Being a wee brother is both a curse and a blessing. There is a 10.5 year age difference between me and Neil. Growing up, Neil and Colin were more like gods than mere mortals to me. They arrived back from mysterious far away cities, like Dundee and Edinburgh, fitted out in long trench coats, attitude and humour that influenced and guided my tastes in music, book, films and life in general. I still had the feeling they both looked upon me as but a wee boy of nine – wide eyed and gullible behind the NHS specs.
But then that’s understandable. I was supposed to be a dog. As children, mum had told them that if they wanted to have a dog then they would have to save up for one. Diligently they started emptying their loose pennies into a giant and empty brandy bottle. Only when they had saved to the top of the bottle would they be able to go and choose a dog. And, as the legend is told, it was just as the coins were finally beginning to make their way up the long neck of the bottle, and all thoughts started to dream of long walks throwing sticks in the park that mum announced she was pregnant – with the little sister they always wanted. That’s right; the next thing on their want list after a dog was a little sister. What hope did I have?
Actually, I could not have been luckier to have a big brother such as Neil. His influence on me always has and always will continue to be completely immeasurable. Where do I start? He bathed me as a baby. He bought me my first Asterix book. He shaped my musical tastes from an early age. A compilation tape from 1989 single-handily converted the whole of Turriff into avid fans of The Stone Roses and Happy Mondays. He introduced me to Bruce Chatwin and Raymond Carver but also Alisdair Gray, James Joyce and Graham Swift.
Many times as an impoverished student I found refuge gently cradling his toilet bowl following a heavy night of drinking, yet another rock n’ roll history lesson and an early morning lecture from the philosopher Bill Hicks.
He nurtured my passion for curry with trips to Khushis and the hallowed Formica tables of Kebab Mehal. There he would do mysterious and cool things like order dishes that weren’t on the menu. Normal people didn’t do these things. Only big brothers. And gods. But I didn’t believe in gods.
I remember the day he left for Ireland in that famous tomato soup Ford Escort estate. Every inch of it was packed full of stuff. He was crying as he drove away from the front door of my flat in Arden Street – which I remember thinking was unusual.
When looking for a comforting space, my memory keeps dragging me back to my last proper visit to Ireland 5 years ago during the Easter holidays. For a couple of the days it was just going to be the 2 of us as Moe was flying to Copenhagen for work. This made me a little nervous. Neil can famously be a little bit grumpy from time to time but the drugs and treatment were sadly making him ultra sensitive to noise, smells and things not being done the way he liked them. I opened and shut doors in the house wearing kid gloves and listened to him sagely in the car as he told me off for not using fourth gear at the correct time and reprimanded me on the dangers of crossing my hands when turning the steering wheel.
The day I return to was wet and miserable. Dreich, as we say in Scotland. But Neil was more energetic that day and he suggested we watch a movie. His friend Boris had gifted him a copy of the film, Withnail and I. Neither of us has seen it in years. Good choice we both agreed. For those of you who know the film – a grimy bittersweet tale of 2 struggling actors in the 60s – it was as funny and downbeat as we both remembered. A perfect compliment to the grim weather outside. Neil said Withnail and Marwood’s slum living habits reminded him of my student flat. He had a point. We didn’t quaff the finest wines in humanity but we did scoff two very fine magnum ice creams that Moe had kindly left in the freezer for us. And we talked. We talked about student days, books, films, music and nonsense. And it was great. And for a few hours I forgot that there was anything wrong with him. From the angle I sat looking at him in the room – he didn’t even look ill.
Then he complained that he had perhaps eaten the magnum too quickly and wasn’t feeling too good. I watched uncomfortably as he slowly and stiffly arose from the couch. The spell was broken. But in my eyes he was still my big brother and still a god.
I feel unusual, I think we should go outside.
(Today marks 5 years since cancer took his life)