• Joanna Seldon

  • Halting  


     I just saw my father in a dream. He looked radio-active, pumping out light, but I knew him by the heavy tread of his footstep, which made the ladder shudder for an instant. And, through the brightness which even in my dream dazzled my eyes, I could see that characteristic droop of the head as he climbed. Going places, maybe, but braced for defeat.

     There were other figures too, going up and down that ladder into the loft. But you know the trouble with dreams: you’re sure you recognise a person, or a place, but you can’t find the right name. Possibly my father was the only dead person on that ladder. Certainly, I don’t remember my mother being there. But for some reason, the moment I woke up I found myself thinking about the man I met last night, as though he were in some way connected.

     What woke me was morning light pressing through the flimsy curtains. That, I suppose, explains the radio-active angels of my dream. And physical discomfort also splintered sleep: my pillow, hard and lumpy, feels like a stone. What else is to be expected when you cheap-skate and spend the night at a primitive B & B? The old dear who runs the place (she introduced herself, but I forgot her name instantly) is a bit too intrusive for my taste  As we limped up the stairs together to the top floor, she kept on apologising and, once in the room, babbled incomprehensibly about what to do in case of fire: open the loft hatch, pull down the steps, climb up and out onto the roof. I wasn’t really listening: my mind was on loft conversions.

     “Do you think you can manage that?” she asked, averting her eyes from my crummy leg.

       “Let’s just hope there isn’t a fire.” I put on the light, slightly higher-pitched voice I use for telling jokes. The old lady simply sighed: not one of my successes, then.

     So, no fire – but the steps came in useful for my father and his mates.

     This pain in my thigh – it’s throbbing just inches from my groin, where the chap last night gave it that almighty poke. I need to lie here a bit longer. A glance at my watch on the bedside table tells me it’s still early; I’m not due to meet Dom until this evening, and today’s leg of the journey shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Over breakfast I’ll check the BlackBerry again for train times. Mind you – I’m not sure I can face the Hanra Lodge full English. I still haven’t recovered from that dream. Even less from last night’s fight. It’s as if I’m roped to this spot by a complicated knot of sensations, and I haven’t quite made up my mind whether I even want to try and untangle it. I’m just not ready, yet, for this final part of the journey. I’m not ready to meet Dom.

    * * * *

     Our mother once said that Dom getting himself born one minute before me was the thing about him she most admired. I’m thinking about that now, away the edge of the duvet to inspect my injury. It’s very curious: the red marks at the top of my left thigh, in the soft inner edge, look like fingerprints. I can see five digits, shaped like crescent moons. And they’re almost identical – though much larger – to the birthmark on Dom’s left ankle. When we were small and had baths together, I used to stroke the tiny crescents. I suppose I felt responsible. We’ve heard the birth story from our father, who was down at the bottom end waiting for his twins; saw Dom emerge as the obstetrician yanked him out with forceps. I needed no such help, apparently. I came rushing out in my blood and mucus plating, and one arm was stretched ahead of me, hand reaching out and emerging at the same moment as my head.

     “You wanted to be born first, Jake,” said our mother. “Dom’s birthmark – that’s your fingerprints, I’ll swear.”

     Of course she never mentioned this in front of Dom. It was simply one of my mother’s exclusive asides to the special son.

     Sometimes, when I snatch a glance from those quick black eyes, or I’m watching her hands move in and out like a swimmer, just touching the keys of her laptop, I think: that is myself I see. We share a private language of contempt. Now its sole target is brother Dom. Looking back, I’m surprised by how much she betrayed to me about her feelings for her husband.

     Once, I remember – must be well over ten years ago – during the foot and mouth epidemic. Our father came crashing in, after a day spent up on Hamoir Hill sacrificing slaughtered sheep. Dom was helping him, as always: they’d built the pyre together.  I’d climbed up to inspect it, but made my excuses before the nasty part got going. So there I was, sitting in the kitchen (recently refurbished under our mother’s direction – speckled granite surfaces, a British Racing Green Aga, wheat-sheaves and dried flowers moulting from miniature clothes horses. An ersatz farmhouse kitchen on a real farm: the wittiness of it appealed to me.) And suddenly there was Father, exhausted, black with smoke and depression.

