Brothers in Arms

When he was eight years old his younger brother brought chicken pox home from school.

Both were kept off for a fortnight. Coming in the weeks following Christmas, being ill was much like being on an extended holiday. As they were highly contagious, they never left the house.

Only the insistent itchiness of the little red spots was agony, preventing sleep and any kind of comfort while awake. He loathed the sickly odour of the chamomile lotion his mother dabbed on the raw pimples. His younger brother, not known for his tolerance of discomfort, suffered more than he did, becoming particularly tearful and clingy.

Some time during that fortnight he and his brother were left in the care of their father. Their mother had some unspecified appointment, possibly a hairdressing job where the presence of two pox-ridden children would have been inconvenient.

No doubt this would have presented not inconsiderable inconvenience to their father, a builder, who had a number of unspecified appointments of his own to keep that day, each of which precluded nursemaiding his unwell offspring. Instead, he and his brother were dabbed with chamomile wrapped up in multiple layers of clothing, and bundled into the back of his Saab, as he drove from office to building site to suppliers’ premises.

He remembered the January weather was particularly miserable that day. A few days earlier he had sat in the living room doing his homework in front of the fire, with the crisp light of winter warming the room. Now heavy rain lashed the windshield of his father’s car, swatted away by the furious windscreen wipers.

They pulled up at a red-brick building, a half-finished house without windows and doors. Their father explained that he had to go into the building for a little while, but would be back as soon as possible. He left the key in the ignition and the heaters and cassette player on.

They were listening to Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms. One of their father’s favourite records and, by proxy, his too. He was fascinated with the cassette with its sky blue insert and tiny lyrics in pink type. The image of a steel guitar levitating in the clouds. He loved the music too: the noodling intro of Money for Nothing, with its falsetto refrain surrendering to the track’s staccato drum solo and power chords, the chirpy keyboard line and ‘woo hoos’ of Walk of Life, the curling, seductive saxophone of Your Latest Trick, the rolling thunder of the title track.

Now, the music had become an instrument of torture. His brother was sobbing again, as if he too felt it, had been driven to tears by it. He was curled into a ball on the backseat, crying for their absent mother.

Side One finished and Side Two began, then Side One returned, and after that Side Two again. Still their father remained in the building.

That is what he remembers. The cold rain, the fogged windscreen, his brother on the backseat and the spools of the cassette turning with deliberate indifference, as he stared at the half-finished house and willed his father to emerge.

That is what he remembers.