Chapter 10: August and everything after…
Being a summer baby made me one of the youngest in my year. While this meant I was the last one to get legally served in a pub, by the time I turned eighteen, my A-levels were done, and I had a lazy summer in store of computer games, camping trips, and doing what at the time was my dream job – working as a steward at Barnet Football Club. And on such a lazy summer day, while Dad was at work, I answered the door to a stranger. A young woman, a bit older than me, with short spikey hair and a nose stud. And she stared back at me, her cautious smile turning into a frown.
I let her in, and she wandered first into the hallway and then the living room very much like a stranger would – slowly, and glancing around her, at the walls, the framed pictures, the ornaments and clutter, taking everything in just for a second, appraising and acclimatising to her surroundings. I followed and then waited at the doorway, giving her the room. There was so much that I could have said or asked but because I could not decide on my first question – ‘what are you doing here?’ seemed a little hostile, ‘how are you? How’s university?’ too trivial – the accumulated silence made it more difficult to say anything at all to the sister I had not seen in three years.
Ellie then reached her piano. The baby grand. The focal point of the long room. As it had been when she used to practise, the top was covered in photo frames, but with some additions since she had last sat there. She picked up one of me and Dad at the football – me in my Barnet top and him wearing their orange and black scarf – both of us beaming. She kept looking at it, examining it as if there was some hidden meaning in something that was essentially a selfie in a silver frame, and then placed it back down.
‘Still not lost your virginity?’ she called over her shoulder.
When I retold this story to Vicky while we were dating, she was borderline horrified. She sat up and accused my sister of being typically deliberate, cruel and emotionally bullying, looking to cull my self-esteem as soon as she had walked in the door. But the reason I told Vicky the story was not to chastise Ellie or for her to pity me, but to explain to her why Ellie was none of those things. Ellie had remembered. It was no coincidence that her first words to me echoed her last words before she left. Standing in the doorway, I watched her gradually turn around. She looked at me without any of the fierceness or the dismissiveness of the seventeen-year-old Ellie. I walked over to her, and for the first time in probably a decade, I hugged my sister.
Millie ran to hug me and asked me to throw her up in the air. It was easier to do when she was smaller, but I very much tried to oblige. It still overwhelmed me how much Ed had grown since I saw him. But no sooner had Mike brought them home, than the house began to fill with fellow parents and five-year-olds darting everywhere at once.
Ellie was in the garden with the other mums watching the kids. The sun was bright and warm. Even though it was the first day of December, winter had seemed to be put on hold for Millie’s party. I caught Ellie’s eye and smiled. That morning, by the time it took me to put away my sleeping bag and have a shower, Ellie and Mike had transformed the whole house with decorations, present wrapping, and baking. Ellie then excused herself and walked over to me.
‘You’re missing out,’ she said, a paper cup of what looked like juice in her hand. ‘Angela’s just been enlightening me on the firmness of her nipples since she stopped breastfeeding.’
I sipped my beer, looking at the group of women standing cradling wine glasses on the patio as their small children chased each other around Ellie and Mike’s garden.
‘Is that normal? Do all women say such things to each other? Am I now meant to share details of my body parts with these strangers that I am now bonded to until Millie turns eighteen?’
‘Don’t forget about Ed. You’re probably plugged into the matrix until he’s finished college.’
‘Thanks,’ she said as we stood back watching the other mums. I felt bad for deserting Mike in the kitchen with the other dads. They were interrogating him about being a rock star in the noughties and Mike was trying his best to understate the fact, while looking slightly cornered.
‘Jeez, how is it possible to have two children and still have a body like that?’ Ellie nodded to a brown-haired woman bending over, pulling exaggerated faces and nodding overly enthusiastically at two toddlers. To be honest, I had already noticed her. She was wearing tight-fitting jeans and a loose top, which emphasised both the slimness of her waist and the fullness of her chest.
‘Yoga?’ I smiled as Ellie raised her eyebrows.
‘Rumour is she and her money-bags husband have an arrangement. I should probably introduce you. Maybe she can be the one to finally pop that cherry of yours.’
I couldn’t help laughing. After all, it was as heart-warming a moment as it gets for us. The sun was shining, I was wearing a t-shirt in December, and for the first time in recent years, my sister was taking the piss out of me in a non-emotionally hostile way.
‘They’re all going to fuck off home in about an hour. I’ll get Mike to do the clearing up, and we can go for a drive. Talk about that letter.’
We parked up along the coast. The sun was setting over the sea as we climbed down from the road to the pebble beach. We were one of what looked like a dozen small groups enjoying the unseasonable warmth. People had come with picnic blankets and were staring out at green waves under a sky that was orange and red. Ellie sat down, and I settled myself into the smooth round pebbles next to her, my knees against my chest. We both looked out at the sea and the apocalyptic horizon.
Neither of us said anything at first. We just sat there as the tide rolled in, gulls screeching above our heads and other people around us doing all what normal, happy people do.
‘I don’t know what I’m meant to say,’ she then said, massaging her eyelids. ‘I’m not even sure I remember what you wrote in that stupid little note. All I know is my carefree, feckless younger brother was telling our dead father that he couldn’t handle life anymore, so was throwing it in like he’s done everything else.’
Her tone was less harsh than her words. She sounded more matter-of-fact and weary than typically sarcastic.
