The stove top - like much of the room - was dirty in a way that suggested active mismanagement rather than lack of care or attention. Alex stirred a pot of boiling water, slopping it over the edges and spattering the wall behind. He despised living here. He despised his landlord for constantly leaving him in either darkness or cold depending on which bill he had forgotten to pay. He despised the sound of his neighbours - who he was sure were doing something illegal judging by the smells coming through the walls and the constant late night visitors. He despised the sounds of the shared toilet down the corridor flushing and gurgling throughout the night.
An ant crawled along the edge of his cookbook and he squashed it with the back of a wooden spoon. Unable to afford furniture since quitting his call centre job (which he also despised), Alex had found a small, wicker chair discarded on the road outside his studio apartment. After a quick inspection he had brought it home and set it up next to the solitary window above his bed. The next morning he had woken up to lines of ants marching in formation from the chair to every corner of the room. Despite their lack of invitation, he had quickly come to prefer them to any of the other residents of the building.
Alex picked up the phone on his bed. No reply yet. Not unusual. It could be days before the next message. Selfishly, he hoped that Shane was having a bad day and would need some contact again soon. There was precious little else he could do with his phone now, having downgraded to save money. Spotify was a distant memory, as was Tinder. He even missed the endless streams of social media, if for no other reason than to remind him that at least he wasn’t the only one enduring such a bleak situation.
Shane’s first message had been a welcome reprieve from the monotony, despite its contents.
“Hi bro. I know this is strange, but I just wanted someone to talk to. I went outside for the first time since the funeral today. It still all feels a bit surreal. I hope you’re ok.”
Alex ignored the message at first. He did not have a brother, and he hadn’t been to a funeral since his grandmother’s several years before. His lack of phone credit prevented him from doing the decent thing and letting the stranger know his mistake, and he barely gave it a second thought, focusing instead on fixing his CV and cursing at his neighbours for having friends over making noise, until another message came through.
“Hi bro. Hope I’m not bothering you, haha. Just wanted to let you know how things are. Mum’s still pretty upset. She’s not been to work the last few days. Wish you were here to help cheer her up. You were always better at it than me. Speak soon.”
Something about the tone of this second message peaked Alex’s interest. He felt a pang of shame at having ignored the first. These messages really deserved to reach the person they were meant for. Or at the very least, to receive a reply telling the sender that they were misdirected. The use of the past tense in the penultimate sentence bothered Alex, and he prayed to himself that his suspicions about it were baseless.
Upon receiving his final paycheck, Alex topped up his phone and replied, pleased with himself for doing the right thing. Just a quick message. No need to waste two texts.
“Hi mate. I’m sorry but I think you have the wrong number. Hope you find him. Cheers!”
He tossed the phone down on the bed, grateful for some modicum of human interaction that day. Talking to the ants was beginning to feel a bit weird. He put the messages out of his mind and went back to work on his CV. Rent was going to be difficult enough to find without that act of generosity, and the paycheck had been slightly lighter than he was expecting. No sooner had he written his name, however, than the phone bleeped into life.
“Ah Jesus. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bother you. Ignore me. I thought this number had been disconnected. Won’t happen again.”
Alex frowned at the message. Disconnected? He cringed at the implication. Past tense, not expecting a response, and a funeral. Only one possible explanation. He had never really understood that sort of thing. A bit self-absorbed if anything, talking to the dead, but whatever got you through the day. It wasn’t hurting anyone. He thought about responding, offering his condolences, but decided against it. Maybe a bit forward, especially considering the sender hadn’t actually said as such.
A few days passed and Alex had all but forgotten about the brief exchange, until he was awoken in the middle of the night by a barrage of bleeps from his phone.
“Hi mate. Hope I’m not waking you up. Look, I know this is weird, and I totally understand if you say no, but would you mind if I sent a message to this number once in a while? Its just, I lost my brother recently. He wasn’t on Facebook or anything and this is the only number I have for him. They told me at the shop that no one would be on the other end but apparently they re-sold the number. Bastards. Anyway, sorry again. Let me know, Ok? This is Shane by the way. Cheers.”
Still half asleep as he read, Alex had no memory of the text when he woke up. It was not until later that day when he heard the now familiar bleep again that a hazy recollection of checking his phone formed in his brain.
“Hi mate. Look, just ignore that last message. I’m sorry I bothered you. I won’t message again. Have a nice life. Shane.”
That pang of guilt surged through Alex’s chest again and he swore under his breath at his forgetfulness.
“Hey Brian. Don’t worry about it mate. I know what it’s like losing someone. Feel free to send a message whenever you need to. Hope you’re ok. This is Alex, just so you know.”
In truth, Alex had never really lost anyone. He and his grandmother, like the rest of his family, had never been close. He’d had to have a dog put down when he was a child, but barring that he’d never faced any real loss. Still, it didn’t feel appropriate to tell Brian that. Much easier to try and empathise. That was the socially acceptable thing to do. He read back the text to himself after hitting send, and immediately winced at the ‘Hope you’re ok.” Shane did not seem to notice, however, and replied at once. Just two words.
Over the next few weeks, Shane offered Alex an insight into grief he had never previously seen. Every few days he would receive a text, often late at night, that allowed him to peek not only into Shane’s state of mind, but also into his relationship with his deceased brother.
His name, Alex discovered, was Brian. Three years younger than Shane, the two had got on well enough. Without the grades to get into university, Brian had gone straight from school into working at a local bookies for a friend of the family. He lived at home with their mother Janet (Brian always called her Janet, Shane called her mum), paying a token amount of his wage in rent. They sounded close, with Shane taking on the role of man-of-the-house after their father left them for reasons unclear. Brian had not acquired this dutiful streak. From the messages, it seemed to Alex that Shane was almost missing the responsibility of taking care of his little brother; keeping him out of trouble with their mother or whoever he had managed to antagonise that week. He had been visiting Janet every day since the funeral. Alex suspected as much to keep his own mind off what had happened as to help her deal with everything.
