I see my brother Ian on special occasions: birthdays, Christmas, that sort of thing. Or you could say it’s a special occasion if I see my brother. We are all competitive individuals in my family. What we have in common means we don’t have much in common.
I saw Ian recently. It was a birthday — Sara’s, I think, or Louise’s. We were gathered at Elaine’s house to celebrate. Elaine was Dad’s second wife (the ’80s period) and Sara and Louise are their daughters. Ian and I are children of the first marriage (to Evonne; the ’70s period), so we are significantly older than Sara and Louise. As Evonne’s eldest son, it is a matter of principle that I do not like Elaine, who took my father away from us, and I keep myself distant from her girls. Ian is — I was going to say ‘more relaxed’, but Ian is never relaxed about anything. Posed behind his sporty shades, he might fool some people, but he can’t fool me, who knew him long before he had perfected his casual air. So ‘more relaxed’ would not be le mot juste, and I will say instead more friendly — no, that won’t do either — let me just say that Ian is more chatty with the girls, and they probably think he is not too bad.
We would not invade their birthday parties were it not for Dad’s insistence. Once any relative invites him anywhere, he leans on the host to secure invitations for the rest of us. It is his idea of fun to gather his three wives and his six children around him. Their presence moves him to the centre of attention, as he feels, quite rightly, that he is the only link connecting these disparate individuals. Whatever the pretext for the festivities, the occasion then turns into a celebration of his patriarchal potency.
“Isn’t this great? I love having all my family around me,” Dad says as we sit down to eat. Et cetera. Beaming. Snuffling up the red wine. Interrogating each of us in turn.
Elle (his third wife, possibly good for the millennium) is thoroughly co-opted into this process. She has made herself good friends with Elaine and with Evonne. There is nothing they can do about it: Elle works in public relations and cannot be deflected by anything short of concrete acts of rudeness, which neither Evonne nor Elaine have the fibre to perform. Elle is ‘great mates’ with all us ‘kids’ too: after all (as she likes to remind me), she is nearer my age than Dad’s. A hideous notion. Elle likes to employ Sara and Louise as babysitters for her two children, Siobhan and Pablo. She gets Ian’s advice on investments, and she is working hard at getting me to take over her accounting.
Yet we are not close at all, not Elle and I, not any of us. Between the big get-togethers, we scarcely exchange a word. And this is at least partly because we know that any attempt to meet without inviting Dad would peeve him if and when he heard about it. At one stage Ian and I used to meet at a pub for dinner some Fridays. We were both working in the same building at the time, and it seemed too unfriendly not to have some social interaction — you can imagine, we would bump into each other in the lift and it helped to be able to say ‘So, see you Friday?’ or ‘Sorry, can’t make it this Friday’. It was convenient, and not too onerous, and we didn’t really mind exchanging professional gossip. But then Dad heard about it, and promptly he wanted to come, and because he wanted to come, it had to be definite, it had to be every Friday, or else we had to ring him to cancel, and then, because we did ring him to cancel, he wanted to change it to Saturdays, when we could meet nearer his place, and then he wanted to bring Elle, and then why not invite Evonne, wouldn’t Evonne want to catch up with her boys? And so on. It got to be a pain in no time. So we stopped it, and instead, if we met in the lift, we would bitch about Dad.
Then Ian’s firm moved into the new Governor Phillip Tower and the whole problem of accidental encounters became much less pronounced. I distinctly remember the feeling, as if the air conditioning had suddenly started pumping fresh air. I felt a similar sensation every 2nd of January, when I realised that the holidays were behind me and that I had weathered another round of festive family fun.
But I was telling you about Ian. We were at Elaine’s house in Northbridge. There’s no garden to speak of, but she has this fantastic deck with a view over the valley. We were sitting out there, eating and drinking. It was one of those winter days that makes Sydneysiders smug: the sky was blue, the sun was warm, the breeze was gentle. I liked the wine we were drinking. I liked the chicken on my plate, to which Elaine had done something good. Sara and Louise had a few friends over, and one of them was a new accountant, just graduated, who wanted some career advice. She listened to me for about half an hour.
Then Dad asked, à propos of whatever verbal battle he was waging at the time, “Who can tell me the GDP of China?” and Ian said, “About a trillion dollars” and I was able to say, “Actually, in 2007 it was nearly seven trillion US dollars in PPP terms,” and Dad said “What’s PPP?” and I was able to tell him and then we googled it and sure enough I was right and then Ian had to pretend that it didn’t matter.
So for once I was feeling pretty good. Good enough to go three conversational rounds with Kerryn, Ian’s current girlfriend, who is a commercial lawyer with a merciless line in property chat. She joined me when I sat down inside to enjoy a coffee away from the throng. Not for the first time, she cross-examined me on my choice of abode. I live in Drummoyne, in a California bungalow brutally renovated in the 1990s. There is no view. Such a choice makes no sense to Kerryn, particularly as I am not ‘doing something’ with it.
