Coming Home – Part One
There was a loud bang as the door that led into the Red Lion was flung open and struck the wall, adding yet another dent to the plaster. For a moment it looked like the stained glass that was fixed into the top half of the door, depicting the Red Lion itself, reared up on hind legs, teeth bared and threatening an invisible foe, might just have ushered in its last customer as it teetered dangerously in its frame, threatening to shatter into a thousand tiny pieces on the impact.
Simply known as 'The Lion' to locals, the pub was an institution in the London borough, it seemed as though no-one could remember a time when the pub hadn't been there, it had withstood the test of time and had stayed put as most of the surrounding buildings vanished; to be replaced by fancy new high-rise office blocks; towers all polished steel and tinted glass that had appeared all around. The Lion was stuck in a bygone age and made of sturdier stuff. Over the years it had managed to evade the hundreds of bombs dropped by the Luftwaffe during the Blitz, withstand World Cup finals (including one especially raucous one in 1966) and in more recent memory had even managed to remain standing when a particularly rowdy hen party from Essex had descended on it. So Dino's rather strenuous entry barely raised an eyebrow from the rest of the pub's clientele, who merely cocked their heads in his direction, shrugged and went back to their pints.
The flame haired K&R specialist walked through the smoky atmosphere of the pub and pulled himself onto one of the tall stools that lined the bar. No-one quite knew where the smoke came from. The smoking ban was enforced here as much as any other public house throughout England, yet somehow the smoky atmosphere lingered stubbornly. But then the Lion probably wouldn't seem quite right without that dense tobacco haze. Seeing a new customer clearly in need of refreshment bought the barman hurtling down the bar at the break-neck speed of a gentle amble. It was the one thing that Dino had never got used to about English pubs, it seemed that everyone that worked behind the bar had a speed restriction imposed on them, one that forbade them to move any faster than a snail's pace. In his opinion warm beer and slow service were the two characteristics that defined British bars.
"What can I get for you Sir?" The barman asked when he finally reached Dino.
'Sir' there was a novelty, Dino thought, he hadn't been called Sir in quite a while. 'Stupid fucking asshole' now that's what he was used to being called. To him the term 'Sir' seemed a little out of place and Dino stared back for a second trying to work out if this guy was trying to be funny.
"He'll have scotch, the good shit, am I right Dino?" A voice, heavy with an Australian accent, floated from the doorway of the pub.
"Yeah, the twelve year old stuff, none of that cheap crap. He's paying." Dino continued to face forward as he poked his thumb behind him, in the direction of the disembodied voice.
"Cheeky bastard." Terry Thorne let out a quiet laugh. "I'll have the same mate." He added as the barman threw a questioning look in his direction.
Thorne climbed onto the stool next to the redhead already settled at the bar as the barman returned, placing two glasses down in front of them.
"How would you like it Sir?" He asked Dino.
"Straight, don't want nothing diluting it."
Terry nodded his agreement and the bartender poured a measure of amber liquid into each glass.
"Leave the bottle." Terry said, peeling two notes off the wad of cash he pulled from his back pocket and handing them to the man behind the bar who simply nodded, placed the bottle down in front of Terry and wandered nonchalantly off down the bar to serve other customers who had suddenly materialised.
Dino reached out for the glass and downed the shot in one smooth action; giving a sharp hiss as he felt the strong alcohol burning a path down his throat.
"Dino, if you're going to drink the stuff like that you could have ordered some of the cheaper crap. You're meant to savour the taste of the twelve year old stuff, not down it in one like it's a flaming sambucca and your throat's about to catch fire."
"Yeah? Well the pricier stuff doesn't give me a hangover."
"Yeah well, maybe not, but I'm working on the power of positive mental attitude," Dino replied sarcastically.
As Dino replaced his glass on the bar Terry noticed the collection of cuts and rapidly developing bruises along Dino's knuckles.
"What happened to your hand?"
"Oh, this?" Dino flexed the fingers of his right hand, "I had a disagreement with a filing cabinet."
"Looks like the cabinet won mate. You should see a doctor."
"Nah. It'll be fine." Dino waved away Terry's suggestion nonchalantly.
Terry studied the man sitting next to him, something wasn't right but he didn't know what. "What's going on Dino? You shot out of the office pretty quick back there."
"Nothing." Dino didn't even look at Terry when he answered, but just continued staring straight ahead. His answer came too soon, obviously an automatic response over which Dino had taken no consideration.
