caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s Sunday and early August in a grey squally windy West Wales.

The caravan has been leased by the parents of my sister in law, my brother’s wife. It has all modern appliances: an electric fire, fully appointed kitchen, dining space, nice pictures and tasteful furnishings. While peeing it strikes me that there are two pretty coastal canvases in the main toilet (there was another en-suite) but we have yet to find a picture for our bedroom in the house we moved into over a year ago.

Our family hasn’t met up for some months and seeing my brother’s kids, 10 and 7, is a thrill. A first exploratory stroll on the beach with just my niece and the dog is a joy. Unbridled delight peels through both their faces as we run about like lunatics on the large deserted expanse of sand.

But this is not the classic summertime weather my mum has hankered for, having somehow never visited a beach with her grandchildren until now.  Mum and Dad arrive around lunchtime and come to meet us on the beach with my brother’s wife. It feels cinematic, watching their distant outlines slowly become more recognisable. We walk to a café overlooking a stretch of beach where Dad is embarrassingly rude to a young barista who gets our order slightly wrong and my brother and his family mock Mum’s old phone, before we head back to the caravan for lunch.

Now it’s approaching the end of the afternoon, the time my wife and I were thinking of leaving anyway. We all sit in the caravan, drinking warming hot drinks after a bracing post-lunch walk and play on the blustery, sand-whipped beach. Sand is still stuck to my scalp and hair, despite me not having much hair.

This is when it begins and my sap starts to rise.

My brother has this regular shtick of proclaiming himself and his family poor. His perspective is wildly skewed by his Oxbridge peers, the social elites with whom he works and one friend specifically. Dave (his real name because fuck it) is a hot shot millionaire investment banker. I didn’t get a favourable impression of Dave many years ago at my brother’s Stag Do. Oafish, overconfident, loud. The impression has stuck with me.

My brother doesn’t see much of his children during the working week, with which I sympathise. But it’s a decision he makes about living in Oxford and working long hours in London, it’s a compromise that comes of earning a strong salary which I suspect is no lower than £65,000. His wife is a university tutor, researcher and academic. Despite being on an unreliable rolling contract of sorts, I would guestimate she earns around £30,000 minimum. They live in Oxford, they are healthy, they have good jobs, beautiful healthy children, a high quality of life.

But compared to Dave they are poor. Therefore they are sitting in a lovely static caravan donated by the in-laws for their holidays moaning about their poverty and how to fund the university education of their children. They apparently do not have much extra disposable income. You might suggest because of their standard of living. Regular private music lessons, theatre trips and visits to amusement parks. (Or is that what you just have to do when you have kids that age? I don’t know).

In response to my brother’s introduction of university expense, our father suggests starting up an entirely dedicated account, a fund for their higher education. Our parents seem to have lots of money, partly due to hitting the generation sweet spot. They were never spectacularly successful in their careers – although Dad still works and has for a number of years earned a respectable, reliable annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a specialist consultant. They have always been prudent, made investments, and have a lovely house. They go on holiday frequently, and recently bought an expensive long haul package to Central America. I often feel like, if I had less inexplicable pride and hang-ups about asking for help, they could donate more cash to help me develop my business.

Across the caravan from me sits my wife, firmly ensconced in a game she is playing with my niece and nephew, unhearing of the wider conversation. We had discussed this on the way here, how my brother wheels out the poverty line, how it pisses us off, how she might say something if he presses it. I raised an eyebrow when she said that, unconvinced she actually would given how she is so averse to confrontation. Now it’s unclear if she’s taking the conversation in. She later says she wasn’t, she heard nothing, was too involved in the game.

Meanwhile I sit there and stew. Poor? He is really poor, is he? Fuck. Off. What if he could experience my schizophrenically jittery bank balance, cluelessness about the future, pathetic self-doubt and crippling worry that we will never be able to afford children? He probably wouldn’t give a shit. He would most likely cackle and trivialise it, smug posh personified.

My wife and I have recently begun speaking seriously of kids, if we can do it, financially, physically, mentally. It’s fast approaching now or never time and we are getting increasingly regular yearnings, feelings that we want that relationship with a small human. Selfishly, I want to be outlived by someone who cares about me. (Is that a legitimate feeling or extremely self-indulgent?) We feel maybe my family has written us off, given up on us. ‘They don’t want any now. It’s over for them’.

But we have lately discussed whether my ever rickety, insecure work situation might be a good thing, save on childcare, if my wife can retain her job post-maternity – although many can’t and don’t and are royally screwed over.  There are so many overwhelmingly unknowable ifs and buts.

