Brewster's Way 3
‘So. Are you going to get married ?’
March, 1996. Brewster is standing in the kitchen at his mum and dad’s place, dutifully placing the tea cups and side plates onto the draining board ready to be washed - the exquisite dishwasher-unfriendly tea cups and side plates with a floral pattern, kept in the sideboard for ‘special occasions’.
‘Steady on, dad.’
‘You’re moving in together.’
‘I know we’re moving in together. But that doesn’t mean we’re going to get hitched.’
Brewster’s dad thought about this for a moment - allowed the dialectic of living in a state of unmarried bliss to hang in the air - then said: ‘Well, I suppose that’s one way of looking at it.’
Brewster had been with Annie (been in a relationship with/been sleeping with/been going out with/been emotionally entangled with Annie) for six months when the obligatory summons to his parents’ house came. The thought of exposing her to the terminal boredom that constituted his parents’ existence played on Brewster’s mind in the week or so leading up to the ritual. But there was no way out of it, especially as the young couple had decided, in a wild impulsive move generated by the elixir of infatuation, to buy a railway cottage on the outskirts of the city - a railway cottage which, according to Annie, just happened to be on a lay-line, and therefore made the small matter of the need for extensive repair work irrelevant. To Brewster’s father, with his accountant-like distrust of reckless decision making, the purchase seemed like nothing other than an act of rash stupidity.
‘I mean, the roof...’
‘I know all about the roof, dad.’
‘You’re going to have to put a new roof on, plus there’s the wiring and woodworm. And that’s not even taking the central heating into account. You’re going to fork out a pretty penny to have central heating installed, you know.’
‘I’m well aware of the wiring and the roof and the rotten timbers and just about everything else. As for central heating, well, that’s not going to be a problem because Annie’s not interested in having central heating.’
‘Not interested ? Place’ll be like an ice box if it’s not centrally heated.’
‘There’s an open fire.’
‘I mean, don’t get me wrong, son, there’s a lot of nice countryside around those parts but to be honest I thought you’d have gone for something on this side of the city.’
‘I told you why we bought it, dad.’
‘What kind of a reason is that to buy a house ? I mean, I still don’t understand what a bloody lay-line is supposed to be.’
‘It’s a line of invisible energy. You live on a lay-line and it affects your well-being. Your karma.’
‘What’s karma got to do with buying a house ? You buy a house and you ask yourself: is it sound ? Is it solid ? Does it make good sense from an investment point-of-view. Do you think your mother and I thought about karma when we bought this place ?’
‘This isn’t about money.’
‘You’re baffling me, son. What’s she done to you, eh ? This isn’t what I expected.’
‘So what did you expect ? That we’d move into a three bedroomed, fully fitted mock-tudor semi like this ?’
‘You could do worse. They’re throwing in TVs, video players, washing machines and god knows what else if you’re a first time buyer.’
‘Well, I give up. You do as you please.’
‘I intend to.’
‘But just you wait until winter. You’ll change your mind then. Your bloody lay-line won’t keep you warm when it’s five below freezing, you mark my words.’
Brewster had had this kind of conversation with his father before - ever since he could remember in fact. Not necessarily about railway cottages or central heating or lay-lines, but conversations that had followed a similar pattern or rhythm. Brewster senior would begin by asking a seemingly innocuous question after which Brewster junior would realise that his father wasn’t interested in what his son had to say for its own sake but more in order to sway his son’s opinion, the conversation becoming more and more strained until finally it became a full scale argument. What Brewster’s father really wanted to say was: You shouldn’t be doing it that way, you should be doing it this way. That was the bottom line of all his father’s communications. It was as if telling Mike what-to-do-and-how-to-do-it had been his father’s hobby for the past twenty five years. And to make the hobby more interesting Brewster’s dad dressed up the telling in the form of a supposedly civilised conversation.
The animosity that existed between the two male Brewsters was, the son believed, part of the curse of being an only child - part of the doubled weight of expectation and sense of duty that accompanies being an only child. If Brewster had had sisters and/or brothers the animosity between himself and his father would have been more equally divided and they, his parents, would have eased themselves off his back a little during his formative years. Instead, all their hopes and aspirations were invested in him alone. No matter what he did, whether it had to do with school or railway cottages, Brewster’s parents would try and point him in another direction - a more beneficial direction - which, in the long run, they were sure he’d come to appreciate. To justify the high expectations they had in their only son they gave him everything - constantly told Brewster, whenever he tried to stand his ground, that he’d been given everything. Over the years a list evolved itemising all the things Brewster was supposed to be grateful for: the good home, the plentiful supply of toys and clothes, the stability of a loving mother and father who would do anything - got that ? Anything! - for the well-being of their beloved son.
