I’m riding home when Bill texts me, inviting himself over. His massive skull keeps popping into my head. Big and round, it’s like a balloon, and to look at him you’d think he’d have an equally large brain.
He’s coming over directly after work, so I’m cycling as fast as I can to get there before he does. Made me miss all the number plates of the cars, but this is what I did spot: POC556 (=7), DXY219 (=3), QIT998 (=8), GBF663 (=6), JFD112 (=4), KJH994 (=4), and LUY515 (=2). The numbers must add up to seven. You keep adding them together until you get a single number. I wanted seven sevens in a row.
As we’ve been having dark, clear, freezing nights with no moon and lots of stars, I’m not going to turn up red-faced this time. Still, I am panting when I arrive and, of course, Bill’s waiting on my front doorstep. I thought he might take a crack at me over my weight and how hard it must have been pushing up the hills into the wind but the first thing he says, as he follows me into the house, is: ‘Geeeez mate, what’s that smell?’
‘It’s coming from the fridge, I think,’ I say, ‘there’s something behind the tub of yogurt or down the bottom, under the broccoli or carrots I bought last week.’
‘Really Chris?’ he says. ‘I would have thought fridges only smell when you open them.’
Tonight, it’s sensitive, soft Bill, calling me mate, choosing his words carefully, selecting silences for effect, treading softly around anything delicate, all the while making a face that says, are you okay?
I’m used to him coming over. It’s probably why I’ve copied his self-conscious, cultivated look. I’m glad I don’t need glasses, otherwise I don’t think I’d be able to resist a pair of thick, black rimmed ones like his, or stop myself constantly re-arranging them while talking to people. As it is, I have his upright, haughty, but flighty walk down pat. I don’t do his constant leer, though, like he’s forever trying to figure people out.
Kathy decided to go out tonight. I didn’t tell her he was coming over but if I did, she would have stayed in. She would agreed with him on the smell, even though she lives here too.
Making himself comfortable in a seat, he says: ‘I wrote to Antony again.’
He likes to write to Antony. We all shared a shitty little flat in New York, living in one room and almost killing each other in the process.
‘Oh really?’ I say.
‘Yeah. Seems like he might be coming home.’
Trust him to know something like this to passively shove down my throat.
I’ve been following Antony on Instagram, sending him lots of messages, but I never get anything back. I thought him dodging me might have changed since I came home.
Antony was the one person I could tell anything. He used to be. I remember the conversation about how terrified I was of being on country roads in the middle of the night. It wasn’t the sort of talk you’d expect, given we lived in New York at the time. He listened, though.
For me, it was about the all trees. They were only eucalypts, but still they gave me the creeps. Their white trunks and limbs, scraggly, shrouded in moonlight, standing alone in darkness, seemingly forgotten, they scared me. Out in the fog beyond where headlights of cars would ever illuminate them, they had to live in steep ravines, creek beds filled with briars and blackberries, and stagnant water no one came back from.
I remember Antony laughing at this, ‘That’s fucking nuts, but why get out of your car in the middle of the night anyway?’
‘Yeah, totally,’ I said.
I’m having an extended bathroom session. After a shave, a long shower, and steaming up the bathroom, I’ve been looking at myself in the mirror. My head, it’s like Bill’s. Big and round, but mine’s thicker, plumper. Where his is a balloon, mine’s more like a beachball.
Kathy said he’s the better-looking brother. She’s staying in today. Sunday is our brotherly lunch day, so it’s obvious why.
When she applied to live here, I liked the way she wore lycra, and flicked her head, tossing her blond frizzy hair like she was in a shampoo commercial. She would grab it with both hands, tilt her head backward. I thought this was for me, and it would be amazing to have her as a flatmate. Now I find her wobbling around in sweatpants increasingly annoying.
Bill’s not interested. He likes her, sure, but she’s something more for him to play up to, every time he comes over.
When he comes in, he stands in the middle of the living room for a few seconds, looks around like he’s sensing something before he comes out with, ‘Oh, I hadn’t noticed those curtains before.
‘Woah they’re ugly, aren’t they?’
Kathy gives him a look. She’s trying to get his attention, from where she’s sitting in her big armchair.
He ignores her, he hasn’t finished yet, ‘And those frills, Jesus, what are they, straight out of the nineties?’
‘Yeah, they’re nasty aren’t they. Did you see the blinds in the spare room?’ I say, trying to join in. ‘I’m thinking of pulling them down.’
‘Well,’ he says, with a wink in my direction, ‘I could probably help you out with that.’
It’s silly, engaging, big brother Bill today. After a moment standing in the middle of the room, he says, ‘We watching footy today, yeah?’
‘Ah-ha,’ I say.
He saunters to the couch and switches on the television.
‘And what beer? IPA? Sapporo?’
‘Neither, white wine. I’m cooking chicken, a roast,’ I say, with my back to him from the kitchen.
There’s a pause, ‘Really?!’
‘Ahhhhhhh, shit,’ I say, turning around to him. I knew I would get something wrong.
He walks toward me with his arms out, ‘It’s okay,’ he says.
Kathy sighs from her position sitting. She’s still waiting to be acknowledged.
‘I’ll go to the store and get some.’
‘You?’ He says, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. Stay here and sort out the dinner. I’ll go.’
‘Yeah, it’s fine.’
‘Ahhhh, okay, sorry,’ I say.
‘Pffffftttt, don’t be silly. I’ll be like five, ten minutes, tops,’ he says and walks out the door.
Still in her arm chair, Kathy visibly deflates, her shoulders sagging and head drooping.
‘Don’t worry,’ I say, ‘he’ll be back.’
She stands, throws her head back, and walks, arms swinging vigorously, to her room, slamming the door behind her.
When Bill comes back, he wanders into the kitchen, opens me a beer, and starts talking about Antony. Now he’s curious, interested Bill, as he says, ‘So, have you heard from him? He said he was going contact to you.’
‘No,’ I say. ‘As if I would.’
‘Yeah right, well, you know what he’s like,’ he says, lying through his teeth.
Kathy re-appears and Bill finally says hello to her.
Apparently, Antony’s trying to get a flight back home, but he doesn’t have the money. He’ll have to wait until he can save it, or his parents come through for him. His Dad’s still pissed at him for taking off overseas and not completing his medical degree, which was like 10 years ago. They know how to hold a grudge, that family.
He’s probably still holding one against me. The last time I saw him was before I went ‘walking’ one New York night. I was gone for two days but it’s not like I was lost. I wanted to see how many air vents, and those orange chimneys things puffing up smoke out of the street, I could find. I wanted to teach Antony a lesson too.
The thing was, every time I turned a corner there’d be another chimney or exhaust in the distance, so I just kept connecting them, one, two, three, four or five, six. Searching and walking for exhausts, I didn’t know where I was, but so what. It was summer and warm. At night, pizza stores were open, convenience stores too. When I was tired, I had a Coke and ice cream, and I even slept, once or twice.
Kathy and I are watching television. She’s wearing lycra again, and a big woolly jumper. She thought Bill was coming over. I did too. It’s not Sunday, it’s Friday, but he said he would. Usually, he arrives after work but tonight it seems he may have gone out with his work mates, which he’s been threatening to do for a while.
Bill’s non-arrival gives Kathy the fidgets. She’s flicks her hair. She picks up her phone. She looks at it a minute, then throws it on the couch beside her. She grabs it and checks it again, and a third time. She gets up for a drink of water. She watches the television for a few minutes but gets bored and looks at her phone again.
Out of the blue, and with no regard to me concentrating on the program, she starts to talk, ‘So what’s with this Antony guy anyway?’
‘Anyway?’ I say.
‘Who is he?’ She says, giving me one of her looks.
‘An old friend. He lives in New York.’
‘Yes, I know all that,’ she says, looking at me again like she could jump on me and rip my eyes out, ‘but why do you two always talk about him?’
‘You mean, why does Bill always talk about him?’
‘Okay then, why does Bill always talk about him?’
‘You really want to know, don’t you?’
‘Oh, fuck off then, if you’re going to be like that.’
‘Okay then,’ I say, ‘Why do you think he talks about him all the time?’
‘I have no idea.’
‘No, seriously,’ I say, ‘why do you think he does?’
‘I really don’t know,’ she says.
‘I thought would be obvious.’
She looks at me.
‘It’s because he’s trying to lord it over me.’
‘Right,’ she says.
Antony was nowhere to be found the day I got caught sleeping in a park, which led me to being deported. I wasn’t supposed to be the park, and my time in the United States had run out.
I rang him because he was the only one I knew. I thought he would come, swanning though the door of the cell they had me in, with his big white teeth, grinning away madly like it was all a big joke, saying that I was his friend and everything would be cool, like he used to.
Weeks before, he’d said I’d changed but he had that back to front, with all his amazing New York friends, and the incredible places they hung out.
I’d told him, I didn’t know where he had gone.
He was baffled when I said that, ‘what do you mean, I am standing right in front of you.’
He could be so frustrating sometimes.
I am at work when Bill texts me. ‘What’s up?’
‘Nothing,’ I say.
Someone must have told him about the fight I am having with a guy on my floor in the office about the blinds. Every morning, he comes in, goes around to every single window and pulls them up. I wouldn’t mind this if he only kept mine down.
It started over me pulling down the two adjacent to my desk. Without fail, and this really is the truth, without fail, whenever I left my desk, even if it was to go to the toilet for like two minutes, when I returned, they’d be back up.
I tried a little note, and I was polite. I said, ‘can you please leave my blinds down’. I tried tying the cord up, so it was out of reach. I even put a cable tie around the mechanism at the top. Nothing worked.
So, I started pulling all the blinds on our floor down. I didn’t think anything would come from it, but the first time I pulled them all down, within half an hour to an hour, they were all up again. So, every break I had I went around again and again, and again.
Of course, the big guy who runs the call centre came over. With his huge beard, which he ties with an elastic band around in the middle, and his deep voice, he sounds and looks important. I was annoying people, he said. What about the other guy? I said. He frowned, and said, well, at least he’s letting light in. People like their light.
I’m riding home. It starts raining halfway there. I want to get there before Bill but it’s not easy when it’s wet and someone stole my rear mudguard, which makes water spray up the back of my legs and bottom.
Bill is inside when I get home, sitting on the couch. Kathy is in her armchair. They look like they have been talking.
‘Hey buddy,’ he says, ‘how was your day?’
Oh god, it’s re-assuring, warm and fuzzy Bill. I hate this version of him.
‘Yeah, it was okay,’ I say.
‘Cool, man, cool,’ he says. He only uses cool when he wants to say something to me. In about two or three sentences, he’s going to ask me about what happened at work today.
‘I brought over some beers, you want one?’ That’s when I notice they have been drinking. Makes sense, I think to myself, ply her with drink, so then it will be easier for him to move in.
‘Yep,’ I say.
He goes to the fridge. He comes back with a bottle of his favourite, Sapporo, ‘there you go mate, cheers!’
There’s a weird silence. Bill wants me to tell him about it. Stuff that, if he wants to talk to me about the blind incident, that’s his problem.
He shakes out his hands, rubs the sides of his legs. Then he takes a swig of beer. ‘So, I want to talk to you about something,’ he says.
‘I know, I know, I won’t do it again.’
‘The blinds.’ I say.
‘What blinds?’ he says, looking at the windows. He gives Kathy a look.
‘Never mind,’ I say.
‘Ummmmmm, yeah, look, what I wanted to tell you is I’m going to New York for a month.’
‘What?’ I say, looking at Kathy. She must be in on this too.
‘Now Chris, it’s only for a month, I’m going back with Antony for a quick holiday.’
‘What do you mean, going back with Antony?’
‘He’s here at the moment, he’s been out for the last two weeks.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘He didn’t want to see you,’ he says.
‘Yeah, no shit, and we all know why that is, don’t we?’
‘Now Chris, come on, don’t be like that.’
‘You know,’ now it’s serious and stern Bill.
‘No, I don’t know, arsehole.’
‘Fuck off,’ I say, going to my room.
Getting to my door, I realise I still have my beer in my hand, so I turn and say, ‘And thanks for the Saporo, it tastes like shit.’
Bill tries a few times to get me to come out of my room. Eventually I hear him leave. I sneak out of my room to listen to them.
I hear him say, ‘He’ll calm down soon. He always does.’
‘Don’t worry,’ Kathy says, ‘I’ll keep an eye him.’
There’s silence for a moment. I assume he’s gone. Then he says, ‘Okay, thanks.’
‘Text me?’ she says.
I slip out of the house at midday. It’s sunny and I like leaving the city on days like this. It reminds me of when Antony and I used to get out of New York. I had him to myself and didn’t have to compete with Bill, his new friends, or anything else.
I reach the country and start walking. It’s 5 p.m. The light is fading and there are no cars. Not like New York, where you can walk under lights all night and there are cars for miles. It’s icy too. I should have done this in summer.
I thought the road I am on would come out larger, better. It doesn’t. It gets thinner, shittier, and turns to dirt, with trees getting closer and closer. They tangle into a mess of gnarled knuckles and broken arms and legs. I don’t why I picked a dark back road, going nowhere, to express my displeasure at my awful brother. Lucky there’s a big, bright moon. My phone will only last so long.
I would turn back but Kathy and Bill keep calling. I’m trying to remember when he said he was flying out to New York. I keep walking until I don’t have reception.