“Oh heaven! What phantoms in my head,” Finlay lit another cigarette and turned his face away. He exhaled a thin stream of smoke into the warm summer air.
I sat beside him on the bench facing the roses as his fingers slipped though mine, his long, varnished nails biting in my flesh. He’d painted them red. For passion, he said. When I asked what he was so passionate about, he’d lifted a shoulder and suggested we remove from the dayroom to the garden, where we sat now, Finlay chain-smoking and muttering to himself while the scent of the roses wafted by on the July breeze.
“The roses look beautiful today, don’t they Fin?” I said, keen to keep our conversation relatively phantom free. It had been a while since he’d last spoken of
them, and I had hoped we were approaching the time when he could finally lay them to rest.
“They do,” Fin agreed with a nod. “I take care of those red ones.”
“I know. You told me last time. Only then it was the pink roses. Remember?”
When he didn’t reply, I glanced at him staring off into space with a slight frown, which accentuated the lines around his eyes, making him appear so much older than his thirty-four years. His hair too, although still thick and unkempt, sprouted pure white at the temples, and I suffered a cruel vision of how he’d be in twenty, thirty years time, still wearing those awful pyjamas, still sitting on a bench much the same as this one, his mind fuzzy with medication as he tried to work out exactly where his youth had gone.
I swallowed against the sudden lump in my throat, and comforted myself in the knowledge that it wouldn’t happen like that. Fin was better now. Even his doctors confirmed it. When he left here he’d be the same as anyone else...almost.
“Hey Fin,” I said, maybe too brightly, “do you want to get something to drink now? I’m gagging for a cup of tea.”
My words fetched him back with a start, and he blinked at me several times as if wondering where I’d sprung from. “Yes, brother,” he said, stubbing his
cigarette out on the arm of the bench. “I’d like that.”
Even in a place like this Fin’s lanky frame posed something of a curiosity around visiting time. More so today, since he insisted on wearing scarlet silk pyjamas with matching slippers. The length of his stride had me, half a foot shorter and ten years younger, stumbling along behind to keep up.
Afternoon refreshments were taken outside in the warmer weather, and it was pleasant enough, sitting at a table on the terrace of a grand Victorian manor house, though the house’s purpose had changed over the years, from family home to orphanage, from boarding school to its present use as a private residential home for the emotionally disturbed.
Finlay opted for a bowl of strawberries for himself, and tea and a plain bun for me. I don’t particularly like buns, and the strawberries looked delicious, but when I visited Finlay I was brown. Brown shoes, beige t-shirt and chocolate brown cords. I wore them once every fortnight, strict as a uniform. Our parents didn’t come anywhere near as often as they ought, but when they did find the time my father was a shadowy grey and my mother an icy shade of blue.
“Brother?” Carefully, Finlay arranged each strawberry in a winding procession along the table. “Earlier you asked what there is to be passionate about.”
“Did I?” I replied, absently stirring my tea. I couldn’t sound too keen lest he decide to keep it to himself. Finlay tended to be stubborn that way.
“You did,” he confirmed, “and now I should now like to tell you.”
I shrugged, as though it didn’t bother me either way. “Okay.”
“Well, it’s like this.” He paused to clear his throat. “I’ve fallen in love.”
“Oh?” I hadn’t thought of love. Finlay had, to my knowledge, never fallen in love before. “With who?”
“Whom,” he corrected.
One side of his mouth twitched upwards. “It’s a secret.”
I sighed. Another of his phantoms, most probably. They still hadn’t quite left him, and one more wouldn’t make much difference. In the past, they’d encouraged him to indulge in the most bizarre behaviour, such as strip naked in the John Lewis toilets and wander around the perfume counter in nothing but a straw Stetson. Horribly embarrassing for us when the police fetched him home wrapped in a blanket, causing curtains to twitch all along the street.
When he nearly drowned in the local reservoir because his phantoms had convinced him that he’d seen dolphins in it, while at the same time neglecting to inform him he couldn’t swim, well, even mother had to concede her eldest son’s erratic actions went some way beyond mere eccentricity.
