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“You could at least smile, Fraser.” The words are as sharp as the elbow that delves into my stomach. “You are happy for your brother, aren’t you?”
I snort. I think there’s a hole in my head, and that any sort of joy drips out, splattering on the floor. It’s tiresome pretending it’s not there. It doesn’t take a lot to pick at the loose thread holding in place layers upon layers of cheerful, insulating fluff I’ve wrapped around my skull. One careless snip and the seams will burst.
I told myself that I wouldn’t let that happen. Not today.
I breathe in deeply, in – out.
When it looks like I’m about to receive another elbow to my side, I bare my teeth at my assailant in my best impression of a threatened chimpanzee.
“Thank you,” my mother sniffs, turning back to the front of the church and lifting a cloth hankie to dab at her dry eyes.
The fierce air searing in from the sea-loch has already managed to chap my lips. They smart and ache, stretched thin. A tiny shred of skin rips away as I run my teeth over them. I focus on the nip of pain, the hint of blood on my tongue.
I want to smoke.
I quit – quit four, five, years ago now. The very day my parents’ car disappeared out of the car park of the university halls of residence. Yesterday, when I stopped at the motorway services just outside of Glasgow in the pissing rain, all I wanted was to take a leak and grab some sort of sandwich. But the siren song of the tobacco counter was just too strong. Just in case.
They’re in the front pocket of my slightly-too-big suit jacket. I feel them bump against my heart every time I shift in my seat.
My chest is tight. If I breathe in too deeply, I might shatter a rib.
When I got out of the car yesterday, it was just a catch in the throat – a bubbling déjà-vu as I stared out across the water; grim acceptance as I dragged my holdall from the passenger-side foot-well, wishing I’d booked a B&B somewhere further in-land, instead of letting my wallet be wooed by the promise of a free hotel room.
Then the vultures descended, plucking the scraps of my life from my bones with their sharp beaks: you’re late – you need a haircut – haven’t you been eating? – oh, is that what you’re wearing? – they don’t have shoe polish down south, huh? – never mind, you’re here now. The grip around my chest constricted with each prod, jibe – every “loose thread” plucked from the sleeve of my coat.
Now, it’s as though I’m deep underwater and desperately need to take a breath.
I really want to smoke.
The air in here is thick and sweet – incense? false promises? – and my skin prickles with cold. My eyes itch. I blink hard, pressing my shoulders as far back into the wooden shelf of the pew as I can. They ache against the awkward lip of the smooth, cold wood. My penance for coming.
I fight the urge to check my phone.
When we finally follow the happy couple from the wee loch-side chapel and into the picturesque churchyard, everyone ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s appropriately. Even so, you can tell there’s a few trying to convince their noses not to wrinkle. The air is tangy and ripe with the smell of brackish water and seaweed. The translucent sun barely manages to coax even a hint of heat down through the foamy sky.
“Diffused lighting!” trills the energetic photographer, directing her assistant with coded handshakes and too-enthusiastic nods. “Just what we love!”
She arranges her shots in front of the grey background. The loch is molasses-brown in the distance, frothing around the rocky inlets. The mountains and hills beyond are hidden behind an impenetrable wall of fog – unnaturally uniform. It’s as though someone’s taken a paper-cutter and sliced them clean away.
Not that it matters. I could fill them in from memory. They loom in the backgrounds of album after album of grim, gap-toothed glares, scabby knees front and centre.
One thing my mother has always loved is a photo.
She grumbles as she storms around the churchyard, as though the landscape and the weather have specifically conspired against her. She plucks at boutonnières, nags my father about slouching, pinches a bridesmaid’s cheek for colour. We’re all at her disposal, apparently, and she knows it; stacking us according to height, size, relevance.
Spikes of gravel stab through the soles of my shoes. I press a foot backwards and forwards into the ground, focusing on the sharp bite of the stones, and not on the irritation tightening my smile.
Eventually, there’s a click, a flash – another, another. The photographer looks up, and flashes us a quick thumbs-up. I let my face fall, rubbing a hand over my aching cheeks.
“What about a few with just the bridal party?” the photographer suggests. Her smile is as bright as the gauzy scarf woven through her hair, but it doesn’t reach her eyes.
“I was thinking one with just the parents,’ my mother counters, slipping an arm through Julian’s.
As the photographers close in for a tactical huddle, I breathe a sigh of relief and remove myself from the line-up. It’s still a little early for a clean break, so I plant my arse atop Dulcie Whitmore 1873 – 1898 (may she rest in peace). My hand freezes, halfway into my breast pocket. I glance up. My mother is still tweaking the photographer’s shot.
