by Chaz Brenchley
One: Good Night Marty
It was a good night, the night my cousin Marty died.
Not a great night, by definition: a great night would see me in bed with Laura, sated and sleepless and sublime. I didn’t have great nights. By definition.
A good night, though. That, for sure.
Good night, bad bad morning.
Actually we’d been on a rage that evening, pre-arranged: Rick and Angie, Dermot and Vanessa, Colin, Laura dark and lovely and me. Two medics, two linguists, one lit-freak, one agric and one fine artist, not necessarily in that order. Not necessarily in any order, rarely the same order from one term’s end to the next. Always something of a group, though, always coming back together at the last, however often or however violently we might fall apart betweentimes.
Just then we were a peaceable kingdom, two steady couples and three singletons and not a quarrel among us, not a bone to be picked, seemingly no tensions: only my own long hunger that I’d long since learned to hide. To tell truth I was never sure if any of them even remembered, these good close friends of mine.
It was Laura who’d phoned that day—or at least had phoned the upstairs neighbour, who’d come down to fetch me and then unashamedly listened in, her perk for the service—Laura who’d set this particular ball to roll. “Coming out to play, Ben?” she’d said; and not a question, that, it was a command. Not allowed, to say no to that particular invitation. Impossible, in any case, to say no to her.
So I only asked when, and where. Where was Albuquerque, a glossy, glitzy video bar, far too pricey for every day but Laura didn’t, wouldn’t talk to me every day and this was a rage anyway, we wouldn’t be there long; when was six o’clock, cocktail hour. “If you’re going to mix your drinks,” she said, “which we are,” she said, “you might as well start with a mixture. Don’t be late.”
“Would I?” I asked.
“No,” she said, “you wouldn’t. Not you,” and for a moment she sounded wistful, almost, and I thought that maybe one at least of my good friends did remember. She ought to, she of all of them, she had most cause. She was the cause, damn it (but never damn her, never that; all unwitting, it was none of it her fault), she was the be-all and end-all, she ought at least to remember that.
I was early and she was late, and that might have been deliberate but probably wasn’t. We spent enough time on our own together, no need to get paranoid about this, Macallan. Except that love is paranoid, it has to be, that’s how it works. She doesn’t want to be alone with me, my sweetly treacherous mind was telling me, she’s hanging back to be sure the others are here. And maybe she was, but there could be other reasons. She always liked to make an entrance, Laura.
And she certainly did it that night, she swept in like a star, a constellation of one. Dark star, all in black tonight and radiant, pulsing, dangerously electric. Touched us all where we stood at the bar, a pat on the bottom or a squeeze of the shoulder; I got a fist in the ribs, when I passed her the drink that stood waiting.
“Don’t get clever, Macallan,” she said, growling, scowling, sipping.
“I know what you drink,” I said, and what you like best to eat, and to wear, and to dance to; I know your shoe size and your bra size and the size of your slim, slim waist. “What’s your problem?”
Which was tempting fate, perhaps, she just might be in the mood to answer that; but no, she let me off easy. She only said, “Don’t take me for granted, right?” as if I ever would or could or had the grounds to, and clinked her glass privately against mine before she drank again.
Too many messages in that, too complex to work out in company; or else there was nothing at all, just a brief light-hearted interchange between two friends in a bar at the start of a long light-headed evening. I smiled, toasted her silently, more with my eyes than my glass, and turned to talk to Angie; and if Laura didn’t know how hard that was for me, to turn those few inches from one friend to another—well, it was only one more small entry in the very comprehensive lists of things that Laura didn’t know about my sad life, the long sad years before I met her and every sad and solitary hour since.
If she didn’t know.
It’s a short step from Albuquerque to Milan. Or in this case il Milano, which is the best Italian restaurant in town, and therefore the one that knows us best. We got our regular table and our regular waiter, young Gino with the big eyes and the cherubic smile, the party soul and just as well his mother’s in Treviso, she wouldn’t want to see what we’ve made of her cute son or what he does for fun these days. She really, really wouldn’t want to see it.
Two litres of the house red to get us started, orders for gamberoni—“shells on, for Christ’s sake, Gino, I shouldn’t need to tell you that, where’ve you been, sodding Treviso?”—and antipasti and sardines; and the cigarettes came out while we were waiting, and already the lights were starting to shine a little brighter, we were sharp and witty and laughing loud, we loved ourselves and each other and too bad if the rest of the world didn’t love us, what the hell did they know?
