id each of them take it as fitting if neighbours in the village called them “such a lovely family”?
Not one of them even laughed at the comment, or saw it as just an unreal picture.
The daughters, two years apart, who had once been well dressed as a matching pair, were polite to all, including one another.
The girls had conflicts, though remarkably few, just as tension between their parents was rare in a comfortable home of relative ease, where large, beige sofas were soft.
The parents, Dan and Suzie, seemed a friendly couple who, side by side, did whatever needed to be done.
Dan liked to say how lucky it was that when he was no longer around to look after them, his daughters would always have each other. And he considered it very selfish that his own sister was set on having only one child.
Dan kept certain phrases on repeat, “how blessed I am with my three girls”, and, “my daughters make a wonderful unit ”, or our “second team”, as he also called them.
For over fifteen years the girls sat together for the same meals, at a table neatly set. They shared a bedroom, many clothes, and had in common three concerned grandparents.
Having been submerged to swim in the same womb , each girl kicked to move in a particular direction. From the start their differences were considerable. Yet they were a pair – where flesh and blood were considered a binding tie and highly valued.
It was expected the girls would show permanent family loyalty, despite the fact that Suzie no longer spoke to her brother with an annoying wife, and Dan found his faulty siblings an irritation, though he remained a dutiful son to his mother.
There was little warmth between the girls, and they were too dissimilar to be together in anything outside the home.
The eldest might hurry back from school in tears after some small cruelty. Her name was Gemima, though fondly known as “our little Gem”, while Raewyn became Wyn. She was ready to take on classmates, exams then work.
If soft Gem was buffeted by school, Wyn wouldn’t know, she was busy playing elsewhere. She was good at sport, so there were inevitably games for her.
Plump Gem, with her well brushed curls, never stayed long outside the house, and allowances were made for her being delicate.
The more hardy Wyn carried on, undeterred by setbacks and Gem saw her younger sister as having a tough skin.
Wyn was not drawn in to what she saw as Gem’s “melodramas “ and could be brusque when Gem was tearful over slights. Though nothing mean was actually said, as the family sat together for meals served on a well pressed cloth.
It was not a household of fights – there were so many words the girls did not learn to use.
Once Gem reached mid-adolescence her difficulties increased. That it might be the ordinary stuff of teenage angst Suzie and Dan didn’t seem to recognise.
There was no attempt to make more sense of what stirred Gem to weep. Instead the family tip-toed, being kind, with “poor sensitive Gem” their refrain.
Dan took on the task of offering a cup of tea with a camellia on the tray or promising a trip to the ballet once she felt less fragile. Suzie might find a pretty blouse with flowers embroidered at the neck to restore her upset Gem.
Gem was not seen as self-absorbed, since it was usually the suffering of others which formed the drama playing through her.
Wasn’t it terrible people were in anguish?
What it was that touched Gem was not the question asked, and being affected by the troubles of many became a badge of distinction.
Perhaps she sensed disasters, seeming to smell them coming. Her first boyfriend called her a magnet for accidents – he only ever came across people falling or crashing if out with Gem.
She soon married him and settled into domestic retreat, seeing her mother several times a week. Wyn moved away with a promising career, earning sums to astound Dan.
Then the family narratives came under severe threat.
Wyn couldn’t cope, she hadn’t even lost her good job – she just took leave for stress and didn’t, in Gem’s opinion, need to make quite so much fuss.
When the parents heard their younger daughter was failing to get out of bed, they collected her from under the duvet.
Wyn could no longer keep upright in the competitive work of advertising, which she had taken on. She felt unable to stand anywhere.
While she had been the new talent at work , Wyn was encouraged and pushed – others believed in her. But, after the next intake of graduates, she was expected to carry on with no smiles or support. If clients were disappointed, and since they paid a lot they often were, it was over to Wyn . Absorbing their aggression became her responsibility and, worse, there was the implication, from others at work, that she might have been clever enough to avert it.
At the same time her boyfriend questioned their future. Wyn saying one thing at breakfast, something different at night had always been difficult for him but his patience had run low. If he accepted a six months contract abroad it would give them a chance to see where they were with each other.
Was he leaving her to make up her mind whether she wanted him or not? How could she possibly decide?
Wyn fell into turmoil and a longing to be cocooned back within parental approval.
Since most friends were as rivalrous as she had been, there was no inclination to expose her weakness to them.
A storm of defeat rampaged through her svelte form, well trimmed at the gym.
Wyn could barely breathe, let alone find the force required to answer where expected. The pain in her chest was unbearable.
How could she deal with crumbled confidence at work, or any decision over her now distant partner?
When Dan and Suzie drove down to London to take Wyn back home, they were unnerved to find their daughter visibly reduced. Her flourishing had been a continuing source of pride and they had little notion of how to sort this.
Wyn was no longer registered with their GP so, with her legs too wobbly to go out, they called in a private doctor.
He left prescriptions as well as the referral to a psychiatrist, which Dan preferred to put on hold.
Surely Wyn had not tumbled so completely from high flyer to a wreck? Perhaps she would rally with the pills. Good food and rest and her mother’s care might be enough.
But Wyn was adamant – this had nothing to do with the feebleness they knew in Gem. Tea and kindness would not do. She was ill and needed proper treatment. Her symptoms were obviously physical – it hurt to breathe.
Gem, having already been rung too often by her agitated mother, was summoned. She had a small son and Suzie hoped the child would restore harmony. Wyn was mostly irritable or distraught and there was mounting tension between the parents.
“Your sister is so concerned for you,” Suzie said often, yet once faced with Wyn unravelling, Gem turned to stone.
If this was suffering it failed to move her.
Of course Gem would say she loved Wyn, even if she could not ask herself what she meant by “love.”
And that she was impervious could be hidden behind fussing over the little boy, but why did Dan and Suzie expect much of her?
While she had been low and probably seen as unworldly by her sister, Wyn had been winning acclaim, pre-occupied with image, looking right, forever on Facebook, making sure her life matched up to everyone else’s.
Hadn’t Wyn been too triumphant and, with all those praised hours in the gym, been expecting to have control over her body? Now it was in scary turbulence.
Gem sounded sympathetic, such a tone being ingrained, but suddenly it looked obvious that Wyn had not been kind to her during her teens, making no effort to comprehend and been quick to consider herself a better person for being stronger.
For Gem, a thickening wall blocked out her sister. And what a pity her parents did not do the same. Wyn’s collapse was spilling all over them and they passed too much of it on.
Gem could not stop her mother assuming that this excessive anxiety was shared; after Suzie detailed her worries over Wyn she would add, “you understand I am sure.”
Nothing seemed clean anymore – only the table had straight lines, as they sat at it, having taken a tray up to Wyn.
Dan’s anger had rarely shown at home before – now he didn’t know who to blame for this mess – himself, his wife or tough, ruthless commerce which had broken his thriving child. Or were those damn doctors to blame for having no sensible solution?
His fury lashed and gravy tipped all over the hand-embroidered cloth.
He paced, unable to sort the trouble, and tripped on a rug. He burnt three knuckles under the grill.
There was no longer a comfortable seat for anyone in the house.
Dan said things to regret, implying his wife and Gem, who had never been victorious, had no idea what it took to survive out there. And Wyn’s long ride of success had given him the joy of his life, he said.
Gem answered that her husband needed her. She would leave next morning.
Wyn came down for breakfast that day and Suzie made an effort, picking flowers for the table.
The two young women sat opposite one another, each aware that ugliness had surfaced and sat between them.