My sister texts me with the news that our brother has returned from ten days in Yorkshire to find that his water tank has been leaking and made the house uninhabitable. The insurance company say it will be a year before he is back home.
The last time I saw my brother was when I bumped into him in a supermarket and we chatted awkwardly like two people who vaguely knew one another and had realised soon after their greeting that they didn’t have anything much to talk about.
We get on fine and we’ve never fallen out as far as I can remember, we just aren’t close, you know, like brothers might be.
At the end of my sister’s text she writes;
“They both send their love and best wishes to you.”
For a moment I wonder if I should offer to put him up for a year but his partner has her own house and I presume he’ll move in there. Why would I imagine he might want to come and live with me, a stranger?
I send a text back to my sister.
“Oh God, that’s horrendous, is he OK?”
This is how communication between me and my brother operates. We converse via our sister.
I used to talk to both of them via my mother but after she died I was forced to do some of the work myself. For years I just avoided it, until I got a dog and suddenly my sister and I had something which brought us together.
Deciding to break the habit of the last twenty years I text my brother.
“So sorry to hear about your house. I hope everything precious to you has survived. Let me know if I can do anything to help. See you soon, hopefully.”
Reading it back it seems disingenuous. I’m offering help safe in the knowledge that he won’t require any or, even if he does, he won’t ask for it from me. As for “see you soon, hopefully” I probably should have written “See you by the cheese counter in Waitrose in a few years”.
I haven’t visited his house since 1997 even though it’s in a town where I had a clinic every Tuesday for more than a decade. I also have no idea what the “everything precious” is that I referred to in my message which makes me feel ashamed and alone.
I know he has a baby grand piano which I have never seen or heard him play and the only time I went for dinner was one Christmas when my parents were still alive in the late 1980s. We had chicken instead of turkey, I’d made him some biscuits and he dried the tea bags out after use so he could get another cup from them.
The next morning I get a reply from him written in capital letters almost certainly because he doesn’t know how to set or remove the Caps lock.
“THANKS FOR YOUR MESSAGE OF SUPPORT. LUV TO YOU AND C”
The “C” in his message is our sister, written as if we live together.
My sister gets a Christmas card from him and his partner each year addressed to both of us, even though we are not a couple. I always laugh about it with her but I have never sent him one at all.
I always wanted to be closer to my siblings and never really understood what got in the way. My relationship with my sister flickered on and off throughout our childhood but my brother just felt out of reach.
In later years, after my sister was diagnosed with ASD, and then I had my own diagnosis, we could clearly see familiar traits in both my father and brother. Things began to make more sense but didn’t feel any less sad.
I didn’t tell either of them when I spent six weeks in a psychiatric unit many years ago. I wrote to them both a year later because it felt like something they ought to be informed of, like a birth or a death, although I wasn’t sure why. I knew it was too unbearably awkward to talk about with them.
I don’t have a copy of my email but I recall it being full of passive aggression and resentment as if they had somehow been responsible for my emotional demise. A subtext which read, “Why weren’t you ever there for me?”
I didn’t expect a reply, but I got one.
My brother was particularly sympathetic and said he’d call me in the morning to have a chat.
He never phoned and I didn’t call him either.
The open ends just drifted the way they always had.
A few years ago we met for lunch just after one Christmas. It was easier than I’d imagined it would be.
My brother told me that, now in his mid-sixties, he felt he was getting too old for manual work and was thinking of training as a counsellor. He said he’d read a book called “Conversations With God” which had led to something of an epiphany for him.
It was as if I was meeting him for the first time, a departure from a man I had known all of my life without knowing at all.
He said he was planning to move to North Yorkshire although I don’t know if he ever did because I’ve not heard from him since.
My sister and I talk about him sometimes, when we’re out walking the dogs.
“Do you think he’s moved to Yorkshire?” I might ask.
“I doubt it. We’d have heard, wouldn’t we?”
I thought about how my father never saw his brother and I’m almost certain he didn’t attend his funeral. They had never fallen out either.
I thought about how my brother hadn’t seen my children since before they started school and wouldn’t know them if he was to bump into them in a supermarket.
And I wondered who’ll tell each of us when one of us dies and how maybe if it’s my brother who goes first, I might get the news in a text sent to my sister.