MY BROTHER? Sure, I remember killing my brother. Don’t you remember killing yours? I killed mine after school on Saturday afternoon. I remember how I did it. It was easy. It’s what brotherly love is all about. And he was younger, so he deserved it.
It was all because my brother was too young for Saturday morning school. Saturday mornings were for seniors, and he was definitely junior. So I would walk there alone, swinging a jaunty satchel as if nothing really mattered anyway. Who cared if there was English and maths to be got through while my brother stayed at home in his playful corduroys? Big deal. But double Latin. That’s more than a boy can laugh off. Because double Latin is hell, and double Latin on a sweltering Saturday morning is just murder. By the time I came home I was as unforgiving as a little Caesar.
So I would come home and kill my brother. And frankly, I really enjoyed it. At ten years old, I felt I had the right. Remember, he was younger. Before lunch my brother would be lured away from adult eyes (“hey, quick, shh, look what I’ve got here” – he always fell for it) and there would begin the first of the weekend’s many retributions. There would surely be a tussle on the landing, a game of imprisonment on the stairs, an execution behind the summer house. After a brief but fair trial, of course. “This is the end of you,” I told him, pushing him against the summer house wall with one hand, loosening my school tie with the other. “Now: choose how you’re going to die. That’s your very last wish. Get it? You can either be strangled slowly or tied up and shot to death. Ten seconds to choose.”
“How do I get shot?” asked my brother warily.
I looked about. “With lumps of earth.”
“Oh it’s not fair. I hate that.” His lip was trembling.
“Alright. I’ll just shoot you once.”
“But I don’t want to.”
“But you’ve got to,” I explained, with righteous fraternal passion. “You’ve got to. Because I say so …”
As we grew a little older the passion did not abate. It just got more complicated. He grew stronger — but so did I, so did I. He grew suspicious, but that only meant that my brother had to be led more elaborately to his doom. Let it be understood: a younger brother is an insult, an insult to the older. He is an alternative version. An echo, an embarrassment. An identity-thief. He had to be kept down, by superior intelligence and strategic kicks in the head. For example: I perfected an innocent way of saying “Hey, I know – let’s arm wrestle.” He would reply “Alright – I mean no, no.” But it’s too late, I had to tell him patiently, you can’t change your mind, you have to suffer. It’s the rule.
Yes, killing my brother was a cinch, but bringing him back to life could be really tough. It was true that I made the rules, but only up to a point. If you went past that point the rules all changed. We went past it pretty regularly. Despite my best efforts, I could never really make him understand that being a younger brother meant being beaten up, meant taking your shots, meant being the one who got dead. I really tried to make him see it. Maybe I tried too hard.
After the tears – there always were tears, which I greeted with the weariness of the career torturer – there would be a fraternal escape into the kitchen. Then came a threatful parental tread on the stair. Earnest denials had to be issued, circumstances had to be doctored. Fraternal credibility had to be painstakingly undermined. I don’t know how much my parents believed me, but certainly it was too much. “One day you will really go too far,” said my mother though, “and then you will be sorry.”
One day I went too far, and I was sorry. It was at our grandparents’ house, where supervision was lax. I decided to run my brother over with the garden roller. Just once. I mean, he was my younger brother – he deserved it, no question about that. Of course the roller would stop just before it got to him.
As we waited for the doctor we both kept our eyes averted from the awful thing, the dislocated thumb. Meanwhile my grandmother was routinely hysterical, running hysterically out, and running hysterically back in with half a packet of Rennies and a Kleenex tissue. “Thank you,” said my brother politely – more out of trauma than courtesy – as he accepted a pink Kleenex and used it sensibly to hide his freakish injury. This, I could see, was going to take some explaining away. And from the look of tearstained triumph I was getting from my brother, he could see it too.
I had to scale down the violence after that. In a way I wasn’t sorry, because even I could see that time was against me, that my natural advantage was slowly evaporating. So I evolved new strategies, designed to leave no bruises. I moved into psychological warfare. Of all my tactics the simplest was the most devastating. I would stare at him. That’s all, just stare. I learned how to do this in company without anyone else noticing. Without a sound, across the dinner table, I could discipline my younger brother with half a second of glittering malice. He was paralysed. It was brilliant.
