Rémy Ngamije: Little Brother (or, Three In The Morning)

Patrick Zachmann, César and his brother, 1984. Source: magnumphotos.com

“Hallo?” I say, voice still sleep-drunk. I sit up in bed.

“It’s me.”

My brother.

I don’t know why he’s calling me from an unknown number. My anger rouses itself and beats me to the mouthpiece. “I know. It’s three in the morning. What the fuck, dude?”

My brother has a knack for being a younger brother and I have the curse of being his elder. That means he’s always looked up to me and I’ve always found him annoying and inconvenient. On his first day of school, after my father dropped us off, I had to take him to his classroom because he didn’t, understandably in hindsight, know where it was. He tried to hold my hand but I was in the fourth grade and much too cool for sissy shit like that. He looked scared as we walked towards the school building, with my Dad standing next to his car, yelling at me to look after him like I hadn’t been playing guardian angel since my mother’s womb popped him out, squealing, small, ugly, but fawned over by my parents. When they brought him home I couldn’t understand the fuss. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t stop crying, and couldn’t stop shitting himself. He was a brown bundle of screams that aunts and uncles constantly praised. His eyes, apparently, were my―our―mother’s. When he was silent he had our father’s stern visage―this is the kind of nonsense people said about my brother when he was nothing more than a wriggling parcel of Mamma, why does everything have to be about him?

When my brother grew older, my parents made us share a room. Even though I was older, we had to share it equally. I couldn’t understand why someone five years younger than me needed all that space, or why he had to crowd me out of the room with his imaginary friends―there were so many of them, and all of them were indulged by my parents.

“You aren’t playing with him,” my mother said. “So let him have his make-believe friends. You can go and play outside.”

I had to live in a room with Gummi Bears cutouts during the dude’s toddler years because I couldn’t hang up my X-Men and Spawn posters. My mother said they’d give him nightmares.

Nightmares?

From comic book posters?

I don’t quite know how my brother managed to make my parents become so white, but he did it. My parents had been the generic strict black parents with me. While expensive baby food was spooned into his mouth only to be spat out, I think I ate solids from three months. The dude had diapers. I ran around naked like Adam and Eve, shameless, carefree, until I was three or four. My mother stopped working to look after him. I have memories of being bundled off to work, and my cheeks being pinched by colleagues. I remember being told to be quiet while my mother typed in her office. I remember causing her embarrassment when I wet myself on the office’s carpeted floor. She jokes the stain must still be there. My brother wet his bed until he was eleven and she’s never used him as material for her comedy specials. All the things I had to do―take an afternoon nap even though I didn’t want one, eat apples until I was bored of them, watch one hour of television a day, and go to bed early even though I wasn’t tired (“Mamma, I already slept in the afternoon!”)―he was exempted from. I wonder what it is about younger siblings that makes parents realise corporal punishment is cruel and inhumane treatment. I don’t know when the blackness runs out. I just know when my younger brother came along, all the rules were suddenly changed for him.

On that first day at school I really hoped he wouldn’t cry. He did. Three doors down from his home room. Why he couldn’t have held in his tears until I’d left him in his class to be his teacher’s responsibility, I don’t know. We stood in the hallway, the two of us, with him saying he wanted to go home. I asked him to stop crying. Then I begged him. Then I pinched him hard. He wailed and stopped. “The other kids are watching us,” I said, embarrassed for him, ashamed for myself. I’d been making a name for myself as a schoolyard scrapper. Nobody messed with me or my friends. I couldn’t be related to this crying mass of cowardice. My brother slowly sniffed himself to silence. “Stop being a baby,” I said. “We’re in school now. And you’re my brother. Grow up.” He began crying again. Thankfully, his home room teacher was on her way to her classroom so I shed him off to her.

Later that week, that month, that year, and every couple of years thereafter, he decided to get himself bullied. Guess who had to undecide that for him. Good ol’ Big Brother was suspended from school every so often for fucking up the kids who cornered him to give him the most injudicious wedgies or steal his lunch. The other kids couldn’t come for me, you see. Anyone I couldn’t Sonic zoom away from got the Knuckles treatment. My brother, being the weaker, slower, and perpetually surprised proxy, was a prime target for juvenile retaliation. My parents would greet each detention or suspension with disgust and threats to remove me from our expensive school. My brother would try to explain that I’d gotten into trouble protecting him, but I’d always tell him to keep quiet. Heroes love their unrequited thanks, from the gritty streets of Gotham to New York City’s skyscrapers, from Windhoek’s primary school playgrounds to the back of the gym building where kids who screwed with my brother were straightened out.