Still, since he’d come here the specialists had managed to fine tune his medication and he was far more stable now. I knew it wouldn’t be too long before they’d be looking to discharge him. I couldn’t deny it bothered me how he was going to cope on his own.
“What’s the matter?” Finlay scowled. “Just because I’m insane do you think I can’t love?”
“You’re not insane, Fin, and of course you can love.” I reached over to touch his hand resting on the table. “Who is it? Another resident?”
“Good heavens, no!” Finlay snatched his hand away. “Everyone in this place is stark raving bonkers. Or hadn’t you noticed?”
“Oh, Ethan!” he sighed, mimicking my frown. “Promise not to tell?”
He grinned as I threw up my arms in surrender, then proceeded to vacuum up his milkshake noisily through a red straw while I did my best to ignore the disapproving glare from a large woman in a floral dress at the next table over. I shifted my gaze to the girl who sat opposite her, a rather thin girl with lank hair and bandaged wrists. She offered me a sweet, contagious smile.
“I do believe I’m the one here with the licence to dribble.”
“I wasn’t dribbling,” I objected, returning my attention to Finlay. “I was just -- ”
“I know what you were just,” he said, his lips stained scarlet. “But I had supposed to command a little more of your attention, since you so rarely come to visit.”
“That isn’t fair. You know whatever time I get off work I try to spend with you.”
Finlay didn’t seem to comprehend the price tag attached to this place, or that it was funded by us, his family. One of a handful of such hospitals in the Wessex countryside, this one came with a first class reputation. Our parents continued to work full time after they should have retired, and twenty-five percent of my salary went to to pay the fees. We didn’t begrudge him, though. Finlay was better off here, well cared for and content enough. At least, I assumed so since he’d been here several months and had never once asked to leave. Technically, of course, he didn’t need to. His time here was entirely voluntary and he could discharge himself any time he chose.
He grew silent. I thought I’d upset him; Finlay was terribly easy to upset. But when I raised my eyes to his, which I was always reluctant to do, his cold,
flat gaze softened slightly.
“Failed suicide.” He nodded towards the thin girl. “Fifty milligrams of Amitriptyline per day.”
“A name would have done, Fin,” I replied, following the line of his gaze. The girl glanced up and smiled again. I found myself returning it, grinning like a fool, until a harsh kick struck my shin from beneath the table.
“Shit, Finlay,” I cried, pushing my chair back. “What was that for?”
“Who? I mean whom. What?”
“A name. The name of someone vastly more significant than little Sandy Wristslitter over there.”
“What does that mean? Who’s Hector Ramirez?”
Finlay lifted his eyebrows but didn’t reply. Instead, he set about systemically devouring the remainder of the strawberries. When he’d finished, he collected all the stalks into a red napkin which he folded away into the top pocket of his pyjamas.
“What are you going to do with those?” I asked, puzzled, as he rose to his feet.
“Wipe your chin and I’ll show you.” He leaned over the table and lowered his voice. “We’re off to the vegetable patch, brother, and for once I don’t mean the dayroom.”
“Wait up,” I called, chasing to catch him as he tramped down the gravel path leading away from the house. He strode on beyond a line of trees towards the back of the grounds where land had been set aside for organic vegetables. Healthy eating was a top priority here. Organic food helped balance out the heavy duty medication, I guess.
Finlay trotted over to a sizable square of soil abundant with leafy plants, where a green-clad gardener knelt with his back to us. Every now and then the gardener sat back on his heels, twisted to the side, and tossed a bunch of carrots into a nearby wheelbarrow.
“Good afternoon, Hector,” Finlay called over, as the gardener glanced over his shoulder. “I’ve brought my younger brother Ethan to meet you.”
“Ah, hello Finlay,” he replied with a thick Mediterranean accent. “How are you this afternoon?”
“Very well, thank you.”
“Hi,” I said, stepping up beside my brother.
The gardener squinted at me. He was a stocky guy, younger than Finlay by a good few years, younger than me even, his face unlined except for the effects of a nervous smile.
“Hello.” He nodded slightly before returning to work.
“Hector and I look after the roses,” Finlay informed me. “He’s teaching me how to care for them properly.”
