We scratched 2K3 into the lamppost in front of our gaff, the new year a stamp to a new member of the household: Adam, my cousin from Nan’s youngest, recently found unfit to raise his latest neglected child. Using Grandad’s screwdriver, he finished the “three” with a backhand of his palm and so our initiation was finished, that is, the one he devised the New Year’s Eve he was dropped off by a social worker whose name I can’t remember.
FUCK OFF, 2003, Adam shouted, two hands covering the paint he’d just chipped, one foot planted firmly against the post, and climbed, surprisingly monkey-like, to the top.
I can’t figure why we weren’t etching 2K4, seeing as we were heading into that year, and with me, ten, and Jay and Adam, nine, I can’t imagine we understood the idea of waving bye to another year we couldn’t comprehend. Yet the feeling was there, like some battle was won—and having someone else our age to play with gave me spasms that I later realized were the overlooked body tremors of ADHD. We’d survived the turmoil of what childhood began to become, me and Jay, saved by our grandparents years earlier, and now Adam was with us, swinging from the top of a lamppost with the ease of someone who’d bunked trains at the age of five,showing up on our doorstep during a torrential downpour to ask Nan if she had any crisp butties. None of his movements were planned and he could have fallen to the ground without regretting the climb. The shame would have been any damage caused to that babysitting-worthy doll face: big lips, scarlet cheeks, blue eyes, and just enough freckles that you’d think they were designed. His ash blond hair is what my Japanese girlfriend would describe as the trademark for angelic-looking English children. On a recent trip to Nagoya, I showed her a gap-toothed picture of him as a kid, then we compared it with his mugshot from a 2012 article in The Guardian. No longer smiling, but still pretty with freckles.
Walking into the garden, Grandad shouted DOWN, I’m assuming already with an idea that this kid was gonna be a handful, but none of us could have guessed to what extent. When it came down to it, it was a piece of piss to put up with the climbing habits of a child when the government were forking out twice as much money to adopt him. If your kid comes with ADHD, learning difficulties, and a record that states he set fire to a McDonald’s toilets, then the social services compensate you for your efforts.
HEY! Grandad yelled, watching as Adam slid down with his bum sticking out. You’re a cracker, he laughed, abandoning the scowl he’d approached us with. The neighbors will kick off if you do that. Boring bastards, the lot of ’em.
With a wink, he led us back inside, the years of fun seeming endless. But Adam’s would end after eight.
There’s a rebellious cornerstone you reach when you’re a kid on the Wirral, children from the new estates roaming dark streets, in a thrill because you know you should be home, but you share a buzz with the street lamps, like they’re trying to show you all the mad shit you overlook in daylight, and that if you go home now you might miss a smackhead running in circles, or a lost tenner blowing against a curb, or a game of Truth and Dare with girls who ignore curfews. Shhh, Adam said, opening the unlucky door at the back of a care home, tiptoeing to the wallet left on an armchair that was so ugly it could only be sat in by retirees. We legged it. Two streets we passed, vaulting a five-foot wall that didn’t need to be vaulted, but that was the game, part of the chase with no chasers, Adam and Jay giggling ahead with me wondering if they were as scared as I was. And I was, feeling every gaze from every adult, knowing we’d be caught but coming up with my excuses before we were. I didn’t take the wallet. Adam did.
On a little piece of scrap paper, in the wallet, next to the debit card, was the PIN, so that night we took out three hundred and split it between us. One hundred each. Ninety-five after we celebrated with pizza, scranning it on the walk home and scrapping the boxes in different bins like we were scattering evidence. After a bollocking from our grandparents for coming in too late, they almost sent us to bed without dinner, Nan preaching, Grandad murmuring, until we were confronted with a full Sunday roast after each of us had smashed a ten-inch meat feast. Cheese in our throats, we gagged on spuds, laughing at the unintended punishment we were forced to sit through, Adam pretending two sprouts were a pair of tits, massaging them between his fingers. The mash was the hardest, Nan never managing to remove the lumps, but Jay was through it in minutes, face red, flipping off the final sausage before feeding it to the dog. Both of them had a bravado that took me years to try and imitate, faking it till I made it by the time university rolled around and I managed to leave them behind, stealing the best of who they were, congratulated on a confidence that now feels inauthentic.
The police are on their way, Grandad said the next morning, pacing the living room rug, watching as the snot popped from my nose and I wailed, imagining the disappointed stares from officers rather than a cold cell.
Adam and Jay didn’t cry. Staring guiltily into their laps, they’d both managed to achieve stage one of hard-man passivity: not showing that you give a fuck about punishment. Stage two is smacking your lips together while looking calm when you’re offered out for a fight and saying, Come on then. I’m twenty-six now and empathy has taught me to accept the consequences of my actions, but not tearing up when I’m in the wrong is something bravado couldn’t teach me. Turns out Adam wore his socks to bed with the money inside, then left a trail of tens on his way to breakfast, and the truth was out before I’d finished my toast.
Why’d you do it, love? Nan said, looking at me, because I was the only one showing regret.
Don’t know, I barely choked out.
I took the wallet, Adam said.
Then why doesn’t it look like you’re bothered? Grandad leaned in, using the fed-up tone that could only be used after raising two generations of children. Eh? Think it’s funny?
That was the mistake, asking if it was funny, because even though it wasn’t, implying that it could be is what makes it. Like when you’re in primary school sex education, and you’re allowed to say the word penis, but can’t because you’re too busy trying to swallow the laugh that’ll get you sent to the headmaster—that’s the laugh that got Adam grounded twice as long as Jay but me let off, Nan cradling my sorry-sodden body and admitting they lied about the police. Adam’s attitude was the problem, his disinterest in anything that wasn’t fun was what made girls adore him, but it’s also the reason you felt unnerved. His world was his circus, even if it hurt, even if he caught his parents with needles in their arms it didn’t matter as long as life never got serious. Serious to Adam was if the fun stopped, if a voice was raised against him, then the game ended. When you see your parents comatose from a hit, when your brothers and sisters are left to fend for themselves, when dealers break into your house because of a lay on that hasn’t been paid, then the choice is obvious: life can’t be real, it has to be a game.
Of course, I thought none of this at the time.
I’ve still got a tenner in my pillowcase, Adam said that night, the year all three of us shared a room, two years after he’d moved in. You guys can have three quid each.
Two bunkbeds, opposite each other, the one below Adam used occasionally by Stefan or Dean, Adam’s brothers who came years earlier for similar reasons.
Alright, fine. Ed, you can have four because of that sick performance. We got let off easier because of the tears.
Annoyed that the Christmas break was almost finished, I rolled over, burying my face in the pillow, but not before telling him to fuck off.
Ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t treat him any better after that unwarranted insult.
He’s lying in the road again, I said, looking through the living room blinds, little snitch that I was.
Sighing, Nan walked out, almost tripping on my toes because I followed in anticipation to watch a bollocking.
I’d like to say I was caring for his safety, but at this point I just wanted him gone. Locking the doors in the house became the norm, and if you failed to do that then it was your own fault if your stuff got nicked. I came home from school the week before to my door unscrewed, placed to the side, and my Xbox gone.
Turns out he swapped my two-hundred-quid Christmas present for a bag of Molly.
Get up, Adam, Nan said.
Get up, dickhead.
Lying completely still, he muttered no, his arms crossed over his chest like a fake dying Juliet. Eyes closed, he’d commit to that for an hour, or until the first car came.
Get up, dickhead, I repeated, grabbing the bottom of his jeans and trying to pull him to the curb.
Nan, tell him, he shouted.
Up, swerving past us, he giggled all the way to his room.
Nan, he needs to be in another home.
What are we supposed to do, love? Nan said, fed up of the same thing whined most days, me doing most of the whining.
After raising four of their own kids and seven grandkids, my grandparents had been spent emotionally and physically, the years to enjoy retirement instead experienced as a laborious daycare after too many police fines had destroyed any thoughts of a nest egg. Childcare costs were what fed us, clothed us, and paid for the Christmas presents. There was debt, teenagers to raise, and mental health wasn’t a popular enough subject for me to give a shit about. So I don’t know was about the only unhelpful answer I could give.
