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We haven’t seen my other sister for a while now. Well, quite a while, really. When we asked my mum where she was, she would only say that she would be back soon. We’ve stopped asking now. We don’t talk to Mum much. She sits on the settee most of the day, smoking her cigarettes, while we play in our bedroom. Mum told us we must never go in our other sister’s room. We don’t ask why. My little sister sneaked in once though, to get some of my other sister’s dolls that she had stopped playing with ages ago. She said that the room was stinky. She said that it smelt like onions, like that smell when we found a dead cat in the shed and Dad helped us to bury it in the garden. My other sister wanted to give it a name, but my dad said that there was no point. She told us later that she gave the cat a name anyway.
My dad’s dead now. My mum says that he was a hero. He died in a senseless war. She says he should never have gone. We went to the funeral, and everybody cried, and Mum hugged everyone, even people we didn’t know. My other sister told us we needed to be brave for our mum. We have tried to be brave. We try all the time, every day.
My mum seemed fine at first, and my other sister was a great help to her. My mum was always saying that she was a great help. She would take us to school, and pick us up, and help my mum wash-up and tidy round. Mum used to cuddle us a lot then. She would call us her brave little girls, and we would all snuggle under a blanket and watch a film together, and eat popcorn.
And we had pizza too, sometimes. I loved pizza. We never have it now. It makes me think of my dad, and when we all used to go to the beach. I liked it best when it was cold and our anoraks were zipped up to our chins, and the wind was blowing and the beach was empty. Just us. And we would walk along, with me and my little sister holding my dad’s hand. My dad’s hands were always warm.
My other sister would link arms with my mum and we would just walk along. My dad called it, “strolling out.” My dad would call us his posse, and we would run onto the shingle, crunching and crunching, and then, when we reached the sand, he would fall over, and we would all jump on him. Mum too. And we would all scream. And he would laugh, and shout at us to stop. And he would tell us that he gives in. When he got up, we would all dust the sand off of him, and then we two would stroll out some more along the beach. And he would sometimes carry my little sister on his shoulders. When we got home, we would have pizza and ice cream. Dad said he would get us a dog to walk along the beach with us, but he never did. He went to the senseless war instead. My other sister said he wasn’t her real dad and she was only our half-sister. She didn’t say which half, and we never asked. She always called him Dad anyway, and she always jumped on him, and brushed the sand off him too.
Things changed bit by bit after my dad died. My mum would sit and cry, and sometimes she wouldn’t cry, but would just stare out at nothing for a long time. We pretended not to notice, but my little sister would often start crying too, and then she couldn’t stop herself, and she would just keep on crying louder and louder. This could make my mum angry, and she would shout at her to stop, and then my sister would run off up to our bedroom, and my other sister would go after her. After a while, my mum would go up too, and hug my little sister and say she was sorry. She doesn’t say sorry anymore. She never shouts either, really, or anything like that now, not since my other sister’s not been here.
My mum stopped getting dressed in the mornings. She was in her dressing gown when we got home from school. We didn’t say anything. She didn’t do anything in the house either. The basket on the landing was full of clothes. The sink and drainer had lots of dirty dishes everywhere. My other sister would tidy up sometimes when we got home from school. She was a great help. Then she started to say that she wasn’t our mum, and she was fed up with doing everything, and she had her own life. And she used to tell my mum she needed to pull herself together. My mum didn’t get angry, not at first, she just told her not to do stuff if you didn’t want to, but my other sister carried on doing things for us. She took us to school and brought us home. She made us tea. She tucked us in. After my other sister had tucked us in, my little sister would climb into my bed and we would cuddle up. I told her that if she wanted to cry, she could, but to do it quietly, so as not to let our mum hear.
My other sister stopped tucking us in after a while, so we went to bed by ourselves. We would stand at the door to say goodnight to our mum, but she didn’t turn around. She said that she would be up in a minute, but she never came. She sat watching the telly, with the sound turned down, and smoking her cigarettes. The light from the telly glared. It seemed brighter with the sound turned down. We never watch telly now, even though it’s always on. We used to watch SpongeBob. He made us laugh. My little sister used to sit on my mum’s lap and watch it sometimes.
