Previous Chapter: “Hard Lessons”
In this chapter, there is an argument. People do not know how to react, what to say, how to make themselves clear.
It is not pleasant.
Zeno had been enjoying the meal and feeling truly relaxed, but as Mio brought round the desserts he realised why with an unpleasant sinking sensation. Xan hadn’t asked him about the crash. Knowing what Harp had said, he was not looking forward to it at all and so once they had finished, he immediately busied himself with the clearing up.
“Can we talk?” Xan had appeared beside him. “I think we should go to your room. Mio and Show can look after the tidying up.”
They stood awkwardly in the middle of the room. It was as if Xan had run out of steam.
“I’m sorry, Xan. I got careless.” Zeno hoped visible contrition right from the start was the right thing to do.
“Why? Why did you-”
“I wanted to see if it was possible – the shortcut. If I’m going to win-”
“I told you not to try.” Xan suddenly looked confusedly at Zeno. “You’re hiding something. What?”
“It was- it was-” Loyalty to Harp made completing the sentence hard.
“Don’t make this difficult for me. Can’t you see I don’t want to be doing this?” That confession, Xan knew, was probably fatal for his reputation.
“Harp said you were scared of flying. That’s why you- that’s why you- that’s why you don’t like me taking risks. All Harp was worried about was the stupid plane, but he said- he said I was killing you with worry-” There was no catharsis in saying that. None at all. It hadn’t fixed anything.
“Sit down.” It had made the situation far worse. Xan was now angry, for the first time Zeno could remember in a very long time. “Sit yourself down.” He obeyed. “Yes. I’m afraid of flying. I think you would be if- I bet he told you that as well, didn’t he? Didn’t he?” Zeno was more scared of the fear in the older man’s voice than the anger. Something was not right here.
“He said nothing. He said you hadn’t told him, and he didn’t want to know.” No bravado, no attempts to get out of this. Just plain answers.
“He’s a liar. I didn’t tell him because he already knows. He was there.”
“You don’t need to know. Just-” There was no way of saying what needed to be said next without it sounding awful. “Just – no more risks. Please. For my sake.”
“I’m sorry, Xan.”
“No you’re not. You’re a kid, a selfish kid. There’s still a part of you that’s proud of what you did, that’s the sort of person you are. Until you lose something you’ll never be sorry for making a mistake. I just want what you lose to be a race, because that’s the only thing that’s going to hit you hard enough to make you stop being such a selfish little brat. You’re racing in a few days. You’re going to practice, you’re not going to screw around any more, and in your free time you’ll be helping me run this place.”
It hardly seemed like a punishment – it was simply daily life – but Xan couldn’t think of what he should do. Hitting the kid wouldn’t do anything, taking his money hardly seemed appropriate and he figured Harp had already impressed upon him the damage done to the plane. All that he could do was try and knock some of that arrogance out of his sails. Perhaps it was just envy that made him want to do that – jealousy that he’d taken on a kid who could make mistakes, take a knock and come out with a few bruises and a dented ego – but he hated it. Hated the way it cheapened life. Zeno had never had to worry the way Xan had. Never had the nightmares, or the disturbed nights, or the times when all he could do was turn the music up and pretend he wasn’t lost in thought.
That was the danger of utopia. You got bored, and then complacent. And then you invented a damn fool sport like Variable Formula, and paid your money to watch kids like Zeno risk their lives. But at the same time, it wasn’t his place to stop kids like Zeno from making something of what time they’d been given. He still hoped that one day he’d become so inured to the sight of aircraft, to the thought of flying, he could get back in a plane.
He chose to ignore Zeno, and left the room. It wasn’t done in pique, or an attempt to jab at the boy’s wounded ego, but just because he was afraid he’d say the wrong thing.
Once he was safely outside, he turned back towards the door. “Come down in a while. Take ten minutes or so to think about what you did, first.”
That surely wasn’t how a parent acted.
He wasn’t a parent, though. He never would be.
Downstairs, Sara had displaced Melba to secure the best place on the sofa for an afternoon’s television. Show was planning to head over to the shop where he worked and see if there was anything that needed doing, and Red had already gone. Xan was still met with disapproving looks, though, from those that remained.
