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Authors: Emily Barr

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BOOK: The Sisterhood
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I was propelled by alcohol and pills and self-disgust. I hated myself. I hated what I was doing. I was worthless. It didn't matter what I did, because it just proved how horrible I was.

Sick with everything, I moved in and forced myself to kiss her. I pulled away in disgust, and so did she. I swallowed and overcame my horror. I was going to do this. I was. I thought of Steve and Miles, and I pushed myself to carry on. I had to take control, because Rosa was not enjoying this any more than I was. I pushed my mouth on to hers. Everything about it was wrong. Her mouth was soft, like mine. The intimacy when our tongues touched made my whole body shudder. She tasted different from Steve. I recoiled, but I carried on. I was propelled by a grim and determined self-hatred.

With an effort, I stood up and pulled Rosa in the direction of the stairs. As I did it, I knew how much I was going to regret this in the morning, and I took satisfaction from that, and redoubled my efforts.

It took a lot of hard work to get Rosa to a point where she was ready for sex. I pressed onwards, not letting myself stop for a second, working with hands and fingers and mouth. I felt like a prostitute, going through the motions without feeling anything. But no one was going to pay me. I was just doing this out of perversity. Then I started to feel a little thrill, in spite of myself.

 

Twenty minutes later, we were lying on the bed. The bedside lamp was on, illuminating the debauched scene. I looked at the photograph of my mother, which had always stood on my bedside table. She was holding me, a few minutes after my birth. Her face was pale, and there were bags under her eyes. It was the only image I had of her. All the photos stopped when I was a few months old.

Rosa prodded my naked body. I couldn't even be bothered to be ashamed of it. There were parts of my stomach and thighs that I kept meaning to lose, but that meant nothing.

'This
is everything I've ever wanted,' she said, pulling my left nipple hard between her finger and thumb. I winced. 'See, I don't care if it hurts, because you've got everything I should have had. You've seen me.' She was dressed by now, ashamed of her hairless male body. She had only half undressed to start with. 'You've seen the mess I am. That was Ross's last outing. He's not proud of himself and he's going to leave now. He's not coming back.'

'Good,' I told her. I didn't want to be her friend any more. I couldn't bear the sight of her.

'So I'm going.' She shook her head. 'Because I know what's about to happen. I'm going to sober up, and I'm going to hate myself with a vengeance that might seem disproportionate. I'm already disgusted. So I'll say
au revoir
while I can still speak to you, and we won't swap numbers.'

'Me too,' I told her. 'Don't slam the door when you go.'

She picked up all her things and left without saying anything else. I heard the door slam. It was half past three. I left a message on Derek's voicemail, trying, and definitely failing, to sound sober as I excused myself from work the next day. Then I took two Nurofen with a pint of water, followed them with two sleeping pills, and passed out.

 

 

chapter four
Helen

Bordeaux

Papa was waiting for me in the car, his face looking old and strange in the half-light of the underground car park.

'Bonjour,'
he said to me, more formally than a parent ought to speak to their child. He folded his copy of
Le Figaro
, and pulled his seat forward.

'Hello, Papa,' I said, tightly, and I put my bags of shopping in the back, and slid into the passenger seat. The car smelt of stale wine and old people. I tried to think of something to say.

I never had anything to say to Papa. He would only speak to me in French. I spoke English back, because Mother had always insisted that we speak English at home. I had been to English school, and I read books in English and in French, but I had never been to England. In fact, I had never left France. That was how twisted my life was. I once went to Paris on a school trip, and I'd been to the mountains, but that was it. Mother didn't like anyone going anywhere. She liked us all to stay put. 'This is our haven,' she said firmly. 'This is where we belong.' I used to wonder why she didn't want to go away. Now I thought it might be because she was scared. If I had an ex-husband and an abandoned baby, I might want to hide as well.

Papa never spoke Engish. I often thought how funny his life would look, to a normal person. He was surrounded by people who spoke to him in a foreign language, which he understood, and who understood him when he spoke back in French. Most people would not consider that to be a satisfying family life. There were too many barriers there for it to be normal.

