My sister lives on the m.., p.1
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece, p.1Annabel Pitcher
MY SISTER LIVES
ON THE MANTELPIECE
Also by the Author
MY SISTER ROSE lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London. Mum and Dad had a big argument when the police found ten bits of her body. Mum wanted a grave that she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation and to sprinkle the ashes in the sea. That’s what Jasmine told me anyway. She remembers more than I do. I was only five when it happened. Jasmine was ten. She was Rose’s twin. Still is, according to Mum and Dad. They dressed Jas the same for years after the funeral – flowery dresses, cardigans, those flat shoes with buckles that Rose used to love. I reckon that’s why Mum ran off with the man from the support group seventy one days ago. When Jas cut off all her hair, dyed it pink and got her nose pierced on her fifteenth birthday, she didn’t look like Rose any more and my parents couldn’t hack it.
They each got five bits. Mum put hers in a fancy white coffin beneath a fancy white headstone that says My Angel on it. Dad burned a collarbone, two ribs, a bit of skull and a little toe and put the ashes in a golden urn. So they both got their own way, but surprise surprise it didn’t make them happy. Mum says the graveyard’s too depressing to visit. And every anniversary Dad tries to sprinkle the ashes but changes his mind at the last minute. Something seems to happen right when Rose is about to be tipped into the sea. One year in Devon there were loads of these swarming silver fish that looked like they couldn’t wait to eat my sister. And another year in Cornwall a seagull poohed on the urn just as Dad was about to open it. I started to laugh but Jas looked sad so I stopped.
We moved out of London to get away from it all. Dad knew someone who knew someone who rung him up about a job on a building site in the Lake District. He hadn’t worked in London for ages. There’s a recession, which means the country has no money, so hardly anything’s getting built. When he got the job in Ambleside, we sold our flat and rented a cottage and left Mum in London. I bet Jas five whole pounds that Mum would come to wave us off. She didn’t make me pay when I lost. In the car Jas said Let’s play I Spy, but she couldn’t guess Something beginning with R, even though Roger was sitting right on my lap, purring as if he was giving her a clue.
It’s so different here. There are massive mountains that are tall enough to poke God up the bum, hundreds of trees, and it’s quiet. No people I said, as we found the cottage down a twisty lane and I looked out of the window for somebody to play with. No Muslims Dad corrected me, smiling for the first time that day. Me and Jas didn’t smile back as we got out of the car.
Our cottage is the complete opposite of our flat in Finsbury Park. It’s white not brown, big not small, old not new. Art’s my favourite subject at school and, if I painted the buildings as people, I would turn the cottage into a crazy old granny, smiling with no teeth. The flat would be a serious soldier all smart and squashed up in a row of identical men. Mum would love that. She’s a teacher at an art college and I reckon she’d show every single one of her students if I sent her my pictures.
Even though Mum’s in London, I was happy to leave the flat behind. My room was tiny but I wasn’t allowed to swap with Rose ’cos she’s dead and her stuff’s sacred. That was the answer I always got whenever I asked if I could move. Rose’s room is sacred, James. Don’t go in there, James. It’s sacred. I don’t see what’s sacred about a bunch of old dolls, a smelly pink duvet and a bald teddy. Didn’t feel that sacred when I jumped up and down on Rose’s bed one day when I got home from school. Jas made me stop but she promised not to tell.
When we’d got out of the car, we stood and looked at our new home. The sun was setting, the mountains glowed orange and I could see our reflection in one of the cottage windows – Dad, Jas, me holding Roger. For a millisecond I felt hopeful, like this really was the beginning of a brand new life and everything was going to be okay from now on. Dad grabbed a suitcase and the key out of his pocket and walked down the garden path. Jas grinned at me, stroked Roger, then followed. I put the cat down. He crawled straight into a bush, tail sticking out as he scrambled through the leaves. Come on Jas called, turning around at the porch door. She held out a hand as I ran to join her. We walked into the cottage together.
Jas saw it first. I felt her arm go stiff. Do you want a cup of tea she said, her voice too high and her eyes on something in Dad’s hand. He was crouching on the lounge floor, his clothes thrown everywhere as if he’d emptied his suitcase in a rush. Where’s the kettle she asked, trying to act normal. Dad didn’t look up from the urn. He spat on it, polishing the gold with the end of his sleeve ’til it gleamed. Then he put my sister on the mantelpiece, which was cream and dusty and just like the one in the flat in London, and he whispered Welcome to your new home, sweetheart.
Jas picked the biggest room. It has an old fireplace in the corner and a built-in wardrobe that she’s filled with all her new black clothes. She’s hung wind chimes from the beams on the ceiling and they tinkle if you blow on them. I prefer my room. The window overlooks the back garden, which has a creaky apple tree and a pond, and there’s this really wide windowsill that Jas put a cushion on. The first night we arrived, we sat on it for ages, staring at the stars. I never saw them in London. All the lights from the buildings and cars made it too bright to see anything in the sky. Here the stars are really clear and Jas told me all about the constellations. She’s into horoscopes and reads hers every morning on the Internet. It tells her exactly what’s going to happen that day. Doesn’t it spoil the surprise I asked in London when Jas pretended to be sick ’cos her horoscope said something about an unexpected event. That’s the point she replied, getting back into bed and pulling the covers over her head.
Jas is a Gemini, the symbol of the twins, which is strange ’cos she’s not a twin any more. I’m a Leo and my symbol is the lion. Jas knelt up on the cushion and pointed at it out of the window. It didn’t look much like an animal, but Jas said that whenever I’m upset, I should think of the silver lion above my head and everything will be all right. I wanted to ask why she was saying this stuff when Dad had promised us a Fresh New Start, but I thought of the urn on the mantelpiece and I was too scared of the answer. Next morning, I found an empty vodka bottle in the bin and I knew that life in the Lake District would be exactly the same as life in London.
That was two weeks ago. Since the urn, Dad’s unpacked the old photo album and some of his clothes. The removal men did the big stuff like beds and the sofa, and me and Jas did everything else. The only boxes we haven’t unpacked are the huge ones marked SACRED. They’re in the cellar covered with plastic bags to keep them dry in case there’s a flood or something. When we closed the cellar door, Jas’s eyes went all damp and smudgy. She said Doesn’t it bother you and I said No and she said Why not and I said Rose is dead. Jas screwed up her face. Don’t use that word, Jamie.
My counsellor in London said I was In denial and still suffering from shock. She said It will hit you one day and then you will cry. Apparently I haven’t since September 9th almost five years ago, which is when it happened. Last year, Mum and Dad sent me to that fat woman ’cos they thought it was weird that I didn’t cry about Rose. I wanted to ask if they’d cry about someone they couldn’t remember, but I bit my tongue.
That’s the thing no one seems to get. I don’t remember Rose. Not really. I remember two girls on holiday playing Jump The Wave, but I don’t know where we were, or what Rose said, or if she enjoyed the game. And I know my sisters were bridesmaids at a neighbour’s wedding, but all I can picture is the tube of Smarties that Mum gave me during the service. Even then I liked the red ones best and I held them in my hand until they stained my skin pink. But I can’t remember what Rose wore, or how she looked walking down the aisle, or anything like that. After the funeral, when I asked Jas where Rose was, she pointed at the urn on the mantelpiece. How can a girl fit inside something so small I said, which made Jas cry. That’s what she told me anyway. I don’t really remember.
One day for homework I had to describe someone special, and I spent fifteen minutes writing a whole page on Wayne Rooney. Mum made me rip it out and write about Rose instead. I had nothing to say so Mum sat opposite me with her face all red and wet and told me exactly what to put. She smiled this teary smile and said When you were born, Rose pointed at your willy and asked if it was a worm and I said I’m not putting that in my English book. Mum’s smile disappeared. Tears dripped off her nose onto her chin and it made me feel bad so I wrote it down. A few days later, the teacher read out my homework in class and I got a gold star from her and teased by everyone else. Maggot Dick, they called me.
IT’S MY BIRTHDAY tomorrow and a week after that I start at my new school, Ambleside Church of England Primary. It’s about two miles from the cottage so Dad will have to drive. It’s not like London here. There are no buses or trains if Dad’s too drunk to go out. Jas says she’ll walk with me if we can’t get a lift as her school is about a mile further on. She said At least we’ll get thin and I looked at my arms and said Thin is a bad thing for boys. Jas doesn’t need to lose any weight but she eats like a mouse and spends hours reading the backs of packets looking at the calories. Today she made a cake for my birthday. She said it was a healthy one with margarine not butter and hardly any sugar so it will probably taste funny. Looks good though. We are having it tomorrow and I get to cut it ’cos it’s my special day.
I checked the post earlier and there was nothing except a menu from The Curry House, which I hid so Dad wouldn’t get angry. No birthday present from Mum. No card. But there’s still tomorrow. She won’t forget. Before we left London, I bought a We Are Moving House card and sent it to her. All I wrote inside was the cottage’s address and my name. I didn’t know what else to put. She’s living in Hampstead with that man from the support group. His name is Nigel and I met him at one of those memorial things in the centre of London. Long straggly beard. Crooked nose. Smoked a pipe. He writes books about other people who have written books, which I think is pointless. His wife died on September 9th as well. Maybe Mum’ll marry him. Maybe they’ll have a baby and call it Rose and then they will forget all about me and Jas and Nigel’s first wife. I wonder if he found any bits of her. There might be an urn on his mantelpiece and he might buy it flowers on their wedding anniversary. Mum would hate that.
Roger’s just come into my room. He likes to curl up at night by the radiator where it’s warm. Roger loves it here. In London he was always kept indoors ’cos of the traffic. Here he can roam free and there are lots of animals to hunt in the garden. On our third morning, I found something small and grey and dead on the doorstep. I think it was a mouse. I couldn’t pick it up with my fingers so I got a piece of paper and pushed it on with a stick and then I threw it in the bin. But then I felt mean so I got it out of the bin and put it under the hedge and covered it with grass. Roger meowed as if he couldn’t believe what I was doing after all his hard work. I told him that dead things make me sick and he rubbed his orange body on my right shin so I knew he understood. It’s true. Dead bodies freak me out. Sounds nasty to say but, if she had to die, I’m glad Rose was found in bits. It would be much worse if she were under the ground, stiff and cold, looking exactly like the girl in the photos.
I suppose my family was happy once. The pictures show lots of big smiles and small eyes, all crinkled up like someone’s just told a really good joke. Dad spent hours staring at those photos in London. We had hundreds, all taken before September 9th, and they were in a big jumble in five different boxes. Four years after Rose died, he decided to put them in order, with the oldest last and the most recent first. He bought ten of these really posh albums that are proper leather and have gold writing on them, and he spent every evening for months not speaking to anyone just drinking drinking drinking and gluing all the pictures in the right place. Only the more he drank the less he could stick straight so the next day he would have to do half of them all over again. That’s probably when Mum started having The Affair. That was a word I’d heard on Eastenders and not one I expected my own dad to shout. It was a shock. I didn’t guess, not even when Mum started going to the support group two times a week, then three times a week, then pretty much whenever she could.
Sometimes when I wake up, I forget that she’s gone and then I remember and my heart drops like it does when you miss a step or trip over a kerb. Everything comes rushing back and I can see what happened on Jas’s birthday too clearly, as if my brain’s one of those HD televisions that Mum said was a waste of money when I asked for one last Christmas.
Jas was an hour late for her party. Mum and Dad were arguing. Christine told me you weren’t with her Dad said as I walked into the kitchen. I phoned to check. Mum sank into a chair right by the sandwiches, which I thought was clever ’cos she’d have first choice of the fillings. There were beef ones and chicken ones and yellow ones that I hoped were cheese not egg mayonnaise. Mum was wearing a party hat but her mouth was droopy so she looked like one of those sad clowns you see at the circus. Dad opened the fridge door, took a beer and slammed it shut. There were already four empty cans on the kitchen table. So where the hell were you he said. Mum opened her mouth to speak but my tummy rumbled loudly. She jumped and they both turned to look at me. Can I have a sausage roll I asked.
Dad grunted and grabbed a plate. Even though he was angry, he carefully cut a piece of cake, surrounding it with sausage rolls and sandwiches and crisps. He poured a glass of Ribena, making it strong, exactly how I like it. When he’d finished, I held out my hands, but he walked straight past me towards the mantelpiece in the lounge. I was annoyed. Everyone knows that dead sisters don’t get hungry. Just as I thought my tummy might eat me alive, the front door swung open. You’re late Dad shouted but then Mum gasped. Jas smiled nervously, her nose twinkling with a diamond stud and her hair pinker than bubblegum. I smiled back but then BAM there was an explosion as Dad dropped the plate and Mum whispered What have you done.
Jas went bright red. Dad shouted something about Rose and pointed at the urn, splashing Ribena all over the carpet. Mum sat still, her eyes on Jas’s face as they filled with tears. I stuffed two sausage rolls into my mouth and hid a bun underneath my t-shirt.
Some family Dad spat, looking from Jas to Mum, his face tight with a sadness I didn’t understand. It was only a haircut and I couldn’t figure out what Mum had done wrong. Roger was licking birthday cake off the carpet. He hissed when Dad grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and threw him into the hall. Jas stormed off and slammed her bedroom door. I managed to eat a sandwich and three more buns as Dad cleaned the mess, his hands trembl
Dad threw the food into the bin so hard that it rattled. He started shouting again. It hurt my ears so I ran out of the kitchen into Jas’s room. She was sitting in front of the mirror, fiddling with her pink hair. I gave her the bun hidden underneath my top. You look really nice I said, which made her cry. Girls are strange.
Mum admitted everything after the party. Me and Jas were on her bed, listening. Wasn’t hard. Mum was crying. Dad was screaming. Jas was bawling her eyes out but mine were dry. AFFAIR Dad said, over and over again, like if he yelled it enough times then maybe it would sink in. Mum said You don’t understand and Dad said I suppose Nigel does and Mum said Better than you. We talk. He listens. He makes me – but Dad interrupted, swearing loudly.
It went on for ages. I got pins and needles in my left foot. Dad asked hundreds of questions. Mum sobbed even harder. He called her A cheat and A liar and said This is the icing on the bloody cake, which made me want another bun. Mum tried to argue back. Dad shouted over her. Haven’t you put this family through enough he roared. The crying stopped suddenly. Mum said something we couldn’t hear. What Dad said, shocked. What did you say.
Footsteps in the hall. Mum’s voice again, quiet, just outside Jas’s door. I can’t do this any more she repeated, sounding a thousand years old. Jas grabbed my hand. I think it’s better if I go. My fingers ached as Jas squeezed them. Better for who Dad asked. Better for everyone Mum replied.
It was Dad’s turn to cry. He begged Mum to stay. Apologised. He blocked the front door but Mum said Move out of my way. Dad asked for one more chance. He promised to try harder, to put the photos away, to get a job. He said I lost Rose and I can’t lose you as Mum walked out onto the street. Dad shouted We need you and Mum said Not as much as I need Nigel. And then she left so Dad thumped the wall and broke his finger and he had to wear a bandage for four weeks and three days.
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes