On the night bus, a few seats ahead of me and across the aisle, there was a man just like my brother. The same shaven head, skin clinging to skull, the same long thin body disguised under baggy clothing, the same unscuffed trainers. But it was the industrial metallic vape with its gimcrack additions that gave him away. Only Simon would have a gadget like that, personally tinkered with to produce the ultimate fruity nicotine burst. In all our lives we had never run into each other like this, and what I experienced then was relief, as if this encounter proved, more than blood and lineage, our kinship.
As kids we saw each other fortnightly. Simon and my other half-brother, Georges, are from my dad’s second marriage, while I’m the only child from the third. Simon is 11 years older than me, Georges eight years older. I spent those weekends in a prolonged state of anticipation – for them to arrive on Friday night, and then outside their rooms the following two mornings, wondering how they could sleep half the day when I was right there waiting for them. There were trips to Blockbuster to pick up the films that would inform my forever-teenage-boy tastes – The Terminator, Speed, Blade, Demolition Man. There were burgers, skateboarding and Gameboys. They were born in the 1980s and while they were with us it was like I could cheat the decades, and slide back into an era more appealing and less anaemic than my own. When they left on Sunday evenings, I would perform gestures of emotional blackmail from the doorstep, crying out “Please don’t leave your little sister all alone again!”
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I knew only cursory details about Simon’s life outside the role he played in my own cloistered childhood. He was the quieter, more private of my brothers, shuttered away reading or listening to the Pharcyde in a fuchsia-coloured bedroom. As half-siblings who saw each other increasingly rarely once he became an adult, our bond was mediated through, and a function of, the cautious, reserved dynamic that existed between him and my dad. In many ways they are similar men – volatile, sensitive sons of divorce, and both appointed fathers to whom they could never admit their feelings of hurt and abandonment.
Our relationship began in earnest the first time I went to Simon’s flat on my own. I was in my last year of school; Simon was living with his girlfriend and their two-year-old daughter. He’d just finished a short-term sentence at a prison in the Midlands. My diary entry from that day starts, “You’re the only person I know who answers their phone after half a ring.” I rode the Piccadilly Line nearly an hour, the tourists packing in around South Kensington and thinning out again as we neared Cockfosters. Simon drove the four minutes to the station to pick me up. In the car he told me that at midnight on New Year’s Eve in prison everyone rattles and bangs their cell doors in unison, producing echoing sonic explosions all across the prison compound. That the extent of his rehabilitation was a trip to McDonald’s where a woman in a suit bought him chips and said, “You’re going to go clean now, right?” At the front door, my brother’s girlfriend took me in her arms, then I stayed there all day, next to my tiny blonde niece who was staring transfixed at the nonsense-language cartoons on CBeebies.
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The air between my brother and I was easier than it had ever been at my house. It felt like we were meeting each other as we wanted to be seen and known for the first time in our lives. Since then, I’ve interviewed him and written about him countless times. He appeared in my juvenile student plays, his experiences alchemised into more absurdist premises – a short-term space mission, something about mermaids. My eagerness to investigate his life felt, and still feels, like a way of making up for all that the younger me missed out on.
Simon lives in a first-floor council flat occupied by more animals than people – four cats and two tanks of tropical fish. He says he’s been a deviant since he was five years old. He was the kid burning matches in the toilet, spraying walls with graffiti. He hated school. He never made any friends. He couldn’t get along with the teachers. Like me, he was afflicted with panic attacks during puberty. He discovered that if he squeezed the soft skin between his thumb and forefinger hard enough, the pain would shock away the panic – for that reason he didn’t need to tell anyone, because he could look after himself now.
In the mid-1990s, his first year at secondary school, he started bunking off lessons. One day he took a bus to Camden Lock and discovered a whole host of other deviants there. It was vibrant back then, magnetic and beautiful. Not just the drugs, but the music – left-field electronic dance tracks and 1990s hip-hop. He remembers smoking his first joint under a bridge by the canal, a South African strain called Durban Poison.
Simon knows every corner shop in the radius of the M25 that stocks discontinued limited-edition Fantas. He has worked as a plumber, a sound technician, a DJ (“Mr Vibes”), a business owner and a courier. He has better knowledge of the molecular structures and side effects of over-the-counter drugs than any pharmacist. He briefly got into Twitter trolling because it helped sublimate his anger away from the people in his actual life. His main targets were Tories and vegans. He stays up until 4am most nights, watching James Bond films on low volume, the fish tank beside him giving out soft purple light. A few years before he went to prison, he almost lost himself beneath a fug of depression. A GP put him on a high dosage of antidepressants, but they made him feel even more cut loose from reality. The night I ran into him on the bus, his eyes were cloudy and unfixed. Sometimes I still find my brother underwater.
Simon has an endless capacity for compassion and stretches of plungingly low self-esteem. “My daughter is amazing. Honestly, I couldn’t have made her any better,” he told me. “Just a shame she didn’t get a better dad.” He has expressed similar sentiments about me, guilty he wasn’t around enough when I was little. I tell him there’s nothing to expiate here: he’s an incredible sibling, and I wouldn’t have been around much either, if our positions were flipped. He was at my birthday at the end of last year, sipping a glossy pink strawberry daiquiri on the dance floor. I kept tapping friends’ shoulders, saying to them, “Look! This is my brother.”
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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why universities are making us stupid