Equal and Opposite

This isn’t what I wanted for you,’ she says to no one; though her granddaughter, Miley, sits in the car seat directly behind her, bobbing her head to a beat only she can hear. Sandra’s words have a vapour and they hang around longer than they are welcome. The absence of the radio makes her even angrier with him. She clubs the rounded face of the wheel with the back of her fist then winces at the strangled half-beep that comes back at her.

The rear-view mirror flickers to life with Miley’s shifting and shimmying. She’s him in features, form and fidget.   

‘Why’s Daddy in prison, Nan?’ Miley says. In one hand she clutches the last third of her banana, now mush around the edges, in the other a Sippy cup of dark purple liquid.

The wipers make rainbows on the windscreen and yet there’s no colour for what looks like a million miles ahead. Sandra’s knuckles form white peaks on the steering wheel.

‘Because he’s been a naughty boy, darling.’

‘What did he doooo?’ Miley slaps the banana flesh into her leggings and grinds it into the stigmas of the mustard coloured flower print.

Sandra takes a deep breath and swallows her granddaughter’s words, which become trapped in the clotted matter between her chest and tonsils. Sandra has to push through it as if breaking through skin: ‘He got in a fight with a cab driver.’

‘Why?’ Miley bites the nib of her cup and sucks the juice readily.

‘Because he was drunk.’

‘He shouldn’t drink should he, Nan?’

‘No love, he shouldn’t.’

‘He can’t take me to see the birdies now, can he?’ Concern perches on the ledge of her bottom lip.

‘No love, he can’t. I’ll take you.’

‘When?’ Miley’s face bunches up now. She looks to be concentrating on whether this can be taken as a promise or a good-natured placation.

‘Next week.’ Sandra holds the reflection of her eyes with her own, nods with her eyebrows, smiles.

‘Why not nowwwwah?’

‘Because we’re going to see Daddy now, aren’t we? I tell you what, we’ll go on Tuesday.’

‘I don’t want to see Daddy.’ Miley starts to bore her back into the car. She’s still clutching one of the cup’s handles and shakes it like a picket in her protest. Little shoots eject onto the car seat and into her hair. She starts to cry – long loud moans for which the tin containing them serves as an amplifier.

Knowing better than to try to soothe at this stage, Sandra reaches into the foot well on the passenger’s side with her left hand. She tries to keep her eyes on the road and reconciles herself to the fact that she’d passed three cars in the past twenty kilometres and this slice of the world was so flat the only thing she could crash into is the horizon.

‘What is the horizon anyway? The glue that sticks the sky to the ground?’ Amongst the blare of vowel sounds behind her, she couldn’t be sure if she had verbalised this thought or whether she had kept hold of it just for herself.

It’s difficult to multi-task. She’d been no stranger to it either. She’d raised three boys so considers herself something of a dab hand. She’s held back at first from getting a clean hold on her bag by her seat belt. Troubled by the distress in her granddaughter’s cries, she has become anxious, and so her yanks are fitful. But her second attempt is more fruitful. She takes herself inside her mind, into her silent panic room, sits all the way back and then dips in a slow bow; drawing the seatbelt away from her as she goes so as not to trigger its pull. Her fingernails scratch the cigarette box and she clutches it as she resurfaces.

‘Woooooooo—ooooooooooo! Woooooooo—ooooooooooo!’

Sandra’s heart throws itself against her ribcage and her lungs retract down to her diaphragm like two petty thieves caught at the scene. Both blasting sounds – inside and outside the car – grind against each other and the metal of her fillings. Her body feels like one giant pulse.

When the scream of the police van peters to its vanishing point, she realises that Miley is no longer crying. Instead, she’s tracing the tracks of the noise into the distance. Her frame seems defeated and Sandra reaches back, cigarette now leaning from her lip, to stroke her granddaughter’s shin. She chokes on the urge to weep. Opening the window, she edges closer to the wind. Some of the smoke is resilient; it hangs around in the backseat. Miley splutters.

‘Why did I bring her here?’ Sandra thinks. Again, whether it was out loud or not, she couldn’t know for sure.

The landscape is desolate. The vibrations from the sprinting police van form a mirage of the compound. They’re chasing it in their petrol-powered tin can.

She feels lost far out at sea. In each direction a murky swell is building, beating stronger against the base of her patchwork boat. What feels like a motor churns through the sludge and slosh in her stomach. The long, scorched grass sways. It’s hypnotising. It drags her into another time – the past that she drives away from and into at the same time.

