My brother peers through the wooden slats at his kitchen window and sees that it’s me. Pipe bands play in the next street down; snare drums rattle under the shrill whistle of flutes. I never come home in marching season. He opens the door and coughs at the afternoon sun.
‘Alright,’ he says, half asleep.
I step inside with his clean laundry heavy in my arms. The air is stale, warm with the smell of cigarettes and cat. God help him, this is how he lives. Mum bought him this house maybe three years ago. Now it’s not worth half it was then. Money that was meant for the both of us. I dump the laundry on the granite worktop.
‘Has she said anything to you?’ he asks.
‘No,’ I lie. ‘She only said she’s worried about you.’
‘Fuck sake. That’s all she keeps saying.’
He shuts the door and I can barely make him out.
‘Can I sit down?’
‘Aye. Do you want anything? I probably don’t have much.’
‘Have you any herbal tea?’
‘Sure just look in the cupboards. There might be some Mum got.’
I open one cupboard after another as he moves to one of the sofas on the other side of the room.
‘Is it okay if I open the blinds a bit?’
He mumbles something and I twist the rod by the window to let light in. The middle of July and he still has Halloween decorations up. Paper skeletons are stuck to the wall above the toaster, limbs angled as if they’re dancing. By the kettle a glow-in-the-dark skull lies on its side.
‘There’s no tea,’ I say.
Hunched over in his shorts he lights a cigarette and, rocking a little, reaches to scratch the eczema on his leg. It’s as bad as it has ever been. At 32 his legs and arms weep. I grew out of mine after primary school, but his clung on. Scabs cover his calves like countries on a map; tubs of cream and dented tubes of ointment litter the coffee table. He opens the E45, takes a three-fingered scoop of white and rubs it onto his just-scratched leg, the cigarette limp in his mouth. He always uses too much.
‘Mum said you came round the other night with a bleeding nose,’ I say and roll up my sleeves. The skin shows smooth on my forearms.
‘Yeah, she probably thinks I’ve been snorting something and that messed it up. I haven’t but.’
‘What about the stuff you did take?’
‘You don’t snort it. I’m never taking that shite again. I’m serious. It’s so bad.’
I sit on the sofa opposite him. He looks heavy, older than he is, maybe older than I am. Red and purple blotches cover his face and his hands shake as he puts the cigarette to his lips. Under his nose is a crust of brown blood. Nothing he doesn’t deserve.
‘So what happened?’
‘I fell off that bloody stool while I was on the computer,’ he waves his cigarette in the direction of the breakfast bar. ‘I fucking whacked my head off it. I was sitting there and must have fell asleep and then boom and I was on the floor.’
‘Is that really what happened?’
‘Aye, I took a quick blast of the oxy when I got in from work. A slow release tablet it was meant to be. Usually it takes a while for it to come on.’
‘What did you tell Mum?’ ‘I told her the truth. I told her I fell asleep and hit my head on the table. I bet she doesn’t believe me.’
He drops the cigarette half-smoked into a can of Budweiser by his foot and lights another.
‘I fell down the stairs the other morning too. I didn’t feel anything though. Injuries, like.’
‘That’s not good if you’re falling down the stairs.’
‘That’s what I mean. I am definitely never taking that shite again. No way,’ he says, a slur at the word definitely. He looks at me.
‘What do you think? Do I seem okay to you?’
‘You don’t seem too bad. Maybe a wee bit weird.’
He coughs and looks away. I’m supposed to say something else. I’m supposed to tell him about the letter.
They sent it to Mum and called him by his full name, Stephen William Bell. That’s what she kept saying on the drive down from the International: ‘They even know Stevie’s middle name.’ Usually when I land I just let her talk, she rabbits on about Stephen, his latest venture, what more money’s been lost but this time she had something to say. I was waiting for her to call them cowards but she didn’t. I guess you don’t call them cowards when you’re scared. She asked what I thought they wanted, what I thought they would do to him. I didn’t know what to tell her. It was always the knees they went for, or it used to be, growing up here, stories of beatings on the local news before the sports report. But things have changed. Things are meant to have changed, with peace and all. The adverts at the International say Our Time, Our Place, next to pictures of people in canoes, laughing and carrying on, like life is normal now and always was. I said a warning was what it was. A warning. I said I’d sort it out. No need for Stephen to be troubled. Beloved Stevie.
