Really? By Fiona Holland
‘This wasn’t supposed to happen.’
We stared over the edge of the hill, watching the wavering, whistling line of smoke as Bobby’s Patented Bird Scarer scorched its way into the town below.
In true comic book fashion, there was the crash, the sound of breaking glass and the shout of ‘Oi!’ We commando-crawled into the bushes until the Police had wound in their ‘Do Not Cross This Line’ tape and two guys in donkey jackets from the Council had swept up the debris.
I might have asked him, ‘What particular law of the Universe were you relying on for that not to happen?’ But I was only six at the time and more concerned at the powdered yellow paint, bicarb and vinegar, key components of Bobby’s invention, being traced back to our house on Latimer Street.
This is only one of the many incidents where my brother sought to challenge received wisdom, cause and effect, the basic Laws of Nature. To my more pedestrian mind, I was quite happy to accept without too much scrutiny that snails don’t make good yo-yo’s, kitchen knives attached to the front wheel of the Chopper will slash any rubber, fabric or flesh they come into contact with and metal downpipes should be tested before being used as a means of getaway.
But Bobby had this desire to bend reality, to find that one infinitesimal chance when all the variables were stacked in his favour, when wind speed, air humidity, angle of tilt, a million other factors all combined into that one magnificent, awe-inspiring event. Against all the odds, less one. Less the one when he could shout out, ‘That wasn’t supposed to happen. But it did!’
We grew up, and his experiments became more outlandish and my incredulity and sarcasm grew commensurately.
Surprisingly, as he approached manhood, he struggled to get a girlfriend. He was good-looking enough. The girls seemed to find his singed eyebrows and pepper-scars (shotgun accident, something to do with a pedal-activated firearms leaving both hands free) attractive. They’d quite happily go into the garden shed with him, assuming perhaps a beatnik den of hash, coloured glass lanterns and incense. But they usually emerged disgruntled and sooty.
I had devised my own theory of causality by this time and used the opportunity to provide a sympathetic ear and a warm flannel to those emerging from the shed. Nine times out of ten, this led to tear-filled eyes and trembling lips being lifted slowly in my direction. As I there-there’d, an arm might creep round the back of my neck and I would be the lucky recipient of any latent sexual charge that remained stoked after their close run thing with exploding batteries, metal welders or radio control units. As I smelled their summer-hot skin, buried my nose in their shiny hair, I’d mutter disingenuously, ‘This wasn’t supposed to happen’. This suggestion that Fate had had a hand in our union, had brought them to the door of this ‘creep’ who was more interested in his barmy gadgets than in, well never mind what in, but had steered them into the arms of his sensitive and caring younger brother seemed to make it all the more delightful and inevitable. ‘Yes, sweetheart’, my heart would sing, ‘This very much was supposed to happen’.
As we grew up, we went our separate ways. Bobby, now ‘Rob’ to Sheffield to study Civil Engineering. I began a traineeship at the bank. By this time, Mum’s mind had wandered further into the Wonderland of the technically impossible. Dad wasn’t great. And Samantha, who I’d met at the Tennis Club seemed keen to get engaged and unfazed at the prospect of taking on me and our parents.
Rob went to Africa. From time to time he wrote. From Uganda. From Kenya. From Rhodesia. Slender blue packets with exotic stamps scored with red crayon. The pages fluttered out like weightless birds. They brought with them the stains and smells of an utterly alien land. Archie, our lad, sat on the floor with an oversize atlas tracing the routes of the rivers and canyons his Uncle Rob had forged – forged both literally and as concrete entities in our eight year old’s fertile imagination. He wrote about huge metal structures hauled by drum beat over the red, red earth. Bridges, railways, roads spreading their fingers through jungle and over savannah. A hidden road built as a secret escape route for an about-to-be-deposed King. Air strips for commerce, for tourists, for our own departure from the colonies.
