I knock four times before I get a response. They're expecting me but they can't hear me. I know because from the front porch I can hear the vacuum cleaner. The piece of shit. It sounds worse than a screaming child in a supermarket, but my Grandmother swears by it. She's a loyal creature and she hates change. She hates a lot of things. She's a hard creature to impress and if you do, she'll stand by you forever. Regardless. Stepping into the living-room, I look at the piece of shit, asleep on the floor. It's held together by a tangled, knotted tape-measure. I've got to give it to her, my Grandmother is creative; she can find a use for anything in her sewing basket and she adamantly refuses to give up on that piece of shit vacuum cleaner. Such a stubborn creature, if she wasn't such a hard-nosed bitch at times, she would be quite beautiful. She's old, I should be more respectful towards her, but she does make it hard. I thought highly of her handiwork, that'll have to do. She sits me down in a dusty old rocking chair and insists on getting me some coffee. Black, no sugar.
The coffee is vile. It tastes like hot water with a hint of coffee. So I secretly add a nip when they're not looking. It's not hard to pick my moment. My Grandmother is constantly pottering about in the kitchen and my Grandfather refuses to take his eyes off the television set. He barely acknowledged my entrance. Not that I really care; since my mother died we have had very little to say to each other. For some reason I think he blames me for her demise. He doesn't want me in his house. My Grandmother doesn't mind me being here and what she says, goes. Tough shit, Grandpa. In truth, my Grandmother only tolerates me because she respects how long I did stick around for my mother; I think she sympathises because she knew about a lot that went on in that house. Also, I'm family; she won't turn her back on family, irrespective of the intensity of hatred she harbours. Most importantly, I’m paying for the funeral. (Please don’t ask me how). I take another sip from my cup. With my beautiful addition, it now tastes like hot, watered-down bourbon with a hint of coffee. Even with the whiskey it didn't taste any good, but it was definitely an improvement. I could happily have another.
I look over at my Grandfather, who is deeply absorbed into a shamanic, trance-like fixation upon the flickering lights and rumbling sounds of the television screen. He’s skinny and fragile. He looks weak. I’m not sure his legs will be strong enough to carry him upstairs and I’m fairly confident that he wouldn’t want them to take him that far away from his precious television set. I wonder if he actually sleeps downstairs, in the armchair with the T.V. on. I hate to think where he pisses. He scowls at the screen and changes the channel. It’s a rerun of some kind of old detective show. He turns the volume up.
My Grandmother shuffled back into the room. She had a plate of stale biscuits set out neatly on her best crockery and her finest smile spread across her face. I felt terrible.
"It's lovely to see you, it's been too long. Can I get you a biscuit?"
She put on such a brave face. She was stoic. I was stoic. It was as though my sister's death and her funeral meant nothing to either of us. There was nothing left between us, so we pushed that behind us and got onto the reason for my visit.
"Gram, can I ask you a favour?"
She was too sweet.
"My onl...The sui...You see..."
I didn't know where or how to begin. I felt lousy. This woman hated my guts, but would clearly do anything for me and I had turned up out of nowhere just to ask her a favour and then disappear again. I had to ignore the guilt. Families are fucked up beasts; there's just too much politics involved. I was here so that I could look good for my sister and I had to remember that.
"It's to do with the funeral. It's not a big thing; it's just the suit I was hoping to wear for it. I have a bit of a hole in it and I wanted to get it fixed and it turns out I don't have anything at home that I can use to fix it. I was wondering if you ha..."
"Oh, sure honey, just bring it round and I'll see what I can do. I'll fix it up a treat. Make you look perfect for our..."
She choked back a tear. I needed to get out of there, it was proving too much for me and the supply of bad coffee had run dry. I didn't feel bold enough to drink straight from my concealed hit flask and so I decided it was best to get out of there before I disappointed my family further. I couldn't handle giving them another reason for hating me by openly drinking in front of them at 11 a.m. on a Tuesday.
"Thanks, Gram! I'll give you a call and bring it round soon. Thanks. I really appreciate this."
With that I made my excuses, thanked her for the coffee and made my departure. I doubt my Grandfather even noticed I had left.
* * *
I wish I could say it was a freak accident, but it wasn't; she had it coming. She decided to fuck a horse and it split her open. Well that's a lie. But she did get kicked in the chest by an over-excited horse and it destroyed her. Goodbye Kathy Slim. It was nice to know you. A real delight. Who would've guessed the clean-cut, tea-total veterinarian-in-training would kick the bucket before her unemployed, degenerate, alcoholic, older brother? Life is a fucked up beast and just like politics, it's never fair. Good things just aren't meant to happen to anyone in our family and the worst things happen to those who are good people, trying to do the right thing. Maybe the bottom of the bottle is the safest place for me to be. Maybe I should kill a hooker tonight then maybe I'd live forever. Shit, I haven't eaten anything in days. I guess that's the only upside of this tragedy, I'm too sad to care that my fridge is empty. One last can of beer and half a bottle of gin will have to do me for tonight. That orange juice is probably out of date, but it'll work as a mixer. One thing's for sure, I can't feel any worse tomorrow than I do now.
* * *
The silence in the room was burning my eyes and tearing at my gut. In my spot on the pew, I could feel my hands beginning to tremble. I thought my entire body was going to collapse in on itself in a series of violent convulsions. I kept my head bowed and found solace in my feet. I withdrew into my own little world where only my toes and I existed and I was safe. Best of all, I was finally starting to feel numb. Maybe there was hope for me yet.
The heat was getting too much. The room was dimly lit and only a few beams of sunlight seemed to pass through, showing the dust dance in the air. I could feel the beads of sweat starting to gather at my temples by my hair line. Every now and then one would slip down my spine and even a few rolled across my cheeks. But, for all my sadness and immeasurable misery, my eyes remained dry. I lifted my chin to get a view that wasn't of my toes in my shoes and stared to the front, at the minister. Behind him lay Kathy. The centre of attention. Nothing but love for her today. She lay there peacefully. We were all burning in this heat and she couldn't feel a thing. I envied her for that.
Lifting my eyes up out of my stupor and scanning the glum faces I searched longingly for that of my brother's. I couldn't seem to see him anywhere. I had made all the necessary arrangements with the prison and he was expected. Where are you Joe? Where are you? Kathy was the best thing to happen to us; c'mon Joe, you should be here by now.
Our Grandmother showed. I was unsurprised to see her dressed elegantly in black, standing alone at the back. She didn't acknowledge me, and left as soon as she could. I knew my Grandfather was still seated in front of his television set. I imagine he would be watching the horses. He always did. He was the man responsible for introducing my father to it. That's how they bonded. That's how he got my Grandfather's consent when asking for my mother's hand in marriage and I guess it's where Kathy got her - eventually fatal - love for equestrianism from.
The rain was starting to fall outside. It reminded me of a line of a book I once borrowed off of Kathy. "Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on". My sister lent me a lot of books when we were younger and a lot of them now blur into one. I'm pretty sure it was the Great Gatsby. Or it could've been The Grapes of Wrath but I can't say for certain. I doubt it matters. I'm not entirely convinced I understand the relevance of remembering that quote at this exact moment, or if it is any consolation. I'd tell myself I should start to read more, like I used to. Maybe go through Kathy's collection and pick out my favourites to read over and over again, and donate the rest to charity. It's a nice thought, but I know it'll never happen. I remember reading one that used to belong to an old drunk. There were crazy scribblings in the margin. "We agree" or "We disagree, how disappointing" made regular appearances. I finally gave up when I saw the word 'SATAN' etched in large, bright red capital letters. I erased it as best I could and, with it, the legacy of another drunk was gone forever. Thinking about those old, dog-eared second-hand books did make me realise one thing for certain. I was going to miss that little sister of mine. I will never have another. Not that I'd want to. She was irreplaceable.
* * *
I still remember the day I moved out. She cried her eyes out. She begged me to stay. She was still too young to understand the reasons for me leaving and I felt bad that I couldn't sit down and tell her. I couldn't tell anyone. She had it all right. She wasn't treated the same way I was and my mother didn't need me around, so I could get out. I'd taken to the drink to dull my memories and didn't want them to be around that. Above all, I really didn't want to be around my step-father. If I stayed under the same roof as him any longer I would've killed the bastard. I couldn't put my mother through that. I couldn't put Kathy through it either. It would have destroyed them. So I just slipped out the front door and into the world. Sixteen and struggling at school. I had £58 in my pocket and no place to go. Kathy gave me an extra 12 that she had been saving and I was on my way. I placed a kiss on her forehead, hugged her tight and left. I promised myself I'd send her something in the post. Six months passed before I sent my first letter. It was two years before I saw her face again. Our mother's funeral.
Then there was the evening she decided she wanted to be a veterinarian. Our step-father decided that it would be a good idea to lay down some poison to rid the mice that had made a home in our house, and on one of the nights he was out drinking, or gambling or screwing whatever piece of cheap trash that peaked his sexual interest, Kathy found the little one that slept beneath her bed that she had befriended, crawling across the kitchen floor and desperately struggling for air. The poison had taken its toll and the tiny creature no longer stood a chance. It was suffering. I was left with no choice and with a heavy heart I took the scurrying fiend out into the garden and ended it with a shovel. I buried it beneath the apple tree as Kathy read him his rites and we went inside. I held her for an hour as she sobbed violently into my shoulder, swearing to never allow another bad thing happen to any living being ever again. That little girl was ten and remained true to her word until her last day. What a fucking angel.
* * *
Stepping out of the little church hall and into the fresh air, I couldn't help but be hit by the smell of the damp left by the rain that was cutting through the heat of the day. It left the air cool and it was more than welcome. I was in a place of overbearing humidity. Physically comfortable and, now, emotionally melancholy, I walked out into the light and back to my hole.
I was nearly there and nearly home. There it stood, the dilapidated building that housed the apartment which was the corner of this world in which I habituated and fended for survival within. Looking sadder than I currently felt, the building was two-storeys high and L-shaped. Walking into the courtyard that rested in the heart of the triangle that the building formed, my flat sat on the upper floor of the wing on the right. The grass out front was patchy and the hedges were long dead and resembled skeletons - made of twigs - guarding a depressed palace. The brickwork was once a bright red but now dirtied from pollution and cracked, whilst the paint around the window-frames was white and chipped and peeling away. My front door was last in the line and although it had no door number attached, you could still see the outline of the ‘12’ embedded into the blue paintwork from where it used to hang before it was unjustly stolen. It had hardly been a crime worth reporting, but one of many in the area. The door had its own private set of black iron stairs leading up to it. Or maybe they were steel. Who knew? It was the only thing the flat had going for it. It was nice to have a balcony, but so did everyone else. So that was no big deal. That private staircase was the clincher when I moved in all those years ago.
There was a time when I would casually hurdle these steps two at a time. Not today. I couldn't face them. I could barely lift my feet high enough to take the first one, but I needed to get home and so I dragged my heels behind me as high as I could to get me to my bed. The metal clunked and echoed as my boot heels hit the floor of each step. It was a familiar sound. It was the sound that I was nearly home. It was a noise that had often terrorised my bladder. It was a sound that had too frequently triggered an uncontrollable desire to urinate before I would have any chance of making it inside. It would come out of nowhere. I'd rush to the door and fumble in my pockets and desperately try to find my keys, only to pull them out to see a bundle in front of me that is too large for words - so many keys left that I no longer use - but I'd try to separate them anyway and panic further as I'd get the ones I needed but by this point I'd be shaking as I'd aim them at the door knowing I'm not there yet but so close and struggling to hold on, and I'd scratch the precious key across the lock in desperation without being quite able to get them inside. I never failed to make it. I guess lady luck was always on my side. Fortunately she was back and this evening my bladder had enough respect not to play such games and allowed me to enter my home with ease.
Closing my apartment door behind me, I noticed the red light of my answering machine flashing a solitary "1". That was uncommon. Nobody ever rang me. It was rare enough that I often wondered why I even had the contraption attached to my telephone. Then I remembered. It was a gift from an old girlfriend who became tired and pissed at me never answering the phone. She had a point. Not that I ever returned the messages. It was no wonder why we didn't stay together long. I should throw that thing out. Bad memories. The phone could go with it. I hated them both and just wanted to be left alone. I'd listen to the message first.
"Hello, Mr Slim? It's Duncan Barnaby here. We spoke the other day about your brother, Joe, being given a day release to attend a funeral." I couldn't help but wonder why he was being so informal. It seemed strange, but I let the message play on. "Well, Mr. Slim, I'm reluctant to tell you that Joe will be unable to attend the funeral. There was an incident. We recommend you contacting us immediately. I expect to hear from you soon." The line went dead before being followed by the usual dull tone of the answering machine that always came at the end of messages.
I didn't need to contact them to know what happened. I knew Joe all too well. It'd all got too much for him. There was no doubt he had done himself in, it was just a matter of how. At least I was now prepared for a funeral. I had everything I needed. I could say goodbye and mourn his end properly. I cracked open a bottle and slumped into my chair. I noticed a large candle was burning. God knows how long it had been going for and God knows how it hadn't somehow managed to burn the house down. I blew it out and watched the trail of smoke rise and dance before my eyes and allowed the scent to fill my nose. I closed my eyes and wished that I knew how to cry. There was only supposed to be one funeral; it's been a bad, bad day.