caravan of love (and loathing)

We sit in a large and improbably well-furnished caravan, all my family.  It’s an early August Sunday in 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 I see there are two pretty coastal canvases in the main bathroom (there was another en-suite) and it strikes me that we have still 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 our dog is a joy. Unbridled delight peels through both their faces as we run about like lunatics on the deserted 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. My brother and his family take great delight in mocking Mum’s old phone. 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 around fifteen years ago at my brother’s Stag Do. Oafish, overconfident, loud, said an uncomplimentary thing about my Dad I felt he was wholly not entitled to say. The impression has stuck with me.

My brother doesn’t see much of his children during the working week, and 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 apparently 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 supposedly 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, Dad 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 solid annual income while doing essentially part time hours as a tax 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 own small 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? Is he fuck! 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, as he generally does my entire existence, 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 person. Selfishly, I want to be outlived by someone who cares about me and my output as a human. (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. We could save on childcare costs, if my wife can retain her job post-maternity – although many women 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.

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competitive nature

Mum wasn’t home during the week when I called, so I spoke to Dad for a little longer than normal.  I told him how my lower back had spasmed, like it now does every 15 months or so, causing acute pain.  In a style more regularly adopted by Mum, he took this as a cue to talk about his back problems – which he does nothing to help by continuing to run what to me seem like still pretty long distances for a guy in his mid-sixties.

A neighbour who is also a doctor not long ago stopped him in the road and severely reprimanded him for his selfishness, how it will impose on my Mum in the long term, how he basically does not look healthy and upright when he runs.  He looks ill.  She didn’t even know him or us very well, but it was all true.  It was a wake-up call he accepted he needed, but still he runs – now just slightly shorter distances.  No more half marathons.

He has to weigh it up against his mental health, he says.  Because not being able to run would affect that.  A recent convert of cognitive behavioural therapy, he had a few sessions and now believes himself cured of irrationally intense mood-swings, more able to handle his depression – for which he has taken medication for many years.  Therefore he runs for his mental health, and because he enjoys the company and camaraderie of his running clubs.  And to hell with his slowly crumbling spine.

I didn’t speak much of my own acute pain and how I’m a little hacked off to know I’ll probably have to suffer it for several weeks a year, and I’m half a lifetime younger than him.  He didn’t seem all that interested.  But he never seems all that interested in me, which still hurts a little.

Later on in the week my girlfriend changed her profile picture on her Facebook account.  My Dad was quick to click a Like.  This irked me because my Dad never ‘Likes’ anything I do on Facebook, and I do a lot on Facebook – mostly to promote a business interest.  While I realise it’s a relatively banal thing to be annoyed about, the irritation hung about and I began unpacking and possibly over-thinking it.

Dad had a terrible relationship with his father.  His old man was a bit of a depressive lunatic so he left home as soon as possible, aged 15.  An only child, my Dad is not a natural with kids – although my brother, who has a couple, says he is improving.

Growing up, my older brother had what appeared to be in-built self-belief.  He knew he was great and smarter than the rest of the kids and would succeed.  My parents’ only other kid, a couple of years younger, I didn’t.  I never felt encouraged, particularly by my Dad – which I think is a key job of a dad, I never had much belief.

Seeing my Dad like my girlfriend’s photo, knowing he encourages and supports other people in his running club, remembering his utter disinterest about my back pain, I think: what about me, Dad?

Maybe it comes down to his early conditioning that the father-son relationship is built on one-upmanship and competition.  But I don’t want to compete with him. I’m not great at competition.  I want him to be on my side, dammit.  He’s my Dad.  I want us to be mates.  I want him to back me, recognise me, endorse me, be proud of me, or at the very least pay some genuine fucking interest.  Not fall into the introspective world of self-interest which marks many a depressive.  I know he doesn’t live exclusively in that place because he’s more than happy to support others.

Would I ever talk to him about it?  My girlfriend asked this when I expressed this frustration.  I don’t know if there would be any point.  Is he really able to change?  It’s probably an unconscious thing.  Maybe he does envy me in a quite basic way – although fuck knows what I really have to envy.  Would it more likely cause upset and unrest at this stage of life, when it’s something that, perhaps at 32, I should just accept?