February 4, 2021
Volume 1, Issue 6
The first time it happened, Mum had plopped me down on one of the chairs in our kitchen. I watched as she worked, cut onions and diced red and yellow peppers that tinted her tools in soft primary shades, something akin to my own watercolour sets. I enjoyed peppers, even as a child; they tasted sweet, almost like treats. Mum would stir them in a pan, coated with virgin olive oil - when they mixed together, they looked to me like flowers in the summer, dahlias and marigolds.
Mum looked up when I spoke, knife laid down next to the chopping board, out of my reach. ‘Mummy,’ I declared. ‘Uncle Teddy’s a bit funny.’
The thought had only occurred to me then because he’d spent the afternoon with us. Teddy had made me laugh and I’d been told that when someone made you laugh, it was because they were ‘funny.’
He really was – funny – or so I thought. Mum always wanted us kids to be quiet (she had migraines, she said) but whenever her big brother visited, he was loud and boisterous, eyes twinkling; we’d have pillow fights and he’d tickle me to the ground, we’d build castles with my Lego sets and leave my sister, Sarah, to her thick and heavy books. She was older, had recently turned six in an explosion of words and opinions, and promptly decided that she was “too old” for our old games. She preferred to read, she said. I remember thinking that was a bit sad, as though you could suddenly be “too old” for something. Teddy was an adult, he was older than Mum, and yet, he still wanted to play with me. I concluded that Sarah was boring and that I didn’t like her very much.
Mum caught my gaze, then. Emptied the contents of her chopping board into a saucepan and drizzled the vegetables with coriander. ‘Oh, don’t say that, honey,’ she said. ‘That’s not very nice.’
I froze, my fingers laid flat against the counter. Her words were gentle but I’d always hated saying the wrong thing. Hated it when the kids in preschool would turn around and look at me with their eyes wide and judgmental, and hated it now, especially since I didn’t know what the right thing to say would have been. My eyes filled with tears and I thought that maybe I would cry.
‘Oh, darling, I didn’t mean-’ Mum started, reached for me. Her voice was soft and reassuring; she turned off the stove and put the pan aside, walked around the counter to drop a kiss into my hair. ‘That’s not what I meant,’ she amended, quick, and I wondered what it was that she meant, then. ‘Yes, Ted is funny.’
I pretended to understand. Went back to staring at my hands. The varnish that I’d gingerly applied on my nails the day before was already chipping. Mum affectionately ruffled my hair and got back to working on our dinner. I think this was one of the first times I ever lied to her to make her life easier. She had more important things to do and I didn’t want to say that to me, Teddy was “funny” in an array of adults who distinctly weren’t.
Nan was old and cautious. She bought all the Christmas presents for us and said they were from Mum. She ensured that Mum kept me away from the knives and sharp objects in the kitchen, even when all I wanted to do was to help with food. I really liked Pop better. He could do magic tricks (those were cool), but even he didn’t understand my games the way Teddy did.
Dad, I didn’t remember much. I’d been aware of his presence and then not, like a train when it shakes and rumbles loudly before it leaves the station, an empty platform in its wake. The consequences of his absence had mattered more than he did when he was there. We’d had to move out of our old house and into a block of flats – the walls were so thin, at the time, that our neighbours could hear us when we talked. Mum had been careful to keep her voice down, one morning, when she’d announced that he was gone. Sarah had asked: ‘Gone where?’ and Mum had said, ‘To a place where he won’t hurt anyone anymore, sweetheart.’ Mum had been distinctively not funny, then.
It had been a few months before I saw her smile again. When I did, it was at the beach and once again, it was thanks to Teddy. At the time, I still didn’t know how to swim so he’d held onto me so tight that he’d left five, regular, lavender-coloured prints on the skin of my arms, from when he lifted me into the air and dipped my short, chubby legs into the white foam of the ocean. ‘Uncle Teddy, make me fly!’ I giggled, three or four years old and silly, childhood games. Sarah had gone out into the sea and I remember being jealous even then, like she was braver than I could ever be.
When she saw the bruises afterwards, Mum was furious. A kind of fury that I knew to be reserved for her older brother. One that rose quickly within her and abated just as fast, melted into a laugh and the most loving of hugs. ‘God, Ted, what are people going to think?’ she chuckled and shook her head, smiled as she gently applied soothing cream on my skin. Sometimes, in those days, it felt like she’d fought in wars and won them, Mum.
Teddy hadn’t, though. He was sweet and quiet, and rarely ever spoke. To me, he was “funny” in his silences, in his attitudes; I sometimes thought we were very much alike. It was only later (in school) that I discovered that I’d been using the wrong word to describe him. He’d come along with Mum, Nan and Pop to see Sarah and I in the Christmas play, laughed and clapped excitedly, like children do at a puppet show. Teddy was big, six foot five, brown hair, blue eyes and broad shoulders; it had been a good laugh to see him try and squish himself onto one of the small, uncomfortable plastic chairs they’d lined up in the gymnasium. He seemed to really be enjoying himself, though.
That night, Sarah had been cast as one of the wise men in the play (the 90s were very woke, that way) but I was the octopus. I wasn’t satisfied with this choice. Had never heard of an octopus in the story of Jesus before, but then Nan said that octopu – ‘Octopuses?’ Nan looked at Mum. ‘Octopi?’ Sarah interrupted and said it was octopuses, that octopi was wrong – that anyway, they were really smart and could squish themselves through very tiny, itty, bitty cave holes to get the food they needed. ‘I think it’s a role that really fits you, actually,’ Nan said with a laugh. I rolled my eyes. She always made fun of how much I loved food.
It wasn’t even about eating. My passion was more of a fascination with the ingredients, with what they could create when put together, like a puzzle just sitting there and waiting to be solved. I had never learnt to fit myself into tiny, itty, bitty cave holes to fetch my vegetables, but at seven years old, I already knew my way around our kitchen quite well. I knew how to make anything from pancakes to ratatouille and had even learnt the name of spices that Mum would never have thought of. Cooking always felt instinctive to me. Every time I tasted something, be it at a friend’s house or at a restaurant, I had to teach myself to remake it the next day. When, that night, we all tried to fit ourselves in Pop’s old Renault that smelt like a tobacco jar, I loosely wondered if octopuses cooked, too.
During the play that evening, I sat with the rest of the animal cast at the back of the stage and we became hungry. Mrs Whitman discretely passed us a pack of crisps. It made a huge, loud, noise that echoed in the microphone closest to us and she turned a bit red in the cheeks, said she was sorry. Teddy laughed again, loud, in the audience. It covered the sound of her apologies.
When we were done (after Jesus was born under a tumultuous applause), we all filed backstage. One of the boys in Sarah’s year stopped me in the corridor and said: ‘What’s wrong with that bloke next to your mum?’
He had a little bit of a smirk on his face that I didn’t like. I shrugged. ‘Nothing,’ I said, which I knew was the truth. There was nothing wrong with Teddy.
The boy laughed and nudged the girl next to him. ‘Maybe you’re both retards, then,’ she said. ‘Runs in the family, does it?’
I told Sarah, later. She said not to pay attention to them. ‘They’re the ruddy retards,’ she sighed and shook her head like Sarah did sometimes, like she was already an adult. ‘And don’t let Mum catch you use that word,’ she warned.
I was in no danger of using it. As far as I knew, both Teddy and I were retards, but according to Sarah, the girl who’d called us one was also a retard and even with all of this, I was no closer to knowing what the word meant.
I found out, eventually. Found out what it meant for those kids and what it meant for us, what it meant for Teddy. It was in the small things. When I turned eight, Pop got me a game where you had to unlock a box by solving an enigma, finding the answers to a series of questions that would help you guess the codeword. It was a good game but no matter how many times I explained it to Teddy, he just couldn’t understand it. One Christmas, Sarah and I spent hours trying to put together a three-thousand-piece puzzle and because we weren’t paying attention to him, Teddy got frustrated, took it in his hands and flung it across the room. Sarah shouted at him to stop, which only made him angrier.
Teddy could get very angry, sometimes. I used to have tantrums of my own, of course, but mine abated with age in a way that his never did. Nan called it ‘getting mad.’ ‘Don’t get mad, Ted,’ she’d say. Her voice was always low, soothing. She said that when you spoke quietly, it forced others to calm down and listen. I never said anything, but it always seemed to me to be a very flawed technique. A lot of the times, Teddy would just continue flinging things around the place and Mum would tell us to go hide in our rooms. ‘Please, Ted. Please, listen to me. Just breathe.’
When I was nine, Nan died. A year later, so did Pop. Mum said that Nan has died of cancer and that Pop had died of sadness. I was so, so sad, in those days, that I became afraid that I would die, too. Sarah said that it wouldn’t happen (couldn’t happen, she said) so I swallowed my tears and decided to be brave, and after a while, it sort of worked. The sadness only simmered under the surface, rather than boiled over. One morning, Mum and I were in the kitchen making breakfast and she called Sarah in, sat us both at the counter. I looked at Sarah’s face; she didn’t seem to be fully awake yet. ‘Girls, Ted is going to come live with us, okay?’ Mum said. Sarah looked up from her porridge.
‘But, Mum –’
‘We’ll move into Nan and Pop’s house. Everybody will still have their room.’
Sarah let out a sigh of relief. I wasn’t too sure. My grandparents’ house was bigger but also older: the boiler was loud and there was a gas cooker that I didn’t know how to operate. For all its faults and lack of privacy, I kind of liked our apartment. ‘But, Mum –’ I said.
‘Look, Char, would you prefer we put him in an institution?’
I wasn’t quite sure what ‘institutions’ were back then, but her tone told me what the correct answer was so I didn’t push it. We moved into Nan and Pop’s old house and I learnt how to operate the gas cooker. It was actually better.
In those days, living with Teddy was a lot of fun. I was still in that awkward stretch of time between my childhood and my teenage years, and being in that house was a good excuse to indulge in the former a little while longer. Teddy always wanted to play games, pillow fights, and giggled heartily at my impressions of Mum when she got mad. It was a bit like having a younger brother, stuck inside the body of a grown man who was around thirty years my senior.
I was never really sure that he understood why we moved in. Sometimes, he would point at Nan’s photograph on the wall and say: ‘Mamma.’ It occurred to me that all of a sudden, the two adults he’d known his entire life, the ones who had loved him and protected him, and nurtured him since he was born had disappeared, replaced by his exhausted, stressed-out sister, and turbulent kid nieces. Once, one of my best friends from school came over and Teddy played hide and seek over in the staircase by himself as we sat, chatting on the sofa. ‘Does he, er, know?’ Anna asked.
I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Did he know that we weren’t really playing with him? Did he know that Nan and Pop had died? Did he know that a couple days before, when I’d asked Mum to buy a new pan to make French onion soup in, she’d rolled her eyes and said: ‘Charlotte, I barely have enough money to put the onions on the table, let alone the bloody pan. Just do with the one you have, yeah?’
It was around that time that I realised that we were broke. I’d always known that the people in school had shoes and backpacks that we couldn’t afford but the fact that Mum had actually acknowledged it, out loud, made it real. Mum kept taking on more and more shifts at the hospital where she worked as a nurse but everything she made seemed to evaporate into Teddy’s special needs lessons, speech and motor therapy and all the care, and attention that he needed. Because I liked cooking, she put me in charge of feeding our household. Outside of work and sleep, she didn’t seem to have time for anything else.
That day with Anna, Teddy hid behind the door, and I pondered over my best friend’s question. We could see his right foot jutting out of the doorframe. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. I didn’t know if he knew anything at all.
