She had the board game Dream Phone and a brother who slept in her bed.
“Only sometimes,” Julie said reaching for the box filled with prospective suitors. The only thing that shared my bed was the cat and he was annoying enough not to mind squeezing a big brother in there. And her brother was older and much bigger than mine; teenage, all spots and sprouting facial hair.
“My brother has his own room.” I thought big brothers loved their privacy. Mine taped a keep out sign to his bedroom door, glaring at me as he did it.
“So does mine. He just comes into my room sometimes after my parents have gone to sleep.”
“Does he have bad dreams?” I had a recurring dream that my family drove away forever without me as I watched through the letter box, locked inside the house.
“I think he likes sleeping here; with me.” She placed the board between us, kept her eyes down organising the cards. “He doesn’t stay all night.”
“I suppose that’s alright then.” I looked at the handsome faces exotically named Carlos and Jamal. They smiled up at us from the plastic coated cards, smooth and perfect. I picked up the shiny pink phone, held it mute to my ear.
“Hello Spencer, I think I love you!” I shouted into the receiver. Julie laughed, reached across the board and kissed me. Her mouth open, wetting a circle around my closed lips. Her hot breath steamed into my eyes, smelling faintly of the orange ice lollies we had earlier. It was a hot summer day, the lollies had leaked sticky into our hands.
“You’re supposed to open your mouth.” She said sitting back on her haunches looking disappointed, just like Teacher the day I called someone gay.
“Do you know what that word means?” Teacher looked down at me like I was the heal of a loaf of bread, good for nothing but stuffing.
“No…Yes, yes I do.”
“What does it mean then?”
“She likes other girls.”
“Sit down; I’ll talk to you later.” We never talked about it again. She didn’t even tell my mother.
“I didn’t expect it, sorry.” I said to Julie, even though I didn’t know what I was apologising for.
“You’ll know for next time.”
“Next time you do it?” She was what my mother called developed. We were only ten but somehow she already looked grown. Her chest and shoulders were wide, she already had boobs and her hair was sleek and stayed where she put it. Mine loomed on top of my head like a bramble bush, tangled and twisted under a yellow velvet hairband.
On Monday in school the news had leaked out about the brother in Julie’s bed. Julie told everyone when I went out with Carol Simmons to bang the dusters on the walls in the lunch yard. Carol had asthma and wasn’t supposed to be banging dusters she said, so she sat in the crook of a tree while I banged them all clean myself, coughing and spluttering in the chalky cloud. It was only the morning and my school jumper was already filthy, along with the chalk dust Carol had given me her lunch milk. I drank it down one handed while I banged and dribbled it all down my navy front. My mother would have a fit later, sponging away at the jumper viciously, throwing me dirty looks while I’d try to look as innocent as possible mumbling out a few sorry’s before leaving her to it.
Carol and I walked back to the classroom as slowly as we could. We placed one foot directly in front of the other foot, side to side, trying to cover every inch of the yard.
“Tane Lordan, get inside!” Miss. Crowley hung out her classroom window hollering at me like a fishwife.
“What about Carol?” I wasn’t going down by myself, milk bribe or no milk bribe.
“What are you on about Tane? Get in!” Carol had seen Miss. Crowley skulking and legged it, without me noticing a thing. I must’ve been talking to myself for a good minute.
“I’m going to kick that Carol Simmons right up the hole.” I steamed up the corridor and burst into the classroom. I scanned for Carol; there was no teacher and a crowd around Julie, who was crying. Carol had a big sympathetic head up on her.
“You’re some cow leaving me out there. Miss. Crowley is going telling Mother Ursula she says.” She said nothing of the sort but facing Mother Ursula was a serious deal. She was the convent principal, about one hundred years old and about seven foot; she wore a full habit that pinched tight around her hairy chin.
“Shut up will ya, Man? Julie’s crying.” Carol grimaced at me. The girls at school had found out my name meant man in Māori after someone’s mother’s brother’s wife’s friend from New Zealand saw my name under a class photo line-up. The girls said I’d the name because I was born a boy but the doctors cut my willy off when my mother cried that she wanted a girl. Some days I forgot it was a rumour and would rummage around down there when I was alone searching for it.
Sandra Oliver was leaning in, a confused look spread across her face, “Sorry now, but why would your brother be getting in your bed?” Out of everyone, I thought Sandra would be the least confused. People said her family was so poor; they all shared the same bed. When her mother called out their door into the estate one day, “get in, dinner’s on the table”. Sandra shouted back, “but Mam, sure we’ve no table.”
“He doesn’t stay all night,” she repeated what she had said to me on Saturday.
