Every day at 4pm, I see them, heading away from the primary school. The older one always nods, serious and sombre despite his teenage years; the younger one just waves. Once, you’d have said ‘start a conversation’, but you know that’s not me. Too many years alone, Al. Before and now.
But maybe that’s why I don’t see it at first. I don’t know. I think it’s more that it starts slow. The older one, see, he walks tall and proud, but one day, he’s hunching. Just a little. Could be a bad day ('we all have those,' you used to say), but he does it the next day, and the next: just a little more stooped, a little more tired. The younger one stops dashing forwards. His feet drag slightly; his gestures are smaller.
A cut on the older one’s hand. A bruise on the younger one’s arm. A limp. A black eye. Tired lines emphasizing young faces.
We knew all about that, didn’t we, Al? That feeling of terror, of trying to hide wounds. Me more than you, I suppose. But still. I know if you were here, you’d reach out to them. And I should, I know. But I don’t know how.
The next day, I go for my walk. It’s slow going, what with my hip, but that never stops me. I never feel anywhere close to ease until I’m outside among cars and people, the smell of fumes and dirt wafting through my nose. It makes no sense, of course. You always said that. But you were a homebody, Al. And I was too long outside to really like walls.
I always pass Al’s Bakery. The first one, I mean. I could go in, of course, and even get something for free, but I don’t want to see what they’ve done to it. I never do. Because what if they’ve changed it, Al? And what if they haven’t?
So, when 4pm rolls around, I’m back on the wall. And like always the brothers walk past. They’re arguing, the older one cradling his wrist, but when they see me, he nods and the younger one waves.
What would you do, Al?
They pause. Uncertainty flits across the older one’s face. The younger one says, “Hi.”
“I wondered if you could do me a favour,” I say, the way you used to.
The older one steps forwards, shielding his brother. “Sorry, sir. We’ve got to get home.”
I nod. “That’s OK. I just had a lot of apples and wondered if you’d take them. Save them going to waste.”
The older one frowns. “We can’t take food from strangers.”
“I can drop it off at your home.”
Now, alarm. “No! Uh. Sorry, sir. My dad, he won’t like that.”
I let them go. What could I do, Al? I’m not like you. I don’t know how to set people at ease. I don’t know how to make them trust me.
That night, I end up on the wall again. It’s silly, I know. You always said, you’d think I’d spend all my days indoors after everything. But then, you didn’t live outside as long as I did. And it helps, Al, to feel that bite of cold on my skin. Even in winter. It reminds me of why I’m here.
Oh, Al. What do I do? We promised, didn’t we? When we set up that bakery, we promised that every hurt and lost soul we saw, we’d try to save. But it was you who reached out to them. You spoke to them, sat with them, held them, the same way you did when, on your third night out, you found me drinking myself to death. I just filled in paperwork and loomed menacingly when required. So, I need you, Al. I’ve always needed you. I need your goodness.
The next two days, I don’t say more than hello. The older one seems relieved. I notice he walks closest to me now. You’d have been hurt by that, I think. I don’t think you ever got used to the sting when people veered away from us, both on the streets and afterwards. You never did understand hatred, really.
But on the third day, the older one’s got another black eye, and the younger one’s arm is cut. So, I say, “Who did this?”
They jump, startled. Once again, the older one shields the younger as he says, “Did what?”
I gesture. “This.”
“Just fighting.” There’s a hard edge to his tone. His brother looks away. “We got carried away.”
My fists clench, looking at that black eye. You always used to say that I leap to conclusions. But I was right, Al. I was right every damn time. Even you admitted that. And you didn’t meet the lucky ones, the ones who got out. I could talk to them. They were easy to understand. It’s the before phase, I can’t do.
In the end, I say, “You weren’t fighting.”
The younger one flinches. The older one says, “We have to go.”
They start to walk away. Desperate, I say, “It won’t get better, you know. There’s nothing you can do to appease someone like that.”
The older one flinches too, but he keeps walking. The younger one follows, glancing back at me. When they’ve disappeared from view, I go back in. What else can I do?
I don’t know what drives me upstairs, to my special box. God, you hated that box, didn’t you? You hated that I wore the same shoes, the same jacket, for ten years, but you were appalled that I refused to throw them out. ‘It’s unsanitary,’ you said. ‘Not even worth putting them through any kind of wash.’. But they’re what I had on that night. And they protected me, all those years ago, from the cold and rain. They’ve earned their retirement.
