Monday, May 26, 2008

Daniel: A Confession in Two Acts

I was delighted to see my brother last weekend, with his many children in tow: Rory, the red haired firstborne scourge of those lacking imagination, his sister and partner in crime (fighting, last weekend the 'Yankees' and 'Terracons'), Emer and young Daniel, who had a harder way to come than most some 18 months ago to join the rest of us. At some point, Daniel needs a nappy change (as these children so often do), and my brother, who coos to him starts singing that song, 'Daniel':

Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for Spain
Oh and I can see Daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like Daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes

I'm not a fan of the song, but I remember it's christening as his song. As I said, he had a harder way to come than most, and that is all that needs to be said about that. The family crowded in to provide support.
My particular duty, three or four days, was to sit at the front of the Rotunda hospital, smoking fags. To keep it 'real' (as is the bizarre disposition of humans in crisis), I brought a book along with me, Becket's More Pricks Than Kicks. Whenever my bro came out for a (no doubt, much needed) smoke, there I'd be - beyond the crowd pregnant women, smoking away as they staggered, whimpered and wheelchaired about the front of the hospital - there I'd be, reading some poncy book like some unkempt arts student who never grew up. I thought this would cheer him up, and I still think to some extent it did. I ran my MP3 player mercilessly, seeking a song. I am the one with all the songs, so that's the other thing I thought I could do. One week, I think I charged the damn thing three or four times, just looking for that song. The right song. No song seemed 'just right', but such is the way with these kinds of times.
I wished I could have done more, but such things are beyond me. I loaded up an MP3 player with songs for his partner, I visited with magazines, I stood in awe of how they were getting through it all. All the time, swanning about with this air of the quotidian. Oh, how usual to stop
for a cheap cup of coffee and newsagent sandwich made three days ago, then pop into the Rotunda. Oh how usual to smoke nearly twenty a day. Oh how usual for that feeling to be there, just at the edge of each eye and another somewhere half way down the cheek. How usual for hands to shake. How usual my bro looks with his eyes hung, dark, pure, the epitome of what humanity might aspire to: Selfless. He wasn't himself, and he wasn't for himself. He was too busy being strong.
One evening, when the news had started to increment in the right direction (a little better, a little every day), my mother, sisters, wife and I went for a civilised dinner (My brother had to go home to sort out the children). Pasta and sauce, it was so exotic. My wife even had prawns, which I thought could be to some extent sinful, but I kept my mouth shut. There were drunk people shouting; an argument over our shoulder to do with a child that was grounded, but was going to a show "A school show, that's why" "That's not the point!"; other people making plans on where to go next. All this life, going on, as life does.
"So, did you all hear the name?" I think it was my mother who asked. I, quite selfish was happy to butt in.
"Yes. It's a good name. I think they've chosen well. Lion's den and all that." This, my brother had told me while we smoked a cigarette, watching the pregnant ladies wheezing and whining through their own fags, and a case of mistaken fatherhood ("You're nah! I'm tellin' ya! It's Joey. I said Joey to ma, I did!")
My sister, the second runner in the family in the music fan stakes, sang:

Daniel my brother you are older than me

She halted there. I was grateful, as I didn't like the song. I protested it was too obvious, but really it was because that song - for whatever reason - was to me the elevator music of my childhood. I only ever recall hearing it in the car on the way to school or from some activity, and at that, only ever just before or just after an ad break. I decided to continue my earnest search for a new, better song that would mean something, that would touch to the root of all of that week.
But it is a folly of human life that we sink back into routine all too easily. Smell the roses is a cliche, so people seldom do. I did continue my search, in vain, but soon it petered out. Daniel was sung on a number of occasions since, for various reasons: around tables, in cars, over dinner, after wine.
Then my brother sang that verse last weekend. I had never realised the first line was about leaving tonight on a plane. My brother singing that reminded me of him leaving on a plane, a long time ago. Another life ago, almost.
We were living in New Zealand, and he was going to a boarding school in the UK. He often came over, it seemed to me, just to bug the hell out of me. He brought with him a strange kind of slang, and gained a self confidence which I despised. His holidays at home were characterised by a brief spell of cameraderie, followed quickly by a long spell of fighting in which things were said that only children have the blind cruelty to say.
On time that he was leaving, we went to a strip behind the airport to watch the plane take off. Perhaps we did this every time he left, but this is the one time I remember. As we drove from the terminal to the strip, I think "Daniel" was playing on the radio, but I can't be sure. My mother and sister were distraught. At that age, I could never figure out my Dad, so I can't really say how he was. There was another family who had just waved goodbye to one of their own, and they were at the strip as well.
I was glad he was on his way. We must have had some fight. Probably one of those in which he tested out his bizarre slang on me, while I threw back the latest obscenity that I had heard (I recall once, not this time, but once, calling him a 'nipple'. His blank stare in return convinced me that I had gone so far as to have permanently wounded him. Of course, he was probably wondering what this 'eggy' kid was on about.)
My mum was comforting my sister, and mentioned something about burgers or ice cream. Perhaps even some kind of toy. Well, I thought, I better get in on this action.
I buried my head in my hands, and thought ooh, I miss my brother already. Mum drew me into the hug with my sister.
And that was when I felt it. I did miss my brother already. What had he going on over there, in England that was so much better than here. It couldn't be the slang. 'Eggy' and such terms were no match for 'fuck' and 'nipple', and I had many more words I could teach him. Like he had so many games he could teach us.
Through dust and tears, we waved goodbye to a jumbo jet tail fin as it rose into the clouds. I think my sister, or perhaps my mother, or maybe even my father suggested they saw him waving - we had missed it because you had to look very close, and the plane was moving very fast. But it had been caught, he was in there, waving back to us.
I never really thought of that until I heard my brother singing those lines from the song. And in sitting down to write this, I understand why my sister had halted when singing the song that night in the restaurant. I had to look up the lyrics, but the line after the one she sang is

Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal

This makes me realise what I've been missing all this time. I've been missing it out of a selfish and quite vain streak of high-minded Arts-graduate doublethink. Convinced that the greats are the only ones that can communicate anything that means anything. But all this high-brow, has-to-mean-something comes to nothing. Because at the very bottom, meaning is defined as much in the moments we share, as in the abstract connections we make between things. As a quasi intellectual with a touch of dyslexia and a restricted mentality, this comes as quite a shock. But a shock worth sharing all the same. For many, this is obvious. But for me, it has been a two-day epiphany.

Daniel, by Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for spain
Oh and I can see daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes

They say spain is pretty though Ive never been
Well daniel says its the best place that hes ever seen
Oh and he should know, hes been there enough
Lord I miss daniel, oh I miss him so much

Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that wont heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than i
Daniel youre a star in the face of the sky

Daniel is travelling tonight on a plane
I can see the red tail lights heading for spain
Oh and I can see daniel waving goodbye
God it looks like daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes
Oh God it looks like daniel, must be the clouds in my eyes

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