Sunday, November 4, 2012

Julius - a short story

Brice Sommerville was the original Sommerville.  The founder of the Sommerville dynasty, this tall and impressive looking man, made his considerable fortune in shipping, his success being a tribute as much to his business acumen, as to his choice of an exceedingly well endowed (lamentably, only financially speaking) bride.  The marriage produced two sons – first Simon and then, two years later, Roger. 

Simon was charismatic, good looking, outgoing and clever.  Roger was an introvert who inherited his mother’s diminutive build and mousy disposition.  Simon was charming and fun to be with. Roger wasn’t.  Simon loved his brother, Roger resented him in return.  At school, anyone who tried to bully Roger incurred the wrath of Simon.  Since the two boys were inseparable, like it or not, Simon’s numerous friends were made to endure the company of his younger, painfully dull brother.  Roger spent his childhood and adolescence under Simon’s protection, and permanently in the enormous shadow Simon naturally cast.

When Brice Sommerville suddenly expired from a massive heart attack, it was natural that Simon, the eldest, took over running the empire.  He was suited for the job and added further revenue to the already bulging Sommerville coffers.  He immediately (and gladly) appointed Roger to vice president of something or other. Unfortunately, it didn't take long for evidence to mount that the newly minted VP's aptitude for business was nil.  On his best day he was incompetent, to say the least.  Though no one dared to say anything, Simon nonetheless quickly realized that his brother was, in a word, useless. To remedy the situation, he slowly and quietly diverted all responsibility from the position, leaving Roger in place as vice president, the post now largely ceremonial.  Firing was not an option.  It would cause a scandal, not to mention that it would hurt Roger's feelings.

The discreet process of getting harm out of Rogers’ way was so successful that, few inside the company, and no one on the outside, knew that anything had changed.  Roger was still viewed as a full-fledged officer of the company, and he was accorded the privilege his position and status commanded.

Roger, discretion notwithstanding, was slighted nonetheless, and (secretly) blamed Simon for this perceived aspersion on his abilities and disrespect to his person.  To vent his feelings of resentment, Roger began using every opportunity to insult Simon.  At social or business functions, under the guise of jest and “all in good fun”, he ridiculed Simon or made him the brunt of his jokes.  Never failing to blame Simon anytime the company had a setback, he steadfastly attributed any success to a myriad of reasons other than Simon’s competence.  With every barb and invective directed at his brother, Roger lost more and more respect of his piers and of the same society which held Simon in such high esteem. 

Both brothers married well.  Simon’s wife was Cynthia, a beautiful and intelligent socialite from an excellent family and possessing of substantial wealth.  Roger espoused Beatrice, who had the same social standing as Cynthia but was not nearly as pretty or bright. Like Cynthia, Beatrice was immensely rich.

The couples didn’t mingle socially except on rare occasions such as charity events, gala openings or museum fundraisers.  Because of their financial wherewithal, and as pillars of the community, both brothers were invited, though off the record, Simon was seen as a pillar, whereas Roger, as a pillock (from the old English word pillicock, meaning dickhead).  The brothers would greet one another curtly, after which Simon made it a point to put distance between himself and Rogers’ acidic tongue.  Conversly, Cynthia and Beatrice, who had always been friends, were glad of the chance to meet and catch up.

Both wives became pregnant at the same time.  Roger prayed that his wife would give birth to a boy and that Cynthia would bear a girl.  To Roger, fathering a son would be evidence of a virility superior to that of his brother, who could only produce a daughter.  This would be Roger’s chance to finally, and for once, outshine his older brother.  Roger’s prayers were not answered.  Both women gave birth to girls.

Now that there were children in the family, Eleanor, Simon and Roger’s mother, insisted on seeing her granddaughters on a regular basis.  Once a month, everyone was invited to a dinner at the family home.  Attendance was obligatory.  Initially, Eleanor, aware of the hostility between her sons, tried to find out what caused the rift and to bring about peace.  She took Simon aside and asked him what happened but Simon was baffled by Roger’s attitude towards him.  She asked Roger the same question.  As usual, he laid the blame squarely on Simon and said nothing more. Eventually, Eleanor gave up and, ignoring the frosty silence between the two brothers, focused her energies on making everyone else feel as relaxed as possible.  It was futile.  The tension was palpable.  At meals, even the children would whine and fuss with their food (unusual for both girls).  The wives felt very uncomfortable and on edge.  The long silences at the table were as disconcerting as they were stifling.

