Page 1


People talk about forgiving and forgetting as if they’re two different things, but that’s because they’re able to forget. Forgetting is not a luxury I’ve ever had. I can remember my entire life from the day that I was eleven. Not in the way that most people claim to remember theirs, with a cheery veneer and the struggles just Sesame Street lessons along the yellow brick road to happiness, but actually as it happened. On April 25th, 1995, aged eight, after an argument with my dad over a long-desired pair of Adidas Predator football boots, and the cheaper store’s-own alternative that was eventually forced on him, my brother Jake ran away from home. My parents, on the rare occasions when they can actually stand being in a room together, often dust it off as a family story. They use these shared memories, and their children, as abiding proof that they loved each other once, as if these minor agreements undo my mother sleeping with another man for three years. As loyal children we play along too, because we desperately want to believe that we aren’t just the leftovers of a broken marriage. Everyone slots into place like actors just before the curtain lifts: my brother Jake in the clown suit as the fool, his mistakes as an adult somehow just as forgivable as his boyish ones; my mum, fussing and fretting over her children to remind herself that she was a mother once, even if she is no longer anyone’s wife;

my dad, gruff and distanced, pretending that he doesn´t care about anyone in our family, because it’s the only way he can hide the pain caused to him by just one of us. My parents tell the story with the polish of repeat airings over the years1: their finding Jake’s note pinned to the fridge door, and laughing it off, expecting his return in time for dinner; the discovery by my dad that he had also pinched several of his tools (“I put half our house together with that hammer”); their rallying of a fleet of neighbours to hunt down their fugitive son as if he were a prison escapee (“the face that launched a thousand Volvos”, as my mum’s over-used joke goes); the eventual return, sun-burnt, tearful and tired, of a hopelessly unprepared child two hours later. The problem is, none of it is true. Actually, Jake left well-prepared for his voyage into the unknown: he took his school rucksack, stuffed with the remnants of an Easter egg, and a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with the crusts cut off; he also pinched my dad’s hammer, screwdriver and London A-Z, presumably due to the lack of machetes, compasses, and other established tools of the explorer in our house. From me, he took my skipping rope, a substitute for the bullwhip that too many Indiana Jones re-runs had confirmed as a vital weapon for the intrepid eight-year old. He left a note, scrawled on a post-it in 2HB pencil, stating that as he would not be needing his rubbish new football boots any more, I was to use the money from their return to buy for myself the new paint set he knew I had wanted for my birthday - this was a thoughtful stab at a will for an eight-year-old, and I’ve always forgiven his adult behaviour because of this act of child’s charity. He also entrusted me with the job of making sure he wasn’t forgotten, as he was a little worried that whilst he was off in the wild our parents would move on. Knowing Jake, I imagine that this was because he didn´t plan on returning until he was tall, muscular and bearded, Robinson Crusoe, Cecil Rhodes and Tarzan all rolled into one. 1

The tale’s first telling was December 25th 1997, during a particularly uncomfortable Christmas where my grandfather drank too much and pissed himself on his favourite chair in the living room. They used it to take everyone’s mind off things, but he wet himself again during the story laughing too much.

My parents never found a note pinned to the fridge: my mum only realized that he was gone when I brought his will down into the kitchen, around the same time that the crusts he had cut off his sandwich warned her that he did not plan on being home for dinner, or having a family any more – up until that afternoon, trimming his sandwiches had always been her job. She then alerted my dad, and they waited for half an hour before doing anything at all, during which he stood outside the front door like a gargoyle, boggle-eyed and hollowcheeked, burning through an entire pack of cigarettes in one hyperventilated fug. The only neighbour of ours that they told was Mr Creek, the gentle bachelor who lived next door to our three-up one-down house; he was on his way out to walk his Whippet when they asked him, in voices of forced unconcern, if he might look out for their boy whilst on the Common. They had no desire to advertise to the other people on our street their failure as parents – can you blame them? The part of the story that never finds its way into anyone’s account is mine. My role in this pantomime is that of the loving sister, who cried when she thought her brother was gone, who had to be stopped from running off in search of him, and who wept with happiness when he returned. I was concerned about him – I had that older sibling’s belief that my brother would die because he didn’t have me there to protect him - but it was blended with a different, guilty thrill. I could still remember what it was like being an only child, and this reawakened my desire to be the centre of attention. After about two hours, I also plucked up the courage to ask my parents about taking the boots back and swapping them for a paint set, but that’s also been retouched out of the final version. When my brother returned, it was six hours later and the sun was sagging below the trees lining our road; my parents had driven expanding laps of our local area in the hope of spotting him, and were about to call the police. According to them, he came sprinting back along our road with his rucksack in one hand, tears streaming down his face - my mum,

supposedly, ran to pick him up, sweeping him into her arms. My dad hugged him, grounded him for a week, and then later bought him the new boots he had wanted. Supposedly. Jake actually covered the long and winding road home at a snail’s pace, and the emotion I remember upon seeing him was not joy. He came home so slowly as to be hardly moving at all, with the hammer dangling from his left hand. The red light-up soles of his trainers flashed with each step, but one was broken, and in the flat light these heartbeats were so far apart that he seemed to be expiring in front of our eyes. His face was a mess of dirt and tear marks, with a drop of blood trailing from his temple where he had hit his head being chased by a stray dog2 on the common. A clown’s grin of chocolate covered his mouth where he had eaten the remainder of his Easter egg in an effort to cheer himself up. The sense that clings to this memory is smell - not just the whiff of bullshit around my parents’ retelling, but the hum of my brother having wet himself in fear, which, standing downwind, I picked up when he was about fifty metres away. Cradling a hammer and covered in blood, he looked like a ghost, and as his little legs shuffled him closer I did burst into tears – not out of elation, but out of fear: Jake had returned as a vengeful spirit to punish me for my selfishness. Both of my parents were rooted to the spot. He stood in front of them, handed the hammer and screwdriver back to my dad, as if admitting that he wasn’t yet ready to carry the mantle of manliness, and then walked inside the house, followed by both of them. They did, in fact, make a token speech about grounding him, but out of choice my brother didn’t leave his room for much longer than six weeks after the incident. The lies that people call their memories reveal more about them than the truth ever can - this family story exists because for a moment my parents thought that they had lost him. Squatting under a gorse bush for eight hours out of childish bloody-mindedness, my brother 2

Jake always claims that this was “a massive Doberman Pinscher, like the Hound of the Baskervilles”: a report in the Hampstead Gazette from the following Wednesday, about a Crufts-winning Jack Russell which had been missing for 4 weeks returning to its owner without three of its teeth (knocked out by a stolen claw hammer, maybe?) hints that he might be fibbing. To be fair, he was only eight, so the dog probably seemed a lot bigger than it actually was.

almost turned my parents’ moment of inattention into a lifetime of guilt, and this potential future jarred so badly with their perception of themselves that they erased it – it’s much easier to rewrite the past than to live with it. They created a new story, but I still have to live with the memory that, at the age of eleven, the main emotion that my younger brother’s death stirred in me was excitement over the possibility of more presents at Christmas time. I used to look down on even the people I love the most, watching them systematically paint over my past until it’s barely recognisable, but over the years my contempt has gradually turned into envy. If I had a choice, I’d do it too.


This is an extract from Stealing Focus, the second novel by Michael Hines.