I don’t miss my brother Joshua at all.
“Ask nicely.” Joshua’s gingery hair blazes like a helmet in the evening sunlight. He’s eight.
So I say, “Please don’t, please.” I’m only four. But Joshua holds Ted tied onto a stick out over the barbecue, which we’re not allowed to light by ourselves. I can smell his yellow fur beginning to smoulder. I’m crying, pulling at his arm.
“Ted’s been bad. He has to be punished,” says Joshua sternly, shrugging me off.
Like Joshua. Joshua’s been bad. That’s why he’s not around any more, hasn’t been for years.
Mum misses Joshua, in a way.
“What else could we do?” Mum asks Dad, late at night. Dad pretends not to hear and goes on reading a book. “He just couldn’t change.”
The doctors put Joshua on a plane. Mum packed a suitcase, all the things you might need for a lifetime away, although of course there were weight restrictions to be taken into account. I wonder if he screamed and cried, like I did when he burnt Ted. I wonder if he still likes to hassle ants.
Something’s missing from my life, without him. I don’t have anyone to sneak up behind me and stick both fingers under my ribs to make me jump. No one calls me bitch and moron any more. No malevolent presence looms beside me as I walk home from school. No one there to scare the other girls off just by looking at them and swinging his arms in that certain way. Ok, I didn’t mind too much when he knocked Tracy Bucknall’s front tooth out for calling me an ugly slut. I admit that.
When Joshua was taken away, the ants must have thought their golden age had come, free from inexplicable natural disasters – flash floods, scorching death rays from the sky, acid rain. They prospered and multiplied and infested the kitchen, where they ate mum’s carefully preserved plum jam.
Joshua was always looking for trouble.
“Let’s throw the football through Froggatt’s front window!”
“Don’t like her. Anyway I want to see how easy it is to smash. We can always say it was an accident.”
I didn’t like her much either but I wouldn’t have dared do it. I watched though. Mrs Froggatt came boiling out ready to screech but when she saw Joshua standing there smiling she said “Oh it’s you again,” and went inside to make a phonecall. Joshua never had the sense to hide, afterwards.
There’s going to be a war. I don’t like war. At least, I don’t really know what a war is, but Mum says her grandmother was in one and she said it was terrible. People killed one another for some reason nobody can remember. I can’t imagine it, any more than I can imagine why Joshua needs to pinch me when I’m walking past him on the way to the bathroom.
“Really? How could they do it? Didn’t they feel terrible?” I ask my mother.
“People were different in those days,” she explains.
“Before selective gene screening,” adds Dad.
“More like Joshua?”
“Yes. There were lots of people like Joshua then.”
They’re not allowed to write. Dad says he’s sure Joshua’s alright though. It’s not a prison camp. It’s an island. There are no guards, only the ocean. It’s a permanent holiday by the beach, really. Dad says Joshua’s probably happier with people just like him. It’s a place where people who are different can be themselves.
Joshua fancied my friend Casey. Casey didn’t like him though, she said he smelt too strong and showed off all the time,
“Your brother’s not normal. He’s always hanging off that tree outside my place doing pull ups to show off his muscles. Like I care!”
“He is SO normal!” I said, even though that morning he’d put his hands around my neck till it left a big red mark. But he wasn’t, of course. When I asked Dad why he said,
“Well, you know, the doctors do their best to make sure all babies are born with the right attitudes. But sometimes things go wrong, nobody knows why. Maybe he’ll settle down.”
Mum and Dad tried to hide Joshua, pretend he’d grow out of it.
“He’s just lively,” they’d say to friends and neighbours. Or “It’s just a phase.”
Joshua liked to look at himself in the mirror, flexing his biceps, weightlifting with mum’s tomato soup cans.
“Your friend Casey’s hot.”
“Why don’t you ask her out then? She can only say no.” I say. Which she would.
Joshua knows that.
“I’m not going to ask her! When you want something you have to take it. No wonder this is such a crappy boring shithole. This place needs a shake up. I wish there WAS a damned war!”
So he took Casey, in the woods behind the boat shed. They came for him the next day, with needles and pills. Mum said he looked just like he had when he was a baby, being carried out on a stretcher. Peaceful and sweet.
When the war comes we hide in the boatshed, with another family from the street. Everyone hides where they can. What else can we do? Casey has hysterics because being in the boatshed reminds her of Joshua.
“If I’m killed I want you to know how much I love you.” Mum pulls my head down to her lap so I can’t see. She shuts her eyes too.
We hear the roar of engines driving too fast in our quiet streets, glass breaking, booted feet running, explosions like when lightning hits a tree. I smell smoke. I wonder if they broke Mrs Froggatt’s windows, again. Mum and Dad curl together like two caterpillars. So this is war? No wonder my great grandma didn’t like it much.
Men smash the locked door in with boots and the butts of rifles. When they see us cowering in the dark among ropes and crayfish pots they all jeer and point.
“Look at them, they can’t even put up a fight!”
A man pulls me out by the hair. I don’t struggle, I just try to keep up with him, because otherwise it will hurt even more. Joshua taught me that. Mrs Froggatt and Mum are lying on the ground, wailing.
How can they do this? Why would they want to? Can’t they feel our pain? What did we ever do to them? I can see in Casey’s eyes, as she crawls at the feet of her captor, that she’s shocked, confused. Can there really be so many Joshuas? Where did they all come from?
Then there’s a white flash, like the burning beam Joshua used to aim at the ants with his mirror. I’m on the ground, my head resting in entrails, soft and slippery, my ears ringing. Familiar biceps pull me up. All around men lie tossed about like red salad.
“Get up, we have to be quick,” says my brother. “Follow me, into the woods.”
Casey whimpers. Mum is being sick. Dad has wet his pants with fright.
“We won’t!” wails Mrs Froggatt. “You’re worse than those.” And she points at the scattered pieces.
I run with Joshua to the forest.
Joshua is still different. But now I’m glad. I don’t know why he’s here or how he escaped. Perhaps people like him always work something out. But we need someone now who understands pain and likes it.