What’s good about the telly is that Susie can blather on and on and it doesn’t bother Dave at all. He’s always been pretty good at multi-tasking, keeping his mind on two things at once. It was a nice evening. Dave managed to leave work at the door. Susie was doing her knitting and the Tigers were still drawing with Stoke City. Dave sipped his beer. It was good to be home.
“I think I’ll do a little hat to go with these if I have any wool leftover,” Susie said, as she held out a little booty on curved needles.
“Oh, aye? Lovely.”
“I hope it won’t offend your mum though. I know she got Alice that little white hat at Christmas, but she’s nearly grown out of it and she’ll need a new one eventually.”
“You don’t think she’ll mind?”
“No, love, no. She won’t mind.”
“Are they still coming to Alice’s birthday tea?”
“Both of them?”
“Wild horses couldn’t drag them away, love.”
Susie smiled, relieved. She always got far too giddy planning parties for the bairn. It was understandable, though. She liked showing off their nice home and her cooking, and Dave had to admit they’d done well in those respects. It was funny because Alice was maybe ten months old and clearly couldn’t give a toss about parties, but Susie acted like it was the be-all and end-all to have it go well.
“That’s wonderful, she’ll be so pleased. Missy was asking me about coming along but I wondered if it might be too much already. Do you think it’ll be too much?” Susie asked.
“You’re the one cooking, love, it doesn’t bother me.”
Dave watched his team lose possession and started to feel slightly bothered by the chatter. Goal to Stoke. Fuck’s sake.
“Well I certainly don’t mind if she wants to come, I was just wondering if you did,” Susie continued.
“Why would I be bothered if your sister comes? She’s a laugh,” he said. Susie’s lips tightened. They had that sisterly competitive thing that Dave didn’t really understand. Missy was a laugh, though! All the lads down the local loved her. She had a big nose and a big bosom and a larger-than-life personality. Susie had always been a little bit jealous, especially considering that Missy and Dave were both old flirts. But Dave couldn’t help it! They were only human. Still, it was best to get on the missis’ good side. “Well, I don’t mind if she comes if she doesn’t get too pissed again,” he added, to which Susie gratefully smirked.
“I was thinking maybe we could invite your brother too, if you like.” Dave stopped. He made out like he was watching the telly. “Dave?”
“I was just saying you can ask your Simon round.”
“No, it is getting a bit too many now. He wouldn’t like it.”
“Are you sure? You’ve not seen him since the wedding. I hope he doesn’t think we’re avoiding him.”
“Well, he’s not really a family man, is he?” Dave snapped. It was quiet then. Susie drew her eyes back down to her knitting. Dave knew he shouldn’t snap at Susie. She barely ever nagged at him compared to most wives, but she was doing his head in right then. Not that snapping ever stopped her.
“Well, I think you’re being old-fashioned David, I really do.” She sniffed.
Where the bloody hell did that come from?
“What’s that meant to mean?”
“You know what I mean because you heard what I said.”
“No, I don’t know what you mean actually because you’re chatting a bunch of waffle.” It was quiet again. Hull looked like they might score for a hot second, and then they didn’t. Dave felt his mood souring. “You can bloody invite him if you want to, but I’ll have nowt to do with it, he said. The argument was over and he’d got the last word but for some reason he still felt annoyed.
“Look, if you don’t want him round, that’s fine. It’s just that we all know people who are a bit . . . funny. My uncle never married.”
“Simon’s not a puff.”
“Well, okay, if you’re sure.”
Not really, thought Dave. Simon had always been a bit weird, except when they were really little. They used to like kicking the ball about in the ginnel near theirs, and that was nice. They made goalposts with bags and coats and that. Simon nearly always won, but sometimes he let Dave win too, just for a laugh, like. Dave knew it was patronising but he liked winning so he didn’t care. Then Simon held the ball above his head just so Dave wouldn’t forget who was boss. “Do you wanna play? Come get it then? Come on! Jump!” he’d say.
