By Joanna Chen
I remember the moments before learning of my brother’s death. It’s mid-December. I do not know why I have been called out of class but I register the horrified look on the face of the secretary as she enters my classroom. I am standing at the window, looking out at the dull fir trees swaying in the wind. I turn around when she calls my name and follow her obediently. Schoolgirls in bottle-green uniforms move about from class to class, ascending the stairs on the right, descending on the left. I am descending. One foot after another, very slowly. My hand lingers on the smooth, polished wood of the banister at the bottom of the stairs. The secretary leads me to the waiting room opposite the office. The pale oak door is closed. I place one hand on the circular door knob, turn and enter. They are waiting for me inside: Headmistress. Mother. Father. There is a pause as they look up at me, standing there, my hand still on the door knob.
Six years in this school and I have never been in this room. There are green easy chairs in a half-circle. On a low table is a silver tray with cups, saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl decorated with rosebuds. Sugar in lumps. The headmistress wears cat-woman eyeglasses. I offer a small smile. I giggle. I am fifteen.
And then a sentence with words one after the other strung together, each word falling heavy into the air. My brother Andrew, not yet eighteen, is dead. A coach came out of a side-street into the main road and my brother, on his blue motorbike, hit the side of the coach head-on. And I imagine him speeding along, his first week with the new motorbike, freedom at last, no more standing at the bus stop in the cold of northern England, no more waiting for our father’s red Rover to drive by after work to pick him up, no more.
That last time I saw Andrew was in the mirror, three hours earlier. He was leaving the house, and stopped at my bedroom door. I was adjusting my school tie and did not bother turning around to face him. It would ruin the knot. I remember his face in the mirror, his hair thick like a bush, his hands on the keys, his stubby fingers, dirty fingernails. And now in reverse. His dirty fingernails, stubby fingers, his hands on the keys, his hair thick like a bush, his face in the mirror. I always go back to this moment.
I bolt the waiting room. Outside it’s a cold day. Snow. Slush. Crunch under shoes. No coat. My finger traces a word on the window pane. Andrew. I am standing outside the school building, looking in. The separation has begun but people are looking for me already. My green gabardine coat is handed to me, and my school bag. I am led to the car.
We drive first to the Goodmans, friends of my parents. Mrs. Goodman tells me tea with sugar is good for shock and I should have a couple. She leans her stumpy body over me, sitting where I was put, and reaches for the sugar bowl with her right hand. She drops one lump into the tea and then another. The first one splashes faintly as the white lump hits the milky, still- steaming water. The second one she drops in more gently, more reverently, as if the little square of crystal is a child that might fall over. I say nothing. I hate sweet tea.
She hands me a magazine, tells me to stir the tea, passes me the spoon as if she is not sure I understand her and returns to the kitchen, where my parents are sitting. I need to speak to your parents, she nods at me, thundering along, already halfway across the living room with the white carpet.
I slide out of the chair onto the carpet, pull down the magazine and place the cup and saucer beside me. I’m still in my school uniform; we have not gone home yet. My shoes are by the front door; the Goodmans are very particular about their white carpeting. My socks are dirty. I had been in a hurry that morning to dress and grabbed socks from the day before.
Sitting in the living room will be quite a treat for you, she tells me earlier, patting me on the shoulder, and I wonder exactly what kind of a treat she is referring to. I suddenly feel very tired and want to go home. Perhaps he is there, after all, and he’ll punch me in the arm and tell me I’m an idiot. Continue Reading…