Gabriel wears T-shirt 194LOCAL and coat C.P. Company

Me and my twin brother, Paganini: a new story by Gabriel Krauze

The Booker Prize longlister pens a summer read on brotherhood exclusively for THE FACE.

Arti­cle tak­en from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 007. Order your copy here.

We’d just turned 15. Me and my twin brother, Daniel. It’s really something to turn 15, just ask your mum. Our parents had made sure that I came on this holiday which had been a family tradition for the last 12 years. He can’t get in trouble if he comes to Italy,” our father told our mother when they’d bought the plane tickets.

We were on the Tuscan coast where it was all beaches with rows of green deckchairs and jellyfish getting stranded on the sand and, further back from the sea, towering pine trees dribbling sap that trapped ants and mummified them, and houses with verandas and shuttered windows, and gardens full of lizards, and beyond that, mountains made of marble.

It was a coastline that had once been populated by various dukes and lords who were constantly feuding with one another, bloody bloody bloody, until eventually the Medici family seized control in the 1500s. They spent the next few centuries taking revenge on all their enemies but now their stone palaces lay abandoned in the mountains, crumbling in the silence of diseased cypress trees.

At night there were forest fires in the mountains and we’d go down to the beach with our parents and take our trainers and socks off and stand with all the other families in the cool sand, night-time repository of shadows and the ghosts of songs, while we watched the fires gnawing the darkness of the mountainside. Helicopters would fly over the sea and draw water from it before flying to the black mountains where they’d dump the water onto the fires. People would cheer and slap their bare legs that were getting bitten by mosquitoes. Our father would say, And now time for ice cream.” You couldn’t feel sad on nights like that.

When I was 14, lots of things happened for the first time. I had sex, I saw someone get stabbed, I got arrested. Then I turned 15 and got expelled from school. I felt ready to go out into the world on my own. Like I said, it’s really something to turn 15.

There’d been plenty of shouting and miserable sleep, but now I was on holiday. I guess this is what they call the unconditional love of parents or something. Each morning I’d practice gang signs in front of the mirror and then I’d tie a dark blue bandanna around my head or find a way to fold it into a long strip and have it hanging out of my back pocket – always on the left side, yeah that’s the Westside.

  • My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile”  My twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life and the girls would say che bello, and he would smile” 

I missed my boys in London and I’d decided this would be the last summer I’d be spending with my family. Make the most of it, I thought, but I couldn’t really see how to do that and I used my Italian to try and find someone in the town who could sell me some weed. My twin brother wore Oakley sunglasses that our parents had bought for him just in time for the holiday. It was a reward for all his musical achievements that year. Every afternoon he’d spend the siesta period, when it was too hot to even go to the beach, practising his violin; one, two sometimes three hours on the veranda of the house in which we were staying. Our parents’ Italian friends called him Paganini after the 19th-century violinist who sold his soul to the devil, and occasionally Daniel would give concerts on that veranda. Our mother made handwritten programmes that she’d photocopy and distribute to the audience while I stayed indoors reading, waiting for it all to be over.

We had blonde hair that the sun bleached Eminem white and we stood out among all the Italian boys on the beach and everyone would call us biondino, which is an Italian word that’s a bit like blondie”. But whereas my head was shaved – Why would you want that?” a barber in the town had once asked me when I’d gone for a trim – my twin had these long curls that made him look like a Roman statue come to life, mistaken by the locals for some god, and the girls would say che bello – how beautiful – and he would smile and they would laugh and whisper to each other.

Gabriel wears T-shirt 194LOCAL, coat C.P. Company and jeans MARTINE ROSE

When we were in London, I would often come home and tell Daniel about a fight I’d been in or a stabbing I’d seen, but he’d just shrug his shoulders and carry on looking at his phone, or if he was reading a book he’d carry on staring at the page, and then I’d try to find a way to get a reaction from him – I was trying to get him to react to my life – but it never worked, and then I’d feel empty and I’d go and listen to Nas or Soulja Slim on my own, agonising over something that I couldn’t put into words.

In Italy, I would talk to Daniel at night, as we lay in our beds before drifting to sleep, about which girls on the beach I was feeling, and do you think Alessandra’s on it, and you know Carlotta gave me head but it wasn’t any good and I had to pretend she bit me coz it was going on forever, and should I move to Serena or do you think she’s not…? Sometimes he’d say something, jokes that couldn’t help me in the least, or he’d tell me that this one I was into looked like a boy, or that one had hairs on her arms. But more times he’d just shrug his shoulders and turn over onto his side with his back to me and I’d feel like I was alone in the room and I’d go to sleep listening to the cicadas rattling outside in the dark as bats hunted them.

