My brother was born via ventouse and forceps. I met him on sports day. My father picked me up and I got in the car red faced, wearing my permanently rolled-up skort. We parked in pay and display and pushed buttons and pressed on alcoholic hand gels until we got into the maternity ward. After he’d been born his mother had gone into surgery for the loss of blood. This rumpled creature had lay on my father’s naked chest instead, warm and sticky and blind. Baby blues rolled about his head as I held him now, twelve hours later, taking in my colossal form and dribbling saliva onto his mottled chin.
I did not get to see him much, which meant I got to watch him grow. From sentient lump to semi-real being to hurtling off sofas and squirming like a worm on the kitchen floor. One night after reading him a story, he’d told me I wouldn’t believe what had happened the day before. Him and my father had been walking along the beach and gone right to the end of a pier. Then the sky had split and an alien spaceship came bursting through the gap, flying down to land softly on the sea. They had taken his eyes, he said, and replaced them with wires.
So began a tradition of brilliant lies. Collections of narratives bound up in his head; creating links between songs or words overheard, character archetypes seen on television, my father’s abuse of the history channel. With no other way to express these buzzing thoughts but to grind them together and cheekily, but earnestly, retell the tales. No other way of expressing this as at seven he still could not read or write. No progress was being made in this area.
Whether he’d seen it somewhere, gotten it from my father or if it was entirely him – a new version of my brother emerged. My rebel with a cause. The cause being that school is hell on earth, all teachers are mean and he’d rather be on his skateboard (far too young for a motorbike). He had a heightened sense of injustice, sniffing it out wherever he could. In the mornings the dog would whine at the back door and my father would make breakfast to the news on the radio. My brother would listen too, he’d ask questions and, when faced with the ineptitude of those in charge, roll his eyes and declare ‘that’s so stupid’. A favourite word of his, the most damning in his mind perhaps because it’s what he thought of himself.
The day that children are taught to read as a means of measuring intelligence, of sharing information, twenty percent of the population is left behind. He had become accustomed to failure, expected it. And he was angry about it. He would not follow orders, even from my father. My father, whose own belief in the questioning of authority has never aided in his parenting. Around this time my brother spray painted a circle-A onto his bedroom wall and, when the Queen asked children to paint rainbows in support of the NHS, he said he’d do it for them but not for her. Playing with him was painful. He could punch me but I would not punch him. Maybe he wanted to see if I would still hold him if he was violent and loud and ‘stupid’. But children often grow out of violence. It’s those that suffer this societal affliction -the belief that they are slow or dumb- but do not have anything to counteract the shame, that are at risk of taking the wrong path.
I don’t know if it would have hurt him so deeply if he was not the sort to seek out answers. If he was not curious. He asked me once if I was more afraid of dying or the pain of it. When I answered the latter he agreed and said with the plainest of faces, ‘I’m not afraid of death,’. His own theories on what might await us afterwards -strangely a mixture of medieval Christianity, Buddhism and a fear of ghosts- have made me think more on the subject, beyond what I have read in books.
In the past year or two I have seen him flower, although he may not entirely agree. I have heard him banging the drums in perfect rhythm in his bedroom and I have poured over his self-portraits. Skills that can be learnt by watching, doing. Skills that are valued but at school were never put on a par with the ability to decode letters on a page. Sometimes I am even jealous that he has not had the pressure of success on top of him from a young age – allowed by some others to fail even if not by himself.
Watching the news on the 24th of February, my brother asked if Britain was going to fight to help Ukraine. My father explained that currently this wasn’t the case. My brother replied ‘I want to fight, I’ll fight for what’s right,’, before looking up at me and saying ‘you’re going to cry aren’t you,’.
He’s nine at the moment. This year he will be ten. My desire for him to remain small forever is matched only by my desire to watch him take up more space in this world as he grows. My best slug and confidant, in my view a vessel of immeasurable faculty.