Gradually, the messages began to subside, and Alex assumed that Shane must have found another outlet for his grief. However, after a cold night during which Alex’s landlord had again forgotten to pay the bills and his phone had not charged, he plugged it in later the next day only to be greeted with a string of barely legible texts.
“Hy bro. I went ou tonihght with the boysfrom work. Nice of them to invite me, bt I cudn’t stop thnkgaboutyou Wish I cd buy you a beer again”
“Fkng bouncr kikd us out. If you wer here we’d have takn m together.”
“Whrar you bro? I dnt kn what to do.”
“V stil got it bro. Wht shd I do wit. I cnt throw it out, it to obvis”
“Gt kebb. Night x”
Alex’s heart sank as he read the messages. So far he hadn’t replied to any. He had deliberately waited a while before reading each one, avoiding the little tick of recognition arriving on Shane’s phone so as not to appear too keen to delve into his psyche. Now, however, he felt a sense of duty. Clearly, Shane needed someone to talk to about this. Not necessarily Alex directly, but surely it couldn’t hurt to send one message. Just to let him know that there were places he could go. People who would listen to what he needed to say. He began to type back.
“Hi Shane. I hope you don’t mind me replying but I wanted to check on you. I did a bit of research and I found a number for a therapist who specialises in talking about this sort of thing. I know it’s not really my place but I think it could really help you. Let me know what you think.”
Given the state of the initial messages, Alex did not expect an immediate reply. He knew his own mindset after sending out the odd regrettable text late at night, cringing at the memory of one particularly uncomfortable declaration he had sent a former classmate at university while covered in ketchup and sitting at a bus stop. Best not to check your phone until you were absolutely sure you could deal with whatever response came back.
As predicted, the phone did not bleep again until late that evening.
“Hello Alex. First of all, I can only apologise for last night. It was stupid of me and you didn’t need to hear all of that. I forget myself sometimes, you know? Thank you for your offer, but I’ve never been a fan of therapists. They never did Brian any good when he got sent to them and there are some things you just can’t talk through with those people.
‘Still, I know that I need to do something. I’d like to ask you to help me, Alex. You’ve been so good to me, letting me get it all out without judging me. I feel like I can trust you. It’s been great feeling like I can talk to Brian, but there’s something missing. If you could just send me a reply now and then, I think that would really help me adjust. From him, I mean. Nothing detailed. Nothing sentimental. Like he’s on holiday and we’re catching up. We never spoke much on the phone, but I feel stupid looking at all these texts and not seeing anything come back. Just the odd ‘Good to hear from you, how’s mum doing?’ so I’m not always putting myself out there. I think it’d really keep me on the level.
‘I can pay you, if you want. I know this is a big ask. How does £5 a message sound? It’s not much but it’s all I have at the moment. If you give me your address I could work it all out and send it to you every month. No need to get back to me right away. Think about it, yeah? You’d really be helping me out. And I promise nothing like last night ever again. Thanks Alex. You’re a great guy.”
Another ant succumbed to Alex’s cooking - a flick of the spoon and he doused it in boiling water. It perturbed him how quickly the arrangement had become routine. As scheduled, an envelope containing a wad of crisp twenties had been slipped under his door earlier that week (he did not trust his neighbours to keep their hands off his postbox). The money had eased his most basic worries somewhat; the vegetables softening in a pan made a welcome change to his previous staple dinner of pasta and tomato sauce, and his new headphones had done wonders to insulate him from his neighbours’ parties. Instead, they had been replaced by other concerns. A constant nagging guilt pressed into the back of his head. It did not feel right to take money for this, but daily he convinced himself that it was no less ethical than his previous job at the call centre. At least now someone wanted to talk to him on the phone. And who was he to decide how grief should manifest. Maybe this was a revolutionary new form of therapy. In the future he might be heralded as a pioneer.
It wasn’t like he had sought this out. Shane always messaged first, and there had been no more drunken outbursts since he had begun paying. Mostly it was Shane talking about his day and ‘Brian’ replying to ask about Janet or how Shane’s job was or how the bookies was doing without him. It was no burden on Alex. Indeed, he welcomed the messages as a break from his futile and fruitless job hunt. Even if it were small, this was making a difference in the world - a positive one.
Sure, occasionally they had set-backs. It was to be expected. Sometimes Shane’s messages would upset him - talking about what he wished they’d get to do together or blaming himself for the death. He couldn’t excuse Shane from blame. For all Alex knew it was his fault, but playing the character of Brian it was difficult to ask what had happened. It might ruin the facade. Besides, he couldn’t afford to lose the income.
From the bed, Alex heard a bleep. He tossed the spoon into the water and threw himself onto the duvet, scooping the phone into his hand.
“Hey bro! How’s things? Listen, I feel like we need to talk about the you-know-what. Have you got a minute to talk?”
Well, this was new. Alex frowned. The ‘you-know-what’? He had no idea what Shane could be talking about. He felt his heart rate increase. It always did when the phone bleeped. He thought it’d been getting less severe as the weeks went on and he stopped worrying about the morality of his decisions, but this set him right back to how he felt when he sent his first message as Brian. Was there some secret about Shane he was going to discover? It felt indecent to respond, to pry like this, but what else could he do?
“Sure thing! What’s up?”
“I saw David today. He said someone came into the bookies to ask about that guy. I’m just a bit worried. I still have it at home. I don’t know what to do. I can’t exactly throw it in the bin, can I? What do you think? I just want rid of it. It’s on my mind all the time. What if someone finds it? Is there anyone you know that I can ask?”
Alex felt his face go cold. He stared at the message, certain he had misread a word somewhere. This had always been a bad idea. What was he thinking? Talking to this man he’d never met. He looked around the room, certain that someone was about to appear over his shoulder and see the phone. His mind raced as he tried to imagine what Shane could be talking about. Was it drugs? Alex had never set foot in a bookies. He didn’t know the sort of people who frequented them. Could they have been the unsavoury type? Had the two brothers been making some extra money on the side? Just like him? Was the very money he had spent on that night’s dinner from this?
