Robert parked his four-wheel drive a little way up the street. He had forgotten just how narrow and tiny the town streets were. He grabbed a brown paper bag from the passenger seat and exited the car, trying and failing not to clink the glass bottles together.
He checked his watch: it was a quarter to five. Being fifteen minutes early wouldn’t hurt. Would it? He pulled a creased post-it-note out of his jacket pocket and double-checked the address before he took a deep breath and walked towards the small upstairs-downstairs house.
It was difficult to tell one white house with red roof-tiles from the others, nestled in among its neighbours like identical peas in a pod. While Robert appreciated the convenience of living closer to town, there was no way he could live like this: he felt claustrophobic just opening the gate and walking up the concrete garden path.
The front garden was tiny and barren but, come spring, it would look nice with a few rose bushes. He’d have to talk to Emilia’s mam about it, as Emilia said she liked to garden. Robert wiped his free hand on the front of his pants. He freshly pressed them for the occasion, and Mam always said a good first impression worked wonders.
He raised his hand to knock and hesitated. He knew he had pushed for this but, when the moment was upon him, doubt gnawed at him. He had been angry and a little offended when he found out Emilia had a son and that she had kept Robert from meeting him. Maybe she had a good reason for it: he had little experience with children, after all. Was he asking for too much too fast?
He sighed; it was now too late for second guesses. He knocked three times on the door, harder than he intended, the sound booming in the quiet street.
There was a small stained-glass window set in the heavy red door. It swung inward and all Robert saw was a mop of black hair and blue eyes staring at him, clearly giving him the once over.
The boy said, “Identification,” his voice monotone. Robert assumed this was James.
“Err, I’m Robert O’Sullivan,” said Robert. “You can call me Bobby, if you like.”
The boy raised a single eyebrow at him, “Proof of identification?” asked James, giving him a sceptical look.
Robert dug his free hand into his khaki trouser pocket and flipped open his wallet, although with difficulty. He managed to prise his driver’s licence out. “Here,” he said, handing it over through the small window.
A small, pale hand snaked out and snatched it. James examined it for some time, even holding it up to the light.
Robert cleared his throat, “Do I pass?”
James tilted his head to the side, “That was yet to be decided,” said James. “At this point in time, you shall be allowed entry.”
Robert raised an eyebrow at him, “Thank you?” Perhaps this was a game of some kind?
James passed the card back to him, “You are welcome. Here is your identification.” The boy closed the window with a snap.
Robert heard the scrape of a door chain being removed and the door deadbolt unlocked.
James flourished his hand “You may come in now,” he said. Up close, he was a skinny wee thing, tall, with long black hair that fell across his face. If Robert was judging by appearances alone, James looked around the ten-twelve age mark and if he hadn’t known better, he’d have thought the boy was a girl. “Seanmhair says I’m supposed to ask you if you would like me to take your coat.”
The foyer was warm and cosy inside. The buttery smell of baked potatoes and herbs wafted towards him from down the hall, reminding him of home.
Robert passed over to him the brown paper bag with two bottles of red wine he’d been holding “How about you take this,” he said, “and I’ll handle my coat.”
James nodded and indicated the front sitting room with a sliding opaque glass door. “You may sit in here.”
Robert walked into the room and sat down on the black faux-leather couch, worn but comfortable and positioned the perfect distance from the roaring fireplace.
He noticed something strange about the coffee table: one end cluttered with typical women’s magazines and a couple of coasters, while the other end had a thick manila folder resting on top.
James returned through the other door (Robert assumed that it led to the kitchen), carrying a black folding chair and closing the door behind him. He carried a blue notepad and a pen. “Màthair has been unable to leave the hospital on time, so her arrival will be later than usual, approximately twenty-five minutes.” The boy paced back and forth in front of the fireplace. “While we wait for Màthair, I will ask you questions and you will answer them.”
Robert raised an eyebrow at him but shrugged. He couldn’t see the harm in it, since he had only good intentions towards Emilia. “Aye, fire away.” James gave him that sceptical look again and sat down, opening the manila folder and removing a map of Northern Ireland. The thickness of the manila folder made him apprehensive. What kind of questions did this kid have in mind?
