It’s not easy being Thomas. He’s turning sixteen; and moving into a new house, and school. His older brother Charlie announces their arrival to the neighbours by banging a wooden spoon and wailing on the front lawn. Charlie doesn’t speak. He’s autistic and has ADD. He’s also unpredictable, sometimes unmanageable, and often disgusting. Thomas hates his brother but wishes he didn’t.
The Mollisons are an army family; but it’s not what you’d call a regimented life, or even a regular household. Thomas’s cricket-obsessed father, Simon, talks to his teddy. Simon and Maggie are openly intimate, and now Maggie is going to have another baby.
One morning, the semi-naked Charlie escapes the house and leads Thomas on a chase across the neighbourhood. Charlie bursts into a stranger’s house to use the toilet; and Thomas finds himself face to face with Jackie Masters, his gawky but fascinating new classmate. The trouble is she’s in the shower.
Maggie has complications with her pregnancy and becomes bedridden. Thomas and Simon between them take on Charlie’s daily routine; and Thomas experiences the less savoury aspects of coping with his brother. What he didn’t bargain for was the shit-smearing, shopping centre tantrums, and riding in the Autistic School bus. It’s sink or swim; and Thomas is drowning.
The truth is he is – literally. The school swimming lessons are a nightmare, because Thomas has never got beyond doggie paddle. Then Thomas is partnered with Jackie for basic life-saving; and Jackie swims like a fish. It’s only when they get to mouth-to-mouth resuscitation that things pick up and young love blossoms between the two – well, three, because Charlie is also entranced by the pretty girl.