My eyes slide across to Julian – to Esther, Julian’s brand new bride.
They could be waxworks with empty, cheerful eyes. Two new entries to Madame Tussaud’s chamber of horrors. Millais couldn’t capture such a fine tableau of complete and utter tragic indifference. It doesn’t faze our mother, who paws and poses; snap-snap-snap.
Dulcie is stone cold beneath me. I can feel the rough edges of her crumbling curves behind my knees. My backside is getting cold.
I need a drink. Two drinks. Two? No, I want to down shots until I pass out. I want to wake up, alone, as always, in an uncomfortable cocoon of sweat and unwashed sheets and realise this was just a humdrum, middle class nightmare.
But the light shivers dully on the dark water, and the afternoon wears on.
The hotel for the reception has been plucked straight from the pages of Scottish Weddings. A saccharine, whisky-tinged, cedar scent permeates the air. It catches in the back of my throat, and I earn a round of disapproving glares when I sneeze wetly into the crook of my arm.
The walls are all brown wood panelling, with carpets and curtains of heavy red and cream, offset with tasteful tartan accents. The gazes of empty-eyed deer skulls follow you around the room. The function room opens out onto a patio overlooking the shore of the loch. I assume the bride’s parents are paying a pretty penny for the privilege.
The view is quite something, if you like that sort of thing.
The old house we used to visit for holidays also overlooked the loch, but not quite like this. There’s not even an echo of its low, warped ceilings that salivated in heavy rain, leaving ugly streaks down the woodchip walls; of the plush, fuzzy toilet seat covers that were always somehow clammy, or even the hissing CRT telly that crackled and flickered on any channel but BBC2.
I follow a crowd of wedding guests who gush and crow with delight at the chintzy hand-drawn signs directing us to the reception hall and point us towards our places at the table. I half expect to see myself sequestered at the dodgy table at the back with all the other courtesy invites – the least favourite but very well-off co-worker, “crazy” Aunty Aubrey who always packs her leftovers into a tactical Tupperware, or someone’s ex who was invited to prove a point of some kind.
But no, here I am, several seats down from the happy couple, but in their glorious vicinity nonetheless.
I’m sat beside the youngest bridesmaid – and her harangued-looking mother. As the bridesmaid swings her sharp, patent-shoe clad feet into my legs under the table and whines that she hates everything being served for dinner, her mother switches between glowering at me and looking longingly at my wine glass. I notice hers contains water – half empty.
“So, how do you know the couple?” she eventually asks me, cutting the bridesmaid’s chicken into tiny slivers. “Were you a groomsman? I don’t remember–”
“I’m his brother.” It comes out abruptly.
The bridesmaid’s mother frowns. “Are you?”
I nod, funnelling more undercooked asparagus into my mouth.
“I had no idea that Julian had a brother,” she narrows her eyes again, “I’m sure Esther would have mentioned it.”
I knock back my wine, and wipe a single metallic drop from the edge of my lip. The bridesmaid’s mother scowls. For a moment, the air rings with the scrape of cutlery and a buzz of conversation from the other tables.
“Esther’s my sister. My step sister,” she adds lamely. “I guess this makes us family, huh?”
“I’m sorry,” I say, followed by a staccato laugh that softens the corners of the bridesmaid’s mother’s – Esther’s sister’s – mouth.
It would only take a glance at her place setting to learn her name. But I don’t. She doesn’t look at mine, either. Dessert arrives. We both look up when we hear the dreaded tinkling of silverware on crystal.
“Oh, here we fuckin’ go,” I mutter.
The bridesmaid’s mother gives me a sharp look. The rest of the room clamours for speeches. Like everything else from this Scottish Weddings double-page feature, they’re exactly what you’d expect: bridesmaid, best man, father of the bride. Each one less funny than the one that went before. Then, just as the half-soused older gent hands the microphone back to the member of the string quartet who’s been forced to play MC, there’s a loud cough.
They say to hear a banshee screaming is to be warned of imminent death.
My mother also came installed with one such early-warning system. She coughs again as she stands. Another restless ripple of expectant silence falls across the room as she descends from on high, an aging starlet ready to accept her Oscar.
She opens her mouth, and then closes it, pauses to smile. “You know, it is the one true pleasure of a mother’s life to know she has raised a child who is making the most of the gifts they were blessed with; who has done everything in his power to make his family proud. . .”
A visceral burst of embarrassment spiders up the back of my neck.
The metal chair scrapes underneath me as I lurch to my feet. My mother ploughs on resolutely. Avoiding Julian’s stare, and several marauding wait-staff, I weave my way across the room. I swallow the lump in my throat, and itch for the cigarettes that are playing xylophone against my ribcage.
“Tequila isn’t covered by the open bar,” the smartly dressed barman says gruffly, crossing his arms. I slap a well-creased ten pound note onto the marble bar-top, and scowl as just two coins and a tiny shot glass are produced. He picks up a wedge of lime and a salt shaker, but I wave him away. The smoky alcohol burns down my neck, pooling thickly in my stomach. I almost ask for another, but my mother’s sugary, shrill speech to her captive audience twists in my side.
I need fresh air.
I slip out onto the patio for a smoke, but several pairs of hang-dog eyes watch me as I reach into my pocket. A cold feeling creeps up my back, circling my throat with her clammy hands. I stumble towards the loch-side path.
The clicking of the lighter and the first drag cut through the tightness of my chest. The day’s fog has finally burnt off, and the wind has died. The mountains stretch away into the distance. Early evening sun sparkles on the water. The party is a faraway cackle, muddied by the soft push-pull of the tide. Rings of smoke slip from my mouth and I watch as they fade into the grey-blue sky.
The cigarette dangles listlessly as I pick my way along the pebbled shore. I remove it from my mouth and, with a pang of guilt, flick it into the loch. The butt sizzles for a second on the surface. I bat it away with my toe. The tide struggles to carry the remains away.
The desire to light another gnaws at the back of my throat. I try to push the feeling down. Smoking wasn’t that much fun when I was hanging out with the other no-hopers behind the bike shed at school. Now – really, I don’t need to smoke.
The cig balances between my teeth. I reach for the lighter again. Click, click.
“Those things will kill you, you know.”
I jump at the sound of my brother’s voice. The cigarette tumbles from my mouth. I glare at it as it smoulders on the floor. If it wasn’t for the company, I’d probably snatch it up and brush the dirt off. As it is, I sigh, and crush it under my foot. “That’s the idea.”
“What do you want, Julian?” I roll my eyes, ignoring the fact that there’s saliva pooling in the back of my mouth, and my underarms are prickling.
He picks his way carefully across the shingles with his easy long-legged gait. “Nice day after all that, isn’t it? Esther and I might manage to get some stunning sunset photos after all. She’s been bending my ear about it for months.”
I glower across the water. “Sounds perfect.”
“Thanks,” Julian says, choosing to ignore my tone.
“Why are you here?” I ask, dragging the shingles around beneath my feet.
He raises an eyebrow. “It’s my wedding.”
The faint noise of the band starting up back inside the hotel breaks through the stillness of the air. I turn steadfastly towards the water, scanning the depths for paparazzi shy sea-serpents, a gaggle of ducks – anything, really, that I can look at instead of my brother’s face.
“Don’t you have a wife to first dance or something?”
“Don’t worry about it.” He scoffs slightly. “I thought it might be nice if we had chance to catch up. How have you been?”
My determination wavers. I hazard a glance in his direction.
We stand in silence for a moment.
“Do you remember when we used to come here as kids?”
My skin prickles.
Pressed too close together by suitcases in a packed car that was too low-slung for the unkempt Highland roads, my teeth rattling against the window, my breath fogging up the glass and trickling down, an elbow in my gut, a never-ending buzz of complaints from the front seats? Spilling from the car, too hot, too queasy, tired, aching all over? Carting suitcases up a creaking staircase into a mouldering room that smelt like damp lavender?
Shivering in the dark when he’d crack open the tiny window and slip out into the night; stumbling back in, his breath hot and reeking of something stale.
The way he’d fall around, chuckling; the old metal bedsprings creaking under his weight as he tried to wrangle his shoes off. If I woke up, shocked upright by the sudden noise I’d see the slack, empty look in his eyes – his face washed out by the pale moonlight. There was something about him in the dark that wasn’t quite human.
“Don’t tell Mum and Dad,” he’d hiss – or cackle, “or the kelpie’s’ll get ya.”
When he wouldn’t be roused in the morning, she’d chuckle indulgently. It was a symptom of being his age, she said, and I’d understand when I was older.
So one of us was left to amuse himself by the water wondering what was true; half-afraid to dip even a toe in.
But, when Julian’s age was my age, I understood nothing – except for the fact that they didn’t ID in the wee local down the road. By then, he was long gone from family holidays – nothing but a golden ghost, rattling and squeaking in the creaky old house.