For a while, that was what our lives were, back then. Teddy and his games, Sarah and her books, Mum and her hospital shifts, and me and my food. That year, despite the fact that I didn’t get a proper mixer until my birthday, I learnt to make beef bourguignon and bouillabaisse from old Julia Child clips that I watched on the school library computer, jotting down notes in my chemistry notebook. When I told Mum that I wanted to try the crepes suzette, she said she’d allow me to flambé things in the house whenever she needed it burnt down. Maybe then, we could get the insurance money.
I used to make a lot of dishes with green beans around that time because I could include Teddy in the process. Hand over my old safety scissors and he could help me with cutting the ends or chopping the parsley in a glass, like Mum used to let me do when I was small. It seemed to make him happy, gave him a sense of purpose.
I was eleven when Dad came back into our lives. He showed up one morning and demanded to see us. Mum shut the door in his face. They shouted at each other through the wood for a good fifteen minutes before he kicked the bins down in our front garden and covered the gravel path (as well as Mum’s hydrangeas) with all our garbage. From then on, the process repeated on a weekly basis until Dad went to see a judge who allowed him one monthly, supervised visit with us. I thought that that was a bit rich, considering he’d never so much as sent a letter during the seven years that he was in jail, but the judge said that he’d only gotten locked up for a bar fight gone wrong (i.e. not for hitting Mum or us), so he deserved a chance to reconnect with his children. We had to comply.
I could tell that Sarah was scared. I couldn’t remember anything from the years that he’d lived with us but she clearly did. She was thirteen when he reappeared, entering adolescence – they would have these massive rows every time he came over, to the point that we had to make sure Teddy wouldn’t be in the house at the same time because the fights would scare him, drive him ‘mad.’ Once, Dad shouted at Sarah off the top of his lungs and Teddy stepped in between them, probably trying to protect her. He thrashed and shouted incoherent grunts in our living room, like a panicked child helplessly trapped in a cage. Teddy was almost forty years of age by then, built like a tank, chest towering over everyone he met and arms strong enough to knock any of us down. Dad shouted at him to stop but instead, Teddy threw one of Nan’s old vases at his face.
It hit. Blood cascaded down from Dad’s eyebrow to his chin, like it would have in the films that I’d seen in the cinema. I cried and screamed for someone like Batman or James Bond to come and help us but they never did. Instead, Dad got up from the floor, cradling his face and started calling Teddy a ‘fucking retard.’ I’m not sure that Teddy understood what the words meant but he launched at Dad all the same. Dad laughed, simply stepped aside to avoid the charge (Teddy wasn’t very good at anticipating people’s movements) and let him crash straight into the ground. Mum was screaming, kneeling down next to Teddy to see if he was okay. ‘Teddy, Teddy, please look at me,’ she kept repeating, frantic, and it was the first time I’d ever heard Mum slip, call him Teddy instead of Ted. She used to say that the latter was more appropriate for his age.
Dad’s response was to grab her by the hair and shove her into the wall.
Later, he said he was sorry. Pulled me up from the floor and gave me a big hug. The blood on his face stained the shirt of my school uniform. It was mixed with tears and I thought of the bitter taste of vinegar, how when combined with oil in a jar, it’s always dragged back down to the bottom. Years later, I asked Mum why she never reported it. ‘They would have thought Teddy was violent, darling,’ she said. ‘They would have taken him away.’
After that, whenever Sarah and Mum argued with Dad, they always stayed a good six feet away, out of reach. Once I’d seen it, identified it, I couldn’t un-see it and started doing it, too. Dad was never violent with me personally but it was then that I realised for the first time in my life that my sister had a strength about her that reminded me of Mum’s, the way she looked terrified and stressed, all the time, but never gave up the fight. Sarah once called Dad a “benighted soul” to his face and he shouted at her: ‘The fuck does that mean, you fucking cunt?’
She just shrugged and said: ‘Exactly my point.’
Up until I’d met Dad, all the adults in my life had always raved about the fact that Sarah was smart. I was “all right,” I could get by, I could do maths quite well and got decent grades in school, but she was stellar. First in her class, first in our school, first in every bloody class she was ever in, by the largest of margins. I was jealous, a little, but then when I watched her exist in our home, I noticed that being smart involved reading and writing a lot, which I always thought was boring. All I ever wanted to do was cook.
The teachers in school called her ‘gifted,’ but the other kids often told me: ‘Your sister is such a nerd.’ I learnt that the word was a bit like me calling Teddy ‘funny,’ and them calling him a ‘retard,’ – a matter of perspective. Dad hated that Sarah was smart. For a while, he seemed okay with the fact that I cooked until he realised that I was quite good at it, that I’d graduated from making pancakes and ratatouille a long time ago. Mum said that if I liked cooking so much, maybe I could do that after I left school but Dad said cooking was for losers. He said that I should be a doctor, so that I could maybe fix the shit in his head.
When I became a teenager, I dyed my hair blue. It was a box kit that almost turned it green after I’d washed it a few times but still, I liked it. Mum was furious and unlike that day at the beach, her fury did not abate quickly. She said that I looked like a Smurf. Teddy said the same thing, but was delighted with it. He gave me a warm, childish hug. Sarah took over three days to notice. She barely got out of her bedroom that summer because Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix had just come out. By August 2003, she’d read it so many times that the pages were already falling out of the hardback cover.
It was around that time that I saw my sister gradually become less of a teenager and more of an adult. She was still Sarah but instead of always politely contradicting everything and everyone for the sake of it, her arguments became more fleshed out. She began to only pick fights that she believed in, appeared to grow a conscience, an agenda. Once, we were at school and Mum got stuck at work and texted to say that Teddy would come and pick us up. She didn’t like us being on our own, back then. Dad had lost his visitation rights again and the autumn before, he’d tried to force us into the back of his car. Teddy was unpredictable but deep down, Mum knew he’d always try to protect us.
Our school was a Catholic institution that I’d casually nicknamed ‘the dungeon’ because it was on top of a hill. Their rules had always dictated that they wouldn’t let anyone under the age of thirteen leave without adult supervision. I’d never seen that being enforced, though. Sarah and I had made our way home by ourselves plenty of times, sometimes with or without Teddy. It had never been a problem until a new nun appeared at the reception desk and took it upon herself to turn the place into a prison facility. ‘Are you thirteen?’ she asked me as we made our way out.
I wasn’t. I’d be thirteen in exactly twenty-three days. Sarah was fifteen, though, so I was sure we’d be fine. I frowned and said: ‘No.’
‘Well, I can’t let you out, then,’ she said. ‘We need to call your Mum.’
I didn’t want to have to bother Mum for this. She’d said in her text that a surgery at the hospital had dragged on, and she’d be another few hours. Sarah clearly thought the same thing. She pointed at Teddy who waved wildly and excitedly at us from behind the school gates. ‘But someone is picking us up,’ she said. Her tone was calm, but firm. The lady took one look at Teddy and went back to her papers behind the desk.
‘Well, surely you can see that he’s not fit,’ the woman said. ‘Not fit,’ I’d found, was another one of those words that proper people used whenever they didn’t want to say ‘retard.’ ‘I’ll call your Mum.’
Sarah protested again, louder. Teddy began getting agitated. Behind us in the queue, two other Mums tutted and whispered. One of them wore a very conservative white polo neck, had a large cross dangling off a chain on her chest, with rubies and emeralds encrusted in the gold. ‘Can you imagine, the poor woman?’ she suggested. ‘Two girls, father in and out of jail, and this one there who can’t even count to ten -’ she laughed, glancing at Teddy. ‘You’d think at least she’d put him in an institution, be better for him, I’d say -’
I would have said something, but Sarah was quicker. She turned around with fury in her eyes: ‘And who are you to say that, Mother fucking Teresa?’ she asked. Sarah never swore – she thought it was a sign of a lack of vocabulary – so I could tell her anger was real. ‘Doesn’t God teach you to be tolerant or accepting, or something? And you,’ she turned towards Sister Margaret at reception. ‘Your rules say that all children under the age of thirteen should be accompanied by an adult – as far as I know, Teddy’s forty-one years of age, and that’s definitely older than eighteen -’
Relentless, Sarah argued with them for another twenty minutes or so, saying that nowhere in their rules did it ever say that the adult picking us up had to be ‘mentally fit’ and that if it did, then why on Earth had they let our father try and pull us out of school last October? To this day, I remember just watching her in that little corridor next to reception (the walls were painted a soft kind of baby blue and the floor was made of black and white linoleum tiles), and there was something about the way she carried herself, like she knew she was going to lose but didn’t really care, just needed to do this to be able to look at herself in the mirror. I got the impression that Sister Margaret could have stomped on her feet and pulled at her hair, but Sarah would never, ever have let it go. She had this sense of determination about her that I truly could never understand. In the end, she ended up being stuck with hours upon hours of detention, and I asked her why she’d done it. ‘It was the right thing to do,’ she just said.
The right thing for me to do, at the time, had been to take care of Teddy. I could see that he was getting frustrated, restless behind the gates so I took him out to play on the kid’s playground. We made a snowman out of sand. When Mum finally made it to school and called us to leave, Teddy looked at me somewhat intensely and said: ‘Sarah’s not funny.’
I burst out a laugh, loud and genuine; it woke muscles in my jaw that I had long thought were asleep. Teddy giggled, too (he often took his social cues from me), and when Mum asked what we were laughing at, I said: ‘Nothing.’
She shrugged, but I think I saw the ghost of a smile cross her lips.
Truth be told, I never knew what kind of mental disability Teddy had. I’m sure that a diagnosis was made, once upon a time, maybe when Mum and he were kids, but I never asked. I never really cared. To me, Teddy was just Teddy. With his big arms and broad torso, he seemed to somehow hold our family together. He enjoyed (badly) playing football and liked the food that I made. When I got my first real job as a chef, I got a car and drove him to the beach. We ate fish and chips. He looked at me and declared that the ones I made at home were better. I cried in my bed that night, and I’m not even sure why.
With time, in school, I started becoming someone who the adults referred to as ‘difficult.’ People compared me to Sarah (she was a bit argumentative but goodness, was she doing ‘so well,’ and was ‘so bright,’ - it was such a shame that I wasn’t). This infuriated me, made me act out even more (and pay attention even less), which in turn attracted another downpour of derogatory comments. I didn’t really care: again, all I wanted to do was cook. I skived off school to cook. I harassed poor Mrs Sanchez who owned the little Spanish tapas bar down the street to give me a job as an apprentice. She always shook her head and said, ‘No, Miss.’
She knew me and more importantly, she knew Mum. Knew that my mother wanted me to finish school, so Mrs Sanchez never caved in. I became ‘not funny,’ even by Teddy’s standards. Sarah would often tell me to ‘get my shit together,’ which I knew she meant because she would even look up from her copy of the Half-Blood Prince to say it.
When I was sixteen, a boy broke my heart. His name was Nathan and he said that he loved me, that I was beautiful and that I was funny. We had sex. He told the whole school. Someone shouted the word ‘slut!’ at my back, and when I came home that afternoon I cried well into the evening, couldn’t even tell Mum why. Teddy came into my room and hit me in the face with a pillow. ‘Pillow fight,’ he said and I looked at him, shook my head through my tears.
‘Not now, Teddy,’ I said. He hit me again. ‘What the hell, Teddy? That’s not funny,’ I shouted back but he kept doing it again and again until I grabbed my own pillow and started to fight back. In retrospect, I thought that maybe, this was his way of telling me to fight back. Later, when we were both laughing and out of breath, I said: ‘Yeah, okay, that was a bit funny, Teddy.’