Every few years, he would turn up on the doorstep. We’d moved into Rosedale by this time to look after Mum and Dad. Mum was nearly frightened out of her (remaining) wits when Rob turned up this last time. He looked so much older than his forty years. As if his skin had shrink-wrapped itself to his misshapen frame. His teeth were scored and ridged. His eyes hooded and menaced. He hinted that the horrors went beyond flying snakes, poisonous ants, hungry beasts. The horrors, as vaporous as the early morning mist rising from the jungle, existed both inside and outside his skull. As if a cloud of mosquitoes could invade his brain through his open eyes, ears, nostrils. What was outside became inside. What was inside became outside.
Even he, this time, acknowledged that he’d outlived his chances as a white-skinned, lily-livered non-native. Had he challenged nature and realised that this, whatever ‘this’ was, was never supposed to happen? That there are certain immutable laws that you can pitch yourself against as much as you like, but you will always lose? That Africa, in its raw and natural state, was no place for a small town guy from Lincoln?
His wages from the Anglo-Italian construction company being paid into his Zurich bank account for twenty years meant he could afford to sit around for a while. His old room was still his.
He was pretty good with Mum once she’d got used to him again. I don’t think she really knew he was her son. But they used to sit in the conservatory together. He’d laugh at her nonsense rhymes. Which made her laugh and clap her hands.
Gradually, he straightened up. His skin softened but never really lost its yellowness once the colour of teak had left it. We caught him in the garden once showing Archie how he used to chew bark to clean his teeth, as medication for upset stomachs, although we managed to intercept the conversation before he got onto the narcotic effects of the Iboga tree. Rob’s eyes widened in the soft, grey English light. He reclaimed the shed.
We had no idea they had gone out that night. It was just an ordinary evening. Tea, homework, a bit of telly and then Archie had gone to bed at 9.
First we knew of anything, there was a loud knocking on the front door. The rape fields around the house were bright in the early morning sun, the misty air shone golden. The policeman’s face was solemn. Beyond his left shoulder rose the church spire.
Sam screamed and ran down the stairs. ‘He’s not here. Archie’s not here. What’s happened? Where is he? Is he dead?’ Her voice rose higher and higher as if squeezed from her throat.
They told us that Archie was okay. He was on the children’s ward in the Infirmary. They filled us in on the way but advised that we just let him talk.
The poor little sod. He was sitting on the bed. A nurse and WPC were with him. The cubicle smelled of sick.
Over the last few days, he and Rob had been watching scaffolders erect a huge metal frame around the church. The church was getting a new roof. Apparently, Rob had remembered when an old steeplejack had come, years ago, when we were kids. He’d shown Rob the metal dogs banged fast into the mortar all the way up the tower and how to tie the ladders on, overlapping the top and bottom rungs for safety, lashing them with rope.
Archie’s face was ashen as he gradually found his words.
‘Go on, love, tell us what happened.’
He sniffed. “We used some of the ladders the men had left overnight. He made me wait on the top platform while he tied on the ladders. He was going higher and higher with the rope over his shoulders like a bandolier. He slipped. His foot got caught in a loop and he slithered backwards, head first down the tower.’
‘What happened next?’ asked Sam, gently.
‘Uncle Rob was hanging upside down just where I was standing on the end of this long, long piece of rope. He couldn’t get himself up. I tried to lift his shoulders but he was too heavy. He gave me the knife and told me to cut the rope. I didn’t want to. He said he would be alright. He said he would catch hold of the rail in the blink of an eye and swing himself onto the platform.’ Archie stopped, his eyes flashing between ours. ‘It was just out of his reach.’
‘I wouldn’t do it. So he made me give him the knife. He sort of lifted himself up enough to reach the rope around his ankle. I was shouting at him to stop. I said I’d go and get help. I started running down the ladders and then I heard him. He just sort of fell off the edge, past me, onto the ground far below. When I got to him, he just said it wasn’t supposed to happen like that. Then he just said “Sorry”.’
There was an inquest. Death by misadventure. We told Mum that Rob had gone back to Africa. Archie was very quiet for a long, long time. Probably about a year before he became more like his old self. But he’s different. He’s got to challenge everything now. Takes nothing for granted. Questions everything.
And Sam and I stand at the French doors and watch as the door of the shed closes quietly behind him.