By Britt Marie Box -
The hinges creaked and floorboards groaned as Jennifer opened the door and entered the old cottage. The inside of the home looked smaller to her now, the larger-than-life presence that used to occupy the space exchanged for an unnatural stillness. She walked into the open plan living and dining room and put down the three empty cardboard boxes she was carrying. A stale smell hung in the air and a light coating of dust topped the surfaces like freshly fallen snow. She looked around and sighed, knowing that today wasn’t going to be easy. The Edwardian grandfather clock in the corner of the room to her left started to chime. Twelve times in total, signaling to the room that it had turned midday.
She knew he would be late; he always was, and she knew how badly he didn’t want to come. A part of her wondered if he would even show up at all.
“I may as well make a start.” Jennifer said out loud to an empty room. She started in the left corner, opening the dark oak cupboard doors, and peeking inside for the first time in years. This may have once been her home, but it had been decades since she rested her head here, and anything could be hiding away on these uneven shelves. She pulled out a collection of old books and laid them on the worn beige carpet. A series of detective novels from the 1980’s with folded, well-thumbed corners and a few torn front covers. She didn’t want them; she knew he wouldn’t either and she was sure they were too decrepit for a charity shop. So, making her first difficult decision of the day she piled them neatly into a large black bin bag. The bottom shelf was easier to clear, with only a few extension leads and three old remote controls of varying sizes for television sets that had been replaced long ago.
“Why did you keep these?” Jennifer said, with a timid smile on her face. She got the feeling she would be finding a lot of paraphernalia today that should already be decomposing on a trash heap somewhere but for whatever reason maintained their position in the house.
She opened the drawer above the cupboard and found a pile of takeaway menus, some for restaurants that had long gone out of business, an electricity bill dated six years ago, a pack of bright yellow post it notes and a few dried-out highlighters. With none of it being any use to anyone, in the bin they went. At the back of the drawer, she pulled out an envelope. Inside were five old photos with familiar scrawled writing on the back labelling them things like ‘new car’, ‘summer at allotment’ and one picture mostly white simply saying on the reverse: ‘snow’.
Jennifer stood up to stretch her legs and as she did, she heard the familiar sound of tyres over gravel. She looked up at the window and could see Brendan’s silver Ford Fiesta pulling up.
“Well, I’ll be damned, he actually came.”
She walked to the front door and opened it, leaning her arm on the frame as she watched him amble reluctantly up the overgrown path.
“Hello stranger.” She said brightly.
He nodded but didn’t return the smile, his hands firmly in his pockets.
“I’ve already made a start, come in.” She walked back through the doorway into the living room and held the front door open for him to follow. “I’m afraid I forgot the milk, so no chance of a tea.” She continued.
“That’s ok, I’m not staying long anyway. I just wanted to see if you needed help lifting anything heavy.” Brendan said.
“Ah, my brother, always the gentleman, eh?” She winked.
Jennifer stared at him. He looked taller than she remembered. She wasn’t sure if it was because the last time they both lived in this house they were much smaller, or the fact she had barely seen him in nearly three years.
“What’s this?” he said looking at the three empty cardboard boxes.
“Well, one is for me, see I’ve written my name on it, one is for delicates to go down to the charity shop and one… well, one is for you.” She said.
He picked up the third box to see Jennifer had written ‘Brendan’ on the side in black marker pen.
“You can use this one as a second charity box, there’s nothing I want from this house.” He said coldly, his steel blue eyes scanning the room.
Jennifer thought about responding, about telling her brother that he was being stubborn and ridiculous. But she knew it would fall on deaf ears as it always had and so she said nothing. After a moment’s silence she picked up her box and got back to work.
Jennifer lifted up a large globe with a gold trim that sat atop the drinks cabinet by the wall.
“Do you want this? Or can I have it?” She said.
“You can have it.”
“Ok, well I’ve done this whole corner, so far. How about you help me with the shelves?”
Brendan walked over to the tall bookcase and rubbed his hand against the side. He could remember being young, about 4 or 5 and looking up at it thinking it was the tallest bookcase in the world. He had daydreams about climbing it, scaling it like the side of a mountain, but he always chickened out. Even then he feared heights. He felt the corners of his lips twitch upwards but stopped the smile.
“What, what is it?” Jennifer asked.
“Nothing. It’s nothing.” Brendan replied, not wanting to venture down memory lane.
Jennifer closed the drawer she had emptied and joined her brother. She picked up a watercolour painting in a gold frame. It featured a nondescript lake surrounded by tall pine trees and full green bushes. On the lake was a small blue boat and in the boat was a man and a boy, sitting together fishing. She held it in her hands and smiled.
“I always loved this picture.” She said. “It reminded me of you and dad.”
“Really?” He replied. “I hated it.”
“You hated it? Why?”
“It doesn’t matter, I don’t want to get into this.” He said scooping the books off the bottom shelf and put them unceremoniously into a bin bag without even looking at them.
“Brendan, please. Don’t be like this. I can’t be strong for the both of us.”
“You don’t get it, Jen. We may have both grown up in this house, but we have very different memories.”
“I know you and Dad had your differences,” Jennifer said. “But he’s gone now. Mum’s gone too, it’s just us. We need to stick together.”
“And I’ll be there for you, I promise. But this house, this stuff, I just don’t care about any of it. That picture,” He took the watercolour. “All this picture does is remind me how much of a failure he saw me as. I hated fishing, I hated going out with him on that little boat in the freezing cold before the sun had come up.”
Brendan put the painting down on the table.
“The last time I ever went fishing with him, he shouted at me the whole time, told me I was stupid, and I wasn’t doing it right. Told me I needed to be more of a ‘man’, it was relentless Jen. You never had it because you were the baby. You could do no bloody wrong, could you?”
Brendan took a deep breath. He didn’t want to lose his temper and he knew it wasn’t his sister’s fault. Their father Martin had expectations for his eldest son and Brendan felt he was disappointed in him when those expectations weren’t met.
“Look, you have this all under control it seems. I’m going to go.” Brendan picked up his keys and moved towards the door.
“Don’t leave, please. Not again. I know things were hard for you when Mum died. I know how much you two loved each other and I don’t blame you for needing your space. But right now, I need you. Please.” Jennifer said, reaching out a hand to her older brother, like she used to do when they were kids, and she was too scared to cross the road by herself.
Brendan looked down at her hand, sighed and after a moment reached out his in return, squeezing it tightly.
“Hey, look over here. I want to show you something.” She said.
Jennifer walked him to the side of the room and pointed along the doorframe that went into the kitchen. There were lines and numbers written on the wall in a combination of biro and marker pens making a height chart. It started down very low with ‘Brendan 1’ when he could first stand and went right up to ‘Brendan 18’ shortly before he moved out to go to university.
“I was taller than you for most of this you know.” Jennifer said, gently elbowing Brendan in his side, trying to change his mood.
“Only until I hit puberty.” He returned. “I can’t believe they kept this. They must have redecorated a dozen times since we moved out but look, each time they stopped painting at the edge so it would always be seen.”
Jennifer ran her fingers up the wall stopping halfway on ‘Nancy 51’ and ‘Martin 55.’
“I always forget how tiny mum and dad were, you know. We were towering over them by the time we were teenagers.” Jennifer said.
Brendan looked around the room, as if doing so with new eyes. He had never thought about his parents as little and 'old’, not even when they were dying, but he realised this wasn’t the living room decor of a young couple. Martin had left it exactly as it was when Nancy died three years before, not wanting to redecorate the home she loved. There were ornamental blue and white china plates on the wall, a pair of matching worn brown corduroy chairs facing the small TV by the window and an engraved silver plaque on the wall that read; Martin & Nancy - 25th Wedding Anniversary. He sighed and closed his eyes tightly, feeling warm water pool around his bottom lashes. They may have had their differences, but he loved his parents. He knew he needed to forgive what he saw were their shortcomings, otherwise he would be haunted by it for the rest of his life.
He went back to the bookcase and on the second shelf, leaning against the back he saw an A4, closed double frame that he didn’t think he had seen before. He picked it up and held it in his hands. It had a smooth pine finish and was connected by a rusting gold hinge. He opened it carefully and saw on the left behind glass was a copy of his university degree and on the right stuck in with glue, a picture of him and his dad from the day of his graduation. Underneath the picture in his dad’s unmistakable bad handwriting, it said; ‘me and my brilliant son.’
Brendan felt his breath catch in his throat and his heart became heavy in his chest. He closed the frame and pressed his hand on the front of it. He smiled, walked to the center of the room, and gently placed it down into his cardboard box.
Britt Marie Box is a Canadian born, Italian and Irish descendant now living and writing in the UK. She is a published non-fiction author and magazine columnist, a new fiction author and is currently studying for a BA(hons) degree in Creative Writing and English Literature. You can find her on Instagram @brittmariebox and Twitter @brittmariebox