More or less… – A short story

It was meant to be time to reacquaint as brothers.

Louis and I had not seen each other for decades, and when he returned, about a week before, I got the impression there was more than just ‘missing his brother’ going on.

But that was Louis. He was never one to say what or how he felt about anything, preferring to be the strong silent type, and it had not fared well for him transitioning from teenager to adult.

As for me, when our parents split up, Louis went with our father, and I stayed with our mother, and, given the amount of acrimony there was attached to the split, it was no surprise to anyone that Louis and I had effectively become estranged.

In fact, when I had tried to find them, about two years after the split and our mother had died suddenly, all I found were loose ends. They had effectively vanished.

With that part of my life effectively over, I had married, had children and watched 30 years disappear before Louis suddenly popped up. He simply knocked on the front door one afternoon, Helen answered it, and within minutes they were the best of friends. I’d had that rapport, once, many years before, but life and circumstances had all but ruined that.

Or perhaps that was just me, worn down by that same life and circumstances we were all supposed to take on the chin.

His arrival was a welcome distraction, and when, after a week, he suggested that he and I go on a hike, the sort our father used to take us on when we were a family, I agreed. Helen was happy to be rid of me, and I guess a week without our arguing would suit everyone.

It was probably fortuitous timing. Helen and I had finally got to the point where divorce lawyers were about to be called in. The children had all moved on and had children and problems of their own, and we, as parents just didn’t gel anymore.

Besides, I said, just before I joined Louis in the truck, ready to embark for the wilderness, it would be time to clear my head.

And by day two, my head was clear, and Louis, taking the lead, led us along the ridgeline, a trek he said, that would take us about seven hours. We’d stopped the previous night in a base camp and then headed out the next morning. We were the only two, it being early in the season with snow still on the ground.

Above was the clear cloudless blue sky and in front of us, trees and mountains. There was snow on the ground but it was not solid and showed no signs of human footsteps, only animals. The air was fresh, and it was good to be away from the city and its pressures.

Approaching noon, I’d asked him if we were about halfway. I knew he was holding back, being the fitter of us.

“More or less.”

“More or less what, more closer or less close than we should be.”

I watched him do a 360-degree turn, scoping out our position. It was a maneuver I was familiar with from my time with the National Guard. I’d used my backcountry experience that I’d learned from my father, as a skill I thought they might be able to, and eventually did, use. I got the feeling Louis was looking for something.

“You get the impression we’re not alone?” I asked. I had that nagging feeling something was not right, not from about two miles back in the forest. It was like my sixth sense being switched on.

“Doesn’t seem so, though there have been a few animals lurking behind us, probably surprised anyone’s about this time of the year. It’s been a while, so I’m just getting a feel for the trail. This is, for now, our mountain.”

There was a time, from a time when we were kids, that I could tell when he was lying. He was better at covering it, but it was still there.

Where we’d stopped was a small clearing, a staging point that would be used by other trekkers, still overgrown because of lack of trekkers. Ahead there were the signs of a trail, and after six months, it would become clear again. In places, as we had made our way from the base camp, sections of the distinctive trail had all but disappeared, but Louis seemed to know where he was going, and it was not long before we had picked up the trail again. This spot was a lookout, giving a spectacular view of the valley below, and a fast running river through it.

I walked to the edge and looked up and down the valley, and at the trail that ran along the cliff for a short distance. I looked down, not the wisest of things to do, but it was long enough to catch sight of several charred pieces of wood. On top of the snow. The thing is, someone had been along this trail before us, and recently, something I thought wise to keep to myself.

Back at the log, I sat for a moment and drank some water, while Louis stood patiently, but impatiently, for me to join him.

“You look like you’ve got somewhere to be.” Probably not the wisest thing to say but it was out before I could stop it.

A flicker of annoyance crossed his face, then it was gone. “If we stop too long, joints will freeze up, especially when it gets colder.”

“Sorry.” I put the container back in the pack and joined him. “Let’s go. The cold and I don’t get along very well, and it’s been a long time since the last time I ventured into the great unknown.”

“Helen said you gave up trekking when you married her.”

“She wasn’t a trekker, Robbie. We all have to give up something, sooner or later.”

Another hour, feeling rather weary, we’d come to another small clearing and a place where I could sit down.

“You always were the weak link, Robbie. Admittedly you were younger, but you never seemed to grasp the concept of exercise and fitness.”

I looked up at him and could see my father, the exact stance, the exact words, the exact same sneer in his voice. It all came rushing back as if it was yesterday, the reasons why I chose to go with our mother, that another day with his bullying would be one too many. And he was a bully. And, in an instant, I could see the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.

“Out of shape after languishing in an office, perhaps,” I said, “but I was never the disappointment our father always considered me.”

“You didn’t join the army, follow in his footsteps, as he wanted us to do. I did. Proudly served, too.”

I could see it. Like father, like son. No surprise Robbie had followed in his father’s footsteps. And it was a clue as to what Robbie had been doing since I saw him last.

“So, tell me about it.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“No, I probably wouldn’t. Let’s push on.”

I’d also thought, along the way, he might ask questions, delve further into the problems that Helen and I were having, but I knew she had told him all he needed to know. I’d been held up at the office, and had rung to ask her to take him to dinner, get to know him, she might get to learn something of my life before I met her, details of which I hadn’t told her other than that my mother was dead, my father had left and taken Robbie with him. My past, I’d told her from the outset, was not something I would talk about.

I didn’t ask what they talked about, but I could see a change in both of them. Perhaps she had succumbed to Robbie’s charm, back in school all the girls did, but they all soon learned he was not a nice person, not once you got to know him. I didn’t warn her, and perhaps that was regrettable on my part, but it reflected the state in which our relationship had reached.

I’d also tried, once or twice, to find out if our father was still alive, but he deflected it, changing the subject. That meant he was still alive, somewhere, perhaps annoyed at Robbie for coming to see me. If I was a betting man, I’d bet our father would have denied permission for
Robbie to do so, even if he was a grown man and capable of making his own decisions.

Odd, but not surprising. Even now I could remember my father had secrets, and those secrets had fed into the breakup of our parents.

“So, you’ve been dodging it for days now, but you still haven’t told me if dad is alive or dead. He’d be about seventy-odd now.”

He stopped and turned to face me. “Would it matter if he was alive? I doubt you’d want to see him after what mother must have said about him.”

Interesting that he would think so. “She never had a bad word for him, and wouldn’t hear of one spoken, by me or anyone. And I have wondered what became of him, and you. At least now I know you spent time in the Army. If I was to guess what happened, that would be high on my list.”

“No surprise then you became an office wanker.”

Blunt, but, to him, it was a fact. I’d used that expression when telling Helen one time after a very bad day.

“We can’t all be heroes, Robbie.”

I put my hand up. Alarm bells were going off in my head. “You can come out now,” I yelled.

Robbie looked puzzled.

“I know you’re there. You’ve been behind us for about a half-mile now.”

A few seconds passed before the cracking of a twig, and then a person in a camouflage kit came towards us.

He’d aged, hair and beard grey in places but almost white now, but the face was familiar.

“What brings you to this part of the woods, Dad. Or is it just an unlucky coincidence?”

—–

© Charles Heath 2020-2021

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