“I spoke with Alain.” John was in the kitchen, hovering, as Marie worked.
“Don’t get in my way please,” she said, sliding past him to get the eggs from the fridge.
“Sorry, I can see you're busy.”
“There’s a lot to prepare. I want to make it a good birthday.”
“I should go and help with the decorations.” He turned to leave.
“What did he say?” She stopped in the middle of the kitchen.
John looked around, as if he wanted to be certain they were alone.
“Well. He would like Mariane to see a specialist. She needs a full diagnosis and a treatment plan.”
“Yes, alright. But for what? What does he think is wrong?”
“He wouldn't really commit himself. But he said that she is exhibiting all the symptoms of bipolar disorder.”
Marie put the eggs down and wiped her hands.
“It would explain the mood swings, fatigue, and even delusions. What she imagines might be going on, but isn't. It’s not really so bad, just means she interprets things to the extreme. So she might accuse Morris of something only from what she saw, but blown out of proportion. Am I explaining myself?”
“I think I get the gist of it. And?”
“With treatment it will improve. He said it doesn’t sound bad enough that she would need hospitalisation. Usually, it’s something people live with. But she needs to see someone and he recommended we do that as soon as possible. When we get home.”
“And have you spoken to Morris?”
“Yes. He actually seemed relieved to have an explanation.”
“How urgent is it to see a specialist?”
“Alain only said that without treatment it will probably get worse. So I assume, the sooner the better.”
“Alright. We'll deal with that tomorrow. Right now I need to get on.”
He smiled. “Okay, I’ll leave you to it.”
Looking through the tree tops Milo watched the clouds scudding across the sky and listened to the leaves rustling in the wind. He had been given precise instructions to stay out of the way the whole morning, and not to come back to the house until lunch time. Corinth and Amelie had been despatched to keep an eye on him, but soon became bored. Milo had taken up his domain in the hammock, intending to idle away the few hours until midday. He was content when his cousins wandered off leaving him alone. But he couldn't concentrate on his book. He was disturbed by two things, or perhaps three, if he were to give any credence to Amelie.
Would Estevo and Olivier show up? He tried to convince himself that they definitely would. Because for one thing, it would be rude not to, after being invited, and requesting to bring a friend. Olivier was Estevo's best friend, he seemed nice enough. Yet still a tiny demon of jealousy niggled at his brain.
His mother had said that they, well his father mainly he supposed, were helping Estevo and his mother. He knew why. That was something he really must talk to her about, but not now. She had to be busy, like every year, preparing the food and birthday cake. She was a great mother, ever since he could remember, she’d always made a big effort for his birthday.
There was the year when he turned six. His big interest had been trains. He'd had Thomas the Tank Engine read to him, and that smiling blue face on the locomotive had become his favourite. That year his mother had made a chocolate log with wheels and a funnel. Swirls of cream covered the top, like the smoke from the steam train. Leaning over the table to blow out the candles, held by his father, he had gotten cream all over his face.
Amelie, he was almost convinced, had made things up or exaggerated them. That’s what he told himself. Perhaps everything was not quite right with his aunt, that much was obvious, but the rest of the speculation about an affair and getting divorced, couldn’t be true.
“Milo. You haven't moved all morning.” Corinth had returned, but without her younger sister.
“What did you do with Amelie?” he asked.
Corinth grinned: “She’s helping your mother.”
“Really?” Milo pushed himself off the hammock, which swung free behind him.
“Well, helping, I’m not sure,” she laughed. “But she is in the kitchen.”
“I can probably expect a disaster then,” he smiled.
“Let’s hope not.”
He looked up at the sky as a distant rumble of thunder blotted out the sound of the rustling of the leaves.
“I don’t think it will rain,” Corinth said, reading his thoughts. “Now tell me something.” She looked at him standing there in front of her.
“Tell you what?”
“Let’s walk.” She took his arm in hers and led him away from the swinging hammock. “Estevo’s friend. What’s his name?”
“Olivier,” Milo replied as they strolled together arm in arm around the house.
“And you’ve known him how long?”
“What is this? Twenty questions,” he laughed. “I don’t know him at all.”
“Mmm. Then how come you invited him?”
“So, he invited himself?”
“No, don’t be silly. Estevo asked if he could bring a friend.”
“And you said yes?”
“No, my mother did.”
That made Corinth laugh. “Sounds about right. So have you met this Olivier?”
“Yeah, a couple of times.”
“Yes, really. Now tell me something. Why the interest?”
Corinth shook her hair and turned back towards the house.
“I think it’s time,” was all she said.
It was a sort of surprise, if expected, because the tradition never faltered. He was, however, very pleased to see Estevo and Olivier with the rest of the family around the table. Everyone clapped as he made his entrance accompanied by Corinth. The table was laid out almost as festive as a Christmas lunch, though less copious. It was summer, after all.
For starters there was one of his favourites, a walnut salad with warm goat's cheese. The main course was another favourite, duck breast in dark Port sauce with green beans. There was a lot a chatter over lunch and everyone seemed in a great mood. Milo glanced from time to time at Estevo who was sitting with Olivier across the table from him. At one point in the meal he felt mesmerised by those deep green eyes. He blushed at his reaction, and wondered if anyone had noticed.
His two cousins were sitting on either side of him. Corinth, of course, noticed Estevo, and she caught that long stare into each other's eyes between Milo and him. But she was preoccupied with Estevo’s friend Olivier, who held nearly all her attention.
John also noticed Milo’s long gaze, as he was sitting next to Estevo. He turned to his wife, who was at the head of the table, leaned over and whispered: “It seems we may have a touch of young love in the air.”
She held her hand over her mouth to hide a fit of giggles. “Which pair?” She asked him softly. “Milo and Estevo? Or Corinth and Olivier?”
He laughed out loud and clapped his hands, much to everyone's amusement.
“More wine, anyone?” he asked.
When his mother got up to clear away the lunch, Milo insisted on helping.
“It’s your birthday,” she told him. But he still followed her into the kitchen, carrying some of the plates. Amelie was right behind, also lending a helping hand.
“It's a lovely birthday party,” she said to them both, and gave Milo a big smile.
“Can I tell you a little secret,” she whispered as his mother stacked the dishes.
He bent down to her height and smiled back at her.
“What is it?”
“I made up the kissing I told you about.”
She looked a little ashamed of herself, but Milo was relieved. Besides it was his birthday, he couldn’t be angry with anyone, quite the contrary.
“That’s alright,” he told her. “Never mind. Go and enjoy the party.”
She almost skipped out of the kitchen, leaving him alone with his mother.
“Maman, we never finished our chat about helping Estevo and his mother.”
She stopped what she was doing and turned to look at him. “What didn’t I say?”
He looked at her and smiled. “He told me everything. You don’t need to say anything more. I think it’s good that you and father want to help them. And I like him a lot.”
Moving a step closer she reached out and brushed a hand through his hair, pushing it back off his forehead.
“I know you do,” she said.
Milo wanted to talk to her about how he felt, but it was difficult to try and find the words.
“Maman. I don’t want you to be cross, but...”
She suddenly embraced him, hugging him to her with both arms.
“Oh, Milo. I would never be cross with you. My darling, darling boy. We love you, your father and I. You don’t need to say anything. It’s as plain as daylight.”
She moved her head and gently kissed him on the cheek.
Milo looked at her surprised. “It is? But you don’t know what I wanted to say.”
“That you have certain feelings towards Estevo.” She said it for him. Her voice soft with warmth and emotion.
He blushed: “And you don’t mind?”
“Of course not.” She finally let go of him. “Now come on. Help me with the cake.”
Milo felt light headed. As if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. Something he knew he carried, but which, until just this moment, he hadn't realised how heavy a burden it was.
“Can I ask you something else?”
She once again turned her attention to her son. “Of course, anything.”
“We’ve been a little worried, Corinth and I. About Uncle Morris and what’s going on.”
A puzzled look come over his mother, she wasn’t sure what he was referring to.
“About Uncle Morris?”
“Well both myself and Corinth saw you together, a couple of times. You were sort of...” He wondered how to say it. “Secretive.”
“Oh, I see.” Now she thought she understood. “Your aunt is not too well. Your uncle and I have been concerned. Sometimes your aunt is very tired, other times a little down in the dumps, and occasionally she gets very angry. She has had arguments with your uncle that... well, that are misplaced. She gets a little confused. Misunderstands things. It’s nothing to get too worried or upset about.”
Milo took all this in.
“Corinth thought they might be getting divorced.” He looked at his mother.
“Oh. We need to talk to her. Her and Amelie. We have rather kept things from you. Your father saw Alain and he believes your aunt needs treatment, but as I said it’s nothing to worry about. With the right drugs she’ll be fine. And Morris has already telephoned to make an appointment to see someone when we get home.”
That seemed to explain everything. While he wasn’t any the wiser about exactly what was wrong with his aunt, he believed what his mother had told him.
Corinth entered the kitchen, accompanied by a loud rumble of thunder.
“Everyone's waiting.” She looked from Milo to his mother.
“We better get the cake then.” His mother opened the fridge and produced a splendid strawberry cream cake.”
Milo followed them out onto the veranda. The cake was placed at the head of the table and Milo’s mother lit the sixteen candles.
Another loud thunder clap boomed out.
“You better blow them out before the storm,” Estevo joked.
Then everyone started singing: “Joyeux anniversaire, joyeux anniversaire. Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you.”
Milo took a deep breath then blew out the candles.
“You didn’t forget to make a wish?” Olivier asked, winking at him.
The cake was served and eaten, and just in time, before the thunder sounded once again. This time it was directly overhead, and the rain came down in sheets. Water cascaded off the roof of the veranda like a flood over the top of a dam. The sky was black, and the wind blew the rain back towards the house. They quickly retreated inside, laughing.
Milo stood in the bathroom, in front of the mirror. He stared at his reflection without really seeing it. The space was charged with tension. He could sense the presence of Estevo, coming closer. He shivered, trembled, and his pulse raced. The young man stood behind him. The silence was broken only by the faint rumble of thunder somewhere in the distance.
“I’m glad it didn’t rain until the end of your birthday,” Estevo said, looking at Milo in the mirror.
Milo’s breathing was laboured, he gulped in air, he had to know. This was the moment.
“Do you like me, or is it Corinth?” He didn’t look up. The question was almost a whisper.
Estevo moved a step closer, almost touching him.
“It’s you,” he said.
Those two words were like a thunderbolt. Milo felt the shock coursing through his body and he could not control his reaction. He was excited. He blushed at the realisation.
Estevo reached a hand around Milo and rested his palm on Milo’s stomach. He trembled at the touch and his body responded.
“Really? You do like me?”
One more step. And Estevo was pressed right up behind Milo. His hand fell lower. Milo felt it. Everything. There was no doubting. Both boys were excited.
Milo stirred with the sunlight creeping into the room. He remembered falling asleep to the rumbling of thunder. He would have thought it was a dream, only a dream, but the rhythmic breathing was real. Everything was real. He turned and silently watched the young man still sleeping. He wanted at once to embrace him and at the same time to leave him asleep, so that it would never end. He was both scared and elated.
Everything had changed, he was no longer the child he once was.
He was sixteen and... he had fallen, deeply, in love.