Here goes. It was my best kind of morning, all blue and cold. My breath made clouds. There was a moon and a bright white star that was most probably Venus. Ben thought it was Mars. The grass looked like it had been sprinkled with Shake ‘n’ Vac. There were toys all over the place: tricycles and balls, a sand pit and a climbing frame. All of it was covered in snow. There were long thin icicles dangling from the guttering and last night’s snow was hanging over the edge of the roof in a smooth curl. I didn’t want to move or make footprints or do anything, it all looked so clean and neat and perfect.
I looked at the watch I’d bought with my Christmas money just as it went to eight
forty-six and it felt like I was at the beginning of forever. Everything was so still and quiet it was like me and Ben were the only two people alive.
The tumble dryer started up in the kitchen, cha-dung cha-dung cha-dung. A big cloud that whiffed of hot clothes blew out of the tube in the wall. The water from the bath gurgled into the outside drain, trickling and puffing like a little Niagara Falls. Lots of nice peaceful house-sounds like that, making the quiet seem even more quiet somehow.
I sat on the tricycle that was parked in a streak of warm sun and rolled a smoke. Reaching for my lighter, the tricycle’s back wheels snapped off and rolled behind a wheelie bin. I was going to fix them but when I thought about having to get down on my hands and knees in the ice I decided I couldn’t be bothered. There you are.
Ben was on the lawn. He was shaking his arms the way gymnasts do before they start the parallel bars, his head back like praying to get his energy up. He hauled himself up on to the top bar of the climbing frame and started doing chin-ups. The frame jiggled and creaked and wobbled from side to side and little fingers of snow slid off and splashed into the grass.
I went, It’s not made for big boys, but he didn’t hear me.
All Ben ever went on about was muscles. He wanted muscles more than anything else in the world. He bought some weights with his birthday money and drank this stuff called Bulk-Up. It was supposed to help him get results. He had a wall chart up his room about all the exercises and muscle groups and what have you, with pictures of muscles with the skin off and greasy men in little pants pulling poses. But it didn’t matter how much he worked out or lifted weights or drank the shake, he never ever put on any more weight. He just stayed wiry and thin. Greg was a pretty beefed up bloke, but without it being obvious. Plenty of blokes are muscular, but with most of them it’s just ornamental. They spend hours every day in little rooms lifting dumbbells to make themselves look hard, but in a scrap, they’re useless. With Greg though, it was like how he was built. Looking like he could snap your head off was like a part of who he was. Before he lost his right arm to a printing press – it was sucked into the rollers and all the bones were crushed right up to the elbow – he could tear a Yellow Pages in half with his bare hands. I’d never seen him do it myself, like with my own eyes, but Ben always used to go on about it, about how that was his party trick. After a few drinks at the club, he’d get some blokes he’d only just met to bet some money that he couldn’t do it, then he’d lean over the bar, grab the Yellow Pages or the phone book or whatever was down there and rip it clean in two, right there in front of everybody. The vast majority of what came out of Ben’s gob was lies, but when you saw Greg’s eyes and the way his nostrils flapped up and down when he was pissed off about something, which was pretty much all the time, you couldn’t help but think yeah, he could do that, easy.
Sitting there watching Ben huffing and puffing away, I got this hard to explain gurgling stomach feeling that I got whenever I was looking at Ben without him knowing, a sense there was something slightly wrong with him. I noticed things like the way his head was a bit too small for his body, how his eyes were too close together on his head, with a dark grey smudge around the sockets like two black eyes. And even when he had his mouth closed which was hardly ever you could see the tips of his teeth poking out from between his lips. One tooth was chipped where Greg had taken a swing at him once and got it snagged in his wedding ring.
I like looking at people and thinking how amazing it is that you can look just like you are in real life.
He was a bit of a nutter sometimes, but he liked helping people, especially women and old people, and he was really good with kids, except for his kid brother, who he was constantly smacking up. He was always very polite and helpful to Mary, helping her out around the house and doing the hoovering and dusting and what have you. He would do anything for Mary, absolutely anything. He wasn’t scared about hugging her either, which was weird, like going up behind her when she was busy doing the washing-up and putting his arms round her and holding her wrists and going ‘I love you I love you’ over and over again, even when I was right there.
It was nice to be sitting there not thinking about anything and watching somebody else getting all out of breath.
Ben hopped off the climbing frame and growled at the moon. He adjusted his clothes and let his head flop to this side and that side and then he started fondling himself up, which was sort of a ritual he had, so I knew exactly what was coming. He touched his pecs, squeezed his forearms around the elbow and down around near the wrist, pinched his biceps, stroked his triceps, cupped his shoulders, fingered his abs, reached over his shoulders and felt the muscles in his back either side of his spine, his trapezoids. He cupped his nuts and I watched him tug the zip of his fly to make a bulge.
