My brother, John, was born when I was four years old. It was clear from the very moment he entered the world, that I had a job to do – in fact, I was told right there and then that it was a really important job – “He’s your little brother – you’ve got to look after him.” And I took that job pretty seriously.
As a baby, John was a screamer. Oh, boy, there was never any doubt about his lung capacity, ever. The slightest twinge of pain, the toy he could not reach, the merest hint of hunger, and that tiny being just wailed. Neighbors wondered if he was being tortured - OK, so he was once. His screaming was so intense that I tried to stop it – but taking your baby brother’s little arm and sinking your teeth into it isn’t really the most effective method of wail-control. My mother discovered the teeth marks and promptly gave my arm a nip, so I knew how it felt. Mind you, I thought it was a bit unfair, as I didn’t exactly have a full set of teeth, given the fact that most of them had been knocked out in a fall down a flight of steps when I was three.
I did my best to meet the demands of my job. I made a huge effort to make sure he kept his toys tidy, that if he lost one I found it. But the work really kicked into high gear when it was time for John to start school. Now I loved school, could not wait to start – I fact, I tried to start before I was supposed to. The town’s mother and baby clinic was right next to the primary school, and whenever my mother took my brother in to be weighed and measured, she would leave me in the waiting room with a book – and I would promptly vanish, causing a great deal of distress for my mother and the clinic staff. I’d sneak into the school, find a class I liked, and just sort of join in. Teachers became pretty used to the interloper, and soon my mother knew exactly where to find me when I went missing . But for John, school was a looming disaster waiting to happen.
From the very first day, he screamed the place down as soon as my mother departed the school gates. Teachers had to hold onto him, while he yelled out, “She wouldn’t leave me if she loved me!” I was devastated. I was in the juniors by that time (the 5 and 6 year olds were known as the “infants”), so during morning break, at lunchtime and in the afternoon, I would look for my brother and he’d hold onto me as if his life depended upon it, and he wept. I wept too, because I hated to see him so unhappy. It came to a head one morning when Mr. Leech found me being comforted by my best friend, Wendy. I could barely speak for sobbing, but eventually blurted out, “It’s John, he doesn’t like school,” and flung myself into the teacher’s arms. Actually, the whole school knew that John didn’t like school. That evening, while I was out of the room, my parents laid down the ultimate guilt-trip on my brother – they’d tried every other suggested measure at this point, including bribery and corruption. I heard my mother saying, “And it’s making Jackie ill – you don’t want your sister to be ill, do you?” I don’t know that I ever heard him actually say, “No.”
I can safely say I baled John out more than a few times – it was part of the “Big Sister” job description as far as I was concerned. On once occasion, John had taken the ingredients to school to make Cornish pasties - the school had just started a new curriculum in which the boys took domestic science and the girls embarked upon woodwork and electrical classes (our schools took pains to balance the academics with practical subjects). Now, my family was not exactly flush, so the shopping list for cookery classes was looked upon as a bit of an indulgence, especially if things didn’t quite go to plan. My brother could handle a few things in the kitchen - most of the kids we went to school with had to come home and start dinner for the family anyway – but Cornish pasties were not exactly his forte. I was attending a different school at this point, and arrived home to find him in the kitchen, waiting for me. He held up a plastic bag containing what looked like baked lumps of stodgy white and brown dough. “Mum’ll kill me,” he said, “look at my pasties.” I had an hour to put things right before my parents came home from work.
I swung into action. I grabbed the bag, fished through the gooey mess and picked out the meat. I quickly prepared a batch of pastry, then fried up chopped onion, carrots and parsnips, and added the meat and some seasoning. I made four big pasties, and popped them in the oven just in time. When my parents arrived home, John was ready to dish up a dinner of Cornish pasties with gravy and mashed potato – good old comfort food. “Oh these are just lovely, John,” said my mother. Dad looked at me, then at my brother and back at me again, and he winked. Job well done.
There have been many times over the years when I have kept my word, that I would look out for my little brother – but the fact is, I think I’ve overdone it. I was always one to take my work seriously, and I know I sometimes get on his nerves, coming up with advice he doesn’t need or want, and I’ve probably been doing it for way too long. He is, after all, in his mid-fifties now – 6ft 2in of grown man with his own business, and more than capable of looking after himself . It’s been decades since he needed his big sister. So, I probably owe him an apology - after all, there’s nothing worse than someone coming up with suggestions and advice that were never sought in the first place. But the truth is, when you’ve spent a lifetime looking out for someone, it becomes something of a habit – and as the saying goes, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.”