Tuesday, 26 August 2014 11:20
Secrecy LessonsBy Nic Oldert
I try to grab the key out of Tessa's hand but she's too quick. She's stronger than me and she never gives up without a fight. She's twelve, but her birthday is in December and mine's in February, so she's nearly two years older than me. I'm a little scared of her sometimes but I really want the key, so I throw myself at her again and try to grab her wrist. She holds me away easily with her leg, even dangling the key on its piece of string, taunting me. Your sneaker stinks, I tell her, making a face, but it doesn't really, I just want to get back at her for pestering me.
The key is for the storeroom, and in the storeroom is my bicycle. I want my bicycle because I want to ride over to Billy's house. Billy is my cousin. She's also a girl, even though she has a boy's name, and I like her a lot, more than I like Tessa, who is my sister. Tessa always teases me and pesters, it drives me nuts. Billy is twelve, she's only a year older than me. Also, her big brother has just got a dirt bike, a red Honda 150, and maybe he'll let me sit on it. One of my ambitions is to have my own motorbike one day.
I have to pretend to lose interest, it's the only way I might win, but it's hard. I try pleading first, but Tessa shakes her head and says that Mom told her I have to stay home to do homework. I tell her she's lying because I don't even have any homework and she changes the story and says it was studying. You have to study for exams because your history marks weren't good enough last term. She has a stupid grin because she knows she's lying. She has to say history because it's the only subject where I didn't get an A, and that's only because the stupid teacher can't read my writing. Fine, I say, I'll go and study then.
This might work. She knows I like books and she doesn't want to be on her own. She wants someone to poke and pester. I jump off the bed and go to my room. She follows me. You're not really going to study are you, it's Saturday and it's ages till the next exams. I shrug and say that I might as well seeing as she won't give me the key. I open the history book on my desk and start reading. She hovers around, annoyed. I suppose you want to ride over to Billy's place, she says, dangling the key again. I keep looking at the page. I say, nah, I just want to ride to the shops to buy some crisps.
This is a tricky move. It lets on that I still have some lunch money. Also, going to the shops is something we sometimes do together. Tessa almost never comes over to Billy's house. They don't like each other, and Billy knows how to stand up to Tessa. Billy will outright tell Tessa to piss off if she gets cross enough – I love it when that happens.
Bugger off, go home, we don't want you here, Billy says to her, you're fat and you've got pimples. They had a real fight once, pulling each other's hair and kicking and scratching until Tessa broke a nail and ran away cursing as bad as Dad does when he's in a temper. When he's cross Dad says Jesus H Christ. I worked out the H stands for Harold. It's in The Lord's Prayer – Harold be thy name.
You still have lunch money? You're such a little weasel! How much do you have?
I say, None of your beeswax, so she starts unzipping my backpack. I tell her to leave my stuff alone and I threaten to tell Mom when she gets home from work. She crosses her arms and glowers at me. One of the things that makes Mom really mad is invasion of privacy. She keeps her stuff private and she always says it's everyone's right to keep their stuff private. Mostly we never tell on each other, it usually doesn't work out for either of us. She knows I probably won't do it but she stops anyway. She wouldn't get into trouble about the storeroom key even if I told on her – it's one of those things that Mom says we must sort out ourselves. I can't fight all your battles for you, she says, you two have to learn to get along. It's the kind of thing she says before she goes to her bedroom to have a rest. She says we tire her out but I think it's her job that makes her tired, she's always at work. She gets upset very easily because of her nerve trouble. The nerve trouble makes her tremble when she's cross or when she gets a fright, like when the phone rings unexpectedly. I'm not always sure what's going to upset Mom. Sometimes Tessa and I will be having a go at each other and we'll suddenly stop because we realise we don't know what Mom will do. Mostly we're pretty good at figuring out the things that will make her mad from the things that we have to sort out ourselves, but sometimes she'll get cross for no reason at all. And if she gets really angry she reports us to Dad, and that's bad news. He's only home for short stretches here and there and he doesn't like trouble on his breaks. In the end, he nearly always does what Mom says. If she tells him we need a hiding he'll ask questions and chew his lip but in the end he'll get out the cane and let us have it. I really hate the cane, but even worse is that after giving us a hiding he always stays in a bad mood for the rest of the time. It's like he gets bad-tempered and angry and he can't shake it off afterwards. He and Mom are bad-tempered the whole time when his visit starts with a hiding. It's horrible. So Tessa has to be a bit careful, even when she's in one of her poking and teasing moods.
