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Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Fiction: “Alone it is far harder to imagine”

Alexandra Illingworth explores the poignancy of growing up with a fraught sibling relationship

You are queen, a small determined queen thrashing through the undergrowth after your big brother, showing him you can keep up. Queen of all the fields around, that’s what Mum tells you. When you trip over you get up, brush grass seeds from your fleece, and you don’t stop till he does. He smiles at you, says, “This is going to be our new secret base, ok?”, pointing to a tree he’s about to turn into a castle. You nod. “Now listen,” he says, “This is the turret…”.

Alone it is far harder to imagine. Your brother has his friend round, and you are sat trying to make turrets for yourself. It’s impossible. You wanted to join in with the big kids but your brother told you no, you’re not old enough, you just won’t understand. “This is the turret,” you tell yourself determinedly, uselessly, “and this is the moat—”.

Later on you move house into town so that your brother can walk to school, and he does, without Mum or Dad, with other big friends of his. Mum still walks you to school and most of the time you’re happy to play in the little-kid playground, but sometimes you go to the fence and stare out at the older ones. Your brother’s friend has a sister in the little playground as well, and sometimes he’ll come up to the fence and chat to her. Your brother doesn’t do that. He doesn’t even wave.

At home you don’t speak to him for the whole evening, and he furrows his brows and says what’s the matter, why are you mad? You say, aren’t we friends anymore? He frowns. “You’re my sister, not my friend. Plus, you’re like two years old.” He’s got it wrong on purpose and you’re so indignant, so outraged at the unfairness of it all, that you feel hot tears sting your cheeks. He throws his arms up and says, there, you’ve made his point for him. You’re obviously still just a baby.

So you make new friends, and he yells at you for bringing them home and hogging the trampoline, for scaring the hamster by letting them all look at her, for finishing the bourbons. You hate him, a fact which you scream at him repeatedly. He’s so annoying! You wish you had a sister instead, like Ayesha does. She’s cool and friendly; she plaits Ayesha’s hair and she taught you all the rules of football. All your brother does is yell at his friends on Xbox, and ignore you, and smell.

Then this one time Mum makes him help you with some homework and he’s grumpy, at first, asks why can’t you do this yourself, I did it myself when I was your age—but then he sees what it’s on—it’s biology, the heart, and you watch as his expression turns animated. You tell him this fact that your teacher told you, that the heart has its own electrical supply and will keep beating even outside the body. And he says, that’s pretty cool, not sarcastically or anything, and you feel on top of the world.

After that you start thinking that maybe he’s as good as Ayesha’s sister after all—in fact, just maybe, he’s better. You walk the dog with him, and he tells you all the stories from Year 7. He tells you which teachers are alright, and which ones to avoid. When you go for your induction day he comes over to see you at lunch, asks how it’s going, shows you where the toilets are. The nervousness in you unwinds a little and you’re even more relieved when term starts and you’re on the same bus as him, and he tells the other, more intimidating big kids to piss off , leave my sister and her friends alone. On the bus your new best friend Nikita whispers, your brother’s pretty cool, and for the first time in ages, you agree. (It doesn’t stop you coming to blows over the last bourbon).

You’re fourteen when your brother starts to disappear, slowly like the Cheshire cat. First, he’s quieter during mealtimes. Then he’s quieter all the time. Mum gets a phone call from his school, and finds she doesn’t have any answers. You try to talk to him, but he only gets frustrated and yells at you, and it makes you cry in your room alone and it makes Mum cry, next to you in the car, and it makes Dad shout and it makes them tell you ashamedly, Talia, your brother’s not well. Talia, have you seen your brother? Do you know where your brother is? Talia, is your brother doing drugs? He comes in late, later every day, and Dad shouts at him and he shouts back. And then he doesn’t. The silence is worse.

Later on he stays in bed for days on end, never opening the curtains, until Dad goes in and gets him up roughly and tears open the room to let the sun in, too bright, and yells what’s happened to you, what are you doing?

After dinner you knock on his door and slip in quietly, and there was a time where he’d have got up and yelled at you to get out, loser! But he’s silent now, sat hunched over on the side of his bed. You sit down beside him and pick at the hem of your school skirt for a moment before swallowing and taking his hand in yours. You squeeze it, tightly, fiercely. Terrified. He doesn’t squeeze back but you keep holding on anyway. You say, determinedly, “Now listen. This is the turret—”.

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