At twenty-seven, Jonathan Kimber had thought he was done being compared to his older brother, Nicholas. Their school days were far behind them, their childhood hobbies long since abandoned. They were both fully-fledged adults now, with jobs and partners and places of their own. Surely that meant they were on an even playing field. Well, no. Not according to their father’s friend, Philip, anyway.
Philip was one of David’s former colleagues. A clean-cut, jowly man in his early fifties, Jonathan had never understood why his father liked him. Not only was he exceptionally boring, he was also scathingly judgemental when it came to anyone who didn’t live according to his rigid standards. His scorn was directed at, but not limited to, people with mental health problems, anyone who wasn’t straight, people who dyed their hair, immigrants, Labour voters and people with degrees. He was not, in Jonathan’s opinion, the kind of man anyone should try to emulate, but that was exactly what his father did. David seemed to feel the need to compete with Philip, believing him to be superior to himself in just about every way. He wasn’t, but inferiority complexes were hard to shake, as Jonathan well knew.
It was his mother’s fifty-fifth birthday, and the party was in full swing, meaning that a group of middle-aged people were sitting around having tedious conversations about jobs, the housing market and the state of the country nowadays. Nicholas wasn’t there. He lived down in London, which was a three-hour drive away, and with his second child due any day now, he and his wife had opted to stay home. They had wished Cassandra a happy birthday via video call that morning, and a huge bunch of sunflowers and chrysanthemums had arrived from them shortly after.
Jonathan had taken himself off to the kitchen where the rest of the ‘youngsters’ had congregated, clutching drinks that did not require boiling and discussing things that would have no place on an episode of Newsnight. Here the music was louder, the conversations livelier and the company much more enjoyable. Jonathan cracked open another San Miguel and leaned against the granite worktop, listening to his cousin Abigail telling the story of the time she got so drunk on a night out that she was sick in her best friend’s handbag. Half the room howled with laughter, while the other half recoiled in disgust. Chuckling, Jonathan helped himself to a slice of pepperoni pizza from a round wooden board behind him. He had just taken his third bite when his younger sister walked in, an empty wine glass in her hand, and made a beeline for him.
‘Please rescue me,’ Mia said, her large brown eyes imploring. ‘Philip’s just started on one of his anti-uni tirades. Told me it’s a waste of time and I’d do better to just get a job.’
Jonathan chewed as fast as he could, making circular motions with his right hand as if that would somehow speed the process along.
‘Oh for God’s sake,’ he said once he was able to speak. ‘Why can’t he keep his bloody opinions to himself? Right, I’m coming.’
Mia poured herself another glass of Pinot Grigio from the fridge, and then the two of them headed back down the hall towards the living room. Following in his sister’s wake, it occurred to Jonathan that this would probably be the last time he saw her for a while. In a few weeks’ time she would be moving to Leeds to begin her music degree, a decision Philip vehemently disapproved of, not that anyone had asked him. They could hear him from the hallway, bragging about having talked his oldest daughter out of going to university.
‘I told her, it’s not the be all and end all. I never went to uni and I’ve done all right.’
Jonathan rolled his eyes. Philip certainly had done all right. People who got a leg up in their father’s insurance company usually did.
‘Besides, uni doesn’t buy you happiness,’ Philip continued. ‘Just look at Jonathan.’
Mia jolted to such an abrupt halt that Jonathan slammed right into her. She wobbled on the spot, arms windmilling in a bid to steady herself, until Jonathan reached out and grabbed her. Disaster averted, they crept closer to the living room door, praying that no one chose this moment to get a refill or go to the bathroom. Jonathan’s heart rate had tripled in the space of just a few seconds. He could feel its frantic drumbeat reverberating through his whole chest. It was partly adrenaline from having almost fallen, and partly the anticipation of knowing you are about to hear someone’s real opinion.
‘Nicholas has done a lot better, and he hasn’t got a degree.’
Mia’s mouth dropped open. She appeared to be deflating, as if disbelief had physically punctured her. Jonathan, on the other hand, was not the least bit surprised. He was fuming.
All throughout his childhood, his father had insisted on comparing him to Nicholas. His older brother had been quicker to crawl, quicker to walk, quicker to do everything. He was more popular at school, and more outgoing in general. Never mind that Jonathan was the better student, outperforming his brother in just about every exam. Their father didn’t set much store by academic success, having never been academic himself. David had raved about Nicholas’s sporting prowess while glossing over Jonathan’s outstanding exam results. He had even gone as far as to compare their physiques, making snide comments about Jonathan’s lack of muscle and boasting about Nicholas’s athletic build. In his mind, body image issues were something only girls suffered from.
And so Jonathan had grown up feeling woefully inadequate compared to his brother, and angry at the way his father pitted them against each other. It was almost as if David couldn’t grasp that his two sons were entirely different humans with different personalities and skill sets. Almost as if he’d wanted another Nicholas and was disappointed when he didn’t get one. Not that his relationship with his older son had been perfect. Nicholas had been a rather difficult teenager, often coming home long after his ten o’clock curfew, smoking and drinking before he was legally old enough, and getting caught attempting to sneak girls into his bedroom. Blazing rows frequently ensued, and yet Nicholas had somehow retained his position as the golden child, much to Jonathan’s confusion.
At sixteen, after scraping a set of average exam results, Nicholas got a job in a department store. It was the first in a long line of retail jobs spanning the best part of a decade. Meanwhile, Jonathan decided to put his exceptional grades to good use and opted for a degree in nursing. Not only was it a noble and much needed profession, there was also a chronic shortage of male nurses. He would be making a positive contribution to society while helping to plug a gap. Yes, he could have opted for other, more lucrative career paths, but nursing was his calling. After four years of studying and various placements, he landed a job in the Accident and Emergency Department at the local hospital. A baptism of fire if ever there was one, it was nevertheless a fulfilling role, as rewarding as it was challenging.
For four years, Jonathan stuck it out in A&E, learning more on the job than he ever had at university. The pay wasn’t great, but it was enough, and he was able to move out and become fully self-sufficient. But over time, the shine began to rub off. Cuts to funding coupled with increased demand made his already difficult job borderline unbearable. Still he stuck it out. The patients needed him; he couldn’t just desert them. That was what he’d told himself all those nights he came home too exhausted to even take a shower. It was all he could do to pop the film on a ready meal and bung it in the microwave. Over-worked and under-valued, with his mental health rapidly deteriorating, he eventually made the difficult decision to quit. He had since taken a part time role as a receptionist in a GP’s surgery. It paid less, but it also involved a great deal less stress, which was precisely what he needed right now.
Ten years ago, Jonathan would have crept up the stairs as quietly as possible and barricaded himself in his room to sulk. Not now. Ignoring Mia’s whispered protestations, he stepped out from behind the doorframe, looked Philip dead in the face and said, ‘Excuse me?’
A deathly hush fell over the living room. Every eye swivelled to where Jonathan stood, arms folded in the doorway, his chin tilted upwards as he stared down at Philip. His father’s friend stared back, not even bothering to look apologetic. On the contrary, he looked pleased to have been overheard and excited by the prospect of an argument. But Jonathan had no intention of getting into a slanging match. He knew precisely what he wanted to say. Indeed, he had known it for years.
‘Let’s get a few things straight, shall we? You don’t know me. You might think you do, but you don’t. You’re just my Dad’s friend. All you know is what he tells you. Also, let’s not forget that Nicholas is four years older than me. Isn’t that right, Dad?’
It felt so good, slinging the old argument back at his father. How many times had he heard those words growing up? Whenever Jonathan questioned why Nicholas got out of certain chores, or was allowed to stay indoors while he and Mia had to go outside and play, his father would always resort to the old refrain, ‘Because he’s four years older than you.’ What a savage thrill, taking those infuriating words and weaponising them.
David met his son’s eyes and gave a tiny shake of the head. Jonathan ignored it. Ploughing on, he said, ‘That’s four years more than I’ve had to sort things out, and it is only in the last four years that Nicholas has got his life in order. He fell into that recruitment job by pure chance. He didn’t even think he’d get it. He just saw it advertised and applied on a whim. And yes, he’s done really well since then, and he earns loads on commission, more than I ever have. But he works all the hours God sends in a job that, quite frankly, sounds mind-numbingly boring. I, on the other hand, worked my arse off for years studying for a job that I knew wasn’t that well paid, but I did it anyway because I wanted to help people. In the end, that job turned out to be too stressful, so I left. But I still have those qualifications. I still have four years’ worth of experience. And it may be that I go back to it one day, or it may be that I go into another type of nursing. Those years have not been wasted because I decided to take a break. Also, just because the last year or so has been really tough, does not mean my entire adult life has been a shitshow.’
The use of the word ‘shitshow’ triggered a whole range of different reactions. Philip’s wife gasped and clutched her chest, whereas Philip himself merely raised his eyebrows. Jonathan saw his father close his eyes, while his mother allowed herself the tiniest of grins into her wine glass. Mia, who had come out of her hiding place and was now standing on tiptoe, watching the proceedings from over her brother’s shoulder, audibly sniggered.
‘Anything else?’ Philip said, one corner of his mouth curled into a snide smile.
‘Yes,’ Jonathan replied. ‘Nicholas might have come good in the last few years, but he wasn’t always the successful Senior Recruitment Consultant with the swanky house and stable home life. I could tell you all sorts of stories about him. Plenty of juicy gossip for you to sit there and judge. But I’m not going to, because he’s my brother and because you don’t need to know about all of that.’
It wasn’t easy, resisting the temptation to spill the beans on all of Nicholas’s past antics. Like the time he drank away his rent money shortly after moving out and had to be bailed out by his parents. Or the time he got an STI after a drunken one-night stand. Or the time he crashed his car because he got distracted by one of his ex-girlfriends who happened to be walking by. Oddly enough, David hadn’t felt the need to tell Philip about any of that.
In the end, Jonathan was glad he managed to bite his tongue. Nicholas may have annoyed him at times, and he may have made some questionable decisions in the past, but he was a good guy at heart. He was mortified when Jonathan finally told him about their father’s behaviour when they were younger, about the snide comments and constant comparisons. It had all come out during a drunken heart-to-heart on Nicholas’s stag do, and it was clear from his grovelling apologies that he had had absolutely no idea.
‘One more thing,’ Jonathan said. ‘Money and assets are not the only measures of a person’s success. If you think they are, then you’re incredibly narrow-minded. So my career may not have panned out the way I planned, but I’m not even thirty yet. There’s plenty of time for that. Happiness is a sliding scale. It fluctuates for all sorts of reasons. Degree or not, there were always going to be peaks and troughs. It just so happens that this last year has been a trough.’
‘Hear, hear,’ said Uncle Sam, watching from the side lines with a proud look on his face. Jonathan felt a surge of gratitude towards his mother’s younger brother, and it gave him the confidence to deliver his closing remarks.
‘Dad,’ he said, ‘please stop trying to emulate this man. He doesn’t warrant it. Also, please stop telling him every last detail of our lives.’
He then turned to his mother.
‘Mum, enjoy the rest of your birthday. I best be going.’
Cassandra hadn’t uttered a word since Jonathan began his spiel, but she leapt to her feet now, rosé sloshing over rim of her glass and splattering the floor.
‘No, you hadn’t,’ she said quite firmly. ‘Philip is just going, aren’t you, Philip?’
She then fixed Philip with such a withering gaze that even he quailed. Getting to his feet, he shuffled out of the room without a word, followed by his mortified wife. A few seconds later the front door slammed; no one had bothered to show them out.
No sooner had they gone than an explosion of sound filled the living room. People cheered, laughed, clapped Jonathan on the back, and Uncle Sam said, ‘Thank God for that.’ David got to his feet, looking chastised, with a mumbled, ‘I’m sorry, son.’
‘That’s all right,’ Jonathan replied, ‘just please be careful what you tell him in future.’
And please stop lording Nicholas over me.
He didn’t say it. There was no need. It was clear from David’s contrite expression that his son’s speech had hit home.
‘I’m going to open a bottle of fizz,’ Sam announced, getting to his feet. ‘Can I tempt anyone?’
He disappeared to the kitchen and returned a few minutes later clutching an unopened bottle of Prosecco and as many champagne flutes as he could carry.
The party kicked up several notches after that. The music was turned up, tea cups sat abandoned on every flat surface, and the sound of raucous laughter was enough to entice the youngsters in from the kitchen. There were no more negative opinions, no more harsh judgements, and no more fanning the flames of sibling rivalry from anyone. Jonathan’s only regret, as he looked around the room the smiling guests, was that he hadn’t spoken up sooner.