Adam’s ADHD tablets were getting flushed for about half a year before he realized he could exchange a few of the pills for tenner bags of weed, so the zombie they turned him into only gave us a few months of peace, and by the time he was fourteen the meds were stopped completely with the worry they were doing fuck all. The weekend benders on Lemon Haze seemed to calm the erratic behavior, but it’s then I realized that people react differently to drugs. The appetite-destroying-zombie-pills were replaced with spliffs, so anything edible was getting scranned, there’d be long movie bouts in his room, yet his energy still existed in buckets, destroying my belief that all stoners live in a constant wandering pot-fog. Obviously, he had to afford this new habit, so I was a fifteen-year-old still locking my door in fear that my DVDs would be pawned for pennies at CeX.
Where’s my DVDs?
Couldn’t tell you, he said, tying his shoelaces at the bottom of the stairs to go and meet Jay in the new estate.
I wasn’t invited out to play anymore.
You fucking took them. I’ll prove it.
Fuckin’ didn’t, he said, smirking at his shoe, flaunting level three of hard-man passivity: treating threats like jokes.
You’re a fucking dickhead.
Yeah, well, he said, standing up and opening the door, don’t care.
And with that, he was out, my awkwardness not only creating a distance with the cousin I disliked, but the brother I was close to. They managed to fit into a crowd that smoked and bunked school, having the stomach for confrontation, so I had no other option but to skulk back up the stairs and into my room, now no DVDs or Xbox. There was nothing to do except go to school, eat and sleep, until Dean visited for a few nights, at that point barely living with us by sleeping at the home of whatever girlfriend he had at the time.
We’re doing pushups, he said, six-foot, towering over me, and shirtless, already an assortment of tattoos he’d gotten in post-gig lunacies strewn across his arms and chest. We’re gonna do three sets of twenty.
Down in three, up in one. We repeated. Down in three, up in one. My arms hurt after four, but I was feeling exceptionally shitty about myself at this point. I wanted to be out, offered weed, not batting an eyelid at someone swinging for me. Down in three, up in one. Mind black, my throat was running out of air, but Dean said down in three, up in one. Six. Wrists shaking, I’d buckle after one more, I knew, but there was nothing to look forward to after, just sitting on my bed and staring at the wall, so one, two, three—one, he said, elbows ready to hit the carpet, but I forced, swinging for an imaginary antagonist until my arms were straight. Seven.
Good job, he said, finishing after ten, the cow head on his left forearm perspiring from the pressure. We’ll do this the few nights that I’m here.
We’ll ask Adam to join us. Ha. Can you imagine?
Don’t be a twat, he said, snapping at me with an honesty I’d only appreciate years later. He should be doing stuff like this. Poor lad is fucked up, needs proper counseling.
Still annoyed at the snap, I put myself in position for the next set, waiting for Dean to start counting.
One, two, three—one.
After two nights I said bye to the back of Dean’s guitar case, closing the front door for it only to be booted open an hour later by one of my uncles, me staring down at him from upstairs until Grandad pulled me back.
Into your room. Now, he said, shoving a book into my chest and pulling the door shut.
I can’t remember which uncle and Grandad can’t remember this happening, but that night I read one hundred pages of Clive Barker’s Sacrament, the front cover now tattooed on my arm, and I managed three sets of pushups.
And so began the two addictions that took me into adulthood.
Two years flew by in an obsessive no-sugar, gym-rat, roundhouse-kick frenzy that made me erratic. I was hitting the gym like people in finance hit cocaine, reading books in place of friends that could have been made, but luckily a swotty-gym-rat was just enough of a personality that by the time my eighteenth birthday rolled around in December, there were people to invite.
How much alcohol did you buy? Stefan said, looking over the assortment of sours, ales, ciders, liquors, and something called Dragon Juice that I bought because it had a cool can design.
Enough, I laughed.
Enough to get fucked up, he elbowed me in the shoulder, grabbing a can as he, Fred Astaire, jigged through the kitchen and necked half of it before finishing with a curtsy. It’s gonna be a mad one, la.
Stefan, Adam’s older brother, an enthusiastic powerhouse of an alcoholic at the time, found sobriety and God in prison. Now, that jig comes with a mantra, One is too many and a thousand is never enough, which philosophy had me in stitches when I heard he practically crowd-surfed to the bar for his coffee the night Liverpool won the 2019 Champions League. At the time though, life was for benders, his mum gone and dad in prison, sucking down a few bevvies seemed a sound idea rather than confronting that complicated mess.
Where’s Adam? I asked Nan, who had just walked into the kitchen after cooking a variety of table foods all day, hiding anything that could have been broken, specifically, and worrying about vegetarians, in general.
In his room, she said, unwrapping plastic cups. I’ve told him to behave. Go and talk to him, love, so he doesn’t feel left out. Also, she said, holding up a soup. Will those veggies eat this?
Does it have meat?
Then nah, I said, slowly making my way through the hallway, pausing to check myself out in the mirror and stare at my spiked-up hair, wonky eye, and acne that no amount of weights were going to fix. Managing to keep my gaze fixed to my neck, I flexed, rubbing my hands over my abs and wondered if I was going to get laid. Maybe, I thought, getting it over with and knocking on Adam’s door.
You alright, mate? I said, walking inside.
Yeah, man! Happy birthday, Ed.
Lying on his bed, he was smoking the last of a spliff, kitted out in a blue Adidas tracksuit.
Everyone will be here soon, I said, staring to the left of him.
How old are you now?
Eighteen, you dic…eighteen, lad.
You can drink now, can’t ya?
I can, mate, yeah.
That’s sick, that.
Not that it was surprising to him, he’d been drinking ever since he’d manage to get his hands on bottles, which weren’t hard to come by when living with addicts. Not long after learning how to walk, he downed his mother’s methadone, the nicotine patch equivalent for those recovering from smack. Rushed to hospital. Stomach pumped. Social workers then keeping a closer eye on what they suspected might not exactly be a stable environment.
Ed? he said, stumping out the dregs in an ashtray and sitting up.
I promise I won’t drink tonight. I’m really, really sorry if I do.
He meant it.
I know, mate.
You can batter me if I do. I’ll let ya.
He meant that too.
I won’t, mate, I said going to close the door but stopping. Just—try and relax, yeah?
Yeah yeah, I’ll do that, Ed, he said, placing some bud in a ginder. Thanks.
With that, I left him to his own devices, not because I was disinterested or hated him anymore, but I was scared. The realization of the boundaries Adam was willing to cross followed me from his room to the shit mix my big brother, Lee, was concocting in the conservatory.
I hope your lightweight friends can handle this, he said, tipping vodka into the Elmo red juices inside one of Nan’s crystal bowls.
What the fuck is in that?
Vodka, grapefruit, Malibu, Gin, and Cherryade. Used to make this as a bar rep in Beni all the time.
Lethal, he grinned.
The only thing me and Lee had in common is we both didn’t know our dads. Our lack of closeness came down to the lack of efforts made, and the ten-year age gap. The absence of paternal figures should have made us try harder, but admitting that I loved him was as hard as the body I was torturing into shape.
I’ll dish this out when everyone looks like they’re about to start necking, he said, placing his hand on my shoulder. Or you can when you’re struggling and need a conversation starter, he squeezed.
Right now, we’re blocked on each other’s Facebooks because of a Brexit argument.
The depths of that bowl promised a blackout night, which it turned out to be. Fights ensued after one of my mates broke the decking outside, Jay chasing him through the house, which I completely missed because I was checking in on the seventy partygoers that were supposed to be thirty. Watching Adam was hard, which I tried to do as much as I could because the year before he slipped a whole packet of tablets in the family stew. My older sister, Laura, was bringing her two-year-old, Harry, for dinner, then we saw the empty packet in the bin, a garlic crusher full of white residue next to the pan, and she wouldn’t visit until months after my eighteenth, when Adam was arrested.
