One of my most vivid childhood memories is, along with my older sister, running up the otherwise unusually empty lane that stretched from our school gate to the park road. One eye was on the multiple eyes peering out the class windows, visibly wondering why we were escaping early. My stomach was knotted with a mix of expectation and one-upmanship. Today was our day. We got to the road where the lollipop lady usually stands in service; instead, there was our dad beaming from the driver’s seat of the car. Claire jumped up front and I bounded in the back, immediately pushing my face through the front seat headrests where Papa’s hand proudly held up a Polaroid. I will always remember the smile on his face. A grainy, precious image of a wrinkly ball of red skin behind a glass case. We were in awe. The case was an incubator. The wrinkly ball was our little sister. She was named Alice.
Although it is now one of my favourite names – and practically a Lotto win when you consider Irene was their previous choice – I remember feeling distinctly perplexed by my parents’ choice. Alice. Alice. Alice. Alice, The Toddler: cute. Alice, The Blue-rinser: believable. Alice, The Teenager? I just didn’t buy it. But Alice it was and Alice it stayed. In the end I needn’t have worried about her teenage years being consumed by coping with a questionably age appropriate name because she had experienced plenty of name torture during my teenage years regularly being subjected to ‘ALICE, ALICE, WHO THE F*CK IS ALICE’ from buzzed up 16-year-old lads smelling of illicit canned cider and congratulating themselves on the hilariously original chants bestowed upon my little, unimpressed sister. By the time she was getting her own teenage cider buzz (that’s a joke, she only ever drank Tia Maria) she was singing along with gusto. She once won a VIP trip to Electric Picnic with 98FM for relaying a story about the curse of having all those people living next door to her for 24 years. Only she would win a competition with a curse as the winning punchline. She’s very posh you see, she’d have you believe ‘fock’ was an adjective.
I distinctly remember my mum being pregnant with Alice or ‘our new little brother’ as we liked to call the bump (particularly my actual brother – I think he still thinks of her as his little brother). She makes it hard though, with the hair flicking and posing. She knows her angles and she’s not afraid to use them. Still, he tries to break her spirit. He enjoys that. They both reside in Melbourne with their other halves and his son, her Godson. I digress. So I was beside myself with excitement at the prospect of a little brother… or sister (just in case she reads this); I had been asking for aaaaaaaages. By now I was 6 and it was clear the dog wasn’t materialising. My older sister was also in orbit at the prospect of the new arrival. We had joint high levels of enthusiasm. My eldest sister and brother however, not so much. They’ll deny this for the sake of her feelings but we all know it’s true: the idea of our parents making Alice was enough to ruin their 14 and 15 year old lives. When she arrived they made her Godparents and I know this was compensation – and insurance so they’d have to care for her regardless. I begged to be a Godmother too and was told that I could definitely be Godmother to the next one. I was thrilled. And am still waiting.
The wrinkly ball was pretty delicate when she got to earth, as was our Mama that brought her here. They both stayed in hospital for a good while, with Alice setting up camp in the glass case. There is a photo of all of us kids together gathered around the incubator, all her wires on display and us looking like the cats that got the cream. We thought she was magnificent. That may not have been necessarily true to the biased eye at just that moment but once she began looking human she really was the most beautiful little doll you could imagine. Her fair strands of hair glistened, her blue eyes shone and her smile would melt hearts. We were mad about her, especially Claire who documented her every move on camera making her by far the most photographed child in our house – no mean feat for the fifth child (and second surprise). She remained pretty light on top for a few years which meant she always seemed much younger than she was. My mum loves to tell a story about her sitting next to her on the pew in mass and a lady behind giving out under her breath about allowing the child support herself like that when she was still so fragile. Mum said that it was as if Alice had heard her; she pushed herself down onto the floor and took herself off on a running waddle up the aisle. She has always maintained that particularly classy style of ‘fock you’ for when she needs to answer critics.
Our parents spent years trying to guide the rest of us into reasonable careers, advisable lifestyles, solid degrees. One by one we let them down and took other flights of fancy. We all got there eventually (sort of) but always a bit backwards. Having wasted their breath on us, and with Alice quickly becoming ruler of the roost, they were less inclined to steer her. Of course, this meant that she did a good Leaving Cert., went straight to UCD, got an honours degree and then took herself off to study post-grad law*. If they’d only have left the rest of us alone we’d probably be a family of barristers. With those funny wigs to hide the red hair.
Alice doesn’t have red hair. She’s thrilled. When old ladies would stop us to tell us how golden our crowns were and how you couldn’t pay a hairdresser to get you that colour and how we should appreciate it and how we should never touch it with dye, they would inevitably turn to her, heads tilted and a pitiful look on their faces, directing their gaze directly into the eyes; ‘and do you wish you had the same?’ She’d crease her forehead, widen her eyes, curl her lip and give a short sharp inhalation before declaring ‘GAWD NO!’.
As O’Brien children go, Alice was probably one of the most easy for my parents to manage purely because she was so honest. She has always known what she liked, always spoken her mind. Mum and Dad would marvel at how little she was interested in drink, how she took a sensible approach to socialising, how she knew her limits. This may have been particularly pointed praise for my benefit but I know they really did believe it. And it may have been true, partly. Not long after my eldest sister got married, to mark our Nana’s special birthday, she and her new husband hosted a family BBQ. It was an extended family party so a reunion of sorts, particularly for the cousins who hadn’t seen each other in a few years. Although the rest of us were butchering small talk by way of catch up, Alice was flying high on life and welcoming everyone to the party with hugs and enthusiasm. Soon, she was all I could give my attention at the party. I didn’t remember her every being quite so animated. I went into the kitchen to investigate only to find my host sister with a terrified smile stuck to her face. The Tia Maria was nearly all gone. Alice was plastered. We joined heads and whispered about making her tea. As we saw her make her way from the back patio into the kitchen we stopped the chat and acted normal. Her strides were unnervingly purposeful however, and we both silently wondered when she would step left to come through the open door. That didn’t happen. She stepped straight, full of new found confidence, her swinging hand, self-assured foot, bobbing shoulders and delighted-with-herself face smacked straight into the glass door. YouTube gold if it happened today. And this is the amazing thing about Alice – regardless of the noise, impact, gasps followed by shocked silence, she really tried to style it out. As if perhaps we hadn’t seen her crease her entire body against the panel of double glazing. She continued as she was and reentered the house with the biggest of welcomes for herself. It became evident that she was fit only for bed so we shuffled her off to my sister’s spare room. About 6.15pm people began to wonder where she got to. ‘Off to bed’, we told mum and dad. She was a bit tired. ‘Studying so hard’, they muttered to each other, acting nonchalant but actually so blatantly proud that she was pushing herself to such studious limits as to tire herself out with diligence. And her, drinking milk all day in an effort to stay healthy and exam fit. I’m pretty sure they still remember that commitment with pride. Not anymore, I guess. But my, how my sister, brother-in-law and I laughed, literally for months and years since. Sometimes, in times of stress, I recall that purposeful stride, blunt thump, and subsequent dazzled, indignant face and I laugh, and I laugh, and I laugh…
Around this time, when she was much younger than now, but like, old young, and we were still living together at home, we killed each other. There was nothing redeeming that either of us could identify in the other. We never saw eye to eye. She was undoubtedly the most difficult person in my life. She was opinionated, sarcastic and didn’t care one iota about what other people thought of her. Over the years this changed, however. These days, she’s opinionated, sarcastic and doesn’t care one iota about what other people think of her – and this makes her undoubtedly the most refreshingly original person in my life.
Oh God, and she raps. I can’t believe I nearly forgot. She raps, like a rapper, from America. ‘Gongster’s Paradoise’ is her rap of choice. It comes with actions, jutting shoulders, hands flat to the ground with attitude matching that of her encounters with those red-head loving oul’ ones. On a recent family trip to the States we all had a post-4th of July singsong in one of our hotel rooms. Post-boozy 4th of July, you understand. I say ‘all’ but it was just the family. Just the family, in a room, singing to each other. Weird enough, you might say. Not so fast! Alice hadn’t performed yet. It was here that we were first treated to it: ‘Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long…’. It got to the chorus. ‘Sing with me!’ We couldn’t. We were folded over, shaking uncontrollably. It was without doubt one of the greatest highlights of my life. It got to the chorus again. Her loyal, delight of a boyfriend held up the words on the phone and joined in, on backing vocals. He didn’t make the sudden movements along with her but his vocal support was admirable. Her confidence is enviable. Her boyfriend’s love for her is enviable. I ask you, where would you get it? But I’m so happy she has it: the confidence, the humour, the love from others. She deserves it all, and so much more.
We all love you a ridiculous amount, Ally Bally. We WISH we were with you in Melbourne, or that you were here, so we could celebrate with you (for an hour or two, until you get put to bed). Mel and I know that it is because of our wedding that your celebrations are over there instead of here and we are so grateful to you for making the trip home to be an integral part of all of the madness. With you being 30 in Australia I wondered what you would be turned upside down, over this side of the world. Still 30, it turns out. Isn’t that cool? So with that in mind, we’re raising a glass to our little sister reaching Level 3 and wishing you a decade of true adventure, awkward encounters, bad dancing, shameless posing, ferocious rapping, great feeds and laughing until snot comes out your nose. You rock, Alice!
*I say post-grad but I don’t quite know what it was. I’ll be corrected swiftly by herself if necessary. I won’t change it if it’s wrong though. I like to join my brother in some spirit-breaking from time to time.