As the fast train passed through the station a dead bird landed at Ben’s feet. It happened so suddenly that it took him a moment to realise what had happened. The way it appeared was like the finale to a magic trick, but then he figured that the train must have hit it. The bored faces of the passengers looked out, oblivious to the collision they had just had.
When the last carriage disappeared, a gust of wind whipped up in its wake, causing the collar of Ben’s coat to flap up into his face, and the dead birds feathers to rustle gently. He walked a little way along the platform to get away from it.
He had a heavy rucksack that he carried over one shoulder, heavy exclusively because of the parcel he was delivering to his brother, Matthew. The strap dug into his collar bone. Matthew had called him earlier in the week from a payphone because he didn’t have a telephone in the new cottage yet and the mobile reception in the village was unreliable.
‘I’m having a small anvil delivered to you,’ Matthew had said. ‘I’m worried the post service won’t be able to get it here.’
Ben had said that was fine, even though he didn’t think it was. Everyone was careful about what they said to Matthew these days. You could hear the spaces left by the things that went unsaid.
Their mother referred to it as ‘his episode’, as though it were an episode of a sitcom where the end loops back to the beginning so that everyone can carry on as though nothing had happened. If anyone alluded to it she would change the subject, and if Matthew tried to bring it up she would tell him, we don’t have to talk about that until we’re ready, in a way that suggested that no one was quite ready just yet.
When the train arrived, Ben climbed on and collapsed into a seat, the rucksack landing heavily on the floor. As the train pulled away, a man rushed down the stairs, first seeing that he had missed the train, and then looking down as he noticed the little dead bird.
Matthew filled a copper kettle, put it on the gas hob and Ben handed him the parcel. The anvil was packaged in an enormous strip of bubble wrap, which he unravelled until it dropped into his hand. It was tiny, like a novelty version of the real thing.
‘It’s smaller than I expected,’ he said, turning it around in his hands.
He had taken up leather working ever since leaving his job. For twenty years he had worked at the same company, slowly working his way out of jobs he had enjoyed and up the hierarchy into ones he didn’t, until stress, combined with the gradual dissolution of his marriage, precipitated a breakdown. Now he makes bridles for local horse owners, and belts that he sells at craft markets.
‘What’s it for?’ Ben said.
‘Riveting,’ Matthew said.
The cottage was small. On the outside it looked idyllic’ but inside the ceilings were low and all of his stuff made the rooms feel huddled and crowded. Ben recognised some of the clutter from his old house. His collection of management technique and self-help books were lined up on the fireplace and the old banjo he had never learned to play was in the corner. But most of it was made up of his new leather working supplies. There were hides draped over the backs of chairs, still in roughly the shape of the animal they came from, and tools that Ben couldn’t identify lying around. The place smelled like a damp shoe shop.
Matthew showed Ben what he would be using the anvil for, and where he had damaged the kitchen table by not having one. He showed him a barbaric looking tool that was used for cutting the leather. Matthew found a small scrap and watched Ben struggle to cut it before telling him that the tool was an antique, more a collector’s item than something he actually used.
‘I’m no good with that thing either,’ he said, getting another, more modern, tool and with a single scything motion cut out a strip of leather.
When the kettle started to whistle it had taken so long to boil they had forgotten they were waiting for it.
They sat side by side in the living room with coffees and some plain biscuits that Matthew had laid out on a plate.
‘Sorry about the biscuits,’ he said. ‘The shop only has a small selection.’
Ben dipped one into his coffee. ‘You’re looking well,’ he said.
Matthew smiled and sipped his drink.
The difference in him was remarkable. He had lost weight, cut his hair short, grown a beard that emphasised his recovered jawline. But it was more than just his physical appearance. He seemed relaxed. He was wearing a thick jumper and a pair of old corduroys, and sat low in the chair, one leg crossed loosely over the other. When he spoke, his voice was soft and unhurried and the edges of his mouth seemed they were always leaning toward a smile. He was like a different person.
‘And how have you been keeping?’ he said. There was an emphasis on the word you.
‘Okay,’ Ben said. ‘Alison’s doing well. How are things with Jeanette?’
Jeanette was Matthew’s ex-wife and Ben had never got on with her particularly well. For the first month of their relationship Ben had thought her name was Janet, and no one had known how to correct him. They had never worked out how to talk to each other after that.
