In the viewing area of a Maltese glass factory, a strange man took my brother’s right hand and said, ‘We need to go now.’ I was watching the making of a paperweight, the glass a dull red like plasticine, being moulded and thrown between metal rods. They moved away, starting out to the car park. When my mother noticed, she screamed and she screamed.
This was on the same holiday that my brother was nearly run over. It was on the same holiday that someone shit in the swimming pool and the turd sat floating until a lifeguard came back from the hotel restaurant with a sieve and lifted it out.
‘Keep swimming!’ he shouted.
You could get your diving license in that pool.
The hotel bed sheets had blood in. I watched the Olympics on a tiny TV, which swung off the wall, which bent itself over to me. One day, the crowd cheering, my mother came in. She saw him faster than I did; I remember the sound of her terrible breaths. We turned our heads to my brother together, to where he balanced, looking in at us from the wrong side of the balcony, his LED-runners unsteady, his baby hands resting on hot metal railings, his shorts so big they grazed the tongue of his shoes. Canada got Bronze on the TV and I saw her moving as though in front of a black bear. She didn’t scream. My brother, at four, on the air of three storeys.
My mother says, standing in the water of a defrosting freezer, that I have been jealous of him since before he was born. I don’t remember. All my memories smear. He’s always been here. He’s made in my image. She doesn’t say it to or about the others; the Girls, the ones so much younger I can’t make them make sense. She leans in, my mother, scrapes ice off the back-wall with her credit card. When she speaks, her voice can’t find its way out.
My brother’s name is from Old Irish. Iarla picked it the day before he was born. It means Very Wonderful. That’s why it was chosen.
Iarla is our uncle. He is my mother’s brother. As long ago as before us, he fell from a window and shattered his spine. There’s a line across his body, another soft border, marking out areas, whether he can feel them or not.
Six summers after Malta (the Glass/Car/Balcony) the ocean at Ballintoy comes for my brother like a hand. He’s nearly drowned. The hand smacks him into wet-black basalt rock, swells his skin until it’s white and limp, swallows him so completely that he might never have existed. We stand watching the horrible water until he’s thrown back, a fish that’s too small.
His face is grated, his fingernails broken into shards. He’s white as the sea-foam that tried to kill him. His hands bleed bright red on his wet soaking skin.
On the bus home, the driver says, ‘Sounds like a freak wave.’ He says, ‘These things happen.’
We pass a flag in the car park, half-eaten by wind: RESPECT THE WA—
My brother can’t speak with the salt in his throat.
My brother is: grown and tall and funny. He has: a shaved head, tiny hoop earrings, the zygote of a beard on his face. When he finished school, people wrote on his shirt things like: ‘I love you’; ‘Funny man’; ‘You’re the reason I—’
When he was little, he was scared every night before sleeping; there was nothing our mother could say to calm him. Now he sleeps by the front door on the TV room sofa, unbothered by cars/lights/people singing home, drunk.
He broke his bed, some way, at his own secret free. He still decries this party, but he cannot explain: tampons in the bin, curtains pulled off their rails, jewellery by the sink, the changed sheets of every bed, drink bottles piled round the back, the stains, the rubbish, noise complaints, people asking me about: ‘yir one’s secret party’. My brother swears blind. (He doesn’t wear glasses.)
My brother loves things or he hates them. He loved saying ‘I hate you’ so often as a cub that our mother told us a story that ran like a DOE road-safety ad: ‘Once there was a little boy and he said I hate you and then a lorry came out of nowhere and took the front off the car and the mother was dead and that was all the boy’d said, it was the last thing she heard—’
She turned to my brother, pulled him back from the bus window where he had his nose pushed up hard against the glass. She said, ‘Do you hear me?’ She said: ‘Hey! Do you hear me?’
I remember her face on the day when, coming home, my brother’s plastic soldier snapped at the spine. It came apart as though it were made to split open, right on the line of T4/T5. My brother screamed like he’d been shot at the knees (he howled), and I cried and I cried and I cried and I cried.
He’d started at the Grammar when he began to believe in the Bible. He said the priest told him there was a girl born with no bones in her legs who went to Lourdes, and that the Lourdes’ holy water made her bones grow for the first time.
He said to me: ‘That’s a Miracle.’ He said: ‘Explain that.’ We were walking past the bridge where our mother used to hide proof of fairies: a Twix left under ivy, a Milky Way between rails.
I told Iarla about it. He was concerned. But my brother stopped believing at some point in those classes, at some junction when the sums ceased making sense. He told me the most horrible things they’d to read: the two daughters who drugged and raped their father, the King who—
My brother loves things that cannot be explained (sink-holes, eclipses, how Governments work). So he loved the girl with no bones, but he can’t love the Bible. Its truth is too obvious: it’s just an old book.
He gets a tattoo of a spiral. He gets it under his collarbone, over his chest. He shows us one night when the Girls are in bed. Our mother says, ‘What the fuck is that? What are you, a bottle of bloody RiverRock?’
She says: ‘You think this is funny? Stop that! For God’s sake!’
He smiles (very wonderful). He’s not embarrassed.
There’s nothing we can say that he’ll ever believe.
