by Barbara Latham
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t was the second day a dream lingered to drift through Heather’s morning. Her curiosity was not much roused but, as much to get rid of them as to have something to say, she put both dreams in an email. She passed them on to Gordon, a man she hadn’t seen since the start of her marriage.
Back then Gordon had been ready to engage quite enough to gratify. “You get two brothers for the price of one,” he said on leaving for America weeks before the wedding.
The groom expressed only a sliver of the vast relief he felt at his older brother’s departure and held back from informing Heather that Gordon was hardly serious. Since Heather put store by having her brother-in-law’s regard, Howard refrained from explaining how Gordon needed to convince himself he could win over anybody, that he worked at it with a degree of contempt, regularly saying “everyone can be bought by being admired.”
Howard had not rid himself of a bitter accumulation from childhood where his big brother would stir just to prove he could pull in Howard’s friends for a game. But over recent years Gordon’s performance had grown tawdry, convincing few, which Howard assumed was a large part of the attraction of America for his brother.
Howard might smile at Gordon leaving but Heather began writing long monthly letters to him as soon as she married, letters which she continued faithfully through two decades, sending her brother-in-law photos along with reports on his unseen and growing niece. Howard signed a birthday card each year if Heather put it before him.
There were frequent possibilities Gordon might join them at Christmas. He often had plans but these seemed to change, as did his address and those few details about his life sparingly offered in return for Heather’s letters. And Gordon, in the middle of a crucial deal he absolutely couldn’t leave, failed to get back even when his mother was dying, then died. Howard, left to deal with everything, sounded sour “Now do you see, it’s always just easy words with Gordon. When you call on him there is no substance. He is as he was, a selfish little shit.”
Heather disliked such language and said so, then added that Howard did not yet know the full story and was over-reacting out of upset. She had invested much in having a brother-in-law who thought highly of her. Increasingly he filled some gap, not that Heather made this explicit, but everything else in her life seemed to be shrivelling while contact with Gordon expanded. It happened effortlessly once she moved on to email. Gordon continued to reply tersely, yet made it clear her messages were valued.
From the start of the correspondence, Gordon had claimed to depend on Heather’s letters and to acknowledge her including him in the family as a great gift. He often asserted how special Howard, his only sibling, had always been to him.
It was the changed form, however, which brought a freedom for Heather to send off all manner of briefer notes. Gordon was just there to receive whatever she sent. He was never critical as Heather’s difficult mother-in-law had been. He didn’t shrug her off with an emphatic “oh mother!” as her daughter frequently did. And he was not as unpredictably sharp as her only sister, Jean.
Jean, though younger and in no position to be judgemental, sometimes seemed to think Heather should smarten up. Whereas Gordon could be relied upon to only smile at the arrival of her messages.
When Heather flung off words as if he was out there to catch something of her, she clung to Gordon’s most repeated phrases, “my brother is such a lucky man, “if only I could find one like you.”
He generated an illusion of wanting to know more of “my lovely sister-in-law “though giving away next to nothing, apart from how much he missed family.
Heather barely noticed if a degree of romance slid into what she called “duty” towards a lonely man who wanted any news of home. Gordon wasn’t exactly seductive yet his admiration gave a delicacy to that thread between them which drew her on. If she hankered for something more in her life this seemed a harmless outlet. Somewhere in her sky he floated appreciatively and desire fluttered imperceptibly round the computer when she wrote.
Then Gordon came up with a definite proposal by which he could return. Heather was briefly thrown. She knew Howard did not trust his brother’s word on anything and assumed Gordon’s deals to be a little shady.
Gordon himself probably believed that he wanted to rejoin his family. It wasn’t a deliberate ploy, Gordon just knew instinctively how to reel in certain people. Once he’d caught them he generally cut out. No one stayed connected long except for Heather, and through her Howard, and they were an ocean away, as Gordon had preferred until things began shifting. With all too familiar bleakness at his heels more often, Gordon feared it was not only keeping up, but threatening to engulf him. He sought a way out. His 60th birthday stood just ahead as a dark door through which he would have to walk and be shrivelled down to his worth. Inexorability threatened and though he managed to bed another woman, he half recognised that the only women now available to him were the desperate. And how he resented the hours spent having to listen to their predictable stories!
He was tired of moving on and, aware of an increasing number of aches, thought it time for more security. Family provided the safety net. Besides how could he move back with any dignity unless he had some deal with his brother?
Heather wanted him round, there was an attractive niece with few relations, and then there was that sparky sister of Heather’s who was now on her own.
”None of us are getting younger,” he wrote to his sister-in-law, little knowing it offended. Howard might be turning 57 but Heather, although trapped in hot flushes and a growing coldness, still thought of herself as younger than 54 and resented Jean’s cheerful “let’s face it, we are past it, the pair of us.”
Jean, two years younger, had let herself go in Heather’s view. She worked not to do so, she kept good care of her hair and walked the dog, careful not to let flesh sag too much.
Jean painted her finger and toe nails lurid colours, though she certainly should never draw attention to those feet of hers! Almost as bad she displayed bare arms and cleavage, as if oblivious of the crinkling skin on both, which could do with discreet covering. Heather had long considered Jean’s appearance unseemly and most of their lives had wanted her younger sister to be less loud.
Nevertheless siblings mattered to both women and though Heather considered she’d been given a difficult one, didn’t see less of her. “Sisters are for life,” she rolled out too often yet, didn’t give her own daughter one saying, “if you love the one, why would you want another?” as if she still hadn’t understood why on earth her parents went on to produce Jean.
However contradictions didn’t interest Heather and she was tart if her daughter or sister drew attention to them.
Email with Gordon was more satisfactory than many conversations, for he didn’t contradict or turn picky.
Of course Heather knew that Howard felt differently about family and was relieved his brother kept away. But this made Heather and Howard feel that he was less kind than she was. He saw her as gentle and saw she found life increasingly unsatisfactory but didn’t know how to help her to contentment.
Through that uncomfortable menopause she’d grown more irritable and sometimes seemed desolate. She’d become a bit lonely after their daughter went away.
She held on to Gordon’s line that Howard had all the luck, that if only the elder brother had found a truly good woman who was family minded his life would be quite different, so when confronted with her wish to help Gordon return, Howard swallowed half his doubts.
“Charity begins at home,” Heather said, and “it’s time to be generous with our good fortune. We have a responsibility to share our steadiness with him.”
If she had made an important connection with his brother he should not get in the way.
Howard therefore kept too many misgivings to himself right up to the day, some months after Gordon’s return, when Jean asked casually “How come you are solid while there isn’t an ounce of reliable back bone to Gordon?”
By then it was too late.
“I am just amazed you didn’t immediately notice. He looked so seedy and flabby. Wasn’t it obvious he was troubled and a conman?”
This was not a question. Jean had arrived with soup and a long face just as Heather had gone to her after Jean’s separation.
Heather did not recall saying “I was just astonished you ever married him” after the husband behaved badly then divorced, but Jean had not forgotten it.
These sisters remained a mystery to Howard. They giggled together easily enough yet, as far as he could see, his wife had no sense of irony.
Jean was Heather’s only sibling and they went to her each Christmas. Although they spoke once a week, Jean could be less than gratifying and, at times, downright abrasive. She was responsible and giving towards her own sons, and a constant for her niece. Certainly she could be remarkably open-hearted and had been generous with her trying husband till suddenly she had enough.
Heather only saw it as Jean having been left for a younger woman and that Howard would never do that. But Jean disagreeably insisted on warning her, “You take a lot as your due and rely too much on his concern for your disappointment in love and life.”
If Jean could be fierce and too forthright, who knew better than her sister? Heather never fought the GP, or her neighbour. People said of her that she was a sweet woman, whereas Jean was quick to assert she had “right” on her side. And now she could claim to having been right about Gordon from the very start.
Heather just wished someone could take away the incessant unquiet bubbling inside, which Jean insisted was only fury. Heather wanted her old life back instead she and Howard were to move to a flat nearly as small as Jean’s. Having never admitted to finding it a pleasure to live in a nicer home than her sister, Heather now felt oppressed by the loss of her superior place. Not that they needed more space. Their daughter rarely came to visit and, although she rang each second weekend, she generally sounded impatient over the crisis, giving little sympathy. She pointed out that of the three homes she’d had growing up, her mother found fault with each one.
This sounded too like Jean and Heather wept at their conspiracy. She believed in the affectionate Heather most others recognised, the woman who loved her husband and child, who had been kind to her sister and brother-in-law, yet now look at her lot!
She did not know what to do with this new, barely suppressed rage. Her world had always been defined by “good people” and those best avoided. Of course there were a few shockers, those exposed by the newspapers, or those who should be in jail, but it never occurred to her that a relative would join their ranks. Only Howard, covering the losses at the expense of their home, had kept Gordon from a likely prison sentence.
Heather tried not to make it Howard’s fault that she was being pushed to behave in unaccustomed ways, but she clung to the picture of herself in all the photos, a modest woman with a lovely smile and with civilised behaviour right through her. Any person who stirred vile jealousy or anger in her must be the culpable one.
Howard rarely challenged Heather’s notion of herself, for it suited him to feel protective of a soft wife. And how was she to get the measure of a man as problematic as his brother when no one knew what to do with him?
At least she had wanted to try and help.
Howard continued to accept full blame for the financial. However Jean kept reminding Heather how captivated she had been as Gordon’s emails shifted from gratitude at being kept in the loop to exuding nostalgia and a longing to return. Howard fought back for his wife, protesting that it was not uncommon to be taken in, even fine minds were mesmerised by Stalin.
It was autumn and the sun was catching yellow leaves, promising a golden day. Heather wanted to draw the curtains against it. She used to find the bite in November air exciting, with its hint of worse to come, for it was only the promise of winter on its way, nothing more worrying. But now something worse had swept over her life, and she was having disturbing dreams.
Her brother-in-law hovered, a barely moving gull, drifting in air currents, and swooped on their lives with menace, fighting for a share of fleshy fish. The noise coming out of the devouring gull with Gordon’s face shocked and woke Heather. She could hear it all through breakfast.
She also dreamt of two sisters from the vicarage at the end of their road when she and Jean were children. They were always good girls and loyal sisters. They didn’t marry and lived together still. In the dream the quieter sister, on winning a big award, was showered with attention. Outrage burst from the more lively one, and, in a vicious temper she clawed at her placid sister’s plaits. These girls, held in place by the genteel routines of their parents, had been a hard working, companionable pair, but once old expectation no longer held them down there was such nasty eruption that Heather woke upset.
Another night she had bee stings on her hands, which were ugly and blistering up to nearly bursting. Though even in sleep she vaguely registered these stings were where she’d burned herself. Nearly every time she cooked she seemed to get burnt somehow.
Hurt could find no easy outlet. She so wanted to be rid of it all. But where now, could she possible send her dreams?
How could he have done this to her? Or to his brother?
Heather recalled how she had pushed for Gordon’s return, but she had so little idea what she was getting into when he said his business partner could maintain the US end if he came back to set up a UK venture.
Howard had promised not to automatically dismiss the project. Nevertheless, he said he should have been fully alert that it was a con. He knew Gordon was all fluidity and totally unreliable but had been drawn by Heather’s belief that his brother only needed to be attached to something as sound as their family.
Now, of course, that looked ridiculous. As ever, Gordon’s words were only a smarmy covering over rapacious self-indulgence.
Beneath a thin veneer he was essentially feral, a creature set on the kill without concern for others. And Heather must have been disappointed right from the start. Howard found it difficult to draw her on the subject, yet he was sure Gordon could not have lived up to any of her anticipations.
Gordon had insisted he could not impose and was too used to living alone even to stay the first week of his arrival. He claimed a friend could let him an unfurnished flat and he looked forward to decorating and making it his own. Heather, although visibly ruffled, said it was probably for the best, although it was a pity it was such a distance from their home.
Soon after Gordon’s return there was another autumn day. Howard knew Heather had been distressed by it but all she would say was there had been a misunderstanding. Although it was Gordon’s 61st birthday he said, as he often did, that he wasn’t up to coming over for supper. When Heather sent a text Gordon didn’t get the message, so she arrived without warning, with flowers, a meal and rather too much shopping. There was tension and muddle. Gordon suggested they go straight to his local cafe, as he had no milk for tea. When she insisted she didn’t need tea he seemed to think she was refusing to go with him and it became horribly confusing. She was just trying to be his compassionate sister-in-law after all.
He hurried off for milk and she said she’d wait in the sun on his steps, since he appeared uncomfortable with her inside. She noticed there was a bag of old pegs which had been left attached to the line, and had seen a wet wash in his machine so, assuming he would be pleased, began hanging up his washing.
His reaction was almost frightening, though he quickly made some attempt to cover it, with his “being unused to helpful women.”
Nevertheless as he quickly took it all down he gave away that he would never put washing outside in view of prying neighbours.
Had she been a more curious woman this might have been puzzling but Heather was wrapped up in feeling wounded. There had been no call for his irritation. Heather tried telling herself it was trivial.
She also told herself it would obviously take time, he had become totally self-sufficient over the years. And she didn’t like to remember, let alone mention, how utterly bleak and empty, apart from a washing machine, his flat had been.
She could not quite let go the last thinned hope she still held on to, until Howard had to break grim financial news.