‘Look at the six o’clock news’ Brewster’s father would shout during some petty domestic altercation, ‘any night of the week – just look at the six o’clock news. See the kids who are suffering in this world - kids who are starving, alone, living out on the street. Take a good look at them and then just think about how lucky you are.’
So Brewster would look at the starving kids on TV and think to himself: ‘Yes, I admit it - I’m lucky. I could be there instead of here. I could be you instead of me. It isn’t my fault that it’s worked out this way but I’m sorry all the same.’ Then he’d go off up to his room and sit by himself, feeling guilty for being such a lucky bastard.
The only child thing bugged Brewster for a long time. On the very few occasions that he broached the subject his parents offered only cursory answers as to why he was the single issue of their couplings, saying: ‘We just didn’t want any more children, Mike’ or ‘We were happy enough with just you.’
But there was more to it than that, Brewster knew. There were two distinct possibilities: (a) An independent decision had been taken by one of them - his father or mother, he wasn’t sure which - to stop further procreation to the detriment of the other; or (b) Brewster had been a mistake - a speck of random seepage that defied all the odds, forcing his parents into a hasty marriage.
Basing his choice on the tetchy, non-communicative - both verbal and physical - nature of their relationship Brewster found himself opting for possibility (b). His parents, it seemed, merely endured one another. Year after year they carried on doing the right thing, bathed in the sullen afterglow of a mistake that would follow them to the grave. And who was the living embodiment of this mistake ? Why, Mike Brewster, of course.
There was a time, though, in his early teens, when Brewster managed to dispense with the inadequate feeling of being an only child. He looked at other kids with their shared bedrooms and hand-me-down clothes and latent feuds and thought: ‘Maybe I’m not so badly off being an unwanted only kid after all. Maybe I’ve been too hard on mum and dad. Maybe I should be grateful for my life and try and repay them for not having me terminated’.
It was during this period that Brewster knuckled down at school and began to excel. Not only would he make his parents proud, he reasoned, but he’d fill his head with so much educational junk that all his grievances regarding being a single child would be erased once and for all. And excel he did - so much so that his plan backfired. After his father gained partner status and ascended to accountancy heaven Brewster junior was rewarded with a place at boarding school.
‘But I don’t want to go to boarding school’ Brewster pleaded. ‘I’m happy where I am.’
‘Don’t be silly, Mike. Just think how beneficial it will be. Boarding school will give you a head start in life.’
‘But I’ll miss my friends.’
‘Terry Haley and Pinkie Smith ? You can do better than that, Mike. You’ll make new friends.’
‘But I don’t want new friends.’
‘We’re doing this for you, Mike darling.’
‘You’re doing it for yourselves.’
‘You ought to be grateful that we want the very best for you. Those children you see on the six o’clock news - do you think they’d turn down the chance to go to boarding school ? Do you think they’d be so ungrateful ?’
How could he answer that ?
Brewster’s move away from happy-go-lucky Steely Comprehensive to the discipline and austerity of the Sir Richard Stone boarding school for boys was an unhappy one, to say the very least. He was bullied and he was picked on to such an extent that he thought it was God’s way of paying him back for what he’d said on that dull Friday morning in answer to Miss Hipkiss’ question. All his old grievances returned. They hadn’t been erased at all - merely locked away for a while in a fire-proof safe somewhere in the back of his mind. At the Sir Richard Stone school the safe was cracked open and all the uncertainties of his existence were set loose again.
Why was the secret of his entry into the world so important anyway ? Even if there had been disharmony between his mum and dad - even if Brewster had been a mistake - what did it matter? He was alive wasn’t he ? His parents had worked their way through their problem (ie, him - Mike Brewster), hadn’t they ? They hadn’t abandoned him at birth. He wasn’t one of the children on the six o’clock news.
Maybe not. But he could so easily have been. He could have been fostered out to the Devil or exterminated by an abortionist’s needle. He was random seepage. What could be sadder than that ?
