Fred – My Brother by Max Mackay James


fredI miss my brother.  I was 21 when Fred died. He was aged 28. He killed himself, and I was bereaved by suicide.

You don’t get over it – I haven’t – and the sadness lasts. But his death is a long time ago now, over 40 years, and these days I find it harder to get in touch with my memories. So I look for ways to help me to remember.

Here’s the rest of the photograph. I am the chubby little lad on the right. My brother Ferrier – it is an unusual name, and we preferred to call him Fred – is on the left, and my two sisters are between us. Guessing I would say I was about five, and he was about thirteen when the picture was taken.  fred 2

There was always this big gap between us. Eight years difference between you is a lot when you are very young. Then there was his height. He towered over me, so I always remember looking up to him. I loved looking up and watching him doing things, especially his ability to tinker with mechanical things. From a radio to a small petrol engine, it seemed miraculous to me what he could do. As he made these mechanical things burst into life and work, I raised him up to a kind of mythic status. He was my genius/scientist, and I tried to offer myself as his faithful assistant.

Not that he wanted me to help him! He would refuse, not unkindly but with a clear understanding that I was not capable of helping him in his world of motors and engines. Even then, although I was very young, I could often sense this distance from me. His was another world. It was not just from me, I could also sense his distance from others. I can sense it again now looking at him in this photograph: the distance in his body language – arms folded, a shy look on his face, corners of his mouth turned down.

So he mostly didn’t put up with attention from me, and a gap widened between us. There were other ways the gap was widening between us too, those of time as well as space. There were term times when he was sent away to boarding school – because, as you can guess from the horses in the photograph, we were a middle class family. Later the gap went on widening as he was away at university, and then in his twenties he mostly worked abroad. fred 3

 Here is another photograph of Fred and I together. I would guess it is two or more years later then the first one, so I could be seven and my brother could be fifteen. There is the same arrangement with my two older sisters between us. We have obviously been posed to pretend we are looking up at something in the sky, and, always the willing actor, I am using a telescope as a prop. 

The telescope is interesting isn’t it? Because what this photograph tells me is that this is a story of departure. In fact I feel as if this moment is the last time I see Fred.  At least in my mind’s eye that is the way it is. He is looking up into a blue sky with a kind of curiosity and longing, and he is saying goodbye to us all. Maybe the telescope was my way of trying to keep him in view.

There are plenty of later photographs of Fred of course over the next dozen or so years, but they do not connect with me like these early ones do, because I’ve mostly no idea what he was doing in his life when they were taken. He had gone from my life, and today all I can do is peer into my telescope and try and catch the odd glimpse, looking for a hazy memory out of the few conversations we had when we got together.

Looking up into a blue summer sky, in the photograph I see the beginning of my sadness of separation. The loss is already there, even aged seven, as my telescope tracks the sky.

Of course when Fred killed himself at twenty eight, it was a bolt from the blue. I had had no idea that he was in a crisis. In fact at the time of his death I was three thousand miles away gap year travelling in South America, and not even my longest telescope could have spotted him as he made his descent towards death.

I was suddenly bereaved by suicide, as the saying goes. Not knowing the story how it really happened or being able to see where he was when he died, for me that is still one the hardest parts. The impossibility of seeing him goes on hurting. I miss my brother. The blue sky is empty with his loss.

This is one of three stories of ‘Remembrance’ I am telling about men in my family who mean the most to me – Grandfather, Father, Brother.