Dinner time on a Friday still happens. No change there.
Dad and his lads, cooking up a storm, something fried, something substantial before the boys go out on the town. They deserve it, working hard all week. They’re entitled to let their hair down.
Well, Simon doesn’t work. Of course not.
The kitchen is filled with sounds of Kiss FM and the smell of bacon and sausage, the oil spitting in the pan. There will be eggs too, of course, and baked beans. But no fried tomatoes – they all hate fried tomatoes, must be something in their DNA.
Parkdale didn’t change everything.
This scene as Dad cooks, as Patrick washes his hands at the sink, could be just like before.
“What you drinking?” Dad asks.
“Coke,” Patrick replies, drying his hands on a tea towel.
“You should have milk,” says Dad.
Patrick sticks out his tongue. “No thanks.”
“Layers the stomach.”
“Yeah,” Patrick says, “No thanks.” He grabs a can of Coke from the fridge, pops the top and sits down at the kitchen table, grabbing a slice of buttered bread.
“Simon loves his milk,” Dad says, as if this news might prove persuasive.
It doesn’t. Quite the opposite.
That’s because Simon’s special.
Patrick thinks of his brother and lets the piece of bread sit on his plate.
“Where is Simon?” asks Dad.
Patrick opens his mouth to answer but there’s no need. As if answering a summons, the sound of feet thunder from the living room and a teenage boy dressed in a bright green shortalls with the wearer’s name stitched on the front and sucking a thick white dummy storms into the kitchen.
“There you are,” Dad says brightly, kissing the top of his son’s head and grinning. “You been having adventures?”
Simon smiles back at his father, but the question, simple as it is, doesn’t get an answer.
Dad doesn’t miss a beat. “You playing with brother?” he asks. “Playing with Morgan?”
Simon giggles and nods, that question is much easier. “Bruh!” he shouts, happy to confirm.
Sure enough, Morgan appears, red-faced and puffing. “Did you put fresh batteries in this one?” He grabs Simon around the waist. “I can’t seem to tire him out tonight.”
“Is that right?” Dad asks both of them, but his smile is mostly for Simon. “You too much work for your big brother?”
Simon responds by sucking on his fingers. His hair is a mess, his hands covered in crayon marks, and what about the bulge around his waist? Time for a nappy-change? Possibly, probably. What is about toddlers that mean they’re perpetually wet?
Except, of course, Simon isn’t a toddler. Simon has the body of a sixteen year old. It’s just his mind that doesn’t match.
“Tea ready?” Morgan asks.
“You’re bang on time,” replies Dad.
“Come on, champ, let’s get your hands washed.” Morgan guides his brother to the sink and turns on the water.
“Bubbehs,” Simon demands.
“I know,” says Morgan, squirting Fairy Liquid into Simon’s palms. “Big rubs,” he instructs.
Patrick watches from the table. None of this is normal, they should be up in arms, and yet no one makes a fuss.
We’re not sending the baby out for cigarettes.
Except we did. Or rather, the baby insisted and we let him go.
We took a second look at Parkdale, a good look at the money and then and a long, hard look at what we’d have to do – and what they’d do to us – and we said no. Even though we were out of work, out of savings.
It was Simon who stood up, and look what happened.
He looks Simon up and down; the boy went off to make real money for his family, to be the hero, only to come back a…
Patrick shakes his head, as if to refuse the insult. He’s brother’s not retarded, he’s not a moron. And yet the boy can’t wipe his own arse, can barely feed himself. And it’s as if his father doesn’t mind in the slightest.
Dad puts food on plates and his sons take their places at the table, Thomas missing, traveling for work, and if it hadn’t been arranged before Simon had left for Parkdale, Patrick would believe Thomas had left just to get away from the babbling teenager, the dirty nappies and mind-numbing kids TV shows.
Simon sits with his own adapted tray table. He kicks his feet and bangs on the tray excitedly as Morgan ties a bib around the mentally reduced teenager’s neck.
Always was a greedy beggar, Patrick thinks, although the same could be said about him.
Patrick takes a turn to help feed his brother, cutting up sausage and bacon with his own cutlery and then watching as Simon fumbles with his plastic fork.
The boy’s face and hands are soon a mess, but Dad isn’t upset.
