Edward Easter was an organised man: a genre-divided record collection, shoes for any weather, a shower either side of sleep. At seventeen he’d decided to become a meteorologist in the RAF; now twenty four, that’s what he was. His younger brother James, a reformed dandy who spent all his money on correspondence courses in psychology, thought Edward was a fearful person, and told him so in between mouthfuls of cereal, which he was eating from the box, at two in the afternoon, in his underwear.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Edward, who was standing at the living room mirror adjusting his tie. “Why would I join the military if I was fundamentally afraid?”
“You joined the military precisely because you’re afraid — afraid of the worst case scenarios. Afraid of war.”
Edward didn’t reply. Instead he went to the fridge and reviewed the milk. About a third of a carton left. That would easily be enough for tea for the rest of today. But would it leave them stranded at breakfast tomorrow? Edward made a mental note to buy more milk tonight, just to be safe.
James carried on. “On some level, you’ve always been terrified that one day there’ll be a war and you’ll be conscripted and end up getting waved about on some Iranian’s bayonet. So you covered your bases by joining up early as a weatherman. Then, when the war does come, you’ll be tucked up in some office with a packet of biscuits rather than being sent to the frontline with the rest of us.”
Edward looked at James. “Put some trousers on,” he said, and returned to work.
Two days later, as he lay in hospital with two legs broken on a slippery fifth floor stair — he never took the lift — Edward wondered whether James might be right. When he looked at it, truly looked at it, he saw that he hadn’t joined the RAF through patriotism or honour or even a particularly strong interest in the weather, despite his two geography degrees. It was because he knew it would give him a life of quiet, orderly achievement through dedication rather than daring. He knew he was cautious That wasn’t up for debate. But maybe he was too cautious.
Edward jabbed a finger at James, who was sitting at his bedside frowning over a textbook entitled Just Rewards: How Animal Psychology Can Fight Global Capitalism. “I’ve made a decision,” he said. “I’m going to leave the air force.”
“What, because someone left a banana skin on the stairs?” said James.
“No, because it’s boring, man.”
“’Man’? You don’t say ‘man’. I say ‘man’. That’s my thing. You shave every day. That‘s your thing.”
“Exactly. But maybe I don’t want to shave every day. And maybe I don’t want to be in the RAF.”
“You won’t leave. The risks are too great. You’re not motivated by glory, you’re motivated by avoiding harm. And anyway, what would Mum say?”
Edward said nothing to that. There was no need: it was a silly question to which they both already knew the answer. Their mother would be aloof about it. She was aloof about everything. She was a small fry academic, art history, only in it for the conferences. Their father wouldn’t say anything either. Their father was dead. He had been an inventor. He had become depressed, then invented a way out of it.
“You won’t do it.” James said it again.
The breaks were bad, and it was two months of grunting, bead-sweated physio before Edward was even able to work again. He killed those first weeks with daydreams about quitting his desk job that were by turns redly quixotic and meekly pessimistic. Without a plan, where would he be in five years? Would he be like the bandana-wearing army vet gone native, drinking and whoring in a dark and humid country? Or would he be living with Mum, worrying whether she’d remember to buy milk?
Edward would find out. He had the resignation letter in his hand, and was walking across the base to his supervisor’s office under a late November sky that was hard and clear but for one little gasp of cloud on the near horizon. Every cell in Edward’s body was telling him to stop this foolishness and return to his desk; he had cold fronts to plot. But he couldn’t shake free of what James had implied in the hospital — that every choice Edward made was pre-emptive, analgesic, routed through anxiety — nor, worse, the unbearable fact that there was compassion in the way he’d said it. James had already forgiven Edward’s timidity, expecting nothing more. And that tortured him. So Edward kept walking.
He passed the visitors’ entrance to see a car — his own car — burning up the road. It screamed to a stop some yards from him, and James got out.
“Don‘t quit,” he called to Edward through the fence. “Evidence suggests it’s unwise.”
Edward waved placatingly at the entrance’s security guard, who was leaning out of his cabin, sandwich in hand, and strode closer to his brother.
“It’s peer reviewed.”
He’d seen a study, James said. It was about the cognitive side-effects of a number of medical painkillers — and here James reeled off a lot of syllable-heavy brand names, none of which Edward recognised. Except one.
“And they are, quote, strongly associated with impaired judgment for up to six months,” said James. “You don’t have to quit.”
“For scientific reasons, I mean,” he quickly added. But that tone was in his voice again — the compassionate one. As Edward faced his kid brother, who hung from fingertips hooked into the fence’s lace work, something cracked and fell through the floor of him. He agreed it was a bad idea — “scientifically, of course” — and forty years of his future queued up ahead of him in a beautiful, tidy line. The Easter brothers drove home.
Martin Cornwell lives in London. From 2006 to 2010 he co-edited the No Quarter, a satirical news website, before turning to fiction. So far he’s had work published by Unbound and Notes From The Underground. He’s now working on his debut novel. Find him on Twitter @MartinCornwell.
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