Harry listened to his brother Alfred groaning. Again. Every night now he was unsettled, making noises, shouting and thrashing about. It was like sleeping in a wrestling ring. It wouldn’t be so bad if he stayed in his own bed, but he wouldn’t. ‘Can I sleep in with you, Harry?’ he would ask, the minute their parents turned out the light, and then stumble across the room without waiting for an answer. Not having the heart to push him away, Harry would pull back the covers and make space for him, squashing himself against the flocked wallpaper and trying to make himself small.
Harry was thirteen and Alfred seven. It was right that Harry should protect him, help him feel safe, and most of the time he was fine with it. But at night time it was getting to be a real pain. Harry had his paper round to get up for, and he just wasn’t sleeping. Even his teachers had noticed him yawning in class. ‘Keeping you up, Howard?’ they’d ask, their sarcasm usually tempered by an accompanying sympathetic smile.
‘Aaagh, get ‘em off me. get ‘em off me!’ shouted Alfred.
‘Alf, Alf, wake up. You’re dreaming.’ Alfred opened his eyes wide, and Harry could feel his heart racing through his pyjama top. ‘Come on, mate, you’re fine. Bears again?’
‘Yeah. They were chasing me down the stairs, trying to stuffacate me.’
‘Suffocate, you mean. But look,’ Harry shone his torch around the room, ‘No bears. It’s all good.’
‘Will you come with me for a wee? Just in case.’
‘Course I will, Alf. Come on.’
As they clambered back into bed, shivering, Harry held Alfred’s hand until he closed his eyes. ‘I’ll keep you safe, Alf. I promise,’ he whispered. As he watched him sleep, Harry thought back over the past year, wondering if things would get better and the family would ever be able to move on. One thing was certain, things would never be ‘normal’ again. The day his sister had died had destroyed any hope of normality. His parents were shadows of what they’d once been and, although they tried to continue family life and routine, it was by rote. He knew that he and Alfred were constant reminders of the gaping hole, the vacuum that used to be filled by Clare, and he spent his life trying not to feel guilty about it.
Harry swallowed hard, and wondered whether they would ever be able to talk about her, recall her funny, four year old antics and laugh about how she couldn’t say her ‘L’s, so ‘clapping’ became ‘crapping’. Was it so wrong to remember her? He missed her too, but was painfully aware of some sort of hierarchy of grief that seemed to determine that it was much worse for parents to lose a child than for children to lose a sibling.
Next to him, Alf stirred. Poor Alf. He was so confused. His little sister had been poorly in bed one day, been taken away by ambulance the next, and had never come back. Harry would often find him sitting in her room, staring at all her teddy bears - it was no wonder he was always dreaming about them. He wanted to tell his parents about Alfred’s nightmares, how he would never sleep in his own bed, how he was scared all the time but could never find the words. Mum was always so tearful and distracted and Dad, well Dad just spent all his time in his shed. It didn’t seem fair to worry them.
Harry wondered if it might help if they put away Clare’s things, made it clear to Alfred that she wasn’t coming back. It would be difficult, he knew, but until it happened, it would feel like the bears were always waiting for her. Hoping she would magically reappear. Maybe next month, when the year’s anniversary had passed, he could talk to his parents about it. Or maybe not.
He looked again at his brother. He knew he would always try to protect him, and hated that he had been unable to protect their sister. Harry turned to face the wall, and cried himself to sleep.