     “Your life’s work, Ike,” remarked my mother, logging off and removing her laptop from the kitchen table. “Gone up in smoke.”  She turned away from us, and I heard a gush of water in the sink. As she clicked on the kettle, she was singing quietly to herself. Maybe only the granite worktop could be sure of her song, but to me it sounded like “The Fool on the Hill.”  I’ve always shared her admiration of Paul McCartney’s lyrics.

     As I picture that scene now, I steel myself for Dom, for with his red hair, sunburnt skin and thickset frame he is Ike Mark Two. So I’m not sure I believe Mother’s claim that his talent shone strongest for her when he beat me along the slippery track between her thighs. After all, what was it she admired in Ike? Physical strength and dependability, certainly; also an instinctive intelligence about the systems that steer our world, and about which people to trust. All of this she must have seen also in Dom.  Like our father, he is happiest outdoors. That’s why I arranged for us to meet tonight at this gourmet bistro I found on the internet: you go down steep steps into a tasteful Mediterranean cave. Dom will hate it. Still, seeing me limp down those steps might cheer him up a bit.  

     I don’t know why he wants to meet me – though I can guess. The text he sent last week was uncharacteristically ambiguous. But he used the word ‘land’ – and that’s enough of a hint. It didn’t ping in at a very opportune moment: I was trawling the web for possible City internships, and then there he was, the one-minute-older twin who’s trying to grab my inheritance, his message on my BlackBerry screen a black cipher of distrust.

     Land. I don’t remember Dom returning with Father after that foot and mouth conflagration. But I’m sure it was only about a year afterwards, the land dry from a hot summer, that I greeted Dom in the kitchen with a concoction much headier than our mother’s cup of tea. By now Father’s run of bad luck had been topped by a wasting disease which scorched the life out of him with grim efficiency. The harder it burned, the harder I partied at uni. One of the many extra-curricular skills I’d picked up was how to mix cocktails. I was in mid experiment when Dom slumped, sweating, into a chair and demanded a drink  He’s a real ale man, so perhaps he wasn’t used to spirits  I’d created a Negroni – gin, vermouth rosso and campari - and the tall narrow jug was transformed into a phial of blood at which the evening sun could merely wink. Dom sniffed at the glass I poured for him, then downed it in one.

     “Not bad. Got a bit of a kick to it. So – Jake, is this what you mean by student cuisine?” That spot of French came out in a snarl.
       I poured him another. He drank this more slowly, frowning a little under those pigs’-bristle eyebrows as though trying to identify its ingredients. Half-way down the glass, he swiped his mouth with the back of his hand. I noted his calloused palms and, when he took them away to re-connect with his drink, the loose hang of his lips. He took another swig, then belched.

     “Strikes me you’re not exactly earning the allowance Dad gives you. You doing any work at all?” Jabbing the table with his forefinger, he gave a farmyard snort. “Fuck it, I’m glad I didn’t go to uni.” Another slurp, and more slur to his speech. “Waste of time. Like, I run the farm. The business.” He stammered and hiccupped. ‘Business’ was a hard word to get out. Now the finger was jabbing at his chest. “I make the decisions, what with Dad being so fucking ill.”
     Here was my chance. “Yes, Dom.  Like you say, you make the decisions. Another drink? Sure? What’s that? Yes, there’s some Natural Blonde in the fridge. Here you are.”

     He knocked over the beer can as he cracked it open. The Natural Blonde’s urine trail trickled towards his lap  I re-settled the can and, gripping the edge of the table, leaned over him, putting my face as close to his fumy breath as I dared.

     “You make the decisions about the farm. About the land. But what about my input?” 

     For a moment, I worried that surprise had lurched him into sobriety. “Your impact?  You’ve never shown the slightest interest in farming.” But ‘slightest’ proved too much for his tongue and he gave up, collapsing into the back of his chair, beer can to his lips.

     “It’s not just about farming. Like I said. The land.” I paused for dramatic effect, but my brother was too far gone to appreciate it. I leaned over further, pursuing him into the back of the chair. “There are other things you can do with land.” I paused again. The can stayed suspended just shy of the feeble lips. “Other things.”  

