The year is 2001. I am 10 years old, my brother, Kirby is 8, and my first dog, Shadow, is 5 and still with us. I am in Kingscliff NSW, in a Caravan Park I can no longer remember the name of. The days are long, fresh, and filled with childish abandon, where the hardest decision was to take another lap around the park on my bycicle, to try and con my Mum out of another dollar so I can go play pinball, or to go swimming.
Kirby, sporting his ginger curls, almost like an Irish afro, long before he grew ashamed of them and kept his hair to a buzzcut, shouted merrily “LET’S GO CLIMB TREES!”
I looked to my mum. She was the boss, even though my dad liked to think he was. You know the phrase “Behind a great man is a woman?” that’d be true for her if the man was wearing a leash.
She smiled and nodded. “Just be careful!”
That was more directed at me than at my little brother. I was the bigger brother, it was my responsibility to keep Kirby safe. But in my history, I was categorically bad at it. In fact, I am 100% serious when I say it would likely have been better for us if the roles were reversed. I am impulsive, sensitive, and emotional. He is logical, with a thick skin and is very much the glue that has kept our family together through our drama.
So off we went into the green brush of Northern New South Wales, which interestingly enough, is not that far from the beach. I always say, if you’re filming a movie which requires multiple locations, Jungle, Beach, City, Shithole… You can find it all in Australia. Particularly the latter, but I digress.
Suddenly, a gigantic tree revealed itself, like a bogan Whomping Willow. We grinned and began our ascent.
Kirby has always been the more socially able of the two of us, which is hilarious considering our respective choices in careers. I, a fledgling actor, he a very successful personal trainer in business with our Dad, running bootcamps with equal dose of encouragement and asskickery that they deliver together.
Kirby in these days was always the one to go swimming with Dad, he on his boogie board and my father on his surfboard, while I would climb up the cliffs, alone. I liked the feeling of being the only person on earth as I scaled my Everest- add that to my love of being on a platform and I guess it certainly explains a lot. But when Kirby decided to indulge me and participate in an activity I enjoyed, I appreciated it quite a bit then, and a lot more so now.
Slowly, but surely we climbed and climbed, grabbing branch after branch on this seemingly endless trek. Up and up we went, Kirby below me, and I, his carer, and the person he trusted the most, above.
This story is about when I broke that trust.
As I stopped for a break at about 15 feet up, I felt something brush my foot. It was Kirby’s hand. His tiny, trusting hand, grabbing the branch to pull himself up to me.
In doing so, he touched my foot.
I didn’t like that. I never liked being touched, as a child, teenager, and adult; unsolicited. This has led to many altercations, some funny, some horrid. One involved a costume assistant on a film set and my bundle of anxiety and fear of her as she snuck up on me, and grabbed my waist to tuck in my shirt… But that’s a story for another day.
Kirby had touched my foot. In my verge of puberty, “THIS IS MINE” focused brain this was crossing the line. I tried to claim my territory, like we had both done a thousand times in the car. We shoved. We pushed. We had full on fist fights.
This time, I slammed my foot on his hand, gripping the branch. He dropped. He screamed.
My world stopped.
The ambulances came some time later, Kirby had cracked his skull open, he was lucky to be alive. For years, I always wondered if he hated me. I knew for certain he didn’t trust me as much. Really, I should be glad I hadn’t been the accidental murderer of my own flesh and blood, but all I felt was guilt, loss and self hatred.
I held onto it for years. In petty future squabbles Kirby would use “YEAH WELL, YOU CRACKED MY HEAD OPEN” or some version as his Manum Opus for years to come, and as far as I was concerned, I deserved it.
I had asked for his forgiveness many times, as a child does, not truly knowing how badly I had betrayed his trust. Then, he would forgive me as a child does… Not really meaning it.
No matter what though, no matter how many times I approached the subject, and went through the song and dance I call “Jack, Don’t Worry About It”, I did. I was supposed to be his protector. I had failed. It tore me up.
The year is now 2008. I am 17, Kirby is 15, the last year of the Irish Afro, and our dog is dead. We are in a Vietnamese restaurant my mother loves to celebrate the visit of my Aunty Jenny and my two cousins. It is a happy affair, despite my poor table manners and my father’s love of talking slowly to our Asian waiter, who clearly didn’t need it, spoke perfect English, and was quite offended.
After our meal, I exited the restaurant, and for some reason Kirby and I were alone outside. I took a deep breath.
It all poured out. My guilt after all these years, my belief that I thought he secretly hated me, the fact “I” hated me for my idiotic, selfish act that could have killed my only brother.
“Jack… It was years ago.”
“I know. And I know it’s stupid, but I just wanted to say I was sorry again. I don’t expect you to forgive me or whatever, but I wanted you to know.”
“It’s okay, mate.”
Kirby was a man of few words. Has been ever since he thought that’s what a man should be. Now it’s part of his charm. He clapped my shoulder and smiled as we stood and waited for Mum pay the check.
Even though I’d heard it before, this time it was different. Maybe this time, I was just ready to hear it.
“Thanks, man”, I said with a smile that hopefully didn’t show how grateful I was. Men didn’t show their feelings after all, we show it through how hard we can clap each other on the arm.
HA! Had you going didn’t I? Remember, I’m the black sheep artsy one of the family. I’m sure I cried or something.
About a year later, I would leave the house after my dad hit me in the face for the last time, taking what little possessions I could cram into one suitcase and hitting the road. I didn’t talk to Kirby for a long time.
But you know, whenever I feel guilty, I remember that clap on the arm, his “It’s okay mate”, and I know that even if he doesn’t understand, he will always be in my corner, and that means more to me than he will ever know.
“Ready Freddie?” my mum said to me as she passed me on the way to the car.
“Yeah.” I said and climbed into the car, cramming into the car with my brother and cousins.
We played Corners all the way home.