In the living room, he and Laura sat at opposite ends on the long couch. His mother picked up another photograph from the mantelpiece. The thick, silver frame caught a glint from the bright lamp in the corner. It was Connor after graduating. It was always Connor with her – when he was here, and now he had gone. He couldn’t really blame her. Connor was likeable.
“I suppose we’ll have yours here soon,” she said to him. “That’s if you pass.”
“I suppose,” Robert said, and poured some more wine.
“He supposes,” his mother said to Laura.
She placed the photograph in the middle of the mantelpiece, next to the one of Connor and Laura.
The house had a close, musty smell. When they were children they’d pull into the driveway from the steep road up the hillside, rush through the kitchen to the back door, and down the other side of the hill to the beach. Things had changed. Connor’s room was just a wooden box. On the coffee table was a glass vase with drooping lilies. One of the three wine glasses hadn’t been used.
“Do you remember what you were like as a child?” his mother said to him.
“Well, I’ll tell you shall I? We’d come out here for a pleasant weekend, and then you’d do things like bring that filthy stray dog into the house. I’d see you coming up the hill with him, and try to think how to make you get rid of it. And then Connor, bless him, he always found a way of getting you interested in something else, just like that.” She snapped her long fingers. “You were never good at sticking to things.”
Robert got up and opened the large window. The wind came in from the sea. At least Connor had defended him. Connor could sense that slight quiver in her cheek, or the tightening of her eyes. Connor would be able to turn her snide remarks into a joke, one that even she would have to stretch a smile to. Robert was grateful to him for that.
Laura kept her head down, and straightened her dress out over her lap.
“I’ll make some tea,” she said. “Would anybody like some tea?”
“Not for me,” Robert said.
“I’ll stick to wine, dear.” His mother said. “I could do with a drink.”
Laura went down the hallway into the kitchen. Robert sat half on the ledge by the big window. His eyes skimmed over the photographs on the mantelpiece.
“He looks good in all of them.” he said to his mother, who was wiping the thin film of dust from the frames.
Robert was faintly handsome. He kept fit by running along the beach, and did ten pull ups each morning on the bar in his bedroom doorway. He had good colouring from the glare of the sun off the sea when he went fishing in summer. Connor was different. He had a natural sharpness in his cheekbones, a brightness to his wide eyes. His smile was subtle. Where Robert had a gap in his fringe which he could never comb out, Connors would sweep across his forehead above his dark brows, never out of place even on windy days. But that was all before his face paled and his eyes darkened, before the tubes and the therapy, the service and the crematorium.
“Close that window,” his mother said, sitting down in the armchair. “It’s too cold.” Her hair, which she had bleached herself, swept back over her thin shoulders. The smell of her sickly perfume caught in the draft.
The night clouds over the sea were a brilliant blue, the same as Connors eyes. Tremors born far out in the water grew fast into large waves. When they reached the shoreline they were gone. Robert closed the window. Then he closed the curtains like they had done in the chapel. The sea. The lighthouse. The hillside. It all disappeared.
“I think I’ll switch to whisky,” Robert said.
His mother sat in the armchair, gazing down at the rug, her eyes red rimed and watery. He went through to the kitchen to get the whisky. Laura was sat at the big table. She was a delicate, pretty girl. She seemed much more pale than usual. A faint coat of sweat glistened on her forehead. Maybe the kitchen was too warm, or maybe it was all getting to her.
Robert took some whisky from the cupboard by the oven, and two glasses from the one above it.
“Do you want ice? Water?”
“I don’t want a drink,” she said, “I shouldn’t be drinking.”
“I think we could all use a little drink.”
He poured the whisky, and then some water into Laura’s glass. Through the small window above the sink, the village held a faint orange glow down the hillside. He put the glasses down on the table and sat opposite her.
“I said I didn’t want a drink,”
“How have you been?” he asked her, already knowing.
“Not good,” she said, “I don’t want this.”
“Just drink it,” Robert said, “It helps.”
“This isn’t right,” Laura said. “We shouldn’t be here together with Connor not around. It was horrible today. All I could think about was his last night. We should have been with him. We should have always been with him. I should never have left his bedside.”
“It wasn’t my fault that you did,” Robert said. He took a sharp drink from his glass, pulled the ashtray an inch closer to him and lit a cigarette. The loose columns of smoke rose up between them. He tapped the flakes of ash, like confetti, into the ashtray. It was getting late. She’d be leaving soon, and he was glad. She ran her finger around the small dark eyes in the wood.
“It’s not right,” she said
“Have a drink.”
“No. I can’t.”
“I just can’t. It doesn’t matter.” She pushed her glass to one side, as though she were about to lean over the table, her low cut dress showing the divide of her breasts, and wrap her warm hands around his. She didn’t, though.
