In the years before my brother’s sudden death last year we had, strangely enough, got on better than ever before. When we were growing up we had a relationship that hovered always between love and hate and we were most of the time exceptionally resentful of one another. It’s probably much the same for most siblings. Perhaps it was his sudden candid confession regarding the depth of his childhood despair over various aspects of his upbringing that caused us to cast aside distrust and replace it with filial affection. The revelation came perhaps fifteen years ago and surprised me with its intensity, forcing me to examine the past more closely than before.
I was six and three quarters when my brother was born and from the moment of his entrance into the grimy Northfleet community I resented him with an astonishing level of bitterness. Those were the days when older female siblings were routinely placed in charge of the newest family members and it was clear that our family was not going to differ in this respect. By the time I had reached my seventh birthday I was Baby Minder in Chief, regularly directed to walking and pram rocking duties after school. Most older sisters quite enjoyed these duties and in fact if you didn’t have your own resident infant it was quite acceptable to borrow one from a neighbour, females dressed in pink being the most desirable especially those with cutting edge names like Cheryl-Anne or Sharon-Louise.
My father was quite naturally immensely proud of my brother and could love him in a way that he clearly found difficult with me. He was eager for him to grow bigger and stronger so that he could introduce him to the delights of all those things I found abhorrent such as funfairs and football matches. His undisguised excited anticipation of the future father-son relationship filled me with unease and anxiety and perhaps it was then that I first began to nurture the idea of swapping the unfortunate boy for a more acceptable sibling.
Brenda Stewart’s mother had given birth to a baby a day or two after we took delivery of Bernard but hers was a girl called Judy. How I envied Brenda. If we had to have a baby at all then why couldn’t it be a girl? In fact Brenda and I discussed this very situation fairly regularly as she was now detailed on similar after school pram duties to myself. She even elaborated on the matter of her family’s desire for a male child saying they were going to call him Richard if he had eventuated as hoped. I recall thinking idly that if fate bestowed our Bernard upon them it probably wouldn’t be too much of an upheaval for him to have his name changed and overall the loss of him wouldn’t be the end of the world because we would still be able to see him from time to time.
I can’t recall with any clarity when I first proposed the baby swap idea but within a day or two I do know that Brenda had enthusiastically agreed and the two sleeping infants were duly switched. Several hours passed before a furious Mrs Stewart turned up at our door angrily demanding the return of her Judy and darkly advising my shocked mother that there was something not quite right about me because I was certainly Old Enough to Know Better! When my father returned from work I was soundly thrashed for this misdemeanour, the first of many such beatings concerning wrongs done to my brother after which I would bear the bruises for a fortnight. I was also sent to bed at six pm without any tea for a week which I considered most unfair. I thought then, and even now, that the beating itself should have been punishment enough. However, it seemed unwise to attempt to debate this at the time and in those days harsh reprisals often followed quite minor misdeeds, so I lay in bed plotting revenge whilst other children played outside in the street and as it grew dark were called home one by one to their tea time jam sandwiches.
Bernard of course had been far too young for the Day When He Was Swapped to have any effect upon his psyche although in recent years he waxed lyrical and lengthily upon the distress caused when I did things like sabotaging the flight path of his yellow plastic helicopter. Being responsible for his arm being detached from its socket when he was two did not please him either.
It was to be years before I would uncover the truths of his own transgressions, the various acts of thievery, including absconding at the age of thirteen with our mother’s Christmas savings in order to buy a pair of binoculars for more efficient bird watching and selling my entire record collection to a second hand shop in Gravesend for some other ornithology connected venture. Somehow or other our mother managed to cover up this behaviour but failed to be able to when he ran off with the week’s takings from a local butcher’s shop, a more serious theft that progressed into violence and eventually resulted in a Court Appearance though not before he had arrived distressed and distraught on my doorstep in West London in search of protection.
It has to be admitted that neither of us were the kind of progeny a parent could be proud of although had she lived long enough I think our mother would have eventually been proud of Bernard. She would have taken a great deal of pleasure in the fact that finally he became the kind of father that he longed to have himself. She would have undoubtedly been astounded by the astonishing amount of money he was able to make that allowed him to turn all his childhood dreams into reality. She would have taken pride in his unfailing generosity and the depth of his love and concern for others. And she would have also perhaps felt a twinge of concern for the streak of gullibility that to the end of his life remained present in his demeanour making it always possible for him to be deceived by those closest to him.