In our family, being the eldest brother doesn’t always mean meeting your milestones first and sometimes a younger sibling has to step up.
Four years divide them.
Stanley’s outgrown clothes are folded carefully and stowed away, usually returning a few years later as his brother’s ‘new’ wardrobe. But lately I notice the hand-me-downs no longer need that time away. Stan, 12 since October, is still wearing age-10-sized clothing. Bert, nearly 8 is spindly and tall. He waits on the station platform beside me, wearing bright red chinos that Stan outgrew only last summer.
How long will it be before they are exactly the same height? I wonder. At what point will Bert over take Stan not only in centimeters but also in social skills and sophistication? Both are inevitable.
But I don’t have time to think about that now. It isn’t even just these two boys, I have three. You really have your hands full there; people feel compelled to tell me. I heard it again moments ago from a jovial old chap as we boarded this train into London headed for Vauxhall City Farm. I groan inwardly as I discover our train does not stop at Vauxhall, instead we must change at Clapham Junction—the busiest railway station ever. Not good planning, especially when a trip to London with all three boys is already pushing my boundaries.
“Please Mind The Gap Between The Train And The Platform” says the announcer. I am pretty certain the gap at Clapham will be a two foot drop from train door to platform edge and about a foot wide.
“I need you to be a big boy,” I say to Bert. "You need to go first and take a really big step, a jump even, right over the gap onto the platform.”
I need to see him get off first otherwise he might hesitate and find himself taking a solo trip to the train’s final stop without us.
“But why can’t I hold your hand?” he asks.
“Because I have Archie in this hand and need to help Stanley off with this hand” I say, making oversized gestures. I don’t bother to mention Stan’s cane or my handbag heavy with the feeding pump.
Bert looks left, to his tiny brother Archie who is already grinning smugly with his arm aloft, hand firmly in my grasp. Then he looks right, to Stan who is leaning outwards from the orange pole he is holding onto with one arm, putting up no resistance and letting the motion of the moving train buffer his body this way and that. He is loosely waving around his white cane in his other hand; it trails slightly behind him, a trip hazard waiting to happen.
A flash of recognition crosses Bert’s face. He gets it. When it comes to getting on and off public transport he is the most capable of the three brothers—even if he is neither the oldest nor the biggest.
Before we left the house today, I had to tell Stan he couldn’t wear his Dracula cape to London.
“Because thirteen year olds don’t go out in costumes in public…” I say, “…at home it’s fine, but if we go out we have to try to fit in.”
He unfastens the cape with a flourish.
“I’m not 13!” he protests. And he’s right, I’m doing that old thing that my mum used to do to me when I got a telling off, rounding my age up to the next birthday. I hear her voice. You’re sixteen years old for god’s sake. And my identical response. No I’m not, I’m 15.
“So I’m not a teenager yet mum! “ Stan continues, adding with relish. “I’m not in puberty yet you know, I’m a late fanger!”
“A what?” I ask.“A late fanger, it means I don’t have my fangs yet!”
We reach Clapham and the gap is huge. But without any further prompting, Bert jumps.
Assuredly, arms outstretched, as far as he can onto the platform. His raincoat billows out behind him like the cape of a superhero.
“Mum! Mum, did you see that?!” he calls back and I congratulate him. “Well done Bertie, I can count on you.”
As I shepherd them away from the platform, I wonder, do I expect too much of Stan’s siblings? Am I making them grow up too quickly, asking them to help out too often? And what of the gap between Stan and his younger brothers. Will there be a time where they are on the same page, reading the same books, sharing the same interests, and how long will it last or has it passed already? Are they already progressing in different directions?
Later at the city farm, all three brothers sit on the bank of the pond. Cross-legged, in a row like three young fishermen, each holding a net outstretched in one arm. With the nets submerged and sunlight glinting off the poles it looks like all three are dipping white canes into the water.
Three boys sharing the same brown hair, heads bowed in concentration. Each focused on swirling the rod this way and that, making underwater figures of eight. And then I stand back as they crowd around the water tank looking for fly larvae or water snails. All three of their heads pressed closely together forming the shape of a three-leafed clover.