Sophie’s head had exploded in a fury of dandruff. There were white flakes in every strand, that no amount of brushing, flicking, shaking could remove -- or even hide -- from the judging eyes of everyone she knew she’d see today. Her scalp itched; she scratched at it like an infuriated cat. Yellowish clumps of infected skin became caught in fingernails, which began to smell funky. And yet, she noticed, as she pushed her fringe back, looking in the mirror of the girls’ bathroom, her forehead was greasy -- oily, spotty, pussy -- a real teenage nightmare. She’d squeeze the white out of the spots until they bled, as often as she could, but they just kept coming back, the bastards. How could skin -- mere inches apart -- be so different? she wondered. A greasy strip in a desert of epidermis; the worst of both worlds.
She went into a cubicle, locked the door, sat, head between knees. Her eyes directed themselves, finding interest in the world underneath the bowl. She wondered how many people had had a good, long look under there. It was a school toilet -- not a nightclub, or any other vomit-prone cubicle (Elizabeth Barker in lower-sixth, notwithstanding) -- and so, she guessed, not many.
Her lumbar ached. She stretched her arms down, touching her Converse, entwining fingers within the criss-crosses of her laces, pulling herself in, loosening -- but not undoing -- them, in a motion which, despite her hopes, did fuck all for her back.
It had been hurting ever since the Cotswolds.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come, Tim?” her father had said. “’s a lovely day for it.”
“No, you guys go ahead,” her brother had responded. “I just want to finish up a little project I’ve been working on.”
“Yeah, you two go on.”
“Alright, but ... we’re on holiday, remember?”
“I know, Dad.” Tim smiled at them. A simple expression that Sophie had never given a second thought to, until now she could no longer see it in front of her. “It won’t take me too long. I’ll be done when you get back.”
“See you in a bit,” Sophie said, before she shut the door with a firm “He works too hard.”
“Runs in the family,” her dad said as they walked out of the rental cottage, picnic and dog lead in hand.
It really was a beautiful day for it. The kind of day they put in brochures -- one of the two days a year the weather is actually like that in England. Birds sang loudly somewhere nearby, local planes flew overhead, the smell of various flowers and blossoms tingled Sophie’s nose, while the hint of a breeze hinted at perfection.
They let Cocoa off her lead, watched her get lost in a world, olfactory and auditory. The back end of her was slightly misaligned, and Sophie always loved to watch her hind legs fly in the air, all jaunty, as though out of control.
They passed stone walls built God-knows-when, walked through the kind of vibrant green fields that gave away the lie of the current sunshine and blue sky. People smiled -- said hello, even. That was something Sophie always liked about the countryside, about “the north” (if it’s north of London, it’s The North, she could almost hear her brother joke).
They found a nice spot in a field, overlooking sheep spray-painted in the graffiti of ownership.
“Let’s stop here,” her dad said, and they unwrapped their picnic.
It was the real deal: wicker basket, wool blanket (hopefully the sheep wouldn’t mind them sitting on one of them), coronation chicken sandwiches, pork pies, strawberries and fruit scones. Quintessential Cotswolds.
Sophie couldn’t help herself: she dived straight into a sandwich, enjoying exploding raisins, bursting onto her tongue, and the crunchiness of almonds, juxtaposed with tender chunks of chicken.
“Your mum always liked this spot.” Her dad was unwrapping a pork pie.
“Oh.” Sophie wiped the yellow sauce from around her mouth with the back of her arm. “Yes, it is nice here.” She looked at the scenery, wishing, for the millionth time, that she had never been born -- for then her mother would still be alive. She never could be comfortable with the fact that someone had died so that she could live, and she put a lot of pressure on herself to make something out of her life; out of the sacrifice. “What did she like about it in particular?”
He picked up a sandwich. “She liked the ancient trees – the beeches, the oaks, chestnuts, ashes. Willows.” He pointed at various trees with the crust. “She felt like they had been watching the world grow; that they could tell stories spanning centuries ... ”
“What kind of stories?”