That was right before big school when Dave moved up and suddenly everyone was saying stuff like, “Isn’t your brother that fairy in Lower Sixth?” Dave got quite a few scraped knuckles that year. But no one insults your brother, do they? You have to defend them. It’s family. His mum was always proud of him for that but his dad shook his head.
“Why the bloody hell can’t Simon defend himself?” he’d ask. And it was true. When people laughed at Simon to his face, he just ignored them. He was always scribbling away in his sketchbooks, his hair over his shoulders. Why did he have to keep his hair that long? No one had long hair in the fifties except for girls. That’s just what he’d looked like. A girl. It was alright if he wanted to act like a weirdo, but Dave had to go to that school too. And the most annoying thing about it was, he wasn’t even gay.
“He’s had girlfriends,” Dave said to Susie.
That drawing Dave’d found, the girl at the desk kicking her shoes, then another one of her lying naked in bed. That was the first time Dave had seen breasts, well before he knew you could get them in magazines. Simon had been home from uni and Dave was fourteen flipping through his sketchbook. He’d asked Simon about it, but he was frustratingly glib in response. Oh well, I suppose that’s my girlfriend. That was around the time he started talking posh too. University did that to people.
“Serious girlfriends?” Susie asked.
“Course,” Dave shrugged. He didn’t bloody know.
“Right then.” Susie stopped knitting. She stared into space for a while with her eyebrows furrowed, then she shook her head as though she couldn’t rightly understand. “Well then, I don’t know why you don’t want to see him.”
“He’s not right,” Dave said. “In the head I mean.”
“Well, what on earth’s wrong with him?”
“He does weird stuff, like, he hurts himself, he . . .” Dave stopped.
“What does that mean?”
Dave didn’t know. It was after the wedding he went weird, giving up his job and everything. And the people he knocked about with. He’d seen him going about in a long leopard-print coat on a Saturday. Dave had been out with Gary. They’d been heading home from the pub, but it looked like Simon and his group of weirdos were just heading out. What was that about? Lipstick on and all sorts. Dave had wanted to batter him. He thought if he laughed then that might be enough. He sauntered up to his brother, smirking, and asked him: “Oh aye, stag do, is it?” Dave wanted a proper explanation, a bit of shame maybe, an awkward, little shuffle. But Simon had merely kissed him on the cheek and carried on his way. “Whatever helps you sleep at night, darling.” That’s what he’d said. And he’d seemed so proud of himself, his head held high he . . . no. He’d always been a bit wrong. Dave knew that.
“Dave,” Susie intervened. “What do you mean he hurts himself?” Dave kept his eyes on the footy. This wasn’t a conversation for now. “Dave, what did you mean by that?”
“Look, I’m trying to bloody watch this!” Dave snapped.
Susie knitted quietly for a little while. He couldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t tell anyone, and he shouldn’t have started to. They were silent for ages. This should have made Dave feel calm but it didn’t. It made him feel even more distressed and he felt itching on his leg under his trousers that he couldn’t scratch, a pain in his temples where he was feeling a headache coming on. He didn’t know why Susie always had to ruin things.
It was when Simon’s girlfriend had just dumped him. At least, that’s what he said to Dave when Dave asked why he hadn’t left his bed for ten days, why he didn’t want to play footy anymore, why he didn’t do anything normal. It made sense that it was because of a girl. That’s what twenty-year-old lads should be getting upset about. Their parents were so relieved it was a girl, they weren’t bothered that he was upset. Dave did worry a little bit, though. He knew Simon was dramatic but he’d never seen him like this.
Dave was fifteen. He had his own friends by then and wasn’t all that arsed about knocking around with his brother anymore. Still, he thought he’d try to get him out and about for a bit, get him some fresh air or whatever. Simon was old enough to get the pints in if Dave gave him the money (and during them days Dave always had money because he sold off his cigarettes one by one for five pence in the playground, cheaper than the shops did, but still a profit for him). He’d walked into his brother’s room without knocking. Simon was sat on his bed in his pants, not lying down or anything, just sat on the edge staring at the floor, his stupid hair hiding his face.
