Walter was putting out plates while two eggs boiled, one for himself and one for his brother Andrew, not too soft not too hard. The kitchen of their farmhouse was cold and damp and the boiling of the eggs made it impossible to see outside. In the steamed-up window he made a porthole and looked out on the misty morning, and could just about make out the grounds of the smallholding where the chickens were already milling, clock-working their way around and scratching the earth. Their sheds looked gloomy yet stubborn as a backdrop. He looked back at Andrew who was sitting at the table ready, and served him his egg with the soldiers he’d neatly cut. This was the morning routine, observed as strictly and predictably as any new day itself.
They ate in silence and this was the norm too, because Andrew had given up talking, he hadn’t spoken in almost a year. Not that Walter bothered, the prolonged manly silences suited him, it was the company of a woman he craved. Andrew was dressed as usual in his overalls, not because he was regimental about being dressed early but because he never took them off, even for his bed. If Andrew could talk they’d discuss the fact that the diggers would be coming today, but he couldn’t, so they didn’t, so Walter was alone with his thoughts.
He’d booked in the diggers the week before and they’d said yes they’d start today, a Monday, and it would take them two days, then they’d be ready for the concrete mix. This would form the footings for the new shed they’d been arguing about for years, when Andrew would talk and was able to apply for planning, and that being granted, in order to expand their egg business, which Walter now ran single-handed because Andrew was no longer fit and able. No longer talking.
It all started four years ago when he began to forget things or become confused about detail. First sign was when he was driving out to Rigg on the Thursday round, and came back saying the job was done, but Walter discovered the van was still full of eggs.
“I thought you said it was done,” he said.
“It is,” said Andrew.
“Then how is it the eggs are still in the van?”
They’d fought about it, Walter calling him a fucking idiot, and come to blows, as was their way of dealing with matters such as these. Walter prided himself on the eggs being fresh so in his view this load was not, by the time Andrew returned to Rigg they’d be off – you can’t say fresh eggs and lay them out on the stall a day old, he’d said with no pun intended. So they’d have to let the market down and cut their losses. They were saving up to build his precious new shed and this wouldn’t help, he’d added.
And things got gradually worse, so much so that it was up to Walter to make deliveries, making trips of up to one hundred miles round, every day come hail or shine, while Andrew would just sit in his room. Then one day when Walter returned, his brother wasn’t there, found later roaming the town. One day soon after that he tramped over fourteen miles and had to be returned by the police. Once he was missing for three days and searches went out, even a helicopter costing the tax-payer fortunes, before he suddenly reappeared having slept three nights with the chickens. “He’s eighty-six,” the doctor had said, “Bound to be forgetful.” And that was taken as read.
The business belonged to their father Herbert and before that his father and so on. It was a family concern going back generations, the house and its fifteen acres worth millions in the current climate and Walter knew it. He dreamed of selling up and buying a modest house with garden and retiring peacefully like that. He dreamed of it every night, of resting, spending his days in the garden, reading, even writing, indulging his love of poetry and perhaps his love of women. But none of this had been possible because Andrew maintained they should honour the family tradition and keep the business going. Walter had argued there was nobody after them to leave it to, that they could sell up now and reap the rewards, allow some other family to take over; the legacy after all was theirs, the new family might even keep the brand that was known and trusted. Retire and rest, both of them, in peace after a lifetime of graft. But no, Andrew had dug his heels in – it was in both their names when their father signed it over and without two signatures to the contrary, things would remain as they were. The new shed would go ahead.
When they’d finished their eggs and drunk their tea, Walter collected the plates and put them in the sink, where the shelling of the day before and the day before that, settled unwashed. He’d get round to doing them but only when he’d time, because he knew Andrew wouldn’t do them, he’d simply go back up to his room and sit, thinking God knew what. The condensation had cleared from the windows and Walter looked out, the mist now burned off by the morning sun, the chickens doing what they did, oblivious, happy, hungrily scratching. He would go out soon, shoo them to the next yard and feed them there before the diggers came, but first he needed to move his bowels. He turned from the window and saw that Andrew was picking his nose which made him feel sick, and eating it which made him feel sicker. And yet he was his brother.
After feeding the chickens and loading the Transit, Walter drove down the long lanes into town and rested on the only free car park there was near the market. The day was still cold but his hands were warm, throbbing like his heart. Since Andrew got sick, Walter had invested in a computer, teaching himself how to use it, how to get broadband, how to use the internet, and as far as he understood it he’d have to wait seven years… Looking at himself in the rear view mirror he saw he was still young enough, fit, strong, handsome were it not for the blepharitis and a cowlick that depressed him, much younger than his brother, some twenty years in fact, and still able to work. Still able to get a woman, make a life with her, if he were given half a chance. With that in his mind he got out of the van and crossed the road into the police station to tell them what he needed to tell them.
After the long drive and deliveries to market, Walter then returned down the quiet lanes to the smallholding, where two hard-hatted men, one fat one thin, were standing smoking by a Bobcat trencher and admiring their work thus far.
“Alright?” said the fat one.
“We made a start,” said the thin one, “Your brother said it was OK.”
“My brother?” said Walter.
“Bloke in overalls,” said the fat man, “Well he didn’t say anythin’ just nodded, so we made a start.”
As the trencher got kicked up again, Walter went inside and found Andrew at the table and asked if he’d spoken to the builders. But Andrew didn’t answer, he just stared vacantly, then shuffled back to the stairs.
While the men resumed their work, Walter made sure the birds were still happy in the next yard where the older sheds stood decomposing, then headed back to the house. He needed to dig out some paperwork.
By the end of next day the footings were done. It was a cold and wintry evening and the ground was hard beneath his boots when he took the shovel from the barn. But just as he was about to dig a couple of feet deeper than the Bobcat did, he saw a beam of light and heard the crunching of wheels on the drive around the front. Returning to the house, he saw two frosted figures through the window of the door.
“Police,” they said, and Walter opened to admit two men, tunics glowing bright in the dim light from the hall. In the kitchen, Walter diligently made cups of tea, apologising for the pile of pots in the sink, as they sat at the table, asking questions about his brother and scribbling in their pads. How long did he say he was missing? How many times had this now happened? Had he searched the grounds because last time he was found with the chickens was he not? Did he have a recent photograph? Had he considered a home? It was cold in the kitchen and Walter could see their breath, but he was sweating, from the dig, and from the sound of a barking dog outside. “Fox,” he said, “Bugger’s been worrying the birds. I was out there trying to scare it away as you arrived.”
“I’m a townie myself,” said one of the officers, “I wouldn’t know a fox if I fell over one.” At last, the police had all their answers and reassured him they’d do everything they could and not to worry, people like Andrew often turn up eventually. They’d even contact all the hospitals and get a helicopter again if it became absolutely necessary. Thanking them profusely and saying he was very worried this time, Walter let them out, before resuming his moonlit work.
Next morning was greeted by a milky sun with promise of the arrival of spring, as Walter cleared the sink of dishes, boiled an egg, not too hard not too soft, and waited for the concrete.