Written by Jamie Fewery on Tuesday the 24th of August 2010
We spent the weekend secluded in an old house
surrounded by small roads and tall trees, where signals for mobile phones and
wireless internet could not get through the walls. We were cut off from the
tools that are necessary to live a life connected to anyone else who might have
something important or relevant to say. The only media distractions were
two old videos - both with fraying on the edges of the tape, which made them
all but unwatchable - and talk radio stations on AM frequencies. The articles
on the radio stations were mostly boring, save for a mid-morning interview with
a girl who had been caught trying to smuggle marijuana into Thailand. If we
weren't watching or listening, we would have to talk to one and other. My
twin-sister, her husband and I.
When we arrived we went for a walk in the fields that surround the small
village we were staying in. There were families out walking dogs and children
playing. The children ran and fell in the long grass, and pushed their faces
into the wildflowers like busy bumblebees.
As we walked we were entirely silent and so carried with us a strong feeling of
relief because we knew that we didn't want to talk anyway. There were certainly
things to say, and the weight of the silence we were under would not lift until
a sentence could be uttered. But trivialities would not break any deadlocks and
every word said between us on the six-hour journey had been an offer of drink
or food, or the suggestion for a change of CD.
At home they would be talking about how we were running away. How the difficult
circumstances called for togetherness and discussion; the glue that holds the
family together, my mother would say. She and her sister would sip the cheap
granule coffee they both like, not because it tastes like good coffee, but
because it tastes like something else altogether that they like when drunk with
their rolled up cigarettes. I imagined her trying to paint, thinking perhaps
that the best art is created in the most desperate situations. But she'd be
unable to get past the first few brushstrokes before getting distracted and
going downstairs to check on how Andrew was getting on in front of the
Our mother could never understand why when things went badly my sister and I
would disappear. Our collective demons have never been addressed or exorcised,
but we have both discovered over the years that simply swallowing them down and
eroding them with stomach acids works well enough. Not everything warrants a
discussion and the setting out of long-term objectives. For my sister and I, a
collection of short-term solutions has always been preferred.
We know that one day the things we swallowed will re-appear. Our stomachs will
get too full of butterflies and something will have to rise up and get spewed
into the ears of a psychiatrist. We'll cough, splutter and tears will stream
down our faces. It will be just like when you throw up - you feel immediately
better afterwards. I have sometimes wondered if our mother has a fund for our
inevitable appointments with therapists. A portion of whatever alimony payments
my father gave her set aside for when things get a little more vocal.
She once asked me why Angela and I never talk about things. "Why do you bottle
it up? I'm you're mother!” she said, frustrated. I shrugged my shoulders and
said: "It's better that way. I have to go out.” She told me that we weren't
done and we'd continue our talk when I got back in. While I was out I decided
to tell her that it was no wonder we didn't talk. When we were kids we were
always told not to tell our friends that there were a lot of arguments in our
household, that our father was gay, had a partner, and that's why he left. But
by the time I had returned home, my mother had gone out on one of the many
dates she arranged when Angela and I were in our late teens.
That was the first and only time she got close to carving one of us open. She
didn't try again, and whenever her own mother would push her to make us talk,
she would refer to our unusual upbringing and the ongoing need for patience
(our mother staunchly believed that we would get to talking in our own time).
The two of them would go on to blame my father for all the ills in our family,
convincing themselves that we'd all be far more normal had my father continued
to repress his sexuality.
When our teens gave way to our early twenties the dating in my mother's life
gave way to an interest in fostering. Maybe it was an experiment in how she
would have got on bringing up children alone, without my father's influence.
After a couple of short-term successes, she took on a long-term project in
Andrew. He was eight when he arrived and almost obese. Through a selection of
rigorous diet programmes he managed to get down from extremely overweight to
just fat, before he developed the first of several eating problems, aged
Since then his life has been series of disorders so extensive that any story of
it would top the 'real lives' bestseller charts. The lowlights from the past
few years have been bulimia, paranoid personality disorder and two incorrect
diagnoses of bi-polar disorder (from two separate doctors). Combine these
afflictions with asthma, excema and hayfever, and it became almost impossible
for my mother to get Andrew to leave the house. We all tried with him and for
the most part, as a family we were commended for the supposedly excellent job
we were doing in caring for 'such a difficult adolescent'.
Recently things looked to be getting better, if not quite coming good. Through
a cocktail of medicines and my mother's undeniable hard work, Andrew had seen
it through to his eighteenth birthday and been given his first car as a reward.
The idea was to encourage the boy to get out and live more, but instead he
locked himself in the garage and used to the car to try and kill himself.
Angela found him when she was going to go into our garage to find a bottle of
wine to chill before dinner. At the time I was in the house, reading and heard
her call. As often happens when I am busy and someone calls, I ignored Angela,
but when she repeated herself I heard more panic in her voice and went to see
what was going on.
The first thing I noticed was that Andrew had made a really poor job of his
attempt. One end of length of ordinary garden hose was stuck inside the exhaust
pipe and the other in the car window, which had been closed to hold it in
place. By the time I got to the garage Angela had pulled the hose out of the
window and opened the car door to shout at Andrew.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?” she yelled.
"What does it look like? Go away,” he replied, in an
"Oh shit. Christopher, help me drag him out.”
There was more frustration than fear in Angela's
voice. As if she knew he would pull a stunt like this some day.
The two of us pulled him out of the car and out of the garage. I went back in
to turn the ignition off and noticed that he had installed the removable tape
deck before starting the car. Maybe there was a taped message, or a significant
piece of music he intended to have playing when we were meant to find him dead.
Or maybe it was just force of habit.
Angela had taken Andrew into the garden, where I found him lying on his back,
pale faced, and surrounded by various inhalers and pills that she had dumped by
"Don't tell Sarah,” he said. Angela and I looked at
one and other, staring each other out to see who would have to speak to him
"We have to tell mum,” I said.
"Why? It's not as if it's any of your business.”
"Oh come on Andrew! We find you trying to kill
yourself and it's none of our business?”
"You could've left me.”
"Oh fuck you! You little shit!” Angela screamed at him
whilst kicking him in the side of the stomach. She was crying and coughing
violently by the time she finished kicking.
Andrew got up, picked up his inhaler and ran back inside. Angela then ran to
me, threw her arms around me and sobbed into my shoulder. I patted her back and
moved away to go and follow Andrew, but she tugged my arm and pulled me back to
hold her. She had one hand on my neck and I could feel her cold silver wedding
ring press against my skin.
When she eventually let me go I went back inside and up the stairs to Andrew's
room. All of his curtains were drawn and he was playing a Nick Drake LP that he
had found in a record store during his brief phase as a vinyl collector. He was
sat at the computer my mother bought him for a seventeenth birthday present. On
the screen was a social networking site, open on Andrew's own profile.
"Are you OK?” I asked.
"I mean do you feel sick? It's obvious that you're not
"I feel fine.”
"Thank God you made such a shitty job of that hose,” I
said, and left his room, closing the door behind me.
Downstairs Angela was on her laptop, looking at an internet forum where the
users discussed the logistics and science of 'suicide via car exhaust'. I
peered over her neck and saw that the forum was under the 'Health' heading.
Most of the posters had written something like "it's not worth it” or "you are
special”. One or two gave advice on how to go about it, then post-scripted
their easy four-step programme, complete with the phone number for Lifeline.
"Is he on there?” I asked. Angela shook her head,
"You want to get away?”
She turned to me, nodded and threw her arms around my
That evening, when my mother arrived home from work,
Angela and I explained what had happened, told her where Andrew was and said
that we didn't want to talk about it any further. At that point she was so
panicked and preoccupied that talking to the two of us was not at all on her
agenda anyway, so she bustled through the house and up the stairs, calling
Andrew's name as she went.
As soon as she was out of earshot my sister called her husband, Lawrence, and
told him that when he gets home he should pack a bag right away. I heard him
complain on the other end of the phone, but my sister hit back with a venomous
remark about how it wouldn't really matter if he went away, what with him being
unemployed anyway, and that if he really wants to stay in the house with only a
suicidal eighteen year-old boy and his foster mother, then he's welcome to do
so. Lawrence caved in immediately - as he tends to do when arguing with my
sister. Angela has never been the bossy or domineering type, but since the day
I first met Lawrence it has been apparent that she runs their relationship. He
says he's too much at peace with the world to argue, but it's apparent that
he's just a man with two divorces behind him, trying to avoid a third. So
things like living at our family home and becoming a vegetarian are the
necessary compromises that are keeping Lawrence regularly sexed and in
As we waited Angela and I went out into the garden and stood amongst Andrew's
medicines that still littered the grass. I reached into my pocket for my
cigarette packet, opened it and pulled out a joint that I had rolled that
morning. I lit it and began smoking, stopping after three or four drags to
offer it to Angela. The two of us stood together in silence for fifteen
minutes, listening to the yells and sobs that were coming from Andrew's open
bedroom window that looked out over the garden. Angela had stopped crying, but
her eyes were red and her make-up smudged. When we heard the front door slam we
knew Lawrence was home and we both went to pack a few days worth of clothes.