“Do you wanna come out for a bit?” Dave asked. Simon didn’t even respond. “Ere, are you deaf?”
Simon looked up at him. It was clear he’d been crying. Dave hated that, but he tried to be nice all the same.
“Do you like yourself, David? I mean really, genuinely like yourself?” Simon asked him.
“Sure mate, what’s not to like?”
Simon laughed, but not in a mocking way, more in disbelief at the simplicity of his brother’s response.
“That’s a good point,” Simon laughed, again. “What’s not to like?” Dave stayed silent for a long time. He wasn’t entirely sure what was happening and didn’t want to put his foot in it. Simon continued. “The thing is, though. I don’t like myself. I don’t know why but there’s just nothing. Nothing I do, no way I can be. I can’t stand myself. Do you know what that feels like?”
Dave didn’t know how to respond. Instead he gave a nervous titter, trying to match the tone of the conversation to the helpless, disbelieving smile on his brother’s face.
“Come on, Si, you don’t actually think that.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Simon said, despondently. “Maybe I do.”
He lifted his hand to brush his hair behind his ear. That was when Dave noticed the blood.
“Jesus, what have you done?” he said, rushing forwards and then stopping because he realised he didn’t have a clue how to fix it. There was a huge gash across the width of his brother’s arm that looked neat and clean, like a deep, deep scratch from barbed wire.
“Oh this? A minor cut. I don’t suppose I have the gall to do it properly.” Simon laughed slightly. He showed the metal in his other hand, a single blade burnt out of a disposable razor. “See, I did want to die, but I can’t stand the thought of being found like this. These arms, these legs . . .” Simon dragged the razor over his thigh lightly and the blood spilled out of him like a burst egg yolk. Dave was too shocked to stop him, didn’t quite believe what he was looking at. “This face . . .” He raised his hand to the face.
“No, don’t! Please.” Dave was angry at how he sounded; desperate and childlike. He was scared for his brother. He was scared for himself. Simon put down the blade.
“You’re right,” he muttered, rubbing a hand under his nose, smearing a little blood on his lip. “I suppose I’m being maudlin.”
Dave couldn’t stand it. He left the room and went out, shouting to his mother that he’d be back for tea. He slammed the door before he heard her response. He wandered on his own to the park and sat on the hill overlooking the playground. It was too late for anyone to be there and Dave recognised that his skin was full of goosebumps, but his face was hot. If anyone saw him they would’ve thought he looked flushed. He stayed there smoking cigarette after cigarette, waiting for someone to come along and ask him if he was okay, if anything was the matter so he could talk about what happened even though the last thing on earth he wanted to do was talk about what happened. No one came. It was too late for all of that. Eventually, the street lamps came on and he went home. It wasn’t really like he had a curfew or anything, but there was something about the street lamps that said to him “home time,” and who was he to deny them? When he got in, Simon’s bedroom door was closed. Neither of them mentioned it again. Dave didn’t know if his parents knew what Simon did. Dave didn’t know if he ever went to do it again. It was better like that, though. Less for him to deal with.
After the game and the news and a couple of nonsense bit-shows that Dave didn’t really find funny, he crawled into bed next to Susie. He was a bit pissed now, and he hadn’t really realised it. He knew he smelt bad when he lay next to her. She always smelt like talcum powder and lavender, but she never minded it when he smelt like beer and fags.
Susie woke up to the sound of him crying, but she knew better than to say anything. She’d known something had been the matter. He’d been in a foul mood as soon as she’d mentioned Simon, which was wrong of her. She knew it was a sore topic. Slowly, she moved his head onto her chest and stroked his hair as he let out the sobs until both of them were asleep. Neither one could remember who fell asleep first. They didn’t speak of it the next morning, by which point they’d already managed to roll onto opposite sides of the bed. Simon wasn’t mentioned again. Alice’s birthday do went off without a hitch.
Cathleen Davies is a writer from East Yorkshire, currently completing her Ph. D. at the University of East Anglia. Her work has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies. She also co-runs Aloka, a magazine for non-native English speakers. Her interests include 1970s art-work and everything abject.