I told myself it wasn’t my fault. I visited him as often as I could, trekking almost weekly through London down to East Sussex. Things were different in those days, my friends now insist, but even then a faint, familiar pain gnawed at my conscience. I brought him library books – bedraggled poetry anthologies – and found myself repeatedly ferrying slabs of milk chocolate, though I felt shamed – my offerings were so inadequate.
He tells me his name is Pewee. “With three Es,” he explains – a little apologetically. I’m standing in Highgate Cemetery at my brother’s grave, the tramp sitting crosslegged beside it. I’m clutching a bunch of white daffodils. All about us, headstones lean and topple, suffocated by dark green ivy and ringed by ferns bursting out of the undergrowth.
In retrospect, we should have noticed – seen the tremors before the construction collapsed. But changes came on imperceptibly. Always the black sheep, mum would say. He’d pour salt in our tea, stare and laugh manically. Back then, no one understood his disease. We left him out of family games; conversations danced in loops around him in the third person. He’d disappear for days. When he came home late at night we locked him out. We pushed and pushed, not realising he’d break.
The tramp loiters by the darkened archway bolstered by four fluted pillars. He says he doesn’t come here often. I haven’t asked him if he does – he just volunteers the fact with a kind of conspiratorial glance. I think he must be waiting for someone. I can’t see what lies beyond the arch, but I get the feeling it isn’t a velvet chaise longue with someone hand-feeding me grapes.
Each time we met, though my brother smiled in recognition, something within him seemed absent. The small room bore the atmosphere of a sealed confessional. I wished both of us would confess. My brother, his hurt; and me, my regret. Instead, the minutes ticked onward. Sometimes he drifted towards sleep. He looked peaceful then. I passed these moments gazing out of the window. Rows of vegetable boxes lined the hospital’s small garden, tended in hope of future reaping.
He keeps poking a nail file into his black candy-floss hair while scrutinizing his face in a mirror glued onto the reverse of an Oddbins loyalty card. An earthworm crawls in and out of the top pocket of his overcoat. He gathers it squirming in his hand and offers it to me – as if to eat. For one moment the ghost of my brother’s face wails in his features. He reaches out his other hand for mine, and – slowly, wordlessly – we waltz.
About the author: Michael Loveday’s flash fiction novella ‘Three Men on the Edge‘ is published by V. Press (2018) and his stories have appeared in journals such as Flash: the International Short-Short Story Magazine, Funny Bone: Flashing for Comic Relief, and the National Flash Fiction Day Anthology 2017. He helps to organise the UK Flash Fiction Festival, and is judging the 2019 Bath Novella-in-Flash Award.
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