It was five years after the wedding that I found the photographs. It was June, well on the way to getting hot, and I was clearing out the shed in the hope of dusting off the barbecue.
Back then, he had long black hair in corkscrew curls. I mean hideous hair. People used to laugh at him about it, shout ‘Rapunzel’ at him down the corridor. Come the end of school, after it was all over, he shaved it into a buzz cut and for all I know he’s kept it that way since.
But in the photos he’s got long black hair, arms round Jem, mouth and eyes fixed forever in laughter.
When I call Jem later that day, he’s on his way home. We don’t talk about it, but the scratch of his voice means he didn’t go home last night. Jem is still toned and lean and moody enough to pass for ten years younger, to get what he wants on a Saturday night. But it doesn’t wear so well the following afternoon.
‘I found the box.’
He exhales, a long breath: ‘I don’t want to see them.’
No. Of course he doesn’t. He feels the same way about Charlie as I do. You’ll be outside and the sun will hit a certain spot on the horizon and suddenly you’re struck with that big, flat emptiness. It isn’t, of course, a big deal. Everybody has said so. John says so now, whenever I come in sullen and silent and he guesses I have been out thinking. ‘There’s no purpose fretting about it,’ he says, ‘nothing you could have done.’
‘Come over anyway?’ I ask Jem, pulling the barbeque away from the wall.
‘You’ll make me look at them.’ He sounds undecided, though.
‘When did you last see him?’
I know the answer. Jem visits Charlie every Friday. Just sits outside, a ways off from the farm, in a car – sometimes he borrows my car, sometimes he rents, never uses his own. Just sits there, over dinner time, and watches them all through the glass. Charlie sitting opposite her, in his usual place, both children at the table, dog on the rug by the fire.
He comes over to mine as dusk comes in. He’s been at his mother’s, has a bag with something hot in it for dinner. He never could cook. Charlie cooked like a dream. Charlie would strut over, take the wooden spoon out of your hands, throw in a slab of butter, half again the spices you had measured out slowly, and tell you firmly that life was far too short to worry about heart attacks when food could taste that good.
That’s most of what there was to Charlie. Stupid hair, he could cook, we loved him. Charlie moved like mercury on a smooth surface, splintering and refracting at the sight of trouble. He used to come over with his washing under his arm when we were teenagers. My mom would wash it for him, quietly soak the bloodstains. The day he came round with a black eye, she leant over and said to me quietly ‘He’s like you, honey, so you be nice to him.’ I never knew how she found that out.
That’s when he moved in, more or less. One night a week with his dad, the rest with us. I enjoyed having a brother. Everything passed quickly and slowly, as adolescence does, and then we were seventeen and squabbling over who could bench more, where we’d live, readying ourselves for the big city, the boys who would love us.
The night it happened we’d been fishing in the pathetic lake at the end of town. Later, we were going to burn brush and smoke pot in the yard. The beers were on him – he owed me. It was going dusk when he went to buy them. There was one liquor store in our whole town, Niko’s, with a dirty neon sign and flies dead along the bottom of the glass.
You can imagine that he never came back, I guess. When the sun went in I called Jem, and we went looking, imagining nothing but maybe he’d got hungry or gone home.
They hadn’t even dragged him anywhere to do it. He was lying outside Niko’s in a dull brown pool. The men were just walking down the road, heading to the flat line of the horizon. He spent three days in the hospital.
We moved to the other side of town. Took ourselves and him somewhere quieter and greener to heal. There never seemed to be any question of anything else. He healed well enough but he skittered like a spooked horse, or a young vet sent home, gazed into the middle distance, twitched away from touch. I used to sit in his bedroom and burn to ask him. Why he was different now, why they had altered him, why we didn’t talk, any more, about the city and the boys who would love us.
It was Jem’s charm that did it, in the end. All of his doe-eyes and little hints and endless tiny kindnesses. He’d been fixing Charlie’s car in the yard one afternoon, beer perched on the roof, shirt off. He beckoned Charlie over to ask him something, quiet and low. Next thing, I looked over and there they were, shoulder to shoulder over the engine, laughing. In the smallest hours before morning, Charlie climbed through Jem’s bedroom window – or so Jem said, afterward – and afterwards, that was that. Jem and Charlie. Charlie and Jem. Inseparable, no question.
But there was always a question with Charlie. He preferred staying in, drinking only in bars so far underground that the air was soupy. No hand holding, even in the garden. No funny business. Charlie dressed like my dad. He got a job in a dowdy office where he flirted with the ladies. Jem said he didn’t mind. Jem said it didn’t matter, that it was no surprise, after what had happened. That it wasn’t as if he would go and marry one of the office girls.
And then, three years later, on the morning after the 4th July, the sun woke Jem alone in bed, arm thrown out above his head. Charlie had left. No note, no telephone number, no forwarding address. He’d emptied out his side of the wardrobe, his side of the bathroom cabinet. He left an old pair of jeans, an old pair of boots, that album of photos from school.
When the wedding invitation came nobody would touch it, as if it was a poisonous thing. We recognised her name from his office. We went, of course. How could we not? The two of us on the back row, all poised as if we might object. She was small, and bright like a robin. She looked lovely in her dress. We ate no cake and nobody drank except Jem. He drank the same way he’d been drinking for the eight months previously, and cried on the ride home. Charlie kept his distance from us, and the photographer never turned his lens our way. He didn’t invite my mother, so I didn’t tell her about it. Around six months later, Jem started driving over there to watch him cook, to watch him make her dinner. Until I met John, I used to go with him, buy us burgers to eat whilst we sat in silence.
When Jem’s car pulls up outside, I slip the album back under the bank of papers it slid out of. Tonight he’ll buy the beer and we’ll burn brush wood in the yard and talk around the edges of what it means to break your heart.