Notting Hill, April 2010
I was about to start the earthquake when the phone rang. It wasn’t to be a big earthquake—I was thinking of two, maybe three hundred dead. You need some level of uncertainty to keep these things interesting, and I planned enough damage to mean that the repairs would run throughout the coming summer.
I’d set the epicentre to strike at the riverside suburb of Sild, a snaky tangle of slender wooden townhouses that surrounded a chapel topped with a typical Umbragian corkscrew spire. I’d rigged a blender motor to the district’s supporting central strut. I would try a whole minute on full power for the initial quake and then dial it down by two thirds for the aftershocks.
I was nervous. This wasn’t my first natural disaster—the flood that had washed away the clifftop village of D’reter and the fabled Ten-Hour Fire were both recent projects—but what they all had in common was their unpredictability. That was the joy of them too.
I stood in the doorway to make a last inspection of Umbrage while it was still intact. It was sleepy in the twilight and the hillside suburbs that abutted my bedroom door were veiled in a thick mist. I made a mental note to turn down the concentration of water in the dry-ice machine to back it off a little. Traffic systems were in their post-work lull; the funicular puffed dwarf clouds ceilingwards as it struggled up the back mountains and a couple of the cable cars still looped over the busier districts, but there was a pleasing air of calm and anticipation. Which was ruined by the ringing of the home phone.
I assumed it was a sales call. I couldn’t remember the last time it had rung before this week. In fact, the last time I’d paid the bill there hadn’t been a single incoming call listed, and only three outgoing ones (all from me, to my mobile, trying to work out exactly where in the flat I’d left it).
I let it ring and tried to concentrate again on the earthquake. The radius was hard to calculate and that made the damage little more than guesswork, and I don’t like guesswork. But the phone rang on and on. Twice this week it had rung, both around this time of day. I tried to ignore it but some mental subroutine was counting the rings — twenty- five, twenty-six — and it played havoc with my focus. You need proper concentration to pull off a successful disaster. During the fire of ’92 the smoke alarm went off, bringing concerned neighbours to my door
— thirty-one, thirty-two — and while I was trying to persuade them that nothing was amiss, and trying to keep nosy eyes from peeking inside, the whole quadrant from the Drill Pits to Ulls’ton was burnt to a cinder. I double-checked the support struts — thirty-nine, forty — and made sure the plug switch was on—forty-three, forty-four—before conceding defeat. Now it felt vital to get to the phone before whoever was calling rang off. I had to crawl under the legs that supported the Darks of Mol before I could reach it.
“Hello?” My voice was cracked with non-use. It had been days since I’d spoken to anyone.
“Hello? Oh thank god. Adam. Adam?” An American voice: female, youthful, worried.
She spoke again. “Adam?”
I realised I hadn’t said anything. “Yes. This is Adam.”
“Great. Wow. I’ve been calling a lot.”
“Sorry, I don’t usually answer this phone.” Everyone who counted had my mobile number, and there were precious few of them. “Could I ask who’s calling?” I flicked the flywheel on the blender motor and it spun with a pleasing hum.
“It’s Rae.” A pause. “Brandon’s Rae? In California.”
I flicked the wheel again. The spires of Sild arrayed in front of me were as delicate and brittle as icicles. They were far from the epicentre but their rigidity would make them vulnerable.
I didn’t recall a Rae, though it had been a couple of years since I’d spoken to my brother, so she might be new. An image flashed in my mind though, a picture attached to a Christmas email from him, ages back. Brandon and a girl, her all teeth and blonde hair, the two of them atop a mountain somewhere encased in bright, unlikely skiwear.
“Rae, hello. I don’t think we’ve…” I didn’t think we’d anything. Met, been introduced, whatever. “How are you?”
Mist was pooling in the glens of Dras, an isolated suburb on the low ground to the right of the bathroom door. I upped the ceiling fan by a degree and watched it dissipate.
“Not great, Adam. I have some news. I’ve been trying to get hold of you for a week.”
“Yes, sorry, like I said, I don’t usually answer this phone.” The flywheel ticked to a stop.
“Anyway, you’re here now. OK. So… so, your brother is dead.”
I have a habit, people tell me, of saying the wrong thing at times like these, emotional times. I get flustered and blurt out something that is, I’m later informed, inappropriate.
I took a breath, mirroring hers, and imagined myself in a film. What would a character in this situation say?
“Oh Rae, that’s awful. Awful for you.” Had I overstressed the word “you”? “When did it happen?”
The ceiling fan was at too high a spin now and the mist was being driven down the slope to the sea in an annoyingly unrealistic way. I switched it off.
“About a week ago?” She sounded unsure. “Your English police called me on Saturday. I’ve been trying to track down anyone over there who could go identify the body.” She paused, two long breaths. “I don’t know anyone there.”
“He was here, in Britain?”
“Yes. He was killed in…” I heard her flick through some papers, “Motcomb Street, London W11.” She pronounced it “double-you one- one”.
“He’s in London?” I corrected myself. “He was in London?” That seemed more unlikely than his being dead.
“Yes,” she said.
“Why?” As far as I knew Brandon hadn’t been back in London, or Europe even, for nearly twenty years.“I haven’t heard a single word from him since the day he left. Then the police called and said he’s been shot by masked men in this Motcomb Street.”
There was a sadness to her voice now. “I don’t really know, Adam. He disappeared about three weeks ago. Pfft. No note, no message. Our car turned up at San Francisco airport with five hundred dollars’ worth of fines. I doubt it’s even worth that. I haven’t heard a single word from him since the day he left. Then the police called and said he’s been shot by masked men in this Motcomb Street.”
