In the wake of his father’s death, Rupert Thomson returned to the family home to live there with his brothers. But slowly their relationship deteriorated, becoming more sinister by the day
On 7 July 1964, my mother died suddenly, aged 33. My brother, Robin, and I were at school that day. We went to lessons. We had lunch. We didn’t know. When school finished, we walked home. It was hot, and I could smell grass cuttings and the tar melting at the edge of the road. I was eight and Robin, who was five, lagged behind as usual. I arrived at the house ahead of him, but stopped at the gate. My uncle’s Jaguar was parked in front of our garage. I glanced back down the hill. Robin was still 100 yards away, socks around his ankles, cap askew. He looked exhausted and fed up – the long walk home was the part of the day he dreaded most – but when I shouted that Uncle Roland had come to visit, his face brightened and he speeded up.
I waited until he reached the gate, then we both ran up the drive. The back door was open. The house felt cool. Through the kitchen, across the hall. On into the sitting room. Then darkness suddenly, and silence. I seem to remember shadowy figures at the edges of the room.
A Wednesday morning, 20 years later. I am living in West Berlin. The phone rings.
“Rupert?” It’s Robin. “Dad’s in hospital,” he says. “He’s having trouble breathing.”
My heart lurches. “I’ll fly over.”
During the war, my father served in the North Atlantic, but in 1943, at the age of 21, he caught pneumonia. He spent the next 10 years in hospital and was subjected to several major operations. He has always dreaded having to go back.
The next morning the phone rings again.
Robin says my name. Then he says, “Dad’s dead.”
“Have you spoken to Ralph?” I ask. Ralph is our other brother – the youngest of the three.
The following day I catch a plane to England. I take a taxi from Eastbourne station and in no time we’re outside the house. Half-hidden by yew trees, it has a withdrawn or injured look. The windows are blank; it has been dark for hours, but Robin hasn’t thought to draw the curtains. Though my father has just died, what the house reminds me of, as always, is the absence of my mother.
I stand by the front door of the house where I grew up. My life in West Berlin already feels unreal. I knock loudly.
The door opens. Before I can speak, Robin leans close and whispers, “Ralph and Vivian are here.” I stare at him. Ralph, my brother, and his wife.
“They arrived this morning,” Robin says in the same dramatic whisper. “They’re moving in.”
All day, I have been imagining Robin and I would have the house to ourselves. Once the funeral was over, we would stay up until dawn, drinking and talking, listening to music. At weekends, there would be parties, with people driving down from London. It would be a last wild farewell to the place where everything began. If Ralph and Vivian are living with us, though, there will be constraints.
As I step over the threshold, Robin grins. “We’ve been opening Dad’s wine.”
I follow him into the kitchen. Ralph is sitting where Dad used to sit, at the head of the table. The air is tense, smoky. I pour myself a glass of wine from the open bottle and light a cigarette. I tell them that what has happened hasn’t really sunk in yet. It all just seems so unbelievable. There are nods. Ralph and Vivian reach for their own cigarettes. The atmosphere loosens a notch.
And suddenly all four of us are smoking, even though no one has ever lit up in the house before. Dad attributed his lung problems to cigarettes, and to be smoking now feels disrespectful, even risky, and my eyes keep flicking towards the door, afraid he might appear at any moment.
From time to time Vivian goes upstairs to check on Greta, who is six months old. Ralph and Vivian have a baby. That, too, seems unbelievable.
Vivian hardly opens her mouth all evening. She keeps her eyes on Ralph, and if she does speak, she speaks to him.
I ask where everyone is sleeping. Ralph says he has taken “Paradise”, so called because its window looks towards Paradise Wood; the word has been on the door for as long as I can remember. Robin tells me he is using Dad’s room. Unwilling to start searching for clean sheets, I decide to share Dad’s double bed with Robin.
A few days later, I wake to the sound of hammering. I turn my head. Robin is fast asleep beside me.
The banging stops, then starts again, even louder than before. I pull on trousers and a shirt. Robin groans and hauls himself upright. Opening Dad’s door, I step out on to the landing. With Robin at my shoulder, I peer round the corner. Outside Paradise is a man in paint-stained overalls. I say hello. The man glances round in a casual, almost insolent manner. Set into the door behind him is a lock the size of a fist, its bright brass standing out against the ancient varnish.
Robin and I retreat to Dad’s room.
“It seems a bit extreme,” I say, “don’t you think?”
“Maybe they’re frightened.”
Robin shrugs. “Us, I suppose.”
Ralph and Vivian met in 1979, during their first term at London University, and quickly became inseparable. When I first knew them as a couple, I was also living in London with my girlfriend Tina. Ralph and I had motorbikes, and Tina and Vivian rode pillion. The four of us would go out. But then, almost overnight, Ralph and Vivian stopped calling, and the next time they moved they didn’t give us their address.
A few months later, Dad told me Ralph and Vivian were always moving from one flat to another; he couldn’t keep up with the changes of address.
In that same phone call, he told me he would hear them walking around his house in the middle of the night. He had no idea how they got in. He thought they were taking things. He wanted to ask them what they were doing, but was afraid to leave his room. By morning, he said, they would usually be gone. It was Dad’s belief that Ralph had undergone a profound change since meeting Vivian, and he had taken to calling her “Svengali”.
The silence was finally broken in the spring of 1981 by the arrival of a letter. Ralph had written to tell me that he and Vivian were planning to get married and to ask if I would be his best man. Not having seen him or even spoken to him for more than a year, I felt as though a chasm had opened up between us. I had heard that he had become a Catholic – he had spent time in a monastery, apparently. I wrote back saying that he should find somebody else. A best man ought to be close to the groom, I said, and since we had fallen out of touch, I was unequal to the role.
When the wedding day came, Robin wore a green tweed suit he had bought from a charity shop. Borrowed from Dad, my own suit smelled acridly of mothballs. My hair was dyed red, Robin’s bleached a curious whitish-yellow. Naively, perhaps, we were unprepared for the reception we received, which veered from coldness and suspicion to outright hostility. Vivian’s relatives were convinced we were against the marriage, and our family’s meagre turnout did nothing to dislodge that belief. Dad had stayed at home. There was no sign of my stepmother, Sonya, and their children, Rosie and Halliday. Tina wasn’t invited – lending weight to her feeling she was somehow to blame for our rift.
Now here we are back in the house again. The whole setup’s unusual. I’ve never heard of anybody doing what we’re doing. A father dies. His three sons return to the family home, start living there. Sometimes I have the feeling we’re made up – characters in a story. We’re like children again, but with no parents. We’re on our own, and completely in the dark.
I walk downstairs one morning to find the kitchen door ajar. A mysterious, repetitive scraping is coming from inside. Vivian is bent over the table, her right elbow working rhythmically. Greta is sitting in a high chair. Pushing the door open, I peer over Vivian’s shoulder. In her left hand is Dad’s grindstone, but the knife she’s sharpening isn’t one I recognise. She speaks before I can frame a question.
“It’s a flick knife,” she says. “Ralph’s got one, too.”
“What for?” I say.
“So we can defend ourselves.”
That evening, in the sitting room, Ralph reaches into his pocket and pulls out an identical knife.
“Jesus, Ralph,” I say, “you’re dangerous.”
His eyes lift from the blade. He smiles.
On the morning of the funeral, I wake up to see Robin bent over the sink in the corner of the bedroom, vomiting. I remember Dad telling me how Robin kept being sick on the day our mother died. Both sides of the church are filled with people we know. Uncle Frank and Auntie Miriam. Uncle Roland. Sonya, Rosie and Halliday. My ex, Tina. I look at Robin and Ralph, and they look back at me. Whatever binds us seems to tighten.
But after the funeral we divide into two separate camps – myself and Robin; and Ralph, Vivian and Greta. Since Ralph and Vivian never seem to do anything as individuals, we have started calling them “the Unit”. Moving through the house, I begin to notice spaces. On mantelpieces or windowsills. In drawers. I keep thinking, there used to be something there – didn’t there?
One morning, I find Robin cooking. I lean on the sink and gaze at the dustbins. As usual, they are full to overflowing.
“I think things are disappearing.”
His eyes narrow. “The Unit.”
The next day Robin and I set off up to London to a club called the Batcave. I wear my black oilskin, greasepaint, kohl. Robin’s 16-hole Doc Martens and baggy mohair jumper are topped off with a blond mohican. The place smells toxic, chemical: hairspray, hydrogen peroxide, cigarettes. From the speakers comes the chain-saw snarl and vicious bass thump of Alien Sex Fiend. A fiver buys me what I need. I take Robin into the ladies. We lock ourselves in a stall and chop lines of speed on top of the cistern. My heart begins to rattle like a stone in a tin can. The drugs are kicking in.
That week, I move into the au pairs’ room. I have a single bed and a pink wardrobe, where the au pairs used to hang their dresses. A protocol emerges. Robin and I sleep late, allowing the Unit to have their breakfast uninterrupted. As soon as Ralph leaves for work, Vivian shuts herself in Paradise with Greta, and Robin and I don’t see her after that.
One morning when I push the kitchen door open, Ralph and Vivian are at the table. Ralph seems utterly absorbed by what Vivian is telling him. I fetch a bowl of Weetabix and sit down.
“You’re going to die when you’re 45,” Vivian says in a soft voice.
“Oh.” Ralph looks crestfallen, but his eyes don’t leave her face.
She reaches out and puts a hand on his. “Sorry.”
“So when am I going to die, then?” I ask.
Vivian turns to me and takes a long pull on her cigarette. She considers me for perhaps 10 seconds. “When you’re 58,” she says.
“Great,” I say. “Thanks for that.”
I glance at Ralph and we exchange a rueful smile. Robin comes in and wants to know how long he’s got. Vivian doesn’t even bother turning round: “72,” she says.
We all burst out laughing – except Vivian. She seems distracted, even absent, and I remember how Dad would refer to her as Svengali. He claimed Ralph had been brainwashed, but now I’m sharing a house with Ralph and Vivian, I’m not convinced he was right. I think Ralph might have engineered the change himself. As soon as he left home, he was on the lookout for somebody to be with for ever. He couldn’t wait to cast off the person he had been – that almost pitifully affectionate little boy who became attached to every au pair Dad employed and was repeatedly abandoned. He had to make sure that never happened again.
The following weekend, Robin and I have our first big fire, disposing of all the rubbish that the dustmen have refused to deal with. The flames leap so high that they char the branches of a nearby apple tree. A column of oily smoke rises from the rubber underlay of the carpet.
In his will, Dad split his estate five ways, though such moneys as our half-sister and half-brother stand to inherit are to be put into a trust until they are 18. In the letter accompanying it, Dad assumes we will be keeping the house in the family, and though Ralph has been considering the idea – it’s a good place to bring up children – he doubts he will be able to borrow enough to buy myself and Robin out. We ring a firm of estate agents; within 10 days the sale is agreed. Though this is the news I have been waiting for – the main obstacle to my leaving Eastbourne has been removed – I retreat to my bedroom and stare out over the garden. Three generations of my mother’s family lived here. In selling the house, we’ll not only be disregarding my father’s wishes. We’ll be disposing of my mother’s history, and our own.
On the last Monday in June 1984, I go on holiday. On my first morning back, Robin tells me that Ralph sold Dad’s desk while he, Robin, was visiting friends in Lewes. He says he’d had his eye on the desk for ages. Although I sympathise, the desk doesn’t affect me. But then he mentions that Ralph has also sold the Braque lithograph that used to hang above the fireplace in Dad’s bedroom.
“It would have been better to keep it in the family,” I say to Ralph, when he returns from work.
“It seemed like a fair price.” Ralph doesn’t look guilty, let alone apologetic.
