The first time my brother really chose to acknowledge me was about two weeks after I was born. He asked my mother, “Mummy, when are we taking Benny back to the hospital?” As soon as he realised that this was not happening, the assassination attempts began. One of his earliest was a daring scheme to pull the entire kitchen table over, whilst I was reclining on top of it in a bouncinette. His next attempt was by shoving a model plane up my nose. He then tried to flush me down the toilet as we celebrated his fifth birthday in the Blue Mountains. After a while he just resorted to assaulting me when I least suspected it, hitting me over the head, or pushing me in front of a moving dog. I soon realised that this was the natural order of things, but that didn’t mean I was going to take it lying down, and after a time I learned to emulate his methods.
One afternoon I lay in wait behind the door frame at the top of the short flight of stairs leading from the kitchen to the back yard, armed with a Sesame Street bedroom slipper. As my brother came running up the stairs, I stepped in and lashed out, heel-first, and whacked him across the mouth. I hadn’t intended to hit him in the face, but being an uncoordinated four-year old, I clocked him quite by accident. I don’t think he saw Ernie and Burt coming and it was shock as well as pain that set him screaming and bawling. I was almost as stunned as he was; firstly that I had actually hurt my brother, who, despite frequent torments, I loved and admired, and secondly with the realisation that this could be two-way traffic. Matthew was so put out by this reversal of the natural order of things that he, in return, emulated my methods and dobbed me in to my mother.
The narrative of our early relationship as brothers is distorted by the strong impression left by these few violent incidents, for on the whole, we got on well and acted as co-conspirators. There’s a photo of Matthew and I in the Blue Mountains from around this time in which we have our arms around each other. I am holding my red stuffed tortoise (Mama Tort) and we both look entirely happy. That photo was taken about ten minutes before we wandered off along the slope at the back of the house to play in the garden. It was a steep slope, landscaped with little flower beds surrounded by large stones which formed simple terraces. At the bottom of the slope was a trail that marked the start of one of the local bushwalks. The temptation to roll a few of these stones down the hill was irresistible, so we prised one of the larger rocks from its place of rest and sent it off down the slope, just as a family of four walked by underneath. My brother, of course, had the good sense immediately to hide behind a shrub, but for some reason I just stood there. I watched the rock crash into the bushes, heard the cries of alarm, and stood beside the marigolds staring with my mouth open. Then a man began shouting.
“I can see you up there. I know you’re there!”
I stood stock still, in my bright pyjamas, staring now at my feet. I had no idea what to do, and Matthew’s hissing whispers of “hide, hide,” drew an entirely gormless response.
“I can see you. Don’t think you can get away with it, you little horror!”
I remained standing still, hoping that if I stayed that way for long enough they might just go away. Fortunately, I was right. After a few more reprimands, they wandered off in a huff.
I have since wondered whether my response was indicative of embarrassment, stupidity, or rather, a show of conscience. Either way, my brother might have had good reason for thinking me stupid and treating me with a measure of contempt. No wonder he was so often trying to put me out of my misery.
My brother’s first day of school was a traumatic occasion. Standing slumped with his red, leather, lunchbox-shaped suitcase, he bawled and bawled until two great stalactites of yellow snot descended from his nose and swung ponderously into space. These two lengths of mucus, one at least two inches long and the other perhaps an inch and a half, hung for long seconds – as they hang still in my mind – before being wiped away by my mother. I was scared as well, for however ambivalent my attitude was to my brother, seeing him in such a state of distress caused my soul to cry out. Or perhaps it was the selfish thought that I’d now have no one to play with.
Two years later, knowing how quickly he grew to love school, I eagerly awaited my entry to the playground and my first day was a day of joy. Kindergarten held many treats, but best of all were the excursions to local businesses. Our first port of call was Churchill’s butchery on Queen Street. I was fascinated by the cheeriness of the staff, who had that simple appeal that so many adults have for children – as grown-ups capable of physical skills and tricks. When they let us into the cold-room, however, I felt a horrible wave of repulsion come over me; not on account of the hanging carcasses and cuts of meat, but the smell. The air was full of frozen death; a not particularly unpleasant smell, but one that was cloyingly neutral; disturbing for its deceptive mildness. I’ve never since felt comfortable walking into a butcher shop and still won’t buy or handle raw meat.
Subsequent excursions to the post-office and fire-station were far more appealing and devoid of anything upsetting, which is perhaps why I don’t recall them in the slightest. Yet, for all the wonder these excursions brought, none could match the excitement of our class, along with several others, being selected to attend the gala opening of the new Angus and Robertson’s bookstore in Pitt Street.
I remember the cake best of all. It was the first thing I noticed – a vast white oblong laid out on a table before a lectern, and all about, men in suits and several television crews. My mother had been excitedly telling me how I would be on television, but I could barely grasp the concept and forgot everything before the sight of that enormous cake. My only fear was that it would prove to be, like the awful, deceitful wedding cake I’d once eaten, fruit cake dressed up as something lovely. The detail of the proceedings was lost on me and my attention was regained only when the knife pushed through the icing. All the children gasped in expectation.
At six that evening, my mother positioned my brother and I in front of the television and switched on the news. When the story finally came on, my mother’s excitement generated a high-pitched thrill within me and I bobbed up and down before the screen, giggling.
“There it is,” said my mother, and sure enough the interior of the bookstore was once again before my eyes.
I stared dumbfounded at the screen. There was the cake again, that immense, crenulated oblong, and there was that nice man in the suit who had cut the cake, he was making his speech. There were a number of children on the screen, but I could not see myself.
“Look, Benjamin, there you are,” shouted my mother. “There you are!”
I stared hard but could see nothing. I was still bubbling, but the mood was being cooled by mystification. Where on earth was I?
Then came the moment when the man cut the cake, I let out a little gasp, remembering the joy at discovering its chocolate heart. I had been standing beside the man, hadn’t I? I was one of the lucky ones, right up the front, only how come I didn’t seem to be in the shot?
“Look, there you are, darling, look!”
Now the screen showed the man smiling across the assembly and everyone clapping. I looked and looked and looked as hard as I could. But where was I?
“There you are, Benjamin, see? Right there.”
I kept looking, but I couldn’t see myself at all, not even at the very tip of my mother’s finger. The news item ended and the scene vanished from the screen and, made distraught by my full realisation of the root of the problem, I burst into tears. My shoulders heaved with soaring whimpers and I turned away, feeling ashamed.
“What’s the matter, darling? What’s the matter?”
I sobbed and spoke through a clenched throat.
“I don’t know what I look like.”