Recently, during an argument with my brother, I felt a sense of exasperation rising within me. Yet I knew this feeling didn’t just lie in the very argument we were having, but in a sense of exasperation that I could trace back to a handful of incidents over the years. Perhaps during this argument – where we were both equally irate – my brother felt a similar feeling rising up in him. But I would be very surprised if it was the same one. Maybe for my brother the feeling lay in the pursuit of credence (throughout the argument, and during many we would have in the past, he said I refused to take him seriously), but for me the feeling of exasperation stemmed, I believed, from what I felt was a perennial self-destructive streak he possessed.
When did this self-destructive streak first manifest itself, I wondered, and spent a few days after the discussion looking over its various manifestations. The first that I recall would have been when I was eleven and my brother nine. We were holidaying in the Turkish town of Cesme, by the Aegean, and my father had hired a car for a few days as we travelled up to Istanbul. There were few problems on the way there – though I was sick on the ferry across to Istanbul – and in the city my father, my mother, sister and brother, and myself, wandered around the vast, sea interrupted metropolis, in the pleasant June weather, with little sense of discomfort.
The discomfort however was, in retrospect, present in an allusive way. My brother decided when we all had agreed we would take a ferry from one side of the Bosphorus to the other, that he didn’t want to go – he wanted to walk across the bridge. At first our parents took it to be a moment of mild petulance, but after a few minutes of gentle, humorous cajoling, my brother insisted he would not go on the boat. He never did explain, and though my father threatened to ‘tan his backside’, he was adamant. My father accepted my brother’s protestations finally, but punished him – and consequently all of us – by simply saying we would not go to the other side of the city at all. So we never did get to the toy shops on Istanbul’s main shopping boulevard, and yet more than any of us, it was my brother who wanted initially to go.
A second, vaguely similar incident happened a few years after that, when I was fifteen. My brother and I would hang out occasionally with a gang from Kinmylies, a housing estate on the north side of Inverness. My brother was very much a fringe member, playing football with us occasionally, but never really getting involved in our more suspect activities, which included shop-lifting, glue-sniffing, the odd joint, and setting forests on fire. Delinquent juvenilia, certainly, but it would always threaten to become more than minor teen activities. Once we set so much of the forest behind Kinmylies on fire that six fire engines were brought out. Anyway, one afternoon after school, the gang leader – who was a couple of years older than me and had left school the year before – invited the pair of us to go shooting rabbits. He drove up to our parents’ place on the south side of town, and beeped the horn a couple of times even though we were standing by the gate waiting for him. He made a casual comment about the size of the house and that he was our chauffeur, and accelerated off before we hardly had time to close the doors.
We went back over to the other side of town, a few miles beyond Kinmylies, and watched as our gang leader shot at whatever he saw moving in the undergrowth. My brother and I both fired a couple of shots from the gun, but not at anything, just to feel the force of the shotgun going off. But when he fired into the undergrowth and hit something, our gang leader made no attempt at retrieving it. We left after a couple of hours there.
Now on our way, this friend had several pounds in notes and some loose change on the dashboard. As we all got back in the car the money was no longer there. I had no memory of our gang leader picking up the cash, and couldn’t see any reason why he might – we were in the middle of the forest – except out of suspicion. There was definitely a problem.
My own suspicions rested with my brother having stolen it rather than that the gang leader had put it somewhere safer, especially as I noticed our gang leader driving with even more acceleration on the way back than on the way there. On the way out he was smiling, telling jokes, and any speed seemed connected to nonchalance. On our return it struck me as irritation, anger.
As he pulled up in a back road not far from our parents’ house, he asked where his money was. I looked at my brother, who looked blankly at me, and then l Iooked at our gang leader. Over the next couple of minutes he went increasingly crazy, first of all accusing us of theft, then telling us what he would do to us, and then finally grabbing me by the throat and saying if I didn’t give him his money back he was going to take the shotgun out of the boot. At this point my brother handed over the money. It was just a little joke he said. My brother then jumped out of the car, told me to do likewise, and we hot-footed it along the road to our parents’ house.
When we arrived I asked what the hell he thought he was doing. Teaching everyone a lesson, he said, cryptically. It was a comment I took facetiously when it was offered, but now, with much reflection, maybe there are other ways of making sense of it.
Especially if I take into account a third example of my brother’s self-destructiveness. This time I would have been nineteen and just going off to university after taking a year out. I still hadn’t passed my driving test, but my brother recently had, and agreed to drive me down to Edinburgh with all my stuff. A couple of his friends joined us. My brother had left school the previous year and said he had no intention of going to university. He found employment in a bank and colleagues of his told my mother he would work his way up with alacrity – he was great with both customers and also with figures. On the way down south I did wonder whether he would regret missing out on a certain type of experience, but he just said there were many experiences in life; why elevate university over others?
That weekend my brother and his friends booked into a hostel in the town centre while I organized my room on campus and said hi to my neighbours. Later on my brother and his friends –both of whom planned to go to university after themselves taking a year out – came over at about eight that evening. They were already fairly drunk, and we had a couple more drinks in the room, before going off to one of the campus pubs.
It was at the pub that my brother started a fight with someone who was pushing his way to the front of a not overly crowded bar. My brother pushed back and later claimed the other person told him to know his place. A fight ensued and they were thrown out of the pub – my brother’s friends and I joined them as promptly as we could, and broke up the fight as they had started again outside. But before being thrown out, the bouncer took down our details, and I was held entirely responsible for the trouble from my brother’s end because I had signed him in at the university bar as one of my guests. For much of that first year – and perhaps because of that trouble on the first day that was reported back to the hall warden – I would find myself getting into minor incidents. For example a couple of months into the term a few of us were sitting in the kitchen at about eleven at night and the warden came along, and asked us all to go to bed. I’d noticed over the previous couple of months he would be waiting to see if I was getting into trouble and any premise would do. Only weeks before, he asked whether I would be inviting any more friends down, in a reference to the earlier incident. On this occasion though I was sitting with some other students from my corridor, after about eleven at night, and he came into the kitchen and said we should all be going to our beds. I suggested that as adults – and quiet adults at that – we could dictate our own bed-times; he said that I should be thinking of the other students – that we were disturbing them. I enquired into whether we had received any complaints. He said no, and that this was a pre-emptive measure. I said it sounded more presumptive than pre-emptive, and after what he called my impertinence he insisted that because we wouldn’t go to our rooms he would have to take our identity cards off us. I responded this time by saying I did not give my precious university card to anybody, and that he would have to prove who he was first. So off he went to get his own identity card. While he was gone a couple of the students clearly sided with me, but some of the others seemed more ambivalent – an ambivalence that, at that moment, may have had much to do with their own identity cards about to be taken from them. However during this exchange nobody seemed interested in taking his side – nobody even moved to leave the room – and so I felt I was hardly getting people into trouble. And when he returned he asked for my identity card at the same time as showing me his. He gave my card back to me the next day and thereafter I felt a curious respect forthcoming from himself and other wardens – and I also felt I could be both student and adult, something some of the other students felt they could not be, I believed, simultaneously.
I give this example of my resistance to the warden in the kitchen perhaps because it shows me to be assertive, but if that is so it an assertiveness that came in the wake of my brother’s, what I have called, self-destructiveness. Now frequently when I look back over my relationship with my brother, and situations that we would get into, I have strangely and often quite laterally, learnt from his actions. So much so that I’m not sure, after much reflection, If can call them self-destructive at all.
Let me explain further and say that I feel almost as if my brother has taught me the lesson the easy way through his own hard way; that I almost feel that my brother has even acted in my interests to the detriment of his own. It is almost as if in each instance of self-destruction there was a strange aspect of protection. Though my brother is of course younger than I am, nevertheless he has always had what I would call a mature side I still, at thirty three, do not quite possess, perhaps because I have wanted to remain student and adult indefinitely. I am not married, I do not have children, and I make a precarious living as a freelance travel writer. My brother had kids by the age of twenty five, and because he has never quite lost his quick-temper, has moved from job to job; he’s always been good enough at the job he was doing to get another one, but usually too argumentative to keep it.
But now that I think of these incidents in relation to a recent one that I will soon divulge, I believe not that he’s wrong, or that I am right, but that his belligerence allowed me to comprehend situations without what would be over-assertiveness on my brother’s part. When I think back to that incident in Istanbul, to the theft and to the fight, I see a common link. I believe now even that example of petulance in Turkey was a variation on this over-assertiveness, if on that occasion after the event. I reckon he felt empathy for me strong enough to feel he didn’t want to go on another boat trip, whether because he himself would be sick, or because I would be sick again. If I think it is more the latter, it is because of the consistency I see in the three instances. For in the second one, when he stole the money, he must have known he would be caught, and so I suspect he did so to show me the gang leader’s temper even if it was to the detriment of his own safety. He didn’t want me involved with gangs, not necessarily because they were bad in themselves – after all, he frequently was involved in gang-like activities himself: over the years he would glue sniff, obviously get into fights, deal a little hash – but he instinctively knew that this particular person would be a twofold problem for me. Firstly that he was cruel – my brother, I recall said a while afterwards, that he had hated the way he was shooting at the rabbits, as though he wanted to maim them rather than kill them. Secondly there was perhaps my own gaucheness, a gaucheness that in some ways was undeniably exactly that, and in other ways perhaps the opposite. I was gauche in the sense of failing to understand the gang leader’s potential cruelty and yet lacking in gaucheness in the way I would deal with the situation.
