I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
Stan, standing on the rug by the mirror by the door, nursing a weighty head cold that’s come up sudden overnight, drinking coffee from an unwashed mug, staring at his reflection in a mirror that once belonged to his mother’s brother…
New York Live Arts presents
Stan, standing on the rug by the mirror by the door, nursing a weighty head cold that’s come up sudden overnight, drinking coffee from an unwashed mug, staring at his reflection in a mirror that once belonged to his mother’s brother, but which has been a mainstay in the hall by the door since Stan moved into the flat two years previous when his parents dropped round a job lot of his Uncle’s things—including the mirror that Stan’s at now—all on account of Uncle Al having downsized, heavily, again, after another still more devastating divorce that no one wanted to discuss yet, especially given how cut up Uncle Al had been over his first divorce, a stretch of time that involved weeping and mealtime silences and Stan getting home from school to find his mother and her brother sat out on the cold patio so that Uncle Al could smoke, something Stan’s mother never let him do in her home even if Uncle Al clearly did so in his, or at least had done when he owned the mirror Stan’s looking in on now, with that yellowing toward the edge and those stray burn marks on the frame as if Uncle Al did—as Stan suspects he did—stare himself down in the mirror as he smoked, before stubbing out on the frame and storming from the house, a thought which Stan finds concerning as he looks in on the mirror, sipping, sniffing, standing, wondering about today being the day of hisbrother’s wedding.
Reaching out to place the unwashed mug on the cabinet that stands between the rug and that hallway mirror, Stan finds that his left arm is some five inches shorter than his right. Jesus, thinks Stan, flexing those left hand fingers and pushing the coffee cup a little further onto the cabinet. How can I only be noticing this now? Stan spends time looking down the lengths of each arm, his right palm resting on the cabinet, his left hanging loosely in mid air. Perhaps this is why I’ve never got on with ties, Stan thinks, already wondering if he’ll be able to bail out and go open collar. That said, with the news that his left arm is some five inches shorter than his right, on top of the way the head cold has him spinning and desperate to sneeze, Stan can’t help but picture how disappointed his mother’ll be as she finds that while her oldest hasarrived at his little brother’s wedding he has not arrived with tie. “I thought it was open collar,” Stan’ll say, desperately trying to avoid bringing up how close he is to sneezing, “Given the time of year.” Stan’s mother’ll frown, her new hat pinned tightly to her head, her left hand lifting slightly to gesture to everyone else in the room, all of whom will be wearing ties, none of whom will have colds and all of whom, Stan reckons, will have arms of roughly, if not exactly, the same length.
The suit jacket that’s hanging from the back of the door, and which Stan’s standing in the hallway making ready to put on, has a rip in the lining. The suit also belonged to Uncle Al, dropped round by Stan’s parents alongside the mirror. Stan fears his mother’ll spot the dodgy lining and give him hell for rubbing it in Al’s face. “Today’s not easy for Al,” she’ll say, “The last thing he needs right now is to see what a mess you’ve made of his possessions.” It must be disheartening for Al, thinks Stan. Nothing can actually be done about the ripped lining, just as nothing can be done about Uncle Al’s regular divorces, constant downsizing, and general rough time of it. Standing on the rug, Stan decides that he’ll try and flaunt the split lining a bit, to attempt to do as he thinks his Uncle Al deep down surely wishes, i.e. to not let his Uncle’s life be another elephant in another room, but rather to act as if having an elephant about is a real shit show and is ruining his Uncle’s life, along with the lining of Stan’s suit.
Stan’s been standing for perhaps thirty seconds, possibly even a minute. Without warning, the sneeze that’s been at the back of his throat since he got to the mirror rises and threatens to emerge only to disappear, somewhere between Stan’s tongue and teeth. Stan’s mother’ll be livid. She’ll think that this sneezing and coughing is a deliberate ploy on the part of Stan to ruin his brother’s big day. “When you have a wedding of your own you can cough as much as you like,” she’ll hiss as the organ voluntary picks up pace. “But until that day you can belt it and let your brother get married in peace.” Stan knows that his mother is an irrational woman and that she’ll be equally affronted if he was to turn up chewing on cough sweets. Her lower lip’ll drop and she’ll tap her husband, Stan’s Dad, on the shoulder with the service sheet. “You know your son has only gone and brought sweets to his brother’s wedding.”
Stan’s affection for chewing is long standing. As a ten year old he blew fifty pounds of Christmas money on a year’s supply of gum. His mother declared the matter obscene and refused to tolerate it. Privately, Stan’s father told him to have a good chew to and from school and any other time Mum was out. “Everyone needs a hobby,” he told Stan. “Yours might as well be gum.” Stan stretched out the gum until late October. Today in the pew his father’ll listen to his mother’s concerns and try and fight Stan’s corner as best he can. “At least he’s not coughing,” he’ll say. “You’re not telling me you’d prefer him to be coughing?” “Why can’t Stan just come to his brother’s wedding and sit down?” Mum’ll respond, leaving Dad lost for words, staring up at the priest as he looms over them from the chancel. Stan’s Mum’ll tut heavily and applaud at the end of the voluntary. On the far side of Stan’s Dad, Uncle Al’ll be leant over the pew, praying perhaps, or simply thinking about some other moment in his life.
Reaching for the jacket, Stan pulls it on and looks ahead into the mirror. There is nothing behind him worth speaking of. Even the wallpaper is plain, no puffs or creases or evidence of a joint. Stan’s been found out by wallpapering. In their early twenties he and his brother rented a place together. The Mortmont Road flat was in a bit of a state when they took it on and together they decided to spruce the place up a bit. “I’ve spoken with the landlord,” Stan’s brother told him, “and he’s okayed anything that’s not structural.” Together they chose a wallpaper and Stan mixed up a paste. “I fucking love decorating,” Stan’s brother kept saying. Only when the wall was coated in paste, with the paper stuck in undulating folds across it did Stan realise why most people stick with paint. Stan crouched on the floor, tugging at the half-pinned paper, while his brother clambered up on a borrowed stool. “Steady Stan,” he kept saying, “Steady.” It was then that Stan’s brother asked Stan something that took him totally by surprise. “Stan,” he said. “What do you think Abraham and Isaac talked about on the way home?” It took Stan a while to figure out what his brother was on about, Bible study being thin growing up. When he did finally clock it he was still lost for a response. It was typical of Stan’s brother, to think that Stan gave a shit about a conversation that may or may not have happened in a desert many years ago, when Stan was up to his elbows in wallpaper paste.
Desperately staving off the sneeze, Stan recalls the padded cycling shorts he got his brother for his twenty-fourth birthday, back when they were both regulars at the Lansdowne Cycling Club. The shorts were padded across the arse and crotch, as well as being a very deep blue that reminded Stan of blueberry ice cream. Barry, an older, jocular man at the club, publicly assured Stan’s brother that they were great shorts, whilst nursing a huge grin. Yet Stan never did get out of his brother how great those shorts actually were.
Uncle Al’s first wife was a large woman who needed assistance getting in and out of cars. As Stan understands it, she met Al at a spring dance Al went to when he was staying overnight in Nottingham with work. No one seemed to believe Al when he said he danced the night away with Cathy up in Nottingham. “I know she’s a big girl,” Al said during the wedding preparations, “but once she’s on her feet there’s no stopping her.” “You just keep telling yourself that,” Stan’s Mum said as she licked shut the invitation envelopes. Stan was only three years old at the time. There was a band at the wedding but Uncle Al and Cathy stayed put at the top table. “Cath’s got herself a jammy knee,” said Al to his sister’s insistence that they both get up there and show them all something. During the course of the evening, Stan crawled under the table to try and establish if Cathy’s knee really was covered in jam. Even now in the hallway, staring himself down in the mirror, Stan can recall the moment Uncle Al’s first wife’s left foot crunched into his nose and he found himself hauled out from under the table to be held aloft by his new Aunt. “This boy’s just been looking up my fucking dress,” she screamed at her husband, his family, her family and assembled guests. Stan still worries, as he does now, standing on his Uncle’s rug, arranging the collar of his Uncle’s suit, fighting not to sneeze on his Uncle’s mirror that his Uncle Al may one day trace back all of his troubles to the day his oldest nephew looked up his first wife’s skirt.