She says, Did you skip lunch this week, which is something we both know would make Mom cross. She would only find out if Tessa told her, she never asks about lunch or what happens at school. I tell Tessa that Billy gave me two hot cross buns on Wednesday – which is true – so I didn't need to buy lunch. I know this will bug her – the fact that Billy gave me hot cross buns. Billy never gives nice things to Tessa. Billy's mom always packs snacks for them – and gives them lunch money – so they've always got more to eat than they want. The buns were sliced open and buttered, they were really yummy. Billy says her mom uses TLC, which must be a special kind of butter. Tessa says our cousins are spoilt. Spoilt rotten they are, Tessa always says, but she's just saying what Mom says. I can't see what's so bad about being spoilt.
Come on, let's walk to the shops, Tessa says. I don't want to walk, I want to ride my bike, I tell her. Tessa doesn't have a bike. She left hers leaning against a fence when we went to watch the swimming gala and when she got back it was gone. Mom was furious that Tessa hadn't used the lock but she didn't get a hiding. She said that the loss of the bicycle was punishment enough and let this be a lesson to her, she'd have to do without or save her own pocket money to buy another one. Tessa is hopeless at saving money so that's never going to happen.
Billy might go to the dump with me. We're not supposed to go but nobody is ever there. I like smashing the empty bottles. They make a noise like they're exploding and the glass goes everywhere, it's brilliant. I stand a whole bunch up in a line and I move along smashing them to smithereens one at a time while Billy yells and cheers. I have a length of metal pipe I use like a sword, swinging and smashing like a knight of the round table.
It's quite inconvenient having only one arm. Not that the left arm is completely missing, but it's so withered and small that I can't really use it for anything. Tessa is not allowed to poke fun at my arm. She's very good about that, she never says anything bad about my disability and she fights with kids who do. She'll even stand up to boys who are bigger than her. One time near the shops one of the boys from the technical school called me chicken wing and Tessa threw sand in his eyes. She looks after me when we're walking to school or at the shops, but the rest of the time, like when we're at home, all she wants to do is pester. Billy says she doesn't even notice my arm. She says my smile is so bright and my eyes so blue that she can't see anything else.
The other problem I have is with breathing. I suffer from asthma and my nose is nearly always runny.
Lately I've been trying to understand why I have these afflictions. That's what Dad calls them, afflictions. He says we all have afflictions, we just have to deal with them. Tessa says it's because of reincarnation, that I must have done something bad in a previous life. She gets that idea from Mom, although Mom won't say it when I'm around. Dad says that reincarnation is a load of rubbish. He says it's just bad luck. Billy says that reincarnation is against the bible, that we only have one chance to decide if we go to heaven or hell. Or that other place, purgatory, which is like being in limbo, in no-man's land, for a thousand lifetimes. Mrs Wilson, the old lady who lives next door, says my asthma might be to do with fuzzy thoughts. She read a book by a woman who says that congestion, which is the proper name for snot, happens when you don't have your thinking straight. She likes me and Tessa but she's against the youth in Asia, I heard her telling Mom. Maybe because her son when he was grown up did sewerside, which means to go and live in the sewers and never come back.
When I get colds – and I get a lot of colds – I can't breathe through my nose. I can't stand not being able to breathe through my nose. Although I don't really see that my thoughts are fuzzy. Unless it's because I keep on changing my mind about what I'd like for Christmas, maybe that's why I get head colds. Why are there more colds in winter? That's another thing – why are there colds at all? The doctor says colds come from germs, that if your resistance is down and you're exposed to a cold bug, then you get a head cold. It's because of a parasite that's got to have a body to live in, and it's got nothing to do with previous lives or fuzzy thoughts. But if that's true, why did God make cold bugs? Are they there to teach bad people a lesson? But then I've read about really bad people in the world who never get sick – how does that work? Maybe they sold their souls to the devil. Dad talks about selling his soul to the devil. How do you actually do that? I feel so horrible when I have a bad cold that I think I'd sell my soul to the devil just to be able to breathe properly. When I told Dad he laughed and told me, Be sure to read the fine print so you can make an informed choice, which means be careful because the devil plays tricks. But we don't know who to contact. Dad said he searched the internet and there's no hotline. He said that if Satan is actively looking for souls, like the preacher says, then his marketing really sucks. Mom scolded him but I could see she thought it was funny. She doesn't smile very often because of the nerve trouble.