The next day, I skived off school, took Teddy with me to the print shop. I told him he was helping me with an art project. I got twenty-five A2 posters of a picture of Nathan’s penis that he’d sent me when we were together, stuck them all over school with a bucket of cheap, wallpaper glue. For Ms Rice, our head of school, that was the last straw. With everything that was already in my file, she had me expelled in less than a day, and Mum shouted at me off the top of her lungs for a good hour after that. To this day, I still think it was worth it. Revenge, I decided, tasted sweet, like red and yellow peppers in a pan. If he’d understood it, I’m sure that Teddy would have thought the whole incident was funny.
Mrs Sanchez’s daughter, Silvia, went to the same school. Her mother, Elvira, was quick to find out that I’d gotten expelled. In the back of her tapas shop, Mrs Sanchez pulled me aside, asked what had happened. She was a small, plump woman. Probably wouldn’t have been that impressive if her dark brown eyes hadn’t looked almost black in the poor lighting. I felt like she could read into my soul. ‘With God as your witness,’ she warned. ‘You’ll go to hell if you lie to me, young lady.’
At the time, I didn’t tell her that I was more afraid of her rejection than of God’s wrath. It took everything I had in me to tell her the truth. She burst out a laugh in response. ‘Ah,’ she breathed, pulling heavily on a cigarette. The smell of smoke filled the air. For years after that, the scent of her Marlboros combined with the sound of her thick, Spanish accent would always warm my heart. ‘Perhaps, you did well,’ she sighed. ‘That boy,’ she started, pensively, like she was looking for a qualifier. She shrugged. ‘Cabrón,’ she settled and finally (finally) gave me the job I’d always wanted.
Life got better. Slowly, incrementally, like something that has to stew for hours on end to pick up a taste, but it did. I got to do what I’d always wanted and the fact that I was getting paid for it meant that Mum could finally take a step back from her own work. Slowly, without the stress of her night shifts and my misbehaving at school, our relationship improved. A few years later, she even admitted that perhaps, she should have let me drop out of my formal education a bit sooner. ‘Sarah was a reader,’ she said, ‘But you were always a doer.’
I was past the age of seventeen when one morning, I found Mum making food in our kitchen. It hadn’t happened in years. Somehow, she startled me, the way things do when they appear out of place. Sarah had moved out to go to uni. I was saving money for a flat of my own so for a while, it was just the two of us, Mum and me. Well, us and Teddy. That August morning, she made pancakes in the kitchen (the way she’d taught me all those years ago, with extra bits of chocolate smuggled into the dough) and turned to face me. I realised that she’d been crying into the pan. I knew, thanks to Mrs Sanchez’s teachings, that that wasn’t what you’d call ‘hygienic.’
‘Ted is sick, honey,’ Mum said.
I got angry. In retrospect, I think I refused to understand. I crossed my arms and glared at her, had never heard Mum use that kind of language before, not while referring to Teddy. ‘Mum! Teddy’s not sick, he’s just different,’ I said, which I knew to be Mum’s word for what I’d always called ‘funny.’ I figured he might have done something like accidentally break a couple of jars at the supermarket but honestly, whatever it was, it could never have been bad enough to call him ‘sick.’
Mum frowned for a second before understanding washed over her face. She took the pan off the stove and cut off the gas. ‘Oh, darling, I didn’t mean,’ she said and I wondered what it was that she meant, then. The tears started rolling down her cheeks again. ‘He’s just – ill, love. Ted’s ill.’
I later found out that Teddy had something called ‘leukaemia.’ It was completely unrelated to his mental illness. At times, I think I would have liked be younger when it happened, been able to regard this as a new word, a foreign concept, like I would have when Sarah and I were kids. I would have stopped and stared at my chipped, orange fingernails against the white of our kitchen counter and thought: Teddy suddenly developed something called leukaemia. It made him bald and everyone cried. I thought he looked kind of funny, like one big, stocky alien from E.T. I would have insisted on painting his head blue and we would have said that he looked like a Smurf. He would have thought that was funny.
I wasn’t five anymore, though, or seven, or nine, and this was life, not a stupid school play. I was seventeen so I did what seventeen-year-old girls do: I pulled my mother into a hug and let her cry on my shoulder. I wanted to tell her that everything would be okay, that he could get treatment and chemo and that we would survive this, but I didn’t. Couldn’t. The truth was that I didn’t know what would happen and since we’d reconciled, I’d promised to never lie to Mum again.
