Changing of the Guard: Chapter Two

Contains adult language.

“So would you mind telling us who or what put this fucking bee up your arse?” Despite the swear words used in his inquiry, Andy maintained a level of calm.

Johnny Ryan gave the proverbial glare which would cause Hell to freeze over. Despite this, neither Andy nor Jack Corbett flinched.

Annoyed, Andy finally proclaimed, “See, Jack, see?! This is what I was talking about,” hoping he didn’t take his irritability out on someone he hoped might help. “This is what I’ve been dealing with. That’s why I came to you. Thought you might have better lucky.”

The former waiter and current Tavern manager had attempted a casual approach with Johnny, exactly as he had the last few weeks. And as before, his brotherly friendship was returned with the same cold shoulder, the same brusque answers, or the same disinterest in whatever concern Andy might have. Therefore on this occasion, after confiding in the usually calm and measured Jack Corbett (whom he felt the most stable of the younger brothers, despite them all being about the same age), he decided to take yet another shot at finding out what had left Johnny in this withdrawn mode.

Andy and Jack discovered Andy lingering under an oak near the front driveway outside the Tavern, watching as the many siblings arrived for the meeting. His aggravation was obvious when the two walked in his direction. He had hoped they were heading towards a nearby Jeffrey Wigand and Jim Braddock. In fact, all of them welcomed the other in passing, but that was it – in passing. Before Johnny could find a place to duck and hide, the Aussies were at his side. Their ‘G’day’ and ‘How’s it going Johnny’ were met with a grunted “Hmph” which took even Jack by surprise.

Andy gave the lieutenant a ‘what did I tell you’ peek.

Several minutes of small talk ensued: the weather, the arrival of so-and-so, the upcoming plans for Easter and the Kentucky Derby. Anything and everything, but the issue at hand. When Andy finally got around to his question about bees and arses, the glare he received was pretty much expected.  

Jack was about to respond when Johnny cut him off with a wave of one hand. “Look, Jack, before you say anything…I’m sorry, mate. I’m sure you mean well. I’m sure Andy meant well when he came to you, but Jack…you don’t…you don’t…”

“We don’t what?” Corbett asked with his tone calm as always. “Understand? You don’t think we understand?” No answer. “Johnny, what exactly don’t we understand? It’s hard to know when you haven’t told us.”

Johnny rolled his eyes, then arms crossed shook his head. “I’m sorry  Andy wasted your time, Jack. He ought to learn to mind his bizzo.”

Jack gave a tight smile. “I wouldn’t say it was a waste of time.” Giving Andy a sideways glance, he continued. “In my opinion, Andy meant well by you. When it comes to each other, it shouldn’t ever be a waste of time. I’d like to think that if something’s gone wrong, you’d know enough to come to any of us and talk it out, exactly the way we always have.”

Johnny nodded emptily, moving aside a few inches as if their presence was a nuisance. “Exactly the way we always have.” The words were almost mocking, having lost the concern in Corbett’s comment. “Well, you know what, Jack?” Johnny’s voice did not rise above the soft tone he’d exhibited during their conversation. “Maybe all of our problems don’t get solved by talking it out with each other. Maybe some of us would like to think things out on our own because the brotherly talks don’t help. Maybe they never helped. Do you know why? Because nothing we do, nothing we think, nothing we hope or talk about in here means shite out there.” His voice dropped even lower, as though he was talking to himself. “It doesn’t mean shite, not in the end. We don’t fucking matter. We just don’t fucking matter. I don’t think we ever fucking mattered.”

Andy shrugged, giving Jack a nudge. “See? This is what I’ve been dealing with. He’s been saying the same thing for almost a month.”

Johnny snorted. “And you still haven’t heard a bloody thing, have you? ‘Cause if you had, you wouldn’t have dragged Jack into it.”

Andy raised his hands. “Done, I’m done. I don’t know what else to do. Sorry I got you involved, Jack. I thought you could help”

“And I never asked you to get involved either, Andy!” Johnny growled under his breath, looking aside.

Andy was already walking away, but Jack hung back, still surprised that no one else had overheard the exchange, but very grateful they had not. Despite fully appreciating why Andy felt as he did, and wondering if leaving Johnny alone was the best route, there was still something in those soft, bitter words that caught his attention. No matter how irate Johnny was, he had not lost his temper as many of them might, or even as the old Johnny might have. Instead – incredibly – he was still holding most of it inside despite it eating away at him little by little.

“What’s happened Out There?” Jack asked, the question causing Andy to stop and turn back.

Johnny faced Corbett. “What?” he whispered, all other responses catching in his tightening throat.

“I asked: what happened Out There that’s ripped you up this much?”

Johnny leaned back against the tree around which he had been pacing, shaking his head as he ran a hand through his hair. Chuckling hollowly he finally asked, “You don’t know?”

“Tell me.”

“I don’t want to play patient to your psychiatrist, Jack.”

“And I don’t want to play psychiatrist to your patient,” the lieutenant firmly replied. “I’d rather hear about things brother-to-brother – if you’ll tell us.”

In the background, they could hear the various accents reflecting not only regions of Australia, but those of the United States and England as well, the range of voices a cacophony of tenors and baritones; youth and maturity; the better educated; the worldly;  those for whom language was a gift of great eloquence. All of them so different and yet very much alike. It was following that brief silence in which Andy, Jack, and Johnny listened when the latter quietly announced:

“Do you know how it feels to watch people piss it all away and know you can’t do a damn thing to stop it?” He angrily swiped at the tears threatening to spill from his eyes. Momentarily his mind swept back to that night a lifetime in the past – Meg, Sam, him, everything rushing headlong to that cataclysmic end he tried so hard to shove away.

Andy gave Corbett a puzzled glance before he turned back to Johnny. “What are you…” he started, genuinely surprised that Johnny was finally being open, but uncertain as to what he meant. “What people are pissing what away?”

“You don’t know?”

Andy shook his head. He usually had the greatest patience, but if he was not already at the edge, this was about to push him over it. He continued to speak in a low tone, but the frustration and the need to understand was in every word. “Damn Johnny. Can’t you stop talking in riddles and tell us what…”

“It happens you know, mate: life,” Jack proclaimed. “It happens.”

The lieutenant’s quiet interruption caused Johnny Ryan’s attention to return to him. Meanwhile, Andy’s exasperation subsided once more on realizing that Jack’s words had obviously rung true. The tension in Johnny’s features lessened although the sense of loss Andy had seen in his sibling’s eyes all these past weeks was still there.

Johnny shook his head. “That’s easy for you, Jack. You finally found someone. You’ve got Adalia.”

“And look how long it took me to find her. It wasn’t easy, Johnny, you know that. It took years. Literal years.”

“But you have her now, and Andy, you’ve had someone too, someone who came here and was meant for you, even for a little while, but me…It’s not so much me wanting; me wanting someone for me but…” He struck the tree trunk with his left foot, thankfully stopping before he followed that action with a right cross that would have resulted in a painful lesson. “I lost my sheila. He got his. He finally got her and now it’s all getting pissed away and I don’t understand why.”

“Shit.” Andy finally understood, just as it had come to Jack moments before, and he was ready to give himself a swift kick in the ass for being so stupid. “Johnny…Johnny, I’m sorry.”

“It’s not your fault, is it?” Johnny told him. “It’s not Jack’s fault or mine or anyone else’s ‘round here. Like you said Jack, it’s life. Shit happens, right? But do you know how much it’s been killing me inside watching everything fall apart Out There and me wanting to leave here and make it all right.”

“And what would you do if you did?” Andy asked before Jack could, the same thought crossing both their minds.

“I don’t know,” Johnny replied, frustrated as he moved in a slow circle. “I don’t know. Something! Anything! Wouldn’t any of you try to do something? Shouldn’t we try to do something? I…I keep thinking back to when we had the party, remember, to celebrate, and I went back to my flat and was watching the entertainment shows on the telly, and they were showing…” He swallowed hard, not wanting them to know how close this was to breaking him. “They were showing these clips, these little clips when they were leaving the chapel, and I was sitting there with my drink and I gave this little toast and you know what I said? I said ‘You finally got her. You finally got your sheila. Good on ya mate.’ It was almost like…I’d finally won too. I knew it wasn’t Meg. Didn’t matter. It was her and he got her.”

“We all felt the same,” Jack finally said. It was a bittersweet memory At the time, no one serious had entered his own life. He almost doubted anyone would, especially when one was a minor entity only a hardcore fan would recognize. Seeing those moments online and on television, having the celebration at the Point, it had been a way to share in the festivities, even when part of your soul was collapsing. At the time, even feeling remotely romantic as all of them had, Jack could never have imagined Adalia coming along. Even if he had, he would never have thought of her being for him. So if Jack felt as he did, what must Johnny be thinking as one of the things he pinned his dreams on was imploding.

