Milo was up early and thought there would be no one else about yet, but he was wrong. His mother was sitting alone at the table on the veranda. He watched her a moment as she drank her coffee.
“Milo,” she said, turning her head. “Would you like some coffee?”
She must have that sixth sense that mothers have, because he hadn’t made any noise and was standing motionless behind her.
“Morning, maman.” He moved to sit next to her. “And yes, thank you.”
She smiled and poured him a cup. The table was laid ready for breakfast, but he noticed only seven places were set. Knowing that his mother only ever drank coffee in the morning and rarely ate, someone was absent.
“Estevo's gone home,” she mentioned, whilst sipping her coffee.
That explained who was missing. He stared out across the drive and garden, listening to the early morning twittering of bird calls.
“He'll be back?” He asked, uncertain in the light of what had been happening.
She poured herself another cup of coffee, picking up a sugar cube and dropping it into the cup. He watched her twirl the spoon distractedly. It seemed to him that she was miles away.
“Maman! He’ll be back?” There was a certain anxiousness in his voice.
This jogged her attention. “Oh, yes. He will be here for your birthday tomorrow.”
There was a silence that left the stage for the birds to chirp and a frog to croak. All of a sudden he felt the chill in the air. The weather had changed, the sky had been invaded by clouds.
“He wanted to know if he could bring a friend,” she said, interrupting nature’s orchestra. “Of course, I said yes.”
Of course, he repeated to himself. What friend? He didn’t feel much like eating, but nevertheless, he took the loaf and cut himself a slice of bread which he buttered and spread with strawberry jam.
“What friend?” he asked.
“Oh, I really don’t know. I didn’t ask. He did say he’d call you.”
“Call me?” Why didn’t she say that before? The morning no longer seemed so gloomy. Nature was heralding in a wonderful new day with her usual sing-song, and who cared about a few clouds in the sky?
His thoughts rested a moment, reassured, but quickly overtaken by other concerns.
“Why is father seeing Estevo’s mother?” He was going to add, all the time, but decided to be a little more circumspect. He’d learnt a thing or two about conversational interactions from reading Dickens. He knew not to lay all his cards on the table.
“He’s offering some help.” She paused, thinking. “Did you know his father left them?”
“Yes. Well, he said he lived alone with his mother. I don’t think he actually said his father left.”
“Yes, well, he did. And we wanted to help.”
He heard some laughing coming from inside the house. His cousins must be up, and soon they would join them for breakfast, so he should ask his questions now.
“Why did you decide to help? I mean do you know Estevo and his mother? I just assumed he was a boy from the village looking for a summer job.”
She put down her coffee and turned to look at him. “It’s complicated.”
Corinth and Amelie came running onto the veranda, giggling.
“Morning, Milo, Aunty Marie.”
They spread themselves out at the table, Corinth opposite Milo, and Amelie next to him. He was running through his mind that final word, complicated. Wasn’t that what adults always said to avoid going into detail. In effect, he was no wiser, he knew only that his parents wanted to help, but not why. Not being in the mood for his cousins' antics, he excused himself and left them chatting with his mother.
Just before lunch Uncle Morris came to find Milo. Estevo had phoned and he said he wanted to see you, he told him. That afternoon when lunch was over, Milo took the old bicycle which Estevo had left at the house, he must have walked home. He was excited, but also nervous. Too many unknowns. Why did he want to see him? Why not say something before? Why the phone call? Was his friend he was bringing on Sunday, Olivier, or someone else? Maybe he had a girlfriend? Did he ever ask? He’d said he liked him. Milo overthought everything. His mind worked like a machine trying to compute all possible eventualities and find the most probable, the answer. It was impossible, far too many variables, but that did nothing to stop his mind working overtime.
Heavy splats of rain hit the road in front of him and he realised he hadn’t given much thought to the changing weather. He started pedalling faster, but the splats of rain became more frequent and much closer together. There wasn’t far to go. A rumble growled loud and quite close, then the heavens opened. Water flew off the tyres as he pedalled. Rivulets swam across the road pouring water into the fosse where a torrent rushed along next to the road. He made it into the village with the thunder crashing overhead. He looked around, peering through the rain. Too late to take shelter he was completely soaked to the skin.
As quickly as it had begun, the thunder receded into the distance and the rain eased, then stopped altogether. The sky cleared enough to return a semblance of daytime and he heard laughter. That was when he noticed Estevo and Olivier. He had no idea where they’d been hiding, but now they were standing right in front of him.
“It’s not funny,” he complained. “Who's stupid idea was it to get me to ride here?”
Estevo approached the boy and put an arm on his shoulder. “Come on. You better come home and get dry.”
“We weren't making fun of you,” Olivier said. “But you look...”
“Yeah, don’t say it. I’m soaked.”
He wasn’t angry, it wasn’t their fault. He was actually pleased to see them both. He got off the bike and followed them along the road to Estevo's house. Leaving the bike outside resting against the wall, he stepped up through the front door, following Estevo.
“You better get undressed here, before you flood the house,” he said, smiling.
Milo would usually have been embarrassed to undress in front of two boys he hardly knew. Maybe not in front of Estevo, but he’d only met Olivier that one time. However, he didn’t give it much thought, just kicked off his moccasins and pulled his t-shirt up and over his head.
“I’ll just go get a towel,” Estevo told him.
Milo stepped out of his shorts and stood there in his underpants with Olivier watching him and grinning. It was rather gloomy inside the house which probably offered a false protection for his modesty. He shivered, it was cold standing there on the wooden floorboards. Estevo returned with a large fluffy white bathroom towel.
“Ur, you better take those off too.” He looked at Milo, who blushed.
With Estevo standing in front of him holding the towel, and Olivier behind, it wasn't as if he could hide. Quickly he slipped off the last item of clothing and as he stood up Estevo wrapped the towel around him.
“I’ll take these,” he said, picking up the pile of clothes. “Take him into the kitchen,” he told Olivier.
The other boy squeezed past Milo and led the way along the hall. They sat down side by side, each on a wooden chair at the table. Milo looked around, then glanced at Olivier.
“Guess I chose the wrong time to cycle here.”
A huge smile lit up Olivier’s face.
“Oh, I don’t know. You look kinda cute, all wet and everything.”
This only served to make Milo blush again, and he wondered if it was visible in the dim light.
Estevo came in and went over to the sink, picking up the coffee jug. He placed it under the tap.
“I’ll make us some coffee.” He turned back to look at Milo. “You okay?”
“I am, now,” he replied, pulling the towel closer and drying his hair with one of the corners.
Nobody said anything whilst Estevo prepared the coffee.
Milo broke the silence as the water started to percolate through the filter. “Why did you ask me here?”
Estevo glanced at him. “I’ve got stuff I need to talk to you about.”
“But you could have talked to me before you left.”
Estevo sought out three mugs from the kitchen cupboard, placed them on the table, and then fetched the coffee jug , sugar and spoons. He sat down opposite Milo.
“Do you mind Olivier being here?” He looked intently into Milo’s eyes.
How could he mind anything? Those eyes held him almost in a trance.
He glanced at Olivier. “No, I guess not.”
“I’m not sure how to tell you this.”
As if some divine presence were listening in from above, a loud crack of thunder erupted, followed very quickly by heavy rain. Milo waited for Estevo to continue as he listened to the rain pounding the roof and yard, making loud clacking sounds as it fell onto the little porch over the back door.
“Well, your father has been sort of helping us. My mother and I.”
“Yeah, I know,” Milo interrupted. “I wondered what was going on. I’d seen him visiting here.”
Estevo looked visibly surprised. “You did?”
For the first time Olivier joined the conversation. “I brought him here. The first time we met. He was looking for his father.”
“I have to say I wondered,” Milo told Estevo.
“Wondered? About what?”
Milo didn’t want to say it for fear of offending Estevo in front of Olivier. He glanced again at the other boy sitting next to him. Estevo caught the glance.
“He’s my best friend. It’s okay, go on.”
“I wondered if my father was... you know, like seeing your mother. They kissed goodbye.”
Estevo lifted the coffee jug and carefully poured out three coffees.
“It’s nothing like that,” he said.
“Yeah, I know. I talked with my mother this morning. She said he was... they were helping you out."
“I thought the same thing. When your father kept coming here.”
“What I never got to find out was why. Why he would want to help.” Milo suddenly realised how that sounded. “No, I mean. I don’t mean we shouldn’t be helping.”
“It’s alright. I know what you mean.” Estevo smiled.
Milo relaxed, but was suddenly conscious he was only covered by a towel.
“Do you think my clothes will dry?”
With perfect timing another rumble of thunder answered that question, and made Olivier chuckle.
“I doubt it,” Olivier said. “You might have to cycle home naked.”
Milo turned to look at him. Then at Estevo.
“Do you have anything I could borrow?”
“Sure, don’t worry. Olivier is a joker.” He gave his best friend a studied look. “I’ll just come straight out with the truth, and tell you. None of this I knew until a few days ago. Like you, I asked my mother.”
Milo was listening intently, aware he was about to hear something very important. He guessed Olivier already knew.
“One summer, about eighteen years ago, my mother worked at the house. At your house. In those days your mother's family used to spend all summer there. I suppose that hasn’t much changed. Anyway, my mother was working there and so was my father. That’s how she met him, but that isn’t the story. Before she met my father she had a liaison with your grandfather, George Duval.”
Estevo slowly unravelled the rest of the tale. How his mother had married Albert, probably why his father had finally walked out, and then the coup de grâce. “So, Milo, that makes me... your uncle. Half-uncle to be exact.”
Milo stared at Estevo in shock, then turned towards Olivier, his eyes almost pleading, searching for some sort of reassurance. Estevo remained silent. Olivier felt Milo's pain and emotion, he put his arm around his shoulder and held him.
“It doesn’t mean anything,” he tried to offer some comfort. “Doesn’t matter now.”
A tear escaped the corner of Milo’s eye. It slid over his cheek as he lowered his head, staring at his empty mug of coffee. “My uncle!”
“Half-uncle,” Estevo corrected, then felt stupid for saying that.
“That means we’re...” Milo looked up at Estevo, “we're related.”
“Yeah, we are.” Estevo pushed back his chair and stood up.
He walked to the sink and looked out at the yard. Steam was rising off the concrete in wispy sheets as the temperature improved after the storm. He turned back, then walked out of the kitchen into the hall. Milo watched him leave.
“Is he alright?” He asked Olivier.
The boy squeezed his shoulder. “Sure. He's a tough cookie.”
Milo frowned, and turned to look at Olivier.
“What is it?” Olivier asked feeling a little worried.
“Do you think all this changes everything?”
Olivier smiled at Milo. “Estevo is a great guy, Milo. I don’t think it changes anything.”
Estevo came back carrying a bundle in his hands. “Here, try these, might be a bit big.” He pushed the clothes into Milo’s arms.
Milo got dressed, the clothes were somewhat too big, but better than no clothes. They all laughed at that. With the passing of the storm the atmosphere lifted and Milo headed home feeling okay, if not completely reassured about what had been revealed about their new relationship. It seemed odd. Very odd. He wasn’t sure it didn't change things. He wasn’t sure about anything.
Estevo and Olivier should be there on Sunday, for his birthday party.
But he wasn’t even sure about that.