“I wish you’d asked.”
“You weren’t here.”
“You could have waited till I got back. I liked that picture. I wanted to keep it.”
“Look, we had to make some progress. We have to sell everything that has any value, otherwise the will won’t go to probate before we move out of the house.” Ralph pauses. “Anyway, I don’t think it was very good. I couldn’t even tell what it was.”
“It was a Braque,” I say.
I see a side of Ralph I haven’t seen before. He has a ruthless streak. Is he relishing the fact that he has outmanoeuvred me? Or is he merely thinking I have brought this on myself? Robin and I have been content to let Ralph assume responsibility. It’s Ralph who has been doing all the work.
The lithograph has gone, I tell myself. Things of great value are always disappearing, never to be seen again. Things I love. Well, perhaps I’m not supposed to have them. Perhaps I should stop trying to hold on. After all, how much of the past does anybody really need to keep?
One night, Robin and I decide to sample a few of Dad’s pills. We take red ones, yellow ones, grey-green ones, red-and-white capsules that remind me of a toadstool. Fifteen, maybe more. We lose count.
“What if we both pass out?”
“They’ll find us in the morning. It’ll be like one of those suicide pacts.”
“No note, though.”
“I can’t be bothered,” Robin says at last.
“Nor can I,” I say.
The TV is on. During the weather forecast, the weatherman is replaced by Dad. “I’m sorry he died all alone, with none of us there,” I say.
“I think about that.”
“I can’t cry about him yet,” I say, “not properly. I don’t know why. I just can’t.”
I haven’t even begun to grieve. It’s the same as 20 years ago. Like water through limestone, this new sorrow is following the path formed by the old one, both sorrows hidden, buried, unexpressed.
I wake up wearing all my clothes. Robin is asleep beside me. The lights are still on. So is the TV, its blank screen hissing. I turn the TV off, then put my ear close to Robin’s mouth. His breath smells of plastic, but his breathing sounds regular enough.
For months now, we have known that we need to empty the house, but there are still tables and chairs in every room. We have contacted all the antiques dealers in town, and all the charity and junk shops. We can’t even give it away.
One Saturday, after Vivian has taken Greta up to bed, we sit in the kitchen, drinking. We have decided to go through Dad’s collection of LPs. We put on Françoise Hardy Sings About Love. As Robin turns the record over, he leans on the radiogram and one of the front legs gives slightly. We’re all having the same thought. Ralph tugs at the leg, which comes away quite easily. Wrenching the turntable free, Robin carries it out to the pile of scrap metal by the garage. There’s a silence, then a decisive crash. He reappears dusting his hands on his trousers.
Our eyes sweep the room. We make for the scullery, where Dad keeps all his tools. Robin selects a short-handled axe. Ralph lifts a saw down off the wall. I reach for the claw hammer. We return to the kitchen. Before we begin, Robin rigs up his stereo and puts on another of Dad’s LPs, Grand Prix, a recording of formula one racing cars in action. We set to work dismembering the furniture. The chopping and hacking is so loud that we have to turn the volume up. One by one, the cars snarl by. Lotus, Vanwall. BRM. Every now and then, we stop for a glass of cider or a smoke.
When we have finished with the radiogram, the kitchen table and chairs, we fetch furniture from the study and the sitting room. Swinging with a little too much vigour, Robin misses a table leg and his axe bites hungrily into the parquet floor.
It’s midnight when I next look up. The rubble’s a foot deep, and there’s red stuff on the fridge. I wonder if it’s blood. My breath rasps. Overhead, a naked bulb sways on its flex. Ralph sprawls face down, passed out on a heap of splintered wood. I bend over him. “Ralph? Are you all right?”
His lips move, he isn’t dead. Where’s Robin, though? As I try to piece things together, a howl comes from another part of the house. In the glasshouse Robin is standing, legs apart, in front of a squat upholstered chair, the short-handled axe raised high above his head. “I’ve always hated this chair,” he says. He brings the axe down on one of the arms. The chair’s arm splits, but doesn’t yield.
