Twenty-three years

Posted: 9 January 2021 in family, personal
Tags: , ,

Twenty-three years. And, yes, time for some changes.

It’s twenty-three years since my brother died.

I decided on the twentieth anniversary of his death that I should celebrate his life whenever I think of Michael, not mourn his death on the anniversary. And I’ve tried to do that, the past few years, as much as I can.

I mean, on the day itself, I don’t apologise for – nor do I seek forgiveness for – thinking of his death, remembering the awfulness of that day, of losing my big brother. But that wasn’t all there was to having him as a big brother, and maybe it’s unfair to his memory to imply that it was, even on this day.

So while I mark the anniversary, acknowledge it, I was thinking that maybe I should include some more stories about him. Stories I may have told previously on other occasions, in other entries, but stories I should tell again today.

Because he wasn’t just his death. He wasn’t just the day of his death.

So… first some stories about Michael, then…

…what happened twenty-three years ago today.

Yeah, this will be just a bit longer post than has previously been common.

Strap in.

Michael Russell Barnett. My big brother. 

Michael would have been 61 last November. He’d likely have been completely white on top by now; his hair was already greying a bit in his mid-30s. Like me, when I started going grey, he pretended it didn’t bother him. Like me, it did, just a bit. He had red lowlights for a short while, but quickly stopped bothering about it. If it bugged him after that, I never knew about it.

(And yes, he once suggested to do the same for me; red highlights. I… declined the offer.)

The increasing grey of my own hair made us look more alike. We never looked that much like each other; we bore just enough of a resemblance, though, that people quickly guessed, accurately surmised, that we were brothers.

But he was far better looking than me.

I don’t say that out of any false modesty, I stress; we three brothers used to joke among ourselves that Mike had the looks, I had the brains, and our younger brother had the practical abilities.

(That wasn’t and isn’t true, of course; my brain was better at numbers, and at poking holes in arguments, but my younger brother had – and has – a brain for how things worked practically that left mine and Mike’s in the stone age. And Mike was no slouch on ripping a lazy argument apart.)

But yeah, he was the good looking one. I can’t even remember a time when Mike didn’t have girlfriends, or when he wasn’t surrounded by a crowd of friends. And he was a great big brother to grow up with: silly when he could be, serious when he had to be, a peacemaker between his younger brothers on so, so many occasions.

He enjoyed school, both the social aspect and the academic side of it… in theory anyway. He’d have been the first to admit that he wasn’t the most diligent of students; he always did enough to get by. He got good grades, but never spectacular ones. He was fit – up ’till his early 20s anyway; more about that in a moment. He played squash at school and sixth form college, and was pretty good from all accounts, until he started getting suspiciously short of breath while playing. Again, more about that down the page.

He played the guitar, with more enthusiasm than talent, but I clearly remember the genuine pleasure Mike took in grabbing the Complete Beatles Songbook and playing the classic songs in his bedroom, while we two younger brothers sang along. (That same book is on ny bookshelves as I speak; it’s a pleasure to look at it and just remember.)

But Mike loved music; I can’t remember a time when his bedroom wasn’t filled with music, either last week’s charts, which he’d taped from Radio 1, or albums he’d bought. Or him just playing for the sheer unadulterated pleasure of doing so.

I’ve said on many occasions that I couldn’t have asked for a better big brother, and it’s true. It’s simply… true.

I stuck him on a pedestal, a dangerous place for any sibling to stand, but he never did anything to forfeit that respect and love. I called him Mike. To most everyone else, he was Michael. He was my big brother and I loved him unquestionably.

I remember when I was about 13, maybe 14? Either way, was around my bar mitzvah, 1977/78-ish. I had – understandably – began to notice things about my body, and that of the girls that surrounded me. This was in the days when sex education in British schools mainly consisted of the single word “Don’t“.

I was terribly shy, terribly confused, terribly nervous. But I was fortunate. I was lucky. I had Mike. (Yes, I was a late developer; Mike was anything but. As I say, he’d had girlfriends from when he was an early teenager.)

He took me to one side, one Sunday afternoon, prompted by my parents. He gave me a booklet to read and told me that when I’d read it, I’d be even more confused, but to come find him. He was right. After I’d read this booklet – I remember it had a purple cover, with pictorial representations of a naked man and naked woman – my reaction was mainly one of “Wait. I do what with what?”