But he was also the funniest person I knew and we’d ride our bikes everywhere, and on Wednesdays and Fridays we’d go to the market together where we’d buy penknives and gummy sweets, and we’d play on arcade machines until our money ran out and then go to the beach and swim together – handstands in the shallows as the waves came in, and see who could hold his breath underwater for the longest, and eventually one of us fakes it and comes up while the other’s still trying to break the record, and when he eventually comes up for breath the other quickly pushes his head down until he almost starts drowning and actually swallows some water. Daniel said that if his violin career ever failed due to him breaking his fingers or something, he’d join the riot police. Or I’d become a potter. I love a good kiln,” he said, which I thought was one of the funniest things I’d heard.

The one thing that really bugged me about him was that he refused to playfight. It was a major disappointment. I felt it was an important part of us training to be men and that we needed to do it in order to be ready for whatever lay ahead. But if I headlocked him suddenly, or gave him a sharp punch in the kidneys when we were queuing up for ice cream, or kneed him in the thigh and gave him a dead leg while we were walking down the street, he’d get proper vexed – in fact, he’d switch and push me away, telling me to fuck off, and then I’d tell him you’re just a pussy and decide that I wasn’t talking to him for the rest of the holiday.

One morning we were going to the beach. The sun was like a scarab beetle on a blue dune, the sea roared and sparkled in the distance. Figs were falling off trees, red guts full of sugar and seeds bursting on the hot pavement. You couldn’t imagine that 500 years ago, families in this area were all taking bloody revenge on each other.

I was walking around with my eyes closed because the sun was so bright and I said, Yo Danny, guide me.”

We walked down the street with my twin correcting me – Left, left, too much, a bit to the right, yeah that’s it, now keep going straight” – and I opened my eyes a couple of times just to check that his directions were trustworthy and I wasn’t being steered into the road or a bush. When I saw that they were, I relaxed and closed my eyes properly, and then my brother guided me into a lamppost.

AAAARGH, you dickhead,” I raged. Half-blind, metal in my brain, black spiders flashing in front of my eyes, realisation of why cartoon characters always have stars circling around their heads when they’ve been knocked out.

It’s good for your head, it’ll strengthen your skull,” he said.

I was sick of the sight of him and wanted to hurt him violently in the way that only brothers do. I crossed the street so that we wouldn’t walk the rest of the way to the beach together and decided to go and play volleyball on my own while he went to swim. I hoped that while he was swimming, he’d step on one of those fish that shoot a barb into your foot and make things painful.

The pitch was just an area of sand at the back of the beach with a volleyball net in the middle. It was by the main road, visible through a metal fence and a dusty grove of palm trees, and separated from the rest of the beach by a row of white cabins in which people stored snorkelling masks and spades and porn magazines. You’d never see adults hanging out around the volleyball pitch. It was like the backstage area of the beach – the main event was out there among the colour-coordinated rows of umbrellas and deckchairs and white breasts on sun-browned bodies and saints hanging from gold necklaces and bottles of Campari and apricot juice and the sea, traffic of waves, eternal, weary, antidote to mountain fires. But back here was a space where teenagers played volleyball and smoked cigarettes and tried things out with each others’ bodies in the thicket of palm trees by the main road, the younger ones taping different coloured threads to the backs of cabins and making friendship bracelets.

  • The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog”  The only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog” 

There were two main groups on the volleyball pitch when I arrived. The girls, who were all roughly my age and who taught me and Danny Italian card games and practised their English on us, and the boys, who were older than us, all about 17 or 18, and they used to kick sand in my face if I was sitting down as they walked past. They left Daniel alone most of the time since a couple of years back when he’d started working out and put on size, whereas I was always skinny and you could see my ribs. Sometimes these older boys would spit on the younger ones and pelt them with sea urchins and if someone cried they’d high-five each other and laugh and there was this one fat boy who was desperate to be accepted by them. He was my age and was always trying to take part in their games. At first, they’d welcome him but then they’d grab his breasts and pretend to milk him, and when he tried getting away they’d slap his face and pull his swimming shorts down in front of the girls. It had been like this for years, every year that we came here on holiday in fact, but I’d watched enough nature documentaries to know that this was just how things go. These older boys would also pull girls’ bikini tops off in the sea – more high-fives and laughter – and they all rode mopeds without helmets and wore Prada trainers in the evenings, and the only English they ever practised on me and Danny was Chelsea, Manchester United, fuck, Queen bitch and God dog. They’d always look disappointed when we’d reply yes, fuck the Queen, and then they’d lose interest and start harassing one of the Black trinket sellers who spent all day walking from beach to beach, trying to sell handheld fans and carved wooden elephants. My brother and I never understood the meaning of God dog” until I later heard someone say Dio cane, which literally translates to English as God dog”, and to the average Catholic Italian was far more offensive than a simple go fuck yourself” – it was pure blasphemy. Anyway.

