“You need to be here.”
It’s an accusation, as bitter as their relationship has become. Hugh can hear it trickling through clipped tones, given colour by the angular set of Arthur’s frame. Arms are folded, anger the tight line of his brother’s jaw. Now their eyes won’t meet. Now their words are dagger-sharp, whet to cause maximum damage. Where had it all gone wrong?
Hugh is desperate.
Desperate. Despairing. Devastated. Drunk.
“You need to be here.”
This time it’s a hiss, a warning, a command for him to stay. For those jangling legs to still. For him to politely lift his head and respond to the man, all leather elbow patches and happy-clappy shit about recovery. Hugh almost expects him to whip out a guitar and strum the chords of Kumba-fucking-ya.
Arthur’s hand is a vice about his wrist, the only restraint he’s felt all week. Guilt twists his guts, a more potent leash than any threat of force. Even as he acquiesces, the ever-present ache works his throat, drags his tongue across chapped lips. Inspires him to swallow saliva, in place of the release that burns him so sweetly.
It’s a hollow experience when Arthur narrates for him, points out his flaws with dispassionate clarity. Hugh feels dissected, the group hum at pertinent times, but there is little warmth in their sympathy. Instead he feels ashamed, as though his world has narrowed to this one point in time and there is nothing beyond it. Hugh is no longer a brother, a man with a quick smile and a warm heart. Hugh is not loyal, honest or generous. All that is left is the alcohol.
Hugh is an alcoholic.
For a split second he almost wishes Pete, or Dave, or whatever the hell his name is… breaks out a guitar. Silence is excruciating, the group waits. Arthur waits. Hugh says nothing.
Then the group moves on.
Some woman called Mairi is bleathering about her uncle’s birthday party, how they had champagne fountains and she had to suck on an orange for an hour in the toilet. Or something like that. For the first time in weeks he feels Arthur’s gaze. Disappointment is piled upon the other negative emotions that now crowd their interactions. It occurs to him to be irritated. What did his brother expect? It wasn’t as though he wanted to be here, chose to be here. If he’d asked for Arthur’s help it might have gone differently, but he hadn’t.
Hugh is here by force, and there is a part of him that wants to be rebellious.
The meeting concludes with a rousing monologue, some man called Alan who has been sober for a decade. It’s hard, so hard, even now he says and Hugh wonders whether he has enough left, enough of him. What if when alcohol is gone, there is emptiness in its wake? If he has swallowed his emotions so readily, there is static to replace them. Or worse yet, they rush in to fill the vacuum left. If they over spill. Vaguely he’s aware of clapping, of the group thinning. Of Arthur stirring and Elbow-patches giving him that pity stare.
“It’s always difficult the first time…”
Words are gentle and it rankles him. It prompts him to action, standing up too fast, too broad, causing Elbow-patches to take a step back.
It’s Arthur that interjects, slides between them and frowns at him. The brief rush of pleasure is curtailed and the hunch of his brother’s shoulders checks him with remorse.
“Aye, thank ye…”
In the car, Elton John is barely a whisper. The windscreen wipers jolt to life and Arthur goes through his routine. Mirrors. Check. Seatbelts. Check. Handbrake. Off.
“You need them.”
Perhaps it’s the song, perhaps it’s the peculiar space a vehicle creates, where words can flower and wither without existing in reality. It’s been so long since Hugh has been able to hear what Arthur means rather than what he says and he finally understands. Perhaps it’s Arthur that needs this and not him at all.