Johnny shook his head. “But did it matter?” His voice remained low. “In the end I mean, did it matter? I guess there weren’t any still small voices in the night, whispering in their noggins, and if it did, what the fuck, it’s all in the imagination anyway. Just fuck it all to hell, right? Fuck away what? Twelve, thirteen years or more, like it never happened?”

Andy grunted, unsure of what to say or what advice to give in a situation such as this. In fact, was there little that could be said which might make the wounds heal more quickly? He suddenly heard himself say, “Mate, look, we might be part of the Creator, but that doesn’t mean we can climb inside anybody’s head and tell them what to do. I can’t even do that with you or Jack or any of the rest.”

Jack nodded. “And we’re brothers…or we call ourselves brothers at any rate, but every one of us has our own life to live. We don’t all think alike and we sure as hell don’t act alike. So if we don’t or can’t, why would we think we could tell them how to run their lives?”

“Because…” Ryan paused. He hesitated with what was going to follow ‘because’. We were made in his image so he ought to listen almost came to his lips. That, he decided, would be way over-the-top. Instead, his right foot connected with a rock, which was sent flying across the road.

It was obvious neither of them fully comprehended all of this, even if they were trying, and he was exhausted by all the effort of explaining. In fact, the last thing he wanted was to be suffocated by the brothers, watching them behave as though the awful matters outside the Point had no bearing on them. Once they saw him, those that cared would question him and possibly figure things out as Jack did, and then would come more of the ‘I’m sorry Johnny’ and the sage words – more of the same sage words.

“You know what?” Johnny announced. “Tell Tina I’m sorry, but this isn’t a good time. I…I can’t deal with whatever it is she wants. I know she wants us there and I planned on being there, but I…”

“You’re not going to do that Johnny Ryan.”

Jack’s statement was so authoritative that Johnny nearly thought it had been shouted, but no, on looking into the lieutenant’s features he saw that Corbett was very much under control. It was all that military discipline, the ability to command respect without being a bully about it.

Jack moved closer until he was face-to-face with Johnny. Andy, about to confront Johnny himself, stepped back, knowing the situation was well in hand.

Using an index finger to punch his brother’s chest, Jack said, “If you even think you’re about to run away from here you’re wrong. I will drag your ass in there whether you want to go or not.”

Better than I would have said, Andy thought as he watched. I’d be dragging his arse in there right now before he says anything else.

“Like hell, you will!” Johnny answered thru gritted teeth, shoving Jack’s finger away.

“Like hell, I won’t,” Corbett replied, his temper still under complete control. “Now you’re going to quit your whingeing. I understand what’s going through your head right now, but you need to put it aside for an hour or two. Tina needs us all at this meeting. I repeat all of us. You don’t have an excuse mate.”

“You…” Johnny started to say, but on seeing Jack’s quiet stare he shut his mouth. He never thought a pair of eyes could make him squirm as the lieutenant’s eyes did.

“You don’t have an excuse. Now, Tina doesn’t call meetings like this unless something important is going on, and if Ben and Egan traveled clicks to be here, you being a dipstick about something none of us can control isn’t going to fly. Now if you want to tell her you can’t stay, fine. But you’ll do it yourself. I’m not going to do it. Andy’s not going to do it.”

Andy shook his head to punctuate what Jack had proclaimed.

“…and not another brother here is going to do it for you. You’ll be a man, look her in the eye and say ‘Sorry Tina, wish I could stay, but I’m going to hit the turps and drink with the flies. Hope you understand,’ and you figure she’ll go ‘Oh no worries, Johnny’ and then she’ll be apples.”

“But she won’t be apples,” Andy added, stepping closer to the pair. “No matter what she says to make you feel better. You’ll have cut her to the quick.”

“And remember one more thing Johnny Ryan,” Jack continued. “She’s The Keeper. You owe her that. Or maybe you don’t,” he said with a shrug. “Anyway, I came because Andy was worried about you, and we’ve tried to listen and talk to you, but that’s obviously been a failure. You ready?” The final words were directed to Andy, who finally turned away from Johnny.

“Ready.” Andy gave Johnny a final glance. “And Johnny, you’ll be coming inside to make your excuses to Tina, right?”


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