‘You’ve heard of Cain and Abel,’ said Mum wearily to an old school friend she met at the bus stop one day, ‘Well, these are my boys.’
Henry and Roger. Twins, but two less identical ones would be hard to find. They were complementary in a way that implied no harmony. Henry was a little cherub, with golden curly hair and dimpled baby face. Roger had a narrow, fretful look even when he was tiny; he soon developed lank hair and what looked like a permanent scowl.
As his mother talked, Roger studied her. Henry might have watched her intently like that for the sheer pleasure of looking at his beloved Mummy. Roger was waiting for the moment when her vigilance faltered. It happened, finally, as she was trying to say goodbye and get on the bus at the same time; instantly Roger kicked Henry’s shin.
‘Ow!’ said Henry, but turned to his brother with a smile. ‘The step isn’t there, silly Billy!’ he said, ‘that’s my leg!’
‘Did you just kick him?’ demanded Mum.
‘No,’ said Roger, ‘he did it himself.’
‘Liar!’ said his mother.
‘It’s not fair,’ said Roger ‘I always get the blame.’
‘You’re always the one who did it.’
‘Don’t be sad, Roger,’ said Henry, ‘I know it was an accident.’
‘Bugger off!’ said Roger, as quietly as he could.
When they were almost nine years old, Henry was given a guinea pig. Gregory was beautiful; a smooth pale brown with white around his snout.
‘I want a guinea pig!’ said Roger.
‘You can’t have one,’ said his mother. ‘I’m not subjecting an innocent creature to you.’
‘But it’s not fair,’ said Roger, genuinely upset. ‘If he’s got one, you have to let me have one too!’
‘Henry will look after it,’ said their mother, ‘you would not.’
‘You can share him, Roger,’ said Henry.
‘Oh no,’ said Roger, ‘I want my own.’
‘But he’d belong to both of us.’ And Henry smiled sweetly. Too sweetly. For the first time Roger felt his brother was not just annoying by nature; he knew he was being maddening – it was deliberate! He needed sorting out.
Two weeks later, Roger was left behind at home, with no-one but his distracted, negligent father to supervise him, while Henry and their mother went to visit Aunt Helen. So Roger invited his friend Sam to bring his terrier round, to play with Gregory in the garden.
Roger was never sure himself whether he actually meant Gregory to be killed, but it happened almost instantly; snapped up in the terrier’s jaws and shaken like a rag. Sam, in fact, made no secret of his feeling that Gregory had put up a poor show and provided very little sport. When Henry and Mum got home, Roger pretended that he had merely released Gregory into the garden and lost him. He was severely punished; they searched for a week and Henry cried for days, occasionally accepting or giving a hug. Even Roger took a couple of those hugs, but secretly he had the broken little guinea pig body in a cardboard box, and after a while he wrapped the box in scarlet paper and put a ribbon around it. In just a couple of days, it would be their shared birthday.
‘I’ve got a special present for you,’ he told Henry, ‘You’re going to love it.’
‘Thank you, Roger,’ said Henry, ‘and thank you for telling me now so I can get excited about it.’
Mum was suspicious about Roger’s present, but she let things ride. On the day, it was the last of the presents to be opened at Henry’s party.
‘This is Roger’s special present,’ he said, ‘isn’t it, Roger? I’ve enjoyed looking forward to this present so much. Do you know what? I like looking forward to it. I don’t want that to end just yet. Can I open it tomorrow, Roger?’
‘Well… I suppose so,’ said Roger, taken by surprise.
‘It’s not something that will spoil if I don’t open it now?’
‘Oh no,’ said Roger, smirking.
Next day, Henry decided he wanted another day of looking forward to his present. Mum was not altogether happy about this repeated deferral, but it was hard to refuse Henry when he wore that special, pleading face. She turned to Roger instead.
‘What is it?’ demanded Mum. ‘What’s in there? You’d better tell me.’
‘I can’t,’ said Roger, ‘It’s a surprise.’
‘Listen; if he opens it and it turns out to be something awful, I promise you’re going to regret it,’ said Mum. ‘If you tell me before this goes any further, I’ll let you off, OK? Otherwise, take the consequences. This is your last chance.’ But Roger couldn’t resist the opportunity to see Henry’s face when he found Gregory’s rotting remains inside the box.
Next day, Henry announced that he was going to keep the present unopened until his next birthday.
‘Maybe it’ll be best if we put it away and quietly forget it,’ said Mum.
‘I want him to see it,’ said Roger, though he was not altogether sorry to avoid the unprecedented maternal fury which would surely have followed the opening. The present was duly put into the attic, and the worst phases of Gregory’s decay passed quietly by in the darkness. The following year the present had to be brought out again - and after Henry had enjoyed holding it and talking about it, the opening was deferred for another year. It became a tradition.
A life of comfort and love, happiness and hugs was not good for Henry’s health. He ate a lot of cake. By his mid sixties he was badly overweight and his veins were blocked. He underwent a series of major operations. He got confused easily now. Roger, who had lived a bracing life of distrust, conspiracy and malice, was cadaverous and lean; his system was in excellent condition and his mind remained as sharp as ever. For the last five years, he had paid for his impoverished brother’s care; Henry, who trusted everyone, no longer had any money of his own.
Now Roger sat by Henry’s hospital bed. The doctors had told him that Henry’s collapsing cardiovascular system was incapable of further repair; it was just a matter of time.
‘I was sorting your stuff out,’ he told Henry, ‘and I came across this…’
‘Ah!’ said Henry, ‘The best present ever! The paper’s so faded now. Still, it’s not in bad shape, considering, is it? It’s not our birthday, though… is it?’
‘No. But I felt we needed to deal with this,’ said Roger. ‘I haven’t had a chance to mention it privately till now, but it’s been on my mind. I thought we might have got enough distance on it now…’
‘Oh no,’ said Henry, ‘there’ll never be distance on this.’ He took the faded, bent parcel and smiled. ‘You want me to open it? Finally? Before I die, you mean?’
‘I didn’t intend it like that. But actually, yes.’ Henry smiled.
‘I don’t need to open it. I’ve always known what was in it,’ he said.
‘Really?’ said Roger, taken aback. Was Henry sharper than he thought?
‘Of course. Love. Oh, I don’t know what actual gift you put in there. I know it might not be nice.’
‘It is not full of fucking love,’ said Roger, carried away by anger of a kind he hadn’t felt for years now.
‘Yes it is. You may not know it, but even if it’s a stink bomb, love is what’s really in the box. The love you could only ever express through kicks and punches. Roger… come here.’ He leaned forward and gathered his startled brother in his arms.
‘Don’t…’ said Roger, but Henry gave him the very last of a lifetime of hugs. As he was doing it he whispered in Roger’s ear.
‘I love you too, Roger,’ he said, ‘I always have. Perhaps if I’d kicked you back you’d know that already.’ He lay back and quietly died.
Hours later, as Roger still sat by the bed, a cardboard box of tiny bones in his hand, a sympathetic nurse laid a hand on his shoulder.
‘Your brother is at peace now,’ she said.
‘Of course he is,’ said Roger, looking up. ‘The fat fool has always been at peace. He had no capacity for anything else. Love and hugs! You know he only behaved like that to needle me, in the beginning? Then he sort of got trapped in his own rose-tinted bubble. Wouldn’t come out. Couldn’t, in the end.’
‘He was a lovely man,’ said the nurse, ‘a bit vague, but completely sincere.’ Roger grunted. He looked at the little parcel. ‘I tried to help him,’ he said.
‘Of course. Because you loved him.’
‘What? No, because I hated him…’ Roger frowned for a moment. ‘He should have opened it. But of course he didn’t. He knew it would annoy me.’
(c) Peter Hankins