Second Place in the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2020
Just because you held my gloves for me while I blew my nose again as we stood beside the frozen tarn, and further along the path you reached into your rucksack and found me a fresh tissue when you saw that mine had disintegrated into wet shreds, and just because you kissed my cheek and turned and walked away when we were restoring each other, comforting each other again, and I wanted to hold your gloved hand in mine and talk and talk or not talk while we moved on up the steep slope in step with each other, becoming breathless together, and I don’t know why suddenly you couldn’t face me, and I don’t know why you couldn’t bear to let me see you cry again, as if it mattered a jot, because Peter was your brother after all, and these things take time, and you muttered that you needed to be alone for a while and would see me back at the hotel, and why were you were putting yourself through all that again because no matter what anyone says we know that it wasn’t your fault, and I thought you were on the mend and I was on the mend, and both of us together were getting there, well on the mend, weren’t we
perhaps it wasn’t such a good idea after all to have a change of scenery and get away from it all for a few days, at least not to the place we used to bring the boys at Easter-times and those long Augusts and Peter would join us if he could, when he was well enough, and we’d pick him up from the railway station in Windermere, and just because the night time reality of canvas and campfires wasn’t his thing he lived it up in a small room in The Wheatsheaf and he played pool in the tap room with the boys when they grew tall enough, and your parents, so upmarket, joined us with their camper van luxury and their border collie who the boys adored, and they ran wild together and climbed and built dens and swam and played football on that flat patch of grass by the stream, and your mother would always be the goalkeeper until the boys’ teenage growth spurts met her increasing creakiness and she retired, a little bruised, to join Peter on the bench
and after you kissed my cheek I stood on the path and watched you striding back down and you caught your left foot on a tree root and I laughed under my breath while you recovered from your stumble, and just for a second or two the thin spectre was at my shoulder and I couldn’t stop myself whispering that it served you right, and it should have been me who had tripped you and I’d have made sure you’d gone flying arse over tip, but it was only for a second or two, that’s all, and I didn’t really mean it, and you hurried on and I watched you a little longer before I turned and continued upwards, alone, and then those songs from the Scouts that Peter would sing with the boys began playing in my head, and I ging-gang-goolie-goolied onwards in time to the rhythm of the nonsense, and just because you told me that when you were boys, the Scout Master asked Peter not to march with the troop on Remembrance Day because of his leg, and I’m sorry again, and so sorry for being mean to you even though it was only for a moment and I couldn’t help it and you couldn’t know, but I knew, of course I knew, and the thin spectre knew, and I knew he would always be there, tagging along or hiding in some shadowy corner, poking out a bony fingertip or filling every inch of the room with his slightness
and just because you were waiting for me, blotchy cheeks and truly sorry in our hotel room when I returned, still humming, with muddy boots and chapped lips and cold, and I brought you a fistful of twigs bearing clusters of catkins that I’d snapped from the hazel tree by the wooden bridge over the beck where the boys played Who’s that trip trapping, and their Uncle Peter played The Troll, exaggerating his limp and the way he held his gammy hand, and you took the twigs from my stiff fingers and placed them by the sink and then you rubbed my aching hands between your warm hands and I was sorry and what another sorry old day it was
and just because you held my breasts in your warm hands the next morning as we looked out of the hotel window, hiding our nakedness behind the stiff fabric of the curtain, peering out at the fells and the lake, and you pointed out the walk we had taken, and the water’s edge where the ducks and geese gather was frozen, and the low morning sun shone too brightly through the gap in the dark clouds making us squint into the new day, and we watched those three little kids being silly in the hotel car park while their father hunched over against the stiffening breeze, trying to light his cigarette and you pretended to smoke and your breath tickled my ear and we laughed and I wanted to ask if you were feeling better because you had laughed with me but I thought better of it just in case the thin spectre crept out of the wardrobe or from under the bed and then you asked me Shall we go back to bed but I was hungry so I said perhaps, perhaps after breakfast
and just because the long Sunday train ride home stalled, and the driver or guard, if they still employ guards, apologised over the intercom and explained it was floods that had stranded the train between stations, and through the rain streaked window I saw tracks and brown water, stiff ripples between the rails, and the wet fields were brown and the bare trees and shrubs on the embankment were brown and the grass was making every effort to be brown and the tatters and scraps of windblown litter might as well have been brown, and Peter’s eyes had been brown, like yours, and the boys, and what a brown afternoon it turned into because the rain had washed the colour out of everything, and yes, of course we do still have guards on trains because she checked our tickets and railcards when we got on at Oxenholme, and there was that rail strike about it that disrupted your teachers’ conference last year and you couldn’t get home and you stayed another night in the conference hotel and got drunk in the bar with some NEC delegate chaps, and you called me that night and sang tipsy songs out of tune down the phone, and I laughed and I couldn’t be cross, even though it was late and you’d woken me up, but that was before all this business with Peter and the police and the newspapers and the coroner
