Jason took a deep breath as he leant on the window. The meeting room was just down the hall, but it might as well have been a million miles away. No matter how much he tried he couldn’t get his legs to work, couldn’t push himself away and turn and walk. Come on, he thought, walking is easy. Even children can do it.
Yeah, thought the knot of fear in his stomach, but children don’t have to walk into that meeting.
The plan – the great plan that he’d been concocting for weeks – had been to arrive early, so he could be the first one in the room. It would give him a position of strength, or so he thought. At the very least, it was the only thing he could do to level the playing field. He’d already be outnumbered and outranked.
The idea of writing a note crossed his mind again, or sending an email. But a note could be lost, and he’d seen the state of his father’s inbox before. That was a void bigger than the one opening up before him now.
Or I could just keep quiet, and pretend there isn’t a problem. That idea didn’t scare him; it made him feel sick. All the fear that he didn’t have to live through would just build up inside him, forever and ever, only getting worse. Besides, he couldn’t afford the alcohol bill for that, no matter what salary he gave himself.
“Jas? You all right, mate?”
Cornered at last Jason pushed himself upright and tried to force a smile. Judging by the frown on his cousin’s face, he failed. “I’m fine. Just an iffy stomach.”
“Do you need to skip the board meeting? I can cover if you want.”
Yes, yes, oh god, yes please. “Nah. I’ll be fine. Thanks, Aaron.”
“Come on then. Let’s go and see if we can nab the good doughnuts before the chiefs arrive.”
The pair of them had barely made it into the room before their fathers turned up though. Early as ever, the heads of the Jameson and Family Company – suppliers of all your luxury needs – came in side by side, briefcases bulging. They barely acknowledged their sons before they sat down and started going through their papers, and their conversation didn’t falter. The final details of the new building project needed to be sorted, and neither of the Mr Jameson Sr. were the sort of people to let anything stop business.
Aaron took Jason’s arm and led him over to the refreshment table in the corner. “The water should be cold, it’ll help settle your stomach,” he said under his breath. Advice all the time, whether you asked for it or not. The family way. “I’ll just take them their rations.” Because heaven forfend they get their own snacks.
Though neither of the Jameson brothers stopped talking, they each gave Aaron a warm smile and nod when he placed the plates in front of them. They’re not bad people, just busy. If they were bad people this would be a lot easier. Despite the close-knit community that the three branches of the Jameson family had, over all three generations, Jason didn’t believe that family was everything. The fact that his family were nice people and – generally – very supportive meant that he’d stick by them, not the fact they happened to share blood.
Supportive and nice. If only they didn’t have this great big blind-spot. The business.
The other cousins started to trail in, along with Aunt Margo Jameson, the third head of the family business. She even kept her maiden name to stay on brand. That’s commitment. Behind her came her sons and daughters, including the first of the next generation. Jason’s oldest first cousins, Peter and Malcolm. You see, there are plenty of other people. I’m not necessary.
Trailing at the very back, head down as she clicked away on her phone, portfolio tucked under her arm, was his own sister Joanna. When she looked up and met his eyes she frowned at him, and he grimaced. He’d been ignoring her messages for the last two days, too preoccupied with this meeting for anything else. He’d pay for it later, if she was still talking to him.
Margot clapped her hands, and the ‘children’ took their seats. The fact that the youngest of them, barring Peter and Malcolm, was in their early thirties didn’t change the fact they were still children. There were thirteen of them round the table in total; the three sibling founders, eight in Jason’s generation and the first two of the next successors.
After a quick head count the elders went straight on with business. The divide between work and pleasure had been instilled in all of them before they could even write, and there would be no time for general greetings or catch up here. And I missed my shot of getting this over with early. All Jason could do now was sit and fidget, and wait for ‘any other business’. And get glared at by Joanna.