Her dad took a bite of a sandwich, hovered it off the picnic blanket, tapped a finger on the side -- disposing of the loose crumbs like a smoker of cigarette ash -- holding it there until he was ready for the next bite. Respect the blanket, that’s what he always taught her.
“... And she always said the one over there looked a bit like a ballerina, dancing on one leg.”
“Hey, it really does!”
“In fact, this is where I asked her to marry me.” Whenever he smiled, the left side of his mouth would move first, the right side staying for longer, slow on the uptake -- as though it had died; as though only a really good joke would resuscitate it. Only his left side moved this time, leaving him with his lovely wonky smile.
“I know I didn’t know her -- never knew her -- but I ... I miss her.” Sophie put the sandwich down for a second, pulled a few blades of grass out from the ground. “Is that weird?”
“No, Sophie. It’s not.” Her dad put a hand on her shoulder. “I miss her, too.”
Once they finished their picnic, Sophie noticed there was a lovely smell of burning in the air; delicious carcinogens, billowing from something once alive.
“Mm, I love the smell of fire.”
“You don’t think it’s Tim setting the cottage alight do you?”
Sophie began to stroke Cocoa behind the ears. The silly girl would always put her paw on you, like she wanted to caress you back, hold your hand. No amount of attention was ever enough for her, but you could rarely say no to those eyes -- the same ones that would roll back in total pleasure whenever you did touch her.
Her dad put the lead on and when he pulled on it, there was a flash in her eyes -- just for a moment -- as though the slight strangulation heightened the pleasure -- and then she was gone.
When they got to the edge of a hill, her dad asked, “Want to roll down it?”
“What? No, not really.”
“Erm ... because I’m not six years old anymore?”
“Me neither.” He put the picnic down, let the dog off the lead again, then lay. Cocoa ran down the hill. “Come on, Soph, live a little!”
Sophie was bewildered, but then she felt a grin appear on her face, wiping the bewilderment away, before she, too, lay down, and they both began to roll together.
It hurt more than she remembered from all those years ago, and she was dizzier too, but it felt good to let go of trying to be a cool teenager for a minute; to go back to just being a straight-up, no nonsense kid again.
“OK, that was quite fun actually.”
They got up, and her dad said, “The older you get, the more you revert back to childhood.”
“You may think it’s uncool right now, but when you get to my age ...”
“Dad.” Sophie had started to laugh.
“You’re covered in sheep shit.”
He bent his neck to the right, looking down, around his back, while trying to stick his arse out slightly, in the most awkward sort of dance she’d ever seen. And she’d seen him at school discos. “Blast!”
“It’s not just on your back, it’s all down your legs, too!”
He looked a bit annoyed, but Sophie was laughing her ass off. It was one of those moments she realised her dad, too, was human -- that this wise, intelligent authority figure, whom she respected -- and for years never questioned, believing only that he was perfect -- could also make mistakes.
Sophie realised the saying shit-loads exists for a reason: poo really does seem to spread everywhere.
Her laughter set him off, too -- his smile no longer wonky, but full. He turned to her, tried to hug her, and Sophie ran away. He caught up with her, grabbed her; Sophie laughed, tried to pull away, “No, you’re gross,” but he held her tight. When she stopped struggling -- let him embrace her fully -- he kissed her on the top of the head.
Sophie collected the picnic from the top of the hill, they called Cocoa back and her dad said, “OK, let’s go home.” Sophie thought it was nice how he’d always call accommodation home, even when it was only a temporary one.
When they got back, he said, “Looks like Tim didn’t burn it down after all.”
Sophie just rolled her eyes.
There was no response to Sophie’s “We’re back”, as was often the case when Tim was deep in concentration. Her dad went off to change his clothes and have a shower, so it was Sophie who discovered her brother.
She couldn’t remember if she screamed for Dad, or just made incomprehensible noises, but he was on the scene before she could even begin to think about the maddening question: why?
Shaking -- through tears that didn’t yet impede action -- she and he hauled Tim down from the noose. His noose, she supposed, for it was he who decided to make it.