‘We’re keeping it civil,’ he said. ‘But Katie has been struggling a little to adapt.’
‘Well,’ Ben said, ‘she’s only eleven.’
‘Katie came to stay a couple of weeks ago, but the second bedroom isn’t ready yet so she took my room and I slept on this.’ Matthew patted the sofa which was clearly much too small for him to sleep on. ‘I think she enjoyed herself.’
Matthew showed Ben around the rest of the cottage, but there wasn’t much to see. The stairs were narrow, his bedroom had a double that took up most of the space and the second bedroom was completely empty.
‘I need to paint before I put any furniture in,’ Matthew said. There were little patches of damp and black mould around the windows. ‘I should be able to get a single bed and a little wardrobe in.’
Ben looked at the tiny bedroom, trying to figure out how exactly.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘should be fine.’
It was dark by the time Ben got home and when he walked through the front door Alison was at the oven wearing an enormous dressing gown. The kitchen light was off but she had moved one of the bedside lamps down and stood it on the worktop next to her.
She turned and smiled at him.
‘Bulb’s gone,’ she said.
The ambience the bedside lamp gave the kitchen was mellow and welcoming. Ben walked into the kitchen and hugged her from behind, wrapping his arms around the mound of dressing gown.
‘You okay?’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ she said.
After Ben and Alison got married, people at his work started to ask why she wasn’t pregnant yet. He thought the question was intrusive but never told them so. He just said that he didn’t know why, and he didn’t. After a while they made an appointment with a doctor who asked them a lot of questions and then ran some tests, and the following week when they were invited back to hear the results the doctor told them that they had options.
Ben had looked down at the speckled blue floor tiles, instantly exhausted because when doctors said ‘options’ what they meant were ‘problems’.
‘Sure you’re okay?’ he said.
‘I’m fine,’ Alison said again, and smiled over her shoulder at him to demonstrate. ‘How was Matthew?’
‘I think he’s gone insane,’ he said.
Ben took off his coat and emptied his rucksack.
‘What’s that?’ she said, gesturing at what he had in his hand.
‘Belt,’ he said. ‘My brother gave it to me.’
‘Did he make it?’
‘Do you want some scrambled eggs?’
‘Can I look at it?’
Ben handed her the belt.
The belt was pleasingly heavy, and Matthew had embossed a pattern into it. It hadn’t taken him long to develop an affinity for his new craft, though Ben didn’t expect he would ever wear it.
‘It’s nice,’ Alison said, handing it back.
She started preparing some eggs for Ben.
‘I know he did well out of selling shares, but how much do you suppose he can make doing this? I don’t know how much the cottage costs, but I assume he has to give money to Jeanette.’
Ben fumbled about in the drawer to find a teaspoon, which was harder with only the lamp light.
‘But did he seem happy?’ Alison said.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘but what’s he going to do at Christmas? Has he even thought about that?’
Ben put the kettle on, satisfied at how fast it boiled.
‘It sounds like he’s doing okay.’
He nodded. ‘You wouldn’t recognise him.’
After Matthew’s episode a lot changed. He quit his job, then he and Jeanette separated on a trial basis that quickly became permanent. He moved back in with their parents, into his old bedroom which had been redecorated into a bland guest bedroom with anonymous furniture and magnolia walls. He was quiet for a long time and watched television late into the night when he was struggling to sleep. During the day he helped with the housework and in the evenings he spent time on Skype talking to Katie and helping her with her homework.
He stopped drinking. Then he stopped smoking. Then he started doing yoga at the local sports centre.
Ben had stopped in to visit one Saturday morning and he got there just as Matthew was arriving back from somewhere. He had been wearing grey jogging bottoms which, for reasons Ben couldn’t explain, slightly appalled him.
‘Where have you been?’ Ben said.
‘Group,’ Matthew said.
Ben nodded but didn’t say anything. They stood there watching cars go past until their mother came and told them the front garden was no place for standing and made them come inside.
‘I’m going to be moving out soon,’ Matthew told Ben as their mother set a teapot down on the table. ‘I’ve found a cottage.’
‘That’s one option,’ their mother said.
Matthew leaned in to Ben once their mother had returned to the kitchen. ‘It’s good,’ he said, ‘I can’t wait to show it to you.’
