Jack comes home today. His brother Ross will be waiting for him. They haven’t seen each other for a while and Ross feels bad about this, but Jack has not given the matter a great deal of thought. Too many years have passed. He just wants to leave the past behind, smell the fresh sea air and feel the stretch of freedom in his bones.
They don’t really look like brothers. Ross remembers his kid brother’s soppy grin, dark thick hair, and his big blue eyes, just like their mother. God rest her soul. And the way he always looked up to him. Ross reminds himself that it is their dad that he has inherited genes from. Ginger hair. Thick neck. Short legs. Same temper.
Jack has been diagnosed with epilepsy. And blackouts triggered by trauma. Once they got him on the right medication, he received a reduced sentence. Diminished responsibility. Seemed fair enough to Jack. For a while he really believed that he had killed their mother. Shoved her down the stairs after a violent argument. Not something to sit easily on your conscience. Until he figured out the truth of what really happened that day.
Ross thinks about the fishing trips and how much Jack loved them.
“Take me with you Ross, ple-ease.” Jack would nag him for days. Sometimes Ross gave in just to see his kid brother’s fat grin. Cheered him up somehow.
Jack is collecting his things and dreaming about the fish and chips that he is going to eat straight from the paper, just like he and Mum and Ross used to do on Sundays, before everything turned to ratshit. Jack is tall and lean these days. He has developed a smoker’s cough at the age of twenty-four.
Ross is thinking about how their dad walked out on them when Jack was only two years old, and how their mum had taken to the drink. Silly cow, he thinks, and then shudders. He reminds himself that he hadn’t been a great role model either. Ten years older than Jack and he was stuck with looking after the pair of them. Money was always tight. Down at the harbour back then there was so much dealing. Easy pickings, easy money. He wonders why Jack didn’t guess it wasn’t all about the fish in the sea. They hardly ever caught anything from the end of a fishing rod.
Ross has had plenty of time to rehearse his words. “It wasn’t you, Jack. It wasn’t your fault. I just got scared. Thought they’d go easy on you because of your age.”
Somehow at the sight of his brother, his kid brother, walking towards him now, with that stupid, wide grin, he can’t do it. He’s left it too late. The words remain stuck in his throat. He swallows hard and takes a deep breath. A tiny bead of sweat breaks out on his forehead when Jack says:
“I’ve missed you, mate. It’s good to see you.”
They stand for a few seconds staring at each other.
Jack moves towards his brother, and they hug, awkwardly at first. As they feel the spread of warmth from renewed brotherly connection, they slap each other noisily on the back. Suddenly Ross is crying. He can’t stop himself.
“I’m sorry, mate, so bloody sorry,” he manages to say.
They both laugh as Jack points out the snotty mess Ross has left on his jacket shoulder. Jack looks into his brother’s eyes. They are roughly the same height now.
“Come on. Fresh start.”
As they drive along the sea road towards the home that is now a small basement flat on a cheaper side of the town, Jack remembers how he’d run to the clifftops after finding her. On a day a little like this, seagulls had screeched their siren calls as they fought over scraps of food left by day-trippers. He’d been 15 years old and his voice had just started to break. He’d stood screaming into the cold autumn air, his voice slipping back and forth between high-pitched childish tones and new, deeper adult ones. Shouting and screaming was all he could recall before this. Then, darkness. Next thing he saw was their mum at the bottom of the stairs with her neck at an odd angle.
He remembers the social worker who had found him on the clifftops. She had a look of terror in her eyes as she placed a blanket over his shoulders.
“Where’s Ross? I want my brother!” he had called.
As she’d led him away from the clifftop, she said, “Ross isn’t here right now. We’re trying to get hold of him. I’m sure he’ll be here soon.”
Jack smiles to himself. He is looking forward to showing his brother exactly what he means by a fresh start. The years inside have toughened him.
© 2019 Sue Emm
Susan Emm is local writer and adult education tutor. Her stories are inspired by walks in and around her seaside home of Thanet.