Chapter 29: Giving and taking
“I thought I’d never see you again.” His voice is hoarse and my brain is running into overdrive. The man looks like my father, he sounds like my father but my father would never show himself like this, this vulnerable and sincere.
“Likewise.” I chuckle dryly.
“It’s a long story-”
“He’s here for money.” Mother bites as she enters the room.
Father looks at me with a hint of poorly hidden concern in his eyes. “Are you in trouble?”
“I uh…we should probably sit down first.”
“I agree,” Abel says as he offers my father his handkerchief and hurries us to the dining table.
As we all sit down I can feel the atmosphere shifting from a hot and confusing state to one that feels cold and clinical.
Abel sits at the head, with papers and pencil and a serious look on his face. I sit on the left side of the table, mother and father are sitting across, separated by an empty chair.
This table always felt ridiculously oversized but now even more so as the whole family is together, and we could fit another family or two on the other side of the table.
A triangular clock on the mantelpiece strikes ten in the evening.
“Well then, I don’t wish to draw this meeting out any longer than we have to so I’ll get straight to the point. Inquiry Winton is here to be written out of the family will and to discuss a severance fee for renouncing the inheritance for both himself and his offspring.” He looks at me “Is that correct?”
“Oh! Uh, yes that’s correct.”
Mother scoffs “Preposterous.”
Father crosses his arms and leans back into his chair having recovered much of his familiar stoic stature “So you don’t just want to punish us by leaving, you want to make it official?”
I look at Abel looking for guidance and frustratingly get that ‘your decision’ look that Stegarius used to give me sometimes.”
“I…I don’t think it should matter all that much to you. You already replaced me so I think neither of us had pretensions about me coming home.”
His eyes soften slightly “You’re welcome still. If you want to come back, you’re still our son.” Father straightens himself again and clears his throat politely “With all due respect to our negotiator, Abel is not my son by birth, you are.”
I look at Abel and wonder if I spot a hint of panic behind his mask of neutrality. I guess this is make or break for him. That’s probably why he felt a need to lay out his plan before negotiations started.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t consider going back. Take the easy way out. Run a factory of soulless machines and give up my dreams entirely. A cog doesn’t have to think about the big picture, the grand scheme of things.
It just needs to go with the motions.
But the mess I’d be leaving, the people I’d forsake.
I like to sleep at night, I guess Abel and I are similar in that aspect at least.
“I don’t need a fortune. Besides as far as I can see Abel has become more of a son to you in eight years than I have been in sixteen. I think it stands to be grateful for that.
I smile as I watch Abel’s eyes grow just a tad at the remark.
Father sighs “All right, how much do you need?”
“What! No! We’re not just going along with this!” Mother exclaims. “He’s an alchemist now he’ll probably spend it on hiring gravediggers or something!”
“You’re an alchemist?” Father pulls up an eyebrow.
“That’s not what we do.” I squeeze my hands into fists under the table.
“Then what do you do?” she challenges.
“I don’t think this is relevant for the negotiations.” Abel tries.
“If I’m to part with part of my fortune it’s reasonable to ask where it goes.” She strikes back.
Abel looks at me, I don’t think he has a good comeback for that.”
“Well, we study ether, the life force we all already know exists, but we’re being ostracised for trying to look at it outside of a religious context. For calling it ether and not ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’.”
“Because they’re different. Only humans have souls.”
“That’s not true.”
“I bet you don’t go to church anymore either.”
“I can’t say I see the point of it.”
Mother gasps in response, father furrows his brow. “Why alchemy, I thought you liked mechanics?”
I chuckle painfully “Well, I came across this book in the library back in those days-”
“They stock books on alchemy in the university library? Unacceptable, we need to tell them to-”
“Mother please, let Inquiry finish his story.” Abel cuts in.
“It wasn’t a library book, it was a private book from the doll librarian’s personal collection. It was a diary by the man who made them. It was written in code and it became my mission to decode it. It felt like a fun challenge at the time but in hindsight I think I was looking for some secret, some reason why he and I share the same name. Childish I know.”
Mother scoffs “You were named after my great-grandfather. Mystery solved. You could have asked me.”
“That’s not-” I start but I’m pretty sure that’d be a losing game anyway “When I cracked the code I learnt the dolls were made with alchemy. I also learned they’re not immortal and I wanted to learn the craft of doll-making to ensure their survival as a species. I found an alchemist willing to teach me and together with Stegarius-”
“You told the doll but not us!? Your own family” Mother fumes.
“Stegarius is more family to me than the two of you ever were.”
