Dear World, we are trapped in one of those moments that seems to stretch out forever. Leon, one foot on the landing, one foot on the last stair. Joe, frozen next to the toilet, so still, so silent, he looks like a dummy, like a waxwork image of himself. I watch the colour drain from his face. I watch his eyes widen into impossibly huge pools of horror. When I turn my head it feels like it is in slow motion. Leon is frozen too. His jaw juts out. His mouth disappears. It only takes him a second, a moment, to see Joe, to see me, and to see what is happening. And then he moves. He moves fast. He comes at us, he comes at us like a bear, like a bulldozer, like something impossibly fast and big and angry, and I find myself shrinking back against the wall. I feel him whoosh past me and I hear him snarling; “what the fuck are you doing?”
Joe does not get time to speak. Leon stares once, turning his head quickly, seeing the toilet, and seeing what is already lost. And then he roars again, but the words are not decipherable. He is on top of Joe. He is like a building falling down. I see Joe hurled across the room. I hear the dull thud as he hits the wall. I see his face screwed up in shock and pain as he doubles up on himself. I think he looks like a rag doll.
Leon snatches the broken, empty bags up from the floor. I am flattening myself against the landing wall. I watch him staring at them in utter horror. “What the fuck?” he is screaming. “What the fuck? What the fuck have you done?” It all seems to hit him then. The enormity of what he has lost, of what Joe has taken from him, of what it all means. I watch his face cave in on itself. It is like his forehead crashing into his eyes, and his eyes explode, and pure evil rage erupts from them, and his mouth spreads across his face, showing all of his teeth, as he spins around to see Joe. “You fucking idiot!” he is screaming. “You stupid fucking idiot what the fuck have you done!” These words, and others, collide into each other as he screams, spittle flying from his twisted mouth, they become one jumbled stream of obscenity and fury.
He steps over the toilet and reaches down to grab Joe by the front of his shirt and then he just starts punching him. It is horrible. I can see his fist, he pulls it back, then shoves it in, pulls it back, thrusts it in. I can hear the sound and the sound is almost wet. Before I know it I have moved, somehow I have got behind Leon, and I try to pull him away by his shirt, and when I can’t move him an inch, I grab at his hand, the one he is punching with. I find it and hold it, but it gets away from me and goes in again, and the next few disgusting minutes become all about me trying to chase that fist. I grab for it, I miss it, I grab for it, I can’t hold onto it. I do all I can to get that fist away from Joe.
At one point I nearly succeed, I hang onto the fist so tightly, that when he pulls it back to strike again, I am still on the end of it and I go with it. I end up toppling onto Joe, who is covering his face, trying to twist away, trying to protect himself. Then I feel Leon wrenching me away by my arm, and suddenly I am flying, I am being propelled, and I cannot stop myself, I cannot slow myself down. I land outside the bathroom, shaking and sobbing and screaming. I turn around and I see Leon is sitting on Joe. Joe has no chance of escape. Leon is holding onto him with one hand, and punishing him with the other. I see that awful fist flying in again and again. “Stop it!” I hear myself screaming this out, so loud it hurts my lungs. I scramble to my feet, desperate to beat that fist. I fling myself back at Leon. I am clinging to his back, scratching at him, pulling his hair, tearing at his shirt.
He ignores me for as long as he can. I am screaming and sobbing. I can see Joe’s face is covered in blood. There is blood sprayed up the wall behind him. There is blood on Leon’s fist, but still he does not stop. “You’re killing him! You’re killing him!” I am screeching into his ear. I rake my nails into his head, plunging them in. I can see that Joe has gone all floppy. That Leon is holding him up to punch him.
Leon cries out in rage and frustration, and stops punching Joe. He grabs hold of my hands and pulls them violently out of his head. I feel something smack me in the side of the face, and I am flying again. When I hit the bathroom floor I am momentarily stunned into shock. I am just blinking. Blinking at the pale green lino. Blinking at the stained carpet on the landing. The little row of cars that Tommy has lined up right next to the wall. I try to lift my head and feel rockets taking off in my brain. I can hear myself grunting and groaning, as I try to get myself up. I plant my hands firmly on the floor and try to push myself up onto my knees. I hold onto my face. It is pulsing with sharp pain.