I stepped on to the volleyball pitch and some of the girls greeted me – Ciao Gabriel. They were about to play a game of volleyball six-a-side, girls versus boys, but there were six girls and only five boys. When they saw me the boys said, We’ll take the English.”

I didn’t really know how to play. I just knew I had to get the ball over the net and stop it from hitting the ground on my side of the pitch.

The game started. I was at the front near the net. The girls won the serve. The ball flew back and forth. Hollow rubber plonk every time someone hit it. It came to me and I punched it into the net. 1 – 0 to the girls. One of the boys called Nico, who was next to me at the front, turned to his boy behind him and said, What a dickhead.”

I felt them all staring at me and another one behind me said, Can you even fucking play?”

I looked through the net at this girl called Serena who was facing me. She was wearing a purple bikini and she had a golden hoop going through her nose and a small white scar on her shoulder. She swayed back and forth on her legs, long brown legs soaked in sun, and said, One nil to us.” I wanted to get between those legs.

The girls served again. Nico hit the ball back to Serena and she spiked it over the net at me. I tried to hit it up but it went under the net.

Two nil,” said Serena. She’d clocked where the weak spot was on our team.

English shit,” said Nico.

I turned and said, What?”

He walked up to me. He was 17, tall, ripped, little white cobwebs of sunburnt skin on his shoulders.

I said you’re an English shit,” grinning.

Serena said, Guys, come on, enough.’

I said, Italian shit.”

The other boys surrounded me – What the fuck did you just say about us?”

There were two eighteen-year-olds who were big and they boxed me in as if they were about to do me something.

I didn’t say anything about you, I’m talking about him,” I said, pointing at Nico. A tremor through my ribcage.

They looked at me, laughed and said, Well if you’re not talking about us then it’s okay for you.”

Nico carried on smiling and said, English shit.”

I walked off the pitch.

Go on, fuck off English,” said Nico.

My God, but you’re an arsehole,” said Serena to him.

I turned around. He threw the volleyball at Serena and it smacked her thigh hard.

Aiaa, what a dickhead,” she said, rubbing her leg, and the other girls went to her.

I pointed at Nico and said, I’ll find you when you’re on your own.” He smiled at me and waved. The other boys laughed. At least my Italian had been perfect.

I was fed up of this place. This little town that had abandoned its past in empty marble palaces, now overgrown and forgotten in the mountains, while holidaymakers scattered the coastline with their rubbish. This little town where beach bars blasted shitty pop music on nights when old men would parade about in pink sweatshirts and shiny gold trainers, their wives in leather Versace trousers with gold chain belts and silicone breasts, and you’d drift off to sleep with the whine of mosquitoes in your ear, knowing that tomorrow you’ll be covered in bites that’ll itch and itch until you scratch them bloody. This little town that had once been a cradle of vicious rivalries, reduced by the passage of time to a holiday destination where life asserted itself feebly in the loneliness of pizzerias, bars, villas, hotels and piazzas. I was fed up of it all, of coming here each year, of seeing the same people, of eating the same ice cream, of going to the same beach, of walking down the same streets named after opera composers who no one had heard of in London, of the salty air pickled by the Mediterranean.

My parents were probably sunbathing by their umbrella and Daniel was probably swimming in the sea, so I got dressed and went back to the house to wait in the garden for everyone to return for dinner.

Later, I told Daniel what had happened and how I’d made up my mind to fight Nico but that I had to catch him slipping – which basically meant I had to catch him on his own, otherwise the others would likely jump in and I wouldn’t stand a chance against two or more of the bigger ones. Daniel shrugged his shoulders and said, Let’s go and play Metal Slug 2 in the arcade after dinner.”

There was no point in telling our parents and, anyway, I wasn’t in the habit of telling them about my life. I was disappointed and annoyed that Daniel didn’t say anything about it but what’s new? I got over it. I was on my own and that was that.