and just because you were taking so long to buy coffee and crisps and a Twix from Coach D and I was so hungry I didn’t quite notice the train had re-started till clickety-clack of the wheels on the track said it wasn’t your fault that it wasn’t your fault but you could have done more and you should have done more and I blame you for that, yes, I blame you for that, and I nibbled my thumbnail and tugged at a thread on my cardigan sleeve and I picked up my phone while I waited for you and I looked at the photos on FamilyWhatsApp with our boys and their wives’ smiling faces, and the grandkids we’ve met only once and I wondered what time it would be Way Down Under, and would little Jacob and Lucy be playing or sleeping, and you didn’t return with the coffee and snacks, and the thin spectre slid in beside me and picked up my phone and scrolled down and showed me your broken body sprawled over the wet tracks and your head in a brown puddle, and I could feel in the ache of my arms and my chest that I’d pushed you as hard as I could from the train, and just because you returned to me right at that moment and sat down beside me with coffee and crisps and a Twix in a bag and I hugged you and kissed your cheek and you groaned a complaint about how busy it was, what a crush in Coach D, and the terrible service
and just because you had argued with Peter again over job seeking, form filling, keeping appointments and taking his meds, and you offered to help with his forms and his rent and his loans and you told him Don’t do it again, come to me, don’t be stupid, and just because he wouldn’t take any more money or follow doctor’s orders or answer his phone and we tried to remember when we last saw him and when we discovered we no longer knew where he lived, and just because you said Sod him, thumped twice on the table, said Sod him and sod him again, he knows where I am if he wants me, and it was just around then that the boys moved abroad with their wives and successful careers, making us happy and proud, but they couldn’t come home for the funeral and we said not to worry, there’s no need to bother, it’s a such long way, you should think of the cost, and they sent lovely cards and we chatted on Facetime
and just because Peter had cut himself off from his family and just because it was bailiffs who broke down the door and just because there was no gas or electricity in the flat and just because there was no food except for an out of date packet of pasta, and just because he weighed only six stone when he was discovered and just because the coroner found he had died of starvation, and just because the Department for Work and Pensions said it was a tragic, complex case and the coroner found the authorities had missed opportunities to help him, and Peter’s MP raised the case in Parliament and campaigners said that Peter was the latest in a series of cases, and just because you said you were glad that your father didn’t live to see this and it was a blessing that your mother was too far gone to understand, and just because Peter was your brother and part of our family and you missed opportunities to help him and you let him slip away and you let him cut himself off and you were the one who said Sod him, and why did you think he could find you if he wanted, and you said Sod him again and I let you, I let you, and now a thin spectre
and when we arrived home from our weekend away the old goldfish had died and he floated lopsided above the white gravel and you reached down into the tank but your fingers couldn’t grasp the small stiff curve of his body so you used both hands and your sleeves got wet and they dripped fishy water onto the worktop as you turned to carry him out, and you tried to be gentle, but you dropped him, and he was slippery and golden on the terracotta tiles, and we laughed as you tried to scoop up poor Bob, who was named after some joke that long ago Peter had shared with the boys and you said that Bob had had a good innings and he was a bowler, though he lived in a tank not a bowl, and we tried to work out how old he must be and which of the children was where at the time and we couldn’t recall, but he was certainly old for a goldfish and I passed you two squares of kitchen roll and poor Bob was wrapped in white folds and disposed of with reverence in the wheelie bin as I couldn’t bear to give him a traditional send off and flush him away
and just because you told me that during our weekend away you had made up your mind to take early retirement and we could move to a new place where nobody knows us and we could walk and go swimming, watch a film and take time to Go Compare the car insurance, and volunteer for the National Trust and learn to repair dry stone walls, and we could linger over the newspaper saying Listen to this and What’s the world coming to, and turn the page to find seven rough sleepers crushed to death when the bins that they slept in were emptied, and read about how many hundreds of people died homeless last year in this country and Can you believe it in this day and age that a man died of starvation alone in his flat, a grown man who weighed only six stone, and look, it says here that so many people take their own life due to benefit sanctions, and then we could shake our heads, sigh and silently wonder Oh where were their brothers, their families or caring authorities and we’d turn to the back page to finish the crossword, glad that it’s not only us making headlines and glad that these stories are quickly forgotten, but always, somewhere between the lines of our life there will be a thin spectre with hungry brown eyes, just because
Ruth Guthrie is a local government officer who lives near Cockermouth in Cumbria where she fills her life with village hall committee matters and chairing the local Amnesty group. She decided to take her scribbling habit seriously and completed an MA in Creative Writing with the Open University. Ruth has previously had a story shortlisted in this competition and is delighted that two of her stories have made the shortlist this time.
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