Out of it, I lurched into the front garden, guests leaving and police cars pulling up. Standing by the door, fists clenched, Adam mumbled, I’m gonna kill him, I’m gonna kill him, as we watched Jay being handcuffed by an officer, then a taxi showed up, so I dived into the backseat with two of my friends, demanding Liverpool City Centre.
Seven people were thrown in the cells that night, all members of my family, and I sipped tea on the front porch as I watched them being dropped off the next morning, the most surprising, Dean, who had been cuffed after shouting in a bizzy’s face, IF YOU’RE GONNA ARREST THEM, YOU MIGHT AS WELL ARREST ME. Which the officer thought was a great suggestion.
It’s that girl again, I told Dean, the police gone and everyone else inside.
Her, I pointed to the girl across the street, who stole a quick glance in our direction before rushing with her pram down the road. Adam’s dating her, la.
She has a kid?
Pretty sure it’s a doll.
For weeks she’d been showing up, walking circuits through the street, just to get Adam’s attention.
For the doll? I said.
No, Dean laughed. For liking Adam.
Yeah, I thought … poor girl.
I could only sit there, wishing I paid more attention to him as the news repeated what we already knew.
Adam Lewis, eighteen, jailed for torture and murder of girlfriend.
The girl with the pram, who also had ADHD, and attended the same special school as he did. The television was hard to hear.
… was tied to a tree, sexually assaulted, strangled and attacked with a knife by Lewis.
Me, Dean, Jay, Grandad, and Nan all stood around the television, at my mother’s house in Liscard because our home was under quarantine.
… has learning difficulties and a low IQ, showed no emotion as the judge told him the pathologist’s report …
This isn’t real, Mum sobbed, walking in from the kitchen and handing me a cuppa, four years clean at that point and looking healthier than I’d ever seen her.
This isn’t real, Nan chorused.
Crazy, Jay said.
I feel sick, said someone.
… stabbed repeatedly and suffered other multiple knife wounds to her chest, abdomen and …
Switching off the TV, Dean screamed FUCK, then stormed out.
Back later, I said, chasing after him.
We walked for hours, talking, a habit we repeated for years until I moved to Japan. Misunderstood, I’d say, walking past council houses. No excuse, he’d ponder, staring across Liverpool’s Royal Albert Docks. Shouldn’t have taken him off Ritalin, I’d think out loud, stoned in his flat, missing my lectures. Should have been on something stronger, he’d mumble, lighting incense before rolling another spliff.
Liscard was quiet for the days we stayed there, except for the wind that rode over bin bags and shook creaky fences, memories of Adam hiding inside of air pockets just to pop, years later, when I was shaving, or having sex, or taking exams. Yet, his stories of mischief started to slip away, and my reactions to the trouble he caused have been harder to forget.
Nan, he needs to be in another home.
You’re a dickhead.
After Adam pleaded guilty to all charges, we were permitted to go back home, every room a makeshift bonfire of our property, and part of me wanted to strike a match and never return. Rummaging through the chaos of my room, I pulled out books, cleared a space in the corner, and started revising surrounded by stale laundry and pulled-out drawers.
Want a cup of tea, love? Nan asked, picking up the trails of clothes as she maneuvered her way to my corner.
Don’t burn yourself out.
Don’t have that luxury, do I? I asked, without so much as the common decency to look up.
I felt bad as soon as I said it, but I found apologies embarrassing, especially when it came to family. My cousins were my brothers, my grandparents my parents, and the confusion of the role I played it in all left me unfamiliar but comfortable enough to play the dutiful swot, which is well and good, but all that energy I spent trying to be better I could have spread by being more supportive.
Before I knew it, exams were over and I was moving to university, hugging Jay in the front garden as Grandad packed the car.
Later, bro, he said, grasping my hand. I’ll be visiting to meet all those uni birds.
Aw, really? Sure they’ll be thrilled, la.