“What gives? Mad at Zeno for crashing?” There was a note of concern in Sara’s voice. “Not seen you take someone up for a talk since- well, since I had that slight run-in with the authorities.”
“If he wrecks that plane then how the hell can he race?” Xan had never been so relieved that someone had interrupted, and Miki had stepped up to the plate admirably with an even-handed explanation there had been no way Xan could have given. “Think about it, Sara, we won’t be much of a VF team if we don’t have a plane or a pilot.”
“That’s it. I told him not to try those stupid stunts he was going on about but he did, and he failed, and he needed reminding not to do it again. I don’t think he realises how dangerous this all is.”
“In a test flight, you don’t. Must be like a game.” Miki sounded distracted, and was tapping listlessly at the edge of the coffee table with a pen, working out a new drum line which he began to write down.
“It must be. I’d rather Zeno kept the playing about in the games where it belongs and takes his life a bit more seriously.”
“Surely you must have-”
“Don’t even say it, Sara. Please.” Xan turned to face her. “I never had someone to tell me I’d gone wrong and so- so- I know how important it is to have that. You don’t- you’ll never realise- I mean you’ve had-” He slumped down in a chair. “Trust me on this. I don’t expect you to understand why, you’re too young.”
That sounded ridiculous. Sara was not that much younger than him, yet he was having to talk like a man twice his age with twice the knowledge and experience. If anything wasn’t fair, it was that, but he could not complain. At times that seemed like an admission of weakness – that he should even want to complain given he’d taken the responsibility of this life on himself – but he told himself it was entirely natural not to be able to cope. Parenting was all about trying to eke out a sort of consistency that would in time earn a bit of respect. Nobody mastered it immediately – if at all.
Zeno made his way nervously down the stairs in due time, unsure how Xan would take his return. The lounge area was almost dead; Sara, Miki and Lin had vanished somewhere (not the studio – there were no sounds of practice), Red and Show were at work and Mio – had she even been there – was hardly much company. That just left Xan, slouched on a sofa with a look on his face that suggested decorum was the only thing stopping him drinking.
“Glad you could make it. There’s things need doing, you can help seeing as you’re the only one about. Mio’s on the roof.” She liked it up there. It wasn’t a crowded, chaotic-yet-ordered roof garden like Harp’s, but a wide flat expanse that the sun would heat to a just-about-bearable temperature. Most days, anyone approaching the studio would see Mio and Melba taking the sun. To save her skin, Xan had taken a large umbrella up there and welded it to the roof near the fire escape they used to climb up. That had been an interesting day, Zeno thought. Harp and Xan working together, manhandling the unwieldy umbrella up, it still emblazoned with beer brands and the name of the restaurant from which they’d bought it, then the excitement – if that was the word – of welding it into place.
“What is it – what needs doing?” In his time of lonely contemplation, Zeno had swallowed his pride and realised, with an almost unbearably – almost physically – painful feeling of remorse, that they had all been right. That hadn’t been the worst of it. The worst part had been realising deep down he’d probably really known that from the moment he had taken the Messiah over that ramp and had just been trying to kid himself otherwise.
“Painting the gutters. Ladder’s outside, I got Miki to help me move it from the garage earlier. I want to get at least a couple of sides done before the others get back, then you can cook dinner. Don’t try to tell me you can’t cook, last time you did it was brilliant.” Zeno blushed at that. His cooking was hardly good, merely capable – he could follow a recipe, provided it was not too complicated, and this was aided by Xan’s methodical notes left over every cookery book he bought. Xan didn’t just give advice about cooking times, or errors in the method – he would list what to serve a dish with, suggested additions to make it serve more or accommodate fussy eaters, and most usefully to Zeno, short-cuts to make life easier.
On the other hand, there was no shortcut to painting a gutter and while the sun had been beautiful as an accompaniment to walking, it was unpleasantly hot for working in. Xan found himself almost pleased by this; it made it seem more like a punishment. He’d been shaken by the afternoon’s events and wanted to kick out in some way despite knowing how that would be the ultimate failure for a father – to let personal emotion, personal resentment, get in the way of being fair. Talking to Zeno, being mature about the whole thing, had been his victory over the impulsive response that he had wanted to give into so badly. Had he already failed by doing that?