On the day of my sister's funeral I wore my dusty black blazer and non-matching drainpipe trousers, because I don't own a suit. I ironed the one dress-shirt I have and dug out my narrow Mod-style tie, so I looked completely like the posing, anti-social and depressive, cock-sucking, art photographer that I then was. I took five whole minutes to tie my tie in a Double Windsor knot. Then, I sat down on the edge of my bed watching the hands of the stupidly bright clock ease their way past the start time of the ceremony, my eyes so dry they could crack as I listened to the slowly deafening ticks.
I sat there, unable to move and realised I was never going to go. Really, I must have known that all along. Why I'd bothered getting dressed remains an unsolved mystery. I'd been to enough funerals by that point in time to know that I couldn't celebrate lack of life like that. I still can't. Mass hysteria has never floated my boat. If I'm going to be hysterical, I'd rather do it on my own. Mainly though, I'd rather not.
If I had turned up, I'd only have done something I'd later regret to her bastard of a husband's body; something like cut off his dick for murdering the only person left in this world that I loved, even though he was dead too. That didn't matter. He was not the one I cared about. She was gone and there was nothing I could do. I just had to wait-out the hollow feeling in my chest – the black-hole of desperation welling from my stomach that threatened to twist around and devour me from the inside out, but sitting on my bed that crisp Thursday morning, it felt like it would never go away. Em had been all I had left for far too long. Eleven years, to be exact.
Maybe that was why I didn't move. Moving meant engaging with the world; engaging with the world meant accepting the truth of what had happened and that wasn't something I was ready for. I wouldn't be ready for a long time. I didn't think, then, that I could go through it all again. I didn't want to. Last time, I'd barely survived.
What I wanted was oblivion and that was easier to find at the bottom of a bottle of nasty cheap vodka left over from around the time of some party or other, stuffed at the back of my wardrobe under my smart black shoes that now sat in front of me on the carpet, waiting for me to slide socked feet into them, fasten the thin, strangling laces and walk out the door. Truth of the matter is, cheap vodka is evil stuff and the only type I'll touch usually is Polish. But grief stems standards like you wouldn't believe and that day I should, by rights, have died of alcohol poisoning.
It was a miracle or a curse that I didn't. When I woke up the next day, vomit smeared down my shirt, crusted onto the duvet, it didn't feel like the former. However, I have a suspicion that if I had merely been hung over, I would have curled up and never moved again. In a way, the need to clean myself up was my salvation.
If I hadn't staggered through the hallway at the moment when that harsh bang on the door made mock of my throbbing head, I never would have answered it. I only did because I was in front of it when the knocking happened and I wanted the noise to stop badly enough to risk human interaction. Had I been sober things would have played out very differently.
But as it was, I wasn't sober, so I tugged the filthy shirt over my head – my only shirt, forever ruined as I chucked it to the floor, and I pulled the safety chain back, too tired to deal with squinting through a three inch gap.
The woman (if I said I remembered her well, I'd be lying) was wearing a charcoal grey suit: a pencil skirt and a blazer, some inoffensive blouse or other. Lipstick is the only thing I remember about her face; perhaps because the unnaturally pouting, slick pink lips conjured a desire to wretch again. Meant to imitate blood-engorged female reproductive parts, isn't it? Lipstick, I mean. Well that has never been my thing, queasy or not. I barely noticed the scrap of a just-teenage boy standing beside her in grotty jeans and a t-shirt with a gaudy alien on the front, until she tugged him possessively closer at the sight of me.
"Nathaniel Owen?" she asked - voice high-pitched in disbelief.
I (hung-over and uncaring) swallowed at her, squinting shiftily. "'Than," I must have said – the habitual correction dying hard. "'Than Owen." I fully planned to close the door in her disapproving face, but when I saw the suitcase things started to go awry. Hesitation is a very dangerous thing indeed.
I suppose I scratched my head, letting fingers run through my lank, greasy hair, because I did that a lot then. It meant I looked as if I had hidden depths and philosophical thoughts rather than that I wandered around confused and in need of a haircut, as was actually the case. I hadn't grown out of posing at nearly thirty four. Masks were things with which I had intimate acquaintance – more than that, I needed them. Most of us do, if we're honest about it.
Her lipstick lips pursed and she extended a manicured hand, grimacing a smile that made me think she'd be wiping it clean when I let go. Well, let her. I didn't care what she thought. The boy whose arm she had her talons dug into looked me over with puffy, blood-shot eyes and a slip of recognition hit me.
"This is -"
"Ewan," I finished for her, in complete shock as I stared down at a boy I'd only ever seen as a baby.
"You're his -"
"Godfather," I spluttered, my eyes widening as I realised that for what ever awful reason, the title I was never supposed to have was being given more than its usual symbolic role. The eleven year old son of my newly-dead sister was standing on my doorstep with a suitcase and a social services type waving paperwork at me. Sobriety would indeed have helped a lot.
Lips pursed again. "You're his legal guardian," the suit said. My world crashed to a speeding stop. I squinted at her, heartbeat in my throat, nausea building.
"He was adamant that you would have no problem with us turning up. We tried to call, but you don't have a telephone."
"I do…" I trailed desperately, indicating its position behind me on the hall table. It was an off-white plastic thing with a circular dial rather than push buttons. Dead retro. Über cool. I hadn't paid the bill in over three months because people kept trying to contact me, which was something I hated. Emily had called me reclusive. I knew I was more accurately anti-social, or as I'd come to realise – dysfunctional, because for the past eleven years I hadn't been functioning at all.
The suit stared at me expectantly. Every passing second made my mouth drier as I realised she didn't care about the phone. Any excuse I made was going to be tossed back at me – that was remarkably clear. From my hazy standpoint, I did the only thing I could comprehend doing at that precise moment; I looked from Luscious Lips back to Ewan, mouth hanging open and then I shook my head, stepping backwards into my flat, closing the door in front of me and slipped the chain across firmly, as if that would somehow ward off all my memories; I sank to the floor, watching my hands shake. "Not today," I mumbled, as if she was offering double glazing rather than my nephew. "I'm sorry. Not today."
Ewan looks like Em even now. He always has done, more or less – she used to send me photos when he was growing up and I used to reseal the envelopes and hide them in the desk drawer that I never use. They had the same odd, brown eyes and the same stubby, upturned nose. I couldn't even look at him through the peephole in the door without that empty feeling building in my chest, threatening to take over. Emily was never meant to die before me. I was the graphically eccentric artist. I was the one supposed to have a tragic death long before my time, if only to validate my image. I had it all planned out for the middle of winter when I couldn't afford to pay the heating anymore. It was going to involve a lot of drugs, a time delay camera and an old-fashioned razor blade. It would have been spectacular and it would have made me famous overnight. Emily was normal and safe and beautiful. She was not supposed to end up mangled and distorted being pulled out of a hideous car-wreck; I was never supposed to look after her son. It just wasn't in the deal. I'd done with my share of life being ripped apart. She was the one person that was supposed to be safe.
Only the man I didn't recognize, stumbling half-naked from my bedroom, doing up his fly, could have possibly shocked me more at that moment, but that's what you get for consuming most of a bottle of vodka on your own in one sitting.
"Hey, Fran," he slurred, getting my name wrong entirely, just like all those journos do when they give my exhibitions bad press. His presence made me stagger to my feet. Grim fascination forced me to try to place him as he tugged shoes on, stuffed his boxers into his pocket, but I realised I couldn't do it.
"Thanks," he drawled, slipping into his t-shirt. I watched, agog, as he leaned past me, opening the door to let himself out. His lips smacked into mine wetly before he turned and sauntered down the corridor, pushing past the confused social worker and Ewan, leaving me just as stunned as their presence had rendered me.
"Catch you round," he grinned, stumbling on the uneven turn-up of carpet near the corner by the lift as he did some pathetic double point, fingers vaguely trigger-like. I've never been picky when blind drunk, but I usually remember going out, or at the very least the sex that followed, because when I was desperate enough it acted as my way back to when everything was how it was supposed to be. I didn't remember it then, which was sobering and a little chilling. It was novel, as if I'd been body-snatched the night before; something I could not revel experiencing with Luscious Lips standing there.
Shaking it off, I came back to focus on the foreground where Ewan was looking at me - the most disappointment I've ever seen in a stranger's eyes. The social worker cocked an eyebrow. "Steady boyfriend?" The tilt of her head provoked an urge to hit her, but instead I forced an icy smile and pulled out a laugh from a box of little used emotional responses that I kept stored away for special occasions.
"I'm sorry love, maybe you don't understand. It was my sister's funeral yesterday. Last thing I want is you trying to foist her kid off on me. I'm busy mourning here and how I do it has fuck all to do with you. When I said not today, I meant it, ok love?"
