The Wedding Gift   

  It was while he was staying in his father’s study the previous Christmas that Markus first read about Branwell BrontĎ.  Obligatory attendance at the extended family’s Christmas Eve whiskey party meant that he could not sleep that evening. Markus spent most of that night reading a biography of the BrontĎ family. After the first few references Markus went to the index looking for more information on Branwell. With each passing page, interest turned to fascination, to distaste and eventually to recognition. Branwell, the other sibling, the restless drunken failure. Branwell the artist.

   Markus knew something about what it was like to live with brilliant sisters. Take Emily, the eldest member of the family.  She was playing piano by ear at two, first concert hall at nine and international orchestras by thirteen. Next up came Charlotte if anything her process with the cello was even quicker. The youngest sister Mary played the bass. As soon as Markus was born it was expected that the trio would become a quartet. One of Markus’ earliest memories was the day his mother placed a violin into his pudgy toddler’s fists expecting the sublime and getting a blast of scratchy atonal noise back. After that he was usually just given a box of crayons and some white paper and expected to keep quiet during the long rehearsal periods.

  It was during those long silent afternoons that Markus uncovered his own interests. While the rest of the family sat in the living room sharpening their ears to pitch, melody and timbre, Markus spent his time looking at things and ‘scribbling’.  Everywhere he went he saw interesting things to draw, stick men, bits of graffiti he saw in the street, monsters and most of all the cartoons he saw on television.  Thus, their childhoods took their expected courses the sisters scaling the Himalayas of their talents while Markus climbed the more modest slopes of his own. Despite this, Markus bore no resentment towards his sisters until early adulthood, a time he would later describe using an analogy from a favourite childhood cartoon.  In the Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner shorts, the titular cartoon coyote would be so blindly focused on stalking his prey that he would often run off cliffs.  For a few moments his feet would paddle though the air propelled forward by the fury of his own obsession not realizing there was no ground beneath him.  Suddenly he would look down to see the gap beneath him and plummet all the way to the ground.  Markus often thought one’s twenties were like that. His fall would take place during a family wedding. 

   Markus had been conscripted into the groom’s party a fortnight before and as such had turned up at the hotel early. He found his fellow groomsman sharing a plate of chips in the lobby. Both of the groom’s bothers ,Pongo (so-called because of his unfortunate canine-like face) and Spanky (so-called because of an incident involving a stack of pornographic magazines during a school assembly), saw him and signalled him over.  Pulling a chair from another table, Markus had just sat down when Pongo grabbed his hand and began to shake it, “Markus, man, how’s it going, you still work at the Vodafone Centre?”

“Aye for now, what about yourself, still at the garage?”

“For the time being I’m thinking about going back to Tech get my English you Know. Spanky’s been plugging away at it for a while he reckons, he’s close this year.”

“Really good man. Would Tesco’s take you on full-time then?”

   Spanky grunted by way of response before getting up and heading for the bar. Markus had always felt kinship with his two cousins.  They were all younger children whose older siblings were much more successful. Still, seeing them as they were that day he was forced to consider the idea that an art college graduate who worked temp jobs and picked up the odd bit of freelance graphic design work had it much better than the academically unsuccessful sons of a family of teachers and accountants who looked like they’d scrape along working for minimum wage their whole lives.

  When Spanky returned he was carrying a tray with three half-pints of lager.  On seeing them, Pongo winked.

 “Sorry it can’t be anything more Markus man. We promised Ma we wouldn’t drink before the wedding. Still, we had to get something.  You are pulling us out of the hole we were in when that mate of Brain’s said he couldn’t do groomsman. One of us has to do the speech.”  Markus padded the jacket pocket, which contained his notes. “It’s no bother at all”.  If he was asked, he would have to have said that he was looking forward to delivering this speech. After a lifetime of sitting quietly during his sisters' recitals and being for the most part overlooked, he had grown fond of public speaking, of being watched and listened to for a change. He leaned back in his chair and look a sip of his lager. It was going to be a fine day.

    After finishing his drink, Markus went to check in and drop his bags off before the ceremony.  Coming out of his room he saw his father at the other end of the corridor.  “Could I have a word Markus?”  His father was grinning, and he could hear traces of his native Devon accent as he spoke. Clearly the cousins weren’t the only ones who started on the drink early.

“I understand that you’re delivering the best man’s speech. Could I ask you a small favour?”

“What is it?"

“I have not had a chance to talk to you about Brain’s wedding present. Your mother and I wanted to give the couple something a bit special and your sisters are all a bit short of money with the trip to Vienna coming up. So, we all put our heads together and have come up with an idea. We need your help.  Keep an open mind.”

“What do you need?"

    Listening to his father, Markus began to remember their last conversation. During a dinner to mark his retirement Markus’ father had pulled him aside and suggested that he enroll in a course which trained bookkeepers. He could hear the same tone of voice he used then enter into this conversation. 

“We have spoken to the parents of the couples and asked for a bit of time during the speeches to present our gift. You see, your sisters have been working hard over the past few months and they’ve cooked up a small composition to mark to the occasion. I understand you were looking forward to delivering your speech, but I was just wondering if you could refrain from it and just sort of introduce your sisters.”

