‘I need a favour.’
The voice on the other end of the phone hit me like a boot to the stomach. Waves of relief and anger washed through me, knocked me down onto the couch.
‘Joel,’ I said. My tongue stumbled over the vowels, as if the word belonged to a foreign language.
‘Same as I ever was. How’s things, bro?’
My brother led an existence similar to Schrödinger’s cat; until I heard his voice, I was never sure if he was alive or dead. It was quite possible he was both.
‘What do you need?’ I asked.
My guess was money. It was usually money. A couple of times he’d asked for a place to stay, or to put me down as a phony job referee. The referee I would do—the chance to act again a welcome shot of excitement amongst the monotony—but a place to stay was out of the question. Priya put a stop to that.
‘My kidneys are fucked.’
I said nothing.
Joel said nothing.
The silence hung between us, thick and heavy like quicksand.
I didn’t tell Priya straight away. I needed to let the idea circle around my brain for a while, to make sense of what Joel was asking.
‘What are my three favourite boys up to today?’ Priya asked at the kitchen table, as she choked down muesli and yogurt.
‘Skatepark!’ Arin and Dev yelled together.
‘I wish I had twelve weeks holidays a year,’ Priya said, as she stopped to kiss me on her way out the door.
‘I’ve already made your dreams come true hun, don’t get greedy.’
The skatepark was deserted. By the last few weeks of the summer holidays, most parents had returned to work, meaning the kids were free to gorge themselves on unlimited PlayStation, or had elderly grandparents who didn’t trust the skatepark as an environment they could control. The life of a teacher has its benefits. Well, mainly the holidays.
I watched my boys tear across the graffitied concrete of the park. Dev, the oldest by two years, played it safe; he had the handlebars of his scooter to hold on to, and never tried anything beyond his control. Arin, on the other hand, thought scooters were lame, and the skateboard we bought him for Christmas was already scratched and chipped all over, the result of excessive confidence—or recklessness, I couldn’t tell.
‘The boys are getting big.’
I turned to see Joel slide onto the bench beside me. He’d lost weight since I last saw him, made the transition from thin to gaunt, giving him hard edges. The human body shouldn’t have corners.
He extended his hand, and I took it, after a moment’s pause.
‘Thanks for seeing me, Sean. It’s been a while eh?’
Not since Mum’s funeral, when Joel turned up half pissed and almost dropped the casket as we lugged it down the aisle.
We sat and watched the boys carve across the slopes and mounds, every now and then leaping up for a moment of freedom, before gravity sucked them back down.
‘Uncle Joel!’ Arin cried as he caught sight of my brother.
The boys ran up for fist bumps and low fives.
‘Show us a trick!’
‘Me? I’m an old man! What about your Dad?’
‘Dad’s even older than you. And he’s an unco,’ Dev said, giggling.
Joel looked at me, waiting for permission. I nodded.
‘All right,’ Joel said, taking the extended skateboard. ‘Now remember, it’s been a while since I strapped my skate shoes on.’
After a few hesitant pushes, Joel took off around the park. He had the easy grace of a dolphin, weaving in and out of turns and gliding across the obstacles. I could see the confidence flood back into his limbs, and he lined himself up to approach the hip in the middle. He hit the upslope with speed, and popped his board before the peak. He flew through the air as if in slow motion, while the board flipped underneath him too fast for me to track. Just when it looked like he had left it too late, he caught the rotating board with his front foot and stomped the landing.
The boys cheered. I breathed again.
‘You got to be careful Joel, you’re not young anymore. Take a slam at our age and you’ll end up in hospital,’ I said to Joel as he flopped onto the bench, his breathing ragged. The boys stormed back into the park, eager to replicate the feats of their uncle.
‘Yeah, well, I’m already one of their best customers,’ Joel said.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m on dialysis now. Three days a week. Strapped onto a bed with lines and tubes stuck into me like the pupae in The Matrix. It’s no way to live, bro,’ he said, shaking his head.
‘How long can you live like that?’ I asked.
‘The Doc reckons eighteen months. I’m on the waitlist for a kidney donor.’
‘How long’s the waitlist?’
‘Fuck,’ I said.
Joel looked away. ‘Yeah, fuck.’
‘Anyways,’ he continued, ‘I know you’ve tried to help me before, and I pissed it all away. But this is the wakeup call I needed. I’ve got a job, got my own place. I’ve been clean for nine months.’
Joel looked me in the eyes. ‘I seen my future Sean; I don’t want it.’
I had seen it too.
‘Dad,’ Dev called to me, and I turned to see Arin leaning on his older brother like a crutch. Arin limped towards me, unable to hold back tears, his mouth flapping open like a fish out of water, silently gasping.
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘Arin tried to kickflip off the quarter pipe. He landed all twisted. His leg is real bad, Dad.’
‘I gotta go Joel,’ I said to my brother.
He pulled a brochure from his jeans and handed it to me. ‘Take this and have a look. No pressure.’
I stuffed the brochure in the pocket of my shorts and bundled the boys into the car. I waved to him as we drove off. His shadow stretched out by the afternoon sun, he looked taller than I remembered.
The medical practice waiting room resembled my school’s sick bay after muck up day. Kids with too much time and not enough supervision were learning the hard way; the human body is not invincible. The fact Arin could walk on his leg told me it wasn’t broken, but Priya would want it checked out. Better to be safe than sorry.
‘Arin my darling boy, what happened to you?’ Priya said as she rushed into the room, squashing Arin in her embrace. She shot her eyes at me, like a prosecutor in the courtroom.
‘It’s just a sprained ankle,’ I said, ‘He’ll be fine.’
‘Well thank you doctor Dad, but I’ll wait for the trained professional to make a diagnosis if you don’t mind.’
She collapsed onto the seat beside me, and her leg brushed against the brochure sticking out of my pocket. She pulled it out and read aloud.
‘Information for familial donors. Why are you looking at this?’
‘Bit of light reading,’ I said, hoping she thought I had pulled it from the bunch of information booklets near the reception desk.
‘We saw Uncle Joel today, Mum,’ Dev piped up. ‘He looked sick.’
Priya’s eyes narrowed, and I could see her brain ticking over. She knew about our family history of kidney disease; she asked to have genetic testing done before we had children.
‘You’re not serious, are you?’ she asked.
‘I haven’t even had a chance to consider it yet. But yes, he’s sick. He’s on dialysis.’
‘Fucking hell,’ she said. ‘Boys, go and play with the puzzles over there,’ she said, pointing at the derelict pile of toys in the corner.
‘Mum,’ Dev said, rolling his eyes.
‘Alright, fine.’ Priya passed them her phone, pre-loaded with kid friendly video games.
With the boys distracted, she turned back to me. ‘How could your brother even qualify for organ donation? He’d drown the new kidney in months. It’d be a waste.’
‘He’s quit drinking.’
‘Of course he has. He quits every day for about eight hours.’
‘He seemed different this time. He’s working now too.’ I could hear an edge to my voice, and fought to smooth it off. ‘He’s my brother, what do you want me to do?’
‘Think about our family. What’s to say Arin or Dev don’t end up with kidney disease themselves, and need a donation from us? And there’s you, only one kidney left after the first one made a small stopover on its way to the rubbish bin.’
Other parents in the waiting room looked at us. Priya’s face softened, the mask of anger fell away, revealing lines of worry I wished I could rub away. She lowered her voice, and placed a hand on my thigh. ‘Sean, you can’t save him.’
‘Arin Murphy?’ the doctor called out from next to the reception desk.
Arin looked up from the phone, a face full of fear. Dev made a fart sound with his mouth and elbowed his brother in the ribs.
‘Come on,’ Dev said.
Arin smiled, and limped his way up the hall.
A slit of jagged white teeth glinted above our heads, as the body of a grey nurse shark cruised past like a fat, pale sausage of the ocean. The boys had begged me to take them to the aquarium all holidays. Arin’s limp disappeared as soon as we entered the underwater tunnels. He scurried along, trying to follow the shark’s path.
‘Dad, would a grey nurse ever eat us?’ Dev asked.
‘No, they are friendly to humans,’ I said.
‘What if it was trapped in the dome of Atlantis and there were no more fish left, only you and me and Arin. And Uncle Joel,’ Dev said, laughing.
I turned to see Joel behind me, pulling what I guessed to be the face of a shark. It exposed his gums: red and raw, and his mustard-coloured teeth poked out like the last remaining trees in a poisoned forest.
‘Come on,’ I said, ‘We’ve got five minutes to make it to the seal show.’
Joel chased the boys down the tunnel, making the “duh-duh” noise from Jaws. The boys shrieked with laughter. Joel swerved back and forth across the tunnel, almost colliding with a mother pushing a pram, and bounced off the glass walls.
When we arrived at the outdoor amphitheater, the boys begged to sit in the front row of the kids’ section. Joel and I took seats further back. He plonked down with a thump on the metal bench, a sound incompatible with his emaciated frame.
‘They’re good kids,’ he said.
‘You were a good kid,’ he said.
Stale alcohol fumes poured out of him, the familiar stench of lost hope.
‘Not all the time,’ I answered.