Alex turned on the sink and splashed a handful of water on his face. Maybe he was overreacting. It could be anything. It could be perfectly innocent. It could be a cake left in the fridge that Shane had forgotten to deliver. It could be something Brian had sold online before he died and never posted. Nothing to worry about.
He looked again at the final question, removing any hope he had that this might be something innocent. Shane had asked for Brian’s help. Appealed to him directly. As if he were really talking to him and not some imposter. Alex wondered whether he could be having another drunken episode. The spelling suggested not. He felt a tremble in his hands. He must reply now. Remind Shane of who he was messaging. Before he could send anything else. Anything that might be too much for Alex to handle.
“Shane. It’s Alex. Is everything ok? I don’t know any of Brian’s friends. I just wanted to check in with you. I know our arrangement, but I just want to be clear about boundaries.”
He replaced the phone on the bed, face down. There. Nothing accusatory. Nice and neutral. No judgements or reason to worry about his reaction. He wished he had included more stipulations in their deal. When Shane replied, they would have to renegotiate. This was not the sort of thing he wanted anything to do with. And if he did have to deal with it, he would need more than five pounds a text.
His phone did not make a sound for three weeks.
From the small window above his bed, Alex watched a pigeon making a nest on the window ledge of the building opposite. This building took up the majority of Alex’s view of the world outside. One thin streak of light entered the room in the early morning and late afternoon, but for the rest of the day it kept his apartment in shadow. The pigeon was the most interesting thing Alex had seen from the window in months. It shuffled along the ledge, re-arranging twigs with its beak. Alex tapped on the window trying to provoke a reaction. The pigeon ignored him.
Increasingly, his money situation was becoming desperate. He had not realised quite how much he was relying on the extra money from Shane to keep him afloat. His diet was back to mass portions of white rice and he’d resorted to handing in his CV personally at local pubs. The calendar on his phone taunted him, counting down the days to the next rent payment. He turned the device over in his hands, spinning it in his fingers.
One text wouldn’t hurt. The last one could, he guessed, have been taken the wrong way. He needed to clarify, to let Shane know that he was still here for him. The guy might be worried about what he was thinking, waiting for him to get in touch before he felt comfortable messaging again. How stupid would it be if they were both waiting for the other to get in touch first? He was probably overreacting anyway. A quick apology text and they’d be back to normal. He had broken the agreement, after all. He wasn’t supposed to text as Alex. If he just sent another one as Brian, things would work themselves out. It would be like it never happened.
“Hi bro! How’s things? Hope mum’s ok. How’s the job going? I wouldn’t worry about that thing you’ve got at home. This sort of stuff has a way of working itself out.”
Outside, the pigeon had finished with the nest and was busy pulling at its feathers. Alex wished he could be as satisfied with his own living situation. His neighbours chose that moment to cheer loudly - probably another successful drug deal. As such, Alex did not hear his phone buzzing, and when he checked it a few minutes later, the screen showed two messages from Shane, one beginning ‘Good to hear from you bro,’ and the other, simply ‘Alex.’
A familiar uncomfortable feeling in his chest returned. He had expected to feel relief at re-establishing contact, but this made him nervous. Seeing his name stand alone like that had never before led to something positive. ‘Alex. Come here.’, ‘Alex. What did you do?’, ‘Alex. You’re fired’. Well, putting it off wasn’t going to help the situation. He clicked on the first message.
“Alex. I have appreciated our arrangement, and I agree that we need to re-address our boundaries. As discussed, you will need to reply as Brian only. I thought I was clear about this. This is intended to help me and I need to be able to trust you. I do not want to continue if you can’t adhere to this basic instruction.
‘I understand that you may not have been expecting to receive a message like you did a few weeks ago, however this is an important part of the process for me. I may at times need to discuss certain issues my brother and I had. Again, if you cannot deal with this then we will have to dissolve our arrangement. If money is the issue, then I am willing to increase your fee to £10 a message. However, I must be clear that any digression on your part from these terms and we will have to stop.
‘Please do not reply to this message as yourself, as I believe this will only cause me further setbacks. If you agree to these terms, simply reply to the other message you have received as usual, and we will continue as before. Thank you.
‘P.S. for future reference - Brian never called me ‘bro’, only ever Shane. Please use this from now on.”
Each sentence made Alex’s stomach drop further. Reading any part of it back to himself only made him feel worse, like he was back at school being reprimanded by the headmaster. Instead, he did the only thing he could think of to push the message from his immediate thoughts. He opened the second text.
“Hey bro! Lovely to hear from you. Mum’s ok - getting by. She got herself a new cat the other day. A big, orange thing. Guess she forgot we’re all allergic. Cheers for the advice. I guess I’m just overreacting, as usual! You’re right. You’re always right.”
If a stranger were to have entered Alex’s studio on the day he first made contact with Shane, and then been invited back to look in again three months later, they would have to have assumed that a different person now occupied the place. For one, this new tenant clearly placed far more value on their own health. Ants no longer crawled along the carpets to feast on discarded chocolate wrappers. The layers of dust that covered every surface had been meticulously scrubbed away, leaving shining skirting boards and crisp, white window sills behind. Gone was the bin overflowing with empty bottles of beer and cardboard meal-deal wrappers, replaced instead with fresh egg shells and orange peels. A new curtain patterned with yellow flowers and green leaves concealed the pigeon roosting outside. Even the smell had changed. Scented oils pumped out at regular intervals from a plug in the wall, making the place much more appealing to any potential visitors.
And if this stranger were told that, instead of a new occupant, the old tenant had simply come into some money, finally been afforded the opportunity to live a better life, and grasped it with both hands, they would probably not have given it a second thought. They would have gone on their way, pleased that someone who had seemed so out of sorts could turn their life around with one stroke of good fortune.