Now, I run my hands over them carefully. They’re disintegrating, but that’s OK. I’m mainly grateful they’ve lasted this long. My hands stop on the jacket pocket. Slowly, I reach in, and pull out my old catapult. The rubber’s crumbly but the wood’s been coated so often, I think you could run it through acid and it would hold up. And that carving at the bottom, of me and her, that’s still there.
God, Al. Do you think she thought the catapult meant something? A sign that I wouldn’t turn out the way I did? She made it for me, you know, for my sixth birthday. I loved it. I spent hours each day, playing with it, pretending I was Dennis the Menace. You said once, you’d think I’d grow out of it, but there are so many pranks a teenage boy can pull with a catapult. And then…
It was self-defence, I said, and you understood. That was OK, you said. But she made it for me, Al, and I used it against her. She raised me alone. Hugged me, taught me, fed me. And I…
It was self-defence.
And I don’t regret it.
When they walk past the next afternoon, I’m shooting cans from a nearby wall with the catapult, rubber now fixed. Time’s done a lot of things but it’s not destroyed my aim, it turns out. This time, the younger one stares at me. His brother nudges him, hissing something. I look at them.
“Sorry, sir,” says the older one.
“That’s OK.” He’s got long sleeves on today. And he’s lean, now, I realise. There’s a hole in the knee of his trousers.
“Hey, mister,” says the younger one. “Why are you always out here?”
“Jesse,” hisses the older one.
“It’s OK,” I say. I look at the boy. Jesse. “It gives me peace.”
Jesse’s nose wrinkles. “But it’s so loud.”
He’s right. Cars and buses race by, and people talk and smoke and laugh. You always said the same thing, Al. But I shrug. “It’s soothing.”
“Jesse, c’mon,” the older one hisses. “Sorry for bothering you, sir.”
You’d ask something, Al. I know you would. But I say, “You can try, if you want.”
“Really?” I nod and hand the catapult over. The older one wordlessly sets up the cans and together, we watch Jesse miss every single time. Eventually, I give him some tips and slowly he improves.
“You want to try, son?” I say to the older one.
He hesitates. “We’ve got to get home. We’re late.”
Jesse flinches. The older one looks at me, daring me to say something. But I don’t. I still don’t know what to say.
The next day, though, they stop to ask how I am. Jesse looks hopeful, so I give him the catapult. After a few tries, he gives it to his brother. Jesse fires with the glee of a kid with a toy weapon, but the older one, he fires with the cold focus of a sniper. He hits a can nearly every single time.
“Come on,” he says eventually. “We’d better go. Thanks, sir.”
His nose is bruised. You’d ask, Al. You always asked. So, I say, “Is everything OK, lad?”
He looks away. “It’s fine.”
The next day’s a Saturday. They blur into one, you know. Especially now. But this day, I’m by Al’s Bakery and for some reason, for the first time, I find myself looking in. God, Al, do you know what they did? They kept our décor. Even my sharks that I insisted go in the corner despite clashing horribly with the theme. They kept our signature dishes. And Al, oh Al, they put our picture up. You remember that one from the first day: you laughing, flour all over your handsome face; and me, behind you, half-smiling? They used that one.
God, Al. Remember how I said, when they bought the business off us, that they’d turn it into some awful franchise? You coughed, your lungs failing even then, and said I had to give people the benefit of the doubt. And I shook my head but you were right, Al. You were right.
Yet as I head away, the two boys happen to come out. Surprised, Jesse looks from me to our bakery.
“You’re the poster man.”
“Jesse,” hisses the older one.
I raise a hand. “No, it’s OK. Yes, that’s me.”
Jesse pouts. “You’re a baker?” When I raise an eyebrow, he mumbles, “I thought you were a soldier.”
You used to laugh when people said that to me. You said it’s what I deserved for being so serious. For you, life was full of laughter and joy.
I try, Al. I try to be as light as you were.
“Afraid not, lad.”
“Then how did you get that scar?”
I’m looking at the older one as I say, “My mother gave it to me, when she learned how I was.”
“How you were?”
I gesture inside, towards the poster. Jesse still looks confused, but the older one gets it. His eyes widen a little. I don’t react. I never react, do I, Al? You used to get so mad when I told you how I held the seams of my face together as I fled my own mother into the street with my catapult, the one I’d use to defend myself time and time again out there, and a hastily packed bag. How someone had wonkily stitched my wounds together. One of the few good souls I met that year. But me, I just shrugged.
The older one looks me up and down. “How old were you?”
He nods. “Do you ever hate her?”
You asked me that once, Al. Only once. The idea of hating someone was so alien to you, but so was the idea of someone splitting my face apart. God, I envied you your innocence.
“Not as much as she hated me,” I say.