‘Don’t hold back then,’ I tried to laugh it off. But rather than looking at me, Ellie was still staring into the distance, looking bored and irritated
‘You’ve got no big commitments. You don’t have kids. You’re able to travel all over the world. Life for you is idyllic. It always has been.’
‘Yeah the Middle East was a real cakewalk at times. Seventy-hour weeks, active gunfire, not being able to leave the compound without an armed guard, people who have lost everything resenting you being there – ’
Ellie then started slow-clapping me.
‘There’s Golden Boy selflessly saving the world. Desperate to be everyone’s favourite.’ She mock-saluted the sea and put on a sardonic voice. ‘Scott! The steady one who did what he was told. Got his degree, settled down into a job, and his one act of rebellion was to announce he was off to save humanity, but you weren’t, were you? Turns out you were just a fucking hypocrite.’
With that, she turned and stared at me. A couple passed by in front of us. They were holding hands, both in shorts and sandals.
‘Secret alcoholic and drug user,’ she said with apparent delight. ‘“Dad, I’ve done a lot of things I’m not proud of”.’ She deepened her voice, which I assumed was to mimic me though she sounded like a cartoon bear.
‘“The only relationships I’ve had since Vicky have been with dancers and girls I’ve bought drugs for.” By dancer I take it we’re talking ballet? Experimental modern? And using drugs to pay for sex!’ She gave a triumphant ha!. ‘Good loophole. Classy. Our father would be proud.’
I cringed, having had the latter years of my twenties replayed in front of me. Ellie leaned back, casually satisfied. Down the beach, some small kids, wrapped up still in winter coats, were playing chicken with the shoreline running back to their parents, laughing loudly as the tide rushed back at them.
‘Have you paid for sex?’
‘Oh, so just bribed girls for it?’
I wearily rubbed my head. ‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. It might sound as if I was clutching at straws to make myself less pathetic than I was.
‘I was the type of guy who hoped spending a lot of money on drugs, and doing them with girls would make them like me. Would make someone like me.’
Like Vicky once liked me, I wanted to say. Ellie was right however – I was meant to have been the nice one. That was what Vicky had said she liked about me. And then I became the man who spent his evenings in dodgy strip clubs. Among my broker colleagues at the time, it was called Pretty Woman syndrome – falling in love with the girl who danced for you, believing in their eyes you were special and that you were the one to rescue them and ride away into the sunset. The same happened in the fancy, high-end clubs. My broker friends would take the VIP tables and groups of women who would join us, champagne flowing on expense accounts. I would fall under a spell with any girl who would speak to me.
‘I had a therapist back then. His name was Anthony, and we spent all our time talking about all this. I got into this cycle where I needed all the nights out and drugs because I didn’t know what else there was. I didn’t like spending time alone, and I wasn’t very good at talking to people – girls. Christ, Ell, there were so many times I would leave my real mates and go on to a club to get high because I didn’t want to go home. I did loathe myself. For both not having the willpower to stop, and not being like the other guys who had girlfriends or were genuinely popular without the need for drugs.’
Ellie was staring at the sea. A large wave was coming in and splashed the small children. They all burst out laughing as one of their parents ran out to bring them back up the shore. There was a group of twentysomethings just down the beach. They had just let out a cheer, and I could hear them clinking bottles as I looked across to see them celebrating something – their joyous voices full of possibilities.
‘Ell, the whole reason I wrote that letter was that I am ashamed. You were right. Everything was a lie. I tried to go away and redeem myself, but everything I did was to make myself feel better. And when I was finally ready to come home, it was too late. Dad was gone and I didn’t seem to have anything left that was worth anything.’
Ellie still looked bored, staring into space.
‘How much did you spend? In total.’
I shrugged. ‘Enough not to have a flat anymore.’
‘And now the money’s gone, that’s you fixed, is it?’
‘Being popular with women doesn’t seem important anymore,’ I half-snorted. A revelation that took me far longer to realise than it should have. ‘Ironically, I just miss everything I used to have. My old friends. Sunday lunches at Dad’s. I took for granted all those nights and deemed them not enough – you have no idea what I would now do for an evening in a warm pub playing a board game.’
With the sun dropping, the warmth of the day was starting to fade too. Ellie must have wanted to get back to Millie and Ed – I recalled just how happy Millie had been with her party. Ellie and I even seemed not to mind each other then. She had now said what she needed to say, and with it, could walk away knowing she was right about me all along.
‘When Mum left you got it easy,’ she suddenly said. I looked back at her, surprised. She was still simply staring out at the water.
‘You didn’t feel it as hard.’ Her voice was quieter. ‘Mum leaving brought you and Dad closer together. I, on the other hand, gambled on the wrong parent.’
She rubbed her eyes and rested her chin on her knees.
‘What you said to me at the funeral, you were right. I spent years blaming him for Mum going and treating him like shit – ’
‘Elle, I lost the plot that day. I didn’t mean anything – ’
‘And it doesn’t stop there. You did make him proud. All the fucking time. All my life I used to look at you and I was so fucking jealous. You were the Golden Child and I was the screw-up – ’
‘Ellie, you’re a trained concert pianist, for fuck’s sake. I think you won regarding who was the more talented one.’
‘Scott, I’ve not played in public for a decade. I’ve become a middle school piano teacher. This is what I’ve achieved in life. The musical equivalent of fuck all.’
Another family, this time the one nearest to us, began to pack up their belongings. Ellie folded her arms over her knees and hugged them.