Book Excerpt

June 15, 2016

Her fingers hover over the keys. She stares at the letter C, wondering what the hell she is doing, trying to picture her sister as a fully grown adult woman, strong and smart, with breasts, coiffed hair, a handbag, a set of keys. All she can manage is an overgrown version of her freckled, gap-toothed, seven year old sister, hair knotted and fly-away, wearing a baggy, oversized skirt suit, which is an endearing if ridiculous image.
Would she have pierced ears? Tattoos? Short, bleached blonde hair? Would she be fat, or thin? Would she be at all recognisable?
It was raining the day the tiny, dark haired, snuffling baby was brought home. Josie sat in the window of the living room, listening to the strange, demanding sounds of her new sibling and wondering what she was supposed to think of it all. She’s just like you were when you were tiny. her parents had said as they kissed the baby’s tiny face and rocked her. Josie wondered if the baby was a deliberate replacement for her, since she was not quite good enough. It squirmed and grimaced and her mother and father cooed and laughed at the helpless bundle and Josie again felt that strange sensation of speeding through the universe at a million miles an hour, towards something dark and nothingy.
To the outside world, Josie was not a strange child. In fact, by all accounts she was an absolute treasure and she knows that she was exuberant, enthusiastic, bright, full of questions, curiosity and even joy. The smallest things brought her happiness: a snail on the window, a leaf falling from a tree, the insistent hooting of a wood pigeon. She had an affinity for nature and she loved to spend time outdoors, digging, climbing and discovering. She smiled at strangers, slept when she was supposed to and ate whatever was put in front of her and her mother always said that Josie made her friends jealous, she was so easy.
Yet, when her mother told her this, Josie didn’t feel glad in the slightest; rather it made her so melancholy that she could hardly bare it and she would wince as her mother started to reminisce, the nostalgia causing Josie actual physical pain, a profound sense of grief for the loss of that girl and whatever it was that had made everything so simple and so beautiful. Her mother’s stories made her sure that she had already failed, a thought she remembers having as early as the age of seven; the lost beauty of what she had been, the mounting disappointment of getting older, the creeping realisation that she was never going to be that innocent or that perfect again and, most of all, the feeling of complete disconnection from this past version of herself.
Visibly, however, she continued to seem like a normal child, if a little eccentric, but this was mostly attributed to her being “bright”. Like many children, she took to building dens in any small space she could find. In summer it was under the bough of a tree, or hidden in the hollow of a bush, in winter she would empty a corner of a wardrobe, replace the contents with a cushion and a lamp, then wedge herself into the tiny space with a book, shutting herself in, away from the loud ticking of time that she couldn’t yet fully understand, but already hated.
Sometimes she wonders if she exaggerates her own strangeness as a child, seeing herself through her adult eyes and casting a darker shadow over everything than it truly deserves. Perhaps all children have similar thoughts, but not the vocabulary to express them. She could dismiss all of it as normal, except for one indisputable fact that she knows singles her out.
At the age of eleven, she asked her parents to send her to a different school from all of her friends.
She had a cover story. The school she asked to be sent to was a grammar school, one that required the passing of an exam to attend. She told her parents that a girl from the year above had gone there and everybody talked about this incredible place all the time. She told them that she wanted to go to this special school, that she wanted to be challenged, and she watched her parents become overwhelmed with pride and amazement. She was a good pupil, if not outstanding, but she knew that this was due to her own lack of effort rather than a lack of ability. She bored easily, found more interest in her own inner monologue than the drone of the teacher, was easily distracted by her own thoughts and allowed herself to fall happily into them, knowing that she still wouldn’t get behind. When she asked to go to St. Agnes, she knew she could pass the exam. She just had to try.
And she knew the real reason that she wanted to go to St. Agnes. At the age of eleven, she wanted to be reborn.
The computer induction was a slow, painful process, humiliating and illuminating in equal measure, overshadowed by the obvious shock of the young library assistant, who simply could not understand how someone Sonja’s age had avoided using the internet for her entire life. He was used to old people, he said, but never had he had to show someone below the age of fifty how to set up a Facebook account. She could tell he was scanning her for signs of severe learning disabilities, or possibly long term incarceration, his body language clearly showing his distrust of someone so far from what was apparently now deemed “normal”. It has been a long time since she has had to worry about judgement in this way, having always avoided situations that could put her on the back foot. Books and cafés, those are her world, and what a comfortable, non-threatening world it has been thus far. Yet, here she is, pulling at a thread, watching it begin to unravel and then pulling it some more.
She lied to Peter this morning. There was no call from work, but she needed the space to just walk and think. She walked across the city without knowing where she was going. There was a new warmth in the sun, an extra notch of brightness and the air was subtly scented, green and hazy. The snow was softer underfoot, rooftops revealed dark patches through their white winter coats and everything was drip, drip, dripping, emerging clean and steaming. She took off her own coat and let the sun warm her skin and smiled into the horror she was feeling.
She walked, thought and planned her response to all of the possible outcomes of the phonecall and quickly concluded that almost all outcomes ended in “leave him”. The realisation made her breathless. She thought back to Jerry, whom she had loved with every inch of her being, left behind without a second of doubt never to be seen again, and she wondered why it was that Pete has such a hold over her, why she was hoping beyond all hope that his ex would not want to keep the baby, that he would come back to her and they could continue with this strange but comfortable existence. It was a small chance, but it was the only way she could see a future for them.
It should never have got to this point, she should never have exposed herself, never have been so honest, never have let him in, but here they are and she is in love, yes she is in love, and that cannot not be undone, and more than that, he has released her from a cage to which she can never return. The truth is, she wants him and she wants them and – does she even dare think it? – she wants a future, as a person, a full, complete person. She doesn’t want to hide, she doesn’t want to run, she doesn’t want to lie to everyone she meets.
But what does that mean? How far back does she need to go, how much does she need to undo, to get back to herself?
She decided to start with her sister.
And so she found herself sitting on a damp wall in front of the ugliest building in town, a Soviet monstrosity, like a series of abandoned beige shipping crates looming aggressively over the surrounding parkland. She sat and she looked at it for forty-five minutes, knowing that behind those doors lay her past and her future, not knowing if she should want either of those things. Eventually, she walked through the double doors and made her way to the computer suite on the first floor, where she now sits.
Claire. Henshaw.
She types each letter as if she is disarming a bomb, then she pauses and stares at the name on the screen, watching the cursor flash at the end of her sister’s name, watching it blink, listening to it say back – back – back.
And then she hits enter.