I shouldn’t be seeing you like this.
As I made the coffees, needing one to face you as much I guessed you would need one to face the day, Polly had texted. “I guess he’s with you?” it said. “Just checking. I don’t want to talk to him.”
A simple “Yes, he’s here” was as far I ventured. I didn’t feel up to knowing more. Certainly not to asking questions.
“Poor you,” came the surprisingly quick reply. I left the phone on the table.
As I carry the mugs down the hallway, I’m wondering what the sympathy is for, beyond having to face you so early in the day. After all, I wasn’t the one who went to bed with a bottle of Scotch. I tighten my dressing-gown belt and take a deep breath, and then a mouthful of my coffee, before I nudge open the door to the spare room.
I really shouldn’t be seeing you like this.
The thought repeats like a self-help mantra as I look down at you, slumped half-dressed against the wall, knees drawn up to your chest. You were supposed to be—no, you always were—the Golden Boy, the one who made it all look effortless. The handsome athletic one with the walk of a panther, while I was the spindly antelope whose presence you tolerated while you kept one eye on the possibility of moments for unobserved torture. For all your lazy, loose-limbed loping, those haunches somehow always carried the promise—or the threat—of muscle.
You shouldn’t be sitting here, so far past shame you don’t even seem to care that your dirty T-shirt has ridden up over the baby paunch that last night’s baggy sweater managed to hide. Against the whiteness of your sweating belly, its faded baby pink looks strangely colourful. Ride Hard or Ride Home, it declares, the slogan stretched and skewed, its bike-wheel image stained with last night’s spilled drink. You’re not looking exactly saddle-ready.
And standards aren’t the only thing that have slipped. Their presence no more invited than the rest of you, I can see your balls, as unshaven as your chin, fallen from the leg of your crumpled grey boxers.
I shouldn’t be seeing you like this...
Old underwear at that. We were never alike. You’ve always mocked the way I groom and preen, as if you can sense the underbelly of anxiety. Do you still remember those teenage fights where you’d tell me how women judge on more than mere appearances—that you weren’t just the handsome one? Luckier in love, you always boasted, even if that wasn’t always the most accurate four-letter word for your liaisons.
Even bedhead hair used to look good on you, where you inherited Mum’s sleek locks and I got Dad’s unruly curls. So this is how you look when your luck runs out. I watch as you comb your fingers through your new-grown beard, its mannered Edwardian pomp out of tune with your carefully composed nonchalance, and realise I enjoy how much it disfigures you. It hides that cocksure chin that’s always jutting slightly, like a man sneaking home in a photo-finish. That always seems to be saying I could, if I wanted to. The exact verb has never mattered.
No wonder you never liked Paul. The only one who ever bested you, that time you shared the hall mirror, optimising yourselves before the dinner guests arrived. As Paul set to work with gels and brushes, taming the waves I adored and he detested, you couldn’t resist. “Don’t you ever wish you were naturally straight?” I heard you wisecrack. “So much easier.” Smug, maybe, but not quick. Paul just eyed your reflection up and down and sighed. “Well, less of a handful, I’m told,” he said, softly but firmly, his eyes lingering a precisely measured moment too long on your groin’s reflection.
I squat down next to you, nursing the black coffee I’ve made you. Behind me, Trigger’s claws clack gently as he pads down the hallway, curious as to why I’m in an unused room. His old-dog eyes squint in the sunshine streaming through the open curtains.
You almost make a matching pair, his ageing black fur turning brown in streaks just as the ends of your exuberant moustache glint with threads of orange. He stops in the doorway, rubbing his neck against the doorframe, marking his territory as he eyes the intruder. Satisfied with his labours, he ambles forward, sniffing the air suspiciously. I watch you hold out a hand, palm up the way I taught you. He pauses, nostrils flaring, and then starts to back away, lips curling.
“Here,” I say, holding the coffee out to you. Your bloodshot eyes look up at me. “See if that brings you round.”
There’s no affection in my gesture, but before I can straighten up you’ve wrapped your arms around me and pulled me to your chest. Behind me, a low growl crawls out of Trigger’s throat, his claws clicking against the bare wood floor as reflex extends them.
“Thanks, bro,” you mutter into my hair, so self-pityingly it’s almost believable. ”I love you.”
“And you stink,” I protest as you crush me into your t-shirt’s musky folds.
“Hey, that’s not nice.” You actually have the nerve to sound indignant. “I’m not one of your bloody primary school kids. And I thought you were pleased to see me?”
I let the question pass but the stench is unmissable, a sad bachelor’s cocktail of whisky and wanking. Your inhibitions have always been highly soluble—two drinks and the satyr’s out of its shirt and dancing. And blood may be thicker than water, but these walls are thin. Any flimsier and I’d might have even seen you, silhouetted by the bedside light. One hand wrapped round your glass and the other busy with wishful thinking. I hope you drew the curtains before you passed out.
I shouldn’t be seeing you like this.
Understandable, I tell myself. Under the circumstances. Or your account of them, at least. Wandering back from your brother-in-law’s pitch on a family camping trip to find a bare stretch of flattened grass. No tent, no car, no wife. Just a note tent-pegged to a tree, telling you she’d left you and not wasting many words to say it.
“Remember what Grandpa used to tell us,” I say, prising myself free and standing over you. “He’d leave us in the living room, let us stay up to watch a late film.” I can hear the schoolteacher in my voice now, but you’ve earned it. “Sleep well, boys, and I don’t want to hear anyone rubbing Aladdin’s lamp, you get me?”
You start to laugh before it’s clear I won’t be joining in, standing here blank-faced, one hand on hip and the other gesturing down toward you. It’s a posture you would normally mock, but there’s no comeback this morning.
“I’m loading the machine. Take it off and I’ll wash it. It’s not like you’ll fit anything of mine.”
I look away as you peel off your T-shirt, reaching over you to unlatch the window and push it ajar.
“There you are,” I hear you say, holding up the ball of crumpled cotton for me to take, your face taking offence as I handle it cautiously between pinched fingertips. Trigger leans forward to sniff and then recoils, sneezing.
“Bro, behave. We share DNA.”
“Not this directly we don’t. Bro.”
You fumble to your feet, either still drunk or fighting the after-effects, and stand looking at your toes. Behind me, I hear Trigger backing away.
“I’ll put the shower on. Leave the boxers here—I’ll wash them too.” You’re already reaching for the waistband, about to shuck them off, and I turn to walk away. “There’s a spare robe in the bathroom,” I say over my shoulder. “Put it on, afterwards. I’ll make breakfast.”
* * *
This morning’s lack of explanations hasn’t come as a surprise. It took you two years to get round to introducing me to her, one messy Sunday pub lunch. “This is Poppy,” you said. “Isn’t she intoxicating?” As I reached out to shake her hand, she waved it away and kissed me, told me how lovely it was to meet me. I remember thinking you had the wrong plant metaphor. Not intoxicating but hardy. Upright and reliable, ready to root and propagate.
Sturdy too, from another moment I remember. You were trying to impress her brother with your globe-trotting piety, the whole Mr Cool social entrepreneur shtick I’d heard a hundred times. All those tales about how you charm ‘the locals’, especially the ones you call ‘the females’, as if anything that happens beyond Basingstoke is a wildlife documentary. “Sometimes I think my husband won’t be happy till he’s irrigated every canal south of Tripoli,” Poppy said, and Ben laughed slightly too loudly. I remember thinking that, aside from the obvious, he seemed more your type than she did. Cocky, self-assured, never quite able to pass his reflection without pausing to admire it.
And then one day, Ben ditched the girlfriend and arrived with a man. Not unusual, Poppy said, for him. All those years of snide asides you’d made at a little brother you could torment, I thought, and now you’d have to deal with it with a friend.
I’ve always preferred Poppy, to be honest. When it was obvious that Paul and I were having troubles, she was the one who found quiet moments to take me aside, check that I was okay. You never asked.
Ben was worse. That dinner party after we’d finally split up, he wouldn’t let it go, telling me drunkenly that it was a tragedy when lovers become brothers, that in a free world it should be the other way around. He didn’t stop there. Under the table, his hand landed on my thigh and worked its way up to my crotch as I squirmed to get away. “Boundaries are for geography teachers,” he whispered in my ear, though it felt more like a hiss.
All the while you sat opposite me, pissed and smiling, while my head flooded with memories. All those teenage years I avoided any sight of you less than fully dressed. Steered clear of the bathroom if you were in it, buried my head in a book when you changed on the beach. No matter how desirable you might have been if you’d had different blood in your veins, just the thought was enough to make me squirm. And you’d known too, never missing a chance to tease.
I shouldn’t be seeing you like this…
It was Poppy who saved me, that evening, shouting at Ben to shut the fuck up till the pair of you slunk outside to kick a ball round the garden. “If he wasn’t my brother,” she’d said to me, putting an arm round my shoulder as we watched through the window, “sometimes I could fucking kill him.” She turned and looked straight at me. “You probably know how that feels.”
