The Scientist & The Builder

His distinctive voice first stumbled into my conscious properly during furlough, deeply, like ringing ears or the smell of garlic. Each summer morning I would go downstairs, sit in the living room, and read about Dostoevsky’s Idiot with a mugful of coffee, where it was impossible for me to escape the sounds of the house, and his distinctive voice amongst it. My father is not hard-of-hearing but everything he does – whether it be sneezing, eating, talking, or preparing lunch – must be done loudly, including the volume of this scientist, whose meeting declarations were shared across downstairs of the house. Perhaps I should have read in the garden, but I preferred that north side of the house, where the reading light was so blue and cold, especially after a shower and still-drying hair. Once upon a time I heard that an artist’s studio faces north, because there the natural illumination is steady on the subject. Since the start of lockdown, he and my father would have a meeting every morning at half-nine. The two would speak of lockdown’s last evening, which, in novelty, usually consisted of drinking, and would then discuss work, sharing jokes: the scientist and the builder. In my head I built up an image of what he looked like, simply from his voice and what he talked of. It would have been good to meet him. My father has a knack of befriending people who are so very different to him, all of them nuanced with artistic or creative interests, so as a youth, during dinner parties, I might often outstay my welcome conversating with a colleague or old friend: the Scot with a penchant for Russian history and literature, the school comrade who became a music producer, the delicate professor who taught microbiology at Q—M— University. Every morning since April my father spoke to him, and after thirty minutes their first meeting would end, and outside I heard the birds so often that it was easy to forget they were singing. His name was Rob.
    I was in the middle of a meeting and could hear my mother talking excitedly in the front room. She would take telephone calls in her armchair in the front room, where my northern reading light was, and she held the phone loudly next to her mouth. Very little in this house is conducted at a modest volume. Halfway through the meeting my brother appeared at my shoulder and motioned, the exaggerated way people do, attracting my attention. I silenced myself and pulled my headphones off. He informed me that our sister-in-law was pregnant again. ‘Again?!’ I said, rolled my eyes, sighed, and replaced my headphones. Afterwards my mother filled me in with the details. It was another unintentional pregnancy. My sister-in-law had her IUD removed, as it played havoc with her skin and moods, and then, neither of them apparently grasping the complexities of intercourse and conception, found themselves with child once more. Five weeks, or seven. ‘Call me when it’s eighteen,’ I told my mother. ‘If they think I’m buying them Christmas presents, they can fuck off.’ The life had been created, and so simply! It intrigued me that the loins of my younger brother, who I had sparred with and fought, had challenged and played with as a child, could bring about another’s existence so effortlessly. The kneescabs we nurtured as kids had nothing on him now. This is life, and it is leaving me behind, I thought, rolling three cigarettes. ‘I’m going out for a walk. In a bit.’ I stopped by the car park where there is a large puddle. The puddle is more of a pond than a puddle, in the middle of a carless car park, and when the wind blows the puddle ripples and the light it reflects is shattered and reassembled a million times a minute.

    It is the sixteenth. I cannot help but think of it. A year ago. All day I thought of—‘This time a year ago…!’ until I placed myself in the pizza restaurant of Gatwick airport, clumsily cutting into a margarita with a small, blunt knife. When my mother asked me what I was doing, I told her I would cook dinner, to take my mind off things; one part said, one part thought. There is a new reason to be cheerful, and she sends me photographs of her hands in the post, but I still, afflicted by nostalgia, find myself lingering sadly over how something so wonderful went so horribly wrong. The year has fallen away quickly. Perhaps because it is so strong within my memory, so remarkably unaffected by other events or occasions since, that much of it is vividly recalled at the anticipation of a date. For weeks now I have been aware of the sixteenth. A year, I tell myself, just make it past this anniversary and then you will be okay. In the absence of anything resembling an existence for the past ten months, my mind clung to what had happened in Helsinki as though it were reassurance of life, even if it were so long ago. Now I am separating the stems and the leaves from coriander, taking an acute satisfaction from the faint crickof the former underneath my mother’s sharp knife; a year ago I was walking through the Moomin-infested concourse of Helsinki airport, bubbling with joy and expectation. I pull another beer from the fridge. The cooking is going disastrously.
