We didn’t always get along, my sister and I. For starters she stole my parrot. I was two years old, had almost just died from some life-threatening kidney thing, and there she was. Monopolising my mum. Who the fuck was she? I don’t remember feeling rejected or displaced. I just remember the parrot. It was red and blue and on a hoop, and there I was, standing in the doorway with my Dad and a bunch of bananas, handing a really cool parrot to a weird little wrinkly thing that couldn’t even talk. What a loser.
From then on I put down the disgruntled act and slowly learned to love this little creature, my sister. I was told so many things about what having a sister meant, what being a sister meant. It was all just theory. We shucked the rules and found our own ground of fighting and playing and learning how to live together. Some days it was more of one than the other. We switched modes like ninjas with Swiss Army knives. We were nothing if not varied. In battle she was a snitchy little sneak quick to play the victim and I was an upfront oaf who didn’t mind getting caught clumping her. But in our nicer moments we were tight as one of our mum’s French plaits. We always shared a sick sense of humour, grown darker now with age like wine into port, and we laughed most at the dinner table, when we sat in front of each other and were supposed to be sensible. It was our place of equality. We sat eye to eye and laughed. I don’t remember ever being at odds in those mealtime quarters. Only partners in fun. All our peace was made there over mum’s dinners. Our giggles still sound the same years later because they were forged together, then. Sister sounds.
At night, from the top bunk, I’d do shadow puppet shows on the ceiling for her, my fingers contorting into strange creatures, no matter how hard we had fought in the day. Silly little gestures then were the easiest and only way to admit I loved her.
As we grew older I grew more ferocious over this little creature who rankled and delighted me. Quieter than I, with a more cautious approach to making friends, she began coming to me with playground complaints. When she so much as implied someone was making her unhappy, I would round the corner from juniors to infants, past the crickets stumps painted on the brickwork, past the old milkfloat climbing frame, to the terrorist in her life. I would grab them, walk them to a wall, fix them to it, and make it known that if they dared to a blight her life in any way I would end them. I knew, very young, what it felt like to be willing to kill for someone, and it has never left me. Later it grew to accommodate the protectiveness that sprung from losing our father, and the automatic unconditional love I have for her partner, my brother, and their two children. I have the ferocity of all the world’s beasts in my heart for her and them.
Our closeness varied over our teens and twenties. We went to different high schools, we had different friends and interests. But in the late 90s our Dad bought two flats in our names, mortgages wangled with God knows what financial sorcery, and we lived next door to each other.
We hadn’t wanted to live that close; we’d wanted to feel like big girls, properly independent, but Dad had insisted. He was boss. It didn’t take long for us to be glad of it. We’d cook together, bake cakes, call for pizzas at sluttish times of the day (01702 391333 – the number’s still in my head). We used to knock on the walls to say hi when we were apart. I’d turn my music off whenever I could hear hers lilting in through the window. Just to feel her near. Pottering. Happy.
We both got jobs in Yates’s Wine Lodge and spent shifts together giggling and drinking our tips on the job. We became young women together. I kept one keen eagle’s eye on her the whole time and saw off any predatory dicks. One wrong move from anyone and I would have frogmarched them out by their balls, and probably kept their sacks in my hand after I’d kicked their arses down the street for good measure. I was always on duty.
Then our Dad died. I remember watching her face when we heard the news, wanting to take it all myself so she could be spared the pain. Days later I watched her pelt tins of soup across Dad’s kitchen as she let out her rage at what he’d done to himself. All I could do was watch her, helpless, my grief quieter, caught in the compulsive trailing for clues. The blood, the blades, the pills, the rope. What else. His life’s contents. The notes. Suicide leaves so many questions. We dealt with them differently. We were cleft in two by our differing responses while at the same time fused even tighter at the core. Since he’s been gone I know in my gut that we will never argue. Any sisterly annoyance we might ever feel is eclipsed by what he did. Nothing matters more than the love we have. It lasers every petty thing to cinders.
I’m staying with her at the moment while I ponder where to move. It’s been lovely, living in the same quarters again. We watch rom-coms and paint our nails together. We leave each other notes and snacks, buy each other little things we think will make the other smile. We make peppermint tea and listen to music when the kids are at school. In the evening we put the kids to bed, raucous and silly, read them to sleep, then spending time talking and laughing in the lounge. I could never have predicted the gargantuan love the vessel that is my small finite one-person’s heart would easily expand to holding for her children; the thing she most wants to protect. I am her ready army in all things. As the kids sleep my auntie costume drops off the original truth beneath; I am her big sister. And once I close my door at night, I fall asleep smiling. My love for her has a real tangible outlet while I’m here.
I’ve realised what a rare luxury this brief interlude is. How often do grown sisters get to live together again after childhood? It is a period of grace. It’s almost a mutual forgiveness of the past as we hum to songs and wait for our tea to cool. We are together and have been changed by everything but we are still together. I’ve determined to make the most of this time before I move on. I enrolled us on a six week art course. She has talent she needs to explore and push. I don’t, but I’ll happily sit next to her, being shit. And I am leaving my beautiful bookshop and my job is being diverted to her. It’s a good time for her to work now the kids are at school. She needs something for herself. As I pass this bit of my life to her, less blithely than the hand-me-downs of our childhood, I hope it will make her as happy as it’s made me. I hope it fires her brain and bolsters her confidence. She might not need my protection, but it will find its way out in other ways.