In November 2020, when Manni Coe received an unsettling text from his brother, Reuben, containing just five words: “brother. do. you. love. me.” he knew exactly what it meant.
Manni was at home in Andalusia where he runs an independent travel company, and Reuben, 39, who has Down’s syndrome, was living in a care home in Dorset, depressed and isolated in lockdown.
“He knows I love him so when I got the message, I knew it wasn’t a question,” Manni explains. “There wasn’t a question mark — Reuben doesn’t really use punctuation. It was coded and I interpreted it as, ‘If you love me, then show me the colour of your love.’
It was almost as if he was throwing down the gauntlet and saying, ‘You need to come and get me out of here.’ I saw it as an SOS.”
Supported by his family and his partner, Jack, Manni, 49, left Spain for the UK on a rescue mission, a “bronap”, as he called it, collecting Reuben from his care home and taking him to Jack’s cottage in the countryside.
For 26 weeks, Manni slowly assisted Reuben’s recovery and rebuilt his sense of self. “I felt that Reuben was really plummeting, and it needed to happen,” Manni says, speaking via Zoom from Reuben’s Dorset flat, where he has lived for almost two years.
Reuben had become non-verbal, “almost like he had disappeared”, and a psychiatrist had given only a ten per cent chance that he would return to his former self. “I believed him because who am I to not believe a clinical psychiatrist, but I wasn’t willing to accept it,” he says.
“I knew I had to try and fight to get my brother back because Reubs has been such a big part of my life, of Jack’s and my relationship and our sense of wellbeing together — the three of us. I love Reuben, probably more than anybody on the planet, and I wasn’t willing to let him go.”
The brothers are sitting close together in the kitchen, Manni’s arm draped over his brother’s shoulders. Behind them is a big picture of a rainbow made by the artist Gene Bible.
“It’s Reuben’s rainbow,” Manni tells me. A fan of musical theatre, the names of Reuben’s favourite shows, all the films he adores and everybody he loves are incorporated in the exuberant picture.
Reuben speaks occasionally and very softly during our interview, finding it easier to express himself in other ways, such as art.
Last year the brothers published a book, brother. do. you. love. me., featuring a combination of Reuben’s tender, colourful drawings with Manni’s raw and heartfelt words. A tale of brotherly love, it is an intimate, moving account of Reuben’s healing journey.
Manni hoped that their subsequent book tour would also give Reuben his voice back, “And essentially it did. It was part of his recovery.” Reuben put his creative stamp on all the events by devising his own entrance and exit with music. “So it’s not just the book itself, it’s what’s happening now.
Reuben’s pride has returned. When he sees our book in a bookshop, he always sends me a picture. Don’t you?” he asks, turning to his brother. “Because they make you happy.” Reuben nods in agreement.
For Manni, who has always written for pleasure, the first draft was cathartic. “Very much confessional. It was me pouring all my fears and worries onto the page.” The paperback version, out later this week, includes some additional images by Reuben and an afterword from Manni and, significantly, the book is on a shortlist at the British Book Awards (aka the Nibbies).
“To think that we are one of just six books selected for the narrative: non-fiction category is so exciting,” Manni later tells me by email.
“Reuben wants to know if there will be nibbles at the #nibbies.”
The winning authors will be announced at a ceremony on May 15.
Initially, Reuben fought against his brother’s structured routine, which included daily walks, “good sleep”, healthy meals and doing household chores.
“Reubs didn’t really want to talk to me, did you?” Manni asks. “He didn’t want to be with me,” he laughs. “Reubs had got himself into what I describe as an emotional coma. He was in such a traumatic and lonely state that, very wisely, he took himself [there in order] to survive it. So, I had to break him out of that. And it was so gradual.
Very early on he started drawing for me every night. I could see in them his struggle, his fight and his hope in his little message, “Sleep well brother, love you.” I knew he was there. I just had to be incredibly patient. It was actually a huge lesson in patience.”
As the weeks rolled on, Reuben began his virtual Friday night musicals — he whispers they were fun to do — when he would dress up and perform extracts from his favourite shows, such as The Lion King, for his family and friends. Manni says he would trick himself into thinking his brother was back.
“But as soon as he’d received his applause, we were off air, the dress had come off and I’d read him all the messages, boom, we were straight back down.”
Eventually, Reuben was ready to live more independently and, after a series of frustrating delays, moved into the newly built specialist-supported housing project, where he is now.
The book examines Reuben’s reluctance to accept himself as a man with Down’s syndrome and the brothers have renamed the condition Up Syndrome in order for Reuben to see it as something positive.
“It’s still a work in progress, but he’s getting there,” says Manni. “I suppose lots of us would like to change things about ourselves.
"I think [it helps] that he’s being celebrated in this book and when he walks into an auditorium or a studio. In November when he spoke on a microphone for the first time, he even got a standing ovation and I love that for Reubs.”
The brothers grew up in Yorkshire and Berkshire in an evangelical Christian family — two of four boys, of whom Reuben is the youngest. He and Manni have always been particularly close. His arrival, says Manni, changed their family for the better.
“I think we’ve become better humans because of his needs. He never demanded anything from us, but because of the way he is, you want to give him everything he needs. He’s still very close with our other brothers, but life has kind of thrown us two together.”
Manni is no longer religious. He was, he says, damaged by the Christian Church, “which kind of turned me off organised religion”. A few years ago, after he had just delivered a lecture on the Sephardi history of Andalusia, Manni received a call from his mother telling him she had discovered she was Jewish.
He recalls not feeling shocked or surprised “because I knew my intense interest [in Sephardi heritage and culture] must have come from somewhere. I feel akin to it in a very powerful way. When I went to Spain, something about Andalusia clicked with me unlike anywhere I’ve ever been to before.
"We have a lot of Jewish clients and I go on these missions to uncover Sephardi history and I’m deeply affected by it.”
What do the brothers want readers to gain from their book? Reuben holds up a paintbrush in response. He is referring to a blue picture of the world which he named The Mission. Manni explains.
“It’s to make everyone in the world emotional.” For Manni, their memoir is “a stepping-stone to understanding what it is to be someone like Reubs.
"My hope is that when people read it, the next time they meet someone with Up Syndrome, they will have the confidence to know how to engage them and not be afraid to do so.”
brother. do. you. love. me. (Little Toller Books) by Manni and Reuben Coe (paperback) is published in paperback on May 5.