I feel my face getting hotter and redder and crosser as my parents discuss the financial options for funding their grandchildren’s education, as my brother continues to claim he is poor. Hitting the food banks anytime soon then, brother?  And I start packing up some bags. We leave with me Britishly repressing a swarm of waspish emotions.

thought patterns

It’s not healthy to compare yourself with others all the time.  Focus on yourself.  Generally I try not to compare myself with all the other much more successful people of whom I’m crazily, bitterly envious.  Not too much.

There’s one person though, the constant subject, the permanent comparison, the guy my brain returns to in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep, when the mind is ablur with a whole load of recurring, endlessly cycling nonsense.  Maybe it’ll be the first night in a while without the girlfriend, or the first night in a while without a drink.  The subject?  The guy?  My brother.  Yep, him again.  There’s probably tons here about him already, saying much the same.

They’re often the first people you ever really compare yourself against, your siblings.  Can I do that thing they’re doing?  Crawling, walking, running, kicking a ball.  Two and a half years my senior, we competed a lot as kids and I always lost and it always ate me and it still does.  He has remained better than me at pretty much everything and I have remained confused and angry at life, aged 33.

Going to school, teachers were prepared for another version of him, excited after the precocious headstrong whirlwind that had gone before.  But no, sorry.  I was the difficult experimental second album, the solid but largely underwhelming sequel, the convoluted and confusing follow-up.  I still feel like that’s how I’m perceived by people – regardless of whether they know my brother.

I don’t believe I’m entirely worthless.  On the contrary, I feel more capable than a lot of people at some stuff.  But I have no support now, so find myself floating, lost in space, unremarkable, missable, not especially employable, a terrified hostage to fortune.

We’re early teens, maybe I’m around 11 or 12 and he’s 13 or 14. He asks what I want to do in life, when I’m older, and I unthinkingly reply footballer or rock star, knowing neither is genuinely achievable. I have never demonstrated anything like the required talent , and am unlikely to. He replies, “oh, I’d hate to want to do something unrealistic that I could never do,” – or some such. It’s not malicious, just matter of fact.

I still feel a similar disappointment and emptiness, that I’ll never do something or achieve something or have a job that I really *really* want. It won’t happen. I can keep trying and working and hoping. But, you know, in all reality, it won’t happen. It’s my fault for only being drawn to stupidly popular things.

Returning to the family home at Christmas, minutes had passed with us all under the same roof before I felt my comparative inferiority: he’s right and more clever (though a buffoon) and I’m rubbish.

As kids he made me feel unremarkable, not very good, beatable, missable.  And he still does, without being cruel, without even trying.  I wonder, often mid-conversation, how is he so certain about everything?  I know nobody who is or appears to be as constantly sure of themselves, and of everything. 

Our realities are so different.  Our ideas of ambition and success and relative middle-class poverty.  We disagreed on the pay hike for MPs, which my brother thought would be a good incentive to attract a higher quality of person, not that I voiced my disagreement that strongly, if at all.  His London-centric concept of salaries is extremely different to my embattled, embittered provincial one.  I would probably accept 20 grand and considerably less stress right now, maybe even lower.

I don’t warm to him easily, that involuntary smuggy smarminess to his manner; it’s cringeworthy and weird and embarrassing.  The way he speaks to his kids in those leading questions with that ingratiating intonation at the end: “do you think that is sensible or is it silly?

All the same he is so much better at life than me.  He is one of those people for whom, from a distance, life seems to have been a breeze.  Education (besides a little bullying), partner (Week One of university), education, career, marriage, mortgage, two beautiful kids: all before turning 30.  Bosh.  Job done.  What’s the problem?  Don’t make a meal of it.

Me, on the other hand: not a fucking clue what I’m doing or where I’m going.  Completing patronising application form questions for crap, low-wage jobs, trying to work out if I have a low enough opinion of myself to return to a call-centre next week.  Hounded by guilt for infecting my girlfriend with miserable angst and resentful at my paranoia about every pound spent, my inability to treat her or plan anything.

A chink was shown in his armour one evening.  His wife confided to my girlfriend that he fears failure, and sat alongside each other on the sofa, I opened up a general knowledge quiz app on an iPad.  He squirmed with discomfort.  “No, I’ll be rubbish.”  The man devours historical non-fiction, is pretty much at the top of his profession, a very smart and knowledgeable man.  He feared getting questions wrong on an app.  It amused me, briefly, especially when he got one or two questions wrong, and tried to shrug it off in just the same way Dad does when he answers a questions out loud on a television quiz show, and gets it wrong.  I love it when that happens too.

