“Phone me when you and Brian get off the plane, OK?” My little brother was coming back from his study-abroad in Taiwan. My husband happened to have a business trip to Taipei around the same time as my brother was finishing his programme, so they were going to meet up and come home together. Even though I knew my brother was legally a grown man, I was still a bit worried about him, because he was still my little brother. When we’re both in our 90s and living in the same assisted living home, I’ll still be nagging him. I can’t help it.
Perhaps I had known at some level. Andy never called. I tried Brian, but he didn’t answer either. That was when I saw on the news that there was a plane crash. With a sinking feeling I realized that the plane in the news reports had left Taipei for Sydney at the same time, on the same day as their flight. Oh no.
There were more than two hundred people on that flight, but only sixteen of them were rescued by the Torres Strait Islands. One woman said that there were at least two more survivors, two youngish men, who had set off swimming in search of an island and hadn’t come back. This meant that they had either drowned, or had found an island and settled there. I told myself every day that it was the latter, especially as I watched my belly get bigger day by day. Cynthia was born six months after her father and uncle disappeared.
Even my mother-in-law gave up hope that Brian was still alive, but since I never saw him in my dreams, I knew he was not dead. I am mildly clairvoyant, while my mother-in-law is not, so I told myself that I was right.
I could imagine Brian and Andy building a cabin, like Robinson Crusoe, and finding bush tucker. Andy would not survive by himself, but as long as Brian was there, he would be right. Brian would know what kind of twigs to chew on as a substitute for having a proper toothbrush, and see to it that Andy ate plant matter as well and not just meat and fish. It was good for their sanity that there were two of them. Brian would know how to manage even without a knife. He couldn’t bring his beloved swiss army knife onto his flight, after all.
Six months turned into a year, and a year turned into two. Cynthia was now eighteen months old and talking, but one word I never heard her say was “Daddy.” I showed her pictures of Brian almost every day and told her that he was her daddy, but it didn’t seem to make sense to her.
Then one night, I had a dream. Brian and Andy had grown wings and flown home to me. I knew then that they would be rescued soon.
Soon enough, that very week, I got a call from the Maritime Border Command. They had picked up two fairly young men who claimed to be Australian citizens, and one of them had given my phone number. I was to help identify them. I knew instinctually that it was Brian who had given the Border Command my phone number. Andy wouldn’t think to do that.
“What do they look like? Are their names Brian and Andy?”
“They look like wild men. Not surprising, since they claim they crashed two years ago. Yes, their names are Brian and Andy. Brian has blue eyes and Andy has hazel. They are covered in mud so it’s hard to tell skin tone and hair colour. What is their relationship to you?”
“Brian is my husband and Andy is my brother. It’s clever of them to slather themselves in mud. That must be Brian’s idea. They are naturally pale and burn easily. Andy is supposed to have mousy brown hair that turns blond in the sun and Brian’s hair is naturally red.”
“Sounds like them, then. Where should we send them to?”
I gave my address in Cairns, and as soon as I got off the phone, I called my mother and mother-in-law. Their boys were finally coming home.
I was surprised to find them still slathered in mud when they arrived on my doorstep. I signed for them as if they were parcels, and brought them into the house. Brian was barely recognizable under all that mud and hair. He had had no knife or other cutting tools for two years, since you can’t fly with weapons of any kind nowadays. Of course he had a beard down to his bellybutton and hair hanging halfway down his back. I wanted to kiss him, but he was too filthy to even hug, so I had to content myself with clasping his hands in mine.
When Cynthia saw them, she began to cry in terror. They probably looked like monsters to her. I tried to calm her down, explaining that these men were Daddy and Uncle Andy, but it was no use.
It was at that point that my mother-in-law showed up. She almost hugged Brian, but stopped herself. He was simply too dirty. Her presence seemed to help Cynthia calm down, so I left her with her nana and led Brian and Andy into the bathroom. “I thought you were on an island with a whole ocean to bathe in.”
“That’s salt water. Not so helpful. Besides, mud works as a natural sunblock.”
“Oh, I guess you’re right. But you don’t need the mud now. Let’s get you all cleaned up. I knew you would come home, so I kept all of your clothes and toiletries. Including your toothbrush.”
“Great! I missed my toothbrush so much.” I smiled. That was my Brian. The man was always brushing his teeth. Not surprisingly, that was the first thing he did. “That’s so much better.” He smiled, causing the dried mud on his face to crack.
“That’s it, into the shower with you.” I had half a mind to climb in with him and help scrub him down. “Let me know if you want me to help.”
After my husband climbed into the shower stall, clothes and all, and tossed his filthy rags out onto the floor, I turned my attention to Andy, who was standing in a daze. I couldn’t blame him.
I heard the water start. It jolted Andy back into the present, and he asked me for a spare toothbrush. I smiled. Andy had never been great about oral hygiene when we were kids, but after two years of chewing twigs a standard toothbrush was probably quite appealing.
Brian was in the shower for a long time. When he finally emerged, wrapped in a towel, his skin looked more the way it used to, but his hair and beard were still matted and grimy-looking. I could tell that he was frustrated at not being able to get himself fully clean.
“Your turn, Andy.” He ushered Andy into the shower stall and stood in front of the mirror. “I still look homeless. I couldn’t get the grime out of my hair and beard. If I had had my swiss army knife, I would have used it to shave and keep my hair trimmed short. I wouldn’t be stuck with this mess.”
Brian and I both preferred him clean-shaven and with very close-cropped hair, so there was no doubt in my mind that the beard and hair would go. I rummaged through the bathroom cabinets until I found haircutting shears. Brian smiled when he saw them. “Yes please.”
I grabbed hold of his slimy beard and hacked it off at his chin. He rubbed what was left. “Cut it down to stubble so I can shave it more easily.” Not that I needed to be told, for I had already inserted the scissors right next to his cheek skin. I was enjoying this as much as he was. As I cut his beard down, I noticed that his towel stuck out quite far in front. I smiled. We were going to have fun later.
Once I had cut his beard off, he reached for the shaving cream. As he shaved his face, I tried to brush his hair, but could not get the bristles through. I would have to cut it all off right at the root. Brian would enjoy that.
I kissed Brian’s freshly-shaved chin. Here was the familiar face I had missed so much. The more Brian began to look like himself, the wetter I could feel myself getting down below. I was so happy that he was alive.
“The hair is not salvageable. I’ll have to chop it all off right at the roots.”
“Good. It has to go. I won’t miss it.”
I held the slimy mess in one hand while I positioned the scissors in the other. It felt more like kelp than hair. Without further ado I sawed through his long hair, which I held in a sort of ponytail. Even when I had thus reduced it to chin-length, I still couldn’t get a brush through it. I began to hack at it haphazardly in an effort to reduce length, then realized I should start at his neck and work my way up the back of his head. I inserted the scissor blades into his hair, trying to get them to touch his scalp, which I could not see under a thick layer of grime.
Next I moved to his right side, and then his left. I tried to touch the scissor blades to his scalp here, too, as I worked my way toward his ear. This was taking longer than expected, because it was so hard to close the blades on the matted mess. By the time I had finished cropping the top, my hand was tired.
Just then Andy came out of the shower. “Oh wow. You cut off all your hair already. You always did prefer your hair nearly shaved. I bet you want to wash your scalp again. It’s my turn for a shave and haircut, I guess.”
I caught a glimpse of Brian’s goods as he unwrapped his towel and hopped back into the shower stall. There was a sight I hadn’t seen in a long time.
I didn’t bother asking Andy if I could start hacking off his beard—I just grabbed it and began chopping. Now that I had the hang of it I made short work of his beard. While Andy shaved the remaining stubble I gathered his hair at the base of his neck and hacked that off, too. Andy had had shoulder-length hair before the crash, having let his hair grow for the entire year that he was studying in Taiwan, but there was no question of saving any part of this mess now.
By the time Andy finished shaving I had cut the entire back of his hair off and Brian had finished his second shower. Now the unevenly-cropped hair that still remained on Brian’s head was unmistakably red. Once I was done with Andy I could refine Brian’s cut with clippers. I used to clipper his hair anyway.
Brian watched as I hacked around Andy’s ears and mowed down the hair at his crown. It still didn’t look blond, just grimy. He would need another shower too. My water bill was going to very high this month. On the other hand, once Brian was back to his usual cropped style, it wouldn’t take much water to wash it day to day.
Once Andy had gotten back into the shower Brian unwrapped his towel and used it to rub his hair dry. It was surreal to be seeing my husband naked, so I couldn’t help but hug him from behind. Later.
After Brian rewrapped himself in the towel I caped him up and oiled the clippers. Nobody had used them while my husband was missing. I went over his whole head with the number six attachment the way I used to, then began the fade. My hand still remembered the moves. I finished by blasting the cut hairs off with the hairdryer, then admired my handsome husband. Yes, this is my Brian!
He quietly slipped out of the bathroom to the master bedroom in search of some clothes. After all, his mother was here. It wouldn’t do to wander the house nude, although we used to do that when it was just the two of us.
When Andy came out, he looked more like his old self, too, except his hair was shorter than I had ever seen it before. I never knew before that he had a perfectly-shaped head. I offered to adjust his haircut with the clippers, but he declined. No matter, eventually he’ll come to his senses and realize that he looks good with a buzzcut. I enjoyed rubbing his close-cropped head, and hoped that he would soon find a girlfriend who loved to do this too, as an incentive to keep his hair short.
Brian lent him some of his old clothes and we sent him home. I was a little shocked that our mother didn’t come to see him, but at least little Cynthia didn’t cry in terror when we saw off Uncle Andy. In fact, she even let her daddy hold her, perhaps because he looked more like his picture now. My mother-in-law cried for joy when she saw Brian clean and dressed. Her baby was safely home.
That night I could hardly wait for Cynthia to go to sleep so that I could welcome Brian home properly. As we tucked her in, Cynthia said, “Good night Mummy. Good night Daddy.” I glanced at Brian. There were tears of joy in his eyes.