Until now, when he decided to come back.
He’s still staring at me expectantly. I shake my head. “Yeah, I remember. Congratulations, I think you’re keeping food on Siobhan’s table.”
He frowns. “Who?”
“The nice Irish lady I visit twice a month,” I say drily.
“Oh. Oh. You’re still single then.” He chuckles.
I don’t clarify that Siobhan is a pleasant, very smartly dressed, auburn haired lady who smells like expensive eau de toilette and thinks I should keep a journal. “What do you want?” I ask again, trying to put a little more space between us.
“We had some good times here, didn’t we?” he glances wistfully across the water. “It was some Swallows and Amazons shit, wasn’t it?”
“Lord of the Flies,” I counter. He laughs.
I try to focus on the fluff in my skull. Breathe.
“I think I get it now,” he continues, his tone thoughtful, “It was Mum’s idea to come back for the wedding, you know? I didn’t expect to love it, but there’s just something about the scenery, the water–”
“Don’t you remember how you used to tell me devil-horses would drag me into the water?” the words throw themselves from my tongue, catching us both by surprise. One careless snip.
I can almost feel the extra head sprout from my neck when Julian stares at me. “Huh?”
“‘Ravenous bloody teeth, and sharp claws’, you said,” I snort, watching the foam crests that slice through the water behind a passing pleasure cruiser. “What was it?” I wave my hands around. “‘If those don’t get you, you’re inhaling water when you try to scream, and you’ll die anyway’.”
I look expectantly at my brother. His Adam’s apple bobs, and he wrinkles his nose.
“Kelpies, wasn’t it?” I point out over the water, even though there’s nothing to see. “Pretty awful way to go out, that.”
He shakes his head, coughing out a dry laugh. “God, you always were a weird kid.”
“Not me.” I roll my eyes. “You came up with that one.”
He shakes his head again. “You got another one of those fags?”
I grit my teeth again. Still, I reach into my breast pocket and throw him the remainder of the pack. As he grips the end of one with his teeth, I click the lighter again. It’s one of those battery-aided powerful ones; it roars like a tiny engine ready to take off. I stare at the flicking blue-orange flame as he inclines his head towards it.
How easy it would be to slip. To scorch that pristine white shirt. That equally pristine skin.
Julian nods his thanks as he leans back. I quickly move my thumb and the flame snuffs out. I wrap my fist around the lighter. My eyes water as the hot metal bites my palm. I choke down the longest breath I can – in, out. It hitches slightly. Julian casts his gaze out over the water.
“You didn’t believe that shit, did you? Seriously?”
“You know I did,” I roll my eyes, “They’re real, aren’t they?”
What could be more real than the rush of water in your ears; sharp, angry claws digging into the soft flesh of your shoulders; the burning in your throat, your eyes; the whooping, rattling coughs that drag you deeper and deeper; the dead weight of your limbs, tangled in the kelp, heavy with clothes. Monsters to the bone, hungry for something.
“Right,” Julian snorts, and – for a moment – his mask slips. He’s fifteen years old again, irritated to be tasked with babysitting the “oops” baby half his age. Then he shakes his head, forces a smile. “Y’know, Mum said you weren’t coming. To the wedding, I mean.”
I think of the card – ornate calligraphy with a thick fleur-de-lis seal – that eventually landed atop the pile of unopened bank statements and takeaway flyers on my doormat. It had an angry return to sender scrawled in red on both front and back. My old address was Tippexed out.
I watch as the foam horses dance on the water of the loch.
“Sorry to disappoint.”
“Don’t be like that,” bitterness suddenly laces his words. “God, you always do this shit.”
“Playing the victim. If you’re that miserable, Fraser, why did you even come? It’s a fucking wedding, it’s no’ a funeral.”
I try to force a smile. “I’m not miserable.”
“You’ve a face like a slapped arse,” he spits.
“That’s on genetics, I can’t help that,” I shrug, before noticing the black look on his face. I feel myself flush a little. “I just . . . I am doing my best alright? It’s not cheap, you know driving up here, I just. . .”
I want to go home. The thought ricochets through me with the painful clarity of fifteen years of crappy holidays.
Julian scoffs, and stands up. “Oh, so there it is. You’re broke, is that it?”
“No, I–” My voice cracks slightly.
“So you were hoping someone would slip you a few quid? Came all this way to get in our good books, aye?”
“Shut up!” I half-wheeze the words. “I have never – I don’t know what I did to–”
“So if it wasn’t for money, what was it?”
