I am six when my mother falls. My newborn sister is crying, and in my mother’s haste to reach her the rug slips from under her feet. Frightened by my mother’s cries of pain, I run back to the passage. I edge forwards and see her move cautiously on the rug. It is egg-shaped with swirls of yellow and brown and has a fringe like a horse’s. My sister stops crying. My mother, on all fours, inches herself upwards. Between my fingers I rub the worn hem of my dress. This is the memory of my sister’s arrival. Not the long, drawn-out labour or the concern on my father’s face when he returns from the hospital. Or the cabbage boiled in milk that he makes us for dinner or, later, the visits to the specialists in the big city. These memories come with hindsight.
I’m 12 when my sister lies on the floor of the supermarket having a tantrum. She’s six, not two, the age when most children have tantrums. Her dress has risen above her tummy, showing her white cotton knickers and her taut bellybutton. She’s kicking her legs up and down and up and down and her face is fire-engine red, her mouth a wooden puppet’s. Transfixed by her drawn out screaming, people stop to stare. I back away behind a row of canned tomatoes, leaving my mother to deal with it.
I’m 16 when I stand outside the school gates in my uniform, waiting to be picked up after the school day. Some of us are simply waiting. When you’re 16 you’re always waiting—waiting for love, waiting for your life to begin. I wait for my acne to go away and for my sister to evaporate. She’s ten, and I understand her condition—an affliction of mild cerebral palsy—but it doesn’t make me love her any more or any less. I’m gossiping with my friends. Yesterday afternoon Ricky and Marlene were behind the club house after hockey practice, and what they did is still to be divulged. I don’t notice my sister until she’s on top of us.
‘Caffy,’ she says. She can’t pronounce my name. She points her finger at me, imitating a school teacher. ‘You. Come.’
She turns, and the girls, silenced and still, part before us as if whatever she has might be contagious. A muffled giggle reaches me and my body reacts without permission, my cheeks glowing with embarrassment.
• • •
I’m 17 and in my first year of university, staying in residence. I struggle with living away from home for the first time. Wonder what I’m doing here. I’ve picked geology of all things, where there are boys. The girls-only school I attended hasn’t prepared me for boys. They sit alongside me in lectures, hunched forward and attentive, with their hairy legs and thighs like tree trunks, their large angular hands planted on the desks. They use words such as ‘basalt’, ‘alluvial’ and ‘cataclastic’. I don’t know where to put my eyes, or my thoughts.
I’m homesick, but I don’t want to return to the dry and dusty mining town where I grew up; my education is my ticket out. I’m penniless too, of course, but then who isn’t? And what money I have I spend on Mars bars and hot, salty chips: comfort food.
In the residence the phone is in the lift lobby, and anybody can listen in. I’ve been called to the phone and I pick up the receiver and lean against the wall with one bare foot raised flat to its cool surface. The nonchalance of the bare foot is deceiving—the only people likely to call me are my parents. My gaze flickers between the lift doors and the passageway, checking to see who is coming. Underneath my oversized T-shirt my waist bulges over my jeans.
‘How are you?’ my mother says.
‘Fine,’ I say, sucking on a piece of hair.
‘Look,’ she says, not wasting any time since long-distance calls are expensive, ‘we want you to take your sister out for the day.’
My sister is now in a home for children with special needs close to the university, where my parents enrolled her not long after I left home.
I spit out the hair. I finger the swollen heads of three pimples on my jawline and move up to the bumpy expanse that is my forehead.
‘It’s not a lot to ask,’ she tells me. ‘She’s your sister.’
In the silence, she presses on, a note of irritation in her voice. ‘It’s the least you can do. She has so little and you have so much,’ she tells me, but still I say nothing.
‘Aunty Eileen will have her for the weekend. She’ll call you, to arrange it.’
‘Okay,’ I say at last. I don’t have a choice. I try to run my fingers through my hair but they get stuck in the knots. I’ve let it grow into a wild mop in an attempt to hide my skin.
‘All right then, I must go. Are you having fun?’
I swallow. ‘Yes,’ I say.
During the night my eyes are closed but my mind crawls. I think about the girl who is my sister. How she looks. I think about the other students. What if one of them sees me with her? What if it’s one of the boys? How will they react? What if she has a tantrum?
On the day I choose a suburban train to a quiet seaside village. It isn’t a random choice; I’ve sifted through my childhood memories and found somewhere familiar where nobody will know us. I search for a near-empty compartment where I can look out of the window so I don’t have to look anywhere else. Twelve years old, my sister perches opposite me in a flimsy dress and a string of wooden beads. She needs a bra. On her feet are sturdy leather sandals and around her wrist is a silver watch, although she can’t tell the time, and a small square of handkerchief trapped beneath the strap. In jeans, a T-shirt, and canvas shoes, I’m in student gear. I even have a peace sign threaded with a leather thong around my neck. My hair is in its usual state of abandon. Sometimes I put my hand up to my face and run it over the lumps and blisters on my skin. My sister, whose skin is pale and beautiful but whose features are uneven, watches me wordlessly in the reflection of the train window.
We arrive at the station and step off the train. It’s a sunny Saturday morning with a crisp sea breeze. Red-footed seagulls clump on the tin roof. The platform throngs with commuters, some going shopping, some with towels around their necks ready for a day at the beach, all chatting and smiling.
