I was walking with my friend the other morning, tramping through the streets of the surburban enclave in which I live, dodging rain puddles and hoping I’d warm up enough to stop my nose from running and my ears from aching. We walk before the kids go off to school, up when it’s still dark. But with the coming of Spring the light has crept in earlier – a couple of weeks ago we’d watch the sunrise peep over the tops of sleeping houses. My friend says she loves her suburb at this time of day. She says it feels like her very own secret. Her home-town’s hidden face. And she’s right.
We have walked later, when the 4WDs are out and the tennis ladies are busy taking glad wrap off their cream sponges, when the old bloke is walking his pair of greyhounds, when Charlie’s wife and Sandra’s mum are busy taking cuttings from neighbours’ gardens. And it just isn’t the same. I was surprised at how exposed I felt. We’d lost our pre-dawn cloak. We had to share our streets. We didn’t do it again.
I love the conversations we have with people when we’re moving. It’s as if our minds hold hands with our body and skip along together. Or as if the mind, lulled by the rhythm, relaxes enough to trust that the body knows what it is doing, where it is going and it might like to take this moment to untether from the tiresome job of ‘keeping it all together’. And this friend of mine suits me. She has this sparkly mind that leap-frogs and dances over itself. Her thoughts burst and blaze like flares. I never quite know what we’re going to talk about. It could be kids, cakes, politics (we’re on opposite sides of the divide), the weather, the dogs, the husbands, the in-laws, our mates, my work, her work. Or all of these things or none of them.
Like this particular day I mentioned my brother. Which is strange. Because he is dead. Died before I was born. Why did David’s name come up? Ah – I remember now. It was a conversation about grief and pain and loss and the different ways in which people cope. I told my friend about my mother describing my dead big brother’s funeral to me. David was one month off turning six when he died. He was born with a rare, inherited muscular disease, a type of dystrophy that meant he had extremely weak muscles – he lacked the muscle fibres the rest of us had.
My parents were determined he’d walk – this was nearly 50 years ago now. My mum used to tie her tiny son’s legs to his trike and make him ride up and down the yard. “You think I’m hard with you lot? You’ve got no idea how hard I am.” It hurts to remember her saying this because her eyes were filled with tears and she clenched her hands into tight balls until her knuckles were white.
But despite the cycling and the exercises and the Vicks vapor-rub massaged into his chest, David got weaker, not stronger. The day he clicked the top down of one of those ball-point pens was a good day. He went to kinder with kids who were mentally handicapped, who were damaged by Thalidomide. Mum and Dad both said he was as sharp as a tack. Could name all the types of cars on the road. My favourite story is the time he was sitting in the back seat of the car with Mum driving and her best friend Margaret in the passenger seat. He couldn’t get a word in so he threw a banana squarely at Margaret’s head. This is the same woman who would resuscitate him more than once as his little chest gave up on the effort of taking his next breath.
David had a number of operations. He had to have one to cut the tendons in his legs and another to remove some of his teeth. Because he couldn’t chew very well they had rotted. My mum was 21 when she had him and she’d turn him every 20 minutes overnight so that he wouldn’t get bedsores. I’m not sure which operation came first, the tendons or the teeth but it seems they were too close together for his five-year-old body to handle.
They say now, after looking at slide biopsies, that his heart was just too weak to cope with the anaesthetic. The heart, the softly spoken woman in the doctor’s white coat told us, is a muscle and his was just not strong enough. But, she told me and my sister, the chances of the disease being carried on through us was slim. And we should go ahead and have children. Which we did. My three and her one. Mine were unnaturally strong babies – gripping my mother’s hand and lifting their heads as if to tell her ‘See? We’re fine! It’s all fine.”
But I was telling you about his funeral. Mum told me that ‘it was alright because he had a white coffin. Once I saw the white coffin I was okay. I didn’t want a black coffin.’ After his funeral Mum and Dad went on a holiday to Cairns and it was there that I was conceived. Mum was six months pregnant when Margaret threatened to drag her to the doctor by her hair if she didn’t go herself. She did and was told I was on my way. And I duly arrived eleven months after my brother’s death.
Mum and Dad hadn’t planned on being parents again. They were exhausted and had decided to buy a milk bar and make some money. They were both terrified I’d have the same condition as David. I didn’t. And they never for a second made me feel as if I was anything but the most wanted, special, treasured creature to ever fall into their laps.
And I can’t remember a time not knowing I had a big brother who had died. I remember sitting on the floor in our hallway looking at his funeral book which was kept on the third shelf of the linen press, tucked between the embroidered table-cloths. It’s his wallpaper with the hunting dogs I remember staring at from my cot. This stuns Mum because, by her reckoning, I couldn’t have been much more than two. To me David was just a part of our story. I’m the eldest but not the first born.
I remember telling my friend from over the back fence about David and she told her mum who promptly decided to speak to mine about me making up stories. Mum very calmly told her it was true. I’d give anything to have seen that nosey, nasty woman’s face when Mum held her gaze. She’s quiet, my Mum, but she has a steel to her that you can taste like blood in your mouth.
So this is what I told my friend as the day dawned and the air warmed. And as I went to say goodbye she asked me – “did you meet him?” Now this may sound like an odd question after all I’d told her. But I knew exactly what she meant. This is what happens when hearts touch in the half light of a coming day.
In between us hung images of me with David, him laughing with me, watching tele together. Me pushing his wheelchair. Or me as a baby, playing on a rug, him handing me a toy. His toy, a red rattle, one he no longer wanted. I let those pictures float in the air for a little. I thought about that for a minute.
A part of me wondered how much do you tell people? How much do you unpack your heart and your soul-stories? And then, looking at my friend, I knew the words I chose didn’t matter. So I let the answer float off into the air like a red balloon and smiled. No, I repeated, I never met him, he died before I was born.
But I did tell her how my sister-in-law, who is a couple of years younger than me, was adamant she’d met David. She can remember playing with him. She can see him clear as day standing in the back room of our triple-fronted-brick veneer in Donvale. Her Dad went to school with mine. My grandfather taught her grandfather how to drive cabs. Her mum got married in my mum’s wedding dress. We married brothers. But no, she did not meet my brother. She took some convincing. That’s how vivid her Dad’s stories were of him. I envied her that feeling. And I felt a little cruel taking it away from her.
I said goodbye to my friend and walked across the road towards home. No, I never met David Charles Martin.
But I have never not known him or not felt him swimming in my blood. The hand-me-down memories of a skinny little blonde kid with blue eyes the size of saucers and a lop-sided grin have coloured in my edges for years until the place where he dies and I am born blurs. My brother, David. Yes, I know him.