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Little By Little
If there was one moment in his life he could rewind to, he knows there would be no contest. September 2011. The world hadn’t crashed down around him. He didn’t know life could fall apart, let alone find the time to worry about it. He was seven years old and Albus was just five. Lily didn’t understand. She was only little and down below, to her, was not a brook but a raging river with sharks and monsters and Uncle Ron’s socks. She clung to their mother and watched from afar.
“Now, be careful,” their father had warned as they hauled themselves up on the railings, wellington boots slipping and gloves soaked through. Two pairs of wide eyes loomed in the water below, two heads of messy black hair, two grins of irrepressible excitement, of that desire for novelty that only children can truly appreciate in their carefree, innocent way.
James watched as Albus’s hands, much smaller than his own, gripped tighter on the railing. He wrinkled his nose so that his glasses stayed up when he dipped his head over the top bar to look deeper, deeper into the water. There was a dog – he can’t remember much about it but there was a dog – running through the water, letting it ripple blindly behind him. Albus scowled. He liked perfection. He liked the sun when it was split exactly in half by the horizon, he liked the grass as green as his eyes not the miserable colour of James’; he liked every hour on the hour. The minutes past and minutes to confused him.
“Can we race, Dad?” James asked, and he would never forget the soft chorus of his brother’s voice in his ear: Yeah, Daddy, can we? They perhaps did not see eye to eye over whose broom was whose or who loved Teddy more, but there were some moments where they were brother and brother and it was unbreakable.
Their father had said yes because he couldn’t say no. James had leapt down from his railing with the prowess and skill that a seven year old alone could boast of, until he turned eight and nine and ten. Albus had tried but it wasn’t the same. He winced when his feet hit the boards. The drop was too far. He was only five.
Harry had let them race to the banks of the stream; his voice was there but the words melted in the air and became just background noise in the memory. Perhaps they were warnings, or advice, or perhaps they’d been bickering and he’d forgotten; it was twenty years ago. His memory wasn’t what it used to be.
James had picked a maple leaf. Al had tried a nettle but it had stung him and he cried so James offered him his and picked a small branch of a birch up from the ground. Albus was wandering off already, one hand in their father’s, the other holding the maple. James looked dismissively at his choice and followed slowly. It wasn’t really fair but his mother kept telling him that life wasn’t.
James was seven and so he pulled himself onto the railings with no problem, clutching his branch in his hand and waiting ever so patiently for his little brother to struggle up, his forehead furrowed in a deep concentration as his small hands gripped on the metal pole and after what had felt like a week to James, Al had finally joined him. Their father put his hands protectively on their arms and his voice was like a breeze between them.
“One, two, three, GO.”
They both let go and the leaves seemed to fall so slowly that James felt his own forehead crumple in disappointment. In the distance, he could hear his sister’s voice travelling on the wind but his focus was only on that branch that had just hit the water. The water rippled out and he couldn’t take his eyes off it.
“Quick, over this side, Al.”
The maple leaf had gone already and Albus struggled down off the barrier, running to his father on the opposite side of the bridge. James looked back and his branch had disappeared. He jumped down like the seven-year-old that he was and clambered back up the other side.
The maple leaf came through first. The birch branch took four seconds longer.
Albus had won. James had lost. For the first time, James felt that his world was crumbling and then Albus was gone and he was walking away with their father. Their mother was clapping and Lily was waving her hands even though she didn’t understand why, and James was left standing on the bridge, watching his branch trap itself between two rocks. The maple was out of sight. He looked back and somewhere, his name was being called. He stepped back off the rail and when he hit the ground, it took a few moments for him to realise he was on his back.
He was seven years old and he had lost and he didn’t know what to do, so he cried.
People watched and the world stopped for a minute just to laugh. His parents disappeared from sight, the laughter of every staring face around him drowning him in noise, and then two pairs of almond shaped eyes of the most brilliant green appeared like a calling sign. His little brother stuck out his hand and awkwardly patted James’ shoulder.
“It’s okay. You can have my sweetie.”
In one skinny five-year-old hand was a half-unwrapped Chocolate Frog. He looked from his little brother to his mother who was walking towards them, and gently shook his head.
“Keep it. You won.”
He got to his feet and wiped his eyes, because he was seven and seven-year-olds didn’t cry because they’d fallen over. Five-year-olds cried and three-year-olds cried but James was seven and so he stood up and walked towards his family, painting on a smile that he didn’t take off for twenty years.
Twenty-seven-year-olds don’t cry. He has said it over and over again but it still doesn’t sound like truth. He has seen an eighty-year-old cry, a fifty-year-old cry, a thirty-two-year-old cry, so why shouldn’t he? What difference does it make that he is twenty-seven and when his brother cried when he was only twenty-five? How can two years be so much?
He leans against the railings of the bridge he crossed so many times as a child, seven or otherwise. The brook has turned a murky brown from the rotting wood beneath him. People don’t care anymore. History can break down and nobody will bat an eyelid because it is the here and now and what will happen tomorrow that drives them on. He knows that if he asks a passer-by when they would go back to, they would likely just say ‘yesterday’ so that they might do the shopping or come back early from work or remember that it was cousin Mary’s birthday and give her a quick call. They will not go as far back as him. They do not remember what it was like to be seven.
His brother will not remember what it was like to be five, fifteen or even twenty-five. They spoke every day and now Albus will never speak again. Words to him will be the background noise of memories. They will fade away and what once told the story of life itself will become nothing.
He pulls his coat tighter around him, his neck burrowing into his scarf. There isn’t a soul around, and he laughs at the very way he has phrased it. What once made Albus Al has now gone and James wonders whether it’s possible that some of him has gone with it. He doesn’t feel empty. He doesn’t feel his breath rattle without knowing what it is that makes it so. He just feels lost and there is nobody left to find him when he falls to pieces.
He looks along the bank. The trees are shedding once again and he finds his feet carrying him on the same path that he has relived over and over. He smiles, though he knows it doesn’t go further than his lips, and lifts into his hand a limp maple leaf and a branch of drooping birch. His best shoes click and clack on the wooden slats and he leans on the edge, looking down into the water that has lost its end. His father’s voice rings in his head and there is an almighty roar of, “GO!” that he thinks might rip him apart. He opens his two gloved hands and with the same infuriating sluggishness, the leaves float to the water, rippling in the strength of the English autumn gale. He does not need to run to the other side now. He strides in two – it feels smaller now – and watches as from underneath emerges victorious the branch of birch, snapped in two but there nonetheless.
He waits but there is no sign of the maple. He is in his best trousers and his coat falls way past his knees but he finds himself up to his ankles in the water, crouching to see under the bridge. Against a rock, jutting up above the rest, is the leaf. He bends and in one hand, snatches it off.
It crumbles in his hand and he is twenty-seven and he doesn’t know what to do, so he cries. There is no-one left to rescue him, only a body lying in a hospital bed, unable to recognise neither faces nor words. James clenches his fist around the broken foliage and takes a breath that echoes beneath the bridge. He feels the sting of the wind and the sting of his tears and the sting of feeling like hope has been kissed away with his brother’s soul. He knows his trousers are clinging to his legs and that his coat is damp against his knees but he can only feel the trail of the tears his brother cannot cry sweeping down his cheeks.
When he gets home, he dusts the leaf into the bin and takes off his coat and scarf, draping them carefully over the banister. The place feels empty, even though he can hear Mr Harris next door talking to himself and the couple upstairs laughing at the television. He unlaces his shoes and puts them by the back door, stripping his trousers off and taking his shirt off too, just because he might as well.
He goes straight to bed but doesn’t sleep, and when he has had enough of the silence, he goes back downstairs, rubbing his eyes and pretending for a moment that he’s okay.
Then the ground falls from beneath him and he is on the tiled floor of the kitchen, a whole, damp maple leaf clinging to his sock. He takes it carefully in his shaking, bare hands and cradles it in the same way he held Albus when he was first born.
He is twenty-seven and he has lost his brother and he doesn’t know what to do, so he cries and doesn’t wipe his tears away because it’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s natural.
A/N: So this was written for the lovely Rin [IndigoSeas]’s Man on a Bridge challenge at TGS. It was simple enough: write about a man on a bridge. This came more naturally than a lot of what I’ve been writing recently and I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it. I’d love to hear any thoughts you have on it.