I found him in his room, he grabbed dad’s car keys, and we went for a drive, to a pub, about ten miles from home. Once there, he got me a soft drink and we repaired to a bench in the beer garden far from anyone else.

“OK, then,” he said. “Ask away.”

Just that. No “I know you’re nervous.” Just a matter-of-fact “ask away”. He knew I trusted him.

Looking back, he could have had so much fun with me, told me any urban myth, and stuff and nonsense, and I’d probably have believed him. He was my big brother, after all, and I trusted him.

Instead, he told me the truth, to anything I asked. Some stuff he blushed when telling me, but he told me what it was like the first time he’d had sex. He told me how shit scared he’d been, how convinced he’d be that he’d ‘get it wrong’. He said he’d had a number of girlfriends – which I knew – but that afternoon I was to assume that he’d had one, “Miss Ermintrude Abernathy” he called her, and that anything he told me about anything… it was Ermie.

He kept adding biographical details to Ermintrude’s life as we spoke, and after the serious stuff was over, that continued; by the end of it, we were crying with laughter about how he’d abandoned her to a life of misery in the grinding poverty and chalk-mines of Luton, Bedfordshire.

Skip forward a couple of years to the first of the ‘being mistaken for each other’. Our parents were out, and Mike was looking after me and my younger brother; we were playing Monopoly. His girlfriend Lynne (later his fiancée, still later his wife) calls on the house phone (no mobiles back then). Mike talks to her for a few minutes, then – without warning – hands the phone to me with a grin. I ‘get’ it immediately and for a minute or so just go “uh-huh” and “really?” to Lynne, then hand the phone back to Mike once he’s played his move. 

He carries on the conversation for a couple of minutes then hands the phone back to me while he shakes the dice and moves his piece. This continues for about ten minutes before we’re obviously – and audibly – failing to hide the by now no longer stifled laughter. He makes an excuse then finishes the call…

(Lynne never discovered this until just before they were married. She… wasn’t pleased, though mainly because she panicked that she’d said something entirely inappropriate to me… she hadn’t.)

OK, jump forward to 1981 or 1982; I’m watching television with the family, an episode of Quincy. By then, I’d become used to picking up a doctor’s prescription for Mike for something called “digoxin“. Didn’t have a clue what it was, of course, and since the one time I asked Mike what it was for, I got a genial “mind your own business” and I didn’t have the internet back then… I left it… figuring it wasn’t that important. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

So, we’re watching Quincy and after autopsying a body, Quincy just comes out with the following line:

“OK, we found digoxin, so we know he had heart problems…”


What did he just say?

My head whips ’round to look at Mike, my eyes growing wider with every nanosecond and finding his. He shoots me a look that essentially but emphatically repeats his message from a few months previous: shut up and mind your own business.

And I left it alone. He was my big brother. I trusted him. When he wanted me to know, I’d know.

Another year or so goes past. It’s June. Mike had been ill, very ill, off work for a while, no energy, in bed all day. Our parents had, reluctantly, gone on the holiday they’d booked months earlier. Our local doctor came – yeah, they did house calls back then – and the next thing, an ambulance is called, Mike’s in the local hospital and they’re talking about transferring him to Harefield. And that’s when I found out my brother needed a heart valve transplant at 23 years of age.

He was in Harefield for a couple of months, and was finally operated on in September 1983; though my parents were allowed to see him almost immediately after the operation, it was a day or two before I was. My big brother was there, unconscious, a yellow tinge to his skin, tubes and drains inserted into various parts of his body, with what looked like a fat, angry, pink-red worm stitched to his chest.

Yeah it wasn’t pleasant.

Lynne and Mike had split up by then, but they got back together during his recovery and in 1985, they married. Mike asked me to be best man; I didn’t realise at the time how much of an honour that was, for him to choose me. He had any number of friends he could have asked, any of whom could have done the job, but he chose me. To this day, the thought chokes me up.

