Authors: Rachel Ward
“Did you hear that?” I say to Mum.
She looks blank.
“I can’t hear anything except the tap running and you spitting. Are you done now?”
There’s still an echo of the staleness in my mouth, lurking in the little gaps at the base of my teeth.
I dunk my head under again.
Can you hear me, little brother?
I look at the water cascading out of the faucet toward my face, and I get a glimpse of something. A stillness in the middle of the rushing water. It’s so close, but I can’t make it out. It makes me uneasy, but at the same time it draws me to it.
The doorbell rings, snapping me out of it. I stand up and switch off the tap. Mum seems paralyzed, eyes full of uncertainty.
“I’ll get it,” I say, wiping my face on a dish towel as I walk into the hall.
* * *
The interview isn’t a success. My memory is so hazy and nothing in my head makes sense. I can’t answer even the easy questions.
“Why were you at the lake?”
“What did you do before you went to the lake? Tell me about that day.”
“I can’t remember.”
“What happened when you were in the water?”
“I dunno. I just remember it raining, chucking it down, and there was thunder and lightning.”
“When the paramedics found you, you had your school trousers on and your shirt, but Rob only had his underpants on. Why were you swimming in your clothes, Carl?”
“I dunno. I’m sorry. I really don’t remember.”
“Carl, I need to ask you this. There were bruises and scratches on Rob’s … on him. Do you know how they got there?”
My knuckles connect with the side of his head. He recoils and comes back at me. I’m punching and kicking, but the water’s making my arms and legs slow and heavy and I’m cold, so cold. It’s draining the power out of me. I flex my feet trying to kick him with my heels and I do, I get him. He’s shouting and screaming. And he’s giving as good as he gets.
“No, I dunno.” I can feel my palms starting to sweat. If these memories are real, then it was me who made the scratches and bruises.
Mum’s sitting on the edge of her seat. Her hands are clasped together between her legs, back rounded, shoulders hunched. She looks like she’s in a dentist’s waiting room or something, not sitting in her own house.
“Boys are always fighting, aren’t they?” she says now. “That’s what boys do.”
Officer Underwood frowns, but it’s the other one that leans forward in his chair and asks, “When did you last see them fighting, Kerry?”
God, what’s he getting at? Does he think I had something to do with it? Does he know?
Mum looks down at her hands.
“They were always at it,” she says. “I don’t know.”
“Were they fighting at home? In the morning? Earlier in the afternoon?”
“I don’t know. I slept in that morning. And when I got up …”
“When you got up?”
There’s a pause. He definitely thinks he’s onto something.
“… I went to the pub.”
Mum retreats back into her shell, head down, shoulders near her ears. I try to stay calm.
The male copper makes some notes in his book. Officer Underwood glances at a lager can under the coffee table, one I must have missed when I was gathering them all up. Damn. I hate this, people like them, coming here. Looking. Judging.
Underwood turns back to me.
“Can you remember anything else at all, Carl?”
“There was a girl there,” I say.
“Neisha Gupta,” she says.
“Rob’s girlfriend,” Mum murmurs.
Pouting for the camera lens. The strap falling away from her shoulder.
Stop it. For God’s sake, stop!
“We’ve interviewed her already. She’s … she’s very shaken up.”
“I bet she is, poor love. What did she say? What happened?”
“She didn’t want to talk about it. It’s obviously very painful for her. But she did say that the three of them were swimming, larking about, and they were fine until the weather turned. Then it was raining so much they couldn’t see, they got separated, and when she and Carl found each other, they realized Rob wasn’t with them.”
“We were fine until the weather turned … larking about …”
She’s lying. I was hitting him, wasn’t I? Why has she lied to the police?
Mum swallows hard. I can see she’s trying not to cry.
“Do you remember that, Carl?” Mum says to me. “Do you remember any of it?”
“I remember the rain, that’s all.” There’s no way I’m gonna say anything else until I clearly remember what happened, the whole picture.
“You should talk with her. It might help,” Underwood says.
She and her partner get ready to leave. Mum asks what happens next, and she says that there’ll be an inquest, an inquiry into how he died. The coroner, who’s in charge of it all, has released Rob’s body to the undertaker, so the funeral can go ahead, and then the inquest will be a little while after that. She fixes me with a look, but only asks me to get in touch with her if I remember any more, then they’re gone.
As the door closes behind them, I suddenly feel very tired. Mum sits back on the sofa, closes her eyes, and lets out a big sigh. I try doing the same. I’ve got a powerful feeling of needing to sleep, like the chair’s dragging on my arms and legs, making them heavy. But when I close my eyes I see the face in the bathroom sink, staring up at me. I hear the voice again:
I’m coming, Cee.
I open my eyes and sit bolt upright. I’ve got to tell someone what I remember. Get it off my chest. It’s eating me up.
“Mum, are you awake?”
She stirs a little and her eyes flicker open.
“Just about,” she says.
“Mum, I do remember more.”
She opens her eyes fully now, leans forward.
“Yeah, not much. But we were fighting. In the lake. Me and Rob, we were fighting.”
“What were you fighting about?”
“I dunno. I can’t remember that.”
She lets out another big sigh and rolls her eyes up to the ceiling.
“Always fighting. I don’t know how many times I had to tell you two.”
“Mum, what if I … what if I …” I can’t say it. “Mum, what if … ?”
She knows what I’m trying to get out, and she doesn’t want to hear it any more than I want to say it. She holds her index finger up to her lips.
“Don’t,” she says. “Don’t. It was an accident. That’s what it was. An accident.”
“I can hear him, Mum. I can see him.”
I’m almost certain. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. It’s true. The figure in the rain, the face in the sink, and the voice in my head — they’re his. Rob’s.
She gets up from the sofa and perches on the arm of my chair, putting her arm around my shoulders.
“Of course you can,” she says. “It’s only natural. You’ve been through a lot, Carl. You’re grieving. It’s going to take time.”
“Do you see him, too?”
“Everywhere,” she says. “He’s everywhere, isn’t he? Especially here. I keep expecting him to walk through that door …”
She sighs and squeezes my shoulder. And I want to believe it’s the same for both of us — a normal part of grieving. But from across the hallway, I can hear a noise from the kitchen. The
plip, plip, plip
of a tap dripping onto the metal of the sink. And it makes me feel sick.
n my bedroom, I retrieve Rob’s phone from the jacket pocket and dial Neisha’s number. We were there, at the lake, all three of us — Rob, Neisha, and me. I need to find out what she knows. I need her to fill in the gaps.
After half a dozen rings, someone answers.
A girl’s voice. It’s her. Neisha. Somehow I wasn’t expecting her to actually answer. I haven’t worked out what to say.
“Um … hello?” I can hardly speak.
“Hello? Hello? Who is this?” she says, her voice shaking.
“Is that Neisha? Neisha Gupta?”
“Yes, this is Neisha. Who is it?”
“It’s me. Carl.”
“I need to talk to you. I need —”
The phone’s cut off. She’s gone.
I redial. This time it rings for ages, then goes to an answering machine.
“Hi, this is Neisha. I can’t get to the phone right now, so leave a message after the tone and I’ll get right back atcha!” She signs off with a kiss, and now I’m thinking of her lips, pouting, in the photo. I’m thinking about her bare shoulders, her …
The phone beeps in my ear and, startled, I start rambling.
“Neisha, it’s me, Carl. I really need to talk to you. I’ve got so many questions. I can’t remember much. I can’t remember what happened. You were there. You’re the only person who can …”
There’s a fumbling noise and then she’s back, cutting across me.
“I’ve got nothing to say to you. Leave me alone, Carl. Leave me alone!”
And then blank again. Nothing but the sound of my own breathing and the crackle of static.
She doesn’t want anything to do with me, that much is obvious. But why? What have I done to her? She sat next to me in the park, relaxed and happy in the sunshine. What happened? What changed?
The suspicion that’s been bugging me is turning into something more solid. I remember fighting Rob in the water. I survived. He didn’t.
Did I kill him?
Did I kill my brother?
Is that why Neisha hates me? Is that why she’s so scared?
But that’s not what she told the police. She told them she didn’t know how he died, that we were just mucking about. I don’t understand.
I’ve got to see her. If that’s what I am — a murderer — I need to know what happened. What made me do something like that.
I fetch the phone book from the front room. My fingers are shaking as I page through. There’s only one Gupta with an
address in Kingsleigh. 8 River Terrace. I find it on the town map. It’s halfway between our housing development and the factory, near where the road bridge crosses the river. I fix a route in my head, and as I do so, I can see it, see the paths, and alleys, and roads. I’ve been there before — and now I remember: following Rob, standing in the street, watching the house, the silhouettes in the window … and the burning jealousy smoldering inside me.
“True what they say about these Indian birds, little brother. They know some tricks, they do. Stands to reason. That’s where
The Karma Sutra
came from, isn’t it?”
A memory of Neisha’s face — her deep brown eyes, her full lips — comes back to me. Suddenly I know there was a time when I couldn’t get her out of my mind. She was there as I chugged down the beer, there when I went upstairs, there when I lay on my bed, unzipped, and put my hand inside my pants.
The feelings are all here inside me. He pushed me out. He didn’t need me anymore. And I was jealous of him, and he liked it. He taunted me. And I wanted her, and it was never going to happen, because he was there. He was always there. Older, bigger, tougher.
Behind me, the dripping of the tap in the bathroom sets the hairs on the back of my neck standing up.
This is stupid. It’s just water, for Chrissake.
I jump up and stride into the bathroom. I wrench the tap around until it won’t go any farther.
“Just stop it, okay? Stop it!” I say out loud.
“You all right up there?” Mum calls up from the front room.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. I’m going out.”
I start down the stairs. She’s waiting in the hallway.
“Where you going?”
“Out. Some fresh air.”
“Don’t go, Carl. It’s going to be dark soon.”
She’s holding a can of lager in one hand. The other hand is by her mouth and she’s gnawing at the edge of her fingernail. The skin’s red and sore. She looks up at me and I realize, with a pang, that she doesn’t want to be alone.
“I won’t be gone for long, Mum. I just gotta see someone.”
“I’ll be back soon, promise.”
I open the front door, pull my hood over my head, and set off down the road, away from the rec. I keep my eyes down, I only need to see far enough ahead to avoid the dog shit and the puddles. The hood muffles the noise of the housing development, and as I duck into an alleyway, all I can hear is my own breathing and the thudding of my heart.
I don’t see the three lads in my path till it’s too late. Not till I come face to boozy face with them.
They’re older and bigger than I am, wearing new tracksuits and Nikes. Side by side, arms folded, feet planted squarely, blocking the path.
I don’t recognize them, but it’s obvious they know me … and they don’t like me.
The alleyway is narrow, with high wooden fences. There’s just room for two people to pass without going in the mess of nettles and brambles and rubbish on either side. I’ve got no chance.
I look behind me, but that’s my second mistake — I should have piled in with my fists straightaway or just run, run back the other way as fast as I could. Now I’m shoved sideways, squashed into a spiky bush. Razor-sharp thorns tear at my clothes and skin, pulling my hood away from my face. The air’s been knocked out of me and I’m struggling for breath. Panicking.
One of the guys, an ugly dude with half his hair shaved off, is pushing my chest farther back. “On your own? Ha-ha, dumb question. Hey, at least one of you’s dead. Saves us half the trouble.”