     Dom took a breath, opening his mouth not to drink, I feared, but to speak. I beat him to it. “I know what you’re going to say: Father started up the deer farming project. Fine. He likes venison. But there are other ways to diversify. Some farmers offer paint-balling, for example.” I funnelled my face into its Voldemort scowl as, again, he tried to interrupt. “But we could do something more grown-up. More lucrative. Like get planning permission and build houses on it. Or get planning permission and sell it to someone else to build houses on.”  

     Now here was a fine monologue.  I banged the table with my fist. “This farming malarkey – it’s a losing game, oh brother mine. And you know it, though you’ll never admit it. Once Father’s gone, we share the decision making, OK? And if I say we build houses, then we build fucking houses. That’s where the money is.”

     Dom had started to sweat again. He drained his beer; the can fell to the floor as though he no longer had strength to hold it. The lips were shaking now, and for the first time I saw fear in him. “Fine, Jake. Fine. Whatever.” If his breath smelt of Negroni and The Natural Blonde, then his sweat was animal sharp. Perhaps he’d been with the deer.

     My eye caught a movement by the kitchen door. I still wonder how much Mother heard of that conversation. She will have heard the shouting, anyway. Entering the room, removing the sunglasses from the top of her head and reaching down to pick up the beer can, she gave me a quick nod. I think she approved.

    * * * *

     Not long after that Father was rushed into intensive care, which is where he was the last time I saw him. The disease had shredded his eyesight and his mind. That’s why he mistook me for Dom when I took his hand. I’d managed to get to the hospital ahead of my brother – busy, as usual, sorting out some problem on the farm. I have to thank Mother for this. The first to be informed of the patient’s deteriorating condition, she’d pulled the keys of her Golf convertible from the hook by the front door, and suggested I hop in beside her. Dom followed later in the Range Rover. I was a bit embarrassed, actually, and hoped she wouldn’t notice that I’d helped myself to some lavish squirts of Hugo Boss – the aftershave Dom’s girlfriend had given him for his birthday. But she picked up the scent immediately, of course.

     “I’m surprised that you’ve decided to take on Dom’s favourite smell,” she remarked, slamming back the soft top. “Still, no bad thing – disguising yourself. Like some kind of animal. Atavistic.” And she pressed down on the accelerator.

     Father’s sense of smell hadn’t deserted him. So of course he thought I was Dom. I settled down on the chair next to his bed, deciding (on my mother’s cue, I suppose) not to enlighten him. Although Father had his own room, being in the ICU, someone had drawn the flower-patterned curtains all the way round his bed, as if to ensure that death, when it came, would be a wholly private affair. I liked that. It felt secret and safe in there, a tube-strung floral haven.

     “Dom?” he murmured, stroking my fingers. His hand felt cold, and it trembled slightly.

     “Dad,” I whispered, remembering to address him with the right word, and dropping my voice in imitation of my brother’s bass. Dom could sneer as much as he liked at how I passed my time at uni, but I’ll say now, looking back at that impersonation, the hours I put into student drama certainly did me no harm.

     I can’t entirely have convinced Father, who frowned a little, making all too visible the thickening grey in his ginger eyebrows, and reminding me for a second of Dom puzzling over that mischievous cocktail. But he kept his hand in mine and, after a pause in which he seemed to be gathering strength, opened with a grunt. His words, when he managed to get them out, were just above a whisper.

     “I want you to understand that I’m trusting everything to you. You know best – and don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise.” An unnerving plug of phlegm in his throat started to gurgle and hiss. “What to do with that land – well, it’s up to you. Yes, you and your brother don’t always see eye to eye. But remember, when it comes to the family property, you’re the boss.  God bless you, my son.”

     I can’t be sure, but I think Dom arrived just before the end. He must have understood what had happened. Like I said, he has this inescapable grip on the truth about people. As our father blessed me, I became aware that the flowers were moving, as though blown by a breeze through some antiseptic meadow. Then Dom pushed through a gap in the curtain, his eyes flaming with fury and, perhaps, with grief.  But our father’s eyes were closed. They stayed that way. By the time our mother arrived with three Styrofoam cups of hospital tea, Ike was gone.

