Despite Jez's best intentions not to talk to his brother, a month after their father's funeral Robby called and insisted he come round.
When Robby opened the door, Jez said, "Who the hell are you?" Since the funeral his brother had dropped a stone and shaved the sorry horseshoe of hair clinging to his melon head.
Into the kitchen and Jez's astonishment grew. There were no crusted take-out trays or fungal coffee cups or brown stains on the laminate floor. He sat at the table, upon which there just happened to be a twelve-kilo dumbbell, while Robby stuck on a lime green beanie that only came three-quarters of the way down his fat forehead and then leaned a whiteboard beside the crockery-stacked sink.
"I've come up with a plan," Robby said. He scrawled plan in blue marker. "We stake him out. We learn his routine." He scrawled routine.
"Stake out who?" asked Jez.
"You know who – Sykes. The junkie scumbag that killed our father."
Jez made a show of rolling his eyes.
"When we know his routine," Robby went on, "we get a gun."
"You heard me."
Jez sighed. He didn't have the patience for Robby's belligerence today. Or any other day. Often over the years he wanted to feel bad for his brother – falling in on forty, single, balding, overweight, slowly decomposing in a student flat in Selly Oak – but his annoying nature made it hard to summon the required empathy.
But when their father was killed, the dynamic of their relationship changed. Who could have predicted Robby taking the front pallbearer position and leading them solemnly to the grave, while he, the one with the wife, the career as a graphic designer, the luxury apartment overlooking The Bullring, crumpled to the ground and clawed at the dirt, sobbing like a teenager with a broken heart. In front of their whole family, he had humiliated himself. Jez cringed at the memory, and then cringed at his cringing of the memory, and then cringed at that too, the whole thing becoming a terrible cringing circle with him in the middle and Robby staring down with a look of disdain.
"I met this guy online," Robby said. "It's an antique, but it still fires."
"Sure, just e-mail the friendly online arms dealer."
"I'm serious!" He snatched the dumbbell and did some bicep curls, gurning on the up-roll.
Jez pushed back his chair.
"Well?" Robby clunked down the dumbbell, as though he'd proved his point.
"I think you've gone insane."
"Some lowlife mows down our father and now walks the street a free man. That's insane."
"What do want him to do? Take taxis?"
Robby rubbed the rim of his ridiculously undersized hat. "Who's to say he won't kill someone else's father while he's high on drugs, huh?"
"He was clean, you moron. He was driving home from Narcotics Anonymous. But why bother with facts when you can make up your own?"
"Why are you defending him!"
Finger pointing, Robby intoned: "Each man is his own measure. Neither more nor less."
"Can I go now?"
"Let yourself out," he said, turning back to the whiteboard, upon which he drew various crosses and arrows, seemingly at random.
Driving home, Jez couldn't stop thinking about his brother. He'd never seen him so pumped up. About anything. Robby was less a man of action than a man happy to leave the action to other more able men while sitting on the sidelines self-aggrandising his own overlooked abilities.
"I can't believe how good he looks," Chloe said over dinner. She caught Jez's eye as he was about to pour himself another glass of red, and he guiltily put the bottle back down. "The pictures, online."
"He's a regular Adonis."
"Maybe we can go to the gym. You used to love the gym."
"I'd rather stab myself in the throat."
Chloe looked nervous. She touched his knee and he pulled away.
"Do you feel like Robby's battling you to be the head of the family?"
"Only a family of demented monkeys would want him as their head."
"Well, this is your family," said Chloe, who proceeded to laugh, and then to stop, and then to suffuse her face with so much sympathy that she went a bit cross-eyed. "If you want to talk..."
Jez grabbed the wine and filled his glass to the brim. "There's nothing to talk about," he said, taking a slug.
Aside from updates from his mother about how well Robby was doing – he had a new job with a security firm – and the recurring nightmare where his brother's rapidly inflating muscles crushed him against the wall of his now immaculate apartment, Jez succeeded in avoiding him. He ignored phone calls, and deleted emails unread. But in late September their mother threw a sixty-fifth birthday party. Seeing Robby was inevitable.
On a warm summer afternoon, uncles, aunts, cousins and family friends crowded into the small suburban semi. A strange atmosphere pervaded, with everyone talking loudly about very little. Over smoked salmon canapés and jugs of fruity Pimms, Jez told and received countless anecdotes about his father – and frequently, when overcome by the memories, excused himself to weep quietly in the downstairs loo. Well, at least he was doing better than last time everyone was here, on the day after their father died. On that occasion he sat among the trees at the back of the garden, sobbing and clutching Nigel, the ratty, one-eyed teddy bear from his childhood, while a surprisingly calm Robby took care of the funeral arrangements.
As the party progressed, Jez realised he hadn't seen his brother. Perhaps a terrible cross-trainer accident had rendered him immobile? Right then, a man dressed in military trousers and a tight black t-shirt shifting with tectonic plates of muscle stepped through the French doors. A well-fitting black beanie lay slick to that oversized scalp.
"Holy balls," Chloe said. "That is an extreme transformation."
Robby strode over. "Shouldn't you be sitting in the trees with your teddy bear?"