My arms wrap around each other, but before I can speak, Julian snorts.
“Oh, grow the fuck up. You’re not a baby anymore.” My brother rips the cigarette from his mouth. “Like, all you had to do was sit down, shut up, leave when it’s over. Keep our parents happy, keep everyone happy, no questions asked.”
He tosses his lit cigarette at me. A scattering of red cinders are stark against my dark trousers. The cigarette butt begins melting through the cheap polyester before I manage to sweep it into the sand. My head throbs.
“So why did you come, Fraser?” Julian demands.
I’ve been asking myself that ever since I filled out the RSVP card. Why am I here? What did I expect? What made me think that this event would be any different to the others? Why didn’t I cut my losses straight after the ceremony?
Maybe Dulcie Whitmore had it all figured out.
“Remember when we used to skim stones?” My words come out flatly. Instead dancing across the surface of the water, they plunge straight into the chilly, molasses depths.
Julian stares at me – really stares.
One hundred summers ago, Julian taught me to skip stones.
Our parents bundled us off together, as usual. And, for once, Julian had time for me, advice. He curled his arm and bounced a pebble across the loch like a discus champ. One – two – three – four – splash. You try.
Now, he looks at me, his lip curling with disdain. “Can’t you just be normal? When someone asks you why you came to their wedding, you’re meant to say ‘I wouldn’t miss it’ or that you wanted to see everyone, or . . .”
“Just tell me you love me or some shit. I don’t fucking know.”
A distant bird wheels overhead, shrieking tunelessly.
My hand moves without my say-so, searching the slick pebbles of the shore. Something slim, something flat, something that’ll bounce. I can feel the gaze burning into my back. My cold fingers close around the perfect candidate. It’s a small, smooth grey disk of stone, smoothed circular by decades of friction.
“Look,” I say.
Julian’s eyes follow my every move. Winding my arm back, I flick the stone at the water’s surface. It hits with a satisfying plop, and disappears into the depths.
He shakes his head.
“Just . . . just come back to the party, okay? You need to keep hold of Mum while Esther wants to take photos.” Julian shakes his head, muttering something else under his breath.
I turn away, scanning the shingle for another stone. I hear the crunch of his footsteps as he turns away, snaking his way back towards the hotel.
The wind nips at my leg through the melted trouser. I turn slightly, watching until his golden hair disappears from view.
The loch rears before me, lapping around my shoes. I kick seaweed from atop a rock. The water feels almost warm as I duck to trail my hands through it; allowing its fronds and hidden tendrils to wrap around my fingers. The past ripples in front of me, my distorted reflection peering out with comically young eyes.
All those years ago. He was waiting for me to crouch at sea-level, intense childish concentration powering careful measurements of velocity, span, aesthetic. All it would take was one moment.
How wide-eyed I was. How foolish. How utterly surprised by the two teenaged hands clutched around his shoulders, forcing him down where there was no light, no air – just the ravenous jaws of monstrous creatures. The same creatures that clawed at his clothing, every inch of his body, determined to hold him underwater until he gave up, gave them what they wanted.
Until he was devoured.
And yet, somehow, at the end of it all, it’s always my brother, the hero, swooping in to save the day, tugging me from the depths at the last moment, tossing me ashore; laughing and shaking his head in his detached, teenage way as water spews from my mouth, my ears, my eyes.
What did I tell you about the kelpies, huh? Looks like they let you off easy, this time . . .
I never said a single goddamn word.
I tug myself to my feet, and lumber past the oily wet shingle. There’s a splash. Water sluices into the cracks in my sole, eating into my socks even as I howk up my trouser legs. I close my eyes before they start to sting.
“Come on then,” I half-whisper, swallowing the lump in my throat. “Come and get me, then. Come on. Come on!”
My voice grows, roaring in my ears, whipping up the dark loch, battering against the shore, howling across the dark water. Come and find me, come and take me, kill me, save me, come on come on come on.
Gentle tongues of foam lap against my ankles.
I open my eyes.
The sky is turning pink, and a sharp shaft of orange light burns below the horizon.
I glance back up towards the hotel and, finally, I snip the thread.
Kirsty Souter is Scottish writer, with a MSc in Creative Writing from Edinburgh University, who sub-edits for The People’s Friend. She has had work published in From Arthur’s Seat, and in Scottish Book Trust’s Blether anthology. Her story, What Wis Stolen Fae The Big Man, won the UoE Sloan Prize for Scots language writing in 2020. She currently lives in the middle of a field with three dogs
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