I was a self-involved prick back then, but my smile did choke me when I caught Ewan staring at me. Even hung-over I knew he didn't deserve that.
"You weren't at the funeral."
Kid didn't cry. He had bigger balls than me, I'll give him that. If I was standing on the doorstep listening to my uncle tell me he wanted nothing to do with me less than a few days after both my parents were killed, I would have broken down into a prissy mess and balled my beautiful eyes out. Not Ewan. Hell no. He stood there and gave me what for.
I remember he snatched his suitcase up and shoved past me into the flat before I could get a hold on him to forcibly haul him out and all I could think was how bloody dare he?
"Hey!" I skittered after him, but he was already into the hallway and he didn't turn around. "Kid, you can't just come in here. I said I can't be doing with this, do you understand?"
Having made his way through to the living room, he turned back, barely looking at me. "I'll be fine. You can leave me here Wendy."
His voice was odd. At the time if I thought about it at all, I must have put the slight throaty thickness down to too many tears cried, maybe a breaking voice, but I'll be honest – I was worrying about other things, namely this Wendy lady, who seemed to hold the power.
"No you cannot," I put in desperately, my voice an almost-whine. I had the feeling neither one of them was going to factor in my opinions unless I voiced them loudly. The woman smiled at me – tight and businesslike. Far from sweet, it seemed. She wanted rid of him, I could see that even through my headache haze.
"I need you to sign some papers Mr Owen. I'd like to get them out of the way so that I can get going." She lowered her voice slightly, leaning in. "This is a temporary solution, just do what he wants for a few days so he can figure out how much of a mistake this is. He needs better than you, let him realise it and I will hand you the paperwork to get him out of your hair on a silver platter. You're not a good candidate for looking after a kid, Mr Owen, let alone Ewan. We'll be taking him into care soon enough."
"It's ok, right Uncle Than?" That strange voice again – the words not quite right, as if he was talking through a fog that muffled his words; his imprecise pronunciation annoyed me because it made me feel I was drunker than I was and even with my head pounding, I knew I was more sober than that. Catching sight of a blue hearing aid at his right ear, I finally figured it out – the kid was deaf. Em never told me that. Me, his Godfather and I never knew. Or maybe she did tell me, but I was too preoccupied to listen. I remembered there was something that happened to him once, a few years back, but I couldn't have said what. Ewan was a kid I did my very best to pretend didn't exist at all.
My head throbbed as Wendy shoved the papers at me. She layered them out on my Japanese-style square table so that I had to kneel down to sign them, bare toes straining against the carpet, but I did what she wanted. I don't know why, maybe because none of it seemed anything more than a bad dream. Shaky-handed from the come-down, I lent on the pen too hard, so that my signature indented the paper, making that almost-tearing sound in the relative silence. I stayed sitting as she gathered the papers up, slotting them back into her black leather briefcase, telling me she'd be making a return visit within the week. I remember nodding numbly, not connected enough to wonder at the mess I'd signed myself into, unable to take my eyes off Ewan. And that is precisely when my life began to change.
When the front door closed behind the woman, he sat down opposite me on the floor. I didn't have so many chairs at that point. Furniture was too materialistic for me, though that was hypocritical given the money I spent on the specimens I did own. My Japanese table claimed it was authentic. At the time I'd bought it, I didn't doubt the fact, but I'm less naïve now and more aware of the signs of commercial production. He looked around – unimpressed, which satisfied me slightly. If my batchelor pad (isolation pod, as Em had called it so many times when I first moved in) wasn't to the liking of a eleven year old boy, then I was glad. That was my purpose – to make it comfortable for only me.
"You never came to see Mum at hospital."
Shirtless still, I scratched my chest, gawping at him uncomfortably. He caught me off guard, pushing buttons I had spent time hiding out of reach, but then again, when you spend so much time alone you never really have anyone to test how far out of sight they're actually hidden.
"No, I didn't." There was no sense arguing the point – it was true.
I'd seen enough mangled bodies. I hadn't wanted to see Em like that. If she was dead, she was dead, and if she'd get better then there would have been no reason for me to be there. She didn't, but I wasn't to know that. If anything, my not going was like a superstitious touching of wood, because if I had turned up then there'd have been reason for my visit – a thought that maybe I wouldn't see her again. Instead, I'd been hoping with every ounce of strength that she'd be ok, but he didn't know that. To him I was just an anonymous shit who was too cheap to get on a bus or a train.
