keckish (adj.): inclined to keck; squeamish
Two weeks after dropping out, Langston took the train home for mid-semester break. He hadn’t yet decided if he’d tell his parents, but he certainly held it back from his younger brother, Ted, who picked him up from the station and drove him back through the glen.
‘You lucky shit,’ Langston said, after a silence.
Ted didn’t take his eyes from the single-track road. ‘Eh?’
‘Dad bought you this car, didn’t he?’
There was a gear change, but no answer.
‘He never gave me a car,’ Langston said. ‘Never.’
‘You can’t drive, Langy.’
‘I would if I had a fucking car.’
‘Besides, he sends you money every month.’
‘That’s for my studies, Ted.’
This was the aspect of leaving university Langston was still undecided about: whether to feel guilty about the money. Five hundred pounds a month into his account, so that he didn’t have to distract himself with part-time work. His dad would have been so much more than an administrator if he’d been able to concentrate on his studies.
Langston had tried at medical school; he really had. Much of phase one was fine. He still retained information well and he’d always been excellent under exam-pressure. But he struggled with the guts and gore. In lectures, a slide showing a haematoma left him light-headed; then, on the A&E visit, the sight of a simple contact rash had him reaching out for the nearest chair. He had to spit out bile after being shown an infected surgical wound and then he fainted clean away at the blood donation truck.
Back at the house, his mum had put on a spread with cold chicken and salad. She greeted him as ‘Doctor’ and he did nothing but smile back. Then, over a glass of wine, he told them about his semester. Yes, he said, he found the studying difficult but the hands-on aspect was absorbing. Why did he say that? Then, after half a glass, he managed to grip at the tablecloth and tell them about the cadavers, laid out on trestle tables for dissection. The heads were kept in a bucket underneath, ready for the dental students. He’d never actually seen these decapitated bodies, of course, but he’d been told what to expect in the next teaching block. He’d thought of little else since.
‘Not lunchtime conversation, maybe,’ his mum said, saving him from himself.
‘Nonsense,’ his dad replied. ‘It’s fascinating. And good for Teddy’s schooling too.’
Ted glowered and tore at a chicken leg with his teeth.
The school had been very keen on Langston applying for Medicine. Not many did, around here, and his grades were certainly good enough. They’d had two going off to do Veterinarian Studies in recent years, but no doctors.
In his fifth year – the year Ted was in now – Langston had gone on a class visit to the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and left a green puddle on the immaculate marble floor. It was during a live-feed of a liver transplant, but Langston hadn’t seen past the first incision. He told the teachers that he had a stomach bug.
‘I’ve heard that you have to clamp the rib-cage open,’ his dad said, waving a carrot-baton. ‘Is that right?’
Langston took a breath through his teeth. ‘I guess so.’
‘You’re at the coal-face, Langston, I’ve only ever been at the top of the shaft.’
‘Really!’ his mum looked shocked. ‘Less of that!’
‘There was no – ’
‘We’re eating lunch, no more of it.’
That afternoon, they went for a walk to the loch. Langston trailed behind with Ted. He had to watch his footing; it had been a while since he’d worn wellies or negotiated the squelch of the boggy fields. The cows watched his every move, chewing slowly.
‘It’s fucking difficult, you know,’ Ted said, suddenly.
Langston looked up. ‘What is?’
‘Following in your footsteps.’
Langston studied the brown-tipped toes of his wellies, even though he knew his brother wasn’t speaking literally.
‘With mum and dad, you mean?’ he asked.
‘And the school,’ Ted was staring at him. ‘No-one can say our fucking surname without attaching your exam results to it.’
‘They’re just proud.’
‘Not of me.’
Langston pressed his toe into the mud until the ground belched. He knew that this was the moment he should tell his brother. Relieve the pressure, the expectation. Ted, he’d say, you might think you’ve got a lot to live up to but, truth is, I can’t so much as look at a toddler’s grazed knee without passing out.
‘Ted,’ he said, instead. ‘Sometimes it just takes time. To find what you’re good at.’
‘You’ve always known though, haven’t you?’
There it was: the second opportunity to come clean. Again, Langston passed it up.
‘You’ll figure it out,’ he said, and placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. He looked ahead, to where their dad was waving an arm to hurry them along. Lengthening his stride, he moved away from Ted.
First, he felt the cold chicken in his stomach give a churn and bind, until it began to writhe like a foetus; then came the acidic burn in his throat that he’d felt when the consultant had drained that wound; and the mist behind his eyes that had drifted in when they’d talked of cauterisation and surgical amputation. That flush-chill from his reading about venereal disease.
Each step slipped back a little and his arms flailed. Still he stumbled on. He heard Ted’s call from behind, and he half-twisted. In that moment, he fully intended shouting out. Not to worry, he’d cry, I’m a fuck-up – I can write an essay, but I can’t stitch a wound or even say the word ‘pustule’.
His toe caught or his balance went or he blacked out for a moment, and over he went, face-first into the brackish water-mud of the field. Instead of lifting himself, he settled his cheek down into the filth of it and waited for Ted to catch-up.