Excluding the one program each of us was allowed to choose on the weekend, television was banned in our home. The result was exactly what my parents intended, our attention was directed outside for entertainment. My brother, Clyde and I played two kinds of games. The first, his favorite, was set in and around the treehouse. My role was to try break in, his to stop me. If you want to play with your older sibling, you quickly learn that the nature of the game will be dictated to you. Fully on board with this sacrifice, I took my role seriously, determined to find my way in.
Predicting that he would not leave the obvious route unprotected, I nevertheless gripped the fireman’s pole between my feet, hoisting myself up with my arms, testing the weakness of his defence. Watching my movements, Clyde let me climb three quarters of the way up before pouring water down its surface, sending me sliding to the ground at a speed. On the way down, I braced myself for inevitable sharp sting that would greet my feet as they hit the sand. Our battle had only just began. The pain had barely faded when I forced to dive from my position, dodging a swinging sack of rocks suspended from the top beam. This was the kind of standard I expected from him. Clyde’s one tv program was often the cartoon version of Robin Hood. In a wonderful loophole to the television moratorium, we were permitted to tape it and press pause to freeze the frame so that we could trace the bow and arrow clad figure onto our page. Unlike the square box, creativity was encouraged in our household. In time, we were able to copy the frame with close precision using freehand. Most of Clyde’s defence repertoire was stolen from half hour snippets of his vigilante idol. As we were allowed to watch the other’s program choice, I was privy to his techniques.
He had unclipped the ladder, rolling it onto itself then fastening it with a rope at the square entrance to the tree house. The heavy heap of chain and wood served a dual purpose in blocking the small opening. Where the ladder used to be, stood a four metre drop. With the ladder removed and the pole rendered useless, there was only one more way to get up – the tree that supported the wooden structure. Jumping from the ground my hands connected to grab hold of the nearest branch. Crunching my stomach, I lifted my legs up to the same height, momentarily hanging upside down before gathering the strength to flip myself right side up. My aim was to get in by using a side opening between the horizontal beams of the treehouse. With the difficult part over, the challenge became the element of surprise. Taking a moment to still my breath, I slide across the trunk of the tree, sidestepping between two branches to the creeper-covered point of entry. Waiting for me, he grinned from behind the intricate ropes he had zigzagged across the opening, destroying any chance of sliding through. Defeated, I retreat back down the tree, hugging the bark as I descended. When I reached the lowest branch again an idea comes to me: if I fling myself off the branch, I may be able to catch one of the visible wooden steps of the coiled ladder, then pull myself up and into the tree house. The large gap between the branch I stood on and the point I was aiming for, made the risk of missing completely or loosing my hold very real, but like most children, I had not fallen enough to let that outweigh the excitement of it. So I leaped off the tree, arms outstretched in search of the slat. Relief swept over me when I felt the wood and had the strength to grip hold of it. Hanging from a height, I began a shaky pull up, cycling with my free legs for strength. When my arms clocked ninety degrees, the rope securing the ladder in place snapped. I plummetted. Some of the blow was cushioned by the compost that was piled on the red bricks below. Not receiving any of the softness of the soil, my foot was rushed to hospital.
Our other games pivoted around balls. Soccer, cricket and hockey, were all played on the same 10 by 6 meter patch of lawn. There were no easy wins against my brother. Like a stuck record, he used to sing to me:
“Anything you can do, I can do better.”
More infuriating than the song was that he was right. We ‘competed’ and he thrashed me. A common score was ten upwards on his side, with nothing on mine . If he ever so much as thought about letting me win, it never showed. Any time spent outside the throws of a game was spent in the flower beds searching for balls. Our swimming pool was unusually cold, shaded over by a huge Jacaranda tree. More often than not, our balls were caught in the chill of the pool. Using the weight of the water, one of us would splash it across, while the other stood on the far side waiting for the pick up. Hockey balls are indecisive about floating, drifting below the surface then lazily coming up for breath. When it came to hockey balls, the pool cleaner was often used as a quicker alternative to splashing. It was kept behind a trellised fence, secured with hooks to the street facing wall. To avoid hitting the pretty fence or decapitating flowers, you had to lift and turn the long rod in a maneuver similar to the back bend and swivel of the hands, made famous in the matrix. In the heat of a match, we sometimes reached a truce to retrieve an illusive ball:
“Take my hand and lean across,” Clyde instructed.
“No, I know what you’re going to do.” I said.
“I won’t. I promise you, I won’t.”
Worried that the delay would cause Clyde to grow bored of the one sided match, I tacitly agreed, taking his hand and leaning far over the water, simultaneously reaching with my hockey stick for the dimpled ball in the middle. He let go. Fully committed, no double reverse arm circles could save me. Under the cold water, I let myself scream in anger. On surfacing, I remained composed, ignoring his question:
“Is it cold?”
Heading straight for the warmth of a bath, I refused to acknowledge his laughter. As I reached the coarse mat at the foot of the front door, I turned to him and shouted with all the passion I could muster:
‘You are an ASSHOLE!”
Resenting his unsporting behaviour, I got my own back months later when, in the bitterness of winter, I pushed him into the water, quickly turning to the white perimeter pool fence for safety. In mid-air, parallel to the ground, Clyde tried to pry me loose by my ankles, all the while telling my mother to make me let go. Embodying Switzerland she kept a straight face, fully aware that any sign of amusement would be to ignore her son’s rage. I too tried not to laugh, knowing that it would make my body weak, increasing the chances of taking a swim. In a rare victory, I stayed dry that day, managing to cling to the fence for longer than he cared to pull. It was a genuine victory, not a half baked one that so many girls are given by their older brothers. There was no room for gentlemanly-ness between us. He always went at it full tilt and I came short too many times to mention but when I won, even if that win was a single goal in reply to his ten, I knew it was mine.
In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell tells of the compounded advantage some children have due to being born in the early months of the year. Children with birthdays between January and March are often a full year older than some of their fellow classmates. The difference shows in their strength and ability, with the result that they are labelled more talented than their peers. The initial advantage doubles and then increases infinitely with the extra training these ‘gifted’ children receive. Reveling in the praise and attention that comes with such potential, these kids are also more likely to put in the practice necessary to become truly good at their particular strength, leaving their younger classmates in their dust. Some grow into professional athletes, the line between their original talent and the initial advantage blurring. In drawing comparison, I do not in any way contend to have that kind of aptitude or distinction, nor in my opinion does the South African school system provide the same answer when Gladwell’s equation is plugged into it, however I do know that my older brother gave me some benefit on my first day of school and on all my subsequent days, in that I arrived already knowing how to compete. With the mentality of an underdog, I knew how to brush off my scraped knees and continue playing. More importantly, I knew how to lose and I understood the importance of leaving the game, on the trodden grass, where it belongs. On a mental level, I understood what it was to control anger, to let it sit and settle. Through him I knew how to block out even the worst taunting. On arriving I had already learned what many were about to painfully face. What is more, is that I had learned it during battles with someone who I knew with great certainty, loved me effortlessly.
In our cricket games, the batsman stayed in the creese until he went out. Not once, did my brother sympathetically hand the bat over to me. This meant that for the most part, I threw the ball for Clyde to hit it. We adopted the traditional rule of six and out. My turn to bat usually came after Clyde had smacked the ball over the neighbour’s wall, which marked the boundary. Unfortunately, it was common for the rule not to carry a lot of weight since, being short on balls, the game usually came to an end. The bullterrier next door incessantly barked for the duration of our games, quieting only to gather his muster to bark once more. Using the palm tree growing alongside the wall as leverage, it was easy to peer over at him. We could see our tennis balls littering the yard he guarded so fiercely. His barking grew ever wilder as he spotted us. We knew as we watched our balls sail through the sky, half pleased with the height and half wishing we could take it back, that our ball was as long gone as a needle in a haystack, so we christened him that. After each six, we would sprint from the pitch to the wall, screaming in unison:
“Needle in a Haystack, give back our ball!”
We shouted at him and he responded with his deep bark. From her sewing room, my mother would shout to us to “leave the poor dog alone” but despite her plea, we continued to chastise him for robbing us. Eventually the loss of our balls became too high to bare, it was stifling our everyday, preventing us from honing our ball-eye co-ordination. Needle in a Haystack was not the least bit interested in the bright yellow balls that sprinkled his territory, he only had eyes for us. An untested dog whisperer, it was decided that I would be the one to venture into the neighbour’s yard. Sensing something different, Needle in a Haystack’s barking reached alarming proportion. When my courage peaked, I slid down the wall, hanging by my fingers, waiting for my brother’s signal:
“Ok, let go. Get the balls and come back,” he said and I could hear the uncommon sound of worry in his voice.
The shooting pain in my feet hit me at the same time Needle in a Haystack reached me. Silent for once, he sniffed my legs choosing which one to savage. And then he licked me, wagging his tail frantically. It turned out that Needle in a Haystack was not ferocious but lonely. Visibly happy, he followed me as I collected the balls, throwing each one over to my waiting brother. When there were no more to pick up, I dragged the large green dustbin next to the wall to help me climb home. Patting him one last time, it dawned on me that he was unlucky to be on the wrong side of the wall, with two dog deprived children so close to him. We were a perfect match with an unkind wall between us. It was probably the constant reminder of our laughter that caused him to bark the way he did. When I reached the other side of the wall he started again and for the first time I did not misinterpret it: he was begging me to come back.
We resumed our game, with backing vocals by Needle in a Haystack. Lingering in the air between us was something that would only be properly understood in years to come. Put simply it is that things aren’t always what they seem and more philosophically, in the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers.’
Tomorrow is my brother’s 30th birthday, an intrepid adventurer, he took to the world straight after high school during his 19th year. At 23 and 24 he returned to North America and explored South America. It was in his going that I knew that, one day, I could do the same, because that is how it has always been: him leading, pausing every so often to make sure that I had sure footing in my efforts to keep up.