We told Sarah when she came home for the bank holiday. She immediately offered to quit school. I don’t think I’d ever seen Mum so angry. ‘I worked like a slave for years to put you through to university, don’t you dare give up now,’ she said. I could see that Sarah was still torn. For once in her life, I think she actually considered not listening to Mum.
Then, I told her to stay in school. She listened to me. Sarah always listened to me.
‘Does he, er, know?’ she asked, that Monday afternoon before her flight back.
I shrugged. ‘We tried to explain it to him,’ I said. ‘But honestly, I don’t know.’
Sarah said that Teddy loved us, even though he couldn’t exactly put words on it. ‘It’s love in all its different forms,’ she said, her head resting against my shoulder. ‘Like Dumbledore preached.’
I’d long since learned that Sarah reached to Harry Potter in times of trouble. It was what had got her through our childhood, so it could get her through anything. In that moment, I wished that the person who’d got me through our childhood hadn’t been terminally ill.
That day when Teddy and I went to the beach, he already could barely walk; boiled fish and mashed peas were all he could eat. I hated the way the treatments made him, at the hospital, especially because he seemed not to understand why he was ever put through them, or why they made him so sick, or why he was ill in the first place. Leukaemia wasn’t something that you could explain to Teddy. He didn’t have the vocabulary for it. Even Sarah, sometimes, didn’t have the vocabulary for it.
Cancer treatments took him through to the opening of my first proper restaurant, through to Sarah’s graduation. Mrs Sanchez and I had parted amicably, once she told me that I was a much better cook than she was, that if I didn’t become what she called ‘a proper chef,’ one day, she’d be permanently disappointed in me. Sarah and I jokingly planned that if one of us ever got married, Teddy would be our flower girl. We knew he’d always been keen to dress up and what on Earth could ever be wrong with a large, six-foot-five man in a dress – Sarah said it would be very “woke,” very Jean-Paul Gaultier.
Unfortunately, Teddy never got that far. He died in 2014, when I was twenty-four and Sarah was twenty-six. She had a boyfriend, at the time, but they weren’t anywhere close to getting married. We cried – a cascade of tears in our three black dresses at the graveyard. In church, the priest said that despite his initial limitations in life, Teddy had been a gift bestowed on the Earth, a gift to anyone who had ever met him. The place was filled with people. From Mrs Sanchez to the nuns from school, to the guy who owned the shop down the road. Mum would always send Teddy to fetch the milk, a few extra pounds in his pocket for sweets. She said it gave him a sense of independence. For years, Teddy was in charge of helping Mum with the milk, helping me with the ends of my green beans and keeping Sarah’s bookshelf organized and colour-coded.
He never saw Sarah getting called to the bar. It broke my heart a bit, like a small tear - one, solitary drop of blood at a time. He would have taken one look at her wig and gown, would have wanted to dress up, too. Would have laughed loudly in the hall and maybe then, people would have been old enough, tolerant enough, to call him ‘different’ rather than ‘retarded.’ After the ceremony, Mum pulled us both girls into a tight hug and said: ‘I raised a barrister and a Michelin-starred chef.’ There were tears in her voice. ‘I’m so proud of you both.’
I nodded and kissed the top of her head. I’d had to explain to her what the Michelin guide was when we got our first star but I knew she was proud. ‘And a clown,’ I added, thinking of Teddy. He would have liked that, being called a clown – always wanted the ones who came for the kids at the hospital to visit his room as well. Mum burst out a laugh and nodded.
‘And a clown, yeah.’
If he’d still been there, I’m sure Teddy would have thought that was funny.
Jo Dejean is a young writer and blogger living in Dublin, Ireland. She’s been an all-round internet enthusiast for years and has recently started her own website, which you can find at jodejean.com. In her spare time, she tries to maintain a semi-successful career in the legal profession.