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Catching up with the past

Published: 
Thursday, October 29, 2015

I wasn’t really paying much attention when Cinnamon Girl told me she had some good news. I’d just staggered out of a Friday night class on Commonwealth Lit, raging bronchitis ravaging a head further sored by yet another verbal duel with a student who should probably be studying Physics, or else is a closet masochist whose torture of choice is textual. All I wanted to do was to get back home in the eastern hills, slip into a bathtub of puncheon and zabapique and wake up three days later, recovered and rejuvenated. 

Not even Baby Ben’s hand-flailing welcome home could penetrate my shroud of sickness. I barely acknowledged his sister Lil’s hyperventilating stream of consciousness and flopping on the bed began to sink into welcome oblivion, hardly registering the good news slipped into my drowning ear that Cinnamon Girl had managed to locate my younger sister I’ve never met and my older brother I last saw nearly 60 years ago. Then darkness fell. 

In the morning, as is my custom, I remembered precisely nothing. I usually have to prime myself with at least one cup of mega strength coffee and a few fags to recall my name. Once I’ve located Mt Tamana on the eastern horizon, rising blue through the morning mist, things start to fall into place and the world resumes turning. I was gently reminded of my good news and the world went into reverse, a kind of sepia print déjà vu. 

Once again I was a snot-nosed, black-kneed enfant terrible, a street urchin covered in baked beans stains and traces of peanut butter—my staple diet. In my hand I clutched a bow and arrow improvised from nursery sticks, an invaluable weapon in the wars waged in a Fulham park, which I and my long suffering older brother threw ourselves into with all the ferocity of feral street runners. 

It was only after we separated—me to go live with my father while he remained with our birth mother—and many years after when I had children of my own, that I realised what a pain in the bamsi I must have been for my big brother B. 

I was a limpet stuck to his leg. He couldn’t leave the house without me in tow, dragging behind him wherever he went. Of course we got into some terrible scrapes, for which I imagine he took the brunt of the licks when we finally returned home in the west London winter darkness, looking like two runaway chimney sweeps or apprentices from Fagin’s gang of pickpockets. We got stuck in an elevator one time and spent the best part of the afternoon there. I think my punishment was being locked up in a broom cupboard, which following the elevator episode left me with enduring claustrophobia, so that later in life wedged in a mini speeding down the M40 from Oxford to London I got the panics and demanded to be let off on the hard shoulder. 

It was probably due to my brother that I learnt the rules of gravity, although the vertigo is entirely my own. Back in the 1950s cigarette packs often came with a small card enclosed—animals of the world; great footballers or cricketers; machines; architectural landmarks or anything which lent itself to graphic illustration. 

Small boys who couldn’t be bothered with train, bus or even plane spotting (collecting a whole bunch of useless numbers) did, however, become serious collectors of these cards which came in series. I had my eyes on his collection and when offers of swapping gave way to begging and equally useless bribery and I adamantly refused to take no for an answer, he challenged me to climb to the top of a tree in one of our many stomping and romping grounds. If I made it, the cards were mine. Agreed.

As a fearless tearaway with no understanding of the basic laws of physics, the challenge seemed like a joke to me. I got to the top with all the speed of a featherweight, but then came the crash landing as the topmost branch gave way, and I tumbled down making landfall in a pile of dead yellowing leaves, which couldn’t prevent a bust-up eyebrow. I’ve still got the scar, although it now merges with others, from a lamppost I ran into full tilt, a milk bottle I couldn’t dodge. I do remember dabbing at my sore eyebrow with some of those yellow, orange and brown leaves but can’t recall if I ever got the cards. Maybe after 60 years, this might be a good place to pick up the conversation with Brother B.