The Skills of My Brother

The Skills of My Brother
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Picture Credits: saulhm

The night when Bernie sewed up the gash in my leg – that’s when it all changed. I remember his hands all bloody in the fringed circle of lamplight. My leg stretched out, the flesh glaring white but oozing a singing line of scarlet. In his neat fingers, the needle rose high and then dropped down, pierced my flesh.

Bernie, I said. No. No. We could have driven to the hospital. We could.

Bernie doesn’t look up, just supports the flesh of my calf with one hand, as the other hand tugs the thread tight. The sting of it fires through my whole leg and I jerk back. But still he sends the needle down again, hesitates for a moment, letting it hover, making sure to get it in just the right spot.

Driven? Ralph, we’ve been through all this.

I clench my teeth tight. He is right. We argued long and bitterly outside in the yard, went through all the possible options as I stood dripping blood. He is right about the van. It’s more than forty minutes to Hereford hospital and we are both far gone in whisky. I shudder as the needle prods my shinbone.

 A taxi, I say.

But we’ve been through that one as well. Neither of us has ever been in a taxi, don’t know how it works. Bernie would never pay anyone to drive him. It’s not a question of money, he’s got plenty of that, but why would you pay when you can drive yourself? As Bernie pulls the thread tight again, I cling to the chair.

There is a taxi, I say.

Is there? Where?

In Boshop. I’ve heard talk.

Oh yes, Bernie says, stopping for a minute to adjust the thread. As he moves, the lamplight shines dully on the bald patch beginning to show through his grey-black hair. Belongs to that bloke Emlyn as plays in the brass band. You know him? Right, well. Saturday night. He’ll be soaked in drink far worse that we are, won’t he?

That’s the problem with my brother Bernie. He’s got an argument for everything. So even when he says – now come on, Ralphie, it’s no problem. It won’t take a moment. I can stitch it up with my eyes shut. Even though you know it isn’t true, you don’t say it.

Instead you let him sit you down in the chair by the fire. And you watch him as he gets out Mother’s sewing tin, brings the little side table over with the fringed lamp on. Got to have good light, he says. And I say – don’t you need a towel? A tarpaulin?

No, he says. No. Get on with you. There won’t be more than a drop.

Except now there is a stream. It gets all over the glass as Bernie pours me another whisky. The needle rises again. I should never have let him. It will lead to no good. Just because he rewired both the farmhouse where he lives and this cottage. He may be able to stitch up an injured cow but still he needs to know his limits.

Damn, Bernie says as he wipes at the blood thick needle with his handkerchief. Should have put my reading glasses on before I started. Now he’s got the needle clean he’s ready to start again.

Ambulance, I say. It’s not too late to call an ambulance. Please.

Now? No point now. We’re nearly done.

I brace my back against the chair as the needle goes down.

 You are a fool, Ralph, he says. Why did you have to slice it right here? For look, don’t you see, it’s right on the ridge of the shin. Got to pull the skin together extra tight.

I don’t dare open my mouth or I’ll cry out. I might like to say that the particular fence as was the cause of this wound is one that Bernie built. And I’m not saying he can’t build a good fence. But he wanted to save money and so he put in a strand of barbed wire and that’s how we come to be where we are now.

My voice squeaks – could have asked the Bakers.

They are the farm opposite, half a mile away. But there isn’t any point in discussing it for Bernie fell out with them a long time back – something to do with a man they paid for tarmacking who didn’t do it right – and so we don’t speak. Bernie sighs, tugs on the thread. My whole leg is burning hot as a furnace.

Also, it’s the problem of your skin, Bernie says. It ent no good now. You never did have firm, taut skin. Mother always said so. And now look, at your age, it all begins to give way. All flakey, won’t hold the thread.

Dear God. Dear God.

Yeah. I know. I know. But there no point you hollering on. I got to stitch over several times to get it to stay together. For Christ’s sake, Ralph. Grow up. It’s only a needle and thread.

And overall, I have to say, he does it pretty quick. Because that’s how my brother is. Two years younger than me, a full foot shorter and only half as wide but nimble and brisk. A man that can do any job. That’s what Mother always said. Thank God we’ve one in the family.

