Somewhere in the boxes in my mother’s attic there are two newspaper clippings that neatly illustrate the differences between my younger brother and me. I am in the local paper, proudly showing off my straight-As at A-level. He is, in the Sunday Telegraph, on a beach in nothing but pink Calvin Kleins, flanked by girls, illustrating an article about teenage yobs inundating Newquay.
From the moment, filled with then-unjustified vitriol, I poured a dustpan full of wood shavings in his face when he was six months old, we were antagonists. While I struggled under the unbearable weight of my own sense of duty, he seemed unaware of its existence. Sure, he had a bit of a temper and got in trouble at school sometimes, but also he was fun, relaxed, charming. I, on the other hand, tried altogether too hard and was fastidious in my following of the rules, no matter how arbitrary. He got detention; I ran for head girl. He thought me uncool, and I hated him for confirming that there was truth in this, my greatest fear.
While I acted like an adult at least five years too early, he was still acting like a teenager at least five years too late. So it is odd now to accept that not only is he an adult, he is, at least on the surface, doing rather a better job of it than me. I write from his dining table, in the bay window of the beautiful Victorian flat in south London that he and his girlfriend recently bought. Having spent most of his twenties abroad, studying and adventuring, he has landed the kind of life I have dreamed of. I don’t begrudge him any of it – only that he was right: in the end, all those years of rule-following won me no great advantage in the game of adulthood.
[See also: Journalling won’t save you]
I am here to look after their dog while they are in Italy for two weeks. She is lovely, gentle company, a three-year-old whippet with a coat of black and white splodges, like an elegant cow, as content running about wildly as she is snoozing away the afternoon – which she is doing now, unfazed by the sirens, or by the boys breakdancing in the chicken shop across the street. Her only dislikes are being left alone and public transport – and which of us likes either? She is in heat and has to wear a sort of Velcro nappy so as not to stain the soft furnishings with blood. I wish I could tell her that I know how she feels.
Between dog-watch and various trips – a week in sweltering New York, a few days at my mother’s in sodden Devon – I have been living largely out of a suitcase since early July. At least it will, I think as I pack yet again, make moving out at the end of the month easier. Perhaps I have been engaging in a long emotional untangling. Like a drawn-out break-up, you mourn the loss before it has really come, so that when it finally does you don’t feel it. These are the survival techniques of London renters.
I am not very good at being away from home. The alien and the loss of routine make me anxious, and when on holiday I spend half the time worrying that I’m not doing it right. But this week I returned from an unusual thing: a holiday I didn’t want to end. M— and I spent three too-brief nights in a converted farm outbuilding in the Cotswolds, surrounded by horse paddocks, next door to the hutch of a rabbit inexplicably called Smokey Dan, and regularly visited by a big ginger cat called Louis. We bought newspapers purely to do the crosswords and developed a punishingly expensive farm shop habit and felt no guilt playing computer games in the middle of the afternoon.
As we drove home, temporarily forgotten worries dropped back into my head, one by one, as the time to destination on the satnav grew shorter. I told myself that it was being on holiday that made me feel happier, more peaceful, not leaving London – for the latter is too big to contemplate.
In the few months since I last wrote in these pages, I have received messages from readers worried that my absence was because of my father’s leukaemia rather than because of the rather dull reality: scheduling. For those kind, concerned readers, his eyebrows are growing back and it looks as though his transplant was successful. His stem cells, one recent test showed, are now 97 per cent my brother’s. My brother wins again – a joke-but-also-deep-down-not-joke that I have made many times since doctors deemed him the more suitable donor.
This article appears in the 16 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War on the Future