At the wedding, one of Lynne’s customers arrives late, sees me dancing with Lynne and makes an assumption. Later, half cut, and only semi-jokingly, she says to Lynne (out of my hearing) “Ooh, is the brother [she points at Mike] available? He’s much better looking… You should have married him!” Lynne retorted “I did marry him!” And then immediately seeks me out and, with a superlative and not quite malicious joy, gets her own back on me for the ‘Monopoly’ phone call so long ago by telling me…

By then, Mike had left a potential career in accountancy (he never enjoyed it) and joined the family hairdressing business. He was good at it. Lynne and he had a couple of boys, and he was happy. He loved his wife, he loved his kids. He was happy.

He enjoyed his life. And he enjoyed enjoying his life.

He liked Laura immediately when I started going out with her and took immense joy in both my getting married and in us having our own child, Philip, in 1995.

Mike loved being an uncle. He told/warned me more than once that being a parent is a mixture of joy and heartache, that especially: when your child has a temperature, you’re the one who sweats… But he absolutely revelled in being an uncle. And he took immense pride in Laura and me asking him to give Phil his first haircut.

I bitterly regret that my lad never got to know his uncle. Mike died when Phil was two years old.

He called me about 14 years after his first operation, June 1997. We’d been joking for months that if his valve transplant lasted 15 years, he’d throw it a party. The call was to tell me that we wouldn’t be having the party. The valve wasn’t going to last 15 years. It wasn’t going to make it to 14. He was going in for a double valve transplant the following week. He hadn’t wanted to worry me before then, but now I had to know.

I remember being totally calm during the call, then basically falling apart as I hung up the phone.

Mike had the operation, and was doing well, recovering… He went on holiday with his family in the October; had a great time. We had Christmas at his place and the last picture I have of him is holding his nephew up, smiling with pleasure at the sheer joy Phil’s expressing.

He was doing well, recovering…

And then he wasn’t. Less than a fortnight later he wasn’t.

Less than a fortnight later, he was dead.

And we’ll get back to that in a minute.

I started at secondary school, aged 11, what was called ‘senior school’ in my day. I was in the most junior year, obviously; Mike was in the most senior. I’d clearly told Mike, my big brother, that I would walk home by myself; I didn’t need, nor want, to be treated like a baby who needed his hand held.

Some lads from his year, four years older than me, decided to have a bit of fun with the new kid, and, I guess, have a vicarious pop at Mike as well. I remember being genuinely terrified at what these 16 year olds had planned for me when they surrounded me as I came out of the school and found them waiting for me. Whatever it was, it was going to be painful, let’s face it.

I was shaking, almost crying from fear. My nose was running.

There was a loud cough. And they turned to see Mike, never the weightiest of builds, leaning against the wall, apparently completely relaxed. Five lads, all of them his size or bigger facing him.

“On your way…” Mike says, almost bored.

For a moment, I don’t know who he’s talking to, me or them. But then, as I start to move, Mike shoots me a look and barely but definitely moved his head from one side to another. I stay there.

“On your way, lads…”

The bullies look at me, Then at Mike, figuring out their chances.

They fancy their chances, obviously.

“You think you can beat us?”

Mike laughs. “Of course not. There are five of you. I can’t beat you.” He stands up, from the wall, holding half a brick in his hand. “I can just break a nose or two, poke out an eye or two, maybe fracture a kneecap, before I go down, though. Now leave him alone. And fuck off.”

First time I’d ever heard my brother say that.

They swore at him. They shouted at him. They even, if you can believe it, cast doubt on the validity of our parents’ marriage.

But they left.

Mike walked over to me, handed me a tissue, said “wipe your nose, then come on…” And we walked home, me now almost crying, but from relief now. He never mentioned it again, never blamed me for being scared, never criticised me for being tearful, never did anything… other than convince me I’d always be safe while he was around.

In 1982, I went to Manchester Polytechnic to study accountancy. I lived in a self-catering hall of residence. The ‘hall of residence’ won’t surprise anyone; the self-catering bit might. But I moved in not because I enjoyed cooking my own food; I didn’t then, and I don’t now. But no, but mainly because I wanted to eat when I wanted to, not when someone else wanted me to. And it was fun; I loved my time away from home. Mike came up for a vist after I’d been there a few months.

I was living, at that time, with 8 other people, from all over the UK. A fella from Derby, a couple from the South Coast, a lad from Northern Ireland, one lass from Leeds. And me. And I never ‘heard’ my accent. I never even really considered I had an accent. I mean, ok, if you’d have pressed me, I guess I’d have reluctantly acknowledged that I must have had an accent, but I never ‘heard’ it. I never thought about it.

Then Mike came to visit. But hearing him talk to my friends, and the contrast between every word that came out of his mouth and theirs, between his accent and everyone else’s… Yes, I heard his accent, but again, not mine, not really.

Until one evening, when we were chatting with friends and one of them commented how similar our accents were, mine and Mike’s, how almost identical they were, in fact.

And then it hit me. Of course I had an accent, and of course it was the same as Mike’s.

And I appeared to be the only one in the room to whom this came as a surprise. Because my brother, my dear sibling, was wholly on my friends’ ‘side’ on the matter. He couldn’t believe I’d been in Manchester, had lived with these people, for months… and the penny hadn’t dropped.

But I had, and eventually… it did.

And there followed, of course, the requisite amount of mockery and silliness.

And at one point, I stopped dead, noticing how Mike had effortlessly fit in with my friends. They were my friends, and that was all he needed to accept them fully, and without reservation.

I’d felt an itch to write for a while, and was doing something about it. I’d started writing for the BBC, a topical weekly radio comedy show entitled Weekending. My younger brother had no interest, which was cool; he never had much of an interest in current afffairs. My mum was similarly uninterested. I could have told her I was writing Doctor Who, or writing sketches for a student rag. Mum’s reaction would have been the same: ‘that’s nice, dear.” No interest in what I was writing, who it was for, or whether it was any good.

My father had far more interest, and was delighted for me, and even – very occasionally – listened to the show. He was very pleased for me, but had no actual interest in what I wrote.

Mike, on the other hand, was fascinated by every bit of it. He listened every week, if not to the original broadcast, then always the repeat. And he’d call me up to congratulate me, and to guess which bits I wrote, and to ask about how I wrote this sketch or that gag. He never tried to rewrite it or suggest ‘better’ gags; he was always respectful that this was my writing, my gig.

And he eagerly read the prose I wrote, asking me ‘what’s the next thing? What are you writing next?’

He took great pride that his brother, his younger brother, was writing, was creating, and was good at it.

The bullies were long ago. It’s been a long time since I’ve needed Mike to protect me from them.

The friends from Manchester Poly are similarly long gone; I haven’t spoken to any of them in decades. But the friends I have now? I wish Mike knew them, and I wish they’d have got to know him. Comedians I know, writers… friends…. He’d have liked them, and they’d have liked him.

I still write; I wish he could read what I write. I really, really wish he could.

And I wish I could reminisce with my brother once again.

I’d be lying if I said that I still think of Mike every day. I don’t. But every couple of days, something will happen and I’ll think of him. Someone will say something and I’ll remember my brother. And miss him again.

If you, or anyone you know, was born in the second half of the twentieth-century, then at some point or another, as a kid or teenager, you calculated how old you’d be in the year 2000… a long time distant, but yeah, it seemed very old.

Until January 1998, I had the same ‘well, I’ll be so old’. Not long after Michael died, however, I found myself working out on exactly what date I’d wake up… and be one day older than my big brother reached. Yeah, that particular day was a very odd 24 hours.

But that day was in 2002.

Mike was thirty-eight when he died; in a couple of years, I’ll be twenty years older than he was when he died.

And that’s a thing you never get used to. Never. You’re always aware, in a kind of low level way, that you’re now older – and as the years pass, you’re substantially older – than someone who once was older than you.

You’ll hit a birthday, or attend an anniversary event, and somewhere, in the back of your mind, is the thought ‘yeah, another milestone that he or she didn’t get to‘. My grandparents died in their 60s, and my father died when he was over 80. So, the only experience I have of that feeling is Michael. And sometimes… it bites. It bites hard.

Twenty-three years after his death, though, it’s not even really the birthdays themselves that he never reached that strike home, as much is it is me experiencing those birthdays; waking up being one more year older.

Waking up one more year older than he ever reached.

It’s the experiencing of anniversaries, experiencing the life, the years, the culture and changes that he never got to see.

It’s everything, from the age-related stuff that he never had – odd aches and pains when you stand up, annual checkups that you get when in your mid-50s – to those cultural and political changes that he never experienced but that he would have been fascinated by, and with.