They put him on the floor face-down at first. He just kind of fell that way. Sophie hurt her back in the process. His body was the heaviest thing she’d ever lifted, high above her, motionless; in no way a joke. She really wanted it to be a joke.
She’d never seen a body not breathing. And this was one she loved, respected, wasn’t sure she could live without. One with so much goddamn potential. She felt sick.
Her body reacted instinctively, never once hesitating to assist however she could, but her mind fumbled with questions. She couldn’t figure out why his trousers were down, around his ankles, or why his shirt was off.
She looked at the shadows cast over the bumps of his shirtless posterior, saw then how each muscle had been forged -- how his back told of a thousand stories. A history, a future, a life, all turned to nothing; cold, dead in front of her. Nothing that could be done.
When they turned him over, Cocoa started licking his face, trying to wake him. Sophie could see what the dog could not -- it was no use; he was long dead. When Cocoa’s resuscitation attempts failed, she moved down, started licking around his crotch.
“Get out of here!” Sophie’s dad grabbed Cocoa and almost threw her into another room. They all loved Cocoa -- all thought of her as a member of the family -- but priorities become clear in moments like these. She was an animal, he the authority. A baby would have been hugged out of the way; other species are catapulted.
Paramedics arrived long before Sophie regained the concept of time. She guessed her dad phoned them; felt it was good to have someone to call, even when you knew it was way too late.
But the fact that there was always someone to call meant it was just a routine for them; another day in the office. As they did their job, all she could think about was what they’d talked about in the ambulance on the way. Her brother had stopped breathing, his neck was partially cut, and they were probably joking about who they were going to fuck later that same evening.
That’s when she pressed her palms to her ears, as hard as she could, and hummed -- filling her head with white noise -- vibrating her teeth, all the way through her head, in total childhood regression.
Had Tim been happy? He definitely struggled at times, but who didn’t? He was slightly odd, but a real genius. Possibly gay. A Turing of his day, she’d always thought.
Tim went to the hospital -- straight to the morgue for a post-mortem -- but no one needed to investigate. He’d killed himself; she could’ve told them that.
The police showed up, took the less dead members of the family to the station. It was good to have somewhere to go -- it made you feel like you were doing something helpful, even though it was all so hopeless.
Sophie thought about how this new situation would affect their dinner plans forever more -- how they’d have to prepare one third less food for every meal, how she wouldn’t get to sit opposite him anymore -- and, it was then, for the first time, that she wept.
The police finished their questions and -- when she realised her dad was still, after all this time, covered in sheep shit -- she wished she could laugh. She almost did, and she felt insane. (Though, she found some solace, at least, in the indication that she’d probably, at some point, be able to crack a smile again -- though God knew when.)
She remembers not eating for days. Eventually, she poured a glass of milk like it was whiskey -- as though it would help -- knocked back a few cashew nuts, as pills. She sat on the floor of the kitchen because there was a slither of sun reaching the linoleum, and she needed it in her face, warming her eyes, making them softer; making everything hurt a little bit less.
Her father sat down on the ground next to her, pulled her head into her chest. She pulled away to have a real conversation with him, but all she managed was “Why ...?”, and then his hands wrapped around her head, her hair tangling everywhere as various bodily fluids excreted from eyes, from nostrils, and her face became buried in his chest once more.
Sophie was still trying to stretch out her aching back, and at the same time scratch her itchy head, when she heard voices enter the girls’ toilets.
“The newspaper said accidental suicide.”
Sophie tried not to make a sound as the voices continued.
“Oh, it’s just so sad.”
“How can you accidentally commit suicide in a rental cottage, though? What was he doing?”
“Fork in the toaster?”
“I heard he was masturbating.” Sophie thought that was the voice of Jessica Hunter. Same year as Sophie, Jessica liked to buy boxes of eggs in supermarkets, take them home, hard boil them, then put them back in the shop, right on the shelf, just to fuck with people. She was always trying to find new ways of screwing with people’s minds: the more elaborate the plan, the better. She didn’t even need to see the result -- just the knowledge that they’d crack the egg on the side of a bowl and try to put it into their cake mix was enough for her.