I said that to you too. But whereas you said, ‘I think you love more than you let on’, the older one says, “Guess it depends how much she hated you then.”
And Al, I look at the bruise on his cheek, the burn on his hand, and despite the glow I felt from the bakery, I say, “I guess it does.”
I’m a little ashamed of the inside of our house now. You liked colour, pictures, trinkets, so, I kept all of those. People would say it’s sweet but I know you. You’d want me to put my mark on this little house. You always wanted me to leave my mark.
It hurt you, didn’t it, that I spent so much time outside. But even now, even after all these years, the confines of a house feel alien to me; the feeling of being anchored here feels wrong. Truth be told, I only ever stayed here for you. I only took up baking for you. Because you wanted a home and stability, and you weren’t too long on the streets to find it wrong. Because you wanted it.
I think you knew that though. You always said, I understand love more than I let on. And sometimes, I think maybe you were right. I hope so, anyway.
The boys stop to talk every time they see me now. It’s easy to pretend they aren’t tired or bruised if I don’t look at them. We don’t talk of much, not even our names. But still, we talk.
One day, the older one says, “Dad says the bakery’s founders were homeless.”
I look at him. “We were. Sort of.”
He nods. “How long?”
“Ten years for me. Al was less than a year.” The older one cocks his head. “He’d lost his job and couldn’t keep up with payments. But he was determined. Sweet-talked a café into taking us on: that’s how we got into baking. We were renting when we started the business, but it hadn’t been for long.”
“Was it hard?”
I don’t know if my answer satisfies him, but he nods. “Must have taken a lot to do something like that.”
“It was all Al,” I say honestly, and can almost see your smile. “I just helped.”
Jesse, playing with the catapult, says, “Did your mum ever come to visit?”
I watch the can fall. “I’ve not seen her since the day I left, son.”
“Do you miss her?”
You never asked that.
“No,” I say, seeing his wince when he moves his hand. “Not one bit.”
You thought you knew the answer.
A few days later, the older one and I sit on the wall, watching Jesse fire the catapult. His aim is still terrible, but the older one, he hits every time.
He says, “How did you get away?”
My fingers touch that ridge of flesh as I say, “The catapult was in my pocket. I always had that damn thing with me. I shot a pebble at her. Hit her in the head.” I keep watching Jesse. “I never found out if she survived.”
He nods. You used to say I should look her up. People change; maybe she missed me. But you didn’t see the look in her eye, when she decided I wasn’t the son she loved. And you didn’t hear the sound that pebble made either.
The boy says, “We’ll be OK, you know. We’re going to get away from him.”
My heart stops. I know what you’d have said, so I say, “You’ll tell-”
“He’s in the police.”
“Social services then.”
He shakes his head. “He’ll say we’re fighting. I can’t take the risk.” I open my mouth. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”
You asked that as well. It was alien to you, the idea that the police wouldn’t help. Even when people sprayed Faggot on our bakery, you couldn’t understand how they could be so slow. Probably overworked, you said.
“It was a different time,” I say.
“Well, some things don’t change.”
His eyes linger on my scar.
“Son,” I say, knowing what he’s thinking. “You can’t run away. Your brother won’t make it.”
“I have to get Jesse away from him.”
Jesse hands him the catapult. He knocks the cans off first try.
All those hurt and lost souls we promised to save. You reached out with kindness and words. You encouraged them to seek help. But it wasn’t always enough, was it? We never talked about it but some people went back. Some people, the police wouldn’t help.
I love you, Al. But I can’t do it your way. Not without you. I never could, could I?
Just three days later, Jesse’s fingers are broken, and the older one’s black eyes are full of rage.
His jaw is clenched. “We fell down.”
“Were you trying?” he says. “When you aimed that catapult?”
If you were here, you’d talk them into telling you who they are. You’d call the police. You’d try to save them, with kindness and words.
“It was self-defence, son.”
You hugged me when I said that. You said, ‘Of course it was.’.
The boy says, “I see.”
We look at each other for long seconds.
“You won’t be back again, will you?” I say.
“No,” he says. “I need to get Jesse out of there. Whatever it takes.”
We look at each other. Slowly, I hold out the catapult.
“Treat that well,” I say. “It’s been through a lot.”
He nods. Jesse takes it with his unbroken hand.
“And son?” I say. “It’s a toy. Not a weapon. OK?”
“OK,” he says, but I know that when he shot down cans, he pictured someone.
And still I let them take it.
I know it’s not what you’d have done, Al. I know that. And I know you always said I understand love, and I do, Al, I do. But the thing is, you’re not here, Al. And I am.
And we both know that I have always understood hatred far better than I have love.