"She used to call you. Every week she called you, and you didn't even come to the funeral. We live in the same city."
That numb, tightness in my stomach rose up against his anger, rendering breathing impossible as some heavy feeling crushed at my chest. Hyperventilating, I scrabbled upright and turned away as something hot and unwelcome seared along my sinuses. Concentrating on the sound of my bare soles slapping against the linoleum, I went into the kitchen. I searched the drawers for my inhaler, pulling the near empty cutlery drawer out to rifle through the contents. It clicked as I shook it to check it was active. Even as I gasped in shakily, depressing the button and feeling the dry hiss, my throat felt tight – the air wasn't reaching my lungs. For a moment, I braced my hands on the counter top while I forced myself to fight the shallow panting motion of my chest – to breathe deeply though it felt counter intuitive, my forehead resting against the edge of the counter. Em used to say I got panic attacks and I'd tell her it was just asthma, but maybe it was both. I never get like this when I run. It only hits when I think about certain things – when life gets a little too much to take.
Ewan was standing in the doorway of the kitchen when I looked up, just watching me, I remember that. His hand was what I zoomed in on - fitted neatly around the neck of my lidless, empty vodka bottle, his face set in hard disappointment, again. I had a feeling I'd be getting used to that face before he went away. The bottle must have made its way through to the living room some time before I made the journey out. I wondered again where I ended up the night before. Evo, maybe – where all the other washed-up photographers hung out, but I couldn't be sure. For all I know, I never made it further than the pub on the corner, but the presence of that man my aching brain was steadily erasing made that unlikely.
"You're drunk, aren't you?"
"Hung over," I corrected, straightening up to snatch the bottle off him. "There's a subtle difference." I deposited it in the rubbish bin under the sink where it chinked against the other bottles inside. I remember the way he raised his eyebrow and my desire to ask him what the hell it mattered if every single one in there was some shade of wine-bottle green, or beer-bottle brown? Reaching for a glass, I took the opportunity to down a pint of water. It was cold - gulping it down made me feel as if I was trying to breathe it in rather than swallow it down and I nearly choked. This boy made me feel like drowning.
"Dad used to say you were a waster." His voice, the way it is, made it difficult to tell if he meant it as accusation, or if that tone in there was disgust, because I wasn't used to it back then, but either way fighting him seemed futile when it felt so true.
"I suppose he was right."
I turned a hard smile on him – another sample from my chocolate box of emotional responses. This time it had the effect I was looking for and the boy stopped talking. The Great Uncle 'Than wasn't measuring up. I'd always known I wouldn't – one reason among many that I never came to see them. Primary being that his father hated the sight of me. He didn't understand how Em and I worked. He tried to stop her seeing me, I know that. Even so, I don't pretend to be blameless; it can't have helped that I made such an effort to push everyone away.
I didn't offer Ewan a drink, but he walked in and took one anyway; it seemed that was the way things were going to go between us – he'd take what he needed, despite me. I listened to the water drum in the bottom of the metal sink before he caught the flow in a glass from the cabinet above, and I let fragmented half-thoughts about what to say drift into my consciousness. I never was all that good at small talk. Fine mess I'd settled myself into. Just the day to run out of pain killers.
"Mum used to say you were ill."
I looked up at that, surprised for a short moment by the term, unsure which opinion he was siding with – his mother's or his father's. Em always did like to fuss.
My eyes had stayed dry when I got the call about her going into hospital, which only came because she was thoughtful enough to carry a card in her purse that told them her neurotic little brother needed to know. I held off even when they told me she had died. I coasted along on numbness when I watched the news report about the crash on my neighbour's TV, standing at the back of her living room, hovering and ready to bolt before the item ended. I couldn't choke out tears on the day of her funeral, but those few words in Ewan's thick, muffled voice cracked a trickle down my cheek. Defiance winning out, I swiped at it before he saw it, my chest tightening in fear of everything rushing out. I knew too well what happened if you started letting go.
"I'm not ill. Stop talking about her." My voice remained unshaken, perhaps even a little icier – harsh at any rate.
The kid glared at me solidly, so I stared back as if he was one of my stray cats looking for a dominance tussle. Avoiding thoughts about Em was the only way I knew, but when he took his hearing aid out and switched it off before he pocketed it, giving me a violent-looking hand-gesture that I had no translation for, it was obvious that it was a far from a satisfactory solution for him.