I remember the day it all started; though at the time it seemed like any other Sunday afternoon. Slap bang in the middle of the summer holidays, school was an eternity away, and a white-hot sun pierced the centre of an unbroken blue sky. 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. Sarah was sulking that day, which was no surprise. Since turning fifteen, the entire world had apparently started to irritate her (doubly so when it involved spending time with our family). That Sunday she was particularly surly, rolling her eyes and huffing as we ambled between the winding rows of cluttered tables. When I’d been five or six, she used to let me sleep in her bed, reading to me until I nodded off, but by the time I turned nine she began yelling at me if I even dared trying to enter her room. I understand now that it was the indiscriminate virus of teenagerdom, but back then it hurt me. I missed her.
I miss you, Sarah.
Despite my sister’s persistent misery, my parents were all smiles. They veered left and right across the trampled grass, hand in hand as they perused rickety tables full of old clothing, videotapes, and assorted brick-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 the 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 the invaluable trinkets overlooked by untrained eyes.
My sister didn’t feel the same way. “I’m bored,” she said, arms folded and a bony hip sticking out. The top of a pink thong peeked out from the waistband of her white jeans. “Can we go? I want to hang out with Deb.”
Dad grunted. “You can go see Deb later. 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, but that summer their relationship had been at its worst. He wasn’t our real father, you see—only our step-dad—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. I also don’t think she liked 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 (it would’ve explained a lot). I also wondered if she would ever be my big sister again, instead of the pimply, green-eyed 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 peace-maker. She pointed at one of the tables and speaking in a cheery voice. “Look, Sarah, they have all the Buffy videos here. 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 weeks ago. Now she apparently hated it? It was hard to keep track of her personality with how quickly it changed.
Dad sighed. “What do you like then? I’ll keep an eye out.”
“I don’t want anything. All this stuff is secondhand. 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 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 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’s not 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 working in a factory was a bad thing, but I had 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 my dad was a welder, even if I didn’t really know what it was back then.
I’m still proud.
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 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 happened to this family. All we do is squabble, and I hate it.”
“I hate it too,” I said, still aware that people were looking at us.
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 natural enemies, duty-bound to butt heads. Or so I’d thought. I didn’t consider the fact that I would only ever have one sister. Maybe if I’d known what would become of our family, things would have been different.
Or maybe not.
Mum continued glaring. “I am so disappointed in you, Sarah.”
Sarah’s bony shoulders slumped, and she half-turned to my 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 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 following aisles 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 (that 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 positive. “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 escape. 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 strange 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 toward the table, the necklace hanging from her fingertips. She hated that we were poor, and I guess I hated it too, but it really seemed to affect her. 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 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 bright green bumbag. “Thanks very much.”
Sarah’s eyes glistened. “I-I can have it?”
“Yes, but I don’t want to see another frown 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 to Dad and placed a cheek against his chest. For her, it was an uncharacteristic display of affection. Then she just stood there, admiring her new trinket. I had never understood why girls loved clothes and jewellery so much. Where was the fun? Give me a remote-controlled tank any day.
I overheard Mum muttering to Dad. “That was too much. 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 time together as it is.”
Even at ten years old, I understood my parents had 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 looked at me and sighed. “Okay, buddy. Something small though, okay? I know I treated your sister, but I only have a few pounds left.”
I understood I’d won the only victory on offer, 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.
My sister glared at me, impatient now that 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 stayed up late to watch Channel Four while Sarah babysat me. She had spent the entire night on the phone to her then-current boyfriend, and had no idea that I had watched the entire film from beginning to end. Sleep 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 on the table was a little faded, 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.” 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 just 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 old things from out of the loft. You can have the tatty 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.