Two years later, in one of life’s unaccountable synchronicities, Beatrice and Cynthia were simultaneously pregnant again.  Roger prayed again and, this time, in his frustration, also went so far as to threaten Beatrice with unspecified dire consequences if she failed to produce a son and heir.  Cynthia had another daughter and Beatrice (thankfully) gave Roger the son he longed for.

Roger was beside himself with joy and pride.  The boy was not just a son; he was Roger’s vindication personified.  After years of being thought of as the lesser of the two, Roger now felt superior to his brother for the first time ever.  Julius was undeniable proof that Roger was the better man, after all.  Simon did not share Roger’s conviction.  He loved his first born daughter and was happy to have a second wonderful child.  Boy or girl – it didn’t matter. 

Julius was born two weeks late.  He weighed in at nine pounds, two ounces on entry (almost killing his mother in the process). With the help of his indulgent parents and fueled by unfortunate genetic predispositions, Julius was fat, stopping just short of obese.  At least he inherited height from his grandfather Brice; Julius was big in every direction.  As if to make up for the large size of his body, his intellect remained petite.  The child’s mental shortcomings were not physiological but rather environmental - he was pampered into stupidity.  

All through childhood, a large contingent of nannies, nurses and designated servants, saw to it that the boy would want for nothing.  Without any boundaries at all and a personality growing more objectionable by the day, Julius was thoroughly and permanently obnoxious.  Although his speech abilities developed normally, his preferred form of communication was a screech coupled with a fat digit pointing at the object of his desire.  Julius chose not to use words unless absolutely necessary.

In Roger’s eyes, Julius could do no wrong.  Further, he was convinced that disciplining the boy would only serve to curtail the child's ‘evolving’ character and vivid imagination.  Beatrice, who originally doted on Julius as much as Roger did, now disagreed.  She realized that their son wasn’t evolving at all, he was just spoiled rotten.  She tried her best to teach Julius the most basic of civilized behavior but, without the support of the boy’s father, she got nowhere.  When it came to manners, Julius knew the theory, but had no intention of putting it into practice.

While Roger was creating a monster out of Julius, Julius’s very existence had a mellowing effect on Roger.  He no longer spoke ill of Simon to anyone and even the monthly dinners at the family home became much more amiable.  When the two older girls were six years old and Julius along with Simon’s younger daughter were four, the first play date for all the children was arranged.  It did not go very well.  The three girls sat in the corner of the room with their dolls, dressing and undressing the little figures in various tiny articles of clothing, all the while discussing outfit choices.  Entirely engrossed in things fashion, they left Julius to his own devices.  He had none.  Moreover, he was not used to being anything other than the focus of all attention.  To remedy the situation he threw a tantrum.  He unleashed his vocal cords on the girls, two of whom froze in shock, having never heard anything so loud in their lives. Julius’ sister, by now very much aware of what was coming, managed to stick her fingers in her ears just before the screaming started.

All four adults rushed into the room.  Beatrice said nothing, too embarrassed at her son’s appalling behavior.  Roger quickly came to Julius’ defense and reprimanded his daughter for not making sure that her brother was given the deference he was justly due.  He went on to magnanimously forgive the two cousins for ignoring the most important person in the room, conceding that they had never spent any considerable time with Julius before and were not aware of protocol.

Simon and Cynthia looked knowingly at each other and kept silent.  It was clear that new and improved family relations would have been instantly decimated, had either of them attempted to point out, that Julius was an astonishingly insufferable brat who could do with a good spanking.  They would speak to their two daughters later, in private.

The next time the children met, the girls included Julius in their play by using him as their dress-up doll.  The only articles of clothing available were the clothes Julius had on so pillow cases and sheets were additionally employed.  Julius not only allowed himself to be alternatively swaddled, tucked, tied, wrapped and bundled, he assisted in the entertainment as best he could, beaming all the while.  From then on, the children got on famously, the girls inventing amusements which called for Julius to be squarely in the middle of the proceedings. 

The dinners always took place on Friday nights.  Eleanor had a large staff of servants so Roger and Beatrice would leave Julius’ attending army at home, arriving only with the governess.  The children (and the governess) then stayed overnight while the parents went home, collecting their offspring some time on Saturday afternoon.  The children slept in adjoining bedrooms, Simon’s daughters in one, and Julius and his sister in the other.  On Saturday mornings Eleanor enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with her grandchildren, followed by outdoor play on the grounds of the estate.

Julius demonstrated a marked difference in behavior with the adult family members in his life.  He was the worst with his mother.  Though he (probably) loved his mommy, he had no respect for her authority.  Regardless of anything she said, Julius did exactly as he pleased.

