Authors: Matthew Crow
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Here's a test:
Look at the word quickly, then look away.
Now, close your eyes and try to spell it.
Bet you couldn't.
Neither could I.
My first memory was of
Kurt Cobain's death. I was four. Chris was thirteen. For three days all you could hear in our house was “Smells like Teen Spirit” and the sound of my brother howling in his bedroom.
“Sweetheart, I know it's difficult but life goes on,” Mum said.
“Not if you're dead.”
“For God's sake, Christopher, just get up.”
“I'll pay you.”
Mum was trying her hardest, but after he'd missed a whole week of school she just gave up. Within a year Chris had grown his hair long and announced to anyone who would listen that he was gay. This was Tyne and WearâBritain's rusted top-right corner, still hard from generations of shipbuilding and coal miningâin 1994. People listened.
Like I said, that was my first memory. By the time I was
fifteen, Chris was twenty-four. He lived not far from us, and came around at least twice a week with a new mix CD for me and an empty carrier bag, which he stuffed full of the contents of our fridge. Mum made a scene every time he did it, but I knew that whenever she was in the grocery store she bought double so that he wouldn't go hungry. She was nice like that, though Chris wouldn't admit it.
Also Dad didn't live with us anymore. He didn't
live thereâhe just went away and didn't come back for really long stretches. The longest was the time he managed to miss both Chris's eighteenth
twenty-first birthdays. That was a low even by his standards.
Mum loved us in her own way. She loved Emma, my twin sister, too. People used to say just how like Mum Em looked. This was a compliment. Mum was beautiful. She was a model in London when she was my age. Apparently a journalist said that she had the next “look.” Chris pretended it was embarrassing, but I knew he showed old photos of her to his friends when he was drunk. He also told them how she could have been really famous, and how we could have grown up in London and been bohemians, only one Âphotographer asked her to go topless and when Grandma found out she got the first train to London and dragged Mum back, kicking and screaming. Mum didn't really talk about it anymore. Grandma did. Any time someone so much as mentioned London she reminded us of how
a Southerner tried to destroy her family's honor, and how over her dead body would he have got away with it, and how she was charged over a pound for a cup of tea at King's Cross Station. . . .
Either way, Mum was beautiful and so was Emma. All children are supposed to be beautiful; they're not, though. Emma was beautifulâthat was just the way it went. It was her thing.
One afternoon not long after she died, I remember sitting downstairs with Chris. Mum had been in bed for two days and we'd only had toast for tea and I asked him whether we were going to be taken away by Child Services.
“Mum still loves you. Just . . . from a distance.” Chris clocked my clueless expression and went on. “When something bad happens you have to make sure you're more careful. She just needs to be a bit tougher now so nothing can hurt her the same way again. Once bitten and all that.”
This made more sense to me. I used to love dogs until Rebecca Speckman's Alsatian chased me and sank its teeth into my left leg; ever since then just passing a dog on the street was enough to provoke a minor breakdown in me.
I put this to Chris and he nodded slowly, trying not to laugh.
“I suppose you're right, kidder,” he said, and carried on smoking out the window.
Mum always used to make a point of telling Emma and
me what a lovely surprise we were. Chris (who at the time was going through a phase of listening to loud music and being a total shit) translated this for me.
“It means you were accidents,” he said, tugging on the sleeves of his Marilyn Manson hoodie and scanning me for a reaction.
He must have felt bad about it, though, because once he'd cheered up and gone back to listening to happy music by skinny boys with model girlfriends, he made sure he corrected himself.
“Look, I didn't mean it,” he said. “You weren't planned, is all. But it worked out okay . . . you were sort of like the fiver you find in your jeans after they've been through the wash.”
At this stage I was still on fifty pence a week pocket money. By the end of the year inflation would push me way over the pound mark. Regardless, the thought of being the equivalent of a whole fiver made me feel like the most special boy in the whole world.
Chris was tougher than me and had more of an accent. This was because when he was born Dad had just started working and Mum was still running her business from the back bedroom. They were pretty young, I suppose, by the standards of most parents. They lived on a street where they seemed to film quite a lot of Â
, two bus stops away from the house we
later moved to. Chris went to the local public school. By the time I came along they had moved. Dad had his job and Mum had a proper office. They didn't send me to the public school; they sent me to a private school where no one really had an accent. Chris switched schools too, for a little while, but for some reason he told his friends that he was at his old school all the way through.
Chris worked as a graphic designer. He stayed late at his office to make a magazine that nobody read, about bands that nobody listened to. I could say that and know I was not being cruel. Firstly because it was true, secondly because Chris said it firstâI was simply repeating it.
