The stupid thing was, I can’t remember the last time I saw him. That bothered me for the longest time. Was it in the morning at breakfast, when he teased Ma about her terrible cooking; or when we couldn’t get him out of the bathroom, even when Da was banging on the door? Or was it later? Did he turn and look up at my window when he left? Did he pause and wave before vaulting over the gate? All I know is that he was there and then he wasn’t.
I guess that’s why I’m here all these years later, trying to remember, trying to put the pieces together, to make some sort of sense of it all. I suppose it might seem a strange place to come, even more so to write in the backs of these books but I always pick the oldest dustiest copies, the books I imagine no one ever checks out. I write in biro, tiny letters. It just seems right somehow that his story belongs amongst all the others, on the bottom shelf of a dusty library on the brink of closure. I wonder what happens when a library closes, to all the books I mean? Do they go to another library, or are they just taken out the back and put on a bonfire?
It’s not to say I’m the only one here: there’s an elderly couple loudly using the computer to send emails to their daughter in Australia, and there are a couple of people coasting the shelves for the newest releases. There’s also a young mum trying to control a toddler as he runs around the children’s section knocking Mogs, Tintin and Spot the Dogs all over the carpet. I love the smell though – dry paper and age. The thick hush that seems to settle on most people when they come through the door. But enough about here and now, back to David.
My Da’s jacket smelt of woodsmoke when he shook me awake that night, his breath was sour – I remember that clearly. ‘Come on, come on little one. We have to go.’ I opened my eyes a slice and could see him moving around the room, seemingly grabbing clothes at random, the odd toy or book. ‘Go where Da.’ I yawned wide.
‘On holiday Sweetpea, up the coast. Come on, rise and shine.’ The moon lit up the room. We’d been on holiday once before, up to Whitby for the weekend – we hadn’t left in the middle of the night. Downstairs, my mother was the same, hurriedly throwing food into boxes, the good china. She hmm’d when I asked her why we’d need that china. I noticed that she too was still in her nightdress, the thin lace trimmings hanging loose, her white skin luminous under the worn satin.
‘Let’s get you dressed little one.’ My father entered the room, carrying bulging black bin bags, I noticed my school backpack too. He nodded at my Uncle, who I hadn’t seen in the corner of the room. He was the kind of man that you didn’t notice until it was too late. He had a stillness about him, as though he ceased even to breath at will; his thick hair and dark eyes camouflaged his face in the shadows. Look, I was little, this was years ago and I admit some of the details I might have added later. I’m what some of these books might call an “unreliable narrator.” But I’m doing my best. It’s not like I can start asking my parents now is it?
Before long we were off in my Uncle’s van. If I’d have known it would be the last time I would see the house I’d have taken more notice. Said a few words. Something. Instead of just watching it retreat into the distance. I think of the house watching us through its window eyes – empty and dark, waiting for its owners that would never return. We rolled down the hill in silence, before my Uncle started the engine and the van rumbled into life.
Mum and Da were squeezed in with Uncle Jack in the front, black silhouettes bobbing on the corners. I was in the back, braced between boxes and wrapped in a blanket. I’m ashamed now that I didn’t ask about David then and there, why he wasn’t there. I guess I just thought my parents were to be trusted, that we’d pick him up somewhere on the way, although even I knew as a child of seven, the whole thing was odd. We passed the shut petrol station, it marked an invisible and dark boundary from our territory into another.
We arrived at Gran’s caravan mid morning. She and Grandad had lived on the site for as long as I could remember and we would visit every summer. It was off a main road on the way to Blackpool – not that we ever went into town, saw the lights or anything.
I’d loved my Grandad. I don’t remember him much now, other than soft red whiskers that tickled the skin and a skill for playing the accordion. But he had died the summer before: which just left Gran. My heart sank. Where Grandad filled the room when he entered it, Gran sucked the joy out like a wrinkled old vacuum cleaner. I can’t imagine how they ever met to be honest, perhaps she hadn’t always been grey sourness and pursed lips. I think that’s where Uncle Jack got his stillness from, she didn’t occupy a room – she haunted it. She was tall for a woman, especially someone in her seventies. She towered over my poor Ma and seemed to have her arms either permanently folded in front of her, or hands on her hips, alternating disappointment.
Uncle Jack unloaded me and the luggage from the back, nodded to my Da and left; the van rumbling and scattering rocks in his haste to be gone. I remember Gran stood there in all her black finery, if she’d been surprised to find these three refugees on her door step she didn’t show it, didn’t flinch. She simply moved to one side to let us in. I was sent to the back bedroom of the static to sleep whilst the grownups talked. I sat on the end of the bed, staring at a pair of Gran’s stocking drying over a heater. The room was empty part from those shredded skins and a well thumbed Bible. I tried to sleep but the raised voices coming from the front crept in under the door.
In my absence it was decided that I would sleep in the back bedroom with Gran, whilst Da and Ma would take the floor in the front until something more permanent could be arranged. It was then I remember asking Ma where David was going to sleep. Where was my brother anyway, would he be here soon? My Ma looked across at Da, who looked only at his feet. Gran didn’t flinch, ‘You have no brother.’ The look in her eyes told me not to ask again.
Death of a Salesman
I need to be more careful, I think the librarian is getting suspicious. She keeps flicking her eyes up from whatever she is doing at the desk. I have a copy of this play but I’ve sandwiched it inside the local paper in the hopes that it looks like I’m doing the crossword or something.
Today, I wanted to write a bit about my brother David. David Frederick (after my Grandpa) Morris, born 26th June. He was a good few years older than me, it’s weird I can’t remember exactly how many years, six or seven – but I do remember his birthday. He had short brown hair, the type that never settles. He was good at climbing trees, scaling fences, rescuing toys from the undergrowth. He looked out for me and was at times my only friend. If I record these details then perhaps, I don’t know, it makes him more real I guess.
At Gran’s, I wasn’t allowed to talk about him, I had to pretend I never had a brother. I could see it was killing mum, after we arrived her eyes were never the same, they were always swollen and had a permanent ring of red at the rims. My dad disappeared for days at a time, I didn’t know where. Mum just said he was looking for work.
One day, when Gran was at a neighbours, Mum was washing the laundry in the sink –(Gran didn’t trust washing machines or laundrettes.) I took the opportunity to talk to her again.
‘Mum. Where’s David?’
She stopped moving for a moment, just stood there with her back to me, her shoulders near her ears. Then she started scrubbing again with renewed effort, the water was steaming, making her skin raw like her eyes. ‘Who is David?’ Her voice crackled.
‘David. My brother David.’ I knew even as I asked that this was it. I would never know; it was a closed question. Looking back I cannot understand how she could deny her own son – I don’t think I’ll ever forgive her for that. Mum, wrung out the clothes, the air was sweet with the detergent. She turned and looked at me. I’ll never forget that look. Then she walked past me and into the toilet, locking the door behind her.
But I did have a brother. A brother who gave me piggy backs down to the beach, who let me sit on the back of his bike as we free-wheeled down the hill to school. A brother who loved football, who hated his teachers and drew pictures of robots and computer game villains in the back of his exercise books. He was real.
The Woman in White
In all that time at Gran’s I didn’t go to school – I was barely allowed out of the caravan. When I did it was to go as far as the small shop on the site. The woman who worked there was almost as unfriendly as Gran. I would linger on the way back to look at the caravans where people had plants, tubs of bedding flowers. Some had cast iron chairs sat outside like they were regular gardens – like there were better things to look at than the car park and the road. Gran would always be watching from the window, a white or black figure with arms folded and lips turned down. When I wasn’t helping her and mum with the chores, I was in the back bedroom reading Grandad’s books. Although his Accordion had long gone I had found a cardboard box filled with classic hard back novels, every story written by Nevil Shute and a few of my Ma’s old school books. I think I owe my love of reading to my dear dead Grandad’s library whilst we were staying there.
At night I would lie pressed to the cold of the caravan wall, not daring to turn over and face Gran in the bed, or heaven forbid disturb here. She didn’t snore, in fact there were times I wasn’t even sure she was breathing. She laid so still, so quiet, that without the pull on the mattress from her body I would have sworn she wasn’t there at all. She was first up and last to bed, slithering in coldly in the moonlight.
One day, my dad came back for us for good. I heard Uncle Jack’s van pull up, I realised somehow I’d been waiting to hear it for weeks. I rushed to the door and threw it open, long before Gran and Ma were out of their seats. He looked older, smaller, than the last time I saw him, as though he had folded into himself. I looked behind him, expecting David to jump out and come running to me. The door opened, but it was only my Uncle. Dad put his hand on my shoulder and
Crime and Punishment
The last time I was here I nearly got caught. I was right, the librarian knew something wasn’t quite right. All those times I’ve come in and never once checked out a book I guess. I’ve had to wait a few weeks until I could see she wasn’t in. It’s the guy today, the bored grown up teenager with the thinning hair, the one who sits staring at Facebook (you can see the reflection on his glasses) and yawns dramatically over and over.
I can’t quite remember where I was up to? Anyway, one day dad came and got us and we left Gran’s for good. This time in broad daylight, we piled out belongings into the back of Uncle Jack’s van and left just like we had come. Gran was still staring out of the caravan window as we drove off the site, neither pleased nor saddened to see us go. Me, I had a huge grin ear to ear. I thought we were going home, back to our lovely semi in the village, back in time for the new school term. I longed to see my friends, the pink walls of my familiar bedroom, the smell of the lavender Ma put by my bedside. Most of all, I couldn’t wait to see David; after all, if he wasn’t at home waiting for us, where could he be?
‘Hey Sweetpea, have fun with your Gran?’ Dad flashed a look at Ma and gave me a wink over his shoulder. There were lines around his mouth and face I did not remember, his skin had a strange grey tinge at the edges.
‘I can’t wait to get home…’
‘You’re going to love it there. It’s by the sea – remember when we went up to the coast for our hols a few years ago? It’s small, but it’s perfect for the three of us and the school is great.’ He went on, gesticulating and getting carried away by his own excitement. All I could think of was “the three of us.” Any hopes I had to go home were dashed then and there.
‘Your bedroom is up in the attic – fancy that! You can see the sea from the window, watch it wave, ha ha! The garage where I’ll be working is just around the corner, so I’ll get to spend much more time with my favourite girls.’ That explained the smell of oil and the smudges on his clothes and knuckles.
‘Will David be there?’ I knew it was a mistake even before the words sputtered out.
A look of anger flashed across his face, almost too quick to see. Ma, reached out and put a hand on his knee. ‘You’ve got to forget about him Sweetpea,’ his voice dipped. ‘Promise me, no more talk about, about him. Look sometimes people do bad things…they might not mean but they can’t take them back. I don’t want to hear you mention him again, OK?’
All the joy in the World seemed to slip away in that short moment; I felt like one of the boxes of things that rattled around me, the best china chinking away, just something else to be shunted to and fro.
Alice through the looking glass
So here I am, trying to make the best of a bad situation. Life carries on, ticks over. Birthdays come and go, Christmas, anniversaries: all filled with fake cheer and forced smiles. I go to school, do my homework, join after school clubs and have friends over. I pretend everything is normal so much that sometimes it actually feels that way.
But of course I still wonder about David.
David was real.
David my brother was real.
David my brother born on 26th June, who likes to ride his bike fast down the hills, to take his hands off the grips and scream in the delight of free fall, of scaring me. HE WAS REAL.
I’ve found no trace of him on social media, I’ve Googled his name a million times – nothing.
I guess this is why when the girls at school are hanging about down the shopping centre, or flirting with the boys at the beach, I’m still here. One day I’m going to leave my parents and go home; proper home. I’m going to get a bus and I’ll be gone before they know it. I’ve already started saving. They watch me closely though as if they expect me to…I don’t know what they expect to be honest. I’m going to find out what happened to my brother, but until then I have to tell his story in the only way I know how. I scribble in the edges and try to make him permanent, that way if anything should happen to me – if I should disappear too, we would still exist in fragments of ink and pencil, in dust covers and margins.
About the Contributor
Jennie’s writing has won competitions and has been widely published online, in literary journals and anthologies. She is a University Lecturer of Creative Writing and lives in Mawdesley, Lancashire with her husband and three children.
More from Issue Nine:
- The Place That He Can Never Return To
- The Cyclops
- The Girl with Many Names by Kristin LaFollette
- Three by Deb Scudder
- The Mourner by Louise Burgess
- Margot by Marni Appleton
- Pebbles on a Shore by Lynne E Blackwood
- blindfolded minds by Rachel Hawkins
- Phantom habits by Blakeley Bartee
- Dementia’s Mantra by Mike Ferguson
- Pack Animals