Roger was granted more favor by his son, in all likelihood, because Julius instinctively understood that it was to his advantage to stay in his father’s good graces.  He could be equally loud and obnoxious with both parents, but he didn’t throw or break objects as much when Roger was in the room.

What little contact Simon had with his nephew, was confined to the time spent together at the dinner table, once a month.  During such, Julius was too busy with his food (eating it or playing with it) to pay much attention to his uncle.  If the two did make eye contact, Simon would regard the boy with a tolerant smile while Julius usually reciprocated with an oblivious stare.

When he was in his grandmother’s presence, and there were no other adults around, Julius was restrained, mostly out of trepidation.  Though Eleanor had never spoken a cross word to her grandson, her regal appearance and piercing blue eyes were enough to keep the boy acceptably civil.

Last, but not least, was Cynthia.  To put it simply, Julius had a huge crush on his aunt.  Upon seeing her for the first time, he forgot whatever grievance he was about to (loudly) voice, and his contorted face instantly relaxed into a gap-toothed grin.  He had never beheld anything so beautiful.  Until then, the only women he ever saw were his mother who, next to Cynthia was comely at best, and the servants whose faces were completely unremarkable.  Julius was utterly smitten.  From then on, the sight of his aunt had a giant tranquilizing effect on the child.  Cynthia’s presence at the dinner table ensured that the meals were never disrupted.   The moment Julius would start to act up, Cynthia would look at him and smile.  He would blush crimson and calm down every time. 

One Friday evening, the dinner now over, the children were taken up to bed by the governess while the adults retired to the drawing room.  Eleanor, Beatrice and Cynthia enjoyed tea and sherry while Simon and Roger smoked cigars with their brandy.  It didn’t take long for the girls to get into their pajamas and into bed.  Julius was his usual self and his protestations lasted for some time.  Suddenly, there was silence.  He was either asleep or dead – with Julius, these were the only two possibilities.

Martha, the governess, her duties now done for the day, went into the kitchen to have some dinner before retiring.  She exchanged a few pleasantries with cook, said goodnight and went up to her room in the servants’ quarters, located at the back of the house.  Saturdays were always the worst day of the week.  She had Julius all to herself.  Eleanor had a staff which was very loyal and dedicated to her, but they drew the line at having anything to do with the whirling dervish.  Martha was left to do battle without any help.  She needed as much rest as she could get before the grueling day.  No sooner did her head touch the pillow, she was fast asleep. 

The only sound now heard was of the muted conversation in the drawing room.  The topic of discussion was politics and the upcoming elections.  Everyone voiced an opinion on the candidates and which man had the best chance to win.  It was getting late but no one noticed the time.

Upstairs, Julius woke up.  He didn’t know why he woke up.  He was about to start crying when he felt something on his tongue.  He reached in with his pudgy fingers and took a white nugget out of his mouth.  It was a tooth.  The night light was on and Julius stared at his find.  The tooth had been loose for some days.  He had tried several times to dislodge it but the pain was too much.  Now it was finally out.  Julius knew what that meant.  The tooth fairy would come tonight.  Tomorrow morning he would find a coin under his pillow.  He would give the coin to his parents and they would give him presents.  Lots of presents.  Julius was very happy and excited.  He had to tell someone.  He decided to wake his sister up and show her his treasure, which he carefully placed in the regulation spot, underneath the bottom pillow, the largest of the three on his bed.  

He called her name.  She didn’t respond.  He tried again.  No answer.  Julius was not giving in.  He got up, walked over to his sister’s bed, and hit her with the smallest pillow he brought with him for that purpose.  She opened her eyes, confused and still sleepy.  Julius hit her again.  Unaware of Julius’s motives, she mistakenly thought he wanted a pillow fight.  Knowing that her brother was not to be refused, she now duly complied and hit him back with her pillow.  Before long the pillow battle was in earnest.

The sisters next door woke to the commotion.  They got up and, opening the connecting door between the two bedrooms, peeked in to see what was happening.  Realizing, they went back to their beds to arm themselves.  A pillow in each hand, they returned and joined in the free for all.  Soon the delicate pillow cases started to tear.  The holes released streaks of feathers, pushed out of the casings by the centrifugal force of every swing.  Shortly, the floor, the beds, the night stands, dresser and curtains – everything in the room was covered with goose down.  So were the children, the feathers caught in their hair and stuck to their pajamas. All four squealed in amusement and delight. 

