Icarus Jones never left home. Still living in his parents’ rundown flat in London, Icarus is 44, a paper hoarder, committed hypochondriac and incompetent museum caretaker. Big sister Maggie is a household name: now an internationally bestselling author living abroad, she bolted when their mother died and never came back.
When Maggie shows up unannounced and confused a year after their father’s death, she has no idea why she’s there and no recollection that Mac is gone. Maggie has early onset Alzheimer’s, setting off a chain of tragi-comic calamities when her agent Kitty asks Icarus to help chaperone Maggie through her rapidly derailing book tour. Icarus’s hermetic, lonely life will never be the same; will sibling love be the start of his second chance?
Icarus Jones sat in the dark holding his father’s ashes. He was waiting for his favourite BBC Radio 4 program to begin and didn’t want to put on the light. He was too excited, and the sight of his parents’ crumbling basement flat would only agitate him. He didn’t have to flick a switch to know the place was a mess, and he didn’t want to look at it while Open Book was on. The state of the flat was distracting and Icarus wanted to give the radio show his undivided attention: his sister Maggie was this week’s special guest.
Icarus shifted slightly in his dad’s split recliner, held up the box and whispered, “Not long now, Mac. She’s nearly on.”
As he waited, he grew certain that everything in the flat was edging silently closer: all that detritus on the move. He tensed in the chair, half expecting a lone hubcap to roll down the hall, evidence at last of a long-suspected poltergeist. There was any number of hubcaps to choose from, should the spirits awaken. A long-time widower, his father imported a vast array of spare parts, rusted tools and licence plates when he sold his garage to retire. What was left of Macdonald Jones’ Auto Repairs colonised the flat’s small dining room long ago. Mac’s makeshift workshop still reeked of oil and turpentine-soaked rags. Even now, Icarus held his nose whenever he stopped to survey the wreckage from the door. The dining table groaned beneath the engine of an old Jaguar XJ6. A more fitting monument to Mac than any headstone or commemorative plaque, Icarus was loath to remove it.
The trouble was not limited to the dining room. Clearing out this collection now Mac was dead a year was too overwhelming a prospect by far. Icarus found dull satisfaction in adding to it instead, so that towering piles of papers, books, glassware and crockery now covered every available surface. Once Mac’s Motor Neurone Disease hurtled toward the business end, Icarus too abandoned any semblance of order.
Sometimes he thought his mushrooming mounds were in dialogue with Mac’s auto-mechanical detritus, having a conversation he and his dad never quite managed. They worshipped at different temples: that was the thing. Mac was all about making things go. Icarus liked being silent and still. Words printed on paper brought him spiritual comfort. Paperbacks, hardbacks, periodicals, old newspapers, essays, notebooks, catalogues – even bills and marketing guff promised interest while housed within that holy relic, the envelope.
There was one exception. Glimpsing the creased corner of one of his sister’s old postcards never failed to depress him.
“Positano,” he muttered. “The Aegean. New York bloody New York.”
Maggie’s smug missives - sharp little darts of superiority - eventually stopped arriving, but their power to taunt Icarus remained undiminished. He felt just as implicated by their abrupt cessation, though these reminders of Maggie’s gilded life, with all its trinkets and techni-coloured comforts, still wounded.
Good things always happened to Maggie. She was that sort of a person, the way that Paddington was that sort of a bear. Maggie didn’t skip a beat when Mac died. She didn’t even come back for the funeral. Icarus knew from the newspapers that she simply danced off, exit stage left, to some exotic Asian writers’ festival instead. Ubud? Somewhere like that. Somewhere sweaty. He should have known she wouldn’t come, that she’d have a better offer. Maggie was always busy, busy – whereas Icarus found everything difficult, especially now. These days he could barely change cardigans. Now whenever he couldn’t face the Everest of dirty laundry, he fished out something of his dad’s.
Having never managed to leave, he’d stopped telling himself the situation was temporary. Staying on in his parents’ sad flat, where rising damp was locked in stiff competition with an aggressive mould creeping across the flaking ceiling, was inevitable now. Where else would he go? To what end? There was no way out from under the accumulated artefacts of the beloved dead. Even if he thought for a moment he could cultivate sufficient motivation to shift his own mess, the claustrophobic overload of every neatly hanging dress; every pair of stained blue work overalls; every toothless comb and in particular every ancient, desiccated article in his mother’s prized Liberty make up case short-circuited his brain every time.
Icarus belched. He made out the shadow of a pile of reminders from utility providers sitting ignored on his desk, surrounded by listing teacups, empty biscuit packets, crumbs and smeared plates. He didn’t know why the gas and power companies even bothered. Threats of disconnection and debt recovery never amounted to anything; someone always called in the end, patiently taking his details over the phone once he’d scrounged around the flat long enough to find a working card. It was nice of them, really. Nice that there was a warm body on the other end of the line.
Icarus took a mental tour of the rest of the place while waiting for Open Book to start. The full complement of contempt included the moody refrigerator, his same frigid, lumpy bed and a viciously unreliable hot water system, so that the flat verily hummed with hostility. So no, he thought, running a hand across his stubble, there was no need to turn on the light. As the last of the ads played on air, Icarus idly calculated how long it would take him to clean the place. It was a terrifying idea and one that was well beyond his capacity to execute.
He listened to the night music of Clapham Common’s nearby high street. Hearing London life so near and undeterred was excruciating. Sounds pretty lively out there, he thought miserably. Would you listen to that, Mac? Can you hear them? Can you hear me? He gave the box a little shake then held it up to his ear. Still nothing.
