We lived side by side, usually close by one another, and with only a school year between.
Tension grew too big to ignore only after my sister, Pamela, met her curate.
Pamela was wary of my being near him, especially if we had wine, yet he and I never looked likely to talk confidentially.
They married and Pamela became a church busy, virtuous wife.
This pleased our mother and aunts, though Pamela seemed to want a large moat to separate herself from the previous years beside me. They held private turmoil she wanted drowned.
Also that period got a public crack when our supposedly reliable father was caught in minor tax fraud.
A bigger mess landed after his sudden death. Our mother, seeing herself only as victim, then moved into the vicarage and Pamela’s mounting frustration was put on me.
I became held to account as if I knew whatever my father was keeping from the rest of the family.
It is true that he rang regularly after I moved abroad and, five years prior to his death, he offered to help with the deposit for a flat.
It didn’t occur to me to share this fact since our mother said proudly that finances were nothing to do with her, they were entirely over to the man.
And by then Pamela had shut me out. Before I left the country, I assumed that she would want me involved as aunt to her twins. Instead she fobbed off visits.
I can not yet share any of that deposit from our father, since I can only
just keep up the mortgage payments and have a child.
I wake into deadlock, in a battle it’s hard to believe has no solution.
Or wake from being lost and seeking advice; wake from a sleeping attempt to return to where my place was fixed, in a nest determined by the sister already born and parents giving us our names.
A name to travel with , like genes it has not been shed .And those early years with Pamela shape more than can be seen.
Home was home when no other possibility existed. Playing and eating in an atmosphere to absorb, we picked up the importance of our respectability and what it required of us.
Any fall from grace was promptly stopped and our mother saw no need for either of us to mention our rivalry.
Only at school did we move into more words. The girl I sat beside said crossly, “Your sister bosses you but should not boss me.” And that was a revelation. Was Pamela bossy?
She was my sister and bigger and we walked together, first with our mother then alone, as soon as Pamela turned seven.
Our mile across a quiet small town had some variety yet there seem to be years of going alongside or one behind the other, as we knew we must, with daily travel together as inevitable as breakfast.
Only later were there other possible ways to go.
Back when no choice seemed to exist, the footpath was ours and we walked with the casual cruelty of the assured.
Although there might be jolts in the regular flow. There was lingering to scare ourselves at the bottom of a long drive. My sister had once been to that house for a birthday party, but the mother died, adding dark threat to their big trees.
Our usual confidence rested on knowing we were the decent and had aunts, our mother’s two older sisters, with equally well dusted homes; aunts who sang in the church choir and took “no nonsense from small girls”.
Our father didn’t have relatives as far as we knew.
Even as I began to withdraw from mother, no longer sharing all her views, it didn’t occur to me my sister might also be left.
We rarely fought when small, not daring to invoke our mother’s
control of bad girls.
But our shared past, with its continuity, gradually became a series of stopped moments. Jealousy and fights for power, unnamed for us as children, began to fix our narratives.
We were no longer the family which just belonged together. Having once joined that only unit on offer, we could be told how lucky we were. There was goodness all through the way we, attached to our mother and aunts, made sense of our place and expected behaviour back then.
It was a mighty fall when our father’s tax fraud came to light, just as Pamela turned seventeen.
He knew he had hurt us as well as our prostrate mother.
“Heartbroken, devastated” was her refrain on endless replay.
This locked a circuit of his shame and fault. He looked stricken.
I loved him and was astounded.
Even asking, “but how did it happen….was he just careless?” infuriated our mother.
Her impotent tightness at home could not alter what was now public news but questions about it were an affront, as if I was seeking a way to excuse him.
And perhaps I was.
Pamela left to begin training as a Dental Nurse, while I had to move to a new school in a town where his sordid lapse was unknown; moving away from the formidable aunts, who seemed to consider us all tainted.
Pamela came back to sort her things for the shift and probably for the first time, we talked about our parents.
How far she saw things, which I didn’t, came as a huge surprise.
Despite having two boyfriends about whom our mother knew nothing, Pamela tuned into her, in ways not open to me, while I seemed better connected with our father, which annoyed my sister. Though battle lines were not yet obvious, Pamela was quick to join our mother’s outrage, where I wanted to escape that brittle entitlement to a better husband and better life.
To me she wasn’t such a wonder herself. Yet he was never to be forgiven for falling short and reducing her.
There was no attempt at understanding what we failed to see in our demand that he be solid reliability.
