This story is by Noreen Antill and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
FORGIVE TO FORGET
“If you’re even half as good as your older brother, you’ll be successful”, remarked the high school Principal on enrolment day, with high expectations. Those words cut so deeply that they still echoed in Will’s mind years later, in pending retirement. From that day, he felt hatred for his brother, as he shrunk in embarrassment. “Even his name is before mine in the alphabet”, he joked loosely.
Will always attracted some sort of drama while growing up. The one who went to boarding school for five young years. The dark-haired green eyed good looking one who joked and entertained. The one who always felt second best. Not good enough. Lively and lovable, sporty and determined, either loved or despised. In high school, he became the bully, until challenged by another. He acquired a black belt in Judo. In his mind he was limitless. Nobody messed with him. Not even James.
Will buried his anger behind superior fitness and quick humour disguising jealousy and pain. He was obsessed with achieving more in life than his brother. The brother who never validated him, from whom he had sought constant approval, until passion turned to resentment.
Their mother told Will as a teenager that he could achieve anything he wanted to. He relished her comment and set out to risk more than James, who had pursued law straight out of University, with consistency in studies.
Will claimed he was smarter. He was more sporty, taller and with boundless energy, more engaging, bedding more ladies than he dared count in his younger years. Will always dressed well, kept a clean apartment, spoke with articulation from private school education and didn’t suffer fools lightly.
“The youngest is always the brightest”, he bragged, without any supporting evidence, save that he never finished two degrees he started. He often spoke in superlatives, particularly displaying verbal diarrhoea at dinner parties with valued friends, his drinking buddies. His repertoire of jokes was enjoyed by his essential audiences, the life of the party with countless stories about his risky travel adventures. Mostly, he was a pain in the ass to pensive James, more reserved, shorter, with middle aged spread, mousy brown hair and hazel eyes, somewhat non-descript, with boring dress sense.
James had married his University sweetheart, the one and only. They had a magnificent two-storey home evidencing their need to display materialism. Everything James achieved was acknowledged by the media, to Will’s great chagrin.
Will knew about condoms well before his brother, James, who was met with ridicule at the mere suggestion that he should explain to Will how to put one on. Will travelled the world for a few years before settling down. But lifelong feelings of anger and resentment lived on, simmering beneath the surface. He played the player whose world was his oyster, one who didn’t take himself too seriously, at least on the ‘surface’.
Being a lawyer had moulded James into the art of detachment from emotions and feelings surrounding his role as Lawyer who specialized in managing his clients’ investment funds. James’s dry and dispassionate delivery of social dialogue, offended Will’s heart-felt approach to life, underwritten by his raw emotions. Will was drawn to Marketing, with the gift (he called it) of being able to talk under water, with a mouthful of marbles. Having two ears and one mouth, it had not occurred to him to use them in that proportion, always preferring instead, to attempt to impress anyone, who would listen. Will’s career in Sales consulting sunk and after he drowned, with the marbles still in his mouth, he chose to start his own company with overseas interest. Difficult team management personality clashes had defined his future career choices.
“I don’t hang out with losers”, Will remarked with arrogance fuelled by self-inflated confidence. “All my friends are perfectionists, all successful in business”. He didn’t define his definition of ‘success’. His alcohol-abuse supported his narcissistic-filtered view, that always frustrated his family and drove James mad. Their idealised perspective that rarely matched the reality of James and Will never again becoming close, faded painfully, despite their heartfelt wishes, to the contrary.
When James was 19, Will was 12. Their Dad, an accountant, quiet and unassuming, had died in a car accident that year. His older brother became the surrogate by default and Will looked up to him for constant approval. For his entire life, James buried his father’s passing, closing off his emotions, an excuse to treat Will with distain, so Will recalled.
James hated the attention Will got from their blonde, extrovert mother, that he still gets, despite her having a pet poodle. Their mother always denied Will was her favourite, but as a kid you come to know who your parents favour most, even if they don’t realize it.
James rarely made eye contact with Will, too busy, only half listening, ever his superior. Will was told by his therapist, “the best you can do is to forget he exists until you’re ready to forge a positive relationship with him, which may very well be never. Just carry on with your life!”. Their difficulties in childhood had become frozen in time, simmering and festering, surfacing in a toxic, dysfunctional and dangerous manner.
So they carried on, muddled through. James in his ‘perfect marriage’, yet unable to produce children; and Will producing two, then rearing two step-kids after his divorce. That stressed them over the years and the brothers (in name only) spent less and less time together. Will, with boundless energy, his ‘no rules for me; nobody tells me what to do’ attitude, his ‘holier than thou’ unmitigated road rage, and enraging others with his cocky and overbearing perceived, ill demeanour.
Will was at breakup stage from his third difficult needy relationship post-marriage. Resentment also lay with his first wife. “I do want to have sex again, but not with you”, her last remark that pushed him over the edge to leave.
In the same period his mother died suddenly with heart failure. The boys attended her funeral. Will gave a riveting heartfelt and humorous speech. James did not attend the wake. James handled the Will as executor, unhappy that again his mother favoured Will, her ‘baby’.
Rejection and anger lay just under the surface, with all Will’s relationships. Drinking his only solace. “Danger always follows me around”, he said, as if not sure why. “I was a warrior in my past life. I’ve been told, I am boundless”, he said mystically with certainty.
“I never know what’s going to happen from week to week”.
A phone call at midnight. Will stood there naked, helpless, dumbstruck. He was never ‘stuck for words’. Blood drained from his face, he sank to his knees, put the mobile phone down on the floor. He wept. Tears and sobs, without saying a word. It was the hospital 10 kilometres away.
James had Coronavirus and was not expected to live, on a respirator. His fears grew. He could not visit his brother in crisis. Will’s father’s sudden death resurfaced as emotions changed from shock to fear to grief. The night was long, he didn’t sleep, but stayed up drinking.
For five frightening days, Will was alone with his emotions. He flashed back to his childhood, smiling at all the good times with James. He remembered wonderful moments. He cried like a baby, to hear how much James was suffering, then had deep thoughts of being all alone, if James died.
The hospital phoned. James had pulled through after a brave struggle. Will called his sister-in-law to see James after two weeks’ isolation. Face to face in James’s home, for the first time in a long time, he made direct eye contact with Will.
“It’s not your fault”, James said softly. “I was so jealous of you. I was too young to play Dad. You were so athletic, so funny, so street smart, so good looking, so cool with the ladies. I felt like a nerd and buried myself in work. I’m sorry I wasn’t really there for you”. For once, it was James who couldn’t stop, words flowed like a river, from his heart.
Will’s eyes watered, gobsmacked. He spoke for the first time. “I always looked up to you brother. I could never achieve what you did in Law. I couldn’t cope with so much reading. I knew you were smarter. I wanted to be heard and seen. I still want to be half as good as you”, like the Principal told me at high school enrolment.
“You already are Will. You don’t have to be perfect. Just yourself. I’m here for you now”, said James with compassion, looking into his eyes. “I want to know that boundless brother of mine”. James put out both arms and they hugged, for a long time.
The next day, Will went to an AA meeting and never looked back.