Like most families, ours is a gothic castle of secrets and grudges. Look into any of the darkened rooms and you’ll find mental health issues (myself included), lies, estrangement and even a beating ordered by the Kray twins (my uncle, when he wouldn’t throw a boxing fight). Despite this my mum, sisters and I were always there for each other, more or less, until recently.
Myself and my two older sisters were never exactly Little Women but we did our best not to hate each other. The oldest was both the person who waited till mum left the room before yelling and the one who made up stories at bedtime when dad did his usual disappearing act. Annoying as she could be, she could also be caring on a whim and it was a relationship I’d assumed would always be there.
Then, around five years ago, she met him. I can see the appeal. She was married with three children yet indescribably lonely. Her husband, though nice enough, lived in a dimension several galaxies away, or may as well have. She was afraid of dipping her toe in freedom and drowning. So, when he arrived in her life, it was probably a relief. He was handsome, he made her laugh. However, there was the small matter of him not liking black people, or Muslims, or…anyone really. So when he found out about our other sister’s previous relationship with a black man we were added to the list. Of course, we were in for a treat when she invited us for Christmas. With him.
It sounds like the start of a sitcom and, in a way, it was, but imagine that sitcom to have a really sad ending that doesn’t solve anything by the credits and nobody really likes each other anymore. We turned up and went to the front room with the kids and the presents and set to work laughing and making fun of mum, when we noticed my sister’s new boyfriend had been in the dining room for a really long time. I think mum assumed he was busy working on something so she herded us out to join him. She was right, he was incredibly busy, just sitting in a chair. It must have been hard work, it wasn’t a very comfortable chair.
We set to the task of enjoying ourselves just as much as we had in the front room when, lo and behold, he suddenly remembered a difficult job he’d forgotten in there. He got up, keeping his eyes very definitely focused away from us, and disappeared. We weren’t sure at this point, it was only a sneaking suspicion, so we forged ahead until dinnertime. Unfortunately the stress seemed to get to my stepdad who spent about twenty minutes sitting at the bottom of the stairs, clutching his chest, while we flapped over whether to call an ambulance. In case you were wondering, no, my sister’s boyfriend didn’t eat with us. No doubt he was exhausted after all the chair sitting.
Luckily it was indigestion and, completely deflated, we opened our presents in what I can only describe was the most awkward montage of fake smiles and stilted thanks that I’ve seen outside of an awards show. You could see the words “Let’s just get this over with” emblazoned on the back of everyone’s eyes. Eventually it was time to leave, but it didn’t end there.
The last time I saw my sister’s children (other than sad, wistful glimpses across fields like some kind of Bronte novel) was shortly before Christmas the year after. After months of silence I had tried to encourage her to meet with our other sister and talk things through, before being told that she wanted us all to leave her alone. I said fine, but I wanted my stuff back. Perhaps I thought if I was there in person I’d do better.
I rang the doorbell and peered through the glass to see her talking firmly to the kids. I didn’t dream then of the things she was saying but I’ve thought about it a lot since. When she let me in she was almost unrecognizable, this furious woman raging about some complete stranger that had apparently shouted at her in the supermarket. I didn’t know who or what she was talking about and, frankly, it was bizarre and worrying. I imagine that’s how they saw themselves, the couple who fought against all the squares who just didn’t understand.
As I changed the subject onto more normal things I noticed the kids sitting at the little table, drawing or colouring in. There was something about the way they kept their eyes studiously down that was odd. They hadn’t turned when I came in. The oldest went to show my sister a picture but I think he also wanted to say hello. “Hi,” I said. He didn’t look at me, his head was cartoonishly turned to the floor. “Hi,” he mumbled, making a half-hearted wave. I knew then what she’d been saying to the kids before she let me in. I turned and walked out, hearing her outraged voice behind me saying “Merry Christmas” in mock-disbelief. I don’t care anymore, I told myself, I don’t care. And that’s when I saw my stuff, in a plastic bag, on the front doorstep, and I realized I was never supposed to enter the house. I waited till I got home before crying.
I imagine there’s more to add to this story but it hasn’t happened yet. That was years ago and we seem to have settled into a routine, but we’d be lying if we said we didn’t think of them for even a minute everyday.
Madeleine Swann’s novella, Rainbows Suck, was published by Eraserhead Press and her collection by Burning Bulb. Her short stories have appeared on The Wicked Library podcast, The Other Stories podcast, Tall Tales With Short Cocks 5, Oddville magazine, flash fiction magazine and more at http://madeleineswann.com