Manni Coe was at home in Spain in November 2020 when he got a text from his younger brother Reuben, who was living in a care home back in the UK. The text just read, "brother. do. you. love. me." Manni knew instantly that Reuben needed his help. Covid lockdown was in full swing, but Manni started making plans right away to break his brother out of the care home. What happened next is described in the brothers’ memoir, and they joined Brendan O’Connor from their homes in Spain and in Dorset for a chat about the extraordinary circumstances that inspired them to write it.

Reuben Coe (39) is living with Down Syndrome, which he calls ‘Up Syndrome’, because he prefers that name. One of four brothers, he became particularly close to Manni (49) when Reuben moved to Spain to live with Manni and his partner Jack. After seven years in Spain, Reuben wanted to go back to live in the UK. Manni says he missed him terribly once he was gone:

"I talk about the symmetry of our brotherhood. My need for him is as great as his need for me. And he really does complete me."

On his return to the UK Reuben lived in a care home in Dorset. He seemed happy there – and then came Covid. The lockdowns were a disaster for Reuben as family visits stopped overnight and Reuben retreated to his bedroom. Always a "chatty Cathy", as his brother described him, Reuben stopped speaking and became emotionally locked-in and unresponsive. Living in faraway Spain, Manni had no idea things had got so bad until Reuben texted him with that question:

"‘brother. do. you. love. me.’"

Immediately Manni went into self-isolation for 10 days in preparation for a trip to the UK. He then found a way to fly back to the UK via Gibraltar, on his mission to bust his little brother out of the care home. Manni says he was terrified:

"I knew I was doing quite a risky thing – I didn’t sleep for days and days, because I was going against the system. And I knew that if anything were to go wrong, and I were to bring Covid to Reuben, I would have had there would be a lot of fingers wagging in my direction."

The medical and care staff disagreed with Manni’s plan – it was very much against Covid regulations at the time - so he says he lied just to get Reuben out the door:

"I had to tell a little fib. I told them I was taking him away for the weekend. Just a little white lie. A weekend turned into 26 weeks. He never actually went back to the home."

Reuben doesn’t speak very much during the interview; his voice is occasionally heard as he agrees with something his brother is saying, or he tells Manni he loves him. Manni is very emotional about the effect the lockdown had on his brother:

"I found him a shadow of who he is and very frightened. He wasn’t talking. Being so close and always enjoying a real intimacy, Reubs didn’t even want to be with me. He wouldn’t eyeball me. Do you remember this Reubs? I can’t see him, but I bet he’s nodding."

They rented a cottage and stayed there together for months in their own Covid bubble. Manni says his younger brother was clearly miserable, but even in that state, Reuben’s concern was for his big brother, having to see him in a bad way, and this was why he was avoiding eye contact:

"When you are at one of your lowest ebbs, you don’t even want to be with the people who you know care about you most, because you don’t want them to see you so unhappy. And Reubs had lost his smile and being with me made it all the more obvious how unhappy he was."

It took Reuben many months before he began to regain his former self. He’s still only 70% there, Manni says. The lack of human contact and sensory deprivation due to the Covid lockdowns meant that Manni faced a changed person when he saw his brother again. They had to take things slowly:

"We’d sit on the sofa holding hands or we’d have a little cuddle before bed. Because no-one had touched Reuben for 8 months. And he’s such a tactile person. He loves giving hugs. He gives the best hugs in the world."

Reuben spent a lot of his time drawing and his illustrations are featured in the book they produced together, with Manni cataloguing their journey in words.

Once lockdown ended, the pair returned to the care home to collect Reuben’s things. Manni says Reuben wanted to speak to one of the carers he was concerned about. Reuben had overheard Manni having "words" with the care staff when he collected him, and he wanted to reassure that person that he cared about them:

"One of the carers answered the door and he simply said, ‘I love you’ and then got back in the car, very proud of himself."

Reuben now lives in a different facility, surrounded by people he likes and friends and family come to visit. He has more independence and feels completely at home. Manni asks him what it is that he likes about living there and Reuben says simply:

"They are my people."

Manni talks about the brothers' adventures in Marrakesh, walking the Camino together and the day Reuben came out to him in the full interview which you can listen to here.

brother. do. you. love. me. by Manni Coe and Reuben Coe is published by Little Toller Books.