My other sister started to go out and come back late. I would hear her come back in. My mum would ask her where she’d been, and she’d just say that she’d been out. And my mum would shout up the stairs that she was too young to be out so late, and my other sister would say, “yeah, like you care,” and go to her room. The rows kept going on and on, and my other sister was wearing lipstick when she went out. I lay in bed waiting to hear her come in. Sometimes they would row, sometimes not, and she would just creep up to her room and close the door quietly.
My other sister came in late one night. It had been raining. I heard my mum shout that my other sister had been drinking. There was screaming and shouting. I couldn’t hear the words. It sounded like crying, but I didn’t know who was crying. I put my head under the covers and waited. My other sister ran upstairs, and my mum followed her, shouting, “get down here!” She went into my other sister’s room. And I heard my other sister shout that he wasn’t her real dad and that she was glad he was dead. My mum made a noise like a dog makes when it howls at night. And then she screamed that he was more than a dad to her in every way. Then I heard a thud, a dull thud, like when the big branch came down in the garden in a storm one night and covered the lawn. And dad sawed it up into logs, and he said it would have to dry out before we could put it in the wood burner. And we helped him to stack it next to the garage, me and my sister. It’s still there, drying out.
Then there was no noise, just a funny silence that made my ears pop, like when we went to Spain on an aeroplane, and my mum gave us some sweets to suck, and held my hand ‘til we were up in the air. I tried so hard to hear something, but there was nothing, nothing at all, and I fell asleep.
In the morning, my other sister didn’t tell us to get up, so we got out of bed and went downstairs. I asked my mum where our other sister was. She said that she would be back soon. She told us to have breakfast. She said that we weren’t going to school because we were on holiday. I said that it wasn’t holiday time, but she said that she says when holiday time is.
We went into the kitchen. I stood on a chair to rinse out our bowls. There was no milk in the fridge. We ate our flakes without it. Crunching and crunching. We used our fingers. My little sister said that she didn’t want to be on holiday. I said that I didn’t either, but mum said. Mum came into the kitchen and told us not to go in the garden, or our other sister’s room, but to play in our own bedroom, but my little sister did sneak into the bedroom one time. We didn’t say that there was no milk.
We went up to our bedroom. My little sister found some of my other sister’s lipstick on the floor of the landing. She took it into our bedroom. And then she put lipstick on the mouth of her teddy, and on the mouths of her dolls. Then she drew all over the wall above her bed. She asked me if I thought our mum would be angry with her, and I said that I didn’t think so. We played for a long time, and we were hungry. We went downstairs to ask my mum what was for lunch. She looked at us and said lunch in a funny way, like it was a word she hadn’t heard before. We went into the kitchen, and I found a can of beans. I tried hard to open it, but I couldn’t, so I took it to my mum. She opened it without saying anything, the light from the telly still flickering on the walls, her cigarette smoke everywhere in the room.
I put the beans into our bowls. My little sister said that beans make you fart, and she said fart louder and louder, but my mum never came, or she never heard her. I started to say it too, and we laughed and said fart and farting over and over again. I said that my little sister’s farts smelled worse than the dead cat, but it made her cry, so I told her I was only joking. My little sister said she wanted to go to school, and I said I wanted to too, but we were on holiday because Mum said so.
We were on holiday the next day and the day after that, and some more days. Sometimes the phone would ring, but my mum just let it ring. Sometimes there were knocks on the door, and then the people went away. My mum had drawn all the curtains. Mum told us not to open them, even if it was hot. We didn’t ask her why.
Me and my little sister were so hungry, I went down to the kitchen to bring up the box of flakes. We sat on the floor and put our hands in the box, taking it in turns. My little sister said it was like having a picnic. We used to have picnics with our dad. We used to drive into the forest, and we would make paper boats to float on a little stream my dad knew about. My other sister made the best boats. She would make them for me and my sister too sometimes. My mum said my other sister was good with her hands. We miss her.
My little sister said that she could smell the smell from my other sister’s room on the landing. I could smell it too. I told my mum that there was a nasty smell on the landing, but she didn’t answer. She just stared at me. Then she told me not to worry about it, and that it was next door’s drains and they were getting them fixed soon. The smell got worse and started to stick in my nose. I wondered where smells go once you’ve smelt them, and why they come back again and again. My mum laid a damp towel at the bottom of my sister’s door. She said it was to stop the draught coming through. The smell was still there though, although sometimes it went away. My mum told us never to move the towel.
We had cold beans again, but we were still hungry. All the flakes were gone. I put the empty box by the bin. I found some crackers in the cupboard, and we took them up to our bedroom to eat. They tasted funny, but we ate them anyway. We closed the door to keep the smell out. We climbed into bed and pulled the covers over our heads. My little sister said that she could still smell it. She asked me if I could, and I said that I thought I could. My little sister was afraid to go on the landing at night, to go to the toilet because of the smell, so she wet the bed. We didn’t tell Mum. I found a pair of pyjama bottoms on the floor by the laundry basket for her.
Someone knocked on the door again. This time it was very loud. A man shouted my mum’s name, and said that they were here to help. We came out of the kitchen, and looked down the hall. My mum was standing in the hall with her cigarette. She looked at the door for what seemed like a long time. She said nothing. Everything was very quiet. Then someone banged on the door again, shouting, “Are you in there?” It made my little sister and me jump. Then we saw someone looking through the letter box. My mum shouted for them to go away. She shouted that we were all right and didn’t need any help. Then someone shouted through the letterbox. It was a woman. She shouted that she was a policewoman, and that she was here to help. My mum said nothing. My little sister whispered to me that we should have gone to school.
A policewoman came to our school once. She had her hair tied in a bun, and was wearing a little hat. She told us how to cross the road safely, and about stranger danger. When my other sister took us to school she always held our hands when we crossed the road.
The policewoman told my mum she should open the door. My mum didn’t move. We didn’t move. The policewoman waited some more, and then banged on the door again. She said my mum should open up, or she would have to make her way in. My mum just stood in the hall looking at the front door, and then she whispered for policewoman to go away, just go away. Then the policewoman asked if the children were all right. We wanted to go to our mum, but we didn’t. We couldn’t move. We just stood there, holding each other’s hands. My little sister was crying quietly, small tears. I squeezed her hand. My mum said that we were fine, but she said it so quietly, only we could hear her I think.
Suddenly, the policewoman shouted, telling us to stand away from the door. Then there was a big bang, and the door flew open. The policewoman stood in the doorway. It was a different one from the one that came to our school, but she had a little hat on too. There were other people behind her dressed in funny white suits. The policewoman told my mum not to worry, and that everything would be fine. And then the two men in suits walked past the policewoman and into the house. I thought my mum would stop them, but she didn’t. One went into the lounge, and one went upstairs. Then the policewoman said quietly, “Let’s get the children outside, shall we?” My mum didn’t move when the men walked in. We didn’t move. Then the man who went upstairs came down. He had his hand over his nose. He nodded his head towards the policewoman. “Come on, my lovelies,” the policewoman said, “let’s get you two outside in the sunshine, shall we?” She walked past my mum to get us. My mum didn’t try to stop her. The policewoman took our hands. She was wearing gloves, soft black gloves. As she took us down the hall we looked back at our mum, but I don’t think she saw us go, she was just staring like she used to.
Outside, the sun was very bright. There were lots of police cars, and lots of people everywhere, on the pavement and standing at their doors. I looked up at the policewoman and asked if she knew where my other sister was. “Not at the minute, my lovely.” She said. And I wondered why my other sister had given the dead cat a name. I’d never asked her why she did, or the name she had given it either.
About the Author
S.D. Brown lives in Dorset, England. He writes poetry, short stories and novellas.
He has had work published in Acclaim, Platform for Prose and The Fortnightly Review