After summerâwhen we returned to school for our final mandatory yearâeverything seemed different. Everybody was less certain. Every conversation involved change. Involved whatever would come next. Out of nowhere we had a choiceâwhether we wanted to stay for two more years; whether we wanted to go; which subjects suited our interests. School became an option, and an exciting one at that. For those of us who were staying, parts of the building where we never had been before would become accessible; the classes would become smaller; attendance would be up to us. We would even get to choose what we wore.
Those leaving would no longer be shut up within those same four walls. They would have to make new friends, see
new people every day, unlearn the old rules and get to grips with the new ones. Nobody knew exactly what they were doing next. But everyone knew that they would be doing
. And even if that something was to choose to do nothing, then the choice would be theirs, where it never had been before. Something was ending. And something was beginning. Nobody quite knew what was coming, but we knew it would be huge. Nothing seemed certain anymore, nothing seemed static or undoable; it felt like a reward, like after fifteen years life was finally opening up for us.
When my headaches started Mum
took me to the optician's.
“It'll be your eyes. It's always the eyes. They always think it's not, but it is,” she said as she pulled me along the street, dodging the people handing out flyers for free makeovers, and the others asking for two minutes of her time to save the tigers and stop the war with a small monthly contribution.
The optician lowered the giant binoculars to my face and turned the lights down low. He put different lenses into the goggles and kept asking about the fuzzy alphabet on the wall in front of me.
“Better or worse?” he said as he checked his digital watch in the dark.
“Can I ask a question?” I said.
“Can you just read the letters first?”
“Yes. A, B, P, H, Q, V, S, T, M, O, then maybe an X, but I'm not quite sure.”
He made a note.
“Are we comparing to the last time or the first time?” I said.
“Am I saying it's better or worse than the very first time with no glass in at all, or better or worse than the one that just went before? Only I'm not quite sure which you mean.”
“The one before.”
“Oh. I can't remember. Can I try again?”
He puffed out his breath and changed the lens.
“Better,” I said eventually. “I remember now. Definitely better.”
“Very good,” he said, and fiddled with the knobs either side of the binoculars. “Now once more . . . read as far as you can go and let me know if it's better or worse.”
“I have one more question,” I said eventually. Your eyes are vital; I needed to get this right.
The optician sighed loudly.
“Than the last time, Francis,” he snapped, with a little more emotion than I felt appropriate for a health Âpractitioner.
It wasn't my eyes, it turned out.
“God knows what it is,” Mum said as we made our way to a cafÃ© for coffee and a scone. “You haven't been smoking, have you? Oh, God, it's not drugs, is it? Francis, you can talk to me, you know? Francis . . . I will find out.”
Obviously she wouldn't. I could be quite deceitful when the mood took me. I once had two hits off a joint at a party of Chris's and she was none the wiser.
“No, it's not drugs. I hardly even drink.”
“Only when you let me.”
“Hmmmm. Well, just let me know it if gets any worse,” she said, draining her cappuccino.
When we got to Grandma's house I presented her with a handful of sugar packets that I'd swiped from the cafÃ©.
“Cheers, flower,” she said, lunging toward me, kissing my cheek and grabbing the sugar packets, which she deposited into the front pocket of her apron.
“I really don't appreciate you getting him to steal for you. He's enough on with his final exams as it is without petty theft complicating things,” said Mum. “If you want sugar, I'll bloody well buy you it,” she added, dropping Grandma's shopping bags in the hall and making her way to the kitchen.
Grandma's house had the atmosphere of a Tupperware box left out in the sun. Like a tropical flower, she had to be kept warm and moist at all times, or she would wilt and die.
“Besides, I like the sugar packs. Saves you having to wash a teaspoon. I just pour it in and I'm away.”
Mum said. “Away where, exactly? The pharmacist for that repeat prescription? Or just to the end of the street to catch the post? Those saved minutes must be a real godsend.”
“My little ray of sunshine, eh?” Grandma said, cupping my cheek in her hand. After they'd unpacked the shopping, we sat down for a bit. Grandma turned the TV to its lowest setting as Mum filled her in on my ailments. I sat quietly, concentrating hard on not throwing up by lipreading the commentary on the horse racing.
“Anemia,” Grandma concluded. “You can see it in his face. Dark circles. He's losing weight too. Though it doesn't surprise me. . . .”
“Don't!” Mum said.
She and Grandma never quite saw eye to eye on anything. Take food, for instance. Grandma liked things to be brown and steaming and caked in pastry. Mum bought recipe magazines that Grandma said cost more than a week's shop should in the first place. Once, when Mum treated us to a meal for Chris's birthday, Grandma shrieked at the top of her voice when the waiter explained what sushi was. Then Mum shrieked when Grandma sent it back and asked them to fry it. Even Chris looked embarrassed when she asked the waiter for some salt and vinegar. I can see both sides of the coin and play it to my advantage. With Mum I got essential vitamins and
minerals, which were good for my skin and stimulated growth (being three inches below average height was no joke). Then at ÂGrandma's I got the sort of food that always made it feel like a Sunday. She was never too busy to make dessert from scratch, never out of a box.
