We build a ramp on the road outside our house using cinder blocks and a long sheet of plywood that we find in a neighbor’s skip. My older brother Andrew has a new BMX he got for his birthday. He wants to see what it is made of. It is the middle of summer and the sun burns through cloud cover all morning, revealing a blaring blue sky. On rare sunshiny days like these, all the kids in our cul-de-sac spill out wearing shorts and smelling of factor-fifty suncream. Neighbors mow grass and wash cars in their driveways so that dark streams of soapy water trickle down into the drains under the curb where we sweep fallen leaves and other dead things in the winter. Our parents have invited their friends over for a barbeque; the smell of grilled burgers and charred porkchops wafts from the back garden, over our house, and smothers the cul-de-sac. On days like today, when my parents entertain company that is not family, I know me and Andrew are not supposed to cause trouble. It’s something I understand naturally, an unspoken agreement between us and them.
The top of the ramp hangs over the height of my head and blocks the whole road, so when neighbor cars come, we rush to disassemble it and put it back together again after they pass. We do this more quickly each time. Drivers disapprove of the ramp, but they don’t say anything. They know what happens to neighbors who scorn our behavior.
Eventually, Andrew musters the courage to have a crack on the bike. I offer to go instead. I am tidy on two wheels and I am light enough not to weigh down the flimsy materials. But he won’t let me, saying it is too dangerous. Deep down, I know it would embarrass him if I went first.
All the neighbor kids and my cousin Archie line up along the curb, the tops of our scruffy shoes hanging over the edge. The council has yet to repair our road this year, which is damaged from the previous winter. Shallow cracks zigzag where rain has frozen, and left cavities that piss off our Da when he drives over them. When council workers do this, they break up the existing road, dig it out, and lay a smooth patch of concrete the size of a snooker table. They pour tar between the patches of the road to fill the gaps, which makes the whole cul-de-sac smell like cheap tobacco for a day. We have all taken turns scoring our initials in the wet mixture with our fingers. You can group the generations that grew up here by these patches of autographed concrete.
Andrew starts well back from the ramp, near the turn into our road from the main one that connects all the cul-de-sacs in our estate. I hunker down on the curb, all squat, digging my fingers into the gutters of warm tar. Andrew has just started growing hair on his legs and brandishes it whenever he can. I rub the fair-haired fuzz on my shins while I wait for him to push off, whiz by, and go flying through the air like ET, only without the basket on the front.
I watch him do everything at this stage of my life. He can’t take a shite without me sitting on the lip of the bath, commenting on the length of his langar or asking if I can try pissing between his legs again, saying I won’t miss this time. I wear the clothes he has outgrown, or no longer finds fashionable. Today it is last season’s Arsenal jersey. It is thin from wear and washing and the crest is almost entirely peeled off.
Andrew sets off with his head steady, knees ploughing through the air, arse bobbing in a neat circle above the plastic seat. I should be more afraid, watching him propel past porches, the sun glimmering off the steel body of the bike and turning him into a dart, whooshing. I am proud that my brother is the one going first, paving a path for the rest of us to have a go. There are two boys in the group who are my age, and a boy and a girl who are in my brother’s class at school. Our parents all bought houses around the same time as part of a government-sponsored mortgage scheme. They knock on each other’s doors to borrow jugs of milk and half-bags of flour. When we are older and move out of our parents’ houses, we will not be friends, but the fact that we share a small oval of grass in the curbed circle on our road is enough to bind us together in one rascal group on this bright, sunshiny day.
As he nears the ramp, Andrew makes himself small on the bicycle, lowering his head to counter the drag of wind pushing against him, stretching his T-shirt across his boney chest. I am not sure what to expect once he shoots off the end of the ramp. Before he hits it, he straightens his knees and arms quickly, in one smooth spring. For a moment, he soars up the slope of the ramp. But when the front wheel bends into the middle of the ramp, a thump booms from the plywood and the two block towers buckle.
I close my eyes. I hear the sound of spokes snapping, steel shredding against the ground. I can’t say how the stunt goes arseways — I imagine the ramp crumpling, eating him whole in a mouthful of split sheet wood and ragged cinder blocks that we’d found half-buried, dumped in the tall grass behind our back wall. It is over in a few seconds. Then silence spills over the cul-de-sac, the only sound the click of one wheel, still spinning.
I elbow my way into the cluster of neighbor kids who have circled around Andrew. The oldest one of us is cousin Archie, who is twelve, three years older than Andrew and six older than me. Archie tries to unravel him from the wreckage, but Andrew is immoveable, glued to the flurry. We shouldn’t be so surprised at the result. In another iteration of the wreckage, Andrew pulls away, flinches at the last second, abandons his fight against gravity, and spills over the lip of the ramp, face-first into the ground, where we’d burned a stream of ants earlier using a box of matches. But I don’t like the idea of him pulling away from anything, at least not in my memory. It’s the chintzy construction of the ramp that’s at fault.
