‘Crocodile’ by Dominic Rivron

green eyed reptile

We live in a consumer society. That means if you’ve got the money you can buy what you like, right? Well, my brother Abe always wanted a crocodile. When he was little, like so many children do, he got obsessed with reptiles. You know the sort of thing: dinosaur pyjamas, dinosaur duvets and all that.  Only, in Abe’s case, it turned out to be more than a passing phase. I don’t think my parents were that worried about it at first. I remember my mum saying that, perhaps, if he turned out to be good at science at school, he might go on to study zoology, or something like that. He seemed to be developing a healthy interest, or so they thought back then.

He was only a year older than me and, our parents’ house only having two bedrooms, we had to share one. You could immediately tell which side of the room was his: it was the one where all the reptile stuff lived. As the years went by, he ditched the pyjamas and the duvet cover in favour of models, posters and books. He was obsessed. Sometimes, when we were small (I don’t know how old we were – I guess we’d both started school by then) I’d catch him sitting very still by the window, trying to catch flies on the glass with the tip of his tongue. Fortunately, he never succeeded. His tongue was too short and the flies were too quick for him. After a few minutes, he’d give up, with a shrug and a ‘better luck next time’ look.

It was like he believed he’d been born in the wrong body, that he should’ve been a reptile himself. Perhaps the fact that he couldn’t become one was why he wanted one so much. And what he wanted most of all was a crocodile. Mum and dad, obviously, said no, definitely not, not over their dead bodies. When he went on and on about it they decided to meet him half-way. They suggested he get a lizard. He immediately said yes. He told them he wanted a bearded dragon. They bought him one, along with a vivarium and all the other stuff he needed to look after it. Like a lot of parents faced with children demanding pets, I think they were worried he’d quickly lose interest in a real animal that need feeding and cleaning out and that they would be left doing all the work but no, Abe cared diligently for it till the end of its days.

We were well into secondary school when George – as he called it – died. We’d been on a family holiday and left some local friends of my parents in charge, with strict instructions as to how to care for George in our absence, but when we came back, George was dead. My parents’ friends obviously felt awful and swore blind they’d followed the instructions to the letter. My parents said they were sure they had and not to to worry, but Abe was beside himself. He went round to their house and smashed a window. Well, I say that, but strictly speaking, a window got smashed, and everyone thought it was Abe. He denied it but nobody believed him. I remember dad shouting at him and mum crying. It wasn’t just that he’d broken the window and lied about it: they were upset, too, that they’d lost their friends. Then Abe asked if he could have a new lizard. That was when dad really blew his top. Looking back, I think the whole business was a defining moment: mum and dad finally realised there was something wrong with Abe. I know I did. I’d always felt a bit wary of my older brother, for reasons I couldn’t quite explain. Now, all of a sudden, I could put those reasons into words. Not only did he live in a world of his own (which I knew), but also he’d lash out at anyone who interfered with it. Fortunately, he seemed to quite like me. 

My parents may have realised something was the matter, but the trouble was they didn’t have the faintest idea what to do about it. Abe, after a brief ceremony, buried George in a shoebox in the garden and then, as people do after such crises, everyone had to just get on with life, Abe without George and my parents without their friends. As for me, I felt pretty claustrophobic, squeezed in as I was between by brother with his reptile fixation and my increasingly-anxious parents. I resolved to just try and get on with everybody and leave home at the first sensible opportunity I had. It crossed my mind, too, that perhaps I was making too much of it all. Everyone’s weird and perhaps, as you grow up and get to know the people around you better and get to see the way their lives unfold, it just becomes increasingly obvious quite how weird they are. These were my thoughts at the time.

Abe cleaned out his vivarium but didn’t get rid of it. It just sat there, dark and empty. Gradually, schoolbooks and papers got piled up on top of it. He had loads of exams coming up. He was working hard and didn’t let George’s death and all the fuss that surrounded it get in the way. His grades turned out to be excellent. I wondered how he managed to do this but, looking back, he was motivated by the fact that he had a plan. Although he never actually said it, it was becoming obvious he didn’t want to leave home. He wanted to do a computer science degree and he wanted to get in to his first-choice university, which was – purely on account of its location – the one in our town. With luck, when he finished, he’d be able to get a job locally.

He got his university place and, a year later, so did I. I went off to study civil engineering at York. One of the best things about it was that I actually, for the first time ever, had a room to myself. I spent a year in a hall of residence, then found a room in a shared house. I only came home in the holidays and – since it involved going back to sharing a room – only when I absolutely had to.

At the end of my second year, I had to spend all summer at home, as I was temporarily without digs. Abe, at that time, had finished at uni and had just started a job he’d had lined up at a Building Society in town. It was strange to see him, every morning, shaving and putting on a suit.

Back when Abe first got George I’d thought the crocodile thing had been a bargaining ploy and a pretty cunning one at that. And after the business of the broken window had died down, he hardly ever mentioned reptiles at all. As I said, though, he kept the vivarium. It came as a complete surprise – and to mum and dad, a nasty surprise – when, when he got his first pay-cheque, the first thing Abe did was go and get himself a baby crocodile. Don’t ask me where he got it from. All I know is there are all kinds of regulations about keeping crocs and Abe – with help, probably, from other online croc-lovers – had obviously found a way round them. It was a Saturday afternoon. I was just coming in – I think I’d been to the library – and I could hear mum and dad both shouting at Abe. The voices were coming from our room. They were all stood round the vivarium. It was lit up again for the first time in years and inside it, getting used to his new surroundings, was Horace.

Mum and dad were livid.  It wasn’t just the crocodile thing: they said he had to be responsible, that he had to help pay for the bills. He’d just blown most of his first pay-cheque on Horace. Did he expect them to keep feeding him for nothing? Abe – cunning as ever – wasn’t rising to the bait. He was trying to apologise. He said he was sorry and he should’ve thought of that and of course he’d pay his share: he’d be happy to pay double next month.

It’s bad enough having to put up with your brother’s farts and dirty laundry, but now our room began to stink of fish and rotting meat, too. The smell began to seep through the house. Dad insisted we keep the window open and the door closed, but it didn’t make much difference. 

That summer was the last time I stayed at home for any length of time. I went home for a few days the following Christmas, but that was about it. Before I knew it, the third year was over. My girlfriend Tina and I were both lucky enough to land ourselves jobs. We decided to move in together. Tina could drive – her parents were better-off than mine and had even bought her a car – so we used to go over and see my parents from time to time. I even used to look forward to it, knowing it was only for the day and that my days of sharing a smelly room with my brother were over.

Abe was clever. He knew that as time went by, Horace would outgrow his tank. He started doing overtime whenever he could, saving up money for something more substantial. He told mum and dad he understood how the smell that hung round the house drove them crazy and that he wanted to buy a shed to put in the garden for Horace to live in. It would be expensive. It would need heating. They’d have to run a power line out to it. Mum and dad jumped at the chance to get Horace out of the house and even offered to match whatever Abe managed to save towards his new quarters. 

No-one – except Abe, perhaps – was really thinking ahead at this point. Mum and dad had put a lot of work into the garden over the years. There were lawns, flower beds, a rockery – even a pond, with a water feature, overhung by a willow tree. Once they’d bought the shed and all the new gear for Horace, I went over for a few days so I could help dad and Abe get it all built and set up (I stayed in a local B&B). We created a bit of an enclosure for him, too: he needed water and shade, so we incorporated the pond and the willow tree into it. I have happy memories of that week: me, my dad and my brother all working on something together. 

Not long after that though, dad had his stroke. I remember mum ringing me to tell me and us all going to see him in hospital. Dad needed physiotherapy and speech therapy, but he responded well and was soon able to go home. He needed a walking frame and could only move around slowly, but otherwise he was okay. All of a sudden, he and mum really needed Abe to be there for them and, to be fair to Abe, he rose to the occasion. He saw to everything that needed seeing to. Someone had to help dad out of bed in the morning. Mum was too frail, so Abe did it. He sorted out dad’s medication, the shopping, you name it. He was a model son and in many ways made up for all the years of grief he’d caused them. He always turned down my offers of help: it was like he wanted to do everything. It was as if – if I were less generous – he wanted to be in control. And he was in a position to be. They seemed to think highly of him at the Building Society. He was the IT-wizard, the Mr Fix-It. They’d given him a raise, so he now had plenty of money coming in. They let him do some of his work at home, too, so he could be there in case mum and dad needed him.

More years went by. Mum, dad and Abe settled into a routine. All this time, Horace, of course, went on getting bigger. The time came when the enclosure we’d built for him just wasn’t big enough. He started trying to knock down the fence posts and almost got out on a couple of occasions. Abe told mum and dad that the only thing for it was to give Horace the run of the garden. They were in no position to argue with him. This time, he hired contractors and got them to erect a sturdy fence around the whole garden boundary. He got them to enlarge the pool, too. Giving Horace the run of the garden meant it soon fell into disrepair, as it was no longer safe to go out to weed or mow the lawn. In no time, it turned into a churned up, overgrown jungle. I have a vivid memory of visiting mum and dad around then, and seeing a look somewhere between horror and resignation on my mother’s face as she sat looking out of the window.

Then it happened. Early one Saturday morning I got a call from mum. She said Abe had gone out that morning to feed Horace but hadn’t come back. She said I must come round at once, to see what had become of him and to help dad off his commode. 

When I got there, I saw dad then looked out of the window into the garden, to see if I could see any sign of Abe. He was nowhere to be seen. All I could see was Horace, floating like a log in the lake that had once been a pond.

Meet the Author!

Dominic Rivron writes mainly short stories and poetry. His work has been published in a number of journals including The Milk House, The Fib Review and SETU Magazine. He lives in the North of England. His blog can be found at asithappens55.blogspot.com