shove the magazine underneath the sofa where Mum won’t see it. He has a feeling this is something that needs to remain a secret for the time-being and that’s a bit different to a lie, rather like a surprise birthday party because despite what Douglas once said, he does understand the difference between a secret and a lie.
He wonders if there will be a party here before long. Maybe Martin will come back for it – Arthur hopes he will. He’s going to miss him so much, but Martin has promised to send loads of cards and emails and it’s helped. Going to Zurich will make him happy, even if it’s a big change. So why shouldn’t this big change make Mum happy? Or happier?
‘Arthur, we’re back!’ His mother’s voice hails heartily through the hallway and Arthur quickly finds a smile for her and goes to say hello and to help with the shopping that she and Herc have brought. He watches them chatter, watches Mum smack Herc lightly on the arm when he insists on putting the Quorn mince in the same freezer drawer as the steak mince and watches Herc glancing Mum’s way with a smile while she opens up the tonic water, takes a gulp straight from the bottle, and he makes a decision.
He takes his chance when Mum pops up to her bedroom with the new toothpaste and soap they’ve brought and steps up in front of Herc; Snoopadoop follows him, settling at his feet and gazing up at Herc with her tongue hanging out, her eyes bright and brown.
‘You’ve definitely got four ex-wives?’ Arthur checks; he’s not very good at Maths and he wants to make sure he’s got this absolutely right. This is important.
Herc blinks; it’s his polite blink, Arthur knows, when he hasn’t understood something on the first go, like when he believe Douglas was the captain rather than Martin. Then he seems to understand and he raises his head slightly.
‘Oh. Yes, Arthur, that’s right.’
Arthur bites his lip, glances back at the sofa, thinks of the magazine he’s hidden underneath. It’s a good thing, he knows, because obviously it means that Herc’s so nice that he’s been able to get a lot of people – a lot of ladies – to like him enough to marry him, just like Douglas has. (Although Arthur can’t understand why Douglas has only been married three times; don’t all the ladies they meet know how brilliant he is?)
But. On the other hand… ‘And, if you marry Mum now – can you promise you won’t be saying to people in a few years time that you’ve got five ex-wives, instead?’ Herc loves Mum, of course he does. But. Herc must have loved all those other wives too, if he wanted to marry them. Arthur can’t let his Mum be someone else’s ex-wife and definitely not Herc’s. Especially not Herc’s.
‘Arthur.’ Herc’s voice lowers into something quiet and serious and he seems to grow on the spot; like he’s drawing himself up, making himself taller. ‘If there is one thing I can definitely assure you of, it is that will never, ever happen.’
Arthur tilts his head. He knows how to read people and he knows that Herc isn’t lying; at least he believes he isn’t. All the signs are there, after all. Still… Isn’t that the kind of thing Herc would have thought when he asked all those other ladies to marry him?
But then, perhaps Herc is good at reading people too, because he steps forward a little with a glance at the stairs, gestures to Arthur to do the same.
‘I brought an engagement ring for my first wife,’ he tells him. ‘And then when she threw it at me on the way out of the door, I used that ring three more times.’
Arthur frowns at that – really, what for? – and Herc says nothing, just glances at him. It’s not a cross glance, though; it’s more as if he’s waiting for something, waiting for Arthur to catch up.
‘Oh,’ Arthur realises and Herc nods once, clearing his throat.
‘Yes. I’m not proud of it, but getting married is rather expensive and waste not, want not. But now, I… Well. I’d like your mother to have. Something different. Actually, if I could, I’d give her my mother’s ring,’ he adds conversationally, not seeming to realise that everything in Arthur’s brain has ground to a halt at those last words and that the steward is feeling the force of a Great Big Massive Realisation right about now because Oh. ‘But my sister Sarah has it, and – ‘
‘Okay,’ Arthur finally manages to say. Herc’s words bump to a halt; he raises his eyebrows at him in that patient way he seems to have. Arthur nods firmly; he’s come to a decision.
‘If Mum wants to,’ he warns, because obviously if Mum doesn’t want to – and it would be a shame if she didn’t, because this is Herc – then that’s the end of it. People don’t decide to marry Mum; she decides to marry them. And if she does… ‘Then I’ll say it’s okay.’
He folds his arms; Herc stares at him, blinking rapidly for a moment and then his hand is on Arthur’s shoulder and he’s smiling widely at him, almost beaming. ‘Thankyou, Arthur.’
He looks… happy, so happy, all of a sudden and Arthur feels proud; he’s put that look on Herc’s face by saying it was okay. Herc has made him feel as though he’s said the right thing by saying it’s okay. And it could make Mum happy – happier, even, than she is at the moment.
And that’s brilliant.
‘Oh, by the way.’ He glances up as the floorboards creak above them – his Mum is moving towards the stairs, meaning she’ll be coming back down in seconds. ‘Mum really likes rubies.’ It would be bright and brilliant, just like his Mum and it’s one of her favourite colours too. Plus, red is the colour of love, and it’s also the colour of lots of other things that his Mum loves, like cranberry juice and red velvet cake and the red purse that his Nanny left that his Mum still keeps in her bag. And Herc loves Mum and Mum loves him and she also loves Arthur, even though she calls him a clot.
(With Herc, it feels as though they’re walking around together on a nice big thick carpet that’s comfy on the feet, one that they can sit on and play games on and talk together on and that Snoopadoop can roll around on without getting shouted at. With his Dad, it felt as though he was tiptoeing around on eggshells, in a minefield, in bare feet).
‘Rubies, hm?’ Herc seems to think about that, before raising his eyebrows. ‘Well then, that’s settled.’
It is settled, Arthur decides, feeling something like relief, like when he was still at school and could tick off a task in his homework planner. Brilliant, he thinks and he steps forwards to give Herc a big hug because this. This could be something amazing.
Herc doesn’t push him off, or tell him to get away Arthur, you’re crinkling my suit, he just puts a hand on Arthur’s shoulder and gives it a pat – Herc doesn’t seem to hug a lot of people, which is a shame, but Arthur does and anyway, they’re going to keep on seeing each other every day. Plus, this is their home.
He really can’t wait to see the ring.
He pulls back just as Mum reappears and starts berating them both for not unloading the shopping while she was gone. Arthur meets Herc’s eyes for a split second, grins at him and then tries to tamper it down so Mum doesn’t see it and starts asking questions. Arthur can keep a secret, if he tries hard enough and hopefully – he glances at Herc again before the other man allows himself to be pushed back towards the waiting bags – this won’t be something he has to keep a secret for too long.
‘Sorry Mum!’ he trills, over the sounds of her scolding; then he turns and gives a clap of the hands – he can’t whistle properly, so this is the next best thing. ‘Come on, Snoopadoop! Walkies!’