You and Him, a new short story by Louise Kennedy
Summer Fiction: A brilliant new short story by Louise Kennedy, whose debut collection is eagerly awaited next year
He was dead a week, he says. Before they found him. Photograph: iStock
Ned draws a shoulder to his ear to hold the phone in place, making a claw of his left hand and scribbling at it with his right, like he does when he’s asking for the bill in a restaurant. You pass him a pen and paper and watch him write. You can’t make out the words, just the curls and slants of the lettering. Before he hangs up he hesitates. Then he says: Are you sure there was nothing sinister about it?
Ned’s brother Bobby went to London 24 years ago. The last time they spoke Bobby said Google was about to buy his app and he would be home soon, filthy rich and lugging a suitcase full of white powder. Then nothing. From time to time you asked Ned if he had heard from him. No news is good news, he’d say. No news meant that Bobby no longer pestered him for cash or asked him to plead with the police on his behalf. No news meant he could tell himself that Bobby was alright.
You open the fridge to get him a beer, close it again. Whiskey has gravitas, so you pour a couple of fingers of Black Bush into a tumbler and put it in front of him. Your limbs are heavy and you wonder can he see it in you. The loss.
What happened? you say.
He looks at his phone, dabs at it, turns it face down. Massive heart attack. Advanced liver disease. Early stages of prostate cancer.
It must be three years since we last spoke to him.
Actually, it’s eight years since you spoke to him.
He looks up slowly. What does that mean? he says. Were you talking to him since?
You look at the backs of your hands, your shrivelled ring finger. Once. When I wasn’t well.
When you were depressed, he says. Ned doesn’t think depression is a form of illness. He thinks it’s a lifestyle choice.
You used to leave the children at school and drive home planning extreme housework. Bleaching the tiles behind the toilet where the grouting was sallow with piss. Scrubbing out the mouldering cupboard of seldom-used kitchen artillery: dented madeleine tins, electric waffle-maker, pressure cooker. Sucking moustaches of dust from the louvred wardrobe doors. But you’d go into the house and lie on the bed – just for an hour, you told yourself – to watch daytime television. Entire mornings passed like minutes.
You watched driving instructors from Leicester refitting former council properties with beige carpets and Shaker kitchens: ’80s soap stars trawling their roof spaces for auctionable treasures and emerging with photos of themselves with Peter Stringfellow.
There was a show about companies that track down beneficiaries to the estates of dead people. The searches revealed lives of unfathomable loneliness and the heirs, once found, were mortified. Their dead uncle/aunt/brother/sister had “fallen through the cracks” or “gone off the radar” or “always been a bit of a loner”. You thought of Bobby and squirmed with them.
Between sips of whiskey, Ned pulls in his bottom lip, as if he’s trying to stop himself from speaking. He must want to ask why you phoned Bobby, what was said, but he doesn’t.
It was good of that man to find you. Who was he? you say.
A Polish fella who works for the housing trust. His mother used to take Bobby in when he was drinking too hard to look after himself.
He was dead a week, he says. Before they found him.
Ned takes the next day off work. He spends it at the kitchen table, talking on the phone and adding to the notes he made last night. He is asking about the options: cremation, embalming, flying the body back. By dinner time the page is covered in phone numbers, names, prices. You ask if there’s a plan: a superfluous question because Ned always has a plan.
The death notice will be in the Irish News and The Irish Times. Bobby’s body will arrive at Belfast International Airport tomorrow evening at four and a hearse will bring him to a funeral home on Donegal Street. The following day he will be cremated at Roselawn where there will be a priest but not a Mass. There will be refreshments in a hotel for anyone who turns up, although he’s not expecting a crowd. He’s booked you both a room for the night.
You’re so organised, you say. It sounds like criticism.
He drives north in silence. At Carrickarnon a soft electronic voice says: “You have crossed the Border.” It’s the first time the car has ever spoken and you both laugh. Encouraged, you say it is hilarious that the car is a woman with an English accent. That the fields look greener than when they were dulled by khaki and camouflage. That it’s nice to be going back, even for a funeral. You glance at Ned. His eyes are narrowed, as if he’s driving in the dark. He doesn’t reply.
There are two hearses parked outside the crematorium. One is bunged to the roof with floral tributes: Granda, Daddy, and RIP spelled in white chrysanthemums, a domed spray of lilies on the coffin lid. Four generations of a family are filing into the building, a wistful merriment about them. Granda must have lived a long and happy life. Bobby is in the other hearse, flowerless.
A taxi pulls up. The passenger in the back is leaning between the gap in the seats. Eventually a woman climbs out, dressed in a cheap black blazer and pencil skirt. She drops a cabin bag on the ground and drags it across the tarmac to Bobby’s hearse, a severe ponytail swinging behind her.
You could have bought a wreath, mate, she says, waving a hand at the coffin. It looks like you’re burying Ian Brady
You follow Ned. Are you here for Bobby? he asks her.
Well, you’re his brother anyway, she says. She is exceptionally pretty, with strawberry blonde hair and fine features, but has the dry skin and juicy eyes of a drinker. She says her name is Jill. Ned holds his hand out but she ignores it and falls on him. She turns to you and does the same. She smells of ’80s power perfume and empty stomach.
You could have bought a wreath, mate, she says, waving a hand at the coffin. It looks like you’re burying Ian Brady.
Ned tells her he made a donation to a drop-in centre for alcoholics in lieu of flowers. She laughs and lights a cigarette.
The undertakers are struggling to pull the coffin out of the hearse. As they wrest it onto the trolley, one of the castors spins as if might snap off, but it holds. Ned said they had to line the box with lead because of the time lapse between death and discovery. Jill finishes the cigarette in three drags and flicks the butt into a herbaceous border.
Hot beverages are being served from plastic air-pots in a corner of the waiting area. Jill drinks three cups of coffee as if it is water and looks offended when she is offered a biscuit. Some of Ned’s cousins and aunts have come, a couple of men he and Bobby knew in school. Elderly women you don’t recognise grip your hands and tell you they were at your wedding. They ask about your kids. Away now, you say.
The happy family stream out and you take your slot. Jill sits in the front pew between you and Ned. The priest is a celebrity tenor. Ned told him not to bother with hymns, so he sings all the prayers to spite him. Jill looks at her phone for most of the proceedings but makes a show of saying the Our Father, finishing with a resounding “For Thine is the Kingdom…”. The priest waits patiently for her to finish. She looks at you in mock consternation. You tell her Catholics leave out that part. Oops! she says.
A jizz of incense, a prayer crooned by a showbiz priest. The plain coffin juddering a few feet along a belt, heavy red curtains closing mechanically.
It’s like Sunday Night at the London Palladium, says Jill.
Bobby would have roared laughing.
Jill slides into the back seat of the car. She chatters all the way down the road to town, gasping as the cranes in the shipyard come into view, marvelling that you have M&S here too.
What was she to Bobby? you whisper to Ned.
I’m afraid to ask.
The hotel he booked is behind the university. As he slows outside it, Jill flings her door open and jumps out, saying she’s going to check in and freshen up.
Dear God, says Ned. We have her for the night.
There are 23 of you in the vast function room, loading tiny plates with chicken goujons and curling sandwiches.
It went alright, says Ned, and puts a cocktail sausage in his mouth.
It was grand, you say. It sounds grudging and you feel bad. It did go alright.
Jill comes downstairs, her hair rescraped, perfume so thick you can nearly see it. Who in under God is she? someone asks.
She orders a gin from a passing waitress. You weren’t going to drink, but you overhear Ned telling the priest that Bobby introduced you two and order one as well. Make them doubles, Jill calls after her, and sentences trail off around the room.
To Bobby, he says, and you all raise your glasses and drink to a man who drank himself to death
You don’t recognise the boy you knew from the stories they’re telling. Jill orders you both another drink and says she has a few stories herself. She tells about the time Bobby phoned Heathrow Airport pretending to be a policeman and asked them to delay a flight to Tenerife she was late for because they’d been drinking all night. And about the time they had a row and he went to see Leaving Las Vegas alone in the throes of a bender. He left the cinema and held up a luxury goods store in Haymarket with a toy gun because he wanted to give her a present.
Ned is looking at his feet. It had cost him several grand and a week’s holidays to sort the mess out. Too pissed to make a getaway, Bobby had sat on the kerb outside the shop to smoke a cigarette, the stolen handbag over his shoulder, while the anti-terror squad sealed off the area in search of an armed man with a Belfast accent.