My brother runs the Girls to where they need to go. He drops them home from school and they come in to me. I have to watch them until they’re asleep. I can see him in the car through the kitchen window. I can see him in the car when I’m doing dishes. Some of his friends are whole sibling groups and they all go places together as though he is their brother. He is the friend that their parents say of, like a sit-com: ‘He’s the son I never had!’ and their son says: ‘Daaaaaad!’
Sometimes he comes in. He’s tall, the skin at his neck tanned and peeling. He picks up a hoodie, a hat, a change of shoes.
Sometimes when he sees me, he says, ‘What’s wrong with you, why’re you so quiet?’
Sometimes he says: ‘For the love of God, shut the fuck up.’
Always he says, after things like, well?: ‘We’ve never been a real family’; ‘As if you know me at all’. He picks up his keys. His face is contorted.
He goes again for whole days; sleeps at night on the sofa. He comes and he goes, lifting the Girls from school.
I sit in the TV room until our mother gets in. The curtains are broken. Cars fill the room up with light. She gets home late, dead in her skin. The Girls are in bed. I tell her what I gave them for tea. She takes her shoes off. She stands in the hall.
I wake the dog when I am bored of being lonely. She hates being woken. She howls.
One night/one morning my brother comes in drunk. He sits beside me on the sofa in the TV room. The duvet he uses is folded over the back. He is so happy he looks different with it. He smiles with dark red gums and he speaks with wet teeth. He was at an Afters and then he got bored. He climbed down from a balcony (the height of three storeys). He ran. He cut through the park, up to the carriageway, hitched a lift in the open back of a silver pick-up truck, climbed over the railing with shreds of barbed wire. He says: ‘Fucking deadly.’ He says: ‘Is that not class?’
I think of my brother. I try to see like him. I lie on my back and think of waves crushing me under. I lie on my back and think of air falling away. I sit up on my elbows and I can see him in the back of the pick-up, laying out like a crosshairs, watching satellites, seeing stars, gravity forcing him flat to the floor of the truck. When he sits up, his eyes run with night-air and street-lighting. He whiteys over the side, and the driver inside the cab laughs.
He finds the dog the day she is run over. He carries her into the house, sets her down on the table and he screams like the day that he screamed at his soldier, but I am the only one here in the house and I don’t know what to do with her legs broke at those angles, her eyes, the warmth of her terrible breaths, the pink skin of her belly bruising purple with blood and the smell of her, weird with the heat of thick fur mixed with iron, something rotted, something broken, something sick.
‘They didn’t even stop,’ he says (over and over). I cry and I cry and I cry and I cry.
This is summer.
I mind the Girls (we sit in the TV room). They have no school, so my brother is gone. At night, my mother gets home. She stands in the hall.
Iarla is sick. Our mother takes the Girls to see him. He is older than she is. His lungs are collapsing and scarred.
I stay home, stand at the sink in pyjamas.
My brother comes in, his keys in his hand. He stands in the kitchen. He says: ‘Spins?’
We go to the Drive-Thru at the retail park. He orders the food and passes me the paper bag. I haven’t spoken to him in so long that there’s nothing to say. He looks straight ahead, the question mark of his beard curling round his cheek.
I’m still in pyjamas (sat at his heart’s side).
‘Ámhra,’ I say. I know it sounds weak.
He looks across at me. He swallows what he’s chewing. Do you know what I mean when I say, my brother?
He smiles with wet teeth. He says: ‘What?’ The tanned skin at the back of his neck is peeling.
It’s July. The air is warm and heavy. It starts hailing (this is the Anthropocene). My brother winds up his window; he says: ‘Holy shit.’
The noise of ice falling’s so loud on the roof that as we begin to argue it’s hard to catch each one of the digs.
I say things like: ‘When’s the last time you actually saw Iarla?’
He says: ‘Shut the fuck up.’ He says: ‘You always do this! You’re selfish! Jealous!’ He says: ‘I’m sorry for you, do you know that? I pity you.’
I yell: ‘Good!’
His eyes are wide open with hate. He screams: ‘Get out! Walk home! Get out, right now!’
I don’t have a jacket. I didn’t bring shoes. I sit in the car and my brother yells over thunder at me.
It stops when he decides it will stop; when he dumps the brown bag, puts the key in the ignition.
As he drives, the rain and the hail and the wind grow louder. The road melts into grey water that smears the windscreen. He steers as he shuffles songs on his iPhone. He turns the volume up until the music is warped with its own force, and the weather still drowns it.
We get home. He doesn’t park, he just stops. He slams his door closed and walks round to my side. He opens the passenger door. He bends so that I can jump onto his back and he can carry me into the house, barefoot. The rain is so heavy that his back’s already wet when I jump. He’s wearing my fleece.
Do you know who I mean when I say, my brother?
We look like twins born of superfetation. He makes me cry. He scares me.
I think: what if his car flips over? What if he falls/gets jumped/gets caught on the barbed wire? What if I see him one morning out the TV room window and he’s lying on the road, grown cold? What if one night he falls into the river and they find him in the morning, his skin limp and white?
My brother carries me from his car to the front door’s mat. He takes the car back out. I don’t know where.