On the surface, Papa and I understood each other. But I always felt that we were speaking different languages on another level as well. I wanted him to be proud of me. I had never told him that, but if he and Mother had been proud of me, I would have been able to do anything. I knew that it would never occur to him. I was his daughter, but that appeared to mean that I was another item to be managed in his busy life.

'Did you buy anything nice?' he asked as he started up the car and reversed far too quickly. He always parked in a state-of-the-art underground car park that Tom called the Bat Cave, because it had curving walls at the entrance and rows of colour-coded lights showing you where to park.

'A few clothes. Some shoes.' While I couldn't see Papa's expression, I imagined that it denoted boredom. I always bought clothes and shoes. Most of the time I never even wore them once. I had no idea why I bothered, but my parents seemed to expect me to spend their money on clothes and shoes, and so, as part of my quest for their approval, I did it.

'Good,' he said, in his deadpan manner. His hair was all white now, and wild like Einstein's.

He set off, at some speed, for the exit. It would take us twenty-five minutes to get home. I didn't care if we sat in silence. On the other hand, there were things I needed to know.

'How old was Mother when you met her?' I said, after a while. I was looking out at the grand façades of Bordeaux's riverfront buildings. I liked the architecture here. For a while, I had wanted to study architecture. If I went to university, that was what I would have done. But I couldn't imagine that it was going to happen.

The autumn was still freakishly warm. People wandered around in shirt sleeves, even though it was November.

'How old was your mother?' he checked, in French.

'Yes.'

'I never ask a lady her age.'

I rolled my eyes, without letting him see. 'She must have been about thirty.'

'Perhaps.'

'But she didn't have me until she was thirty-eight, did she?'

'If you say so.'

I bit back a retort. 'And then she had Tom.'

He looked at me.

'Yes,' he said. 'Then she had Tom.'

'Why did it take her so long to have babies? When you'd met years before?'

My father tutted and stared straight ahead. He performed a couple of aggressive overtaking manoeuvres, his hand on the horn.

'Hélène,' he said, chastising me. 'Some things are private. Some things are in the past. Some things are both.'

I didn't dare ask again.

'Sorry,' I said, meekly.

He knew about Elizabeth Greene. He knew that Mother had been married before, that she had loved William Greene enough to wear his ring and have his child. That was obvious.

I wondered what had happened in her first marriage, to send Mother away to France. I was itching to find out. Tom and I were doing our best but, so far, it was proving hard to track down the right Elizabeth Greene.

 

 

chapter five
Liz

29 November

Four weeks later, the grace period ended. As soon as I realised that my period was fifteen days late, I knew that I had, somewhere in my brain, known all along. It had taken me two weeks to face the possibility.

At the same time, I didn't believe it. I didn't believe it for an instant. I felt that this was another of life's sick jokes, and that if I ignored it, something else would happen instead. Perhaps it would turn out to be the menopause. I kept the positive pregnancy test around the flat for a while, but it seemed like a curiosity, a random item that meant nothing very much. I had seen that blue line once before, when I was twenty-one. It felt disastrous then, whereas now I felt nothing. Back in my youth, it had barely occurred to me that I could have had a baby. A blue line meant an abortion, which happened as quickly and quietly as possible. I didn't even mention it to my father; it was my stepmother, Sue, who drove me to the hospital, waited for me, and took me home again. I never regretted it. I did, however, go on to marry the father, out of some strange feeling that the fact that we had conceived meant that we were made for each other. That stupid romantic notion was soon brutally dismissed.

This time, the line, which glowed like neon, had many potential meanings. It could mean that my body had overcome the obstacles, and got itself pregnant when I threw myself at Steve, the week before I found out what was going on. I knew this was unlikely, but I looked it up on the internet, and found that there were a lot of people out there who had had a period but still been pregnant. There was a chance that this was his baby. It could mean that Rosa was still fertile, a notion that had barely occurred to me. It could mean another abortion. Or it might mean that, after the fuck-ups and disasters of the past two months, after all the rejection and the self-destruction, the pills and the alcohol and the mind-spinning weirdness, finally something positive was happening. I had no idea what to do.

I changed my mind many times a day. I stopped drinking and stopped my pills, just in case. I had no idea what I was going to do.

I was fairly sure, however, that I wouldn't marry the father this time.