However, this stranger would have missed an important part of the picture. They would not, for example, be privy to the frantic mind of the tenant. They would not have access to the constant stream of thoughts cycling through his head, telling him to keep himself busy and for God’s sake not to focus for one second on the arrangement he’d got himself into. The stranger would not know that the spice rack sitting on the previously sauce spattered wall behind the stove had been bought, not to add flavour to a lifeless dish, but in a furious attempt to pad out the time it took to prepare dinner. The floors, sparse of dirt and dust, were not clean to keep the place looking presentable for guests, or even from a desire to keep away germs, but in order to keep the tenants hands busy so he wasn’t tempted to unlock his phone screen for the seventh time that morning.
The two texts had rattled Alex. The thought that someone could send such disparate messages back to back was concerning. Since they had arrived, he could no longer convince himself that the arrangement was for the benefit of Shane’s mental health. The money that continued to arrive each month left just as quickly. He tried to save some of it for rent, but every time his eyes settled on the bundled notes he was reminded of his obligations, and he did his best to get rid of the evidence.
Shane had not been lying when he mentioned that he and his brother had issues. The man had not approved of some of the work Brian had been put in charge of at the bookies. As Shane grew closer to talking about Brian’s death, it became increasingly unlikely that it had occurred, as Alex had hoped, as the result of a tragic car crash or undiagnosed heart condition.
“I told you bro, David’s never looked out for you like I have. You should have stopped doing that stuff ages ago. Such a waste.”
Alex played along, unsure whether he wanted to find out the truth but unable to pull away. He knew about some of Brian’s extra work. He had been following up on some unpaid debts owed to the owner of the establishment from his off-the-books wagers. Something had happened at one of these meetings. Shane and Alex had gone to meet someone and only Shane had come back.
“I know Shane, you’re a good brother. I’m lucky to have you. It’s funny, what a mess it all was, isn’t it?”
It was a risk, coming so close to revealing his ignorance and implying that Brian didn’t remember the night of his own demise, but he had to know now.
“Not what I’d call funny, bro. I still have nightmares about all the blood. I’ve still got your jumper here.”
Alex sat upright on his bed. He took extra care with every word of his reply.
“Sorry, maybe funny wasn’t the right word. It’s weird though, right? He was a fair bit smaller than me.”
Another risk, but a calculated one. Shane had implied that Brian was a big guy, well over six feet. And it was a fairly safe assumption that the debtor they’d gone to meet was male.
“Doesn’t make a difference when there’s a knife involved, I guess.”
Alex’s hand gripped the phone so hard he thought it might crack. So that was it. They’d tried to collect from some guy, there’d been some sort of altercation, Shane had drawn a knife, and in the furore, both the guy and Brian had been caught. How horrible. Alex tried to think of what he might do in the same situation. Would he run? Would he call the police? He’d probably have frozen. That was what usually happened when he got stressed. He’d just sit on the floor and wait for someone else to come along and clean up his mess.
He thought about calling the police there and then and handing the whole situation over. But what would he tell them? They would think it was all a prank. None of the envelopes he’d been receiving had any return address, he’d never seen Shane, had no idea who he was or what he looked like. If he were to do anything, he needed more information. Was the money worth this secret? Before he could decide, his phone buzzed again.
“It was horrible bro, having to leave him there. It was all I could do to get you out. I was just too late. I’ve never apologised for that. I’m so sorry. You know that, right? I need to know that you understand. I couldn’t stay there. I’ve never done anything like that before. I just wanted to keep you safe and I messed it all up. I’m so sorry. I took the knife and left him there all alone. What does that say about me? If I’d just waited, he had it all in his pocket ready to hand over, did you know that? I never had to threaten him. And then to leave it up to you. It was all so pointless.”
A prickle of heat began to form behind his eyes. Despite himself, despite his fear and anxiety, he could not help but feel sorry for Shane. What good would calling the police do, even if they found him? A bond had formed between them these last months, a kinship Alex had not felt since childhood. No one talked about the things they talked about. Not in real life. It was too complicated, too revealing. The anonymity had only strengthened his feeling towards Shane, this man who trusted him enough to talk about things so close to his heart. Alex was no snitch, and he wasn’t about to start now. He wiped his eyes, and began to write.
“You have nothing to be sorry for. No one could have known. Don’t blame yourself. These things happen. But if it’s something you need, I want you to know you’re forgiven.”
Shane’s response brought a smile to Alex’s face.
“You’re the best, bro. Miss you.”
As strange as it was, Alex’s tension and pervasive thoughts subsided after learning the truth about Brian. Having such a secret between the two of them made him more comfortable messaging. He knew he wasn’t going to slip up and say something wrong, or make Shane begin to doubt the honesty of the messages. As Alex walked home from what he hoped was a successful job interview, his phone bleeped. It would be Shane, he knew. It was always Shane. His heart rate barely even flickered upwards until he saw the opening line.
“Alex, I have another proposal for you. Don’t worry, it’s nothing bad. I’ve been very happy with how things are going lately. In fact, I think I might be starting to make some real progress.
‘Anyway, I think we should meet. You really get Brian, and I think, with a little help, I could have one final conversation with him. There’s a jumper he always loved. I still have it here. I’d like you to wear it. I think it’ll help convince me that I’m really speaking to him. I just want to say goodbye properly. That’s all. Anything longer than that and I don’t think I could go along with it. It won’t be more than a few minutes, then you can go on your way. You don’t even have to say much. In fact, I think it would be best if you said as little as possible.
‘After this, I’m hoping I can finally move on. Talking about what happened that night was a real breakthrough for me. I think we might be nearly done with this. I’ll send over the clothes with the next payment. And then when this is all over there’ll be a bonus in it for you as well. Think of it as severance pay. I really hope you’ll consider this, Alex. Thank you so much for everything you’ve done so far. I can’t tell you how much it’s helped.’
