‘This type of violent behaviour just isn’t acceptable, Charles – you just can’t take the law into your own hands…’
Mr Murdoch pulls at the collar of his shirt, big sweat patches developing under the arm pits. He’s wearing a bright red tie with wee Mickey Mouses on it.
‘I didn’t want to have to do this, son, but you’ve left me with no option… I’m going to have to suspend you from all school activities for two days. I’m just off the phone to your mother and she’s on her way over.’
Sitting there in his office, big fancy swivel chair and a laptop that he probably doesn’t even know how to work. That’s probably all he does is sits there and plays Spider Solitaire on the computer all day. He’s got all these bookshelves lining the walls with books on Child Psychology, Attention Deficit Disorder, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia… Has he even opened the front pages? My Mum gave him a pile of pamphlets about brain injury the last time she was up, but all he did was says thanks and stuck them in the back of his filing cabinet.
There’s a knock on the door.
‘That’s Charles’ Mum here to see you, Bob,’ says Claire, our school secretary.
‘C’mon in, Mrs Brown.’
Mum looks at me and purses her lips. Her face is grey and her hands are shaking. I feel crap about all this, cause now she’s had to take time off work and she can only work eight hours a week because of Johnny. He only goes to school in the afternoons and does four Standard Grades.
My eyes are saying: Mum, I’m sorry. They’re saying: I just couldn’t handle it any longer. I just couldn’t stand there and watch them taking the piss out him day after day. Stand there watching them spit chewing gum at him and calling him names, taking his school bag off him and throwing all his books in puddles. The teachers aren’t even interested – half the time it’s cause of that big, daft French teacher Mr Laird that they all pick on him. Big Julie Conroy says he’s always asking Johnny to speak in front of the class, and when Johnny can’t remember the words they all laugh at him.
He’s like a stone is our Johnny. He just sits there with his face pure blank, doesn’t understand what’s going on or what’s happened to him. When we were younger, he was always the brainy one: he used to get straight A’s for everything and he would help me with all my homework. He used to wind me up and call me Chuck Rock after the dopey cave man dude in the computer game.
We used to have this other computer game called BC Kid. It was a wee baldy guy wearing a leopard skin and you had to head-butt all the dinosaurs. Johnny was dead fast at computer games, not like me. I was always getting killed, and I couldn’t get past the first level unless he took over and did the hard bits, and then I usually always got knocked out as soon as I started playing again. See the bit where he performed a flying leap through the air and nutted the wee pterodactyl, that was class. And the bit where he was in the big brontosaurus’ belly: I liked watching him stookie all the wee germs.
Sometimes I feel like it’s me that’s hitting my head off brick walls – all the things Johnny used to teach me, now it’s me that has to be the big brother, show him all the things he’s forgot. Sometimes when he’s sitting there in his own wee world, it’s almost like he is BC Kid and he’s been transported through time and space.
A lot of folk think he’s at it, nothing wrong with him. He looks normal, same as he did before the accident. He’s not got a Mr Bump bandage or a sign that says BRAIN INJURY sellotaped to his skull. The school got him a special computer because he can’t write with a pencil. All the idiots in his class wanted play with it cause it’s got a built in Tetris game. Johnny wouldn’t let them touch his computer though. He doesn’t like anybody touching it.
‘I’m very disappointed in you, son,’ says Mr Murdoch.
What did you want me to do? What do you want me to say to that?
It’s not you that’s lost your brother only to have him replaced by some zombie that looks like him. It’s not like he can take a power-up to get him through each new level. Aye, he eats his Ready Brek every morning but he doesn’t get a green glow round his body. You don’t get it. Sometimes he cracks his head off the ground. Epileptic fits, grand mal seizures, there’s nothing you can do to stop it … and he doesn’t even remember doing it… Do you know anyone that’s had a head injury? Well, I do: quite a few folk, actually.
There used to be this guy – I hate comparing our Johnny to him. He was just this spazzy guy. I know I shouldn’t say spazzy but I don’t know how else to describe him. He was eighteen or nineteen and he used to ride a big three-wheeler bike round where we stay, and folk used to slap their wrists and make mongo faces at him when he passed by.
Me and Johnny never slapped our wrists at him or took the piss but we never says anything or did anything to stop all the ones that were doing it.
See me and Johnny, we were best mates. Folk used to think we were twins even though he’s a year older. We did everything together: football, hockey, fishing... We even fancied the same lassies, and although it came to blows sometimes we always fell back in.