He points the remote control at the TV. A blue-white comet swirls in the middle of the screen, fades and the room is lit by a paused scene from his game. He picks another controller from the table, angles it at a black box below the TV and the game starts again. ‘I want to get one of them ones that does everything. One of them fancy controllers you can programme,’ he says.
‘What money will you use for that?’
‘I’ve got some.’
On the screen he flicks through characters, cars, weapons, back to cars, back to weapons and finally settles on a menu that lists radio stations.
‘What sort of music do you want?’
‘Is there anything ‘80s?’
He chooses a station and a power ballad comes on, already somewhere near the end, the drums fast and drenched in echo. Leaning back in his chair, he presses a button on the controller and the view switches to behind a car he’s driving.
‘You can go literally anywhere in this. Do literally anything. And there’s no police.’
‘Can you go up and talk to people?’
For a while he speeds through the city, crossing verges to drive on the wrong side of the road, running people over on the pavement, leaving them for dead. Every so often he gets out of the car, drags another driver from theirs and kicks them to the ground. His knees don’t move as he pounds the controller. They shine in the light of the game.
‘Remember when we did the drug deals with My Pet Monster?’ I ask.
‘That was ages ago.’
‘And Charlie Sheen. I don’t think we even knew who Charlie Sheen was.’
He scratches his leg, keeps his eyes on the game.
‘Charlie Sheen. How come you always named them?’ he asks.
‘I don’t think I did.’
He’s right though. I was the one who named all our stuffed toys. I kept the good names for mine and gave his ones like Charlie Sheen and Pope John Paul the Turd. The only time I couldn’t give them names was when they came with one already. My Pet Monster stayed My Pet Monster and Wrinkles stayed Wrinkles. I gave them voices too. Mine spoke smoothly, soothingly, almost like girls. His were nasty-voiced, with accents edged like knives. Something happens in the game that I miss, the screen goes black, fades in and he walks from the front doors of a hospital.
‘Fuck sake. This didn’t used to happen,’ he says and looks at his hands.
I made up the games we played back then. The drug deals staged around the old house with My Pet Monster as the boss, Stephen’s other toys his henchmen, hidden in cupboards and under beds, sprinkled with talcum powder as pretend cocaine, waiting with notes giving clues to where the next deal was going down. I even made the handwriting on the notes bad, as if his toys couldn’t write properly, didn’t have as good an education or weren’t as smart as mine.
Charlie Sheen was My Pet Monster’s lieutenant and he’d always be the second to last found, never with a note. The game was for Stephen to make him talk and tell us where My Pet Monster was. He’d have to beat him or shove his head down the toilet, do some kind of damage. Once he burnt Charlie Sheen’s ear on the electric hob of the cooker. The brown fur shriveled and smoked but it didn’t catch fire the way I thought it would. Mum stopped the game before things went too far and when Stephen was in bed she yelled at me. The trouble was always my idea, my fault, she said.
‘How did you end up selling it?’ I ask.
He thumbs the controller and his car changes from red to black.
‘I ordered too much off the Internet one time. I must have been wasted or something. There’s no way I could take that much. These guys from my old work were looking for some.’
‘Was that all?’
‘There was maybe some other guys down the pub. The Royal. That was all.’
‘You shouldn’t have been selling it.’
‘I’m not stupid. I didn’t mean to.’
‘But it’s all gone now?’
‘Aye. I flushed the rest of it down the bog. Mum keeps going on about it though. I should never have told her I took it.’ He changes the car back to red. ‘She said she was going to give me her car. That’s probably out the window now. It’s a bloody old lady car anyway. You’re lucky you don’t have her living right next to you. You can leave and go home and not have her come round your house and hoke through your stuff and everything. You’re lucky.’
‘I’ve got the car outside.’
The letter says to bring him to a place on the inside edge of Strangford Lough, the old monastery ruin out on Nendrum Island. I can’t remember if we’ve been there before or not. In the summer holidays Mum drove us to places on the Lough and around the peninsula, the empty beaches that would take an hour to get to, the whitewashed cottages turned into folk museums, the bird sanctuaries, the butterfly farm. I sat in the back and Stephen sat in the front with Mum, complaining he was bored and wanting to go home. He always sat in the front, her beloved Stevie.
‘This fucking game,’ he says, as there’s a crash, the black screen and he walks out of the hospital again.
‘Shall we go out and get some air?’ ‘What for?’ ‘It would just be good. It’s a nice day.’ ‘A nice day?’ ‘Yeah. It’s sunny.’ ‘You sound like Mum.’ ‘I do not. Come on. Let’s go for a drive.’ ‘Could you maybe take me to the shop to get more fags?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Okay. Hold on and I’ll get shoes and stuff on.’ He pauses the game, stands up and knocks over the Budweiser by his foot. Ash from the ring around the top spills onto the rug, the one that used to be in the dining room of the old house, the house Mum sold to pay for this place. As he goes upstairs I think about cleaning it up but I don’t. He has to learn to look after himself.
On the shelves by the door are all his DVDs, the horror films and the action films. Near the top are the bigger-boxed Blu-rays of the same films. On the bottom shelf are the handful of books I’ve sent him for birthdays and Christmas. The Wasp Factory and The Catcher in the Rye and A Prayer for Owen Meany. I wrote inscriptions in each one saying why he should read it but there they are, all with spines uncreased. I did my best.
I wait for five minutes, then five more. He doesn’t come down and there’s no sound of movement. We’re meant to be there in an hour and it’s a forty-five minute drive if I take the long way. There’s no question of being late.
‘Stephen,’ I call.
He doesn’t answer.
‘Stephen,’ this time louder. There’s still no answer so I go up to get him. The stairs are steep and narrow, no bannister on either side. At the top is a pot plant, green and healthy, with leaves that feather out towards the skylight. I check to see if it’s plastic but it’s real. Mum must water it when she comes to clean.
I stand by the open door of the bedroom. On the wall above the bed is a full-size cinema poster for The Exorcist. He’s on his back on the bed, asleep, legs bent over the end, jeans on and trainers on but the laces hanging undone. I knock on the door and say his name. He turns his head to one side on the duvet and I see the crust under his nose more clearly. I want to press a wet cloth to it, to clean it, see how much of the blood will come off.
I step into the room and shake his leg.
‘We have to go.’
‘Was I asleep?’
‘Ah, shit,’ he sits up and looks at his shoes.
‘Oh yeah, I couldn’t get the laces done.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I must have forgot how or something.’
‘Can you do them now?’
He makes a sound as if he isn’t sure.
‘Here and I’ll do them,’ I say and kneel on the carpet. He falls back onto the bed.
The laces are bright white, the trainers new, black Adidas with the three bands in yellow. I tie the lace on each one, not sure if I’ve judged the tightness right. They seem loose so before I stand up I double-knot them and pull hard. His jeans are threaded thin over the top of his knees. They used to smash the kneecaps from the side or from behind to make it worse, back in the bad old days.
‘Stephen. Wake up.’
‘I think I want to stay here.’
‘Come on. It’ll do you good to get out.’
Outside the drums and flutes have gone. The bands will be gathering at the park up in the centre of town. In their place is the squall of seagulls and the emptiness the sea gives to the air when there are no clouds.
‘Bloody hell,’ Stephen says as he slumps into the passenger seat and flips down the sun-visor.
‘Do your seatbelt.’
‘We’re going to the shop yeah?’
I press the button that locks the doors. This is the car we learned in, the one we did our tests in. I had to take mine five times; Stephen passed with his first. Mum was so pleased about that she took us for dinner at the Italian place on the ring road and asked him to drive. In the restaurant they sat at their carbonaras and laughed at me, at all times I failed, like when the windscreen misted up, I didn’t know how to work the de-mister and the instructor told me to pull over because we couldn’t see the road. How was I supposed to know that? Nobody ever showed me. I learned it all the hard way. On the way home from the restaurant Stephen ran into the back of a Calor Gas lorry at a set of traffic lights, not used to the weight of the three of us in the car and the extra time it took to stop. I wanted to hug him that time but I was glad it had happened. Mum shook her head like it was my weight had caused it. When people ask why I left that’s what I think of, although it’s never what I say.
I take us in the opposite direction to where we’re meant to be going, towards the outside edge of the peninsula. To drive the whole length of it and back would take maybe an hour and a half. When I’m home and I don’t want to think, this is where I drive, out and away from the town, so nobody knows where I am—a road that feels like it’s running away from everything, where if you’re moving you can hide.
‘What shop are we going to?’ he asks.
‘The Maxol garage out at Ballyneill.’
‘That’s bloody miles away. Why can’t we just go to the one in town?’
‘It won’t take that long. I want to drive.’
‘We should go to the one in town.’
‘We’re not going there.’
‘Where are we going then?’
‘Ballyneill. I just told you that.’
‘As long as we go to the shop. Could I borrow some money?’
‘What are we doing at Ballyneill?’
‘We’ll go for a walk on the beach or something.’
‘A walk on the beach?’
‘Aye. It’s a nice day.’
‘Okay. I might need to borrow twenty quid.’
The sky is tall and in the distance over the sea is the thin grey line of Scotland. When we were kids that was the place people ran away to, where they went when they were told to leave, after they’d had done whatever was done to them. More stories we heard on the news. The night Mum rang and told me about the letter she talked about people we knew in Aberdeen, about sending Stephen away to them. I said don’t be stupid, I’ll speak to them, I’ll sort it out. What about those fellas you played football with, she asked, the lads who wanted to become ministers. Couldn’t he claim sanctuary in a church? I’ll sort it out, I said.
Where the road widens and dips to run closer to the coast we pass the Copeland Islands, islands with houses on them nobody lives in, places used to graze sheep, where you can get boats out to in the summer. We go through Groomsport, Donaghadee, Millisle and I know I need to turn inland if we’re to make it in time. I look over at Stephen and he’s asleep again, head back on the rest, mouth open. The Maxol garage passes on our right. They’ll give him a warning and that will be all. A warning will do him no harm. Things have changed.
Mum once got stopped for speeding in Ballyneill. The cops let her off with a talking to and after that she always slowed right down coming into the village. Each time I reach Ballyneill that’s what I think of, driving by the house where the police chief constable used to live, the walls still topped with barbed wire and security cameras at the gates, wondering if there were more police around here because of that house. Someone has to stop us.
I stamp my right foot down and keep it down. The red needle rises and the road ahead is clear. Welcome to Ballyneill a sign says. Please drive carefully. We pass fancy houses with big white conservatories, houses with tennis courts. Speeding up, a boat yard, bungalows, the beach. Stephen sleeps on. On our right a golf course is coming up, a zebra crossing in front of it. Orange lollipop lights flash and a group of boys with golf bags wait, jostling each other. One has a red and white Titleist bag. Such a wholesome game. I swerve onto the wrong side of the road towards them and they push back onto the pavement. The boy with the bag trips into the hedge. A car comes towards us, flashing its headlights and I have to brake and veer back onto the right side of the road.
‘Jesus, Stephen, would you wake up?’
The village ends after more bungalows and a sign that says Thank you for driving carefully. I pull over. An old man on a bike hammers on the passenger window. His eyes are slanted in anger. He shouts at us, makes a sign for me to put down the window and I give him the finger. Stephen rolls his head, disturbed by the noise but doesn’t wake up.
I turn the car around and shift through the gears, foot full on the accelerator, hand on the horn. Ballyneill blurs past a second time. The golfing boys make wanker signs at us from the other side of the road. We’re thanked for driving carefully a second time. We pass the police chief constable’s house. Nobody stops us.
Slowing down, I check the rearview mirror, indicate and turn inland.
Away from the sea, trees close in over the road and we’re almost in the dark, cutting across to Newtownards. My hands feel light on the wheel and slip with sweat, the speed of the car not quite under my control. We’re well within the limit but it feels like we’re moving too fast.
The sky greys.
We reach Comber and I pray for the traffic lights to turn red so I can stop, lean over and shake him but they don’t. It’s one of those days where the lights stay green, one of those lucky days. ‘Stevie?’ This is the road we used to drive to get to our grandparents’ house in Downpatrick, a town Stephen and I both hated for no good reason at all. Cowpatrick we called it. I called it.
In the middle of Lisbane town I turn left onto the old quarry road. After a while it forks and I slow down to see which direction to take. To the left is Castle Espie, the bird and nature place, where you can go and get married and have your picture taken by the water with the reeds and swans in the background. A brown tourist sign for the monastic site points to the right.
Rain flecks the windscreen and I have to check where the control for the wipers is. The rubber screeches on the glass at first, smearing the drops and blurring the way for a moment. The digital clock on the dashboard shows we have five minutes left.
The road narrows to a single lane stretching across a causeway. We’re out on the Lough now, water on both sides; a red-edged sign says the road is liable to flooding. Ahead of us is the island, covered in trees stood straight, no wind to move them. There’s another sign for the monastic site and parking. I check to make sure the doors are locked and stop the car on the causeway. Rain scars the passenger window by Stephen’s head.
‘Stevie, wake up.’
I punch him on the arm. He shifts. I punch again, hard. I used to be able to hit him like this and get away with it.
‘Jesus, Stevie. Wake up.’
‘What?’ He opens his eyes.
‘Where are we? Have we been to the shop?’ He looks at his feet to where the blue plastic bag with cigarettes and crisps would be, touches his hand to his arm.
‘Sorry, I forgot.’
‘I need to go to the shop. Was I asleep?’
He looks at the clock.
‘The whole time?’
‘Fuck. It must take a while to get out of your system. I’m never taking that shite again.’ He looks around. ‘Where’s this?’
‘What? You said we were going to the shop.’
He kicks the bottom of the glove box. Then he kicks it again and kicks it again.
‘Fuck sake. I knew this is what you’d come for.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Fuck sake. Do you think I’m stupid?’
I twist the control for the wipers but they’re already on full.
‘It’s not me. Mum asked me to take you. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t have a choice.’
‘What do you think’s going to happen?’
‘You haven’t done anything that bad. Nothing’s got out of hand yet. You’ll get a talking to.’
‘You don’t live here. You don’t have a clue.’
‘I don’t need to live here.’
‘I won’t be able to walk.’
‘Don’t be fucking stupid. It’s not like that anymore.’
‘You don’t know anything about it.’
‘It’ll be a warning. A talking to.’
‘I’ll not be able to walk.’
‘It’ll be okay. And I’m here.’
‘No. No, no, no, no, no.’
He puts his hand in his pocket, pulls out a handful of tablets, shoves them in his mouth, winces and swallows. The digits of the clock change. He rubs his eyes and the eczema shows raw around his wrists.
‘Come on. It’ll be okay.’
I start the engine and ease the car forward. The surface of the road changes at the end of the causeway, becomes rougher and the car lurches as the wheels drop into craters in the old tarmac. Loose stones pelt against the underside, rattling like the start of a hail shower, like a drummer getting ready to play. I pull into the car park.
Parked by a row of bins is a red 4X4, the left-hand side splattered with sun- dried mud. A replica Rangers shirt is suckered to the back windshield. Two men are sat in the front. I park as far away from them as I can and turn off the engine. I unlock Stephen’s door.
‘You have to go up there,’ I point to the steps that lead to the ruins of the monastery, a metal handrail running up the side.
‘I don’t want to go, Aaron. Don’t make me go.’
‘You have to. Come on. They only want to talk to you.’
‘Are you coming?’
‘I’ll wait here for you.’ He scratches his legs with both hands so his jeans bunch above the ankle. The denim is damp, stained from the blood and weeping of his eczema. He’s crying.
‘Will it be okay?’ he asks.
‘It will. I’m here.’
The digits of the clock change.
‘Take an umbrella.’
I hand him Mum’s umbrella from the pocket under the steering wheel. He undoes his seatbelt, wipes his sleeve over his eyes and looks at his nose in the mirror on the sun-visor before opening the door. It swings wide and the smell of the Lough fills the air, sea-salty and stagnant.
He closes the door and walks round the front of the car. It’s like all the times I dropped him off for the extra maths classes after school, when I was home from university. He walks the same way he did back then, feet dragging in his new shoes, a lean like he needs someone to look after him. My brother.
When he reaches the bottom of the steps he puts up the umbrella. The pattern on it is a Monet painting of water lilies, a shimmer of pinks and blues. He looks back at the car and I look away. The doors of the 4X4 open and the men get out. The driver slings a sports bag over his shoulder.