Lately I've been feeling tired at school. Tessa says it's because I don't get enough sleep, because I'm always up really early, like five o'clock in the morning. But I feel fine in the morning when I get up. I like to get up and draw pictures of motorbikes and guns. I lie on the floor. I've tried staying in bed till seven like Tessa does and sometimes I fall asleep again but then I feel tired when I get up and I still feel tired in the afternoons. How do you know when you've had enough sleep? I wish I knew the answer. Billy says it's simple, you just sleep until you're not tired anymore. But Dad says that if you sleep too much that makes you tired – and stupid. He says you can train your body to operate on no more than six hours sleep a night. Our grandma – she's dead now – she used to say: early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise. She used to say that it's unnatural to wake up with an alarm clock, that you must sleep with the curtains open and let the dawn light wake you up. I dunno. It's like everybody has got a different theory about everything in the universe. That's why I like maths and science – everything is clear-cut, there's only one right answer.
We're both bored. Every second Saturday Mom has to work the whole day. It's only twelve o'clock but we've already eaten our sandwiches for lunch and cleaned the kitchen – Mom hates crumbs and smudges and dirty dishes – and now we're bored stiff. It's a long time till supper and we're not allowed to snack at home, Mom forbids it. She keeps the fridge locked to stop us drinking the milk. I wish we had biscuits in a green striped tin like at Billy's house but Mom says that refined sugar is poison. I'm not sure that's right, Billy eats loads of sugar and she's as healthy as a horse.
Try work out the parental control thingy on the TV, Tessa says, like you did before. I don't feel like TV. I'll ride slowly, I say. Let me get my bike out of the storeroom and then we can go to the shops together. I'll ride next to you. Tessa stares at me, pondering. She has that face she sometimes gets, when I can't tell what she's thinking. She's not wild about the idea, that's for sure. She knows I always keep my word – that I'll go to the shops with her – but she also knows that afterwards I'll probably race off to Billy's house.
Mom didn't want me to get a bike. She thought I'd fall off. She said I wouldn't be able to steer. That was years ago. So I got onto my sister's bike and learned to keep my balance. I only fell off twice. That was her old bike, the small one she had before the one that got stolen. Then she got a new one, a bigger one, and I got her old bike. I got teased because it had a pink girlie frame, but it was worth it to be able to ride. I love whizzing along the road and feeling the wind in my face. Last Christmas I got my own bike. I support myself by holding onto the middle of the handlebars with my good hand. Steering isn't difficult. I can turn the handlebars with one hand, by stretching my thumb and little finger, but anyway you mostly steer a bicycle just by leaning. There's a lot of things I can do with only one arm that surprises people. I can open jam jars when Mom can't do it, I can tie my shoes, I can light a match, and I can even shuffle a deck of cards. But there are things I can't do. I can't shoot a bow and arrow, for instance. I think I could still join Robin Hood's band, though – I would throw special knives. I climb trees pretty good.
Tessa swings the key on its string and makes it bounce like a yoyo. It's really annoying. She says, Hey, why don't you let me ride your bike for a change? I say, No way. Anyway, it's a boy's bike, it's got a cross-bar. So, I can ride a boy's bike, she says. I point out that she's wearing a skirt and she says she doesn't care and anyway she can change into shorts if she wants to. Mom will be mad if you change your clothes, I say, you'll get a hiding, and she makes a cross face at me, lifting her top lip like a snarling dog. She doesn't make her growling noise, though, because I always tease her when she does that. I make a face back at her and she turns away to look out of the window. She says, even though she's not looking at me, Stop wiping your nose on your sleeve, so I get up and go get a tissue.
The toilet paper in our bathroom, the one Tessa and I share, is all used up, so I have to go to the kitchen to get another roll. Pulling over a chair to stand on to reach up to the high shelf makes me think about my new secret, which I haven't told anyone. It hasn't really been out of my mind – it's too exciting to be totally pushed down – but now that I'm so close to it I can't stop thinking about it. I'd pushed it out of my mind as much as I could.
Three weeks ago I discovered where Mom hides the spare key to their bedroom. I haven't used it yet and I'm itching to get in there. I want to do it on my own but I'm almost never home alone. Tessa doesn't like sports and extra-murals so she often gets home before me in the afternoons. And she hardly ever goes out on her own.
