I try his front door and it’s unlocked, so I let myself in. The hall is rank with the gassy sour-sweet smell of decomposition.
“You’re not supposed to leave your door unlocked,” I call as I step over a slithering pile of unopened post.
Drips from my coat spatter over the spread of envelopes. I walked from the station. It’s not far, but my coat has been soaked by fat November rain. I walk down the hall and into the lounge. He is slumped in the only chair in the room, surrounded by empties. I nudge a stack of beer cans and glass bottles with the tip of my shoe and a cloud of tiny flies rises. Then I notice the food scabbing the carpet; mouldy pizza crusts, crushed up crisps and other, unidentifiable crumbs. I take a step backwards and the flies settle again. There is cigarette ash everywhere. It’s like Mount Vesuvius has erupted in a bottle bank.
“Oh, it’s you,” he says.
Early this morning, I kissed my children and husband goodbye and caught a taxi to the station. It’s taken me seven hours to get here.
“Yup, it’s me,” I say. “Just popping by to see how you are.”
“Sorry about the mess,” he says, trying to make it sound as if he would have done something about it if he’d known I was coming.
“No problem. How are you?”
“That’s good,” I say, joining in the pretence, even though I know he won’t be able to keep it up for long. “Any plans for this evening?”
“Shall I take you out for something to eat?”
“They’re watching the flat.”
“I didn’t see anyone. I don’t think there’s anyone outside. We can go and have a look if you like, together.”
“I know they’re there. I’ve had training.”
“For what? What training?”
“When I was a Navy SEAL—”
“You weren’t a Navy SEAL. You’re not even American.”
I have such good intentions and yet when it comes to it, I’m crap. There are rules of engagement, ways to proceed, but I get caught up in being right and forget to be kind.
“We travelled all over America. And I’m still waiting for them to pay me.”
He shakes his head and drops his still-lit cigarette on the floor. I tiptoe through the cans and bottles to stamp on it while the flies swirl around my legs.
“You weren’t a Navy SEAL.”
“I was under cover.”
“You weren’t. You’re making it up.”
“Listen to yourself. You’re talking bollocks.”
There was a time when confrontation used to put the brakes on his imagination — now it seems cruel. He lights another cigarette. I watch him. His face has changed since I was last here, as if it’s conniving with his mind to conceal every last bit of him from me. The dips and hollows of his cheeks and mouth are puffed tight with excess fluid and the skin around his eyes is taut with exhaustion. His clothes are filthy. There are holes in his trousers that look like cigarette burns and the soles of his trainers are worn out and punctured. He looks utterly defeated. I can’t argue with him anymore.
“You look so tired.”
“I don’t sleep.” He rubs his face and I hear the chafe of his stubble.
“God talks to me.”
I shouldn’t disagree. I should acknowledge his statement and ask how it feels to be kept up all night by God. I should explore coping mechanisms, but I’m tired and wet and out of practice.
“He really doesn’t, you know.”
“He does. He stands at the end of my bed and says stuff.”
“Sometimes our brains give us the wrong information.”
“Do you think I’ve been forgiven?”
“Will God forgive me? I go to the cathedral, when it’s safe, when they aren’t watching the flat. I say my prayers and ask for forgiveness.”
“I think,” I say, carefully, “I think God is supposed to forgive everyone. That’s what they used to say at church, isn’t it?”
“Are you sure?”
God and I haven’t been on speaking terms for at least a decade, so I don’t know how to reply.
He lifts the cigarette to his mouth and sucks. His hands move clumsily, as if they are wrapped in invisible gloves. His nails are long and dirty and his fingertips are tar-stained. He used to play the piano. He lost the dexterity to perform Claire De Lune years ago, but until quite recently he could hammer out jazz.
“You’re really not well, are you?”
“I’m okay. Be better if I could just get some sleep.”
“I think we should call the doctor.”
“No. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He pretends to have all these qualifications. He just wants to lock people up.”
“You’re not coping. Look at all this shit.” I spread my arms and disturb the flies. “You can’t like living like this. No-one wants to live like this.”
“God could clean it up. Just like that.” He tries to click his fingers, but they won’t bend and brush properly.
“Why don’t we clean it up? I can go and buy some bin bags, like last time. I think you’d be a lot happier if you didn’t live like—”
“I only live like this because the Navy didn’t pay me.”
“You haven’t had a job for years. You’re talking bollocks and you’re living like Stig of the Dump.”
He uses the arms of the chair to lever himself upright. He wades through the rubbish and out of the room. As soon as he is gone, I pull my camera out of my handbag and take a couple of quick pictures. I will show them to someone, and they will have to do something about this. The years have not eroded the feeling that someone can take care of this; that, appealed to in the correct way, they will have no choice but to do something. Exactly what that something is becomes less clear with time.
