A few weeks ago, my brother, a single man in his early 50s, was contacted via email to another family member by a friend he hadn’t heard from in 35 years. He was stunned, and then excited: “This was my best friend ever!!” he declared. As the friend, too, had apparently been searching for my brother for a while with similarly sentimental nostalgia, the enthusiasm on the face of it seemed justified.
But I was anxious. My brother is mentally ill, a designated schizophrenic for the past 30 years, a fact of which this old best school friend will be unaware. He’s relatively well now, lives independently, copes without much support, and hasn’t seen the inside of a mental hospital for a while. But his life is not glamorous, by any stretch of the imagination. He has never worked, is overweight, addicted to junk food, TV and cigarettes. He only recently got himself on-line.
The “friend” has since vanished into the uncharted depths of cyberspace whence he came, surprise surprise. My brother, meanwhile, sits around mournfully wondering if his new email account is working properly.
I have my own issues with family history, which resurface every time anyone from a certain distant period reappears. Once upon a time, apparently, my father presided over a kind of rural intellectual Camelot, barely an hour or two from London, much as Ralph Milliband and other prominent intellectuals may have done in north London. But with him long dead, my mother infirm and elderly, my brother, see above . . . the rest of us siblings scattered and modestly distinguished, at best . . . We’re not the glamorous people we apparently were any more.
But every so often, up pops someone to reminisce about back in the day; when they were rising young postgrads and my mother a devoted young housewife and my charismatic father entertained colleagues and admirers from all over the world in our idyllic rustic estate.
It wasn’t ever glamorous to me, of course, commuting three hours daily to school and then technical college, the rest of the time up to my knees in muck out in the pony-shed, but clearly it was to our international visitors. They saw in my foreign-born father, ensconced (weekends only) in the depths of English Tory heartland someone inspirational, exotic, and brave – and key to their future careers. And when they come back to visit us now, for my mum’s sake, largely, they can still talk the talk.
As for me, I revert in their eyes and my own to that wayward, forever immature daughter, persisting in defying and disrespecting the great man, really, obviously, just for the titillating sake of it. Of course I just made the great man seem even greater; how fondly I was tolerated and indulged!
A role I inhabited with discomfort even at the time. In the absence of an audience of admirers, my father ignored his kids when he was home, except for his eldest, and except to bully me – his second – now and again into “manners”. Any indulgence took the form of Can’t Be Bothered To Stop You (eating junk food, masturbating, watching too much TV; not that the latter was much of an option in rural 1970s UK.) He neither knew nor cared what I did at school and lost his brief interest in my university career after I failed Oxbridge entrance first time around. What a loser I was; a cute rebel; feisty marriage material in due course, the best that could be said for me.
So it’s difficult now, when one of those former and abiding admirers of my father comes to visit me and mum. I’m not particularly rebellious these days; though I can still discuss Nicaragua if required. I doubt things have improved there since the Revolution. But I’m mostly concerned with protecting my child from the fits of self-hating, self-laceration to which, no thanks to their hero, I succumbed in my tenderest years. And I’m definitely not cute. Luckily these meetings happen rarely; and I’m confident my rattled equilibrium will settle in a day or two. Let’s hope I can keep it that way.