“Is he now?” I said, as Finlay tilted his head to leer at the gardener’s broad backside. “Is this the guy responsible for your red mood?”
“Oh yes, undoubtedly so.”
Now, Finlay wasn’t an innocent. He’d had boyfriends in the past. Lots of them when I was growing up. My mother said they were his special friends, and I remember trying to pick out what was special about each one. Some were tall and slim like Finlay, others had painted eyes and shiny lips, still others wore tight, lurid clothing, and the odd one or two didn’t seem special at all. They all had one thing in common, though: they all kissed Finlay the way men kissed women. Open-mouthed with tongues. I cringed with embarrassment whenever he kissed a man in front of me, or worse, my school friends, because then I knew what would happen the following day. Invariably, I’d be a queer too, by default.
“So, what are we doing here?” I asked, after several moments passed in Finlay’s silent appreciation of the gardener’s rear end.
“Enjoying the floorshow,” Finlay said in a stage whisper. “Isn’t he delicious?”
“I don’t see any other fabulous arses around here, do you?” He looked me up and down reproachfully. “They haven’t yet invented a pill to cure homosexuality, brother, and even if they had, no asylum in the world would force me to take it.” He thrust his nose in the air and flounced off to perch on a section of fallen log, carved to form a makeshift bench.
A moment passed before I conceded to join him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you, it’s just he’s not the usual kind of bloke you’d...get a crush on.”
“A crush?” Finlay muttered, as though the word had never occurred to him before. “Yes, I suppose that’s what it is. There’s no harm in a crush, is there?”
He gave a wistful sigh, and pulled out his pack of cigarettes from his pyjama pocket. As he lit one up, I imagined the state of his long-suffering lungs. Black as tar they’d be, black as the eyes of the gardener studying us across the soil.
“Coo wee, Hector? Come and join us.” Finlay gestured to him with a girlish wave. “Tell Ethan how I’ve been tending to the gardens.” He patted the space between us, and to my surprise the gardener climbed to his feet and ambled over.
“You’re looking well today, Finlay,” he said, wafting a faint hint of sweat and earth as he lowered himself onto the bench between us.
“I am well,” Finlay agreed, leaning back towards the flawless sky. “It must be the weather. And the Sertraline, of course.”
“Not so much the medication, I think,” Hector said, turning to me. “Finlay’s been looking forward to your visit all week.”
“Has he?” I’d assumed I was tolerated more than welcomed. Finlay had never given any indication of enjoying, much less anticipating my visits before.
“Don’t get excited, brother,” Finlay glared at me along the back of the bench. “There’s no one else to talk to, and even you are an improvement on my cell wall.”
“You don’t live in a cell, Fin. Your room is kitted out better than my whole flat.”
“And yet I’d trade it in for a hovel if the locks were on the inside.” Finlay flicked a speck of ash from his chest, his words rendering us both speechless.
The gardener took to studying his large, calloused hands. My big brother was nothing if not a drama queen.
“Well! Following that ghastly silence…” Finlay tossed the cigarette into the dirt and delved into his pyjama pocket again, this time to withdraw the napkin with the strawberry stalks inside. He placed it on Hector’s lap and began to unfold it on his thigh. It seemed inappropriate to me. Gratuitous. I didn’t know what to say, so I stared at the ground; more precisely, at Hector’s boots. He’d painted them green, the same green as his overalls.
“Green and red together,” Finlay announced with pride. “My favourite combination.”
“Thank you,” Hector replied, and tucked the stalk-filled napkin away into his pocket as if it was a precious gift. “I shall put them with the others.”
“Others?” I asked. “You’ve got more of those?”
“Of course. I’m rather fond of strawberries.”
“This is true.” Hector smiled. “He is.”
“Isn’t there a saying?” I said, noting Fin’s free hand still rested on Hector’s thigh. “Red and green should never be seen?”
“Blue and green, brother. And I have no intention of introducing Hector to our mother.” Finlay exhaled a breath of smoke into my face and I looked away, feeling like a ten year old kid again, the boy no one wants to hear.
“I’m sure your mother is a charming lady, Finlay,” Hector said diplomatically.
“She most certainly is nothing of the sort! She’s about as charming as a shark in a sunhat. Isn’t she, Ethan?”