“Inquiry, that’s perhaps a bit harsh.” Abel corrects me, I cross my arms. “It’s the truth though.”
“See, I warned you we shouldn’t have kept on the doll for as long as we did!” Mother shoots the words at father with disdain “He was a disaster of a teacher and he has ruined our son for high society with his odd ideas and questions.”
“That’s not true, Stegarius made me into the man I am today.”
“Exactly! An alchemist obsessed with dolls who has not an ounce of respect for his own family.”
“As if you ever had respect for me!” I shoot back “I asked you, pleaded with you not to fire Stegarius but you did it anyway.”
Mother throws up her arms “You were going to university! What else was I to do?”
“You could have sent him with me to university with me.”
“Unacceptable, the papers would have had a field day.
“I’d have finished the curriculum though.”
“It’s easy to say that, care to call your magical tutor and prove it?”
“Because he’s dead.”
The conversation slams to a halt, and mother’s mouth, half open, slowly closes as she thinks.
I swallow, unused to such silence in this household.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Father tells me as he tries a smile for me. It’s not really working. But I appreciate the sentiment.
“So did he die of old age?” Mother tries carefully.
“No, he was killed.” I try to pick my words carefully “His final wish was to make a school for alchemy, a way to regulate the use and make it abide by ethical codes.
As long as alchemy is conducted in the shadows there’s no way to stop them from doing the things we as a society deem reprehensible. We need to be transparent about what we do and what we don’t if we want to gain the trust of the public.”
“Just like Art Winton?” Father asks.
I start to smile “Exactly! Just like that.”
“This is madness.” Mother gets up and points an accusing finger in my direction. “You’re mad for thinking alchemy can regulated.” She then points at father in turn “You’re mad for enabling him and I’m mad for ever having married you. And I have nothing else to say to any of you.” She strides to the door and slams it shut behind her and the three of us are left looking at one another.
“Well, I guess it’s just us now.” Father chuckles a bit awkwardly and just like that I notice how human he is. A person with a past, feelings and dreams. Not just a figure or a role.
I’m surprised it took me this long to notice the wedding ring missing from his finger.
“So when did the two of you separate?” I ask and father scratches the back of his hand in response “I think two maybe three years after you left us. I kept looking for you, hoping you’d return one day but your mother was quick to try and replace you. We had our disagreements over Abel joining the family. No offence meant of course.”
“It wasn’t a conflict our marriage could survive.
We never officially announced it, the company is stronger without such sensational news but I have a small house within walking distance from the factory.” He shakes his head, then chuckles dryly “She may not love me but she does have a lot of heart for the company. I don’t think I could ever find anyone else this driven to making a line go up.”
“I see.” I think back on the endless arguments and coldness they would exude around one another and I can’t say it surprises me. Although it does make me wonder “Did you ever love her?”
“Part of me still does, oddly enough. It’s hard to separate the person from the moments you spent together, even if they’re nigh unrecognisable from one another.”
“But, the two of you were always fighting?”
He pulls up his eyebrows “Were we? I don’t remember that.”
“After church, in the cafe, you’d fight and I’d feel so small and helpless to stop the two of you yelling at one another.” I look at him flabbergasted. “How do you forget such a thing?”
“Oh, that!” He laughs heartily at the memory “We weren’t fighting, we were debating. Your mother gets intense I know, but we were just discussing business plans.” Then his mirth dies down slowly as it dawns on him “You thought we were fighting instead?”
“Yes! How could I not? You were yelling and shouting and calling each other names and I was so scared to see you both like that and- and-” My ears feel hot and my hands feel clammy. I didn’t imagine that, right? No, they were really yelling at one another. “Inquiry I’m so sorry. We never meant to make you feel like that. I-” he stops to think “I guess we assumed you know mommy and daddy love one another that you’d understand it’s just business and nothing personal.”
“I was eight dad.” My voice is scratchy hands clasping tightly into one another, I tell myself I’m not going to cry.
Father gets up from his chair and wraps his arms around me, pulling me up from the chair “Yes, I know, it was foolish of us, there was no way you’d know. You were too young to know.”
My stomach feels weird. My brain feels even weirder. I don’t know what to do or how to feel about any of this.
My arms are trembling as I wrap them around my father.
“Dad…uhm. I don’t know what to say.”
“That’s okay just- how about we just have a moment to breathe? I could have a fresh pot of tea brought in?”
I try to breathe. Doing it on purpose feels weird somehow. But as I regain I voice I tell him “All right.”
The tea is rich and complex, nothing like the third-grade stuff I’ve been drinking with Tungsten.
We sit together, just sipping our tea and existing. It feels less awkward now. It dawns on me I can’t accept this man as my father, but as a man, a fellow person, he’s all right.
“I wish I put more time towards seeing you grow.” The man admits after taking a sip “It’s been my biggest regret all these years. I feel like I was just waiting for you to be a grown-up. Be big enough to take over the factory, like you weren’t worth my time unless you were ‘finished’ in a way.”
My eyes are glued to my cup “Yeah I uh… suspected as much.”
“Thanks…” I don’t know what else to say. I’m not even sure if I forgive him but I feel disarmed, like the mistreatments of the past were a shield I could hide behind and now there’s just me. Me and the growing worry I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“How much do you need for your school?”
“I don’t know exactly.” I wish Miss Viola was here to help, she made the number crunching look easy.
“Well, how about ten thousand lodis.”
I almost choke on my tea “Ten thousand?” I ask, voice no more than a squeak.
“That sounds fair to me.” Abel concurs “And you wouldn’t have to pay any on if back.”
“Can you just sign off on that much without mother’s approval?”
“Oh, we’ll fight it out, don’t worry about that. Technically it’s my fortune considering we’re not married anymore, I’m not in any legal trouble.”
I look at Abel, and he nods.
“I do have a condition, however”
“What is it?”
“I feel like this money would be your fair share, and I’m not blind to the ways Abel can benefit from you being written out. But I feel like for me and your mother it’s a paltry deal to agree to.”
My stomach sinks. Here we go. I must admit I figured it’d be mother to bring the hard bargain but…“Well, what do you suggest?”
“You come home, once a year until the two of us are gone. I don’t care if it’s for a birthday, a feast a festival or just because you found an empty spot in your calendar. Once every three hundred and sixty days I want to get a call and set a date and then I want to see you and know how you’re doing. I think we can agree it’s a small price to pay for that large a sum.”
“Just one day?”
“Just one day.”
“As a guest?”
“You won’t be a Winton anymore so yes.”
The me who entered here today would have fought against that. He would have found the idea nightmarish. But I find that gut-reaction isn’t there now, the fear is gone. “That sounds reasonable, yes, if that’s all then I guess I accept.”
“I think that’s an excellent addition.” Abel smiles, writing down the extra clause on fancy-looking paper. He then hands the document to my father to sign first.
He reads it, going point by point before asking “Last chance to change your mind?”
“Thank you, but no.”
“Very well.” He draws an imposing-looking signature going far beyond the boundaries of the designated line, then hands it off to me.
“Okay so just sign here?” I ask pulling a pencil from my breast pocket.
“Yes but.” Abel subtly picks the pencil from my hand and holds out a pen for me “In ink please.”
“Right.” I take the pen as I try to remember what my signature looks like. I think I only ever needed it when enrolling in university…I guess they won’t check.
“Well then, congratulations. You’re now un-Wintoned, how does it feel?”
I shrug “Not much different than before.”
“Well, that’s a relief at least.” Father states as he pulls out a check book “Do you have a banking account?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then I suggest you get one. I wouldn’t want you to get robbed with ten thousand lodis in your pocket.” He opens it up and writes out the amount and signs it with the same massive signature.
He then tears it from the book “It’s you money by right so if you want it I could give it to you now or you can let me know when you opened an account and then I’ll have it dropped off.”
“I think I’d prefer that.”
“So do I.” He neatly tucks it back into the chequebook and closes it “I guess that’s that then. Would you like me to ask Modest to drive you back to the city?”
I shake my head “Thanks for the offer but no need to pull the car out again. I’ll walk.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I got thinking to do anyway.”
“All right, safe travels.”
“Let me walk you to the door,” Abel states as he puts the pen away into a leather briefcase.
I pull on my coat again, “Good night Abel. Thank you for everything.”
“Thank you as well, Justice and Virtue appreciate your sacrifice…once they’re old enough and I’ve explained it to them of course.”
He opens the door for me “Well I guess that’s the end of my duties for tonight.” “I’m going to go upstairs and see if Justice and Miss Gentle have stopped debating by now. It’s my hope that one day when things have settled and we’ve both grown older, you might come back here because you want to, not because you need to. And we could build new memories here, positive ones to replace the ones you had here as a child.
“Thank you, that means a lot to me.”
I pull the green cap from my coat pocket, put it on my head push my hands into the pockets and get ready for the long walk back.
I have the plan.
I have the money.
Now all I need is the dolls’ blessing, or at least Jaxogeras’ because they’ll need to take some photographs for me.
I have to go back to Bar-B next.