In the kitchen brother and I silently watch her work. We wonder if she’ll let us run our fingers across the smooth interior of her mixing bowl, suck the sticky sweet batter from our fingertips. She stirs in powdered sugar, stern in her apron, adding vanilla like magical elixir, tapping out each precious drop with a finger. And when she says yes we begin a tug-of-war over the spoon.
I hit brother in the face. It’s spiteful and mad and in his gleaming tears I see him ready his story. I hit him for nothing he tells her. But it’s not true. I have my reasons but they’re out of sight and impossible to describe. She spanks my behind, short and sharp, dutifully. And I cry not because it hurts but because I love her so much.
Brother and I have a camp down by the canal, a concrete air-raid shelter fallen into semi-collapse. There’s a small pocket of space we crawl into from a hole at the front. We sit in the dark, crouched on our heels, broken bricks poking our ribs. Light blasts in from the entrance. Our secret camp is hidden by tall grass and looks like a ruined hive. A cracked concrete prop and a slant of corrugated sheeting hold up the weight, hold up the heaven. We can move it with our hands.
There is a box of condoms in father’s bedside drawer. Mother and father are out and we rummage through his socks searching for hidden treasure. I open a condom and try it on for size, the rubber sheath flopping uselessly on my little boy cock. We giggle. We open several more, squeezing them from their packets, blowing them up like balloons and flicking them at each other. Together we decorate the back garden, Johnny bags strewn over the bushes like flayed skin. The neighbors complain and we’re in trouble. You humiliated me, father says, when he gets home, and he pulls off his leather belt.
We sleep in narrow beds side by side in a small room. Father has a new job selling freezers. He’s handsome and the housewives order. Briefly we’re rich. He puts in new lights above our beds, globe shaped spots for reading after dark. But the wirings all wrong and the lights buzz, flare and burn when we turn them on. The bulbs pop over our heads and we scramble for cover, screaming. The housewives cancel their orders. They just liked his smile.
A rare golden summer day and the neighbors are in their gardens. We can see through the chain-link fences, 5 houses up and down. We sit in a small inflatable paddling pool. We sit and let the sun burn on our soft white skin. We watch a woman chase two fat girls with a switch of bamboo. She screams, they beg forgiveness and we watch in silence. Just that crazy Polish woman whipping her kids again.
One afternoon brother cries seven times in quick succession. He won’t move from a certain spot in the living room, rooted and defiant as I punch his head. He will not move and I keep on punching until, mother hears his cries. She runs into the room and spanks me until I’m crying too. Then brother moves.
We steal sweets from a shop, invisible in our little boy way. We stuff our mouths full of chocolate. We tell a pack of friends and it becomes a regular thing, an orgy of stealing, until one boy falls into a jabbering diabetic coma. He reveals all to his mother. She tells me what she knows and suggests my confession. I weep it out at the dinner table. What’s wrong? mother asks, and when I tell her father takes me upstairs and beats me with his leather belt.
One night I climb onto brother’s bed to wrestle. We’re half naked and soon our penises are as hard as acorns. We take off our pajamas and writhe under the sheets, hot and excited, full of wonder. No kissing, brother says when I try to clamp my lips over his. I turn him over and push my small one into his tight white bum instead. Downstairs the TV is playing.
I ask mother to make me a picnic to eat at a friend’s house, but take it to the secret camp instead. I squat in there, eating jam sandwich and banana.The shaft of light bristles with dust. Cold and dark with the smell of urine. When I crawl out I knock the concrete prop and hear a small shower of debris falling behind me. Mother would beat me if she knew where I ate her food.
Father comes home crazy from work and mother decides to break his jazz records. Her body shakes. The black discs flex then snap between her hands. We watch as she dumps the pieces by the back door, then we use them as toys, arcing them through the air like boomerangs, raking them across the rooftops, slicing apples from a neighbor’s tree. One of the sleeves shows four black man with square guitars and sunglasses. I pick it up and I spin it in the cool blue sky.
I climb onto brother’s cot. I’m eager to recreate exhilaration. But something has changed now. The TV is still on downstairs and I still feel his hot skin, but it’s different, some thrill has gone. Maybe he doesn’t like it so much. The first time was best.
For a week I don’t touch my toothbrush. In the bathroom I study creeping black mould on the ceiling. How long would it take for my teeth to rot? Stop washing and my body begins to smell. Masturbate again and my cock burns between my palmslike a caveman starting a fire. And now I have a paranoid fantasy. This – the whole world watching me. All are in on it, sending messages, detailing progress. Keep tight watch on the hero as I ride my fast bike down the country lane. Breathing hard I lay it near a tree and crawl beneath some bushes. They all know what I’m doing. But only when they can see me.
The TV tells a story about a plague of birds in China. Large mobs dressed in overalls chase the birds from the trees. They scare them from roof-tops, anywhere the birds can roost. Eventually the birds fall and they’re stomped on by the Chinese who brandish books and smile delightedly. There is a plague of birds and people and that whole world is black and white.
Running around the living room brother trips and falls. He cries and I hear father pounding down the stairs. He bursts into the room, hits me hard, cuffs me into a wall where I burn and I burn. Later when I try to hit brother he says he’s going to tell mother what we’ve been doing in the bedroom. He says he hates me now.
We have a small albino mouse with one eye. It runs under the house never to be seen again. Brother’s goldfish is floating on the surface of a bowl of water. Our black cat is killed by a car. Father responds by building a fishpond in the garden – a trench lined with plastic bags and filled with water from the canal. I launch my piece of rebar like a javelin. It lands perfectly, puncturing the plastic and draining the pond. Slimy green fish flap in clots of algae. I look at the house and I’m very scared.
Inside I tell brother I have a secret to show him at the camp. It’s bitterly cold and when we arrive his cheeks are red. His black hair is shaved close to his head. He is very small. I tell him to go first and he climbs inside and waits, squatting in the cave of bricks. At the entrance I kick the concrete prop with the heel of my shoe. It shifts and drops but for a moment nothing changes, not even the air. Then there’s a loud WHUMP and everything collaspes, one secret trapped inside another. The blast knocks me back, dust, like needles in my eyes, the taste of cement scorching my tongue. My body tremors from the aftershock. I run home and wonder what mother needs to know.
I sit at the kitchen table. Mother is somewhere crying. Father out with the other men looking for brother. I am eating a jam sandwich and in the living room the TV is dead. The sky outside is gray and soon it will be very dark.