This novel is limited to 100 free copies due to its part in Inkitt’s Novel Contest.
Some days I think about my brother and can’t help feeling glad he is no longer around. Matt could be difficult and antagonistic, and had a habit of pushing me to the edge just to get a reaction. On these days I could have killed him myself.
Our Playstation had been the medium of so much interaction between us, and I often see the controller again in my hand, when I hold it out for change in a shop or while making a point with an upturned palm, or as I pause at the keyboard, as I do now, and a conical handle slips through my forefinger and thumb. The plastic around the top edge is chipped, from when I had thrown it against the TV in anger. Matt rubbed my back and told me to calm down, said it was just a game, not worth getting upset about, by which he meant, go on, flip out a bit more, do you realise how stupid you look. I study more closely the backs of the handles and see the brown ridges of dried sweat, his and mine, built up over time, in the charged atmosphere of 2-player Tekken or Ridge Racer.
Win, lose or draw, we mostly came away from those gaming sessions wanting to throttle each other.
Sorrow had put the rose-tints on, turned Matt into the ideal of big-brotherly love and protection, but sorrow has long since retreated to the past. If not completely then it is a fragmented and uncertain thing in the present.
For a long time I had clung to it like a comfort blanket. It reached a point where I would bring on pain with sentimentally arranged unions. For example, my brother at ten or eleven, tall and bony, not yet the image-conscious teenager he would become but just a child, in long shorts and sandals, and behind him stands my mother, whose forefinger is curled over her top lip, thumb hooked under her chin, trying to stifle the umpteenth scream from coming out, as she reads the letter of repatriation sergeant something or other has just dropped off to us.
When I had to rely on the real thing, I might end up with something like this. I’m playing football in the back garden with Matt, who is now about eighteen, and we both lunge for a stray ball, which I get to first, at least I think I do, though this becomes a conviction later when arguing the point, after our shins collide and we hop around for a bit, before getting into a fight my mother has to run out and stop. There was a lot of tension at home that summer. Matt’s A-level results had taken everyone by surprise, even him, though he was hardly the studious type. One pass when he was expected to get three. From the moment he came through the door and hated us for ambushing him with a ‘Congratulations!’ party to his joining the army, I can’t recall much other than the distance he began to keep. I like to think he was, in maybe an intentionally cruel way, preparing us for his leaving home. With a grand plan in mind, his disappearing for days at a time, or locking himself away in his room with only Eminem for company, or when he became churlish one rainy Sunday afternoon after my mother had asked him if he was sure he didn’t want any more roast potatoes and I saw tears in her eyes, these things seem like favours to us.
I want to exonerate his behaviour, even if it comes at the expense of plausibility, because I believe he loved my mother too much to want to give her heartache.
I close my eyes and it is easy to see them together, having a race on Brighton Beach, my mother holding up her skirt, under which her calves move like fan blades, while Matt trails behind, his neck muscles tensing with effort, which he can’t maintain for the bursts of laughter. She crosses an imaginary finish line and raises her arms, shouting, “Yay, yay,” and then gets gently tackled to the ground by Matt. There they are, on the settee watching television, elbowing each other like a couple of children, and itching to be naughtier but for me, the one adult around, curled up on the armchair and repeatedly shushing at them.
I see these images but I am not sure whether they are real or of my own making. I write them down regardless—I was tempted to add just in case. But in case of what, missing the truth? How can that be when there are times I long for the early days of bereavement all over again, when truth came from a different place than it does now. Now that I am over him and it is a different Matt I mostly remember.
It was because of Matt I went to Kabul, during what turned out to be the quieter years of the invasion. Before leaving my friends had asked me a lot of questions, some in all seriousness—actually almost all were deadly serious—though my best mate Simon did introduce a lighter tone when he wanted to know if I was doing it to be the first voluntary traveller to Afghanistan in human history. Loose ends, was all I said. It was a half-truth that got them off my back. They must have assumed it meant something tangible, a tidying up of affairs, collecting Matt’s personal belongings, that sort of thing. The army had arranged most of that already. My motive lay in an abstract idea of worth. What, roughly, you know, a ballpark figure, was my brother’s life worth?
The Playstation is gone. My mother gave it away to one of my little cousins, who told me she was under the impression it was the latest thing. “I was thinking it’s, like, a million years old, man,” he told me, and started cracking up. He said he sold it on eBay and used the money to buy an Xbox 360. Now that, he went on, was more like it. I could have smacked him. But I saw a better way of satisfying my anger. I said there would be a 720 along soon, and besides, the PS3 was a much better machine than the 360. So there. Nah-na-na-nah-nah. His face dropped. I had won, in a game of tit-for-tat with a twelve-year-old.
