Two brothers discover their parents’ secrets and rediscover a childhood obsession, which brings them closer together following the death of their father.
Never Enough Time to Talk
The book dropped back into the pile with a dull thud, a cloud of dust rose up. I saw David’s shoulders slump, but when he looked at me he had a half smile. “I think every library and charity shop in the county has a copy.” He pointed at the boxes littering the garage, “What am I supposed to do with all of these?” Amid the mementoes of our father’s life there were boxes and boxes of books; copies of David’s unsold book.
It had been something of a sore point between us. Dad had bought up all the remaindered stock, certain his younger son would make it one day. But this wasn’t the time to dredge up the past. I changed the subject.
“How’s the new one coming along?”
“OK, it’s getting there.” There was a brittle edge to his smile; he turned away so I could not see his face.
I kicked myself inside. Every subject between us was a potential minefield. David had given up a secure job writing features for The Courier to go freelance and write his second book on the side. After the failure of the first one it seemed an indulgence to me. We hadn’t fought over it. We’d given up fighting when we were boys, but he knew how I felt.
“Dad was helping me with it. I think that surprised us both.”
I laughed at that, a sudden involuntary bark. Dad had condemned us both as agents of the bourgeoisie, one son an accountant and the other a journalist aspiring to be a writer. But he did it trying to hide a smile.
I had been pressed and cajoled and supported to make something of myself, to be the working class dream of a professional, even though he bemoaned his son becoming a lickspittle savant. He’d condemned David’s book as heroin for the masses and then bought all the unsold copies.
“Old socialists never die,” David quoted, “they just join the great march in the sky.” We finished it together.
My laughter died and there was nothing else to say. The silence stretched uncomfortably, like swallowing against a collar done up too tight. Still in our dark suits and ties we puttered around the dusty garage, aimlessly peering into boxes and taking things off the shelves, avoiding one another.
I popped the clasps of an old leather suitcase and found a beautiful wooden box, there were four crystal glasses inside, a wedding gift from Mum’s parents. We’d seen them once before, but there had never been an occasion special enough to use them. I was about to say something about them to David, but the words stuck in my throat. It didn’t matter what I said, it would choke me on the way out. I put the glasses away where I had found them, and the words dissolved inside me.
In the end, of course, he was my little brother and we were all that was left to each other. Steeling myself I spoke up. “I’ll get a brew on, do you fancy one?”
He nodded. “Tea bags are in the cupboard over the kettle. Milkman’s been, it’s in the fridge.”
I bit back the comment that he had already made himself at home, in the small house Dad had left to him alone. It wasn’t the time, it was never the time.
The kitchen was uncomfortably bare. Unlike the old house, which had Mum’s care and pride written on every surface, this was a man’s place. Mug tree, kettle, toaster, microwave. Dad had sold the old place after Mum died, and moved here. It had two bedrooms and a garage for all his memories and all of David’s books. He lived off the pension he had campaigned to save, and the little money he made from moving into a smaller house.
I’d not been here often. The train from London took a couple of hours and my job ran to long hours. I’d helped him move in and sent money to get the place redecorated; it was a rare instance where my insistence had overcome his pride. It looked like he had been frugal. Everything seemed clean but without colour or extravagance.
The noise of the kettle interrupted my thoughts. I hunted around for some biscuits and then took a tray into the living room. It was as uncluttered as the rest of the house. There were just two pictures on the mantelpiece, one of mum and one of two boys on bicycles, old enough that the colour had faded. “James 6, David 4” was written in neat script on the reverse.
At least the TV was modern. I’d had it delivered when the analogue signal was switched off and the twenty year old monster that had perched in the corner of our home just would not work any more. There was an old VCR, and underneath it something that made me stop. The shape was achingly familiar, but it took me a moment to put a name to it. It was our old Atari game console.
I sank down beside it and ran my hands over the greying plastic in wonder. Dad had kept it. Of course he had, he kept everything. David must have fished it out of the garage. We’d been on it all the time as kids. It had arrived as a Christmas present one year, and we spent all day every day until school started glued to the TV and the controllers. The games were lame compared to modern ones, but back then we were hooked. There was nothing quite like getting your name on the leaderboard. By the time we had stopped using it I had a clean sweep of everything. The three permitted letters in the top ten of every game read JAM. Once in a while David had been able to sneak a DAV or two on, but in the end I had always won out. Then, all of a sudden, it was boring. We had homework and music and all the other distractions of later childhood.
