My sister and I first met nine years ago. Half-sisters, technically. Just two of the numerous offspring scattered around Europe by a father who was – it would appear – irresistible to women.
V. and I studied each-other across the table of a bistrot off Regent Street. She appeared to me a down-to-earth, non-nonsense Lancashire woman who had inherited our father’s aloof expression and tight jaw. Seven years my senior, she held two degrees, one in Philosophy and one in Psychology, and responded to my spontaneous speak-now-think-later comments with pondered rationale. She listened to the summary of my bitty life and patchwork career, thus far, with what I took to be a blend of disbelief and disapproval. I sat there, hoping she would not order dessert.
“Shall we meet again?” she asked.
* * *
V. and I sit in a café in Notting Hill. She talks about her children, her husband, her job. A lifestyle light years away from my own. A background alien to me. In between forkfuls of fried egg and chips, I tell her about translating, teaching and the latest installment of my personal life.
Afterwards, we stroll down past the charity shops and browse through second-hand books. I pick one out for her. A Scandinavian thriller. I know she will enjoy it because I will not. I do not bother waxing lyrical about Salley Vickers’s Miss Garnet’s Angel. We stop at the cinema and pick up a programme but cannot agree on a film. We have not been able to, these past nine years.
* * *
V. is sitting on my bed, leaning back against the headboard. She is wearing bright-coloured socks. Odd socks. I am lying on my side, propped up on my elbow, at the foot of the bed. The light is fading outside my windows and I have arranged as many candles as I could find around my room. Perhaps it is their warm glow that makes us speak in soft voices. We dip pieces of orange in a bowl of melted chocolate and walnuts in the middle of the bed. I get up to blow on and rekindle the red hot coal disk at the bottom of my small copper cauldron, and the frankincense crystals start sizzling again. A swirl of smoke rises up and spreads across the air. We both love the comforting scent of frankincense. From my portable CD player soar the gentle vocal tones of Guillaume de Machaut, Josquin Desprez and Guillaume Dufay. We both love Early music. Harmonies to fit mathematically in the gothic vaults of Mediaeval cathedrals. V. is an atheist, I am a believer, but the music touches us both deeply in a place were we connect.
We talk of fears. No one we know understands our fears like V. does mine and I, hers. No one else has been through what we have gone through in our early childhood, though countries apart, and which has left the same indelible marks in parts of our soul no one can see. Only she and I fully understand that particular kind of overwhelming longing for happiness, but also the sabotaging urge which springs from doubt. And we can reveal those wounds only to each-other, because only with each-other do we feel safe to show our vulnerability. And so, as we do, each holds up a shield to protect her sister from the world.
We talk of plans and achievements candidly, without fear of undermining or envy. Each one knows the other will bring all the bricks and tools and work she can, to help her sister.
Once we stumbled. One of us was happy, the other unhappy. One flying high in the sunlight, the other toiling in the shadows at the foot of a mountain. And envy slithered into the heart of the latter but she showed great courage. She went to her sister and revealed her feelings of envy. The happy sister accepted the revelation like a precious gift. Together, they went to the river, and washed the envy with the water of understanding and forgiveness, and resumed their journey, holding hands that little bit tighter.
I push the bowl of melted chocolate and the plate of orange pieces closer to V. and tell her of something that occupies much of my heart and mind. Something which may change my future, only I dare not hope. I dare not believe.
V. looks at the chocolate but cannot eat anymore. “I think you should believe in this,” she says. “I really believe it will work out.”
Then she smiles at me and her eyes twinkle. They have grey and blue in them. Mine have brown and yellow. But we both have the same green flecks.