James handed over the map and a pen, “Màthair said you were from Northern Ireland, indicate where, exactly.”
Robert took the pen and piece of paper, “Me Ma and Da had a small farm out in Crumlin. It’s about half an hour away from Belfast,” He made an X mark next to Crumlin on the map and gave it back.
James nodded and made some notes on his notepad. “What kind of farm was it?”
Robert took a moment to reflect, “Wheat, mostly, though we did have cows, pigs, chickens and a couple of goats,” thinking back on it, his parents must have been insane, all those animals coupled with seven kids; he didn’t know how they did it.
James’s expression remained impassive, “Sounds like fun.” He said.
Robert shrugged, “Aye, but running a farm is a lot of hard work, when you’re growing crops, you’re at the mercy of the weather.”
James made a note on his pad, “Noted. Are you or have you ever been a member of the Irish Republican Army?”
Robert struggled with his temper, but managed to contain it, trying to remember that he was the adult here and Emilia wouldn’t look kindly on him yelling at her kid. “No,” he said. The boy was too young to know about the Troubles and the constant fear hanging over every move.
“Have any of your immediate family members been members of the Irish Republican Army?”
“No, my family are not members of the IRA.”
“How many sexual partners have you had?”
Robert raised an eyebrow at James, “Excuse me?” he was starting to feel alarmed.
“I said, ‘How many sexual partners have you have you had?’”
“Four or five.” Robert crossed his arms against his chest. He didn’t like where this was going.
The boy picked up his blue notepad. “Estimates four or five, cannot remember how many sexual partners he has had,” he says as he writes, but then he puts the pad down and drags the manila folder towards him. “When was the last time you were tested for sexually transmitted diseases? Do you currently already have a sexually transmitted disease?”
Robert held up both hands, trying not to panic, “Whoa, hold on there, laddie, what’s this got to do with—?”
James sighed heavily, “It has everything to do with Màthair. It would seem as though we must proceed along the more difficult path.” He open
ed up the manila folder and handed over a picture. “Has your penis ever looked like this?”
Robert looked down at the picture, “What?” It was a naked dick with blistering welts all over it. “Gaaah!” He dropped the picture in revulsion.
James tapped his pen against his notepad, “Well, has it?” he continued to look at his notepad and take notes. James didn’t seem embarrassed at all by the conversation; if anything, his blank expression and monotone voice gave off the impression of boredom. How many times had he performed this conversation?
Robert shook his head, “No. What is that?”, though a part of him didn’t want to know.
James used his pen to point at the picture, “Genital warts, also known as herpes,” he went back to writing on his notepad. “What about this one? Has it ever looked like this?” He handed over another picture and, of course, Robert took it. This time it was a dick peppered with pus-oozing welts.
Robert leaned back from the picture, “Sweet baby Jesus. Where are you getting these from?”
James shrugged, “I printed them out at the library. Is that a yes to syphilis?”
Robert shook his head, “No, I’ve never had syphilis.”
James nodded, his expression determined, “You appear to be telling the truth. However, some STDS don’t have any outward symptoms, so you’ll need to take an STD test, just in case. I will need to see the test results.”
Robert ran his hand through his black hair, “Sure, fine, just put the dick pics away.”
There had to be something else they could talk about: all Robert needed to do was take control of the conversation and change the topic to something more appropriate. What would be appropriate to talk about to a twelve-year-old boy? What did twelve-year-old boys even talk about nowadays? Robert looked around the living room: the bookcase was filled with educational and medical textbooks as well as classic literature novels, none of which were helpful in the slightest.
The boy shrugged, closing the manila folder before reaching into his jeans pocket and taking out a navy blue three-pack of condoms. “These are condoms. Do you know how to use them? Do you need a demonstration of how to apply these?”
Robert wanted to respond but his face burned and his brain froze at the sight of the three-pack of condoms; he just kept opening and closing his mouth like a fish. The sliding opaque glass door moved and in walked Emilia, still in her white nurse’s uniform and her auburn hair falling out of her bun.
Emilia’s eyes widened at the sight of James holding a packet of condoms. “Jimmy, what are you doing with those?” Emilia sounded as mortified as Robert felt.