I’ve had to grow up super fast.
I don’t really go out at the weekends now, or after school, cause Johnny would want to come as well. And nobody wants to hang about with him now cause he acts different and loses his temper over the stupidest things.
I want to go to university once I finish school. The course I want to do isn’t available nearby. So that means moving away, staying in the halls with other students. I haven’t told Johnny, and I don’t know how he’d take it. I’d like to take a year out first and just work, maybe even travel.
Sometimes I wish he was dead. It would be easier if he was dead. It’s like my brother died in that car accident and we got somebody else in his place. It was like it was game over and time for player two to take his shot.
Player two looked exactly the same as Johnny.
After the scars healed and his hair grew back, you couldn’t tell: same face, same blue eyes, same size thirteen feet. We always made jokes that he was going to be a policeman when he was older cause of those big feet.
It was Dad that was driving. He walked away without a scratch. He never used to drink but now he goes to the pub most nights. Mum says it’s because he blames himself.
They said they didn’t think Johnny would ever come out the coma, and if he did he’d be a vegetable. Afterwards they called him ‘Miracle Boy’.
He’d never walk, he’d never talk. That’s what the doctors told us. It was just the machines that were keeping him alive. That’s what they said. They wanted to just pull the plug but Mum wouldn’t let them do it.
I walk with a limp now: pins in my left knee. I was lucky.
They said Johnny was lucky too. How the hell can he be lucky?
His eyes are vacant now: they big blue eyes that all the lassies went daft for; it’s like he’s in there but his brain’s on standby mode. Sometimes I need to tell him what to wear cause he doesn’t know how to match things – I know a lot a guys have got crappy dress sense, but not Johnny, he used to be dead particular about his hair an his clothes. He can’t brush his hair now, can’t tie his shoes. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes you need to laugh at the things he does or else you’d cry: like shoplifting loaves. One day we were all in Farmfoods doing the shopping and Mum asked Johnny to go and get her a loaf of bread. On the way back home there was Johnny still swinging this plastic bag with the Mother’s Pride in it … he’d forgot to put it in the trolley.
Sometimes it can be scary. He’s started going to this group for other folk with brain injuries and he wants to get the bus himself. The last time he went himself he got on the motorway bus. When the driver put him off there were no pavements. And it was snowing. And he had to walk for seven miles.
‘Totally out of character … behaviour can’t be tolerated … other boy might have a fractured cheek bone … parents are talking about pressing charges …’ Murdoch’s rambling on an on as if it’s life or death. Mum’s standing there in her checkout uniform and her pure grey hair that she was meant to get done two weeks ago for her birthday but she hasn’t had time yet. She looks like she’s aged a million years in the past eighteen months and she’s lost loads of weight. She’ll blame me for all the stuff that happened today, tell me I should’ve known better. I’m meant to be the one with the working brain. I was supposed to just ignore it when they dangled his computer over the landing. Aye, very good, let them get on with it. Let them destroy the only thing that’s kept him going.
That computer is where Johnny writes down all his thoughts that we don’t get to see. He’s got a calendar on it, and a diary so he doesn’t forget to do his homework.
That computer’s his lifeline; his memory.
They laughed at him because he was learning to touch type, wanted to know why he needed a special teacher to help him who sat up the back of the class. The education authorities sacked her last week, anyway. She came in on Monday and got told to pick up her P45. ‘Cut backs’, they said. It’s all wrong: my Mum had to fight to get Johnny that teacher, and the computer and the extra time in the exams we never thought he’d be capable of sitting.
The boy I punched, he lost a tooth – he’s the type that’ll get compensation.
Claire the secretary brings my Mum a cup of tea. Just black, no milk, no sugar, cause she’s stopped taking it; white plastic cup, no saucer, the same as you get out the machines in the hospital. My Mum still has to go to outpatient appointments with Johnny; then there’s occupational therapy, family therapy, brain injury support groups, you name it. She says: ‘We’ve got brains on the brain twenty-four-seven!’
Mum’s trying to get a word in edgeways but Murdoch won’t let her. ‘I can appreciate your situation, Mrs Brown, but Charles’ behaviour has become quite erratic over the last few months, and this morning’s episode was quite inexcusable…’
She sighs and nods her head.
‘It won’t happen again,’ she says.
