By Any Other Word

By Neil, 21 August 2018 #


Love is what you write in a Christmas card to your Nan. Love is intoned with sententious repetition as we sit numbly through the service in the church. (‘All my love’ is what I wrote in a cringingly impulsive letter to a girl I’d kissed on a German exchange, she dismissed me by return of post.) Love is the answer to all the world’s ills, apparently, although no-one ever explains how. Love slithers off the tongue of preppy protagonists in idiot stories as eyes widen expectantly. The word hangs in the air between us, unanswered.

Proud is the word my Dad used to use, usually misty-eyed with a few glasses of red. Proud of the first pay-packet, the mortgage, the speech you sobbed through but no longer remember. Proud I turned from youthful waywardness to stolid responsibility when the moment called. Proud is the word that beery patriots use of their home, their team, their country. Too proud is what your mother used to say when I shrugged off her sisterly squeezes.

Take care is how my mother signs off her weekly phone calls, her tone rising with a forced cheeriness that almost neutralises the ominous warning of the words, a frantic fear of a treacherous world that hasn’t faded in ten years. Take care I would parrot in my turn as you gusted through the kitchen, a banana between the teeth, a jacket pulled over one arm, the key filched from the lock and door slammed in a single fluid motion. Take care because you never know whether this stale Sunday night ritual, this rushed resented dinner, may be the last one we get.

Brother is how you hail one another when your friends pile over, knowing the boundaries are relaxed here. Brother you yowl and screech at each other in solipsistic hilarity, crushing and lifting in combative embraces then, instantly subdued, bob a respectful greeting as they become aware of my spectral presence across the room. Brother was co-opted by countless societies, political, religious, in clumsy attempts to fabricate the unforced intimacy on show as you bundle down to the basement with shoves and jostles and entwinings. Brother exemplifies the strongest of bonds two people can have. Was that the kind of brother I was?

Nothing is what you called me once, after some routine domestic posturing exploded into an operatic teenage tantrum. I was nothing to you and there was nothing to me. I had nothing in my life and if you cut me open there would be nothing inside. You were nothing like me and wished it had been me that night. The next morning you cooked bacon for us both and we said nothing more about it.

Goodbye, I eventually say after we’ve drunk the tea, cleaned the mugs, double-checked everything’s come from the car and created a dozen other tiny delays before I entrust you to the dormitory’s excitable clamour. Saying goodbye isn’t nearly as hard as never getting to say goodbye but you seem to be struggling with the word and suddenly you tell me that you love me. A swell of heat forms somewhere in my belly and surges up, I feel my limbs begin to shake and the haze across my vision only makes your nose, your mouth blur into hers even more. The seconds hang between us like a held breath. “I’m very proud of you,” I say.



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