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I remember the day it all started, though at the time it seemed like any other Sunday afternoon. The tail end of summer, school was looming ever closer, but I pushed that worry aside as the white-hot sun pierced the centre of an unbroken blue sky and shone down on me. It was 1998, the year of Britney Spears and Furbies. My home was Birmingham, England. I was ten years old, and I was happy.
At that moment, we were all happy.
Except for my big sister, of course. Sarah had been sulking that day, which was no surprise. Since turning fifteen, the entire world had started to irritate her, and doubly so when it involved spending time with our family. That Sunday she had been particularly surly, rolling her eyes and huffing constantly as we ambled between the winding rows of cluttered tables at the local car boot. When I’d been five or six, she had used to let me sleep in her bed, reading to me until I nodded off, but by the time I turned nine she had begun yelling at me if I so much as even dared enter her room. I understand now that it was the indiscriminate virus of teenagerdom, but back then it had hurt me. I missed her.
I miss you, Sarah.
Despite my sister’s persistent misery, Mum and Dad were all smiles. They veered left and right across the trampled grass, hand in hand as they perused jumbled piles of clothing, videotapes, and assorted bric-a-brac. I hung back and took my time, enjoying the fresh air and sun. People selling their stuff always excited me, and I loved not knowing what I would find. Ancient things. Strange things. Gross things. I later learned that Australians refer to car boots as trash ’n’ treasures, and that’s exactly how I felt about them. I was Martin Gable, treasure hunter extraordinaire, seeking out invaluable trinkets overlooked by untrained eyes.
Sarah didn’t feel the same way, growing even grimmer as the afternoon went on. “I’m bored,” she complained, arms folded and a bony hip sticking out as she fanned herself with one hand. The top of a pink thong peeked out from the waistband of her white jeans, which made me feel a little awkward. “Can we go? I want to hang out with Deb.”
Dad had his hands in his jean pockets, but he pulled them out and folded his arms. “You can go see Deb later,” he said. “It won’t kill you to spend an afternoon with us.”
“It will if I commit suicide from boredom.”
“Don’t be so dramatic, Sarah.”
Dad and Sarah had always struggled to get along, seeming to get at each other more and more with every passing year. That summer their relationship had been at its worst. He wasn’t our real dad, you see – only our stepdad – but as I was only six years old when he’d married Mum, he had pretty much always been ‘Dad’ to me. To Sarah, though, he was Charlie, the stranger who’d come to live in our house. She had also never seemed to like the fact he was black, which must have hurt him. I doubt she knew quite how much.
That afternoon at the car boot, Sarah had made a sound more insect than human – a throaty hiss – and I wondered if a demon had possessed her, because it would’ve explained a lot. I also wondered if she would ever be my big sister again, instead of the pimply, thong-wearing devil she’d become.
Don’t you ever wish you could go back and appreciate someone more, knowing in hindsight how short your time with them would end up being? I do.
Following Sarah and Dad’s brief tiff, Mum tried to play peacemaker. She pointed at one of the tables and spoke in a cheery voice. “Look, Sarah, they have all the Buffy videos over there. You love that programme.”
“No, I don’t. It’s stupid.”
Mum raised an eyebrow, and I understood her confusion. Sarah had been addicted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer only a couple of weeks before. Now she apparently hated it? It was hard to keep track of her personality with how often it changed.
Dad sighed. “What do you like then? I’ll keep an eye out.”
“I don’t want anything. All this stuff is second-hand. If anyone sees me, they’ll think I’m a tramp.”
That confused me, and I expressed it. “But if they see you, it would be because they’re here, too, so why would they call you a tramp?”
Sarah sneered, probably annoyed that I dared speak to her. “I don’t want anybody else’s junk, okay? I need new trainers – from a shop.”
Mum frowned, then dodged aside as an Asian family barged past with a bag-laden pram. “I already told you, money’s tight at the moment, Sarah. I’m sure if you look around you’ll find some trainers that are nearly new. No one will know the difference.”
