On What Matters
He glanced down the street and saw that it was nearly empty. It was late afternoon on a wintry Tuesday and the light was beginning to drain from the sky. It had been a grey day, without even an attempt by the sun to nudge through the barrier of clouds. The rain had behaved like a petulant child, falling in bursts and then sulkily withdrawing. The wind circled him, sneaking its icy fingers into any small gap in his clothing.
Chris took a deep breath and pushed the door to the coffee shop, a small bell jingling as he entered. He spotted Paul sitting at a table in corner, with his back to the door and his shoulders hunched. He had a newspaper open in front him and was idly stirring his coffee.
Paul looked up as Chris approached and jumped to his feet to greet him, knocking over his chair and then flustering as he righted it. "Oh sorry, what an idiot."
Chris gave his brother an awkward pat on the arm. He never knew how to greet him. "Good to see you."
"And you," Paul said, meeting his eye and then quickly looking away.
They sat down on opposite sides of the table. A waitress appeared and took Chris's order, then scurried away.
"How's Cindy?" Paul asked. "And the kids?"
"They're fine, thanks."
There was silence for a few moments, expanding between them and pushing them apart. Paul began drumming his fingers on the table, then took a deep breath and looked directly at his brother. "Look, it's probably better if we get straight to the point isn't it?"
Chris nodded. "Okay."
"So I guess the doctors gave you the results?"
Chris nodded again. "Yes."
"So you know that you're the best match?"
"And you know about my prognosis?"
"Yes." Chris felt like a defendant being cross-examined, each question guiding him closer and closer to a conclusion that would incriminate him.
Paul paused and looked down, clenching and unclenching his fingers. "So I guess what I need to know is..... will you do it?"
Chris had thought of nothing else for the last week, arguments looping round and round his head like a whirling dervish, but he still didn't have an answer for his brother. Cindy had planted her feet firmly in the "against" camp and launched a persuasive and emotive campaign, playing to his role as a husband and father. But there was a little voice in his mind that even Cindy's loudest indignations couldn't silence. A niggling little voice whispering about family loyalty.
The waitress arrived with Chris's coffee, setting it down on the table in front of him.
"So," Paul said, once she'd gone. "Will you?"
"I.... I don't know," Chris said. "I'm sorry, I just don't know."
"You don't know?" Paul frowned at him.
"I'm sorry," Chris said again. "It's been going round and round in my head for days, I don't know what to do."
"You can help me!" There was anger in Paul's voice, bandaged around his desperation. "My life won't be worth living if I don't get a transplant and you're the only family member that matched!"
Chris felt a flicker of irritation. "Look, of course I want to help you, but it's not just you, or me, that I have to think about. You're not the only thing that matters. You won't be surprised that Cindy is dead against this. She keeps going on about the risks for the donor, and that it's not fair on the kids to put myself in danger."
"Well that doesn't surprise me," Paul said. "She's never liked me."
"Well you never gave her much reason to!"
Paul opened his mouth to reply, then obviously thought better of it and swallowed his unspoken words. "You're right. She has no reason to see me as anything other than a useless drunk." His body drooped with self pity.
The two brothers were silent for a few moments, like chess players contemplating their next move. Anyone looking at them would have known instantly that they were related. They were both tall and slim, never having properly grown out of their gangly teenage years. They had the same big hands and wide faces, even the same short black haircut. And yet life had led them down very different paths, one to family and a successful career, the other to alcohol and depression. Neither had expected that their paths would suddenly cross again when an illness rudely tugged at their blood ties.
Paul broke the silence between them, and when he spoke it was with composure. "Chris, I know this is a huge thing to ask. And I know that we haven't been close all these years. I'm really, really sorry to be putting you, and Cindy, in this position. But this is my life. I wouldn't ask you if it wasn't this serious. Please, I'm begging you."
Chris looked into his brother's imploring eyes. He had felt so many emotions towards him over their lives. He recalled his childish joy when, aged eight, his parents had finally rewarded him with the sibling he had been asking for. The pleasure of having a playmate had faded a few years later when Chris became a teenager and the gulf of adolescence had stretched between the two brothers. As they grew older and Paul set out on the path to self-destruction, Chris spent many years vacillating between concern, anger and resentment. Finally, as middle age approached, Chris had settled into an uncomfortable indifference. He never thought that his brother would be able to make him feel the way he did now. Guilty.
He thought of Cindy and the kids, the family that he had created. He had more love for them than he had ever had for Paul. Cindy was adamant that they should be his priority, that he shouldn't place himself at risk for someone whose only link to his life was dirty, dusty memories. He agreed with her, in principle, and he had tried to say no to Paul, to refuse even to have the initial tests. But the shackles of loyalty meant that every step he took away from his brother seemed to lead right back to him, and Chris had found himself in a hospital bed with needles sticking into his arms. He had secretly, guiltily, hoped that he wouldn't be a match, that he could shrug and say he'd offered but couldn't help. But the results had come back maddeningly positive. Two men who couldn't be more different, but whose bodies remembered that they were made exactly the same way.
Paul was watching him, expectantly.
"Okay," Chris said, eventually. "I've made my decision."
The poisonous hissing rattle of cars and bikes fuming the city and the constant chirp-chirruping of stupid birds kept me up last night. Nobody here knows when to sleep. Day-bright street lights pierce through my plastic shutters. Jungle heat beats up off the pavements and stills the low air. Sickly sweet marijuana smells drift in through the windows and the cracks around the door, along with the cackling shrieks of half-men and their would-be women.
Even the animals are unnatural. Silky foxes come out in the day now, not just at night, emboldened by the absence of predators and fat from the abundance of easy food. Songbirds sing through the night, unadapted to electric bulbs. All the dogs are round, low things with smushed faces and drooping tongues. No elegant labs and collies like our Max and dear old Winnie! And the few labradors I do see are glum and downtrodden. Because where can they roam? Where’s the verdant countryside and rolling hills, the crystal brooks and peaty woods? Where are the sheep to chase?
Work is okay. At least in my little corner of government things are quite calm. The hours are good, although I don’t have anything much to do with my evenings except for a Friday or sometimes Thursday (if he can get away) when Ned comes up for the weekend or I go down to see him. I’m not looking forward to when he has to go away again. It’s a pity you haven’t met him, he’s very kind and generous and when he looks you in the eye you know he means every bit of what he’s saying. I know it’s only been a few months but if he asked me I think I’d say yes! Because sometimes you just know, don’t you, that’s what you and Dad always say.
My housemate hasn’t been very nice to me recently so I’m thinking of moving out. I hardly see her to be honest but recently she’s been bringing boys home during the week and drinking and joking with them loudly into the early hours. The other day to I went to ask them to be quiet and it was gone two a.m. and they just laughed at me and the boy teased me and called me a country lass. But - why’s it even bad to be from the countryside?
Everyone round here seems to think is the only way to live in this horrible city is to make it even more horrible by charging about the place nineteen-to-the-dozen with drinking and drugs and always having some thing or a place to be and never sleeping or thinking or taking time to breathe in-and-out...
Sorry for that, Ma. I think this place is getting to me a bit!
Hugs and kisses,
I sent a survey around at work that I’ve been writing for a few weeks now but nobody has replied so far. On Wednesday I sent a chaser email politely drawing everybody’s attention to the deadline which was today, Friday, at 5pm and mentioning how I could understand that it might not have been at the top of everybody’s priority list, but reminding them how it would be a really good basis on which to better understand different people’s unique experiences of the department and re-align our activities to better attract and retain our number one resource, our people, that is to say them, going forward, but I still didn’t get any replies.
I checked with the IT department as well because I thought, I don’t know, maybe I’ve got the distribution list title entered incorrectly or maybe I need special permissions - there are a lot of email addresses on that list and some places they don’t like everyone having access to them, I think because of spam which really did clog up a lot of companies’ servers in the ‘90s.
So I went down to IT and spoke to them and they checked and said, nope, it all worked fine, that first email was sent to 977 people, and the chaser email was sent to 976. And I said, why only 976 on the chaser? And they said, oh, haven’t you heard? A guy died. Dick Allen. Heart attack on Monday. Just dropped dead. And I thought, and this is terrible, I thought, well, at least somebody’s having a worse week than I am! I guess it put things into perspective.
It reminded me of what you always say, ma - that I need to focus on what matters. Everything else is just rubbish that you can throw away. And I suppose that cheered me up.
Sorry for the short one - I’m on the train down to see Ned. Miss you!
Hugs and kisses,
Sorry I haven’t had much time to write recently! Things have been kind of busy - good busy, though. It turns out there’s a monthly drinking society at work, and I’ve become quite the regular attendee! And I’m (finally) about to move out of my flat - a girl from work is moving to Canada for the year so she advertised her room to let on facebook, she just lives with this one other boy but I met him briefly at drinks and he seemed fine - anyway, no-one on the planet can be worse than stupid Susan. Good riddance!
Ned and I went away last weekend to Girona in Spain. It was so lovely! The old town is a warren of winding alleys, all sesame-coloured brick and wrought-iron balconies. And the food was so exotic - they only serve tapas, which is lots of teeny-tiny dishes and you’re meant to eat it slowly while you’re drinking, only Ned got annoyed and said we were drinking too much on an empty stomach, so we just ordered about fifteen tapas all at once! The newer part of town is trendy, a bit too trendy perhaps from the smell of drugs everywhere, but the ice-cream was gorgeous.
And when we were stood on this pretty little stone bridge looking out along the river and the sun was setting behind us I really thought he might propose, and I was all ready to say yes! But instead we just stood there and watched the dappled reflection on the sun on the water. I suppose I might just have to pluck up the courage one day!
Hugs and kisses,
Things haven’t been so good these past few weeks.
Ned had to go away again, for six months this time they think.
That’s not the worst thing though. This new flat I’m in is in the middle of a social housing area or whatever you’re meant to call them these days - a council estate. There are all sorts of people around all the time, dodgy people, ne’er-do-wells you’d call them. There’s a man on the corner I can see from my window, in baggy adidas tracksuits and crisp white trainers and big dark sunglasses. People drive up in their cars and he leans over and gives them something and they give him something and then they go. Sometimes at night the hoot their horns if he’s not outside. I think he’s a drug dealer. Above us there’s a couple who argue all the time and stomp around, and sometimes their baby cries and I hear them telling it to shut up. The couple on the ground floor have a dog in their yard and I’m sure it’s an illegal breed, and it barks whenever a car drives past to the man who sells drugs on the corner.
The man in the flat next to ours coughs all the time. He room joins on to mine. It reminds me of when you were sick. I jerk awake and think I’m at home when I used to wake up in the night, and hear you coughing, until -
But that’s not the worst thing, either. The worst thing is my new flatmate. I think he might be a psycho. He had a girl who used to come over, but she doesn’t come anymore. She seemed nice. Probably they just broke up, but sometimes I think - what if he killed her? One week she was there, and then... I suppose he doesn’t care. When I think of how I’d feel if Ned and I broke up… I’d be a mess. But he just seems to carry on. Every night he masturbates furiously. He thinks he’s being quiet but I can hear it, I know his routine, the rustle of him hastily grabbing some toilet roll, the clunk of his bedroom door carefully closed, the click of lid of the moisturiser bottle, the tip-tap of his web-searching fingers, gentle moaning from his laptop speakers - quiet, but not that quiet - and gradually, gradually, that gentle rhythmic greasy sound as hand works shaft, faster and faster until - big sigh - he reaches his crisis, slap of sperm on chest, a grunt of satifaction. And in the flat next door, the man keeps coughing.
But what I really can’t stand is how it shows he doesn’t care. Why doesn’t he care! How he can just carry on in this cesspit, this hell-on-earth, this den of sin and misery and betrayal, oblivious to it all? Why doesn’t he acknowledge it? Why doesn’t it bother him - why can’t he see that it’s not okay? And he just trundles on like nothing’s happening, like it’s all fine, like there isn’t a killer dog downstairs and an abusive family living above us and a man dying next door. It’s not fine, I want to shout it. IT’S NOT FINE!