Angela and Lawrence were stood at the foot of the stairs waiting for me when I
finished packing. Both of them had small hold alls. I drew on my palm with my
index finger and mouthed the word 'note' to my sister, who shook her head, made
a phone sign with her little finger and thumb, and mouthed 'no, text' in reply.
The three of us left the house, got into Lawrence's car and drove away to his
parent's summer house.
During our time away together there was never so much
as a threat of deep and meaningful conversation. Angela and I didn't want to
talk about anything serious with one and other and Lawrence knew by now not to
try and force it. It would either come in its own good time, or it wouldn't.
After the silent strolls we took during the day, we spent the evenings in front
of a blank television, drinking wine from Lawrence's parent's large collection.
Some bottles we knew to be very good, but none of us could say why. We each had
our own glass and left them on three coasters, unwashed for the entire
weekend. Each glass was a different colour so we could tell which was whose.
night I stayed up and read old sensationalist magazine articles about
apparently real lives and listened to Lawrence trying to coerce my sister into
talking, or having sex. He would push her to tell him how she was feeling, and
then when she told him to go to sleep he asked her if sex would take her mind
off of it. It happened both nights we stayed in the house, and on neither
occasion did Lawrence get anything he asked for.
On our third morning together Lawrence cooked scrambled eggs. Angela made him
cook some bacon as well, for me, and told him it didn't matter that he was
cooking meat, as he didn't really care about vegetarianism anyway. I thought
she was being harsh on him, but she was probably right - he has never cared.
Over breakfast we discussed staying for a third night because by then
everything should have been swept under rugs at home, and our mother would
understand that neither of us wanted to talk about Andrew or his attempted
When we agreed to stay the three of us took a walk around the same fields that
we had explored shortly after we arrived. Lawrence and Angela held hands as we
strolled and I pocketed my own. Conversation was easier that morning. We talked
about the weather, the countryside and the collected value of the wine we had
drunk that weekend.
After about a half an hour's walking we stopped and lay down in the long grass
and wildflowers with our eyes to the sky. The children ran around us, shrieking
and chasing their pet dogs. Angela told me to turn on my mobile phone, for the
first time in days, to check if there were any messages from home.
When the phone had come alive, and found the weak signal that had managed to
beat its way through the trees, it vibrated three times for three messages. Two
were text messages from friends asking where I had gone, and one was a
voicemail from my mother's best friend, Nancy saying:
"Christopher, your mother gave me your number. You
kids have really got to come home. Your foster brother has tried again, this
time with his wrists. OK then, Bye”.
Angela overheard a woman's voice on the other end, but couldn't make out what
was being said because Nancy spoke at a whisper.
"Who was it?”
"Nancy. Andrew slashed his wrists.”
"Is he dead?”
"We'd better go.”
"OK,” she said.
The three of us all stood up and Angela and I started
running. We ran through the fields and jumped over a low fence that led to the
road. We ran in the middle of the road, up and down hills and around blind
corners, not thinking about the traffic that might have been coming the other
way. Eventually we arrived panting at Lawrence's car and Angela threw up by the
front wheel on the driver's side.
Lawrence caught us up soon after, with Angela's shoes in his
hands. I hadn't noticed that she was running barefoot.
"It smells of vomit.”
"Uh huh.” I said, too breathless to speak properly.
"I'll just get the bags and...”
"Lawrence we have to go!” Angela cut in.
"FUCK!” she screamed, and threw up again.
"I'll be quick,” he said, and he ran indoors.
Our drive home was as silent as our drive to the
house. Save for Angela's occasional sobs and Lawrence's occasional offers of
breath mints to try and mask the smell of vomit that hit us every time Angela
exhaled heavily. I tried to sleep but I wasn't at all tired. So instead I
closed my eyes and leant my head against the rear, driver's side window that
had been warmed by the sun.
When we got home Angela and I left Lawrence to unpack the car. We hurried
inside and found her sitting alone at our kitchen table, looking out over the
garden with a large glass of white wine. She turned to face the two of us and
her stoney expression broke as her lips wobbled and her eyes welled up. She ran
over and embraced my sister and I.