Elusive Words

Cicely shouted, and not for the first time, and told me to get over myself.

She was about to walk out.

Immediately things were stark.

Did Cici believe there was always choice and had never accepted that my voice refusal could be beyond me, though occasionally no word at all would get out?

And I also realised that my not being able to tell my sister what she expected to have explained could be pushed aside, if that would keep her from giving up on me.

She is only a year older, or fifteen months as she insists on saying, and like our older twin sisters, we always shared a bedroom until Cici left home.

Long ago there was that stop talk button.

This could happen well before it was what anyone commented on.

If, when one of my three older sisters or our younger brother were especially mean, fight back vanished and tears didn’t come, I simply couldn’t get out any sound.

Also there was one special day my father took just me. We went to buy tools in a huge place and I held his hand.

By the till there were small chocolate bears wrapped in gold and he bought just one.

I intended to keep it. Forever.

He tossed off that it was to be eaten before we got home.

That stopped me.

He collected what he’d bought and said crossly “Alexandra, you haven’t said your thank you.”

But my frozen tongue could not say one thing.

He walked on and my feet ran to catch up, though the spell with him lay broken.

He didn’t take the bear back because there was no thank you so I must have eaten it.

Anyway, by then, it had become an ordinary treat.

That extreme has never vanished completely but, and I am not sure when, words became a thing to notice.

The family only said that the chatterbox had grown quieter. Of course I asked for bread if I couldn’t reach it and in a family of five children, two parents and a grandmother my reduced talking barely stood out.

After a while it was my grandmother who asked.

I tried to answer with “Do you still speak to Poppa?”

Nana used to talk aloud to the dead grandfather and that made sense.

My grandmother smiled and said that perhaps he’d moved away, no longer near enough for conversation. Or maybe it was her who had far less to say.

“What is it we talk about Nana?” shaped itself as a question.

But she didn’t try to answer, she just said it was ok for the old to withdraw though not me and she missed my chatter.

I stared a moment then walked away.

If Nana, who knew when it was right to speak with a dead man, didn’t  help with my question, there seemed no hope.

That phase and another quiet one, as the twins grew breasts, must have passed.

I recall more of when I turned thirteen and my grandmother had a stroke.

I said, “My Nana died,” and was corrected.

She belonged to all of us.

Even if she did, her being dead split us cleanly – it was obvious it was not what we spoke about.

We stood side by side as solitary units at her funeral, each having a different bond with Nana.

I couldn’t remember how it had been before she moved in, so I could live beside her small body and big presence.

I knew, only as told fact, that she came to us because our grandfather died and that I was nearly four.

But his being dead was only there in some awareness of his absence for her. You could feel that.

It seemed I’d always been with Nana playing games and cooking.

Our parents went out and she read or told a story.

Cici was rarely with me anymore.

She was rushing out, already wanting to go and dance when Nana died.

Her gaze was on the future and she had no patience for my incoherence.

I overheard my father say, “Ali is being moody again, she misses Nana of course. We all do.”

Was that it? Maybe it was just what missing someone was. Though I didn’t like my father speaking as if he had an answer while I didn’t.

But it barely sank in then, and not for well over a decade, that if I didn’t make more effort to say what seemed true, someone would speak for me.

It would take Cici trying to be helpful for me to struggle and not be over ridden even if I was desperate for her not to leave me.

Nana left many years before. She had been a pillar holding us and what could be relied on if not her smile?

Perhaps nothing was reliable. And that was a new thought!

Our mother cried a few times and at first there was sadness in the house to share.

My mother in passing might give a hurried hug with “I know how fond you were of her.”

I was told I loved her and it was sad, as if there was nothing more to say.

I tried to tell Cici about this dead end to talk.

She laughed, as she often did, a lovely, usually infectious laugh and said I’d better not go semi-mute again with sex on our horizon. We should start by plucking my eyebrows and putting cream on the spots which were beginning.

By then it was obvious that what energised Cici rarely did the same for me and what could not be shared encased me in a new sense of alone.

Not all the time. I was still part of the class at school, though no longer joining any huddles for chatting.


We shared a bedroom and Ali talked in her sleep. She’d always done it. Occasionally she also walked while asleep.

As I was getting ready to leave home I asked, “What will I make of nights without your mysterious talk?” and then realised that I hadn’t heard her in ages.

Perhaps I was sleeping through it. Or had she stopped?
“Have you nothing to say in your sleep these days or have you just taken to whispering?”

Ali immediately looked desolate, the way she could do, and didn’t answer.

“For goodness sake, Ali!”

“It’s sad that even in sleep I don’t have anything worth saying.”

She had sometimes been a bit odd and got worse after our grandmother died.

I was out of the house a lot and didn’t pay much attention, although there was that day Ali was like a statue, still and staring at the kitchen tap.

I’d cleared all the table and she hadn’t moved.

When I poked her to start washing up, she asked, “How was it that the flow had started and could stop with no obvious on, off switch?”

She wasn’t talking about water.

“Isn’t it strange that we just begin talk talk talking.”

I told her she was the strange one when she got earnest and I much preferred if she giggled.

We used to fool around and Ali was the best at cartwheels when she was quick to laugh and didn’t stop to ask about what we weren’t saying.

Maybe I called my sister pretentious, as she claims, and refused to take her questions seriously. They certainly weren’t my questions.


The older twin sisters were four years ahead of Cici.

They weren’t identical and if they were fighting one of them might be generous, though usually I barely mattered to them.

They had their own room and their own ways.

One of them, at not even fifteen, made herself a low cut tight dress and our mother didn’t approve.

You couldn’t avoid seeing a grown-up’s body in that dress.

Whether you liked it or not getting breasts happened to you.

Perhaps I’d known you couldn’t always remain a girl but that had not been real. Now it was.

It hit that I would not stay sharing with Cici.

Would I have to go somewhere alone?
But where?

It was dark outside and I couldn’t see any route ahead.

The cocoon in our shared bedroom with its nightlight had developed a visible crack.

With only a year between us, Cici and I had accepted just being together as the nearly twins.

But a gap had opened and you could drop through holes like that.

The twins would leave together but Cici would go ahead, not taking me with her.

As I took in, around nine or ten, that being left solitary lay in waiting, I grew quiet, until my new certainty blurred and lost its sharp edges.

The briefly visible ravine between the family and myself slipped out of sight.

Cici still sang as she brushed her hair and we laughed again.

It never occurred to me to wonder what we weren’t saying and then it did.

Not being able to find words swallowed me once more after Nana died.

Our active parents were often busy but Nana was just there and the comfort of that wasn’t noticed until it went away.

Nana had not promised to stay but how could she have pulled out and just left when nothing seemed finished?

Talking with Cici, she agrees that the death shut me up but thinks my fuss wasn’t fair on our mother, who had more reason to be upset – both my parents weren’t buried in the cemetery.

The confusion for me passed. And after I left for university an eagerness to join in truly loosened my tongue.

Sex opened me to sharing my body, if not many of my thoughts. Probably I’d stopped hoping to do so.

Whatever was held back didn’t matter at first and year by year I ceased even recognising what might be there unsaid – dormant if not gone.

It was when Ricky became serious that something in me shrank.

We had fun together becoming good companions, and then the best company for one another.

I couldn’t imagine being without him until Ricky suggested marriage.

The old paralysis returned – no yes, no no would come out.

He took my being unable to say anything as me feeling overwhelmed.

He covered me with his arms and in that moment the lid on the unsaid came loose.


I arrived to see Ali curled in bed, her face as desolate as ever before.

Ricky had called for me to come.

Ali got up and slowly made a cup of tea.

I got out of her that Ricky mattered, he was her closest person and she didn’t want him to go but… then Ali would go no further.

This was the same annoying sister I’d seen at times.

She and Ricky had been at ease together for several years. He had enough kindness.

Probably they weren’t the most passionate couple I knew but from the outside it felt a match to last.

It wouldn’t matter if Ali was certain Ricky wasn’t compatible somehow, but there we were with Ali looking stricken and too silent….yet again trying to think things that made little sense to any of us who care for her.

After a couple of days I shouted at her, “Mess up your life if you must – if you think you can do better than Ricky good luck with that. He’s a decent man and he wants you. Do you think you have to go off and find yourself or some crap like that?”

It was familiar frustration.

I could concede that at home we didn’t try to say much of what we felt or wanted but surely, now we were independent, Ali should be doing better for herself.

We had spoken about that once and Ali had complained it was far harder than she expected not to slip into the already available cliché.

If others, possibly including me, were using them why was she special?

I decided to pack and go – anger was no use to her.

It was then that Ali pleaded. She could not face losing both me and Ricky at the same time.


Cici had come a fair way to rescue me from what she saw as my weakness and grew cross at her apparent failure.

She was then triumphant when I rallied. She promised to stay, on one condition – that I didn’t hold out on her.

So I spoke, while knowing that, as yet, there was nothing much to say of why marriage to Ricky would not do.

Cici pushed and pictured me shedding fanciful ideas.

She sounded ready to stride ahead towards our marriage, confident in her own answers to my doubts.

I stumbled on with her, forgetting the clarity there had been that my belly and sex sought something else.

Cici seemed convinced it was my head obsessed as usual with what none of us could say to ourselves or others.

“No one can say everything you dope. We all pick up unrealistic notions of what love and sex should be – they are in the air and mostly sentimental.”
She sees me as stubborn and inclined to self-importance.

She has an appetite for so much including for laughter and has vitality to admire. But I cannot convey to her the joy, on my best days, where suddenly there are words for what had felt half-formed.

It can be near miraculous to find them.

But that doesn’t last – Cici’s energy and delight in things does.

Yet, once she agreed to stay on, for a few days my sister could have me laughing again.