He was a gorgeous little boy, then. Like a caterpillar, he wrapped himself around her waist and climbed about her stick-like frame. A squeezer. A smiler. A rough-and-tumble roll-amongst-the-cow-shit-to-see-what-it-really-smells-like-up-close kind of child. His smile was one that buzzed and fizzed in amongst other small faces and the great outdoors. Trees, fences, creeks, hedges were his playground. If there weren’t humans to play with, he’d pull dogs and cats into his games. Though cats were less willing. His child’s skin tattooed with the rebuffs and punishments of feline distaste for his unsolicited corralling.

Mischievous. Always trying to find a boundary to jump across or tear down.

When she looks back at those years, she feels nervous. That was the shape of the energy she carried around with her. Exhausted tension, even. He required so much attention. She needed to keep him busy. Like a dog, he had to be let out first thing in the morning. She found tasks for him, challenges to put his bouncing and rolling to good use. It was sapping. There was no peace from him; even asleep, he contorted; sometimes knees to chest, sometimes buried in amongst his bedclothes in a ball at the foot of his bed, sometimes unconfined to the bed at all, arms outstretched, body diagonal, bottom in the air; not even the bed frame could contain him.

He pulled her too thin even then. She was snappy and short, and too frivolous with her discipline. With great swooping brush strokes, she slopped lofty and immeasurable consequences. Overwhelmed with the policing she seesawed from overzealous slipper toting to jovial criticisms. She was just as restless and unbound as he was – consistently inconsistent.

Miley starts to hiccup and for a moment Sandra can see the prison building. She’ll be there in ten minutes, she estimates, and again reaches back to smooth her thumb along the clammy patch of skin between her granddaughter’s leggings and socks. She remembers how much Richie used to enjoy being stroked on the legs just as he faded into sleep.

Could she have had more of those quiet moments? If she did, could she have been a better parent, she asks herself. It’s only a second before she slips overboard and into the grips of her memories. She’s there then. Ten, maybe fifteen, years ago. Hard to tell.

He ran into the kitchen.

‘What’s happened?’ She asked him, almost breathless herself. Sandra was responding to the arms and legs of her seven-year-old nephew, James, being cradled in her son, Richie’s arms. He was brave, and beautiful, that little nephew of hers. Clever too, and so well behaved. Not like good old Richie, a time bomb of unaccountable misconduct.

There were little whimpers coming from James – he was like a lame deer all bundled up in Richie’s jumper. Her son was white with panic and taking deep gulps of breath.

‘We were playing on the park—’

‘I know. Were you watching him?

‘Yeah but—’

She turned away and scrambled around in the kitchen, pulling and batting at cupboards and drawers like a bear. ‘Where the hell was her first aid kit? Who had it last?’ She thought. She dropped to her knees and reached to the back of a shelf. There were spray cans, WD-40, de-icer, furniture polish. Arm in to the shoulder, she started to pat like a blind person until she felt the small metallic tin of the first aid box.

 ‘He was going too high—’

‘Then you should have stopped him, shouldn’t you!’

She pulled James from Richie's arms and laid him down the couch. Her son had barely let go of him as she propped James up. Richie wiped away the blood from James’ face and smoothed his hair in long calming strokes.

Her nephew began to cough and the sound was more liquid heaving than dry splutter. Richie opened James’ mouth looking for a blockage. He carefully fed a clean kitchen towel towards his throat. He was still bleeding. Richie wasn’t sure if he had bitten a chunk of his tongue in the fall or if there was something more serious.

‘Call Aunty Carol. Ask her to bring the car. Tell her we’re going to the hospital.

His face was blue and Richie ran to the kitchen to fetch a wet towel this time, to dab James’ face before calling Carol.

Her sister was worried but she didn’t point the finger. Sandra remembered doling out a grounding on that occasion, too spent from the ordeal to be more creative. Plus, Richie was so withdrawn for days afterwards – until he knew James was in the clear.

The beeping of the metal detector pops Sandra’s thoughts – they fizz into a mist. She’s walking through the registration area, heart pounding, before she fully gets to grips with the present tense. That trusty though somewhat risk-taking friend, autopilot, has parked the car, released her granddaughter from her fastenings, and led them both through the formalities of the prison process (including the necessary searches and related rigmarole).  

And now her heart is bellowing as she stands, aware of Miley’s moist hand in her own, waiting to be discharged into the prison proper.

They’re all huddled together, these criminal families. Like a crowd of Neanderthals kidnapped and rounded up and forced to look at the successes of civilisation. Apparently self-righteousness isn’t reserved for the pious, the elite, and the activists – these prison guards give the best of them a run for their virtuously earned coin.

