I’ll admit it. As you're the second child, there are fewer pictures of you than there are of your brother. Back when parenthood was still a novelty we took pictures of every moment and marked every milestone. By the time you were born we were jaded second-time parents, and although we loved you every bit as much, your life has been less recorded. Many pictures we do have are of you both together; two beaming brothers in one frame.
As I scroll back there are enough images to see how you changed year by year, and there is proof enough of how you loved to take a centre pose at family occasions. There you are wiggling your way to the front of the gathering, grimacing in mock horror as you shape your hands like monster claws. In another your proud smile reveals the gummy gap your front teeth have left behind.
Two or three years ago- sometime around your thirteenth birthday- the images stop. Not because of fewer attempts to take pictures of you; this time the fault is not with the parents. The pictures stopped because you no longer wanted to be held in the eye of your family. Every time you became aware of a camera lens or mobile phone aimed your way, you pulled your ubiquitous grey hoodie further up over your head, let that sweep of long brown hair drop over your eyes, and held up your hand to ensure complete obscurity from view. Thanks to new brain circuitry and hormones, the affectionate funny kid in the pictures became an aloof, daylight-averse teenager whose image it has been near impossible to capture.
I’ve persuaded you to accompany me to see the performance of a renowned singer-guitarist. I’m hoping you’ll find pleasure in hearing familiar music played live, and perhaps it will rekindle interest in your own guitar, the love for which has stalled.
It doesn’t take long for tension to build. At the train station, you choose to sit some distance away from me, head bowed, thumbs twitching and tapping away at your phone in endless virtual conversations.
“Aren’t we going to talk?” My tone is open, friendly.
“What do we need to talk for?” You don’t look up.
“It’s just that we haven’t properly chatted in ages.”
“I don’t want to chat. Why are you talking so loudly, anyway?”
“You’re practically shouting. It’s embarrassing.”
I watch you, masking my frustration. The full bottom lip that was adorable is now a surly pout, the tiny, clenched fists of infancy are now adult sized hands skilfully operating your online world. I don’t know when we last held any meaningful eye contact. I can’t help thinking you’re rude and ungrateful to be so disengaged from me, and I bite my lip not to say so. The truth is I miss you, and I won’t challenge you, not today. I’ll take any crumbs of attention you discard in my direction.
We arrive a little early at the music venue and walk up the street to find somewhere to eat. You don’t want Thai, you think the burger place looks disgusting, you say no to the pub- I suspect because it is so busy and you feel intensely self-conscious in crowds. We decide on a quick bite from a sandwich bar across the road. As we dodge the traffic, I am amazed to feel your arm lazily flung across my shoulders. I cautiously cross my arm across your lower back- slowly, tentatively, as if trying not to startle a wild animal. For this unusual show of affection, I give in to your request for crisps and chocolate milk.
Once inside the music venue you’re dismissive of its famous circular design and impressive supporting beam structure. You tell me it is pointless going to all this effort when you could listen to the same music at home. As you’ve grown to be ridiculously tall- on the rare occasions you tolerate a hug my head rests at the level of your heart - your lanky frame is awkwardly folded into your seat, knees uncomfortably close to your chin. Your face conveys your discomfort.
As we wait for the performance to start, I’m annoyed that you’re still fixated on your phone, and I plaintively demand to know what has your attention. I’m expecting resistance but you chuckle and show me the screen. We watch a video you’ve taken earlier in the day of your friends careering around the skateboard park in a shopping trolley. Whilst I feel honoured to catch glimpses of this secret other life, I can’t help commenting on the risk of concussions and smashed teeth. You roll your eyes.
“You think everything is dangerous. Right now, you’re probably thinking the ceiling could fall in.” You adopt a high pitched sarcastic emulation of my voice. “‘Oh no! Let’s go home straight away!’”
I nudge you affectionately in the ribs. “I love you, and that's why I worry.”
Before my words have faded, I take out my phone and angle it for a selfie, tilting my head towards yours. Remarkably, you lean in and grin as I capture our pose and a long-awaited image of you.
The performance begins. The first riffs of a well-known track trip and tumble around us, eliciting a murmur from the audience. I’m entranced and cast a sidelong glance in your direction. Your head is down, pouring over your phone again. This time I’m cross.
“No phone during the performance!” I hiss.
You hold out your phone so I can see a picture you’ve shared in a group chat. In it, the guitarist is poised in shafts of violet light before a blue sea of bobbing heads. Below it, comments are popping up. Sic bro. Enjoy ur nite.
We watch the lights ripple across the audience and seeped with sound, you lean into me, a childlike posture for a grown up frame. The weight of your relaxed body requires me to tense my muscles to hold us both upright, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.
Afterwards, on the way home, you’re tired and don’t want to talk about the performance, already preoccupied with a busy school day tomorrow. I’d like to discuss the evening, but I follow your musings and offer occasional reflections and reassurances. As the train rolls into the platform, I feel your hand loosely clasping mine, so casually that I wonder if you’re even aware of doing so. Some childhood pathway in your brain has been sparked by the approaching train, an instinctive reaching for me as we navigate through the crowd to board, and I treasure the moment.
We are on the final stretch home, the last few steps to the front door.
“Straight to bed,” I suggest, mindful of tomorrow’s demands.
“Don't tell me what to do. You’re always nagging,” you retort irritably.
As easily as that, we have slipped back into the familiar old dynamics. The front door has barely closed before you’re off upstairs, taking two steps at a time, offering a grunt in response to my goodnight.
There are fewer photos of you than there are of your brother, but now at least I have a recent one. There you are in our blurred, shadowy, indistinct selfie, your face pressed up close against mine. Your hood is pulled up but your eyes gaze levelly and comfortably at the camera, and your cheeks are rounded by a gentle smile. For now, this is my favourite image.