I pull over. The rain is hammering against the windscreen. It has rained relentlessly for the best part of the day. Even with my wipers on full pelt I can barely see the road ahead.
So I pull over into a lay-by next to a wood. The kind of place you would have found discarded porn mags back when I was growing up.
Occasionally a truck goes by in a blur of spray and rocks the car, but mostly it’s quiet; Just the odd bit of faint twittering or rustling and the arrhythmic ticking of rain drops on the roof.
I pull my tie off and toss it onto the passenger seat where it flops and lolls like a dead black snake. The rain finally begins to ease
I have just dropped my parents at the station, watching them get on their train, realising I had never done this before. Not once. It has always been the other way round. I have never been the one left on the platform.
It feels wrong – closing the door on my father and watching the two of them look for their seats as the carriage pulls away. They look so much older. Frailer.
The expression on my father’s face as we say goodbye is hard to see. The sometimes frightening giant of my childhood brought low. He looks winded. Like he’s taken a punch to the gut and is trying to shrug it off. My mother seems lost and broken.
She mouths something to me as the train pulls away but I don’t know what. I’m glad she got to meet my son. I think. Did it make it better or worse to hold him on a day like this? I see his little body against her black dress and it hits me they will never meet. My big brother and my baby son.
A truck goes by, shaking the car and dowsing it in spray. Then, in seconds, it is almost silent again. I look out into the dark, grey, dripping wood and remember another time, another wood.
We have broken down somewhere. I can’t even remember where. Me, my brother, my mother, my father. We are in a lay-by just like this one, next to a wood.
It’s the 1970s, so no mobiles . My father sets off in search of a phone or a garage while my mother makes little worried noises and wrings her hands.
‘Can we go into the wood?’ my brother says.
‘I don’t know,’ says my mother.
‘We won’t go far. Promise.’
My brother’s promises are not reliable. Other than in their unreliability. But my mother gives in when I beg her. I’m the baby of the family. She can’t say no to me.
My mother tells my brother to look after me. He is six years older than me so he hears this a lot. My brother is pretty wild though and often he is actually the greatest danger – or at least his recklessness.
I’m nine or ten and timid. He is fearless and wilful. He actively looks for the fights I spend my days avoiding. We are so different physically and temperamentally that we barely seem related at all.
I immediately feel bad that we have left my mother on her own but my brother says she’s fine and I want to believe that so we walk for a while.
It is not a very interesting wood. The trees are tall but thin. There is little in the way of undergrowth. We can hear the sound of traffic back on the road. Looking back, I can still see our car and have an urge to run back to my mother.
Then my brother says, ‘Look at that.’
He is pointing to a tree some way off.
‘I wonder why the sunlight’s hitting that tree and not any of the others. See?’
‘What do you mean?’ I say.
I laugh at him.
‘What?’ he says. ‘It’s weird.’
I laugh again.
‘No it isn’t. There’s just a gap somewhere and the sun is coming through. That’s all.’
I say this with all the assurance of the world’s greatest expert and he, as always, just shrugs and lets me.
Because even though he’s six years older, we just both accept that I’m cleverer and he’s almost certainly said something stupid. Again.
‘It’s just how the light’s coming through,’ I say, just to clarify.
But he doesn’t mean why like that. He doesn’t mean why like how, he means why like what was the reason. Like it means something. Like it must mean something.
‘I was just wondering why.’
I laugh again.
He shrugs again.
Our mother yells for us to come back and by the time we get to the car my dad is there and he says someone is on their way and we’d just have to wait.
It takes a while and everyone gets restless. My father gets grumpy – as he always does at times like this. He scowls at my brother every now and then as though somehow he must be to blame. This is very much my brother’s role in the family. To be continually at fault. He’s pretty good at it.
The mechanic arrives, my father tells him how to do his job. The mechanic is polite and efficient and off we go. That’s that.
I’m not even sure why I’m thinking of that day, of all the possible days I could be thinking of. I’m still angry at the vicar for talking about my brother like he knew him when he didn’t and getting all manner of stuff completely wrong.
I should have done something. I should have spoken. I should have stood up and said something about him.
But who am I to speak about him? The truth is, I barely knew him either. We spent most of our adult lives apart. Even after he got ill I never saw him that often. Not as often as I should have.
What am I going to say anyway? That he was annoying? That he drove me crazy a lot of the time? That we both ran away from home. That he chose the army and I chose art college? That we had almost nothing in common except our surname? That one time, we didn’t see each other for eight years?
That when we eventually did meet up I walked straight past him and he had to call my name to check it was me?
Or maybe I could have said that he used to say the most ludicrous things sometimes. Like the day we walked through a wood together and he asked why the light was landing on one tree and not another. I mean, Jesus, what the hell does that even mean?
It’s like I said to him at the time: there is no why.