He finished his drink and poured another – a little extra this time. If she wasn’t going to drink it then he was. God knows he needed it. He crushed the cigarette end into the ashtray and slid another out the pack.
“And you shouldn’t smoke so much around me –” she said, and stopped.
“No,” Robert said. His face lost its colouring. Even his lips seemed to lighten to a different shade. “Please, no.”
She covered her face with her slight fingers, and began to cry.
He got up and staggered over to the sink. A weak, sickly feeling came over him. He ran the tap and threw some cold handfuls of water to his face. His hands were shaking.
“How far along?” he asked her. “Laura? Answer me, how far along?”
“So you can sort it?”
She turned to look at him but didn’t say anything.
“Oh, Laura. No. You can’t-”
He kept his voice low and looked through the open door to the hallway. The living room door was shut.
“There could be a way around it,” she said. “You and Connor are so alike.”
She didn’t answer him.
He grabbed the bottle of whisky from the table and made for the back door.
The moon seemed to come towards him, fresh and bright, through the parting blue clouds. A cold wind curled around him. He staggered down the sandy slope to the beach. He considered turning around and going to the pub, but they wouldn’t let him in. He was too drunk. Mrs. Mooney, who lived in the small cottage across the road, would probably complain about him again. It was never him that made all the noise. As children, Connor had told him she never turned her light on. She didn’t need it. She could see in the dark. Her skin was so white that you could see her too. Robert had believed him.
Towards the end of the bay he took the whisky from his pocket and drank long swigs. If he was going to sleep on the beach, or in a cave in the rocks, then he would need the rest for when it got colder.
He found a small hollow, like a dark mouth in the rocks. He was too tall to stand up, so he sat down on the damp sand. Maybe the tide would come in and carry him off. Then Laura could make up and believe whatever lie she wanted to. He hated her. It was her fault. She’s a slut. She should have been there comforting Connor. His skin had been so off coloured and sickly yellow, and his face was so drawn.
But Connor had been tough. He’d fought right through, just like he had done with everything. He stood up to things. He took his punishment. He turned it around. Robert began to cry. He knew he was drunk. Everything had a hazy film over it – the shimmering sea, black like ink, his hands blurring in front of him, the white sweep of the bay from the lighthouse.
He took a deep, heavy shot from the whisky. This time it caught in his throat. He fell forwards, clutching the wet sand, heaving and trying to breathe between the bouts of sickness.
“I’m sorry,” he said aloud, “Please, I’m sorry. Please make it stop.”
When he awoke the light was pale. The low roof of the cave curved around either side of him. The whisky bottle lay shattered by his hand, glittering in the low sun. He couldn’t remember that.
Above the sea, a gull glided through the thin mist. It dived low and shattered the surface of the water. The droplets sparkled as its head went under, and came up holding a small fish clasped in its beak.
He stepped out onto the beach. It wasn’t a bright morning but the light still forced a dull ache behind his eyes. His suit was straggled, half coated in sand.
The gull returned to the water. This time it didn’t get anything, but came back and dove in again. It flew back to the shore, sailing over Robert’s head, up to the cliffside. A small nest made of thin branches, sat on a ledge in the rock. The gull dropped the fish into the nest, and flew back out to the water. It did it a few more times. Whatever it caught was dropped into the nest. Robert set off back to the house.
He went through the back door with no noise. In the kitchen the two glasses were still on the table, one of them still full. The clock above the cooker showed quarter to six. Hopefully Laura had gone home and his mother would be asleep. Nobody had waited up for him, he was glad of that. He still had some time. The living room was empty. The fire was switched off and the window was closed.
His mother came down the stairs into the room, gathering her white night gown around her waist.
“Where have you been?” she said, “Laura was worried. She had me up half the night, wanting to call the police and what not. I told her not to worry, that you’d probably just gone to the pub or something. She wanted to go out looking for you at one point, but I wouldn’t have it. I knew you’d be fine.”
“I just wanted to be alone.”
“Exactly. Look at the state of your suit. Where the hell have you been? Tell me you didn’t sleep on the beach? Or did you get drunk and pass out?”
“It doesn’t matter. Is Laura still here?”
“Of course not. A girl in her condition needs to rest, especially after everything.”
Robert felt his body harden.
“She didn’t tell you?”
She gave him a peculiar look.
“Tell me what?” he said.
She hesitated. A faint smile appeared on her face, as though she knew something he didn’t. There was no sound in the house. Of course Laura would have gone home. She wouldn’t have wanted to be around when he came back, his mother telling him the news.
“Sit down,” she said, guiding him onto the couch. “There might actually be some good from all this.”