My Dad and my brother share the same sense of certainty in everything.  They are extremely seldom wrong in the confines of their own heads.  Certainty and always being unambiguously correct about everything is a virtue which they hold extremely dear.  Ambiguity or nuance does not exist for them.  Apparently not one of life’s major winners, maybe it’s natural for me to be more relaxed about these things.

Relaxing about everything doesn’t come naturally though.  When my brain spins during unsettled nights; when I’ve tried placing myself on football pitches and seeing if a game magically starts happening around me devolved of my conscious brain (I love dreams of playing football), but it hasn’t happened; when my brain has whirred through a highlights selection of my football playing days (happens embarrassingly often but is nice to do – disappointingly few goals); when I’ve visited that serene, remote pond, surrounded by snow but not iced over, and envisioned myself sitting on a nearby bench as an older man; when I’ve tried gliding high and unaided over a canyon; when I’ve remembered the few lovely moments over Christmas spent with his kids; when I’ve worried massively about money and the lack of a career and my inability to provide for myself, let alone anyone else; and I’ve angsted about the future and thoughts of ever being a father; then he appears, his well-fed belly bulging, grinning like a buffoon, spouting something he believes is witty.

But just look how much better he is than you, look how much more he has of everything that is meaningful.  Hahaha.

abstract expressionism

We push open the heavy gallery doors and step out onto the museum’s first floor landing.  It had been different speaking about art out loud to you, hearing someone else’s interpretations, not being trapped in the confines of my own brain, wondering if these thoughts were ridiculously pretentious.  Surely a point of art is to unlock that part of your brain, to allow it to freewheel and riff.

The door swings back behind us, clumping closed.  Now the marble and stone creates a wave of echoing acoustic that jars against the sealed art space quiet.  Louder voices, chatter from downstairs, squealing children, pandering parents.

You’re saying something about that last painting but I’ve stopped listening.  I’ve stopped listening because out here there’s a sound, a voice which unsettles me, a blurry familiarity I can’t place, I don’t want to place, I’m scared by.

His voice slices in like a real world sound cutting into dream, like a sound which may initially be part of a dream before becoming real.  Worlds collide with his overfamiliar voice, a voice which has sliced into consciousness from radios and televisions. Those can at least be switched off.  Shit, a second glance.  Definitely him.  I need a magic remote control to just..  What’s he doing here?!  What’s he even doing in this city?  Shit.

You’re still speaking and I’m still nodding, pretending to listen, but this nervous hinterland returns me to dreams of a few hours before.  Afterwards I interpreted them as being related to you, to us, to this; but I didn’t tell you that or explore in any depth.

(I told you the one, where you’d decided not to stay and had caught a bus, literally, the rear pole of an old London Routemaster, just as it was taking off, and you had flown away.  I had been left standing there watching it go, disappointed, confused and yet slightly relieved.  I thought this a reflection of feelings about relationships, their general here today gone tomorrow transience – however seemingly long-term solid or briefly flaky.  Anything can happen.   In the next I sat on the top deck of a bus or a van, not that vans usually have decks, as it sped too fast down country roads.  I felt giddy and sick and couldn’t bear to look, although the roads were scenic.  Everything was moving frighteningly fast.)

Now I peer around a pillar and over a stone bannister to a small mezzanine area containing a statue.  The man and boy are about to climb the small flight of steps up to where we’re standing.

“Do you want to meet my brother?” I ask you.

He doesn’t know about you, of course.  None of my family do; not yet.  It hasn’t been that long.   “..saw him with a girl” I can already hear him telling his wife in an incredulous, mocking tone.

Now he’s climbing the steps in this direction.  I’m semi-paralysed, feet cemented.  Run away?

“What? Why?” you reply, looking scared too.
“Um, because he’s here, he’s just down there, with his son.  He’s coming up this way, now.”
I feel my face pallid, lacking blood.
“Do you want me to meet him?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t mind either way.  Do you want to run?”
“Yes.  A bit.”

Although I feel I shouldn’t.

He arrives at the top of the stone steps, a few feet away from us, still talking to his whining 5 year old. I remain frozen. We could still run. He still hasn’t seen us.

He looks up to get his bearings, glances straight through me once, twice, maybe three times.  We’ve been given ample opportunity to run, to turn our backs and walk away.  Still could.  But somehow I can’t.