“I’ll know! No way am I sticking my feet in someone else’s shoes. Gross.”
I kind of agreed with her there.
“Sarah!” Dad was losing his temper. His fuzzy eyebrows always scrunched up whenever he was mad. “Just stop complaining, will you! If I had the money, I’d buy you a million pairs of trainers, but that ain’t life. One day, when you have bills of your own, you’ll understand. Money doesn’t go as far as you think.”
Sarah rolled her eyes. “Then maybe you should get a better job than working in a factory.”
Dad’s lips pressed together, and he looked away as though he wanted to say something but couldn’t. Sarah always made out that working in a factory was a bad thing, but I never understood why. Sure, Dad came home exhausted every evening in filthy overalls, but my friend Mike’s dad didn’t even have a job. I was proud he was a welder, even if I didn’t really understand what it was back then.
I’m still proud today.
Seeing Dad upset made Mum angry, and her icy expression made me recoil out of instinct. Even Sarah flinched. “I’m telling you right now, young lady, I have had it up to here with your attitude. Keep it up and you’ll spend the rest of the summer in your room. Apologise.”
Sarah pulled a face. “What?”
“Apologise to your father right this minute.”
“He’s not my father. D’you see an afro on my head?”
I cringed. Dad didn’t have an afro – he was bald with a goatee beard – but I knew Sarah’s comment had taken things up a notch. My cheeks got hot as I realised people were staring at us, but Mum didn’t seem to care. Her icy expression turned into a scowl that was even more terrifying. “Oh, he’s not your father? Really? Seems like he’s your father whenever you want money or a lift somewhere. How about when—”
Dad interrupted, swiping a palm through the air like he was performing a karate chop. “Let’s stop this, okay? I don’t know what’s happening to this family. All we do is squabble. I hate it.”
“I hate it too,” I said, still aware that people were looking at us. “It’s embarrassing.”
Sarah glared at me. “Shut up, idiot.”
“You shut up. Why d’you have to be so miserable all the time?”
“Because I have to look at you.”
I shook my head and turned away. It seemed, more and more lately, that we were mortal enemies, duty-bound to butt heads. I didn’t consider the fact I would only ever have one sister, and she clearly didn’t value me as her only brother. Maybe if we’d known what lay ahead, things would’ve been different.
Or maybe they wouldn’t have.
Mum was still glaring. “I’m so disappointed in you, Sarah. I never raised you to be this ungrateful.”
Sarah’s bony shoulders slumped, and she half turned to Dad. “Sorry,” she muttered.
Dad put his arm around her and squeezed, but it was awkward because she detested physical contact (another symptom of her turning fifteen). I already missed the feel of her arms around my shoulders while we watched TV cuddled up on the living room sofa.
I still miss it decades later.
We walked the rows of tables in silence while I studied various board games that I wouldn’t be allowed to buy (they always had pieces missing) and rummaged through a collection of WWF wrestling figures (they were too expensive). I even examined an old picture frame with tiny carvings around the edges. It was pretty cool, but Dad told me to put it down before I broke it. Then Sarah surprised everyone by saying something that wasn’t a complaint. “Hey, that’s pretty.”
She was fondling an old necklace – a dark metal chain with a green glass pendant. The glass seemed to capture the sunlight and hold it, resisting its frantic attempts to free itself. I was no fan of jewellery, but I had to admit it was a beautiful thing in my sister’s hand. I still have it to this day, kept safe and close by.
Sarah glanced hopefully at the plump grey-haired woman perched on the open boot of her car behind the table. “How much?” she asked.
“Oh, that old thing? It’s ancient – probably an antique.”
Sarah huffed. “How much do you want for it?”
Sarah deflated. Car boots were for pocket change, not bank notes. My heart ached a little as her hand lowered towards the table, the necklace hanging from her fingertips. She hated that we were poor, and I guess I hated it too, but it seemed to affect her the most. Truthfully, we could have had it worse. We had a roof over our head, a car, and we never wanted for food, but that didn’t change the fact that we had to go without things other kids had. The necklace was just one more thing our family couldn’t afford.
