The blue remembered hills.
It’s half ten of a Sunday evening. We’re in the living room and my wife and I are looking forward to a bit of vegging out on the couch and watching the next episode of a TV series we both like. Her head is atop a pillow which rests on my lap and my arm is lightly around her. Our eldest son at the end of the living room is ironing a Monday morning shirt and going to keep half an eye on the episode as he works, so we’re all settling in to a comfortable end of weekend routine.
The phone rings.
It’s the landline located in the study, the door of which is by the ironer’s end of the oblong living room. We don’t get many calls on it. It rings barely a couple of times before my wife hops up off the couch and hurries into the study to pick up. I hit pause and wait for her chinwag to finish. A minute or two drags on.
Only her sisters call on the landline, but it’s half ten on Sunday night, which I know they’d never call at. The needle-sharp canines of the dread beast rest ever so carefully on the flesh of my defensive wounds forearm – it’s being playful, just pricking skin to produce two tiny beadlets of blood. Its tongue pops out eagerly for a quick lick, getting a foretaste of me as a prelude to the clean bite right down to the bone.
My wife is Irish and comes from a southern province of Ulster. They all talk a significant number of decibels higher there and with a curious amalgam of a Scottish/Irish accent. I did a lot of respectful noddies to my future father in law without understanding a damn word he was saying before I got my ear in, as they say. I think he knew, but anyway gave me the benefit of the doubt. We grew to have a fond regard for each other.
It’s a distinct dialect with its own vocabulary, cadence and intonation. It’s English, but not as we know it Jim. The compulsive philologist in me listens carefully for the unconscious linguistic regression that always happens when she talks to her family; an upward volume tick away from learned dialect to native born but it doesn’t happen. It all goes very quiet.
After a while I ask my ironing son if he can have a quick earwig at the study door to determine which sister she’s talking to. He gives it a go but can’t hear a thing. That’s when I know. Whoever it is, she’s talking quietly with them. Not a sister then and lasting too long to be some telesales bandito. I give it a few more seconds and then get up off the couch and head for the study.
She’s cowardy custard when it comes to doing hard things like delivering the worst of news, so I suspect it’s meant for me and using the landline rather than a mobile was perhaps somebody’s cute idea to tell her so she could break the bad news to me. Nice idea, but they picked the wrong person for a task like that. She’d be crap at it.
I open the door and step into the study. One look at her face and I close it shut behind me and lean against it, blocking off our eldest son from the ensuing conversation. If there’s any heartbreak news to be done with our kids, it’ll come from me in a considered manner.
She doesn’t know where to start, looking guilty like somebody caught doing something they shouldn’t have, so I begin the twenty questions routine to inch her towards the hard truth. “Who’s on the phone?”
She names our second son and I get ready for the horror, wondering if it’s his wife or our grandson, the fine wee man. Some micro-seconds in life don’t get more horrible. It’s a death for sure – I know that, and I knew it was coming too, but which one is it; my son’s wife or their child? Jesus, in all conscience, which do I wish it isn’t?
Occasionally I have strong intuitions, and perhaps they’re the useless appendix of a forgotten bit of primitive biology deep within us, but I listen to them. There’s no rhyme or reason to them, but they’re like a bad angel circling slowly down on me riding a thermal which is gradually fading away. Eventually, they’ll land but always before it does is the waiting, which I call the dread. It’s not any sort of deep spiritual thing, I just know it’s coming at me, and have learnt to live with the inexplicability of that and batten down the hatches, because I know there’s a storm coming and it always brings death in its wake.
My spooky grandmother, whom I alternately loved or was scared of, used to wait until my mother was out and about, so she could speak of things like that to me, because my mother didn’t approve of her telling me the old women’s lore. In the absence of a decent witch to pass the folk wisdom on to, I was the stand in, which I think was a background niggle between my mother and her. Granny hadn’t picked her.
With the customary arrogance of youth, I wrote it all off as creeping senility but learnt better as I grew up. Some things defy any sort of rational explanation, but they’re real things nonetheless. They walk the Earth. The dread is one of those things, and she’d told me that in the end the only comfort in having it was that one day it might be coming after you. I now understood the grace in that last bit.
I’d felt the dread all the previous week and hoped it’d be me to be taken away, not one of the kids.
“Who’s died?” I ask, cutting directly to the quick.
I run the names, because I know a number of people called Chris, one of whom is a woman.
In the end, “Chris who?”
“Your brother Chris.”
It takes a while to recall I have a brother of that name. I felt nothing, and that bothered me. We’d met once in the last forty years, and that wasn’t by my choice but his, and at the wake of our oldest brother. The years had not been kind to him.
Some men are born with demons inside them, and as there’s no way such creatures can be exorcised, some sort of livable accommodation must be made with them, or they’ll destroy you. I know this thing because I have my own particular demons, who are sly old friends by this stage. I’ve struggled and contended with them all my life. There are times when they will have their way and I’ve on occasion let them off the leash to wreak the carnage in which they delight because it suited me, but in the main if you can harness them and occasionally crack the necessary whip over them, they can sometimes give you a distinct and terrible edge.
The first step is to truly recognise you have those demons and to recognise their Siren voices whispering bad advice in your ear. If you can’t do that, it’s you who gets harnessed into the wagon, while the demons are in the driving seat of the buggy, busy cracking the whip over your ass and driving you on from one disaster to the next. Through alienation from your parents and siblings, through a failed marriage and estrangement from even your own children, to finally an undiscovered death alone by slipping in a bathroom in a strange city on the other side of the world, far from where you were born.
Such a man was my brother.
And yet as children, before the demons kicked into play in his early adolescence, we were the two great amigos. Best of mates. In the family pecking order we had two older sisters above us and two younger ones blow us, an island of blokes. We built hideouts in trees together, nailed together bits of abandoned prams to make trollies, cowboyed and indianed our never ending summer holidays away and memorised our catechism in preparation for our first communion together in the single digits of our young lives.
Those are the memories of him I choose to think about, the blue remembered hills of our childhood, rather than the self-exiled and sad man he was to become, dying alone in a foreign land from something as mundane as a slip on a wet bathroom floor. His eldest son, estranged from him for years, is flying out and putting aside decade old grievances to attend to his last wishes. All honour to a man addressing his last filial duty to the stranger his father had become.
He will be cremated, there will be no headstone and his ashes will be returned and spread somewhere in China, a land where I hope he might perhaps have found some peace with his demons in the end, though I doubt it. He won’t be missed by anyone for more than a respectful five minutes or so.
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