And it worked because I knew all about my brother. It worked because he was just like me.
Afterwards, when we were alone, ‘playing’ before bedtime, I would coax him back to equilibrium with many a small mercy, lulling him, biding time until I judged the moment. Then I would suddenly turn on the stare again. One, two, three, four seconds. Silence. And I would flick out my finger like the barrel of a gun, and say “You’re dead.”
One day Daniel stopped being my younger brother. It was that quick. He was just my brother. And within a year or two something else had happened, something remarkable. Slabs of muscle had suddenly climbed up his thighs and clasped his arms. His chest seemed to have been taken to pieces and then reassembled with additional uprated parts. Even his hands had grown huge and calloused from competitive rowing, and then from barehanded mountaineering. My brother had been rebuilt.
At the Christmas time reunion I would sit across the table from him, and wonder nervously who this was, this watchful machine of blood and bone. Some kind of Terminator visitant, maybe? But no, it was just my brother, apparently. And that meant that I was his brother. No doubt he was looking at me, wheezing, hungover, haggard and red-eyed, and doing the puzzle in reverse. It didn’t make sense either way.
The rest of the year we maintained a mutual silence. What can you do with these brothers? Your common bond has been forged by the unspeakable atrocities of childhood. There is nothing additional to say. Meeting once a year, we tended to nod sagely at each other and leave it at that. Nothing can revise or explain those years of fraternal psychosis. One thing was certain: that fateful sense of interchangeability, the terrible burden of being a brother, was gone. I had thought it would never go, but now I saw it was just a matter of time.
Then everything changed. One winter evening I played back the answerphone and heard my father test the line with a storm of throat-clearing, before saying “More bad news …” Bad news is my dad’s favorite subject, his business and his pleasure. This time he wasn’t kidding. “We are not sure how bad it is,” he said, “but anyway, it’s your brother Daniel.”
I replayed the message. There was something about it. I felt that authentic thrill, the sudden cold contact that says: This is it. This is the really bad news.
The thrill never really wore of, not even when I had got into the routine of driving the ten miles from the hotel to the hospital, ready to spend yet another day talking to my brother in a conversation that had become decidedly one-sided. But by then my brother had not spoken for a week. An eyelid would occasionally open and close.
Daniel had been leading a group on a moderately difficult cliff. He was ‘putting up a rope’ for the others to climb. Close to the top, about sixty feet above the ground, there was an overhang of rock. He lost his grip and fell back on the rope, losing eight or ten feet until the steel pin in the rock face held him. For safety, he hammered in an extra pin, and climbed again. This time he avoided the bad hold and climbed further, until he fell a second time. The pins broke loose, all of them. He went straight down. That evening the hospital telephoned my parents and called it “wonderful luck” that neither his head nor back was broken.
Reaching the hospital the next day, my father and I had trudged through the queasy wards, hopelessly lost and apprehensive among the cracked and stretched and plastered humans. We dithered and conferred, standing by the bed of one grey-skinned and wide-eyed case who was scratching absently at an oxygen mask. At least he won’t look that bad, I reflected. Then a nurse appeared asking who we wanted. When we told her she said “Well you’ve found him.” So we looked down again at the vague eyes, the calloused fingers now tinged with blue beneath the nails – and then we were led expertly away.
A strategy shift was clearly in progress. Daniel was being moved into intensive care. “Don’t worry. You may find it a bit of a frightening place at first. It’s really not anything like as bad as it looks. Think of it as twenty-four hour care.” This was hardly reassuring. ‘Intensive care’ – I’d assumed it was just ordinary care with raised vigilance. After a long wait we went up. It wasn’t ordinary care. It was something different.
Intensive care is like a different country, a higher culture. The familiar hospital is left behind, with all its senile linoleum and greasy daylight. The first impression is one of shocking disparity – the sort of shock you might get from blundering into the chief executive’s suite. For here instead of a ward there is a broad floodlit cube, cabled and contoured and sectioned. Instead of a bed there is a kind of workstation, thrumming and clacking with technology. And instead of a patient there is just another human representative, a poor bare forked thing, wired and monitored and somehow exemplary, who happened to be my brother.
Actually, he looked better. Charged with oxygen, suffused with painkiller, he was smiling. He wouldn’t have been, if he’d known what was coming. Oh, brother.