“Making it all gone, aren’t you, champ,” Dad says. “Gonna make your tummy all full, and then it’s bath, story, and sleep.”
Simon babbles his agreement at the game plan – why not? This routine is all he can remember, his previous life a muffled mess, something that only reappears in his dreams.
“Where you boys off to tonight?” Dad asks Morgan and Patrick.
“Usual,” Morgan replies. “But we might try that new club later on.” He smirks at Patrick. “Maybe there’s some girls there who haven’t already turned Paddy down.”
“Ha-ha,” Patrick says. The joke’s fine, because in truth, he has better luck with girls. The brothers are all handsome enough, but he has the moves, he can dance. And there’s something special about a guy in this town who actually wants to dance, who doesn’t just stand at the bar with a pint in his hands.
“Ha-ha!” Simon echoes gleefully, as if he could hope to understand the joke.
“Eat your sausage,” Patrick tells him, taking the plastic fork and feeding his brother. “Yum-yum,” he says mildly, as if this situation wasn’t awful, as if nothing had changed since Simon went to Parkdale.
As if Simon didn’t used to come with them on Friday nights, and even Dad joining them sometimes.
Not anymore. His brother has gone from having a few beers to enjoying a sippy-cup of milk. He’s gone from sweet-talking ladies at The Grand to jumping up and down in front of the TV when Peppa Pig appears. He’s gone from chatting up girls to having the vocabulary of an fifteen-month old, with the bladder control to match.
“Beez,” says Simon, scooping beans with his hand and cramming them into his mouth.
“Watch him,” Dad says.
“Sorry,” Patrick says.
You can’t take your eyes off him for a minute. Typical little boy. Just because he doesn’t look like one.
“You’ve got sauce on your shortalls,” Patrick tells Simon, but he’s not scolding. Why bother? Simon doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to understand what he’s done wrong.
What does it feel like? Patrick wonders, to be in Simon’s head. A world of colours and sensations? A universe shrunk down to this house, this family?
Simon will never get a job. Never mind that, he’ll never learn to read, never learn to use the toilet. That much was made clear, when Simon returned from Parkdale.
And instead of storming up there, Dad just accepted it. More and more, Patrick wonders if Dad himself can remember when Simon was normal.
“You’re making a right mess,” says Patrick. “How did you get egg in your hair?”
Simon responds with the brightest of smiles before he crams another piece of sausage into his mouth.
What an appetite, and it’s a blessing, a mercy that Simon is incognizant of what he’s become.
“Don’t get too carried away tonight,” says Dad to Patrick. “You’re taking your brother swimming tomorrow, remember.”
Patrick nods. “I know.” And is it fair for him to dread the thought of what the people will think at the pool?
Look at that teenager, he’s clearly mentally challenged. Small children will point and make the usual observations. That boy is much too old for arm bands. Does he have a swimming nappy on? Of course he does.
Simon was a good swimmer, the strongest of all of them, showing off in the turquoise waters of Ibiza.
He still shows off, in a way, splashing and yelling. He still loves to swim.
Yes, it’s a mercy that Simon doesn’t know how far he’s fallen, that he thinks it’s quite normal for Patrick to feed him like an infant, just as Patrick will have to change him into his swimming trunks tomorrow morning.
But they’ve done nothing.
Is that why Patrick drinks so much tonight? A few pints at Revolution and then it’s off to The Grand, a refurbished Victorian music hall
This is a chance of escape, from a brother that has mentally regressed to cheerful idiocy, and of a father who acts like nothing’s wrong.
The music is good enough – 80s night, a blend of rock and pop, and for a while Patrick feels light on his feet, it feels like old times.
“Save a dance for me,” a girl in a red dress demands, her lips tickling Patrick’s ear, before joining her friends.
But Patrick’s hear isn’t in it. He doesn’t last five minutes without remembering Simon, back home – he’ll be having his bubble bath – he’ll be getting his bedtime story – he’ll be in dreamland – and a mixture of guilt and regret stops him from enjoying himself.
Patrick’s handsome, like the rest of his family. He’s charming as well, he could take his pick, but he’s distracted, off his game, and he won’t be going home with a girl tonight.