No, yer right it wont, cause that’s me decided – I’m sick of this dump and I’m not coming back, and Johnny won’t want to come back here either if he knows I’m not going to be here – Murdoch can stick his behaviour timetable and his anger management classes and his wonderful fool proof buddy system that’s supposed to stop folk from getting bullied.
I wonder what Dad’s going to say when he hears about all this. He never says much, leaves it all up to Mum; says she knows what’s best. If there are bills to be paid then he won’t stop working till he’s earned the money. No money can replace what our family’s lost, though.
At the last family therapy group, the psychologist asked my Dad how he felt about Johnny’s personality changes. All he said was: ‘I blame myself.’
‘But how do you feel about that, George?’
He shrugged his shoulders, doesn’t like talking about it.
Half the time we’re in them meetings Johnny falls asleep, or he sits crying in a corner cause he doesn’t like what’s being said.
‘Johnnathon, what is it that’s upsetting you?’
‘Don’t know,’ he says. That’s what he always says.
‘In order to try and help you, Johnnathon, we need to know what it is that’s upsetting you.’
Johnny doesn’t understand a lot of things now.
He doesn’t understand how our cooker works. He’s not allowed to make hot things unless there’s somebody else in the kitchen with him. The last time he tried to heat soup he set fire to one of the worktops.
‘I can make my own toast – I want to do it myself.’
‘I’ll do it for you.’
‘I SAID I WANT TO DO IT MYSELF!’
He wants to do everything himself.
He gets pissed off when anyone offers to help him do the zip on his jacket. And we’re all arseholes if we say to him to wear his shoes with the Velcro instead of tucking the laces down the sides. On PE days he’s the first one in the changing rooms and the last one out and he always loses his trainers.
He got dropped from the school football team, which was shit, but understandable. His co-ordination is shocking now, and he’s a really bad loser as well. If he’s sitting playing a computer game and he gets beat the monitor’s nearly getting flung out the window. The PE teacher tossed him out the archery class because he nearly shot one of the other pupils with his dodgy aim.
When we were younger it was always me that was the tag-along. Now it’s Johnny. Sometimes it’s like I’m carrying this big rock on my back, and it gets heavy, and I just want to hurl it through the air like a shot putt. It was brilliant that weekend that he went away with his brain injury group. I went out with my pals, had a laugh, it actually felt as if things were normal. Then in comes Johnny and he’s in a bad mood cause he’s missed the start of his TV program. He’s stamping about, turning the telly on and off, and telling us we’ve not to talk in case he misses a bit, because he can’t concentrate if there’s noise going on in the background. He doesn’t care if Mum’s waiting on a film to come on or if Dad’s asking her if she wants a cup of tea.
‘Gaunnae shut up. You’re ruining my program.’
‘You’re ruining my life.’
I don’t mean some of the things I say to him sometimes – the I-hate-yous, and the drop-deads, and the best one of all: ‘why can’t you act normal for a change?’ It’s just that everything’s always about Johnny, how he’s copin with school, how’s he’s copin with his disability, how he’s coping living with his family.
Murdoch’s looking at his watch so that means it’s time to go – he’s standing up and walking over towards the door. He’s probably got a game of internet chess to play. He’s all grim smiles and telling me to have a think about my future.
So up the road on the bus we go: me, Mum, and Johnny. Driver refuses to give him a half fare, at first. He doesn’t believe Johnny’s only fifteen and he thinks he’s knocked the school tie off somebody. I’m half expecting Mum’s going to deck the guy – that’d look good if we both appeared in court on the same day.
Dad hasn’t driven since the accident. Mum’s always saying she’s going to take lessons but she can’t get the time because Johnny needs her. Johnny always said he was going to drive a red Lotus – an Esprit Turbo SE to be precise, same as the one in the computer game, same one that James Bond drove into the ocean that turned into a submarine. But we don’t talk about cars these days. And Johnny will never be allowed behind the wheel.
We’re all sitting in silence and I know I should say something about what happened, but all I can do is look at my hands.
Eventually it’s our stop. We get off the bus and walk the rest of the way home in the rain. One of Johnny’s shoelaces is flapping and it’s going slip-slap on the pavement but he doesn’t seem to have noticed or he’s not bothered by it.
Mum finally talks and asks us what we want for tea. Johnny says ‘toast’, and Mum says, ‘toast isn’t a dinner’.
Johnny winks at me. And then his eyes glaze over again.