I had it explained plenty of times. Roughly, it is like this. If you happen to cut yourself you will heal. If you break your leg it will mend. Healing is what the body does. But if injury goes beyond a certain point, then the rules all change. You might be helicoptered in, like Daniel, showing nothing worse than a couple of clean fractures and the world’s biggest bruise. That doesn’t look too bad. But this is just the cunning and artistry of real violence, the dummy play, the feint. Because if the event is sufficiently extreme, sufficiently violent, then the violence will be without end. Violence will lodge deep in the body. It nurses a life of its own, this violence, growing in a malignant loop, biding time …
And so you enter a world where injury flourishes, and healing is defeated. This is the other world: reversed out, negative, all back to front. It looks like our world, but lit like pornography and smelling as acrid as the back of a television. We all carry this interlocking system of harm, not the healing process but its good-for-nothing brother, just waiting to be engaged. It was no surprise to learn that the first thing that happens in intensive care is an inversion of the body-clock: the patient sleeps deeply through the day, but grows alert and agitated after dark. After dark is when the zombies walk.
Early on there was agreement on the anaesthetic question. Some experiences don’t have to be undergone. So a certain bland white juice was regularly taken from a double-locked store, then double-checked out loud. One charge nurse reads aloud from the vial, another echoes and checks the data against the prescription chart. Fed into a motor-driven intravenous dispenser this bland white juice, white like Jersey milk, conducts a person smoothly into an artificial coma. That’s right – while all this stuff is going on, the patient takes a vacation.
But the rest of us were awake, terrifically so. Away from the bed the consultant came and sat next to me. “You did tell me that your parents could not get to the hospital easily,” he said. His face was like a control study of health and expertise. “I think you meant that I should tell you if it became urgent that they should come.”
“Yes.” Actually I couldn’t stop studying his shaven face. One tiny track of bristle had escaped the efficient blade that morning. This detail had a remarkable potency, as if the world revolved upon it. “Yes,” I said, “They live far away. My parents.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
I said “Well?”
I could see it was not good news. But here in the deranged world, where sickness is alive and well, where everything is somehow massively inappropriate, you have to keep acting normal, keeptalking. It’s what keeps you from laughing out loud.
For a while I moved into the hospital, probably a big mistake. There is a couch in intensive care for this purpose, although it feels more like a rack. I found myself waking from dreams in which I was trying to pluck out the tubes sewn into my wrists and disconnect the monitor wires on my chest. When did I agree to all this, I dreamed; and can I change my mind?
Then a kindly doctor gave me the key to the staff quarters. “I know how you feel,” he said, “it makes you want to implode.” After all the frightful alarms and savage interventions – violence mustbe met with bigger violence – the offer was welcome. I took the key.
A blue door you wouldn’t normally notice leads in to this secret region of the hospital. Windowless corridors provide unsuspected links across the building. It’s all professional privacy, doors with obscure markings, stairs to hidden upper floors.
So at 3am I looked down from the high window. From up here the hospital looks all ragged and inside-out, a basket case of rotten ducting and raw cement. Airconditioner vents above the operating theatres are bandaged in foil and chickenwire. The flat roofs are spread with random grey trash. Why do I feel so completely fucked-up? It’s only my brother, I don’t even know the guy. And it’s not as if I had to do any of the work.
But it doesn’t operate like that, this brotherly love. It has its own system. When I phoned through at six every morning, asking Is he, er … it wasn’t just my brother I was worried about. It was me.Those tubes stitched into my wrist, those wires stuck on to my chest. Not nice. With the brother out for the count, someone else had to do the experiencing for him. That’s why I felt so fucked-up. I didn’t want to die.
So days passed, days of waiting and noticing. And one day I found the bed surrounded, the faces set in a new perplexity.
“He’s an unusual case, your brother.”
“He’s supposed to be dead. But, I don’t know …”
“Well, I may be wrong. But he actually looks a little better.”
Suddenly, I noticed, the other cases started getting the attention they deserved. Only a week later I could go up to my brother, flick out my finger like the barrel of a gun, and say “Hey! Looking good, Dan.”
Actually, he wasn’t looking good. He looked like shit. But that, like everything else, was just a matter of time.