The first thing I see when Andrew untangles himself from the BMX is his mouth. Blood gushing in every direction all at once, his bottom lip burst from where his teeth have plunged through the pink flesh. No one touches him when he stands up. My whole body hangs there, outside our house, waiting for his orders to Get Ma, Don’t tell Ma, or Just fuck off. I am used to all of them by now. But Andrew can’t speak with the pain flooding his mouth. I see him trying. I want to run inside to alert our parents. I know we’ll be in trouble, Andrew and me.
I start crying at some point. I want Ma or Da to come outside, but I don’t want Andrew to get in trouble. He can handle himself. If I run inside now, he will have gathered the tips of his teeth from the tar and will roar at me for telling them. The jagged line of top teeth droops from his lip. Blood gushes down his chin.
Panic floods Andrew’s eyes when he looks at me staring into the mess on his face. I cannot hide my fear that something horrific and lasting has just happened. Two neighbors hurry over to the wreckage. One is a schoolteacher. The other owns a construction company that employs teenagers in our town during the summer. While neighbor parents would routinely tend to cuts and bruises of children in the cul-de-sac, they are not prepared for this sort of affair.
Andrew pegs it into the house, squealing. He sounds so alive. The schoolteacher asks what happened and we all say we don’t know and point to the ramp, which is now in a heap on the road. I run after Andrew, wheeling the banjaxed bicycle clumsily beside me. I let it fall on the grass in the front garden. The handlebar, which has lost its soft rubber grip, plunges into the lawn.
I stand in the porch, where we keep our shoes and flat footballs in a rotting wicker basket. Ma and my auntie Trish, who is not really my auntie, are trying to get a look at his face to see where the blood is coming from. I am glad it isn’t me, but I am not glad it is him either. There are many moments later in our lives when I am happy not to be my brother: when he gets arrested for ditch drinking in Dún Carraig, or when he does his teeth in again, fighting lads from my school at the end of our road. I will realize when I am older that I’ve been learning from his mistakes, sidestepping the mound of rubble he leaves behind him as he goes.
Ma cups Andrew’s face in the hall where the big mirror hangs. Me and Andrew are at the age where we compare how tall we are in the mirror. When we do, I lengthen my whole spine, lift my heels out of my shoes, and say that I am catching him up. He keeps trying to look in the mirror now to assess the damage himself, but Ma stabilizes his whole head between her pinch and tells him to calm down. I can see she is panicked, the way she focuses her hands on Andrew’s face. I can see the heaviness of her breath as she folds wads of kitchen roll and forces them into his mouth. If she let herself, she’d scream at the gory sight of her firstborn son.
Da comes into the hall from the kitchen and looks over Ma’s shoulder then to me. I’ll only see that look on Da’s face one other time in my life, when I am seventeen, outside the hospital the morning we think Andrew is dead after his best friend crashed a car into a tree trying to commit suicide. Da’s face: pure frozen and pale, the moles on his cheeks rubying up against his pallid skin. I’m suddenly aware of their role as parents, to keep us alive and out of trouble. They’ll punish us later — Andrew for his recklessness and the price of fixing his teeth, and me for my role in constructing the calamity — then they’ll blame themselves. Buying the bike was the mistake, a gateway to mischief. It will mean I don’t get my own bike until I am much older.
Da continues to watch from behind Ma. He is a rational man, logical. He gives great advice about money and how to deal with difficult situations and people, but in a crisis, Ma is the one you want gripping your face and stuffing kitchen roll behind your lips to plug the bleeding. She is an army sergeant; she was one of the first women permitted to join the Irish army (to “release male soldiers from certain duties in order that men fill more active military functions,” the newspaper reported at the time). She served in the Lebanon before we were born, back when the Lebanon really meant something, she’d say.
As I watch Andrew in the vice grip of Ma’s hands, the pain migrates from his mouth to mine. It could be the pitch of his screech, or the grisly sight of his mouth itself, still spewing blood, that makes me imagine it. My forehead goes numb, then a weight sinks in, under my cheekbones and onto my tongue, pulling at my teeth, prying them from their gums. After this, I’ll be sensitive in my mouth; it’s where I’ll feel people’s pain when I see it, or have it described to me. In this moment, I think perhaps I’m taking some of Andrew’s pain away, like there is too much for him to take on his own, so it finds its way to me. Perhaps all siblings have this connection of shared pain, and it’s our way of getting along, our way of not killing each other.
Ma drives Andrew to the hospital while Da stays home with me. When Ma’s car disappears around the corner, I am immediately afraid Andrew will not come back, or that if he does, he’ll blame me. I helped construct the ramp, after all. Ma and Da’s friends all go home. Trish says to call if we need anything. I hate the look they give me as they leave. I don’t ask Da anything, in case he asks what the fuck we were we doing and calls us idiots but only to my face. So, I hide upstairs while he watches telly in the sitting room and listens for a call from Ma.