‘It’s a good thing I never had children,’ Joel continued.
‘Cos I wasn’t a good kid.’
The trainer introduced the first Seal of the show: an Australian fur seal called Sammy, who lifted a flipper and waved at the crowd. Arin and Dev waved back.
‘You could have just told me you didn’t want to do it,’ Joel said.
‘What are you talking about?’ I asked.
‘She hated me from the start, never even gave me a chance. For years, I couldn’t work out why. But last night, when she called me, I finally realised. She’s scared we’re more alike than we are different.’
‘Who called you?’ I asked. I already knew.
‘Priya. Told me what a selfish prick I was to even ask for another handout.’
Sammy the fur seal swam around the edge of the pool, slapping his fin against the water to splash the first three rows. The crowd cheered and laughed.
‘There’s something inside me that’s broken,’ Joel continued, once the clapping died down, ‘A piece that’s missing. All these years, I’ve been hoping to find it, to fix what can’t be fixed. She doesn’t want you broken too.’
I opened my mouth to reply, to tell him to hold on, not to give up now. But Sammy had caught a beach ball on the end of his nose, and the roar of applause spared me from refuting the fears I had failed to quell for the last twenty years.
‘I’m a lost cause, Sean. Spend time with your wife and kids. Enjoy your life.’
He rose to leave, tripped over the legs of a mother at the end of the aisle and fell against the concrete wall. Hardly anyone noticed, their eyes focused on Sammy executing a textbook belly flop into the pool.
Joel gathered himself and climbed the stairs to the exit, his posture stooped, as if his spine had lost the will to hold his body upright.
The next day I told the boys I had to duck up to the school to prepare a few lessons before the students came back. They didn’t mind; they had Nintendo and chocolate, what more could a kid want?
I drove straight past the school, parked in my usual spot in the cemetery, and walked the hundred metres to my parent’s grave. The hanging bows of the acacia tree tempered the January heat, the sun low enough in the sky for me to sit in the shade until night fell if I wished. I wiped down the headstones before I opened a bottle of whisky, poured a nip onto the earth covering my mother’s remains and took a good slug for myself. I hadn’t visited in months, and weeds had started to sprout from the grass. Maddie’s grave lay next to my parents, a smaller tombstone for a smaller life. Space remained for one more grave in the family plot, and I sat upon it. I could already picture Joel’s headstone.
Loyal son, brother and friend.
Taken too soon.
It could have read: A wasted life.
My mother’s last words to me echoed in my ears: ‘Sean, take care of Joel, don’t let the world swallow him up.’
I took another slug of the whisky, poured until the burn stung my eyes enough for tears to form.
Joel was the chick who fell from the nest and broke his wing. Now the earth had opened its mouth and he couldn’t escape its grasp.
I poured and swallowed, poured and swallowed, until the tears fell from my face onto the waiting tendrils of grass, rehydrating on their doomed journey to the sky. The lawnmower would be back next week.
Bolognaise sauce wafted into my nostrils as I opened the front door. The boys sat glued in front of the television, racing go karts around a rainbow castle and firing turtle shells at each other.
‘Nice of you to join us,’ Priya called from the kitchen.
I lurched past the boys. They didn’t look up from the screen.
‘That smells nice hun.’
‘Where have you been?’ she asked.
‘I went to visit Mum and Dad.’
‘Yeah? I didn’t realise they were buried in a distillery. You stink.’
‘You had no right to call Joel.’
Priya dropped the wooden spoon she held into the saucepan full of simmering tomatoes. Red teardrops splashed onto her white blouse. She reached for a cloth to wipe it.
‘So that’s where you’ve been. Good to see he’s back to his old form.’
‘I wasn’t with him.’
I wondered if the boys had told her about seeing Uncle Joel at the aquarium the day before.
‘Why do you think I called him? You don’t have the guts to tell him no. I saved you the hassle.’
Priya had never been afraid to call things as she saw them, and I loved her for it.
This time she was wrong.
‘I haven’t made a decision yet. And in case you’ve forgotten,’ I said, pointing at my chest, ‘It’s my body. My decision.’
I pulled a beer out of the fridge and opened it with my shirt. I drained half the bottle in one long pull and stared at her.
She placed her finger on the stovetop and turned the hotplate off.
‘You’re right Sean. It is your decision. And if you want to sit around here and poison your kidneys like your deadshit brother, then go ahead. Maybe you need some space to clear your head. I’m taking the boys to Mum and Dad’s for a few days.’
After she packed the boys in the car she came back for her handbag. My car keys sat on the bench next to her bag, and she grabbed them and pointed them at me like a knife.
