In the past when my phone rang, the raspy, mesmerizing voice of Ray LaMontagne always broke the silence like a brick through the window. This melodic sound would stop for a moment only to repeat as Tam called again and again. ‘Trouble….trouble trouble...’ A looping reminder of what hung impatiently on the other end of the line. It was never good news. Never to enquire about my health, how the kids were doing at school, how the job’s going or even just to talk. He wasn’t Bob Hoskins. It was always about needs of some kind, his needs.
My older brother Tam had been trouble with a capital T ever since he stopped breathing during his birth, so Ray’s classic seemed a natural choice. I often wondered how many others around the world chose Trouble as a ringtone and for whom. It was always a heart-stopping moment when those first chords breathed life into my phone. Most times I ignored it hoping he would go away, but he never did.
'Come and get me, I’m in Inverness. Bring a clean set of clothes. Don’t forget my lump. I need you to pick someone up for me. I need you to visit someone for me. I need you to collect money for me and take it to Fife. Bring me a knife. Bring me a hammer. Bring me a spade. Don’t forget my lump. I need you to get rid of a car for me. I need you to get me a car. Don’t forget my lump.'
Never any sentiment. We came from the same family but a different background. He was always going to be there, never going to change. I accepted what he was but kept my distance. Our contact was rare. Yet still he phoned me in the middle of the night asking for favours as if we were bosom buddies, best friends, brothers in arms.
Audrey Hepburn’s version of Moon River followed Ray LaMontagne's Trouble many nights. Tam didn’t always phone our mum if I didn’t answer, but a lifetime of ducking and diving in underworld capitalism has its downsides including no lines in the sand when it comes to getting what you want. She, like every mother, only wanted the best for her sons. She didn’t judge. He knew I couldn’t refuse her. He’d persuade her, more with guilt than charm, of how he needed my help but I’d rejected or ignored him. The devil himself couldn’t have done a better job.
'Please son! Just go make sure he’s safe. Take him here if he’ll come. Just make sure he’s safe. Please son! He’s your brother. You two are all I’ve got left. I don’t want to see him in that jail again. He sounds hurt. Please son!'
Other times she would phone, sobbing.
'I don’t want him in my house ever again. He’s nothing but a waster, a bully. He’s got no respect. I’m his mother. He’s just spent an hour shouting at me over nothing. I’m trying my best, son. Can you speak to him?'
I often wished he would disappear; but how? He’d many contacts and associates, money coming out his nose, a respected name in the wrong circles, no fear and was bigger than me. I’d never been in a fight since primary school and hated violence. What could I do? I tried to escort the thoughts out but like troublesome drunks after the closing bell they refused to leave. They staggered around my head intoxicating me to the point of feeling physically sick. I had to kill him. It was the only way.
When mum had a heart-attack I blamed him for her death, her life, not being there after dad’s death, beating me, being the most selfish person I’ve ever known. He was a cancer to the family for years. Even as mum’s corpse lay cooling he still didn’t get it, preferring to start adding up the funeral costs between answering his phone. Just another transaction he could organise without conscience, without grasping the finality of it all; the realisation that this was the only person in the world who loved him unconditionally. She was gone.
“Are you okay?” I asked, more out of respect for our mum who lay cold between us than any real concerns about his well-being.
He didn’t even glance at me before calling someone else. “The funeral is on Friday. So if you can organise that message for then I’ll arrange for someone to pick it up.” He laughed. “Just make sure it’s all there this time.”
That’s the only words I remember from his short visit that day. As soon as he left, my mum’s brothers and sisters, who had been waiting in another room while he visited, returned and began preparing her for the funeral directors. And, although I’d promised mum in her last few days I’d keep an eye out for him, I knew I was going to kill him. All I needed was the opportunity.
Mum always said time is a great healer. But time heals nothing on its own; it only dulls the memories and papers over the cracks. And what if you don’t have time? What else can you do? Is it the desire to forgive that heals the deepest wounds? Is it the ability to forgive that makes us human and separates us from the rest of the animals?
Now I lie watching the curtains shimmer in the breeze as sirens race by on Glasgow Road. It’s 2.30 am, sleep evades me. A collection of Diazepam, Temazapan, Zimovane and even Nytol sit in the bedside drawer waiting for their moment. Gifts from Tam. I thanked him but don’t touch them; preferring the cycles of dark thoughts pedalling through me every night in trips down memory lane on the Tour de Thomas.
‘Trouble…trouble trouble...’ Ray’s voice now eases back into my world and floats around the room, resting on my pillow, whispering to my conscience. I’ve switched off voicemail; the song carries me through a range of emotions and I savour every note and every word, then I answer.
“Did I wake you?”
“No, not at all. How are you?”
“I’m going to have a lasagne.”
“It’s from Morrisons. You have to cook it first and then defrost.”
“Oh aye. Don’t think I’ve seen them.”
“I bought a few when they were on offer. Had to take them out their boxes so I could fit them in the freezer, now I can’t remember the instructions. You any idea how many minutes?”
I start to climb out of bed, and even though he’s at the other end of a phone I shake my head before answering, “No, I’m afraid not. I’ve never heard of cooking instructions like that. I’ve been trying to phone you.”
“Do you like scampi?” he asks. “There’s a deal on in Tesco this week.”
“Not too bothered about scampi. They let you home then?”
“Aye, they were happy to let me out tonight instead of tomorrow morning.”
“What did they say?”
“They’ve increased my pump, and I can take more breakthroughs when required.”
“That’s good. And I’m pleased you’re eating again.”
He’d been losing weight for a year before mum died; doctors thought there was something wrong with his liver, but a week after mum’s funeral he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A tumour the size of a lemon was blocking his bile ducts, which caused the growing yellowness of his skin and the constant hiccups, not to mention the pain.
“There’s nothing we can do,” the doctors at Royal Alexandra Hospital in Paisley told him.
Most pancreatic cancer patients get diagnosed too late for surgery. Only 15-20% are alive after 1 year. Only 3% survive up to 5 years.
For the first time ever I watched him cry like a baby and ooze vulnerability from every pore. I felt sorry for him. I actually felt sorry for him. I couldn’t believe it at first, but then guilt arrived for attributing his pains on his lifestyle, remorse for blaming him for everything, and revulsion for wanting to kill him. As I comforted him I thought of the love I had for my own son and saw Tam through mum’s eyes. Her son was dying.
Two weeks later his life was prolonged by the specialist team in Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary who performed a Whipple operation. This proved to be his epiphany; complete strangers helping without judging him. It took him a while to comprehend the enormity of it all. He’s now survived 3 years and continues to amaze everyone, not just by still being here, but also with his humility and growing interest in others. He’s very weak now and sleeps most of the time due to the amount of prescribed drugs swimming around his prematurely-aged body. At 49 he’s only a couple of years older than me but the nurses keep thinking I’m his son. I enjoy teasing him about that one. He takes it in good spirit.
“Did you get a holiday booked?” he asks.
“No, not yet. We’re still looking,” I lie. His heart is set on the 5 year target but it’s looking unlikely. The tumour has grown aggressively this year and is now wrapped around an artery, pressing against nerve ends, increasing the pain, accelerating the dying process. It’s difficult watching someone slowly wasting away, but I can’t even begin to imagine what it’s like to experience first-hand. Feeling something growing inside that can’t be stopped, eating away at life, relentlessly. The end isn’t far away now and I have to be there, for him, for mum.
He still has trouble offering love but tries his best and sticks to what he knows.
“Do you need spending money for your holiday?”
“I don’t need any money.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you then?”
I think a while of an old photograph of us sitting on the couch together when we were much younger, all dressed-up in Sunday-finest and smiling for the camera. I’m looking up at him with all the hope and wonder of any kid looking at their idol. He’s looking at my tube of Smarties wondering how he could possibly get me to part with them without me crying.
“Yes…there is,” I say, smiling through the silent tears. “Just promise you’ll phone me tomorrow night.”