My sister lags behind. I glance over my shoulder and slow my pace, conscious that she can be clumsy, tripping over the slightest variation in the paving. Or tripping over nothing but her own feet. But somehow she never catches up, and we move ahead as if we are strangers travelling by chance in the same direction.
There’s a tea room in this destination. It’s out of the way and boring, frequented by ladies of a certain age who wear blouses and pearls and carry patent leather handbags. I know this because our grandparents had a family home here, where we spent the summer holidays, and the tea room is a place we passed by as children on our way to the beach. Occasionally we were allowed into its sanctum, usually alone with one or other grandparent, but only when dressed in our good clothes and on our best behaviour. The tea room emanates peace, a combination of the comfort of the women and the elegant surroundings.
As we enter, heads and eyes swivel towards us, but I’ve trained myself not to make eye contact with anyone. Nothing has changed since I was here last. In the sudden silence we walk across a soft carpet of slate blue, and draw out heavy upholstered chairs pushed against polished wooden tables. Two maids dressed in black with white frilly aprons and caps are in attendance. One is hippy and bosomy with a pretty, dimpled face, and the other is straight up and down like a bread knife. On the menu is English Breakfast or Earl Grey tea; scones or toasted ham and cheese sandwiches. I ask for tea, and lemonade and scones for my sister.
I keep my eyes on the table, but I’m aware of the ladies, sitting in twos and threes, with their crossed, stockinged legs and court shoes. Their sideways glances. Their sedate chatter. I don’t speak to my sister. What is there to say?
The tea arrives on a wooden tray with a doily embroidered with violets and red rosebuds. There’s a tea strainer, and milk in a small silver jug, and extra hot water. A sugar bowl with a silver sugar spoon. I scald my tongue with my first sip of tea. Clutching the peace sign around my neck I blow on the tea’s surface until ripples form. I push the plate of scones towards my sister. She chooses one and cuts into it. She’s ham-fisted but successful; the scone becomes two parts. She peers at the bowl of cream, sniffs at it, then stabs it with one finger. The bowl lurches.
‘Butter,’ she says. ‘I want butter.’
One of the waitresses is hovering nearby and, with a quick glance at me, brings a small dish of butter. I can tell by its dullness that it’s hard, that it’s come straight from the refrigerator. I see all this with my elbow on the table and my face in my hand. I’ve discovered a new place with my fingers, the fourth one this week, where the skin is tight and hard and tender. A pustule that will take a day to swell and ripen and gather itself before a violent eruption of messy gunk.
My sister edges a sliver of butter onto the knife and attempts to spread it across the scone, breaking and reducing it to crumbs.
She puts her fists on the table, juts out her chin and her lower lip wobbles.
The waitress stops at the table.
‘Is everything all right, my lovies?’ she says.
It’s the lilting tenderness of the voice. The motherly concern.
My eyes brim with tears. I put my hand over my mouth while the wetness flows over my fingers. My sister is mute. I can’t bring myself to speak, and all of a sudden it’s very quiet. Or is it that I can’t hear anything? Nothing except the slow clanging of my heart.
One of the genteel ladies emerges at my elbow. She’s blurry, still clutching her paper napkin, her lipstick eaten away.
‘Is it the money, sweetheart? I can help if it is.’
I remember then that I have money, that Aunty Eileen gave me a note, which I stuffed in my jeans pocket. I extract it with wet fingers, throw it on the table, push back my chair. I don’t wait for the change although it will be substantial. I’m up and groping my way blindly towards the door.
I don’t wait for my sister, either. I’m halfway to the train station, sniffing and wiping my eyes, studying the ground, before I jerk myself to reality. She comes at an awkward run, her beads swinging, her newly formed buds of breasts jiggling on her heaving chest. I glance at her but I can’t describe the expression on her face. There’s something behind her eyes, beyond bewilderment, sadness or apprehension, something that somehow unites us.
We board the train. We let it carry us back to our starting point, and then we cross the line and we board another train and repeat the journey, whiling away the afternoon. And all the time we say nothing. All the time we gaze out the window. We watch other people going about their lives, other people who have places to go to, things to do. People who are at ease with one another, people who chat, smile and laugh together.
At the front door of my aunt’s house my sister confirms she’s had a nice day. ‘Fine,’ she says, nodding vigorously at my aunt, not looking at me. ‘Fine.’
She walks inside and doesn’t look back. I make some excuse about study and return to the student residence and lock myself in my room. When I do emerge, I never talk about this.
• • •
Now I’m growing old, and so is my sister, but the years in between have been kind to us. I have found my place in the world and stopped waiting. I have a family—a loving husband, children. Our parents are still alive, retired to that seaside village, no longer a quiet destination. Seagulls still fly above the train station roof, but the tea room has gone, replaced by a photocopier shop. My sister is grey. I am grey, too, but I hide it with tints and streaks. I have thought lately that perhaps the time has come to stop hiding.
When next I look at my sister I will look her in the eye. It will be on one of those days we sit across from each other on the wooden bench in front of the sea. It might be a sunny Saturday with a crisp sea breeze. We will be eating ice-cream cones. She likes chocolate; I prefer vanilla. We have to lick them quickly because, like some moments in life, they melt fast.
‘All right?’ I will say, catching at the drips falling to my chin with my tongue.
‘Okay,’ she might reply.
It’s all I can ask that she might say this much.