We saw Nico a few times over the following days, but he was always surrounded by a bunch of his boys and sometimes he would smile at me and say something that I couldn’t hear and I’d screwface him and he would just carry on with whatever it was he was doing.

One day we were cycling along the main road. We’d been in town for the market while our parents were on the beach and we were going back to the house since it was nearly lunchtime. As we passed our beach, we could see the volleyball pitch and there was a game going on. All the girls from the other day were there and Nico was there too with a couple of boys, but his two older friends weren’t there for some reason, and then Daniel said, Now’s your chance Gabriel, you gotta do it now,” and I said, Yeah I’m ready bruv, come.’

We cycled through the entrance to the beach where there was a small car park and rows of metal bike racks, and we dropped our bikes on the gravel and followed the path to the volleyball pitch. I had a silver Cuban-link chain round my neck that I was always rocking and I took it off and wrapped it around my right fist.

I stepped on to the pitch and everyone turned round and looked at me. They were playing a game of mixed teams. Nico was on the same side as Serena and as I walked up to him he smiled and blew a kiss at me. I banged him in his mouth and his sunglasses fell off. I threw a few more bangs at him. It was hard to reach him properly because he was a lot taller than me but I connected with his face a few times and he got me back a few times as well and then he held up one hand and said, Wait, wait,” and tried to pick his sunglasses out of the sand.

  • It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again”  It felt as if I was about to suffocate and I’d never be able to breathe again” 

Blood coming out of his mouth. I banged him in the face again as he reached down for them and he jumped up and said, Now I’m going to kill you.”

The other boys who were there moved towards me. Daniel stepped in front of them and spread his arms out. They looked at his arms and his chest and they stopped.

We threw a few more bangs at each other and one of Nico’s punches caught me in the throat. It cut off my breathing instantly and I stopped fighting. My twin brother said, Don’t stop now.”

It felt as if I was about to suffocate, as if my throat was stuck shut and I’d never be able to breathe again. I thought oh shit, I could die now if I don’t breathe again. Daniel realised something was wrong. He looked at me and I said, I can’t breathe.” At that moment it was the last thing I could say in this world.

He nodded. I knew what time it was so I quickly banged Nico in the face once more and then Daniel stepped in and broke it up.

I looked down at the sand, hoping that my throat would suddenly unstick itself, praying for my breath to return – oh shit oh shit oh shit. Daniel was looking at Nico, who was having his teeth examined by one of his boys. I felt my throat open and oxygen flooded back into my lungs. Nico jumped round Daniel, slapped me across the face and then spread both his hands out in front of him and said, And now enough, enough”’

Daniel turned round to me and said, Gabriel, stab him.”

He pulled a penknife out of his shorts pocket and opened the blade. Stab him now, it’s your one chance,” he said, handing me the knife.

Nah, allow it bruv,” I said. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

Bruv, do it now,” said Daniel. He was very calm and serious. Eyes like chips of stone on a riverbed.

Everyone was waiting for something, but no one knew what that something was. I closed the penknife and put it in my pocket. The chain round my fist was broken. Daniel turned to Nico and said, You know, if this was in London, it would’ve been sorted out with knives.”

He said it perfectly. Our Italian really had improved; I guess all those years of coming here had finally paid off.

Nico said, Well then, I’m definitely not coming to London.”

I thought about it. Serena looked at me with eyes that I couldn’t figure out and said nothing. I opened the blade in my pocket and gripped the handle.

Later, we rode our bikes fast back to the house and Daniel said, We need to hose you down otherwise Mama and Tata will clock what happened.”

Our parents weren’t back from the beach yet. There was a hose in the garden. Daniel let the tap run until the water got really cold and then he made me take my T‑shirt off so it wouldn’t get wet. I bent my head forward and he hosed my face with icy water.

Are there any marks?” I asked after about 10 minutes. It was long, just standing there with my brother pouring water on my face for 10 minutes.

Nah, not even. Just a bit of redness where he caught you, but that’ll go soon,” he said.

The air smelt of pine trees and salt. It was the kind of day when people are haunted by a longing to fly. Daniel turned the tap off and I put my T‑shirt on. Suddenly I noticed how beautiful those mountains in the distance looked, as if beyond them lay every possibility you could imagine. Our father came into the garden. He had the face of a man who’s seen the world and believes it is an absolute catastrophe.

Who They Was, the Booker-longlisted debut novel by Gabriel Krauze, is out now

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