I am supposed to be asleep when Andrew arrives home after midnight. Lifting the curtain over my head, I watch him get out of Ma’s car and walk into the pool of porchlight below my bedroom window, past the wrecked BMX in the garden. His face is clean again, a rosy pink color, sunkissed from our day in the sun. I have been earwigging Ma and Da’s phone calls all evening, lifting the spare receiver in their bedroom and covering the mouthpiece with the sleeve of my jumper. Andrew has undergone a procedure to stop the bleeding and save what he has left of his top teeth.
Light from lampposts outside sifts through the thin curtains in my room and gives the white walls a tinge of blue that makes for a peaceful sleep most nights. I am still wetting the bed at this point (and continuously until I am about sixteen when suddenly — unexplainably — I stop). I hope I won’t wet the bed tonight. Ma has been through enough without having all that washing to do in the morning. I count the muted thump of Andrew’s bare feet on the carpeted stairs, then the length of time it takes for him to piss, which feels like forever. I wait for him to pop his head into my room — after all that has happened, I still want him to check on me, flaunt his broken grin and tell me I needn’t have worried so much, that it just looked like a lot of blood, that’s all. Through my bedroom wall, I hear Ma telling Da about the plans to see a specialist tomorrow. She sounds serious and clinical, asking him about insurance coverage from his job, if it covers dental work.
I wait in the blue of my room for the brass handle to bend on the door, for a thin line of light from the landing to spill over the wall, onto my bookshelf, football posters, and spare bedsheets on top of my chest of drawers. I lift my head off the pillow so that I can’t hear my own heartbeat thrumming inside my skull. I hold my breath until I hear the click of Andrew’s bedroom door closing, the clink of metal against metal ringing down the landing like a penny pinging off a glass table, then settling into a neat, circular silence between his room and mine.
I know if I cross the landing to Andrew’s room, Ma or Da will tell me to go back to bed. But that is not what stops me from knocking on his door. It is the feeling that Andrew has decided we are supposed to go through pain alone from now on. He doesn’t need me because he has survived. It is the beginning of his life away from mine in a world that will hurt him more than me.
This silence, this distance he creates between his existence and mine, is his way of protecting me. So, I lie in my bed and Andrew lies in his and, tonight, we don’t drag my mattress into his room, we don’t listen to Da’s Bee Gees album on low, we don’t poke our heads under the curtain and out the window, waiting for a banshee to appear on the neighbor’s wall, combing her hair and cackling furiously. No. Tonight, I am a blanketed lump bathing in the blue hues of the box room and must swallow the fear I had hours ago when Ma’s car vanished around the corner of our cul-de-sac with Andrew in the backseat, his mouth overfed with bloodied kitchen roll.
I bury what I cannot say — that I need my brother more than anything else in the world. I will dig it up again fifteen years later in Blanchardstown Hospital when Andrew is almost dead and I am saying goodbye to him on orders from the hospital staff. I will remember this lonely moment in my bed and the untrodden seven steps of cool, hardwood floor between his room and mine. I will remember wanting to see him, wanting to tiptoe across the creaky landing floor and peek into his room and be close to him in the brotherly way he has outgrown. Under the blaring surgical lights, I will hold his hand for the first time since childhood, folding back the hairs on his fingers, which will be stiff and swollen pink. I will hope I can do something miraculous then because I am his brother and he is mine and there is some magic in that.
A few days later, Andrew gets his teeth fixed. “Capped” is the word Ma uses when she explains the procedure to me the next morning while Andrew is asleep and recovering, noting how expensive it was and how careful we ought to be in future because she doesn’t have the money or the heart for that sort of thing again.
Later that day, Andrew’s teeth look fine, real enough from across the kitchen table. But when I get closer and he lets them hang out, I see the difference in color between the caps and what is left of his original teeth, like the contrast between the white ends of fingernails and the fleshy part that holds them in place on the finger. There are thin grey lines where the caps have been joined. I ask if they won’t just fall out if he bites down on something hard. He tells me they are solid. He flicks at them with his fingers to prove it, waggles his front two teeth with the soft side of his thumb. Then he pulls my hand up to his mouth and tells me I can touch them if I want. Ma watches nervously from the sink where she washes the abandoned dishes from the barbeque, which are caked with stale, three-day-old food. I am delicate about it, like I am touching the petals of a wilted flower. I don’t want to be the one that causes them to break again.
I feel the pain from the other day fill my mouth like an echo. I am sure we are brothers when I feel it. I know that there is nobody with whom I can share pain like this: through the nerves in my teeth and into my gums, down my throat, then deep in the bottom of my stomach. I wipe my tongue over the slick shapes of my top teeth, feeling their sharp and even edges. His mouth is my mouth for a moment. I do it behind the curtain of my own lips so Andrew can’t see.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Stewart Black/Flickr Creative Commons