First Published on Writing Quarter
It was a Friday tea-time so we had fish fingers, a neat row in the middle of the plate, lined up like planks in a fence. My sister said it was a boring description, planks in a fence. She called hers a row of eager meerkats, or soldiers marching off to war. But I liked planks in a fence. It felt simple and descriptive; safe. I didn’t want my food to march away.
Most times we’d have it with a slice of bread, but I’d like it even more when we had it with potato waffles. Me and my sister would play games with the grids. We’d try to eat the waffle square by square, cut funny shapes out of the criss-cross lattice. She made the best pictures, deftly crafting angular aliens, golden stars, a whole line of potato people. I’d take ages and still cut clumsily. But I didn’t mind. I was happy watching her.
Today we even had it with mushy peas. Mum had walked out this morning to pick some up. “We want it to be special, want to make her favourite,” she’d said as she shoved the can into the cupboard, bustling over to dust down the staircase. She’d been bustling all morning, unnecessarily cleaning this and that. Mum never dusted if she could help it. She certainly never dusted the staircase.
“And move those,” she instructed over her shoulder, waving at the small pile of school books I’d left abandoned on the set of drawers by the door. They’d been sat there for days and hadn’t seemed to bother her before. But looking at how vigorously she brandished that duster, I decided not to argue. Scuttling out of her way, I scooped up the stack of books, trundling them back to my room.
I waited on the steps when mum drove out to pick up my sister, pulling at the dangling bits of carpet, brushing my fingers rather mournfully between the staircase railings where, only a few hours ago, there had been dust to draw in. But now they were polished, spick and span. Nothing left to hide the stains on the naked wood.
My sister looked different when she stepped through the door. I stared at her, trying to work out what it was. Her hair was the same mousy brown, but rather than the loose ponytail she normally wore, she’d done it up in some elaborate braid. She seemed somehow taller, her legs longer than usual in the stripy tights.
There was a moment’s pause. Before I would have rushed down the stairs to meet her, punching her arm and squeezing her tightly. But something held me back. I hesitated, kept picking at the carpet.
My sister glanced at me then looked away again, nonchalantly shrugging off her cold reception. But I could tell that she had noticed. Her face closed slightly, curling in on itself. like the flowers we’d watched that time on holiday, the ones which shrivelled up when darkness fell. We’d laughed at the strange buds, teased them with handmade shade, waving our palms back and forth above the pretty plants. I wanted to move my hand now, but found I couldn’t.
“Well let’s get tea then,” mum said a bit too cheerily, her smile stretched uncomfortably wide. “You must be starving, love.”
We sat around the well-scrubbed table, just like so many times before. But today it felt different. Even though it was just the three of us, as it had always been, it felt that someone uninvited had joined us at the table, an intrusive new guest. We all felt strangely self-conscious. None of us could quite think what to say. Conversation fizzled and spat and spluttered out.
My sister didn’t eat much. She pushed the food around her plate, barely touching the mushy peas mum had gone out to buy her earlier.
“What’s up?” I asked, my voice aggressively accusational. It caught me by surprise. “Mushy peas and chips are your favourite.”
My sister just rolled her eyes, disdainfully cutting off the smallest slice of fish finger. It was boring, she told us, always eating the same food every week. At university she cooked all types of different food. Sushi was her favourite now.
I looked at mum but she didn’t defend herself. She’d barely said a word all meal. She just pursed her lips when my sister spoke, saying nothing and everything at the same time.
We sat and watched the tele after tea, staring blankly at the news, pretending to listen. After a while, my sister sloped out of the room. I looked at mum and saw her crumple. Her head fell against her hands, her face screwed up as if she was playing peekaboo and would peel them back at any second, a wide clown grin pasted across her face. She gave a watery smile when she saw me watching her, but it looked grotesque.
I couldn’t work out what was wrong, what had happened to make things feel like this.
My sister didn’t come down for breakfast in the morning. Me and mum sat with toast and jam, making strained conversation. All we could hear was her clattering through the ceiling, parading the fact that she was awake, but was not joining us.
“Should I get her to come down?” I asked, but mum just shook her head.
“She might still be sleeping, let her rest.” I didn’t correct her, even as we heard another ceiling shaking thump, the music from her speakers blaring out obnoxiously.
The rest of the day passed just the same. My sister stayed out of our way, hiding in her room, barely speaking a word to either of us. The atmosphere was smothering, thick and heavy. Sometimes I thought of things I could do to try to make it better. But I never did any of them.
The next day mum had an idea. Pulling a dusty recipe book from the shelf, we flicked through the stiff, barely opened pages, until we found the perfect thing. I grinned. My sister was going to love this. Then she’d stop acting strange, then everything would be just as it was before.
We spent the afternoon in the kitchen, playing with the special rice mum had picked up earlier. It was much harder than the recipe made it look, but we managed to mould the sticky gunk into little balls, messy but still, we thought, bearing a close enough semblance to the photo in the book that you could tell what it was meant to be. We stood back, smiling at each other, proud of our work.
We were just about to call my sister down, when we heard the front door bang open, slamming shut a second later. We both spun around, glimpsing out of the window her haughtily retreating back. She was wearing the pink spotty rucksack, the one we had taken those years ago when we had decided one afternoon, for lack of other things to do, to run away. We’d packed the bag with Quavers and Squiggly Worms, and set out like intrepid explorers down the road. But, when it started to rain a few minutes later, it didn’t take long for us to abandon the whole plan, running with relief back into the warm house. I did a rain dance now, hoping it could bring her home. But the sky remained mockingly clear and cloudless.
In the end, we ate the sushi alone, leaving a plate on the side for my sister. I didn’t hear her come in that night, but when I went down for breakfast the next morning, the plate and the sushi were gone.
Wondering where they were, I wandered back into the hallway, noting the living room door was ajar. I peeked round the corner and saw my mum and sister, sleeping together on the settee, cuddled up, limbs entwined. Carefully, I closed the door again, not wanting to disturb them.
My sister made tea that night. She cut a shape for me out of the potato waffle. It was a love heart. I told her not to be soppy. But when she wasn’t looking, I cut her one back, slipping it into the middle of her plate.