Family Mess




y sister flew home leaving remnants of agitation, along with implicit criticism. Her unexpected eruptions passed, but a lingering, barely controlled annoyance suggested I could have said or done something, that my vigilance might have averted things. I live near our brother, she does not. But, since we sisters ring each other regularly, misgivings had been passed on.
Any coherence we now have is retrospective – small bits, noted over years, certainly did not add up to this mess.
And comments I did make about my brother’s children or wife my husband was likely to call “bitchy” (in principle he champions emotional, suffering women, including our sister-in-law, Helen, but finds my distress difficult).
During the baby years Helen had it tough, but so did Dan, not that my twin brother was allowed, or allowed himself, to say so. He was to be Helen’s rock, as she frequently claimed, while complaining that he wasn’t as sensitive as herself.
Despite childhood closeness, attempted conversations with Dan were shut down. Loyal to Helen, he knew her as we did not.
My sister and I tried to befriend Helen. After our mother’s death, father, on a fast re-marriage, moved abroad. Mother had been the one each of us three adult children rang, and my sister, as the eldest, tried taking over as family conduit. Dan, however, was swept away when Helen wanted him in her family and no longer part of ours. They regularly saw her parents and childless brother, yet Helen disrupted most efforts to meet us and discouraged phone calls. Dan would be summoned, or needed, if my sister or I rang and soon he was more ready for interruption than responding.
I tried speaking out a few times. Maybe the first was at their daughter, Celia’s, 2ndbirthday. We arrived with presents and balloons to find, the acute reminder of that grim birth having brought on a tension headache, Helen was in bed. Her silly mother, also inclined to public suffering, was upstairs in the darkened room, providing intermittent cold flannels for both their brows, or calling for cups of tea, which only she drank.
Although making the tea and helping Dan came easily it was tiring and possibly some unintended resentment slipped in with my words.
Dan, far from adding his frustration, crossly told me he could manage his daughter, a party and the few guests, and what did I know of Helen, we weren’t exactly friends.
“I have tried!”
At which he rolled his eyes dramatically as he’d done as a boy and the familiarity made us both laugh, but there was no further opening.
My sister, when offered a criticism of Helen, usually agreed fast and rather too emphatically, though in these considerations, of what the consequences of our sister-in-law’s behaviour might be, we assumed Celia the likely casualty. As a teenager she grew frumpy and overblown. Several times during this eventual crisis she has been taken for her mother’s cleaner.
Helen kept trim and sleek, paying careful attention to herself as she aged. Her daughter went from childhood to dowdy middle age, clinging to “sensible” and apparently not allowing hormones to take her through those hazardous uncertainties into enjoying sexuality. Although at 31 she continues to look sexless with no care over appearance, if you listen carefully to what Celia says you catch a relentless current. Each offered anecdote has a subtext promoting her smallest achievement. It’s not always obvious, you can give her that, but to sell herself as interesting she passes on any morsel of approval that comes her way from colleagues, or bosses, or anyone else. Who does she need to convince that she isn’t an ordinary person like the rest of us?

It was the much younger Warren who got Helen’s attention. He was such a worry to his mother right from conception. She so wanted a son. Celia had a twin brother, born first and small and dead. It was presumed new contractions were the placenta, then a second head showed.
There was a live child, yet Helen got stuck on the boy.
It was a shock; no one had predicted twins and Helen could not get over the moment she realised her baby was stillborn.
The more people tried to wipe that experience with how lucky it was to have a living, if tiny girl, Helen hung on to those cruel minutes. Sorrow was not to be prised from her.
The staff expected to quickly whisk the boy away but didn’t succeed in getting hold of him until Helen was back in labour with the baby whose heartbeat they must have been hearing.
As soon as Celia went into an incubator, Helen demanded the return of her firstborn.
In subsequent years, two miscarriages reinforced the grief, with Helen convinced each failing pregnancy was a further lost boy.
Eight years after Celia, Warren was born healthy yet Helen never seemed able to believe he was a going concern. Threats lurked, Helen just couldn’t be sure where.
What was it that might claim him? She kept on alert for sources of worry.
To the rest of us Warren was becoming a brat. Particularly at parties he must have everything his way.
Our two sons were patient with their small cousin’s petulance but by 14 and 16 they had little interest in Warren’s 4th birthday. Forced to make an effort they had the overweight boy riding on their backs most of the afternoon, with Warren whipping them on and on.
That memory keeps coming these 19 years later.