“She’s not that bad,” I muttered, but to Finlay, perhaps she was.
He’d been a bright child, and she pushed him hard to do well. She envisioned bragging over the garden fence about her son with the high salary job in the city. Finlay had different ideas. He dropped out of school on his sixteenth birthday without taking a single exam. Mother was mortified. Being only six at the time, I don’t remember too much about it, except that the arguments were constant. Finlay wanted to sit in the park all day and paint strange abstract designs on canvas. He was a keen artist in those days, but Mother insisted he finish his education and go on to university. She even went so far as to throw out his art stuff, including years’ worth of his paintings. It was the worst thing she could have done.
For weeks afterwards the only person he would talk to was me. Himself too. He’d been talking to himself for a while. I thought it was fun to press my ear to his bedroom door and overhear entire conversations. Mother didn’t find it so amusing. She wanted her fantasy son back, the boy who achieved A grade at everything, who always did as he was told. Even now, the youthful intelligence still blazed behind Finlay’s eyes. That was the saddest thing of all. She blamed herself for his problems and at the same time was certain she could recover what he had once been.
“Take no notice of him!” Finlay glared at me, jolting me into the present. He leaned closer to the gardener. “I thought we might chat about how well I’m doing. Aren’t I, Hector?”
He seemed keen to gain this guy’s approval. I wasn’t sure why, though. Lust didn’t quite cover it.
“I think your doctor is the best person to ask about that,” Hector replied as he took Finlay’s hand with his own, tightening his fingers around it for a second before lifting it away from his thigh and letting go. “I am only a gardener.”
“Oh, but you’re much more than that! Hector and I spend hours together, brother,” Fin said, looking over at me. “He’s such a good teacher, amazingly skillful with his hands. Do you know just the other day he -- ”
“Yes,” Hector interrupted too loudly as he clambered to his feet. “Finlay is doing well. He’s keen to learn, loves to work here in the garden. There are no problems with him. I’m sorry, but I must get back to work now. It was nice to meet you, Finlay’s brother.”
“It’s Ethan. And you too.”
“Goodbye, Finlay, have a pleasant afternoon.” He didn’t give Finlay time to answer as he trod back over the soil, trampling vegetables leaves in his wake.
When I turned to Finlay to ask if he knew what was with the gardener’s sudden retreat, he too was already up and halfway along the path back to the hospital. Once again I found myself jogging along behind to keep up.
“Hey,” I called after him. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I’m perfectly well, brother,” he replied, maintaining his brisk pace. “Didn’t Hector just say so?”
He walked on with his head down, distancing himself from me, muttering obscenities beneath his breath. Once back in the dayroom, though, his head came up as he sought out the area containing his particular chair. Fortunately it sat empty. There would have been a scene if it had not. The adjacent chair, however, was occupied by the same slight, mousey girl whose white dress matched the colour of her bandaged wrists.
“Oh, the nerve!” Finlay huffed as I came up behind him. “What on earth does she want?” He stomped over and flopped into his chair, legs out, arms dangling over the sides, ignoring the girl, even when she greeted him with her sweet smile: “Hello Finlay. I’ve been making sure no one takes your chair.”
Finlay snorted, and lifted one hand to make a point of studying his painted nails. Getting nothing back from him, she turned her attention to me. “Hi. I’m Sandra. You two are brothers, aren’t you?”
“Ethan. And yes, we are.”
“I thought so. You look a lot alike.”
“Good lord!” Finlay shrieked, as I opened my mouth to reply. “The slanderous strumpet! Look alike indeed! Get rid of her, Ethan. At once.”
Sandra shrank back in her chair. “Why? What did I do?”
“Are you blind? Isn’t it obvious I am red and he is brown? BROWN is nothing the same as RED! You see, brother, what I have to put up with in here? But don’t worry. I’m sure someone will be along in a moment to cart her off to the padded cell in the basement.”
“There isn’t any cell, you horrible pig!” Sandra cried before bursting into tears.
“That was out of order, Fin,” I agreed, wondering if I should apologise to her on his behalf.
“So is my head,” Finlay replied dully. “That’s why I’m here. What’s your excuse?”
