Image by Christine Renney
Ella wouldn’t give in. She had plagued Stephen with questions, forcing him to answer. But he was the boy who didn’t know, who supposed. He was the boy who wouldn’t say, who couldn’t commit and he answered mostly in shrugs.
When Michael joined them and decided to make an effort, she knew it was for her or at least that it was because of her. If he hadn’t, would she have persevered? Persisted in her pursuit of Stephen? Ella asked herself this constantly but found no answer. She was now the one who didn’t know, wouldn’t say, couldn’t say. She was the one now plagued with questions.
She wanted desperately to remember what he had been like before his brother died. But that Stephen was lost to her. All she had now was a post-tragedy version of Stephen, the one she had followed. Was it possible that he had once been like Michael? Full to brimming with questions of his own and a wanting for answers?
She remembered often and easily being back there in that little room. Music coming from the stereo and Stephen laying on his bed. Barely breathing or so it had seemed but managing somehow to draw in all of the air.
Michael had stepped outside. She had hoped at first it was to use the bathroom but he had been gone for almost an hour. He must have gone downstairs to the kitchen for a drink or something to eat or most probably both.
Ella listened to the music, a voice and a guitar ringing out despite the dull echo and the crackle and hiss. Despite the years and all that had happened since, the singer was making himself heard.
When it stopped, Stephen moved at last in order to turn the record.
‘Who is it?’ she asked.
‘The singer, who is it?’
Stephen was holding the record with both hands like a piece of delicate china. He looked down at the label.
‘Robert Johnson’, he said.
‘It’s old’, Ella said and blushed.
‘But you like it?’ Ella asked clumsily.
‘Why’, she pressed, ‘why do you like it?’
‘I don’t know, I just do.’
Ella had wanted to say more but the music was old and unfamiliar and she found it oppressive. She had wanted to force this, make it into something, a conversation in which they said things that were both clever and profound. But Robert Johnson had begun again and Stephen didn’t want to talk, he wanted to listen. Ella understood now that it was because for as long as the music was there he didn’t have to be.
How much longer did she sit and wait? She was sure she could hear Michael above the music crashing around down in the kitchen. Stephen had turned, was laying on his side, face to the wall. Carefully, and very quietly, she left him, stood in the doorway and glanced back.
She would return with Michael who would noisily interrupt, talk over the music, disregard and break any kind of spell that it might be capable of casting.
Michael had been following her. He was all too aware now of just how far he would go, to what levels he would push and climb so that he could get close to her. Back then he hadn’t given it a second thought and like a mangy dog he had trailed behind her and of course Stephen. Stephen was the key, he was Michael’s way to her.
Ella had become an obsession and over the course of that summer in Stephen’s room both it and Michael had been able to fester until it had reached a decidedly unhealthy pitch. He couldn’t have been more excessive or elaborate in his efforts to impress her and Stephen’s room had proved the perfect platform where he could perform unhindered.
Ella laughed at his jokes. She listened to him and he to her. Each day they would begin afresh sparring together and really getting to know each other. But she was forever glancing a little beyond wherever he happened to be sitting or standing. She was talking with him but looking at Stephen, who lay immobile on the bed or was at his records, sifting through them, searching for something and back then Michael had been perplexed as to what it could be.
The collection depressed him, it was too big. It didn’t seem feasible to him that a fifteen year old boy could own so many records. He realised now that they must have belonged to his brother. Had been handed down, an unwanted inheritance, unwieldy and hard to fathom.
He had watched the girls at school pining for Stephen, yearning from afar. He had wondered now if Stephen’s grief had been part of the attraction, if it had helped to fuel their desire. A few, the bravest and most stunning, had ventured close and they tried to draw him but it couldn’t be done. And humiliated, they had to turn and walk away. They resented him then, those elite and beautiful few whilst the others wanted him all the more and yearned a little harder.
Increasingly, Michael had begun to feel trapped in that little room with Stephen and Ella the girl who yearned the hardest, the one who refused to turn and walk away.
At regular intervals, Michael started to escape. He would make himself a mug of coffee and sit at the pine table, stretch out his legs and relax. He enjoyed the sunshine streaming through the patio windows and each time he absconded he lingered for a little longer. Making himself comfortable in that unfamiliar kitchen, he helped himself to a biscuit or two and before long he was rifling through the cupboards, eating cakes and crisps, cheese and crackers, and guzzling down glass after glass of fresh orange juice and emptying giant plastic bottles of cola.
Ella was easily read. She had a face like an open book and each time Michael returned she was relieved. She tried to hide it, was annoyed with him. She turned quickly and started to sulk but just fleetingly it was there and he didn’t miss it.
Michael felt guilty and resented her a little for making him feel like that. He hadn’t done anything wrong; well, he had helped himself uninvited to food and drink but he had been a guest, Stephen’s friend or at least he had tried to be.
Ella didn’t interrogate him, didn’t ask what he had been doing or why it has taken so long? And although for a few minutes it was awkward between them he would manage to win her over and eventually they would pick up from where they had left off, their voices once again becoming a part of that little room.
Ella had caught him red-handed and he turned red in the face as she leaned over the table and peered down at the mess he had made; the strewn wrappers, the crumbs and the coffee stains.
‘Hope you’re going to clean up after yourself,’ she said.
‘Of course,’ he said, ‘I always do.’
‘You’ve made yourself at home down here,’ she stated.
‘Yeah,’ Michael looked up at her, defiant. ‘I suppose. Do you want a drink?’ he asked.
‘What do you want? Juice, coffee, coke?’
‘A diet Coke,’ Ella laughed. She sat in the chair opposite him and settling she sighed.
‘I think I can manage that.’
Michael stood and as he did they heard Stephen moving on the landing above. Neither of them moved until they could hear him clattering about in the bathroom, rummaging for something.
Michael pushed the glass of coke across the table. He refilled the kettle and switched it on. They watched it boil as they listened to Stephen walking back to his room. He seemed to be taking an eternity and his every footfall was far too heavy and leaden for such a skinny boy. They heard him collapse on the bed and at last he was still, with Ella and Michael sipping at their drinks, making them last, putting it off.
The music had stopped and from where she sat, closest to the door, Ella could hear the record, the Robert Johnson record still turning, the needle caught in the run-out groove and looping unattended.