Sandra takes a seat in the communal area. Miley lifts herself, all legs and arms, onto the seat next to her. There’s no lounging. The solid orange chairs are bolted to the floor. There’s a uniform curve that must fit someone’s lumbar, but it’s not hers and it’s certainly not Miley’s. ‘It’s like a stake we’re all but strung to,’ Sandra thinks.

They wait for the bell to sound – the indicator for the impending criminal procession pealing into the room. When it does, they start to strut in.

Sandra’s is puffed up with rage; she can see it shaking in his frame as he walks towards her. She needs a cigarette, her patience is frayed by now and she’d like to feel his neck between her fingers for all he’s put her through.

The sound of Richie’s weight meeting the plastic pew peaks against the initial murmur of salutations squeezing the fluorescent blue tinged room. He leans over to stroke his daughter’s face. ‘Hello sweetheart. Daddy’s missed you. Have you missed me?’ His voice is unsteady, weak, bloated with tears he’s swallowed back. Miley shakes her head away from his fingers. Richie retreats.

‘You don’t look well, love.’ Sandra says quietly.

‘I’m not well. I’m in fucking prison.’

She isn’t prepared for the attack but she defends solidly: ‘Looks like you’re having no trouble getting your hands on the gear, though.’ It was true. He had that pallor you only get the days succeeding a high or more likely consecutive highs. Sandra had come to recognise it over the years.

‘You put me on them drugs when I was seven years old and you’re actually wondering why I’ve got a fucking drug problem?’

‘Ritalin helped you, Richie.’ She breaths in through her nose, out through her mouth. She smooths both trouser legs to avoid looking up.

‘Did it fuck. It helped you and those shitty teachers. Fucking tranquiliser dart in the kid – make him docile. That’ll keep him still for five minutes.’

‘So it was my fault as always? Why don’t you start taking responsibility for yourself?’

‘Why don’t you?’ He says; and with that he opens the cage from which his mother’s grief and fury rush and roll over each other in an avalanche.

‘You know me and your Dad gave you three everything you could’ve ever wanted. How is it that it’s only you in jail, eh? Tell me that.’

His mouth stretches sideways – both the equal and opposite of a smile.

‘Probably because I’ve been the scapegoat for those two their whole lives – not all sweetness and light, you know. Mummy’s boy Kieran stole Nan’s Credit Card to buy that new bike of his, and Stephen only has Charlie to thank for those hard-working super powers of his.’ Richie puts his finger to his nose and sucks in twice for effect, ‘Look at him closely. Don’t be blinded by his lovely job, his lovely house and lovely wife and those lovely grandchildren of yours. That constant runny nose, those rants he goes on about how shit the government, his uncommonly large pupils.’

‘Now it all comes out.’ Richie continues. He leans back a little though the chair stops him at an awkward angle. His fingers knit together. ‘He’ll be as broke as you and me soon.’ Sandra pushes against the urge to grip him, pull him to her face, swipe madly at him, or scratch at his skin – just inflict some kind of pain however she can in the little time she would actually have. She looks at the poster on the wall beyond his head and counts her breaths instead.

‘Ha! And there’s not a chance you’d believe it’s true even if they looked you in the eye and told you themselves. He mimicked her voice through a contorted face intended to injure, ‘Not my Kieran. Not my Stephen. Must have been that little shit, Richard.’

Throughout this interaction Miley seems to recognise the opportunity for a soundtrack – hunkering under her chair, she uses the underside as a drum to bang out her crescendo. The beats echo off the linoleum flooring. Some heads but not many turn in the direction of the sound. One of the guards moves closer to them. Perhaps too tired, perhaps too desensitised to sound by now, it’s his stalking in her peripheral vision that alerts Sandra to her granddaughter’s offbeat thuds in her ears.

‘Come here, Miley! Stop that! Get up from there! Sit still!’ Sandra plonks Miley next to her. Again, the connection between load and prop describes what’s happening to the rest of the herd.

‘Have some fucking patience!’ Richie shoots up tall. He looks more like shadow than mass. ‘Oh, she’s getting up to mischief like her dad is she? Has she got ADHD too?’ He’s stood above Sandra, his hands clamp around the bench between them, his words spraying her face.’ She sees another shift in her periphery.

‘I am your mother.’

‘You’re a shit one.’ His fingernail digs into her forehead. Tears bleed from her eyes.

The contact seems to trigger a thought, a feeling; perhaps it’s her flesh at the other end, which forces her being onto him. Or maybe it’s the physical consequence of the warden bearing into his back and around his arms. Either way, he too breaks down into tears. As his shoulders judder, he continues: ‘I’m sorry, Mum. Please help me. Please help me. Don’t let them take me back in there. I’ll die. I’ll die. I’m not supposed to be here. I made a mistake. I’m sorry. I’m sorry sweetheart. Daddy will be home soon. We’ll go and see the birdies, OK?’

