It feels strange coming home again after all these years. Of course, given the manner of my leaving, I knew it would be a long time before I could return. Only a short visit of course. I’ll need to get back soon. And it's Christmas. I always loved Christmas and so does Steph.
The old house appears much the same as when I last saw it. How many years is that? Ten? More? It looks in need of more than a lick of paint. The window frames are almost bare wood—probably most of it rotten. A couple of loose slates perch precariously half over the gutter, and the chimney looks a bit dodgy.
The vine almost covers the greenhouse now. Wonder if there was a grape harvest this year? Wonder if Mum did anything with them? Does she ever?
I’ve let myself in and I can hear her bustling away in the kitchen; radio playing some middle of the road song I don’t recognise. I’m not ready to see her yet. Don’t want her fussing over me. No, it’s Steph I’ve come to see.
I make my silent way past the brilliant white Christmas tree with its twinkling multi-coloured lights, up the carpeted stairs and along the landing to her room. She’s there, waiting for me, all pink and white.
Her small face lights up and she reaches out to me. I give her the biggest cuddle, lift her up and twirl her round and round, until she squeals with laughter. Sweet little golden haired, blue-eyed Steph, my baby sister. Not a baby now, of course; she must be twenty-five at least. But then, Steph could never properly grow up, you see. Something wasn’t right in her head. A difficult birth had deprived her of oxygen for a few vital minutes too long.
‘Angie. I’ve missed you so much. I’ve been so lonely without you. There’s no one to play with. Are you going to stay this time? Please say you’ll stay. We’ll have such fun.’
‘Now, Steph, you know I can only stay a little while and then I have to go back.’
She tugs at my sleeve, her mouth set in a stubborn pout. ‘Then take me with you. I don’t mind. Really. I’d love to go with you.’
‘But what about Mum? She’d miss you dreadfully. And there’s Dad. He’d be lost without his best girl.’
Yes, I know Steph’s always been Dad’s favourite. ‘She needs all our love,’ he would say to me, ‘because she’s special. You’re blessed, Angie. Looks, brains. You’ve got it all.’
All except a father’s love.
A heavy sigh wells up inside me and I let it out.
Steph’s expression changes from petulant to concerned. She frowns and her blue eyes open wider. She takes my hand and squeezes it. ‘What’s wrong, Angie?’
I force a smile and pat her hand. ‘Nothing’s wrong. I’m just so happy to see you, I’m a bit choked up. That’s all.’
Steph smiles. She touches a stray strand of my hair. ‘Do you dye it now? It’s still just as black as ever.’
This strikes me as amusing and I laugh. ‘No, Steph. I don’t need to.’
‘Mum’s hair’s very grey now. She did try bleaching it, but it didn’t suit her. She said she looked like a tart on a Saturday night at the dogs. Whatever that means.’
I smile at the typically Mum expression.
Steph’s face lights up in the broadest smile. ‘Do you remember when Mum and Dad took us to Standish Moor? I was only six. Of course, you were grown up and all you wanted to do was eye up the boys, but Mum said fifteen was far too young for such nonsense. She told you to play with me, and we had a race up the hill.’
I remember only too clearly; the blustering wind, threatening rain, freezing cold, scrambling over rocks and heather to get to the top. All it would have taken was for some bloke who looked like Heathcliff to come thundering past on a black steed and I would have sworn I’d stepped into Wuthering Heights.
‘You beat me,’ I said and we both laughed. ‘You were smaller and could squeeze around the rocks easier.’
‘You had silly shoes on and refused to wear your boots because you said they made you look frumpy.’
‘I had pink Wellingtons. With kittens on.’
‘You did. I remember.’
I take her hands in mine and we whirl around the room. Her laughter echoes with sheer childish pleasure.
‘Oh, let’s go to the park, Angie. I haven’t been to the park in so long, I can’t remember. And we could play on the swings. You could push me.’
Her smile freezes. I stop dancing. We’ve both heard it. Footfalls on the stairs. Mum. Am I ready to see her yet? No. Not the right time. Too soon. But one day…
I must hurry, or she’ll catch me with Steph. That would never do.
‘I have to go now, darling. Give your big sister a goodbye kiss.’ I clasp her to me and know that if I was actually holding her thin, little body, it would be shaking with her sobs.
‘Oh Angie, Please take me with you. Please. I don’t want to stay here any longer. I’m so tired.’
‘I know, love, I know. But it’s not time yet. Soon though. I promise that next time I come and visit, I’ll take you back with me.’
The footsteps are coming closer, as Mum paces steadily along the landing. Steph tenses. I wrench myself free from her spirit’s iron grasp and step back into the shadows.
Mum opens the door. I’m shocked how much she’s aged since I last saw her. She looked haggard then, but funerals do that to people, especially when they’ve just lost a daughter. Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. It isn’t the natural way of things. Soon poor Mum will have buried both hers and she doesn’t deserve all this tragedy in her life. But then, I know she won’t have to suffer too much longer.
I only hope Dad raises his head long enough from the whisky bottle to help her through these last weeks.
Mum’s sitting beside Steph’s bed. She takes one limp hand in hers. Wires pump everything from oxygen to food into my little sister as she lies there, peacefully sleeping in her coma. She slipped into it two days ago. Her doctors don’t expect her to wake up again.
Mum leans forward and kisses her pale cheek. Steph’s eyelids flutter.
‘Steph? Are you awake?’ I know Mum realises hers is a forlorn hope, but anything that she can cling to will be welcome, as she is forced to watch her daughter slip away from her, a little at a time.
Steph’s voice startles me. She is so close. ‘Will Mum be all right, Angie?’
She slips more easily into my universe these days. Before, when we would meet in the hospital, it required a monumental effort for her to send her spirit to me. Now, she just slides right in—a sure sign her time is nearly done in her world. Her world. What am I saying? It used to be my world too, before…
Hospitals. I’ve always hated them. And I hated watching my little sister lying there, helpless, while they pumped her poor tortured body full of toxic cocktails. As if she hadn’t suffered so much already. Wasn’t it enough the day she woke up to a nest of her golden hair lying on the pillow? I couldn’t reach her then. It was too soon. I had to stand in the shadows and watch her sob her heart out, while Mum held her and rocked her gently. Just as she had when Steph was a frightened little girl, aware for the first time that she was different to her schoolfriends.
Somehow, my sister found serenity through the pain. And she found me.
But Steph’s waiting for an answer.
‘She’ll be just fine, Steph. Don’t worry.’
‘Will she come and join us one day?’
‘Yes. I’m sure she will.’
‘But not Dad.’ She shakes her head and her curls swing from side to side. She must see my look of surprise. ‘Not Dad, Angie. He was cruel to you and Mum. I don’t want him with us.’
‘He loves you. He would want to be with you.’
I swear, if she could do it right now, she’d stamp her foot.
‘All right, darling,’ I say, and plant a kiss on the top of her head. ‘I won’t come for him.’
I swear the inert body on the bed issues a sigh of relief. My imagination of course.
I give her spirit a little push. ‘Now you must go back.’
‘But you will come back? Promise?’
‘I promise. Very soon.’
‘And you’ll take me with you?’ She’s growing fainter. I can only make out a shimmering outline, an almost transparent image of her bodily form.
As she dissolves back into her body, I just have time to say, ‘I promise. I’ll take you back with me next time.’
I linger a few moments, watching Mum, as she strokes her beloved daughter’s hair.
‘’Bye, Mum,’ I whisper. ‘See you soon.’
She turns in my direction. Maybe she heard something. Maybe the slightest of breezes has tickled the back of her neck. I know she can’t see me. Not in these dark shadows. Her face registers confusion, as she scours the dimly lit room with tear-reddened eyes.
Then she shakes her head and turns back to her vigil, while I slip away.