No need to hurry: no pressure from the staff, and we weren’t going anywhere that wouldn’t wait for us. So we ate through the menu, and idled over espressos and liqueurs, amaretto or sambucca a la mocha, pale blue flames and three coffee-beans floating, “like drowned flies,” Vanessa said, because she always did say that, it was the ritual.
And then it was out into the street and into the first pub we came to, one quick pint and on to the next; and now we were hurrying suddenly, last orders like a whip to sting us on. Not a problem, last orders, this was a rage and we weren’t going to stop, we weren’t going home at eleven o’clock like good little children ought. It was a challenge, that was all, something to be defied, to be stared down and defeated.
After the pubs, the clubs. We wanted to dance, we needed to dance; with such a load aboard, on such a night, we needed to move and sweat in a hard light, we needed each other’s hot bodies as a counter to our own.
Rites of Passage is a queer club, by and large; Gay Rites they call it, as they would. But they’re a tolerant crowd, they give us rights of passage, in and out as we choose most nights and welcome on Thursdays. This was a Thursday; a good rage doesn’t happen by chance, it just has to feel as if it did.
So we pulsed and thundered, music in our bones and every cell awoken. Between dances we drank Red Stripe viciously cold and straight from the cans, and then hauled each other back to the dance floor again. And yes, I danced with Laura, how not? Been doing it for years. Warm body, fine bones, skin oiled with her own sweat and mine and five hundred others’, the air was sodden with it. And oh, it was cruel to hold her, separated by so little and so much; and oh, what the hell, it was just my life, that was all. And so much better than the other thing, not to dance with her, not to see or speak, not to touch or hold or sweat with her at all.
After the sauna, the ritual plunge into ice water; after being so hot, crucial to be cool for an hour. We left Rites before it closed, waited for Colin to be sick in the gutter—just another part of the ritual, he always was; not the booze, he said, it was the dancing and the heat and then the sudden change, air and silence did him in—and straggled arm-in-arm up a quiet alley that was only a little noisier for our arrival. Cooling already, we were, running close to empty.
We hammered discreetly on a discreet little door, no lights showing, no noise. And known here too we were let in, we were found a table and a bottle of bad German wine; and we sat still like good children and listened to the jamming. Blues and easy jazz, nothing frenetic this time of night, just souls in harmony doing what comes right.
About four o’clock they threw us out. Nothing aggressive, just, “Don’t you kids want to go home?” and take the hint, if you want to be taken back.
We did that, we always did. A night at Delilah’s was a privilege and we valued it, wouldn’t abuse it. Wouldn’t take risks, so we took the hint instead, said goodnight and left them. Stumbled over our feet a little on the way out, perhaps, but it was dark in there and the tables were too close, and the aisles filled with bags and instrument-cases and people’s big feet; and swayed all across the road as we headed for home, perhaps, but there wasn’t any traffic and we were just reclaiming the highway for pedestrians, and what was wrong with that?
Split up when we had to, going this way and that. Said goodnight slowly, slurringly, fumbling over arrangements to meet again, some of us in one place and some in another; and said goodnight again, and some had hugs for everyone and some had kisses for a few. And I got hugged and kissed, no different; but not as I should have been in a world with no wicked sense of humour, not as I yearned to be. She kissed me, sure, but only on the cheek and fleetingly; and her hand squeezed my arm, and what did that mean?
“’Night, then, Ben,” she said; and Yeah, right, I thought, supplying the elision for her, getting at least one message I could read tonight. Good night, chalk it up as that, that’s good enough.
And I smiled, brushed a hand meaninglessly across her shoulder, jerked it at the others like a last brief wave and went walking off up the hill alone.
Home to a dark flat, and the Yale achingly hard to get into the lock, scratching and scratching; and then at last inside, grabbing the door to stop it crashing too loud against the wall, not to wake Jacko. Closing it so, so softly; and going through to the kitchen almost on tiptoe, opening a fresh pint of milk and swallowing it straight from the carton, chug-a-lug; and dribbling toothpaste onto my treasured silk shirt when I cleaned my teeth, and standing for a minute over the toilet wondering if I was going to puke, and thinking maybe I should take a bowl to bed with me just in case, and no, that’ll only make it more likely, forget it, you’re not going to puke, not you, boy, not tonight…
And keeping a hand on the furniture or the wall all the way through to my bedroom, and stripping off in about ten seconds and dropping onto the bed because I couldn’t stand upright any longer, feeling my way under the duvet almost comatose already, and the last thing I heard was Jacko coming in, being desperately quiet, not to wake me….
And that was the night, that good good night; and then there was the morning.
