The Birthday By Ali Luke
‘Is that what you meant to do?’ Richard asked, quietly.
Jason stared across the pub, ignoring the curious eyes turned towards them – other students, mostly. Lauren had gone; she’d grabbed her coat and bag, left her still-full pint, and gone.
‘Jason?’ Richard sounded worried now, no longer half-amused. ‘Look, go after her, then, go on.’
‘She was pretty bloody clear she didn’t want me to.’
‘You don’t want to lose her.’
He willed his voice to stay steady. ‘I don’t need her. If she wants to end it... well, it was never going to last.’
Richard hesitated, reached for his beer, then dropped his hand. ‘She’s been good for you.’
‘Yeah. Got me wrapped right around her little finger.’
‘That’s not what I meant. And look, she only said ‘happy birthday’, how was she supposed –’
‘I never should’ve got involved with her.’ Jason pulled on his coat.
‘You’re off to patch things up with her?’
‘Okay. Then tell me you’re not going to do anything stupid.’
Richard grabbed his arm. Jason shook him off – easily.
‘Please tell me you’re not going to lock yourself in your room again,’ Richard said. ‘Please tell me I won’t have to get the porters to break in, that I’m not going to find you... find you... God.’
‘That was three years ago. And I’d smoked a lot of shit. I was feeling self-pitying.’
‘I’ll stay with you – I’ll sit up with you all night, I’m not going to let you—’
‘I’m not topping myself over a girl,’ Jason said. ‘Happy now?’
Richard lowered his voice. ‘Look, if it’d help to talk—’
‘Well, whatever it is about your birthday that—’
‘No.’ He strode out of the Eagle and into the pouring rain.
He’d let himself get too close: laid in her arms, talked into the night, cried, once, a year ago; cried into her hair.
He’d been drunk, that night. For the same reason he’d planned on getting drunk tonight, like every year since he’d turned thirteen.
Once he was back at college, he couldn’t face returning to his room. Couldn’t even bring himself to go indoors. He sat on the grass, his window and Richard’s side-by-side two floors above him. The rain was coming down harder.
The slow minutes of the anniversary ticked on. He’d hoped the cold would have a numbing effect; that, clearly, was more mercy than he deserved. Rain streamed through his hair, soaked through his clothes. As he stared at the ground, he tried to think of nothing.
It took him a moment – a long moment – to realise that no more rain was falling; it took him even longer to realise why.
Lauren stood over him, holding Richard’s golf umbrella. She said, ‘Come inside.’
‘I’m enjoying the lovely weather, ta.’
‘Jason, come in, or I’m fetching everyone on your corridor to carry you in.’
He suspected she’d make good on that. He stood and stumbled indoors with her; towards his room, rather than hers.
‘I’m not inviting you in,’ he said.
‘Why? Got any dead bodies in there?’
He flinched. ‘We can go to your room, if you want.’
She said, ‘After you dumped me?’
‘I didn’t—’ He paused at the top of the staircase. ‘That wasn’t what I meant.’
‘And I didn’t mean to upset you. I don’t know why your birthday is such a difficult topic, but—’
‘I’m not talking about it.’ His chest was tight; there was a treacherous prickle behind his eyes.
It was April 17th and if he was going to cry – and he always did, eventually, every year – he wanted to do so behind a firmly closed door.
He said, ‘Fine, come the fuck in.’
As he’d expected, she looked around curiously the moment she was inside: surveying desk and bookshelves and floor. Her gaze lingered on the photograph bluetacked to the wall above his bed. Too much to hope she wouldn’t notice.
To his relief, she didn’t ask why he had a faded, creased photo of a small girl on his wall. She didn’t say anything at all.
He said, ‘I don’t have any tea or coffee or anything to offer you.’
‘I wasn’t expecting any.’ She pulled off her mac and hung it on the back of his door.
He stripped out of his wet clothes, towelled himself down, and pulled dry ones on.
She sat down on the end of his bed. ‘Ever since we got together, I’ve felt like I’m missing part of the picture. What happened?’
She knew. No, she couldn’t possibly. But the way she asked it – what happened – just like he’d been asked it so many times, years ago, by so many voices; his mother’s, shrill; his father’s, terror beneath the surface. The police.
What happened? What happened?
He opened his mouth to say, ‘Nothing,’ but what came out was, ‘It was an accident.’
