Who's Who 5: Bearing Gifts

They always met here. When things needed discussing. When plans needed drawing up away from the prying eyes of their family. He arrived first. The eldest. He would order the first round and carry it carefully over to their table. Not that there was a sign on the table that sat beside the door to the little courtyard where people could smoke. It was simply written into the foundations of the place. This was Their Table.

The youngest always arrived second. Smelling of aftershave, checking his phone. His work boots removed and replaced with a new pair of shoes, gleaming away beneath his freshly ironed trousers. His hair was slicked back with expensive product. His breath smelt of the mint he’d doubtlessly rushed in the car.

The middle child came late. Barely out of his work clothes and smelling of a hard day on his farm. He nodded to the regulars and was constructing his first roll up the moment he sat down. To the those in the know, he was closest his family had to offer to the quiet countenance of his late father.

Tonight, there was a serious air to them. Some in the bar of The Eastern Promise had their theories. Theories fed, as always, by rumours. They’d all heard about their sister. The black sheep. Carefree, footloose. Wild since she was young enough to run before she could walk.

All of the brothers had fallen out with her at some point. They’d resented her. They’d complained about her. They’d even plotted against her a little. This was different, though. Now she was in the sort of trouble that went beyond petty sibling squabbles. Their mother had turned on her.

“Far as I can tell,” the middle brother said, his stained fingers nimbly tucking leaves into the confines of thin cigarette paper, “she’s down Broughton way. They’ve got a flat there, near The White Star. Or he has. This artist friend of hers.”

“Sculptor,” said the youngest, still hunting for something on his phone.

“Doesn’t matter what he is. Mum will kill anyone who goes to see her.”

The eldest said his piece and sat back, watching his brothers. The middle brother spoke first.

“So, that’s that then? She meets someone, gets married in secret and gets pregnant before she puts on the dress. So now we never see her again?”

“She made her choice,” the eldest said. “Or that’s how Mum sees it.”

The youngest tossed his phone down on the table as if it had angered him. The hefty thump of technology on wood made a few people look their way.

“Is that how you see it?” he asked.

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

The middle brother stuffed his tobacco and filters back into his pocket and tucked the fresh, crumpled cigarette behind an ear in desperate need of a wash.

“Then what are you saying?”

“That she’ll need things. Things a man who sells nicely cut bits of wood won’t be able to afford.”

“So, we risk the wrath of Mum?” the youngest asked, picking up his pint and taking a sip.

The thick, heavy ale didn’t mix well with the lingering sting of breath mint.

“She’ll come around, once she’s ready.” He leant forward. A move scored by the creak of his chair. “Not that she needs to know about this from any of us.”

The others nodded.

Across the room, behind the bar, the staff were setting up the nativity scene. Mitchell Burgess, part time for Christmas, was holding the three wise men and looking across the room, at the table by the door to the smoking area. The unspoken symmetry was throwing off his sense of scale.

“No, Mitchell, love.” Lisa set a praying shepherd by the plastic walls of the stable. “You know the story. They don’t turn up until after the baby is born.”

He set the pieces back into the box, tucking them amongst the crisp folds of creased tissue paper. When he came back up, the table in the far corner was empty. The door behind it, leading out to the courtyard, was silently swinging shut.