"Don't try and bullshit me mate, it's not nothing; nothing doesn't make you try and beat up innocent filing cabinets."
Terry's attempt at humour fell flat. Dino didn't say anything in response, but merely pulled an envelope that contained a single, crumpled piece of writing paper out of his pocket and pushed it along the bar towards Terry. Then he reached out and poured himself another shot, a double, and once again drank it in one mouthful.
Terry glanced at the envelope, a letter addressed to Dino, well, actually it was addressed to 'Anthony Paldino', very few people ever got to find out Dino's full name and even those who knew it none of them actually used it. The envelope was postmarked just over a week ago from New York. Terry pulled the sheet of paper out of the envelope and unfolded it. The first thing to hit Terry was the handwriting; it was so neat, so elegant that it simply screamed with femininity. A letter from a woman that knew Dino well enough to use his full name was writing him a letter – that never boded well. Terry had received his share of 'Dear John' letters in the past, his most memorable when he'd first joined the army and transferred over to the UK and suddenly Terry thought he knew what was eating at his friend; but as the truth was revealed he realised that he couldn't have been further off base.
There were a couple of sections of the letter where the ink had been smudged, as if droplets of water had obliterated the text in those areas. As he read the words on the page Terry realised that where the paper had been wet marked the places where the writer's tears had fallen on the letter and that this was no 'Dear John'.
I'm sorry to write at what is clearly a busy time for you, but there is something you have to know. I have been trying to contact you for about a month but there's been no response from any of the numbers I have for you either in New York or London and when I called your office they said that you had taken on a contract and the company couldn't tell me where you were or when you'd be back. I can only hope that at least this letter will find its way to you when you finally return.
I don't really know where to start my explanation. I suppose that it all began about a month ago when Connor got sick, it wasn't too bad at first but over the next few days he got a lot worse. It wasn't just a bit of a cold any more, I knew it was something more serious. The doctor admitted him to the hospital straight away saying that he should have some tests done. Two days later he was diagnosed with a rare and virulent form of Leukaemia. The doctors said that they were incredibly hopeful that they'd caught it early enough that they might be able to treat him with a new drug that was being developed. I can't tell you how much I hoped and prayed that they could do something to help him but I think that God grew tired of me a long time ago. The disease was further along than they'd thought. The treatment didn't work, he didn't get better, and last night I held him in my arms as he passed away.
He's gone Tony.
I've just got back home from the hospital and I knew that this letter was the first thing I needed to do, if I don't write it now I'm afraid that I won't find the strength to write it at all and above all things you have a right to know.
I'm sorry that you have to be told like this; through a letter, but if I'm being honest I think that maybe it's better this way, I don't think I could find the words to tell you what had happened even if I could speak to you.
The house is so quiet, so lonely now. It feels empty, it's not a home any more, just an empty shell. I feel so lost and alone right now. Please come home Tony, I need you.
Terry read through the letter, which was clearly written from the heart. It was amazing that so few words could so clearly illustrate such desperate heartache.
When he looked up at the redhead sitting next to him at the bar he found him pouring yet another shot into his glass. The level of liquid in the bottle had dropped dramatically since the bartender had set it down in front of them and Terry wondered how much his friend had drunk while his attention had been concentrated on the letter. Terry put his hand out and forced Dino to put the bottle down, pulling it out of his reach.
Dino paused, looking directly into Terry's eyes, before dropping his gaze to the smooth wooden surface of the bar.
"He's my son."
"Your…what?" Terry was shocked by this piece of information. He'd found out a lot about Dino over the years that they'd worked together, but he'd never revealed that he had a son.
"Connor is…was…my son. Abi; Abigail, was my high-school sweetheart. She was the only girl who refused to call me Dino. She called me by my first name; Anthony or Tony, no matter how many times I told her not to." He smiled, doubtless remembering better times. "We were inseparable as kids, the perfect couple in high-school and got married the instant we graduated. Oh we thought life was going to be easy…what idiots." He gave a humourless laugh.
"So how come…?" Terry was confused. That had sounded like an ideal start to a life story and yet something had obviously happened to break it apart.
"We were both young and naïve. But ultimately it was my fault. I was bored with being tied down to a wife and a nine to five mechanic job at the local garage. I wanted more, I wanted excitement and adventure. The army came calling and I wanted to join up." He shrugged and then the expression on his face grew darker. "God I was selfish. Abi gave up all her hopes and dreams of being a professional dancer for me and I was bored? What a stupid fucking ass I was." Dino folded his arms on the hard surface in front of him and laid his head down on his forearms. "It's such a cop-out to say we just grew apart. I guess we didn't grow apart at all, I tore us apart."
"Where does Connor fit into this?"
"We were still together when I joined up and you know what basic training's like; no extended missions meant I could get home at the weekends. Abi called me at the training camp a few months after I signed up for the forces to tell me that she was pregnant. She was so happy and it changed things, y'know? For a wile we were like we used to be, I'd come home from training at the weekends and we spent time getting to know each other again. I guess I fell in love with her all over again. My CO took pity on me and gave me some leave around the time the baby was due." He paused and sat up straight again. "You were there when your lad was born, right Ter?"
"Yep." Terry couldn't help but smile as a stream of memories came flooding back. "Best day of my life."
"Then you know what a magical thing it is. I held him in my arms just after he was born and I knew then that there was nothing as important as that little life." Dino actually glanced down at his arms as if expecting to see a newborn child nestling in the crook of his arm. "That was the closest I ever came to chucking it all in with the army; going back to the 9-5 grind. I even went to talk to my CO about it." He paused. "…Then he told me that I'd been offered a place with special ops. Said it was unheard of for anyone this fresh into an army career to get offered a place. I was thrilled and suddenly all thoughts of my son vanished, like that." He snapped his fingers. "Abi said she understood; that I wanted to serve my country. She let me walk out of the door and never said an angry word to me, not a single one. I wish she had in a way, because the alternative was disappointment. I wish now that she'd yelled and screamed and thrown stuff at me. Told me what a selfish prick I was. Perhaps it would have made me see the truth." Dino sighed before continuing. "Abi sent me pictures of him growing up and I visited them every time I got some leave. But he always called me 'Sir' not 'dad'. I wanted that more than anything else, but I didn't have the right to ask anything of them, I didn't deserve it."
"We all make mistakes mate." Terry's mind drifted back to the last time he'd seen his own son and how he too had called him 'Sir'. Perhaps that was the curse that they all had to bear.
"Yeah, but not quite so many as I've managed to make in my life. And now I'm thousands of miles away in a pub in merry-old-fucking-England while my son's body is being lowered into the ground half the world away." He grabbed the bottle and didn't even bother pouring a shot out into his glass, instead he drank the whiskey straight from the bottle.
Terry grabbed the bottle out of Dino's grasp, spilling some of the liquid down the front of his jacket in the process.
"So what the fuck are you doing here, drowning your sorrows and griping about how your life's turned to shit because of your bad choices? You're making another choice right now and you're going to regret it later. You should be on a plane back to New York."
"What's the point? He's dead and nothing's going to change that."
"Did you even read this letter Dino?" Terry thrust Abi's letter in the redhead's face. "Well? Did you?"
"Of course I read it." Dino snarled back, he was getting angry now, whether as a result of the alcohol that was hitting his system or because Terry's reaction had prompted his own guilt to resurface it wasn't clear.
"Read it again. The last paragraph." Terry watched as Dino obediently scanned the text again, although he was fairly certain that every single word of that missive had been imprinted on his mind already. "There's a woman that's falling apart there. You're not the only one who's lost a son. She needs you."
"No she doesn't, she's better off without me."
"Dino, sometimes you can be a complete royal prick."
"Thanks, but I'd worked that one out for myself."
"You can have moments of extreme stupidity and you're as stubborn as hell mate, but you're not a selfish bastard at heart. Perhaps you might have been once, a long time ago, but I know you're not now. Get the fuck on a plane and show her that you've changed. Tell her that you're sorry, tell her what you just told me. Just be honest with her, she deserves that much."
"I don't know if I can, Ter."
"Why the fuck not?"
"Because…because I'm scared." Dino caught the incredulous look Terry shot at him. "Oh I know, I can deal with assholes firing entire arsenals at me, trying to knife me, wanting to blow me up, but this; being honest, meeting my mistakes head-on, it scares me more than anything else in the world. I don't know if I can face her again."
"I know you better than most people do Dino, and I know one thing above all others and it's that you are not a coward. Do you still love her?"
The question, tacked onto the end of Terry's reassurances, caught Dino off-guard and because he didn't have time to concoct a clever response he answered instantly and honestly.
"Then go tell her." Terry pushed Dino off his barstool. "Actually…" he paused, "…perhaps you should drink some strong coffee and try and sober up a bit first. Oh, and change your shirt; you stink like a brewery."