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Not 18: Essay on a Child's Viewpoint (1991)

"Now listen to me very carefully, Michael. I'm going to take you back to when you were a child...a young child, Michael. Before it happened...just before it happened."
July 9th, 1979. Michael Taylor was six years old, living in a small house in the East of London. It was a gloriously hot summer, not to be rivalled in temperature since 1976. Little Michael was playing on the back lawn, bouncing a tennis ball against the side of the house. His mother was sunning herself in the garden.
"Do you have to bounce that ball, Michael? It's annoying."
"It's just something to do, Mum."
"Well don't. Can't you find something better to do?"
"No!" Then he had stopped, mid-retribution. He didn't want to argue with her. It would have spoiled the day.

"A beautiful day, wasn't it, Michael? You didn't want to put your mother in a bad mood, did you?"
No. Of course not. Not that day. That was the day when...my brother came home.

The doorbell rang. Michael had jumped at the sound, then remembering, had given a joyful yelp and raced to answer the door. His brother Napoleon, home from the Army, wearing a neatly-laundered uniform, his long, dark-brown hair kept at bay by a rubber band.
"Napoleon!" the child screeched, hurling himself into his brother's arms.
Napoleon smiled. "Hiya, champ." He held Michael up in the air for a minute, then lowered him to the ground. His mother accepted the hug that he gave her with an air of weariness, Michael's enthusiasm seeming to steal away her own. "Hello, Napoleon. Nice to have you home again."
He flicked back his hair, which had somehow come loose from the band. "Heard from Dad recently?"
Her smile receded like a fizzing fuse. "You know I'd tell you if I had. Don't ask me about it again in front of the child."

"They called you 'the child' when they talked about your father always, didn't they, Michael? Well, you're that age again now, aren't you? You don't understand grown-ups. Not even your mother sometimes. But it's alright now. Napoleon's home. You understand him, don't you?"
Napoleon's not home. That's a lie. You're lying to me. He's gone...
"No. Listen, Michael. It's 1979. You're six. He's just come back from the Army...your mother's there. What are they talking about? You don't understand..."

When she said "the child," he knew that Napoleon had brought up a taboo subject. The look on Napoleon's face would have told him that anyway. He felt angry with his mother for making his brother sad on the day he'd come home. He felt angry with his father for going away. Grown-ups...their world was so confusing. If only Napoleon was there to talk to a little more often...but soon he would live in that confusing, strange world, tell Michael off like his mother did. It wasn't fair. Why couldn't he stay the same age forever? Till Michael caught him up, at least. Why not?
"That was when it started happening, wasn't it, Michael? When you realised your brother would soon start behaving the way all grown-ups do? He'd be like your mother - he'd tell you when to go to bed, and how to behave in public..."
And the TV. There was this programme we'd watch...he said it was for kids, and it was too young for him now.
"And he made you go to bed, didn't he?"
Yes...that was when I discovered what I had to do...

The clock struck seven. Michael's mother had inclined her head towards it, said calmly to Michael who was sitting by the TV: "Go to bed now."
"Mum! It's only seven! An' it's the holidays!"
She looked up from the paperback novel she had been reading. "Michael!" - she was annoyed. "Get to bed now!"
"I'll miss the end!" Michael, desperate, looked to Napoleon for help, but was met with a stern gaze. "Do as Mum says!"
Michael was shocked. Napoleon had never told him to do something like that. "What if I won't?"
"You'll...you'll get a whallop!"
There. Proof. Children did not speak to each other like that. Napoleon wasn't far off being a true adult...Michael turned away from him and raced up the stairs to his bedroom.

"How did you feel then?"
I don't know. Sad. Angry, maybe.
"All right, Michael. It's nearly nine now. You couldn't get to sleep, could you? Napoleon came up to see you. What did he say?"
You know what he said. You've asked me before!
"Suppose I've forgotten. Tell me again."