‘Don’t you dare get behind the wheel drunk again,’ she said. Her smooth chestnut skin was flushed, her eyes pleading. Priya turned and hurled the keys out the open front door, amongst the leaves and grass and not-yet-picked-up dog shit. I collapsed onto the couch. Super Mario’s idiotic face stared back at me from the television screen.
Three beers later, I decided it would be a good idea to search the front garden for my car keys. I figured the moonlight would be enough of a guide, but as I strolled confidently across the driveway, my right foot suddenly grew wheels and flew out from underneath me. I landed on my back—hard—the air shot out of my lungs like a cannon. Arin’s skateboard rolled away to the safety of the grass, pleased with itself to claim another victim.
I gazed at the stars above, unsure if I would ever take another breath, and thought of Dev helping Arin at the skatepark, carrying him to safety, speaking up for his brother shocked into silence by pain. I recalled Joel’s tear-streaked face from 30 years ago, when he returned home from the river unable to speak. I often wonder how my life would have turned out if it was me who watched her canoe capsize amongst the rapids, saw it lodge in the half-submerged red gum. If it was me who dragged her pale, lifeless body onto the bank half a kilometre downstream, tried to breathe life into lungs that had already made their peace with this world. If I hadn’t ditched my brother and sister that day to go to the matinee screening of ‘Home Alone’ with Emily Roberts from the eighth grade. Sometimes the guilt gets so thick it clogs my veins, my arteries, my brain, makes it impossible for any rational thoughts to emerge. Looking at Joel was like peering into my alternate universe, the one that most days I thought I deserved.
My lungs finally expanded, granting me the energy needed to drag my aching body up off the concrete and hobble back inside. I found my phone, dialled Joel’s number. I held my breath and listened, my heart beating four times for each ring.
‘This is Joel, I’m probably busy, or I just don’t want to talk to you. Why don’t you leave a message?’
‘Joel, it’s me, Sean. Listen, I want to be your donor. I’m… Don’t do anything stupid, okay? Call me back.’
I popped four Panadol for the burning ache my back and sculled three glasses of water. I called him again.
I paced the lounge room for ten minutes. Called again. Nothing.
I needed to pee, and as I drained my bladder in the laundry, I spied the organ donor pamphlet lying next to the dirty clothes basket. It must have fallen out of the pocket of my shorts when I threw them in for washing. I took the pamphlet back into the lounge room and read it again. Found a number on the back. I called it.
I spoke to about five different robots before a human came on the line.
‘Hi, I’m not sure if I’m calling the right place, but I’m looking to sign up as an organ donor for my brother.’
‘Your name please?’ the voice asked.
‘Sean. Sean Murphy.’
I heard a knock at the door. Three knocks. Heavy.
I turned to the door, still open from before, and saw two policemen standing with their hands folded in front, holding their caps across their laps.
‘No,’ I said.
‘Sorry?’ the voice said in my ear.
‘No, no, no.’
The phone plummeted from my hand, made a dull thud against the carpet.
‘Mr. Sean Murphy?’ one of them asked.
‘Your brother Joel has been in an accident.’
I almost didn’t recognize my brother, when I saw him on the bed with the white sheets and blue blankets. The tubes and lines extended out of him like tendrils, like from the pupae in The Matrix. His skin looked like an old corn cob making its way from faded yellow to grey. The coppers told me on the ride to the hospital Joel had fallen down the stairs to his apartment. 15 of them. The doctors told me he was still alive, but his brain was dead. The nurse told Joel she was going to give his face a wash with a wet towel; she told me I could stay if I wanted.
I stayed for three days. Priya came and visited, came and held my hand and cried against my shoulder, told me she was sorry, she never wished any of this. I said I was sorry too. She thought I was apologising to her.
On the fourth day, the doctor told me there was no chance of recovery, and it was time to think about withdrawing life support. She told me while Joel’s brain was dead and his kidneys were shot, his other organs remained in relatively good shape. She said in this type of situation, if the family consents, they can prepare the body for organ harvesting before they turn off the ventilator. She told me Joel had previously indicated he wanted to be an organ donor, but needed to confirm this with his family.
I looked at Joel one last time. I wondered what went through his mind as he lost his balance at the top of his stairs, if he had a chance to reach out for a railing, a support to stop him falling. If I had been there, would I have been able to catch him? His arm had fallen out from his side, and I leant over to place it back under the blankets. He offered no resistance. I remembered the question Joel asked me after Maddie’s funeral: Do you think she can still feel pain? No, I answered at the time, still angry at my brother, she feels nothing now. Joel seemed satisfied with my response.
I said a silent apology to my mother, and told the doctor, ‘Yes, he would have wanted that very much.’