My sister’s irritation that nothing was done about Warren’s relationship with his ex teacher is ridiculous, since no one in the family knew he even had a girlfriend, let alone a married woman who was 11 years older.
If it hadn’t been her car Warren crashed the details might never have come out.
The police traced the car as Warren, barely dressed in women’s underclothes, had no identification on him when rushed to intensive care.
How far he will have permanent damage is not yet clear.
The “girlfriend”, of course, will not bring a case of assault, despite the police giving strenuous encouragement. She has good reason to keep quiet.
Helen, unsurprisingly, considers it entirely the woman’s fault – her Warren was gullible and young while she, the older woman, was playing out fantasy with a boy she expected to manipulate until this occasion (or, as in Helen’s view, this first and only time) when poor Warren, understandably found it too distressing.
Quite how much detail Helen knows we can’t be sure. The police spoke only to Dan who spared his wife what he could, then went to see the woman, ready to pay her not to press charges. That was when he knew only initial police findings.

My sister, married to a Detective Inspector, had no trouble reading the later, full report.
Then there is the car Warren crashed into, and even if there is no prosecution for reckless driving with only a learner’s license, he will have to live with the fact that the new grandmother in the passenger seat did not survive.
A man and his mother were driving home excitedly after the birth, Warren was fleeing sex that got out of hand.
The “girlfriend” was still tied up when the police arrived at a front door left wide open. She had been beaten before penetration.
Warren must have grabbed her car keys and dashed out of the house.

The assumption of rape was soon altered. It was not a one off event just an escalation
Apparently she liked Warren, though not her husband, to tie her up across the spare bed and spank.
Warren, dressed in her knickers and petticoat had played this ritual before.

Suddenly he was in a frenzy, taking his belt to her then, screaming disgust, entered her despite protests.
Neighbours in the semi-detached heard cries and yelling, and knew that for some months “the shifty young man arrived whenever that kind and decent husband was away.”
There had not been commotion before, they said.
Dan visited the neighbours, grateful for their evidence that Warren had been invited. Who knows what the husband back from work travel was told?

For a month I have been making Helen food she likes. Celia, who is no cook, has been “taking care of everything else” including her distraught mother.
The nurses called Celia “a wonder”, or so she told my sister twice and me a third time. Celia, who spends every night at Warren’s bedside and sings him lullabies, is ready to risk her job to be of help for months, or years, if needed.
Helen is exhausted from disturbed sleep and being driven, as if she has waited all Warren’s life to know what the disaster would be and now it’s finally here she can get to grips with it.
With her “poor boy” completely helpless, though through the worst, she is out to fight for him as if his recovery depends on the teacher being punished. Helen grew shrill over useless lawyers and getting the young woman dismissed for taking outrageous advantage of her position, and my sister reacted, despite the obvious fact that there is no arguing with Helen at present.
It felt a relief when my sister flew home.

She rang days later, still with implied indignation that under her time as self-appointed head of the family things should have spun so far out of control.
I lost it.
After nearly four weeks of being the one to try soothing everybody there was an explosion.
It must be decades since I just shouted, discharging frustration, no letting her get a single word in.
At the end there was quiet, then she put the phone down.
It came as a surprise when she rang back.
More surprising to catch distress in her voice. She can be formidable.
“It’s so exposing,” she said.
“As much for that young woman surely?”
“That’s who I meant.”
“You feel sorry for her?”
“Helen wants her sued for seducing an ‘innocent ex-pupil’– he’s 23!”
Then more silence.
“You know Pete – hardly into foreplay. It’s been a while since there was any real desire for him.”
“We’ve both been married ages – sex wears off.”
“But I still want sex as much. Don’t you?”
“Only sometimes.”
“Wanting it and making do with the most unromantic husband, is pretty impossible without some fantasy.”
“With Pete?”
“Heavens no, only in my head, but the urge to act it out is there. Warren’s woman had guts enough to try. I’m not that courageous.”
“Not a word of this to a soul – especially no hint to Helen.”

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