“Does he not sleep well?” Sandra asked as Julie sucked up her snotty nose.
“He doesn’t come in to sleep.”
“Then why does he be in your bed at all?” We were all confused by now but Sandra was the only one brave or thick enough to keep asking questions. My mother had warned me, “men are not to be trusted.” She said that was why she didn’t have one, not because she couldn’t get one.
Julie started to bawl, getting into hysterics so we didn’t know what she was saying and I could tell most people, like myself, were losing interest.
“Where’s the teacher?” I asked to draw attention away from Julie and her sleeping arrangements.
“She’s gone to get the video.” Carol nodded at my silent shocked expression.
The video was about sex. Not sex sex, they wouldn’t show us that until next year, our last year in primary school. This year, they’d show us bits about periods and hormones and boobs and body hair. That’s what my sister Orchid told me. Everyone said she’d a beautiful name, while saying to me “Tay-in is it”. “No”, I’d say every bloody time, “ta, like short for thanks, then neigh like the noise a horse makes; TA – NEIGH.”
“The teacher said she was going out to get the video and once she’d gone Julie started crying, saying she didn’t need a video because she’d a brother who slept in her bed.” Sandra whispered to Carol and me, we’d missed all the action outside getting early on set lung disease.
“What would her brother know about us getting periods and boobs?” If my brother came into my room at night trying to tell me about that stuff, I’d have him sent down to the red brick where they kept all the loonies.
“Julie said she already has her period. Well, once she bled from down there after her brother had been in her bed.” Sandra tried to cut the ends of her hair with safety scissors.
“She must be eating a lot of hormone fed chicken.”
“Ah jaysus Carol, will ya give over with the chicken?” The month before this woman came in for the day from an organic farm. She had us planting seeds and told us that the chicken we were eating was no good. That regular supermarket chicken was going to give girls their periods and boobs when they were like six.
“All she wants is me spending half my wages on her fancy chicken. What, in the name of God, does a chicken want with freedom?” My mother said when I told her. Carol had stopped eating meat altogether since; she’d been outside everyday talking softly to the seeds and eating carrot sticks, shaking her head and tutting at my jam sandwiches.
“There’s no chicken in jam, Carol.”
“There’s no goodness either,” she thought she was so wise, waving hummus at me.
“Julie’s still crying,” Sandra said with a yawn, “I dunno what to be saying to her. She says don’t tell the teacher or they’ll be after her brother.”
“They who?” The classroom door swung open, and my question hung unanswered as the school’s TV and video was wheeled into the room. The creaky wheels reverberated in the air dense with anticipation, and the odd sniffle from Julie.
“An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leaitreas?” Julie stood to ask.
“Go on, but don’t be long. Ye must all be here for this.” The teacher started fiddling with the TV remote.
“Teacher,” Sandra piped up after Julie closed the bathroom door, we all stared at her solid as statues, “Julies says she doesn’t need to see… the video, because she has a brother who sleeps in her bed and now she knows all about… periods.” Sandra turned to look at me, “She told Tane on Saturday and the rest of us today. She probably thought because Tane has such a big gob she’d end up telling everyone anyway.”
“Me? I’ve no big gob! I wasn’t even here teacher; I was outside banging the dusters.”
“And Miss Crowley tells me you were taking you’re time about it.” The teacher said staring out at me then Sandra from over the rim of her glasses, perched at end of her nose. “And Sandra, everyone needs to see the video.”
Julie walked back in, her face a bit wet. She must’ve tried to splash away the redness from all her crying.
“What’s this I hear Julie Smith, that you think you don’t need to see the video?” Julie stalled.
“Sandra says you don’t think you need to see it. You already know all about it. Why don’t you share with the class what it is that you think you know?”
“I…don’t know anything Teacher.”
“Well then, you better sit down with everyone else and learn something.” The thirty of us in the classroom drooped our heads like snowdrops so as not to catch Julie’s eye.
That day we learnt all about our periods, all about the tubes and womb inside us. I was never invited over to Julie’s again. Nobody was. And loads of people wanted to, a little to play Dream Phone but mostly to see the brother who slept in her bed.
Emer Lyons is an Irish writer living in Dunedin, New Zealand. She has had poetry, flash fiction and short stories published and short-listed in Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand in journals such as Turbine, London Grip, Anomaly and The Stony Thursday. She has appeared on shortlists for the 2017 Fish Poetry Competition, the 2016 Bridport Prize, the 2016 takahé short story competition, 2017 takahé essay competition and was one of the Fortune Theatre's emerging playwrights in 2016.