We lived side by side, usually near to one another, and with only a school year between.
Tension grew too big to ignore after my sister met her curate.
Pamela became wary of me with him, especially if we had wine, yet he and I never looked likely to talk confidentially.
They married and Pamela became a church busy virtuous wife .
This pleased our mother and aunts, though Pamela seemed to want a large dank moat to separate herself from the previous years beside me. They held turmoil she wanted drowned.
That early period had been given another, more public, crack when our supposedly reliable father was caught in tax fraud.
Then, once the bigger mess landed after his death, and our mother – seeing herself only as victim – moved into the vicarage, Pamela’s mounting frustration with that also got put on me.
I am held to account as if I knew exactly whatever my father was “hiding” from the rest of the family.
What is true is that he rang regularly after I moved abroad and, five years prior to his death, he offered to help me with the deposit for a flat.
It didn’t occur to me to share this fact since our mother said proudly that finances were nothing to do with her, they were entirely over to the man.
And Pamela had already shut me out. I had wrongly assumed, before I left the country, that she would want me involved as aunt to her first child. Instead she fobbed off visits and seemed to blame me for the fault-lines in our parents’ marriage.
Since I can only just keep up the mortgage payments, for now it’s not possible, yet, to share any of that deposit from our father with my sister.
I wake into deadlock in a battle it’s hard to believe has no solution.
Or wake from being lost and seeking advice, as getting home proves too complicated.
Perhaps it’s a sleeping attempt to return to where my place was fixed – a nest determined by the sister already born and parents giving us our names.
A name to travel with, like genes – it has not been shed. And those early years with Pamela still shape more than can be seen.
Home was home when no other possibility existed. There was daily playing and eating in an atmosphere we each absorbed.
We picked up the importance of our respectability and what it required of us.
Any eruption or complaint was a fall from grace and promptly stopped – our mother saw no need for us to speak our rivalries or hurts.
Only when we began our walk out to school did we move towards more words.
The girl I sat beside said crossly “Your sister bosses you but should not boss me,” and that was a revelation.
Was Pamela bossy?
She was my only sister and bigger and we walked together, first with our mother then alone, as soon as Pamela turned seven.
Only later were there other possible ways to go .
Although our mile together, across a quiet, small town varied, it seems there were years of going alongside or one behind the other, as we knew we must. Daily travel with Pamela was as inevitable as breakfast before choice seemed to exist.
Out of that regular flow it’s the hiccups which jolt now.
There was lingering to scare ourselves at the bottom of a long drive. My sister had once been to that house for a birthday party, before the mother died. Now that girl, in Pamela’s year, had polio, adding dark threat to their big trees.
And there was another day I got to the one bed, designated the school sick bay, and found my sister. We curled together – and that stands out. Though Pamela was the person most familiar to me, what did we usually exchange? Where did we contact?
On that day we did share whether our mother was already in jail. She had driven us, only because it was torrential rain, flooding gutters. A poor family with many children with runny noses and no ironed handkerchiefs dashed across the road. Their scrawny dog followed them.
A thud – the car hitting that dog hit us with the certainty of our failure.
Despite the downpour we were sent to walk and, by mid-morning, I was pale enough for the sick bay where the worst was confirmed by my big sister already having a blanket over her head.
Apart from that episode the footpath was ours and we went with the casual cruelty of the assured.
We were the decent and had aunts, our mother’s two older sisters with equally well dusted homes, who sang in the church choir and took “no nonsense from small girls”.
Our father didn’t have relatives as far as we knew.
Even as I began to withdraw from mother’s control, no longer sharing all her views, it did not occur to me my sister might also be left.
How could we get from belonging to opposition, with a gulf of fury in between?
Our shared past with its continuity gradually became a series of stopped moments. Jealousy and fights for power, unnamed for us as children, began to fix our narratives.
Though we sensed each other and our mother, we rarely fought when small, not daring to upset her or invoke her severe rulership of “bad girls”.
Did any of us ever sit opposite to consider or question one another? The family just belonged together, with two children joining the only unit on offer and being told how lucky we were. Ours was acceptable, with goodness all through the way we, attached to our mother and aunts, made sense of ourselves, our place and expected behaviour.
Father was never entirely included. Even so it was a mighty fall when his tax fraud came to light, just as Pamela turned seventeen.
He knew he had hurt us as well as our prostrate mother.
“Heartbroken, devastated” was her refrain on endless replay.
There was no way to think about his obvious sadness or what he’d done, there was only her demand for agreement. But this locked circuit of his shame and fault grated. He looked stricken.
I loved him and was astounded.
The structure of everything, including myself, seemed shattered and even asking, “but how did it happen….was he just careless?” infuriated our mother.
Her impotent tightness at home could not alter what was now public news .
She seemed to want only to squeeze him and our life back into the old shape and any of my questions about it were an affront, as if I was seeking a way to excuse him.
And perhaps I was, and this was the beginning of a split down the centre of what had seemed to be a union.
Pamela left to begin training as a Dental Nurse, while I had to move to a new school in a town where his “sordid” lapse was unknown – moving away from the formidable aunts, who seemed to consider us all tainted.
Pamela came back to sort her things for the shift and probably for the first time, we talked about our parents.
How far she saw things that I didn’t came as a huge surprise.
Despite having two boyfriends about whom our mother knew nothing, Pamela clearly tuned into her in ways not open to me.
While I seemed better connected with him and wished to make allowances, which annoyed Pamela.
Though the battle lines were not yet obvious, Pamela seemed quick to join our mother’s outrage, where I wanted to escape brittle entitlement to a better husband and better life.
To me she wasn’t such a wonder herself. Yet he was never to be forgiven for falling short and reducing her.
There was no attempt at understanding what she and we girls might have failed to see in our demand that he be solid reliability.
It had never occurred to me to wonder what that involved for him beyond turning up in church well dressed, though he, like me, was a sceptic.
Curiosity about him came slowly.
It was in the years after I left home that a conversation began. It had not been visible through childish assumptions that he played along a tightrope of being found out. Some threat of exposure was there from his start in life as illegitimate and then adopted at three.
One brother, gay and also adopted, died from a drug overdose at twenty, having been rejected as sinful by the man who reluctantly took them in only because his wife couldn’t have her own and who was always expecting bad birth blood to show up.
Our father hoped to shed doubts about his acceptability by marrying an assuredly righteous woman.
His wife, us girls and the small town might all be believers, but his history crept with him and he was never quite convinced he would not be found out.
Our mother was categorical over what should be done and not done and, while we were small, he didn’t argue with these comforting certainties.
She knew about girls and how to train them. Only once did he half-heartedly question the humiliation in her punishments, but quickly accepted her good, mothering authority was never to be challenged.
He also realised how little she was prepared to hear.
Having married her, his shaky past was to be irrelevant, all that mattered was that he prove a worthy man.
He did his best, he later told me, and still failed. It was not deliberate yet somehow inevitable.
After our move she lay on the sofa suffering and Pamela, who didn’t have to live with it month after month, said on her brief returns “Poor, poor mother, of course she is defeated and depressed.”
While I saw sulk, and a lot of energy going into resentment.
She didn’t deserve this and he, having slipped from his post as dependable man, had become virtually worthless.
He slept out on the porch in the new place.
By the time I got away, two years after Pamela left, it seemed hard to understand how he could live under unrelenting judgement.
Why hadn’t he blown up the whole marriage?
Pamela visited some months after my arrival at university.
At last, my sister and I were beginning to open adult intimacies.
Briefly, parental tensions seemed distant.
Her snide comments about me becoming a “swot”, trying to prove I was clever and staying on a final year at school, were put on hold.
She was in a panic at stopped periods and didn’t know what to do.
But I realised she could at least go to student services as me.
That pregnancy ended in miscarriage. It was never to be mentioned again, let alone called an abortion, whatever help dislodging the foetus might have had from the doctor’s forceful internal examination.
Hours later bleeding began.
Pamela stayed in my room ten days while I slept on the floor.
This seemed a precious start and it barely registered when the new friend in the hostel, who criticised Pamela for taking too much for granted and needing to be superior to me, said “if she feels this guilty she will now have to keep you as close as her secret or just spit you right out.”
Soon enough, to my astonishment, Pamela looked back at that shared time as a seduction on my part to get the hold over her I’d always wanted. Then none of it was ever to be discussed after she met the fussy curate.
She moved closer to our mother and became the good daughter, sharing the view that our father was in the house on sufferance.
My pointing out that he had supported the three of us and bought the house set me up as the heartless child.
Though it briefly occurred to me that he might be pushed slowly into self-destruction, I was living abroad and did not witness how far he was estranged from his wife and Pamela.
On the phone he once said he lived in parallel to them but was shocked by my asking why he didn’t leave. That was absolutely not an option! He forever owed my poor mother.
But he was planning to come to stay with me, as soon as work was less worry.
I didn’t ask for details and wish I had shown more interest.
Weeks after that call he had an heart attack and mother’s lawyer discovered how he had helped with my deposit. Pamela was to get the same from his estate but with debts there was nothing left.
Our mother, having his pension and some insurance, was far from destitute. But for a year his business had gradually been failing, along with his health. And he’d taken up gambling.
He was at the casino, losing, when he cried out in pain. They called the ambulance.
Pamela had noted he’d been breathless a fortnight or more before, when she’d last seen him. He was looking after her two boys to give her and our mother some peace. She told him he should see his GP.
The night of his death, maybe on the way to gamble, he rang me and left a message.
They were startling words, far from his usual ones, telling me that he did not manage to be the family man he had so wanted to become for himself and for our mother. He’d tried, but could not stay upright in those shoes. They belonged to someone else. But I should never forget it had been amazing, after his not very successful adoption, to have daughters that were his blood and he’d loved me very, very dearly.
Perhaps I assumed Pamela had a similar message. Or simply blurted mine out because I’d only just heard it on the answerphone when she rang to tell me he died in an ambulance.
Once our battle lines became tightened and rigid, after she learned of his gift, the message became proof of my conniving with him and colluding in our mother’s downfall.
With him dead, and more grievance loaded on to me, how can any of it shift?
“Home” remains a maze of blockages.