In every family you’ll find multiple versions of the truth. I have three younger brothers, and each of them would tell this story a little differently. Matthew would not tell you this story at all. When it happened, my mother made me swear I would take it to my grave, like a drunken hit and run, or a late-term abortion.
That is to say, what follows is the truth. Or at least, my version of the truth.
Matthew, my brother, lives and works in places no sensible person would ever choose to go: Malaysian typhoon country; the oil fields of Azerbaijan; Brisbane, Australia. The permanent distance between us was enforced years ago by my mother, the schoolteacher, in a final act of desperation, and one that took the very last of her energy.
About my brother: Matthew would climb before he could walk. As a toddler, he would crawl into the pantry, and then scale the shelves to where the expensive biscuits were hidden. He learned to do this on his own, although, like many of his tricks, it had been my foolish idea to begin with.
Under duress, Matthew was capable of anything.
Under duress, Matthew was capable of anything. At the age of seven this was verified by the school principle, who decided to bus Matthew into town to join an experimental accelerant classroom where he would be amongst his own: the academic elite. The experience destroyed his relationship with the education system forever. My brother had no time for nerds.
That same year, our long-running feud with the two boys who lived down the street at Number 16 reached a disturbing peak. Two years prior, they had stolen my brother’s bicycle. Not any bicycle, but a vintage single-speed he had excavated from the swampy scrubland behind our house. He scraped the clay out of the chain and found it could ride, although he was much too small to reach the pedals. Matthew already had a perfectly good bicycle, a brand new BMX he had picked out himself. But what he wanted was the swamp bicycle.
Every morning, he would push it up the steep hill that lead from our house to the bus stop. He would tuck the bicycle away in the deep scrub, so that in the afternoon, when we leapt from the school bus, he would whip the swamp bicycle from its hiding spot and fly back down the hill with his feet nowhere near the pedals and his knuckles wrapped hopefully around the rickety old handlebars.
One afternoon, the bicycle was not where it should have been. Word on our street was that the Johnson brothers had beaten us home from school that day. They had been seen riding the swamp bicycle in their driveway. This is how it began. An increasingly hostile series of revenge plots, starting with a classic prank: live worms delivered in an envelope to Number 16—juvenile, harmless, except to the worms (who, I’m sorry to say, did perish in the post).
My little brother and I expected repercussions, and sure enough, they came.
My little brother and I expected repercussions, and sure enough, they came. Our dead worm delivery was returned to sender: the letterbox at Number 6. Come the summer holidays, the rivalry between the brothers at Number 16 and the brothers at Number 6 wore on. Matthew and I were celebrating our greatest success to date: a gift box filled to the brim with polystyrene packing material and excrement, dutifully provided by our family dog. According to the other children in our street, who pretended to be Switzerland, the box was overturned on the living room floor with great anticipation. And the Johnsons were getting new carpet.
This was not taken lightly. The Johnson brothers were older and bigger than us, and the threats of physical violence had begun. Several times in one month, they took a bat to our letterbox, which baffled our houseproud father. Every weekend he reconstructed our letterbox from scratch, refining the design each time until he had settled on a model that was theoretically indestructible. In the night it would be reduced to kindling and cement dust. Eventually, he gave in, opting for an official-looking cardboard box with the number 6 scribbled in Vivid.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had your letterbox smashed in with a bat, but it’s a very symbolic defeat. The letterbox is a kind of spokesperson for your home, there to reflect your standard of living to the outside world. To my father, having a cardboard box for a letterbox was affecting his ego. As if passers-by might assume we were also living in a cardboard box. He seemed genuinely upset, and knowing we were somewhat to blame, Matthew and I prepared to do the honourable thing—and strike back.
By 1999, the Internet had come to our street.
By 1999, the Internet had come to our street. I wanted to try out a recipe from a website I remember thinking was probably illegal. Matthew and I had a large pile of left over polystyrene in our possession from the dog poo gift box plot, and my father (houseproud as he was) kept our garage stocked with four-litre tins of lawn-mower fuel. As the brains of the operation, I had convinced Matthew to procure one of these cans and feed it polystyrene every day for two weeks. We would take the concoction to Number 16, spill it down the driveway, and set it on fire.