Sandra goes to put her hand to his face and is prevented from doing so by the momentum carrying her son away. The warden glares at her as if she is the criminal.

Homage to Joan

‘Joan, can I borrow a tenner while Monday?’ said Kelly.

‘Monday’s always a long while coming with you, love,’ said Joan.

‘Whaddya mean?’ Kelly’s eyes became tight, like if she made them smaller, she could hide inside them, away from the glare.

‘I lent you twenty quid a couple of months ago, remember Kel?’

Kelly twisted her mouth into a guilty grimace. ‘It’s for the electric so I can give the kids a bath.’

‘Wait there.’ Joan treaded up the concreted incline of her yard towards her backdoor. Even at the apex she looked every bit her four feet and nine inches. Albeit her springy white hair gave her an extra couple of rungs on the ruler. She cursed herself for eating a slice of quiche so quickly before as the last few bites were now sitting on top of each other somewhere behind her chest plate. She gave a little cough to see if it would give her some relief. It didn’t, not really.

The door was already open, of course, which is how it spent most of its day. Inside, her granddaughter sat at the table slurping the broth Joan had made. Her own bowl sat twisting out its beautiful roasted chicken whiff. She clattered around in the cupboard whilst her granddaughter clanked her cutlery against the ceramic trying to eek out every last sip of buttery saltiness.

From the fruit dish, Joan grabbed two large mandarins. Their skins were puffed out and waxy – like they’d been polished, cared for. She’d plucked them from amongst other smaller, slightly green tinged in some cases, drier specimens at the market this morning.

When she scuttled back out of the door, Kelly had her hands half out of her pockets and her hips poked forward in anticipation.

‘Here you go,’ Joan prodded a card in her direction. ‘It’s got a fiver on it. Last you til tomorrow’. It wasn’t what Kelly wanted and Joan knew that, underneath her soft crinkled smile. What Kelly wanted was a tenner so she could top-up her electric card with three pounds – until her wages from the government came in on Tuesday – and the rest on two bottles of wine.

Joan was known for her kindness – she would give you the clothes off her back if she thought you needed them. Coupled with her generosity was her understanding of people. This came from the seventy years of living here, seeing people; watching people grapple with circumstance and characters and bad luck. She knew the ones who were trying to strip others of anything and everything. To those she said no fearlessly.

Kelly took the card and turned on her heels. The frays on the bottom of her jeans dragged along the floor – they looked like long dirty strands of hair.

‘Mam, I want a choc-iiiiiiice.’ Calum sang defiantly.

‘I’ve got noooo mon-eeeey! I told ya that this morning when you asked for that piece of shite Peppa Pig magazine.’

‘Calum,’ said Joan, ‘come back ’ere. I’ve got summat for ya.’

‘What?’

‘Don’t ya mean pardon?’ Her voice was firm, authoritarian.

‘Pardon,’ he said; it came out like a reflex.

‘Come ’ere and I’ll give it to ya.’ Calum looked sceptical.

He separated from Kelly – who kept on walking whilst pushing thumbs into the screen of her phone – and presented himself disinterestedly. He pressed his eyes into Joan’s, taking in the smile lines, his hands behind his back. Would Joan have a choc-ice behind her back? Doubtful, he thought. In some ways he hoped not because it’d be melted the amount of time she was taking over it.

‘Here you go.’ She smiled expectantly as she revealed on hand at a time.

‘An orange?’ His brows sunk.

‘A mandarin. One for you and one for yer sister.’

Calum held them in his hands. They felt nice. They weren’t what he wanted but he was hungry. He put one in his pocket and stuck his thumb into the middle of the other. The skin gave away easily. Joan held out her hand for the peel.

‘Eh! What do you say? Her words chased after him as he spun around to catch up with his mother and sister.’

‘Fanks!’ He hitched up his trousers as he ran.

Joan walked back up the concrete path between the tall wooden gate and her dining room table, which welcomed you as soon as you entered through the back door. If you’d made it through the gate, you were welcome at the table. That’s the code by which Joan lived.

‘Why did you give her our emergency card?’ her husband George asked.  George was sat like Buddha, his shiny head haloed by a holy mist. Only this mist was the opposite of holy. It was tobacco fumes built up over hours – from the moment he took his seat there at 11am this morning.

‘Because she needed money and she said it was for electric,’ she said.

‘But it wasn’t so why did you give her it?’

‘In case the kids couldn’t have a hot bath tonight.’