Masked men. My first thought on hearing Brandon’s name had been that this was going to be just another one of those can-you-get- my-money-back-from-your-twin-brother calls that I’d been fending off since we were teenagers, but this sounded like something else entirely.
She was talking faster now. I recognised the feeling: when something has been tumbling obsessively around your mind for days but you’ve not spoken to a soul and you have to let it all come pouring out.
“The last I saw of him was ten days ago. He didn’t pick Robin up from school, which isn’t much of a surprise. And he didn’t come back that night. Again, big deal, right? You know how he was. But after three or four days and his phone still switched off I began to think it wasn’t just a lost weekend. And I started to feel guilty. Y’know, what kind of girlfriend doesn’t call the emergency rooms and his friends the minute he’s not back? But with Bran…”
She paused again. It was probably my turn to say something. “I know, I know.”
“I went to the police after a week. Can you imagine how embarrassing it is to sit in a police station, reporting your husband missing after seven days without any contact at all? They asked me, ‘Is it possible that he’s just left you?’ And to be honest it was kinda fifty-fifty. Or maybe seventy-thirty. They’re asking whether he has ever done anything like this before and I’m trying not to count the instances out loud.” She let out a long sigh. “And then this fucking limbo. It’s so weird, not knowing if you’ve been abandoned or not. You don’t know what to wish for, d’you know what I mean?”
I didn’t really. “Masked men?” I asked.
There was rustling and then she continued, voice faltering only slightly. “According to CCTV evidence Mr Fitzroy entered Motcomb Court at 6.15pm, crossing from east to west, when a white Toyota Rav4 pulled in from the Delia Street entrance. The vehicle pulled up in front of Mr Fitzroy and two men, dressed in dark suits and masks, got out. They exchanged words with Mr Fitzroy and then the driver produced a firearm and shot him twice in the chest. Both men then went through his pockets before getting back in the vehicle and exiting via Delia Street. Mr Fitzroy was found by a passing pedestrian and then driven by ambulance to St Mary’s A&E centre but was declared DOA. Passers-by stated that the two men were white, in their forties, and that the driver filmed the shooting before driving off.”
“Who is Mr Fitzroy?”
“It’s Bran, he changed his name, back in LA.” She sounded annoyed. “For his acting career.” Then her voice softened. “You didn’t know?”
Even after over a decade of non-communication between us, people assumed Brandon and I had some kind of mental bond. It’s the identical twin thing. People expect a connection that — for me at least
— has never really existed.
“I’m sorry Rae, I don’t think I’ve exchanged more than four emails with him in fifteen years. I couldn’t tell you the first thing about his life. This is all very new to me.”
When she started speaking again her voice was slower, more careful. “No, I’m sorry. I always assumed I was the only one he kept in the dark. I didn’t know he was so secretive with you guys too. You do know
that you’re an uncle, right?”
“Wow, no, not a thing. Recently?”
Five thousand miles of telephone static couldn’t hide the edge to her voice. “Robin’s ten.”
“Ten. OK.” I wasn’t quite sure what to do with this information. “Um, say hi from his Uncle Adam?”
Her description of the killing was bothering me. “You said it was filmed? I’ve not seen anything on the news.” I hadn’t watched the TV for days though.
“I know. There’s been nothing online either. Obviously his name didn’t mean anything to the British press.” She paused. “He’d have hated that.”
She was right about that. As a kid Brandon had studied his weekly Melody Makers and NMEs like they were court reports. He knew every in and out of the music world: chart positions, gossip, break-ups, fights, alliances and feuds. And from day one he had assumed that he would join their number, that in ten years’ time, now seven, now five, some kid would be studying the news of his exploits as eagerly as he himself was doing with the Smiths or the Bunnymen. What had followed had been, for him, a perplexing series of near misses and wrong turns. He formed and broke up bands methodically and I would only hear from him when a gig threatened to be particularly ill-attended, or when the presence of an A&R man necessitated as many warm bodies in the room as possible, even if they were as unimportant as me.
Twenty-five came around and some kind of stability beckoned. The Nineties were a boom time for London bands and his, a four-piece called Remote/Control, finally began to clamber up the foothills of recognition. There were articles in magazines, gigs attended by people who weren’t just close friends, and singles that you could actually buy in the shops. They had everything bar real success. So as Rae said, the idea that his name still meant nothing to anyone here, even on the occasion of his being gunned down in the street, would have infuriated him.
As she talked it became clear that Rae was something more than one of his usual girlfriends. Back when Brandon and I lived at home, and were forced into interaction, I never bothered to learn the name of whoever was hanging off his arm that week. His relationships were usually measured in days rather than weeks (and, in one spectacular instance, hours) and I lost count of the times I picked up the phone to the sound of a girl’s sobbing, or yelling, or worse. After we left home — me to university, Bran to a band — every time I’d seen him for family occasions he’d brought a different girl with him. Rae didn’t sound like one of them. She’d been with him for fourteen years. Fourteen years, through about ten different homes, and they had a kid — this was quite a step up for my brother. They even owned a house, in Tahoe City, a tiny mountain community right on the edge of California. She sounded remarkably nice too — slightly loopy, but nice. Our conversation kept flipping between the practical — what to do about his body, who to call, was she OK for money — and the gossipy.
From The Ruins by Mat Osman. Used with the permission of the publisher, Repeater Books. Copyright © 2020 by Mat Osman.