Nova’s Charm

It can only be a year and a bit since Nova rang to arrange to stay, as she did regularly back then.

She should have been Nora, after our great aunt, but at the registration somehow the r became a v.

Our father claimed it was not his fault yet never changed it.

I was named after a dead grandmother, Lettice, but called Letty.

Nova seemed a better name.

Quite a lot about Nova seemed lucky.

She had pretty curls and big smiles as a cuddly toddler, while I was accused of being too shy and awkward with strangers, and bony and restless if put on our mother’s lap.

If Nova was claimed as mine, my little sister, admiration of her was shared, other times she took away from me.

Once I settled into her being there, a fact of life, we operated as a pair, until we pulled apart to fight.

Not that our mother put up with rivalry bursting out in her presence. She had more power and used it. Eruptions of jealousy were unacceptable. There were sneaky outlets although for long hours we combined as two good girls playing together.

Nova and I ended up with such different men, her Danny and my Bill, and, after our mother’s death, drifted further apart, each absorbed by new family.

We  sent birthday and Christmas presents to one another’s children while they were young but the cousins were not close.

I had boys and Nova had two older girls.

She assumed her daughters would remain tied to each other and to her but it didn’t turned out like that.

Quite a lot hasn’t worked out as Nova expected.

I  once repeated glibly that sons inevitably wound the heart, becoming their own man, free of mothers. Though this was easier to say than really believe, until the pain of them pulling away was real.

Yet somehow Bill and I slid into a new rhythm, enjoying our quiet house,

while Nova appeared to be increasingly at odds with herself.

It was upsetting to watch Nova’s once pretty face acquire a put out expression after she and Danny moved to the country.

My sister began coming in to us, since she kept her London dentist and hairdresser, she preferred the clothes shops she knew. There was also a daughter to meet.

Danny, had long planned moving on his retirement at sixty-seven, and Nova didn’t challenge it. She dropped her own part time work, though she was only sixty-two, then didn’t find anything as satisfying to fill her time once the effort of settling into a big house was over.

The only charity work in her village was centred on two churches.

She tried to take up gardening and bought expensive plants, but hasn’t got a feel for it…not the way her husband does.

Presumably Nova didn’t know how complicated she’d find living in the country and floundered, while Danny obviously appreciated his golf and new garden.

They bought near a good course and plays three times a week.

He had been categorical, stating what he wanted and the reality was not disconcertingly different from whatever it was he had in mind.

Danny has been a planner ever since I first met him.

My sister was not clear about what she expected and has tended to go along with Danny’s greater drive.

Bill and I have no big plans and never did. Things unfolded and we pottered along.

Danny found us infuriating when we didn’t follow his suggestions and had no spreadsheets and no clarity about how to improve our lot.

But we’ve managed okay and neither of us grew restless as we aged together.

Nova and Danny have a much grander home, better cars and his excellent pension, yet there was my dissatisfied sister.

She was inclined to be good, doing whatever was expected, though that didn’t carry her to the end if what followed didn’t really suit her.

She went along with Danny’s retirement plans, then bit by bit tension began to leak out of her.

We began talking more on the phone. She’d ring several times a week and came back to the city each month.

One daughter lives abroad but the other is in London, although she had no room for her mother to stay, so she said.

Clearly a few hours of Nova’s company was enough for her. For me too back then.

And I wasn’t sure what got in the way of kindness.

Perhaps we did not want the burden of Nova’s unspoken protest that her life was not to her liking and should be other than it was.

It wasn’t like my own passing sadness. That our children left home was to be expected but Nova, apparently unable to get over the loss, sometimes seemed to be the lost child – her need to be attached and wanted taking over again.

Nova began repeating a history she made for herself of her years with Danny.

I wondered if she was trying to add happiness back, by tracking where it had been most visible.

Good luck with that, I thought, and asked Bill why my sister couldn’t address her current situation.

Trying to make a new life in a village had obviously proved hard – Nova said she felt a nobody out there.

Perhaps those versions of a satisfactory past anchored her – a story to give her shape – but Danny couldn’t understand this need to construct a polished version, with the past painted in bright colours, emphasising the shapeless drab of the new life Nova found herself in, with awkward neighbours in smaller houses who had lived in the village for decades.

