‘Alright, time’s up. Pens down!’
The empty tick-tock of the clock is suddenly swamped by a rising tide of chatter. What did you
write? See what I said was – oh yes the one I answered was… I’m already over it.
A breath I didn’t know I was holding tumbles from my mouth. It’s done. It’s done.
They open the door. I’m out of my seat like a shot. No coat to pick up, no bag of notes I’d fooled myself I’d read in the tense fifteen minutes outside the exam hall. My feet pick up speed on the spongy green linoleum. One-two-three. One-two-free. I’m almost skipping out into the sunlight. Goodbye university. So long classmates. See you in five months.
It’s a beautiful day.
I see he’s already parked outside. He’s stood by my front door, and he waves when he sees me turn off West Richmond Street. I’m not a hugger. But he’s five-foot-four to my five-foot-six, and I owe him this indulgence. He ruffles my hair. ‘Hello short-arse, congratulations are in order!’
I know he’s still trying to pretend it doesn’t bother him that I’ve outgrown him. I elbow him away and thank him for the lift.
He doesn’t mind. He’ll give me a hand with all my bags.
Edinburgh traffic is good, and we’re making good progress through the city. He’s feeling generous, so I’m controlling the music. He’s being polite, but I know he hates most of my choices – indie rock, eighties pop, folk classics. We haven’t shared an iTunes library since he was in early high school. ‘Trust me!’ I say. ‘I saw them live at Sneaky’s, they’re good – they’re from Fife, you know!’
He half-heartedly taps to the beat on the side of his steering wheel. I wish he would just tell me what he wants to hear.
We stop at a red light.
Shuffle has finally struck gold. He turns to me and grins. He
recognises this song. Do I remember road trips with Dad back in the day? Of course I do. Cramped in the back-seat of the Subaru, windows down, Fleetwood Mac. The seatbelts straining against our chins as we played air-instruments.
The light turns green.
We’ve pulled to a halt again before we reach the Forth Road Bridge. Traffic is moving at a crawl.
Someone cuts into the lane out of nowhere. I’m informed that, on no uncertain terms, the man is a wank.
I stare at the Queensferry Crossing as we drive parallel across the water. ‘You think they’ll finish that on time?’ I wonder out loud.
‘Imagine that! Finishing on time!’ he laughs. ‘I thought it was supposed to open end of this month.’
‘Dunno,’ I shrug. ‘Looks finished to me.’
We sit in silence for a moment, contemplating the bridge.
‘I like this one better,’ he says eventually.
‘Like, visually? Or driving on it?’
‘I like the view from it. I’m… I dunno. Why did they build a new one?’ I look at the criss-crossing suspension wires. We pass under the first arch. ‘Things change, I guess. They had to adapt.’
The car thunks over the joins in the bridge.
‘I also like the old one,’ I say, ‘I reckon probably because we’re just
not used to things being different. But the new one’s impressive.’ He laughs slightly. ‘Aye. Guess so.’
The music swells, filling the silence around us. I count the beats.
‘So how is uni?’ he asks.
Well, uni finished about an hour and a half ago.
‘You know what I mean. Apart from exams, how’s it been?’
Oh same old, same old. Five friends. More alcohol than necessary.
I sure am gonna miss them all when we graduate. It’s been a lot of fun. He laughs at that. Drinking? That’s new. Besides, graduating isn’t the end of it all – even if I’m going back and they’re not.
‘Just because you move apart, doesn’t mean you stop being friends.’ It’s older brother wisdom that I didn’t ask for.
But I’m kind of glad I got it.
I might as well share some of my more hilarious misadventures. He laughs – call those misadventures? Child, please. Let the master talk.
We’re in deepest Fife now. We’ve lost the motorway signs; they’ve faded away to green hedgerows and half-tumbledown stone walls. Give way to oncoming traffic.
I pause, catching my breath; settling back into my seat to watch the familiar towns as they begin to emerge and then whirl away on the roundabouts. We’re both quiet. I want to say it’s a companionable silence, but there’s a pressing need in the back of my throat to cough up more words.
He has to tell me something.
My breath catches in my throat.
I wish it didn’t.
This is torture.
‘So,’ he says. ‘I’m gay.’
‘Before you freak out–’ I can’t stop myself –
– I laugh. I laugh and I laugh and I laugh and there are tears rolling down my face. Freak out? Why in the world would I freak out?
He doesn’t have a good answer. Only that our parents were shocked. I bring myself back from laughing with an ugly choking snort. I’m not our parents. He never needed to tell me – and it doesn’t change a thing. Not to mention, I mean, I’m not surprised. I remind him gently why we stopped sharing an iTunes library. Sometimes, things stick in your head – even if you wish they wouldn’t. He swears. Then he laughs, and I laugh again. We laugh together.
A familiar song bursts through the speakers. We grin at each other. He winds down the windows. Fresh air buffets through the car. I crank up the volume.
My hands thud down, drumming the glovebox. He takes on the lyrics and I harmonise with him at the chorus.
By Kirsty Souter
Story submitted as part of Scottish Book Trust’s Blether Campaign. Book Week Scotland 2019 runs from 18th to 24th of November, with events across the country.