When Christopher, our second child, was still wibbling about in his mother’s yolk, a fish-faced lump of stubby proto-limbs, our first-born, Jack, was already manifesting signs of fraternal protectiveness. He’d rub his mummy’s tummy and tell us how much he was looking forward to his baby brother joining the family. This reassured us, even though he was clearly just parroting back at us the many words of enthusiasm and encouragement we’d chirped into his ears.
In the beginning, things were great. Jack doted on his baby brother, and seemed to harbour zero resentment towards the little guy for jumping on his being-born bandwagon. I know ill feelings and jealous reactions don’t always manifest themselves straight away, but I know they can because of my sister. When I was born, my then eight-year-old sister didn’t shit for a month. The child psychologist said her wildly conflicting feelings of love, anger and jealousy were playing havoc with her insides. She was bottling things up, physically as well as mentally. In a weird sort of a way, the shit she stubbornly refused to release represented her love for me. Love won, in the end. As it always does. I guess you could say I literally loved the shit out of her.
My partner and I realised, as Christopher developed more and more autonomy, that it had probably been easy for Jack to love his brother when he was nothing more than a tiny creature who spent his days either asleep or variously shitting and screaming, because there was no competition between them. Sure, there was competition for time and attention at a basic level, but we always strived to mitigate Jack’s ill-feelings as best we could by giving him plenty of one-on-one time with each of us, not to mention oodles of cuddles with his brother. We wanted Jack to see his brother as a part of him, and a part of the family. An addition, an enhancement, not a replacement.
And it was a success. Maybe Jack wasn’t considered the cutest kid on the block any more, and maybe the greatest share of the ooos, aaaaaaaas and cooooooos now went to Christopher, but Jack was still king. A ruler of absolute power, at least as far as the Kingdom of Little People was concerned. And if the going got rough? If Jack grew tired of this wide-eyed, swaddled little jester? He could simply walk away, go someplace else, be by himself… with brother, no brother, with brother, no brother, as quick and easy as an optician replacing lenses in those weird Meccano glasses they put on your face at the eye test… better with, better without, with brother, no brother. The best of both worlds.
Unfortunately for Jack, Christopher became mobile, and discovered that he didn’t have to live life passively like a leaf on a river. He could be the river. At least until he learned how to be a boat… I’ve really lost the thread of this multi-part metaphor, haven’t I? And why didn’t I say ‘flow’ instead of ‘thread’? This is what happens to your mind when you spend the better part of a year shouting endless variations of ‘LEAVE HIM ALONE!’, ‘LEAVE EACH OTHER ALONE’ and ‘STOP FIGHTING’ at the future WWE stars your children have become.
Christopher, although absolutely bloody adorable, is fearless for his size. He’s always ready and able with a hoarse rebuke or a swinging slap. Thanks to Jack’s campaign of brutal dominance, Christopher learned to fight back at an incredibly early age. He’s a honed, toned battle-machine in a way that Jack never was, or needed to be. If Christopher is occasionally a little monster, then he’s a monster of Jack’s creation [nothing to do with us, you understand, we’re just the parents].
That’s not to make the mistake of assuming that Jack is now the helpless victim in the face of his brother’s revenge-based brutality. Just the other month we heard Christopher screaming, and ran upstairs to find a chunk of his hair matted with blood. Jack had clonked Chrissy over the head with a bulky Chief Wiggum toy, not realising that the sharp points of the policeman’s hat made him more of a blade than a chib.
Different numbers of siblings, and different combinations of genders and ages, make for wildly different sibling relationships. A young girl rounding off a squad of elder brothers might become a tomboy (I hope it isn’t now considered a hate crime to use that word); a young boy at the end of a big litter of sisters might find himself traumatised for all the rest of his days, god help him.
My sister’s role and status as related to me shifted with age, mood and circumstance. Sometimes she was my protector, sometimes my aggressor. Sometimes she was a second-mother, sometimes she was a mother-fucker. But everything was built on a bedrock of love. For every act of torment there came a larger act of kindness. She may have told me there were dead flies in my sandwich to make me hand it over to her, or occasionally bent my legs over my stomach and attempted to pin them behind my head, causing pain that was suggestive of a particularly gruesome interrogation by the Spanish Inquisition, but she also took the rap for me. Hid things for me. Stood up for me. Absorbed the strikes of lightning for me.
When I threw a pillow and broke a bendy, retractable ceiling light of which my mum was especially proud, Alison took the blame. When I was struck with the crippling fear of death, frightened and sobbing, it was her bed I crawled into for peace and reassurance. So I can forgive her for teaching me how to do the fingers and then sending me off to show mum, who went predictably apoplectic.
Siblings fight, siblings grass, sneer and prank, but they love. At least in my experience. (Love you, sis)
Jack and Christopher’s age gap isn’t sufficient to make a second-tier father out of Jack, but their relationship is definitely changing, evolving, growing – away from violence and towards something else entirely. Something great, but something terrible, too. Our greatest hopes for a loving, peaceful union between the two brothers are in the process of being made reality, but it’s a boon that carries barbs. What I’m trying to say is: they’re joining forces.
While whirlwinds of fists and kicks still occasionally erupt from them with the barest of warnings increasingly they’re a team – though not always one where its members enjoy equal standing. Predictably, Jack is the puppet-master. He’s realised the esteem he’s held in by his brother, and the influence this affords him. The fine-print of their accord is less like ‘Why fight, when we can embrace fraternal harmony?’ and more like ‘Why fight, when this pliant young whippersnapper can be the willing and able instrument for my evil bidding?’ They’re like Batman and Robin… if Batman was a total shit.
Jack now wants his little brother to share bedtime stories with him, to lie like best buds and greet the world of sleep together. We often walk past to find Jack whispering in his brother’s ear, usually thinks like ‘Get the pencil and draw on that wall’ or ‘Go slap mummy’s bum’, but, you know, as far as conspiracies go, it’s incredibly sweet.
Last week we’d asked the boys to go upstairs and tidy their room. We knew the chances of them actually tidying their room were a million to one, but – cards on the table – we just wanted ten minutes’ peace. While I expected the room to be actually slightly messier at the end of those ten short minutes, what I didn’t expect when I went to check on their progress was to find water pooling on the floors and carpets, dripping down the walls, and running down the light-bulb and lampshade of the hall light. Christopher stood in the upstairs hall with a giant pump-action water-pistol, his clothes soaking wet, as Jack retreated from his ear with a big goofy grin on his face.
What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, and they decide to be best pals? I’m sure we’re going to spend the next fifteen years praying for a return to war.