“What the hell?”
Sophie wasn’t a hundred percent on the owners of the other voices.
“Yeah, strangulation apparently heightens the pleasure.”
“That’s fucked up.”
“Hm, not exactly worth it is it?”
“At least he died happy.”
“Doubt it. He probably struggled quite a lot once he realised he’d cocked it right up.”
“Is that a pun?”
Sophie hadn’t been able to ask, she didn’t want to read the newspapers, so no one had explained it to her -- that it was all an accident, that Tim had strangled himself for his own pleasure, but went too far.
And, of course, it had to be Jessica-fucking-Hunter who explained it to her. And, of course, she’d had to find out while at school -- while on the goddamn toilet, of all places.
Well, at least she was sitting down.
She’d thought for weeks -- months -- that Tim had meant to kill himself. Now that she knew the truth, she didn’t know how she felt. At least he wanted to live (so it couldn’t have been her fault, unlike her mother’s death), but at the same time she was starting to feel shame. But above all -- above anything else she felt -- she just wanted her brother back.
She wanted to see him again. His face. His mannerisms. Like, the way you could always tell when he had just done a shit -- how he’d bounce off to the loo, in his usual manner, but return, all shy, skin a reddish hue, eyes slightly wider, almost ashamed -- scared of what his own body was capable of, like he’d been violated in some way, behind those doors. The way he’d skulk around with his please-excuse-my-existenceposture; how he didn’t realise his own brilliance. How, in his own, awkward way, he could be the most sweet and kind person she’d ever known.
“Can you imagine losing a sibling though?”
See you in a bit. It didn’t exactly say how she felt -- it didn’t exactly say thanks for everything you’ve ever done for me; I love you; I want to keep talking with you forever -- but there were worse last words to have said to him.
“No, and certainly not death by masturbation.”
Finding him had been terrible, but -- because the adrenaline and the space in her head where memories are repressed had both run out -- Sophie actually found the worst part had been clearing out his stuff. At home, the bedroom could be left until they were ready to deal with it (if they ever would be), but on holiday, it needed taking with them promptly. She had to help her dad because -- being peak season for the Cotswolds -- the next people were coming to stay in the cottage. The owners had been informed, of course, but the police were done, and she and Dad just wanted to go home so they could bury Tim in a cardboard box, decomposing next to their mother.
Going through Tim’s drawers felt like violating someone. Underwear drawers seem, somehow, like the most personal part of a being. Anyone who’s had their house broken into and thieves rummaging through their underpants drawer can attest to this, and Sophie felt like a thief. A grieving thief.
It wasn’t until a week later that they even saw the picnic basket again. The leftovers had all gone mouldy, spoiled, in some kind of horrible analogy for the memories of that day.
“To the family, it doesn’t really matter how they died. A family member has just gone, deleted from your life within seconds, leaving only memories and a feeling that not something, but someone is missing ...”
Tears really do run out, after a while, Sophie had found.
“... No matter who they are, or what they did, a person is never replaceable.”
Someone once told Sophie the human body only has a certain number of heartbeats before it dies. She wondered if it only had a certain number of tears, too. Maybe natural death comes only when your heart and your eyes have given everything they have -- sucked dry from exposure to life.
“It must be hell.”
I can’t believe these girls knew the reason before me.
Still, they don’t know everything ... they’ll never know that Cocoa licked Tim’s penis, for example. So ... I win.
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
Did I really just say that I win? Jesus. What is wrong with me?
Sophie had been in the cubicle long enough. The girls would surely be surprised that she’d been in there, listening, the whole time. She wouldn’t confront them -- more like leave hurriedly -- but maybe it would teach them some sort of life lesson.
Should she feel ashamed? No. Whether on the earth or under it, Tim was her brother. Nothing he did could make her love him any less.
It was time to face the world again.
She eased up, flushed the toilet by pushing her foot down on the handle, so she didn’t have to touch the germs with her hands. She’d yet to come across a pull chain and was thankful. She couldn’t imagine having to hook a toe around, pulling, to flush it all away.