• It is a summer evening, albeit a grey and fading one, and the sunset is shafting through cloud. It splices around the wisteria and flops on the kitchen table, fat and yellow.
• A boy called Daniel is sitting at the table, his brow furrowed in concentration as he paints an Air Fix model he got given for Christmas about eighteen months ago.
• A pretty teenage girl sits beside him, willowy and wispy haired. She’s guiding his hands, dabbing all stray dots with kitchen roll as though wiping them off will undo their existence.
• The time is late but pliable, the way it often is in summer, and the house is full but quietly absorbed in itself.
• The two children both go to a private school; soon they’ll be swimming in a thing called Holiday which, for some people, translates as freedom.
• This Freedom is something bigger for them than it is for state-school-children. It strings July into August and then beaches them in September; a world of corridors and classrooms that they are currently in the process of letting go of.
Jasmine: You OK?
Daniel: (With prestigiously well masked frustration) Of course.
(Jasmine reaches to remove a speck of drizzled paint. Daniel flinches but says nothing.)
Daniel: This is an old kind of Spaceship. Did you know that? It’s the Apollo 12 mission spaceship manned by Pete Conrad and Alan Bean*. Did you know that?
Jasmine: Daniel, compared to you, I never know anything about space.
Daniel: (indignantly) that’s not true; you’re cleverer.
Jasmine: Yes, but you’ve bothered to learn it all.
(They do not talk for a while.)
Daniel: I read about it a long time ago. I told Mum and…
Jasmine: (suggesting words he cannot express) and that’s why she bought you the model?
(There is another pause in which Daniel vaguely acknowledges his sister as being right. He paints another few millimetres with immense care; consumed by the terror that the paint will spill beyond his control.)
Jasmine: She should have known.
Daniel: She did know; it’s not about not knowing, it’s about wanting something else to be the truth.
Jasmine: I’m sorry Daniel, I didn’t mean… you knew what I meant.
Daniel: (upset) I’m doing it know aren’t I?
Jasmine: You don’t have to, you know.
Daniel: (becoming more upset and finding that his hands are shaking as he does so. This panics him further.) I do, I do. I’m going to mess it up. I do have to!
Daniel: I have to do it! (His hands judder a blob of paint over the lines and he freezes.)
Jasmine: Let me. (She takes the model and the paintbrush away from him. He leaves the room and shuts the door behind him.)
*A SHORT FOOTNOTE:
The Apollo 12 mission landed on the moon between craters in the Ocean of Storms on 19th November, 1969, four days after take-off. The take-off almost failed because of a leaking hydrogen tank and the mission was also struck by lightning soon after launch. Most people haven’t heard of Pete Conrad or Alan Bean but Daniel likes reading about space, Daniel remembers them.
• A boy called Daniel sits with his back pressed up against the kitchen door and his sister and a ruined Air Fix model. Although he’s turned his back on it he can still see the wrong colours bleeding into each other like pretty little crimes. He wants to tap the door 7 times but know he shouldn’t so he presses his palms together instead and forces himself to breathe.
• That’s why it took him eighteen months to make an Air Fix model because, for him, that little spaceship is 1 part craft and 99 parts fear. Fear of glue on his hands, fear of glue on the table, fear of going wrong, fear of paint on his hands, paint spilling… That’s why his sister has an eye for detail and a paint-smeared piece of kitchen towel; because she thinks that will help him.
• He curls himself tighter into his knees like he’s playing peekaboo with the sofa. Air Fix is for days when he’s feeling good, or at least, when he feels like he could try to be good. It is for days when Daniel comes above OCD in the pecking order of Important Things and when it is not too much of trial to keep it that way.
• Today is clearly not an Air Fix day. Days like those take too much effort. He has to prepare himself like a marathon runner would.
• He knew what Jasmine meant. About how Mum ‘should have known’ because that’s what he thought when he opened the present – she ‘should have known’ that liking space didn’t mean that he liked space-related fear. He wanted to spill glue on his hands no more than he wanted to run towards an approaching train and Mum should have thought that buying it would be like buying him an enemy that got more and more swollen the longer it went undefeated.
• He also knew why he had been upset by Jasmine. He knew that he wanted to prove her wrong when she decided that he would never be able to use paint without hearing the clackety-clack of rails on a track. He, even more so than Mum, knew what the truth was but wanted to be able to find a time when it was not the truth.
• While he thinks about this, his palms are still pressing, trying to calm each other with their desperate, pitiful presence.
• There is a knock at the door behind him but he does not open it.
• They talk through the door.
Jasmine: Don’t Daniel-
Daniel: Don’t what? I’m only sitting and thinking.
Jasmine: Are you sure?
Daniel: (With prestigiously well masked frustration) Of course I’m sure. I might be Mental but I’m not insane.*
Jasmine: Daniel, please. I think I sorted it out.
Daniel: Cleaning it up is different to sorting it out. Wiping away paint does not mean you have sorted it out.
Jasmine: Sorry (and then, as though Daniel had not interupted) it’s OK. You don’t have to carry on now. We can do it another time. We can still finish it for Mum’s birthday.
Daniel: (correcting her) I
Daniel: I can still finish it for Mum’s birthday.
Jasmine: Yes… yes, you, of course.
(The silence is tangible, pithy, and full of bullet wounds)
Jasmine: I’ll still help you.
Daniel: (he considers.) Thanks.
Jasmine: Can I open the door now?
Daniel: Can I go wash my hands now?
*A SHORT FOOTNOTE:
This is a commonly-used joke in their house. It is Daniel’s favourite and everyone else’s least favourite. When he first said it they were shocked:
‘Don’t say that about yourself Daniel – it’s not like that. You’re not a joke!’
‘Yes I am. I’m a freak and I might as well laugh about it. That’s what you’re meant to do with freaks, right?’
They no longer have to block his voice out when he says it, although the sound hasn’t got any sweeter. They realise that this flippant disregard for himself and his condition a means of diminishing something monstrous to a more manageable scale.
• The bathroom is clean, bordering on sterile, and organised to the letter. It would not be hard to believe that the whole room is a mere sketch, drawn out with a sharp pencil and a ruler.
• The house of the boy called Daniel is no stranger to cleanliness, but it’s got nothing to do with Godliness. Daniel had thought that was an odd idea when they’d learned about proverbs on Victorian Day. Why would a God want to make everyone suffer the way he did?
• Daniel leans over the sink and breathes heavily before grabbing to soap bar like it’s a life jacket and gloving his hands with it. Over and over until the lather is so thick that his hands don’t feel like hands.
• Then the water, hot and raw as he scrubs the tainted skin from his fingers.
• He holds them up to the mirror and the boy staring back at him inspects them. He can see that they are clean but can’t quite accept it; he sees the 0.1% that the 99.9% effective hand wash left behind it.
• The boy called Daniel repeats the exercise: soap, rinse, soap, rinse. He’d continue forever if he could only manage to forget about wisdom and hard-work and how much he wants to one day be able to make an Air Fix model.
• The water is scalding but good. Clean, he tells himself and, when he shows his irritated palms to the mirror boy, he receives three-quarters of a nod by way of consent.
(This conversation is virtually silent; it is breathed, mouthed perhaps, but mostly merely thought. Conversations like this are often held, mainly because mirrors don’t tell secrets.)
Daniel: The thing about Jasmine is that she is so nice that it starts to hurt sometimes. Like, she is always clever and always kind and always pretty and the worst thing she ever did was throw sand in my face when she was three and I was much less. The worst thing I did to her was throw a plate across the room because I was getting so worked-up but it didn’t help so I had to tap all the pieces 7 times over anyway…
It’s like how your teeth hurt when you’ve eaten too much sugar.
Mirror Boy: …
Daniel: Not that she’s sickening or anything, she’s just sort of perfect. It kind of makes it more difficult to feel good about yourself when your older sister is perfect.
Mirror Boy: …
Daniel: I am not perfect.
Mirror Boy: …
Daniel: I swear I am the cause of most of my parents stress even without the normal annoyingness of being an almost-twelve-year-old boy.
Mirror Boy: …
Daniel: Not that I’m a terrible person or anything, I’m just sort of difficult. For example Mum has to buy eczema cream for my hands because I wash them too much. And they have to take me to KCMHs (for other Sort Of Difficult children) to see Jenny every week. And once I had to be picked up at school because I was panicking too much. What happened was that me and Josh were playing with the gas mask that the World War Two Expert brought to show us and then Mrs Pike came in and got really angry with us. Not because we were in the classroom when we were meant to be in the playground, or because we were touching something that wasn’t ours but because she was trying to protect us from the asbestos in it. I was trying really hard to hold it together and I had to keep on tapping everything 7 times even though Jenny is trying to help me stop tapping things. The problem was that I was just so panicked that I couldn’t handle it and in the end the Secretary who is called Mrs Hodges called my parents.
Mirror Boy: …
Daniel: It might sound stupid to you, Mirror Boy, but the thing is that that feeling for me is like you standing in front of a hungry grizzly bear and not running away from it.
Mirror Boy: …
Daniel: This is stupid, isn’t it? I’m talking to myself, going mad.
(He taps the mirror frame 7 times)
Mirror Boy: No, you’re going mad when I talk back.
(Both versions of Daniel laugh at their own joke)
• The girl called Jasmine is stood outside the bathroom door, tugging on her sleeves. She hates seeing her brother like this.
• The light is sinking fast now and only creeps far enough through the window to light her ankles.
• The door finally opens and, although she’s been waiting for it, she jumps.
Jasmine: What have you been doing all this time?
Daniel: (quickly) washing my hands.
(She grabs his forearms and lifts them so as to inspect the damage. She sees the way that the water’s kissed his fingers with its cruelty and how shards of dried, grated skin are peeling back like desiccated coconut. The raised redness of his eczema makes her want to cry.)
Jasmine: (sniffling) It really matters to you doesn’t it, that model?
Daniel: (in sad confusion) I don’t know, Jasmine. I don’t really know anything apart from stars.