My brother died yesterday. Marius was thirty-four years old.
Our parents are both dead and I’m probably the only person on the planet who will miss him. He had ignored the onset and speedy escalation of an Addisonian crisis, perhaps lying to himself it was a nasty viral infection. I don’t imagine he allowed the crisis to happen on purpose, but I can’t be sure. He managed to tell me where to hide his collection before he slipped into a coma, whispering his last words, ‘Collection, by wash.’
I have an absolute responsibility to my brother, to carry out his last wish. We always looked after each other, especially when our parents seemed to have forgotten they had children.
Marius was thirteen when he started the collection. I was eleven and looked up to my brother as if he was omniscient.
We were staying in Skegness, the neon-lit seaside town our grandparents had moved to for the weather, the beach and the golf course across the road from their large house. Our parents had left for a week away with their respective lovers and we had been left to amuse ourselves.
‘Let’s go to Gibraltar Point today,’ Marius said on our second morning without plans.
He always ignored my parents’ instructions to stay close to the house when we were alone for long periods, a small act of defiance, one that made me feel emboldened, as if I were invincible as long as I had my brother with me.
‘What’s that?’ I said, finishing a bowl of cereal.
‘It’s a nature reserve up the road from the golf course. We can walk along the beach, take some food and a bat, play some French cricket.’
‘But no swimming,’ I said with a smile.
‘Don’t swim in The Wash. King John lost the crown jewels there and you’ll drown and your body will end up across the water in Holland,’ Marius repeated the mantra my grandmother always started our holiday with in a voice that made me laugh and dribble tea.
The golden crown and the bags of jewels beneath the waves were always on my mind when we visited the sand dunes.
Wind, sun and blue sky framed our walk. The pier behind us, at the centre of the town, became smaller as we ambled further east. Marius had the cricket bat, sporadically practising his defensive guard, boundary sweeps and hitting six out of the ground. I carried a plastic bag containing hastily made ham sandwiches, a few Penguin chocolate bars and four cans of Tizer.
‘Shall we eat?’ I said, trudging barefoot in the sand was making me tired, but I didn’t want to seem as if I was complaining.
‘Maybe some chocolate and a drink, lunch in a bit,’ Marius replied, looking out at the water.
We sat halfway up a dune in silence, beach-grass tickled my neck. I was waiting for Marius to speak, happy enough to hold for his thoughts and remembering playing pirates with him and my mother, further down the beach, some years before. Our dog was still alive then.
‘Come on, let’s get there before lunch,’ he said, standing quickly, pulling what looked like a conch shell out of his shorts and belting it high with the bat. I watched it splinter and fall near the tide line. The smile on my brother’s face, his eyes wide and wild, told me how much he had enjoyed the heavy connection with the wood, the power in his wrists swiping the shell away like a head from the neck and shoulders, his excitement was in destroying something, changing its shape forever.
‘May I have a go?’
Marius handed me the bat and pulled out another shell, smaller this time.
It took me four attempts to hit the shell, and I only managed to pat it a few feet away. I handed the bat back to Marius. He collected the shell, held it up, nodded his approval, put it back in his pocket and jogged towards me.
‘Chipped it, very good,’ he said and put his arm around my shoulder.
‘There you go, not far.’
I was watching my feet plough the sand when Marius announced a view of Gibraltar Point. I was hungry, tired and hot. The water looked so inviting, but the damned King John’s jewels lost in The Wash and me-dead-in-Holland loop erased the idea of swimming.
The Skegness pier behind us looked as distant as the Moon. I felt a drop in my stomach and wondered why we should ever go home.
Marius threw a tennis ball towards me and swung the bat. He placed it in front of his legs and I bowled an underarm aimed at his knees. He knocked the ball back over my head and laughed.
‘Six for the captain,’ he shouted.
We played bat and ball catch until we reached the reserve. As we walked into the visitor centre I picked up some information leaflets and Marius wandered off to the large observation windows, overlooking the salt marsh. There were lots of chained binoculars sitting on plywood tables for us to use. We stood in silence, I glanced at Marius. His sighting technique appeared methodical, grid-like. I moved the binoculars up and down, left and right, but only drew repeated views of mud, sand and a high perimeter of dark green beach-grass.
‘I see one,’ Marius whispered.
‘Where, what?’ I said and stared at nothing.
‘It’s gone now.’
I put my binoculars down and read the introduction in one of the information leaflets: ‘The reserve is located between the East and West dunes, separated by a kilometre of salt marsh. This line of water produces and seals in nutrients for the wildlife which are vital for the food web.’
Many birds nested at Gibraltar Point, although, apart from seagulls, I hadn’t seen any. I was intrigued by the look of one and its name in particular: the Eurasian Oystercatcher. The bird had a plump black and white body, a small head and a very long orange beak, which looked like a carrot. Such odd features made it seem like a natural outcast.
‘Was it this bird, did you see a bird like this one?’ I asked Marius, holding the leaflet up.
He glanced at the photograph quickly, looking back into the binoculars.
‘It wasn’t a bird.’
I wandered around the centre, there were a few other people looking at wall displays, and watched a short video about the Natterjack toad. Its burrows were close, but protected by the reserve. I imagined squashing one of the slimey creatures under my foot or with a hammer. Its lumpy form was green and brown, but golden in the sunshine. It would have made a glorious mess.