“Well, a lad can't grow big and strong off salad and fish.”
“We eat perfectly healthily.”
“He needs a plate of mince pie, some mashed potatoes, and half a can of peas. That'll sort him out,” Grandma said, and nodded once.
That was the last that was said on the subject.
At the door we kissed her good-bye.
“WAIT!” she yelled, running back inside.
“Now what?” Mum said, clicking the car open with the remote key. “Oh, come on, let's just go before she gets back.”
“One minute,” Grandma hollered from the back kitchen.
When she came back she was all out of breath and carrying something in her hand.
She slapped a wet package into Mum's hands. It looked like brains.
“Jesus Christ!” said Mum as raw ground beef juice began leaking between her fingers and onto the cuff of her jacket.
“Promise me you'll feed him up. Get his strength back,” Grandma said as we walked toward the car.
She stood in the doorway waving as we pulled away.
Grandma yelled down the street.
“Half fat to flour!”
Mum tooted once and stuck her hand out the window as we turned the corner.
“Here,” she said, tossing the packet of beef toward me. As it flopped into my lap a bloody smear appeared across the front of my T-shirt. I looked like Jackie cradling JFK's brains.
“I swear to God,” said Mum, “the sooner we convince them she has Alzheimer's, the better.”
Outside Chris's flat Mum lugged the Henry Hoover from the trunk of the car.
“How you feeling?” she asked me, puffing and red-faced as the cord got caught in the trunk and she yanked it free.
“Fine. Just a bit sick.”
She held my face up to the light and I had to squint.
“Your glands aren't swollen. Let me know if it gets any worse. When did you last have some painkillers?”
“I think it was two hours ago, but it was on an empty stomach, so I'd better leave it for now. The stated dose is two every three hours.”
“Well then, help me with this,” she said, handing me the vacuum.
We lugged it up Chris's path and Mum had to knock three times before anyone responded. I heard Fiona yelling from the flat followed by what sounded like a boulder rolling down the stairs. Eventually the door opened and she stood there in her underwear and one of Chris's shirts.
“It's quarter to three,” Mum said.
Fiona's hair hadn't been washed or brushed and she had bruises on her knees. I should at this stage point out that I loved Fiona with all of my heart and had a sneaking suspicion she felt the same way, only was too frightened to do anything about it. I wasn't being deluded, either. I had three pieces of concrete evidence to suggest as much.
One: Of all Chris's roommates who I knew liked me (Fiona, Callum, and Dan) and the one I wasn't so sure about (Beth), Fiona was the only one who bought me a Christmas present. One year it was a battered old Beatles LP, and the year before that a stack of eighties porn magazines she'd found at a flea market.
Two: Although I think she probably fancied Chris first, he was gay, so she had little to no chance of ever begetting children with him. Genetically speaking I was next best thing, only with the advantage of a slightly increased life expectancy due to my tender years.
Three: Once, at a New Year's Eve party, I had gone to bed to read after we'd all said happy New Year, and Fiona came into the bedroom about half an hour later and passed out next to me, using a guest's coat for a blanket. When she told me she felt sick I went to get a bucket to put next to the bed, and before she nodded back off she said she loved me. I knew she was drunk, but I believed that in this instance alcohol had allowed her to shed her inhibitions and speak from the heart.
We were obviously destined to be together.
“Julie, always a pleasure,” she said, standing aside in the doorway to let us in.
“You look like you've been exhumed,” Mum told her.
“That crease in your trousers is particularly succinct today.”
“Do you want the Hoover or not?”
“Not particularly, but needs must.”
Mum and Fiona always had little jokes like this.
“Hi, hot stuff,” Fiona said, and grabbed me in a tight hug as I walked inside. She smelled of perfume and whisky. “I'm hungover like you wouldn't believe here; can you help?”
I hugged her back and dug out some chewing gum from my pocket.
“It'll stimulate saliva, which might help dehydration. And sugar's supposed to be good for a hangover,” I said. She
took the chewing gum and put a piece in her shirt pocket.
“You are a curious one, Francis, a real find.”
Fiona made jokes like this with me all the time too. I didn't entirely understand them, but was happy to play along regardless.
Mum made her way up the stairs with the Hoover and before we reached the landing we heard her yelling.
“Bloody hell, Christopher, it looks like a bomb's gone off in here!”