We're not allowed in our parents' bedroom. Their sanctuary, Mom calls it. If they're at home and we want something we have to knock on the door and wait outside. Mom always closes the door behind her, and if I knock she comes to the door to talk to me. She just opens it a crack and puts her face in between the door and the door frame. Dad is not so fussy. When he's home for a weekend he sometimes leaves the door standing open, but only when he's in the room – Mom nags him if he forgets to close the door on his way out so he never forgets. I've seen him lying on the bed, ankles crossed, watching television. From the door of my bedroom I can just see the head of their brass bed, if their door is open. I'd be able to see more if I walked to the end of the passage, but there'd be no other reason to go up there except to look through the doorway, and that would annoy Mom no end. Once she's annoyed that's usually the beginning of big trouble so we try hard not to get her started. Things always get worse with Mom before they get better. Dad says to her sometimes, Now don't get yourself all worked up, but she does anyway. I don't think she knows how to stop it.
I hardly know what their room looks like. It's a big room, and I know there's a couch and a dressing table on the one side, out of sight, and doors leading to their bathroom and the dressing room on the other side. I've managed to get a foot over the threshold of the bedroom door once or twice, but I've literally never been into either the bathroom or the dressing room. I'm bristling with curiosity. Although I'm nervous too, in case something goes wrong. But I can't see what could go wrong, really – I'll just sneak in, take a look, and sneak out.
I'm losing hope of ever being home alone – at least, not anytime soon – and I'm not sure I can hold out much longer. I mean, I could hold out for ages if I had a date on the calendar I was working towards, I'm good like that, but it's hard when it's open-ended. Also, Mom might change the hiding place, and then I'll have missed out. This possibility is so upsetting that my breath starts rattling in my chest and I have to take a few slow breaths to calm myself down. I'm thinking, What if she's moved the key already? I have to check. I move the chair next to the high grocery cupboard. I'm wondering if maybe I should share my secret with Tessa, she and I could go in there together. And I could trade.
Standing on tiptoe I can just get my hand over the lip into the dusty corner, which is out of sight. I imagine my fingers up there, like the antennae of a blind insect probing in the dark. For a moment I think my fear has come true, that Mom has moved the key, but then I feel the cold metal – it's still there. I feel such a sense of relief that I immediately decide not to share my secret with Tessa. It's too dangerous – Tessa has a way of messing things up – and if I'm patient I'll eventually get a chance to use it on my own. But as I start stepping down from the chair, as I turn, I realise that Tessa is standing in the kitchen doorway, silent as a ghost, watching me. I freeze.
She says, suspiciously, "What are you doing? What are you hiding up there?"
This is bad. I had the idea that I would trade my secret for the storeroom key. I had it all worked out, before I changed my mind – a way to see inside the perpetually locked bedroom and get my bicycle. But if Tessa gets the key then I can't bargain for my bike and I miss out on exploring the bedroom on my own. I suddenly feel very cross with Tessa, she's always messing things up. I can't leave the key up there, she won't leave things be. She'll explore the top of the cupboard as soon as I step down. So I reach up again and grab the key in my fist. Tessa says, What have you got there? She steps towards me menacingly. I can't negotiate now, so I just blurt it out. It's the only way to stop her putting me in a headlock and prying my fingers open.
I say, I found a spare key for their bedroom, and Tessa stops in her tracks. Her mouth drops open. No way, she says. I open my hand and we both stare at it. Put it back, she says, we'll get in trouble. I say, But don't you want to see inside?
I feel my heart beating. This is it. I've been nursing this idea for three weeks, the idea of going inside, but now that I've said it out loud, as a real thing we might do, it feels crazy dangerous. Tessa is panting. Take your shoes off, she says, and don't touch anything, we'll just took.
After we put the key back on top of the cupboard Tessa gives me the storeroom key. She's in a weird mood, suddenly sullen and withdrawn. She gets like that sometimes. I can't say I'm in the best mood myself. I wish we hadn't gone into the bedroom. I don't even feel like visiting Billy anymore.
I ride my bike down to the river. There's a secret spot where I like to sit and watch the water jumping over the rocks. This time of year the river isn't very full, but there's still a lot of water going down there, every minute, every hour, all day, all night, every single day, it just keeps going. It's beautiful the way it jumps and sparkles, catching the light, tumbling away like some kind of happy animal. It even gurgles like an animal. I can't quite figure where it all comes from. I mean, I know about tributaries and precipitation and all that stuff – we've learnt all that at school – but even so it amazes me how it just keeps flowing.
