Shining the Boot | Sarah Bernstein | Granta

Shining the Boot

Sarah Bernstein

At the time of my arrival, my brother was not yet ailing. In fact he was in the very pink of health, the prime of his life; having recently freed himself from his wife and teenage children and their perennial demands, he was, he said, at last free to pursue his business ventures in peace. His investments had begun to pay off and, in the absence of his family, from whom he had long estranged himself, and since he spent a great deal of time away from his home, he found himself needing someone to look after the house, he told me one afternoon over the telephone. And who better than I, who from childhood had proven myself the most efficient, most doting manager of my siblings’ household affairs? When I did not respond immediately – the proposal came so abruptly – he assured me that the house, although storied and ancient, although once belonging to the distinguished leaders of the historic crusade against our own forebears, nevertheless had all the modern conveniences. These he enumerated, as though he were the agent of some new, dubious hotel: high-speed internet, a variety of on-demand streaming services, a soaking tub, a rainfall shower, a memory foam mattress, hand-woven linens, a convection oven, a six-slice toaster, an ice machine, and so on and so forth. As my brother’s claims about the furnishings of his home proceeded by this logic of declension, it occurred to me as it had perhaps occurred to him that he knew very little about me and, what’s more, that this concerned him, that he no longer knew what might please me. For instance as he said the word ‘mattress’, his voice became panicked, as if he feared he had made the most irremediable social blunder, that this mention of the mattress would be unacceptable, perhaps even offensive to me. I was troubled by this sign of discontinuity in my brother’s total authority, it was clear to me that the business with his wife must have come as a blow to him, what little I knew of men suggested that they were constitutionally incapable of being alone, terrified of not being admired and seemed to regard aging and its effects as a personal failing. Yes, yes, I said. Of course I would come. Of course! I said, nearly shouting into the phone. When had I ever denied him, my eldest brother, or any of the succession of other siblings whose whereabouts were just then unknown to me, when had I ever denied any of them the smallest request? Of course I would come. Naturally, he said, recovering himself, he would arrange and pay for my journey, he would pick me up himself at the airport in his car, a new model he had only just acquired, and drive me back to the house. And he did do these things, he never reneged on promises or went back on his word, no matter how rashly given, no matter how intoxicated or coerced he had been at the moment of avowal, although it’s true in any case he gave his word freely and often, to friends and strangers alike, to business partners and even adversaries, as far as my brother was concerned a thing, once said, was as good as done and that was all there was to it. When I reached the automatic doors of the airport, the navigation of which took some time, since the sensors did not at first register my movement, however exaggerated, and I had to wait until another recently deplaned passenger passed through the doors himself to exit, my brother’s car was already idling at the kerb. Through the window, he gestured to me to get in, and I did.

On the drive from the airport to his house, a distance of some two hours, my brother admitted that his wife, in collusion with the children, had decamped to Lugano, where her people lived, without a word and so far as he could tell permanently and perhaps even in the dead of night. The match had been doomed from the start, my brother said, as he drove through the rain, they had shared too much about themselves, knew too much about one another for mutual respect to be possible. What’s more, he went on, at various times, in alternating turns, he and his wife had committed the most grievous sins against one another, culminating finally in each speaking aloud the terrible truth of the other’s personality, truths they had long known about themselves and about one another, but about which they had come to a tacit agreement never to mention, never to discuss, never to give away the slightest hint that such knowledge existed. The wife, knowing the essential flaw in the husband’s heart, must never speak of it; likewise, the awful and indisputable fact of the wife’s character, this too must never be spoken by the husband. No, my brother said, not ever. Such was the basis of the marital relation. I opened the passenger-side window and the wet spring air blew in. I watched the passing landscape, the pale, incipient green of something left too long in the dark, I watched the sodden black branches as they passed, and then, yes, came the smell of spring. I felt a thrill run through me. All that was required, I felt, was one’s silence. Not to speak, not to say. That was all.

I recalled my own aborted attempts at intimacy, with men, with women, and all that I had ever come away with was a sense of my essential interchangeability. People touched me, when they touched me, with a series of predetermined gestures in no way adapted to me, to my consciousness or sensations, limited though these were, insensible though I surely was. I had been so attentive to the particularities of their flesh, the smattering of freckles at the temple, bumps rising on the forearm, had cultivated this attention over time, painstakingly, aware of my inclination, congenital, towards vacancy, and yet this practice of contemplation never got me very far. My partners led me through the door, doing things to me they had done to others, doing things to me they could have done to anyone, any body at all, and in fact I was sure that, in each of their minds, with their eyes closed, they were with someone entirely other, not me – the tender kiss on the hairline, the holding of the back of the head, the grasping of the wrist, none of it was directed at me, all of it was for someone else, from before, some beloved, lost long ago.