Wherever I went, my brother followed―primary school, high school, university. If I got something, he wanted the same thing, too. The Biker Mice From Mars figurines―“Come on, we don’t need two Modos. Why can’t you get Throttle or Vinnie?”; the FUBU cap―“Really, dude?”; and the Puma Buccaneers soccer boots―in high school, my brother had the audacity to try out for the same position on the team: right wing. I changed from soccer to basketball and tennis to avoid being on the same team as him. His athleticism only took him so far, so I had the hoops and the courts to myself.

When we moved to our new house I could finally have my own room. I’d thought that’d be some sort of divorce for us, with each of us free to make our own way in the world, but I was still tethered to him in more infuriating ways. He insisted on coming into my room unannounced. He took and used my shit without asking. He jacked my whole style. I mean, come on, how was it possible for him to like the same white Reebok Classics? If my friends and I were road-testing some new slang he’d cop our lingo and make it sound uncool. If we were thinking about sneaking out to a party, he’d try to include himself in our teenage subterfuge―we’d give up the whole operation because we didn’t want to wind up worrying about him. Plus, he was my younger brother, man. He was a poor clone of cool―like Bizarro, a mockery of Superman. If there was a weaker pussy-pulling magnet than my brother I hadn’t found it yet, and I’m the dude who knew random trivia about American history in case some midwest country gal or Southern belle needed to be wooed out of her clothes with subtext heavy references to the Washington Memorial or Mount Rushmore.

At least in high school he started getting the message and hung around his own people. They were an unusual tribe of role-playing game fanatics. They obsessed about the minutiae of elfin and goblin armour. I mean, damn, I had Yu Gi Oh cards but these dudes took shit to another level. They called each other by their game names: War Master, Shadow Caster, Nine-Tailed Fox, Doc Orc. Yeah, they called each other this shit in real life! Like, at the mall with other people around. Whenever they were together I’d hear talk of “acquiring more HP”, “upgrading my satchel”, or “I’ll hold the hill until you summon your dragon!” from my bedroom. Look, my brother and his friends were plain weird. They all had older siblings too.

Because of me he was able to tick the university application box that asked whether any family members had previously attended or were attending our university. We weren’t exactly legacy kids, but I’m certain that shit helped him glide through the admissions process. While we were at varsity he was, thankfully, in a different residence but from time to time I had to go and check up on him to make sure he was okay. I’d make sure he had food and that his lectures were going well. Our exchanges were always taut, tense with things unsaid, judgment on my part about his room which had become the de facto Last Homely House for anyone hellbent on not losing their virginity, and silence on his part because he really didn’t know what to talk to me about. These room calls were mandatory. My mother would never have let me hear the end of it if something had happened to him. Personally, I felt like I’d done my bit. I’d cut out and marked the trail for this nigglet since he was born.

When I was twelve, I once asked my mother why they’d had another child. We were in the kitchen. I’d come to look for something to eat. My brother, predictably, had shadowed me. He said he was hungry too. (Right…)

“Mamma, why wasn’t I enough?” I called my brother The Extra, The Side, The Spare, The Other Kid. “Why d’you have to have him too?” I was supposed to be the First And Only, their Son in whom they were pleased.

My mother, who’d been washing some dishes in the kitchen sink, became still. She looked up out of the window for a while, towards something I couldn’t see. She absentmindedly rubbed her still-wet hands against her belly. And then she said, almost inaudibly, that I wasn’t the first.

“What?” I asked. My eyes narrowed.

“Nothing,” my mother said. “Never mind.” She told me to make my brother a sandwich before she walked out of the room quickly. I heard her bedroom door close.

I looked at my brother who smiled at me. He was about to receive the bestest sandwich a big brother could make. I thought about the extra pair of sneakers I could’ve gotten if my parents didn’t have to budget for him too. I sighed and asked him to pass me the bread.

Now he’s phoning me at three in the fucking morning. I ask my brother what he wants.

“It’s―”

I’m about to say something but stop. There was something peculiar about the way he said It’s me the first time. I notice it now. “Dude, why’re you crying?”

“It’s Mamma.”

My breath catches. “What?”

“Papa says you should come to the hospital.”

 


Rémy Ngamije is a Rwandan-born Namibian novelist, short story writer, essayist, columnist, poet, and photographer. His debut novel The Eternal Audience Of One is available from Blackbird Books and Amazon.