John’s sister, Helen (recently having become a Dame of the Catering industry, with tiara to match, for her work as hostess at Kilmichael Hotel, Arran) and  who is preparing to move house, kindly sent him a selection of photographs of interest to him which had belonged to their late mother.   He is delighted to receive them, especially a few of his father, which are scarce.

I leaf through the photographs, having to overcome my usual discomfort at the thought of photographs of us in the hands of other people.  (Yes, I know it’s ridiculous – one’s mother isn’t exactly ‘other people’.)   For myself, I am pleased to find a photograph of John and Rory which presumably I took but of which I have no recollection, standing beside the harbour in Portsoy.

When it comes to the photographs of John as a child, before I met him, we run into a few difficulties.   He recognises his parents, his  grandparents, his sister, his aunt and uncle and cousin.   But there are some  photographs where he stands, clearly on intimate terms with others who surround him.   ‘Who are all these people?’ I ask him.  He takes the photograph and studies it.    ‘No idea.’

John has an excellent memory.   He can find his way around a city he visited for a few hours only twenty years ago.   I can remind him of some incident, or recollect say a restaurant we visited many years ago, and from my vague description, he can swiftly and accurately place it on the map.   His timing is impeccable – he almost never forgets arrangements to meet; and his arriving  to time is legendary so that the few occasions when he has been unavoidably late are tales of wonder in our family.    And yet …   he seems to have an enviable capacity to delete from his memory banks anything he deems no longer relevant in his life.

There is a school photo.   I can’t pick him out in it so I ask him about it.   ‘I’m not in it.’ he announces.

I say, ‘Helen wouldn’t have sent it if it weren’t relevant to you.’

He scans it again.    ‘No.’

I say, ‘Do you recognise anybody?’

After another long look, he says he recognises the teacher.

Given his pattern of recollection, I point out, she must have been HIS teacher.   There is no possibility of him remembering anyone else’s.

‘You must be in it,’ I suggest.    ‘Look again.’

Eventually he selects a boy.   He is small, with a thin, sharp face;  sparse hair that looks as though it might have been  sandy, and sticky out ears.  He is the only child not in school uniform.   I begin to wonder if he’s taking the proverbial here.

‘That’s not you.’

He argues that it is.   I take the photograph in exasperation.    I resort to logic.

“That is NOT you.   Firstly, that child is small.   Secondly, you don’t have sticky-out ears.  Thirdly, you mother would never have sent you to school, not in school uniform.’    He acknowledges the force of the third argument.     Eventually I look at photos of him as a child, where we know he is definitely there.    His characteristics are :  invariably among the tallest, if not THE tallest,  child in the class.   (This is somebody who asked if he ever had a problem with bullies, replied, No.    Were there no bullies at your school?   Yes.   So how did you deal with them?   I just stood up.)   He also had  a longish face but wide at the jaw line;  abundant, unruly hair;  and generally an air of suppressed  mischief about him.     John, as a child, does not look like either of his sons did and they in turn do not resemble each other.  (They are half brothers.)    The young men of the family who as children most resembled John as a child are his elder nephew, Andrew, and his elder grandson, Craig.    They are both tall with luxuriant  hair and a mischievous air.   (Of course all the members of a family show passing resemblances to each other at different times.)

I consider giving him some early photos of himself and me and asking him who those people are, but I decide not to – it would be too awful if he couldn’t identify ME!

Carefully, we put the photos in a box.    They brought us laughter and pleasure, fond memories, regret over those who are no longer with us.

Thanks to Helen for sharing them with John.



I have no sisters, and frankly I’ve never felt it a loss.   As an infant I had every advantage: eldest grandchild, Daddy’s darling, and no female rivals in my own family.    I set out in life fully confident that I was Best Beloved, and I’ve walked that golden and undeserved path the whole of my life.

When I was five years old, my brother was born.   Five years is an age gap such that you are almost never in quite the same stage of life.   He didn’t impinge much on my kingdom – and besides, he had a kingdom of his own, for he was The Boy.    I don’t recall having any negative feelings on his arrival.   I was surprised at the fuss that was made of him – he wasn’t very interesting and didn’t say anything, and they had ME after all – but I put it down to novelty value and thought no more about it.

Eugene and I got along just fine.   He was a good-natured, amiable chap, easy-going, fun, open to adventure;  I never had any complaints about him as a brother.   I wonder if the brother/sister relationship depends in large measure on whether you are older or younger than the sibling?   I was Big Sister:  I had protective, almost maternal instincts over him.    You don’t generally think much about your relationship with your brother – he’s just pretty much always been around somewhere, so you don’t recognise how powerful your feelings are;  how jealous you are over him;  how vengeful you will be should anyone hurt or disappoint him.    When you do stumble across these reactions in yourself, they take you by surprise.

In retrospect I don’t think he actually needed my protection that much.   I was once summoned from my class at the end of the day by an excited rabble babbling that my brother was ‘getting  hammered’ by the school bully.    I rushed to the scene.   The boy in question was a huge fellow, who dwarfed all his companions and more or less did whatever he liked.        When I reached the playground, I was alarmed to be met by silence – I had expected the jeers and catcalls of the acolytes.     The crowd made way for me, and I was greeted by the sight of the bully, laid out flat on his back like a felled tree, with Eugene – much smaller and younger, astride him like a diminutive jockey riding a large and stupid horse.     My brother had hold of his unfortunate opponent by the lapels and was bouncing his head rhythmically on the tarmac.    “Stop.”   I yelled.   “You’ll kill him!”    “I – thwack – don’t – thwack – care – thwack,” said my normally amiable and peace loving brother through gritted teeth.     We had to haul him off.      I don’t recall hearing another squeak out of the vanquished bully all the rest of the time either of us was associated with that school.

I wasn’t always good to him.    I decided it would be fun to ‘surf’ down the uncarpeted stairs in a baby’s bath but I was a bit doubtful if this was safe, so I despatched him first.    He managed the first ride with aplomb and skill – he certainly didn’t lack courage – but I thought, maybe that is a fluke; so he went a second time.   It was a fluke.  The bath overturned, and he was hurt (not seriously.)    So, Eugene has successfully ridden the stairs in a baby’s bath, and I haven’t.

In addition to having a more trusting disposition than I ever had, Eugene had a more open personality, and was a dreadful liability when it came to any deceit.     He had a deplorable tendency to blurt things out that would get us into difficulties, whereas had he held his tongue, the incident would never have come to light.   For example, because there was no bicycle for me, and because the police would stop my father and complain if he cycled with Eugene on the pillion seat and me on the cross bar (we went many miles and never fell off), they used to send me on ahead on the bus, and then I had a long solitary wait until they arrived.    Quite often some kind fellow passenger, seeing me travelling alone, would pay the fare ‘for the bairn’ as well, and this left me enough money to buy a bar of  chocolate coated Highland toffee.    Even although I had truly done nothing to seek the gift, my father objected strongly to anyone giving us anything, and if he found out would drone on endlessly and put the money to charity.     I regarded this as completely unfair and unreasonable, so I was quite comfortable with this deception.    Also I was quite unwilling – treats like this were very rare – to eat the toffee in solitary greed as I waited for them to arrive.   I couldn’t have enjoyed it knowing  that Eugene wasn’t getting this  pleasure too.   Reasoned argument – it was none of my father’s business; there was no harm in the occasional toffee;  I hadn’t asked for a gift – cut no ice, so I had to resort to threatening that my displeasure would be even worse than my father’s, and making sure I could wipe his face of telltale chocolate marks afterwards.   (No doubt this tendency to over-disclosure in his childhood has long since been eradicated!)

As he became older, he developed his own interests.   For a time, he gardened.   He became a good cook.   We have both retained a love of steam trains.   Also during the time we were together he began his lifelong interest in photography, of which art he is now no mean exponent.    I was his first model, and there are pictures of me with a ‘For Pete’s sake, hurry up’ expression because it would have taken him half an hour (in those predigital days) to measure from the end of my nose to the lens for a portrait.    But on the other hand, the photographs of me in the glory of my extreme youth are all taken by Eugene.

I had the nearest I have ever come to thinking I was going to die when out with him on a cycle run.    Just a little run around the block, he said, and we ended up doing 22 miles.      Somewhere out in the wilds, coming round a sharp bend on a country road, flying down hill at great speed, we ran slap into a herd of cows.    I thought, if I come off my bike here, I’m dead – it was a large herd – but by some miracle – I probably had my eyes shut and was screaming – cows leapt out of our path and we charged on, leaving behind the noise of the disturbed herd, the excited barks of the dogs, and the angry voice of the farmer.   (I’m prepared to bet Eugene has no recollection of this.)

As for his love of music, this is a field in which I have never been able to join him.   (Though I did once accompany him to a gig by the Bay City Rollers in, I think, Dunfermline – an event which Eugene flatly denies ever took place.     Who else would I have gone with, after all?)   But sometimes our tastes coincide.    I have always liked the emotive song, Where Do You Go To, My Lovely, and it was interesting that he also found the song evocative.

Eugene was a good-looking boy (and is a handsome man) and always very popular with the ladies with very little effort on his part.       Now that he is a mature married man with a family of his own, he would no doubt modestly deny this, but going out with him one used to get irritated by the frisson of reaction from other women.

Your view of your sibling(s) is an elemental, basic one based on who they were when they started out.    They may change, of course – acquire an education, polish, sophistication, guile, tolerance, kindness – many things they didn’t perhaps display in your childhood, but in essence the core is always the same.    No-one can be more irritating and insufferable than a sibling – they know how to wind you up – and we squabbled like children do of course.    But on the whole, sharing my childhood with him was a great pleasure.    I used to tell him stories, in which thinly disguised him and me, under another name, engaged in adventures.    You can imagine my horror when I discovered that he had written – and READ OUT in class an essay entitled, My Best Friend.     Eugene had said, My best friend is my sister.    She would like to be called Julianna de Bassonpierre.    But even as I berated him, and pointed out all the teasing that I would now get – and did, I recall – I knew it was a great compliment for a boy to cite his sister as his best friend, and it remains one of the best compliments I was ever paid.

I think I was lucky to have such a brother.    You take their presence – practical, factual, masculine – for granted and it’s only much later you realise that you love them without any romantic complication.     You come to see throughout your life that men who attract your attention or sympathy, often present themselves to you in a shadowy image of your closest male relatives, including brothers.    Whatever your relationship, I do not think you could ever be truly indifferent to a brother.    He is flesh of your flesh.   The blood that flows in his veins is also the blood of your ancestors.   His history, his antecedents, the legends of his life are your legends.    You may take different paths, but he will always be one of a mere handful of men who really matter in your life.

My childhood would have been a solitary desert without his loving, tender company.   Now in our maturity, it is often he who is the comforter, gathering me in when I arrive, frazzled and exhausted at his house, to be restored by the warmth, kindness and hospitality of himself and Susan.

We who have brothers are fortunate.   Eugene is a man and a brother.

(Photographs courtesy of Eugene.)