I'd like to try fishing one day. It must be exciting to hook a fish and pull it out of the water, all silver and wriggling. I'd be able to cast with my right arm easily enough, although putting a worm on a hook with my wing could be difficult. Maybe I can get Billy interested in fishing, or even Tessa, so one of them can help me.
I'm not tired today. It's like the tiredness has left me. And I'm breathing easy, in spite of all the excitement. Maybe it's to do with the psychosomatics. The doctor explained that all to me, how the asthma gets worse when I'm anxious. He told Mom that he thinks I'll outgrow the asthma. It's not just the stuff in the air, he said, it's also me and how I'm feeling. It's me and the air together. I knew he was right, I'd already felt that in the past. Still, I don't understand why I have to deal with this and a funny arm. Wouldn't just one of these afflictions be fairer?
I forgot to bring a handkerchief so I have to wipe my nose on my sleeve. That makes me think of Tessa. I have the weirdest feeling that I need to be near her. I mean, I never feel like that. So I ride home and find her in her room, just sitting there staring out of the window. I plonk myself on her bed and swing my legs until she looks round. Let's go to the shops, I say, you can ride my bike, I'll walk next to you. I'll bring my money and we can buy something. She sighs and shrugs and says, Okay, let's go. But you can ride, I don't mind.
When we get home Mom is there. She's sitting at the kitchen table waiting for us. She's put the black lacquer tray on the table, the one from the dining room, and on the tray there is a long blonde hair. It curls like a snake.
Mom dyes her hair dark, almost black. I have a crew cut, like Dad. Only Tessa has long blonde hair.
Mom is trembling with fury. You've been in my bedroom, haven't you? Don't even think about denying it, I know you have been in there. How dare you? How dare you? I can't tell you how much trouble you are in. Was it both of you? God, I should have known. You both know better. You nasty little sneaks. I leave a key in the house in case of some emergency, that's all, finding the spare key is no excuse. What are you doing snooping around, like a pair of nasty little snoops? You ought to know better. Well? What do you have to say for yourselves? No, don't say a word, don't even think about speaking. We didn't bring you up to behave like this. What did you see? What did you do in there? Did you go through my cupboards? Did you open my drawers? Shut up, I can't listen to you horrible little sneaks. Did you steal anything? Did you take anything from my room? There's no point in listening to either of you, you're nasty little sneaks, I can't believe a word that comes out of your mouths. Go to your rooms, you're both grounded. I'll let your father deal with this when he comes home next weekend. Don't speak to each other. If I catch you together I'll lock you separately in your rooms and you'll have to beg for the bathroom. Yes, you know I will. Get out of my sight, I can't stand to look at either of you.
We walk away slowly, we don't say anything. I knew Tessa would mess things up somehow, she always does. But I'm not even cross with her, I don't know why that is. I'm scared of the hiding because it will burn so badly, but... it's like I don't care what they think anymore. Maybe they aren't my real parents. I should run away from home, I really should, that will teach them. I won't go sewerside though, I'll go somewhere else where I can get a motorbike.
In my room I look for a book to read. We only have one computer, which is in the lounge, so I can't go and do research, and my phone isn't one of those that connects to the internet. I send Billy a text message about being grounded and about an hour later she replies. We have a text conversation which takes ages because she always takes forever to get back to me. She says we weren't bad, that it's unnatural for parents to lock their bedroom door. She says she never heard of any family where the parents lock their door all the time. What are they hiding? she asks me. What did you guys find in there anyway?
I don't tell her. I just say, Nah, nothing. Which is a lie, but you have to tell lies sometimes, that's the truth. And Tessa and I agreed that we wouldn't tell anyone. Ever.
I remember once, last year, I told Mrs Wilson about a hiding I got from Dad. That was for stealing candy. I told her how Mom said I ought to be ashamed of myself, that the way I was going I would more than likely end up in hell. Mrs Wilson frowned and shook her head and looked sad. Then she smiled this strange sad smile and patted my head softly. She's a very nice old lady. She said, God is love. She said, God is not a person who sends people to a burning place, God is a force, and that force is love. She said, All you need is love. She was crying a little bit, I'm not sure why.
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