The last two mourners at the small churchyard walked in silence towards the gates. Paul’s eyes darted quickly to James on his left then just as quickly back to the road ahead. He desperately sought a connection from his companion; he wanted him to shout, to hit out, to say something, anything. But there was nothing. He needed recognition; an acknowledgement, a moment of acceptance, anything at all from the man at his side. Mounting frustration kept Paul’s gaze shifting back to the road in front.
James, the taller of the two, was 6’4 of toned perfection. His hair was blonde, sleeked back against his head. Cut slightly longer at the back it gently skimmed the collar of a long navy overcoat that fell to just above his calf. He wore it opened and the cut of the cloth handsomely bellowed around his lower body. The sharp weave of the heavy fabric turned the colour almost black against the shimmering gold silk lining. Underneath was an equally expensive suit with a hint of dark grey pinstripe that gave a tantalising glimpse of some heavy duty money. The silk handkerchief neatly folded in his pocket seemed somehow over the top but the celebrity mags had always called it his trademark look. In contrast, Paul’s suit screamed cheap, it was 20 yrs old. It smelt of old spice and sweat of alcohol and cigarettes. He instantly wished he hadn’t worn it. His desperate attempt this morning at taming his unwashed hair had been slowly eroded by the incessant rain and he instinctively raised a hand to it, wondering what to do next.
Paul lowered his gaze as they approached the gates and turned to look at James, not knowing what to say. He stood for a minute, facing him, riveted by James’s pallid stare. There was a definite air of unease as one man scanned the other. What now? And then, divine intervention. A black Mercedes, seeming to appear from the shadows, suddenly screeched to a stop at the side of them. The door opened. James climbed in and was gone. They were two strangers who had shared a last goodbye, a fleeting connection of two worlds. Paul reached into his pocket, grabbed some coins and quickly counted. He walked out of the gates wondering if he had enough for the bus fare home, maybe even a pasty from Gregg’s…….
After the funeral, Paul needed to be on his own. He wasn’t part of James’s life, he didn’t feel comfortable around the starlets, models and TV execs he knew would be there, each vying for 5 minutes Press coverage in next week’s chip paper. It just seemed so false, so ridiculous and so totally crap! So a couple of hours later without any real reason why, he found himself alone in James’s apartment. The porter had recognised him and let him in. He re-locked the door and turned, sliding his head back against the wood he gave himself time to get his breathing under control and let his eyes adjust to the emptiness of the titanic open plan space. He hadn’t needed any lights, a huge fish tank, floor to ceiling in height, was the only dividing wall in the open plan unit. It separated the living areas and the bedroom. Neon prisms of light danced in the darkness, bathing the space in enough light to let him wander unhindered. Without conscious direction Paul found himself by the large king size bed at the farthest corner of the unit. It was freshly made, he could see a dozen pillows neatly plumped piled against the headboard. A delicate swathe of emerald green satin sheathed the bed with a flowing lava of textile pooling around the floor. He lay down. He wanted to rest, just for a while. He listened to the darkness, the night wind gently rustling through the tall oak outside the window. He couldn’t get the earlier encounter out of his head.
He couldn’t relax, couldn’t stop the fog from invading his thoughts. He sat up. The dimly lit shadows sailed over the wardrobe that was set back against the un-finished red stone brickwork. He got up and walked towards it. The carved Moroccan doors sang of elegance and wealth. Running his fingers over the delicate mouldings, he shivered. A vivid memory flashed into his head; odd sized wooden planks, nails scattered across the paving stones, two boys and a newly built rabbit hutch. The image vanished as quickly as it came. He shivered again. His hands hesitantly went to the wardrobe doors and opened them. Something caught his eye. Hidden in the far corner conspicuously veiled and out of place amongst the other expensive boxes he pulled out a tattered old shoe box. Sitting back on the bed, he flicked on the small spotlights built into the headboard. He opened the lid, his fingers caressing the old dog-eared photos. Even in the dim light Paul could see the images from memory and he lay back thinking about the past. His brain was churning, as was his stomach, maybe that Gregg’s pasty wasn’t such a good idea.
How different things were just a few weeks before. Trepidation was a feeling he rarely felt, but waiting in the car that Saturday morning, Paul’s heart was racing. His mouth felt like a service station cheese sandwich, dry and begging for a little accompaniment. He’d been dry for 7 weeks, 2 days and looking at his watch, almost 23hrs. Sobriety had helped him pull himself together at work, being a freelance writer had its advantages as long as you actually wrote. His latest pieces had recently been picked up and money had started to slowly placate his over anxious bank manager. Paul had finally agreed to meet up with James. He wasn’t sure why he had, not after so long, but since that first awkward phone call had come out of the blue James had never let up; calling him, texting him, said he really wanted him to look over some plans he’d had drawn up for his new place. Paul felt like a kid again, his stomach was churning, excitement, anticipation, fear, all mingled with that healthy bowl of muesli he’d eaten for breakfast. Although the excitement of James letting him drive the flash new Mercedes E Class had started to disturb his stomach acid, it slowly eased the further they got out of the city.
They had been on the road for a few hours, the low rising concrete replaced by low rising peaks and green mountain meadows. The background hum of the CD player weaved between snippets of insignificant conversation. Then suddenly, without warning the car screeched wildly out of control. The rancid smell of burning rubber quickly hit the back of Paul’s throat. He tried to swerve, pulling at the wheel. Using both hands frantically trying to turn the car away from the large black object coming towards them. They say your life flashes before you. Not once do they say ‘a huge black cow’ but that was what Paul saw as he momentarily lifted his gaze towards the oncoming barrier. Then a never ending haze of green hit the shattering windscreen. Then what felt like minutes rather than seconds as they came to a sudden terrifying stop.
All was silent except the constant hissing of the radiator panel, smoke billowing from the shattered bonnet like a steady rise of steam from a boiling kettle. Paul slowly shifted forward, tentatively lifted his throbbing head and turned to his left. James was slumped over the passenger air bag, his right arm dangling loosely towards the floor of the car. Paul pulled at his seatbelt, the stench of smoke clawing at his throat, seeping into his chest as he started to cough. His left hand gripped the dashboard trying to steady himself. He shouted to James, to wake him, praying he was alive; but nothing, the only sound his own heavy breath and the rasping pressure escaping from the compacted mangle that was left of the engine. He tried to look in the rear view mirror, shattered in pieces and now bent almost vertically. He heard a sudden, short gasp, it startled him forward. The white nylon of the air bag was stained by a heavy stream of blood. He looked at James, his left eyelid was partially open and the brilliant blue now stained a dark ruby red. He cautiously tugged at James’s seat belt, trying to loosen its grip. Leaning forwards he felt a hot piercing pain in his side, he hissed. He put his arm out and slowly eased James back against the Italian leather seat.
As the first orange flicker appeared under the wheel arch Paul realised they needed to get out. He painfully moved his legs from under the steering column and gave two heavy kicks against the door cranking it open. Putting an arm around James, he lifted them clumsily out of the car, cursing loudly as he moved. He moved towards the clearing. Another loud explosion suddenly threw them to the ground. Polished rosewood and Italian leather flew overhead, the door finally landing 50 metres in front. James tried to lift his head, so did Paul. They looked at each other and started to laugh; a tense, nervous, inappropriate laugh. Paul wiped away a trickle of blood seeping down his face. It was then, looking at James laughing so crudely, that Paul realised how much he had missed, how much he loved his little brother. The laughing stopped. James gasped. A strange hollow sound rose from his chest. Paul reached out for him, cradling him tightly. Tears stung his eyes as he feverishly stroked James’s clammy forehead, his face pressed pleadingly against James’s cheek. Willing him to breath, to hang on, to stay with him. He didn’t. James breathed his last breathe in his brother’s arms. Paul was still cradling the motionless body of his brother when they were found some 30 minutes later by the rescue services.
That divine intervention that had carried James away from the churchyard on that miserable wet morning had in fact been just that. It was James’s funeral. There had been no words spoken between them, just like the photos Paul now held in his hands, James had just been an image, walking beside him, saying goodbye ……………..