Later he tears up old sheets to strap the wound and then makes us both tea, mops up the blood. But I’m so far gone with the whisky that I’m singing Onward Christian Soldiers fit to bust my lungs then wailing like a baby. God help me, God help me. However has it come to this?

Ralph. Ralph. You don’t half make a fuss. Not a word of gratitude. Always the same. You know right well. I always say. I would have gone off now, gone abroad somewhere, seen something of the world but I never could, could I? Because there was always you to look after, wasn’t there?

*

After that night things didn’t look different, not at all. I get the cows in, mix the feed, fill the water troughs, drive the tractor, dig the potatoes. The days are short and bleak, the sky low, the rain sludging the whole yard so your boots make a sucking noise as you walk through. Come on Ralph, could you get on a bit faster? Could you get those bales lifted down?

It doesn’t look different but it is. Because I’m thinking. Thinking all the time, working things out. Maybe it’s the roaring pain in my leg that is the cause. Well course it’s going to hurt, Bernie says. What do you expect? If they’d done it in the hospital it would hurt the same.

But when it is still paining me bad after a week he does get some antiseptic cream. Only because he’s got to go into Bishop’s Town to get some diesel and the chemist there happens to be next the garage. But still I’m grateful as he never done anything of that kind before.

The antiseptic helps but I’m still thinking. Bernie and me together always, inherit the farm from my parents, he take the farmhouse itself and I the cottage. Mother said it must be so, seeing as Bernie could be relied on for any job and I could not. And so he does all the jobs and does them well. Not as well as he thinks but certainly not bad. I will say that.

But now I’m thinking and thinking, planning. The problem is he doesn’t know where his limit is. He’s got to be stopped for his own good and for mine. Occasionally I get out the Yellow Pages, just to look at it. Run my fingers down the paper, just looking at the adverts there. Time to change things, with the spring coming on. All I need is a plan.

*

It should be easy, that’s what I figure. Being on a farm must help. Farms are known to be dangerous places what with all the machinery and the equipment, not to mention the animals. Also Bernie has a shot gun, always has had, and no licence either so whatever happens there is really his fault. Many die on farms.

I begin with the simple stuff. He got an electric fire on a shelf above the bath. Should be easy enough to dislodge that. I often go in his house, he in mine. Only got to say I forgot something on this shelf here. Just lean over while he’s in the bath. Elbow nudge the fire, in it goes, job done. But the problem is I forgot to check the length of the lead. Very short, it is. So the fire just dangles there above the water. Oh damn and blast.

I consider getting the lead lengthened and trying again but that may be too obvious. The gun is a better bet, I reckon. Block the barrel. I take it one night when Bernie is far gone in whisky. I do the job carefully. Bernie would be proud of me. I don’t just wedge any lump of wood in it. I cut and shape a piece carefully so it fits the barrel, tight as a cork in a bottle.

I have to wait a week or two until he goes out with the gun after the rabbits. Then I watch him from the kitchen window going down the field, low and sunk close to the earth, walking very quiet. He raises the gun. Oh no, I think. Oh yes, now. Get him now, I think.

And then comes the most almighty bang, blasting against the sides of the valley, exploding up into the colourless sky. And birds rise up from the trees, squawking, for miles around. But when the smoke clears he ent dead. On no. He dancing around the field, merry as the devil hisself, fingers blackened and burnt, eyes red and running but do he mind? Not at all.

You’ll have to get a new gun, I say. I want at least that satisfaction. That he should spend some of all that cash he got hidden in a Tupperware box in the freezer. But oh no, he say. No problem at all. I can fix it, I can fix it.

Fix it? How you fix that?

I just chop the end off the barrel. Always better with a shorter barrel anyway, I always thought. And so he does. A fine job he makes of it. I watch him and consider my options. What I need perhaps is to put some explosives down the gun, a charge of dynamite. I manage to get hold of the right stuff. Blasting out the root of a tree, that is what I say. But unfortunately it goes off in my kitchen when I’m trying to get it down the barrel.

Ralph, Ralph. For Christ sake, what happened?

The walls black, the window out, a hole in the shelf above the sink.

Fault on the electrics, I say.

Oh Ralph, for Christ’s sake. How many times do I have to tell you? Don’t do the electrics yourself. You’re no good at it. Let me do it. You know that.

And so it goes on. And I keep trying. That’s the thing about Bernie and me. When we start on a course, we don’t turn aside. That’s what we learnt from Mother. So when he’s in the bullpen I slip the latch closed. The fence around over six foot high but still he’s up and out, lithe as a monkey.

Sorry, I say. Sorry. Just did the latch without even thinking.

Then after that focus on the vehicles. Got to be easy that. Leave the tractor in reverse gear on the edge of the bank. But no, he checks before he starts up. Disable the circuit breaker on the chainsaw. But no. Problem with all this modern equipment is there is a lot of Health and Safety to it. Makes it hard for someone like me.

Then one day I think – I have it all in my power now. We’re on the bank again, where it is very steep, trying to move the trunk of a fallen tree. Bernie behind the tractor, trying to attach the tree to the back. I’m driving the tractor, meant to be pulling forward and up when he say. I’ll just slip the brake off, that’s all. The tractor sure to go over the tree trunk and both go over him. Job done.

Oh yes, I think. Oh yes. I have him now. The time has come, my boy. My hand pull the brake off. The tractor lurch back. I jump out hop-skip-quick. The tractor running fast back down the bank, hitting against the tree trunk. But did it get him? No. He was too quick. Like a magician, just coolly standing at the side, watching it all.

I see him there and throw myself down on the bank in despair. Why does nothing work? The worst of it is that if he wanted to finish me off he’d be able to do it just like that. But me, I’m no good at practical work, never have been.

Ralph, Ralph. Come on boy, he say. For Christ’s sake, don’t take on so. It were an accident. I shouldn’t have asked you to do the tractor. I know you are no good at it. But you don’t have to worry, boy. You could have killed me, but by the mercy of God you didn’t. I’m here and I will help you. Maybe I does talk about going away somewhere, going abroad. But you know I never will. I couldn’t do it, could I? When you need me so bad.

He lay a hand around my shoulder and pat me on the head. And the worst of it is I lay my head against him. Damn, damn. That’s how it always was. And we sit there like the two old fools that we are on the muddy bank with the tractor on its side down below and the dog sitting next to us, whining and licking his lips, and somewhere far away the sound of crows cawing, cawing high in the spring air.

*

Time is a healer, they say, but personally I reckon him a judge. But you got to wait, you got to be patient. That’s the lesson I learnt. It happened like this. Easter comes and blowed in with it a great storm. It funnelled down the valley tearing at the branches of trees, howling and whistling. Tiles went from the old stables first. Bernie was much upset. He likes to have things shipshape. We wait the day out but then the night comes and I lie awake listening. The wind never drops, tugging and pulling, on and on.

The next day comes and the wind is still shouting and raging. And now the rain comes down in waves. The whole yard is awash. About midday Bernie comes down from the farmhouse, arms waving, shaking his head, all lathered up. A whole section of tiles come off the back of the farmhouse, he says, and the rain coming in everywhere.

You must come and help me, he says. It won’t take me a minute. I’ll have them back on in no time at all.

No. No. I say. Not in this wind. You must wait until the storm abate.

But he would not hear of it and so we go out into the barn and find the tools. Tiles, wires, hammer, ladder. Wait, wait, I say. Do not go up there now. But Bernie never listen to me. And so I go out in the garden with him. The wind tear at my hat and at the skin of my face. And already I’m thinking. What must I do? How can I manage this to my advantage?

It is regrettable the ladder is quite new with metal rungs, not a spot of rust. We’ll see. We’ll see. I think. Too late now even to spread some margarine across the rungs. We walks across the garden towards the farmhouse. I see then where the tiles are off. The situation is not nearly as bad as he is saying. He could easily wait but no, no he won’t.

He puts the ladder up and I am to hold it. He goes up ahead of me and onto the roof, carrying a bag on his back containing his tools. He goes up like a cat, lithe and liquid, reaching the guttering in seconds, propelling himself up across the roof. I wait and I wait. The whole valley is blown like cloth in the wind. My hand rest light on the side of the ladder.

It takes him nigh on two hours to get it all fixed to his satisfaction. Twice he comes down for more tiles. He always does a job well, my brother. Or so he thinks. And all the time I standing there, shaking now with cold and thinking, thinking. I could just leave him up there, take the ladder. But no, no, I would not be rid of him like that. That devil, he would find a drainpipe or such and shin down.

Are you done? I call up.

Yep. Done now. Very firmly fixed.

I think – shall I? Shall I? The ladder is no weight. It could fall just like that. I see his shadow high above me. He is down on his knees now, back facing towards me, foot reaching towards the top rung of the ladder. But then, then. I did nothing. Nothing at all. I promise you that.

I can’t quite say. It might have been the wind. But also he didn’t have the ladder secured properly. I see his foot reaching down, trying to find a rung. And then a great gust of wind, and the ladder goes, and his foot waving and waving. And I think then – I do not want him to die. No, I do not.

But he rolls off awkward, turning a couple of times along the guttering, I see his hands grasping, such competent hands. And I see him for a moment, spread like a black star against a grey sky, but then I jump back for fear he will fall on me. He meets the grass, head first and is spread out heavy, flat on his back.

When I realize he is dead, my knees go from under me and I kneel beside him on the sodden grass. He is certainly dead – his eyes are open and glassy, his arm twisted awkwardly under him, his mouth stiffly open, ready to issue an instruction which will never now be heard. I bow my head, shout out loud. It cannot be that he is gone. I never wanted him gone. What will I do now? I need him so bad.

I leave him there, walk back to my cottage, drink a glass of whisky, then another. After that make some tea. I get out the Yellow Pages and thumb through it. My hands stroke down the thin paper of each page. Adverts for plumbers, for carpenters, for electricians, for garages to fix the car. I got the money as well. I know where it all is. That there Tupperware in the freezer.

I think then of calling one of those numbers and I think of the man who will come. I can stand out in the yard and issue instructions. He may not do the job as well as Bernie would have done. That I know. But still it will be a pleasure just to watch him, to feel the money in my pocket, to pay him and have him gone.

I think of that awhile. Then I put on my coat and go out again. I owe it to Bernie to treat him proper. I find a sheet and a needle and thread. As I open the tin I notice stains of dried blood on the edge of it. He was always bound to overstretch himself. It is a shame for such a competent man not to have secured the ladder better.

I pull Bernie in through the back door of the farmhouse, take off his boots, and get him laid on the sheet. And it’s only then I remember something. I don’t know why I never thought of it before. It was something Mother said once when I was sewing a button on. You sew better than Bernie, she said, but only quietly and perhaps because he wasn’t there to hear.

I do sew better than him, neater, the stitches all the same length. I stitch him in precisely using a double thread for strength and oversewing when the thread runs out, to make sure nothing unravels. Then afterwards I get the sewing scissors and cut all the ends off neatly. Then I head out into the yard and get the little digger. There is a good spot for him outside the yard wall. Gone abroad. That’s what I’ll say.

I dig the hole down deep and put him in. He was a good brother to me, a capable man. I wonder if I might move into the farmhouse now. There are fitted cupboards there, properly built, each angle an absolute right angle, the doors fitting snug shut. I am not sure about the wiring there. It’s never a good idea to do wiring yourself. I’ll get a man in to sort it out. I think I shall manage quite well.

Alice Jolly

About Alice Jolly

Alice Jolly is a novelist and playwright. She has won the Pen Ackerley Prize for memoir and also the V.S.Pritchett Prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature. She teaches creative writing on the Masters Degree at Oxford University. Her fourth novel ‘Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile’ was published by Unbound in June 2018. It was a Walter Scott Prize recommended novel for 2109, was on the longlist for the Ondaatje Prize 2019, awarded by the Royal Society of Literature, and was runner up for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019.

Alice Jolly is a novelist and playwright. She has won the Pen Ackerley Prize for memoir and also the V.S.Pritchett Prize awarded by the Royal Society of Literature. She teaches creative writing on the Masters Degree at Oxford University. Her fourth novel ‘Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile’ was published by Unbound in June 2018. It was a Walter Scott Prize recommended novel for 2109, was on the longlist for the Ondaatje Prize 2019, awarded by the Royal Society of Literature, and was runner up for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019.

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