Matt and I sat back down beneath the shade of the Jacaranda tree in the back yard and, while sipping cold beers and nibbling on some snacks he had managed to find in the kitchen, started swapping stories about what we had each been doing in the past five years.
For the most part we already knew what had been going on in all our lives, as in this modern age it had been easy for us all to keep in contact anyhow, but still he seemed to enjoy the details of some of my adventures.
He had arrived home at a little after five o’clock, having come straight from his job at the auto parts store, where he had been working at for the best part of nine years now. It was now getting on for six, so we knew that the others wouldn’t be too far away now either.
I could tell that he was still genuinely happy with how things were going here. He and Luke were as much in love as they had ever been, they both had relatively good jobs, and they lived in paradise. What more could a guy ask for?
I actually envied them for what they both had here, and said as much.
‘You envy us? What the fuck are you talking about?’ he joked. ‘Man, you’ve got it made. You’ve seen the world, you have Hollywood knocking on your door, you have your own fancy place in the city . . . what more do you want?’
‘Well, that all makes it sound pretty good, but . . .’ I began.
‘But?’ he urged.
‘But? Well, yeah, sure, I enjoy what I do, and it has its perks, don’t get me wrong, but there’s still something missing . . . you know what I mean?’
Matt smiled knowingly and nodded. ‘Yeah mate. I kind of think I do.’
I picked up my beer and downed the last few mouthfuls, then put the empty bottle back on the garden table beside me, while Matt looked at me somewhat thoughtfully. There was something hanging there between us in the sultry afternoon air, and we both knew what it was.
‘He’s still here, you know. And I know he misses you,’ he finally said to me.
‘How is he doing?’ I asked.
For a moment Matt was silent, and when I looked across at him he seemed to be sucking on his bottom lip, as if he were trying to figure out just what he should, or shouldn’t, say.
‘He’s okay,’ he said, eventually. ‘For a while he was hurting, but now he’s doing okay. That little lawn mowing and gardening business the two of you had seems to have ended up being his salvation, I think. He’s thrown himself into that for the past couple of years and it keeps him off the streets at least.’
I nodded. I was at least thankful that Aaron was making his way in the world, although I couldn’t help but think that there was something else Matt wasn’t telling me.
I know that when I had left town I had hurt Aaron deeply. I was hell bent on seeing stars in my eyes and landing a big fat pay cheque, lured by promises that, at least initially, weren’t kept. I was so wrapped up in my own dream and my own importance that I never once considered his feelings. I know that when we were younger we had talked about travelling the world together, but then the cold, hard realities of adult life had set in. With a limited income and the limited opportunities presented because of that, in the end it was Aaron himself who had backed away from our earlier plans, wanting to remain instead the small town boy he had always been.
Aaron had tried to get me to stay, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t stay here and be that kind of person . . . or at least that was what I thought at the time. For better or for worse, I needed to spread my wings and at least try my luck in the outside world. If I fell flat on my face, I reasoned at the time, then so be it; at least I had tried.
Of course I regret any hurt that I had caused him, but I didn’t regret taking my opportunities. I know that I wouldn’t be in the position I was now if I hadn’t reached out and grasped those opportunities with both hands.
The question I was asking myself now was, can I repair the damage I’ve done? Or would Aaron even give me the opportunity to try?
‘You miss him too, don’t you?’ Matt asked.
I could only nod, choosing to remain silent as I didn’t trust what my own voice might do.
‘Then while you’re here I suggest that you had best do something about that,’ Matt scolded.
‘He won’t . . .’ I began to say, but just at that moment we heard a car coming down the road.
‘Ahhh . . . that sounds like Luke’s car,’ Matt said. ‘You stay right there in that seat. I want to see the look on his face when he sees you,’ he demanded.
I was sitting with my back to the house, and from that side of the lay-z-chair I doubted if anyone would have been able to see me unless they actually came over to where we were. Glancing at Matt I could see he had that mischievous glint in his eye that I knew all too well.
We heard the car slow and then drive into the yard, although I didn’t dare turn around and look. I could only imagine it as I heard it come to a stop.
The door opened and one foot landed on the gravel driveway, then another. I knew what was happening simply by the sounds.
‘Hey babe,’ I heard Luke call out.
Matt waved and took another sip of beer, while trying to hide his grin.
The door closed then I heard scrunch . . . scrunch . . . scrunch; the sound of shoes on gravel. He was coming this way.
‘Hey, Matt, did you know that Tony was giving a talk to the writers’ group in Macquarie Harbour this week?’ I heard Luke ask. ‘There was a write-up in today’s newspaper! The bastard hasn’t said anything to me about it in his emails or anything. I wonder if any of the guys have heard from him?’
The footsteps were getting closer, though now it was the sound of summer grass being scrunched underfoot.
‘No, I haven’t heard from him either,’ Matt said, truthfully.
‘I’ll have to send him a messa. . .’ Luke began, before stopping short.
I looked at Matt and found him wearing this huge shit-eating grin and looking from me to Luke and back again. He’d given the game away, it seemed.
When I heard the footsteps resume I swung my legs over the side of the chair and stood up, facing my cousin for the first time in five years.
‘You bastard!’ he said. ‘Why didn’t you let us know?’ before quickly stepping forward and hugging and kissing me.
‘What? And spoil all my fun?’ I mocked.
‘Fuck, it’s great to see you. Do you have any idea how pissed I was when I read about that writers’ group thing in the paper today and you hadn’t called?’
‘Yeah, I have a pretty fair idea,’ I answered. ‘It was all part of my plan!’
‘You’re an arsehole!’
‘You’re actually not the first to tell me that!’ I replied.
‘But it’s great to see you! So, what’s the occasion? How long are you staying for? And does Aaron know you’re here yet?’
‘Geez . . . steady on with the twenty-questions, will ya!’ I laughed. ‘The occasion is the big ten year anniversary you kept going on about in your emails. No, I don’t know how long I’m going to stay for. And no, I haven’t been in touch with Aaron. Is that enough for starters?’
‘Go see him. And sooner, rather than later. He’ll want to see you. He often asks if we’ve heard from you.’
I glanced across at Matt, who quickly nodded his head and said, ‘Like I said mate, he misses you too, and he hasn’t really moved on either. I think he’s still clinging to some hope that, well . . .’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I asked.
‘You’re the romance writer, so you tell me!’ he replied, offering me a wink as he did so.
He was right, of course. Aaron did still mean a great deal to me, and maybe, just maybe, he was still holding on to some hope, or something, but I somehow doubted that. I mean, why would he? I was the one who left him behind. I was the one who broke his heart. I was the one who really was an arsehole, just like Luke had said. If he really did want to see me, well, it would probably just be so that he could run me down with his lawn mower.
I looked Luke up and down for the first time. He still had that kind of geeky look about him, which I loved by the way, but he had filled out and was looking almost as hot as Matt. Life was obviously agreeing with the pair of them.
‘So, what about everything, and everyone, else? I see you’ve given up riding the bus, Luke,’ I said, while cocking my thumb toward his car. ‘Are you still in that software job? And how are Tim and Guy, and Scott and Justin and everyone else around here? I hope they’re all still doing okay?’
‘Hang on,’ Matt interjected. ‘You fill him in while I get some more beers.’
‘Everyone is great,’ Luke replied. ‘Tim and Guy are doing well, they should be home soon. And Scott and Justin are still at the caravan park. And Aaron lives there too, in one of the permanent vans.’
‘Yeah mate. I don’t know what Matt has said, but for a while there he was doing it a bit tough after you had gone. Scott and Justin actually helped him out quite a bit. Didn’t you two keep in contact at all?’
‘I tried to, but he wouldn’t return my calls or emails . . . it was like he just wanted to shut me out, so I figured if that’s what he wanted, then what was the point in persevering? Matt didn’t say a lot, but I had the feeling that he was holding something back.’
‘We promised Aaron we wouldn’t ever tell you anything about what he’s been through, so you really need to talk to him yourself. I think it would mean a lot to him . . . and to us.’
‘Fuck,’ I whispered. ‘Please just tell me he didn’t try to top himself or do anything crazy like that.’
‘No mate. It was nothing like that.’
‘So, is he seeing anyone that you know of?’
At my asking this Luke smiled and said, ‘No mate, not that I know of.’
Matt returned a few moments later, carrying some more supplies and we all sat down to continue our catch up.
‘So, have you made all the plans for this ten year anniversary thing yet?’ I teased. ‘In your emails it sounded like you were going to make a big deal of it.’