    Near the start of lockdown, my father approached me, uncharacteristically bashful. ‘Would you mind,’ he asked, a sunny May Friday—‘checking this over for me? Y’know, just spelling and grammar, and so on.’ It was thirty pages. I said I would not, but I soon became carried away with it, and wound up, during the course of my own working day, rewriting the whole thing. I ran through many of my corrections and edits, pointing to the piece of paper I had underlined in red—‘Here!… you cannot say Rob.’ ‘Yeah, but he’s my friend… Rob.’ ‘No, in this document he is Doctor Robert.’
    My sister-in-law told her six-year-old daughter about the new sibling she was to have. Outside it was snowing, but the snow was fragile. Just the tops of grass and eaves of houses; everything was either black or white. There were rectangles of central heating. ‘Mummy is pregnant. You’re going to have a new brother or sister.’ My niece looked at her. My niece has developed a habit of looking at people like they are idiots—‘Are you actually being serious? We don’t need another baby.’ It was only when after sister-in-law watched an old home movie of me that she remarked—‘You two are exactly the same.’
   The Irish pundit said—‘One of my main take-outs from this game was that Finland had a left-back called Daniel O’Shaughnessy.’
  The English pundit joked—‘Another one’s slipped through, Baz.’
   The French pundit said—‘He was born in Finland of an, um, Irish father and a Finnish mother. But has lived all his life in Finland, I believe.’
    ‘Yeah, er, his father’s from Galway… Moved to Finland for love.’
   ‘Would you move to Finland for love, Barry?’
   ‘Um, well, I’ve never been to Finland, so probably not, no.’
    If I look at the clock, it was easy enough for me to add two to the hour-hand. My brother is breaking lockdown rules to fuck someone. My father is asleep from the booze. My mother is playing some game on her phone. I am the only one paying attention to the television drama. I laugh at it and poke some fun. I look at the clock, add two, then I turn away. I laugh at the television drama. I have two bottles of wine somewhere. I look at the clock. I remember the simple dinner we ate after we had fucked for the first time in two months. I remember the way she danced on the spot as I walked towards her, the colour & feel of her trousers as we sat on a train into the city centre. I am terrorised by my own memory! Just make it past a year then never look at a calendar again. Laughing at the television drama.
    Rob was apparently complaining of a stomachache before he went to bed on Tuesday. Many things seem inconsequential as you get into bed with someone you love. When his husband awoke on Wednesday morning, Doctor Robert was dead next to him. How seldom does one notice the nighttime movements of another, that even upon the same mattress, as if, in love, the rolls and tosses are so familiar that they become one’s own? Who would even notice that, during seven hours, the other ceased to move and then they stilled and died, in the quietest of sighs? My work-tired brain, slowly adjusting to the fledgling year, wondered how long it takes for one body, in the sheets with another, to cool from thirty-seven-degrees to that of the bedroom? His husband rang round and notified people because, in a way that he was unsure of, he found that being sat by the phone and repeating the news over & over it both occupied his thoughts and hammered home, somewhat unkindly, that indeed his husband had died. Some things cannot be believed, I suppose, even after they are repeated three-dozen times. Nine hours after their last meeting, my father was informed that Rob had died. It did not sink into him. He began drinking then, and I went and sat in the garden.
    He told me over dinner one evening that Rob’s favourite film was Orlando and he asked whether I had heard of it. ‘Yeah, it’s an adaption of a Virginia Woolf novel with, um, what’s-her-name…Tilda Swinton! It’s a great book.’ ‘Never heard of it,’ said my old man. The scientist and the builder.
    ‘Hiya, love,’ the lady in the shop says when it is quiet. ‘Shit weather,’ says I—‘everywhere else is snowing.’ I walk with the wind in my face. There are so few cars on the road. The fish & chips shop is kicking out a real good smell. One quid special for a bag of Skittles next to the till. I notice her nail varnish as she puts down the pouch of tobacco; the paint stuck so long ago it has grown away, exposing the cuticle, a tiny glacier of time from when she painted it, rested splayed on the back of a crime novel. I think of twenty-four hours, one life made and another one lost. ‘You come out just for ‘baccy?’ ‘No,’ I say—‘I’m just out for a walk.’ There are waves bashing against the shore like they are meant to; the sea had been calm for days, despite rain that fell relentlessly. There is a break in the clouds, miles out, beyond the pier, illuminating something in the distance that I could not make out.