Stan’s mother is known in her circles as obtuse. She has, in her time, spent hours boiling, baking, fisting, and moulding her behaviour to ensure as much. Stan has, in his own time, found this irritating. Folding down the lapels of his jacket, Stan’s major concern is that the longer he stands on the rug, staring at himself in the mirror and fussing over the flash of suit lining, the more likely it is that he’ll be late. His mother’s voice looms in the hallway. “Think of other people, Stan. Think of your poor brother up there like a plum, desperately scanning the congregation for your face.” “Oh it’s my poor brother now is it,” Stan says. From what Stan has seen of his brother in the last couple of years, Stan being around was nearly as much of a deal for him as Stan being full stop. Recently, Stan’s brother has reacted with confusion at Stan simply showing up. “I thought we were going cycling today,” Stan once said, leaning his bike up against the wall of his brother’s new house. Stan’s brother looked confused, almost as if he wanted to ask, who are you again but somehow knew it would be rude. Stan almost wished his brother had blurted it out so he could explain. “I’m Stan, remember, we grew up in the same house, we lived together on the Mortmont Road, we used to go cycling together all the time, and you once asked me what Abraham and Isaac talked about on the way home but I never gave you an answer because I didn’t think it was a serious question.”
Finally inside the jacket, Stan considers the suit itself. He reckons it’s most likely a legacy of Uncle Al’s third marriage, which saw him live in a large country house in Leicestershire. “It was a marriage of convenience,” Al later explained. “She needed a visa, I needed some place to live.” The good thing about being married to a Russian oligarch’s divorcee, as Stan saw it, was that Al got himself some good tailoring. Throughout the five-year marriage, Stan and his family would make regular trips to the Leicestershire pile to spend time with Uncle Al while Uskrulya was away on business. Uska, as Al called her, was in fact rarely around. Stan reckons he saw her twice: once, on a Friday after Stan’s Dad drove them up straight from school, when a tall lady came bustling out of the house and disappeared off in a Ferrari; once, three years later when Stan tried out smoking for the first time, sneaking out of the East Wing to light up a stolen Sobranie on the left lawn. Stan recalls coughing a great deal before seeing a downstairs light flick on to reveal Uska pacing up and down in a maroon jumpsuit and rimless sunglasses. Stan could just make out Uncle Al’s head sitting back on the sofa as Uska marched back and forth. Nothing ever happened for Uncle Al in there with Uska, but Stan smoked three cigarettes while waiting to see if it did. Uncle Al would later describe those five years as the happiest of his life. “She never loved me,” he would often say, “but she didn’t stop me having a good time.” The jacket, once on, is supremely light and made of a very fine wool, and the reflection staring back at Stan is of Stan in his Uncle’s suit in his Uncle’s mirror, standing on his Uncle’s rug.
Standing in front of the mirror, running a tie between his hands and worried about sneezing the whole time, Stan fears that his nostrils have taken to flaring in the exact same way as Uncle Al’s do, whenever he delivers bad news. Nostril flaring is something of a family trait. Stan’s mother does it, his father does it, Uncle Al spends practically his whole time doing it. Only Stan’s brother does not seem to flinch before he speaks. Stan wonders if maybe today he might break his duck, whether the magnitude of the occasion might get to him and his nostrils might flicker. There’ll be no saving Stan’s own nostrils later. He’ll file out of the church and make his way towards the happy couple, his brother’ll stand loosely with easy set-shoulders, his wife—whom Stan knows to be a personal trainer—firm on both her feet, both of them turning to look at Stan as Stan’s nostrils blow out, right before he begins to speak.
