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Authors: Emily Barr

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BOOK: The Sisterhood
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The big black front door slammed shut behind me. I checked the post on the sideboard, though there was nothing for us. I unlocked our front door, which was a cheap plywood effort in the hall, and took the stairs two at a time.

'Hiya!' I shouted, always hating the sound of my voice in a potentially empty space. 'I'm back,' I added, my voice tailing off. I listened. There were footsteps upstairs.

'Lizzy!' he called. A herd of elephants gallumphed down to meet me. Steve leapt down the last five steps, landing with a crash in front of me. He smiled a broad smile, but he looked unsettled.

Steve had changed after work, and was wearing a baggy shirt, unbuttoned almost to the waist. He had lost weight recently, which made me conscious of the fact that I hadn't. He was trying, at the moment, to compensate for his receding hairline by growing what remained, so it touched the back of his collar. To my surprise, he looked distinguished like that. It suited his face.

He ran a hand through his hair.

'You're back!' he exclaimed, frowning and smiling at the same time. 'Are you early?'

I shook my head. 'Maybe a bit,' I said. 'Left school at four for once.' I held up my hands, a laden carrier bag in each. 'Went to Waitrose. Got stuff for tonight.' I listened to myself. I could tell that I was nervous, because I was missing off personal pronouns. The atmosphere was odder than usual.

Steve nodded. 'OK. Cool. I'm just sorting some stuff upstairs. Be down in a minute.'

'Sure.'

Steve was often home before me, even though he supposedly worked until half past five. I had never quite worked out how he did it, though when I thought about it, I knew that I usually stayed later than four, and he often bunked off early. I worked further from home than he did. My school was in Pimlico. I travelled eight stops on two Tube lines, while he rode a bike for ten minutes. It did add up, in a way.

I looked around the kitchen. There were two cups, washed up, on the draining board. Otherwise it was spotless. Our kitchen was filled with cheap wooden units that we painted blue and yellow after we visited Monet's house on holiday, years ago. I remembered feeling proud and grown up, standing up a ladder with a paintbrush in my hand. These days it was tatty, but it was home, and I would not have swapped it because our history, in our happy days, was in this kitchen.

I put the radio on, determined to work myself up into a party mood. Radio Four was eager to tell me about a reporter for one of the British papers who had been kidnapped in Iraq. I felt fairly sure that the details weren't going to crank up my adrenaline levels and make me irresistible, and so I twiddled the dial. Eventually, I found an easy listening station that allowed me to attempt to harmonise with Sinatra in 'Something Stupid'. I chilled the champagne in the freezer, and poured myself a gin and tonic. I hollowed out the pumpkin as best I could, and put the pathetic scrapings I took from its middle into the fridge, where I supposed they would sit in a bowl for a week or so before we threw them away

By the time Steve reappeared, the oven was pre-heated, ready for the pizzas, and the table was set with the tasteless tablecloth and five candles. I was pleased with the overall effect. I had even remembered to close the sitting-room door at the front of the house, with lights off and curtains drawn, to discourage trick or treaters.

I was singing along, enjoying myself, when Steve came back downstairs, and I stopped with the words 'I love you' in my throat, suddenly shy.

He looked around.

'Heeeeeyyyy,' he said. He was trying hard to be appreciative.

'Do you like it?' I pretended his reaction was incidental, as if the whole point of the evening was not to get him back.

He smiled warmly, and put an arm around my shoulders.

'Of course I like it. What can I do?'

I cuddled into him, appreciating the rare physical contact.

'Did you switch everything off upstairs? So we look like we're out?'

'Scared of your students coming to terrorise you?'

'They live too far away. Thank Christ. Scared of the local five-year-olds, though.'

'Scared of drunk teenagers armed with flour and eggs.'

'Fireworks and handguns, more like.'

'Well, it's all switched off upstairs, yes.'

We put the pizzas in the oven, and I opened the first bottle of champagne. The plastic flutes made a dull clunk against each other.

'Cheers,' said Steve, and he sat down at the table. The atmosphere between us was suddenly stranger than it should have been. I looked at him, the beautiful man who had adored me for years, who had made me laugh and cry with happiness. My first husband had never been anything. Steve was everything to me. I made myself speak. I couldn't try to manipulate the conversation like a 'Venus' woman. I had to come straight out with it.

'OK,' I said, levelly. 'Steve. Honey. I think we need to talk about a few things.'

Steve stared at the table.

'Talk about a few things?' He snorted gently. 'Yes. I've been wondering if you'd picked up on anything.'

I looked at him, surprised. 'Picked up on what?'

'You tell me.'

'No. You tell me.'

'You started it.'

'I don't think I've "picked up on anything".' I tried to fit my concerns into a framework of picking up. It didn't work.

'So what did you want to say?' he asked, fiddling with his plastic champagne glass, a glass which suddenly looked stupid.

'I'm going to the loo,' I announced suddenly, scared. 'Then we both have to talk.'

'Deal.'

I looked at him. He smiled and winked. It was a shadow of the way we used to be, a trace of the old days. I felt a mounting fear, because I sensed that the foundations of my life were shifting.

I lurched upstairs, already slightly drunk. More than that, though, I was starting to panic. I knew Steve inside out, and I knew that he had something big to tell me. It was going to be something disastrous. I wondered whether he was ill. He had lost a lot of weight. We hadn't talked about it.

I stared into the bathroom mirror, which had a little mosaic around it. I was hiding from what might be coming. I saw that the fear, and the alcohol, had made my cheeks pink, my eyes wide. I drew my fingers through my curly hair and tried to be positive.

I looked good. I was slightly heavier than I would have liked, but my features were strong and even. I looked a bit stupid in my work clothes, so I thought I would go and change. This was something I should face in what Steve called my 'glad rags'.

Then I stopped myself. I wasn't going to hide upstairs, in the bathroom. I wasn't going to put on a dress. This was not a job interview. This was Steve and me. I told him everything. We were partners. He was probably in financial trouble. We would work through it together.

Someone moved in our bedroom. I wondered how Steve had got up there without my hearing him. I didn't even need to go to the loo. As I opened the bathroom door, I heard footsteps jumping down the stairs, taking all of them in three or four jumps. Steve was standing at the bottom, but there was someone else there too.

Within seconds, I was in the kitchen. Steve grabbed me around the waist, and held me back. Our visitor was going down the other stairs, now, in a panicky blur. The plywood door downstairs slammed shut. I kneed Steve in the balls and jumped down, taking the stairs in fours and fives.

I had only seen Steve's face for a second, but it was all there. I knew.

He chased me down the stairs, trying to catch me as I tumbled over and grabbed the banister. I had to find her, had to know who she was. As I opened our flimsy front door, I saw a slight figure silhouetted in the frame of the main door. That door slammed with a noise that shook the building. I ran to it, yanked it open, and stared at the person on the steps.

I was expecting a young woman. In the few seconds since I'd realised what was happening — since I had started to 'pick up on it' — I had formed a picture of a twenty-two-year-old girl with peachy skin. Many things had instantly fallen into place. Steve wasn't interested in sex with me. He came home from work early, presumably not alone. He often changed the sheets on our bed, which he never used to do. He was too polite to me, like a stranger, and he had wanted to talk. When I was about to tell him how much I loved him, how much I wanted to be with him for ever, he was working up to telling me that he'd met someone else, and that the woman in question was hiding in our bedroom.

But this was not a peachy young woman. It was just a boy. He was a teenager, handsome in a young, callow way. He was wearing a pair of jeans and Steve's grey jumper. As he turned and looked at me, I saw that I had missed everything. I was a stupid woman who had no idea about things that went on under her nose. I knew nothing, nothing at all. Steve and I had been leading separate lives, and I had thought it was all about commitment.

I grabbed the boy's arm. He looked at my hand, and then at my face. His face was young, younger than I would have thought possible. He looked like the more knowing children in my GCSE classes. His skin was slightly pitted and his eyes were wild, as if he were high.

As I stared, he looked back at me. He began to smile. Then he chuckled, and within a few seconds, he was laughing loudly, in my face.

Steve's face was flushed, his expression unreadable. As I watched, he covered his mouth with his hand. I had no idea whether he was laughing too, or whether he was mortified.

'Um,' he said. 'I imagine this clarifies things.' I could not make a reply. 'I guess I'd better go,' he added. 'I'm sorry that it's been ... I'm sorry, Liz. It's just ...'

I didn't want him to leave. All the same, I stood on the pavement, outside our house, in the cold of an autumn evening that was turning to night, and watched my boyfriend of ten years leaving me with a boy who was probably illegal.

The boy looked back over his shoulder, and smiled contemptuously. He put a hand possessively on Steve's bum, and Steve didn't stop him. Not even for my sake.

Across the road, three children dressed as vampires were going from house to house.

 

 

chapter two
Helen

 

Bordeaux, 31 October

Mother and Papa were away for the weekend, so I made a visit to their house. Apart from the compulsory Sunday lunches, I made a point of visiting only when they were out. I thought we got on better that way. On Sundays, I visited the dining room, the kitchen and the downstairs loo. When they weren't there, I poked in every corner, checked every cupboard.

I had lived in that house for eighteen years, so it was horribly familiar. The smell of it hit me straightaway. The floor cleaner that Madame Allemand used for the tiles every Saturday morning. The leftover cooking smells, with top notes of garlic and breadiness. The haze of red wine. I was fifteen again. I was twelve. I was four. It made me sick.

I was thankful that I didn't have to live there any more. Because of the business they were in, the parents had a lot of outbuildings. Some of them had been derelict for years, and, a few years ago, the parents did them up, as cheaply as they could. Some became holiday cottages, and others were now workers' accommodation for harvest time. The smallest one was my home. I moved in the day after I finished my bac. It was an ineffectual gesture on my part, one that was intended to show that I would like to move out even though I couldn't work up the motivation to do it properly. All the same, it was good to be out of here.

I hated the ugly furniture which everyone pretended was beautiful because it was old. The house was stuffed with oversized varnished cupboards and bulky chests. The rooms were dark. The tiled floors were so cold that you needed to wear slippers all year round. I nosed around the place, noticing a few things that had changed since I'd last been in. The sitting-room furniture had been moved about a bit. There were some different, but equally boring, pictures on the walls. There were never any photos of Tom or me. Mother said putting photos of your children up around the house was crass. Everything had to be done properly. It was all correct and joyless. My parents were snobs. They were horrible.

I wandered around for a while, taking it all in. I took some biscuits from the cupboard and a bowl of posh ice cream from the freezer. Tom joined me. We poured drinks. We both hate red wine, but we managed to knock back our own approximation of a vodka martini, complete with olives. Then I set to work. Tom trailed after me, giggling to himself. He always got drunk quickly. I glanced back at him. His cheeks were red and his eyes were wide.

Thankfully, Tom had no idea how good-looking he was. When I was his age, teenage boys stared sullenly at the floor, their skin already scarred by acne. They slouched and avoided eye contact. They were horrible. Tom had creamy skin, and he smiled and charmed everybody. Even as his big sister, I could see that he was amazing. I would never have told him that.

I felt bad, going into the parents' room. It lasted a few seconds, and then I felt better. Luckily, the room was so sterile that I could avoid thinking about them having sex. The bed was covered by a white counterpane with small flowers printed on it, and this was pulled so tight that I couldn't imagine anyone sitting on it, let alone anything else.

I was looking for excitement, but I had no idea what it might be. Perhaps I thought Papa would have some porn, though the idea was laughable. He was far too uptight. If he did have porn, it would have to be extreme and disturbing. Maybe I thought Mother would secretly have a drawer full of sexy underwear and nurses' uniforms, though that was, if anything, even less likely. Still, I set to work, hunting through drawers of carefully folded jumpers and swishing past rows of immaculately ironed skirts and shirts. Tom just sat on the floor and laughed. He always did that. I was never silly; all my silliness seemed to have gone to Tom.

After fifteen minutes' careful searching, I struck gold. At the back of Mother's wardrobe was a neat little cardboard box, sealed on all sides with thick brown tape. I debated opening it. It would probably be something dull, and then I was going to be stuck trying to close it again. I didn't know where to find the right tape, so I was bound to botch it. Still, I couldn't imagine what it was, so I decided to prise it open anyway, as carefully as I could, and deal with the consequences later. I peeled the tape back, and hoped that whatever was inside was going to be worth it.

BOOK: The Sisterhood
10.7Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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