Which began with a hammering, more than in my head, dragging me halfway up from sodden dreams; and then light and action, more than movement, a tremendous shaking; and I opened claggy eyes on the morning and my hangover and Jacko.
He was bending over the bed rolling me to and fro with hands of long experience, almost a year my flatmate and this the only way to wake me. Surprising that even this worked, after a good rage; and we’d never had the chance to find out before, no one had ever wanted to wake me after a good rage, and why the hell was he doing it now…?
I grunted, shoved him away, glared at him as best I could with no focus yet to my bleary sight. I could see his wild hair, an afro wrecked by sleeping, and I could see his weak beard, too thin to hide the weak chin behind it; I could see his bathrobe hanging open, showing his scant red body-hair and his bones beneath; I still couldn’t see what he was here for.
Couldn’t ask either, I was in no fit state to shape an English sentence. Sour saliva pooled behind my teeth; if I tried to use my mouth too cleverly I could yet throw up, and with a witness now. So I ran a hand down over my face, rubbed at a night’s rough stubble, grunted again, the best he was going to get. It was enough, apparently.
“Your sister’s here,” he said.
Which was instant chill, a dose of wide-awake potion and my mouth suddenly desert-dry, no question of chucking up.
“I haven’t,” I croaked, “haven’t got a sister.” Send her away, get rid of her, get her out of here…
“Well, she says she’s your sister. And I wouldn’t want to argue, the mood she’s in. Very stressed-out, this girl is.”
I disinvested, I divorced her, I disowned them all and denied them thrice before cock-crow; I’ve got a decree absolute, no family, none of mine…
But yes, that sounded like my sister; and if she was here, she wasn’t going away. Not fair, to send Jacko back with unforthcoming messages. She’d just shred him, and then come through to find me.
“Give me a minute,” I said.
“Sure. Make her a coffee, shall I…?”
“No.” That surprised him; the question was pure rhetoric, of course he’d make her a cup of coffee. But, “No,” I said again, and meant it. Not in my flat. No welcome, no refreshment, no returns. “Go back to bed,” I said, “I’ll deal with Hazel.”
And not in my bathrobe, either. That was a lesson early learned, not to put myself at any disadvantage. I pulled on yesterday’s jeans and a sweatshirt, slouched through to the bathroom for a pee and a quick wash, no distractions and no hostages to fortune. I pulled a comb through my hair, checked myself in the mirror, even thought about shaving; but no, no need to go overboard. If I was going to play student for my sister, I had to look the part. So I rumpled my hair again, I’m hung over, right? And it’s Friday morning and I’m cutting lectures, and for God’s sake give the girl what she expects to see, and unbolted the door at last.
We never bolt the bathroom door, Jacko and me; but Hazel was in the flat and I hadn’t even stopped to think about it. All my life I’d been snatching refuges from Hazel, bolting doors against her.
And now I walked down the passage damp and fresh and afraid, head numb and stomach twisting for more than all last night’s alcohol; and I hesitated by the closed living-room door, and my hand was trembling where I lifted it to the handle.
And I walked in and yes, there was Hazel.
In her leathers, stood by the window, watching the bike perhaps in this neighbourhood, as if anyone in this neighbourhood would be stupid enough to steal Hazel Macallan’s bike.
Her helmet was on the table, her hair was cropped to keep it neat under the helmet, her eyes were hard and sisterly. I looked away, trying to be angry with her for coming, why don’t you, why didn’t you ever, ever listen to me? Go away, we’re through, it’s over, no more family… But all I could manage was contempt, and that was all for myself. Too scared to meet her eye to eye, eh, Ben old buddy? Your sister, your twin, and you can’t even look her in the eye…
My twin, yes, half an hour older and she’d exploited that all our lives; but I’d let it happen. Along with everything else I’d let happen, just because that was easier than the other thing, easier far than standing up to her or Laura or anyone. I wasn’t good at standing up, and especially not this morning; already I wanted to drop onto the sofa, pull a cushion down over my face, give myself away completely.
Didn’t do that, still had just a hint of pride left—family pride, something whispered, Macallan pride, and maybe it wasn’t so easy after all, you couldn’t just walk away from blood—so I gestured vaguely, said, “Sit down, Hazel,” the first words I’d spoken to my sister in three years, near enough.
And she jerked her head in an abrupt negative, and already I felt foolish and ineffectual; and then my rough and heavy-handed sister did what she’d come to do, used what she had, no compromise and no allowances allowed.
“Marty died last night,” she said.