Weeks ago now, Stan’s mother took him aside and told him that it was unusual for the brother of the groom to be made best man. “Who ever said it was usual?” Stan told her. “I’m just saying,” Mum went on. “It would be a rarity and not something you should expect.” As it happened Stan was not the best man as both he and his mother predicted. Yet that conversation got Stan thinking. Hiding in that jacket pocket, written in blue ink, are a few words that Stan found himself writing, not necessarily to stand up and deliver to the guests, but to have with him just in case.
Still waiting on the sneeze, Stan’s now watching himself pull that handwritten note from his pocket with the good arm, unfolding it right there in front of the mirror. His nostrils flare something silly as he reads the first line.
I want to take a moment of your time to talk about love.
The reception’ll be busy Stan has no doubt.
Uncle Al’s always been one for cars. Even when he’s been down on his knees both financially and emotionally, he’s always managed to hang on to a set of wheels. Stan’s own father once called him a petrol head. Harsh, thinks Stan, when you think about it.
Soon the sneeze’ll come and then I’ll go, thinks Stan.
Still standing, still staring, Stan figures that he’ll have to rise from his seat amidst the buzzing of the reception and bang a spoon against his glass. Beside him Uncle Al’ll have his eyes on Stan from the off, his own arms folded and stately, like a manager who’s two goals up in football. Stan’s often thought that rather than his mother listing what his Uncle Al doesn’t need, and rather than Al exploring marriage after marriage, maybe his Uncle just needs a pal to chat to once in awhile. As Stan understands it Al’s wives have never really provided conversation. The fifth, Tracy, certainly talked a lot, but primarily about herself and her three adopted children, whom Al played the role of father to for a little over a year. Stan recalls once visiting Al, Trace and the brood. The children were darkly obnoxious and bullied the father that their mother had found them something silly. They referred to Al as “Tesco-Dad,” either because they somehow got wind of the summer Al worked the meat counter or simply because they saw the marriage as selected from a shelf. In the short time Stan was with them, all three children gave Al a cup of tea with salt in and the eldest hid Al’s shoes in the dryer. “They’re not all bad,” said Al, as he walked Stan to the station in his socks. “Last month the middle one helped me mend the broken arm on my darts trophy.” Stan couldn’t help but worry that darts-trophy help or not, walking around barefoot in November was not doing his Uncle much good. Trench foot for one seemed likely. All in all, Tracy was a long year for Al and everyone agreed that he was as well shot of Tracy as he was of anyone. Thinking back on it, Stan’s not even fully sure Tracey and Al were actually married in the legal sense, but that isn’t the sort of conversation Stan and Al ever have, instead it’s a conversation Stan finds himself having with himself, albeit in Uncle Al’s mirror.
The more Stan thinks about Abraham and Isaac, the more he’s convinced that there was a lot of silence on that no doubt long and tedious walk home.
Stan can just picture the way his mother’s face’ll drop: the brother of the groom, making a speech, does Stan listen? Yes, thinks Stan, I listen all the time.
Stan’s hopping from foot to foot before the mirror, aware that he is increasingly likely to be late, but stuck rising from his seat to tap on the glass with his spoon. Stan’s nostrils’ll flare some for sure, just as they will outside the church, standing alongside his brother and his brother’s new wife; Stan’s brother looking directly at him, confusion percolating his face, while Stan himself looks on at Mary, a pretty girl who works as a personal trainer; someone Stan first saw at the Lansdowne Cycling Club helping an elderly lady onto a chair after a fall in one of the aerobics classes the club’s gym put on. Stan smiled some and made his way to the showers, thinking of that kind girl’s hand on that old lady’s shoulder as he let warm water rush past his eyes. Now that hand’ll be resting on the hand of Stan’s brother, looking quizzically at Stan outside the church, a speech burning a hole in Stan’s pocket.
