(Originally submitted for the RTE short story competition)
Richard would never forget the look on Coster’s face as he fell. The shock of despair, of hope turned to devastation.
They had been inseparable in their youth, so much so that people often asked who was the older brother. Richard’s more robust build and freckled face complemented Coster’s sleeker, paler features.
Coster’s family lived a few streets away but he seemed to spend very little time there. Or at least, in Richard’s memory Coster had spent nearly every day at his own home, and nobody ever commented on how he flinched away from human touch, or winced if he banged his back against something. He was always gone by dusk, but, when they were about eleven, Richard came downstairs to find Coster at the breakfast table with his mother, eating Richard’s cereal and huddled under Richard’s blanket. After that he never left and nobody ever mentioned the other house again.
Coster was given the bedroom Richard’s father had slept in before he went away. It was larger than Richard’s, and impeccably clean. His mother had always insisted on everything being neat and tidy. Coster seemed to look vaguely like Richard’s father, though Richard had no memory of him. Some of his toys and books found their way into Coster’s room, and other, new ones besides. You stole my mother.
Coster, just a few inches short of a man’s height, was always the first one down in the morning to greet Richard’s mother. Dutifully, without being asked, he would clear the table after breakfast and find some other small chore to do before school. “Such a good boy,” Richard’s mother would tell him. “Such a fine and handsome young man, so good to have around the house.” And slowly, inevitably as the weeks and months went by, she would add: “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?”
You stole my mother.
The weeks, and months went by, as they do. And the two boys grew up and out, as boys are wont to do. The lads, the boys, the guys his mother would say, never sons. Coster couldn’t say what his birthday was, so they became twins of a sort, ageing officially on the same day each year.
The autumn they turned fourteen was fiercely hot, without a drop of rain for months and dead air like the inside of an oven. That day had begun muggy and cloudy, but Richard knew from the forecast that it would burn off within an hour. It was not much past dawn. He had taken to spending dawn outside in most weathers. Inside was too cramped, too tired, it made his skin crawl as if spiders were racing up and down his spine. He would wake to find his sheets a tangled mess. Coster’s were seldom touched, it seemed. “The nightmares,” his mother said when he had commented. “They terrify him something fierce. He needs a mother’s touch.” But Richard had never heard his friend – and they were still inseparable, Coster a paragon of loyalty and devotion to his hero – never heard his friend cry out in the night.
Richard was standing beneath the trees as the sunlight broke through the boughs, listening to the cacophony of birdsong from his garden and the nearby woodlands. Cuckoo, cuckoo, came one. Cuckoo, cuckoo. Richard closed his eyes and leaned back against a tree trunk, wondering what it would be like to fly away. You stole my mother.
When he padded inside and back up the stairs Coster was coming out of his – their – mother’s room and greeted him with a smile and a brotherly puck on the upper arm, as always, before going off to sort breakfast for everybody. Richard returned the greeting like a good brother would – and he truly did look after Coster like a little brother, standing his ground when bullied, helping with homework when he struggled to read letters the right way around – and went to lie down on his bed for a few minutes to think about his great great grandfather’s samurai sword, brought home from some scarcely remembered merchant voyage.
From the age of sixteen the first insurmountable distance set in between them. Coster, though he still often struggled with reading, had found and built up a prodigious skill for languages, one carefully nurtured by a charismatic teacher at school and supported at home by both mother and Richard, himself no lightweight at learning. The year passed in a hazy mix of English, French, German, and later a smattering of Arabic though all but Coster struggled with it. He recited stories and poems to a computer, then published them far and wide. He had suddenly become known in the town, and further afield, though nobody called him Coster but Richard any more. There were never any girls or guys on his arm at readings or the exhibitions he liked to visit. Only mother.
The shadow of a famous brother excused Richard from some of the harder classes at school, let him work on his inventions quietly in peace even when he wanted advice and kinship. Winning a series of competitions went under the radar at home but caught early attention from universities, though Coster’s stories brought in money and anything Richard did seemed to cost money. “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?” his mother would ask, greyer at the temples than she had been but not much older beyond that. You stole my mother. And yet Jimmy, Coster, increasingly now James, was the constant supporter, both in money and in showing up when it counted.
At twenty-three the world caved in. The call came at 5.09am as the winter rain washed against the windows of Richard’s studio apartment in the city. The bleat of the phone shocked him out of a grey, collapsing dream and it took a few seconds to register Coster’s name on the screen. “You need to come home Richie,” he said through a veil of tears. “Mum’s gone. I…” and then came the sound of the phone hitting the floor and the distant sob of heartbreak.
Richard was dressed and out the door by 5.29am, was unlocking the old front door (when was it painted green?) by 5.50am, and crying on the floor with Coster by 5.52am. At some point they slept in each other’s arms. The sun was up before he could even look at the bed. Both sides of the sheets were tousled. His mother lay there, staring at the ceiling with one arm dangling over the side. There was white foam around her mouth. A tall half-full glass of water sat slightly off-centre on a coaster on the nightstand. Lip marks were on the rim, pale white.
The boys sat together in the front row at the funeral, Richard’s grandmother to his left and aunts he had seldom seen on their right. Richard would remember little of the day. But he would always remember the numbness, the feeling of being controlled like a marionette as rows of people came to share condolences and memories, faces blending into one general whisper of platitudes. When the time came for the eulogy Coster, the writer, now definitively James, found himself frozen in place. Pleading, desperate eyes sought out Richard, who with a hug took the speech kindly from stiff fingers and recited it with unthinking elegance.
Then came the days of unfeeling silence, of sitting together finding fellowship in the space between words. Coster, now well off, had his own apartment within walking distance but seemed to have taken few, if any, of his possessions. But what did he really need, wondered Richard, when he had mother to himself? Or was it the other way around? Did it matter any more?
Where the days were nothing but silence the nights were cacophonies of pain and horror as Coster wailed and growled in his sleep at images and entities he could not recall come daylight. On the fourth night after the funeral Richard woke to the sound of a door closing in earnest, an engine humming to life in the pale dead of night. There was a note. There’s always a note, Richard thought, as he picked up the half-crumpled sheet. It said, simply: “Mum won’t let me go. I don’t know how to be free. I did my best.” So did I, he said to himself as he pulled on his battered trainers and headed for his own car still in the shorts and T-shirt that passed for his pyjamas.
There was a bridge about ten minutes away that had once been a viaduct for trains. It was high enough to give the feeling of vertigo as you looked down into the river, swollen at this time of year with runoff from the mountains. The boys had often spent a bit of time hanging over the railings, daring one another to swing just a little bit further over or throwing stones into the water below.
Coster was standing on the other side of the guardrail now, barely more than a phantom shadow beneath a streetlight. Richard walked toward him but off to the side, not wanting to spook him.
“You’re being a bit melodramatic, Jimmy,” he said. “You wouldn’t even put this in one of your stories when you were a teenager.”
Coster barked a laugh that was half sob. “I thought that after she was gone I’d feel myself again. Every day, every night pawing and crying at me. I just couldn’t take it any more.” He sobbed again. “But I see her face every time I close my eyes. Every bump or crack in the house, I’m sure it’s her wandering around, watching me. I miss it being just us. Though it was never just us. But I always remember that it was.” He was quiet for a moment. “I always thought you’d come and get me.”
And he stepped off into the dark. Richard leapt forward, his muscles straining as he caught the falling man. Richard held Coster’s hand, his grip fierce from adrenaline and raw power. As his friend kicked and swung in panic Richard nearly went over himself before jamming his thigh against the guardrail to brace himself. He let out a guttural roar from the pain and strain. The sweat was already building, making it hard to hold on.
Coster looked up, seemingly in shock that Richard was still there, his hope of salvation. He smiled and relief washed over his face. But as he did his face changed. It was Coster’s own clean-shaven face as a young teenager. “All okay Richie?” You stole my mother.
The features morphed until his mother’s face was staring up at him. “Why can’t you be more like Jimmy?” she asked. “Such a good boy, such a fine and handsome young man, so good to have help around the house.” She pursed her lips and wrinkled her nose at him. You stole my brother.
“Richie pull me up! Quick quick,” she said, though her voice was Coster’s. “I can’t hold on. I’m slipping,” she said desperately.
“Slip away,” he whispered, letting go.
And it was Coster’s face again, eyes and mouth wide with terror. The shock of despair, of hope turned to devastation. Down, down he went toward the winter waters. Richard watched him falling, his breathing coming back to normal. “Goodbye Jimmy,” he whispered. “Goodbye mother. Cuckoo, cuckoo.”
He tucked his shirt back in and smoothed out the creases. He turned on his heel as he heard a faint cry and splash. The wind had picked up and a downpour was nigh.
As he walked back to the car he realised he was hungry and wondered what he would have for breakfast. He sat at the wheel, closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath, started the engine, and aimed the car toward a road he had never travelled, where there was nobody left to be stolen.