An extract from “The Sibling” by Jools Abrams
It is the first day of October, two days shy of my brother’s fifty second birthday, when we find ourselves on holiday again, the first without our parents, and the first time we are sharing a room since childhood. We are entering an era of first-time experiences.
My brother tells the family he wants to take a holiday on his own. Having no access or support for online bookings, I offer to help. All the supported holiday places are gone, so I look at the trips run by our local coach company. It comes down to two nights in Blackpool, or three in the Cotswolds, I will have to go with him on either. He chooses Blackpool.
They confirm there are still places available if we don’t mind sitting near the back, like could be errant schoolchildren on a day trip. Our day out. I think it will be OK, neither of us have suffered from travel sickness since a holiday to North Wales in dad’s Austin Princess, when I threw up first and my brother quickly followed. I hope a Mercedes six-wheeler might boat about a little less. I contact the coach company and explain that my brother has learning disabilities and autism and we will need two single rooms close to each other, and he needs an en suite. The tours and excursions guide emails me back. The hotel has no such rooms left, but.
‘I’m sure you can bunk down together for a few nights.’ She says. It has been over forty years since my brother and I shared a room.
He brings his one small, black holdall and his camouflage rucksack, which he carries everywhere like a shell on his back, climbing onto our coach that’s already packed with comfortable pensioners who avoid any eye contact with us as we bump shuffle along the aisle to our two seats near the back. Trundling up the M6, the sun squeezes in an appearance and the sky turns powder blue just before we turn off at the sign for the waste transfer station. I spot the crown of Blackpool tower and point it out to my brother. We pass streets of boarded up hotels, arriving at The Imperial, who shakes her grand, motheaten skirts over the promenade. Our room has twin beds, made up with clean bedding and barely an inch between them. I prise them apart and crack the sash window open to let in some air to the stifling room. Gulls and traffic rattle beyond, but our view is obscured by a lichen covered roof, where two sticking plasters, conjoined in their paper sheaths, cling to one tile.
I suggest we go for a quick walk before dinner and stretch our legs. On the front my brother and I lean out over the rust caked railings and take gasps of sea air. Sun polishes the water and silvers the rivulets of Irish Sea that bend across caramel sand. The beach is huge and empty except for a lone dog walker. My brother got over his fear of dogs when he was eleven, cured by our parents getting him a small Jack Russell. Our Labrador likes him, and he, her, but he says he prefers Alsatians. I pan my phone over the view, making a quick video to send to mum, adding dialogue by asking him.
‘Are you ready for the tram voyage later on?’ He waves a hand and repeats.
‘Yes, R ready for the tram later on.’ I re-consider my description.
‘It’s not really a voyage is it? That makes it sound like we are about to go to undiscovered lands.’ I pause, ‘which is also true.’ My brother does not give his opinion. I fill our silences, verbalise what I think he might be thinking. I can hold entire conversations with myself, he rarely instigates chat, unless he becomes hyped about something. Then he talks at me. Perhaps I talk too much, my brother does not like verbosity, he’s been known to turn the radio off on Graham Norton.
Lying in our beds that first night, we listen to the hotel lounge singer crooning her way through a weary set list to an empty room and I’m reminded of the Balzac quote.
‘Lancashire, where women die of love.’ She begins an uncertain cover of the Bay City Rollers, ‘We sang shang a lang.’ and my brother and I play a quick game of Name That Tune. I ask into the dark.
‘Do you remember the Bay City Roller posters I had in my room?’
‘Oh R does.’ I do not ask if he remembers me snogging them until they were soggy. I search my memory and find only a basketful of conversations to recall with my brother down the years and it makes me a little melancholy that we don’t have the closeness that other siblings do. I sleep a fitful night. My brother sleeps like a corpse.
At breakfast, he helps himself to the ample buffet, beginning with starters of two Weetabix. I shudder as he douses it in cold milk. Mum fed us on a breakfast of Weetabix for years before school, always with warm milk. He drinks multiple coffees before helping himself to a second course of hash browns, beans, fried bread, black pudding, two sausages, no eggs or tomato. We escape the Imperial via the revolving doors, still sharing some sense of mischief in the everyday, we seem to be the only guests that spin through them. Walking along with a coffee-coloured sea to our right and scabbed cream palisades on our left, usually, my brother walks ahead, and I struggle to keep pace. Today he lags two paces behind my right shoulder like my shadow. I slow down to let him catch up, he slows down, still two paces behind. Old frustrations grow, I want to spin around and shout.
‘We’re not playing “What’s the Time Mr. Wolf?” You can walk alongside me!’ But I don’t. I tell him to walk next to me and he does for two paces, before dropping back again. I realise there must be a logical explanation for his behaviour, as there always is. Mum told him not to leave my side. We reach South Pier and I position him for a photograph with the tower as a backdrop.
‘Move one step to your left.’ He remains immobile. I can see we are going to have difficulty in the Ballroom.
I hope my brother will be as impressed by Tower Ballroom as I was the first time I saw it, with its gold balconies stacked up to a painted Rococo ceiling, the wedding cake Wurlitzer and sprung floor where our grandparents once danced. The organ is already in full throat then we arrive. Genteel, best dressed couples in chiffon and starch waltz past in arthritic and rapid staccato. Despite their snippy pace, I tell my brother it looks like there is no danger of it turning into a rave. There might be the flicker of a smile at the joke, but he seems nonplussed by surroundings that have stolen most of Blackpool’s bling.