Now he registers the unusualness of my unmoving shape, a man rigidly and weirdly staring at him.

“Oh hellooo!” his smarmy voice peels up into the domed ceiling and he smiles broadly, walks towards us.  I smile nervously and he steps into my embrace.  I introduce you.

he aint heavy (he’s my dickhead)

Brother called the landline telephone yesterday evening and, given that we hadn’t spoken in a short while – not this side of his birthday – we opened with jolly greetings.  He thanked me for my gift of an Xbox controller, another way to exert his dominance over his wife, ho-ho-ho.

We were both bound for our childhood home for the Easter weekend – although his stay would only be a brief, lip-service visit on the way to the more oft frequented in-laws in Wales.  He would of course bring his family entourage and I would bring myself.

“Mum has this idea of taking the kids to this thing,” he explained.  Mum had told me about it too.  It sounded like a nice idea.  “It’s one of these typical things,” he continued, a patronising exasperation cutting into his voice, “when she, you know.. gets an idea in her head of a Thing To Do with them.”

“And what’s wrong with that?” I asked, genuinely curious, not seeing where he was coming from.  She loves spending time with his kids.  Why shouldn’t she?

“Oh nothing, nothing,” he replied, suddenly defensive.

“Right,” I said, thinking him a dickhead, remembering how he always gives the impression of knowing our family much better than we know ourselves, like we’re all his inventions, without individual consciousness.

“Oh, by the way,” he said, changing the subject in his masterful controlling way, as if this next thing was much more important: “can you bring your Xbox back at the weekend?”

“Ugh, do I have to?”

I find it tedious, unwiring everything, wrapping it up, packaging it in a box, connecting it up to our parents’ haphazardly set-up television, doing the return trip – particularly when I’m not nearly as bothered about playing the damn thing as he is and he’ll often revel in his victories like he did when we were kids.  For someone so insanely busy with a wife, two kids and an important, high-pressured job, his Xbox form is always good.

“Well no, you don’t HAVE to,” he replied, employing his well-used haughty patronising exasperated tone again.  I was clearly being impossible.  He was being a dickhead.

“Alriiight,” I jabbed back with my own patronising, deliberately unfazed tone.

“Right, well, I’ll see you at the weekend,” he said.

He’d had enough.  I had too.  It was a sub-three minute call.

“Right, bye then.”

under my skin / in my blood

My brother has aced everything: education, career and domestic life.  I have, comparatively achieved in a decidedly more average fashion.  He is an insufferable snob and we would be unlikely to have anything to do with each other if we weren’t related and just happened to bump into each other at a party.  He wouldn’t consider me anywhere near important or interesting enough to engage him.  I would likely consider him a jumped-up tosser.

Growing up he seemed keen to disassociate from our family, electing to spend long evenings in his bedroom, working on one of his first novels – of which he’s written several, all as yet unpublished.  He would rarely join us in the lounge in front of the television until later in the evening.  That is, if he wasn’t out doing extracurricular activities.

It was almost like he wanted to prove that he wasn’t of us, that he was different.  And that still holds now.  But he still respects family ties as much as you’d expect, visits and stays as close as is comfortable.

Yet also still takes every available opportunity to patronise, judge and sneer.  Probably at all of us: my mother, my father and I.  He was a boisterous, confident and imposing child – as his first born is now.  I was the opposite.  His confidence grew with education, teachers and grades agreeing he was exceptional; with Oxford University; with a steady first girlfriend who stuck and became his wife, the mother to his children; with a well aligned career trajectory and an impressive television job.

Today he still judges and sneers and desperately wants to be one step ahead of the world.  Perhaps my parents and I were just the first, we merely happened to be there: the first people he wanted to rise effortlessly above.  He reads ravenously, large historical tomes, is excellent at his job and a good, if nauseatingly smarmy, tiringly over-protective father.

This weekend he wanted me to visit and help with childcare.  Mainly though, to bring my car so he could have wheels and freedom, his wife having taken their car on a girls’ weekend.  I have played chauffeur and playmate to the children, which hasn’t been without pleasure.

After dinner and the children were packed off to bed it was clear there were no evening plans.  We pored over images of the day.  I was disappointed with and mildly sulky about my efforts.  He attempted to sneer and reprimand me for my sulkiness, how silly and pointless it seemed to be like that.  I asked him to give me a break.  His angsty dramas such as forgetting to buy pasta or losing things – of which there are many, are all justified; my grouchy complaints are all ridiculous overexaggerated nonsense.