Now in relation to the incident at the uni pub, I think my brother and I shared this notion that university is another institution, just one of subtler oppression than most, and that he once again over-reacted in the circumstances. Maybe our mutual antagonism to university owed something to our parents; they both dropped out in the late sixties, and managed to find good employment in their own relatively un-institutionalised manner. But where I was, finally, merely wary, my brother was belligerent, determined not necessarily to get into a fight that day, but to make a statement nevertheless.
So we come to the incident that allowed these past events to crystallize in my mind. Several months ago our father died, two years after our mother’s death and possibly connected to her demise. He’d had various complications to his health in recent years and had little will left in him. Our parents were not young when they had my brother, my sister and me in quick succession – my mother was thirty six when she had my older sister – and were in their late sixties when they died. They said they had children so late because they didn’t want to force themselves into compromises or even forego pleasures in their life for the sake of the children, so it wasn’t until my father was working for a development board that they had enough money to buy a biggish house and still have enough money for us all to go for regular trips abroad. Sometimes with us – as in that Turkey trip for example – and sometimes just themselves when we went off to Summer camp, or stayed at our grandparents’.
I mention these details to make clear our parents lived well and on their own terms, yet I felt of the three of us, my brother, my sister and me, only I came close to living as they did, of living with the same degree of freedom and lack of frustration. My brother as I’ve suggested had settled down; and my sister likewise. They rarely had money to travel, and their homes they always believed were too cramped for their needs.
So our parents left us a house in Inverness and also a two bedroomed-flat they had bought in Edinburgh while I was at university, and that I had lived in for about eight years until I started making a living as a travel writer and decided I didn’t need a permanent base.
So this is what I proposed to them – that my sister, with her husband and her kids, should get the family home, and that my brother should get the flat in Edinburgh, allowing him extra income if he chose to rent it, and thus allowing his family to travel, move into a bigger home or whatever would give their lives more freedom. The one condition I made was that the house could not be sold. While I felt no need for a home, I must have felt the need for a loose base, and I asked my sister if she would also keep space in the loft for whatever items I would choose to keep there.
When I proposed this to them my sister asked if I was sure, that I was entitled to a third of everything, and that I should think of my own future. But my brother got annoyed and said I was trying to dictate terms, showing magnanimity in gesture but control in reality. After all, he said, if we just divided it three ways, then each of us would have the option of selling, investing or doing something else with the properties. My proposal, he believed, may have given me little financial gain, but it did give me an overly definitive say in the family will.
So my brother absolutely insisted our parents’ estate be divided three ways, no matter if it would seem to the detriment of his own interests. He even became quite irate when I protested, and suggested I was simply too stupid to look after my own needs, and yet at the same time trying to be too clever by keeping manipulative control over the family inheritance.
The decision we arrived at was that the house would be rented, the flat continue to be so, and the money earned, shared between the three of us. I suspect this arrangement suits me better than any I could have come up with on my own. The flat is rented for five hundred pounds a month, and the house for nine hundred, and so I have enough spare money to rent a small flat for myself, and also have the equivalent of a tiny pension fund.
What does all this say about my brother, and my relationship with him? Nothing more I suppose than that he has less a self-destructive streak than perhaps an over-developed sense of instinct, and a more magnanimous one than perhaps anybody I have ever met. His instincts are good, but they don’t manifest themselves in a way that suggests they are good. Maybe this is lesson I have learnt from my brother: that instincts are not the form they take but the results they produce. While I am wary of thus saying that the end justifies the means, nevertheless, from a certain point of view, I would have to say my brother’s instincts are much better than mine, no matter if socially that may not be what it looks like. I sometimes wonder how many people, left impoverished, destitute and lonely, have too often been read as self-destructive, when really they’ve attempted to live their lives as if using simply a different sign language.