And then I did sit down, or drop down rather, straight down and lucky the sofa was there or I’d have gone all the way to the floor; and after a second of staring I brought both hands up to cover my aching eyes, to give myself a moment’s rest from this world of family and never mind what Hazel thought, she knew it all already.
My cousin Marty. Three years older, three stone heavier than me: at least that and likely more by now, so long since I’d seen him and never more and isn’t this what you wanted, aren’t you supposed not to care?
Of course I was supposed not to care. I’d divorced them all, Marty included; and if not one of the reasons, Marty was at least a symptom of why I’d done it. He was a bully and a bruiser, shaven head and tattoos and scar tissue in unexpected places, that he delighted in showing off; and he was an enforcer, that was his talent and that was how my family used him. To lean on people, to encourage them to be convenient—and to punish if they were obdurate, if they made a nuisance of themselves. Marty used to enjoy the punishments.
But it was Marty who taught me how to swim as a kid, even if his idea of lessons did include a lot of duckings in deep water; and it was Marty who really taught me how to drink, for all that I like to tell that story differently, back when I was fourteen and even the family face wouldn’t see me served in any pub in town. And the year after that he got me laid for the first time, he devoted half an hour of his own birthday party to that generous cause; and I hated his life but I loved him regardless, and he was my cousin, and he was dead.
And that didn’t happen, not to family. Not at twenty-five.
“How?” I demanded when I could talk again, when I could face a world with Marty gone and Hazel right there, back in my life again.
“You’ll hear,” she said like the good soldier she was, always had been. Under orders, clearly. “They’ve called a meeting. Everyone’s coming.”
And everyone manifestly included me, except that I was no good soldier. I’d handed back my shilling and decamped.
“Not me,” I said. “Remember?”
“Don’t be stupid, I haven’t got time. Get some shoes on, and a jacket. I’m leaving in two minutes.”
“You’re leaving alone, Hazel.” Marty or no Marty—and no Marty, that was the thing, never any more Marty—I wasn’t putting myself back in the cage again. Escaping once was major, twice would be impossible.
“No,” she said. “Hurry up. Or do I have to do it for you?”
She would, she’d do that; I knew, from past experience. A few years back now, when I was seventeen and only starting to rebel; she’d crammed my feet into Docs and my arms into sleeves and dragged me out by main force, and she’d do just the same again if she chose to. And I might be older now, I might have a body significantly larger than hers, but I still wouldn’t use it against her. Couldn’t possibly.
So I stared at her, starting to sulk, feeling my grip sliding to nothing; and said, “I don’t have a helmet.”
“It’s my bike,” she snorted. “We won’t be pulled over.”
“Not the point. People have accidents, on bikes. That’s what the law’s for. I won’t ride a bike without a helmet, I’ve got too much respect for my head.”
So she picked her helmet off the table and chucked it over, and I didn’t have an excuse any more; and I went to the family meeting because that was what Hazel wanted me to do, and it had been inevitable ever since the decision was made in her hard and efficient head, same size as mine but so much stronger.
We passed a patrol car on the way, not even on the dual carriageway yet and Hazel was doing upwards of a hundred with no helmet on; and the car just went on quietly trawling the kerb, the one glance to spot who we were and they didn’t so much as look our way again, the brief time they could see us.
No sensible policeman was going to stop a Macallan in a hurry. One of the laws of nature, that; along with I always do what Hazel wants. Or you could substitute any other member of my family, more or less, in either position there. Most people did what Hazel wanted, relatives no exception; and me, I could never come face to face with any of them without kowtowing in the end. Among other notable absences in my make-up, I seemed to be missing a spine. Even my escape, my renunciation was only on sufferance; they let me go because they had no need of me. If that should change, they’d whistle me back soon enough.
As now. I couldn’t believe that they needed me, I thought that they were whistling only as a matter of form: this is a family crisis, the whole family should be here and that includes Benedict; Hazel, will you fetch him, please? And of course she’d be only too pleased to renew her influence over her renegade, her spineless twin.
Influence? Dominion, more like. And she’d always enjoyed that, Hazel. She might have left me alone, but she had never let go of the leash.
And so we came to my uncle’s house that fine and sunny Friday, and my head was snug in my sister’s helmet and hammering louder than the engine of my sister’s BMW as she raced it down the valley, down and down, all downhill from here. And I sat with my arms around her, but it was she who held me, as she always had; and I watched the swift road unwind in a hurry beneath my booted feet, and I thought it was dappled with death.
Ben Macallan #1
by Chaz Brenchley
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-140-5