TW: mild language
“So there I was in a bar in Rotterdam. After so many weeks at sea, I was aching for a cold beer on a non-swaying surface. Little did I know, it wouldn’t be long until I would get this ‘battle mark’ on my eye.”
Leaned back in his armchair, cross legged and gesticulating, Bryan was entertaining his brothers with his sailing stories. Moving his arms around, the ice inside the whiskey glass created the melody and the Cuban cigar he bought after docking in Havana, acted like his baton.
“I can remember like it was yesterday,” Bryan said as he blew a thick coat of smoke. “We docked at 7PM and had the rest of the evening off. I was thirsty for some entertainment. Rick - my mate - and I went to some joint that seemed more animated and had some shots and a few beers.”
Johnny was smiling the whole time, admiring the oratorical talent of his older brother. He was a skinny, medium-height man, with round glasses, short, curly, black hair and penetrating blue eyes that betrayed an analytical and well-read man. With both hands in his pockets, he was sitting crosseleged on a pillow, near the fireplace.
“After a while, my eyes rested on the most beautiful young damsel.” Bryan closed his eyes and opened his hands, as to embrace the memory. “Hair like Indian silk, a taming smile, a sculpted body after Aphrodite Herself. Naturally, I walked to her and said ‘Hello, my lady! My name is Bryan Morgan, saylor on the open seas!’.”
Sam, the eldest, laughed at his younger brother’s self portrayal as an adventurer. He was a gentle giant, with a big and thick lumberjack-like beard and bulky, rosy cheeks. He was also smoking a cigar and sitting on the sofa with a bottle resting on his beer belly.
“I said: ‘Would you do me the honour of having a drink with me on this final night of my stay in your charming city?’, or something on the lines ofthat. She didn’t have the chance to reject me because some pack of meat showed up and shoved me away while spitting something in dutch, I presume.”
Bryan stood up to give his audience a more accurate reenactment.
“At first I was very polite, albeit drunk as a sailor — pun intended. I said to him ‘My friend, we were just talking. Relax!’ and I wanted to go around him. He would have none of it and shoved me again yelling ‘kankerlijer’ something. Naturally, my mild tempered self kept his calm, but riposted ‘Look, buddy, stop shoving me or I’ll shove your head up your rectum’.”
“‘Mild tempered’, my ass!” Sam laughed. “You nearly blew a fuse when Figo joined Real Madrid. I haven’t heard the word ‘cunt’ being yelled so many times in all my forty-four years.”
“Who’s telling the story here? Shut up!” came the irritated response from the narrator. “It looked like my firm determination to drink with that lady won the day as the behemoth let me pass. As I was approaching her, I sensed a hand pulling my shoulder back. Most likely the shots have numbed my reflexes because I didn’t raise my hands to block the incoming empty bottle swung by that fucking tree-of-a-man. It smashed my face, I fell on the ground bleeding, but thank my lucky stars — and Rick for calling them — some five-six crewmates barged in the bar, kicked away the big guy and took me to the hospital. A few stitches later, I look like Anakin.”
Bryan sat down, revelling in his oratorical talent and seemingly endless arsenal of stories. He deserved a bit of hydration with a ten year old scotch.
Johnny’s eyes shone in admiration for his older brother. The way he narrated his escapades made him feel like he was the protagonist, like he was the big, tough, manly saylor that Brian is.
“Boy, oh, boy, Brian!” said Sam as he stood up to add more wood to the fire. “You’re full of shit, but at least it’s entertaining.”
“I swear on our mother’s grave that I’m telling the truth!” Bryan said in outrage. “You believe me, Johnny, don’t ya?”
Both older brothers turned their attention to Johnny who was not used to being in the spotlight, even though he was educating some twenty children each day at the grade school.
“I believe you!” came the soft and shy response.
“Bah, you were always the gullible one,” Sam dismissed him with a wave. “You were fourteen when you finally let go of the Santa story. I’m going to make myself a sandwich.”
“You should lay off the sandwiches, Yogi!” Bryan yelled and the reply was a wordless but eloquent finger raise, to the amusement of Johnny.
The sailor chuckled as he emptied the glass and planned his next beverage.
“Hey, Johnny, lemme make you a drink. You’re too sober, mate. What’s your poison?”
“N-no, thank you, Bryan. I’m ok!”
“Come on little brother, some gin and tonic won’t kill you!” Bryan insisted.
“No, please, I don’t want any!” Johnny responded in a slightly more aggressive tone than he would have wanted.
“What’s the matter? Are you sick?” Bryan asked.
“Nah, he's pregnant!” Sam’s baritonal voice vibrated from the nearby kitchenette accompanied by a bear-like chuckle.
Defeated, Bryan made a drink only for himself, while Johnny grabbed a bag of chips and went to change the playlist to some contemporary pop.
Outside, the snow was falling slowly and covered the tracks left by the cars the day before. The trees were covered in a coat of snow, but only the half that wasn’t facing the bright winter sun, which made it impossible to go outside without sunglasses. The peaceful atmosphere was disturbed by the music of the nearby ski resort. The slopes were filled with snowboarders, skiers and kids with sledges.
“How long ‘till the girls come back? I want to start making the barbeque. I dreamt about those pork ribs last night.” said Bryan as his stomach growled.
“Beth said the ski lesson will last for two hours,” Sam replied and took a bite out of his sandwich, “but I’m sure they’ll stay longer. Emma nagged me that she wanted to go skiing since some TikToker she follows learned to ski herself. They’ll be there until dark.”
“Even Olivia seemed enthusiastic to try skiing as well,” Johnny further sedimented the bad news for Bryan.
“But what about your kid, Johnny? Isn’t he like, four? Should he practice such a dangerous sport?“ Bryan said, intentionally exaggerating.
“He is five,” Johnny replied rather annoyed, “and he is old enough. You should make a sandwich yourself.”
“Fuck that! I didn’t buy ribs to spoil my appetite with bread! I’ll wait! Once, my crewmates and I endured four days without proper food because of some faulty refrigerators on our ship and poor fishing. There was a fire in the ...”
Sam rolled his eyes, harrumphed and dismissed Bryan with his hand.
“Well if you’re gonna be like that, I won’t indulge you with my escapades anymore!” Bryan turned his back, faking offence and went into the games room to play pool.
The others sat down on the sofa near the window and watched the ant-like people go down on the slopes.
“Nice cabin you found here, Johnny.” Sam said with admiration and with his mouth full. “It’s been a while since all three of us have been together. I think it was at your kid’s birthday, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, it was Paul’s one year anniversary. We had such a wonderful time. Bryan delighted us with his stories, Emma played with her cousin, the girls caught up. Actually, it was Olivia who convinced me to gather you guys today. She missed your family and even Bryan’s tales.”
Johnny smiled and reminisced about the relationship with his brothers, which was clouded by the short amount of time they shared face to face interaction since Sam and Bryan left their hometown.
“What about you, Sam? How’ve you been?” he said, turning his head towards his big brother.
“I’m getting old, Johnny! My back aches, my hair is thinning, but I have a wonderful wife and an amazing little princess whom I am spoiling rotten. Thank God she still has time in her busy teenager schedule for her old man. Every Saturday, we have a father-daughter activity where Emma and I go cycling through the park. We stop for cotton candy by the lake and watch the ducks and swans. Beth tries to keep me healthy with hikes, walks and salads, but you know me, it’s hard to take the beer out of a man and the man off the couch” Sam chuckled as he opened another bottle. “What about you?”
Johnny felt a warm embrace of love and affection towards Sam and his family life. Since they were children, he was his role model. The big brother that cannot be wrong in any way, the incorruptible father figure all three of them needed. After their father passed away from cancer, Sam took the role of head of the family and helped their mother as much as he could to raise his younger brothers.
“It’s going great! Paul’s going to kindergarten, Olivia paints and sometimes has commissions for portraits and I’m still at the school, teaching. Nothing out of the ordinary”.
A sudden shroud of sadness fell over Johnny as he gazed seemingly into nothing. Sam noticed his brother’s change of mood. Even when they were young, he would know when he would suppress his emotions. With fatherly-like care, he put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder.
“What’s the matter, kid? Eh, you’re thirty six and I still call you kid. Force of habit.”.
“It’s ok, Sam! It brings back childhood memories.” Johnny said, looking down at his feet. “It’s nothing much, it just seemed like the years went by so fast and at some point, our lives went in such different directions. It seemed impossible to intersect them again. Yes, we talk online, we exchange photos, but it’s not the same. I guess I missed spending time with you guys like when we were in school. Remember?“
Sam smiled and leaned his head back.
“I remember when we all joined the football team. You were like an Oompa-Loompa running around trying to be useful, while Bryan was too busy showing off his ‘talents’ to the girls passing by. I can remember vividly one instance when he was talking to a girl and somebody kicked the ball right into his family jewels. He curled up in pain, but I think the shame is what hurt him the most.”
They burst into laughter.
“Remember when we took mom's car and went to the beach?” Johnny contributed to the nostalgia trip. “We woke up early in the morning so we could get there and back before she would notice it missing. But we had a flat on the way and spent the next three hours trying to change a damn tire. Mom almost strangled us when we got home. I had to wash the dishes for a month.”
Recalling the good times of your best years is like bathing your brain. You wash away, for the moment, the stress, mundane problems, your failures and worries and it takes you back to a better time. A time where you didn’t have real problems, when you could always count on somebody for aid and when your blissfulness could not be corrupted by the harsh world.
Bryan came back with a confident smirk on his face.