I wonder what Mike would have thought of the current political situation, which movies he’d have liked, which he’d have been disappointed with, which bands he’d like, which tv shows he’d have absolutely loved.

And the long and enjoyable discussions we’d have had about all of it… about life.

And that’s leaving aside that he lost those years – he lost seeing his children grow up, he lost seeing my lad Phil grow up, and that Phil never got the chance to know his uncle. Not properly, not as a growing child should get to know someone.

Phil was barely two years’ old when Mike died. He’s twenty-five now and Mike should be someone he could call for advice, or to tell him a gag, or just when he’s throughly pissed off with me or his mum. Mike should be someone who’s there for advice, or for a laugh, or just to chat to. And he should be there for Phil to get pissed off with, if his Uncle Michael happened to agree with me or his mum rather than him.

They’ve both missed that.

Then there are the friends I’ve met, friends I’ve made, over those more than twenty years. Friends I have every confidence would have liked Michael, and he’d have liked them. I can easily see Mitch and Clara and Roger and Neil, sharing a laugh with Michael; very easily indeed as a matter of fact; most probably at my expense, the way you allow the closest of friends to get away with doing.

Some people take the turn of the year to revisit past decisions, to do a mini audit of where their life has taken them. Some Jewish people do it on Yom Kippur. Others do it on their birthday. Me? It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that I tend to do it today, on the anniversary of Mike’s death.

I can smile, albeit reluctantly at times, at the life experiences and choices I’ve made that would have, at various times, cheered him, made Michael laugh, made him angry, and left him speechless in exasperation.

He was my ‘big brother’ and I loved him – what else would you expect?

I said on the twentieth anniversary in 2018 that I could almost hear him saying, Twenty years is long enough to mourn me on the day of my death; time to celebrate my life whenever you think of me, Lee. Whenever you think of me.

And that for once, brother, I was listening.

I miss you, Mike, but I did enjoy having you as my big brother. Thank you for that.

So, twenty-three years…

Rest easy, brother.

A few years ago, after I mentioned losing my brother, on the anniversary of Michael’s death, I got several emails and messages from people who either didn’t know I’d had a brother, or didn’t know what had happened.

But all asked the simple question: What did happen? Here’s what I put up in response.

Soon after Mike’s death, I was asked by his widow, by my sister-in-law, to write something about him.

And here’s what I wrote:

Michael Russell Barnett
20th November 1959 to 9th January 1998

“On Thursday, Mum took me shopping. It sounds
harmless if you say it fast enough, doesn’t it?”

– o –

When I was at Manchester Polytechnic, ostensibly studying for a degree, one of the highlights of my time there was getting a letter from Michael. Full of gentle humour, the letters showed a literary side to Michael that can still reduce me to laughter 15 years later. The above line was written as he was recovering from his first heart operation.

Reading through the letters recently, what surprised me wasn’t so much the realisation that Michael was only 23 or 24 when the letters were written, but how much of my own writings have been influenced by Michael’s style.

Michael taught me so much, from how to play backgammon to the skills necessary to cheat at cards better than our younger brother; from how to scan a line when writing a lyric or poem to the proper glass out of which to drink scotch – “one with a hole at one end and no hole at the other.”

I’ve often said that Mike was my hero. And he was. The courage he showed throughout his illnesses and operations, the way he dealt with people and the way he supported me in all I did was everything I could have wished from a brother. We shared a particularly dry sense of humour and it was rare that a few days went by without one of us calling the other to share a joke or to tell the other a particularly funny story or a funny event that had happened to us.

Yet of all the memories that spring to mind about Michael in the 33 years I was privileged to have him as my ‘big bruvver’, four stand out as clear as day…

– o –

“Dear Lee, How are you? I hope you’re getting down
to it. And getting some studying in as well.”

– o –

August 1983
I’d driven up to Harefield to visit Michael before his first op. He was in the ward and when he saw me, he grabbed his dressing gown and we headed for the café. As we were leaving the ward, a nurse rushed past us and went to the bed next to Michael’s. We didn’t think anything of it until another nurse, then a doctor, then another nurse, pushing a trolley pushed past us. Naturally concerned, we headed back into the ward to see them crowding around the bed next to Mike’s. The curtains were quickly drawn and Michael suggested we leave. At that moment, we realised we’d left Michael’s cassette recorder playing.

