James Stanton: Ice Man
"Today," James wrote, "is my brother Will's birthday. He is ten." He wrote it emphatically. "Everyone says he's eleven but Mum says he wasn't born until 8 o'clock at night even though he started coming at midnight so that means he's still ten for eight and a half more hours and I'm more than twelve and a half so I'm two years older than him, nearly three."
He turned over to a new page, and blotted his leaky cartridge-pen on a stained fragment of blotting paper. The snow was calling to him, shouting of all the games he could be playing. He had to get revenge on Will for the snowball down the back of the neck, and there were plans to build the biggest snowman in the whole of England. With Max on their team, they would build the best, too, even though Stephen wasn't there to help with the rolling.
"Will woke us all up this morning," James wrote. "He was shouting like a little boy because it's his birthday and because it's snowing." He hesitated over the next words, but honesty compelled him to add, "I think I might have shouted too if I'd got up first and seen the snow. But Will screamed in the night too. He's such a baby. He had a nightmare or something. Everyone rushed to look after him, of course. Paul got there first but I met Max and Gwen and Mum on the landing. It took me ages to warm up after I got back to bed. That was Will's fault, because he's a baby.
"And he's spoiled too. He's making us all eat liver and bacon for dinner which isn't fair because I don't like liver. Yesterday he was going on about the rabbits not liking him any more, and he looked really upset as if everyone in the world is supposed to like him because he's the cute little baby. Then he went on about birds attacking which is stupid because I was there and I didn't see any birds attack, and birds don't attack anyway, and he was making it up like a baby and just wanted attention."
He stopped, and read back what he had written. He stared at the paper, then out of the window. With a sigh, he tore the page out of his exercise book. It wasn't true, really, though it felt true when he was stuck inside, and Will was outside playing in the snow, and it was Will's birthday, not his, and everything revolved around him. In a big family, everyone had their time in the limelight, and it seemed like ages before it was James' turn again.
James turned the pages of his rough book, and checked his notes again. "What I did in my holidays," he read. He would have had to scrap his writing, anyway, unless he wanted to get told off again. "Write about a family member," had been his homework in the summer, but instead he had written about bike rides along the Thames. "You have more than your fair share of family members," Mr Thomas had sneered, "unlike poor Knight there, who is stuck with only one. Yet Knight manages to give me an interesting pen-portrait of his mother, while you, Stanton, give me an offering of a completely different homework assignment entirely."
Someone knocked on his bedroom door. "Come in," James called, hoping it was his mother come to release him, but it was Will, his cheeks flushed from outside.
"What are you doing in here?" Will asked.
"I wanted a break from you lot," James told him airily. He could not sustain the lie for more than a second. "I came in for a drink, and Mum saw how wet my clothes were. She says I have to stay in for an hour until I warm up. I thought I might as well get my homework out of the way." It was a family tradition that homework was done as early in the holidays as possible, so that Christmas could be enjoyed without shadow. "Stay here if you want, if you want somewhere to do your homework," he said graciously, "and don't want to be all alone up in that attic."
"I did mine yesterday," Will said placidly.
He made for his old bed, anyway, but James lunged for a cushion and hurled it at Will's head just in time. "You're soaking wet and covered with snow! Don't you dare sit on my chaise longue like that. I'll tell Mum, and then she'll keep you inside, too."
Will deflected a second cushion. "What do you have write about?"
"What I did in my holidays," James said. Will grimaced. "Quite," James agreed. "Just like we had to do when we were five." He threw his rough book at Will, who caught it one-handed. "I don't know why I keep on letting you read this. You'll have to do all his next year, but you'll have had a sneak preview. That's why you keep on doing better than me at school. I'm like those people who go first in an army and take all the bullets so the other people can come up afterwards and capture the enemy's flag and get all the medals."
"It is one of the better kind of hand-me-downs," Will said with a smile, still leafing through the rough book.
"What I did in my holidays," James repeated derisively. "I'm just going to do the same thing I do every year."
"But you like it like that," Will said. "You like complaining about it, but you wouldn't have it any different."
James threw another cushion. "Stop looking at me like that. Stop speaking like that. You're weird."
"And you're wrong," Will said with a smile, holding out the rough book. "You should have read the rest of it. Though how you can write down what your teacher says, and not remember a word of it three days later, I don't know."
James snatched the book back. "What I did in my holidays," he read out loud, "but not the usual things about presents and families and games. Write about a real event, then use it as the jumping-off point for an imaginary adventure." He threw the book down in disgust. "That's even more stupid. Imaginary adventure? We're not babies."
"I think it's interesting," Will said. He was now surrounded by discarded cushions. "What if you suddenly found out that one of your brothers was really a…"
Another cushion joined the scattered pile. "If I have to write a stupid adventure, then I'm going to be the hero, not one of you." He picked up his pen, and turned to a blank page. "What I did in my holidays," he wrote, and underlined it. A minute later, he underlined it again. Then he added the date. A minute later, he wrote, "By James Stanton."
"No ideas?" Will's voice said, infuriatingly calm.
There were no more cushions that James could easily reach.
"It doesn't have to be an event that's already happened," Will said. "You're writing this at the start of the holidays, but your teacher won't read it until the end. We always do the same things every Christmas. You could take something that hasn't happened yet, and use that as your jumping-off point."
"Like what?" James asked.
"Like carol-singing," Will said. "We're singing for… for Mr Hutton, and suddenly we hear a noise. We creep the window, and see that he's got James Bond tied up inside his living room. Little did we know, but behind that jolly exterior, Mr Hutton is really a criminal mastermind who wants to take over the world."
"And I can save James Bond and save the world," James cried. He lowered his voice, and put on a menacing glower. "The name is Stanton. James Stanton. Licence to kill."
Will smiled. "Or you could…"
"No!" James had the idea now, coming miraculously fully-formed into his head. Not James Bond after all, but something even better.
"I'll leave you alone, then." Will moved towards the door.
James looked at him. Will looked cold, with reddened cheeks, and melted snow clinging to his collar. Perhaps he was lonely, with his friends away on his birthday, and his nearest brother banished to his room to do homework. "You can stay, if you like," James said graciously. "You even sit on my chaise longue, if you take your coat off first, and help yourself to my books, but not the ones on the top because I haven't read those myself yet and I want to be first."
Will settled down, gathering the scattered cushions around him, and picked up a book. James searched for that warm glow that his R.E. teacher was forever telling him he should feel after doing a good deed, and thought he could feel it, though perhaps it was just because he was sitting near the radiator on a cold day.
"Today," he wrote, "is my little brother's birthday. Everyone thinks it's Will's special day, but none of them know that it's my special day too. I won't tell them because I'm a good brother and it would be selfish to try to steal Will's lightning." He thought that was the phrase. He almost asked Will, but Will seemed immersed in his book, and it did not do for an older brother to ask a child for help with homework.
"What happened was this," he continued. "Last night I woke up in the middle of the night to hear Will screaming. I got up and ran to his room to see what was the matter. I put on the light and saw him sitting curled up in the bed as if he was terrified. 'What's the matter?' I asked him. He couldn't answer because he was so scared but he pointed with a trembling finger.
"It was a spider. A huge spider, all black and hairy with lots of eyes and long legs and hair. Will was terrified but was I afraid? No! I pointed at it with one finger. 'Go away!' I said. 'Leave my little brother alone!'
"The spider froze! It turned into a solid lump of ice! It was blue and frozen and dead! And it wasn't just the spider that froze. Silver zigzags of ice came out of my fingers and they went outside through the window and turned the whole village white.
"And that was how I found out that I am a super-hero.
"No-one knows the truth. Everyone thinks the snow fell from the sky like normal snow, they don't know it came from my fingers with my super powers. Will thinks it's his own special birthday present. They're playing in it and I feel happy and important because I know it's all because of me.
"But a superhero never rests. I wonder what challenges the rest of the holidays will bring me. Does Miss Bell need to be rescued from a giant? Will Mrs Pettigrew's dog turn into a mutant monster dog and go on a rampage through the village with no-one standing between everyone and doom but me? At the moment I don't know. I will pretend to be normal and play in the snow, but all along I now know that I have been chosen for a special purpose and that one day the world will need me to save it from a terrible doom."
He laid down his pen. Will was looking at him, the book still open at page one. "Finished?"
Words came easier with someone else in the room. "Finished." James looked at his watch. It was not quite an hour, but surely it was close enough to satisfy their mother. She was normally far too busy to remember the various decrees she had issued to each of her offspring. "Fancy another snowball fight? It's payback time. Prepare to fall at the hands of me, the Snow Man." It did not sound right. "The Ice Man. Mr Ice."
"You can't beat me," Will declared, stating it quietly, like a fact. "It's my birthday."
He darted away, and James chased him. "Oh yes I can."
They thundered downstairs and tumbled through the front door, where James scooped up a double handful of snow and hurled it at Will. The door was still open, and the wind took the loose snow and deposited most of it on the hall carpet.
James and Will looked at each other. "I think we should play down the lane," Will whispered, shutting the door silently behind them.
"Just what I was going to say," James said, as he chased his brother through the snow, shouting loud enough to send the rooks scattering with furious cries.