‘That looks repulsive. It’s pretty boring in here. Let’s go and have a look at the coastguard house next door,’ Marius said, close to my right ear.
We were the only visitors in the house. There was only one room, full of fishing nets, oars, a dented first-aid kit tin and old fashioned life-jackets. A table and three chairs occupied the middle of the room and there were some more wall displays and a storm lantern on each of the three window sills.
We walked around the room, both of us touching some of the items. Marius put on one of the life-jackets and lifted up a storm lantern. He put his right thumb and index finger inside the glass.
‘There are fingernails in here, they look clean and freshly cut,’ he said, without looking at me.
He counted some of the nails out and put them in his pocket.
‘I’m hungry,’ Marius said, tossing the life-jacket to one side. ‘Let’s go and find somewhere to eat. It’s too cold and gloomy in here.’
We wandered away from the reserve for a few minutes, heading further up the dunes, batting and catching the tennis ball for something to do.
‘Look at that,’ Marius said. He stopped and handed me the bat.
It took me a few seconds to focus on the thing that seemed to be entrancing my brother. A bird was trapped in a swirl of bright red netting and thrashing to find a release. We walked towards the captive as if it was an unexploded bomb and stopped a few feet away from it.
I took the reserve information leaflet from my pocket.
‘I thought I recognised it. It’s called a Little Tern,’ I said.
Marius took a few steps further and stood over the bird, which continued to struggle. He squatted down and moved some of the outside-edge netting. I didn’t try to help. I knew when to leave my brother alone to organise his thoughts.
After a few minutes of creating a space around the Little Tern, Marius leaned in and dug his hand into the sand under the bird. The Tern’s yellow beak continued to snap open and shut like scissors, its head feathers were squashed down except for a fluff of black poking through the netting like a punk mohican hairstyle.
‘Right, here we go,’ Marius said.
He lifted spilling sand and the Tern slowly and began to stand up.
‘Fuck, goddamn you,’ he shouted and dropped the bird. He turned around with clenched fists. Blood dripped onto the sand.
‘Give me that,’ he shouted at me.
I handed him the cricket bat and took out a pair of my grandfather’s glasses. I had found them in a kitchen drawer with a packet of Capstan cigarettes and a box of matches when I was making the ham sandwiches. I pocketed two of the cigarettes and the matches.
I put the glasses on, knowing they would blur my vision. I often did the same thing with my father’s reading glasses when my parents argued. A different view on reality, making certain horrors more acceptable.
Marius swung the bat three times, like an axe, and stood over the mashed creature. He sniffed loudly and walked away towards The Wash. I took the glasses off and watched him. He ran the cricket bat back and forth in the waves and rubbed the wood clean. The Little Tern’s blood had mingled with his as he used his lips and tongue to staunch his wound.
Marius handed the bat back to me and removed the Little Tern’s head with his pen knife, wrapping it carefully in his handkerchief.
We walked to the top of a nearby dune and sat to eat lunch, the sky was a cloudless blue, a hint of the red netting was available to my peripheral vision.
The ham sandwiches and Tizer were warm and the chocolate bars had melted. But the biggest letdown was the thought of going home.
I took out the cigarettes, handed one, and the matches, to Marius. He cupped the waving flame and lit both as if he had been smoking for years.
I coughed and felt nauseous as I inhaled my first drag.
‘It gets easier each time,’ Marius said, nudging my shoulder with his. ‘You might get to enjoy it.’
I held my Tizer can to one side and tapped ash into it. I had seen it done like that on television once and wanted to seem more grown-up to my brother.
‘I heard mum and dad talking a while back, they’re going to get divorced in a couple of years, maybe less. They want to wait until we’re a bit older,’ I said.
Marius took a long, final drag on his Capstan and crushed it into the sand. He blew the smoke out through his mouth and nostrils.
‘I know, and I couldn’t give a shit. It’s you and me. We can’t depend on them or anyone else.’
I felt scared and elated. My brother and me. Just us.
I don’t know whether I’m sitting anywhere near that dune now, everything shifts and changes. The distance to Gibraltar Point feels about right. The weather is much the same as that day. My brother’s collection is still a mystery to me. I haven’t opened the box and I won’t. Our secrets will be buried with him. I will walk to the nature reserve soon, when it’s dark, and bury the collection under the coastguard house. Perhaps it will come loose from the sand and sink into The Wash, sitting next to King John’s lost riches. That would have made my brother smile.
Marius loved collecting some part of all the remains, that was the thrill for him, and that made me happy. Sometimes he put himself at great risk of capture for a particularly special piece. We forgot where a lot of the bodies are buried. But Marius loved his treasure hunts. We both did.
We shared a lot.
D D Gothard has a CertHE and Masters degree in creative writing from Ruskin College, Oxford and Bath Spa University. He has been published in numerous anthologies and literary journals - most recently in The Honest Ulsterman and The Incubator. Gothard was shortlisted for the Waterstone's Writer of the Year Bursary in 2009. "Friendship and Afterwards" (Yolk Publishing 2014) received a People's Book Prize nomination. "Simon says" (Urbane Publications 2015) was a WHSmith's Bookshops bestseller. "Reunited" (Urbane Publications 2016) was a Blackwell's Bookshops featured novel. The author was an arts correspondent for After Nyne magazine.
Image: Old Postcard of Skegness Pier, 1926, Smabs Sputzer (Flickr)