Why this blackmail? We go a long way back to find
the thing significant: moment of birth. Time
of the mother, not the child. The debt
is built into birthdays, and each instalment pays.
Year after year the counting tugs you away
from origins but debt does not work like that.
This morning was my birthday. I do not know the woman
(youngish, apprehensive?) whose body took her over
like a machine distending sinew and muscles
until my twin and I were pushed out, him first
and me reluctant, red, “wrinkled like a prune”.
The pregnant woman
whose body folded me into the greatest intimacy
moved backward from the moment of birth. The wise
post-parturition contractions massaged her
to some sense of return from all I was
and all my brother was. The blackmail began.
It began again this morning. No gift from family
quenches the hunger. And my own
celebrations of parents' birthdays were perfunctory:
a pair of socks, a floral cup-and-saucer, flowers
in the end. It's as if I in my hunger
demanded surprise parties, feasts, gargantuan revels
although nothing appeases some primal thirst.
What vanity! What debt!
I find myself trying to dig to the splinter in the flesh.
The fact of Twinship, perhaps?
My brother was born an hour before, but also
a prior day — and in my memory only the first day
persists. I was greedy enough to want my presents
early, or the cake, or the party tricks.
When I broke free
it was to begin my own family and I recall
the ceremonies of Christmas and birthdays
as central events. I made the fuss.
What could my children ever afford,
to match the giver-man? Hand-drawn cards
and weed-flowers? A bottle of wine
from a friend humbled me. And there was the year
of the surprise party, a crowd, orchestrated by
wife and brothers. That strange chafe,
what is its source? In these later years
the taste of poison
increases rather than fades. What vanity is this?
What locked-in passion?
Tonight we see Hamlet. My wife's son fights with his
and, in the foyer because I say a word to support him,
she strides off. Last night we went as a couple
to another play and drank coffee in sleek Mietta's
sharing our cheerful derision at the artwork.
Tonight my own son arrives at the theatre and asks,
straight off, “Where's Judith?” When she returns,
seeing him she speaks energetically,
as to an audience but at the final curtain
she flings herself
(almost literally) from my side and is off,
seeking her own son. I wait in the crowd
and make pained conversation.
Rain outside. There are gulfs
we cannot bridge. As an afterthought, pushing off,
my son says, “Oh yeah: happy birthday Dad”.
Now what sort of fool would brood on all that?
There is a tyranny, a blackmail in the naming of things
and time adds to the charges. Each year
the payment is not made, and the debt is my own.
It turns inward and the personal sting grows more
impersonal. I seek that out. I must. Somehow
there is more explanation than mere petulance or pang.
Where did the ache begin? Is this a game of origins?
Those games to get attention: being the good boy
folding the linen or cutting the hibiscus hedge
or being the bad boy with scissors and a cruel tongue —
I wanted to be Mowgli in the Jungle Book,
I was the capable castaway on Coral Island, I outflew
Biggles in the stories I was planning to write;
cheeky as William, I was ripe for the Secret Club.
I don't remember my brother trying to gain affection.
I was astounded when he recalled to me, forty years on,
the time we were bailed up by the bigger boys
and I rounded on them with a volley of invective
while he got away. Even his tribute
after those years I deflected aside, though I knew
he had not hoarded the childhood things like me.
I have to approach myself now.
The first moment of true rage concerns my twin.
I see myself as hero, though I was restrained
by four prefects when I rushed to his aid
under the jacarandas (the site is still vivid!).
In the tussle Jack was underneath
and the enemy: was it Alan Kilpatrick?
“Let him fight his own fights”
but I knew there was nobody else
had a twin would rush to his aid, blind
with passion. It did not even occur to me
then or for decades that my brother had no need of me,
he was indeed fighting his own squabble.
The gift was not given, and it was not received.
We were marked, there were always fights
in those playgrounds of kids from mining families
or the railway workshops. Within our group,
my brother and I had separate allegiances.
I recall with a grunt, now, Roy Naylor coming up
to be on our side and offering to bash up anyone
I nominated, as his entry fee.
What mattered was a balance somewhere, but a balance
between me and my brother, or between our claims
on our mother? And what was Jack's claim with our dad?
In the end I have to account a truce with my father.
For too many years we were in joint practice.
I did not, like my older brother, have to raise fists
to prove anything, nor like my younger brother
have to return year after year, the fond Roaring Boy,
seeking a blessing and a benign hug.
I had got there on my own.
We called it a partnership.
Taking two paces aside, I see myself, that young man,
as clever, moody, sharp with my tongue.
Dad, for his part, had few friends.
I could not believe he had given me gifts,
including the cruel gift of boyish looks
and a polished accent.
are not bargains, but neither are they assets
unless you learn to negotiate. We shared a final
Blackmailed by innocence? Too pat.
Just as “the infant starved of affection” would affront
my mother though she must confess
the claim of her first-born and, I suspect,
the sweet gentleness of my twin, whose world
grew among motorbikes and car engines and tools
of trade in the family printery.
My birthday debt remains. I invented the ritual.
I probed the nerve, year after year, until now
it is pain that I yearn for. Birth day.
Day probing back.
To make a gift is to create an obligation.
Thank you, Mother. Thank you, Dad. My own children
wince and, I hope, recover, though I hear
in my own wild Irish grandmother (long dead)
the unrelenting ache of a loss deep in the blood.
She willed me the inbred refusal to forget,
no matter how hurtful.
We do go a long way back, and we come to a shared
commemoration of birth, each one separate
and the same. The Chorus Of The Unborn
holds us to ransom and nothing
prevents their urgency, it thrashes our very loins
and precedes decision.
Out of the consequence we take our moment, and are
We discard the shelter, we take voice
as our own, and with the very gulp of air
we swallow the first complaint, making it ours.
To find in the ceremony
some later pique (“I knew you'd forget!”)
is simply to say: remember. What we remember
is a hoard that grows and pushes our shoulders
forward; we cannot afford to stop.
One day: from midnight until midnight, that's the cost.
And you realise, in the end, only one person
holds the key and the candle. No matter how boorish,
soft or trivial, you have become the giver
and your life is the burden of the gift.