Writing: Polly Burnay
I once shrieked this in a moment of pure fury at my sister. She had thrown away an apple core, which – yellow, fluffy and moist – featured all of the characteristics you just do not want in an apple. It had been feebly gnarled at and rejected, landing with a thud at the bottom of the bin. In hindsight, I don’t blame her for throwing away two thirds of a mealy Royal Gala, but at that specific moment in my adolescence, the indulgent wastage really got to me. First, there was the thought of the cost of them. Then, the fact they had been prematurely aged out of negligence, only for one poor sod to be thrown away by a spoilt child. This infuriated me. Unfortunately, this absurd ‘line’ was overheard by my eighty-year-old grandma, who couldn’t help but laugh in my obnoxious face. I couldn’t help but laugh either. To this day – in her nineties – she loves to remind me of this moment. It brings a glimmer to her eye and an endearing twitch animates her left cheek. Money may not grow on trees. But apples...they really do.
My sister and I do not get on. The only fitting pop cultural comparison is the dysfunctional but ultimately loving relationship found in the BBC’s Fleabag. Seeing Fleabag and Claire’s relationship onscreen brought immense relief. Not just to me, but my parents too. Obviously, relationships like this existed far before Waller-Bridge decided to illuminate this in theatre and on screen. Sibling relationships are extremely complex. Human relationships are too, but sisters arguably more so. And why wouldn’t they be? We’re thrust into this world and told, without warning, that we’re biologically and circumstantially cemented to one another. For life. But Hattie and I are almost impressively different people. I owe that entirely to my parents. Fortunately, they have come to terms with this now. And so has the family WhatsApp chat and the many disputes it’s housed, confirming the fact that we’re incompatible (in a recent Power Move, Hattie removed herself from said WhatsApp chat). Promoting individualism often does lead to a clash of personalities and worldviews. In Hattie’s own words, the only thing we have in common is that we don’t like each other.
Hattie is very determined. She has her mind set on one thing and one thing only. She will attain this using mysterious methods relevant only to this specific end. I am also determined. I, however, will reach my specific end using a vast variety of non-mysterious methods: perfectionism, anxiety and over-thinking. Hattie thrives in her field of Drama – specifically, community theatre. I cannot commit to one field. Hattie is always at least ten minutes early. I am always ten minutes late. Hattie doesn’t care about what people think. I really do care about what people think. I aspire to be those aspects of her (she doesn’t know this), while she despises anything that makes us similar. Especially the clothes. A single item that ‘Polly would wear’ is abandoned immediately: straight out of her basket. In the same vein, every time she asks for my opinion on an outfit, I don’t even bother feigning a compliment. It’s brutal, but at least the feeling is mutual.
Then, there’s the hugging. So, Hattie loves to try and hug me. She does this by catching me unaware: from behind, from the side, or while I’m cooking. I hate this. She knows I hate it. Hattie does this on the first few days after I return from Uni, when family tensions are running particularly high. Mum’s tri-monthly ‘WHY DON’T YOU JUST GO BACK TO EDINBURGH – all four of us were getting on so nicely before you returned’, has in fact reached a record timing of five hours post LNER arrival. Hattie also likes to hug me in front of extended family. There’s no doubt this is a performance. She does it to get a response – some attention, maybe. Like a cat fiddling with a dog’s tail until the dog snaps. But it’s also a cry for an affirmation of sibling love. To my grandparents, the hug stunt is temporarily amusing, and then distressing. They cannot comprehend how two ‘gorgeous, clever’ granddaughters cannot get on. Our (lack of) sibling relationship, at the ripe ages of 17 and 22, is terribly devastating to them; tragic, even. And I don’t blame them. Surely, this dysfunctional relationship would mature with age? A family therapist once suggested that living in our home must be like ‘hell on earth’. Funnily enough, we never went back to him. The difficulty for me is the inability of the vast majority to accept that sometimes, that person you are involuntarily similar to (our voices are so alike now that my grandma religiously answers the landline with ‘Hello, Hattie! How are you my darling?’) must be your friend.
Hattie has an amusing theory that I’m obsessed with her. According to her, that’s why we argue so much. She thinks that because I’m ‘all over her’, constantly telling her to put that apple core in the bin (now she’s older they tend to be crunched rather than feebly gnarled), read a book, or to eat her pasta with a fork, not a spoon, this is a sign of my all-consuming infatuation. I mean, she is right: this is the second piece I’ve written about her. I even painted her for Art GCSE. In fact, I actually named her. I had a friend in the older years in primary school called Hattie and since her mum was called Polly I was adamant this would be my new sister’s name. ‘Obsession’ aside, I like to think as her older sister, I’m helping her out a bit, giving her the bigger picture. The woman only eats jarred Sacla pesto: not Tesco own brand, or FreeFrom, or fresh. It must be Sacla Classic Basil Pesto. She can literally Taste the Difference. And that’s before she’s demanded to see the jar. Penne is a preference but ‘shell’ pasta or ‘pasta parcels’ (tortellini) are more popular. They must be spinach and ricotta, though. Never have I uttered a more middle-class sentence. But the funny thing is, Hattie’s vehemently against all things middle-class. If she liked avocado, she would, out of principle, never order avocado toast. And yet she’s cranky enough to only eat this jarred stuff, daily. This has been going on for years. I’ll never understand this adamant narrow mindedness. I’ll give it to her. She wins.
We love each other, but we don’t like each other. In extremely specific and rare circumstances, however, we can get on. The times we do click are those awkward events where we don’t know anyone and have to put on an enthusiastic façade for people like dad’s primary school friend’s wife, or our aunt’s friend, who is, we are told, our new dentist. Events like a family friend’s party, neighbour’s drinks or aunt’s 50th. Those are my favourite occasions. The thrill and unpredictability of forced interaction. It’s brilliant. We know that in moments of social desperation, where not speaking to each other entails speaking with strangers, we can chat effortlessly, as if we’ve been mates for years. Soulmates, even. We both know that even though we are not friends, we are sisters. And the fact we are sisters means we are obliged to communicate. Because that’s what sisters do – they help each other out.
We also have this thing on tube journeys (1-on-1 journeys occur roughly once a year, usually the result of forced sibling ‘dates’). If we find ourselves sitting in opposite seats, I’ll open my book. This cues her earphone insertion. The woman next to Hattie will acknowledge this unspoken sisterly communication, or perhaps notice the sibling resemblance. She’ll give a warm, knowing smile in my direction. I can’t help but return the smile and glance at Hattie, to find her thumbs tapping, lip biting, deep in concentration. Maybe the woman is feeling nostalgic about her own sister, or just having a mindful moment, acknowledging fellow humans existing on the tube (definitely not a Londoner). It’s moments like these, as well as text messages like, ‘you’re a cunt’, that really confirm we’re sisters.
As we grow up, something strange is occurring. Arguments cannot be interfered with by parents. Mum can no longer defend Hattie. I can no longer be criticised by Dad. Aunts can attempt to dissect and provide answers, as it saddens them to see so much relationship potential wasted. But ultimately, it’s up to us. Our identities are now being forged externally, outside the walls of our home. I’m in Edinburgh. Hattie’s in London. What connects us are the words we type across Instagram, WhatsApp and iMessage. We actually talk quite a lot in our new cyber relationship. Yes, we will inevitably regress as soon as I re-enter my childhood home, where the embers of old wars re-ignite into flames. And that scares me. But for now, absence is making the heart grow fonder. And apples do still grow on trees.
Image: via Wikipedia