Luke and Matt looked at each other and grinned.
‘To be honest, it was really just an idea that we threw out there but never took that seriously,’ Luke eventually said. ‘We sure as hell didn’t expect you to drop everything and come running home for it.’
‘Well, I’m here now,’ I replied. ‘So there better fucking well be a party!’ I demanded.
‘Okay then, it looks like we had best get our arses in gear and start organising something,’ Matt said. ‘When are we going to do this, then?’
‘Today is Friday and Australia Day is a week from tomorrow, so if you have it then, that will mean it’s on a long weekend . . . perfect!’ I suggested.
‘How about we make it next Saturday, Australia Day?’ Luke suggested. ‘At least that way we’ll be able to sleep it off on Sunday and Monday, as none of us will have to go to work!’
‘Jesus, it’s a wonder you guys were able to ever get anything organised in the last five years without me here to push you along!’
‘Steady on there, lad. We got plenty organised around here ourselves, or haven’t you noticed the changes?’ Matt chided.
‘Actually, yeah, I did notice. It all looks pretty good, but how did you manage to con the landlord into it? It must have cost him a packet?’
‘You got the bit right about it costing a packet, but as for the landlords, they were real push-overs,’ Matt said, with a smirk.
‘They? I thought it was only the one landlord, that nice old guy who helped out after the fire that time?’
‘Old George died a couple of years back,’ Luke said. ‘Now there are four landlords, but we’ve finally got them all sorted out now too.’
‘Four? How does that work . . .’ I began to say, but then the penny finally dropped. ‘Don’t tell me it’s you guys? You didn’t actually buy the place?’
They both grinned back at me.
‘Are you serious? That’s fantastic, but how did you manage to do it? And why the fuck didn’t you tell me?’
‘We had a fair bit of help,’ Luke said. ‘Old George put it in his will that we were to be let stay here, no matter what, but his family wanted to sell everything up, so after talking to them, and then all our parents and to god-only-knows how many banks and finance brokers, we were eventually able to put a deal together.’
‘That’s brilliant,’ I said. ‘So, what about the new additions? What’s the extension on the garage for?’
‘We just wanted a bit more room, and somewhere where we could park our visitors when they drop in unannounced, and we changed a few things around inside the house as well. And the best part of all was that we pretty much did it all ourselves, apart from the wiring and plumbing,’ Matt added.
‘Come on, let us show it to you,’ Luke enthused, while grabbing my hand and almost dragging me toward the garage.
I have to admit that his enthusiasm was infectious and I soon found myself caught up in the excitement of the moment, admiring their handiwork and the modifications they had made.
The garage extension proved to be simple, yet very stylish. There were three equal sized rooms beneath a skillion roof. The rooms on either end were bedrooms, while the central room housed a small kitchen and an ensuite. Perfect for those unannounced guests! (I think I just found out where I was sleeping while I was here).
The boys had truly done a great job on their building project, and if the renovations inside the house were anything like this, then I was looking forward to seeing those as well.
‘Did you bring a suitcase or anything?’ Luke asked as we were coming out of the new rooms. ‘You can take your pick which room you want to bunk down in.’
‘I take it my old room is out then?’ I teased, knowing full well what the answer would be.
‘Well, you could still sleep there if you really wanted to . . . but you would be in Tim and Guy’s new bathtub!’ Matt offered.
I looked back in at the large comfy looking bed in the new bedroom. ‘Nah, I guess this’ll do,’ I replied.
As we stepped back out into the fading afternoon sunlight I could hear another car approaching.
‘Is that them?’ I asked, to which Matt nodded.
Luke placed a hand on my arm for a moment.
‘Mate, don’t take it to heart if they appear a little distant, okay?’ he said to me, his eyes clearly showing concern.
‘It’s okay Luke. I get that some folks might be pissed at me. I didn’t mean to hurt Aaron, but we all have dreams we need to chase sometimes and I had to chase mine while I thought the timing was right. I truly want to make it up to him . . . I hope that I can just get the chance to do that without everyone else around here carving me up first.’
‘You will, mate. And we’ll do everything in our power to help, all right!’ he replied.
‘We all will,’ Matt added. ‘And I’m sure that even these two clowns coming in the gate now will too, once they understand where you’re coming from.’
‘Thanks guys. That means a lot to me.’
To be continued . . .