John was twenty-eight when he was promoted to department manager, and Linda, his wife, suggested that they should start their family. John had been hoping to have a little spare cash so as not to need to budget quite so stringently. However, he knew Linda longed for a baby and he wanted her to be happy, and so Michael was born, and, two years later, Robert. They hadn’t planned for a third, but three years after Robert’s birth, little Amy came along. They coped.
Michael was always a quiet boy, but Robert was noisy right from the start. He woke frequently in the night. He was active. When he was only nine months old, he managed to climb out of his cot. Linda found him and scooped him up just before he could tumble down the stairs.
At school, Michael was the bright one, but Robert was the one that the teachers liked. “He’ll go far, that lad,” said the headteacher at his primary school.
And he did. He took a gap year before university, which became two gap years, which became wandering the world doing casual work, acquiring skills and languages. He visited the South Pacific and Patagonia, the rain forest in Brazil and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He was bitten by a venomous snake in Australia, and by a tarantula in South America. His complexion was mahogany, and his countenance cheerful and untroubled.
Michael studied at Nottingham University, and, after graduating, became an accountant. He was an excellent accountant. He prospered. By the time he was forty, he was married to the beautiful Caitlin, and had one son, Tarquin, and two daughters, Anastasia and Persephone. They lived in a large house in Winchester, and Michael had a pied-a-terre in London where he lived during the working week.
Occasionally Robert would phone Michael; to give him news, to find out how their parents were, and to make sure that Michael knew where to contact him. Michael seldom tried to phone Robert; he knew from experience that Robert’s phone number changed frequently. Several times a year Michael would despatch some luxury that he knew Robert particularly enjoyed – Cuban cigars were a special favourite – to the most recent address he had. And Michael would pass on a circumspect account of Robert’s latest exploits to their parents when he telephoned them once a fortnight.
The day came, of course, when Michael needed to contact Robert urgently. Their father, John, was ill; a major heart attack. Michael sent a letter to all the most recent addresses he had for Robert, and then sat down with his phone and a list of all the phone numbers that Robert had used for the last five years. It wasn’t until he tried the last number on his list that he made contact.
Jungles aren’t as impenetrable they used to be, especially when you’re as resourceful as Robert. He was in London with Michael, beside his father’s hospital bed, within seventy-two hours. John looked at him, and grinned weakly.
“You’re both here? I really must be on my last legs,” he joked, and, closing his eyes, drifted off into that halfway house to death that is unconsciousness.
“You know, I think I’d better stop tramping the world,” said Robert to Michael, across the bed.
Michael raised his eyebrows.
“Well, I’m not getting any younger, and what have I achieved? Nothing. I’ve no children to carry on the line. I’ve not created anything that will survive me. I look at you, with your beautiful wife and your talented children, and I think it’s about time I married and settled down.”
“Ah,” said Michael. “I’m going to tell you something that I’ve not told anybody else yet. Before Dad had his heart attack, I was planning to talk to you about whether you could help me find a more adventurous occupation. I’ve plenty of money; I don’t need to work; but it’s slightly less boring than not working. Which isn’t saying very much. I’m trapped Robert. I love my kids, but I’m raising them to be prudent citizens, just like me, and I don’t think that will fulfil them. It doesn’t fulfil me, anyway.”
The two brothers looked at each other over the unconscious form of their father.
At the foot of the bed, their sister Amy was focussed on him.
“He’s looking a bit better now,” she said. She smiled with love and relief as she gazed at him. “The consultant told me he’s out of danger. Can you two stay here with him until I get back? I need to cook the children some tea. Jack’s on nights this week. Mum’s staying with me, of course, while Dad’s poorly, and she’ll need feeding too.”
She stood up, bleary-eyed after her vigil.
“Oh, what beautiful flowers!” she exclaimed. “Did you bring them, Robert? They’re gorgeous! I hope you’ll come round and see us now you’re in England for a few days.” She hugged her brothers, beamed at them, and went home.