The show’s jaunty little tune started up on the hour, shattering the insolent silence of the flat. Icarus took a deep breath.
“Good evening, book lovers, and welcome to another Open Book,” began the host. “I’m Mirella Frost, punctuation pedant and noted book binger, and it gives me deep, adverbial pleasure to be here with you tonight.”
Leaning back with a grunt, Icarus sank against his dad’s favourite recliner.
Frost ran through the evening’s line up of talent, but there was no mention of Maggie’s heavily promoted appearance. Icarus began to think he’d made a mistake or read the program incorrectly. Then Frost added, “It pains me to say we do have a last-minute cancellation. The great Margaret Kennedy, author of the beloved Kate Calamity series, was to be my final guest tonight, but her people inform us she’s sadly taken ill.”
Icarus sat up in alarm, missing the next few seconds of whatever the presenter said next. Maggie was sick? He leaned over and switched on the lamp next to the radio.
“…and sending Margaret, one of our very favourite guests here at Open Book, our very best wishes for a speedy and full recovery.”
Icarus turned off the radio. Then he glanced down, taking in his grubby shirt and threadbare corduroys. From where he was sitting, he could just make out what looked like the remains of a treacle tart, facedown on the carpet beneath the lounge. Knowing both his socks had liberal holes in them, Icarus concentrated a moment on setting each big toe loose inside its shoe, probing the leather until it squeaked. He cleared his throat.
“But where is she, then?” he wondered aloud. “And what’s wrong with her?”
Icarus sighed, rubbing his tired eyeballs with his right hand. The cancelled segment on Open Book was bitterly disappointing. Maggie never told him when she was back in the country, she never visited, but he liked following her appearances and interviews all the same. He was very proud of her – not that she needed him to be. And now he was worried about her, even as he knew that instinct was badly misplaced too. What did she care? His concern was always surplus to Maggie’s requirements.
“It’s fine,” he told himself. “I’m sure everything’s fine. Maggie’s always fine. She’s the star of the show.”
But the top of his head went cold, as if he’d driven his two front teeth into a block of ice.
Waiting for the wave of grinding nausea to subside, Icarus became aware of voices coming from the flat above: his neighbours sitting in their front room watching TV. He focused on forming a picture of them in his mind and eventually the rushing, screaming sensation eased. When he was a small boy, he thought Mr and Mrs Brown might so easily have been his own parents; to his child’s eye, they were practically the same people as the ones who got the job. His mum and Mrs Brown set their hair alike; both couples dressed alike, ate alike, sounded alike, watched the same shows on the telly and read the same rubbish newspaper. True, Lionel Brown was a butcher, but Mac always said the carcass of a car had plenty in common with the carcass of a cow.
The big difference was that the Browns didn’t have kids. According to Icarus’s youthful calculations, that meant there was an entire bedroom going begging upstairs that might have been his, but for the cruel twist of fate that landed him in the flat below. As it was, he was forced to share Maggie’s room – there was never any doubt that’s what it was – and the Browns kept a pristine guest room for visitors who as far as Icarus could see never arrived.
There was one other thing: the neighbours had longevity on their side. His parents had all the personality – Icarus knew that now – but vivacity didn’t do either one a lick of good in the end. Out they went, prematurely feet-first. Well. Icarus inclined his head, conceding the point to his internal fact-checker: feet-first wasn’t strictly accurate. Thirty-six years apart, both his parents were stretchered out backwards by the undertakers, on account of the awkward steps to the street posing some logistical challenges. Meanwhile Mrs Brown still smoked all day every day – she probably had a fag tipping from her lips right now - even after her dear friend Veronica Jones succumbed to lung cancer in the flat downstairs. People smoked their heads off back then. Everybody loved their fags more than they loved their children. What a terrible shock, they said at the time. That Von was always the life of the party. But there was Mrs Brown nearly forty years later, still puffing merrily away, lungs like a Sherpa.
As for Butcher Brown, his diet – fry up for breakfast, pie for lunch, steak and chips for tea, washed down with pints of Fuller’s London Pride – seemed only to fortify him for the rigours of his work. Mr Brown’s longstanding joke to customers, as he bagged pale fatty sausages and weighed pork hocks, was that he and David Beckham – honest to God, hand on heart – had two things in common: low cholesterol and a taste for unsmiling women. Poor old Mac taught himself to cook after Von died and frog-marched Icarus past the chippy whenever they walked home late from the pub, but he was still the one who collapsed on the footpath, cracking his skull on the steps. Straight after his triple-bypass, the Motor Neurone Disease showed itself.
They thought it was a stroke at first. Icarus accompanied Mac to an MND information night not long after the diagnosis, where a lady kept insisting they were the lucky ones. They didn’t feel so bloody lucky, not until she pointed out that Mac was the oldest man in the room by decades. The others were new fathers to children who wouldn’t remember them. He and Mac looked at each other over plastic cups and didn’t know what to say. Mac’s advanced years and middle-aged son were tactless: an affront to the other men. So they sat at the back by the door, and if someone had asked Icarus how he felt that night, he would have said ashamed.
Icarus sighed. It wasn’t fair, but what was?
* This is an updated version of what first appeared in the Writing a Novel Anthology 2016.
Diana Jenkins is a freelance journalist and English PhD (UNSW). Features Editor for Varuna, the National Writers’ House, she presented main stage event 5x15 across three Sydney Writers’ Festivals. A 2016 Varuna PIP Fellow for a YA manuscript, she seems unable to stop writing stories about resilience and moments of unexpected laughter and grace.
Author contact details:
Phone: +61 403 848 189
Tweets as @DianaMJenkins