The Kiss

One kiss lodged itself and simply remained.

Perhaps it became fixed as much by the silence over it as by concern that my younger sister, Sandy, might find out.

Wayne and I had gone to see her and Patrick on our first big trip.

Our twins were old enough not to want to holiday with parents and we could afford two tickets.

After long hours we arrived to stay with Sandy, unseen for thirteen years.

Growing up one school year apart, the two of us were often dressed to match, though rarely exactly the same.

Mostly we played together for hours, then would fight.

There were two brothers but, as children with a four and five year age gap, they felt much younger.

When Sandy first brought Patrick to our family he was a surprise.

He failed to fit any cliché we had of Americans and appeared more like a storybook English gentleman, with impeccable manners, upright posture and dignity.

Our widowed mother was entirely charmed and the two boys found Patrick excellent company, who was ready to take them in his sports car. They said he was fun to go out with and Patrick generated more lively conversation than Sandy and I managed with our brothers.

If there was any current between Patrick and myself it felt a shared pulse, as if all the family were a little in love with him, including my then fiancé Wayne.

Though Patrick did not like to take Sandy away while our mother suffered grim treatment for her cancer, soon after she died he had a job and ageing parents back home and Sandy and their two girls went with him out of our daily lives.

It was a wrench, as if Patrick had pulled off my warm, cosy coat to leave me and mine more exposed.

He is only four years older than Wayne and myself but had become the family pillar, speaking with the doctor during our mother’s decline, had been best man for my brother and an energetic uncle for the twins.

Then, abruptly, he was withdrawing from us and flying away.

We seemed unlikely to have money over to follow them and were still relying on post then, with expensive phone calls restricted to birthdays and Christmas.

Sandy became a reasonable correspondent but Patrick was busy with work and his own family responsibilities.

The cousins, a few years apart, grew up barely knowing each other.

Our boys were just four when weekly contact was rubbed out and, despite the label, they knew any presents really came from Aunt Sandy not those girls.

My sister came to the airport in a red pantsuit and with scarlet nails.

She looked and sounded American. On the phone her accent had not been as marked.

Their house had lots of wood and several TVs and toilets.

Wayne and I, who were dazed, suggested we needed to sleep but Sandy was bossy.

A very short nap was all we were allowed.

She would make sure we were awake and ready for dinner at 6.30.

I tried to protest there was more than enough food on the plane but too little sleep, however Sandy was adamant that we must slot into the new time zone.

Unlike us, Patrick flew regularly to South America, and Sandy knew how to handle the after effects of flying.

My two nieces were away at college but Patrick had come home while we slept.

Sandy woke us and suggested we wash our faces and go downstairs.

Still groggy I wandered into the kitchen where Patrick enfolded me in a tight and welcome embrace.

My exhaustion slid softly into protective arms.

For those moments being back beside him felt a return as it had not as yet done with Sandy.

With her it felt there were changes to take in.

Probably Patrick didn’t stay locked in a hug for long.

Suddenly his lips moved to my face and before I could react they planted themselves with real force on my mouth.

I went to protest and his tongue shot in.

Somehow I pulled back just as Wayne came in with “Oh there you are – I haven’t got my bearings in this spread out place. I don’t know where I am without brick.”

Sandy kept up chatter over the meal and Patrick was back to the already known gracious host.

But the food was not what we were used to – too much meat, served with some jelly – Sandy called it jello and insisted it was quite usual. The salad was also sweet and the potato came smothered in salad cream.

It felt odd that my sister now ate the unfamiliar when we’d shared so many meals and if this was her standard fare why wasn’t she fatter?

She had gained weight but not a lot.

Next morning, I found the answer when she expected me to join her in speed walking round and round the local mall.

She never walked outside, the pavements weren’t suitable or non-existent but, she promised, the mall was comfortably air-conditioned and she wanted me to meet the other regular daily walkers.

Wayne, who was having none of it, smirked as I was driven off to the mall.

Sandy and I grew up aware of our marked differences and never seemed like soul mates, yet we remained entangled as we had been since her arrival in my life.

Undoubtedly, she was pleased to have us to stay and enough of it was a joy but something was also awkward.

Sandy seemed more guarded and I was curious about how she had changed over her thirteen years in the States.

It was with relief that for our second week Wayne and I drove off in a hire car and Wayne was back to full spark.

He preferred to find for himself and not be shown around.

Though he liked both Patrick and Sandy, he was not quite at ease in their house and wasn’t convinced they were fully at ease with each other.

We did not visit again but Patrick and Sandy came back to England twice.

His company paid for accommodation and Patrick immediately took up, once more, that role of attentive, strong man for all our family.

The first weekend he pulled us four siblings in, along with our spouses, for a picnic in the park.

How was it that none of us had managed to gather everyone since the last family wedding?

Even more astonishing he hired a mini bus the second and final Saturday of his stay and organised every cousin, except his own daughters, on a trip to the beach for volley ball and frisbee, then fish and chips.

Gradually we all moved online and began different, quick and easy family exchanges.

With our children living their own lives, Sandy and I became computer companions, as if we were still the two thrown together, like it or not.

We found stuff to tell each other, though I began to wonder if what we shared was necessarily anything important.

It was a shock five years on from the start of regular, several times weekly emails, when Sandy came to see us.

Wayne had been rushed to hospital and diagnosed with a serious heart condition, while I panicked.

Before she flew over, Sandy rang with concern most evenings and babble came out of me.

Looking back, I would say there was only spinning because I could not take in the prognosis.

Living without Wayne would make no sense – what could give any substance to being in our home, making meals and maintaining the place? Without him beside me where would there be any focus?

His possible death did not seem something I could manage.

Unlike Patrick, Wayne somehow lacked a sense of gravity, but had remained playful and was good hearted.

Only now we were learning his heart was not good at all.

Though neither of the twins really needed me, it seemed as though disintegration was no longer an option when they came to the hospital.

Our sons, each busy with a new family, hardly saw each other and that felt a loss but maybe, as Sandy and I had done, they would resume more contact when their own children were less absorbing.

Wayne had taken up ringing his two sisters after many years of relative neglect and when both women now wanted to visit I was thrown.

People travelling to say what might be a goodbye made his condition more real.

And where was Patrick?

There was not even one email from him.

Sandy passed on his love with every call but when most needed Patrick’s help was absent.

Wasn’t his role to be the one standing steady and by that making it clear we would live through this?

And he had been by far the best with medical staff through our mother’s decline.

Back then as now it seemed too hard for me to get the answers I wanted from doctors.

Over Wayne I was readily upset and when one of the twins came with me he was too polite, so both of us were deflected by a patronising consultant.

Sitting at Wayne’s bedside on my own was not easy and any silence became filled with questions.

Would I say Wayne and I were still very close?

We seemed to continue liking each other and were enmeshed, sharing sons, a home and a bed.

We usually lay side by aide, often touching and sometimes still enjoying sex, at least I did but it hadn’t occurred to me to ask Wayne.

It was possible our sentences to each other slid past, drawing no attention to how much was not being mentioned.

If he failed to recover would I be left to find the size of the silence that once had not been visible between us?

I had no collection of the “as yet unsaid”, just a sense that every blank in our exchanges might be there in the night once nothing more could be shared.

And now he was too ill to talk.

There was a melting tenderness at his frailty and I was not very often alone until my tiring returns from the hospital, before the spin into too much talk with Sandy and friends – repeating myself on each call yet not finding what stayed just out of reach.

To sit at home in solitude might mean taking in that Wayne could be on his way out of life.

I could not be still with that.

Not yet.

Then Sandy announced she was coming.

On her own this time.

I could not say that it was Patrick’s strength I wanted.

Nor could I tell my sister that this was not the best time for her to be in my house – there was no spare capacity to take account of anyone or anything.

The effort of smothering panic took up everything.

Sandy said she was coming for me but hadn’t asked if I really wanted her.

She found her own way in and joined me beside Wayne’s bed.

There was a blurring thickness in me which had sat there for weeks – it had weight and made seeing anything clearly unlikely, yet one glance at Sandy told me it was not just travel weariness she carried.

We each wept in our initial embrace then headed home.

As we got off the bus, I asked a question.

Not the one I most wanted answered – not why Patrick hadn’t rung or sent a message but only how he was doing.

Sandy burst into tears, then spoke as we walked, without once actually looking at me.

She might have left Patrick but wasn’t quite certain.

He had recently been fired.

Times had changed and friends didn’t all rally as expected when, eight months back, three women accused him of inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Throughout the long complaints process Patrick was adamant it would come to nothing.

He asserted his innocence and how colleagues knew that one senior woman was out for revenge, because she didn’t get a promotion, and the other two were juniors, easily drawn onto the bandwagon of complaining women.

It was happening everywhere – successful men were targets and Patrick had proved very capable.

Only when Sandy insisted on reading the panel’s findings, several weeks before she left, did she come to her senses.

She knew Patrick spread his attention wide and she had to make do with lean leftovers.

She had long understood where her husband was needy, hungry to be admired by everyone and, even more, set on finding himself desired by women.

All three complaints rang true to Sandy and she learned how, over the years, there had been others whose testimony was ignored.

He charmed each of them and took considerable interest.

Though he then forced himself on them, none were serious assaults.

He wasn’t that interested in sex but somehow needed to believe he was irresistible.

Had he been able to listen to her and hear how she saw things, they would have gone on, with him facing his own behaviour.
Instead he was outraged Sandy was not entirely loyal.

He could only see Sandy as siding with those who cut men down, after all those years of expecting him to be the strong man, upright and doing things for others.