’Tis a vile thing to die, my gracious lord,
When men are unprepared and look not for it. (Richard III, Act 3, Scene 2)
My big brother died a couple of weeks ago, at the age of just 70. We grew up unconnectedly, grew together, grew apart, fought, and were sometimes best of friends. I loved him, feared him, and, even at his worst, often tried to emulate him. When I try to sound cool, or when I am indulging my inner critic, his is the voice I hear.
When we were children, he was much bigger than me, and much smarter too. He remained brilliant even as he lost the height advantage. This brilliance could be used to mentor me, to encourage my interests in literature, music, politics or drinking, or it could be lacerating. Five years is a vast difference in intellect when you’re five and he’s ten, or you’re ten and he’s fifteen and shaving. When he entered puberty, I was still a little kid with a high voice, and, when I argued, he’d bark “don’t squeak until you’re squoken to!” It was pretty funny in retrospect, but not at the time. Arguments fought in words were a lost cause for me, and I would end up resorting to fists and teeth and nails, and once, taunted beyond endurance, even a ballpoint pen, used as a dagger (we were into the History plays, where fratricide was almost de rigueur). He could stay up late and watch TV while I, suffering an insomnia that now seems hard to imagine, lay wide awake in my bed, seething with envy and resentment. His friends were male as we both attended boys’ schools, but the girlfriends they brought to visit seemed exotic, dazzling, unattainably desirable.
He set a standard that I was never able to reach, not just on the intellectual level with his reading of James Joyce and Proust (although we shared Tolkien) but also a level of savoir-faire, worldliness, the ability to own and present a response to any situation or argument, and for it to be, in my eyes, right. No matter how dismissive and contemptuous, in fact that just made it that much cooler. I listened to Dylan because he did, I smoked because he did, I grew my hair because he liked the Beatles. I refused to go to gym or sport because he had, despite the fact that I might have been quite good at it if I had tried. It wasn’t cool.
As we grew, our relationship grew too. As a toddler, I couldn’t understand why he liked me, or tolerated me, when we were alone, but ignored me utterly when the older cousins arrived. He awakened in me a love of Shakespearean drama, and although he was too cool to swan about in a cloak, wooden sword and cardboard crown, he encouraged and enabled me to do so. It was a natural step from there into a theatrical life and I found limited fame treading the boards of the Independent Theatre. In the role of the Lost Boy Curly (a role I was born to play) in Peter Pan, I drew the admiration of the Herald theatre critic who was struck by my depth of feeling when delivering my key line: “I thought it was only flowers that died…” Riding high on this critical acclaim, I got my brother a position in the cast as a (nameless) pirate, and we worked up fight routines in which I would defeat him and ride on his back off the stage, a feat that was only possible while I was still a svelte pre-teen.
As a high schooler he tried to mould me, and grew furious when I did not follow his reasonings and ideologies. When he went to university and I took up his gadfly post at high school, we started to hang out — he delighted in explaining to me epigrams and phrases that I understood, but loved to hear explained. “Why is early morning called ‘sparrow’s fart’?” “Well, what time do sparrows wake up?” “Early”. “And what’s the first thing you do when you wake up?”
Sometimes during the holidays we would go to the Double Bay deli and buy soft rolls and cabanossi and pickles — all long, phallocentric foods that reinforced our male bonding as he entered hetero relationships and I entered awkward puberty. As we walked out, our crimson sausages extending lasciviously from paper bags, a young woman came in, scantily dressed, wearing a bowler hat. He had never exhibited overt sexuality of any kind in my presence, in fact I was rather under the impression that “dirty” jokes were the province of primary school, and had tried to leave them behind, but outside he hissed at me “I couldn’t keep my eyes off her! Eyes? I could hardly keep my hands off her!” My hidden lusts remained hidden, but had at least been validated — it was OK! Feeling, lusting, wasn’t uncool after all.
In 1967 we were at our closest. He was hating Law at Sydney University, and I was hating the bully culture at Sydney High. Nasser was hating Israel and threatening, with the aid of massive amounts of Soviet armaments, to destroy the fledgling Jewish state which was yet to reach its 20th birthday. We, like so many others, realised we were Jews, and became proud of this tiny country which had grown from the ashes of the Holocaust and survived against armies hundreds of times larger than its own. As war approached, we made crazy plans — we would fly to Israel, or if that was too expensive (and I did not have my own passport at 15) we would hitch to Darwin, crew our way to Asia on some scow and buy a cheap car, then head overland to the Holy Land. We would buy guns and — probably other stuff, but really, guns. We listened to the news every 30 minutes, hoping the war would not start before we got there, riding our rust-bucket over the dunes like the cavalry coming to rescue the settlement. But it did, and was all over in six days. Our plans in ruin, we turned our attention and now addictive news-gathering from supporting the war in the Middle East to opposing the war in Indochina.
When our parents went out, his friends came over, often with small and expensive packets of vegetable matter in their pockets. I noticed as they rolled the joints and passed them around that there were small explosions going on and soon deduced that these were seeds of the mother plant. I gathered a few from stubbed out roaches and put them on wet tissues on a plate in my window, just as I had done for ages to sunflower seeds which I bought in bulk for the hundreds of mice which my parents inexplicably allowed me to house in a shed outside our Double Bay house. Like sunflowers, the hemp seeds split apart and tiny shoots made their way determinedly toward the sun. When they were finger-length I put them in pots and before long I had a superb hemp plant with the gorgeous decussate-opposite glossy green leaves; a work of art. I had no idea how to dry and smoke them and, by then, no desire to do so, I was too proud of my green fingered artwork. But someone told someone (it could have been me, I was not very discreet in those days) and one day the cops turned up, took away the plants, the plate and me. When I was bailed, he told me that I would have to wear this one, even though he had been involved in every moment of that baby’s growth. He was a law student, expecting to be admitted to the bar, and could not risk any legal problems, whereas I had just dropped out of university to become a political agitator, and a drug bust could only add to my street cred. At the time, it seemed logical. It still does, but also cowardly. It made sense, but he could have asked me instead of telling me. He didn’t even come to my trial, at which the cops lost all the evidence and I was let off with a “no conviction recorded”.
When he had babies, the family fell apart, and we were only allowed to see him and his kids on the odd weekend. With my kids he would act avuncular, but not to the extent of mentoring them as he had mentored me, for which I remain both resentful and thankful. When his in-laws turned against my in-laws, we took sides, like Richard I and John, although we both thought ourselves to be The Lionheart. He continued to hate the law, except for the criminals whom he defended, freed and glorified. He tried to emulate them, a feat which required more funds than were earned by a city solicitor, and ended up, like King Richard, in a cell for bilking his clients and a large financial organisation out of a lot of money. We visited him at Berrima Jail, a low-security, heritage building where he worked in the printing factory. Do you get raped in jail? I asked him. Only if you want to, he cryptically replied.
When our mother died, we had a drunken brawl, made up, saw each other again a couple of years later when our father was fading slowly away, then lost all contact. I didn’t even know he had died until days after the event. I can’t say I miss him, because I had hardly seen him for years, and had plenty of opportunities to miss him before his death.
But I regret the gulf between us. He was brilliant, prickly, funny, aggravating, willing to teach and willing to lacerate. Despite all that passed between us, and the void that formed, I am sorry he is dead. I would have liked to give him back his three volume hardbacks of Lord of the Rings, and maybe sit with him and watch all twelve hours of Peter Jackson’s films of the same. I’m pretty sure he would have been dismissive of the film, and I can hear that cynical voice whenever I criticise the work of an author, an auteur, or of myself. I wonder if I have yet reached the point where I would argue with him. Now I’ll never know.