“Yeah of course no bother.”

“You’re not disappointed?”

“Nah not really.  I’m looking forward to hearing the piece.”

   Once he had heard what his father had to say Markus walked away. He was being churlish, he knew that. Whatever the sisters had come up with, it would be great; better than great, it would be perfect. What other newly married couple could say that they had a new piece of music by near geniuses as a wedding gift?  It was about Brain and his new wife.  They were centre stage.  No one else really mattered. Still, it would have been nice to spend one day with his family without it turning into the Emily, Charlotte and Mary appreciation society.

   The ceremony itself was remarkably quick owing to the fact that the celebrant raced through it in order to get out and place his Grand National bet. This meant that the dining room was not ready and the guests would have to wait another hour. Markus was trying to avoid his father when he heard a shout coming from the bar. Pongo had obviously been let off his leash. Markus decided to go in and investigate. He saw his two cousins (neither of them much taller than five feet) sitting at the bar with glasses of whiskey in their hands and their feet dangling off their stools. They had both somehow managed to lose their charcoal-grey suit jackets. As soon as Markus entered the bar, Pongo called him over and placed a glass of Black Bush with ice into his hand.  They followed this with pints of lager, and finally some shots of tequila. At this point, Markus realized that he had not eaten that day.  He was rocking in his chair and his thoughts turned to his speech. He knew he was too full of drink and resentment not to make a balls of his introduction. At this point it was all about damage control. 

    The bell rang in the dining hall and it was time to enter. Markus made his way past the rows of circular chestnut brown tables and the flower arrangements up to the big head table.  Once he got his seat, Markus took a breath.  He just had to get through it in just ten more minutes then he could eat. He had just begun to relax when he saw waiters carrying sliver jugs.  They were pouring the contents into the wine glasses of each guest. He would be expected to drink some of that wine. A waiter leaned over his shoulder and poured dark red Merlot into his glass. Markus’ stomach went into a spin cycle as he heard his name being called. The bride’s father put the microphone under his chin. Markus stood up.  He could not quite focus on any one section of the room. The room seemed to assault him with absurd details:  Spanky’s Karloff-flat head, the exquisitely untrimmed eyebrows of Uncle Alo.  Markus opened his mouth to speak.  At the very end of the room, he could see his sisters getting ready.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, normally at this point the best man’s speech is supposed to focus on the groom. However as many of you know nothing can happen in this family unless the McCain sisters are at the centre. So sorry, Brain and Mary we are  going to take time away from you to listen to a tune the girls wrote”.

He had planned to go, but then the vomit rose in his chest and pushed through his throat. Before he was even aware of what was happening, Markus’ shirt, tie and the tablecloth beneath him were all covered in yellow pea soup bile. 

    Markus bolted out a side door near the main table.  A small clump of trees stood on the opposite side of the driving path. Taking off his jacket, Markus leaned against a tree and let the remaining contents of his stomach evacuate his body. He began to weep; everything was fucked up. He wanted a bit of attention, to be talked about for a bit. The extended family would be talking about his behaviour for quite a while. A hand pressed on Markus’ shoulder.

  “Are you okay Markus?”  He looked up to see Emily standing above him carrying a glass of water. “Fine”, he replied.  It was bad enough that she was beyond talented.   Worse still she was also pretty enough to become an object of adoration for his friends. The fact that she was considerate enough to come out and check on him even after he had just insulted her was almost unbearable. “I’m not the Branwell you know.”

“What do you mean?”

“Branwell BrontĎ, miserable fuck up brother of the novelists.”

Emily’s smile snapped shut when she said, “Is that really how you see yourself?”

“Next to the three of you, how could I not?”

 “Fool”. Emily opened her small powder-blue clutch bag and pulled out a folded piece of paper, throwing it at Markus’ feet.

“I just wanted you to know that I’ve been showing this to everyone this past weekend”.

   Markus picked the paper up and unfolded it. At the start of the month ,Markus had been commissioned to design a poster for a local music festival. He could not believe Emily had taken it with her that weekend.

“Really?"

“Of course. You do know that Father has a big blown up copy above his desk. In fact, my friend Jackie has been torturing me to get you to draw something for her.”

Emily bent down and helped Markus up.  After handing him a few wet wipes, she turned away to make her way inside. Just before she reached the path, she looked over her shoulder, “By the way, Branwell’s poetry and translations were respected and well-reviewed in his own life time.”

   As soon as the dinner was finished and the tables were put away, the disco was set up. After the obligatory awkward dance with the bridesmaid, Markus went back to his seat, pulled out a sheet of paper and began to draw. He was just finishing his cartoon drawing of a tuxedoed best man vomiting with such force that he was propelled into the air when he saw his sisters dancing in the centre of the dance floor.  Things weren’t necessarily all right; they wouldn’t be for weeks, months or possibly longer. There was nothing else for it but to keep scribbling.  

© Enda Boyle