Of all the feelings Alex experienced as he read the message, curiosity won out as the strongest. His trepidation at being addressed by name melted away as he felt that tug of familiarity when Shane said that he trusted him once more. Being told that he ‘got’ Brian gave him a sense of accomplishment he rarely felt these days. The constant financial worry built into him over months of unemployment was dissolved by the thought of the bonus. His concern and confusion over who this man was could finally be resolved if he just agreed. ‘A few minutes’ and he could move on with his life, free of the nagging, intrusive thoughts that dug away at him when he tried to sleep at night.
He considered what could go wrong, but for all his fretting he knew nothing could convince him not to meet. He hadn’t done anything wrong, after all. He had nothing to do with Brian’s death. Had no ties to the man. It would be in public, of course, at a cafe, somewhere with lots of people. If anything went wrong, he could walk out and pretend none of it ever happened. The idea of getting to meet Shane, even if it meant an end to the money, was enough to seal the deal. As the arranged day grew closer, he almost began to feel excited about the meeting, and when the next payment finally arrived, accompanied by a lumpy plastic bag, Alex met the postman outside before he had a chance to knock, so eager was he to see things through.
A loose thread dangled from the sleeve of Brian’s jumper. Alex pulled at it. When he first opened the bag, he could not stop himself from laughing aloud, convinced that Shane must have been joking about Brian’s love for the garment. It looked, frankly, ridiculous. The bright yellow wool scratched at his arms as he sat at the cafe table. He tried to cover the comically drawn bird that adorned the front by crossing his arms, and in so doing stretched the material so tight around his shoulders that he worried people could see straight through the patches sewn crudely over several rips and tears. Alex was convinced the two teenage girls sitting opposite were discussing him as they smirked at each other and whispered behind their hands.
His appearance was not the only thing bothering him. From what he could tell, Shane had not washed the jumper before sending it. Every few minutes a waft of sweat and aftershave would waft up into Alex’s nostrils and he would raise his coffee to his lips, taking a long sniff to cover the scent. The aftershave reminded him of his own misguided attempts to impress girls back at school. Maybe Brian had been trying something similar. He doubted whether he’d had much success. Brian was unmarried and single, he knew, but his talk with Shane had never ventured too far into past relationships. Whatever the intention, it did not seem to be doing him any favours with anyone sat in the cafe.
For a brief moment, Alex wondered whether the two girls might have been Shane all along; a part of some long, elaborate prank TV series. He pushed the thought away. Shane would arrive at any moment and he’d have to be in character. He could already be there, working up the courage to come over and introduce himself. By the window an old man was busy making his way through a bacon sandwich. Behind the counter the couple who owned the cafe took orders and made cups of tea and toast. Alex watched the bus stop outside carefully for any signs of someone getting off and heading inside.
The coffee had been a bad idea. His excitement had worn off the second he saw himself wearing the jumper and he wondered what the hell he was doing. All that remained was a nervous desire to be back at home and far away from everyone. He could turn off his phone, close the curtains and shut it all out. The sniggers from the girls set his jaw on edge and made his shoulders clench. A bell dinged each time the cafe door opened, the noise far too similar to his own phone. He patted his pocket at each ding, sure that it meant a text from Shane confirming his arrival.
This was worse than any blind date he’d ever been on. Before those he could imagine a normal conversation ahead, some light flirting maybe, or at the very least a good meal to ease the tension. None of that was very likely here. The bell dinged again and Alex felt a pang of unease in his chest. This constant checking was becoming unbearable. He took out his phone and laid it on the table. It would be much easier to tell where the stupid noise was coming from if he could keep it in view.
A sentence turned over in Alex’s mind; one he had come up with on the way over, intending to break the ice with Shane and get the conversation rolling as soon as possible. His lips moved silently, repeating it to himself, changing his inflection with each iteration, trying to gauge the perfect mix of friendly and approachable, whilst maintaining a sense of respect for the situation. It kept him calm, taking his mind off the noise and bustle of the room around him. As crafted as it was for his first interaction with Shane, he had not prepared it for the woman who approached his table. She put her hands on the back of the chair next to him, asking if it would be OK if she took it for her friend. Unprepared for someone other than Shane to speak to him, Alex blurted out the sentence without thinking.
“DO YOU LIKE THE JUMPER?”
The woman recoiled and removed her hands from the chair. She backed away, giving Alex a concerned look, and approached a more sane looking man holding a book in one hand and rocking a child in a stroller with the other. Alex caught the eye of the elderly woman behind the counter who stared back at him, looking worried. Alex cringed. His arms itched terribly, the wool rubbing at his skin. If people weren’t looking at him before, they were now. The bell dinged again and he stood up, scraping his chair back and banging his knee on the table in his haste. He strode to the door, pushing through a young couple holding hands as he entered the cafe. He would explain to Shane later. Shane would understand. If he was on time, none of this would have happened.
Alex was on the bus and three stops from home before he realised his phone was still on the cafe table.
Over the weeks, Alex’s studio regressed. First, he sold the spice rack, then the cushions he’d bought for his replacement ant-free chair, then the chair itself. The smells from next door began to seep back in as he failed to replace the air freshener in the wall. His latest job interview had not responded to him, although if they had called he wouldn’t have known. He went back to the cafe as soon as he realised his mistake, but the phone had disappeared. The routine was what he missed the most. Picking it up in the morning, or checking it when he couldn’t sleep late at night and seeing a new task to be completed. Every few hours he would press his hand to his pocket and panic at the missing item there, until the memory of its loss surged back and he cringed all over again.
His headphones remained, helping to block out the worst of next door’s late night antics. Alex lay on his bed wearing them and staring at the ceiling. Whenever he had a few minutes, which was often these days, his mind wandered to Shane. He thought about how he would have reacted when he arrived at the cafe and found the table empty. Had he tried to contact him? Alex had returned since to ask the owners if anyone had left a message, but without the bright yellow jumper they had no recollection of him.