Jez pretended to laugh.
"Hey Chloe, feel." Robby flexed his bicep. Her purrs of approval struck Jez as perhaps a touch too convincing. "Come to the car," he said to Jez.
Out the front of the house, Robby opened the passenger side of his rusty old Ford. Hiding among the protein bar wrappers in the glove compartment was a gun. A real gun. Not a great gun – the thin barrel gave it the appearance of a war relic, and the trigger shook loose in its holding – but still, a gun. Something that might kill a person.
Jez weighed the weapon in his hand. "Tell me you didn't buy this online."
"I've been following Sykes. I know his routine from the moment he crawls from his pit, to the café he goes to for breakfast, to — "
"I get it. You're a crazed stalker."
"What kind of man are you?"
"One who doesn't want to spend the next twenty years being molested in the shower." Jez didn't like how Robby was looking at him, surprised and disgusted, like he was something particularly luminous sneezed into a tissue. "Look... We both miss Dad. You miss him. I miss him — "
"You collapse by his grave sobbing, I go and take revenge against his murderer." Robby curled his shoulders forward and his pecs popped to attention. "The measure of a man is not what they say they'll do, but what they say they did."
"We've got to get rid of it."
Robby snatched the gun and shoved Jez playfully in the chest. From the front door their mother called, "Lunch is ready!"
He put the gun away, locked the car, and sauntered to the house. Such was Jez's disbelief at this whole situation, the muscles, the gun, the shove, like he could beat him at any time, it took a few moments for his legs to catch up with his brain, and by the time he got to the dining room Robby had taken Dad's old place at the head of the table. When he slipped into the seat beside Chloe, she whispered to him, "I still think you're the best."
Jez glared at her. Why should she have to clarify that?
From there, the day got worse. Robby bathed in awed compliments about how good he looked.
"Dad always said I was a late developer," he replied, bending an entire slice of beef over with his fork and shoving the lot into his mouth. "Just like a butterfly."
When asked about the ghosts haunting Cousin Ruth's attic, he said, "Who cares about ghosts when murderous junkies are roaming the streets?"
"So they're roaming now," Jez chipped in. "I thought they were walking before."
"My night shifts are killing me," said Uncle Max.
"Provide for your family," Robby replied. "Family always comes first."
Jez couldn't believe the sage nods around the room. This was the same Robby who dropped out of hotel management at university. The same Robby who worked for two years scraping rotting foodstuffs from the inside of industrial vats.
"Hey Uncle Max," Jez said. "Do you remember when you gave Robby that jack-in-the box for his twelfth birthday and when it popped out he — "
"Hey Jez," Robby cut in. "Who's this? Please Daddy, don't leave us!" He made a big sorry face and mimed scrabbling around the dirt. "I love you, Daddy!"
Everyone laughed. Even Chloe chuckled – until she saw Jez's face.
Well, to hell with you Melon Head. Keep your gun. Spend the next ten years in front of the mirror doing De Niro impressions. I hope you blast a hole in your kneecap.
"Are you okay?" Chloe asked, taking his hand under the table.
"Oh, yes," Jez replied, chuckling. "Oh yes, yes, yes..."
Everything was not okay. Jez couldn't sleep, couldn't focus on work. He missed his deadline at Has#t@g, to provide the graphics for an article on the new iridium processing cores; they, regretfully, terminated his contract. Other contracts were also canned. Soon his only work was the regular gig at boutique.com, but that amounted to less than a day a week, putting the shadows around editorial boxes. For the rest of the time, he sat listless at his desk, eating endless packets of cheese Doritos, moving the cursor in circles on his screen, and sighing.
When Robby's name flashed on his phone, Jez debated whether to answer, but curiosity won through.
"Tonight's the night," his brother announced.
"Oh, well, good luck with that."
"I want you to come."
"To watch you blow your balls off?"
"The place of one brother is by the side of the other."
"Are you out of your fat-headed brain? You're talking about killing a man!"
"No man is an island, entire of itself."
"Go to hell."
"In casual murder?"
"In avenging our father."
"Why should I?"
A pause, then he said, "Jerry, I've always looked up to what you've achieved. With you there I will be strong enough to do this."
Jez grunted, which Robby took for assent. He said to come round for seven, then hung up. As the silence echoed in his ear, Jez felt the urge to kick over his desk, put his fist through the monitor, something, anything, but instead he called Chloe and told her he'd be out when she got home.
On his way over, Jez practiced his speech – while I appreciate that you miss Dad, like we all do, and feel aggrieved about his death, blah, blah, blah – but when Robby opened the door the words faded from his brain. Wearing only a towel, his stomach formed into fillets of muscle, he looked like a guy from some insanity workout DVD. "Come through," he said.
Photos of Sykes covered the walls – leaving his block of flats, outside the bookies, his ratty face captured from every angle. Dates and times lined numerous whiteboards. Robby opened a sports bag and showed Jez the gun and a pair of nunchucks. Jez lifted out the nunchucks and pulled the sticks taut, snapping the chain.
"And these are for…?"
"Any problems," Robby said, taking them back. He whipped and flicked the weapon around his shoulders.