“Fuck.” He drains his glass of cider.
As Robin prepares to deliver yet another savage blow, a movement distracts me. Someone is standing on the lawn.
“Robin,” I say, “we’re not alone.”
As Robin turns, his axe still raised, a figure steps forward into the light. He’s wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons.
“This party’s got to stop,” he says.
I stifle a laugh. “This isn’t a party,” I tell him. “It’s just the family. We live here.”
“There have been complaints…” the policeman says. “About the noise.”
“We’ll be quiet now,” I say.
“You do that.” The policeman backs away and disappears through the garden gate.
“He was young for a policeman,” Robin says.
“Yes, he was.”
“He seemed nervous.”
I look at Robin. “Can you blame him?”
Robin lowers his axe.
At the end of 2005, I visited Uncle Frank and Auntie Miriam with my wife, Kate, and my daughter, Evie. For the past 20 years, Frank had been the only member of our family Ralph had been prepared to deal with. Frank told me that he had spent a day with Ralph and Vivian before they left for China. China? He’s got a new job, Frank said, in Shanghai.
Frank showed me half a dozen snaps he’d taken of Ralph and his family. The sky was a deep, flawless blue – the blue of childhood skies, the blue of the past – and Ralph was wearing a white short-sleeved shirt and loose white trousers, exactly the sort of clothes he had worn during the summer of 1984. Ralph’s hair had been receding, now he was almost completely bald. He was pale, too. Kate said he looked like someone who didn’t have long to live. With a jolt, I remembered Vivian giving him until he was 45. I did a rapid mental calculation: Ralph had celebrated his 45th birthday three months ago! I didn’t take Vivian’s prediction seriously, but all the same…
There were Ralph’s children, three of whom I’d never seen. These were my nephews and nieces, yet I didn’t even know their names. I hadn’t set eyes on Ralph since 1984, but my last contact had been in 1987. Sonya had asked us to release some money from the trust we had set up for Rosie and Hal. As executors of Dad’s will, we needed to sign the appropriate forms, but neither Robin nor I knew where Ralph lived. I tracked him down to a bank in the City, where he was working.
His first words were, “How did you get this number?” He seemed on the point of hanging up. At the end of the call, he told me not to ring him again. If I wanted to make contact, I should do so in writing. Shocked by the formality – the finality – of what he was saying, I laughed. But over the years I had abided by his ruling, I hadn’t called, I hadn’t even written.
Now, a few months after visiting Uncle Frank, I wrote to Ralph. The last time I had talked to Kate about the idea of getting in touch with him, she had said, you know, you really should have agreed to be his best man. She could never believe I had turned him down. If I was finally writing to Ralph, though, it wasn’t out of guilt. While examining the photographs, a thought had occurred to me, and I decided to put that thought straight into the letter. It would be strange, wouldn’t it, I said, if we were to die without ever setting eyes on each other again? Yes, I might want to try to unravel the mystery of our estrangement, and I might even feel the need to apologise to him, but the urge simply to see him outweighed all that. He was living in Shanghai, I said, which was a place I had always longed to visit. If I were to happen to pass through the city at some point in the future, would he meet me for a drink?
The day after posting the letter, I flew to Australia, and when I returned home two weeks later I found an envelope in my letterbox. Dear Rupert, it began. Wow – that was a surprise. The tone was sincere, and friendly, so much so that I fell to wondering why the estrangement had lasted as long as it had. A correspondence began. There would be days, even weeks, between emails. At least the lines of communication were open, though. Ralph’s personality would shift from offbeat to businesslike – I had no real purchase on it – but what didn’t seem to be in any doubt was his willingness to see me.
I arrived in Shanghai in December 2007 and went to Ralph’s office to meet him for lunch. We gave each other a hug. I felt a brief shudder, as though we had been caught in a minor earthquake. I couldn’t tell where it had come from – him, or me, or both of us.
I passed Ralph photographs of Kate and Evie. It seemed important that he should look at them and know who I had become. I told him I had spoken to Sonya recently for the first time in years, and that it had shocked her to learn that I had a wife and daughter. She had assumed I would always be alone, describing me as “a little bit separated”.
On our way to lunch, Ralph kept snatching glances at me, and I thought I saw amusement on his face, and disbelief. The restaurant Ralph had chosen was enormous and grandiose. We drank fast and chain-smoked. Our conversation jumped from subject to subject, often halfway through a sentence. Something hallucinogenic was happening: whenever I took my eyes off Ralph, I found that I couldn’t remember what he looked like, and even if I stared at him, his face would alter, reverting to how it had been when he was nine or 10, a time when I had known him well.
“I’m glad you came,” Ralph said. “I’m glad you got in touch. I’m not sure I ever would have.
“Ask me a question,” Ralph said.
“What was I like?”
“What were you like?” He stared straight ahead, “That’s a good one.
“You were very close to Robin. You seemed obsessed with him.”
“There was this whole thing of sleeping together – in Dad’s bed.”
“I suppose it was the only bed that was made up when I arrived.”
Ralph gave me a look I couldn’t interpret.
“We thought you were having a sexual relationship,” Ralph said.
I stared at him.
“We didn’t judge,” he said. “You know, we thought, ‘Well, if that’s what’s going on, it’s cool.'”
“You thought we were having sex?”
“Yes.” He looked at me. “Weren’t you?”
“No.” I had spoken more loudly than I’d meant to.
“You were always together,” Ralph went on. “You just wanted to be with him all the time. You were infatuated.”
I looked at him. “No.”
The thought of having sex with Robin had never even entered my head. I looked at him. He held my gaze.
He looked away, but didn’t seem convinced.
Startled by his answer to my first question, I jumped straight to the next one. What had been the cause of our original estrangement in 1980? Had I said or done something, or was it Tina?
“You don’t remember? It was Tina,” he said. “She said she really wanted to paint Vivian because it was always much more interesting to paint people who weren’t beautiful.”
“She said that?”
“Vivian thought, fuck you. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Tina after that.”
I suspected Tina had said – or meant to say – that she liked painting people who weren’t obviously beautiful – coming from Tina, this would have been a compliment, but there was little point in trying to explain this to Ralph 27 years later.
“So that’s why you stopped seeing us?” I said.
He nodded. “Yes.”
“And then I refused to be your best man. That must have made things worse…”
“I suppose it was a bit of a blow. But, you know – blokes: we get over things like that. Women are different.” Ralph allowed himself a crumpled grin.
I said I was sorry, but at the time we had no idea of who he was, or where he was living. I told him I had seen them as a version of Bonnie and Clyde – not just in love, but bound up in each other to such an extent that it removed them from society.
They hadn’t wanted anybody to know where they were living, Ralph said. Once, they had invited a friend to dinner. They refused to give him their address, though. Instead, they met him in a pub and blindfolded him, only allowing him to see again when he was inside their flat. He and Vivian had a private language, Ralph said – still did, in fact – and they could often have whole conversations without so much as opening their mouths.
“We wanted our own life,” he said, “with no one interfering.”
“That’s what I thought.”
“I mean, I like you – and I like Robin. It’s just that I like Vivian more.”
I fell silent. It seemed that Ralph had got as close to explaining our estrangement as it was possible to get.
That night, as I sat in my hotel room, I thought how unlikely it was that one tactless remark from Tina, a girl I hadn’t lived with in a quarter of a century, could trigger such a long estrangement. Neither my wife nor my daughter had ever seen Ralph. For my daughter, especially, Ralph was a ghost figure, a kind of rumour: she would laugh gaily at the mention of his name, as though I were talking about someone imaginary. I wondered if, in years to come, she would meet him.
Though exhausted, I couldn’t seem to sleep for more than four hours at a stretch. When I called Ralph on Thursday to confirm another lunch, he said that he, too, had been having trouble sleeping.