“I wonder myself sometimes.”
“Do you indeed? Well, I never asked you to come. Go and comfort that silly little girl. You’ve been ogling her all afternoon anyway.”
“That’s not true.” I cast a quick glance at Sandra, still crying as another resident, a tall middle-aged woman in a badly fitting black wig, hovered nearby with a box of tissues.
“Liar!” Finlay leapt to his feet. “You’re doing it even now. You never want to spend time with me. It’s such a complete waste of time, isn’t it?”
“Finlay,” I began, shocked by his sudden outburst. “You -- ”
“No! Don’t say anything. I don’t want to hear any more of your lies. I’m going for a cigarette now, and I’d prefer it if you weren’t here when I get back.”
“We’d prefer it if you never came back,” Sandra sniped through her tears.
“Hey,” I said to her. “No need for that.” I turned to Finlay as the black-wigged woman shoved the tissue box in his face.
“Get out of my way!” he shrieked, and pushing her to one side, he hurried out the French doors, leaving me in the centre of the room, wondering if I should go after him or attempt to calm the girl in the chair.
It wasn’t the first time he’d made a woman cry. He was terrible with our mother, though she rarely let her emotions show. No matter how vicious Finlay’s tirades against her, I’d never once seen her cry in front of him. Occasionally, when she came close to breaking down, my father would rise to her defence, but most of the time he’d escape to the conservatory with a book and a CD until the shouting had ceased and it was safe to emerge. And like my father, I’d long ago found Finlay’s tantrums best ignored, so he needn’t think I’d chase after him. Besides, I had some apologies to make on his behalf.
“He doesn’t mean it,” I said, in a vague attempt to comfort Sandra. “He’s just sensitive about certain things. We’ve all got our colours and, well, they can’t
be mixed up.”
“How silly.” She sniffed, her tears already drying up. “You wear brown because he tells you?”
“Only here. Outside I wear blue, green, yellow, orange, whatever colour I choose, really. I’ve got a black jacket in the car, but don’t tell Finlay.”
She smiled, her face fresh and pretty, as though she’d never been crying at all.
“That’s better,” I told her. “You have a beautiful smile.”
She blushed. “Thanks. Will you stay with me a while?”
I should have declined. I needed to go check on Finlay, maybe find the reason behind his outburst, but instead I found myself perching in his chair and relaxing into a conversation with Sandra. We spoke of simple things – of music, of books, of places we’d visited or would like to go, anything except her bandages and her jutting bones – until I realised the polish was beginning to wear off the day and still Finlay hadn’t returned.
“I suppose I’d better go look for him.” I glanced towards the French doors.
“Why?” Her fingers rested on my thigh, like Finlay’s on the gardener’s.
“Because he’s been gone a while. And he was upset.”
“So? He upset me first.” Her features puckered into a scowl. “No wonder he never gets any visitors.”
“He does get visitors. He has me.”
“No he doesn’t. I stole you away, didn’t I?” She giggled.
“I’m here for my brother,” I said, standing up. “I just wanted to check you were all right, that’s all.”
“It took you half an hour to find that out?” She folded her arms, her sudden smirk nowhere near as attractive as her smile.
I checked my watch. I had indeed spent the last half an hour or so talking to her after Fin had stalked off. He’d been a bitch, nothing new there, but there was no excuse for my neglect.
“I lost track of time,” I said as I headed for the doors. “I need to find my brother.”
“Suit yourself. But you know where I am when you get bored again.”
“Fin has never... Oh, forget it.” Finlay was right. She had taken up enough of my afternoon.
I heard his voice long before I saw him, a slither of red silk though the bushes dividing the path to the rose garden. He was with someone, someone with a heavily accented voice. I ducked down and edged closer until I could catch the conversation.
“...is the only way it can be,” Hector was saying, as I peered though a chink in the foliage. “For now.”
“Do you know the worst thing about being here?” Finlay asked, his voice unsettled. “It’s being treated as though I were still a child.”
“You will never be a child to me,” Hector said gently.
“Of course I won’t.” Finlay sniffed, running a tissue beneath his nose. “I’m practically old enough to be your father.”