The last time a girl tried to flirt with him was when he’d taken Simon to the park. School hours, no kids around, most of the ‘real’ little ones at nursery. Simon could have the soft-play area to himself. A girl walking her dog had come and sat beside Patrick on the bench while he kept one eye on his brother. She was fit, gorgeous even, as well as apparently okay with the guy she fancied having a teenage baby for a little brother.
“You must love your brother, taking care of him like this.”
“Some people think I’m wasting my time.”
“Well, I don’t. I think you’re sweet.”
A touch on his arm with her slender fingers had been enough to take his focus away from Simon for a few seconds before he heard an ear-splitting wail. Patrick had looked up to see his brother, having escaped from the toddler area and toddled towards the big kid swings, tripping and falling onto the asphalt.
The fit bird beside him had been forgotten in an instant as Patrick rushed over to comfort his little brother who was howling; “Pa-dee! Pa-dee!” reaching his fists out, tears streaming down his cheeks as if the little scrape on his knee meant the loss of a limb.
“I’m sorry, little buddy, I’m so sorry.” The guilt was so immense that it took Patrick some time to recognise that he was apologising for more than neglecting his charge.
He’d sat there for almost five minutes, cradling his sobbing teenage brother in his lap as Simon sniveled and wept into his clean shirt.
“Big brother’s here now, big brother keep you safe from that naughty ground.”
Patrick wasn’t sure when the girl with her dog disappeared but he couldn’t really care. Sure, he could kiss Simon’s scab all better, he could put his special walking reins on to stop him running ahead too fast for his unbalanced legs to handle. But Patrick couldn’t…didn’t keep him safe. Not from what had really mattered. Not from Parkdale.
Morgan finds him in the alley behind the club.
“Throw up?” his brother asks, putting a hand on his shoulder.
Patrick shakes his head doesn’t turn around. “Just got hot, that’s all. See you back inside.”
“Hey,” Morgan says, because he’s not stupid, he must notice the tense shoulders, the balled fists, and he makes his brother turn around.
“Mate,” says Morgan. “You been crying?”
Patrick wipes at his face. “It’s nothing.”
“What happened?” Morgan asks with a smirk. “Crash and burn?”
Patrick holds up his hands. “I don’t…I just don’t want to go home.”
“What do you mean?”
“I can’t do it, not anymore.”
And Morgan could keep asking questions, keep playing stupid. But there’s really only one thing it could be.
“Simon,” he says.
Patrick nods and produces the heaviest of sighs. He looks up into the streetlights. It’s beginning to rain; a light sprinkling that promises a flood to come.
“Sometimes I wonder what’s worse,” Patrick says. “Simon the way he is, or Dad acting like nothing’s wrong.” He grits his teeth. “Sometimes I just want to scream in his face.”
“They did something to him too,” says Morgan. “They made him forget , or think that he wanted this, that Simon’s somehow better off this way.”
“Phone call, probably. Like that weird one’s we got. Or however they turned our brother into a toddler.”
Just don’t listen. Not to the podcast Dad keeps on his computer. Not the voicemails that regularly make it through to their phones.
The first time that happened, Patrick heard the twinkling music and thought it was a wrong number of a practical joke. But when the caller’s soft voice said she was his babysitter, that she wanted to look after him,
Are you ready to play, sweetie?
He hung up straightaway, shaken.
He told Thomas and Morgan. They were all on edge that night, wondering what would come next, and then for a week, nothing.
A blip? A one-off?
And then returning from the pub one night with Morgan, Patrick got another call. He hung up. His brother looked to his own phone and nodded. He declined the call and phone Thomas, but it went straight to voicemail.
They raced home to find Thomas sitting on the floor in Simon’s room, his eyes glassy, a strange, confused smile on his face, holding on of Simon’s toys and gazing at it like he’d never seen such a thing before. Such an amazing, interesting thing.
Patrick grabbed the phone and ended the call.
Too late? Would they have two baby brothers now to take care of?
No, just in time. Patrick shook Thomas by the shoulders, shouted into his face, threw the toy against the wall.
It was enough to break the spell, or whatever it was. Thomas lost his muddled expression and regained his senses. But when his brothers asked about the phone call, Thomas couldn’t remember a word of it.
I don’t remember what she said. It just felt peaceful, happy. I just knew that I trusted her, that she’d take care of me.
Still, he shivered when he said that. Because it also came with a sense of blankness, of stupidity, of infantile loss.
