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Duty Bound

Joe is bent over the kitchen sink rinsing his bloodied mouth, no wobbly teeth this time but his whole face is sore from where he was sucker punched. There was going to be a big bruise he could already feel it swelling. Joe splashed more cold water over his face to cool it down. He would use some ice on it later before he went out, but for now, he would have to keep his baseball cap pulled down to avoid any unwanted attention.

Caleb is standing still in the shower, letting the water run over him. His eyes are stinging, his knuckles hurt and his head feels fuzzy. This new property development investment will go sideways if he doesn’t get a grip. His mind flashes back to last night and the thud on the car as he hit what he prayed was an animal. He didn’t stop the car. Caleb shook his head and reminded himself to concentrate on today’s meeting. There is no reason for anyone to suspect him of anything. He just has to keep it together, think carefully and stay calm.

“Joe, Joe.” His father was calling. 

“Coming dad.” Joe was startled by the unusually high pitch and hoarseness in his voice, betraying more emotion than he wanted to show. He cleared his throat. 

“In a minute dad”, louder and more forced than before, that was better he tried to smile and winced at the sharp pain. 

The floorboards in Joseph Snr’s room creaked above him. Joe finished assembling the breakfast tray so he could get upstairs before his father tried to move too far. He got to the foot of the stairs as Tate was coming down. Joe breathed a sigh of relief and tried to wait patiently as Tate leisurely stepped down. 

“Let’s have a look then.” Joe tilted his head to the side and lifted it slightly, Tate takes a cursory look, “You’ll live, next time just get the apple juice he likes.”  

Through gritted teeth “I did, he drank it all when he came in drunk last night.” 

Tate sighed, “He’s under a lot of pressure right now, some big project. Look, Cal’s the one keeping all of this together” Tate gestures with both hands into the air. It’s not cheap and dad, well… you know… he won’t move, won’t have anyone in and we can’t leave him. Cal’s under a lot of pressure and sometimes he needs to let off a little steam. Just try and stay out of his way.” 

“It’s always me though, Tate”

“Look, we’ve all got to pitch in here mate, you should see the state of my car after he borrowed it, apparently a fox ran out in front of him. Things will be better once this deal goes through, just hang in there.” Joe nods, “That’s better, now do us a favour. There’s some laundry in my room for you to sort, some of it’s clean, but you’ll have to check.” Tate starts moving towards the door. 

“…also see if you can tidy up a bit, Janine’s coming around later and I want her to feel comfortable, if you know what I mean and err maybe go round the garden a bit, it’s quite nice out there once the lights are going.”

Joe opens his mouth to protest, “What lights! ….But I’m supposed to be at the shop later…it’s my turn…I promised”.

“You can still go, once you get everything finished. Honestly, I don’t know why you bother it’s not as if they’re paying you.”

“Because I volunteered!”

“Joe, Joe” dad was calling again.

“Charity begins at home Joe, you best take that up to dad.” Tate points his head at the breakfast tray, “He must be starving, see you later and don’t forget, the garage is coming to pick up my car they should be here before 6pm so don’t go anywhere before then.” 

The front door closes. Joe’s shoulders sink and he starts up the stairs. He hears the bathroom door open; Joe stops dead in his tracks, his heartbeat racing fast, as Caleb stomps across the landing to his room.  

Joseph is sitting on the side of the bed when Joe backs into the room, he rests the tray on the dressing table, draws the faded curtains and cracks the window open. 

“Morning dad, what are you doing out of bed?”

“I want to sit in the chair, by the window”. Joe carefully puts his arm around his father supporting his weight and gently lifts him to the armchair. “Tea first.” Joe pours from the teapot, then places the cup and saucer in his father’s hands. 

“Why are you wearing your cap inside the house?” Joe is thumping the pillows and tidying the bed, he sighs. 

“Sorry dad” and slowly removes the cap.  Joseph’s sharp eyes survey his youngest son’s bent posture. 

“Another disagreement between you and Caleb?” 

“It’s nothing dad.” 

“Your brother work’s hard to keep this roof over our heads, don’t you forget that.” 

“Yes, dad.”

“He misses his mother, still so much, it hurts him. I blame myself, I married your mother too soon. Caleb wasn’t ready. I did what a father should have done, I worked hard and I made him work hard, study hard…” Joseph’s voice cracks and his eyes fill with tears. “I just wanted him to be strong.” 

Joe takes the cup and saucer from his father, wipes his face with a handkerchief and gets the bowl of porridge. 

“You have your mother’s warm heart, I wish you could have known her. Twice a widower, this is my curse, I’m sorry.” When I’m gone, you look after your brothers Joe, they will need your kindness.” 

Joe nodded. “You’re not going anywhere dad, eat your breakfast.”

Joe stiffens as he hears three sharp taps followed by the bedroom door opening. Caleb enters suited and booted filling the room with his presence and his aftershave. He crosses the floor quickly and bends to kiss his father’s forehead. 

“Morning, dad”

Joseph Snr nods, “You take it easy with your brother Caleb.”

Caleb smiles broadly “Of course dad, it was an accident I didn’t mean it, you’re fine aren’t you Joe?”

“I’ll be in the garden if you need me.” 

Joe stumbles in his haste to get out of the room and Caleb chuckles. 

“See how clumsy he is.” Joseph senior points a bent finger at his eldest son. 

“Clumsy or not, he’s your brother.” 

“I know dad but…” 

“No buts, Caleb.”  

Joe runs down the stairs, through the kitchen, unlocks the back door and steps out into the cool fresh air, feeling slightly breathless. The door rattles softly behind him, signalling that Caleb has just left through the front door. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply not noticing his neighbour appear and look over the fence.

“Are you okay?”

Startled, Joe opened his eyes and gingerly touched the side of his slightly swollen cheek as he tries to smile without too much pain.  

It was Rhea, sneaking a cigarette by her sheepish expression. Apart from his father, she was the only reason he stayed in this godforsaken house. Joe could stare at her all day but realised from the look on her face that she was expecting a response.

“Yeah fine, I just…it was an accident really…me and my brother were…well, he and I…you know, brother stuff.”

“Yes I heard, these walls are thinner than they look.”

Recovering his composure and quickly trying to change the subject. 

“Sorry about that, but honestly I’m fine. How are you, I thought you’d given up?  Joe watches her……. blow a stream of smoke into the air. “Any gigs recently?” 

“Yes… well, I had and then…me and Brandon broke up, so I’m not with the band anymore, it’s just me now. Rhea takes a long pull on her cigarette, blowing out slowly. “But I’m okay, it’s okay…artistic differences and all that…” 

“That’s a shame, I’m sorry…the band had a…unique sound.”

“That’s one way of putting it” Rhea smiles. 

“I’m glad I caught you, I wanted to ask you…I mean I  was wondering if you were busy later…tonight? …… If you’d like to… I’m singing tonight… I mean if…if you’re not busy.”  

Joe nodded.

“Yes, okay of course.”

“Lovely, it would be good to see a friendly face, 8 ‘o’ clock at The Anchor.  She stubs her cigarette out on the fence and turns back to her house with a wave. “Great, I’m glad, that’s settled then, I’ll see you later.”

“See you later.” 

Joe stayed where he was, still a little stunned by his encounter with Rhea. He had a lot to do today, but he didn’t care now that he had something to look forward to. 

Joseph Snr had been quietly observing his son from the window. He relaxed back into his chair, with a faint smile on his face, his breath becoming slow and raspy, sleep would take him soon.

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