We were a family of two adults and seven kids in a small, three bedroom house. It was such a tight fit you had to lean against the front door to close it, like an overstuffed suitcase. And the pressure of that – the fairness or otherwise of who got what and why – really showed itself in the fights we had over space.
Take the walls. Me and my two brothers shared a room. One wall was taken up by the windows that overlooked the front garden, which left the wall space above each bed free for our posters. Which was clearly demarcated, so it should have been fine.
I was about eleven when my eldest brother Pete was studying to go to medical school. He had one huge chart above his bed, a waxed cotton banner with an annotated human skeleton on the left and the musculature / vasculature on the right. I liked it. It gave me a kick to lie there and be reminded what we were like under our blankets, under our skin. Like those medieval tombs, where the knight sleeping on the top has a wormy skeleton carved underneath, to remind everyone that you can’t be a knight all your life, that you’d better make your peace with God and party while you can. And anyway, it was cooler than my sisters’ David Cassidy posters.
Mick, in the bed to my right, was into Astronomy. He had star charts and photos of the moon landing. He said he was going to be an astronaut, but I couldn’t see it. Not with his eyes. He’d be squinting at the console somewhere over the Sea of Tranquility, push the wrong button and they’d all fly out of the hatch. Mick was also into war gaming at that time. Now and again he’d recreate a famous battle on a large sheet of ply he’d covered in chicken wire and plasticine. Sometimes we’d let him set it all up on the table under the window, which was a concession in the space wars, but sometimes you had to give a little to get a little.
My wall was covered in a mural of motorbike pictures I’d cut out of Superbike magazine and Motorcycle News. It was pretty extensive. I was as proud of it as the army surplus jacket with the Harley Davidson patch on the back I wore to my Saturday morning market job .
One night, I went up to bed and found that someone had ripped the front wheel off one of my Laverda Jotas. I thought it was Mick, exacting revenge because he thought I’d been playing with his tanks and screwing up the Battle of El Alamein. So in the spirit of tit-for-tat we followed ruthlessly at that time, I tore off a chart he had on the wall – Stars of the Northern Hemisphere – and threw it in the bin. Then forgot all about it. The next day when I came home from school, I found he’d ripped down about half of all my pictures. And I was so blinded with rage I tore ALL his posters off the wall – Neil Armstrong, Patrick Moore, the lot – then found a big sheet of paper, wrote the word CUNT across it in black marker, and stuck that up instead. He came into the room, saw it, punched me full in the mouth. I went downstairs crying to mum. She came upstairs and swept all his tanks and soldiers onto the floor, which was how the North African campaign ended, in our family, at least.
When Pete came home from Guy’s that first term he brought a skeleton with him, which seemed to make sense. I thought it would be like the comedy skeleton in the student doctor’s room in Rising Damp. Instead, it was stowed inside a compact wooden box, the kind of thing you might keep a nautical instrument in, or maybe a french horn. It was too big to go under his bed, so it went under mine instead.
‘You don’t mind, do you?’ he said, shoving it in.
I shrugged, trying to look cool. I was terrified, though. A skeleton? Under my bed?
That night, I dared myself to take out the box and look through it by torchlight.
I was nervous, but in the end it was a strangely flat kind of exhumation. Instead of taking a shovel into a graveyard, all I had to do was hang over the side of the bed, slide the box out, and then haul it up onto the covers. The box had an easy-flip, brass catch top and bottom. The bones inside felt like old plastic toys, surprisingly light and dry, all jumbled up. The skull took up most of the box. In fact, it looked a little like a box itself, the top of the cranium neatly sawn through, the bony lid loosely held in place with two brass clasps where the ears would have been. I put the skull carefully to one side.
The bones of the hand were wired together. I tipped my head back, rest it on my face for a minute, then put it with the skull and carried on rifling through the box, like a mechanic looking for a wrench.
The spine was incredible, like a weighty, articulated snake. I couldn’t believe I had such a thing in me. It just didn’t seem possible.
I turned to the skull. Rest it on my knees. Shone my torch into the sockets, then took off the top and looked inside. Felt the smooth inner surfaces, the grooves and notches, the little holes like burrows where the nerves and blood vessels had snuck in and out. It felt oddly intimate, like breaking into a house when the people had left. This was what life was all about, I thought. This was the actual control room, where the soul of this person used to live, where they looked out on the world. And after all that – all those hopes and plans and dreams – what had it come to? A dry teaching aid in the hands of a kid with a Pifco torch.
I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I put the bones back in their box. This wasn’t a toy. This was the mortal remains of a real person, someone like me, who climbed trees and played football, who could sing the entire opening credits of Hong Kong Phooey. Someone who lived a while, thought about stuff, did or didn’t do stuff. Watched their eldest brother go off to university, come home a couple of times, then never again. Wore a combat jacket with a Harley Davidson patch.
I shut off the light.
Went to sleep.
It took a while.