"Michael?" Napoleon sounded slightly worried and a little tired. "Can I talk to you?"
"Yes." Michael wanted to keep silent, but all the words came up out of his throat in a rush. "Why did you tell me to go to bed like that? You never used to be like this!"
Napoleon gave a deep sigh and sat down on the edge of the bed. "Well, y'know, champ, we all have to grow up sometime."
"Why? Why do we?"
"It's a fact of life, isn't it?"
"Do you want to, though?" Michael moved closer to his brother. "You'll be 18 next month. A real grown-up then. Do you want that? Do you want to be old?"
Napoleon laughed. "Oh Michael," he said. "What wouldn't I give to be your age again."

You see? He didn't want to be an adult either. He didn't want to get any older. I asked him about that, too.
"And what did he say?"
He said, next month, he'd be fully grown-up. He said that he only had a few weeks left until then, and that they were very - precious to him. So you see...what I did...it was what he wanted.

Michael had thought about what to do very carefully. His brother didn't really want to become an adult. It would hurt, and he would miss his brother, but he couldn't bear the thought of Napoleon growing old and cruel with no time for him anymore.
"So what did you do then, Michael?"
I...I waited until the next day. Mum had gone out shopping, and it was just me and Napoleon in the house. It was 5 'o clock...we'd just finished tea..."
"And you picked up the knife then, didn't you?"
Yes. The knife. Napoleon and me were washing up...I had the knife in my hand...
"Then what?"
No. NO. I won't tell you! I can't!
"Calm down, Michael. Everything will be all right. What happened then? Tell me!"
I...the knife...I brought it up in front of Napoleon and...

...stabbed him with it. The knife pierced the soft skin, sinking through the flesh, slicing into the heart. Michael had seen enough murder films to know where to stick the knife. Napoleon gasped and thudded backwards, hitting the floor. Blood spewed up from his mouth and from the mutilated organ. Michael stepped away, fascinated. So much blood...he hadn't expected so much blood...he looked down into Napoleon's face, strong and youthful, as he lay on the floor, still now, the last of his life's blood ebbed away. That face would never age. In 50 years, Napoleon Taylor would be still 17 years old and still dead. And Michael was glad for this. "I'll be with you, Napoleon," he whispered, kneeling down beside the inert form.

"And what did you mean by that, Michael?"
I was glad I'd saved him...from being an adult.
"What happened after that, Michael? When your mother came back and saw what had happened? She screamed, didn't she? Screamed and screamed..."
They took me away. Bad place. No windows. Bad boys.
"What did they do to you, Michael?"
No. No! Bad place! I hadn't done anything wrong...I just wanted to save my brother. I just wanted to save MY BROTHER!
"Calm down, Michael."
No! No! NO!
"Michael - "

The tape ended with a crackle of static. That was when Michael had hit out at the dictating machine and knocked it over, switching the tape off. The psychiatrist sighed and looked up at his wife. "It was my fault, you know...for what happened."
She smiled at him reassuringly. "No it wasn't. He would have done it anyway. That was a boy who really did not want to grow up."
He sighed and looked at the glowing calendar on his desk. The numbers seemed to leap out at him. June 19th, 1991. Exactly a week before Michael Taylor's 18th birthday. And exactly two weeks after he had killed himself.
"At least now I know what he meant when he said 'I'll be with you.' I was too hard on him. I shouldn't have forced him to remember."
"It wasn't your fault," she repeated. "You have to believe that." She grasped his arm. "Let's go home."
"Yes." He wanted to get away from his office, away from the Michael Taylor tape, right out of it. The psychiatrist stood up and shuffled after his wife, out of the office. The dictating machine was left on the table, next to a recent picture of Michael Taylor. A picture that would stay recent with the passing of years. In time, it would fade, and lie forgotten in the psychiatrist's old records. Perhaps, but just like Napoleon, Michael Taylor would stay a child...forever.

Not 18


Robin Tamblyn (author)