The boy died when he was walking home across the estate he’d walked across a hundred times before. It was a blade, a mistake, an older kid on a bike who thought he was someone else, someone who deserved a knife, deserved to lie there for an hour before he was found. The boy died and we pretended we knew him.
We were holding our candles, at the vigil that we all stood at, everyone in our town, as if we’d all known the little face that was staring down from every screaming headline. Thugs, Evil, Youth of Today. The words that were painted over us all now.
Like you’d know, hissed a boy with the reddest eyes I’d ever seen. Bunch of freaking rich kids. My brother stepped in front of me then, and it was the only time during the whole thing that he let me hold his arm as he stared down the other kid who was dragged away by his own brother — his own brother who glared at him until he dragged his sleeve over his eyes. Their heads were covered with hoodies and their eyes were hidden by glares. They glared at me, in my blazer and hat, and my brother let me hold on, for those few moments, when I was allowed to reach him.
You knew him, didn’t you? I said, and my brother shrugged — that blond hair flopping over one eye, that effortless arch of the eyebrow. Kind of, he said. Just played against him a few times. He pulled his arm away from mine, even as my fingers trailed his sleeve.
I cried and hated that I cried because I hadn’t talked to the boy, even though I wanted to. I wanted to have talked to him because then there would be a reason for the tears that were spilling, hot on my cheeks. I cried but my brother didn’t. He just dropped his flower in and shook me off when I tried to follow him.
I played against him, he said, of a few times when they’d hung out after football, swapping their cards, with those older-boy grins that I could never unravel. It’s no big deal. The other boys kept their heads down, hiding their eyes. They were there to comfort their sisters, their mothers, even when they’d known him best.
I cried and my mother cuddled me and said that was just the way boys were.
My brother pushed my hand away when I tried to hold it. Just stop, he hissed at me once when I burst into his crowd of friends to ask him to tie my laces. Stop hanging around me!
When we were little, he used to let me ride on his shoulders, my face pushed into the back of his blond hair. I used to burrow my head in, pretend I could hide inside his shirt. But these days, he was busy, busy being a boy, and it didn’t seem to matter that I wanted to be there with him.
I thought a lot about the boy who had died; I badgered my brother about him, wanting to know what he’d said, the way he’d shuffled his cards, the way he’d laughed when my brother scored against him.
He gave me his hand once, he said a year or so after the boy died, when the trial was all over the news and he was tired of my questions. He helped me up, he said, even though we were against each other.
I stared at him because my brother never spoke like this nowadays, never told me these little pieces of himself the way he had when we were little, and he shrugged and snapped at me when I asked if he missed the boy. Some kid in his school cried all the time about him, he said, and one day they got hold of him and kicked him in the ribs until he stopped.
There were boys all over the news now, their sullen faces staring out from hoods, and my mother shook her head each time they appeared, hands gripping the stainless steel kitchen top. Terrible, she said, her eyes on the TV, the TV carefully fitted into our custom-built kitchen. It’s the parents I wonder about. Then again, in that area—
She never finished the sentence. I stared up at the screen and wondered if any of those boys had ever once been like the boy who was dead, had ever once been like my brother.
None of them had fathers; that was one thing they all said, over and over. None of them had fathers, and they’d all ended up there that night, and one of them had been holding a knife.
You two don’t have a father, my mother told us, as if we didn’t know, as if we didn’t have a father who just turned up to give out money. And you’re not like that.
Quite right, my father said when we visited him, after he gave me a new iPod and my brother a wad of money. It’s just an excuse, he said, and I couldn’t remember another time I’d heard my parents agree.
My brother kept his head down, and I waited for him to tell our dad about the boy sticking his hand out, about how the boy who died hadn’t had a stainless steel kitchen and how he hadn’t been like the ones who stood in front of the cameras each day. But he stood there, shuffling the notes between his fingers and said nothing.
The boys screamed at the trial. The girls cried, but the boys were the ones who attacked the vans, who thudded their fists louder than they could ever have sobbed. We’re doing it for them, they said, and they’d point to a sister or a mother or a daughter — always a girl. For him and for them. It’s our job.
When our dad had left, my brother had curled around me in bed that night, his arms around my shoulders. I’m the man now, he’d said, words hot against my neck. I’ll look after you.
It had always been him who looked after me, though. It was him who walked with me to that memorial, and it was him who snapped at me to stop crying.
You didn’t know him, he told me, and I sniffed, because he had and I wanted him to cry too. So that I knew he still could.
It was just after three years of the boy being dead — three years after the trial had been all over our headlines and too-short sentences had been handed out, and the government had stood in front of cameras and told us that this was a barbaric act, and that people would not go unpunished — that the girl grabbed my shoulder on the way home from school. I’d walked the same way he’d walked, and so it was my fault.
What the hell are you walking this way for, she said, and I struggled, tried to drag my sleeve free. You in your fancy blazer. You’ll never have to worry, will you?
I tried to drag my arm free, but a part of me was weak against her grip because she was right. A part of me thought she was right.
And then he was there, shoving her back, his hands tight on my arms. You ever touch her again, he said, and I’ll kill you. And who do you think everyone will believe?