They were extra gentle in their care of Simon that night, extra sorry for their brother’s complete and total loss.
Back outside of The Grand, Patrick stuffs his hands into his pockets.
“You know what I said,” Patrick whispers, “Before he left.”
“Yeah,” says Morgan, “And it doesn’t matter.”
“It does.” Patrick pulls away. He’s ready to punch the wall, he’s set to kick the hell out of the next stranger who looks at him the wrong way.
“He was my best friend,” says Patrick furiously. “And they took him away. They took away his mind, and I have to fix it.”
Morgan puts his hands on the sides of Patrick’s head. “You got that look on your face, and I’m telling you, don’t make Simon’s mistake.”
Patrick frowns. “Do what?”
“Go off on your tod Do that and you’ll end up like Simon. That what you want?”
Patrick can’t help shuddering. “Course not. But I can’t just stand by and pretend this is all fine.”
“I know,” Morgan replies. “So let’s go together.”
Patrick stares at him. “Really?”
“I talked to Thomas, he said to go ahead without him, said he’d be back-up if we needed it.” He puts a firm hand on Patrick’s shoulder. “He feels the same way you do.”
Patrick smiles. “I thought I was the only one, I thought you’d given up.”
“No chance. We’re still brothers, nothing has changed that.”
“And I’m still your big brother, remember?” Morgan gives him a smile. “Better do what you’re told.”
Big brother, sure. Does it really mean anything, when you’re a grown-up? Patrick supposes so, although he hardly gives Patrick the hero status he did when he was a little boy, especially given some of the mistakes Patrick’s made. Like everyone else. No one’s perfect, not even a big brother.
Still, good to have him on side.
Morgan gives Patrick’s back a good-natured thump. “We’re going to look after each other and get our family back the way it was before.”
Fresh tears fill Patrick’s eyes.
“And stop blubbing, for Christ’s sake,” Morgan says, making them both laugh.
They hug, Morgan pulling his brother into his arms, and Patrick feels better, stronger, and willing to hope.
“You feeling good about this?” Morgan asks.
“I’m not turning back.”
“But you feeling good?”
Patrick shrugs. “I’m feeling…pissed off.”
“Well don’t fly off the handle when you see him. We need to stay cool if this is going to work.”
It’s a bank holiday and the train was quiet.
Patrick and Morgan, both dressed in jeans and short-sleeved shirts, walk from the station to Dr Myer’s house.
They know where to go. It was only their brother who kept his appointment at this place. And when Patrick thinks of him now, at home – probably playing with toys in the living room, the chatter of daytime TV in the background – he manages to feel two opposing forces at the same time; fear of ending up like his brother, something that slows his feet and makes him turn his head back towards the train station; and anger towards this town, a determination to save his brother, just like he’s done all his life.
There’s the house with it’s perfectly kept front garden. A child’s bicycle leaning against the wall, a cricket bat and tennis ball abandoned on the grass.
Just an ordinary family, right?
Morgan and Patrick walk up the path, a crunch of feet on gravel, better than any modern security system.
They’ve never met Dr Myers, they got this far before and bottled it, decided Parkdale wasn’t worth the money.
A step further this time. A knock, and it’s Patrick’s knuckles that rap against the door.
“There’s a bell,” Morgan points out.
“I feel like hitting something,” replies Patrick.
“Stay calm, little brother,” says Morgan.
“I’m ready to knock his teeth out.”
“So that’s your plan, beat him up?”
Patrick shakes his head. “Of course not.”
“We have evidence, that should be enough to convince him to fix this.”
Patrick bristles at his brother’s attitude. “This was my idea. You’re helping me. Don’t act like you’re in charge, you’re not. You always do this.”
“And you always get aggro when you’re nervous. So your plan is to scare the hell out of him?”
“No, my plan is to show him we mean business.”
“Brilliant,” says Morgan.
“And don’t eat or drink anything,” Patrick says. “It’s probably drugged.”
No one, apparently. No footsteps, no rattling of door handles.
Patrick wonders why he’s so surprised by this. Why should the doctor be home? Why couldn’t he be out on a Bank Holiday?
But no, he’s in. Patrick can feel it and he steps back from the door, scans the windows for fingers twitching at the curtains.
“Fuck’s sake.” Patrick knocks again, banging this time. This is not a polite inquiry. He turns to his brother.