In the sort of accident of timing that only happens in real life, Michael reached out to turn the cassette recorder off just as the next track started. The song was by a band called Dollar.

The title of the song? “Give Me Back My Heart”

We barely made it out of the ward before doubling up…

– o –

“I’m looking forward to our engagement party. My only problem
is how to ask Jeff for a day off on a Saturday. I suppose on
my knees with my hands clasped together as if in prayer…”

– o –

Wednesday 9th October 1985
Lynne and Michael’s Wedding Day. As their Best Man, I’m theoretically responsible for getting Michael to the shul shaved, showered and sober. Failing that, it’s my job to just get him there. Anyway, Mike has a few things to sort out at their new home, so I tag along and we spend a few hours together. Precious hours that I wouldn’t swap for anything. We tell jokes and pass the time, two brothers out together letting the rest of the world go by.

We get to the shul and get changed into the penguin suits. Flip forward a couple of hours and Lynne and Michael are now married. Mazeltovs still ringing in everyone’s ears, the line-up has ended and we poor fools still in morning suits go to the changing room to, well, to get changed – into evening suit. For whatever reason, Mike and I take the longest to get changed and we’re left alone for five minutes together after everyone else has left.

As a throwaway line, just to ease our nervousness for the forthcoming speeches, I make a comment that I’m sure glad I’ve got everything with me: “Suit, shirt, shoes, speech…” Mike grins and repeats the mantra. “Suit, shirt, shoes…” There’s a horrible pause followed by a word beginning with ‘s’. But it’s not “speech”, it’s a shorter word.

Mike looks at me in horror, and I’m beginning to realise what’s going through his mind. “Don’t tell me you’ve lost your speech,” I tell him.

“I know exactly where it is,” he says, making me very relieved for a moment, before continuing, “it’s in my wardrobe at home.”

After another split-second when we struggled not to crease up at the ridiculousness of the situation, Mike took control in that calm way that he had. He borrowed a pen off of me – the pen that he and Lynne had given me as a thank you for being Best Man – instructed me to get a menu and then stand outside the door and leave him for twenty minutes…

An hour or so later, after I had given my speech, Michael stood up to make his. He started off with a line that fans of Rowan Atkinson would recognise in a moment : “When I left home this morning, I said to myself ‘you know, the very last thing you must do is leave my speech at home’. So sure enough, when I left home this morning, the very last thing I did was… to leave my speech at home.”

As I say, it was a familiar opening to fans of Rowan Atkinson. To everyone else, it was merely a clever start to a speech. To everyone else that is, except our mother. Mum, you see, knew exactly how the speech should have started and there was a classic moment – thankfully caught by the photographer – when she realised that he wasn’t joking – he really had forgotten the speech…

– o –

“Last week I graduated to hair-CUTTING. Next week, if
I’m lucky it’ll be cutting the hair on someone’s head…”

– o –

July 1997
After Mike’s second heart operation, Laura and I took our then 20 month old son to see him. Michael had often told me that being a parent was a mixture of joy and heartache but that he was absolutely revelling in being an uncle. When we got there, he insisted on going outside with us, for Philip’s sake, he said, but I suspect that he wanted to go outside as well, ‘breaking parole’ if you will. He took Philip by the hand and went for a small walk with him.

Looking back, watching Mike and Philip walking together, and a little later, Michael holding Philip on his lap, I remain convinced that it was at that moment that Philip started his adoration of Michael, a feeling that lasted after Michael’s death.

– o –

“Did you go to shul in Manchester. Hmm – is a shul in
Manchester called Manchester United?”

– o –

December 1997
The last big family occasion was on Boxing Day 1997. It had long been a family tradition that the family got together at Lynne and Michael’s on Boxing Day and this year was no different. The last photo I have of my brother is of Michael lifting Philip to the sky, the pair of them laughing out loud.

He looked so well, having regained all the weight that he’d lost through his illness, still with a very slight tan from the holiday he, Lynne and the boys had taken in late 1997.

That’s how I’ll remember my brother, full of life, laughing and surrounded by his family.

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