I brush ash and cigarette butts off the arm of his chair and perch on it. Sometimes I pretend it might be possible to unpick him and put everything right, it’s a luxury that geographical distance allows. My sister lives and works less than a mile away. She is replete with patience and long-suffering, a goodness that is almost Biblical. She checks on him every day. Sometimes I want to thank her, but then I remember that she isn’t doing it for me, he’s her brother too.
I move off the chair and make my way to the hall. He isn’t there. The bathroom door is wide open and he isn’t there either. The bath is full of dirty clothes and the inside of the toilet is crusted with dry shit. I knock on his bedroom door.
“Are you in bed?”
He doesn’t reply. I push the door open. There are no curtains at the window and the room is lit orange by the streetlight outside. The carpet is speckled by empty beer cans. He is in bed, lying under a coverless duvet which doesn’t quite meet the edges of the bare mattress. I step into the room and I stand at the foot of the bed, the spot where God stands. I watch him breathe like I used to watch my children when they were small.
“Shall I leave you to a rest for a bit?” He makes a noise that sounds like yes. “I’ll go and get some pizza while you have a nap.” I reach out to pull the duvet level with the edge of the mattress. There are cigarette butts in the bed. And he’s still wearing his holey trainers.
I step back into the hall and lean against the wall for a moment. My life is lit by ordinary, commonplace happinesses: husband, children, a job. But these things don’t stop twenty years of underlying sadness from fastening itself to cigarette butts and holey trainers in a way that squeezes the breath out of me.
Outside it’s still raining. I walk down Queen Street towards town, past the little music and knickknack shops we used to frequent as teenagers. Back then he was my friend, something my children will never be able to picture. To them he will always be a cautionary tale, a doolally, drunk uncle, the object of sniggers and sympathy. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he was content with his life, but I know he isn’t happy. While I was on the train, my sister called. I listened to her with my head pressed against the window, watching rain trickle down the glass. When she checked on him this morning, he was crying. “I’m fallen. I’m a fallen boy,” he sobbed. She said she was glad I was coming, and I suddenly felt optimistic, certain that this time I would find and recover him.
I turn left onto High Street. The bottoms of my jeans suck water from puddles until my calves are wet. I cut through Broadgate and into Cathedral Yard. The cathedral is floodlit; gothic and magical. We came here often when we were younger. It was a meeting place, one of our first points of reference in a city that was new to us. I cross the cobbled street. As I approach the cathedral, distant music curls from the doorway like smoke. Evensong. I follow the music, slip through the open door and creep to the nearest seat. The chairs at the front are dotted with listeners, but there is no-one back here. I can’t see the choir. They are hidden in the cathedral’s heart, behind a series of intricate, stone arches.
There is something impossible about the architecture of Exeter Cathedral. The longest vaulted ceiling in England, they say. The columns stretch skyward and then splay like branches as they bend with the arc of the roof. It’s probably supposed to feel as if the cathedral is reaching towards heaven, but it doesn’t. The echo of the singing is watery and enchanting and I feel like I am sitting in an ancient, underground cave. There’s nothing heavenly about it. No sign of God. But if he was here, if I could see him hovering at the apex of the famous, vaulted ceiling, I’d have a word with him. I’d ask him what the hell he’s playing at, lurking in the hairpin bends of people’s brain tissue, alongside delusions and hallucinations.
A robed clergyman begins the long walk down the aisle. I wonder if he knows my brother. His shoes knock against the stone. Knock, knock, knock. I wonder if he will tell me off for dripping on the floor. When he reaches me, I look down and pretend I’m praying. He passes, and I feel sneaky and clever, like a criminal who’s been overlooked in a police line-up. But I also feel something else: relief. I don’t have to go back into the rain and I don’t have to go back to the flat, not yet. I can stay until the singing stops. The music streams down the aisle and I close my eyes and remember.
I am eight, he is six and our sister is four. He moves up a class because he is clever. He has spidery writing but he is a good speller. He likes bird watching and Lego. He hates swimming. He looks defenceless in his trunks. His skin is like tissue paper, it barely covers the bumps of his bones. He has red hair, freckles and a cracking pair of ears. When a big girl splashes him in the face during our swimming lesson he doesn’t fight back. I stand in front of him and she splashes me instead.
We move to Exeter. The day we start our new school is the day we hear our northern accents for the first time. During lunch, a boy from my class calls him Big Ears. Later on, I close the classroom door on that boy’s foot. I don’t pretend it was an accident.
We go to church every Sunday and sometimes during the week as well. Our parents are devout. When we are baptised we covenant to always obey the commandments. We have to pray before every meal, and at the beginning and end of each day. There is a huge painting of Jesus in the hallway. Sometimes we feel embarrassed when friends come for tea.
At night, when our parents are downstairs, he whispers across the landing to my sister and me: “Do you want to talk?” He sneaks into our room and sits on the end of my bed. We talk until our words slide into yawns. Although I keep a diary, I don’t write down anything we say because I never imagine that one day I might want to remember it.