“Maybe we should’ve made an appointment,” Morgan says drily.
“Ha-ha,” Patrick says.
Morgan shrugs. “So what’s next, boss?” Because this is a bust, this is a plan that’s already a shambles. They should’ve told their dad what they were doing, he’d have helped them plan it out. Except, of course, Dad doesn’t think there’s a single thing wrong with Parkdale.
Patrick looks behind him and scans the garden. Let’s find a stone, let’s make an impact on those shiny, polished windows.
A high-pitched voice calls from inside.
The door opens to reveal someone far too young to be a doctor.
“Can I help you?” the little boy asks. He looks around seven years old, wearing blue shorts and a white T-shirt decorated with the scribbled image of an old-fashioned camera.
“We’re here to see Dr Myers,” Morgan says.
The boy looks to his left, and perhaps he’s about to call for an adult, for someone who can take responsibility. But instead he frowns and then says, “Do you have an appointment?”
Morgan shakes his head. “No, mate. We just need to see him.” He smiles. “Is Dr Myers your dad?”
The boy nods and smiles back. “I’m Jay.”
Patrick takes a step forward. “So where is he?” he says gruffly.
Jay blinks in surprise. “Oh, he’s with a client.” And then, before threats can be made, he says, “You can wait inside if you want.”
“Sounds fair,” Morgan says blandly. And then he turns to Patrick. “You okay to wait?” As if he’s really asking permission.
“Sure,” Patrick says between gritted teeth. “Let’s do that.”
But really, what’s the merit in being angry with a little boy? So Patrick and Morgan follow Jay into the house, down a hallway and into a room with a large bay window.
There are toys arranged tidily on one side, with a fuzzy patterned play rug, the kind with streets and houses illustrated. Patrick can’t help asking himself whether they should get one for Simon, and recognition that such ideas are starting to feel normal creates a bitter taste in his mouth.
“Take a seat,” says Jay, waving at the two adult-sized chairs. One looks like an ordinary black leather chair on wheels. The other is white and Patrick wonders how anyone could sit in it without leaning back. And that’s, he supposes, the point.
A shrink’s office, where Myers gets to wash his client’s, his victims brains.
“No thanks,” Patrick says.
Jay shrugs. “Okay.” He glances towards the door. “My dad might be a little while, I’m not allowed to interrupt a session.”
Patrick frowns. “If he has a client, why isn’t he in here?”
“Oh,” replies Jay, “he does his work all over the house.” He walks over to the window. “Even in the garden sometimes.” He gives the view a wistful look, as if he’d rather be outside rather than being a secretary.
He gestures at the toys on the rug. “This is mostly a play room. Sometimes he plays cool games and stuff.”
“Yeah,” says Patrick coolly, “We know what your dad does. That’s why we’re here.”
“Well, I’m sitting down,” Morgan says, taking the brown office chair.
This earns a relieved smile from Jay. “I could bring you a snack if you like. If you’re hungry.”
“Sure,” says Morgan. “Snack away.” He flashes the boy a smile and Jay nods and leaves the room.
“We’re not here for brunch,” Patrick says.
“I’m aware of that.” Morgan swings around in the chair and puts his hands together.
“So what are you ordering tea and biscuits for? You can’t eat any of that stuff, way too risky.”
“I’m not stupid,” his brother says. “Just wanted him out of the room. He’s probably spying for his dad.”
“I don’t like just waiting like this,” Patrick says.
Morgan nods. “We just have to stay calm.” He walks over to the play mat and picks up a toy truck. “Keep ourselves under control, stay cool.”
They have a plan. Confront the doctor with the evidence, of Simon before and after. Video footage on Patrick’s phone, along with recordings of their father talking like Simon was a real toddler.
Confront the doctor. Get him back to their home. Get him to fix Simon.
It sounds simple enough until specifics start popping up, with a little boy apparently left in charge of reception. And who works on a Bank Holiday, anyway?
Save Simon. Patrick has done this before. The second-youngest, Patrick was the one overjoyed to have a baby brother, four years older, he gave the baby his blankie, he helped changing nappies. And when Simon started primary school, who was there to protect him from the older boys, who was there to wipe his damn nose? Patrick. Just like Patrick’s own big brothers had been there for him.