Pulling out of the drive, 2012, I caught a glimpse of the lamppost in front of our gaff through the rearview mirror.
With hindsight, you see the things that you believe drove you down the straight and narrow. Miracles what the gym and a few good grades can do for your self-esteem, or gigs, or God, or even the occasional spliff, I think, sitting in my cardboard box of an apartment in Osaka. But I learnt that my respect for myself felt like a cheap imitation of confidence until I started caring about the self-worth of others.
Incense smoke rings the air to give some sense of home, Liverpool and the Wirral still full of my family and friends, their New Year’s Eve posts clogging up my Facebook timeline.
A few cards scatter my table, from my birthday in early December to Christmas. The walls are covered in photos from the past decade: mates made in uni, family, including one of Jay and his new baby girl, people I’ve worked with, people I’ve dated—an eclectic array of living, Dean would describe it.
Dialing my phone; it’s one minute to midnight.
Hello? He-ey, Ted, we’ve really got to fix this phone.
Nan, it’s me, Eddy, I laugh, knowing it’s never the phone.
Can you see me?
No, Nan, I look at the screen. You have to press the camera button.
Aw, ey, we have to get a new phone, Ted.
Sending a video chat invitation through WhatsApp, I scroll Facebook and wait, seeing a picture of my niece, caption: Look who I get to spend New Years with? Followed by about ten emojis, a bandwagon of expression Jay jumped right on, his favorites including love face, eggplant, and shifty eyes.
Eddy, can you see me?
Nostrils appearing on the screen, she pulls the phone back to show Grandad sitting in the background.
Yeah, I can see you.
HAPPY NEW YEAR! they both shout, the camera now facing the ceiling.
Nan, your camera.
Wait, she says, the phone being passed from under chin to Grandad, the camera going off.
Happy New Year, boy. Out celebrating?
Nah, I say, putting the phone to my ear. Christmas was way too heavy, so I need to save.
Save me from here, would ya? Ya nan has been sick all week and I’ve had to cook. Imagine that, a bricky cooking?
Heartbreaking, I laugh, scrolling past a family photo of Laura and her three boys, Harry now ten and just as tall as me. Love react. You should go down the Armchair and have a few pints, Grandad.
I’m one of those passionate internal fires now, mate. I never go out.
Go on, I say, realizing that ever since I left, I’m always pushing him to go and get a bit pissed, thinking that he needs it, but maybe he doesn’t.
We’ll go when you’re back home, love. And let me put ya back on to your nan. She’ll start smacking me if she doesn’t get to talk to you the most.
Happy New Year, Grandad.
You too, love.
Everyone’s writing about the decade, the highs, the lows, cheesy captions over posed photos, and it’s making me think that a snapshot of a boy swinging from a lamppost, caption, Fuck you, 2019, would become a meme.
Hey, Nan. What you doing?
It’s still daytime here, and I’m as ill as anything. What’s this about you blocking Lee on Facebook?
He told you? I laugh, kind of forgetting that I had.
He says it’s over all this politics.
It was something stupid, I say, clicking Settings, Blocking, Lee Christie—Unblock.
Don’t be fighting over something silly.
I’m sorry, I say, seeing that Stefan has been tagged in a post, God bless xxx.
God bless, lad. Love react.
Don’t worry, love. You’re liking Japan? You’re having a good time?
I’m trying my best. It’s just that, you know, it’s … fucking boring, I laugh.
The echo that comes through the phone is a mixture of Grandads and Lee’s chortles.
Nothing like this mad house, is it? Nan teases.
Not even close, I say, feeling I’ve given it enough time. Heard from Adam?
Mmm, she sighs, an incense fog folding in front of the laptop’s screen. Not for a few months now. I sent him twenty quid for Christmas but heard nothing since September.
A pathology report revealed he has the mental age of nine, the same age he moved in with us, which I mention as if in passing.
That’s right, yeah, Nan says. How long has it been since he, erm—
Nearly nine years.
Nine-nine-nine! Grandad shouts from the background. Call the police!
Smoke in my eyes, we all agree that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, then I hang up.