Instead I just keep my distance. I listen for doors around the house to make sure we don’t end up in the same room at the same time. His alarm is always at 7.40, so I get up twenty minutes earlier and shower and then I make my breakfast while he’s in the shower, and then I eat it in my room while he eats his breakfast and then I leave straight after him. Sometimes it means I’m late for work but at least I don’t have to face him. In the evenings usually I’m back earlier and so I just microwave my tea and take a bottle of wine upstairs into my room quickly before he’s back. But the worst is if he gets home before me and he’s sitting eating in the kitchen when I come in. Then I have to look at him and speak to him, usually I say something about work and then escape to my room and lock the door and push the chest of drawers in front of it because what matters is my safety, he could be a rapist and a murderer after all, and I can’t get the sound of him masturbating out of my head, his hand greasily working his cock every night, and when I hear it I cuddle down in my duvet and hold onto a pillow and clutching it imagine it’s Ned and the cars hoot and the dog barks and the man coughs to death in the room next door.
This is going to be my last letter. I’ve come home. Dad’s looking after me now. He said that, after my little breakdown, it’s time for me to focus on what matters. To focus on me. Not on you, not on the past.
It’s been almost four years since you died. I can’t believe it. I’ll never stop loving you, and I’ll never stop missing you. But now I’ve got to focus on what matters. You can’t look after me any more.
Ned will be back soon. He’s going to move jobs to be nearby, and he won’t have to go again. I think we can be happy together.
I love you Ma. Bye.
The motorway. 5 o'clock but its already getting dark.
The windscreen wipers squeaking like children.
The rain coughing it down. The heating huffing.
She's got a CD on full blast. She's trying very hard to like it because it was her nephew who gave it to her. That's what made her think of him now. Too late though. Too late for him to make the list of things that bring her joy.
Not that it matters.
She's trying hard to like the music, because he likes it and she likes that he still trusts her with his music taste. Even though she's forty-eight years old and has to have her hair dyed to hide the grey and he's 20 and barely communicates with his own Mum anymore.
She's trying to like it but she doesn't . It's 'Grime' apparently. It makes her feel all clanged up in the head.
The list of things that bring you joy was one of the last things that they'd had to do at the retreat. Written it on pieces of recycled paper and then hidden them around the forest to merge with the healing power of the earth. A bit hippie of course but she didn't mind that kind of thing. She was used to it by now. She'd been on her fair share of retreats. It wasn't even the first one this year. And it probably wouldn't be the last.
This one had been a present from her perfect friend Anna, at whose house she had sobbed embarrassingly on New Years Eve. She had cried not only because she had drunk too much but because life was running away from her, because she hated her job and she was alone and her mother was losing her memory and one of her university friends had died from a heart attack and her hair was going grey all over the place.
'You know what you need?' her friend Anna had said as she mopped her ugly mascara tears like a teenager. (How embarrassing. God.)
'To go away and think about what really matters to you... To get your life in control'
So she had gone. She had gone and now she was driving home. It had been as expected. A circle of other passively desperate faces. Vegan breakfasts and dog eared books on Buddhism. They taught you to breathe. To sit for hours in the middle of the countryside and let your own life wash over you. And you weren't meant to get frustrated. Even if your mind wandered. You were meant to guide it back, like a lost sheep, like a tired child.
All she kept seeing was herself stuck somewhere. Her feet suspended just off the ground. Treading air.
Instead of her nephew on the list of things that brought her joy she'd written that sometimes her work brought her joy. Which was a lie. The most that her work ever brought her was something like relief. At the end of the day rolling in the darkness of her sheets, skimming her hands over her feet. Something that could be mistaken for satisfaction. Or for survival.
She reaches over to the donut in the passenger seat, cushions it into her mouth. It tastes like grease and over priced service stations. Shouldn't have bought it. Never mind. Too late. Just enjoy.
Suddenly she wants to cry.
'I can't take this shit no more'
Says the man on the clattering CD.
She switches it off. The silence smells like the fatty bubbles of the doughnuts. She wonders if her nephew only shared the CD with her to keep her feeling relevant. Wonders if he laughed about it with his friends. Not in a cruel way. Just in a 'oh that's my crazy old aunt' way. It's possible. Highly possible.
The windscreen wipers squeak like children: 'Are we nearly there yet?'