You guys know I like stories about brothers, right? Well, today I wrote down a story that’s been living in my head for a while, and the characters are two brothers. This is a portion of a much longer piece I’d like to write someday–I think it would be best as a screenplay–about a tough drifter type, with the unfortunate name Percy, who has to spend Christmas with his tight-knit family (aunts, uncles, and four male 20-to-30-something cousins) in a small town in England. The portion I’m sharing with you today is from early in the narrative, before anyone knows there’s a long-lost cousin. It introduces the characters and lets you know what Percy will be getting into when he comes on the scene. I apologize in advance–this post will be longer than my usual.
“Before you say anything, I’m not William Wallace; I’m a Pict,” announced John Sinclair as the kitchen screen door slammed behind him.
His brother Brian looked up from the fortress of bar exam prep guides that had once been their parents’ kitchen table. Blue paint covered John’s freckles, and a kilt covered not very much of his legs, which were slightly purple from the cold outside. “I didn’t think the Picts wore natty white button-ups,” Brian smirked.
“It would have been more accurate to go shirtless,” John conceded, plunking down a stack of essays onto the counter. “But that would have been totally inappropriate.”
“I don’t think your 15-year-old girl fan club would agree,” Brian retorted, flashing a rare trickster smile before returning his gaze to a tightly-scrawled sheet of notes.
“You’re mental,” said John, getting a Coke out of the refrigerator. “Say, that reminds me. You were locked in your room–”
“–the spare room.”
“Well, yeah, same thing; it’s your old room, isn’t it?” John looked at his brother quizzically, but Brian was fixed on his notes. “Anyway, you were up there last night when I told Mum and Dad about my date. I mean, there’s not much to tell, but you’re always interested in my romantic exploits.” John concluded with a rueful laugh that clearly indicated that the last term was hyperbolic.
Brian looked up. “I’m always interested in you acknowledging the existence of anyone who isn’t a blood relative or a student. Tell me more.”
John pulled out a chair and sat down at the fortress. “Well, we had a coffee, and she told me about working in London, and about this blog she just started, and I told her…” he paused, trying to remember the conversation, “…about how my students loved it when I came to class in a toga…”
“Bet she thought that was sexy.”
“Actually, I think it weirded her out a bit.” Brian snorted; John didn’t seem to notice. He was searching his memory. “Then I told her about how you were home for the holidays, and how you’re almost a barrister…and I told her about how Peter’s coming home for the holidays, and how he’s writing his thesis on Dickens…and I told her about how Harry’s auto shop has a name from Shakespeare. People find that interesting, don’t you think?”
Brian sighed. “What I think is that this girl, woman, whatever she is–doesn’t give a flying fig about your brother and your cousins. I think I know where this story is going. Go on.”
John shrugged. “That’s about all. We finished our coffee, and she said I was really nice. That’s it.”
“Yeah, that’s right, John. You’re really, really nice.” Brian shook his head and returned to his notes.
“But what does that mean?” A twinge of desperation made John’s voice crack slightly, and he leaned across the table toward his brother, knocking a book off its stack. “You say that word like she said it, like it’s some sort of code word. What horrible thing does ‘nice’ mean?”
Brian rubbed his forehead like it hurt. “You’re very intelligent, and you look like Eddie Redmayne. That’s why women go out with you. But you’re kind of like a child. That’s why they only go out with you once.”
“You obviously know so much about this,” said John in a voice so toneless that Brian couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic. John was rarely sarcastic. So Brian asked, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
John looked at the ceiling. “It means…remember when Aunt Susie said you looked like Andrew Garfield?”
“Yeah, so? She’s weird.”
“She was right! Any woman would go out with you. And yet I don’t see you in any long-term relationship.”
Brian gestured at the stacks of books surrounding him. “I’ve been a little busy, haven’t I? Anyway, you don’t know what I do when I’m not here.”
“Probably the same thing you do when you’re here, huddle up with your books like some kind of Gothic mad scientist.” John took a swig of his Coke, and Brian went back to his notes. There was a long silence.
“Oh, speaking of Aunt Susie!” John said suddenly. Brian jumped in his chair. “You know we’re all going over there this evening, because Peter’s coming home?” The desperation had gone as quickly as it had come; John looked like an unusually cheerful Pict.
“I don’t think I’m going; I need to study,” Brian said, not looking up.
“Oh, come on. You’ve been studying all day. Don’t you want to see Peter?”
“I’ll have plenty of chances to see him between now and the new year. But listen,” Brian pointed his pencil at his brother and gave him a significant look, “lay off Peter about moving back here, will you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean. It’s not just you; it’s everybody. Every time Peter’s here, you lot are on him about what he’s going to do after graduating. If I remember correctly, last time you practically had him a job lined up at your school.”
“Oh, that’s nothing,” John said.
Brian shook his head and looked back down at his notes. “Well, I hope it’s nothing to Peter, too. Just remember he’s a grown man and he can live wherever he bloody well wants to.”
John put his Coke can down slowly and looked at the top of Brian’s head for a few seconds before he said, “Oh, I see. This isn’t about Peter; this is about you.”
Brian sighed and put his face in his hands. “Okay, yeah. This is about me too. Every time I come here I feel like I’m being smothered.”
“Then why do you come here?” It was hard to tell whether this was a challenge or a sincere question.
“Because it’s Christmas, for heaven’s sake, and I’m not some sort of monster with no familial affection. I like you, and Mum and Dad, and…everybody, most of the time. It’s just this town. It feels like some sort of evil magnetic force sucking everybody back into its vortex of mediocrity.”
“A little dramatic, don’t you think?” John asked with a puzzled laugh.
“Well, look at Harry. It sucked him in, didn’t it? In London he was hanging out with real, live literary critics. The man was brilliant. I mean, he still is brilliant. But here he is, fixing cars at Gad’s Hill Auto Repair.”
“Harry likes fixing cars,” John retorted. His face was still blue, but his ears were turning red. “And anyway, he wanted to come back here to be around people he knew. He didn’t want to be alone in London after–”
“Oh, I know what everybody says,” Brian interrupted. “Harry moved back here because he got divorced. Well, you know what I think? I think that’s part of the reason why he got divorced–because he wanted to move back here with his mum, and his wife had the good sense not to want to come to this depressing dump.”
John glared at his brother. “Don’t you dare say that to Harry, ever.”
Brian threw up his hands. “What do you think I am, some sort of prat? Of course I wouldn’t say that to his face. But it’s true, and I think you know it.” Brian was quiet for a moment, writing on his notes. “And you…well, we already talked about you.” He relapsed into silence.
John finished his Coke. Brian scanned his notes. Neither brother spoke for a long time. Then John said, “I have to go get this crap off my face. But I want to say one more thing to you. I know you think I’m some sort of developmentally arrested sad-sack. But I like my life. I’m happy, Brian. And if you’re happy…well, you’re doing a pretty good job of hiding it.” John got up and threw his Coke can in the recycling bin.
Brian didn’t look up until John was halfway up the stairs. “All right, I’ll go to the thing for Peter tonight,” Brian yelled. “Will that make you happy?”
John stopped on the top step. “You never listen to anything I say,” he said. “I told you, I am happy.” He went into the bathroom and shut the door.