I watched him hang in the air, arms high, back arched. It was a perfect shot, smashing his spine between the shoulder blades. I lowered my rifle and stood as he dropped to his knees.
“Stop the game.” I trudged over, kicking lumps of dirt all the way. “You’ve ruined it.”
We’d sat on my bed only an hour earlier, Bryan with a finger up his nose, me with Famous Battles – a large, thick hardback – open on my lap. They were all in there – the Battle of Hastings, Rorke’s Drift, Flanders – more exciting than any story and fully illustrated. Every morning of the summer holiday, we’d go up to my room after breakfast, pick a battle, plan it, then race out to the allotments.
There were twelve allotments behind the row of houses where we lived. They were our playground, the backdrop to six weeks of freedom. We declared war among the sheds and plants, hid in bushes, launched attacks from behind greenhouses, made camps in hedgerows and marched on stomachs filled with our neighbours’ strawberries, raspberries and soil-flecked carrots.
Dad said you could tell a lot about a person from an allotment. His was practical: potatoes, cabbages, onions, runner beans. He had no time for flowers or fishponds, and he sneered at those who laid lawns over good honest soil. Mr Morris next door had gone in for borders and ornamental hedgehogs, which Dad said was tragic when you remembered that a few years ago he’d beaten a burglar almost to death with his bare hands. Now look at him. Chrysanthemums.
The plots were in a grid, four across and three deep, which made it easier to sketch out maps of what was going to happen. I’d shown Bryan today’s map as we pulled on our shoes at the back door, so he knew. He knew that, as Custer, I was going to advance on the potato patch from behind the compost heap. And he knew that, as a marauding Sioux warrior, he was supposed to slaughter me, along with the rest of the 7th Cavalry, as I fled. But he’d been distracted by the sound of his own voice as he galloped around the incinerator, banging his palm against his mouth.
I yelled at him to stop, to get on with it, to charge at me. I told him I’d shoot, and then I did. I was angry with myself. He died well, which made it worse.
Bryan never paid attention to the detail, preferring to make up a version of events that gave him the most fun. He had driven a tank into Agincourt, flown a Spitfire over the Battle of Waterloo and shot me in the eye with an arrow at the Somme.
“It’s a laugh,” he protested as I demanded that we start again.
For me, fun wasn’t the priority; it was about getting it right, because, if you didn’t do that, what was the point?
“Get up.” I poked Bryan in the ribs with the sharp end of my gun, a severed chair leg that I’d found resting against the trunk of number four’s apple tree.
“That hurts.” Bryan squinted into the sun with his fingers spread across his eyes.
“All you had to do was chase me.” I jabbed him again. “You were going to win this one and you still did it wrong.” I was annoyed. I wanted to play with someone else, someone older, someone whose brain didn’t run on Sugar Puffs.
“Why can’t we just play?” said Bryan. “You shot me, and that wasn’t meant to happen, but it was still great. What’s the problem?”
“The problem,” I said, “is that I’m a famous general and you’re the enemy that defeats him. It’s history. You can’t change it.”
“I don’t see why not.” Bryan shoved the chair leg away and got up, brushing dirt from his knees. He patted the back of his head to check that the pigeon feather was still sticking out of his hair.
“Come on,” I sighed. “Let’s do it again. And this time, kill me.”
“OK.” Bryan dragged his rifle along the ground as he took his place among the potatoes. I strode over the top of number eight’s compost heap and got back into character. I straightened my hat, smoothed down my moustache and mounted my horse.
A muddy clod hit me on the side of the head. I swayed, then dropped into a stench of rotting vegetables. My ear was throbbing.
“Sorry!” Bryan’s voice sounded small. I pushed myself up so that I could see him. He was backing away towards the house.
“What was that?” I put my hand to my ear. I was bleeding.
Bryan looked worried. “A hand grenade,” he said.
I scrambled to my feet and, with a roar that sparked in my belly and blew up in my throat, I ran at him. “I’m going to kill you, you fucker!” My stick was high above my head and I believe that, at that moment, I meant to murder my brother with it.
Bryan believed it, too. He turned and sprinted across the allotments, at first staying on the narrow paths, then streaking through clothes lines and over gardens. He stumbled as he struggled to keep his balance at speed, his arms windmilling all the way to the gate. I could see the relief in his body as he reached it. He lifted the latch and burst into the back yard. “Mum!” he screamed. “Neal said fucker! Neal said fucker!”
There was a splash and the clattering of crockery as Mum flew from the kitchen and stood in the doorway, her hands dripping with soapy water. She took in the scene, then fired off a round of familiar bullets. You’re the eldest… not good enough… we expect better…
I stared at the ground, my left foot swinging back and forth.
Past her, Dad was at the table, his fingers paddling in a tin of tobacco. He took out a pinch and I watched him thinning, spreading, rolling, licking. I knew he was listening, deciding if he needed to involve himself. Mum told me I was stupid. I nodded agreement. “Sorry.”
