My mother’s bicycle was in the usual place, propped against the shed beside the rhododendron bush. A rain-soaked tea towel lay in the basket which she had used to cover the pastries she loved to bake and distribute around the village. The wind picked up again as I knocked the back door, bringing in its wake an ominous cloud that hung over the headland across the bay.
My father offered no greeting but turned back to the kitchen, leaving the door open as a mark of his indifference. I closed it behind me and took one of the wing-backs in front of the hearth, pleased to see that Meg was still with us. She struggled to her feet in answer to my call and limped towards me, claws clicking on the granite floor. I stroked her head and she flopped down heavily at my side.
“I noticed Mum’s bike outside,” I said. “It will rust if it’s left there.”
He spooned a can of chicken soup into an old aluminium saucepan and set it on a low heat.
“Why are you here? I thought you’d left after the service like everyone else.”
That he hadn’t arranged a wake did not surprise me; he knew I’d be there to embarrass him. We’d barely exchanged nods at the crematorium. But in truth I could not have answered his question, for I had yet to explain to myself why I had suddenly interrupted my journey home and turned back. Even then I’d been reluctant to face him. I sat alone in the lounge of the White Hart, drinking mineral water and feigning an interest in my phone until the threat of more rain and the fading light forced my hand. I recognised a few of the locals on my way out through the bar, but if any remembered me they gave no sign.
“Do you want me to leave?”
He said nothing, just stirred the soup with his back to me, and I took the opportunity to re-acquaint myself with my old home: the low ceiling, the gas fire that was rarely lit, the latched door to the steep staircase Rob and I used noisily to climb to our unheated bedroom beneath the gabled roof. And as the first squalls attacked the window, I recalled how grateful I’d been for such weather on those nights long ago. With no windbreak between the cottage and the coast, the storms concealed the pitiful cries of the small creatures being taken in the night by the foxes and the owls. When my friends tell me how wonderful it must have been to be brought up in a cottage by the sea, I just smile and let them keep their story-book dreams.
My father poured the soup into a plastic bowl and, as he bent to place it between Meg’s paws, I saw the years on his face: the slack skin under his eyes, the broken blood vessels on his nose – twin legacies of life-long attachments to tobacco and malt whisky.
He took the opposite chair and waited for me to break the silence.
“What are you going to do with Mum’s ashes?”
“Scatter them next to your brother’s. It’s what she wanted.”
“And how will you cope now?”
“It’s important to get out and about,” I said. “I don’t suppose Meg can walk far these days, but you’ve still got the White Hart.”
“I don’t go there any more.”
“Isn’t it obvious? How can I show my face there again?”
I sighed but held my tongue; I had no appetite for another confrontation. We fell to silence again, and this time I let it linger and turned my attention to the photographs on the mantelpiece.
On either side of my parents cutting their wedding cake were Rob and I in our school uniforms. Against all our protests, my father had insisted on sending us to a private boys' school. He could ill afford it but, like many people of modest education, he had that naïve and intuitive reverence for all things antiquated. I think he made his decision the moment he set eyes on the ivied walls and mullioned windows of the neo-Gothic mansion. How could his boys possibly fail to become upstanding members of society in an environment such as this?
I hated every minute I spent there. I hated the morning assemblies with their fossilised sermons, followed by three hundred breaking voices trying to build Jerusalem. I hated the cloying stench of sweat and body spray in the showers after rugby and the naked, towel-flicking banter of pubescent boys in denial of their ambivalent sexuality.
At the ends of the mantelpiece were two more snaps of us, older now – Rob having exchanged his school uniform for one of khaki, me in my graduation gown. And as I studied them, there came unsummoned that question we silently ask ourselves when we look back at our images through the years: If I knew then what I know now, would I still be smiling?
When they brought Rob’s body back from Iraq, my father and I were quietly told an identification would not be required. What they meant, of course, was that there was little left of him to identify. But we lied to my mother and remarked on how peaceful he looked lying there in his uniform and plumed cap.
