by Sue Brennan
The holiday wasn’t going well, and finding out that Dad couldn’t swim after we’d jumped off the boat wasn’t the half of it. Mick and Andy had already swum off— bastards—and there I was playing the older responsible brother, yet again. Poor old Dad, at the arse-end of his second divorce, practically skint, his goggles askew, his roots growing out.
Oh God, his hair.
“When did he start dying his hair?” Mick had whispered to me, horrified, at the airport.
“Fucked if I know,” I’d whispered back. “Maybe it was when Lynn told him she suddenly realised she was still young and didn’t want to be stuck with an old man like him.”
“Shit, did she really?”
I’d nodded sadly, recalling the last six months of Skype calls. Never knowing what mood he was going to be in—elated that he was free of the money-grabbing bitch; despair at facing another divorce and a lonely old age; hopeful that his new fitness regime and, apparently, attention to grooming, would win her back; excitement at being back on the dating scene—was emotional
Russian roulette every time I called. The most annoying part though, was that after each call I was expected to relay the information—word-by-word, mood-by-mood—to each brother.
“Why don’t you just call him yourself?” I suggested to them. “I’ve got a life too, you know.” Actually, I didn’t.
“Eldest son duty mate,” Mick said. “Sorry.”
Apparently my duties as the eldest also included paying for Dad’s flight’s from Sydney to Phuket and back, organising accommodation for the four of us, paying for and sharing a twin room with Dad for ten nights, and now, teaching him how to swim.
“Dad!” I was treading water lightly, adjusting my goggles to make sure that what I was seeing was actually my father drowning and not just some weird old dude thing. Shit, he was going down. I swam over, he wasn’t that far away, maybe six meters, grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him up.
“Dad! Dad…you’ve got flippers on…just move your legs like you’re walking!”
But he was panicking, so I flipped him round onto his back and floated him over to a reefy area we’d been told by the crew to be careful of.
“Okay, okay, put your feet down. Here we go. You’re good, Dad, you’re good.”
I knew he was going to be alright. I just had to wait for him to figure that out.
The Full Moon, a three-star resort, was populated by Germans mostly, and a smattering of Canadians, Brits and Australians. Mick flew over from Hong Kong where he’d been living for the last ten years working for a bank and making big bucks. Andy came down from Chang Mai on holiday from his English teaching job. For me, this was the end of a six month holiday cum what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life ramble throughout South East Asia. I was going to fly back in ten days with Dad and try to work out how to live in Australia again after almost two decades in the UK.
The first thing that went wrong was that Mick decided to bring his girlfriend of two minutes with him. When I arrived at the resort on the Wednesday afternoon, he and Andy were arguing over whose fault it was that there were now three people sharing a bungalow with twin beds when two of those people wanted to have lots of sex.
“Look, I just thought we’d get another room,” Mick explained. “How was I to know the place would be booked out?”
Jessica, the girlfriend, was sitting at the bar by the pool with a glass of something colourful, looking out at the ocean with all the interest of someone reading yesterday’s newspaper.
“Why don’t you stay in my bungalow tonight, Andy?” I suggested. “Dad arrives tomorrow and then we’ll sort something out for you guys. Maybe find another hotel?”
“Perfect!” Mick said, satisfied. “Now come and meet the most delectable little wench this side of the equator.”
“Yeah, perfect,” Andy drawled.
Several hours and much, much beer later, Jessica was passed out in one bungalow and the three of us were sitting on the balcony of the one next to it. Mick and Andy were talking about
rugby, something that I couldn’t ever get too worked up about, so I was texting my ex-girlfriend back in Edinburgh. She’d already found someone else and was pushing the let’s-still-be-friends thing a little by asking me whether it was too soon to move in with him.
– Shit, why r u asking me this?
– Because u know me!!!
– Can’t believe yr asking me if yr new bf should move into the fucking flat u shared with me! just more proof of how insanely self-obsessed u r
I was waiting for her response when I noticed that Andy and Mick had stopped talking and were looking at me with amusement.
“The look on your face. Man!” Mick laughed. “Glad it’s not me on the other end of that phone.”
I switched it off and looked around for another beer.
“We’ve finished ‘em all,” Andy reported.
“Probably for the best. Got to get up early to get to the airport tomorrow.”
“Yeah, about that,” Andy said, and I knew, I just fucking knew what was coming. “We don’t all—”
“Yes, we do all have to go get him,” I snapped back. “And by all I mean not Jessica.
“Jeez, bro, chill.”
“This is about him, about us, just being there for him, alright? This holiday. It’s the least you can…it’s the least we can do.”
“Alright, alright, alright, alright.”
So we all turned up at the airport the next day hungover and pissed off with each other, while Jessica, charged with finding another hotel, slumbered the morning away. When we got back to the resort, she was sitting on the balcony in a bikini eating pineapple on a stick. Mick grabbed the bamboo guard, leapt up and took a bite of it, kissed her, and whispered something in her ear. She looked at Dad, gave a small wave and said, “Hi, Mr. Howlett.”
“Oh, don’t call me that, sweetheart. It’s Martin. Marty.” I swear he sucked his stomach in. “I wouldn’t mind a bite of that pineapple, too.”
“Dad, no,” Andy groaned under his breath.
“I’ll get you your own pineapple, Dad,” I said, stomping up the stairs to our bungalow and throwing his suitcase inside. When I came out I said to Jessica, “How’d you go this morning? Find a hotel?”
She didn’t even try to pretend that she had looked and couldn’t find anything, or that she’d woken late, but was about to go just as we turned up. That she even gave a shit. She just looked at Mick and shrugged.
“Hey, bro,” he called over to me, “why don’t you just go and look for one now? It’s still
“Me? Why the hell should I go look for one?”
“Well, you made the booking.”
“What? That doesn’t even make—”
“Andy then. Hey? Why don’t you go?”
Andy looked up from his phone in disbelief. “Why the fuck should—”
“Hey, language, language,” Dad interrupted. “Listen, I heard about the problem,” he said,
actually using air quotes. “Why don’t I just sleep out here on the balcony and you boys take the beds inside.”
“No,” I stated. “Not going to happen. You’d get eaten alive anyway. Look Mick, it’s your problem. Sort it out. If you can’t be arsed, then it’s you, Andy and Jessica all in there together. Come on, Dad.”
“What? Where’re we going?” he asked, following me along the path.
“To get some lunch. Get some fucking pineapple on a fucking stick.”
He kept panting and looking up at the sky. His grip around my waist had slowly eased, but was still pretty tight.
“Come on, Dad. You’re alright.”
He looked at me, shaking his head then back up at the sky. I lifted the goggles from his eyes,
releasing the seal, and pushed them up onto his forehead.
“It’s all good, all good,” I said in what I hoped was a soothing tone, and he did seem to settle, making whoo sounds as he exhaled. Anyone would think he was giving birth.
“See? See? You’re doing alright now, aren’t you?”
He moved a little so that I wasn’t carrying his entire weight.
“Ah, there we go,” I said as he found his footing on the reef and stood independently, just holding onto my arm. We looked at each other and managed a small laugh.
“You didn’t think to tell us you couldn’t swim?”
“Well, I did it a bit when I was younger, you know. But living in the country all this time…guess I’m out of practice.”
About ten meters away, the boat bobbed gently on the surface of the ocean. A few people were climbing up the side of the boat in order to jump off again. One of the crew sat on the side with one leg dangling over the edge, taking photos with a phone and urging them on.
“You reckon you can remember how to do it? I can take you back to the boat if you like.”
“Give me a minute. Where’re the others?”
Good question. Where were Andy and Mick when you needed them? They didn’t even think to watch out for Dad when we all jumped in. Just swam off to the other side of the boat. They hadn’t been there for me when the restaurant I’d poured everything into—and I mean everything —collapsed. I’d lost the lot: my job; my partner in business and in life, Rosalind; my flat; my self-respect. Meanwhile, Mick was raking it in in Hong Kong, and Andy was screwing his way through Thailand.
Just because we were brothers didn’t mean shit.
By the time we finished lunch and our pineapple, and I’d shown Dad the basic layout of the small town that encircled the resort, Mick and Andy were three beers in and the best of mates. They’d done a quick TripAdvisor search of the area and found a resort further down the beach that had a vacancy. They were just waiting for Jessica to finish her nap.
“Nap?” I asked. “Didn’t she get up at midday?”
“Could do with one myself guys,” Dad said. “Shall we reconvene at, say, five-ish?”
He disappeared into our bungalow. I climbed up onto the balcony of the one next to it, grabbed a beer and looked out at the ocean.
“He alright?” Mick asked.
“Yeah, he’s good.”
“What do you mean?” I turned around to look at him. Through the window behind him I could see the slender form of Jessica lying on the bed, facing away from me.
“You seem kind of stressed.”
‘Yeah, well, you know.’
“I mean, we’re on holiday, you know?”
“Yeah, I know that. Jesus, I’ve been on holiday for the last six months.”
“I know. And you seem kind of stressed.”
“Stop saying that. I just…I’ve got a lot to…I don’t know what…”
“What are you going to do when you get back to Sydney?” Andy asked.
“Thought about opening another restaurant. A small place. Got an idea.”
“What about…what’s her name – ?”
“Yeah. That still a thing?”
Nel. God, what a mistake that was. After it all fell apart and Rosalind and I broke up, I ended up with Nel who’d been one of my waitresses at the restaurant. I felt sorry for her, even though she easily got another waitressing job. Met in a pub for a drink, she was nice and listened to me rave on, ended up at her place and moved in the next day. Not much to build a relationship on, in retrospect.
“No. No, that’s over.”
“How long did that last then?”
“Don’t know, four months? Something like that. Anyway, you’re a fine one to talk,” I said with a nod in Jessica’s direction.
“That?” He smiled and shook his head.
“And you?” I nodded towards Andy.
“I’ve got something going on with one of the teachers at work, I think. Canadian.”
“You think something’s going on, or that she’s Canadian?” I asked.
He told us, in fairly graphic detail, about the sexual tension since she arrived six months ago and the final culmination, shall we say, out the back of the school just before he flew down here. That explained the constant texting. Mick saw this as an opening to tell his story about meeting and bedding Jessica, both events happening in under three hours, if he can be believed. And he can. According to him, Hong Kong was full of ‘Chinese chicks like her looking to fuck white guys like me’ and he was never, ever going to leave. Or marry one of them.
I couldn’t help but think that, with regards to romance, relationships and women in general, the Howlett men weren’t doing too well.
The little reception desk at the resort was littered with faded brochures for various local companies offering half-day and full-day diving and snorkelling trips. Every second shop in town was a travel agent selling the same trip for more or less the same price. There was no way we were not going to go snorkelling. So we went snorkelling, and now here I was perched on the side of a reef with my sixty-three year old father, the sun beating down on both of our balding heads.
“My goggles filled up with water,” he said. “Couldn’t see a damn thing.”
“Yeah, they’ve got to be on fairly tight. Give me a look.”
“Took a great big mouthful of water through this pipe as soon as I put my head in, too.”
“Takes a bit of practice. Here, try this now.”
He put the goggles on over his eyes and stuck the snorkel in his mouth.
“Why don’t you just have a little practice? Here, watch me.” I bent forward, stuck my head in the water and breathed loudly through the snorkel.
“See? You do it,” I said, after spitting the mouthpiece out. He did so, his face barely touching the water, one hand still gripping my arm tightly. He took a few breaths and came back up.
“How was that?” he said with the snorkel in his mouth, so it sounded like, “ow wah jat?”
“Good, good,” I said and laughed. “Now you’ve just got to get your head in the water.”
He stuck his face in again and I pushed his head gently under, feeling the grip he had on my arm tighten and then relax as he realised he could actually breathe. I was just wondering whether I should prise his fingers off me when I noticed a person swimming our way. Dad suddenly jerked up out of the water, lost his balance on the reef and put his full weight on me so that I was in danger of losing my footing as well. As I steadied us, the swimmer came up in front of us, removed the snorkel from his mouth and said, “You know you shouldn’t stand on the reef.”
He sounded American.
“Yeah, fuck off.”
The place that Mick and Jessica moved up to was much nicer than The Full Moon, so we wandered up there the second night to have dinner at their rooftop restaurant. Dad looked up from the menu and said, “Bit better than our place, hey?”
“Yeah, and there’s a day-spa and another bar down on the beach and you should see our room,” Jessica said, technicolour cocktail in hand. “The bathroom’s bigger than the whole bungalow you guys are in.” It was the most I’d heard her say. She tended to just sit with her hand on Andy’s knee, or tickle the back of his neck, looking completely bored.