And the children, my brother said, they too had always taken the part of their mother, he could see that now; from birth if not before they had sworn him off, found him ridiculous if not pathetic, a poor father and a sorry excuse for a man. In truth, he said, he had long felt these things about himself, if latently, and observing that his wife and children felt it too and expressed it with such vehemence and at times, he had to admit, eloquence (for they were after all a family of readers), he felt almost comforted. Although it would perhaps come as a surprise to me, he said, giving me a sidelong glance, since he had been the eldest child, so far as we knew, in any case the most treasured, he had suffered. Yes, from childhood onwards, through the teenage years, into adulthood and to this very day, he suffered, and though his suffering had never been suspected by friends or relatives, not even for the most part by himself, he said, running one hand through his hair, still, he knew, he had suffered. It was his truth and he had to speak it, at whatever cost. I sat in silence, recalibrating my approach to my brother, pondering his new-found self-awareness, it was clear to me he had, so to speak, found himself, likely with the collaboration of a psychiatric professional of some kind.

His demands on me, previously involving the undertaking of specific tasks and labours, the fetching or taking away of things, had evolved to more subtle matters of the mind. I was well versed in this office, too; throughout my life, people frequently unburdened themselves to me, telling me their most harrowing stories, the most appalling secrets of their inner lives, the whole litany of crimes and violations they had committed against others, and they told it all on the slightest acquaintance, on some occasions within moments of meeting. I did not ask for these confessions, I did not welcome them, I merely sat in silence, receiving them from all sides. Inevitably and ere long the people who unfolded these revelations were overcome first with regret and subsequently by a swift and silent loathing of me, perfectly understandable in any situation, and especially in this case, they would come to hate me as they had always hated themselves, for possessing this knowledge, for receiving it in the first place, for not doing anything to stop them passing it on, the lifelong loathing they held in their hearts, lifting at last, would attach itself to me for no reason other than my proximity, a certain sympathetic aspect I had, an air perhaps of docility that encouraged them to make these unbearable confessions. I knew it all, what to expect, and yet never had managed to stop it, to prevent the forthcoming disclosure. From a long way away, I could identify a certain disposition, a slight lean to the left or something in the shoulder, I saw the annihilating confession approaching, and it fixed me in place, rendered me speechless. My brother, I knew, could not help but follow this same trajectory, by the set of his jaw as he drove the car and continued to speak, I knew the process was already well underway, and yet, like the others, he too went on speaking, as if compelled, for the duration of the car ride. I listened in silence. We drove at last through a small township and then beyond it, to my brother’s house at the top of the hill.

 

 

We pulled up to the house, the old manor house, my brother explained, which had been sold off by the gentry after the wars of the preceding century for any number of the usual reasons – death duties, dissolute relatives, the rising cost of fuel, the difficulty of finding adequate help to dust the mouldings, which were prolific, to oil the many long banisters or wax the vast and wooden floors – and to a series of provincial upstarts; each, my brother said, more insolent than the last. During his own tenure he had, he said, endeavoured to restore the stately spirit of the place. It looked in other words much as one might expect a faded small-town manor house to look; my brother was nothing if not conventional, he would not have wanted to stand out; nevertheless even I was impressed at how precisely he had achieved the intended aesthetic effect, as if there had been no rupture in the house’s historical lineage, as though he were the natural inheritor of the house and its grounds, of its contents, and of the social status and indeed blood line these things suggested.

The bedroom assigned to me was in the east corner of the front of the house, with windows looking out on two sides – one upon the creek, high and full from the recent thaw; the other on the long drive that led down into the valley and the town. My brother slept at the back of the house, in a dark room whose windows were surrounded by trees. Each morning I was to wake him with his breakfast tray, I was to open the curtains to reveal the forest that was his by deed of law, I was to lay out his clothes. While he ate, I would run his bath and, while he bathed, I would sit by him and read aloud the daily news headlines, clockwise as they appeared on the front page of the local newspaper. My brother was a tall man, strong and fit at that time, with good eyesight and a high level of reading comprehension. But he liked nothing more than to be waited on, to be read to, tasks his wife and children had previously undertaken in a complicated rota designed by my brother that ensured whoever had begun reading to him the coverage on, say, the latest political scandal at the county seat, would be able to continue their reading of this story as it unfolded, until either the coverage abated or the corruption was rooted out, whichever came first. My presence simplified things, since all the tasks previously divided between my brother’s wife and children would be my responsibility alone – the cleaning, the cooking, the shopping, the laundry, the airing out, the warming up, the chopping of wood, cutting of grass, uprooting of weeds and many other things besides. My brother dealt with the payment of bills and invoices. Such free time as I had, for instance on weekend afternoons (for my brother was not an unreasonable man) or on weeknights after he retired to his bedroom, I spent roaming the surrounding country.

I thought we were getting along quite nicely when, only a few days after my arrival my brother announced his intention to leave for a while, to go away, the legal complications related to his business were multiplying, he said, his clients were important, he was needed near at hand. It is true that since I had arrived, my brother appeared nervous, not quite terrified but certainly not far from it, I could feel the tension in his back as I soaped it in the morning, a certain stiffness of posture when I dressed him, for I did like to dress him, but he said nothing of the nature of his worries to me, which was so like him, my brother, to keep his problems to himself. I was disappointed at this news, so soon after our reunion, but comforted myself with the notion that his sudden departure meant I could roam freely and at leisure, observing the frog life, which was prolific that spring, spawning in ponds and roadside puddles. I liked especially to sit under a tree by the creek and watch them make their froggy way to the stiller pockets of water, both they and I watching out for the insects, newly emerged from pupae. Frogs had been a fixture of my childhood summers, my eldest brother often sent me out on excursions to capture a certain amount of frogs or salamanders which he put to undisclosed use, even once a snapping turtle, an endeavour for which I employed a pair of tongs and a number of frozen hot dogs, lying on my belly on the dock every day for a week before I caught the creature, by which time my brother had moved on to some new project. I never knew what he did with the amphibian life I brought to him, and I did not ask, merely watched him as he peered over the edge of the red pail I was in the habit of using, with a slight shudder of disgusted pleasure. On one particularly hot day, he placed two of the captive frogs side by side on the edge of the lake – one, much larger, my brother supposed to be a female, for reasons he would not reveal; the other, he said, clearly a juvenile male. My brother watched the frogs closely, with an anticipation I did not understand, until at all once, the larger frog turned and swallowed her companion whole. A single flipper flailed in her mouth. She swallowed again, and was still. I knew I must not weep, I must not scream, I must not run, though I wanted to do these things, yes, and to retch until my skin turned inside out. My brother observed me closely. I knew he, together with the rest of my siblings, who had been engaged in similar hunting operations nearby, once they were informed, would hold me responsible for this act of cannibalism, and they did, using it as further evidence, presented to our parents, of my essentially barbarous nature that needed to be controlled. And my siblings did. They gave me direction. They gave me purpose. I lived for them. I lived especially for my brother, the eldest, the most handsome, most beloved of all of the siblings, so much energy and hope had gone into his conception and rearing. A firstborn son! The family was overjoyed, the siblings that succeeded him as well as the parents, we were all delighted, yes, we marked our eldest brother’s achievements with especial attention, were studiously ignorant of his failings in school, in extracurricular activities, in the social sphere, as far as we were concerned he could do no wrong. He never had to ask for anything and yet he did, he was voracious. He grew to be a teenager, tall for our family and fair-haired, dark-eyed, eventually an adult, he allied himself with certain kinds of people, took part in group chats where compromising images were shared of unconsenting individuals, he was a man at last and he was beautiful. He took a particular interest in me, the youngest, so many siblings in between he and I, so many years, the rest of the family allowed him this indulgence although they had marked me as a lost cause from birth, weak of lung, allergic to most fruits, a scrawny and pale infant with wispy hair. Nothing took with me, not convincingly, I was vague and inattentive, trailing off in conversation and, hopeless though I was, still my eldest brother took it upon himself to remedy these failings in me. He took me under his wing. I became his pupil and his retainer and he made me understand the necessity of temperance and silence. I had made an essential error in organising my consciousness early on in life, my brother explained, and this was by allowing the idea that it was reasonable for me to form my own judgments about the world, about the people in it. It was not an uncommon error, my brother went on, but it was a conviction particularly unwarranted and also deep-seated in my case. It would not be easy to remedy, no, it would be my life’s work, to reorient all my desires in the service of another, that was the most I could expect to achieve. Seemingly, my brother told me, I was a girl, would perhaps one day be a woman, and it was up to me to ascertain how to gain mastery over myself. And so I did, little by little, I pulled in my, so to speak, skirts, which must remain metaphorical since I only wore trousers as a child, and I determined to eradicate my pride and my will.

 

 

I tried to be good. I smiled as I did the bidding of others. I did my work and looked perfectly happy, tidy and unobjectionable, shining, shining the boot. Kneeling, crouching, toing and froing, standing too for hours at the foot of a bed, later sitting perhaps on the edge of a chair, ankles crossed, thighs apart, a look that should have been an offering. I did as I was asked, yes, but the outcome was too often unanticipated. Some problem in me people always felt but could not prove. What did I give? The sword for the sponge. Muscular where one would not expect it. And then a troubling streak just perceptible, perhaps, in the gaze. Since girlhood I had a great sense of injustice, I was always rooting for the underdog, it was a matter of principle. On the question of standing up for what I believed in however I was somewhat less certain, perhaps even weak-willed, what resistance I presented was negligible. The difference between me and anyone else was not that I wanted more to be good, it was not even that I was guiltier, but something rather difficult to place, a surface placidity with which I moved through the days, plodding, plodding, what certain teachers had in my youth understood as a kind of idiot impenetrability, who could blame them, the school systems were overburdened, understaffed, and to be frank there were prolonged periods during which time I refused to speak a single word anywhere on the school grounds. It was not a pursuit of affliction so much as an inborn quality, a gravity pulling me low. I had learned over the course of my life that there was to people something unpleasant about this opaque kind of inwardness: at any rate the people among whom I was reared demanded legibility – if there was one thing they could not stand it was the obscure, they were not a people much interested in the pursuit of meaning. By and by I learned to speak in slow, declarative sentences. I limited myself to simple exposition or straightforward and open questions. I erred on the side of caution and as a result I developed a reputation for being pliable and easy to use. And it is true that when confronted with other people, those other people who tended always to be after the upper hand, my will to powerlessness was brought out, I tended to be deferential, tugging at the proverbial forelock until all my hair fell out. This attitude presented its own set of problems, namely that meekness brings out the sadist in people, the atavistic desire to bite at the heels of the runt of the litter. As one writer put it, it’s not the meek who inherit the earth, the meek get kicked in the teeth.

One morning for instance I stood eating a bowl of cereal by the window. In the garden a kite plucked out the intestines of a grey rabbit. The rabbit had been alive until as recently as a few seconds before, death had not come swiftly enough for this rabbit, it had struggled. I had always loved the countryside, the north, trees in snow, but I had to tell the truth not expected to find quite so much violent death. I knew I would have to assimilate this death, even in time come to welcome it. My mind turned to the ways human joy, my own pleasure, was subject to death, how various were the ways death threatened to take it away. Whenever a branch fell in the forest after a storm, whenever the wind blew smoke back down the chimney, whenever my arm twinged, I thought, by long years of habit, supposing that is death itself? I had my boots on, ready to go; I had long ago settled my affairs. And still the agony of this rabbit affected me profoundly, I found myself weeping, and yet I could not pull myself away from the window, at a certain point I even raised a pair of binoculars which had been sitting on the sill to my eyes to get a better look at the particulars of the scene. My allegiance became confused. Although on the one hand the rabbit was small, fluffy and at a disadvantage, having neither wings nor talons, and although the rabbit looked more familiar to me, who had kept mammals as pets throughout my life, more familiar and even, it seemed, capable of love, or at least of a kind of devotion I might be able to recognise, it was true, I reflected, that the kite had needs, needed to eat, needed perhaps to feed its partner or infant kites, waiting somewhere in a nest, crying out, their survival depending upon it. There was also the matter of the rabbit’s prolific relations, rabbits of various stripes could be found darting in and out of the hedgerows at any given moment, while the kites, I felt, without of course being able to prove it, procreated at a much slower rate. In taking a side, I thought uneasily, perhaps I ought to take the long view, the survival of the species as a whole. That was my problem, I thought, I was always thinking at the level of the individual, in this case the rabbit, the grim scene unfolding before me in the garden as the kite pecked at the belly of the poor beast, initiating a gyration in the corpse or almost corpse of the rabbit, a kind of organy wobbling.

In the matter of the rabbit and the kite. Was it a matter of personal feeling, or a structure of ethics that evidently was and would remain beyond my grasp? How to choose? In the mornings of those first few months in my brother’s house, I cherished the silence. I stood at my bedroom window and watched the greens emerge, the trees, the mountains. How to describe how I felt then, pacing the floorboards in my bare feet, unable to tear my eyes away from the world outside, unable to leave the porch, and yet it was impossible to stay still.

 

This is an excerpt from Study for Obedient by Sarah Bernstein, a novel-in-progress.

Image © John Lodder

Sarah Bernstein

Sarah Bernstein is from Montreal, Quebec and lives in the North West Highlands. Now Comes the Lightning, a collection of poems, was published by Pedlar Press in 2015. Her debut novel, The Coming Bad Days, was published by Daunt Books in 2021.

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