Robert had been one of the popular ones in the school. The lassies liked him because he was tall and had a reversible jacket, he’d flip it inside-out and change at random. When David Farmer did an impression of him, holding a paper towel up to his face and making a stupid spluttering noise, everybody laughed. Robert pulled David Farmer’s coat over his head and battered him. I was just about to give him a kick on the legs while he couldny see, but Mr Rose ran down the canteen steps and dragged them off each other. Robert was made apologize at Assembly next day, and this time the note home said if he touched anybody else he’d be expelled.
I went past Robert’s class and saw he was moved to a desk away from the others. Lucy Steele had said the noise was making her feel sick, and Philip Martin’s dad wrote in because he didn’t want Philip catching anything. Robert asked me not to tell. He said whenever Mrs Sweeney left the room now the other boys would take the piss, sniffling and laughing at him. I asked what he did back and he said not to worry about it. He looked after himself.
Our GP, Dr Swanson, kept telling the parents there was nothing wrong with Robert and it would pass soon. Mam made sure he had clean hankies in his blazer and bag every morning, and told him he could dab it, he didny need to sniff. She tried to talk to my da about it but things were going downhill at his work and he was never in the mood to listen. He said Poles were taking over the building sites and some of his squad would be getting laid off, and that was all the worries he needed, never mind any stuffed noses. If Robert sniffed during dinner he’d slam his hand down on the table and make us jump. After a while Robert would boak because of the trail of clear stuff running over his top lip, and da would send him to eat in his room.
Mam took Robert to the ear, nose & throat department at the health centre. She said the lady they saw, Dr Moncrieff, was great, and assured her it was an allergy they could diagnose with a blood test. Probably hay fever, or a housedust intolerance. Mam and Robert were happy after the appointment. Dr Moncrieff told them any allergy could be treated, and I heard mam repeating it on the phone that week. Robert was telling people in school the same, that it was a mystery allergy and he’d be cured when they tested his blood. This made Robert interesting in the yard, everybody talking about what it could be. Laura Moncur told me she noticed Robert’s sniffing getting worse after he ate a crispycake once, so she thought it was chocolate. Me and Robert were watching TV when Mam got the call. The tests were all negative. She cuddled him. When my da came in he asked her what the next step was. She said Dr Moncrieff had just given the results and hung up.
I was playing basketball at PE and I heard Jon Ratcliffe say that any girl who kissed Robert would catch his disease. I bounced the ball off his face and burst his lip. He went greeting to the headmistress, Mrs O’Farrell, and I got called to her office.
So you’re a little thug now, yes?
What do you mean no? That laddie had blood running down his face.
He did deserve it.
WHAT? No-one deserves to be hit. Are you an animal with no control over yourself?
In fact I’m not surprised. I’ve had your brother in here for the same thing. A pair of class bullies.
Son, if you say no to me one more time you’re going to be sorry. Are you incapable of resolving things with words? Were you taught to lash out whenever you hear something you don’t like?
I wasny Miss.
Understand this sort of behaviour will NOT be tolerated in my school..
Miss, I canny tolerate people making fun of somebody that’s ill..
SON! Just who do you think you are? I’ll phone your mother right now, you cannot stay on the premises a minute longer. Making threats to me and the children of this school! We’ll see about that.
She kept on till the taxi turned up to take me home. My mam paid for it and told me to get into my room. I waited for the sound of the work’s van dropping him off. Eventually it came. My da ran into my room and skelped my legs again and again and again. They were red-raw and stinging, and he was shouting, Don’t you DARE EVER face up the Head! Robert came in and told us he could fight his own battles. But you areny! I said, You areny fighting Robert! He tried to punch me then, but Da grabbed his arm and said they should leave me alone.
His nose wasn’t just running now, it was blocked solid and Robert had his mouth open all the time to breathe. Robert’s mate wee Kev came to find me and said everybody in their class was making jokes about how The Snib panted like an Alsatian, and how his eyes were green because his head was full of snotters. He said Robert’s voice had changed, and I hadn’t noticed but I realized it then. The blockage made him so nasal he didn’t sound like his old self anymore. Although Robert wasny talking much these days - unless somebody asked him a question he stayed quiet. I said to mam about it and she booked another appointment. This time it was a Dr McLeish, and she said she wouldny be leaving without results.
She came back waving a prescription. Da went straight to the chemists and got it. It was a wee L-shape thing made of blue plastic. Robert had to put one end in his nostril and push down on the top, and it would spray into his nose and clear his airways. The first time he took it we all sat in the living room. Nothing happened for a while and I could see the mam getting anxious. Robert was smiling and looking at the ceiling. There was a clicking noise coming from somewhere in his body, then the sound of bubbles. In ten minutes he was running round the room sucking in air and blowing it out as hard as he could. Even my da was laughing. Mam wrote Dr McLeish a letter of thanks, and the school allowed Robert to the toilet twice a day to take the puffer.
It was a few months before it stopped working. Dr McLeish told mam at the emergency appointment Robert had simply built up a tolerance to the chemicals, and it wasn’t supposed to be used permanently anyhow. He explained to her that it was alleviative not preventative. My mam asked what they could do instead and Dr McLeish said they could try a different one, but all those sprays contain the same things so that wouldn’t work. And you run the risk of dependency and of scorching the skin off the inside of the nose, he said. His best guess was probably an allergy, so Robert should get bloodtests taken. My mam told me and my da everything the doctor said that day, and she looked at us as if we knew what to do.
The spray still helped but not the way it used to. By the time I got to high school Robert had started prising the wee canister out of the plastic tube and tipping the liquid right into his nostrils. He’d stand outside with the dope smokers, throwing his head back so he’d get as much of the chemicals in as possible.
Most people didn’t know Robert’s real name. He was The Snib, one of the people known by everybody in the school, like Anna Roache (having sex with the villages bus-driver) and Eddie Boo-Boo (his mam had set the bed on fire when his da was asleep). A girl from Robert’s class asked me if The Snib was like that because he’d sniffed so much glue, or if our mam had been a drug addict when she was pregnant. I told her to fuck off, but I saw Robert kissing her at the Christmas disco. Her name was Maggie Woods. She told people Robert tasted like mucus and they laughed at him for that too.
Da started moaning about the cost of the sprays, because Robert was using much more than you got off a repeat prescription. Mam and him argued about it and Robert tried to get a paper round. She took him to the doctor again, and came back with a list of ‘Alternative’ stuff to try. One of them was a thing you plugged in to the wall overnight, it gave the room a smell like cough sweets. He kept waking up and pulling it out because it made the air sting his eyes. Mam tried to talk him into giving the plug-in a proper go when we were eating dinner. I said he should, and Robert looked at his plate and nodded. My da shouted, Aw fuck! and we all jumped out our seats because the blood had started shooting down Robert’s nose and was dripping off his chin. This was the lining being burned off.
Mam decided we needed to get away for a while, the family. My da wasny keen but she kept at it for weeks. She wanted a break and said a change of air might be good for Robert. We talked about Burntisland since it was by the sea, but then she won at the bingo and wanted to take us to Tenerife. Robert wouldn’t go. He wouldn’t say why, but I knew it was because he wouldn’t be allowed all his sprays on the plane. Me and mam went, just us two. I waited for her to bring up Robert and his problem, but she never did.
Da came alone to get us from the airport. He said Robert had went to the pub in town with Maggie Woods, and the bouncers chucked him out because they thought he was snorting drugs in the toilets. Raymond McEwan headered Robert for trying to stop Maggie getting into a taxi with him. We went home and saw Robert’s black eye. Mam made me swear I wouldn’t say anything to Raymond about it in school.
I ran up behind Raymond and punched him as hard as I could on the side of the head, and kept punching. His friends split it up then started on me. I got a sore face and was suspended for three days. My da came into my room and said I wasn’t to fight for The Snib anymore. That Robert’s condition was a sorry thing, but there was nothing I could do. You’ve got to look after yourself, he said, Robert is our responsibility. My mam pushed the door open and they had a row. She was saying brothers have to stick up for each other, and he was saying it wasn’t my fault and why should I have to suffer. I hoped Robert couldn’t hear from through in his room. They kept shouting and my da stamped out. Mam started greeting and asked me to go see a specialist one last time with him. She said I had a better way with words, and could maybe make them see how bad things were.
The specialist we got this time was an old man with white hair and a white beard, Dr McKendrick. He kept asking Robert questions. I answered all of them. The doctor read through Robert’s file, then looked into his nose with a wee thin torch. We talked for twenty minutes and I gave him as much information as possible. The doctor said it could be an undiagnosed allergy. That it could be a dependency on the sprays. I tried to say what it had done to Robert, to his life. He said the key to it all was weaning Robert off the inhaler.
We’d do it with steroids, you see. But it could take a year or so. And it’s not guaranteed to work. Robert would need to really commit to this.
Doctor, I said, Have you not been listening? I told you the spray’s the only thing stopping him going off his head.
Look son, you asked me..
No. It was a stupid thing to say. Give me something that can work.
Well if you don’t respect my medical opinion, you can go elsewhere. You can go private, if you prefer. That is absolutely your prerogative. I’ll even recommend someone.
My family can’t be going private, doctor. How about you do your job instead.
I think you should leave.
And I think you’re fucking useless.
The doctor picked up his phone. I kept staring at him, and felt Robert tug on my sleeve. We went out of the room, down the stairs, through the main doors, and as we jogged out of the carpark we were laughing, and laughing, me and my brother. ●