I must have been smirking or something, because when he saw me watching him he made his what the fuck are you looking at face. It’s difficult to describe exactly because when he made his what the fuck are you looking at face lots of weird things happened all over, but basically the most important thing is that his mouth looked like an arsehole shitting Tic-Tacs.
He pointed a warty thumb over his bony shoulder at the climbing frame and went: Come on then you lazy shit.
– Eleven chin ups isn’t going to do nothing, I said. It takes years. You damage the muscles by doing the workout, then you eat the protein, the chicken or tuna or whatever, and they get put back together bigger than they were before, but it takes years.
– Well come on then, he said. Think you’re fucking Arnold fucking Schwarzenegger. You come up here and do it.
– I’m telling you.
– Come up here and do it.
– I’m telling you.
– Yeah and I’m telling you, come up and do it.
– Nah, I said. Too cold.
– No no, he said, You think you can do better than twelve, you get your scrawny little square arse up here and do it.
Ben thought I had a square-shaped arse. We shared a changing room once.
– It was eleven, I said.
– It was fucking twelve, he said.
– It was eleven, I said. I was counting.
– Whatever, he said.
I flicked my fag into the drain and climbed the three icy steps on to the lawn. The grass was so iced-up and crunchy it was like walking over broken glass. I looked at the footprints I’d made in the crispy ice and felt bad for messing up the snow.
– Whatever, let’s crack on then, I said.
I took a deep breath and rubbed my hands together and hauled myself up. The plastic tube bent in the middle. Ben stood there, right in the side of my eye, counting and looking in close to make sure my chin went properly over.
There are two ways of doing chin ups. One way is with your palms out and the other way is with your palms in. Each way works a different set of muscles. Palms in works your chest, palms out works your back. I went for palms in, because it was easier and it was what Ben had been doing and I wanted to keep it fair. I started off all right, but in the end I could only manage six. When I got to five, I started to feel my hands giving way. I like prayed to God to give me strength and He did and I managed one more.
I jumped down and coughed and a big chunk of brown sticky shit flew out and hit the snow. I was going to make a joke about maybe I had the C word but then I remembered about Mary and stopped myself just in time.
Ben snorted snot into his throat and hacked up the phlegm and spat it at the wall. It took eight seconds for the gob to slide down to the grass.
– Only six, he said. He prodded my chest and arms. There was a clump of warts on the
skin around his fingernail I hadn’t seen before. That boy was covered in them. Warts and moles.
I pointed at the frame and said, It’s not made for people our size.
I went down the steps. I stuck my fingers up inside the hot tube.
– Don’t matter, Ben said, it’s still chin ups.
– It takes years, I said. Years and years and years and years.
We both went quiet. I stamped my feet and thought about having another fag, just for something to do. It was too cold to stand around not doing anything. Ben hadn’t mentioned his bike and neither had I and it was like it’d all been forgotten about. It was barely nine o’clock and already the whole thing was going tits up. Plus I realised I’d just made a big mashed up circle in the snow where I’d been stamping.
I was going to say something about the footprints we’d made in the grass and what he’d written in the condensation on the kitchen window, but I didn’t want to set him off, so instead I started singing Silent Night for some reason.
Ben put his hands on his hips and started pacing the garden, shaking his head and muttering. He just could not understand why he wasn’t getting any more muscular or manly. He snapped one of the poles off the climbing frame. He lobbed the broken bit into a bush and came down the steps toward me. He did a high-pitched awgh like Bruce Lee and judo-kicked me in the chest. I went down hard, landed right on my coccyx, which is like the bit left over from when we were orang-utans.
I got up off the floor and brushed the snow off my arse.
Ben went, What time is it?
I checked my watch.
– Eight fifty-nine my good man, I said.
– One minute to nine, Ben said.
– Eight fifty-nine, I said.
– One minute to nine then, Ben said.
– Right, I said. One minute to nine.
The watched beeped.
– Nine, I said.
The police showed up about quarter to six. By then it was raining and the snow had turned to grey-brown slush.
Weird how we stood there with our hands in our pockets, not knowing what to do.
– What do you want to do now then? Ben said.
– Whatever, I said. I don’t care. But I thought we were going to find your bike.
– We could do, he said.
– What do you mean we could do?
– I mean we could do.
He yawned and stretched. His jumper rode up and I could see the top of his pubes.
Ben took a running jump at the back wall and went up and over it like some kind of stick insect. He had agility.
I took one last look at the house. The dryer was still going round and round. I was going to go back inside to check on the kid, but I didn’t. The house seemed to change somehow right as I was looking at it, like it went human for a second, and it shit me up.
I got a foot in the trellis and climbed over the wall. Straightaway we were into white trees and grass and the icy rock-hard mud. On the other side, I saw Ben leaning against a tree, picking his fingernails, waiting. It was all dead quiet, just like being in the woods with all the branches and twigs and robins and clumps of snow falling down, even though we were only ten seconds from where we lived.