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Authors: Emily Barr

The Sisterhood (42 page)

BOOK: The Sisterhood
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Mary pulled away from me at once, wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and went to Helen. I watched her reach out, wanting to take her daughter in her arms. I watched Helen push her away with surprising strength.

'Helen,' said Mary.

'What?' said Helen.

'Helen,' said Mary again. 'Helen, you know that Papa and I love you very much, don't you? We want to make everything better. We're going to help you with this. We're going to get through it together, as a family. I'm going to look after you.'

Helen shifted her tiny weight from one foot to the other. She moved incessantly, little movements of her hands and legs. She picked up a strand of her hair, and chewed it. She showed no sign of having heard Mary's words.

'Helen,' I said, and I stared at her. I was looking at her with new eyes, once again. A day ago, she had been my friendly flatmate. Now, not only was she someone who had wanted me to be her sister, but she was also somebody who had been so unable to accept that her brother had died that she reinvented him and took him everywhere with her. I supposed her coming to London and leaving Tom behind had something to do with her reaching adulthood. But he had followed her. It was all too much for me to take in. I felt desperately sorry for her, in spite of everything she had done to me. She seemed to notice me for the first time.

'Don't listen to my mother,' she said, in a quiet, urgent voice. 'To our mother, I mean. She's lying about the girl in New Zealand. She lies about everything, our mother. It's not Beth, it's Liz. It's you. I know it is, because I've just been on Google, and I can't find her in New Zealand, and the reason is, because she isn't there. It's just a lie. Just another lie. She doesn't want me to have a sister.'

I stood up and walked over to her. I desperately needed to convince her that I wasn't her sister, because otherwise I knew she would follow me back to London.

'But what about my name?' I took her hand, and made myself speak gently 'Do you remember? I wasn't born Elizabeth Greene. Was I? You do believe me about that. Don't you?' I looked into her eyes. After a while, she nodded.

'I don't know about that,' she admitted. 'I don't know how that's happened. But I still feel it's you. We
are
sisters. Don't you think so?'

I looked at Mary's worried face, and decided to lie.

'Helen,' I said. I put my hand on her bony back. 'Helen, I'm afraid I'm really not your sister. Your sister is in New Zealand. Maybe your mother will show you some letters from her, later, or even a photo. Then you'll see. But we can be
like
sisters, if you want. I'm still glad I met you. And your parents are going to look after you now. And we can be friends. Would you like that?'

She looked at me. Her gaze was intense and unnerving. I tried not to look away. For a few seconds, she seemed to want to lash out, and then she closed herself off.

'But I don't want a friend,' she said. 'I want a sister.' And she turned her back on me.

I walked away. I felt emotionally battered, and I swallowed down my tears. I was so weary that I thought I could just lie down where I was, and sleep for a few hours. I told myself that this was not my problem any more. Tom had died many years ago. He was nothing to do with me. In a moment, I would go inside and pack my bag, and ask Jean-Pierre, who seemed to be abdicating responsibility very effectively, to call me a taxi.

For now, though, I found myself walking across the grass, towards the vines.

The soil in the vineyard was dusty, and the sun was already hot. I walked between the rows of plants. The grapes were still small. The fields were huge. They just went on and on. I was seething. My life at home was a mess, and it was almost all down to Helen. I would go back now, sad and tired, and I could try to sort it all out. By the time the baby arrived, I might be able to have some semblance of a life.

I felt my loneliness more than ever. For as long as I could remember, there had been a mother-shaped hole in my life. Helen had thought she had the answer. In her cack-handed and damaged way, she thought she was on a mission to transform my life. I wondered at the way she had penetrated my world. She'd had an agenda, and I'd never suspected it. I had invited her to live in my home. All along, she'd been plotting to offer me up to her mother. Even if she had been right, Helen's plan could never have brought anything but misery. She was young, and she was screwed up, and she knew nothing.

It was only Tom who was stopping me hating her. The whole fact of Tom was unbearable. I knew that she had genuinely believed in him, and I ached for her.

I was heading wearily back towards the house, when I stopped. Something inside me popped. It was uncomfortable, but not painful. Then I realised that there was liquid running down my leg.

The first contraction came when I was halfway back to the swimming pool. It did not hurt, but it was definitely a contraction.

I was alone, hundreds of miles from home, in a country where I only had a rough grasp of the language. I was in the middle of someone else's family drama. I was in labour, five weeks early.

 

 

chapter forty-eight
Mary

When Helen was seven, Mary looked at her, and suddenly she loved her again. It happened one morning as Helen was getting ready for school. Jean-Pierre was standing by the door, car keys in his hand, knocking back a third espresso and tutting as he waited for their daughter. Mary looked at Helen's serious little face, at the way she tied the laces on her school shoes with her forehead furrowed in concentration, and she was filled with precious, all-consuming love. She had forgotten what it felt like, the uncomplicated love a mother has for her child.

She smiled and touched Helen's shoulder.

'Can I help you with that, darling?'

Helen looked round and frowned.

'No. I'm OK,' she said.

Mary couldn't stop looking at her. This little girl, with her blonde hair and her fierce independence, was everything that she had. Helen picked up her school bag, ran her fingers through her straight fringe, and set off for the door.

'Can I have a kiss?' Mary asked.

Helen looked at her in surprise. Mary wondered whether she had really been letting her child go to school every day without a proper goodbye, and she decided she probably had. She held her tight, kissed her soft cheek three, four times. Helen wriggled and pulled away.

'Bye,' she said. She ran to Jean-Pierre, and took his hand and they left. Jean-Pierre looked back over his shoulder, and smiled at Mary.

He had been patient with her. He had stuck by her, in spite of everything. It was his steadfast love that had brought her to this point, where she felt ready to be a mother again. Tom was gone. She would hold him forever inside herself, and she would always ache. But she had someone else who needed her. Another baby: Helen. For three years, she had kept as far from her little girl as she possibly could. She regretted it, hated herself for it. Now she was going to do everything she could for her. She was going to try to make everything all right again.

Mary took Helen out on expeditions, just the two of them. She took her to cafés, bought her ice creams, went clothes shopping and let her have anything she wanted. They went to the beach together, the wide sandy beach that stretched for a hundred miles. They sat on the sand and looked at the sea. They made sandcastles, jumped over waves. It was a nicer beach than Brighton, by a long long way. She tried to tell Helen about Brighton, the beach where she'd once lived, the beach that was covered in stones. Helen wasn't interested, because she was completely involved in an elaborate sand structure she was building with her imaginary friend.

Mary kissed her peachy cheeks, first thing in the morning and last thing at night, and whenever possible in between. She told Helen about Nepal, about India, about how she had got off a bus in France and decided to stay, and about how she met Jean-Pierre. She felt she ought to talk to Helen about her baby brother, and she tried to do that, too.

Nothing she did seemed to make a difference. Helen allowed her to do whatever she wanted, but she kept a distance that seemed almost adult. She preferred her imaginary friend to her mother. She would not let Mary say a word about baby Tom, covering her ears and becoming agitated at the mention of his name. Soon Mary stopped talking about him.

She did everything in her power to be a mother again to Helen, and on the surface things were normal. She knew, though. She knew from the start: it was too late. And after a while, she stopped trying.

 

 

chapter forty-nine
Helen

I couldn't do anything but shut myself down.

I fought Mother off, because I couldn't stand to have her anywhere near me. All of this was her fault. She had failed and she was the worst mother in the world. Whenever she came close enough to touch me, I lashed out at her. I didn't want her to be my mother. I didn't want her anywhere near me. I was alone. My brother was dead, and my sister was on the other side of the world, and Liz, who had occupied my whole being, day and night for months, was turning out to be no one. The loss of Liz was almost as bad as the truth about Tom.