“The real truth of it,” Stan’s saying out loud to the mirror. “Is that things don’t seem to pan out the way you think. Or, in all honesty, the way you want.”
Stan’s very aware of being in his own hall. The rug soft and thick beneath his feet, the mug edging ever closer to the edge of the cabinet, the mirror stained and smudged and reflecting Stan back at Stan.
No one’ll ever know today how angry Stan’s brother is capable of being. A brother who Stan himself has had to restrain from himself, a brother who has done malicious things to guinea pigs, a brother whose own mother was openly so-so on throughout his mid-teens, a brother who in that Marchmont Road flat once punched Stan on the nose.
Stan pictures Isaac screaming Abraham down in the desert, saying, You fucking what? Over and over and over.
One arm being longer than the other, still.
And, Stan’s brother’s nostrils once being the ones doing all the flaring.
Somewhere the paper is crinkling in Stan’s hands. There is a long history of repression in the family. On his mother’s side it is nigh on rife. Still, standing in the hallway in Al’s old suit, looking in Al’s old mirror, worrying about his arms and his speech and living on the verge of sneezing, Stan wonders if Uncle Al might in fact be the exception. Stan recalls the penultimate evening of Al’s seventh marriage when Al got picked up by the police from a 24-hour Morrisons. Uncle Al’s seventh wife, Maureen, was there, stood by the head of the canned goods aisle, watching her future ex-husband hurl tins of cooked carrots and Irish stew and kidney beans from aisle end to aisle end. The tins collected at Maureen’s feet like flowers at a road traffic accident. “Just sing out when we’ve got enough,” screamed Al, “Just sing out!” Maureen cried silently until the police came and led Al away. Maureen was a curious one. On paper she was nigh on normal. Stan can remember his mother’s joy when she first met her, regularly using the word lovely throughout the brunch. In the car on the way home, though, she stared out of the window with a pallid face. Stan figured he could read Mum that day: Maureen might be lovely, sure, but she was marrying Uncle Al here and she was going to be his seventh wife. All went swimmingly for Al and Maureen for two years, until Al cracked that day in Morrisons. “She thinks there’s going to be a nuclear holocaust,” Al wept. “She lives in constant fear that our amenities will be cut off and we’ll be reduced to the status of savages.” “Well we’re all a bit concerned about that,” Stan’s Mum said. “But how did you end up in Morrisons, throwing all those tins.” Uncle Al said that people weren’t listening to what he was saying, it wasn’t just a bit of concern: “Back home, she’s got cupboard after cupboard of tins. There’s no fresh food in the house. Imagine living in a house full of food that can only be eaten in an emergency?” Stan’s Mum later said that she didn’t think Al was good for women. “As his sister it pains me to say it but he drives all of us to think only of crises.” Standing in front of the mirror, struggling to hang on to his left arm, his tie and his impromptu speech, Stan wonders whether Uncle Al is simply a man who throws tins when he’s had enough of them rather than leaving them stacked up on the shelf.
“I want to take a moment of your time to talk about…”
In all likelihood there’ll be near enough too much buzzing at the reception, Stan possibly struggling to be heard.
“…to talk about love.”
Stan sneezes so violently he drops everything except his left arm. Sneezes are a strange one, Stan thinks, rising up suddenly with little in the way of warning, leaving no choice but to let them out. I’ve got a cold, Stan thinks, Why can’t she deal with that. For a moment he is resolute. His mother’ll have to lump it. She can take Stan as Stan is and if that involves a sneeze here or a speech there then she’ll just have to accept that that is something Stan does like chewing gum or cycling or not getting married.
With the jacket covering his wristwatch like it is, Stan’s not in a position to be sure how much time has elapsed.
“I WANT TO TAKE A MOMENT OF YOUR TIME TO TALK ABOUT LOVE.”
“You fucking what, Dad?” Isaac presumably said.
The fucking buzzing already.