Yes, Brewster concluded: we are alone - from the moment we come into the world to the moment we depart. Whether we are the result of careful planning or an unfortunate mistake it makes no difference: the distance between being wanted and not wanted - between existence and non-existence - is slim. The thought of having a child of his own and of that child feeling unwanted - of that child existing in an uncaring world - was a painful thought. Brewster developed a philosophy that was existential anti-kid. God couldn’t help. He didn’t exist. The eleven year old Brewster who had stood and denounced the Creator had been right all along.
These were the thoughts tumbling around Brewster’s head as he stood in the kitchen with his father. After they’d finished washing and drying the best crockery and had exhausted their chat about the investment potential of railway cottages situated on lay-lines - or rather the lack of investment potential - Brewster toyed with the idea of bringing up the single kid issue one last time but was stopped short. Instead, hearing his mum embark upon her recipe for rabbit pie - ‘There’s no need to sever the rabbit’s head. I find the juices add something to the flavour’ - he hurriedly made his way into the living room and to Annie’s rescue.
Annie was aware of Brewster’s position regarding kids. He’d laid his cards out early on and she’d said: ‘Sure. I’m not into kids just now either.’ But those two words, just now, bothered Brewster. They bothered him a lot. He knew he should have pursued the topic further but, just like the railway cottage’s bad roof, it was passed over in a tidal wave of hormonal happiness. Thing is, Brewster wasn’t thinking about just now or just tomorrow or even just next year when he told Annie that he didn’t want kids. He was thinking in terms of a whole lifetime. No kids just now, no kids just now in ten years time. Children were not on Brewster’s agenda. And for a couple of years things were just fine. The kid question never came up. They fixed the roof and the wiring and absorbed the earth’s energies and Brewster’s mum and dad slowly took to Annie and her bohemian ways. Lifestyle Up North was surprising everyone with its sales figures and Annie was promoted to head the library’s history department. Their social life picked up too. Aware of Annie’s love of theatre he began reviewing plays for the Going Out section (even though he loathed all forms of theatre with a passion). Life was sweet. But then, out of the blue, that just now moment in time arrived, hard on the heels of a number of other related just now moments.
First it became clear that the kick-back sideways onto The Star wasn’t going to happen. Reece still saw Brewster as Mickey Stark’s buddy and didn’t want to be reminded of the days when Mickey sat licking his lips in the editor’s office. Although Brewster enjoyed the diversity of work at Lifestyle Up North he missed the cut-and-thrust of being out in the field. There’s a theory, see, that all journos are ‘given’ - ie, pre-ordained - one big news story in their lives, a story that will earn them the importance and historical recognition they secretly crave. One big story - one shot. The only catch is that to haul in The Big One you have to be there, digging around in the right dustbins at the right time. Just like Woodward and Bernstein. That’s the law of journalistic immortality. The Big One will show up alright, but it’s you who has to prod, scrape and terrorise in order to recover your prize. At Lifestyle Up North, reviewing 57 varieties of Shakespeare, Brewster had the nagging feeling that he wasn’t doing his chances of hauling in The Big One much good. And when Annie flushed her contraceptive pills down the toilet and declared that she wanted to start a family, Brewster politely reminded her of his non-negotiable position regarding kids, to which she accused him of deceit and selfishness and ‘immaturity bordering on the pathetic,’ the end result being that Brewster packed his suitcase and moved out of Karma Cottage.
His mum and dad - inevitably - came down on Annie’s side and outlined for him the sheer meanness of his decision. ‘What can be so wrong between you two that can’t be sorted out ?’ his mother asked, while Brewster’s father stood in the background, huffing and shaking his head and mumbling: ‘He’s got everything. Everything. A good home, a good job, a lovely girl, had all the toys and clothes he ever wanted...’ etc, etc, ending with a new, final flourish to his age-old mantra: ‘But still he’s not satisfied. Instead he wants to chuck it all away and deprive us of a grandchild into the bargain’.
If Brewster had been honest with himself - been honest with Annie - he wouldn’t have gone back to Karma Cottage. Instead he sat listening to his mum and dad and every ounce of guilt rose up and engulfed him. The only child trip returned, went away, and was replaced by thoughts he’d previously experienced at the age of eleven after he’d stood before the blackboard - that maybe he was wrong. Maybe he owed people.
So, Brewster returned…and gave Annie precisely what she wanted.
Part 4 here: