How did she do it?
That was what Kristy Ambrose was thinking as she staggered into the bathroom that day. She ran her head under the cold tap and stepped into the shower. Somewhere, Betsy was climbing out of her bed and would soon start tearing around the house until it was time to leave. Kristy wondered if he-Steve, or Joe?-would wait around long enough to say goodbye or if he would run at the first sight of Bets. She thought of last night, the taste of cigarettes on his tongue as it entered her mouth, the booze that ran through both of them in their sweat. Behind her on the floor were last night’s clothes, none of them big enough to cover three tiles on the floor. Kristy reached for the hot tap and turned it up as high as it would go.
Before reaching for a towel Kristy ran her hand across the mirror and smeared away the steam to look at herself. The body every man wanted to touch and the voice nobody wanted to hear. All those girls who were jealous of her; not knowing how much she needed to be somebody else. Even the teachers, who handed back essays with hot-sweat fingertip stains imprinted on the top of the paper. Kristy peered closer into the mirror, losing her body and stared into the reflection. Her mum’s eyes looked back at her, cool and green. How long before she started to forget the sound of her voice, the shape of it? Already, in a month, she knew, inside, that she was already forgetting some of her mum’s small gestures, the mannerisms that made her special. How long before the eyes were all that were left? She ran a hand across the glass, smudging the sight of herself, wondering what it meant, to love the only part of yourself that didn’t belong to you.
“Betsy?” she called out, hearing the heavy footsteps of her sister padding around in the other bedroom. For a second, she glanced back into her own room and saw the man pulling on his jacket. He froze, caught in the act, and looked over to her. The glance he gave her, meant to be sly, just looked childish and everything that beer and shots gave him was now gone.
“I was just-” he began to say and tapered off. Kristy tugged the towel closer to herself aware, even in his embarrassment, he was trying to snatch sight of her skin, like a memento to savour and keep. Oh, how proud he’ll be in the pub today, she thought and felt a wave of sickness roll over her.
“Then you’d better,” she said and stood to one side, freeing up the door. He nodded and she could see in his eyes, how he was already changing this moment to suit his afternoon story; how he left before she’d even opened her eyes, perhaps…He walked up to the doorway and she stepped back at the last moment, not giving him the chance to brush against her one final time. His cheeks bloomed, rumbled, and he hurried toward the door, slamming it on the way out. Kristy smiled despite herself, thinking of how easily he blushed; how the truth makes a child out of man, her grandmother used to say when she was a kid. It meant nothing then, of course, but had always stuck with her; as if, somehow, Kristy knew it would be needed in the future. How right the old girl was.
“Betsy?” she called out again as she dressed, flinging her club clothes and the sheets into the wash-bin, wishing it was an incinerator. Another thump-thump echoed back and Kristy closed her eyes. The hangover was gone now but it didn’t stop her from drawing another cigarette from the pack Steve/Joe had left in his hurry to escape. At least he left something worthwhile behind, she thought glumly. She snapped the lighter into action and it almost sounded like her mum’s voice, disapproving of her smoking inside. Never chastising, but instead, carrying just enough genuine disappointment in her voice to always make Kristy stop. It was the tone of voice only a mother could keep, not scolding but always getting things done, nevertheless. For a moment, Kristy wondered how women learned that; that and a thousand other tricks that mothers knew but never seemed to speak of out loud. Kristy drew the cigarette to her mouth and felt a fresh, jagged tear against her heart, realising it would stay a mystery, now that she was gone.
“Betsy, if I have to call you one more time, seriously-” her empty threat fell away on her lips as her sister’s door swung open. It creaked a little, like in those silly old ghost movies and slowly, very slowly, her sister’s face appeared from behind the door. She stopped halfway, so there were only her eyes and her nose. Even though she had meant to be angry, Kristy felt all that melt away with the sight of her.
“What are you, hiding?” She said and smiled and waited for Betsy to giggle back. When she didn’t, Kristy stepped forward, worried.
“Bets, what’s the matter?” She felt her stomach sink, as if filled with iced water. In a flash, panic set in and a thousand scenarios crawled inside her head, like hungry ants.
“Is he gone?” she whispered, as Kristy craned her head forward to hear. Her voice was close to tears and Kristy hated how the word she thought of was whimpering.
“The man, he’s gone?” she managed to get out. Kristy opened her mouth to say something but knew none of them would matter when it came to her sister. Instead, she opened up her arms and quickly wiggled her fingers. Immediately, Betsy prised herself away from the door frame and launched herself into her arms. Kristy rocked with the weight but steadied until she could take it all. It was a weight, she thought, but a weight she wanted to carry.
“The man’s gone and he’s not coming back. Just a visitor, like a nurse, Bets, that’s all.” She whispered into her ear, smoothing down hair and curling it in her fingers.
“I heard him coughing this morning and didn’t like the sound…it was hollow. I didn’t like it.” She said. Her sister had a way of talking that made everything sound like a fairy tale, either light or dark. It infuriated others, but it was what Kristy loved most about her. The way she made everything seem like it was inside a dream.
“I didn’t like it, either, Bets, that’s why he’s gone. Gone through the door and out into the endless day,” she said, trying to copy her way of talking. But somehow it didn’t sound right, or real and she shook her head. One of us needs to be living in the real world, a part of her mind said. “Are you nearly ready to go?”
“You pick out my clothes,” she said, her voice still trembling. Kristy looped her hair into knots and heard a giggle at last. They called the way they tied each other’s hair in knots, ‘twiddling’. It was something they had done forever and Kristy remembered how the two of them would find their mum, both with their hair in piles and see her jaw drop with good natured exasperation. Then, for what seemed like hours, she would smooth their hair out, taking it in turns with the comb, until both of them were straight and the ‘knot-rocks’ were gone. It was the happiest time of her life and even then, as a child, she had known it would always be so.
“What about that coat with the big buttons? You like that one, don’t you?” Kristy said, feeling her voice trembling with the memories. She cleared her throat softly but it still made Bets wince.
“Was he a dragon, that man?” she said. “Is that why you’re scared?” She tightened against Kristy for a moment and took the weight. Who was supporting who? She had time to think and the idea made her smile, settling her.
“That’s right, he was a dragon, Bets,” she said quietly. Finally, she prised herself free, feeling the warmth disappear, like the sun slipping behind a cloud.
“Is that why there’s all this smoke?” Her sister said and Kristy ushered her back into the bedroom.
The two of them stood at the bus stop, avoiding the stares and glares of the school boys skipping out of classes. Kristy felt stiff, ready to rip into anyone who taunted them. One or two of them almost opened their mouths and then thought better of it, seeing her eyes. Though she tried not to, she felt anxiety every time they were out, the thought of Bets hearing anything cruel or hateful, eating at her from the moment they stepped out until they were safely back home. As the bus came into view, she remembered to breathe and let Bets stick her hand out to flag it down. From the alleyway between the cheap supermarket and the video shop, one of the boys shouted something about Kristy and leered, but by then Betsy was safely aboard. Kristy didn’t turn around, but instead let her middle finger climb into the air, safely tucked behind Betsy’s back and out of harm’s way.
Kristy guided Bets onto a seat and sat to the outside of her. Luckily, there were only a few old people on the bus. One or two gave them the same old stares; the dusty women frowned at Betsy when the bus veered and she giggled with the movement. As the town slipped away at the window, Bets settled into a low rhythm of humming to herself, occasionally looking over to Kristy, almost to check to see if she was still there. Kristy wondered sometimes, if her sister really understood that their mum was never coming back, or if she thought, like in the fairy tales, that one day she would appear, as if by magic, back into their lives.
As the cemetery came into view, she nudged Bets and raised her eyebrow at the bell. She clapped her hands and lunged forward, ringing it over and over, until Kristy prised her fingers away. She ignored the bus driver’s sulky look in the small mirror and reached back for Betsy’s hand. Her face had stretched into a pout, annoyed at not being able to ring the bell more. Kristy flexed her hands twice until she felt fingers slip inside her own and reluctance soon replaced by warmth. As the bus swayed towards the stop, they walked down the aisle to the double doors.
“What is it dear?” said the old woman, giving Betsy the once over, as if she were an exhibit and not flesh and blood. Seen but not heard, Kristy thought, as she looked over to the woman.
“Down’s Syndrome,” she said flatly. The woman smiled sadly and Kristy was angry at her pity.
“They have communities for them, don’t they, dear? Where they can build boxes for supermarkets and things like that.” The doors wheezed open and Kristy stood back, looking to the woman. Her coat was expensive, her handbag shimmering with a designer label.
“Like old people’s homes,” Kristy said and squeezed Betsy’s hand tighter to stop her from plunging out of the door in her excitement.
“Well, I-” the old woman said as she stormed off down the step and into the street. Kristy made herself wait a few seconds, stopping herself from chasing down the woman and taking it further.
“Let’s go, Bets,” she whispered and they stepped off the bus, just as the last of the people at the stop shuffled aboard at the other end. Her face was burning and even the stiff wind couldn’t cool her down. “The bus was nice, Bets?” She said, trying to drain the anger out of body.
“Like a carriage,” her sister said simply and smiled as she linked her arm through the crook of Kristy’s elbow. Together, they walked up to the looming cemetery gates that were tall, black poles and scary looking. Like something out of a fairy tale, Kristy thought and nodded her head, the last traces of anger tumbling out of her as they stepped inside.
As they walked towards their spot, Kristy looked at the few people scattered around the grounds. So many sad and lonely people, she thought; all of us, together and alone. Their mum’s plot was small but well kept. Kristy crouched down and laid the small bunch of flowers to one side. It had only been a month, but already, it had started to look a little tired with the autumnal weather. She circled the letters of her mum’s name with a nail, picking out any crumbs of dirt or moss. By the time she’d pulled herself up, it looked as close to new as it would get. She wondered if anyone else visited the grave, people from the past she had no knowledge of, who came and paid their respects and shed discreet, private tears. Her head doubted it but her heart hoped it was true. She looked and saw Betsy’s face was scrunched up and knitted with concentration.
“Are you going to speak to mum, Bets?” she asked quietly and her heart sank as she nodded her head. Each time they had come, Bets had decided to talk. The first time, too much in her own grief, Kristy did nothing, could do nothing. The second time she felt anger, as angry as she’d ever felt and almost grabbed Bets by the arm to shake her. But something stopped her at the last minute and let it go on. Kristy couldn’t decide if what she was letting her sister do was kind or cruel, but either way she wouldn’t stop it. She told herself there was no harm in it but there was every danger in stopping her. It either made her kind or a coward but it was whatever it took to keep her sister happy.
Betsy’s voice was low and the words impossible to make out. Kristy could never decide if it was a prayer or a two-way conversation. Bets was focused, animated and most of all, alive, when she spoke. Kristy fought the urge to scold her, to just grip her by the shoulders and shake the nonsense out of her. It was then she found her mum’s voice still inside her, guiding her fingertips and staying her feet. Instead, she kept a distance, a foot or two away, watching Bets talk. It was good for her sister but she wondered if it was not good for her, too; to think somewhere, somehow, their family was still connected and not broken beyond all repair.
Kristy followed her sister and closed her eyes to listen to the rhythm of Bets, the way one sound rose and the next fell; how it all seemed to hold together in one flow and measure, like water, or a song. Like something out of a fairy tale, her mind whispered, and for a while, just a while, she allowed herself to be taken out of the real world and over into where Bets was delivering her speech. It was something she needed more than anything; a secret in their life together, something to hide from the rest of the world.
Eventually, the sounds fell away and Kristy opened her eyes to see her sister looking back at her. Bets’ was done now, and Kristy stepped forward, seeing how the top big button had somehow slipped loose. She felt Bets’ eyes on her as she adjusted it and looked over to her. What she saw was her mother’s eyes glancing back, as cool and emerald green as ever. When she took Bet’s hand, Kristy was surprised to feel resistance in the grip. For a second she thought something was wrong, that the truth had somehow slipped through the net and reached her sister, but when Kristy looked back, Bet’s was perfectly calm, almost serene. For a moment, it was like their roles were reversed and Betsy moved away, leaving Kristy to face the small, timid stone in-front of her.
Kristy meant to turn and walk away but something in her made her stop; maybe it was the sensation of Betsy being nearby and, for just a moment, being the one to be on guard; maybe it was the idea of her mum’s eyes still shining bright and close by. For whatever reason, she froze in the spot her sister had stood in moments before and thought about all petty blame and tired words neither her nor her mum had meant to say that final day. The day after, Kristy had looked into the bathroom mirror, saw her mother’s sad eyes and thought: you can’t ever say sorry, girl and it’ll never be the same again. Kristy thought of everything she wanted to say now, the mountains of speeches and words she’d thought of but never said. For a second, the wind dropped and everything was quiet; Bets, the lost people at the gravestones, the traffic and the world outside those impossibly tall, black gates, everything. Kristy drew breath.
“Mum…” was the first word and then after, came the others.
As they reached the gates, Kristy looked over to Betsy and pulled her coat together, linking the three big buttons carefully back into the holes all the way up to her chin. It tickled her every time and Bets laughed immediately. Kristy waited for it and when the sound came, she captured it and placed it next to her heart. She stuck her hand out as the bus appeared over the horizon and navigated Betsy onto it. For once, it was empty and they sat in what Betsy called the special seats, behind the driver. The vehicle pulled out and Kristy watched the cemetery disappear from view, promising herself that when it came to their stop, she would let Bets ring the bell a hundred times if that was what she wanted.