“Ah, Finlay, you do make me smile. There are not so many years between us.”
“There are enough,” Finlay replied, dabbing at his eyes. I wondered where he’d got the tissues, and realised it must have been from the woman in the Morticia Addams wig. Maybe that display in the day room had been genuine after all. I should have gone after him instead of virtually chatting up that girl Sandra. Finlay might well have been crying all this time and all he’d had to comfort him was the gardener. Hector tutted, took a pair of secateurs from the pocket of his overall and clipped the ripe head off a red rose.
“Ho-key,” he said turning back to Finlay. “Here is a gift. Of red and green. Together.” As he tucked the rose behind Finlay’s ear, Finlay stood ramrod straight, never taking his attention from the gardener. I don’t think I’d ever seen him so still, so attentive. It lasted all of ten seconds before he plucked the rose from his hair and tossed it at Hector’s green boots.
“Only lovers exchange roses,” he said sulkily.
“And friends?” the gardener asked, unfazed as he bent to collect the rose from the path. “What do friends exchange?”
The corner of Finlay’s mouth tugged toward a smile. “Strawberry stalks.”
“Ah, then perhaps you will accept this as a gift from a future lover instead.” Hector straightened and pressed the rose to his lips before reinstating it behind Finlay’s ear. “There will be two dozen more the day you are released from here.”
“And do you plan to adorn those upon my person too?”
Hector touched his thick, tanned fingers to Finlay’s shoulder and leaned close. I didn’t catch what was said, but it was enough to lift Finlay’s eyebrows as his mouth widened in comic shock.
“Oh, I should be a weary old lunatic by then,” he said, amused. “Acrobatics of that nature will be quite out of the question. Really, Hector! I recommend you should show your appreciation of this body while it is still relatively youthful and more than willing to do what you ask of it.” And with no more indication than that, Finlay lunged, arms outstretched as if to enfold an alarmed Hector in a tight embrace.
Hector stumbled back a step and raised both palms as a barrier between them. “Finlay, please! If I get fired we will never see each other. And we will never know what it is to be together.”
Finlay stopped, lowered his arms, and clasped them behind his back. “I’m sorry,” he said, sounding disappointed. And there was another first – Finlay saying sorry. To my knowledge he’d never used the word before. Ever. “I suppose I got carried away.”
“It is not that I…because I would very much like to...but...” Hector paused and shook his head. “It’s getting late. You should go back to your brother. Before he comes looking and finds us like this.”
“So what if he does? We’re only talking. And besides, I asked him to leave. He’s probably halfway down the motorway by now. He couldn’t wait to get away.”
“Finlay,” Hector sighed. “This is not the attitude to take. Ethan cares about you. When we were all sat together earlier, I saw his concern. His uncertainties. He cares that you should not be taken advantage of by a big ugly oaf like me.”
“Don’t worry about that,” Finlay replied with a dismissive wave. “He thinks I have a crush. A CRUSH! Do you know how insulting it is to be told by my younger brother I have a crush?”
Hector shrugged. “I don’t think he meant it to be insulting, Finlay.”
“He did. He bloody well did.” Finlay took out his cigarettes in trembling hands and fumbled to open the packet, but Hector reached over and plucked it straight out of his hand.
“Please. Don’t upset yourself. This is no good to anyone.”
“I’m not upset. I’m angry. And I need my cigarettes, so give them back.”
“You smoke far too many. First we get calm, and then I return the cigarettes to your pocket. But you do noy touch them. Understand?”
“Yes. And I am calm,” Finlay insisted as he pushed out his arm, palm down, his fingers almost steady. “See?”
“I see.” Hector stepped forward and placed the box into Finlay’s breast pocket. “Now keep them out of sight. And do not be tempted until after dinner.”
Yes, he was good, this Hector Ramirez. My brother, who emerged from the womb with a cigarette in his mouth, had agreed to hold off on another until after dinner. Usually, when anyone advised him to quit, he smoked twice as many for weeks afterwards, just for spite.
So, it was more than a crush then. And yet the anger that should have raged through my blood was strangely absent. Instead, I experienced a warm sort of solace. The situation wasn’t ideal, of course, a member of staff interacting with a patient in such a way had to be taboo. But Hector was clear they could not venture beyond friendship here. That’s what they’d agreed, and Finlay needed one real friend more than he’d ever need an entourage of the ‘special’ variety who dropped him as soon as his irrational behaviour ceased to entertain them.
As I emerged from my hiding place and scuffed an audible path around the corner, both Finlay and Hector spun towards me, the rose tumbling from Finlay’s hair to once again fall at the gardener’s feet.
“That was a long cigarette break.” I forced a candid smile as I approached.
“Brother!” Finlay exclaimed, on the cusp of sounding pleased to see me. “Why are you sneaking about?”
“I’m not sneaking,” I protested as I bent to pick up the rose. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Finlay exchanged a furtive look with Hector and held out his hand. “Mine,” he said of the rose. “Hector said I could have it.”
“Oh, did he?” I said, placing it in his palm. “Take care of it, then. Looks like a special rose to me.”
Confusion passed across Finlay’s brow as he carefully closed his fingers around the stem. “No, it’s the same as the others, I’m sure.”
Not wishing to alarm him into thinking I knew more than he wanted me to, I changed the subject. “Nice boots, Hector,” I said to the gardener, who was looking markedly shame-faced. “They’re pretty distinctive.”
“These old things here?” Hector lifted one up and made a show of studying them. “They co- ordinate with my overalls.” He raised his face, half smiling as if expecting me to add something. When I didn’t, a blush rose to his cheeks and he dipped his head. “Perhaps I go now,” he said, already backing away. “I need to get things cleared up before I go home.”
“Is it that late already?” Finlay asked, sounding vaguely disappointed.
“Yes, almost dinner time,” Hector replied, still shuffling backwards. “I see you Monday, Finlay.” He turned his dark eyes to me. “Goodbye again, Finlay’s brother.”
“Ethan,” I said, as he turned his back.
“He knows,” Finlay sighed, twirling the rose beneath his nose.
“I’ve got to be heading off myself soon, too.”
“Yes,” Finlay replied, still gazing after a distant Hector. “I expect you have.”
“I’m sorry we didn’t get to spend much time together today. It’ll be different next time.”
“I’m not sure,” I said, thinking fast. “Maybe we could go for a day out. The seaside or something.”
Finlay fixed me with a disbelieving stare. “Really?”
“Why not? You said yourself you’re feeling much better with this change of medication. Hey, you could even spend a weekend with me at the flat. It’s a long drive, but -- ”
“No.” Finlay tensed. “Don’t overdo things, brother. A day is enough. I like my own bed at night.”
“Oh? And would this be the bed in your prison cell?”
“Prisons are free, aren’t they?” Finlay said haughtily. “This place, as you so often remind me, is not.”
I bit down on my smile. “So is that a yes to the day out?”
“As long as you don’t invite that vicious little trollop who thinks I’m brown.”
“I have no plans to.”
“Good. Then a day out would be lovely.”
“Cool,” I said, encouraged by his positive reaction. “Hey, your friend Hector might like to come too.”
“You mean my crush Hector,” Finlay replied, though I detected humour in his voice. “Aren’t you afraid I’d insist on having sex with him?”
I laughed. “No. Not particularly. Although what you get up to while I’m off fetching ice creams -- ”
“Oh, brother, you’re scandalous!” Finlay’s eyes almost sparkled as he took another sniff of the rose. “Of course I shall ask him along. The sight of Hector in a pair of speedos is sure to make my entire year.”
Never mind Hector in speedos. I was thinking more what a spectacle we’d make, the three of us strolling along the promenade, red, brown, and green. Colour coordinated like a set of dodgy traffic lights. Still, I was used to the attention, and it was something Hector would have to live with too if he intended to take Finlay on full time.
As we started back towards the house, Finlay slipped his hand through mine. I’d been forgiven for my earlier neglect. As swiftly as he surrendered to his temper, Finlay was equally inclined to forgive. And that vision I’d suffered, of that old guy lost and alone on some old garden bench lamenting his lost youth? It wouldn’t be my brother. Not Finlay, not with this new future to look forward to.
Copyright © Ash Penn 2008