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?