Sometimes, it feels like old times. Changing Simon’s nappy, telling him bedtime stories. Didn’t that feel like magic, to be the one who could read, to feel like a superhero?
But it’s clear, Simon isn’t going to be taught any lessons. He’s not going to learn his letters and numbers. Instead of living his adult life, his mind will be permanently trapped in the nursery.
Morgan spins around in the chair and winks at Patrick. “If I start racing making racing-car noises, have a word with me.”
Patrick sighs and nods. They’d agreed that point before coming up. If one of them starts acting silly, the other can talk some sense back into them.
A protection their brother didn’t have, coming here by himself.
Simon, don’t be stupid, you can’t do this by yourself.
If…when this blows up in your face, don’t come running to me.
I’m sick and tired of having to fix your mistakes.
And here comes the guilt.
“All right?” Morgan asks.
Patrick nods, but he’s exhausted suddenly, but the responsibility, by the odds.
He sits down heavily in the white chair. Where Dr Myers does what..hypnosis? Mind-control?
For a moment, Patrick imagines straps appearing from nowhere, wrapping around his arms and pinning him to the chair. A mask pushing onto his face, or headphones pulsing hypnotic tones.
The idea makes his stomach feel greasy, threatens to give him a second viewing of the sausage roll he’d eaten on the train.
His body tenses, but nothing happens.
He runs his hands along the armrests and instead of leather straps, all he finds is a sticky residue. Patrick wrinkles his nose in distaste. The last client’s sweat? He rubs it between his fingers and it seems to evaporate – like a hand sanitizer, he supposes, the opposite of dirty.
The chair is just a chair, and Patrick leans back, puts his shoes on the foot rest.
Leave a stain. Rub dirt into the fabric.
He looks up at the ceiling. “Maybe we’re wasting our time,” he mutters.
“How’d you mean?”
“You think he can turn Simon back?”
“That’s why we’re here.”
“But can he do it?”
“He better,” Morgan says. He walks over to Patrick and puts a hand on his shoulder. “Or I’ll be the one who kicks his head in.”
Patrick looks up at his brother’s face, and that’s when he notices something surprising.
“Hey,” he says, peering at his brother.
“Your eyes…they’re all…” Patrick rubs at his own and then looks again. And what he sees threatens to make him giggle. Because it’s silly, it can’t be happening.
“What?” Morgan says, more seriously this time. “Tell me.”
“They’re sparkly,” Patrick whispers, suddenly feeling shy and foolish.
“Sparkly,” says Morgan slowly. “If you say so.”
“You should look,” says Patrick, gazing at his brother’s face. Again, he almost laughs out loud. And then twists his head away, closing his own eyes tight.
“And what’s wrong now?”
“Is this it?” Patrick says. “Is this how it starts?”
“What are you talking about?”
“What happened to Simon,” says Patrick, his chest tightening with fear. “Maybe he started seeing stuff, stuff that wasn’t there, and then he went…you know. Like a baby.” Patrick covers his face, afraid of what he’ll see when he opens his eyes next. Will he look down at himself and see a baby’s body instead? Is that what Simon sees?
“Hey,” Morgan says.
Patrick feels his brother’s hand on his shoulder. “Sounds to me more like you’re having a panic attack or something.”
“I can’t handle it,” Patrick says, his voice muffled behind his hands. “I can’t be like Simon.”
Patrick’s hand presses down firmly. “We won’t let that happen. I won’t.” The pressure releases. “Take a deep breath. You know, in through the nose, out through the mouth, the whole deal.”
Patrick does as he’s told.
“Do it again.”
Patrick breathes, in and out, and he can feel the fear subsiding. Maybe his brother’s right. But seriously, sparkles? He’s never seen anything like that in his life before, like a drunk man’s pink elephants.
Patrick nods. Maybe, maybe not.
“Now look at me.”
Patrick takes his hands away from his face and looks at his brother.
“Well?” Morgan asks. “Any sparkles?”
Patrick shakes his head, relief filling his chest. “Just your ugly mug.”
“Ha-ha,” Morgan says, punching him lightly on the arm. “Now I’ve got an idea about something we can do to get the doctor on side.”
“Oh yeah?” Patrick asks.
“Yeah,” says Morgan. “But you have to do what I say. Can you do that?”
Patrick nods. Of course he can.