A cousin holds up his pint. To Bobby, he says, and you all raise your glasses and drink to a man who drank himself to death.
Jill asks where the Ladies is, linking your arm and hauling you with her. One of her eyebrows has begun to wear off and she draws it back on. He told me about you and him, she says.
There was no me and him, you tell her. Not like that.
That’s not what he said. He reckoned you dumped him for his boring brother.
The fresh eyebrow is more boomerang than arch and makes her look as if she doesn’t believe you.
When you go back to the function room, everyone has left except Ned. He says he is going to the car to get your stuff and that you need to go to the desk to check in.
Jill leaves you in the foyer, saying she’ll see you in the bar in an hour. The lift door closes on her as Ned comes back with your things. He tells the receptionist he’ll settle up now for the finger food and the room. Jill has told them to put her room on his bill. You watch, astonished, as he hands over his card. If she runs up any room charges, she can cover them herself, he says.
Upstairs, you ask him why he paid.
Because this is the end of it. And I don’t know what he’s done to her, or what he owes her.
He sits at a desk at the window to check his work email. You realise in a rush how hard it must have been for careful, honourable Ned with his accountant’s sense of balance, to have a brother like Bobby, who blundered through life, keeping no tally of what he took.
Jill is sitting on a bar stool. She’s changed into a sparkly top and is talking into the ear of the barman, who is scarcely 30, with a sculpted beard and biceps that are busting out of his polo shirt. Their cheeks are almost touching and he’s nodding slowly, a bloom of desire on his face. He moves away reluctantly when you take the stool beside her.
If you speak quietly, they have to come close, she says.
I must remember that.
At a table in the corner a man is saying one two, one two into a microphone. The barman puts a bottle of white wine and two glasses on the counter, along with two pens and a sheaf of paper.
There’s a quiz on. Youse should make a team, he says.
Why not, she says.
What will you call yourselves? he says.
Chalk and Cheese, says Jill, and scrawls it in bubble writing across the top of the page.
She gets 10 out of 10 in the celebrity photograph round. You know most of the literature and art answers. You are both rubbish at geography, science and nature.
Were you Bobby’s girlfriend? you say.
Yeah. And the mother of his child.
You have a child.
She takes her phone out and shows you a photograph of a girl of 12 or 13. She has her mother’s nose and mouth and Bobby’s thick hair and green eyes. He didn’t tell you, did he?
Bastard. The only money he ever gave me was 50 quid, and it took the Child Support Agency and a week in prison to get it out of him.
What’s her name?
Bronagh. His idea.
The sports round starts and the barman rinses a cloth at the sink and wipes his way slowly towards Jill. If you’re stuck, just ask, he says, pulling himself up to his full height. She pretends to be baffled by a rugby question. He whispers the answer out of the side of his face. Jill looks at him in wonder, as if he’s the oracle.
You wonder what Ned will say when he hears Bobby named his daughter after you
You come second. Jill collects the prize, a bottle of blush zinfandel, pretending to shake it and spray it round the room, as if she’s James Hunt.
The barman gives her two fresh glasses. Enjoy, he says languidly.
In the foyer, she waggles the bottle at you. Drinkie?
I’m cramping your style.
He’s just a boy, she says, but she’s juking over your shoulder in the direction of the bar. See you at breakfast. I wonder what Ned will say when I tell him he’s an uncle.
You wonder what Ned will say when he hears Bobby named his daughter after you.
You go outside and look up and down the street. Burrito bars and falafel joints have replaced some of the old shops, but it hasn’t changed much. You start walking, taking a roundabout way through the Holylands, which hasn’t changed at all.
You and Bobby, loping up Palestine Street with a carry-out. You and him in his room with the wet walls that sprouted mushrooms in the autumn, a stippling of rain against the skylight. You with your back to him, pulling a T-shirt over your bra, wondering was he watching. Him pulling the sleeping bag from the top of the wardrobe, making a pillow of his clothes on the floor. Slap of headboard against wall in the next room and you leaning out of his bed to make a joke of it. Him with his arm bent behind his head, looking up at you as you draw the covers back. You and him, hips and chins knocking, finding a fit.
Louise Kennedy has been published in The Guardian, Irish Times, The Stinging Fly and on BBC Radio 4. Her debut short story collection, The End of the World is a Cul de Sac, is due next spring from Bloomsbury.