800-word short-short fiction
– If it ever had gears I’d remember that. It never did. Dad always said gears were for people who didn’t like to use their thighs.
Paul is proud of this sentence. In answer, Rob disentangles the bike from the lawnmower and lifts it casually over both their heads, bringing it lightly to rest against the open shed door.
– Well, I remember gears. Maybe he took them off. I’ll have them put back.
Rob doesn’t break eye contact with the bike, but lets the moment go still.
– What’s the problem, Paul?
Paul steps out of the shed to frame himself in the doorway. He remembers John Wayne at the end of The Searchers standing like that. It’s the kind of thing he’d have shared with Dad, once. But John Wayne didn’t have to talk. He just had to stand there.
Paul takes a breath, inhaling tar paper, string, rotten crocus bulbs.
– You think you’re having it, then? Is this a conversation we’ve had, Rob?
– You don’t cycle. Anyone can see that.
– I don’t cycle, no, but I’ve got an overdraft with my name on it. That takes plenty of calories off me, the worry of it.
– We make our choices.
Rob swipes a gentle hand along the space below the handle bar, as if stroking the air. A tiny spider comes away, swinging from his finger by an invisible thread. Paul wants to smash his face in with a brick.
– An overdraft is no-one’s choice, he says instead.
– An overdraft is what comes of other choices. But OK. So you’re saying you want to sell it?
– Sell it, yeh, Of course. Dad knew it was worth a bob or two. He told me.
– That last few days, he told me. He said, Paul -
– When you weren’t there. When you were off in the car park putting in calls to the city is when. When he was dying when.
– I was calling to get time off so I could stay with him. And I did, all that week, apart from the Wednesday thing in Dewsbury. And he said precisely nothing about selling his bike.
– Must’ve been the Wednesday then.
Rob smiles, tolerant. He straightens, making a meal of it, rubbing his back.
– I don’t know, Paul, you’re my brother and I love you, but I feel I don’t know you sometimes. I mean, how could you even, at such a time, when he’s barely.. I mean they burnt him, Paul. Like a cake or something. I can’t get my head around it, I’m trying to but I - and here you are so mercenary and -
– Mercenary? It’s an overdraft, not a mortgage on a yacht. An overdraft I’d like paid off. And I would have if I’d not been busy looking after Dad.
– He loved me. He loved his bike. And he’d love the thought of me riding it to work.
– You just want him under your arse where he’s always been. He hated riding in the city, said it ruined the alignment, all those pot holes. If you knew him you’d know that. That’s why he took the gears off. If he did.
Rob watches Paul a moment, mystified. His brother is rubbing rust off the door hinges with his thumb.
– How much goes in with you, Paul? Did you ever just.. slow down and listen to him?
– Probably not, says Paul. – While I was cooking and changing his pants and letting the carers in and out and walking the dog, no. No, I probably didn’t. He talked – he talked about normal things, buses and Corrie and that carer with the mole and where was I going to take a break after –
And he literally bites his tongue. Rob’s voice, when he uses it, is gentle with victory.
– After what, Paul? After he was dead?
– After I’d paid off my overdraft!
Paul forces air into his lungs. Air and time.
– I’m selling it, Rob. You can’t stop me. It’s what he would’ve wanted.
– Look, I’ll buy your half off you. How’s that?
– And watch you poncing off down Shoreditch on Dad’s bike, ruining the suspension? I’d rather chuck it in the canal.
The brothers face one another. Every fight they’ve had, the bunk
beds, the football kit, Stacey they both fancied, all the fights are now. And, for Paul, something else is, too. Some stupid thing, small and spider-like, swings before him. Something Rob said.
– Like a cake, did you say? They burnt him... like a cake?
Rob has never been able to hide his smile. He can’t even now. It finds its way through, no matter what.
For Paul it’s a choice, smiling. An effort even. But he’s doing it.
© tessa sheridan