I never found out what she did with the rest of our stuff, Matt’s and mine. After I left she decided it all had to go
- clothes, a ton of clothes, shoes, a hefty desktop PC, bed sheets, posters picked carefully off the walls, childhood toys, all of it gone. I wonder if she had paused at the 12-pack of scented condoms I had left hidden in my underwear drawer, and whether she thought, that dirty little bugger.
The first time I had been home in what seemed an eternity and my mother gave me an empty kiss in the hall, before she turned away and went off, not into the front room, not towards the kitchen at the rear, but upstairs. I called after my father and stood, absurdly still, waiting for a reply that never came. They had known of my return, had taken me at my feeble word not to bother meeting me, but this was ridiculous. There was an odd smell inside, faintly like unwashed hair; I wondered if this had always been our home’s essence. I had never been away before, not really, the school trip to Wales and a holiday in Spain with Matt and Simon made up about two weeks in total. There hadn’t been an opportunity to desensitise myself to what we were about. And if that was unwashed hair then so be it. No, that can’t be right. My mates would never have let it pass. If there had been a remotely funny smell around the house then it would have come out, I would have had the piss taken out of me something rotten. That’s what kids do. They keep you honest to yourself.
In my class at secondary school there was a Bengali boy called Larry, not Larry Larry, obviously, but something similar, though I have forgotten his real name. He was just L or Larry, and was quite a cheery one, I remember that much, so maybe he got the name because he was happy as. I was quite fond of him, Larry, he had good manners and smiled a lot, both of which he’d heroically maintained all the way through school. But it was not cool to be seen to like him: he was small and he was really into his studies, and that seemed enough reason to keep him at arm's length. So one day Larry, out of the blue, invites Simon and me and another friend over to his house after final bell. It was, I think, an effort to close the distance between us, and at the same time for L to gain a bit of kudos. Simon was big Simon who no one in our year messed with, and me I was Matt Harding’s little brother. Larry opens the door to his semi and calls out after his baba, and Si, who was next in, looks at me from over his shoulder and flaps a hand in front of his nose.
What the hell was that boy’s name? I must have heard it at least once, but it is gone, unlike the image of Simon sitting cross-legged on the floor of L’s bedroom, a plate of curry prepared by L’s father in his lap, and from the way the oaf was shoveling into his mouth, I would have said it was the best plate of food he’d ever had. And there’s Si, happy as, at form call the next morning, rubbing his stomach and saying he’d had the best shit of his life before leaving the house. Larry looked over, unsure, it seemed, whether he had just been paid a compliment or not. Si then asked him if his mother’s perfume was called Vindaloo No. 5 and slapped the desk at his own feeble joke. It would have taken no more than two or three seconds for L to dart from where he was sitting to the corridor outside, but already the tears were flowing down his face before he had reached the door. I saw that and I’ll never forget it. Simon put his hands up and said it was only a fucking joke.
That’s what kids do.
They’re monumental shits.
I had followed my mother upstairs and on the landing looked both ways, not sure where she had gone. “I can’t fucking believe this,” I said out loud, and headed to my room. I took the wallet out of my back pocket in readiness to throw on my desk, saw myself diving-bombing king size bed, doing that thing of drawing butterflies in the sheets, and opened the door to an echo. The wallet fell out of my hand to the floor. “Oh god.” Next door, Matt’s bedroom was the same. I went in, turned and saw my mother leaning against the doorframe, looking around as if to make sure nothing had been missed. I said, “For fuck’s sake, Mum.” When I asked her where our things were, she said she couldn’t stand looking at it, any of it, much longer: “I didn’t touch anything for ages after you left.” Matt’s room had been kept as it was from the day he left, and I never found the right opportunity, not even came close, to saying I wanted to move in. It was larger than mine. “But one day I lost it,” continued my mother, wiping tears from her eyes. “I just wanted you both gone. Out of my head. I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry for that.”
I later found out from my father that she had burned some of our things in the back yard. “So all my stuff’s gone up in smoke? I mean, how big a fucking fire was it? Something in a bin? Sixteen-fucking-sixty-six?” I said. He walked off with a quick shake of the head; I couldn’t tell whether it was from my facetiousness or at the recall of a bonfire in the garden.
I walked into the bathroom, and noticed my mother had been scrupulous enough to have removed what I’d left of my toiletries. I held my head in my hands.
Aerosol cans explode. An LCD screen blisters. A face in a photograph disappears with a toxic puff of smoke. My mother dancing around the flames, saying, Yay, yay.
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