We put on a DVD I’d brought with me.  He expressed no great interest, positive or negative, but it was better than Scrabble or the console games he’d half alluded to.  Games don’t often tend to end well between us.  I start losing, sulk and spoil them, sometimes intentionally.

We sat watching his television screen while he played with laptops and his iPhone.  He asked what it was called again, in order to check reviews and synopses, see how it ended and prematurely sneer about it, although we weren’t even halfway in.  What he read empowered his prejudgements, and defended against being surprised one way or the other.  It also prevented his precious time being stolen.

We’d shared three quarters of a bottle of wine, though I suspected he didn’t want to continue it after dinner.  I offered to share out the final splash and he declined.  He was so much better than me in every way.  But he didn’t say ‘you go ahead.’  I had to ask if I could finish it.

Reaching the film’s climax, my brother announced he was going to have a bath, “before the sick bit.”  It was then I realised he’d only asked for a reminder of the film’s title so he could get ahead of the game, find out what happened, if it was any good or not.  The “sick bit” happened; it was slightly sick (although from the way my squeamish brother said it, you might have thought it would be utterly revolting), but sad, convincing and enjoyable.  I liked the film.

My brother is genuinely offended by all farts, even from his children – who get told off for doing them.  He was the same as a child at home.  Farting seems tantamount to a suggested act of paedophilia.

The final flares of a near midsummer sunset still streaming, I decided to go for a walk in the nearby park.  I tapped at the bathroom door, which opened to present his sunken Lord Of The Manor face, half lathered in shaving foam.  When I said I was going for a walk, he cast me his patronisingly questioning look, as if it were midnight, pitch black and pissing down with rain.  I paused and tossed my eyebrows, exhausted and aggravated by his unwavering need to judge me, then went on to ask if it was quicker and quieter going out the back way.

He could never accept anything I did straightaway, be positive and accommodating.  Sometimes I’m surprised he doesn’t closely scrutinise the way I inhale.

I went for a walk and took a few pictures of the pink sunset, angry he could upset me like this in a look.  How his way was the correct and only way, ever.  I walked fast and ranted inside my head.  The rant of a man who’d had a few glasses of wine and been riled by his superior older brother, but it still felt entirely justified.

The other thing which struck me this weekend was how utterly bereft he seems of basic human sympathy.  While he’s caring and tender to a stomach-churning fault with his wife and offspring, he almost appears to go out of his way to be patronising, and almost callous in the face of basic grievances.  My face exploded with hayfever after returning from playing on a hill.  I scrambled around the car for tissues as he settled the infants in the back seat.  His reaction on seeing and hearing me was like I’d gone out of my way to offend him.  We called our mother for a chat.  She was suffering from some cold-type bug and sounded ill as much as she spoke about it.  It’s true that she might exaggerate a little from time to time, but there was no disputing she was unwell.

After the call my brother’s reaction suggested she was entirely putting it on and worthy of no sympathy whatsoever.  “Ah, you know what she’s like..”

THE WOMAN WAS CLEARLY ILL!  And she’s not so young anymore!  Have a fucking heart, you wanker.

Exasperated, I sighed, shook my head and appealed “oh, come on…” in halfhearted fashion before walking away.

I’ve written at length about him here and elsewhere, yet it still holds that his attitude and behaviour towards us suggest we are as much his own personal character constructs or figurines, rather than other fully independent human beings with fully developed consciousnesses.  We exist to be patronised and mocked.

When he’s raised in conversation by people I don’t know brilliantly, and they cue me up to talk about him and what he does, I have mixed feelings.  “Oh yes, I saw your brother the other night!  He’s doing very well, isn’t he?  Do you know what his brother does, Mavis?”

On the one hand I’m proud, because he is my brother and he is doing very well, as he knows.  But on the other hand, if ever I was asked, is he a nice bloke?  I think I’d struggle to say yes.  This is why it makes me a little uncomfortable.  He’s very admirable in one way, and also a good, loving husband and father: yes, without doubt.  But a nice bloke?  I really don’t know.

He was asleep on the sofa when I returned from my twilight walk.  I didn’t know why he’d seen fit to wait up for me.  We had a stunted, faintly awkward conversation, both remembering our supressed exchange in the bathroom doorway, where we both opted for loaded looks over words – did I know where everything was?  Bedding, towels and such?  Yes, I did.  Ok, good night then.  He went to bed.