My life began in a room with two beds.
My brother was three years old when I was born. After a year in a cot in my parents’ room I was moved into the bottom bunk in a small box room at the back of a semi-detached house. The window overlooked a backyard planted with rows of potatoes. The yard backed on to a playing field with a slide, a see-saw and square pavilion painted green.
James wasn’t my hero. He didn’t defend me against the bigger kids in the street. He had his own wars to fight. Our father was a perfectionist and James had a stutter. While my mother dragged him off to speech therapy classes, my father took the plastic railway track from the toy box and set about beating the stutter out of him. I don’t ever remember being hit, but then, I didn’t stutter.
I think James might have been a little glad when our father died of cancer. His was not a slow illness or a long battle. Diagnosed in the spring of 1968 he died six months later as autumn leaves fell from the trees. He didn’t surrender quietly but fought the futile battle against tumours he couldn’t see. When the end was near there was no handing over the mantle of responsibility to his eldest son.
Without the heavy hand of discipline James became wild. He pushed my mother time and again, testing her love, almost goading her to pick up the plastic railway track. I stood between the two of them on so many occasions.
He painted the walls of our bedroom black and started to smoke.
We were never friends, James and I. I thought we were never enemies either but I didn’t realise how deeply he despised me. I wasn’t like him. I was placid and peaceful and saw no need to prod and poke at people. I didn’t have his acid wit or his sharp eyes that exploited the flaws in other people.
I was thirty five years old when I was diagnosed with cancer. It began with a white dot the size of a pea at the base of my neck. In the time it took the hospital to do their tests, just six weeks, the dot was the size of a golf ball and I was dosed up with strong painkillers. Genetics had bestowed on me a faulty string of chromosomes.
Did I call James? I don’t think so. I hadn’t seen him since he moved abroad to escape the Child Support Agency his ex-wife set upon him like bloodhounds. He had limped from one bad relationship to another, leaving behind a string of children and a night or two in a prison lock-up for wielding a fist at a fragile face.
I fought the same battle my father had fought. I knew I couldn’t win but I held out for six months. Diagnosed in the autumn, I saw the end coming as daffodils bobbed in the spring sunshine. A week of respite in the hospice was time enough, they thought, to get me back on my feet.
I woke one morning to see James sitting in the chair beside my bed. A suitcase lay open on the spare bed in the room. An untidy pile of clothes spilled out like intestines.
“Hey, Andrew,” he said, “Guess what? We get to share a room, just like the old days. I think I can persuade the doc to let me paint it black!”
He was thin and very brown, long hair tied in a ponytail. He wore light cream trousers and a T-shirt advertising beer. On his feet he wore brown sandals, no socks, toe-nails ingrained with sand. A woven fabric bracelet jostled with a watch on his wrist.
That week James became my hero.
He held my head as I vomited into the toilet bowl and wiped up the messes that missed the diapers I was forced to wear. He made me laugh as he flirted outrageously with the nurses. At night he sang me to sleep with soft lullabies and when I woke screaming in the night he held me.
And he prayed. James who had scorned the Catholic Church that nurtured him had found faith.
“Father, Lord,” he prayed softly, “Andrew has fought the battle and he has won the race. It’s time for him to go home. Tine for him to rest…”
My life ended in a room with two beds.
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