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My brother Danny has spent the last months on his Xbox building a West Ham team of super stars. Leading his men is D. Johnston, my brother’s avatar, who is twenty-three years old and 6′ 1″ instead of forty-one and 5′ 7″.
“Do you still have that heater?” I say.
“Think so,” Danny says, thumbing the controller of the Xbox.
“Can we put it on?”
“Think I lent it to a mate.”
“Well do you have it or did you lend it to a mate?”
“Chill. You’re stressing me out now.” He loads another football match on the Xbox.
We play. He scores and I don’t. Last night, I slept here on the couch in my jumper and each time I come forward to the edge of the sofa, thinking I might score, I get a whiff of my own body odour. We keep on playing and he keeps on scoring and I don’t. I press my thumb down to try to get one of my men on the screen to tackle one of Danny’s men, but my thumb slips off the controller. My hands are greasy from this morning’s fizzy sweets and pickled onion crisps.
He beats me 4–0 and says “Need the toilet. Anyone knocks don’t answer.”
He goes into the bathroom, shuts the door behind him, and rattles the wood in the frame to make sure the lock is secure. A few minutes later I need the toilet too. I wait outside the door and hear him sucking air through his teeth.
Needles have killed Danny’s favourite injection points. His forearms are lumpy with the memory of abscesses. He’s exhausted the veins in his inner thigh and throat. Once, when he lay in a hospital bed and he lifted his knees, I saw his cock drooping out of his nightgown and it looked like an old elastic band too slack to use. Inside the toilet, he’ll be scanning the sole of his foot, searching for small green pathways.
I’ve only ever beaten Danny at Xbox when he’s clucking. I know that he’s going to come out of the bathroom fixed and focused and I’ll have no chance. A smidge of heroin makes him less tense and allows him to take his time on the ball; it’s practically a performance enhancing drug. I know I’d beat him if he was clean.
Twenty minutes go by.
“I need a piss Dan,” I say through the door.
“Just a second.”
The corners of the wall are pricked with black mould.
“I love you, bruv,” he says.
I pace up and down outside the bathroom to take my mind off my bladder. I try and do it quietly so he can’t hear me, so I don’t make him anxious, slow him down and have to wait longer to piss.
The toilet flushes. We shoulder each other in the doorway as I’m going in and he’s coming out. The bathroom stinks of the bleach Danny uses to cover the acrid smell of cooked heroin.
“You don’t need to actually flush it, you know,” I say.
I unzip my flies and piss into the bowl. My urine is dark, almost brown, but I can’t smell it over the stench of bleach. I must drink water.
Tired of losing, I rest my hands on my head and my armpits smell even worse than before.
“I’m gonna take a shower,” I say.
“Normally yeah. But thing is, bruv, is that the electric is on minus seven fifty. Eight quid they cut me off.”
“How much is a shower?”
“What if I gave you the thirty p and then I took a shower?”
“You’d have to get out of the minus first. Got to put seven fifty on before you could put thirty on.”
I look away from the bright football pitch on the screen. Squinting, I rub one eye with the heel of my hand, the only part that’s not greasy.
The sound of school children walking home, laughing in the street below.
“Let’s get some fresh air,” I say.
“Course, if you want you can go for a walk.”
“We can go out together.”
“I shouldn’t. Probably.”
“Are they after you?”
“They just come looking for me when they’re rounding people up.”
“Fines or fighting?”
“It’s not the police? Someone else?”
“Fuck, you working for the old bill now?”
“It’d just be nice if you told me.”
“Don’t worry about me, bruv.”
I stare at him but he doesn’t meet my eye. I look back towards the screen and gaze at slow motion replays of my most recent defeat.
“Go. Go for a walk if you fancy,” he says.
“I just wanted to freshen up.”
“I suppose I could sell my Xbox and buy it back next week.”
“I’ll shower when I get home.”
We don’t look at each other. “Another game?” he says.
Danny opens the bathroom door. The smell of bleach. I must drink water. I hear him turning the lock. Yawning, I go into the kitchen, take a mug with the handle broken off and put it under the tap.
“Shit. Fuck,” Danny shouts. He comes out of the bathroom. “Do you want anything, bruv? I’m gonna go the shop.”
“I thought they were after you.”
“I’ll probably be OK, I reckon. You’ll be alright here.”
“What about the police?”
“I’m just nipping around the corner. Only be two minutes.”
“I’m coming with you,” I say in my social-worker voice.
“Stay here.” The voice of my big brother.
I watch him do up the laces on his trainers. This is what he does: protect me with his absence.
“Two seconds.” He leaves.
Through the bare window, an amber square of street light shines onto the wall.
I play Xbox football by myself for an hour or so. I win but don’t really keep score. Winning on my own never translates to winning against Danny. I turn off the Xbox and flick through the TV channels. Between Babe Station and late night violent movies there’s an old woman talking about how a lawyer got her seven thousand pounds for being in an accident that wasn’t her fault. Biting the nail of my thumb, I get a bitter taste in my mouth from my dirty fingers. I switch off the TV and go over to the electric meter. It reads –£7.66.
Walking into the bathroom, I switch on the light and pull the cord for the hot water.
I hold the toggle at the bottom of the cord between my thumb and finger. The soap on the side of the shower is dry and cracked. One of Danny’s hairs is in it.
I tug the hot water cord again, toggle pings up and taps the wall as I leave the bathroom. Pulling the sleeves of my jumper down over my hands, I go into Danny’s bedroom and find his West Ham shirt lying on the mattress. I put it on over my jumper and get into the sleeping bag. I curl up to get warm and I can smell my armpits again.
With an intake of cold air that hurts my teeth, I wake up. “Dan,” I whisper.
I get up and check the flat but he’s not here. Outside, a door slams. I look out the living-room window and see a woman holding a can of energy drink leave her house for work. I go over to the electric meter. It reads –£7.68. I walk into the bathroom, pull the cord for hot water. I press the light switch. The bulb has stopped working. I turn on the shower and undress.
In the blue morning light, I step under the stream of water.