The meeting went through all the usual proceedings, and Jason kept half an ear on it, just in case a question was sprung on him. Half an ear was all he could manage anyway, and he struggled not to spend the whole time glaring at Peter and Malcolm, or at Joanna’s growing bump. The family business, growing as our family grows. But what if we don’t grow? What happens if we shrink? When it came time for the youngsters to report how their current project – a solid social media strategy, to bring the business into the modern age – was going, Jason had to fight back the urge to slam his head on the table. ‘Expanding with our expanding family’ was their current tag-line. Jason was no social media expert, but from his own point of view it made him squirm. Are they all trying to get me today?
It was the core principle of the business. Jason could remember all the times as a kid, when he and Joanna accompanied their father into work and saw the office.
“But what will we do?” little Joanna would ask. “You already have all these people.”
“We’ll find something for you to do,” their father would say. “When you join us we’ll make a new job, just for you. It’ll be your role, your part of the legacy of the company. And then when you have children you can do the same for them. That way the business will always survive, and will always grow.”
“In that case, I’ll have all the children, and then we can take over the world!” young Jason had said. That had made his father laugh, and had become the dinner-time story for months. The gleam of pride in his father’s eyes was something that Jason had never forgotten, and recently it had started haunting his dreams.
Stupid child, Jason thought to himself as he reflected on that now. If only he’d known…
“Well, that’s all of our report,” Aunt Margo said, ever the secretary. “Is there any other business that needs to be covered?”
Without waiting for anyone else to say anything, ignoring the usual, unwritten protocol of eldest first, Jason stood up. His legs were shaking so badly he almost fell over again, and he had to lean on the table.
“I- I’ve got something I need to say,” he mumbled. Around the table his cousins all turned to him, half of them already zoning out as they thought about their action lists from the meeting. Sat next to him Joanna leant back and crossed her arms, drumming her fingers as she waited for his explanation.
Well, it’s too late to back out now. “I’m leaving the family business.”
As soon as he’d said it Jason’s eyes darted to the door, but the uproar and sudden focused attention was enough to say that he wasn’t getting out of here that easily.
After a few minutes of chaos around the table, his father slammed his notebook down. Only when everyone else was perfectly quiet did he speak.
“What do you mean by that?”
It wasn’t the question Jason had been expecting, and he fumbled for a moment. He tried to stand upright and pull his jacket down, but he wobbled again and had to keep leaning. Hardly the position of strength I was hoping for.
“I’m sorry, father. But due to personal reasons I’m going to have to stand down from the business. I’m sure one of my first cousins will be ready to take over my position soon enough. I’m sorry for leaving you short-staffed–”
“What the hell do you mean, ‘personal business’? What business is there that’s more important than the family business?”
“It’s for the sake of the family business that I want to leave.” Damn it, this had been so much easier in the mirror. Why the hell does dad have such a busy schedule? I should’ve waited until I could get him alone. But every day that Jason waited was another day that he lived with the guilt and the gut-wrenching secret. He just wanted to be free.
“You’d better explain yourself damn quickly.”
Or, perhaps it was better that I didn’t do this alone. “I can’t live by the rules of this family any longer. I can’t be what you want, what you need, me to be.”
“In what way?” Joanna asked. It was brave of her to cut in, but their father looked as though he was about to burst a blood vessel.
Jason’s eyes dropped to his sister’s unborn child. “I can’t grow the family any more. I can’t continue the legacy, and that’s all that this is about. I have no intention of having any children, so I don’t have a place here.”
That’s what happened to Aunt Sylvia after all. But even in this moment of rebellion Jason didn’t have the courage to mention her name. There were rumours about some other, deep-seated rift between her and her siblings, but it was hard to deny that she’d been dropped by the family just after her husband had left and taken the children with him. She was the end of her line now, and therefore useless when it came to carrying on.
“Jason, there is still plenty of time for you to find a wife–” his uncle started.
“I don’t want a wife. And I certainly don’t want children. At the end of the day, that is my decision to make. And I’ll accept the consequences of my choices, like having to leave the company.”