At the restaurant we’d had a conversation about the perfect murder. We had agreed that there were moments when an ideal opportunity seems to present itself. At our next meeting, I had a question for Ralph. “When we were in Eastbourne,” I said slowly, “did you ever think about killing me and Robin?”
Ralph said he and Vivian had thought about it “for about a week”. I laughed despite myself.
Ralph said that they had thought about doctoring the brakes on Robin’s old Volvo, then suggesting a trip to Beachy Head, which was a place that Robin and I seemed fond of.
Obviously, he and Vivian had found it hard living with us, I said, but they seemed to have arrived with preconceived notions. Why else would they have had a Chubb lock fitted on their door right at the beginning? They’d had the lock fitted, Ralph said, because Robin and I had walked in on Vivian when she was asleep in bed. We had poked around in their private things. Made all sorts of derogatory remarks. I found myself staring at Ralph again.
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember,” he said.
As he spoke, I had a vision of Robin in Paradise. He was wearing his overcoat, and hunched over furtively in the corner by the cupboard. I saw him send a sharp glance to his left. Christ, he hissed, she’s in here. Quick! He meant we should leave the room – though by then, of course, it was already too late. I shook my head. “Were we drunk?”
“I don’t know. It happened during the day, I was at work. We only had the lock fitted after that.”
“Vivian really hated being in that house,” he went on. “You kept drugs in the larder, next to our food. We didn’t do drugs.”
I brought up the story Dad had told me about Ralph breaking into the house in the middle of the night. Was that true?
“Yes, I think so,” he said.
He had ridden down to Eastbourne with Vivian, but Dad disapproved of her so strongly that he’d had to smuggle her into the house. They hadn’t taken anything, though.
“I’m sorry to go on about it,” I said when our drinks arrived, “but I still don’t understand what happened, why we lost touch so completely.”
I reminded him of what he had said when we last spoke, in 1987. Don’t phone me again. If you want to contact me, do it in writing.
“You took me very literally,” Ralph said quietly.
“What did you expect?” I said.
Ralph lit a cigarette. His face had taken on a strange, blurred expression, as if a long estrangement wasn’t something he had ever intended or envisaged, and not before time, perhaps, I saw my own part in it quite clearly. I had always assumed that it was Ralph who had severed ties with the family. Was I really all that different, though? I had felt so put upon that I had needed to get as far away as possible. All the places I had lived in: Athens, Berlin, New York, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Sydney, Amsterdam, Rome… That couldn’t just be curiosity, could it? Then there was Sonya’s telling use of the word “separated”…
That night, we drank vodka and played pool. I lost all sense of time, but it didn’t bother me how late it got. I was with my brother; there was nowhere I would rather be. At six in the morning, out on the street, Ralph and I stood facing in different directions. As he began to tell me that he should be going home, his mobile rang. He put it to his ear. “What are you doing awake?” he said. I knew then that Vivian was on the other end. “No, it’s been fine,” he said. “It’s been lovely.”
It felt strange to have Vivian’s voice so close, and to know that she would have nothing to do with me. Was what had happened in 1984 so terrible that not even 23 years were enough to wipe it out? A wave of regret swept through me, and I walked a few paces up the street. Cars surged by. Soon it would be light.
We caught a taxi. These were our last seconds. We hugged briefly, then he got out. As the taxi pulled away, I turned and peered through the back window. Ralph was walking at the edge of the wide road, diminishing rapidly. As the distance opened up between us, as he was swallowed by the murky grey-brown of a Shanghai dawn, love caught me unawares, reaching out through the back window of the taxi like a line thrown from my heart. This love was unconditional; he could do whatever he wanted with it. Even nothing. Nothing was fine. But I would be there for him if he ever needed me. He could call on me. Rely on me. There would be no more letters saying no.
• Some names have been changed.
This is an edited extract from This Party’s Got To Stop, by Rupert Thomson, published by Granta at £16.99. To order a copy for £15.99, with free UK mainland p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop.