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Conkers

Two brothers fall for the same girl and their tussle for her echoes down the centuries.

The brothers had walked many miles, most of them in silence. But for a circling cawing crow, the sky was clear, the air crisp and clean. Green, rolling hills latticed by dry-stonewalls had suddenly turned to a wilderness of golden bracken, bilberry and purple heather. The arching stems of blackberries occasionally bottlenecked the well-worn path.

Benjamin paused and smiled into the midday sun, then turned to watch his brother stalking sullenly behind him. Family circumstances had charged the two young men to leave their village and seek work in the grimy, alien city. Benjamin, though saddened by their speedy and forced departure, had wrapped up his sadness, left it behind, and packed only optimism and an open mind, while Ethan seemed to carry a terrible load. A heavy shard of anger pierced him to his core and his moods swung from snappy and irritable to morose and brooding. The journey was difficult enough without this extra burden, but Benjamin was sympathetic. He understood the weight of his brother’s loss: not only was Ethan torn from his home, he was leaving behind Sarah, his childhood sweetheart. Benjamin knew full well how keen those losses were, for he felt them both himself.

Benjamin felt in his waistcoat pocket. The glossy seed slid easily through his fingers and again he pictured her on their last walk together. Sarah had picked up a spiny horse chestnut pod then pricked her finger trying to open it. Amusement crossed his face as he recalled her doggedly prising open the fleshy capsule. Giving him one lustrous conker and keeping the other for herself, she’d said that one day they would plant them side-by-side in their own garden and eventually they’d watch their own grandchildren play beneath the spreading branches. Now, as the two young men trod this lonely path to their uncertain futures, Benjamin honed his plan of a fresh start, hard work and an eventual return to triumphantly claim the hand of the girl he loved.

They trudged into the late afternoon. A childhood illness had permanently weakened Ethan, so Benjamin constantly paused to let his lumbering brother catch up, often wondering at how one so similar on the outside could be so dissimilar within. Even after acknowledging their differences, Ethan’s recent depression and uncharacteristic outbursts had taken Benjamin by surprise, but he was so elated and blinded by Sarah’s covert attentions he did not for one moment consider the source of his brother’s unhappiness. On the horizon, gathering clouds reflected Ethan’s dark mood and Benjamin searched for words to avoid the coming storm. What could he say to lift his brother’s spirits? There were so few conversational avenues he could take where he would not find Sarah hiding in wait.

It happened to him all the time. His thoughts would meander carelessly down a random route and suddenly there she was, laughing and beautiful, her untamed blonde hair tussling with the breeze. Yet their love was a terrible, painful secret. Sarah had pleaded with him to give her time. She would only tell Ethan when she felt the moment was right. Benjamin glanced again at his brother and finally decided it was safer to say nothing, as he knew there was no subject that would not lead to her.

For the next hour they climbed a gradual incline. Upon leaving the shelter of an ancient wood they suddenly looked down from the dizzy edge of a steep escarpment. Far beneath them, a river snaked away across the untamed terrain and melded into an approaching bank of rain. They hurried along the edge of the cliff and, as huge raindrops began to fall, they sought cover. Happening upon a craggy outcrop, they spied a narrow cave, a fault weathered by millennia of wind, ice and rain. A nod towards it and a returned nod of agreement was all the communication required. The brothers stepped warily down inside its cramped, murky innards. Ethan unwrapped his parcel, struck a lucifer and lit a candle. Benjamin opened his own meagre pack.

‘Bread? Cheese?’

‘Aye, I’ll have a bit o’ both. I’ve an onion, some ham…’

‘Fair exchange.’ Benjamin’s words reverberated around their hard shelter, but his smile failed to echo on Ethan’s face. Outside, the rain beat the ground and the sky grew darker still. Ten miles still to go. A flash split the sky and the downpour became a deluge. They settled in for the night. The rock was cold and unwelcoming, but they were used to hardship and Benjamin soon fell shivering into an uneasy sleep.

Ethan twisted the twine from his bundle around his hands, gauged its strength, adjusted its length, while exploring the depths of his anger and desperation. Glaring across the cave to where Benjamin was lost in dreams, he got to his feet as if to act but suddenly seemed to lose his resolve. He threw the twine to the dirt floor, slumped down beside it, and cast his eyes around their dim shelter looking for inspiration.

A scrape of leather on loose stone woke him. In the flickering candlelight he saw Ethan, a rock held above his head and a demented expression twisting his face. Benjamin rolled away and scrambled in terror, the rock shattering on the cave floor in his wake. It would have crushed his skull like a nut. Out into the darkness, wind and rain he fled, his mind searching for sense in what he had just witnessed. Lightning shattered the clouds and blindness simultaneously left him. Ethan knows about Sarah and me! Thunder roared and the truth leapt at his throat to tear the breath from him.

He clambered onto a huge flat stone and peered into the near blackness. His heart still pounded, but not out of fear for himself. Benjamin was stronger, taller and faster than his twin and a fistfight would have but one outcome, as did all contests between them. Ethan always succumbed, always got up to fight another day, but now he had lost his greatest prize. Sarah! Benjamin felt his brother’s anguish, his terrible, final humiliation and he feared for Ethan’s sanity. He didn’t want to fight him. He wanted a chance to explain. Despite his brush with death, he merely wanted to beg Ethan's forgiveness. Benjamin cried into the storm:
‘Ethan! Listen to me…’

Heavy footfalls to his left and a grotesque wail heralded Ethan’s attack. Benjamin tried to sidestep but he was too late. The full force of the charge took the wind from him, bowled him over. He clung to Ethan’s jacket and tried to subdue him, while receiving a savage punch to the jaw. Rain drenched their clothes, stone flayed their skin. The swirling gale and pitch-black sky confused Benjamin and momentarily stripped away his physical advantage. Across the rocks they tumbled, till there was no rock, only air to grasp as they plummeted into the darkness.

Ice thawed and a moss-covered shard split from the crag’s face. It bounced and speared the pile of rags, ripping through the fetid cloth. The brothers’ limbs, still locked in death, were slowly releasing into the earth beneath them. A lone crow wheeled and alighted, pecked and tore, helped them on their final journey.

Inside Benjamin’s waistcoat pocket, the glossy shell cracked. Fine, white, finger-like roots slowly clawed through the rotting material and downwards into the earth. A green shoot twisted and turned towards the light, spiralling upwards into the blue sky. With the passing of two springtimes a sturdy sapling guarded the foot of the crags. For one hundred and twenty seven more, the tree grew strong and broad, measuring its height against the weathered cliffs. Outstripping the slender willows and silver birch, it finally stole their sunlight and formed a serene, shady space around its base. By now the bones of the young men were woven through the roots, their flesh had fluxed into sap and they had become one with the tree.

The city grew and came to them. Roads branched across the once deserted moors and leafy suburbs sprouted along their length. The crags became a nature reserve, a quiescent clearing amid a forest of urbanisation. Two identical brothers stalked in silence, eyes trained on the sparse grass and brittle leaves beneath the tree. Each sought the bounty from its boughs. With a shout, a boy dashed forward and carefully held up a spiky pod in triumph. It was already split and opened easily to reveal the two glossy seeds, packed like twins into their womb of white pulp. He weighed them carefully in his hands and passed his brother the lighter one. Despite being very similar on the outside, he knew their strength depended on what lay within. They bradawled holes, threaded and knotted lengths of twine and soon had weapons at the ready. String was coiled around fingers as swing lengths were adjusted. Rusty techniques were polished by dummy sallies at the empty autumn air.
 
‘I’m ready. What prize for the winner?’ His brother thought a while, though it was merely a tactic to mislead. He’d had the stakes firmly fixed in his head since he first held the conker in his hand.
‘Winner asks Jessica Palmer to the school disco…’ After a moment’s thought, the other answered with a silent nod. Beneath the canopy of green and gold, with dour determination etched on their young faces, the boys joined the timeless battle for the heart of a girl.

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Copyright © Copyright Futurepast 2010. This work may not be reproduced, either in part or in full, without the writer's express permission.

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