“Well, it’s not like we need a huge bathroom, is it Dad?” I said, not wanting to make her feel uncomfortable, but, what the hell?
“Need?” Mick said. “Nobody needs a huge bathroom. It’s want, bro, want.”
Two days and I’d just about had it with Mick, flashing his money and his hot, young girlfriend around.
“What’s all this ‘bro’ shit anyway?” I asked. “How old are you?”
“Younger than you, bro,” he said, grinning at me and Andy, who wasn’t looking anyway.
“Alright you guys, I’m paying tonight, okay?” Dad announced. “Order whatever you like.” He looked proudly around the table.
“Cheers, Dad,” Andy said without looking up from his phone.
“Nice one, Dad,” Mick agreed, and Jessica nodded her approval.
“Hang on,” I said. “Guys, this is supposed to be us shouting Dad for a holiday, right?”
“Hey, if he wants to—” Andy started.
“You can’t afford this, Dad,” I whispered, leaning into his ear. “It’s going to be expensive, you know?”
“I’ll just whack it on the card,” he said, loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Yeah, but you have to pay off the card eventually.”
“Let him do it,” said Mick.
“Why?” I countered. “If it comes to paying—if anyone should be paying—it should be you.”
“Sure, I’ll pay,” he shrugged. “You want me to pay, I’ll pay.”
“No,” Dad interrupted. “It’s my way of saying thank you to you guys for getting me out here and for supporting me when…when I…”
He looked as though he was about to cry, and that was the moment the waitress chose to
approach the table. I looked at her and shook my head. She rolled her eyes and wandered away.
Andy looked up from his phone, alarmed. “Hey, Dad,” he said. “You’re cool. Don’t worry about it. You don’t need to pay for anything, alright? We get the gesture. We get it.”
Dad nodded, his eyes closed.
“Yeah, Mr. Howlett,” Jessica, the girlfriend of sixty fucking seconds, said. “Let us take care of you now.”
Dad opened his eyes, smiled around the table and threw his hands open in a gesture of grateful defeat.
“Yeah, but hang on,” I said. “You guys aren’t paying for anything! You guys aren’t doing anything, haven’t done anything. And Jessica, sorry, it’s so nice to meet you and all, but—”
“Whoa,” Mick cut in. “She’s just being nice.”
“Yeah, yeah I know. She’s very nice. You’re very nice Jessica, but my point is: what are you guys actually doing?”
“They’re here,” Dad said sternly, looking directly at me. “You’re all here and that’s enough. For me, that means something. Means the world.”
“Right,” said Andy, laying his phone on the table. “That’s that sorted. Let’s order.”
“Yes, let’s order,” Dad said happily, looking around the restaurant. “Let’s get that lovely girl back over here.”
Mick and Andy teased him about getting back in the saddle, and I caught Jessica glaring at me across the table. I suppressed the urge to stick my tongue out at her. The waitress saw Dad
waving, two hands in the air as though he were drowning, and strolled casually over to the table. Orders were placed and menus collected. The conversation turned from young Thai waitresses to the next day’s already-paid-for-by-me half-day snorkelling trip. Something else that I was just whacking on the card.
“Alright,” Dad said with some confidence, “I think I’m ready.” He released his grip on me and adjusted the goggles and mouthpiece.
“Just head over there past the boat,” I pointed. “That’s where the others are.”
He nodded, squatted down until his head was submerged and pushed off from the reef. His held his arms out in front of him, body sitting nicely on top of the water, flippers doing all the work. He had the feel of it now.
I sorted myself out and started to follow him. When I was alongside the boat, I stopped and trod water, did a 180 turn to look back at the shore, the tiny jetty we’d pulled out from not too far away, the rest of the ocean stretching to the horizon. I could hear voices, faintly. Couldn’t hear what they were saying exactly, something like, ‘You made it!’ I could hear people being happy.
He was fine. They were all fine.
About the Author:
Sue Brennan is an Australian writer of poetry and fiction. She was shortlisted for the Alan Marshall Short Story Award (2016, 2018) and the Polestar Literary Award (2016). She has had poetry included in the Poetry D’Amour Anthology (2016, 2017, 2018). Her short stories have been published in Scarp, and one will be included in the forthcoming collection by Real Works Press. She is currently working on a novel.