There is no more screaming now. No one is screaming. The only sound I can hear is the noise Leon makes as he beats Joe. It is like an ‘oompff’. I sit back on my feet; I hold my face and turn around.
Leon is standing now. Standing over Joe and kicking the shit out of him.
“No!” I am screaming again now. My throat stretches and yawns as the wails rip from me. “No, you’re killing him! You’re fucking killing him! Leon stop! Stop! Stop!”
I find myself back on my feet. I hold my head with both hands while I steady myself, and the room dips and rocks under my feet. A hand pressed to each side of my face I stumble forward bellowing; “Leon please stop! Stop! Stop!”
Jesus Christ, Joe is just lying there. He does not even flinch, or move, or cry when Leon kicks him. Leon’s foot is flying in and out like his fist did. I think, he’s killed him, he’s fucking killed him! I scream out, something feral and wordless and I land on his back, tearing at his hair, and digging into his face. I get him away from Joe, because he turns around and steps away, and in seconds I am slammed back into the floor. I feel my spine crack against the lino. I feel my bones jolted and jarred.
He is down and on top of me, and I see his face. His face is full of torment and rage and revenge and regret and violence, and I shrink away, I turn away, I try to roll away from him. He pins me down and his face is just above mine. “Fuckin little bitch,” he pants down onto me, his big chest heaving up and dropping down upon mine. That is all he says, but I know what he means. I know what he thinks I am. His spit drops down onto my cheek. His chest is crushing mine.
I feel his hand down on the waistband of my shorts, and then I hear another voice, crying out. It is Travis. “What the fuck? What the fuck?” I feel Leon moving away from me, but he does not get very far before he is sent flying backwards. I hear him crash into the toilet and then he is up again, and I scramble out of his way. I press myself up against the door, and watch Leon shoving his way past Travis, who is staring at the huddled shape of Joe.
“He flushed it all!” Leon cries, as he gets past Travis. “He fucking flushed it all!” He tears down the landing. We hear his feet pounding the stairs. Travis looks at me, eyes and mouth wide open.
“Joe,” I say to him, crawling forward. “Joe!”
Travis snaps into action. He kneels down and pushes Joe’s shoulder. Joe plops onto his back, one arm flung across his chest. Travis slides one hand under his head, and his eyes move rapidly over Joe’s still body. “Joe? Joe?”
“Call an ambulance!” I scream, pushing him out my way. He scrabbles across the floor, uses the door to pull himself up, and dashes away with his phone in one hand. I am left alone with Joe. I put my hands on his chest. I try to feel him breathing.
“Joe? Joe? Joe wake up! Wake up!” I shake him gently. He looks dead. His face is awash with blood. His mouth is open and I can see his teeth and they are stained red, strung with stretchy trails of pink saliva. His nose is clogged with blood. And his head. His head.
“They’re on the way!” Travis bundles back into the bathroom, skidding down onto his knees. I take Joe’s hand and hold it tightly between mine. “Is he breathing!”
“I don’t know!”
“Shit,” Travis lays his head down upon Joe’s chest, and his face tightens in concentration. I look at him in desperation, but his brow just furrows into lines of frustration. “I don’t know!” he cries at me. “I don’t know!”
“His pulse,” I remember, and place his wrist between my finger and thumb. I hold my breath and pray for there to be something, anything in there, but I can’t, I can’t find anything. I wait and wait and listen and count, and there is nothing, nothing, no beat, no throb, no sign. “He’s not breathing!” I hear my voice screaming at Travis. Travis stares at me. He does not know what to do. “He’s not breathing!”
I don’t really know what happens next. I feel like I am outside of my body and looking in. At some point I seem to be pressing my lips down upon Joe’s, begging him to wake up. And then, out of nowhere, the room is suddenly full of people, of strangers. I am gently pulled away, and neon coats surround Joe, so that I cannot see him anymore. I am pulled out of the room. I am crying. I want my mum.
I find myself leaning against the landing wall, my knees too weak to hold me up. One of the paramedics is speaking to me softly, and touching my face and asking if it hurts. It does not hurt. It feels numb. I can hear Travis talking behind me, to somebody else. I can’t see Joe. They are lifting him up and carrying him out. I try to speak to him as he is bundled past me, but they are all in the way, and they are moving with a terrifying sense of urgency, and they are shouting and calling to each other, using the kind of terms I remember hearing in ‘Casualty’ and ‘ER’. “I want to go with him,” I say to the woman who is with me.
“They’ve got to go quick,” she tells me, and I just stare at her, not understanding. I understand when I hear the ambulance screaming out of the street. I imagine the neighbours, at their windows, wondering who is ill, what has happened.
I am led out of the house. I think Travis is coming too. But then he seems to change his mind, and he goes back, back up the stairs. When I step out of the house, the day is impossibly bright; it is almost white, the sun burns down on us all. There is a police car parked out there. They say they will drive Travis and me to the hospital. I am numb, in shock, unable to speak. All I can hear is my own voice, screaming at Leon to stop. It fills my head completely. All I can see is the blood. The blood that Leon has punched out of his brother’s body. The blood that has erupted from Joe’s face, from his head, and I shake my head, and I say to him, please don’t die, please don’t die, please don’t die…….
The waiting room is full of bleeding people. Moaning people. Swearing, complaining people. Drunk people. Little kids whining and wailing. Old people swaying in and out of life. I sit in a hard plastic chair next to Travis, who is as white as a sheet. We do not look at each other, or speak to each other. The police have asked me twice who attacked Joe, and I have not said. The doctors have told the police I am probably in shock and they need to give me time. “We don’t have time,” I hear the older policeman answer quietly, as he gives up and walks away. “The git could be anywhere by now…”
I am snapped back into imagining Leon. His fists smeared in Joe’s blood. Where would he go? Who would he run to like that? I am sat on a plastic chair, the kind of chairs that are linked together by metal, so that people cannot pick them up and throw them at each other. This is a horrible place, I think, staring down at the floor, trying not to meet anyone’s eye. This is a horrible place full of horrible people, and Joe should not be here. Please don’t die, please please please, don’t you die.
“I want my mum,” I say to no one. Travis shifts next to me. He coughs, clearing his throat.
“Didn’t anyone call her?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you want me to call her?”
He gets up slowly, unsurely, sliding his trainers out across the slippery floor, and gripping the handrails of the chair to push himself up. As he walks past me, I look up, and I see the artwork of Joe’s blood all over his t-shirt. I look down at mine, and see that I have been daubed as well. I drop my hands into my lap, and I twist my hands into my stained clothes. Tears fall from my eyes as I stare down into the redness. My tears mix with his blood and I rub it into my fingers. His lifeblood, I think, and I feel the unbelievable swell of fear and grief trying to take me down. I am holding onto myself. Just. Just don’t die, don’t you dare die, just please don’t you dare die.
Dear World, time does strange things when you are waiting like that. I try not to look at the clock on the wall. I try not to look up, every time a name is called, and a broken person gets up and shuffles off to be fixed. I try not to stare when another emergency is rushed in on a stretcher. The sound of the paramedic’s shoes slapping against the tiles echoes around the waiting room. Travis takes up his lonely post next to me. I can feel his questions, but he does not speak. I can feel his misery, and most of all I can feel his guilt. Believe me, I can fucking smell his guilt. I watch him twisting and wringing his hands together. Most of the time he just stares down at the floor, his head hanging low.
When my mum arrives, I am not aware of her until she is on top of me. Travis gets up quickly to give up his seat, and she plops into it, simultaneously enveloping me in her arms. I curl into them like a tiny child and I just sob and shake, and she strokes my hair, and kisses my head, and my face, and she says over and over again; “he’ll be all right, he’ll be all right, I promise you.”