It was later that he said, She wasn’t right, and I swallowed. She wasn’t, he said, and it was then I saw him wipe at his eyes, and it jolted into my chest, the sure sight of the tears sticking his eyelashes together, and how strange it was that one of the only times I saw those tears was after he’d said the words, the words it felt like everyone from our world wanted us to think.
She doesn’t give a damn about what he would have wanted, he said, and I touched his face. What’s wrong?
Nothing. And he laughed, bitterly. Nothing’s wrong for us. Nothing.
But he was crying — and when he saw me looking, he peeled my arms from around his shoulders and said, Stop trying to be like him, OK? Stop trying to be like him. You didn’t even know him.
Just stop crying about him. You didn’t know him. Stop feeling guilty.
You did, I said, and he laughed then, really laughed. Yeah, I did, he said, and it wasn’t until later that I realised I didn’t know which he’d been admitting to.
He’d have been picked up, he said once when it had been over five years and the two of us were tipsy. You know? He’d have been picked up in some fancy car if he was us. But he had to walk home.
I’d opened my mouth, but he’d already had the bottle of champagne we’d stolen from our mother to his mouth, the light filtering through the kitchen, and the words had dissolved under the bubbles and the years we’d had of not crying.
Upstairs, my head ached with the drink and what I’d say to him. I’m sorry. I should have known you. I know I have no right to cry. I’m sorry.
I wish he could cry.
My brother had stopped crying when our father left, with his company and his girls and his expensive suits. I’ll look after you now, he said. It’s my job.
But you’re a kid, I told him once. We’re kids. And he laughed and said, Not anymore. He always laughed when he should have cried.
Boys don’t cry, my father said once when I asked him why. They’re the men of the house. Men of the house were meant to earn money. Men of the house were meant to be strong. Men of the house were meant to be able to keep away, always safely away from that other world.
Those boys on the TV screens hadn’t cried. I wondered if any of them wanted to. I wondered if they had to be the men of the house. I wondered if any of them had ever been like my brother. I wondered what happened to the tears of boys, the men of the houses. I wondered if those tears became mine, the tears of all their little sisters. I thought about the tears of kids like us and kids like them, and how we all looked the same when we cried, like that boy at the vigil, all those years ago. The one boy I’d seen crying.
I thought of how none of them cried now at the vigils each year. If someone did, the boys looked awkward, eyes shifting from side to side, as if these tears weren’t meant for them. Their voices were drier, like the tears had been drained out of them.
I clung onto him and he pushed me away, even as he told me he’d always look after me.
It’s not the way you think, he whispered once when he thought I was asleep. It’s just—
I’m sorry, I heard, and I wanted to cry because it was a sorry for our money and for our father and for the boy. Our parents, whose money covered them from us. Our money, which hid all our sharp edges and hid kids like the boy from us, kids who were in the wrong place with the wrong names at the wrong times.
I’m sorry, and then, Maybe I miss him, and the laughter was sharp underneath, the way he always laughed when he should have cried.
It was ten years until I saw the tears. He was staring at that photo that we all knew too well, and we hadn’t spoken to our father in two years, and it felt like we were lying by being there. I told myself I remembered him with my brother, the same way I told myself I could see what it was like to be them.
The boys who turned up ten years later were men now, men of the world with jobs or wives or both, with little ones tugging at their sleeves. They lowered their heads, but they didn’t cry, and I’d almost given up on expecting anyone to.
It was just me and him when everyone else had gone, when he said, He never grew up. He said it so quietly, and I thought of the boy at his age, two boys, one never grown up, one never a kid.
He never grew up, he said, and his voice cracked, and I saw the tears then, and I pressed my cheek against his. It’s OK, I whispered into his neck. It’s OK. Just let me hug you.
It was never me who cried, he said, and I hugged him because I loved him. I loved him too much to not feel crazy with it.
I know, I said, and I stared at the boy until my eyes blurred, both the boys who had shuffled cards and shared laughs and been people.
I’m sorry, he said, and the tears fell down, voice breaking into jagged pieces. I’m sorry. He dragged his hand across his nose. I’m meant to be the goddamn man of the house, he said, and he laughed through his tears. It broke into another sob. This isn’t how I’m meant to be.
My arms went around him, and he let me hold him. For the first time, he let me hold him. I’m here, I said, and we sat there, our heads touching, as we stared at the photo of the boy who’d been meant to be, once upon a time. I’m here, and his tears were hot on my cheeks, and I held him as we knelt there, in all the jagged things that were meant to be.
Lydia Suffield lives in Liverpool, and she likes being immersed in fandoms, creating her own little playlists for life, pretending to be someone else on stage, and scribbling out stories that unfold in her head while her thoughts reside on another planet. Someone once told her she was like a mix of Wednesday Addams and Matilda, and she plans to spend the rest of her life living up to the compliment. She blogs at The Little Enigma, and you can find her on Twitter @lydiaenigma.
Natalie Chyi is an 18-year-old from Hong Kong who has recently moved to London, where she will be studying law for the next three years. She started photography to capture moments and pretty things/people/light/scenes as she sees them, and that idea is what continues to fuel all of her work. Find more of her work on nataliechyi.com, Facebook, or Tumblr.