If you didn’t already know how to make napalm—now you do.
The thing about napalm is it burns for a long time. Hours, days, weeks maybe. We weren’t actually sure. But as long as it burned, the driveway would remain out of commission, and this would render the Johnson family unable to leave their own house. Which was the goal. It would form a moat of fire, and they would be trapped behind it. For all our meticulous planning, Matthew and I had not considered the practical implications of dousing a large area (of mostly dry scrub, scorched from the hot summer sun) in an accelerant and setting it alight. Or that, once burning, four litres of napalm might be impossible to put out. Another thing we had not factored in was the presence of cars, which have a tendency to explode when exposed to extreme heat. Or the likelihood our napalm would burn down at least one house, which is a crime known as arson.
I’m glad to tell you that Matthew and I never found out how long our napalm would have burned. Our father had tried to mow the lawns but had accidentally flooded the fuel tank with gooey clumps of melted polystyrene, like mini-marshmallows in hot chocolate. We were grounded. The lawn-mower never worked again. But we had not blown up a car or burned down a house. And as the more responsible elder sibling, I finally learned an important lesson about consequences and how actions have them.
Matthew, on the other hand, would climb before he could walk.
It was generally accepted that Matthew spent a lot of time in his bedroom thinking about what he had done.
It was generally accepted that Matthew spent a lot of time in his bedroom thinking about what he had done. So you can imagine my mother’s surprise when she discovered he had escaped through his bedroom window by descending the two-storey rosebush attached to the exterior of the house by maybe half a dozen plastic twist ties.
My panicked mother called every number in the phone book and soon discovered that another local boy was missing. The mothers immediately involved the police, who assured the mothers they would see their sons again at dinnertime.
‘Ten-year-old boys have to eat,’ they said.
About the getaway: The two boys had left their respective houses at sunset. They had carried sleeping bags into a nearby forest and built a bivouac from vines. My little brother had started a controlled fire, with a pit of rocks arranged to contain the flames. The next logical step in this Robinson Crusoe fantasy is to find something to cook on the fire. Something to eat.
Down the far end of our street, past the Johnson house and away around the long bend, lived a man whose doorbell we were not allowed to ring on Halloween. Our neighbourhood was only a little older than I was, and the original houses had mostly attracted young families. We played with the other children who lived in our street and that is how our parents came to be friends. But this man did not have children. He had turkeys. Fat, ugly turkeys. Fat, ugly, beautiful, prizewinning, pet turkeys. The turkeys were kept overnight in individual cages at the side of the house. He would groom the turkeys, keep them plump on a special diet, and win awards for how good-looking his turkeys were when compared with other turkeys. He would make the turkeys have sex with each other, and create even better looking turkeys.
He would make the turkeys have sex with each other, and create even better looking turkeys.
Matthew knew about the turkeys. And this is where the story may not be for the squeamish. A turkey was released and beaten. Not dead, but dazed. A stick was sharpened into a stake. The turkey was skewered alive and hung over the open fire to roast. I imagine its turkey feathers smouldering, a dirty haze rising from the flames like some big, ugly phoenix. I imagine the two boys on opposite sides of the fire, watching the bird incinerate. The horror on their faces. The turkey’s screams. The steady crackle of the fire. The unbearable silence of a bad idea come all the way to fruition. The exact same look that would have passed between Matthew and I had we accidentally burned down the Johnson house with a four-litre can of domestic napalm.
When the boys finally came home, it wasn’t to eat. In fact, they were suffering from severe food poisoning. I guess when you take a plan that far, it seems a waste not to see it all the way through.
The turkey breeder did not press charges, but Matthew was grounded for what felt like a year.
The turkey breeder did not press charges, but Matthew was grounded for what felt like a year. My mother stopped sleeping, since it was the only way she could be sure my little brother was in his bedroom at night. My father trimmed that rosebush right back to the trunk.
One day, my mother, the schoolteacher, could not live in a house that had Matthew in it any longer. She was tired and the small community we lived in was no longer on her side. So she put my little brother on an aeroplane with a bag of clothes and told him to make a new life, which to his credit, he has done. And as far as I know, for the most part, bar one or two exceptions, no animals were harmed.