Robby turned away. "Give me five minutes to throw on some clothes."
They parked in an alleyway near Sykes's flat in Yardley, sneaked around, and hid in some bushes. The block was grotty, ex-council, lit by a sodium light only a few watts from burnout. Robby pulled on a black balaclava that made him look like the psychopath in a slaughter flick. He dropped into a military crouch, gun aimed.
An awful realisation came over Jez: Robby intended to kill Sykes. Until now it had felt unreal, a game… or not a game, more like a dare. But here, now, with his brother wrapping his finger around the trigger and murmuring come on, come on, it felt all too real.
But hang on. Why did he even want him here? As extra muscle? Jez had made his views clear. If Melon Head needed to wade in and finish off Sykes, he was going solo.
"Hey?" Jez pushed his flak-jacketed arm. "Why am I here?"
Robby flicked his head around, eyes wide and menacing in the balaclava.
"You don't need me," said Jez, starting to stand.
Through the bushes, Sykes shuffled into view, head down, sucking on a cigarette.
Robby grabbed Jez's shoulder. "You are going to watch this," he hissed, pushing him back. He followed it up by pointing his finger, as if to say, now don't make me come over there.
You pathetic, pompous, bubble-headed…
Robby was whispering, "One…more…step…"
No way are you better than me. No way are you head of the family. No way, no chance, not ever. Never, never, never —
Jez shoved Robby as he fired. The bullet pinged off the building. Sykes cried, "Bugger sticks!" and scuttled back down the path. Robby launched himself at Jez. They clashed half-standing, hands grappling. Jez tried to bend his brother's fingers, but instead found it happening to him and screamed in pain. He kicked out, sending Robby back, and went for him again, hoping to force him to the floor – but instead he was grabbed by the neck, pushed down, straddled and pinned. Stones dug into his spine. Robby took the nunchucks with his free hand.
Jez squeezed his face shut as his brother whirled and snapped the weapon.
Oh my god. He is going to beat me senseless.
"Submit!" Robby cried. "Submit!"
The nunchucks whistled by Jez's ear.
Robby flopped to the side, breathing heavily and sniffing, as though he was about to start crying. Jez still didn't open his eyes. He stayed motionless until he heard his brother collect his things and on heavy feet shuffle away.
The next morning, Jez sprang out of bed. In the shower he found himself humming.
"You look different," Chloe said when he came downstairs. "Like you're... gleaming."
His good feeling continued all morning. At lunchtime he called Has#t@g to apologise for missing his deadlines. After many reassurances, they agreed to renew his contract on a trial basis.
After that, things only got better. Or, perhaps, things were just getting back to normal. Sure, Robby had lost his security job – so he heard from their mother – and had apparently put on weight again, but those things were preferable to being in prison, whittling a shiv out of an old toothbrush and going at the grouting behind his stained poster of Miley Cyrus. Although no doubt Melon Head wouldn't see it that way – but he was always contrary, right? Right? Still, Jez couldn't stop thinking about his brother, and on Robby's thirty-eighth birthday he sent him an email to see if they could get together.
Sure, if you want. Regards, Robby Marshall.
Regards? Regards? For some reason that word made Jez unshakably sad.
On his way, he stopped at Homebase to get a present, but he had no idea what Robby would like, which made him even sadder. And right then, in the electrical aisle, while gazing forlornly at his reflection in the chrome surface of a kettle, his cheeks made bulbous by the curves, Jez saw for a second the face of his brother in his own. A thought grew uncomfortably inside his brain.
"Oh god," he groaned, because he knew then the present he had to give.
Robby opened the door in the same black t-shirt he wore at their mother's party, except now it rode three inches up his gut.
"Come through," he said.
Jez picked his steps between sprawls of stinking clothes and tied-up Tesco bags of rubbish. He watched his brother's slumped shoulders, his defeated gait. In the kitchen, they sat at the table.
A look passed between them, and then Jez said, "I'm… sorry."
"What have you done?"
"I'm just... sorry. For everything. I guess… I've been a…" He rubbed his eyes. "Look, I can't help how I've acted, when we were kids, or... or pretty much for the last thirty-five years, but I see it now."
"Everything... About us. About this." He gestured to Robby, then himself. "How I am when I'm with you."
"You're always so… bloody superior."
Jez tapped at a sticky patch on the table. "You're right. That's how I act. And, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. I recognise it now, and I'm sorry."
"Sometimes you forget I'm the older brother."
"You looked great when you bulked up. I was really jealous. Chloe had the hots for you."
"Maybe she realised she chose the wrong brother," Robby said, smiling now.
"And… I'm sorry for sabotaging your plans of avenging Dad."
"In retrospect, it was a bit mental."
"Hey," Jez said. "I've been there."
Robby's chest hitched. "I really miss him. He always just… liked me."
"You want a hand tidying up?"
They both stood and awkwardly faced one another, until Jez thrust out his arms. As they hugged, Robby pinched the soft flesh at the back of Jez's waist that he hadn't managed to tone. "Happens to us all in the end," he said, grinning. "At twenty he's slim, at thirty the gym, at forty may as well pack it all in."
"Amen, my brother. Amen."