My sister’s lover
The snow is thick on the ground. Four or five inches of it have built up around the window frames. It is piled up on top of the car and over the roofs, lit up by the sulphurous yellow of the street lamps. It gives me an excited child like feeling in the base of my belly. Ellen and I used to love playing in the snow, but there weren’t many years in our lives with enough snow to play in properly.
After supper Dad had started offering drinks. I could tell Theo wasn’t sure about it, but Dad kept pressing him. By the time he went up to bed I think he’d had more than he’s used to. Dad went up at the same time and left Mum and me in front of the slow burning logs, sitting next to one another on the settee.
“He’s nice, isn’t he?” I say. “I can’t believe how we just bumped into one another like that at the station.”
“Did he really think you were Ellen?”
“Just for a moment. Everyone says how alike we are.” I hesitate. “Were.” It still makes my heart lurch when I do that. When I talk about her in the wrong tense. “And he hadn’t seen her for months.” I take a sip of my drink. “Ellen would have liked the snow. Such a lot of it,” I say.
“Yes,” says Mum. She sighs. “Do you remember the time you built snow creatures with Uncle Robert?”
“How could I forget? The huge toad: that was the best one! That was fun. But I don’t think I was very old. Four or five perhaps?”
“Maybe – and the snow didn’t last long. Only the snow toad was left by the morning. All the rest had melted off the grass.”
I can remember that and how upset Ellen was about it. She cried for hours. Like the time the daisies all disappeared on the lawn after it had been mown. She wouldn’t stop crying, but as Mum had said another lot had appeared before the end of the next day.
There’s a crack and a spit as the flames melt into the next section of wood.
“On the way back from collecting Dad from the golf club he didn’t seem at all pleased about Theo coming to meet us.”
“No he wasn’t. But he didn’t say much.”
“What happened when Theo and I took the dog out for a walk?”
“We had a chat. I knew he wasn’t happy – but I told him it wasn’t Theo’s fault and that he needed to be a bit friendlier to the poor chap. By then though I think he’d come to that decision by himself. Theo seems to be a nice boy. Or man, I suppose. And I’m glad we’ve had a chance get to know a bit about Ellen on her gap year from his point of view. I can really see what she saw in him.” She pauses. “How old is he, Jess? Do you know?”
“Not sure. But he had already finished university when he went to Australia. And he’d been working a while before Ellen met him. So probably twenty-two or maybe more.”
“Any idea what he does for a living?”
“No,” I say, “It hasn’t cropped up in conversation.”
“I should have asked him before he went to bed what time he wants to be woken. Has he got to get anywhere?”
I shrug my shoulders.
“I’ll need to catch a train into Birmingham, if the trains are running,” I say. “Lecture at ten. If he’s not up when I get up I’ll knock on his door.” The logs shift in the hearth and a puff of ash clouds up and settles. “Shall I put another log on?”
“I don’t think so, Darling,” she says. “It’s getting late.” She stifles a yawn. “It’s not long to your party. Have you decided your guest list yet?”
I shake my head. This has been bothering me. A big part of me wants to invite Theo. But I hardly know him. He’s just my dead sister’s ex boyfriend I happen to have met by chance. One coffee with him at the station and then I’d invited him to meet my folks.
“Did I see you’d written your bit of the Christmas letter, Mum?” I ask.
“Did you read it?” she says.
“No. I thought I should write my own draft before I read yours and Dad’s.”
“Ok, Darling.” She’s getting very sleepy now. “I think I’m going up to bed.”
“Go on then,” I say, “you go on up. I’ll lock the back door.”
The house is completely quiet when I eventually climb the stairs. I am very tempted to read Mum and Dad’s drafts of the Christmas letter, but decide I should really write mine first. I pull Mum’s letter off the pad and take the A4 block up to bed with me, and a milky drink. Somehow I feel it will be a long time until I can drop off to sleep. As I go upstairs I see the guest room light is still on. A lemon yellow slit lights up the gap under the door.
I clean my teeth and snuggle into bed. I sit, propped up with pillows and pick up the pen , chewing on the top as I try to think. I can’t start. Where should I start? I want to let all our friends and family know what it means to me to lose my sister. My lovely adorable scatty sister. I jot down a few lines. A few lines more. I am reminded of the day of her funeral. We’d asked the guests to come not to wear black for the sake of it.
Ellen tumbled through life, always reaching for somewhere else, like a child rushing to the beach, yearning for the open sea. She led me through in my childhood and now she is gone I feel lost.
I throw down the pen and drop the paper by the side of the bed. I scrunch down in the covers and pull the duvet up. She’s gone I think. It’s as if I have realised it properly for the first time. She won’t be back. The rest of my life I won’t have a sister. I am an only child. And I’m sobbing again. The edges of my eyes are sore. Suddenly I sit up in bed and pull on my dressing gown. I creep along the corridor and see the light is now off under Theo’s door. I hesitate, but then move forward. I tap gently on his door and wait for n answer.
“Are you decent? Can I come in?” I push the door. There’s a little light in through the curtains from the street light. “Can we talk?” I whisper. He sits up in bed and I perch on the edge. I’m shivering. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m cold or nervous.
“Get under the covers?” He sounds almost Australian when he says that. I sit there not moving.
“Come on,” he says.
I lift the foot of the duvet and climb in, accidentally brushing against his warm foot with my ice-cold one. He laughs and fetches a jumper to wrap around my feet.
“Have you had a look at the photos?” I ask.
“You and she seemed very happy.” I don’t say anything more, but I think maybe he’s crying. His breathing gives him away. I reach forward and find his hand. Yet again I’m crying too. I lean forward to get closer to Theo. This man who after only two weeks had fallen in love with my sister. The mystery of why they parted hangs in the air.
He reaches forward to put his arms around me. We sit like that, awkward for a while, then he moves to make me more comfortable, and I move in closer and eventually we are lying next to one another in the narrow single bed, me in my nightdress and dressing gown and Theo fully dressed as far as I can tell. He presses a kiss to my forehead.
Soon Theo falls asleep. Gentle respirations. In and out. And I stay there feeling safe and cared for. I lay my open hand on his chest, over his shirt and feel it rising and falling, rising and falling. After a long time I fall asleep.