Do I? Dare I? Jason was so close to admitting everything, but the glaring from his father stopped him. At the very least this would stop the endless pestering about when he was going to settle down and marry. This would stop all talk between them, but it was a small price to pay to be free of the endless judgments and match-making.
“There is still time to change your mind,” his uncle carried on. “This is a big thing to commit yourself to. You don’t have to decide now whether you want children or not.”
“But I have decided. I’ve felt this way for years, and I feel it’s only fair to tell you. Before you invest any more in me and the future of my bloodline.”
“Then go,” his father growled. “Get out of here.”
That was all the invitation Jason needed. He was out the door before his father’s words had faded, scurrying down the corridor to his office. After that bombshell the meeting would get extended. If he was lucky, Jason could clear out his office and be gone before anyone else left the room.
As it happened, he only got halfway through emptying his desk drawers before his uncle came in.
“Are you sure you want to do this?”
“It’s a bit late now. Even if I did take it back, none of you would ever truly believe it, would you?”
“We would. Eventually. All you’d need to do is get married and have a few kids.”
“Uncle, is that really all there is for you? Don’t you want more from life?”
“Work and family, that’s all there is. And we’ve just combined the two, to get the best out of them. What more could you want?”
“Freedom. I… I want to me.”
“And who are ‘you’, exactly?”
“Uncle, I’m gay.” There was a pause, as even Jason tried to process that. Have I ever said it before? Announced it like that, so matter-of-fact? “I have a partner, and we’re looking at moving in together. I want to try and make a go of it with him, and neither of us are at all interested in children. It’s just… not us.”
“You’d run away from your family because you’re gay?”
“Well…” Yes, actually. “It’s not something I thought any of you would understand. You all put so much faith in the traditional family unit, I wasn’t sure if any of you would accept me.”
“Just because you’re gay it doesn’t mean that you can’t do your duty. It doesn’t have to get in the way of children.”
“Um…” Well, no. But also, kind of yes. And that bit about not wanting them? Though he still had hollow legs from the earlier confrontation, Jason’s shoulders relaxed. Definitely made the right call. “I don’t have a place in this family any more, uncle. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be so selfish! Do you really think that we haven’t all sacrificed things to make this work? We were making a better world for you.”
“And how is it a better world if we get forced into your model of what our lives should be like? You can’t tell people ‘this is the best life for you, live it or else’. That’s not how it works.”
“You stuck up little brat. Don’t you think I–”
Realisation struck Jason like a sock of bricks, and his own fears were forgotten. “You’re gay.” A dozen clues from his childhood clicked into place; snide comments, jokes, looks. “You’re gay, and you’ve been hiding it all these years.”
“It doesn’t have to stop you being a part of this family. Just find a wife, and put the whole thing behind you.”
Though he was not, by nature, an effeminate man, Jason put a hand on his hip and sassed. “Oh really? So you’re saying you’re ‘cured’ of your gayness? Completely straight now are you?”
The blush in his uncles cheeks said it all. “That’s not the point. The point is I put it aside, for the sake of something bigger. Something better.”
“No. Brainwashing your children to make them breeding machines is not better, no matter how much money you’re pulling in. I’d rather live poor and real, than rich and fake. And I sure as hell won’t bring children into this world just so they can keep running some stupid company.” Jason shoved the last of his stuff into the box and grabbed it. He really needed to get out of here and find someone –anyone– to talk to about this.
“Jason, come on, think about this. Think about everything you’re throwing away–”
“An obsessive family who live for board meetings?”
“You can do this. Just look at me, you can still have a wife and children.”
“Uncle. No offence, but… I won’t live your lie. If you’d had the courage to stand up to your siblings, things could’ve been different. If you’d focused on different qualities, rather than just numbers, then you wouldn’t have had to live in hiding, living your miserable existence for all these years. But I won’t let your shame decide how my life’s going to go.”
With one last nod of his head Jason walked out. No, he strolled out, on top of the world, totally in charge.
Now that he wasn’t hiding, he walked so much taller.