I had done it because I wanted them to love me. I'd fucked it up, and now they hated me more than ever, and I hated them, too. I looked around the garden, which was spiky and dry. I would inherit it one day. It would all be mine, because there was no one for me to share it with. I didn't think I could bear it. I didn't want to see any of them. I hated Mother. I hated Papa, because he should have been my ally and he never bothered to help me. I hated, hated, hated Liz. I hated her most of all because she wasn't my sister, and now I had to forget her. I didn't want to be her friend, and I knew she didn't really want to be mine, either. She'd only said that to make me feel better and it hadn't worked.

I was on my own. I had been on my own all along. I sat on the prickly grass and curled up into myself, and every time Mother tried to come close to me, I kicked her, or scratched her, until she went away. Once I spat, and it went right in her eye. That sent her off, for a while. Matt wouldn't want to know me any more, because Liz would tell him what I'd done. And Matt was from Liz's world, and Liz's world wasn't my world, and it had never been my world.

When Papa came out, I turned my face away from him. He tried to talk, in a stupid soft voice as if I were a nutter or a baby, but I ignored him. I didn't even hear what he said. I turned in on myself, and blanked it all out, and soon I didn't even know what was going on at all. There were voices. More than before. There was a bit of commotion. I kept my eyes closed and wished myself away. I wanted them to grab me, to look after me, but they didn't. Nobody dared come close. They were pathetic. This was the test: if they cared about me, they would prove it. If they cared about me, they wouldn't leave me in a foetal position on their lawn, for hours. I wanted them to help me. I wanted them to help me, whether I liked it or not.

It took a stranger to do it. He picked me up gently, and I let him, because he wasn't them. He took me to a car, and I let him. He gave me a pill and a bottle of water, and I swallowed the pill and drank all the water.

'Sage, comme une image,'
he said, not to me. I smiled. That was what French people said about babies. I liked being like a picture, unresponsive, inactive. I thought I might stay like this, for a while.

I stared out of the window. Mother tried to touch my leg from time to time. I stayed still and hard, like a statue. She was talking about Liz. I didn't listen.

We were going back into Bordeaux. I supposed they were going to put me away somewhere. Hand me over to somebody. Wash their hands of me.

As I watched the streets getting busier and the town appearing outside, I began to think that I had, in fact, known for a while that Liz was the wrong person. I just hadn't let myself notice it.

I knew it when I listened to Sue and Liz's father talking, in the café. She called him Marcus. I had pretended not to hear that bit.

I knew it when I went into Liz's room. There was a photograph by the bed. It was a picture of Liz and her mother, when Liz was born. That woman was not my mother, and no amount of staring could have melded them. That was why I looked quickly away.

Yesterday, I opened Liz's passport, curious. But her middle name wasn't Rosemary. It said it was Jane. I shut it at once.

I'd never asked Liz much about herself, because secretly I didn't want to know. I wanted to be doing the right thing. Instead, I had got into the life of a stranger, and I had messed it up, on purpose, to make her need me. But it turned out that I didn't need her at all. She was the wrong one.

Mother was touching me. She was patting my arm, over and over again. I couldn't pull away, because I was already pressed up against the door. I pushed my cheek to the window. I liked the way it was smooth and cold. I shut her out. She was talking, in a quiet, secretive voice, close to my ear. I tried not to process her words, but I heard her say 'Tom'. When she said his name, I turned my head as far away as I could, squashing my nose against the glass.

 

It was autumn, and I was four. I didn't like the baby. I didn't like it that he took all the attention away from me. No one was interested in me any more, when there was a baby. And I had expected him to be like a doll, but he was ugly and he cried.

All the same, I liked the idea of him. I liked having a brother. I was pleased when they balanced him on my lap and let me grip him, tightly, around the middle. I liked it when he was sick, in milky pools that fell on the tiled floors and stayed there, congealing, until someone noticed them.

I was starting to get used to him, when he went away.

They told me gently. 'Tom's gone,' they said.

'When's he coming back?' I wanted to know.

I didn't believe them when they said never. If he had died, like they said, there would have been a funeral. There wasn't a funeral, and that meant he would come back one day. I knew it, and I was right. Old people died, not babies.

BOOK: The Sisterhood
5.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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