I drive up through the Lakes’ winding roads, sunny for a change, traffic shunting along in the usual dribs and drabs of moving. I turn right, up the hill and through the gates of the small house where tomorrow I’ll be married. People stand around the entrance, some having travelled a long way, only a small wedding if you want to know where your own invite went. As the car hits the gravel car park I see a face more familiar than the rest, one like mine, the way he smiles, the way he stands, once smaller than me, but not so much now, now we are grown.
I’d not seen my brother Robin for years, and I mean years, our lives as separate as can be, as they often are, countries and worlds apart most of the time. Time. Only now, writing this, the idea just coming to me, to write about him, do I see how far apart we really are, how far we’ve become, maybe only being together for less than a week in total since our teens. How is that possible? And when we did see one another we most often stood behind our kids, cousins to each other, children like a garden wall, only gossip between us and not much more, ‘weather’ chat, ‘how are things going’, maybe the odd shared memory to make the kids laugh. We never really talked about us, about the then, admittedly once two people as different can be, the same cloth as brothers are, only different sides - then - but less so now. Time fades most cloth thin enough to see both faces. Brothers we may have been, but how sad it is to think that blood can be so thin as to go almost thirty years like strangers.
My Grandma used to say that: “people have separate lives”, and it’s true, but that doesn’t make it right, maybe even makes it so, that saying a get out of jail card, permission to see your own blood as nothing less free as running water. Once you shared everything, grew up in the same bedroom, same school, the same confined reality, and now the only thing you share is a crack glimpse of what life is now through Facebook.
For me family seems to be like something you know is valuable, but that you put in a drawer, a safe place, and allow yourself to forget, forget that distraction, forget because you know its value is secure. You can love remotely and forever. Open the drawer and it’s there. But when I go to mass in Galway I am assailed by blood on the church steps, tripping and slipping over Vanessa’s aunts and uncles, nieces and cousins, her family’s house a gathering place where that blood is gossiped over, the shared past forever unpicked over tea. These people are not strangers to each other, they make time because they know time is fleeting. Never in my life have I been so surrounded by community and friendship and family as here, which only makes me see my own shortcomings. I think about my sister Joanne, and her amazing daughter Lilly, who thinks I’m some superman because I once lifted a settee up with one hand, and tell a mean joke about wide-mouthed frogs. “What’s your other niece called?” asks Vanessa, the name of my sister’s second child, and thinking hard I say, “Lilly number two”. Vanessa rolls her eyes and asks why kids love me so much. “Because I neglect them”.
My cousin contacts me with a trauma of her own, and I joke she’ll be fine, as being a Kirkpatrick she lacks any emotionality, the sticky stuff that holds you back from getting on - only a joke. But she replies that this had been a charge made against her many times and I wonder if it’s in our DNA, and that my grandma knew it too?
Family, you take it for granted, of no importance to the 21st century atomised human being, selfish to its value, yet now I have to ask where have the years gone. I open that drawer and look inside and ask where were the drunken barbeques or family holidays, the stuff some take for granted, that time given to something so deserving? When did me and my baby brother sit down and really reminisce, of that shared life, of my cruelty to him, him and his amazing ‘rubber bones’ that would not break. What would be his story of me be and my story of him? “Remember that time you tried to stab me with a knife” should have been the whisky reminisce or “threw you into the docks”, but whenever we met it was never just us, like we were guilty of something, like our childhood was a trauma not to be talked about, or too far gone to be revisited or important. Looking at it now, although very different, the only thing we shared was the urge to be gone, to leave and get on with life. Like a body sucked into an avalanche, trapped in the tide and taken along, we both fought hard to not become buried.
Both of us took different paths, but both led up, steep and dangerous at times, and it’s a marvel we ever came down. I remember that one time, the last time we met, a few weeks ago, at the wedding, the first time in years, him telling me about finding himself in a pitch black Afghan night, in the middle of a mine field. This would be bad enough you’d imagine, but it was somewhat comical as he was inside a C-47 Hercules transport plane at the time, the pilot asking what they should do. He’s told me bits, of his life in the military, and I mean his life, that being his family from a kid posted to Northern Ireland to now, a trouble shooter, working out how to get shit done, my brother a spreadsheet warrior these days. Maybe it’s a blood thing, but I feel the toll those wars took on his life, the burden of others, never for Queen or country, but for another kind of blood, people you cannot so easily neglect. I often get a whiff of something, when you tell someone your brother’s in the military, that some caste system operates in polite society, that he’s lower than us, that he’s part of the problem, like Trident, that if retired would make the word a better place. But Robin has been beyond the city walls, he knows why the world needs people like him, who gives so much but get so little back, no pension recompense, that there are real ‘heroes’, not just people with dangerous ‘jobs’. When I look at his sense of duty to others - to all of us in way - I think about that line some dead soldier once wrote, “If not me, then who else?” My brother has done more good in this world than anyone I have ever met and maybe he makes me feel my own life has been nothing but selfish and childish. Bur sometimes when we met the strain was too much to look at, in his eyes, the way he buzzed like a dodgy appliance about to burst into flames or just stop dead. Maybe that’s why we never saw each other, not through a lack of love, but because it was too painful to see. What people say about you behind your back is the true mark of a man, and I’ve met many people who served with my brother, ‘KP’, and it was only ever good, through bad times, the coffin days, and good, when he stopped bringing the coffins back.
He is younger than me, my baby brother, but he has grey hair while mine is still black.
I invite him to my wedding and he tells me he’ll try and come, a man who can never stray far from a job that is beyond overstretched, some trouble always brewing in the world. Part of me doesn’t mind if he comes or not, after all I never see him anyway. He’s in the drawer, safe. I also don’t want this to be a burden on him. But there he is, he makes it, standing in the gravel as we pull up, my future wife he’s never met beside me, his kids almost all grown up like mine, walls still between us. Yes, kids aren’t kids for long, it’s true, but neither are we. There he is my baby brother, old rubber bones, thick and dependable and solid, someone, who you could call up in the middle of the night and know he’d come, something I guess he’s made a career out of - dependability, one of life’s more overlooked commodities.
And so we stand in the car park, awkward at first, a little shy, both complicate to how things are, how things will always be. But then we hug and it’s like hugging myself. He squeezes me hard and I squeeze him back, these boys, these brothers, all grown. I hug this man, more like me than anyone else who will ever live, and also just as imperfect, but blood no less the same.
A Kit Kat bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
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Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram