If You Knew My Sister, page 1
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I dedicate the first copy of this novel to you, Stasinos, because without you it would never have come to be.
Every other copy belongs to those individuals who have at some point felt worthless. I hope by now you know you were wrong.
The buzzing of my telephone is like the scuttling of a cockroach underneath the bed. No real danger, yet still I am terrified. The same fear that a knock on the door just before bedtime brings, always bad news, or a murderer there to live out a fantasy. I look back and see Antonio sleeping by my side, naked save for a white sheet draped over his hip like an unfastened toga. His breath glides in and out, comfortable, at peace. I know the dreams that come to him are good, because he smacks his lips and his muscles twitch like a contented baby. I glance at the red numbers glowing on the alarm clock: 2.02 a.m., a warning sign.
I reach for the phone, my movements slow, and glance at the screen. Unknown number. I press the green button to answer the call and hear the bright, cheerful voice. But it’s a lie, designed to fool or blind. ‘Hi, it’s me. Hello?’ It waits for an answer. ‘Can you hear me?’
I pull the sheet higher, protecting myself as a chill spreads across my skin. I cover my breasts, the left of which hangs just a bit lower than the right. The beauty of fifteen degrees of scoliosis. It is Elle’s voice I hear, the one I knew it would be. The last remaining connection to a past I have tried to forget. Yet still, even after six years of absence she has managed to scramble up the walls of the chasm I have gouged between us, wriggle her way back in like a worm through mud and find me.
I reach up, turn on the lamp, illuminating the darkest monster-filled corners of the room. When I raise the phone to my ear I can still hear her breathing, creeping out of the shadows, waiting for me to speak.
I roll away from Antonio, wince as my hip throbs with the movement. ‘What do you want?’ I ask, trying to sound confident. I have learnt not to be polite, not to engage. It helps not to encourage her.
‘To talk to you, so don’t you dare hang up. Why are you whispering?’ I hear her giggle, like we are friends, like this is just a normal conversation between silly teenage girls. But it isn’t. We both know it. I should hang up despite her threat, but I can’t. It’s already too late for that.
‘It’s the middle of the night.’ I can hear the quiver in my voice. I’m shivering. I swallow hard.
There’s a rustle as she checks the clock. Where is she now? What does she want this time? ‘Actually, it’s the early hours of the morning, but whatever.’
‘What do you want?’ I ask again, aware that she is picking at my skin, creeping under the layers.
Elle is my sister. My only sister from a previous life from which I have kept few memories. The memories I do have are blurry, as if I am looking back through a window drenched in heavy rain. I’m not even sure if they represent reality any more. Twenty-nine years is a long time for them to morph, transform into something else.
My second life, the one I am stuck in now, began when I was three years old. It was a bright spring day; the frosts of winter had melted and the animals in the nearby woods were venturing from their dens for the first time. I was wrapped in a thick woollen coat, so many layers of clothes that my joints were immobile. The woman who had given birth to me pulled red woollen mittens on to my hands without saying a word. What a three-year-old remembers.
She carried me along a dry, muddy path intersected by grass until we arrived at a waiting car up ahead. I was a late developer, and parts of me, like my hip (a poorly formed socket held together by loose, stringy tendons), hadn’t really developed at all. I hadn’t managed the whole walking thing. I didn’t put up a fight when she pushed me into the back seat and strapped me in. At least I don’t think I did. Maybe I don’t really remember anything, and this is all just a trick of the mind, to make me feel that I have a past. A life where I had parents. A past with somebody other than Elle.
Sometimes I think I can remember my mother’s face: like mine, only older, redder, wrinkles like a spider’s web weaving around her lips. Other times I’m not so sure. But I’m sure that she didn’t offer any last-minute advice to be a good girl, no quick kiss on the cheek to tide me over. I would have remembered that, wouldn’t I? She slammed the car door, stepped back, and my aunt and uncle drove me away from her like it was the most normal thing in the world. And even then I knew something was over. I had been given away, cast out, dumped.
‘Are you listening to me, Irini? I told you I want to talk to you.’ Her sharp voice comes through quick as a blade, wrenching me back to the present.
‘What about?’ I whisper, knowing that it has already begun again. I can feel her on me, slithering back into place.
I listen as she draws in a breath, trying to calm herself. ‘How long is it since we spoke?’
I edge further away from Antonio. I don’t want to wake him up. ‘Elle, it’s two in the morning. I have work tomorrow. I don’t have time for this now.’ It’s a pathetic attempt, but I have to try. One last effort to keep her away.
‘Liar,’ she spits. And I know that’s it, I’ve done it. I have made her angry. I throw the covers off, swing my feet out of the bed and brush my fringe from my eyes. My pulse is racing as I grip the phone to my ear. ‘It’s Sunday tomorrow. You don’t have work.’
‘Please, just tell me what you want.’
‘It’s Mum.’ The word jars me when she uses it so casually. Drops it like a friend might use a nickname. It feels alien, makes me feel exposed. Mum, she says. As if I know her. As if somehow she belongs to me.
‘What about her?’ I whisper.
Moments pass before I breathe. She’s gone, I think. I’ve lost her again. I cover my mouth with a sweaty palm. Elle waits for a response, but when I offer nothing she eventually asks, ‘Well, are you going to come to the funeral?’
It’s a reasonable question, but one for which I have no answer. Because to me, mother is nothing more than an idea, a childish hope. A dream. But my nagging curiosity spurs me on. There are things I need to know.
‘I guess,’ I stutter.
‘Don’t force yourself. It’s not like they’d miss you if you didn’t.’
I wish that didn’t hurt, but the knowledge that my presence would not be missed is a painful reminder of reality even after all these years. ‘So why ask me to come?’ I say, aware that my mask of confidence is slipping.
‘Because I need you there.’ She speaks as if she is surprised I don’t already understand, as if she doesn’t know that I dodge her phone calls, or that I’ve changed my number twenty-three times, and moved house, just to stop her from finding me. Six years I have kept the distance, my best run yet. But she weakens me, and to be needed by her makes me limp. Pliable. ‘And you still owe me, Irini. Or have you forgotten the things I’ve done for you?’
She’s right. I do owe her. How could I have fo
‘Call me tomorrow if you are coming,’ Elle says. ‘I hope you can. Don’t make me come to London to find you myself.’ She hangs up the phone before I have a chance to answer.
I sit stunned on the edge of the bed, watching as the clock changes from 2.06 a.m. to 2.07 a.m. Just five minutes was all it took to undo six years of effort, and now Elle is back in my life as if she’s never been gone. I get up, unsteady on my feet, as if even gravity has shifted. I wrap my dressing gown around me and knot it tightly, dodging the packed overnight bag sitting by the end of the bed. Antonio must be planning to go somewhere, most likely without me.
I nudge his bag aside and slip my feet into grey cashmere slippers. They were a gift, one of many that Antonio has given me during the three years we have been together. At first it all seemed so easy. But then reality started to creep in, and the idea that Elle could turn up at any moment to ruin things started to take its toll. Of course he didn’t know anything about her at the time, so when things started to go wrong, he thought gifts might help. Now, as I look at him sleeping in the umbra of our old life, his overnight bag packed like so many times before, I realise that no amount of gifts could ever have prevented this distance between us. Elle is my destiny. Utterly inescapable. She is back, here to ruin things, just like I always knew she would be.
I glide silently over the laminate floorboards of my depressing end-terrace house in a dark corner of Brixton, and step from the bedroom. I look along the street from the landing window, find it shrouded in shadow with not a soul about. Identikit houses merge into the distance, the warm glow of the city just visible as a marker to remind me where I am. A city so large you can disappear in plain sight. Almost.
If Antonio was awake he would hold me, listen as I spoke, and then tell me that I should feel better now that I had got it off my chest. It’s an expression he picked up, like people do when they learn a new language, dropping phrases at inappropriate moments. Phrases that are too generic for the situation. Like the time I told him that Elle once killed a dog. Her dog. He said it was all right because I had got it off my chest. As if talking about it made it all go away, and the dead dog with its caved-in head would come sprinting back, tongue hanging out, excited as Toto. There’s no place like home. What a crock of shit that is.
I pace down the wooden stairs, taking cautious steps as I move about in the dark, one hand on the wall to steady me as I find my way to the kitchen.
So, I think. My mother is dead.
I stand at the worktop and fiddle with a stained wine glass, swirling around the last dribbles of Chianti at the bottom. I set it aside and take two mugs from the cupboard, taking care to make some noise. Maybe Antonio will wake up if he hears me. Perhaps he will come and sit with me, tell me everything is going to be all right, like he always used to. I could do with that. It might help settle the panic that Elle’s return has brought with it. I even take a step towards the bedroom, certain that his presence would soften the loneliness. But then I remember the bag on the floor waiting for his exit, so instead I reopen the cupboard quietly and put the second cup away. Is he going to leave me? Maybe. Destiny, I suppose. I’ll have to get used to being alone once he’s gone. I slide a pod into the coffee maker, and when the light on the machine turns red I pick up my cup. The steam hits my face as I take a lip-burning sip.
I edge along the wall, turning on all the lights before I sit at my unimaginative glass desk and switch on the computer. I prefer new furniture like this. Bland objects with no history or story to tell. Stuff you don’t mind leaving behind. I set my cup at my side and open the browser, bathing my face in cool blue light. I am still for a moment, staring at the screen. Barely even breathing. What am I doing here? Am I really going to go? When I think I hear something behind me that sounds like footsteps, I turn, hopeful that it might be Antonio, but instead I find nobody there. I lean back, look up the stairs, one last check, but see only the dark from where I came. I turn back to the computer and type Edinburgh in the search box to look for flight options, still unsure if I am awake enough for such a decision. Am I really going to go back? Next box. Return or one-way?
‘What are you doing?’ Antonio asks.
‘Shit!’ I shout, almost jumping out of my seat. ‘Don’t creep up on me like that.’ My heart hammers in my chest.
‘Christ, Rini.’ He staggers back, surprised. ‘You’re the one creeping around in the dark. You scared me.’ He is standing in a pair of white trunks that look too small for him, one of my low stilettos in his hand like a weapon. His voice is rich as chocolate, strong as my espresso. ‘What are you doing down here?’
‘Looking at something online,’ I say, still out of breath. He moves in close, sets the shoe on the desk, and I smell my perfume on his skin as he leans over me. He brushes his hands over my shoulders, and when I don’t push him away, he rubs at my neck before letting his fingers slide across the top of my breasts. He has never stopped being tactile. Even when he is angry with me, he still wants me close.
‘Just relax, OK? Take a deep breath,’ he says, kneading his fingertips into my skin. I remember what we were doing only an hour ago and wish I could go back to that, as awkward as the post-argument sex was. Nothing between us is easy any more. He continues rubbing at my shoulders as he leans forward to read the screen. Then he stops, looks at me, a flash of disbelief. ‘You going somewhere?’
I think again of his packed bag and how I could ask him the same thing. Instead I take another sip of coffee, just glad that I am no longer alone. ‘Cassandra died,’ I say.
It takes him a moment to register the name because he isn’t used to hearing it. ‘When?’ he asks, once the pieces fall into place. He crouches down and my gown slips open, exposing my legs and the bottom of my scar. He rubs a strong hand against my weaker left thigh, running it all the way up to the thick red wound. He completes an assessment of my face to see how I am taking the news. I am empty, reticent as a blank sheet of paper. ‘How?’ he asks as I shuffle away from him, his fingertips irritating the raised flesh of my scarred hip.
Only now do I realise that I didn’t ask Elle what happened to our mother. I don’t know if she died in her sleep or in a bloody car wreck. I don’t know if she died in pain or peacefully. I’d love to say that I didn’t ask because I don’t care, but I know that I do. I still care, even though I have tried for twenty-nine years not to.
‘I don’t know.’
Antonio doesn’t push it, even though I know he doesn’t really understand my detachment. He has too many of his own beliefs about family. They all start with marriage. But he is here, and he has forgiven me for the argument I caused the previous night, something lame that began with his apathetic approach to domestic detail and ended with my unwillingness to become a mother.
‘Are you going to go?’ he asks.
I shrug my shoulders. There are so many reasons not to. I could still get out of this, change my phone number, move before Elle has a chance to discover where I live. Pretend that I don’t owe her a thing. But if I go, there are truths my father could tell me. How can I pass up the chance to know why they gave me away and kept Elle?
‘Well, I suppose you have to,’ Antonio says. He reaches for the mouse and begins to scroll through the available flights. He makes a selection for 3.30 in the afternoon and drags the cursor in a circular fashion to catch my attent
I nod and smile, understanding his belief that the only right thing is for me to be there. ‘Pass me my wallet,’ I say as I click on the link with a shaky hand. I select the one-way option, not knowing when I might be able to come back, and immediately feel less confident. Antonio doesn’t suggest coming with me. Perhaps he’ll just be glad of the space. Perhaps we both will be.
‘Now, come back to bed,’ he says.
We walk back together, Antonio leading the way, holding my hand as though I’m a teenage girl about to get laid for the first time. We slip back into the sheets and he wraps his arms around me, something I have come to miss in the weeks that he has been distant and unreachable. I rest into him, wishing that I still felt like I used to. But I don’t. His touch is angular, like we are two pieces of a jigsaw that don’t fit together, and his presence beside me no longer blurs the past as it once did.
I look at the clock, which now reads 2.46 a.m. Time is already slowing, already pulling me down beneath the surface, no matter how hard I fight and kick. Soon enough it will start counting backwards, tick-tock, tick-tock, until I am right back there with the silent woman who was supposed to be my mother. And now, in the dark of our bedroom in Antonio’s arms, I wonder what the hell I’ve done.
I should have told Elle I wasn’t going. I should have ignored the voice telling me that I owed her. I should have run from her like I did fifteen years ago, dressed in my pyjamas with tears streaming down my face and blood running down my arm, knowing the only chance of a future was if I let her go. What happened that day forced us apart, but it’s also the day that will bind us for ever. The day she saved me and terrified me in equal measure.
But it’s not just my thirst for the truth that lures me back. I want Elle, too. I am drawn to her, despite the danger. I can’t help it. All these years I thought I could push her out, but I can’t. I thought I didn’t need her, but I do. And what a terrifying thought that is, because when Elle explained that our mother had died, there was a reason that I didn’t ask how. I assumed I already knew; that it was Elle who killed her.