Her gaze went – again – to the photo above his bed. ‘I’d like to know. I’d like to... to help, if I can.’
‘Short of a time machine, you can’t.’
‘Then,’ she said, quietly, ‘I’d like to share the burden.’
He was not going to cry. He refused to cry. He said, harshly, ‘Don’t make stupid offers.’
‘Trust me, if you knew, you would—’
‘You’d hate me. You’d leave, for good, and you’d be right to.’
‘Yeah?’ She met his eyes, calm, unflinching. ‘If it’s something so awful I wouldn’t want to be with you, then wouldn’t it be fairer to tell me?’
‘Since when was I fair?’
‘You’re scrupulously fair. You have rules, don’t you, ones you’ve never told me, but I know they’re there.’ She held up a finger for each. ‘You never say the word “love”. You’re barely on speaking terms with your parents. You’ve never let me inside your room. We never talk about the future – about where things are going between us. You don’t celebrate your birthday – in fact, you hate any mention of your birthday.’
How stupid to think she’d not have noticed.
She pointed at the photo above his bed. ‘Who’s the little girl?’
He said nothing.
‘I’ll ask a different question, then. If you didn’t want me to see that photo, why didn’t you just take it down?’
How could he even begin to explain? As soon as he was at college, and as soon as he returned home, he always fastened the photograph right above his bed; it was the last thing he would see before closing his eyes; the first thing he would look at in the morning.
Lauren said, ‘I figure it’s another rule. The photo has to be there.’
‘She was my sister,’ he said.
He shuddered; he couldn’t help it. And then he nodded.
‘How old were you?’
‘Eight. I was eight.’
‘You told me you didn’t have any brothers or sisters.’
‘I don’t. I haven’t for thirteen years.’
On any other night, perhaps he’d have refused to tell her. But April 17th was supposed to hurt.
He sat next to her on the bed, and stared down at his hands, ‘It was my birthday. I was excited about opening presents. She was at the top of the stairs, shouting about wanting pancakes for breakfast. I told her to get out of the way. She didn’t. I pushed her. I didn’t mean her to fall... I was just trying to move her. But she did fall, all the way, and – and she landed badly. At least it was quick. They said she would’ve hardly felt a thing.’
He’d never said I pushed her, not in thirteen years. He’d always said, She tripped. I saw her trip. I tried to catch her but I couldn’t.
At times, he’d almost been able to make himself believe that.
Lauren said, ‘It wasn’t your fault.’
‘Of course it was. And now you know why I don’t talk about my birthday. Because it’s the day my sister died. No-one ever celebrated my birthday again. No presents, no parties, no mention of it.’
‘That’s... Jason, I’m so sorry. That’s awful.’
‘Not really. My parents were devastated. They’d spent five years, after I was born, trying for another baby. They loved her. I loved her. And today, I’m twenty-one, and it’s thirteen years since I killed my little sister. Once you’ve run away in horror, I’ll get on with drinking myself into a mild coma.’
She looked at him, steadily. ‘Thirteen years. Don’t you think you’ve punished yourself enough?’
‘No, actually. She’s dead. What could ever be “enough”?’
Lauren said, ‘All right. You do whatever the hell you normally do on April 17th, and I’ll stay right her with you.’
‘I didn’t mean it about the drinking. I usually do. Not tonight.’
‘Why not this time?’
He shrugged. ‘Too easy. Too much of a cop out.’
She said, ‘What will you do, then?’
‘Think about her. Remember. Try not to remember. Probably...’ He hesitated. ‘I’ll probably cry and I’d rather you’re not here to see.’
He wasn’t entirely sure any more.
She said, ‘All right. You think about her, remember her, talk about her, cry, whatever gets you through the night. I’ll be right here with you. But tomorrow – you’re going to move on, okay. You’re going to risk saying ‘love’. You’re going to risk talking about the future, like it might actually happen. You’re going to at least allow the possibility that you might one day be happy.’
‘I killed her. I pushed her down a staircase –’
‘Is that what you meant to do?’
‘No.’ For the first time in thirteen years, he was sure of that. ‘No. It was an accident.’
All she said was, ‘Well, then,’ and put her arm around him. He let her. And he cried, and she stayed with him, and somehow, the grief was more bearable.
Tomorrow, he would tell Lauren he loved her. He couldn’t quite manage it yet. But he squeezed her hand, and met her eyes, and she smiled: for now, that was enough.