The houses marched up the hill like a line of soldiers on parade, a vagabond army where each expressed their individuality with little differences, or sometimes bolder shows. The tiny front gardens were bordered by hedges or walls, the front doors and windows painted in various colours. Those bolder houses had their brick facades painted, cream or red. The red ones, there were only one or two, had the mortar lines defined in black, as if the old London bricks had to be emphasised?
It wasn't the leafy suburbs, but neither was it the inner city. The rows of almost identical houses with their bay front windows, gates and steps, were mirrored street after street, from Finsbury Park to Turnpike Lane. Each road was joined to the other by an alley which was exactly one quarter up the road. Exactly where the paving slabs changed to tarmac. Where the poorer borough of Tottenham bordered the nicer borough of Hornsey; even the name sounded posh.
Patrick never paid this much attention. For him it was the point at which the hill tailed away and they ended their race downhill on their wooden carts. The only point of interest was the sweet shop on the other side of the road, just before you reached the main road and the rest of the shops. It wasn't the only sweet shop, there was Maynards on his side of the road. But Maynards was always rather daunting, somewhere where haughty ladies with lipstick and aprons peered down at little boys on their own or looked over their heads and ignored them in favour of addressing the adults.
He'd lived here all his life and knew every house, if not every person who lived in them. No, not quite true; he knew the houses of his friends, and there were a few, his neighbours and near neighbours; plus those houses where the people complained if they played outside. On one side of his house lived Robby, he was Scottish, and on the other side lived the three aunts. He never worked out why they were called aunts, because they were not related. His family was so small he had no real uncles, aunts, cousins, or any relatives; only his grandparents.
Everything was very normal until the day he came home from school in the afternoon, opened the front door and greeted his grandmother. She was smiling as usual, his mum wasn't back from work yet, but she wouldn't be long, and then he would have his tea. His grandmother's face took on a startled expression when he turned back from the front door and introduced Ben.
"This is Ben," he nodded to his right. "He's my new brother."
Startled, his grandmother recovered quickly back to her usual self, and didn't say a word about Ben being there.
"I'll leave you two to play together. Your mother will be home soon." Was all she said before disappearing upstairs.
His grandparents lived in the top half of the house.
It wasn't long before the front door opened. He heard the sound of the key turning in the lock. Patrick listened to his mum and grandmother talking, but couldn't hear what they were saying. Shortly after she came into the kitchen, went up to him, and messed with his hair. She often did that, or else kissed him. He wasn't sure which was worse, the kissing or the messing with his hair.
"Nan tells me you brought your new little brother home from school," she smiled as she looked at him.
Ben turned away, staring into space.
"He's not my little brother. He's my big brother."
"Oh, I see," she replied, busying herself around the kitchen, preparing something for his tea. "I'll lay an extra place then?"
"Of course," Patrick confirmed.
When his dad came home later, they must have spoken together, his mum and dad, because his dad greeted him with: "So, you brought your brother home?"
"Yes, dad," Patrick replied. "And he can share my bedroom. That's okay isn't it?"
"Sure, of course it is."
Things settled down to the usual routine, despite everyone's surprise about Ben, but they all accommodated him.
It was only on Friday when the situation took a turn for the worse. Patrick's mother got a phone call from his school, and that afternoon went to have a chat with his teacher.
"I think we have a little problem with Patrick and Ben," his teacher began, as they sat in the classroom.
Mrs Anderson was a good teacher, she'd had Patrick in her class last year as well as this year. His mother knew her quite well, they were on good terms. Patrick's mother looked around at the rows of empty desks and then her eyes surveyed the walls, covered with the bits and pieces of work the children had done. The one picture that caught her attention was Patrick's of course, she remembered Simon helping him with it, he had drawn the black cat.
"I know it's..." she paused, as if searching for the right word or phrase.
"Unusual," Mrs Anderson interjected.
"Yes, exactly. At home we made allowances for Ben, perhaps we shouldn't have? It's difficult to know what is the right thing to do. He just announced one afternoon that he'd brought his new brother home."
"I've also tried to accommodate things, but today he nearly had a fight with another boy who wanted to sit in the seat next to him in class. He told the other boy - 'You can't sit there that's Ben's seat.' Then Patrick got upset when the boy told him the seat was empty. 'No its not,' Patrick had argued. I calmed things down, but you do see that we can't very well continue like this. I do understand how difficult it is. For all of you."
Patrick's mother became tearful, she extracted a tissue from her handbag and dabbed at the corner of her eyes. She was desperately trying to keep a hold on her emotions. To keep a hold on her life.
"I'll talk to him," she told Mrs Anderson, and stood up to leave.
Patrick was waiting in the playground by the gate. He watched as his mother walked across the empty space.
"Patrick, we need to talk about Ben."
Tears welled up in his eyes as he looked first at the hard concrete beneath his feet, then up at his mother. Her face was full of love and emotion, he saw she was very close to tears herself.
"It's alright mommy," he sobbed between words. "He's gone."
"You mean Ben?" She asked him, barely able to contain her emotions.
He nodded, looking back down at the ground.
"And Simon," he whispered.
She pulled him into a hug and kissed the top of his head.
"Let's go home," she said softly, and they walked together through the school gates. "You know," she spoke quietly with her arm around him. "We all miss him, but..." she took a deep breath, thinking carefully about what to say. "You don't need a new brother. Simon will always be here."
She stopped, bent down, and tapped his heart. "Right here, for as long as you remember him, and that is always."
Patrick didn't say anything, he looked up at her with a sad expression. She felt that if he'd said goodbye to Ben, and Simon, then they'd surmounted another hurdle in overcoming the family tragedy.