The headphones beeped and his music stopped, letting Alex know the battery had died. No sooner had the silence arrived than it was replaced with a loud banging from outside. Alex opened the door and peered down the corridor. In front of the mailboxes, a figure stood wearing a hooded jacket and holding a small hammer. Alex recognised the jacket as belonging to one of his neighbour’s frequent visitors. The figure hit the mailbox with another bang and it fell off its hinges, swinging open. He dove his hand inside and pulled out an envelope, ripping it open. Alex called out to the figure. His head turned round, and he grinned. In his hand he waved a large wad of banknotes.
“Thanks for this, mate!” he said, and threw the envelope back into the box, tucking the money into his pocket and hurrying out the front door of the building.
Alex rushed to the mailbox. Of course it was his. The door hung limply from one corner. Inside lay the remnants of the torn open envelope. Alex pulled it out. It was heavier than he expected. He tipped it open and something hard and chunky fell into his hand. A phone. Nothing fancy, certainly not a smartphone. An old burner, one people only bought at petrol stations or on holiday. Not even worth stealing, apparently. Alex turned the phone over in his hands. Attached to it with a rubber band was a tightly folded piece of paper. Alex unfolded it and found a note written in what looked like thick, black felt tip pen.
“Alex. I hope this note reaches you. I’m so sorry I couldn’t make it to our meeting. I should have let you know. I sat outside the cafe for hours trying to work up the courage to go in, but I just couldn’t. I text you but obviously you didn’t respond. The woman at the cafe told me someone had left a phone there when I went back a few days later but they’d thrown it away. Sorry, mate.
‘I thought I was ready to let everything go, but I was wrong. I need more closure than that. I need to know he’s at peace. I might send a message every once in a while if I have to, but I’m going to try and stay strong. I have an idea that I think might be better for my own process. I know you’ll understand.
‘Sorry the phone isn’t new. Money’s a bit tight right now. I put the bonus in though. You held up your end of the bargain so it's the least I could do. Thanks again for everything. Maybe speak soon."
It wasn’t the money that made Alex start crying, although it certainly didn’t help. It was the sense of loss. It hurt him more than he could say that Shane could break things off so casually, without even signing off his own name. He felt stupid for having let himself empathise with the man. He had killed someone after all, or helped to. ‘I need more closure’ - Well, Shane wasn’t the only one. Did he not deserve to end things? Brian was dead after all. Surely the dead were the ones that needed to tidy everything up before they moved on. Alex jammed the mailbox shut and threw the note on the ground. This was just a business arrangement. There was no need to keep mementoes. He thought about leaving the phone too, but after a moment’s hesitation he stuffed it into his pocket and dragged himself back to the studio.
Shane did not message. Occasionally, Alex would hear a phantom ding from the phone, but each time he checked his pocket there was nothing to see. It was a nice gesture, the gift, but next to useless. No one else contacted him. The job interviews and call backs had long dried up. He told himself he would not message first, either.
He considered telling Shane about the missing money, but that would mean talking as himself. With the arrangement as strained and distant as it was, he did not want to risk another reprimand. Several times Alex had approached his neighbours door to confront him, but his nerve never held. Each time the hooded man’s grin flashed through his mind and he turned away, slinking back to his apartment.
Still unemployed, money gradually grew to become Alex’ main concern, eventually replacing his relationship with Shane for top spot in his anxiety hierarchy. Without his duties as Brian to distract him, he found himself discussing with the ants sharing the apartment what he should sell next. They went about their business while Alex prattled on, deciding between selling the TV or the stereo to pay the latest final notice.
Shane could never slip completely from his thoughts. He found himself wondering often about what he might be doing instead of messaging his brother. How else was he going to get ‘closure’? Maybe he’d taken up a hobby; jogging or playing tennis with someone from work. Alex wished he had someone like that, but outside of work who could he meet? He doubted whether next door would be receptive to him turning up in a pair of trainers and asking them to go to the park. His landlord would want to know how he paid for the shoes.
Alex thought back to his time at university; the last time he imagined he had been truly happy. What was it then that had kept him occupied? Certainly not lectures, he’d missed enough of those. Never been one for societies either, far too insular. The pub had been where he felt at home, or drinking with his flatmates in their tiny apartment. That was the answer.
He returned from the cornershop with a crate of beer and two family size bags of crisps, intending to challenge himself to make as big a dent in them as he could. Back in the old days this would have been little more than a starter. How would he fair now?
The first few beers slipped down easily. By the third the edges of his vision had started to blur, and the TV sounded very far away. Next door began their usual evening’s entertaining just as he cracked open the fifth. The wall thumped hard, rocking his TV back and forth. Alex threw an empty can at the wall, doing little to deter the festivities. He stood up and wrenched open his front door, banging it off the wall. He marched down the corridor and drew back his fist to knock hard. This was his last clear memory of the night.
An incessant tapping sound from behind the curtain disturbed Alex from his stupor. The pigeon had migrated and was busy building a new home on his window ledge. The wind buffeted it hard and it flapped its wings into the glass trying to maintain balance. With an effort, Alex stood up and banged on the window to scare the bird off. As his hand hit, an image of the previous evening flashed through his mind. His neighbour had opened the door, and sat on the sofa behind him Alex saw the hooded man, the same grin plastered on his face. He had shouted at the man, he remembered that much. The pain in his eye gave him a fairly clear indicator of what had happened next. He reached up to touch it and flinched. Crisp crumbs, embedded in his face from where he had slept, mixed with the dried blood flaking between his fingertips. A heavy bruise was forming.
The noise dealt with, Alex collapsed onto the bed, wiping away the worst of the crumbs. He felt something digging into his side and rolled over, pulling out his phone. Oh dear. Another memory. One far less pleasant than being punched in the face. He looked at the screen and confirmed his fears. Four texts sent, and one call. All made between the hours of one and three in the morning.
He threw the phone down and grabbed a glass of water, anything to put off dealing with this for a few moments. He checked the lock on the front door. The last thing he needed now was more confrontation with the neighbours. He washed his face, desperately hoping it might provide some relief from the dryness in his throat and mouth and eyes. He opened the fridge, fully aware there was no food inside, and shut it again.