“Do any of you ladies want to get their ass kicked at pool? Since they’ve installed a table in the recreational room on the ship, I had a lot of time to practice.”
Johnny was saved by the bell as his phone suddenly rang.
“Excuse me, guys, I need to take this,” he said as he went upstairs.
“How about you, Sam?”
“I can’t be bothered.”
“Come on, you big lump. You’re going to carve the shape of your ass on the sofa all day?”
“Wait for Emma to come back and you will have a playmate. I want to relax and conserve energy.”
“For what? Lifting the fork to your mouth?”
The big man stood up menacingly, grabbed a pillow as a prop and laid it on his shoulder. Bryan took a step back in defence.
“No! For carrying you upstairs when you get plastered and throwing you off the roof!” said Sam as he threw the pillow like a WWE fighter would.
Bryan sensed he may have crossed the line a little, but did not let his brother see it.
“I’ll have you know, I have an excellent tolerance to alcohol.”
“I bet you do!” Sam responded with a sarcastic tone. “Let’s prepare the ribs. We can slow cook them and they will be perfect by the time the girls get back.
“Finally! Some action!” Bryan exalted and clapped his hands once. “Let me get a drink and we can start. Do you want something?”
The two brothers were busy preparing the meat when Johnny staggered back down. He looked like an empty shell being drifted by the seas. His face was white as a fresh coat of snow and he kept his balance with the help of the rickety railing. They didn’t notice he had returned and was standing four metres away from them, having the face of a man who had seen a ghost. Johnny wasn’t saying anything. He was watching his brothers and a tear ran down his cheek. After a minute, Sam noticed him.
“Johnny, what’s wrong? Who was on the phone?” said the big brother worryingly.
Bryan became visibly troubled. The youngest brother mumbled:
“It was my oncologist.”
His brothers’ hearts almost stopped.
“My test results came back. I have terminal cancer.”
Johnny had become expressionless in his effort not to burst into tears, but his bottom lip was trembling. Bryan dropped his glass which shattered near his feet, spilling the cocktail all over the floor. He ran to the toilet feeling sick to his stomach. Sam sensed the weight of the world on him. He did not know what to feel. Anger? Sadness? Shock? In two large steps, he was near his younger brother and grabbed him by the shoulders.
“Why didn’t you tell me before? Why? I could have helped you!” Sam yelled as he shook him.
Johnny did not respond. He looked his brother in the eyes and wrapped his hands around Sam. The latter wanted to keep his composure, but failed. He burst into tears and hugged him back.
Bryan returned and his eyes were red from crying.
“How long do you ...?” Bryan found the strength to ask.
“A couple of months, maybe”.
Bryan started weeping again and hugged them from behind.
“Please, don’t tell the girls while we are here!” Johnny said.
Both brothers nodded and untangled from the hug.
“How long have you been sick? Why didn’t you tell us anything? We could have helped. Are you sure there’s no other way? Maybe some experimental drugs or ....”
Sam’s tirade was interrupted by the sudden voices of the girls returning from their skiing lesson. Bryan ran upstairs as he knew he could not control himself. Johnny took a deep breath and put on a happy face and Sam wiped away his tears and went back to prepare the meat.
“Welcome back, girls!” Johnny said as happily as he could. “How was it?”
“My butt hurts!” Paul replied and laughed.
The innocence of the small boy cleared for the moment the gloom from their minds and both of the brothers laughed.
“It was awesome!” Emma said. “Dad, you have to come with us next time. I even made a TikTok and already it has over one hundred likes and... Dad? Have you been crying?”
Sam was caught by surprise.
“Uhm! It’s the onions, darling. I cut some for the salad!”
The day went on as if the call had never happened. They made the barbeque, played games and made a huge snowman the size of Sam. Bryan did not tell any more sailor stories, but played in the snow with Paul and Emma.
After the women and children went to sleep, the brothers stayed up late, talking about the terrible news and reminiscing about their childhood. They made a promise to meet as often as they could to compensate for the past twenty years.
The next time they would meet, would be at Sam and Beth’s house a couple of weeks later.
One month later, Bryan took them on a tour of his ship and introduced his brothers to his crewmates. They all had the same kind of stories as him, so maybe he was not lying after all.
Another month would pass and they would meet again for the last time. Sam and Bryan were among Johnny’s pallbearers. The ceremony took place in a small church in the town they grew up in and Johnny would be buried near their parents. The brothers slowly made their peace with the situation since that day at the cabin, but nothing prepared them for the funeral day.
While Sam was carrying his youngest brother on his final road, their time together flashed before his eyes. He recalled the childhood memories, the adventures they had together, the graduations, weddings, baptisms and the few holidays they spent together. All seemed not enough. All was taken for granted. He thought that they would always be there and that there was plenty of time to spend time together. But life has given them a harsh lesson about the uncertainty of tomorrow. If only they had more time.