Ben went back to visit again the following weekend and helped paint the spare bedroom. Ben painted the walls, Matthew painted the ceiling. They laid a bed sheet on the floor to protect the carpet and got in each other’s way constantly.
‘I let Katie choose the colour,’ Matthew said.
It was a dark olive green, too dark for the size of the room.
Ben was cautious with the paint at first, carefully loading the roller before applying it to the wall. When Matthew asked if he had done this before Ben said that of course he had, even though he hadn’t. The smell of the paint was overwhelming and after a while they had to open the window.
‘I’ll help you do this one day,’ Matthew said, ‘when you have children.’
Ben stepped around Matthew and put some more paint on the roller. Matthew was applying the white paint to the ceiling in broad strokes and sometimes, when he got too close, little smudges of white got on the walls, spoiling the olive green. Ben thought about saying something, but Matthew didn’t seem bothered about it.
‘You know,’ he said, ‘Alison and I probably aren’t going to have children.’
Then he paused, thought about what he had said and rephrased it.
‘Alison and I aren’t going to have children.’
Matthew put his roller down and picked up his drink. Standing by the window, with the sunlight coming in, Ben could see little flecks of grey in his beard that he hadn’t noticed before.
‘My therapist told me something,’ Matthew said. ‘I didn’t understand it at first, but we talked about it in group and it started to make sense.’
He said the words therapist and group like they were no big deal. Like he had made his peace with them a long time ago.
‘No one ever blamed a stone for lying on the ground. It’s about nature, I think. How important it is to accept it.’
‘Can I ask you a question?’ Ben said.
Matthew turned and leant against the wall. Ben tried to warn him, but before he could he was resting against a patch of fresh paint. He unpeeled himself from the wall, a long olive stripe down one sleeve of his jumper, and they both started laughing.
Ben put the kettle on the hob and Matthew changed out of his jumper. Then they sat on the little sofa and waited for it to boil.
‘The truth is, nothing happened,’ Matthew said. ‘It wasn’t like that. I was driving to work one day and I was stressed about something that was going on that day, and I was stressed about something that had happened at home. It’s like something broke in me. I pulled over onto the side of the road, turned off the engine and I just sat there.’
Ben looked out of the living room window, at the way the trunk of a tree warped in the thick glass.
‘I sat there on the side of the road for nearly five hours. The cars were going past me and my mobile kept buzzing in my pocket, but I just ignored it. I wasn’t thinking about anything. Then a policeman knocked on the window and asked me if I needed any help and I started crying and I couldn’t stop.’
Ben turned to look at Matthew. He was expecting to see tears welling but his eyes were dry.
‘Thanks for telling me,’ Ben said.
‘Can I ask you one more question?’
Matthew laughed gently. ‘Someone said I should try it, so I did.’
‘You really enjoy it?’
‘I like the way I feel when I am doing it.’
‘Happy?’ Ben said.
Matthew shook his head.
When Ben got home, the bedside lamp was on in the kitchen again and he realised what that meant. For seven days in a row he had forgotten to buy a bulb. He found Alison in the living room, curled on the sofa and watching television. The sound was down low and she looked as though she were only just awake.
‘Hey,’ he said softly.
He sat down next to her and she shifted so that her head was in his lap.
‘How was your brother?’ she said.
‘Good actually,’ he said. Then he told her about painting the spare bedroom, about how Matthew got paint on his jumper, about the small details of his brother’s emotional collapse, and when he was done they sat quietly.
‘How are you doing?’ Ben said, but she didn’t reply. He leaned forward and saw that she was asleep, her eyes softly closed, her breathing slow and gentle.
He watched the clock tick away sixty seconds, trying to feel the weight of the time as it passed. Then he tried to extrapolate that up to five hours, but he found he couldn’t imagine what that would be like. Ben turned off the television with the remote and continued stroking her hair even though he knew that she couldn’t feel him doing it. The clock was barely lit by the lamp light from the kitchen and he tried to think of nothing as it continued to tick away.
(This story was first published in Issue 11.)
TOBY WALLIS lives in Suffolk, UK. His work has previously appeared in Glimmer Train, The Dime Show Review and Typishly. He was awarded first place in Glimmer Train's New Writers award, and has been short-listed for The Bridport Prize. He is on Twitter as @tobyshmoby and keeps a website at tobywallis.net