“He wasn’t breathing,” I whisper this into her hair. I feel her heart stop, and then start again.
“I’ll try to find out what’s happening,” she tells me, and pats me firmly on the back, letting me know I can do this. “Has anyone spoken to you?”
“Nothing,” says Travis. Mum looks up at him, standing there awkwardly, suddenly looking much younger than normal. She gives him a brave smile, but her eyes say something else. She pulls away from me, clutches my shoulder and squeezes it tight.
“I’ll be right back,” she says. “I’ll see what I can find out. Don’t move.”
When she has gone, Travis sits back down, but he just perches on the edge this time, ready to spring back up on her return. He rests his elbows on his knees, and
clasps his hands together in front of him. His hair is darker than Joe’s and tumbles down over his forehead. I watch him. I say nothing. Eventually he coughs again and he says; “I got rid of it all.”
“What?” My voice is a whisper. A croak. My throat raw from screaming.
“The stuff,” he whispers back, not looking at me. “All of it. I finished off what Joe started. It’s gone.”
I stare at him. At the back of his head. At his neck. I can see the top of the tattoo he has curling up from under his t-shirt. He had it done when he turned eighteen. Barbed wire and roses. He looks back at me then. I see his eyes for the first time. He rubs at his chin with one hand. “Good,” I tell him.
“Did Leon hurt you?” he asks me then, his eyes dipping once, and then rising to meet mine. I see him bite his lip with his teeth and then let go. “Before I got there?”
“I tried to stop him,” I say, staring back at him. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t stop him.”
We both look up as my mother returns. She slips in beside me as Travis rears up again. There is a lost, desolate look to her, that I just cannot bear. “Mum?”
She takes my hand and holds it between hers. “They’re working on him,” she tells me, her voice quivering.
“What does that mean?”
“It means, that he has a lot of bleeding coming from his brain, and they are working on him, to stop the bleeding. He also has some internal bleeding they are trying to control.”
I glance at Travis long enough to see him dropping his face into his hands. I look back at my mum. “That doesn’t sound good.”
“They deal with this every day love,” she tells me, as if that somehow makes it less bad. “They know what they are doing. He is in good hands.”
“That’s what they say on TV.”
“Love,” she says, squeezing my hand. “I’ve called his mum and Mick. They’re on their way. The policeman wants to talk to you again. Are you up to it?”
“It was Leon,” I say then, and I look at Travis as he reappears from his hands. He looks white. I expect to see him shake his head at me or something, but he does not. He just looks resigned, and his shoulders drop. I look back at mum and she is staring at me very intently.
“Darling,” she says to me. “You have to tell that to the policeman. You have to tell him exactly what happened.”
“Leon beat him up,” I say to her. “I thought he was going to kill him.” I collapse into her then. It all gets too much. Bleeding from his brain? His brain? Bleeding internally? From where? What does that mean? Something inside him must be broken for blood to come out, is that what it means? Like what? I bury my head in her shoulder. Like his heart? Can his heart bleed? His lungs? Was that why he stopped breathing? I cry so hard I cannot breathe. I feel her arms around me, so tightly, and her kisses and her voice, and I know what she is thinking, I know what she is feeling, like she has told me a thousand times before, ‘if I could take the hurt away for you, I would.’ I used to think that was stupid. I used to think it meant nothing. Like saying ‘do one for me’ when someone says they are going to do a wee. But now I get it. She would take all the hurt from me, and absorb it into her, soak it up and take it, and make it hers, because that is how much she loves me. And if I could, I would take all the hurt from Joe, all the leaking blood, all the damaged parts, everything they are trying to fix, I would take it from him, I would take it if I could.
“I don’t want him to die,” I moan into my mother’s shoulder, and it feels like it is just us, and the hospital around us does not exist, and neither does Travis, because it is just us, entwined and holding on tight. Holding onto life. “I don’t want him to die,” I tell her over and over, “please, please, don’t let him die, please don’t let him die….I love him, I love him..”