What was I doing when my brother died? That precise moment when his body crumpled to the ground and failed to rise again. Did it happen as I stood to answer the shrill buzz of the intercom? Was he already falling as I jogged lightly down the stairs from our first-floor apartment to open the door to the pizza delivery girl?
I picture his last moments on a split screen – there’s Neil laying our places at the table, my brother exchanging banter in the locker room before he runs onto the pitch; face lit, ignorant of the hand that fate is about to play. The weight of the coins in my fist as I pass them to the girl; the rattle as she drops them in the pocket of her sky-blue hoodie. It’s as I turn to climb the stairs, as Neil lights the candle and uncorks the wine, that a teammate turns in confusion, wondering why he didn’t see the tackle that’s brought my brother down. A life snuffed out in the minutes it’s taken for that transaction between me and a pizza delivery girl.
Ali’s call was the first sign, phone vibrating amid the detritus of leftover pizza causing the dog, dozing on my knee, to kick up a rumpus as though she knew the news wasn’t good. By the time I reached it, it had stopped its din. ‘It’s Ali,’ I said, amid Scout’s barking. ‘Ali? At this hour of the night?’ Neil’s eyes rounded as he stooped to hush the dog. Ali at any hour would be strange; it had been almost three years since we’d spoken. Three years since my brother had ordered her not to answer my calls. And even as I tapped call back, I wondered whether it wasn’t a mistake.
Ali picked up on the third ring, voice muffled like she had a head cold. Debs, oh Debs was all she managed before her voice cracked and her mother’s cut in. I listened as Mrs Dillon reported, as she might to any stranger, what she knew. Kian had collapsed on the pitch during GAA practice. Attempts to defibrillate him had failed. It was instant, they said.
By the time the ambulance had arrived, he was already gone. And in some detached part of my brain, I thought that was my kid brother alright, never one to hold back on an invitation.
When Neil asked if I wanted to see him, I shook my head. It wasn’t as if my brother awaited a reconciliation on his deathbed. I couldn’t shake the image of him in his club jersey stretched on a slab in the hospital morgue as he surely would be until the undertaker came to claim him. And what then? There was the funeral to get through. Ali’s hand to hold if she’d let me. But would she let me? Or would she stay fast to my brother’s wishes never to speak to me again.
Neil sat next to me until I told him to go to bed; there was no point in both of us losing a full night’s sleep. When, half an hour later, I slipped the harness over Scout’s muzzle, and heard Neil snore as I paused outside the bedroom door, I envied him his oblivion.
The apartment block was shrouded in silence. In the stairwell the ghost of myself and that delivery girl lingered as I released the door and stepped into the night. We crossed the road, Scout leading, passed the deserted playground where Kian had rocked Albert, my nephew, back and forth on the swings last time they’d visited. Albert was seven now. I still sent cards on birthdays and Christmas; I ordered gifts from Amazon, which were neither acknowledged nor returned. I imagined him sprouting into a boy, but since Kian had unfriended me on Facebook, I was deprived of witnessing even that virtual transition.
Scout tugged on the lead. On the beach, I let her off and she scampered down to the shore and sniffed her away along its edge. I ambled behind, eyes drawn to the cargo ships way out at sea, and I thought of Ali who was surely awake too. On impulse, I sent a text, though I expected no answer. I was surprised minutes later when the reply came. My heart is shattered, was all she said.
It was through me that Kian and Ali had met, and because of that I’ve always felt somewhat responsible. Ali and I crossed paths several months before when I responded to an advert on a Meetup group. She was running a yoga retreat in a centre in the midlands – somewhere so remote that it didn’t feature on any bus route. When I told her I had no car, she said it wasn’t a problem. She lived in the city centre and if it was convenient, she’d pick me up in Merrion Square.
She arrived in a little yellow Punto stacked to the ceiling with yoga mats looking slightly dismayed when she saw the size of my travel bag. ‘Moving house?’ she teased. ‘No, but it looks like you are.’ We both laughed as I squeezed into the passenger seat and propped my feet on my bag.
She told me she was just back from India where she’d been upgrading her yogi skills. In her ethnic trousers and black vest top she looked every bit the part. But it was her tawny dreadlocks that impressed me most – that and the tiny diamond that twinkled in her nose. She hadn’t always been a yogi, she said. She’d been a bank teller before that. Her announcement that she was throwing up a pensionable job was enough, for her father at least, to bring on an attack of angina. ‘There’s more to life than being stuck behind a counter all day,’ she said, as we hurtled down the M4, her bracelets tinkling as she tapped her fingers in time to a tune on the radio.
From that weekend on, Ali and I were inseparable. When Kian ran into us in a café, gatecrashed our coffee and added my new friend on Facebook, I admitted to apprehension. Girls found Kian disarming, and Ali was no exception. But I knew the speed with which my brother tired of his conquests. It took time to see the other side of him – the moody, impatient side. The side that said if you didn’t agree with his views, you were wrong, plain and simple. We clashed over many things, Kian and I, but we both loved Ali and so I’d been prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt.
I considered missing the wake. Instead, arriving at the church late on the day of the funeral and taking a seat near the back so that I wouldn’t have to speak to anyone, but Neil said that would be even more conspicuous. And besides, I had nothing to be ashamed of – nothing to hide. I’d have been willing to park the whole disagreement – it was Kian who’d refused to.
Cars lined both sides of the road and we had to park almost a block away. There was a moment when I almost told Neil to keep on driving. The front door was open and as we walked up the driveway two small boys came careering out – one of them was wearing what looked like his communion suit, and bore such a likeness to my brother, as he shouted and grinned gap-toothed at his friend, that I faltered. It was, of course, Albert.
People were congregated in the hallway. Two of my brother’s friends, who he’d known since he was a boy offered me their condolences. They knew nothing of the rift of course, Kian never being someone to broadcast his business. ‘Jesus, I couldn’t believe it. It was so sudden,’ one of the men said, and I nodded and said something about still not having really taken it in.
The room was full of people I half-knew; as well as neighbours; strangers and a few stray relations who shook my hand and asked me what had happened. ‘Was is it a heart condition?’ one woman asked. ‘Didn’t your poor father die of a stroke?’ A heart condition. A condition of the heart. The words swirled in my head. ‘I don’t know,’ I said, as I brushed past her towards the conservatory where they’d laid my brother out – and where Ali was standing by the head of his coffin.
‘You came,’ she said, her hand going to her mouth when she saw me. Her mother patted my arm and shook Neil’s hand. And to avoid looking at my brother, I embraced Ali.
It was only when she drew back and swiped a hand across her eyes that I allowed myself to look at him. At first, I didn’t think he resembled himself. He looked thinner, had grown a beard, and his mouth was drawn in a thin line by the undertaker. Arms round each other Ali and I stared down at him, and it was then that Albert entered the room. He looked at me, shyly at first, but then recognising me, he smiled. And it was that smile, so like Kian’s, that broke my heart.
‘You didn’t answer my messages,’ I said to Ali.
‘I couldn’t – you know what he’s like. Answering would have been taking your side.’
‘My side?’ It was just then that I saw her through the doorway – Naoise Quinn – handing round a platter of sandwiches as if she were a hostess at a party. ‘What’s she doing here?’ I said.
Ali’s gaze tracked mine. ‘Who? Naoise? Her and Kian were great friends. She’s been very good helping to organise everything.’
An image of my brother upstairs in this house – pre-Christmas drinks – Neil and I not quite as out of it as the rest of them. I’d stumbled upon them, my brother and Naoise, kissing, his hands inside her blouse, and her giggling saying that someone might come, someone might see them.
I’d called him the next day, told him if he didn’t tell Ali, that I would – and he’d said, before slamming the phone down, that I’d tell her over his dead body. After that he wouldn’t take my calls. Ali wouldn’t answer my calls either. And I had no idea what he’d told her to turn her against me.
In the end it was Albert that stopped me. I’d driven over to the house with the intention of telling Ali – but as I drove into the housing estate, I spotted them.
My brother was crawling round the grass with Albert on his back and the two of them were laughing. They didn’t see the car and so I drove right on past, circled the block and on towards home. Kian loved that boy. Would it be right to wrench them apart – even if it were my brother’s fault? I’d just have to hope that in catching him, I’d put a stop to anything that might materialise between my brother and Naoise Quinn.
Neil hung back, discreetly allowing me the time I needed alone with my sister-in-law. He was talking now to an elderly aunt that I hadn’t seen since our wedding.
‘I guess you didn’t tell Neil,’ Ali said.
‘Tell him what?’
‘About what happened that night at the party.’
‘You mean you know?’ I said.
Ali nodded. ‘He said he’d never to speak to you again if you didn’t tell him. He always had a lot of time for Neil. I did too. I do – but maybe you were right not to say anything. You’re still together.’
I looked at Ali, lost for words. So that was what my brother had done, turned the situation on its head; made me the guilty one and Neil the cuckold. Kian – never wrong, always self-righteous. Over my dead body, he’d said. And there she was: Naoise Quinn, sandwiches held aloft, weaving ever closer.