“You mentioned that Robert was from Northern Ireland and that he was catholic, catholic people object to the use of condoms and other birth control devices for foolish religious reasons,” said James. “It stands to reason that Robert would not know how to use a condom.”
Emilia swooped down and picked up one of the pieces of paper. “Jimmy, why do you have this?”
James sighed, closed his notepad and placed it on top of the manila folder. “I was inquiring with Robert as to whether he had an STD. Most people find a visual example helpful.”
Emilia sighed. “Jimmy, I told you to stop doing this.”
James stood up and crossed his arms against his skinny chest. “Màthair, this is important. You’re a nurse. You know what syphilis can do; it can make you sterile and destroy your brain.”
Robert watched James and Emilia go back and forth, like a highly embarrassing tennis match. What should he say? Should he intervene?
Emilia gestured to the manila folder. “Jimmy, take this, and go to your room until dinner’s ready.”
James clutched his folder to his chest glaring at Emilia. “Fine.” He stomped off past her, continuing further down the hall to the stairs. Robert heard the stomping overhead, accompanied by a loud slam.
“Ah, Emilia, you’re home,” said a female voice from the other sliding door. Robert turned to see an older woman with the same blue eyes and auburn hair as Emilia. She was a bit plumper than Emilia and her Scottish accent more pronounced. She was wearing a floral pinny-apron over matching navy-blue-knitted sweater and trousers. “And you must be Robert; it’s nice to finally put a face to the name. I’m Rosemary.” She gestured for them to come into the kitchen.
Emilia rubbed her temples and lead him into the kitchen. “Mam, why did you leave Jimmy alone with him? You know what he’s like with people he hasn’t met before.”
Rosemary gave Emilia a stern look. “If Robert’s the kind of man you say he is, he can handle half an hour alone with yer son.” Rosemary walked over to the kitchen bench where the gas oven and stove-top were. “Would you like a drink, Robert? Dinner shouldn’t be too long.”
“Aye, please,” said Robert, taking a seat at a wooden table, which had already been laid with cutlery and bowls. Emilia walked over to the bar, on the opposite side of the kitchen, and poured both a generous helping of scotch, adding a couple of ice cubes to each tumbler.
Robert scratched at his face. It felt strange not to have his beard, but he was determined to make himself look presentable for the occasion. “Busy day at work?”
Emilia turned towards him and leaned on his shoulder, keeping a firm grip on the tumbler in her lap. “No, Tuesday is a slow day; only a few actual emergency walk-ins,” said Emilia. “Had more people thinking the ER is a convenient GP. Friday and Saturday nights are usually our busiest.”
Robert moved closer. Her hair smelt nice, even after she’d been at work all day. “I suppose it’s a good thing you’re not busy.”
Emilia shrugged and took a long sip of her whiskey. “I suppose so, but the shift just drags when you’ve got nothing to do.” She sighed heavily. “Look, I’m sorry about Jimmy. He doesn’t understand certain social situations, certain boundaries.”
Rosemary turned off the gas stove-top. “What Emilia means is James is autistic.”
Then it all clicked into place. “Oh,” said Robert. “Is that why he talks like that?”
Emilia nodded. “The monotone is one of the signs of Asperger’s Syndrome. He has difficulty understanding facial expressions, tone of voice, appropriate topics of conversation.”
Rosemary grinned. “He takes most things you say literally and he’s verra direct, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”
Robert took a long sip of his drink: that was one way of looking at it. “Aye, I’ve noticed that.”
Rosemary stirred the soups with two different spoons and placed them back onto two separate coloured-spoon-holders on the kitchen bench. “How many pictures did he show you?”
“Two,” said Robert.
Rosemary laughed loudly. “Only two, you’re doing well so far.”
Emilia sat up straight and turned towards her mother, her expression imploring. “Mam! I can’t believe you’re encouraging this. Don’t you want him to make friends?”
Rosemary sighed and wiped her hands on her pinny. “Aye, of course I do, but I want him to make the right kind of friends. Moving to another country is hard for normal kids, but it’s been extra hard on James.”
Emilia sighed. “He took a hammer to school the other day. He could have broken another kid’s skull—thankfully it was just a concussion, but still.”
Robert raised an eyebrow at Emilia. While he knew he didn’t know James very well, he hadn’t seemed the aggressive type. “Were the other kids giving him a hard time?” It was the only explanation he could think of and, being a Catholic in a mostly Protestant country, he knew what that felt like.
Rosemary scowled. “Aye.” Her voice dripped with disapproval. “If the other teachers had been doing their jobs, it wouldn’t have been an issue at all.” Rosemary sniffed indignantly. “At his previous school, there was a special room for kids like James if they needed to calm down or just be alone, but small town schools don’t have those kinds of facilities.”
The oven timer went off and Rosemary turned from the island kitchen bench to the gas oven. She pulled out a tray of freshly-baked soda bread and a tray of baked potatoes. Emilia got up to assist her mother, using tongs to place the baked potatoes on side plates.
“What are we having?” Robert rose to help as well.
Rosemary gestured for him to stay where he was. “We will be having stew and baked potatoes, while James will be having minestrone soup.”
Emilia brought over plates with baked potatoes. “Jimmy is a vegetarian.”
Robert snorted but didn’t say anything: autistic and a vegetarian. No wonder he was having problems fitting in at school.
Rosemary brought the stew pot over to the table and placed it on a chopping board before taking off her apron, hanging it on the back of the kitchen door and walking up the stairs. Emilia returned to the kitchen bench and brought over the soda bread and handed him a chunk of it. It all smelled delicious, almost as good as Mam’s cooking.
“I’ll go get James. Help yourselves,” said Rosemary.
Emilia looked morosely into her still empty soup bowl. “Robert, I’m sorry. I want this to work, but—”
Robert stopped slathering butter onto his still steaming chunk of bread and shushed her with a kiss. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s just get through dinner and we’ll take it from there, okay?”
Emilia sighed heavily, her shoulders slumping. “Okay,” she said softly, while Robert ladled stew into her bowl and then his own.
Rosemary came back into the kitchen, James trailing behind her; he sat down quietly, directly across from Robert.
Rosemary ladled minestrone soup into James’s bowl and brought it over to him. “So, how’s the investigation into Robert going?”
James picked up his spoon and began to twirl it between his fingers. “Investigation is still pending. I will need more time and information to make a full assessment.”
Robert shrugged. “Take all the time you need, kiddo.”
“My name is James. I am not a baby goat.”
Emilia gave James a stern look. “Jimmy, be nice, and tie your hair back, we’re about to eat.”
James pulled his thick black hair away from his face and into a ponytail.
It was then that Robert noticed the black eye. “That’s quite the shiner you’ve got there.”
James raised an eyebrow at him. “Shiner?”
Rosemary sat down and poured herself some soup. “He means your black eye laddie.”
Robert dipped his bread in his soup and moved the bread around in a circle. “You get into fights often?”
James scowled but continued to play with his spoon. “I am willing to defend myself whenever it is required.”
Emilia tilted her head towards him. “Jimmy, there’s no need for that.”
Robert shrugged. He had figured this wouldn’t be easy and they would all need time to adjust. “It’s fine. I was just thinking that the church nearby offers karate lessons. Maybe you could consider it.”
Emilia gave him a concerned look. “Wouldn’t that just make it worse?”
While Robert didn’t think karate would help if the fight was more than one-on-one, it had to help with channelling aggression. “If he knew how to defend himself physically, he wouldn’t need to bring a hammer to school.”
James sprinkled liberal amounts of parmesan cheese on his soup. “Would there be other children there?”
Robert considered that. Who did he know who also had children? He wasn’t a local, but he knew a local copper from down at the pub. Jones, his name was Jones. He said had three daughters and a son, and all of them were enrolled. “Probably.”
James looked grossed out by the idea. “How many precisely? Would I have to touch them?”
“Dunno. I’d have to call them up and ask, but, yeah, there would probably be touching involved,” said Robert. Hopefully, he could just show up at the church tomorrow and ask on the way through town.
James paused. “I will consider it.”
Robert smiled at Emilia.
Emilia frowned at her son. “That’s not a yes.” She looked tired, and while Robert didn’t want to argue with her, he felt this was important.
Robert stroked his thumb across her hand. “It’s not a no either.” He could do this; he would figure it out.
To Read More: Canis Major – Volume I by B.R. Kyle