     I haven’t seen Dom since the funeral.  y friend Rachel’s doing her articles with a firm specialising in property law. So she’s been a very handy contact in trying to sort out planning permission.

    * * * *

     I’m thinking about these things as I lie here, half-covered by the duvet, stony pillow slung to the floor, thigh still throbbing, confident sunlight making the room glow, one edge of the landscape print on the opposite wall a luminous blade. It’s hard to believe I set out on this journey only yesterday morning. I got Dom’s text; I spent two more nights on Rachel’s sofa (I suspect I’ll never make it into her bed); then I left.  It was just some ordinary trip, driven by duty and guilt, until last night.  

     I was on my way back to Hanra Lodge after a quick and lonely pint.  n the street where I walked the glare of shop windows was barricaded behind security grilles. Several buildings had been abandoned to dark emptiness. Is there anything you can do with dying property in a place like this? The wind smelt of frying fish; it sent cigarette packs and drinks cartons scurrying round my ankles. That modest little room at the top of the B & B now seemed like a very desirable destination, and I quickened my step.

     Then my shoulders were suddenly gripped from behind; I felt a sharp spasm in the small of my back (my assailant’s knee, I suppose). And then I was on the ground, clamped to a man whose skin and hair and jacket smelt, curiously, of apples. I’m being mugged, I told myself. But he didn’t seem too interested in finding my wallet or my phone. He actually appeared to be enjoying the fight. I pummelled; I scratched; I kneed. I found a second or two to congratulate myself, once again, on my student drama days: it was thanks to that scene with Charles the Wrestler, when I played Orlando in Rachel’s zany production of As You Like It in our last year, that I learned how to fight.

     All at once, my wrestler lay still.  But I didn’t have long to wonder if I’d killed him. He jerked his head up, running a hand through his messy halo of blonde curls. The smile he flashed was almost benign. That put me off guard. The hand suddenly moved from his head to my groin, and he gave my thigh a powerful pinch, a pinch like fire, like the electric current when lightning strikes. Had I got it all wrong? But no – it wasn’t sex that he wanted. He seemed to gather me in his arms as he hauled me up. Then he took a step back. To my astonishment, he shook my hand.

     “Well done. I like your skill. And your courage. Where d’you learn to fight like that?” His voice was quiet, mellow as ripe fruit.

     He reached inside his jacket (miraculously untainted by its recent contact with the pavement) and brought out a business card.  “Here.  Take this.  With my blessing.”

     His fingers met mine as he handed it to me – the merest touch, like the brush of a wing. Then he was gone. I’d uttered not a word. The card felt smooth and clean as I rubbed it between finger and thumb.

     Michael Bonaventura. Holistic Therapies and Life Coaching.

     I felt the beginnings of a small rip as I secreted the card in the back pocket of my jeans. After a moment’s thought, I re-inserted it – in my front pocket this time, just above where he’d jabbed in his hand, nestling next to the photo I keep there. Michael Bonaventura. A memorable name. I might adopt it. Yes, I’ve always been an alter ego person, of course.

     When I started to walk, I found I couldn’t put weight on my injured leg. But as I hobbled back to my top floor room at Hanra Lodge, peace flooded through me. Call it post-coital, if you like: it came closest to that. Turning the key in the outer door, I realised that this was the best I’d felt since that stony parting after the funeral. The lock clicked open.

     I feel it still now, as I lie here and day travels on through the morning without me. The fight with the stranger, last night’s dream: they were sacred gifts.

     Taking care to land on my good leg, I swing out of bed and start to get ready. In my head, I’m composing something effusive to write in the visitors’ book I noticed by the front door. That done, I’d better start working out what to say to Dom.  Time to do that on the train. All afternoon it will carry me to him. At the station, he’ll be there to meet me.

     We have already travelled a long way together. Bar that single, fraught minute which sliced us apart, we have clasped one another on this life journey, often in struggle, sometimes in love. I have been guided to him by angels. Who knows? Maybe they will show me what to say to him.