Julius was so caught up in the play, he forgot all about his tooth.  He needed another pillow to fight with.  The contents of the one he had used till now were strewn all over the floor, leaving only an empty bag in his hand.  He grabbed his biggest pillow and resumed the attack.  With every well-placed thwack, Julius’ exuberance increased in volume until his battleground cries finally reached the adults conversing downstairs.  Roger, initially startled by the sound, now turned angry, his wrath directed at the governess for not attending to his son.  Eleanor pointed out, in Martha’s defense, that it was very late and the governess most likely went to sleep long ago.  Roger grudgingly acquiesced and rose to go to the boy’s aid.  Cynthia put her hand on Roger’s arm to sit him back down and, with a brief “Allow me”, got up from her seat, and walked to the door.  She headed upstairs to deal with Julius.

The children’s bedrooms were at the end of a long corridor.  The wooden floor resounded with Cynthia’s footsteps which she did nothing to mute.  She paused at the door before entering to listen for any sounds coming from the other side.  The room had turned eerily quiet.

The children all heard someone coming down the hall. The fighting instantly stopped.  The girls, hair tousled, breathing heavily and flushed from their exertions, stood stock still.  Julius waddled over to a chair standing by the door, and climbed on it, still clutching the now half-empty pillowcase.  Convinced it was Martha on the other side of the entrance, he prepared to attack, his arm at the ready.  The door slowly opened and someone entered.  Julius, who was off to the side, did not see who it was. He swung with all his tiny, pudgy might.  The pillow struck the intruder squarely in the face, the impact discharging the remainder of the pillows’ contents.

Surprised by the blow, Cynthia almost lost her balance.  Spitting feathers out of her mouth, she reached for the switch and turned the overhead light on.  What she beheld was a feather winter wonderland created by the stuffing of ten, now deceased, pillows.  She turned to look at her attacker.  Standing on the chair, Julius was at a height which put him, literally, face to face with his victim.  He was looking not at Martha, but at his beloved aunt.  His eyes opened so wide, they seemed in danger of falling out of their sockets.  He was dumbstruck, his brain unable to accept what he saw.  The surprise was followed quickly by overwhelming remorse.  His diaper was recruited instantaneously into service, absorbing the result of his consternation.

Cynthia burst out laughing.  She couldn’t help it.  Julius burst out crying.  He couldn’t help it either.  The realization of what he had done was more than he could bear.  Cynthia reached for the boy and gently placed him on the ground.  Julius immediately wrapped his arms around Cynthia’s legs and buried his face in the fabric of her skirt, all the while alternately sobbing and trying to catch his breath.

Roger, Beatrice, Simon, and Eleanor went upstairs, curious to see what was happening.  Covered in feathers, her hair disheveled, Cynthia was now sitting on the bed, comforting the whimpering Julius who sat in her lap.  The three girls were perched on the bed opposite, their faces contrite in repentance.  Roger marched quickly over to his son, his hands reaching out to take the boy in his arms.  Julius was having none of it.  He held on to Cynthia for dear life.  Simon’s daughters ran to their father for comfort while Julius’ older sister sought out Beatrice.

Eleanor smiled and summoned the servants and Martha.  She gave orders for the feathers to be collected and for fresh pillows to be brought in.  Gentle coaxing from Cynthia loosened Julius’ grip, and he allowed himself to be handed over to the governess without any fuss.  Martha walked the boy to the bathroom, sponged him down and dressed him in clean diapers, astonished at the boy’s docile compliance with the cleanup process.

The room was quickly restored to some semblance of order.  Julius, now back from his ablutions, climbed into bed and, at that moment, remembered his treasure.  He looked under the now replaced pillows but, of course, the tooth was not there.  While in the heat of pillow battle, his enthusiastic jumping on the bed caused the tooth to bounce up and down until it eventually fell to the floor, to be concealed by the coat of feathers.  The maid swept it up without realizing.

Julius burst into tears again.  This time, even Cynthia could not calm him.  He didn’t want to accept that the tooth fairy now had nothing to collect and so, would not deposit, under his pillow, the tender necessary to proffer to his parents in exchange for his numerous gifts.

It was Simon who came to the rescue.  Surreptitiously removing a coin from his pocket, he placed in on the bedside table and then, pretending to find it, handed it over to the distraught boy.  From one moment to the next, Julius went from inconsolable to ecstatic.   The presents were as good as his.  He smiled, clutched the coin in his pudgy hand and exhausted, closed his eyes.  

Just before drifting off to sleep, Julius concluded that Simon was not only his uncle, but better - he was none other than the Tooth Fairy.

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