He was mine, that frog. His name was Freddie, and somewhere within his squidgy interior was a bell that rang if you gave him a good enough shake. A frog isn’t the sort of tailless amphibian you bring to bed – no-one has ever taken a frog on holiday, or reached for a frog when they’ve struggled to make school friends – but he was a valued member of my menagerie all the same. He’d been there throughout my childhood, he hadn’t pealed up a fuss when exiled to a bin bag in the attic, and he’d somehow survived the great stuffed animal diaspora to be sitting here decades later in my parents’ house. Freddie was solidly B-list, but he was decent. He was my frog.
“That’s not your frog,” my sister said, giving him a shake. I suppose she would know. As a youngest sibling, a lot of the things that you think are yours turn out not to be: picture books, cardigans, a penchant for cake. Once my mother told me fondly about how, as a child, I’d requested we hold a hundredth birthday party for my teddy bear. I was feeling oddly proud of my young imagination when she corrected herself: no, it was my brother who did that, not me. Maybe it’s true that youngest children are indulged and given freer rein, but they still have to elbow their way into a world that was getting along fine without them. So of course Amanda was right. The frog had been new to me but it wasn’t new. It had lived nearly an entire childhood: hers, because she was here first.
My sister has always been older than me. That seems like a redundant point to make but it’s crucial to explaining our relationship. On the day I was born she was eleven years, two months and twenty-three days old. As we grew up that fixed gulf moved with us. When I was a toddler, Amanda was entering adolescence. When I was a child, she was in her late teens. When I was a teenager, she was in her twenties. I was forever a couple of laps behind, incapable of catching up.
As siblings we were defined by our age difference. There was a distance between us, eleven years long. It’s not that she disliked me – as a writer I’m benignly cursed by my undramatic, loving family – but I was always too young to connect with in any meaningful way. When it counted, we supported each other: at three, I cut my face misguidedly trying to shave and she held me all the way to the hospital. But we weren’t ourselves yet, we were our roles. Older sister, younger brother. Our personalities didn’t even get to clash, because what eighteen year old wants to socialise with someone who’s seven? Unless you wanted to discuss favourite Power Rangers (Billy, obviously), I had little to offer in terms of conversation.
To be a younger brother is to know what it means to be tolerated. Amanda’s unenviable task was being the first person in the world to find me actively annoying. I can’t blame her. I scrawled my name in her favourite books. I watched the same three videotapes over and over again. I was a fussy eater and an insomniac. I owned several albums recorded by the Smurfs. If I’d worn a backwards baseball cap I could have been an irritating kid brother from a soft drink advert.
I can’t imagine either of us considered the situation much, however. There were no ill feelings to resolve, no unhealthy dynamics to address. She was just my sister, and I was just her brother, and that was fine. Our attentions lay elsewhere. While the trajectories of romance and friendship often agonise, there’s a tendency to treat family members as immutable. What you don’t envision is that as you change, they do too, and consequently the relationship also evolves. When you’ve known someone your whole life it takes time to notice you’re no longer the people you used to be.
By the time I did realise, it had been a while already. Something had shifted. We’d spend whole evenings just talking and I wouldn’t be obscurely worried that she’d rather be elsewhere. We found we liked being around each other. We believed in the same fundamental values. I wasn’t the tiresome younger brother anymore, and she wasn’t the exasperated older sister. Our lives had moved on. She’d met someone wonderful. I was marginally less inept.
Although my sister will always be eleven years older, it’s not the gulf it once was. We’re still very different but that’s alright: I rarely feel as much like an adult as when we’re having a good conversation. We connect. I think she’s formidable. I hope she finds me funny. It wasn’t until something new emerged that I understood absence had been there before. Amanda was always my sister, but it took us a quarter of a century to become friends.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty.