Death of a Brother
Looking back, it is all frozen in time. It happened. It is always happening. If I lose myself, it never happened. But I cannot stay lost forever.
Jeremy and I were the closest of brothers, at the time of our lives when brothers are closest of all. Less than twelve months apart in age, we were always together. Playing together; running from their separate classrooms to be together in the playground; fighting side by side; fighting over which toy was whose; one without the other was incomplete.
I was the studious and careful older brother at seven, just shy of eight. I was used to overseeing the welfare of Jeremy, our mother forever distracted by the demands of a moment too demanding for her. Despite my small size, I was often treated as a near adult by my elders.
Jeremy would soon turn seven, always ready with a dare. Who could jump the furthest off the top bunk bed? Climb the highest? Run the furthest from the protective control of our mother? Mother was always tied to the anchor of our younger sister, Helen.
And Helen. Forever and always Helen. More than just the spoilt youngest, she was always singled out by our stepfather as his progeny. Comfortable in that role, of course, what child of four would not be? But this is not her tale.
June of 1970 was the beginning of an idyllic summer,. The short mid-term holiday was to be spent camping in the Kent countryside, twenty minutes from home in the family car, a battered old Ford Anglia Estate. It was warm but not hot, and we had the endless sunshine of long summer days for our adventure in the wilds.
With what remained of the day after setting up camp, our mother, a strong swimmer, took it upon herself to teach us to swim. Helen was introduced to the water cradled in her arms, and I splashed around in imitation of mother’s confident breaststroke.
Jeremy’s reaction was unexpected. He refused to get in the water despite coaxing from mother and me. He would make abortive approaches to the pools edge, only to run off in terror onto the grass. Eventually he just watched the family fun unfold in the pool, attracted by his attraction to us, repelled by the water when he would approach. Jeremy was not a water person. The afternoon passed without a drop of water on him.
This was the wild, and in the night the wild came close. The eggs left outside the tent for breakfast were mysteriously missing the next morning, likely stolen by a fox. The vixen had taken the whole brown paper bag, only to have it disintegrate by the time she reached the fence, where we found the remains, She had no doubt carried the eggs one at a time to her litter.
After a breakfast of cereal, it was time for the grown-ups to head in to work. Leaving Jock, a teenage babysitter, in charge, they warned us boys that we could absolutely not leave the campground, but were free to explore by ourselves. Helen was to stay strictly in sight of Jock.
As soon as the car left, bumping down the rough track, we made off with our freedom. We ran from the upper half of the campground, sparsely populated with tents, down the concrete stairs to the pool and lawn in front of the guest house.
Uncharacteristically, I proposed we split up to explore more efficiently, and report back to each other our findings. Jeremy disappeared into the distance, while I set about the challenges of the locked gate and eight foot high green chain link fence around the pool.
A seven year old’s feet fit neatly in the gaps in the fence, and up I went the eight feet. It was easier to climb than the scrambling nets in the schoolyard, but with no handholds to steady myself to hurdle the top. So I traversed to the pump room abutting the fence, and climbed over the roof to the other side. I hung by the fingers from the roof, and dropped down into the forbidden zone of the pool.
This was the adventure. Back and forth, up the fence, dancing on the roof, every climbing route explored. A premium discovery for the day’s report, Jeremy would be amazed.
On to the next adventure, the warning about staying on the campground was little more than a dare. The buzzing sounds in the distance was Brands Hatch, the top race car track in England. Familiar from watching sports on TV, was it within reach?
I snuck onto the lane leading out of the campground, and uphill to the A20 road to London. Trucks hurtled by with no room to spare, but without Jeremy there was no one for the usual dare – how close could we get to the trucks, stepping into their path, before jumping back at the last moment.
I struck out for Brands Hatch, eager to see in person the streamlined cars in motion. But the road was long, and eventually the sounds of Brands Hatch proved to be too far away. Hacking up the cow parsley flowering by the verge was enormously more satisfying.
Sated, I returned to see what Jeremy had discovered. How could it possibly compare with my exploits? Retracing my steps, I arrived back at the campground and found my way to the tent with Jock and Helen. Jock was clearly surprised to see me without Jeremy in tow.
No mention of the pool or the road, we played and waited for Jeremy. He was surely exploring the woods surrounding the campground. He could be hours.
But those hours passed until the westering sun signaled tea time. How long could he spend in the woods by himself? Slowly we became concerned.
The tension grew. No play now, silence as we waited. Jock was clearly torn between his responsibility to four year old Helen, and to six year old Jeremy, jerkily switching his gaze from her to peer into the distance for him. I could sense that he was frantic inside, as he tried to present a front of adult like authority to the two of us.
Eventually it was too much for Jock. He had to search for Jeremy. He admonished us to stay in front of the tent under any circumstances, and headed off down the concrete stairs to the spot where I had last seen Jeremy.
The sun lowered towards the horizon, and the tent fell into shadow. Children have a different sense of time, no watches or grown-ups to order the sequence of their comings and goings. But sunlight also orders their days, and the sun was clearly leaving the sky soon. In Kent, the sun sets after nine in June, that prospect was clearly in sight with no grown-ups in sight.
With a great sense of foreboding, I decided I had to desert my sister to find Jeremy. It took me twenty minutes to break eye contact with my sister as I descended the steps half way.
Where I saw the flickering blue lights of the ambulance, pulled up by the pool. Our mother knelt with a crowd about her, my brother’s body beneath her. The ambulance crew was telling her that there was nothing they could do: he had been seen floating in the pool hours before by a witness who did not realise she was seeing a body.
I knew in my heart that I had failed my brother. It was my idea to split up. It was my guilt, a burden I will never be able to put down. And now I had to return, to the side of the sister I should never have left alone either.