It had never occurred to me to wonder what that might involve for him, beyond turning up in church well dressed, though he, like me, was a sceptic.
Curiosity came slowly.
It was after I left home that a conversation began. I heard how some threat of exposure was there from his start in life as illegitimate and then adopted at three.
His one brother, gay and also adopted, died from a drug overdose at twenty, having been rejected as sinful by the man who reluctantly took them in. That father was always expecting bad birth blood to show up.
While our father hoped to shed doubts about his acceptability by marrying an assuredly righteous woman, yet continued to balance on a tight, waiting to be found out.
His wife, us girls and the small town might all believe in him, but with his history he was never quite convinced he would not be exposed as wanting.
Our mother was categorical over what should be done and not done and, while we were small, he didn’t argue with these comforting certainties. She knew about girls and how to train them. Only once did he half-heartedly question the humiliation in her punishments, but quickly accepted her good, mothering authority was never to be challenged.
He must have soon realised how much his wife was not prepared to hear.
Having married her, his shaky past was to be irrelevant, all that mattered was that he prove a worthy man.
He did his best, he later told me, and still failed. It was not deliberate yet somehow inevitable.
After the move, our mother lay on the sofa suffering and Pamela, who didn’t have to live with it month after month, would sympathise on her brief returns. “Poor, poor mother, of course she is defeated and depressed.”
While I saw sulk and a lot of energy going into resentment that
she didn’t deserve this. He, having slipped from his post as dependable, was now seen as virtually worthless.
He slept out on the porch in the new place.
By the time I got away, two years after Pamela left, it seemed hard to understand how he could live under unrelenting judgement.
Why hadn’t he blown up the whole marriage?
Pamela visited me months after my arrival at university.
My sister and I were beginning to open adult intimacies.
Her snide comments about me becoming a swot, trying to prove I was clever and staying on a final year at school, were put on hold.
She was in a panic at stopped periods and didn’t know what to do.
I realised she could, at least, go to student services as me.
That pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It was never to be mentioned again, let alone called an abortion, whatever help dislodging the foetus might have had from the doctor’s forceful internal examination.
Hours later bleeding began.
Pamela stayed in my room ten days while I slept on the floor.
This seemed a precious start and it barely registered when the new friend in the hostel, who criticised Pamela for taking too much for granted and needing to be superior to me said, “if she feels this guilty she will now have to keep you as close as her secret or just spit you right out.”
Soon enough, to my astonishment, Pamela looked back at that shared time as a seduction on my part to get the hold over her I’d always wanted. Then none of it was ever, ever to be discussed after she met the fussy curate.
They moved closer to our mother and Pamela became the good daughter, sharing the view that our father was in the home on sufferance.
My pointing out that he supported the three of us and bought the house set me up as heartless.
Though it briefly occurred to me that he might be pushed slowly into self-destruction, I was living abroad and did not witness how far he became estranged, while his wife and Pamela were the unit.
On the phone he once said he lived on their terms, in parallel to them, but was shocked by my asking why he didn’t leave. That was absolutely not an option! He forever owed my poor mother.
But he was planning to come to stay with me, as soon as work was less worry.
I didn’t ask for details and wish I had shown more interest.
Weeks after that call he had a heart attack. It was then mother’s lawyer discovered how he had helped with my deposit. Pamela was to get the same from his estate but with debts there was little left.
Our mother, having his pension and some insurance, was far from destitute.
But for a year his business had gradually been failing, along with his health. And he’d taken up gambling.
He was at the casino, losing, when he cried out in pain. They called the ambulance.
Pamela had noted he’d been breathless a fortnight or more before, when she’d last seen him. He was looking after her two boys to give her and our mother some peace. She told him he should see his GP.
The night of his death, maybe on the way to gamble, he rang me and left a message.
They were startling words, far from his usual ones, telling me that he did not manage to be the family man he had so wanted to become for himself and for our mother. He’d tried, but could not stay upright in those shoes. They belonged to someone else. But I should never forget it had been amazing, after his not very successful adoption, to have daughters that were his blood and he’d loved me very, very dearly.
Perhaps I assumed Pamela had a similar message. Or simply blurted mine out because I’d only just heard it on the answer phone when she rang to tell me he died in an ambulance.
Once battle lines became tightened and rigid, after she learned of his financial gift, given at a time his business was going well, that message became proof of my conniving with him and colluding in our mother’s downfall.
Home remains a maze of blockages and with him dead, and more grievance loaded on to me, where can there be a path through?