“It’s your brother needs the apology. He’s six years old and there you are, swearing at him like a savage.”
Bryan appeared at my shoulder.
“Go on then,” said Mum. “And we’ll call that the end of it.”
I turned to Bryan. He was bouncing on his toes in anticipation. His cheeks wobbled as his face moved up and down. He had an irresistible face. It bought him sweets, cuddles and mercy. I could see through it, though. There was mischief in those eyes. It was there now, taunting me. Come on, Neal. Let’s hear it.
“I’m…” I paused. One more word and it would be over.
There was the curl of a grin on Bryan’s lips. “That’s OK,” he interrupted with a laugh. “I forgive you.”
In an instant, I forgot that, for me, this was an escape. I forgot Mum, who was standing over me with her arms folded. I didn’t notice Dad, who had stopped what he was doing.
I swung my stick at Bryan’s legs. It struck him across the back of both ankles, knocking him off his feet. He fell sideways and hit his head on the doorframe. There was only fear in those eyes now. I jumped on top of him and pounded my fists into his chest. Bryan’s breathing was heavy. He wasn’t resisting. He murmured, then started to sob. I stopped. I put my hand up to his face.
An arm swooped under my belly and yanked me up, away from Bryan and into the air. I was carried across the room, my legs kicking. I knocked over a chair. I tried to grab the edge of the table, but I was moving too fast. I reached the door on the other side and passed into the hall. Half way along, I was slammed down onto my feet and pushed against the wall.
It was always dark in the hallway, even in the middle of the day. The frosted windows in the front door allowed in only narrow shafts of sunlight. It must have been eighty degrees outside, but in here there was no warmth at all.
In the gloom, it took a few seconds for Dad’s face to come into focus. He had crouched down, so his eyes – grey and watery – were level with mine. There was no emotion in them. Up close, I noticed how rough his skin was, his jawline thick with bristles. I thought he looked dry. Dried out.
“What have you got to say for yourself?” His breath was bitter. I turned away but he grabbed my chin. I wondered what he wanted me to say. We both knew what was coming.
“Do I get a last cigarette?” I asked.
“Don’t get smart with me.” His mouth twitched.
“I’m not.” As the condemned man, I was entitled to a final smoke.
“Why did you hit your brother?”
“I don’t know.” That was a lie. Bryan had enjoyed his moment of victory too much. I’d put him in his place, or at least that had been the intention. Why hadn’t he fought back?
“You’re nine,” said Dad. “You’re three years older and a lot bigger than Bryan, which makes you a bully.”
I said nothing.
Dad wiped a palm across his mouth and looked at it. “So, what have you got to say?”
I could have faced my fate like a hero – chin out, silent, dignified. I liked the idea of that. But the reason Dad had airlifted me out here was to make sure there were no witnesses. And what was the point in being a hero if no one was there to see it?
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“But he is.”
Dad looked confused. He sat back on his heels. “What is he?”
I took a breath and steadied myself. “A fucker.”
I stayed in my room that afternoon. I stared at the ceiling and at the shapes in the patterns on the light shade. I listened to the sounds of summer outside: the low buzz of an aeroplane, the faraway squeals of children playing. I slept for a while. At half past five, someone called me for dinner. I went downstairs and took my place at the table, next to Bryan.
In the kitchen, Mum was crashing around, stirring, straining, pouring. She looked desperate to keep moving, as though something bad might happen if she stopped. Amid the chaos, food was sloshed onto plates. Wet, brown meat sat alongside soggy cabbage and liquid mash, all of it covered in gravy.
There was no conversation.
Bryan picked up his cutlery and began to scoop food into his mouth. He ate quickly, dotting his face with mash and gravy.
Dad stared at the slop in front of him. His forearms were rigid either side of his plate, his fists clenching and unclenching.
“Muck,” he said.
Mum hadn’t made anything for herself. She was already washing up. She plunged pans into the bowl, scrubbed them hard and threw them into the rack. There were suds everywhere. On another day we would have laughed at the bubbles on her nose and in her hair, but not today. There was nothing funny about today. She turned and picked up a glass jug, which slid through her fingers and broke on the floor. She put a wet hand to her forehead.
Her voice was thin. Cracked.
“I’ll help,” I said, and twisted to get down from my seat.
“Stay where you are.”
It was the first time Dad had looked at me since I’d entered the room. He stared at my cheek, bruised and swollen. He stared at my puffed-up eye. He stared at my bottom lip, fat from where the edge of his wedding ring had split it.
“Eat your dinner,” he said.
I picked up my fork and lifted a piece of cabbage to my mouth. I cried as I chewed. Next to me, Bryan rested his cutlery on his plate. He reached for my free hand under the table. His fingers, small and warm, squeezed mine and, without looking at him, I squeezed back. We stayed like that for a while.