We all play the piano, but he can also make up new tunes. His fingers always find the right notes and he doesn’t need any music. He is better than my sister and me, even though we practise harder and do exams. He swims for Devon and plays in a jazz band. He grows into his ears. He is good at French. Sometimes he sits at the piano and performs comedy operas in a falsetto voice. My sister and me laugh and applaud.
He makes new friends. They are lean and hollow-eyed. They wait for him, outside the house; he never invites them in. He gives up swimming and the jazz band. He isn’t funny any more.
He steals money from our parents and drops out of college. At night he paces around the house, talking to himself. His old friends are worried. They resort to telling tales, in an effort to recover him. He is grounded but he sneaks out anyway. Sometimes he is gone for days.
I go away to university. When I come home, my sister is there, but he is missing.
Water rolls off me and onto the unopened post in his hall. He isn’t in the front room. I peer around the bedroom door and see his shape under the duvet.
“Pizza.” There’s no response so I step into the bedroom. “Wake up. Pizza.” I waft the box to tempt him with the smell. He moans and turns away to face the wall. I leave him and return to the lounge. I perch on the arm of his chair and balance the pizza box on my lap while I call my sister.
“I don’t know what to do. He’s gone to bed and he won’t get up.”
She says he’s bloody rude. She says I’ve wasted my time coming and there’s nothing we can do to stop him ending up in hospital again. Then she says he often gets tired, especially when he has to talk to people — visitors really take it out of him.
“I’m family,” I say, and there is a pause in which I realise that nowadays I’m more visitor than family.
“Shall I come and pick you up now?”
I want to say yes, but her offer has rescue written all over it. “No. It’s fine. I’ll just wait for him to wake up.”
“Okay. The TV’s not working, but there’s a radio in the kitchen. Call me when you’ve had enough.”
The kitchen worktops are covered in mouldy, microwave meal trays and milk cartons that look like science experiments. I start to gather them, but notice that the bin is full. I open several cupboards. Most are empty. The radio is sticky and crumb-crusted. I switch it on and turn the volume down low.
After a while he appears, rubbing his face hard with both hands, as if he is trying to uncover its real shape. “I forgot you were here,” he says.
“Surprise!” I extend my arms in an effort to make him smile. “Would you like some pizza? Come and sit down.” I lead him back to his chair and place the box on his lap. It’s soggy with rain and condensation. He opens the lid and stares at the pizza.
“It’s all for you.”
He nods, picks up a slice and takes a bite.
“We could tidy up the kitchen a bit, if you like. Then you can do a bit of cooking,” I say.
He looks past me and chews with his mouth open.
“Do you remember cookery at school? Remember Mrs Petit? Remember the Home Economics room?” He isn’t paying much attention, but I keep talking anyway. “Remember how she used to shout, ‘Don’t Panic!’ when things went wrong?”
He swallows hard and picks up a second slice of pizza.
“What about the pressure cooker stain on the ceiling in the Home Economics room, do you remember that?”
His mouth makes smacking noises and he wipes a splodge of tomato sauce from his chin with his sleeve.
“Once, Mrs Petit gave a girl in my class a Z-minus because her homework was so bad,” I say. “We thought it was hilarious.”
“She used to shout at Alex Gibson all the time,” he replies.
I wait for a moment, anxious not to break the spell that has triggered his reply. “But her shouting wasn’t scary, was it?” I coax. “It just made everyone laugh.”
“Alex Gibson made Angel Delight for his cookery exam. She went bananas.”
He is almost in sight, for the first time this evening. I feel like welcoming him back, like shouting, Don’t move — stay exactly where you are! Exhilaration takes over and I imagine I can utilise the past to tow him back to the present.
“Alex is a doctor now,” I say.
He shakes his head at me.
“He is, honestly.”
“No he isn’t.”
“He works at the hospital.”
“He’s not a real doctor.”
“Well, he’s not a fake one!”
“He hasn’t been to medical school.”
“Of course he has.”
“None of them have. You don’t know what you’re fucking talking about.” He drops the pizza box and several slices land upside down on the floor.
I bend down to pick them up and while I’m putting them back in the box he stands and leaves the room. I put the box on the side in the kitchen with the other inedible leftovers. I wait there for a bit before I go after him.
He is back in bed, hiding under the filthy duvet. I am sure there are some right words to say, but I can’t find them. I lift the duvet and uncover his holey trainers. He lies still while I unfasten the laces. When I’m done, I slip the trainers off and clear a spot for them on the floor. His socks are sweat-slicked and oily. I cup the bone of his heel for a moment before I pull the covers back down over his feet.
“I’ll come again,” I say. “When I get some time off.”
He doesn’t reply. I close his bedroom door. I pick his damp, unopened post off the hall floor and shuffle it into a neat pile. And then I call my sister to say I’ve had enough.