TW; mentioning of sexual abuse, domestic violence.
To my sister.
I think I can remember the last time we met. Years have passed and I can’t help but wonder: does my memory serve me? Or, have you have been gone so long that I can barely find the memory?
I think, I was 27 the last time I saw you. The cat was sleeping on the sofa, I wanted to wake her and you chastised for me not to. Disappointedly, I acquiesced, let the sleeping cat sprawl and watched her belly breathing. You sat on the two seater. You never leant back. You sat on the edge, ready to leave in an instant.
The front room must have seemed to your eyes, scant in its decoration. Our bare floors, spotless and shiny from my regular mopping. Our green diamond sofa cast out by our neighbour. We’d stood looking down at it upended outside the bins, wondering if we could have it. Our neighbour, she came out, asked us if we wanted it. Overjoyed, we enquired did she mind? We dragged it in the lift up to our flat. Our neighbour, she’d got it from Marks and Spencer. The green diamond cover was made of thick cotton, folded at the seams on the arms. The cat loved it, used one corner as a scratching post. It never frayed – just puckered. We’d tell her off, say her name when she gripped and pulled her claws into the stiff fabric. She looked so beautiful, long, sleek and stretching her back.
You sat beneath the picture of the swans on the sea at Littlehampton. I am not sure that you noticed the inscription I wrote beneath: all the time. Graceful and white above your head on pure still water, the swans looked angelic. Perhaps they were protecting me. But I didn’t know it then.
You told me you were in London for a party. One of your Spanish friends in Stockwell. I met her once, in those years we weren’t getting on. Where you kind of held me to emotional hostage for fights and arguments about letting you down; not being home; not being interested in your life. I didn’t have the words to tell you: I didn’t understand it – I didn’t understand your life.
It was like you’d always navigated me through our Dad. Or, was it, that I followed, unable to navigate myself? The experience of him so strong, so unlike a father, so violent – amongst other things.
I remember you wore black, talked to me about trips around South America, single female you traveled by train down through Chile. Stayed with families in their homes learned the language. Ate dinner outside in the courtyard where they served empanadas and grilled corn .You said the salsa was delicious with hallullas. Played with their children over breakfast coffee and warmed churros. Then set off in hot sun, visited The Museco Historic Nacional. Your pronunciation fluent and said whilst looking off into the distance. Like a part of you was still in Santiago that you’d brought into my meagre front room. I wondered if their houses were like my flat. You said, the families were poor and you gave them money $25 a night, extra for food you said.
You’d travelled by train from Santiago going south. Petite in stature, browned naturally by the sun and fluent in Spanish – people thought you were a local. I thought you were brave doing that journey single handed at 32. You shook your head with definite simplicity and certainty that: no, you weren’t scared of traveling alone.
We didn’t talk about all the things we should have done, like why you were still speaking to our dad? How was my brother and why no one believed that a man violent to children was not capable of sexually abusing his daughter? You asked about my health, when was my next hospital appointment? You’d watched me slide down a hole somewhere unknown to me. It left me writhing in agony with every menstrual cycle at at the mercy of short-life housing until the council housed us. We were so relieved, all on one floor, no crawling up three stairs back and forth trips to the loo and warm as toast. You told me to hassle those doctors.
You’d been living in Huntington Beach, California when I fell pregnant at 16. You sent me long letters telling me about sitting on the beach, staring at the ocean. I followed your progress through courses at film school, life drawing classes, salsa dancing and having to learn to drive as getting around was impossible.
The page and a half about the filmmaker guy you met and dated for 6 months. He had a drug habit. He promised he’d go to rehab, didn’t, then you left him. This led to various stints in rehab and demonstrations of love for you, flowers, bottles of champagne, flights booked for holidays to Catalina Island. I read every word, watched the demise of your love story. Saw him clad in leather jacket, sunglasses, ruffled handsome hair pleading for your heart. Your crying over finding him using yet again. Cocaine and speed filled high octane nights out with his friends in a band, who had made it big in LA. You didn’t offer him an ultimatum. You decided you couldn’t cope with an addict, didn’t want him in your life. You said It was painful but necessary.
You moved on went to San Fran Cisco. You lived in one of the houses off the windy hill that runs up through the city. You sent me a postcard showing a place called Lombard Street. I remember the flower beds street full of red flowers – geraniums I think.
I was so excited when you sent me a Swatch Watch for Christmas. Spent with our Dad, it was the only present I had to open Christmas Day. I sat by the coal fire, makeshift apron around my waist, having prepared the potatoes, carrots and Brussel sprouts for Christmas dinner. Got up and put the turkey in the oven early, while our Dad went off to mass expecting the table laid and dinner cooked when he got back.
He popped his head round the door, gripping the frame as you know he did – never sure if he might lift it off or was keeping it in place. After mass, he’d visited people from the parish. He was full of swig of brandy at the Dempsey’s and a slice of homemade Christmas cake.