Stan’s mother claims to have spent most of her adult life waiting for her brother to die in a high-speed car accident. “I tell you, sometimes I just sit at home waiting for the call,” Stan’s mother told them all one Sunday last year when the whole family gathered at the behest of Stan’s brother who wanted to announce some big news. “Come now Trudy,” Stan’s father said, placing a hand near but not quite on Stan’s Mum’s shoulder. “Now’s hardly the time.” Stan’s Mum shot Stan’s Dad a look of fury. It was only in recent years that Stan had learnt that his father was a man who lived on thin ice, but if Uncle Al’s marriages failed because he threw tins down the aisle of Morrisons, Stan’s parent’s marriage failed because Stan’s Dad didn’t. As it turned out Uncle Al didn’t crash his car that day, although he did turn up with a screech of brakes and a garbled message about “fucking Diane”—Diane being Al’s eighth and most recent ex-wife. Stan always figured that driving was something of a release for Al, a chance to commit his mind entirely to something that was not himself and his current marital strife. Stan imagines Al driving with very soft hands, focused solely on the road. Maybe if Mum went for the odd drive she too might soften slightly, Stan recalls thinking, right before his brother arrived with the big news. Later that same day Stan caught his Dad mending a saucer in the garage. “Don’t tell your mother,” he said, painstakingly piecing together some ten to twelve fragments of china. Stan could see that a section of the rim was missing altogether. Judging by the way his Dad’s head hung over the Araldite it seemed like perhaps he knew too. “How did it break?” Stan asked. Dad didn’t look up. “Your mother and I sometimes have what you might call a disagreement,” he said. “What do you call them?” asked Stan. “Your mother calls them debates,” he said after a pause, “And I agree with her.” The saucer was from a set that Stan’s parents got given for their own wedding some thirty-two years earlier. Mum was meticulous in maintaining it. “It’s imitation Wedgewood,” she would say, too often for Stan’s liking. Mum was probably just jealous, Dad confided in Stan: “Al’s got wedding china coming out of his arse.” Stan’s wondering if maybe that’s also part of the reason Al drives so fast. It can’t be good for a man having that much china.
Diane was meant to be Uncle Al’s Katherine Parr but she didn’t make it.
“You fucking what? Dad?”
Stan taps the mug on the cabinet with the longer of his two arms so that the sound rings out in his hall.
Crease or no crease it looks like the tie’ll be making an appearance of sorts.
Stan’s brother has always been intrigued by awkwardness. That’s why Stan’s thinking that in many ways this’ll be something of a treat. A present even. Stan has the speech in his hands still, his left holding the bottom, his right the top. Everything is silent. All buzzing has ceased. “Love,” repeats Stan, hoping that his brother’s nostrils’ll be flaring. “That’s what I want to talk about.” Stan recalls the last full conversation he and his brother shared, walking back from what turned out to be the final time the two of them set off cycling from the Lansdowne club. “So Stan, have you got an answer for me yet?” Again it took Stan a moment to figure out exactly what his brother was on about. “Abraham and Isaac, what did they talk about on the way home?” Stan wanted to blurt out many things. His brother positively bounced beside him. “In all likelihood there was a great deal of silence,” Stan finally said. “Really? You think there was silence. Because I think Isaac’s going to have a lot on his mind.” “Of course,” agreed Stan, “But that doesn’t mean it’s all going to come billowing out on the walk home.” At the entranceway to the clubhouse Stan’s brother paused to glare at Stan. “His Dad was seconds away from dashing his head in with a stone knife and he’s only walking home because some voice called out from behind a bush. This isn’t like when Mum started buying value crisps, you’d bring that shit up.” Stan hopes there’ll be some silence at the reception, plates of food half eaten around them.
“You fucking what? Mum?”
Abraham and Isaac having recently eaten.
“What a lovely meal we’re enjoying,” says Stan.
Thomas Chadwick grew up in the West of England and is currently based in Ghent, Belgium. His writing has appeared in Popshot, Structo, and Corda. He is an editor at Hotel magazine.
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.