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Lessons in caring

By Emma Sterland

‘Shepherd’s pie, chips and peas. Apple crumble and custard,’ came a familiar greeting. It was Archie back from college. He always announced his lunch before removing his coat.

Archie was a creature of habit.

‘Missed!’ he’d say if you whacked him with a pillow or caught him out in rounders.  Like people say ‘Pardon me!’ when they burp or ’Bless you!’ if you sneeze. ‘Missed!’ was a reflex.

‘Is that for me?’ was another one. ‘Is that for me?’ he’d repeat every mealtime, staring at his plate, till Mum answered, ‘Yes, that’s for you Archie – eat up!’

Mum called them his ‘grooves’ – his little daily rituals that seemed to give him peace of mind. Like adjusting his shirt in the mirror every morning – a fraction to the left, then back to the right – till he was satisfied with the result.

Everyone was so used to Archie’s grooves, they hardly noticed them. Even when Freya was busting for the bathroom, she’d hop patiently from one foot to the other, while he painstakingly folded and re-folded his face flannel. Archie had two speeds – slow and slower – and if there was one word guaranteed to make things worse, it was ‘hurry’.

‘What you doing?’ asked Archie.

‘Writing about you,’ Freya replied.

A lopsided beam spread across her brother’s face. Freya smiled too. Archie’s grins were as infectious as yawning.

 ’bout me?’

‘Yeah, it’s my homework. I’ve got to write about someone important, so I chose you,’ said Freya. Music – meet ears! she thought. Archie loved nothing more than talking about himself.

‘I see!’ said Archie, happily. ‘Do you wanna know ‘bout my life?’ This was his favourite game – Freya pretending to be an interviewer, Archie the legendary actor.

‘Sure. Tell me about your childhood – before you became famous,’ said Freya, playing along.

Archie had complete faith in his own star potential, and no time for false modesty.

‘You were so good in that show,’ Freya would remark.

‘I know I was,’ he’d reply sincerely.

‘W-well, I ‘member when I was Oliver,’ said Archie.

‘When you were in Oliver Twist?’

‘Yeah – don’t int’rupt Freya!’

‘Sorry. Go on…’

Later, as the dishes were being cleared, Freya settled into the sofa, pulling up her legs to make an upside down ‘V’. She opened her notebook and started writing. People always ask me what it’s like to have a brother with Down’s syndrome, but I can’t imagine Archie any other way.

Archie was three years older than Freya. He’d been around all her life. She couldn’t pinpoint a moment she realised he was different. It just kind of crept up on her, like being able to whistle.

Truth was it was only when other kids at school quizzed her about Archie she gave it much thought. Usually, they were just curious, and she didn’t mind.

It was only when people stared at him or nudged their friends, she’d get upset. Adults were often worse than children. They’d put down heavy shopping bags or crane their heads round for a good gawp. ‘We’ll send them a bill later!’ mum would say breezily. She never made a fuss in front of Archie.

If only people weren’t so bothered about what made Archie different, she thought. It was what made him Archie that mattered.

Archie makes me laugh she wrote, then crossed it out, frowning. You’re not supposed to laugh at disabled people.

But Archie did make her laugh. He made everyone laugh – that was his thing. He was always saying something funny or doing something unexpected.

‘I’m going to do a ‘pression now,’ he’d announce, strutting into the living room in a pair of Freya’s leggings and an Elvis wig. ‘Any requests?’

It wasn’t like they were laughing in a cruel way. Archie just made them see the lighter side of life, that was all. Like when Frodo got attacked by that giant spider in Lord of the Rings – The Return of the King. The whole audience had gone quiet, and Archie suddenly yelled out ‘Missed!’

It was like Archie had a different take on the world. He didn’t see it in quite the same boring, grey way everyone else did. He made you look on the funny side.

People who knew him saw that. They took him for who he was and not what he looked like. The trouble was people who didn’t know him just saw Down’s syndrome. And often they didn’t try to look any further.

Archie is important to me because he has taught me about understanding Freya wrote. Just because someone looks different doesn’t mean you should be afraid of them or laugh at them. Once you get to know them, you no longer see the differences, you just see the person.

‘Freya,’ Archie interrupted.

‘Yes Archie?’

‘Do you wanna finish the interview now?’

‘Sure … remind me what we were talking about?’

‘Me,’ said Archie smiling broadly as he settled into the sofa next to Freya.

‘Before I was famous.’

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An anthology of poems and stories from our Creative Writing Competition 2015.

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The cover photography on our anthology is by Dawn, who cares for her twins Grace and Ethan.

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