The first message wasn’t too bad.
“Hey Shane! Long time no speak. Hw are you getting on? Would be greate to hear from you!”
Ok. Maybe this would be alright. Even the spelling was near perfect. He scanned the second text.
“Dd you find somethting else to occupy your time, bro? I hope you did. Wouldn’t want you wasting your time talkingto poor, old me.”
If that was as bad as it got, it could be dealt with. A bit needy, but excusable. Probably even rescuable, if he was careful.
“You think this is what Brian would want, do you? Left all alone out there. After what we did together. You should message hime. You know you should. Talk about what we did. Its not nice to leave people“
No. He’d ruined it. What a horrible thing to say. He quickly scrolled down to the next message, noticing that it had been sent after the call. He remembered prowling back and forth across the room, phone pressed to his ear. Shane hadn’t picked up. He was sure of that. He pressed his hands over his eyes, trying to block out the noise of the pigeon and recall what he said. Had he pretended to be Brian? Had he talked about that final evening? Mocked the jumper even? Try as he might, he could not focus long enough to make any sense of it. The final text made the tone clear, however.
“I’m sorry Shane. If you read this first, don’t listen to the message. I didn’t mean it. You’re a good man. BI never meant to do it. If this is the last time we speak, I hpoe you get better soon. Im sorry. Please call me”
This amount of anxiety and dread would not be gone by the evening, he knew. What a stupid, pointless thing to do. He crawled to the sink and turned on the tap, soaking his head in cold water. Everything hurt. For the next few hours he convinced himself that any shuffle of feet outside was his landlord arriving to evict him for all the trouble he’d caused, or the neighbour coming to finish the job they’d done on his face. He lay on the cool tile floor of the kitchen area, trying to bring out the swelling in his eye and reduce the pounding in his head, drifting in and out of consciousness. Waves of sick and regret washed over him, making his stomach turn over.
The sun began to set outside and hid behind the building opposite, leaving the room in total darkness. Alex pulled himself slowly to his feet, using the sink for leverage. Between his swollen eye and the lack of light, it was difficult to make out where anything in the room was. He let go of the sink and shuffled to where he thought the bed should be, hands stretched out ahead. As he reached out to touch where he thought the duvet might be, a bright light flashed in front of his face accompanied by a loud bleep, sending a shooting pain through his head. Alex recoiled and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the light had receded and he could see the source. His phone glowed in the darkness. ‘1 unread message’ showed the screen. Out of habit, and before he could stop to prepare, Alex reached out and scooped it up.
“I do not know who this is. I think you need to talk to someone about this, though. Please do not contact me again.”
Alex checked the number. The same one he had been contacting since the very first message. He read it back to himself, checking each digit. Shane’s number. He hadn’t saved it in his phone, not wanting to tempt himself. He knew it off by heart, anyway. He’d spent enough time staring at it. The message was added underneath the long list he’d sent last night. No doubt it was from the same person. Alex rubbed his eyes, unsure whether the darkness or the hangover were affecting his vision more. No matter how many times he checked, the message remained the same. He thought about responding, but the anxiety was still there, fresh and paralysing. The thought of talking on the phone horrified him at the best of times. Only drunk was it ever comfortable. Best to sleep on it. Look at things in the morning light. Everything would be better then.
Alex awoke to the dregs of his hangover still present, but considerably less severe than they had been the day before. He had slept badly, unable to find a position that didn’t cause an ache somewhere. The swollen eye made his face feel heavy. Rays of sunlight crept into the room and he began to potter around the apartment, cleaning up the mess of cans and empty crisp packets. He spread open a large bin bag, turning his head to avoid the fresh plastic smell, when he heard a knock at the door.
“Package for you, sir.” said the postman, holding out a large envelope. “Your mailbox is broke. Can’t leave it out in the open.”
“Oh, right. Thanks.” said Alex, relieved not to see his neighbour’s face. He took the envelope. It had the same plain, brown paper packaging as the ones Shane used to send, but the contents looked bulkier than normal. The lock clicked as he shut the door and he tore open the envelope. Without looking, he thrust his hand inside and pulled out a handful of banknotes. Several more fell to the floor as he dropped the envelope.
There were more than he had ever received from Shane at once before. Usually his payments were folded neatly, but these were loose and crumpled. He looked at the notes, noticing that each and every one of them was stained. His heart began to race as he recognised the dark red colour. The notes all had the same texture, just as he had felt rubbing his fingers after touching his damaged eye.
His eyes darted to the door, sure the lock was about to burst open. No one could see this. He dragged a chair over and propped it under the handle, then wrenched the curtain closed, leaving the room once again without light. He needed help, but could not think of a single person to ask. No one in the building would come to his aid. He could run. But that would mean leaving the room. The prospect filled him with dread. A long walk down the corridor to the front door, and then where? If anyone saw him, they would know. Even now a police car could be pulling up outside, two officers stepping out and preparing to close the cold, metal handcuffs around his wrists. Alex picked up his phone and called the only number he knew.
The phone rang. Alex listened to the dial tone, praying that this time it would not go to voicemail. It rang three times, and with each ring he felt a pounding in his chest. On the fourth ring, someone picked up.
“Hello?” said a voice.
After so many months of speaking only through text, Alex had built up an image of what Shane would sound like. To hear the real thing, so different to what he had expected, jarred him. Shane sounded older than the voice in his head. His pitch was deeper, as if he were suffering from a heavy cold. There was little hint of the clipped, proper accent Alex read each message with. It had none of the jovial, friendly nature of most of their messages. Instead, it sounded serious, unwelcoming.
“Shane?” he said.
“Alex? Did you get my package?”.
Alex looked down at the scattered remnants on the floor.
“Good. Now, I need you to listen to me, Alex, is that ok?”
“Why did you say it wasn’t you?”
“I’m sorry about that, Alex. I think you’ll understand soon, though.” The voice was slow and measured, as if reading a pre-prepared script. “Now, Alex. We have two options here. I think there’s one you’ll prefer. Are you listening?”
“Great. Option One. You’ve seen the notes, I take it. You know what’s on them. The police have that on file. The guy who owed David money, he’d done some time already.”
Alex kicked the notes away from him with his foot, trying to avoid touching any of the stains.
“You also have Brian’s clothes from that evening. I imagine there’s quite a lot of your hair on them by now. It was always so scratchy that thing.”
A pile of clothes lay unwashed in the corner of the room. From under a pair of faded jeans, the tip of a bright yellow sleeve poked out.
“And if that’s not enough, there’s your message. Did it feel nice, talking about him like that? About what we did? I bet the police have never heard so neat a confession.”
Glimpses of his voicemail replayed themselves. He had described everything he could remember from their conversations, trying to coax Shane into talking about it, about anything. And for the first time in his own voice, he had done it all pretending to be Brian. Had described how they had gone to collect, how he had stabbed the man and let him die, had blamed Shane for leaving him. He had let slip more than enough to incriminate himself. All because of that phone. All the messages they had shared. Each and every one now lost, left in the cafe, never to be recovered. He remembered running out, bumping into someone as he fled. He began to panic.
“You have the phone, don’t you?”
“It’s safe. Don’t worry about that. The nice old lady in the cafe was very helpful. Said the man who left it seemed very troubled. I asked her not to let him know I’d picked it up if he came back. Let me deal with it.
‘So, as I was saying, all of that can go straight to the police, and you can take your chances with them believing the unemployed loner who only leaves his apartment to buy beer and start fights with his neighbours, or we can go for the second option.”
Alex fell into the wall, feeling worse than at any point during his hangover. His mind span trying to piece together how Shane knew. Had he been watching him coming and going every day? Was he at the neighbours house? That grin flashed through his vision once more. No, not him. Why would he have stolen his own money? When he’d left the cafe it had been a couple, not a man that he’d bumped into. It couldn’t have been Shane. Everything was so jumbled. It was too much to take in. Faces of people he’d spoken to near the apartment raced through his mind. He tried to pair one to the voice on the phone, but none felt right.
The phone dropped from his hand, thudding into the ground. He raised his foot and stamped on it, pressing down hard into the screen. He’d expected a crack, for the device to break into a dozen pieces, but when he removed the foot, Shane’s name continued to stare back at him. The only damage a small crack in the glass.
He shoved himself away from the wall, picked up the phone and threw it into the sink with a bang that caused a flutter of wings outside. This would work. He pulled the tap and waited for the rush of water to cover the phone and finish his conversation. He stepped back to avoid the splash, but none came. Not now, he thought. They can’t have turned it off again. Peering into the sink, the name was still there, bright, and inviting, and dry. He slapped at the tap in frustration. Nothing for it. He brought it back to his ear.
“Hello? It sounds like I might have lost you. Is anyone there?” said Shane.
“Yes. I’m here.”
“Oh good. You had me worried for a second.”
“I’m here.” Alex repeated flatly. What else was there to say?
“Would you like to hear the second option?”
“Yes.” His vision was beginning to tunnel. All he could see was the square patch of carpet and a single blood spattered banknote by his feet.
“Option Two. And I think this will work out best for both of us. I’ve given this a lot of thought, and I really think this will work. It's much better than those silly messages. That was never going to be enough.”
“Just tell me.”
“All I want is my brother back. You did such a good job on the phone. But that’s not enough. I need to see him. To hear his voice. And not just once either. Every day. I need someone to look after mum. She’s getting on now and her mind’s not what it was. I don’t think she’d notice the difference. She’s still got all his old clothes up in his room. I think I could even swing his old job with David. He’s been running the bookies on his own lately, since we stopped helping. You can’t go doing what you used to though, you hear me? You don’t need to get caught up in all that again. This is your second chance.”
Alex stayed silent. He tried to focus on the objects in his periphery, taking in the half-full bin bag, the cans and crumbs and money strewn across the floor. He rubbed his face and felt the sting of his bruised eye.
“So,” Shane continued, “either my brother is a dead murderer, which as we both know simply can’t be true, or he’s worried and confused and living in a dirty one bed apartment, but alive. Which one do you think it is? Which one is going to help both of us start to feel better about life?”
“The second one.”
A long sigh came from the phone.
“Fantastic. Now, doesn’t that feel like progress? I feel better already, don’t you? You’ll like living with Janet, I think. It’s a nice house, very clean. Why don’t you come over today and we can sort out the details?”
“Don’t be sad, Brian. Things are going to get better soon. Think about everything you have to look forward to. You’ll have a job, your own bathroom, even a loving family around you. I’ll come visit as often as I can. It’s going to be great, I promise.”
There was a pause as Alex thought about the prospect. It might not be too bad. Maybe there’d be an oven. He missed baking.
“Does my room have a window?” he asked.
“Of course! You can see a nice big park and, and a bus stop right outside. Sometimes there’s even robins that come and perch on the ledge.”
The voice was less measured now, like it had finished its script.
“That sounds nice.”
“Great. Just one thing. You’ll have to get used to the name. We can’t have you slipping up and calling yourself by someone else’s, can we? Think of what that would do to poor Janet, bless her. So, let me hear it, what’s your name?”
“Brian.” said Brian.
“Good man. I’ll see you this afternoon.”
Brian looked around the studio, taking a last snapshot of the place, trying to remember how he had ended up there. A row of ants crawled under the door and away into the outside world, leaving him completely alone. He pulled himself up on the wall and started to sift through the pile of clothes, aided by the thin light that shone in from a crack in the curtain behind him. The sleeve of his favourite yellow jumper flopped out and he grabbed it, pulling it up and over his head. The wool felt soft and comforting against his skin. Moving carefully around the debris littering the carpet, he unlocked the door and stepped outside.