In the last few weeks of her life, I caught him peeing in the sink. I came through the back door, as all of us always did, via the porch with its fly papers and window-ledges and stands chock-full of plants, straight into the kitchen and there he was, in side profile standing on his tip toes, pissing in the sink. A grown man of sixty-something years pissing into a kitchen sink. One thing I will say. He doesn’t have great balance.
The only reason he deduced it was bad was the look on my face. If I hadn’t lost my temper so spectacularly, I’m sure he wouldn’t have thought anything of it, of being caught in the act. I cannot recall – although I’m sure there must have been a time, especially when the children were young – having ever become so instantaneously furious. One look was all it took. No requirement to wait for explanations. No conclusions to be jumped to. It was all there in plain sight.
It was so many things to my eyes; slovenly, disgusting, disrespectful, but my particular fury was reserved for the sheer laziness of it. The childhood home, where we all grew up, is a bungalow and not a particularly large one like the ones they have in America. It is a classic 1950s English pebble dashed bungalow, which means the loo is never more than ten metres away from any given point in the house. I could not comprehend the circumstances which would lead to my older brother being forced to urinate in the sink. You cannot get caught short in a bungalow. And then it dawned on me. It was not the first time he had done it. To him, it was no big deal to piss in the sink. It was an awful realisation.
After the shouting, I had to pass the sink to get to the sitting room where my mother would be. I saw that it had not been empty. There were the remains of what must have been their lunch crockery. Two plates, two cups, a knife and a teaspoon. The same cups and plates she’s eaten off and drunk out of for the last thirty years – longer, maybe. When I got back to my home (for I could not tell my mother what I had just witnessed), I began to worry how well he was washing those coffee cups that I would often see on the draining board when I visited. We had all been assuming what a great comfort it must be to her, to us all, to have him living there and caring for her, but was that the reality? It got me thinking, what doesn’t he apply his slap-dash attitude to?
Two weeks later my mother was dead of a pulmonary embolism. After the sink incident, I had been coming every day to check upon things and if there were dishes in the sink I would wash them. I found her, making no sense in her bedroom and called the ambulance. She was drifting in and out of consciousness. I was with her, holding her hand in the ambulance when she died. Thank goodness I was, and that she wasn’t alone. I had no idea what he was doing or where he was. I do now, of course, after the event.
In the wake of her death it became clear that our eldest brother had always been that way. In his head, pissing in the sink was neither unusual nor outrageous. We had chosen not to see it, either wilfully or through our own disinterest. Possibly, our mother had purposefully hidden it from us. I don’t know. But it was obvious that she must have spent her life fixing his messes and never grumbling even a word about the fact.
Our older brother was left with us, his two siblings, who were not prepared to coddle him as our mother had done. And that’s when things started to fall apart. We were all he had, yet not at all what he needed. He was an old man who still needed a mother.
My best friend tells me every family has one; a person who just can’t quite get it together, at least to the standard the rest of their family thinks they should be able to. Her brother-in-law is incredibly myopic, she says. But at least he has a basic level of personal hygiene, I tell her back. I am nigh on certain that not every family has someone as bad as Robert. He is our own special burden to bear.
Our mother had left us everything equally. Myself, Clive and Robert were to inherit the bungalow, the land and the contents of her bank account, which, discounting the land and the bungalow amounted to nearly fifty thousand pounds each. Clive of course, is a successful businessman, so it made very little difference to his life, but for me, to have that money sitting under my name felt huge. I have never been financially independent, but with that amount I felt I could be. I expected Robert felt the same, after his lifetime of less than average jobs. He was, at one stage, an accountant but he was dismissed for reasons that have always remained opaque. After that he worked manual jobs; a truck driver, part of a factory line and a spell as a paver, but they fired him as he wasn’t quick enough. Shift work seemed to suit him best. So, I’m sure that seeing that money in his bank account made him feel good too. Important. Like he could be someone. Like Clive, I suppose.
A few months after the inheritance had come through we had gotten together to discuss the land. It was unusual us being together. We rarely assembled as a threesome apart from Christmas, weddings and funerals. Clive arranged the meeting. He had plans for the land. After our father had died the land had always been let for grazing to local farmers. It brought in very little but it kept the fields in good working order; the hedgerows and fences maintained, the land annually fertilised and well grazed. You cannot just leave land to its own devices. As anyone with a garden should know.
Split between the three of us, the profit from the grass letting would have been a good meal out somewhere. Not to be sniffed at. But hardly an income one could rely on. It gave me great pleasure to see the farmers on it, coming daily to tend to their livestock. It was like how it used to be when I was a girl. All of our houses are built on the edges of the land. From my upstairs windows I can see Robert’s cottage and the bungalow. The land connects us. Most mornings I see Clive at the crack of dawn walking his dogs on it before he drives to his office. The land is a part of us all. It has three great oak trees in a perfect line down the middle of it. I can tell you every undulation in the ground around them, exactly when their buds will bloom and when their leaves will drop. I can tell you every wildflower that grows in the hedgerows, every tree around the perimeter, every rock that juts out of the ground and became so goodness knows how. I have spent my life playing, running, riding and walking around those fields. My father taught me to drive in them, he said I took to it better than either of my brothers. Good lass, he’d say, and slap me on the thigh.
Clive thought we could make more from the land by developing it, a strip of houses, he said. We’d still have plenty of land left, but we’d be able to monetize it better by building five homes on it. Nice homes for decent hardworking people. None of the social affordable stuff, he said, which has no profit in it. He’d already instructed an architect to draw up some plans and a planning consultant to get it through the council and he was asking for our contribution to pay for this. Around one thousand five hundred pounds each. By his estimations he thought we could be in for at least six figures each – if not seven – all from developing only a fifth of the land. I was shocked by the idea of having this much money just sitting there untapped in the land. I didn’t much like the idea of five ugly new houses marring my view, but for that much money maybe I could get over it. Robert on the other hand was visibly agitated by Clive’s plans.
‘I can’t afford to pay that right now,’ he said.
Clive laughed and said, ‘You’ve just inherited fifty grand, what do you mean “I can’t afford it?”’
I too was a little confused.
Robert was fidgeting in his seat, he seemed incredibly defensive. It was a pain to watch him, in truth. It was apparent he had something to get off his chest.
‘I don’t have it. I’ve been scammed,’ he said eventually to which Clive and I both expressed our astonishment.
‘What do you mean, scammed?’ I asked him.
‘Dad always said, invest in land – they’re not making any more of it,’ he said, as if this was a defence.
‘Yes,’ Clive said, meaning go on. I could see he was growing impatient. It was a bugbear of his that Robert never got straight to the point. You always had to go around the houses first. I put my hand on Clive’s and said, ‘let him explain in his own time.’
Robert repeated what our father had said again – I don’t recall him ever saying that, but it sounds like the kind of thing he would have said – and then proceeded to tell us how he’d answered an advert for land investments he had seen in a newspaper or magazine (he couldn’t tell us which) for a plot of land down south.
Clive interrupted and said, ‘Why did you need to invest in land down south when you already own some right on your doorstep?’
‘You’re not the only one who knows about money,’ Robert snapped at him.
‘Clearly I am,’ replied Clive.
I encouraged Robert to go on.
After he’d answered the advert to request details of the investment, he’d received a phone call. It is hard to establish the facts of what happened on this phone call, but it ended in Robert making a payment of thirty thousand pounds over the phone on his credit card.
‘You’ve still got twenty grand then?’ Clive said.
Robert wouldn’t be drawn on the state of his finances, nor would he say exactly how much he had given them, but it had become clear to him that he was unlikely to get any of it back.
I was aghast that my brother, my eldest brother, would pay thirty thousand pounds to someone he had never met. It was shocking enough that a bank had deemed it a good idea to issue him with a credit card with that amount of credit on it. All mine are limited at ten thousand.
Clive called him a stupid bastard.
And I began to cry.
It was thinking of Mum that made me cry. How frugally – but never in a mean way – she had lived, how much she had saved and shored up throughout her lifetime and then within six months of giving it to her children, a third of it was gone.
‘I think that I might be able to get it back,’ said Robert, changing his mind again, which is something he does. Facts always seem so elusive to him. ‘I’m going to get a lawyer and I might be protected because I bought it on a credit card, not on a debit card.’
‘You idiot,’ said Clive. ‘You’ll spend the same amount on lawyers trying to claw it back.’
This did seem a reasonable thing to say, a case of throwing good money after bad.
‘There is another way,’ said Clive. Robert looked at him in the most pitiful way, I almost wish I hadn’t witnessed it, as if Clive was hope personified.
‘I’ll give you the money you’ve lost in cash in exchange for your share in the land,’ said Clive.
This seemed very generous of Clive. How much money did he have sitting around to be able to do this? It triggered a prickle of animosity I still felt towards him, of our mother having to finance his first divorce twenty years earlier. I wouldn’t have dreamed of going to her, cap in hand, for such a matter.
‘But I own a third of everything,’ said Robert.
‘Yes, and you still will, but you’ll forfeit your right to the development land. No need to worry, you’ll still own a third of the rest of everything else.’
‘But that’s where the real money is, if what you say is to be believed,’ said Robert sounding a little uppity. He does get like that, uppity. It’s one of his most irritating characteristics, for what does someone like him have to get uppity about? He urinates in sinks.
‘I’m trying to help you out. Do you want your thirty grand back or not?’ said Clive. ‘And who’s to say, if this first development goes well, we could look at doing more, at which you’d be a third owner of.’
‘You could pay me to manage it. Like an estate manager. I’d look after it all,’ said Robert.
‘Do you want the money or not?’ said Clive.
‘Yes, thank you. It’s very–’ but of course, Robert couldn’t bring himself to finish the sentence. He has never been able to give credit where credit is due.
‘We’ll talk about the estate manager stuff another time,’ said Clive.
We all went our separate ways. Robert had cleared his debt and I was now in business with my younger brother. I was a developer. Not bad for a retired part-time secretary. Not bad at all.
Over the next three or four months, I didn’t really hear much from Clive. I telephoned him a couple of times to see what was happening and he would fill me in, but afterwards I couldn’t really understand what he’d said, or what it meant. He was so convincing when I spoke to him, but then when I tried to outline it after to my husband or a friend, it was always a bit vague on detail. I was sure that it would be in safe hands with Clive and that I didn’t really need to worry myself too much with the minutiae, he could be counted on to take care of it all.
Robert meanwhile was doing what he had always done, which is not much. I’d see him pottering up the field occasionally, he drove into town every day although for what I’m not sure. Clive suspected he had a gambling habit. One of his friends had spotted him coming out of one of the bookmakers on the high street, and he was always in pestering the ladies in the bank, wanting to check the accounts for the land, of which he was still a counter signatory. He couldn’t get access to the development ones though. Only Clive and I had that authority.
One day I saw him up the field in his car and so I walked up there to see what he was doing. One of the ash trees in the hedge had fallen over in the high winds and so he was repairing the fence and chain sawing the tree to pieces. He said he was going to split the wood into three piles and we could all take some for logs. It was nice to see him out working, doing something. I said I’d go and make the tea and bring it up in a flask, which is what we always did when we were haymaking. Mum would bring the lads in the field a cream tea. They were delicious, the smell of the cut grass mingling with the sweetness of the cream cakes. Really, the best of times.
I went back down to my house, thinking it would be wiser to make coffee which carried better in a flask. Fifteen minutes later, perhaps a little longer, I was climbing over the stone stile between my garden and the field, with the flasks, cups and sugar (for Robert) and I see that he’s starting up the chainsaw. He had managed to get it going and was heading towards the main trunk of the tree. I watched, with some nervousness, as he lifted the saw up and then he appeared to stumble backwards. I don’t know if the ground was uneven where he was standing, but I watched in slow motion as he fell backwards, the chainsaw still running, falling down with him. I must have screamed and was running as fast as I could towards him. The chainsaw had fallen between his legs and was perilously close to his femoral vein, I grabbed it immediately and set it aside and lost my temper with him, more out of fear than anger. Not as bad as the sink incident, but certainly, I felt furious with him. Why did he pick up a chainsaw if he can’t use it properly?
He got up and said, ‘I think my balance is not what it was,’ to which I told him in no uncertain times that he shouldn’t use a chainsaw again. Did he not realise that he had nearly killed himself? Why was he so lax about the whole incident? He might have been dead! I went to retrieve the coffee from where I had thrown it down. The cups were still miraculously intact, luckily the ground is soft at the time of year it was, and we sat on the fallen trunk of the ash, in silence, and drank the coffee.
Later that night Clive telephoned to say that he thought we should let the bungalow. We shouldn’t make the same mistake as mother did by selling off another house the family owned for a pittance. He said she should have let it out and waited for the market to pick up. This was the mistake he didn’t want to repeat. It seemed sensible to me. Clive said he needed me to tell Robert to get out of the bungalow, it would sound better coming from me, a woman’s touch. I didn’t understand what he meant about telling Robert to get out of the bungalow. Robert had his own house. Clive informed me he had been sleeping between the two. Perhaps he missed mother. I said that I’d go down and speak to him tomorrow, but not before I told Clive about the chainsaw incident which really made him laugh. I distinctly remember him saying what a plonker, and how it made me snort with laughter too.
The next day I went down to Robert’s house. I made sure I wasn’t too early as I know that he gets up quite late. I knocked on the door and he appeared in some tracksuit bottoms, which never look good on a man of his age, and a checked shirt which had egg split down it. ‘You’ve been eating fried egg sandwiches,’ I said to him and he smiled, ‘how did you know?’ He stopped smiling when I said, ‘because it’s all down your shirt.’ I followed him in as he tried to wipe it off.
I don’t often have reason to go down to Robert’s house and if I did perhaps it wouldn’t have been in such a mess. There were dirty glasses all over the lounge which was thick with dust. I couldn’t even guess at the last time it had been hoovered. But the real shock was the kitchen and I had to swallow incredibly hard when I opened the fridge. It is a miracle the man was still standing and hadn’t died from food poisoning. I was so beside myself. ‘It’s a shithole!’ I said. ‘Your house is a shithole! How can you live like this? Clean it up! Clean it up at once!’
‘What do you mean?’ he said. ‘It’s perfectly fine. And how I keep my house is none of your business Cynthia.’
I hate it when he calls me by my name like that, all snickety. I walked out of his house crying at the disgustingness of it all. How could someone, my own brother, live like that? I realised that I’d forgotten to tell him about the bungalow, the reason I was there in the first place, so I turned around and went back in and said, ‘And stay out of the bungalow. We can’t have you messing two houses up. It’s going to be let out.’
I wish I hadn’t told him the news in such anger, but I couldn’t help myself. I was so angry with him. He’s such a frustrating individual you see. Of course, it was hugely upsetting to think there would soon be strangers living in our childhood home. And it would get worse. The tenants we chose ripped up all her plants. The cherry tree, the rose… I can’t bear to think about it even now. And they filled the lawn with brightly coloured clutter for children and a huge trampoline. It was an absolute eyesore. I cried about the plants. If they had just said they were going to do that, I would have gone down there and dug them up myself to save them. Mum loved her garden and worked so hard on it, and in one day they ruined it. I really wasn’t prepared for how it would feel someone else in there, especially making such a mess. Why couldn’t they live there quietly? I worried about what Robert thought about it all on a daily basis.
I began to feel bad about what I’d said about his house so I turned up in my worst clothes, rubber gloved, clutching my cleaning caddy and said that I was going to tidy up the house for him. All day I worked scrubbing my fingers to the bone, literally, until the house was sparkling again. And you know, he couldn’t even say thank you. A month later it was back to its usual pigsty and I vowed that I would not go out of my way to help him again. Why couldn’t he see the way he lived was disgusting? How hard is it to wipe the surface down once a day? Run a hoover around the carpet? I notice that he hangs his washing on the line. If he can manage that, why can’t he apply the same to his house? That night I telephoned Clive and told him about the state of Robert’s house and suggested we might hire a cleaner. Clive said he could hire his own cleaner, it wasn’t our responsibility. I thought how Mum must have been the one keeping his house clean all those years.
A few days after I had cleaned Robert’s house Clive rang me to tell me that Robert didn’t want me to be company secretary for the land we own between the three of us because I’m not good with numbers. ‘He thinks you’ll get confused and mess up the accounts,’ said Clive. ‘He thinks he should do it because you’re not clever enough.’ How dare he! How dare he say this about me when I had helped him – the only one who had helped him, and he went behind my back to say this to Clive. I was furious, and I began to feel furious with Mum for leaving him with us – for not telling us how bad he was, and a small part of me began to hate my mother, for which I also blamed Robert.
By this time the building work had started on the field. Clive had fenced off the site so it was clear, mostly for Robert’s understanding, which was the land Clive and I owned and which was the land we shared with Robert. The builders were hard working lads and seemed to get the foundations in in no time. Clive was thrilled with the progress.
Robert arrived at my house to tell me what a mess it all looked. There were plastic bags all over the site, track marks from their vehicles. He called it an eyesore, a phrase he probably got from me when I was describing the mess the tenants had made in the bungalow.
‘What building site isn’t an eyesore?’ I said, laughing. He could be so petty.
‘You don’t have to look at it every day,’ he said to me, which wasn’t true, because I can see it from the upstairs windows. Then he left. I didn’t have chance to ask him about his comment to Clive about me being ‘not clever’, but he was mistaken if I thought I was going to let him get away with saying such a thing, scot free.
The next day I was upstairs in the room that overlooks the field. It was late morning, and I was reading my magazine with a cup of coffee. It was an article about a donkey sanctuary and it was terribly upsetting the way the donkeys had been treated. I find that kind of behaviour so cruel in humans. The pictures were heart breaking. I got up to get a tissue and I could see Robert out of the window in the field gesticulating wildly at the builders. He looked upset and I could see that he had not brushed his hair which was getting long. I’d joked to Clive that he was looking like The Wild Man of Borneo. I thought I had better go over there. As I got closer, I could see that his clothes were filthy too. The builder knew me, and as I approached, he said, ‘he’s telling me he’s the estate manager and we have to get out of here. He’s tipped over the cement mixer.’ I looked, and he had. An ugly puddle of concrete was congealing on the grass, or what was left of the grass.
‘Robert, what on earth?’ I said.
‘I can’t live with this,’ he said.
‘It’s not up to you. You made the deal. It was your decision.’
‘I was conned. Conned by my own brother.’
‘Oh, come on, he did you a favour,’ I said, but I really didn’t want to get into it in front of the builders.
‘Perhaps, could you give us a minute,’ I said to the men who were standing looking at us. ‘Maybe a coffee break?’ I suggested, apologising for the commotion and they nodded and got in their two vans and drove off.
I looked at Robert, not really knowing what to say. A jeep pulled in; it was Clive. The builders must have called him. He got out of the car ranting and raving, calling Robert a silly bastard. He looked at the cement mixer and he saw red. There he was in his shiny leather shoes and one of his lovely suits trying to shovel the cement back into the mixer. Robert approached him, in his usual dithering way. He was shouting that we didn’t even tell him the construction was starting and then some other thing about access to the site and how he had a say. I don’t know how it happened, maybe Robert was bending down to make himself heard to Clive who was still trying to get the cement back in the mixer, but somehow, Robert got clonked on the head with the shovel and he stumbled back and fell onto a pile of bricks. This I remember distinctly, looking down at Robert, his head bleeding and the polythene wrapping from the bricks flapping wildly in the wind. It was nobody’s fault. Robert’s balance was all-to-cock, I’d seen it for myself, and here it was again.
Clive was stood in shock, still with the shovel in his hand. I went to Robert who was out cold and bleeding heavily and screamed at Clive to call an ambulance, but Clive just threw the shovel down and said, ‘I ought to have effing battered him.’ I was shouting at Clive who didn’t seem to appreciate how bad the situation was. He got back in his jeep and drove off again, presumably back to work.
There I was, left with Robert having to help him again. I rode in the ambulance with him, holding his hand, the exact same route I’d been along with Mum a year earlier, when he’d been sitting in his own house too frightened to go back in the bungalow and into her bedroom to see why she hadn’t drawn her curtains yet, even though it was past nine in the morning. Perhaps if he had, we could have saved her.
Robert has remained in a coma since. The doctors say he will need full time care if he wakes up, a nursing home probably. Who is going to pay the bill for that? We could sell his house, but Clive pointed out that it has marriage value with it being adjoined to the land as it is. I don’t want to make any rash decisions.
I visit him in hospital every other day. He’s so clean, his fingernails thoroughly mucked out, for the first time in his life. I hold his hand and talk to him, read him the local paper, cover to cover, when it comes out on Friday. I think he likes to hear what his old school friends are up to. There’s usually someone he knows in it every week, up to something.
Elspeth Leadbetter is a writer of novels and short stories. She grew up in Cumbria, has lived in the US, UAE and Singapore and now lives in Surrey with her husband and two children. When she is not writing, she reads, runs and dreams of, one day, meeting the Obamas.
This Be The Verse, long-listed for the 2019 Mslexia Novel competition
Working on second novel The Horse Pond
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