The idea that Rosa might have impregnated me made me sick to the core. I shuddered at the risks we had taken: when I rifled through my hazy, desperate, drunken memories of that night, I saw no condom. I didn't think it had even occurred to me, because she was a woman, and because I was so fixated on taking the worst possible course of action for me and for her.

The night Steve left, I had thrown my contraceptive pills in the bin, and had quickly filled their place on the shelves with temazepam.

I suddenly, chillingly, hoped that Rosa hadn't given me anything else. To risk AIDS twice in one month certainly felt like carelessness. To get pregnant by someone who had now, presumably, been voluntarily castrated also seemed perverse.

I couldn't tell her. I didn't dare. I knew I could never contact her again. Neither of us would ever be able to look each other in the eye. If I tried to tell her about this, she would probably go ballistic. She would cry and she would hate me even more than she already did. I could not confide in anyone else until I knew what I was going to do, because to talk to anyone about this would make it real, and I thought that I preferred to keep it half imaginary for the moment. I was horrified by the idea of telling anyone about what I had done with Rosa. I felt terrible about it, and the idea that it seemed to have had the most serious of consequences was unbearable.

On my own, I tried to see the future. If I did nothing, I could be a mother in seven and a half months. If I stepped in to prevent that happening, I would probably never have the chance again. I looked on this dilemma with a strange sort of detachment.

I would have the baby. I would not. I hoped for a miscarriage. I worried about abnormalities. I stopped drinking. I started again, but found I couldn't swallow even a mouthful of my favourite white wine. I started being sick in the mornings. Symptom piled upon symptom. I went to bed at eight o'clock every night, and slept for twelve hours, even without tranquillisers. I lived my life, as far as I could, as normal. I did my very best to ignore it all.

I stumbled along, teaching my classes on auto-pilot, using a fraction of the mental energy I usually used. During classes, I mastered the lazy teacher's manoeuvre of nodding and saying, 'That's a very good question. Anyone?' It occasionally made my life easier, though more often I was greeted with blank looks and shrugs. I marked homework without really looking at what I was doing, sitting in the corner of the staffroom nibbling a ginger biscuit, and waiting for this particular crisis to go away. I invented a mystery virus to throw colleagues off the scent, and when they looked at me knowingly, sympathetically, I realised that they thought I was still bogged down being devastated about Steve. That, I decided, was as good an excuse for wan, stressed sickness as anything. I agreed with them. 'It's only just hit me,' I said, sadly. 'Ten years of my life, down the pan.' In fact, I wasn't feeling anything any more. I didn't care about Steve, and I didn't care about anyone.

After a week, on impulse, I went to the doctor. I sat in the waiting room for forty minutes, staring at an old copy of
Marie Claire
, and avoiding looking at a selection of posters about not drinking, smoking or injecting heroin while pregnant. I gazed, instead, at a government warning on osteoporosis. By the time I went in, I was starting to shake.

My GP was a lovely woman, my own age but responsible. I had tried four different doctors before I found her, and I trusted her. I knew she thought I was coming for more tranquillisers. As I walked into the room, I saw her face arranging itself into a sympathetic 'you shouldn't get dependent' expression.

I found myself unexpectedly holding back tears.

'I'm pregnant,' I told her curtly, blinking. And, as you know, single.'

Dr Grey gave nothing away

'Oh!' she said, with a sage nod. 'Right. How do you feel about that?'

I sniffed and rubbed my forehead. 'If you'd said "congratulations",' I told her, 'that would have been a sign. If you'd picked up the phone and booked me in to see a termination counsellor, that would have been a sign, too. Where did you learn to be so non-committal?'

'It's my job.' Dr Grey smiled sympathetically. I knew she had three children. She had a photo of them on her desk, looking wholesome in their school uniforms. Each of them had a different variation on their mother's dark red hair, brown eyes, and freckles. She was, I always thought, my opposite; how I could have been, in a different universe. She had been to medical school when I was drinking and slacking my way through an English degree. She had known from a young age what she wanted to be when she grew up, and as soon as she graduated, she was a doctor. I still had no idea what I really wanted to be.

BOOK: The Sisterhood
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ads

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