Danny did try drawing Nova into his golf community but that didn’t work. The other women all played, Nova did not and never liked sports she couldn’t win.

Danny wanted his life of golf and easy companionship yet found his wife jumpy and disappointed.

As far as I knew she didn’t blame Danny directly or fight openly, though she made him uncomfortable.

That his complacency might be disturbed didn’t bother me but my sister’s querulous unease did.

It seemed to go nowhere – just fixing itself as an unpleasant constant. Although she made an effort to be grateful and enjoy small things while staying with us, she showed herself not willing or able to do so on my rare visits to them.

I tried to be sympathetic but often wanted to shake her and would then feel ashamed.

Any of my suggestions were unwelcome but really they had no need of a big place with its five bedrooms. If they got a simpler house they could afford a London bedsit for Nova to spend time where she clearly found some pleasure.

Nova took this as my not wanting her regular visits, which was not the aim. It seemed important to push her to consider what she might want and if she did want more London life, surely now was the time to grab it before she got any older.

For decades there had been Nova’s slight condescension, carried over from Danny’s view, that we bumbled along and I put up with my husband’s lack of drive and ambition. Then I found myself wanting to say that, unlike her, maybe I’d learnt acceptance.

My sister had been pretty and that mattered.

Perhaps an end to being desirable flattened her, once she couldn’t escape decline in her sixties.

Frustrating attempts to get Nova to articulate something of her state of mind jumped out again one evening, after too much wine.

Is it a last lover you are after?

Don’t be ridiculous! Have you seen my body lately? There is no way I can expose that.

Her instant response went round my wakeful night… that it felt so sharp seemed to be a clue.

Nova had money for taking considerable care of herself. She bought expensive products and regularly had her nails done.

The hairdresser in London clearly made her feel attractive. He did a minute trim or coloured her roots unnecessarily early each time she came to us.

In the morning Nova tried to dismiss further discussion, she would be late for her appointment and needed a quick coffee.

For goodness sake, are you pining for lost youth and attractiveness?

If you’re wanting more out of Danny then draw him in. You are pushing him away – he can’t understand what might please you if you don’t know either.

Well you never liked him much.

And I didn’t try to make my life with him. You did and something has gone sour. It’s not easy to watch when nothing changes.

Nova left in a huff and didn’t ring as usual for a couple of weeks.

It must have been the following month that Bill was knocked off his bike. A motorbike went roaring through a just red light.

Bill went flying. Both legs were broken and a head injury, despite a helmet, set off a stroke.

Nova was there in my kitchen on my exhausted return from hospital.

She had made a wonderful meal I felt too tired to eat.
She ran a bath and put in some of her own amazing oils.

She continued to cook for me and prepared tempting light dishes to take in for Bill.

She would go home briefly if either of our sons were down to see their father, but for the rest she gave me tender care.

I had not seen this gentleness since the pair of us had babies. She seemed in her element back then.

Under Bill’s instructions she learnt to play cards with him each visit.

She’d rarely agreed to board games or cards with me growing up because she found losing too difficult. Now she laughed when Bill beat her.

Bill was immobile and facing having to learn to walk again.

Nova had trained as an occupational therapist but been part of a rehabilitation team. She and Bill made a plan while I rested one afternoon.

If she moved in, the two of us could probably manage his slow recovery at home and Bill was keen to avoid the post stroke unit his doctor had organised. The other stroke patients crushed him.

Nova was better than I was as Bill’s carer. She continued doing much of the cooking and was far more extravagant when she shopped. For months it seemed we had a saint.

Danny took to coming in to London each week, to take Nova out for dinner or the theatre.

Their daughter would cheerfully come for dinner on Mondays when Nova prepared a special and generous meal.

Bill appreciated our home feeling busy and was charmed if Nova sang while she cooked and cleaned. He didn’t mind that both of us had to get him to the toilet and into pyjamas.

It sometimes delighted to see my sister returned to her gracious best and for us to be sharing a task I could not do alone.

But after those long months I could cope, the worst was over and Bill was able to shuffle.

I hardly let myself think through sudden surges of irritation and wanting a cleaner demarcation.

Bill was my man.

I couldn’t say that to either of them and it didn’t make me feel good.