It was an obsession that burned and then winked out in a year. Dad had seen the lesson in it, “You’ve got to learn to stick at things, boys.” He led that by example, a working man and an agitator, until he had to retire and his legs would not carry him around any more.
I freed the Atari’s joysticks from the tangle of wires. The huge cartridge for Asteroids was still plugged in. It took a moment of fiddling to get it going, but it was actually surprisingly simple. David must have fired it up to see if it still worked.
The title sequence zig zagged across the screen, I had to press the connector in to get the picture to stay still, but once it had settled it didn’t move again. Tinny digital music filled the room. I flicked through the menu, part of me wanting to feel the thrill seeing my name on the leaderboard again.
He’d been playing! The first three letters of his name filled the screen. I felt annoyed at him for the pettiness, and then annoyed at myself for taking it personally. The screen hazed across and I fiddled with the connector to sharpen it. That was when I realised they weren’t all David. Scattered in between his name some of the high scores read DAD.
David surprised me when he spoke up from the doorway. “He couldn’t move much by the end. But his fingers were OK and his mind was sharp right up to the last moments.” He came in and sat on the sofa. There was a large folder full of papers in his hand, he smoothed the buff surface unnecessarily. I could see his hand was shaking. “He was hooked on it once I got him started. We’d play, and he’d talk. Then when he was resting I’d write it all up.”
He opened the folder. There were sheets of his own scrawly handwriting inside, some yellowing typed letters, and several photographs. He flicked through them, and then picked out a photo to show me. Mum and Dad on their wedding day. Freed from the folder the edges began to curl up a little. He held them down with his trembling fingers.
I took the picture from him. We’d not seen that beaming smile on Mum’s face for an age. She had gone suffering from dementia, unable to recognise any of us, and Dad holding on to her hand, heartbroken. He’d not talked about her to us. The house had fallen silent of the one voice that kept us all talking to each other.
“I left The Courier to come and write his story. I wanted to know about the days after the War when Grandad came back; and all the stories about the marches and strikes and protests.” He shuffled through the folder some more. He held up a newspaper clipping from the seventies with Dad’s face a blurry smudge in one corner. “I wanted to know about him, and Mum.” He pulled out another piece of paper, the colour of tea and covered in decorative writing. “There was more to Mum than we knew.”
It was a birth certificate. I couldn’t make sense of it, the flourishes in the writing made it difficult to read. I could see my mother’s name in the middle, but the familiar maiden name I thought I knew was suffixed by other, grander names. Her parents, the grandparents I had never met, were Lord and Lady. My eyes were blurring and the names were incomprehensible.
David was still talking. I tried to take in the words because I could not read at all. “Her parents never approved, but they let her go her own way. Mum and Dad wanted to tell us, it was just never the right time. They wanted us to make our own way first. Then Mum got ill. Dad said there just didn’t seem to be the words after that.” There were more papers. He pulled out a fresher one, creamy, thick paper. “He wanted to tell you first because of this.” I took the paper from him numbly, but did not look at it. “We had an uncle, he died without children.”
I understood. Through the shock and the grief I understood, and it did not matter. There was a greater, more pressing truth beneath the veneer of titles. A truth our father had spent his life trying to teach us to see. Mum had given up everything, wealth, privilege, comfort, for a hard life with the man she loved. He in his turn had watched himself slip from her mind, as she slipped out of his life. He taught us to measure people by what they became, by how they behaved, not where they began.
David was crying. A fat tear fell on the open pages. My gaze was fixed on that wedding photo, the broad smile of a young man in a hat and suit. I saw the shadows of that smile in the mirror every morning, I could turn my head and see the stubborn chin reprised in my brother beside me.
In the end it did not matter whether there was time to talk. I thought I was the one for doing things, the one who had made something of himself. David had proved me wrong, he’d done something extraordinary, almost as extraordinary as Mum leaving everything she knew for Dad. He’d come here to see out Dad’s last days, to keep him company, and preserve the memory of those two precious lives.
The tinny music was still playing, a nonsensical counterpoint to our loss. Our loss. Until that moment we hadn’t shared it. I gave him back the photo and the papers, and squeezed his forearm. My hand was trembling too. “Tea’s getting cold.”
He nodded, and then gestured to the Atari. “Fancy a game?”
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Above is my round 2 entry to the 2014 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition