Auld Lang Syne
The streets were beginning to grow quiet. Movement between pubs dwindled after eleven, for by then most revellers had decided where they would see in the new year. Now they waited, filled with drink and noisy good humour, party poppers ready, looking for a wink or a smile that promised a snog when the bells chimed or, if they were lucky, a more memorable beginning to another year. Some of the good humour would barely survive the bells; for too many the new year would begin in casualty or police cells. Or the morgue.
Brian packed his scarf more securely around his neck and increased his pace. Someone else’s problem tonight, thank God; he wasn’t on duty. His name had been on the roster drawn up by the new supervisor but the lads soon sorted that out. Collier, still uncertain of his authority, didn’t like it, even when things had been explained to him. Bloody jobsworth. The lads knew that Brian would have missed the shift and taken the consequences, so Geoff had offered to swap. That was a team.
Before long he’d left the bright lights of the town centre and completed the long climb up Church Road to St Paul’s. The cemetery gates were locked but he knew where to scramble over the enclosing wall without trouble. Inside, he paused for a few moments to let his eyes adjust to the lack of light, found his bearings and walked the final few yards to the grave. There was enough moonlight for him to see that the plot was well tended – his parents were up here at least once a week – and that the most recent flowers were still fresh. His mother had a fondness for dahlias; he suspected that Gaz couldn’t care less. He didn’t need any light to know what was inscribed on the headstone: “In Loving Memory of Gary Metcalf. Born January 12th, 1980. Died December 31st, 1997. A light has gone out of our life.”
Sentimental rubbish. Gaz would have hated it. But as “Live fast, die young” would never have been considered for his epitaph, his mother’s choice was as good as anything.
Brian turned a sigh into a chuckle and nodded to the headstone.
“Hi there, big bro. Good to see you again. How’s it going?” There was no answer.
He pulled out the folding fisherman’s seat from inside his coat and placed it next to the grave. From another pocket he took a half-bottle of whisky and two glasses before settling into the seat.
“I brought something special this year: Ardbeg 12-year-old.” He removed the foil cover, pulled the cork and poured two generous drams. “Plenty of peat in this one. No, that’s not me being insensitive... Try it and see.” He raised one glass in a toast, emptied it onto the grave and took a good swig from the other. “See? Fiery and smooth at the same time. Great stuff. Try another.” A second dram went the way of the first. “Worth waiting for, eh? Better than the firewater we had at Jonno’s, remember?”
Still no answer. Brian savoured the whisky and relaxed for the first time since leaving the house. Karen didn’t object – she knew how much the visit mattered – but she didn’t understand. Not surprising, really, as he didn’t himself. He took another mouthful of malt, found his glass empty and refilled it for the first time.
Neither of them had been big drinkers, teenage high spirits being more than enough intoxicant. The bottle of Famous Grouse they’d shared with Jonno had kept them all off booze for weeks and two of them off whisky for good. Brian had discovered a taste for the good stuff a few years later; Gaz had never been given the opportunity. Anyway, young as they were, they still had the wit to realise that drink and cars didn’t mix, and as their passion was restoring the scrapyard Escort they’d bought for £50, then flaunting the machine around town where all their mates could see them, drink didn’t play a large part in their lives. And the very last time to drink and drive was on New Year’s Eve when cops with breathalyzers lurked around every corner. You had to be a complete moron to try it then... like the idiot in the stolen Jag who ran the lights at Braithwaite Corner. Gaz never ever saw what hit them.
Brian was unconscious for three days – the length of time his parents had to wait to discover which of their sons had died. On a good day it was difficult to identify which twin was which; the state they were in after the Escort had rolled over twice made it impossible. His first words after coming round settled the matter. “Where’s Gaz?” he asked, although he already knew the answer. For seventeen years, however far they were apart, he’d known when the twin born four minutes before him was happy or sad, angry or ecstatic. Now he felt nothing; something had been ripped from his core and ten years later the void was still not filled. How could it be?
The fisherman’s seat was not very comfortable. Perhaps anglers didn’t notice because they were too busy concentrating on their lines. Brian stood carefully – his leg still ached on damp nights like these – and repositioned the seat so that he was able to rest his back against the side of the headstone. The granite was smooth and slightly warm, although that may have been wishful thinking. He poured another two drams, gave one to Gaz and sipped his own reflectively.
“That’s another year nearly done, then. I don’t know where it went.” He paused, considered what he’d just said and gave a loud guffaw. “God, I’m starting to sound like Gran. I must be getting old!” He laughed again. “Blame Sarah. There’s nothing like a six-year-old to remind you how fast time’s passing. It seems like only last year she was in nappies; now she’s in second year at Henshaw Primary and wants to go on Pop Idol. No chance of that. Poor lass can’t carry a tune in a bucket, but don’t you dare ever tell her I said that.
“She’s got the pop star attitude, though. I’ll give her that much. She was Second Angel in the school Nativity last week and spent the entire performance tripping over her bottom lip because Julia Carter was Mary. And that’s her best friend! There was a picture in the Examiner. Priceless: she looked more like an axe murderer than a divine herald.”
He sipped his whisky and stared at the few stars visible through the patchy cloud. Light pollution meant they couldn’t be seen at all in town. Gran, who’d punched an unctuous vicar and abandoned Christianity after her father and two uncles were all killed on D-Day, had once told him that the stars were the souls of the departed. Perhaps that was Gaz twinkling at him? He raised his glass, just in case.
“You remember how Mum was always on our backs to keep the bedroom tidy? You should see Sarah’s: knee-deep in toys, clothes and junk. I can’t listen to Karen telling her off because it makes me laugh so much. And she’s going through her pink princess phase so the room looks like it belongs to Knocking Shop Barbie.” He chortled as a thought struck him. “Gran says she’s a proper little madam but I’m sure she doesn’t mean it that way.”
More whisky and another for Gaz.
“She’s going to be a bonny lass, just like her mum. A few more years and some spotty oik will be banging on the front door and I’ll turn into one of those mad dads. Remember Mr Peterson when I wanted to take Cathy to the Odeon? You’d have thought I’d got convictions for rape. I understand now, though. I worry enough as it is. What’s it going to be like when she’s in her teens? Maybe a boy would be easier – although the scrapes we got into must have put plenty of grey hairs on Mum and Dad – but I wouldn’t change her for anything. A boy as well; that would be best.”
Brian had spent three months in hospital. The cracked skull and ribs healed in their own time and tests confirmed no internal injuries or brain damage. The leg was another matter: broken in three places, two of the breaks protruding through the skin. Only copious blood transfusions had saved his life. There’d been talk of amputation until his father cashed in his life insurance and moved Brian from Henshaw Infirmary to the Nuffield Hospital. The outcome was still touch and go for a while but Brian was young and strong and the leg was saved.
Those three months changed his life. The motor business for which he and Gaz had such great plans would not happen. He’d never be a doctor and couldn’t picture himself as a nurse. A paramedic was just the job: a life-saver, lots of excitement and the chance to drive with wailing sirens through rush-hour traffic. He was still seventeen.
His enthusiasm survived the reality of seemingly endless training, too many exams and a physical he barely scraped through. The gym work needed to get his leg back in shape was brutal, but he was determined. By the time he was twenty he was on the team. Within weeks he’d met a pretty young nurse called Karen; six months later they were married; a year later he was a father. Life couldn’t be better. The void was almost filled. Almost.
“Did I tell you it was a boy, Karen’s miscarriage? I must have done.” Brian shuffled around on the fisherman’s seat until his back had found a new, more comfortable position against the headstone’s edge. He refreshed his glass and poured a new one for Gaz. “We knew from the scans. I was all for Gary, of course, but Karen wanted to call him Peter. There’s been one in every generation of her family since God was a boy, it seems. We still hadn’t agreed when she was taken to hospital. In the end we called him Archie, after Karen’s dad. He had a proper burial and everything. I told Karen the next boy would be called Peter – I knew you wouldn’t mind; I was just being selfish – but then she was told she couldn’t have any more. Thank God we had Sarah. I’m sure it was her that kept us together.
“Life’s great again now, though. Don’t get me wrong. This has been the best year since we’ve been married – even better than the first, and that was fantastic. You appreciate things more when you’ve been through some shit. We’re even thinking of adopting. We’ll have to talk with Madam first, though I think she’ll love the idea of having someone younger to boss about.”
Brian stood and limped around the grave; his leg was bad tonight. The long trek up Church Road didn’t help, but he couldn’t share a drink with Gaz if he used the car and coming by taxi didn’t seem right. This evening was about just the two of them. He settled back in the fisherman’s seat with a groan and took another pull of whisky.
“The job’s going well too. We’ve a new supervisor, Collier. He’s still a bit wet behind the ears but we’ll soon have him trained. I was asked if I wanted to go for the job myself. Can you believe that? The lads were all for it. I said no: being out on the streets is still too good. I was tempted, though, and not just because of the money. The old leg won’t last a lot longer and I don’t suppose it would do our image much good, a paramedic turning up leaning on a stick. Maybe next time. Or I could get one of the training jobs. I’d miss the lads, though.”
The first explosion seemed to happen almost directly overhead. The flash of light painted the churchyard in red and threw short-lived shadows around the headstones.
“Jesus! That was close. Every bloody year they take me by surprise.”
The explosions became more frequent as rockets soared into the sky from all over the town. Bells from half a dozen churches and the town hall competed to be heard.
“That’s it, then. Another year bites the dust. A new year and a clean slate.”
He poured himself more whisky and tipped the rest into Gaz’s glass, which he raised and emptied onto the grave.
“Happy New Year, Gaz.” He drained his glass. “I hope it’s a good one, wherever you are.”
Brian stood quietly. There was still no answer. He folded the fisherman’s seat and put it inside his coat. The empty bottle and glasses went back into his pocket.
“See you next year, big bro. I miss you.”
He raised his hand in a final salute, turned and walked away.