Mum was the first person I saw at the bus terminal in Kozani. She had made the long plane trip from Australia a week earlier, while I came by ferry from Italy. Beside her stood my biological brother Georgios, crisp white shirt, black pants, hands in his pockets. He had a cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth he tossed away as I disembarked.
Mum embraced me warmly. ‘Come meet your brother,’ she said.
‘Ela tho reh,’ Georgios said, grabbing my neck and pulling me in playfully. ‘I’m your brother. Your brother!’
‘And I’m your brother!’ I said.
Georgios had an identical mouth and chin. He even had a matching dimple in his chin, as though God had used the same chisel. I could not stop looking at it – the mould from which I’d been pressed.
We were stuck on that one word, but it bore repeating as we hugged each other in a way only family could, collapsing into each other. Georgios smelled of nicotine and cologne. I smelled of fear.
We stood back and searched for ourselves in the other’s face. Georgios’s eyes were bigger, pushed back deeper into his face. His hair was thick, his nose long and straight. My hair was thinning, my nose shorter and flatter. It was only when I got to the lower half of my brother’s face that I saw it. Georgios had an identical mouth and chin. He even had a matching dimple in his chin, as though God had used the same chisel. I could not stop looking at it – the mould from which I’d been pressed.
Georgios drove us to his home in Florina, which was once Mum’s home, before she migrated to Australia, and before that the house Papou built after he arrived in the area as a 1922 refugee from Anatolia.
Sitting in an Italian suit at the kitchen table, Billy was smoking. Named after our grandfather Vasilios, but preferring to be called the more modern ‘Billy’, he was a child in an adult’s body.
I had been forewarned about his disability, told that he was demanding and tempestuous, but also innocent and warm-hearted. On seeing me, Billy absently shunted the table out of the way as he got up. His eyes glazed over as he squeezed me harder than I thought possible without major spinal surgery.
‘Panagiotis!’ he said. ‘Panagiotis, Panagiotis! Where are you, vreh yithouraki?’
‘Ela!’ I said. ‘How are you? Are you well? You look well.’
‘I am well!’
Billy hugged me again, replacing the vertebrae he’d displaced the first time.
We squeezed in around the small table, Georgios offering coffees and sweet almond biscuits. He sparked a fresh cigarette and handed another to Billy. I coughed, waving away the silvery smoke from my face. When Mum’s sister Sultana emerged, she kissed me joyfully and refused to let go of my hand. She could not stop smiling, her two solid gold teeth catching me eye. Together, the two sisters sat, staring at the three brothers, reunited for the first time.
‘You’ve got the same hands as Vasilios,’ Mum told me. ‘The same ears too.’
‘And his eyes,’ Sultana said, ‘their father’s. Georgios has Anna’s eyes.’
These were the obvious physical similarities. But that, as I would soon realise, was almost the extent of our sameness.
The longer I stayed in Florina, spent time with my brothers, heard them talk, watched them eat, saw them socialise and laugh and argue, the more I realised how little we had in common.
My brothers could chew away entire afternoons, and sometimes also the subsequent evenings, sitting in a local café or bar, chain-smoking their collective bodyweights and drinking enough caffeine to raise the dead.
By contrast, I was itchy after an hour, disinterested, looking for direction and fresh air. I didn’t feel my pace was fast, but it certainly wasn’t slow either, while my brothers felt theirs was just right. It left me feeling that they would be bored stupid if they ever came out to Australia. We locked ourselves in our suburban spaces once the sun went down, watched TV or surfed the internet. My brothers did just as little, but they still went out all night, in clothes that made my wardrobe look like a collection of potato sacks.
They spoke passionately, openly, with their whole hearts, while I was more guarded with my opinions and comments, constantly mindful of ramifications, a few real but mostly imagined. They lived for today, for now, not tomorrow, later. If they argued, they did the same – fervently, vigorously, until they cleared their minds, vented their spleens, and then got back to business. There was no lingering animosity or intrusive thoughts of self-doubt.
And when I asked for breakfast cereal one morning, muesli and the like, Georgios laughed and said ‘that was the kind of food we give to babies’. He then proceeded to consume what he called a ‘Greek breakfast’: unfiltered black coffee and Marlboros.
The day I left my brothers, gifting them tacky Australian souvenirs, I watched them growing smaller in the window as the bus drove away. I felt richer for the experience, having seen two different versions of what I could have been.
The moment couldn’t have been any more poignant. I had met my two reflections, the two versions of myself that I could’ve been.
I remember being especially conscious of my own transparent reflection in the foreground of the glass. The moment couldn’t have been any more poignant. I had met my two reflections, the two versions of myself that I could’ve been. And although I admired my brothers’ spirits, each was fundamentally different, especially Billy.
Rather than a sharp reflection in a mirror, meeting my brothers was more like staring into a window with the right light to cast a dull likeness. I only saw hints of himself in Billy and Georgios, aspects only skin deep. Perhaps if I smoked I would hold my cigarette like Billy, or if I drank would have a penchant for whiskey like Georgios.
‘Come back soon,’ Georgios told me.
‘I will,’ I said, ‘we’re in each other’s lives now.’
Beyond blood, we shared little. But that was enough. We were family.
Every Family Has a Secret premieres at 7.30pm on Tuesday 25 June, and airs over three weeks. Catch up at SBS On Demand after broadcast.