There’s an envelope with flowers and hearts drawn all over it, and it’s addressed to me. I snatch it off of the hall table and bolt upstairs to my bedroom, hoping that, at last, this is it: the pen pal I had always dreamed of.
How are you? It’s me, Sarah, from Spain!”
Oh-ho, Sarah, you don’t need to remind me who you are. Ever since we met on the beach that day, I’ve been casting you as my pen pal/free therapist. When I slipped you my address on the last day of holidays, when I was going back to Ireland and you were going back to Manchester, I was setting the wheels in motion for what I planned to be a 20-year postal friendship.
“How is your brother, Rob?”
Hang on, what?
“Will you ask him how he is for me? We only met for a few minutes so in case he doesn’t remember who I am, I’ve enclosed this photograph of me. Maybe you could give it to him?”
Sarah, my confidante, my free therapist, my sounding board, my great white hope at an international, lifelong friendship: she didn’t care about me at all. The only reason she had even taken my address was to send photos of herself to my brother.
If my bedroom had a mini-fridge in it, I would have stayed in there forever.
It was the first time something like this had happened to me, but it wouldn’t be the last. There was 18 months between me and my older brother Rob, and while there had always been differences between us – he was athletic, I was bookish – it never seemed to matter until we started secondary school. He shot up eight inches overnight, started wearing gel in his hair, and began disappearing into bushes with girls from my class. If puberty is a train that you can board, Rob was given a first class seat with extra leg room. I was clinging to the side of it, trying not to be killed.
The differences between us suddenly seemed enormous. He was funny, and had an amazing knack for impersonating people that won him a ton of friends. He was also the rare kind of teenager who could talk to adults properly, and was always the favourite whenever aunts or uncles came around for dinner.
I, meanwhile, became more and more withdrawn, and seemed to find everything – school, friends, home, LIFE ITSELF – difficult. I was gangly and strange and did things that I knew would alienate me from having friends, but couldn’t seem to stop doing them anyway. I drew hieroglyphics on myself in magic marker, I bought books on Wicca, I cast spells while sitting in my wardrobe. I spent Friday nights in my bedroom while my brother smoked in the back garden with girls from my French class.
And it was painful. Of course it was. I stuck to the three or four friends I had, and seemed to be a puzzle to the other people in my year.
“Did you know they’re brother and SISTER?” I overheard someone say. “I don’t know,” the other girl said. “I suppose they kinda look the same.”
By 15, I knew what that “kinda” meant. “Kinda” meant: they’re cut from the same cloth, but her cloth is a napkin, and his is a three-piece suit. The year after that, Rob was sent to boarding school. His popularity had led to him falling in with what my mother would call “a sketchy lot”, which, of course, only made him more popular. After that, his status became legendary. Every Friday, girls would come up to my desk to ask me if Rob was coming home that weekend, and whether he was going to so-and-so’s party if he was.
But something was happening to me during the years I spent in my bedroom, nursing those weird little eccentricities and interests that I knew made me a bit of a loser. I started the early groundwork on what would eventually become my adult personality.
I read constantly, and pretty soon, I was writing constantly too. I taught myself the guitar, and formed a band with two people who had never even heard of my brother. Who, as far as I was concerned, thought that I was the only O’Donoghue kid worth hearing about.
Toward my late teens, my friendship group started to mushroom outside of my school. And now, when people said I was “different’ to my brother, it didn’t necessarily mean “worse than”. It just meant different.