‘God knows they need it! Caw blimey! Stinking little buggers. I can smell em from ’ere. She has em running round like nobody owns em.’ He looked towards their granddaughter with a smile, who chuckled and then coughed, as the mouthful of soup she’d taken from her second bowl demanded her full attention.

Before long, the day had settled in. The smoke around George had become thick like the first fog of winter. Joan turned on the fan to get the air circulating. Her granddaughter got up, gathered her bag, gave her kisses and told them she’d see them tomorrow. Joan watched her walk down the runway to the gate and then out of sight beyond the tall fence surrounding them.

‘I’m going to the pub,’ said George.

‘Right. Tea’ll be ready at 8. Make sure you’re back,’ said Joan.

‘I will!’ George said, rebelliously. His legs took a while to break in and he stumbled as he manoeuvred down the slope.

Mere minutes later and music, or else rhythmic thudding, from next-door’s back window started flooding out.

Joan suddenly went rigid and her heartbeat became known to her.

‘Can ya turn that down!’ She shouted in the direction of the top right window of her neighbour’s identical house, knowing it was useless but unable to hold back the abrupt hike in electric energy.

Kevin was her elderly neighbour’s youngest son of thirty-four. He’d kept her up throughout the night. As always, George had been fast asleep. His dreams seemed to hold him in a prison, paralysed to the spot by invisible straps, within deep iron clad walls. ‘Must be all that sitting around he does all day,’ she thinks – an after shock of irritably.

Joan tugs at the dishcloths hanging on the washing line and drapes them across one arm. With the other, she kneels into the short strip of clumped clay-soil between the cement slabs of the yard and the fencing – to pick up an orphaned newspaper spread that had blown the short distance from the industrial sized bins that sprawled, open mouthed, outside the market. She’d intended to compost and plant flowers here but once she’d realised she’d need to replace all the dirt currently calling this bunker home, she decided she didn’t have the time or money spare until next month or the month after. Instead, she’d bought the two pot plants sitting self-consciously beside the doorstep.

The pounding of a drum made her shoot up onto her heels.

‘Turn that down, will ya! Ya must be deaf!’ After slamming the bin lid closed, she stormed into the house and shut the door.

She didn’t like the door closed. Not when she was on her own, especially. There was something very restrictive about it, like a buttoned up shirt collar, she thought.

She was a child of thirteen, had five children, fourteen grandchildren, and eighteen great grandchildren. There was always someone around. She was lucky if it was just a handful most days. Even if no one was talking there was fuzz and hum.

Noise, she could take, but thudding music beating like a futuristic war march against the brickwork of her home was shredding her patience into shards. She banged on the dining room wall. No use.

He made her uneasy – Kevin that’s his name. Like a rat, his time for feeding, fetching, fleecing was the night. Some nights she half expected him to come climbing in through the window, hooded and hungry, looking for stuff to take, to pawn, to offset against his habit. On nights like those she’d reach down to the gap beneath the bed and feel for the bat they kept there. It was almost longer than her arm span but she’d give it a good go, she knew.

Now though she chased the booming beats through the kitchen, picking up a pan en route, and up the stairs to the spare room where she mounted the bed and hit the base of the pot into the wall.

Joan could barely hear the metal meet the brick and plaster on this side, so there wasn’t a chance he would hear it on his.

She breathed through puffed up cheeks and clenched teeth, ‘fffffffff.’ Her son’s Valentine card on the dressing table (from many months before) blew over. She slid it face down into the small drawer and in the same movement drew to her height. She walked slowly back down the stairs.

Half way down, the blare cut out. Point blank, she was shot with near silence for a few seconds.

Then, his voice boomed.

Something animal, something similar to a roar.

It went unanswered on the other side. He did it again. She was sat at the dining table now, perched on a chair, back to the door. What if she roared back? Would he hear? They were just her thoughts but she mimed one great Lioness’ snarl and her pulse began to thud in her neck and index fingers.

Three times. She counted.

On the fourth he must have lost puff because the sound weakened into a strangled hiccup. ‘Maybe someone had done her a favour,’ she thought, ‘given him the lethal injection with a bit if luck.’

Next, the door slammed shut. His door. Not hers.

That was the last disruption she was prepared to take.

Joan ran out – after struggling with the door handle – towards the fence.

‘You! She shouted to the sky, making her voice arc over to the other side like a high-speed tennis ball. ‘What are ya playin at! Keep yer pissin’ noise down in yer stinkin’ goddam drug den, will ya. The whole pissin estate doesn’t have to listen to that shite! And last night, the whole street was awake with yer dog and yer bangin music.’

‘Fuck off, you old bitch!’

‘Who are you callin an old bitch—’ Her shoulders rounded and her fists pushed down.

Joan saw his knuckles first. Followed by the crown of his head. Face. Chest.

He had scrambled up to the top of the fence. He was perched there, she didn’t know how. He was staring straight into her eyes.

Vibrations boomed in Joan’s ears and bled down her neck, back and thighs.

His face had begun the decomposition process. She shuddered. It was as if his body had already decided he was dead. His eyes had retreated. There was a skeletal toothlessness about him that you didn’t ever see in real life. You saw it on the television – on shows with big budgets and highly paid special FX staff and make-up artists. 

‘You! Now you keep yer trap shut you stupid old crank or I’ll shut it for ya.’

‘You will not!’ At that Joan reached down and dug her hands into the dirt and pulled out a solid clump of clay. Raising it above her head she threw it over her aggressor’s crown. He lost his balance.

‘Fuuuuuck!’

‘Yer a fffff-ff-ff--ffart of a man. No, not a man. An ani-mal! Look at yerself. There’s ’omeless blokes cleaner than you, yer dirty bastard. If I ‘ear yer again, I’ll get you with something much bigger and the damage will be more permanent!’

She ran back into the house and locked the door. She took a few minutes stood against the door before slowly making her way to the kitchen where she began making a cup of tea. The actions were happening mechanically, automatically, through a clear screen untainted by thought. All the tension had caught in her throat and she coughed hard in fear of crying,

As she stirred the milk and heard the clinking of the spoon, she wondered if she had daydreamed it all.  

‘Nan!’ Her granddaughter was banging and shouting from the other side of the locked door. Joan shuffled towards it and rustled the keys around with unsteady hands.

‘What? What’s up?’ said Joan.

‘What’ve you just done? Where is he?’ Carly nearly fell into the house.

‘Where’s who? Yer granddad’s at the pub. He won’t be long.’ Joan pulled a chair out at the table for Carly – another autocued setting.

‘No! Kevin – from next door! Janine told me she ’eard ya both shouting at each other and that you threw a clay brick on ’is ’ead! I’ve rang Uncle Rob. He’ll be here in ten minutes.’

‘Y’didn’t need to. He’ll be worried. It’s sorted now. Kevin won’t remember it anyway. He’s a smack ’ead,’ Joan tutted, ‘poor Mary. Imagine that was yer bleedin’ son! She’s too old fer all this.’

‘So are you, Nan!’

‘Sometimes yer’ve just gotta say ‘no, I’m not ’avin it’.

Never too young to die

What does too young to die mean?

If you’re old enough to be born, then biologically you’re old enough to die, are you not? That’s just the way of things.

But Brandon had a difference of opinion. He’s only young, so we’ll just have to bear with him on that one. Sixteen. If I’m honest, though, I thought he’d know better by now.

Each third of his life had been punctuated by a death. A grandparent. An associate. And an adversary. The latter a tough kid, chipped front teeth, knuckles as gnarly as old tree roots too stubborn to stay underground.

That battle had been a filthy one. He remembered the two lines that converged into one snake-like knot of bodies. The scuffs that transitioned into screams as steal toe-capped boots breached bones and blades buried into organs.

Before the edges of the fight smudged into bright lights and white noise, Brandon had looked into that boy’s face livid with brutal energy and torso tight with testosterone and had made him a promise, ‘You better hope you bleed me dry motherfucker or I’ll be wearing your scalp as a fuckin trophy.’

He couldn’t tell you who’d made good on that promise but only that the blood stain wasn’t strung out on his washing line.

We digress. The death now looming is his sweet little sister. Nine years old. Don’t let the sallow in her skin or the grime in her hair fool you. She’s purity.

Look, you probably agree with Brandon. See, I’m just offering up events for you to make up your own mind. Sometimes it’s easier to see just how wrong – or right – things are when they come from the outside. But for him? Well, it’s his flesh and blood. His sister, whom he’d promised to protect. And to be fair, usually he was a boy of his word.

Let me tell you how it went.

Megan rushed him in the street, wanting to contain all of his man-sized body in her sparrow’s wingspan. He smelled like fabric softener, tobacco and toast. He held her bones; she was riddled with them, and not too much else.

‘Have you been stayin up late, Princess?’ he said, pushing his lips into her crown.

‘Hmt,’ she said, still buried in his chest. He pulled in the pram she’d been barely poking her chest over and gave the baby a little kiss too.

‘She at the pub already?’ he said. His mouth was tight around the words.

Megan scraped her top lip with her bottom teeth. She jerked her head up and down not wanting to look into his eyes but instead seeing his lip curl at the one side like a dog about to chew up a rat.

The street passed by in a skid. The train of smoke sailed just above her and she bobbed her head into it to take little sips. It wasn’t like the stench of whatever her Mum smoked.

The wheels of the pram whirred against the asphalt, like the rumbling of thunder. She looked to the sky. If there was a God, she asked him silently to postpone the lightning for another day.

The three of them stopped short at the entrance to the pub. Brandon drew himself up to full height in front of the fluorescent poster whose capital letters stumbled into the words: DIVALICIOUS DENISE EVERY TUESDAY. Megan latched onto bits of her surroundings with granular focus. Waiting for the ground to separate beneath her shoes, she started to count out in her head the cigarette butts fossilised between the concrete of the walkway and the perimeter of frozen tar.

Then everything fell stale as the thud of the door announced their entry. A cackle faded and there she was: their mother. Stood at the bar in all her gold and a smattering of cubic zirconia. The pint pot in her hand dwarfed by the thick, unrefined blocks of it, banding her fingers, her neck and her wrists.

I think you’d be surprised by how many people you see in the pub on a Thursday at eight minutes past twelve. Or maybe you wouldn’t. There’s a brewing energy there at that time of day, more like a bingo hall.

In the corner Pauline sat with her grey-blonde hair soaring high on her head, clutching her vodka and coke as if she couldn’t trust the table to hold its weight. Bernie looked up from his crossword in The Sun with only a five-letter word filled in. Remnants of gossip tailed off. Excited whispers and nods in their direction filled half the room; pie, and the promise of it filled the other. Definitely not the same smell as home cooked pie, unless the way you cook it is an oven that runs on the fuel of cigarettes smoked so long ago, they seeped in through the lid as flavouring.

Anyway, Brandon parked the baby just out of the firing line. Megan went stiff in her brother’s hand. She turned her face away and looked for a window she could focus on. The one she saw was smeared and foggy, she wanted to touch it to see if it was wet and cold. Or if the glass was just bobbled with dirt and dust, or slimy with grease.

‘Come into some cash, eh Mam?’ he said.

‘I’m warnin ya, Brandon. Tryin to show me up again, you jumped-up little gobshite.’ The crackle of a crisp packet split the now quiet taproom.

‘Just cashed your dole cheque, ave ya?’ He poked at her again. It was like throwing rubbish at a gorilla from behind the partition and waiting to see how long it took for it to charge at the bait.

This time, she banged her glass against the solid wood bar and ploughed downstage centre into the space Brandon was holding, taking in the breath that had just left his mouth.

‘Oh an I spose you’ve been graftin, ave ya, son?’ Her tongue was threatening him from between her teeth.

‘Get your lazy arse back to that shit hole of yours and feed your kid. See er?’ he raised Megan’s hand as an exhibit, ‘She’s nine years old, if ya remember. She’s too young to be feedin, changin and wipin your baby’s arse all day.’

‘Fttttp. She can barely feed erself. She’s slow that one. Like ya useless far-ther.’ Her face was crumpling in on itself. She grabbed him by the neck of his tracksuit top. Megan pulled at two of his fingers. He let go of her. His hands, much bigger than they used to be, clenched against his mother’s wrists, making them buckle under his grip.

‘You haven’t a clue who our far-ther is, you dirty old crank.’ As he forced the last word into her face, she recoiled and spat at him. Like a boxer he shifted. It slopped onto Megan’s head.

Brandon pulled her in and was trapped by the tears in her eyes. He snatched at a napkin from between the ketchup and brown sauce on the table next to him and dropped to his knee, daubing at her hair with one hand whilst smoothing the wetness from her cheeks with the other. ‘It’s all right, Princess. We’re goin now.’ His tone was empty of all its anger until he snapped up to his feet. To the back of his mother’s head he said, ‘I’ll kill you yet.’

She sprung her middle finger backwards.

Megan’s toes barely skimmed the carpet crust before she was back out in the thin grey air.

See, if you’d have asked him then if his mother had been too young to die, he’d have said no. He’d have reiterated the words he’d laid out for her seconds before. In his mind, there was a series of events that would lead him to this predetermined conclusion, and the timeframe for that wasn’t particularly long. But I’ll remind you that I said his sister would be next.

She loved spending time with him. She chewed it up in tiny mouse-size pieces so it would last longer. After he’d taken her home to change her clothes and brush her hair, they got on the bus to the city. He made a mental note to buy her a new top, pants and most importantly a coat. She didn’t need it yet but the one that clung to the corner of her bedroom was covered in mould. It disgusted him. It was like someone had scribbled thick brown felt tip pen across a childhood photo – all frills and pink and pretend fur.

Brandon and the four other boys hung off the seats on the bus. Megan sat opposite her brother, looking neat and tidy across from his spread of limbs and sporadic energy, lauding over his partners in crime who faced the same direction as the bus driver.

Brandon watched her for a handful of seconds; enjoying the can of coke and chip butty they’d just bought together. He smiled at the delicate rebalancing act between hands, arms, and knees; giant bites with two hands before resting the grease-speckled paper on her lap, and then deep gulps of her drink looking full to the ceiling. Though he’d finished he could still taste the vinegar-soaked butter melting against the floppy potato chips.

A brown-haired girl of a similar age to the boys sauntered towards a free seat behind them. Brandon’s friend Mike elbowed Thorpy and winked in her direction.

‘I would.’ Mike punched his head forward like a punctuation mark.

‘She wouldn’t.’ Thorpy said. He reached over and flicked Mike on the tip of his nose; ‘In fact she wouldn’t do you with someone else’s.’

The two scuffled in the confines of their seated arena.

A muffled giggle pushed a small corner of a chip from Megan’s full cheeks.

‘Not in front of my little sister.’ Brandon threw the plastic fork he’d been picking his teeth with.

‘You brought her.’

‘Yeah, and I’m tellin ya to keep it PG, ya get me. And anyway Thorpy’s right – not a chance. She’s well too fit for you.’ Brandon winked in her direction. The girl grinned and looked down at her phone.

Remember why I’m telling you all this: I need you to see what Brandon is capable of; I need you to understand who and why he is. Only then can I make my point clearly enough. And then one day, maybe soon, we’ll do things differently. I had a dream once, too.

Ultimately, the sad end appeared as if from the dank mist clogged up around the gutters and drainpipes.

He’d kissed and cuddled her goodbye. She clung to him as she always did, and he peeled her away with warmth and jibing as he always did. The only difference in her then was the pink pinching her skin. ‘See ya tomorra,’ he put a two-pound coin in her fist, ‘and don’t spend it all on chocolate’. She didn’t say any words; she just kissed the air in his direction. He watched her shift her wrist through the jagged slat of the lopsided gate.

‘Who is it?’ His mother’s voice made his jaw protract. It was more than a sound; it tasted like metal between his teeth.

‘Just me.’ Megan whispered.

‘There’s a burger on the side. Don’t you dare leave the lettuce and tomato.’

Megan took the burger from the side, ate the bread, the burger, and the slippery, slightly bitter tomato and the lettuce with the brown frill. And that was the last we’d see her alive. Such a sorrowful last meal.

She’d been hanging there all morning when Brandon returned around midday.

His princess was gone. She no longer had features. She was almost round and greyish and her body completely still. She wore the only dress she owned and never wore.

He just stared at her. Neither of them was breathing then.

He saw a glimpse of her as an adult. She was talking on a stage. About children, about education, about numbers, and about little girls who didn’t have the same opportunity as some of the others. How things had changed for her when her brother had taken her away from their mother, had fed and clothed her, had impressed upon her the need to go school, had bought her books, had taken her to the museum, the library, made her watch the news instead of YouTube.

He screamed for her.

In silence, he took her weight and pulled her from the ledge in her stark wardrobe and placed her on the bed. He slowly unwrapped the deep red chord from around her throat. He straightened out her dress and her hair and stroked her cold plastic cheek. He wrapped her in the discoloured quilt on her bed and pulled her to him. He collapsed into her then. She wasn’t just bones now. There was substance to her.

His mother had been standing there, petrified to the spot, for at least seven minutes before he even noticed that he and Megan were no longer alone between those crumbling four walls. If the shock itself stupefied her, the mechanics of what she eventually registered made her sink to the floor.

The smell of alcohol and sweat stretched between him and his mother until a cloud gathered around his head.

He got up slowly and walked past her. From behind him, almost in the distance he heard his mother cry, ‘My poor baaaaaaabyyyyyy!’

It was more than he could take.

Brandon lunged towards his Mother’s hunched body with the force of brutality seen only in the wild. He gripped at her crispy hair and dragged her around until their noses were squashed against each other. He could no longer see through the fog in his eyes but he felt his fists meet her bones repeatedly.

It wasn’t long before they were separated. All three of them. Infinitely.

So when I said that you’re never too young to die, I obviously meant it literally. But when I think of that poor girl, I believe in my soul that I could have given her my blessing to take her own life, and that’s when I know that I am just like them. Everyone else. Joe Bloggs. We’ve all turned a cheek.

No, you’re never too young to die. But what if you never really lived?