Dad stepped up behind Sarah and placed his hand under hers. With his other hand, he proffered a crisp ten-pound note across the table. The plump grey-haired woman snatched it away and stuffed it inside a neon green bumbag with PIONEER printed on the front. “Ta, love.”
Sarah’s eyes glistened. “I-I can have it?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to see another frown off you for the rest of the day. Deal?”
“Deal!” Sarah couldn’t bring herself to give him a full-on hug, but she pressed herself close and placed a cheek against his chest. For her, it was an uncharacteristic display of affection, and it was enough to make Dad smile. I had never understood why girls loved clothes and jewellery so much. Where was the fun? I would ask myself. Give me a remote-controlled tank any day.
“That was too much,” I overheard Mum muttering to Dad. “We’re struggling as it is.”
“It’s fine. The kids should have nice things.”
“I don’t want you doing any more overtime. We barely spend any time together as it is.”
Even at ten years old, I understood that my parents had just made a sacrifice, but I couldn’t keep myself from saying what I did next. It was the selfish, age-appropriate behaviour of a ten-year-old, but I still regret it to this day. I imagine most people regret the things they do as children.
“Not fair,” I said with my hands on my hips. “I want something too.”
Dad turned to me and sighed. “Okay, buddy. Something small though, okay? I know I treated your sister, but I only have a few quid left on me.”
I understood I’d won the only victory available, so I nodded and decided a small injustice was better than a big one. A few pounds would do; I just had to make it count.
I got to work, looking at everything – rusty old Matchbox cars and more piece-deprived board games. At one point, I almost gave in to urgency and grabbed an X-Files jigsaw puzzle, before remembering that they always had bits missing too. No, I had to be careful about this. I only had one shot.
Sarah glared at me, impatient now she had what she wanted. “Hurry up, Martin.”
“I’m looking, I’m looking! I just need to find—”
And there it was… a Karazy Kribs Killer Klown. The films all had 18 certificates, but one night I had stayed up late to watch Channel Four while Sarah was babysitting. She spent the entire night on the phone to her then-current boyfriend, Tom, and so had no idea that I watched the entire film from beginning to end. Sleep had brought nightmares, but after a few days, I stopped being scared and wanted to watch the film all over again. The blood and guts had been awesome.
The Karazy Klown doll slouched on the table was a little frayed, but it was still the sickest thing I’d ever seen. With a bright green mohawk and funky purple lips, it was scary but also silly, which made it just about acceptable as a toy. Was it acceptable enough though? “Dad, can I have this?”
“No way, Martin. It’s horrible.”
“To you, maybe, but Karazy Klowns are the coolest. Mike would die if I had this. It’ll teach him for going on and on about the N64 his grandad got him for his birthday.” It was a common tactic at that age to use my friends as leverage because they always had more than me. I assumed it made Dad feel guilty, but it probably made him feel ashamed.
Dad glanced at Mum, which was a good sign. It meant he was okay with the doll and wanted to check what she thought about it.
Mum shrugged and looked away, trying to move us along. “It’s probably too expensive. Come on.”
A scrawny old man behind the table spoke up, his voice phlegmy, like he needed to cough. He looked ill, but was probably just old. “My grandson’s,” he explained. “He’s off at university and his mother asked me to sell his things from out of the loft. You can have the tatty old thing for a pound, lad.”
My eyes lit up. A quid was an acceptable amount of money. “Mum, please?”
She looked at her watch, and it seemed like a good sign – like she was giving up. With a huff, she nodded. “Fine. But if you have nightmares, it’s going straight in the bin.”
I snatched the Karazy Klown and clutched it against my chest. “I promise, Mum. Thank you, thank you.” I looked at the smiling old man behind the table. “And thank you too.”
“You’re welcome, lad. Enjoy your dolly.”
I frowned at that, but it wasn’t enough to wipe the smile off my face. It was a very good day.
Or so I’d thought.