* * *
As I sit as the kitchen table, Trigger at my feet, I can hear the roaring water and your groans as it starts to bring you round. You used to sing in the shower when we were kids. Rugby songs, or dirty versions of hits of the day. Anything to embarrass me as I sat on my bed, waiting my turn. This morning, you’re silent.
My phone sits in front me, tempting as a tantalus, as I tell myself Poppy deserves a moment of concern.
“OK,” I type, “what did he do?”
I put it back down, not expecting a response, and get up to load the washing machine. The sudden burst of jolly music startles me as her reply arrives.
“Not what, Bobby,” it says, in its emotionless sans-serif font. “Who.”
I sit staring at it, not sure what to feel, listening to you cursing in the bathroom. I smile at the thought of you washing shampoo from your eyes. The discomfort seems only right. And then it sings again, rattling on the table as it vibrates.
“Ben. He screwed Ben.”
Before I can even pick it up, it serenades me again.
“I saw them. I guess you don’t want to see the video?”
I’m not sure how long I sit staring, sipping my coffee and hoping it won’t ring again. Long enough for you to finish your shower, wrap a towel round your waist and pad unheard into the kitchen on bare feet.
“Any tea going?”
Your voice startles me, and I splash my coffee over the photocopied lesson plans I’d left on the table. Outline maps of Europe soak up the spill, borders dissolving as the hot liquid reunites Czechoslovakia and blurs the boundaries of the Balkans.
I spin out of my chair to grab a cloth, scaring the dog, but you’re blocking the way to the sink, water dripping from your beard. I’m too slow again, and your arms are back around me.
“More lovable now?” you say, pressing yourself against me, your nauseating confidence obviously starting to recover. As your wet moustache grazes my neck, I lean as much of my body away from you as I can, but you only push yourself forward more firmly.
I start to protest, voice muffled in your hair as I squirm. I try to wrestle free, smaller and less strong, and I can feel the towel slipping down between us, feel you more than I would ever wish, insistent now. And then the music comes again.
As your hand lets go of me to reach for the phone, the towel falls to the floor. “Shit,” I hear you shout as you peer at the phone’s screen, and I lose my footing on the towel as I try to swivel round. As my elbow hits the floor, I see Trigger jump, teeth bared.
For a second or two, there’s a chaos of screams and growls, his jaws firmly attached to your naked backside. And then a sickening crunch before you collapse over the table and he runs howling from the room. Face down in the coffee-soaked maps, blood running down your thighs, I can hear you swearing over and over.
“Stay still,” I say, as I grab the first aid kit from its cupboard. Flicking on the striplight, two things are obvious. The hairy arse leant over my kitchen table, bitten and bleeding, is recognisably the same as the one on the phone in your hand, albeit less mobile now. And sitting proud from its skin, a yellowing stump in the crease of your buttocks, is a dog’s broken tooth.
As I put my hand on your hip, I feel you flinch. “Trust me,” I say, as I watch your anus gasp like a landed fish. I grip the broken stump and yank it free, a fresh ooze of scarlet running down over your balls. Beyond a clench-jawed wince, there is no sound from you, although the phone is still broadcasting your energetic grunting.
I really shouldn’t be seeing you like this.
“Phone,” I say. An order, not a request. I snatch it from you and silence it, scrolling through my address book.
“Ambulance?” I hear you say, lifting your face from the table. Your beard is striped with different colours, my photocopying finally dissolving in a mixture of coffee and cold shower water.
“But he bit me!” you almost squawk, trying to lever yourself back upright.
“You’ll live,” I mutter, spilling the contents of the first-aid kit across the table to rummage through them. “And he’s an old dog now.”
“But he was being aggressive, vicious. He was being…”
As you realise I am about to rub stinging ointment into your buttocks, your words fade to silence.
“Loyal,” I tell you. “He was being loyal.”
I watch my hand slide past the antiseptic cream, fingers closing quietly round a pot of salt.
Raised in London, Dave Wakely has worked as a musician, university administrator, poetry librarian, and editor. Currently a freelance copywriter after completing a Creative Writing MA in 2014, he lives in Buckinghamshire with his civil partner and too many guitars. His stories have appeared in The Mechanics’ Institute Review, Ambit and Glitterwolf magazines, are forthcoming in Holdfast Anthology #2, and he was recently longlisted for the University of Sunderland Short Story in Association with Waterstones Award. Dave is MC of the Birkbeck Poets at the Duke of Wellington and blogs at http://theverbalist.wordpress.com.