I told him you’d bought me a watch, showed him the the plastic case. He looked almost interested, then asked if the turkey was done and had I basted it? I don’t suppose you remember that Christmas? I never told you how utterly awful it was.
You stayed for three hours, we didn’t know then that would be our last meeting. You took out a thick gold belcher chain, it shone golden yellow. The most expensive item in my front room. It was beautiful, expensive: worth its weight in gold. You toyed with the idea of wearing before heading out to the tube. I advised against it. Draped around your neck it made you look like you lived in Knightsbridge. Anyway, you’d traveled the world never been hassled, or had anything stolen, yet a week into your return, you’d been mugged at Stockwell Station. Wisely, you took my advice to put it on once you got there.
Looking back, I wished I’d recalled my best memories of you and I together. I’ll do that now to compensate in the hope it will be carried to you somehow through the ether of our existence.
Remember when we went to Berwick-upon- Tweed? You made me those beautiful dark navy shorts, bought me a matching striped blue top. The diagonal stripes radiated blue, the neckline square slashed from shoulder to shoulder. We played tag in the late afternoon waves. Our Dad took pictures of me running and smiling through shallow sea. You, me and my school friend we were like sisters, laughing for the sake of it.
And, do you remember when you took me to Paris when I was 12? We went to Le Lourve, saw the Mona Lisa, went shopping in Monmarte. I bought turquoise cotton trousers that flared at the waist. You bought a leather bag, light tan, looked like a sailor’s haversack. We stood outside the Pompidou Centre, you took photos of me in red peddle pushers, bought especially for my holiday out of your wages. I think I wore a frilled white blouse.
I remember it was hot. We ate fresh kebabs with salad as we walked along the lanes in baking sun seeking the shady side of the street. Our hotel was on the left bank in one of those tall Parisian houses with a winding wooden staircase. We took the squeaky elevator to the fifth, opened the window and looked out across the rooftops of Paris.
It was my Birthday while we were there. You took me out in the evening to a street cafe. I had waffles, fresh strawberries and whipped cream. I made you share with a long sliver spoon. The day we left, you took us to the fancy cafe. Full of opulence, I felt in awe of its magnificence. You told me over cafe au lait that famous writers, philosophers and artists used to frequent it. I sat imagining the artists you reeled off. The cups were octagonal, dark green, the coffee smooth and distinctly french.
Then, there were so many years of disappointments. They seemed to arise as I struggled with our dad. The constant denials of violence – did my head in. Your voice seemed full of disappointment for so many years. The more it resounded, the more acute our sisterhood became.
Fraught with difficulty, my constant disappointments at your expectations of me. Truth is, in those years I was lost. Adrift from myself – just like our own mother. Remember how she drifted from both you and I? Yours more acute than mine. I remember you telling that she’d asked you for money, to pay for a divorce from our Dad. You’d given it to her. She never wrote again. That day, you cooked chicken paprika, it was the first time I had egg noodles.
Perhaps our sisterhood became haunted by the wreckage of our mother. The arguments over, our Dad, what he did, what you believed, what my brother believed. Everyone arguing over which version of history was correct. Mine was lost, never believed, scrutinised for accuracy – our brother wanted evidence, proof. All I had was bruises, injuries long gone, records in social service files, accounts from friends at the time. Our family became a battleground. Our dad at the helm, throwing simple sentences around, that now a days, would never be taken seriously.
Never have I known a man more guilty in his life. His injustice lives on through your support of him – even after his death.
I will never really understand your allegiance to our dad. A position you seemed to move between mine to his – without warning. Your own response to our childhood.
What would I say to you about that – now?
Our childhood – it was our childhood. Our dad, he was always the adult and all the decisions he made were made from an adult, male perspective. The impactful power of the father, a position of trust, natural, given by children without question. Somehow, despite his known, documented, horrific, too much to bear, violence – no amount of records by social workers, others who picked up his pieces of my broken life: none of those things could break the power of the pedophile. A truth no one in the family wants to believe.
A truth, I only brought to you because it was true.
He’s dead now, five years or so. It perplexes me that, still – you and my brother would rather maintain the myth of a man: that only existed after mine and our mother’s removal.
Before Covid, I had long accepted that no matter which disaster I was facing, you would never be by my side, call, send card – just say hello. Since Covid, I have come to realise this is our goodbye.
I still miss you, think about you. Tell your daughters, I have always loved them. Truth is – I don’t know how to say goodbye to you.
Thank you so much to Stella for this beautiful submission of her letter. This letter is so beautiful because it reminds us of the depth of grief; it doesn’t have to just be related to a death. This letter is also beautiful in the complex nature of losing someone who you had a difficult/tumultuous relationship with.
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