There is time to dance. Before we came he promised me he would, but when I ask, he crosses his legs, one foot quietly flicking.
‘Oh, R likes to watch.’ Perhaps he would prefer another partner other than his sister. A middle aged couple begin limbering up in the section to the right of us and she puts her foot on the table to stretch. Black clad, they take to the floor like the professionals they probably are. I point them out to my brother, they seem rankled when another couple start dancing as flamboyantly as they do.
‘It’s getting like Strictly now.’ I comment. He watches Strictly every Saturday night in his room at my parents, he insists on going home every weekend from Supported Living. I remember Come Dancing with Angela Rippon, a programme I’d switch to after mum and dad had gone to bed. I’d waltz myself round the living room, imagining I was in sequins, feathers and chiffon.
One hour passes, and I grow anxious we will never get our afternoon tea of squashed sandwiches and rock hard scones, but it arrives ten minutes before we must leave and we drain the teapot and dash along the front, my brother close behind in a halting tango, me urging him to keep up. At Tussauds, I exchange our one adult and one free carer ticket, and there, finally, his face lights up at the Strictly theme tune, a display of curving stairs and Craig Revel Horewood, Claudia and Tess either side. I get him to hold up a ten paddle and stand next to Tess. Further on, there is an Avengers section, and we purchase an official photograph of my brother under the Hulks right bicep. I think he would be more impressed if it were a wax model of his favourite Hulk, Bill Bixby. We have a surprise when we turn a corner and hear the familiar theme tune for Coronation Street, another favourite. There is The Rovers Return and my brother can’t help but bang his hands together in excitement. I’ve finally hit the jackpot and buy him a pint standing next to a model of Ken Barlow at the bar.
On my brother’s 52nd birthday we have time to walk to the beach, wind bent along the lower walk, where an angry sea threatens to eat the esplanade, dissolving it like sugar mice in syrup. I fish a dog biscuit out of the pocket of my mac and on the sand below North Pier use it to carve.
‘Happy Birthday R.’ in the sand. I make him stand behind, another picture for mum. We find a café at the land end of South Pier where they bring my brother a flat white and one slice of millionaires’ shortbread for his birthday. I consider the cocktail menu; I could have a pina colada for five pounds and stare out of the seagull splattered window. When I’m back in the North, there’s an unchallenging, snuggly sense of home that envelops me and most of my anxiety slips away as life changes into a slower gear. I listen to the gulls and my brother slurping his birthday coffee and wonder if his worries are subdued like mine.
‘Have you enjoyed our holiday?’ I ask.
‘Oh, R has.’ He says, and wipes the rest of the shortbread crumbs of his plate with one finger.
One unseasonably warm October day a few days after our return from Blackpool, I board a local train to Cheshunt, the place my brother travels for his specialist dentist appointments, to the incongruous alpine chalets of Lea Valley YHA, where the Sibs are gathering. It’s my first adult sibling day and the salt taste of sweat blooms on my top lip when I walk into the hall, yet another menopausal hot flash combined with a cocktail of feelings. My stomach drops while I glance about. This is the first time I’ve been in a room with so many other siblings of people with disabilities. I pick one white mug from a stack of duplicate crockery and wait in line for a thermos of lukewarm black coffee, casting what I hope is a welcoming smile at the woman next to me. The room is full of women, all sisters, of seventy Sibs at the conference, I count five men, only five brothers.
I take a seat in the third row and realise, growing up, I knew no one else who was a sibling, yet there are 1.5 million adult siblings in the UK and Sibs is the only charity representing their needs. I am a little late to the party, Sibs has been going over twenty years and I wonder how I never knew about them before, certainly the shared experience and support would have been valuable, especially during life changing episodes. The organisation crept onto my radar after it’s patron, the DJ, Jo Whiley, shared her experience of her sister with learning disabilities and the complications of her support during the pandemic. I realise how lucky I was to walk those walks with my brother, to be with him when so many were isolated from their family and support.
I take copious notes during the presentations, particularly when a solicitor trustee speaks. Siblings are frequently sidelined when it comes to their involvement in their brother or sisters care and financial situation and I’m late to the communal communication loop between social services, care providers and my parents too. They have dealt with everything. I battle a flash of panic, mum has been ill recently, she and my brother are very close, and I know he’ll struggle if she’s not there. Yet being amongst the other siblings calms me as I listen to the experiences of others, we compare and contrast notes, understanding the shared carousel of responsibility and guilt.
One presentation highlights how a single sibling can feel like an only child, but without the attention an only child gets. My parents gave me all the love they could give when I was small, I bear no resentment towards them for their diverted attention, I seemed to accept it when I was a child and travelled on along my solo track. I pick at my bright, tiger print dungarees, realising how much of my behaviour and personality might be because I’m a Sib. Maybe I want to stand out. I tilt my head to my notes and feel a sense of purpose, less alone, more resilient as part of this tribe and look around the room, realising my identity. I’m coming out, I know who I am. A sibling.
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Award winning writer and ghost writer of memoir
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