“It has a pool,” I said this time. “That’s very important to me, as I find that there is a high risk of exposure to children in public pools.”
I didn’t mean this at all; I was just fishing to catch her attitude to children, potentially a cause of mischief with Ian, who had come to join us. Kerryn’s brow wrinkled; she sensed a trap. Ian deftly intervened.
“Do you remember how Mum used to take us up to Ryde and leave us at the pool?”
“Yes, that’s right,” I said, “with twenty cents for an Icy Pole, if we were lucky.”
“She would leave us there for two hours, longer, and pick us up at the gate. Do you remember?”
“The side gate, like a turn stile. You could get stuck in it.”
“Yes, no, I mean the way she would just leave us. I was like, six or something.”
“Oh, we were older.”
“No, because remember the playground? Those little swings. We played on them. And the seesaw.”
“I remember the seesaw,” I said. “I still have the scar.”
And I indicated the thin white line under my chin.
“Yes!” he said, and laughed.
I told him it wasn’t funny.
“What happened?” asked Kerryn. Like every girlfriend Ian has ever had, she lives in a state of starved curiosity about his personal life and history. Very well, I thought, let her know this about him.
“I was on the seesaw with Ian, whose idea of a good joke was to wait until I was up and then jump off. I came down crash and split my chin open —”
“Come off it!” Ian burst out. “That’s not how it happened at all! You waited until I was up and then you jumped off. You jumped off to make me fall, but then the seesaw came up and hit you.”
“That’s not right,” I said, but I was taken aback. Ian’s face had gone red. Despite the joking tone of his voice, I could tell that he was serious. I had seen that hostile look before. It threatened violence.
“That is right!” he said. “I distinctly remember it, because it served you right. How interesting that you would want to remember it differently.”
“I don’t want —”
“No! You were always a bully. It was just typical — you thought you would scare your baby brother, and that’s why I laughed, because it served you right.”
“I do remember what happened,” I said, but I had lost all stomach for it. Ian addressed himself to Kerryn, recounting his unrecognisable version of the event in fuller detail. I was uncomfortably aware that the noise from the deck had abated, that people might be listening to Ian’s loud voice. I stared blindly. Somebody spoke to me but I paid no attention.
I could remember the texture of that seesaw, its flaky paint and hardwood crevices. I remembered the plunging sensation of weightless fall, my fierce grip on the plank, and how little it availed me as I hit the bottom. It all seemed stark as the day it happened.
It was not beyond Ian to lie about something like this. Ian is an accomplished liar. He has tremendous moral clarity: the right thing to do is whatever serves him best, because the rational pursuit of self interest is the shortest route to happiness, happiness being the greatest good, and all happiness being individual. It follows (Ian will explain if you ask) that the only happiness we can be sure of producing is our own. Any other goal is inefficient at best and counterproductive at worst. Et cetera.
Bolstered by these principles, Ian is capable of saying anything if it serves his purpose. Yet I did not think Ian was lying about this. He was too angry. Therefore, at least one of us had completely misremembered this signal incident from our childhood.
I thought about it. It was true that the injury — directly beneath the point of my chin — was consonant with the incident as described by Ian. Falling as I remembered it might just as easily have led to me bruising my nose or banging my forehead. That did not occur, presumably because I was striving to keep my head up. Or was it as he said?
I could imagine it, but try as I might I could not bring the possibility to life.
This discrepancy was frightening on several levels. We all know that memory is fallible, but such egregious examples are rare. Did Ian have a psychopathic ability to misremember his past in ways more comfortable to his self-image? Was his narcissism so profound? For instance, if asked about the rabbit, would he now say: ‘I never kicked the rabbit, you kicked the rabbit?’
Leaving that aside — leaving aside all questions of right or wrong remembering, it was frightening to think that for all these years Ian had been thinking of me as a bully who wanted to scare his baby brother. The concept was ludicrous — to me — but not, apparently, to Ian. What other unperceived slights and injuries might I be charged with?
Or did I kick the rabbit?
I got up from the sofa and went outside, beyond the table, to the edge of the deck, pushing myself into the corner of the rail, which creaked ominously. The palms below threatened to spin. I suddenly felt very drunk, although I had not taken more than usual.
“Are you all right David?” Kerryn followed me to ask. I looked back. Most of the people at the table averted their eyes, but Dad looked up, eager for the fight.
Ian was leaning in the doorway smirking at me.
“He’s worried about you,” Kerryn said.
“I see,” I said, although what I saw kept tilting this way and that, this way and that.