I turned and noticed my father had followed my gaze to the mantelpiece and, as our eyes briefly met, we each knew the other was harbouring the shameful desire to exchange one of the living for one of the dead – father for mother and son for son. And as if this encounter had signalled the end of a truce, he set off again.
“They whisper behind my back, you know. In the village.”
I bristled at this. I’d expected a few perfunctory jibes when I arrived but I’d hoped we’d be able to put our differences aside, if only for today, and talk instead of our fond memories of Mum. But he seemed determined to spend the evening of his wife’s funeral wallowing in his own self-pity and blaming it on me. He stared ahead, refusing to look me in the eye again.
“And there’s sympathy on their faces,” he said. “That’s the worst of it. I’d rather face their contempt than their God damned sympathy.”
“I thought we’d been through all this,” I said. I almost added Dad, but that would have shocked us both in equal measure.
“Through it? You might be through it, up there in London with all your sophisticated friends, but I’m still living it here, day after day after day.”
I almost got up and left then, but whatever impulse had drawn me back still served to keep me there.
“Robert’s memory is all I have to sustain me now,” he said.
I knew what was coming next, and I knew that this time I’d have to react.
“He gave his life for his country.”
God, how I despise that cliché.
“His life was taken,” I said, raising my voice, “not given. And whether for his country or the profits of the big oil companies is a debatable point. He was a bright kid, brighter than me, but that school you sent us to, and then that uniform he put on, changed him. It kindled a mindless patriotism in him as surely as it quenched the flame of critical thought.”
“How dare you! How dare you talk about your brother like that?”
I stood and walked to the window, instantly regretting my words. Once my father had embarked on one of his tirades he was as easily stopped as a bobsleigh on the Cresta Run, and I had just pushed the bloody thing on its way.
Outside, the storm had moved on, the sky had cleared and, by the light of a gibbous moon, I could see the shingled beach where Rob and I spent so much of our childhood.
Oh, to be a boy again! I thought. To race over the pebbles and down to the tide, Meg lumbering along beside us on her huge paws, snapping at the breakers and running back to us for reassurance and reward. Is there really such a thing as an age of innocence? I wondered. A time before guilt and self-recrimination?
My father’s onslaught was coming to its customary conclusion now, like a cadenza in a third-rate concerto.
“At least Robert was normal. But you! It’s bad enough you turned out to be… to be…”
He couldn’t bring himself to use the word gay but at least he was struggling to avoid the more colourful options I’d become accustomed to.
“But did you have to go and put it up in neon lights and marry him? Marry another bloody man, for Christ’s sake!”
A coughing bout cut him short then, but I kept my eyes on the night outside. I heard him excrete into a tissue and waited while he recovered his breath, his chest rumbling like receding thunder over distant hills.
“At least you had the decency not to bring him with you,” he said at last. “I suppose I’ve got that much to be grateful for.”
“Tom and Mum thought the world of each other,” I said. “The only reason he’s not here is the same reason he wanted us to marry. He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He has between two and four months left.”
Across the bay, the lights on the coast road glistened like tiny sparklers in the moist air, and I understood then why I had returned. When the bright lights in your life begin to go out, the oncoming darkness can be terrifying. But as they disappear one by one, you might just make out again the one you’d long thought extinguished, weak and faded, but still there. And it draws you, even though it burns you like a moth. You go to it because it’s the only light left to you now.
I turned back to the kitchen at the sudden whump of the gas fire, surprised at how dark it had suddenly become. As the room filled with the smell of burning dust, my father switched on the light and returned to his chair.
“I’ll put your mother’s bike in the shed tomorrow,” he said, then added: “There’s a bottle of twelve-year-old in the cupboard, if you’d care to join me in a glass before we turn in.”
It was the closest thing to a reconciliation I could have hoped for.