A Story by livspen

Once the first week of the summer holidays was over, and I was tired of sitting in the window getting acquainted with Virginia Woolf, Mum decided she and Anthony were going to Paris for ten days. The news was welcomed by myself and the cats. Mum had bought a ridiculous hat for the occasion; enormous, floppy and strawberry pink. I suspected this was the sole motivation for going. 

“We’ll leave the fridge stocked up. You like Wagonwheels, don’t you? I’ll get some of those in.”

She bought Anthony a panama to cover his bald patch. They were going to stay in a little hotel in Montmartre, near Picasso’s old studio. They didn’t know that, though. Mum just wanted a view of the city, sparkling and bustling and bubbling below them. She could push back the nylon curtains and feel like she owned it all.

They left Thursday morning. The house didn’t feel lonely when they’d gone. The cats didn’t seem to think so, anyway. Marjorie sprawled languidly out on the shag pile immediately, her long black hairs mingling with the wool. Jerry took up his usual sleeping spot in the rose bed outside. I took refuge in the attic.

It was rather empty for an attic. No large quantity of cardboard boxes, or bin-bags. Just my Dad’s old Olympia typewriter, which he’d left here years ago, and a pile of photo albums. The low ceiling had a Dollhouse feel. I sometimes came up here for some peace and quiet, and through a little circular window  you could stare out at the peaceful stupour of the countryside. I often counted the little dots of cows and sheep in faraway fields, and squinted to try and tell if they were lying down or not. On the horizon, if you were lucky, you could sometimes see the little upturned C-shapes of paragliders on the Downs, twirling like dandelion seeds on the heavy breath of the wind.

For the first few days, I did a bit of reading. That soon lapsed. I tried sitting outside in the garden with Mrs Dalloway, but the sun was so blistering I had to come in after ten minutes. The orange juice ran out by the weekend. I considered hopping on my bike, taking my camera, popping to the nearest Budgens, but the cool interior of the house made me lethargic, sleepy. Hours of my days were spent lying on the floor, tickling Marjorie’s belly, sighing quietly to myself. Thinking about what my school friends were up to. Wondering why the postman hadn’t come.

It was Monday morning. The kettle had boiled with a happy toot-toot. I’d had the idea to try some of my mother’s herbal tea, lemon and ginger. My little sniffles in the morning were getting worse and I thought it might help. I was stuck somewhere between a missed breakfast and a preposterously early lunch. The tea was vile. I sloshed it down the sink and sunk my teeth into a Wagonwheel. Lent on the bannister and listened to Marjorie’s soft snores from the lounge. Crept upstairs.

I had a permanent spot by the attic window, now. My mother’s very expensive velvet cushion, lavender with a gold trim, was waiting for me. I’d dug out a load of books on from under my bed the day before. The first one was on Magritte. Dad had bought it for me in London once. Stuffing the Wagonwheel wrapper into a crack in the roof, I began turning plush pages. They were vaguely familiar. The paintings were like a bizarre dream.

I sat there until mid afternoon. Streaks of greenish sunlight were now pouring in the attic window. My legs were beginning to stiffen from sitting cross-legged. I heard a cat mewing for food from below. However, as I clambered up, I realised it was not a cat at all. It was the circular, almost musical squeak of a bicycle, getting louder and louder. I pressed my face up to the window. Sure enough, a figure on a bike was riding along the lane towards the house. 

In a clumsy flash I was stumbling downstairs. I don’t know what I was expecting. Marjorie lifted her head in surprise as I flung the front door open. A woft of pollen and sunlight filled the house. And there, a silhouette curving gracefully round the hedge into out front driveway, was my sister Jools. She let the bike drop and marched up to me quite smilelessly.

“Have you watered the plants in the last decade?” she asked colourlessly, gesturing to the flowerbeds. Her rich brown hair was shorter and thinner now than I’d ever seen it. The sunlight jumped off it. She looked a little peeved at me, as if I’d forced her to come all the way up here on a bike in the blazing July heat. With jeans on. But Jools was so pretty, even when furious she could charm anyone’s socks off.

“What are you doing here?” I said. 

“Coming to see you, obviously,” she replied, and slid past me into the house. Marched into the kitchen. “Where’s Mum? Out?”

“In France. She and Anthony went last Thursday.”

“Of course they did.” She helped herself to a Wagonwheel from the cupboard. “And she didn’t think to ask you, did she, if you wanted to go? Typical.”

She sat down on one of the barstools. It occurred to me that I hadn’t seen Jools since my birthday last November. She’d come to visit me with Dad to give me my present, an easel and a huge set of oil paints, and she looked wild and haggard and tired. Her hair had been past her elbows and she’d worn a huge blue jumper with reindeer on. She’d been smoking, too. Now she looked almost exactly as she used to before Mum and Dad got divorced, when we all still lived together in this house. Young, healthy, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. 

“So you’re here all on your own are you, Fran? Like little Macaulay Culkin.” She finished the biscuit in three bites. I took the wrapper and put it in the bin, nodding humbly.

“I don’t mind. How’s Dad?”

“He’s alright. You know Dad. You got your bike here?”

I cringed. Next to her gorgeous blue bike with the thick tyres, my pink one with the white basket with flowers and a silver bell would look a bit pathetic. “Yeah. In the garage.”

“Come on, let’s go for a cycle then. I don’t get to see this neck of the woods very often.” She was already on her feet and back out the front door, her wicked smile winning me over. But she was stern and crisp with me too, like Dad always was. 

“We can go along the river,” I suggested. 

“Fine but get a move on,” she said, mounting her bike. I was still lingering in the doorway. 

The river sparkled delightedly in the afternoon sun. There was no sound but the rustle of the grass under our wheels and the squeak of Jools’ bike. We talked in bursts on the way, but only about unimportant things, like the songs we used to sing when we cycled there as kids. I remembered ‘Windmills of my mind’. She remembered ‘My favourite things’. I’d packed a blanket in my basket, some oatcakes and a bottle of elderflower cordial. Hardly a picnic but it was something anyway.

Jools still knew the way perfectly. Because the river doubled back round on itself, we would always cycle right along it and then take a shortcut way back the other direction. She cycled infront of me, her sore ankles moving back and forth as we mowed a single straight line down the grass. We stopped at our usual halfway point, opposite the chestnut tree on the other side of the river. Collapsed down on the bank together. I pretended I wasn’t out of breath when she asked.

“What a glorious day,” she exclaimed, stretching her brown arms above her head. She had a blissful beam of a smile on her face, then it faded and she looked contemplative, but no less beautiful. We dipped our feet into the cool water, felt it between our toes.

I began picking flowers. In the summertime, little yellow and red ones grew up in the long grass next to the river. We talked for a while about how Jools had got on in her second year of her Foreign Languages degree at Oxford, which she had just completed.

“I don’t feel like a retard when I talk to people anymore I suppose. I still feel like a tourist, though, in that town. And all the Hoo-Harr Henrys in their tuxedos and swigging their Taittinger..” She took the yellow head of a flower between her thumb and index finger, squished it. “It’s the subject that matters, Fran, remember that. You still want to do art?”

“Possibly. Probably,” I said.

“Good.” I knew she was thinking about how Mum had wanted me to be a doctor. There was a triumphant gleam in her big brown eyes. 

There was a silence for a while as we picked at the flowers and a fish dabbled up the surface of the water. I was thinking about the 500 piece jigsaw puzzle, the one I did when I was eight and Jools was twelve. The picture on the box was a thatched cottage, with a 1940s family having a picnic together in the garden in front. There was a brown terrier, and twin boys, a little girl, a mother and father, all looking very pleased with themselves, as they would on a jigsaw puzzle. It took me three weeks to do it, on our coffee table in the lounge. I told everyone not to help me. Dad would come in with a cup of tea for me after school, and watch silently, a smile on his face, as I worked. Eventually one weekend, everything was perfect, and everything was in place, or so I believed. The picture matched up exactly. I announced it to the house. Dad and Jools came to congratulate me.

Then Mum came marching in to inspect it. She had Marjorie in her arms, who was just a kitten then. She held her like a baby on her hip and stared superciliously at my jigsaw.

“Fran. There’s a piece missing.”

“There can’t be!”

“On that cloud.. you see, there.” She pointed a red nail at the spot. “One piece missing.”

I searched everywhere, from the top of the house to the bottom. All afternoon. No luck. I was distraught and threw myself into bed. Didn’t sleep. Too light. But at about 5 o’clock, Jools knocked softly on my door. She ruffled my hair, placed the missing piece in the palm of my hand. It had been under the rug in the lounge, hidden naughtily. I hugged her so tight she nearly suffocated.

“Shall we have our picnic, then?” Jools asked, suddenly. Her face was brighter now.

“It’s not really a picnic.”

“Well, whatever. Get the blanket out.”

I unfurled the patchwork blanket and laid it down a little way in from the bank. Jools sat down and kicked off her sandles it as soon as it settled, like a child does on a made bed. The cordial was still cool as I’d wrapped it up in tin foil. I unscrewed it and poured some into each glass. 

“Oohh lovely. I’m back at Oxford,” Jools trilled. I sat down next to her, offered her an oatcake. She wiped the cordial from her lips and brushed her eyelashes with her little finger. Accepted one joyously.

It felt, all of a sudden as we sat there, that the memories of being together as children were too much to bare. The fruity smell of the air around us was starting to feel too heavy, too pleasant. My eyes were sore from the pollen. My throat seemed to be itching.


“Yes, my dear?”

“Do you ever miss living together? You, me, Mum and Dad?”

She looked very grave for a moment, dipping her oatcake in the cordial. It took her a while to formulate an answer but what she said made me feel worse.

“I don’t think I do. Because, think about it. Dad is so much happier now. I imagine Mum is too. They weren’t happy together. They thought they had to be together because of us. It was all very difficult.” She turned and looked at me properly in the eye. She looked like she believed what she said very strongly. The wind lifted her hair up a little at the back.

“You see what I’m saying? I know it’s hard but whenever I feel down about it, I just think about Mum and Dad. The arguments.”

“But they only argued later on.” 

“That’s because it was getting worse. It was impossible to ignore.” She took another oatcake out of the packet and ate it slowly, nibbling from the edges, her eyes on the river again. Words I couldn’t say were blocking up my windpipe.

I miss Dad. I miss him every day. I miss you, too. I wish we could have stuck together. I don’t know why you don’t feel the same.

The long grass swayed around us like long green dancers. We sipped our cordial. She asked if I had a boyfriend at school, I said she sounded like Mum, she made a noise of utter revulsion. I told her I didn’t. I didn’t ask her if she had one.

“You know,” Jools began, when there were only two oatcakes left in the packet, “you look so much like Dad. I can really see him in you.”

“Cheers. I look like a man.”

“Don’t be silly. I mean, you’ve got his eyes. And his laugh. You sound exactly like him when you laugh. Really.”

I looked incredulously at her. I saw a little bit of Mum in her face, but nothing much. She had the lanky limbs, like Dad. I had never thought of myself or her like that, though. We were ourselves. We were Francesca and Julia. But I liked it, when she said that about me, all the same.

It was dropping a bit cold by that time, and the wind was picking up. A few clotted clouds were drifting over, dimming the rays that had been so golden an hour before. I hadn’t brought a jumper wit me. I remembered I hadn’t fed the cats. Jools, however, looked perfectly contented. She lay down flat on the blanket, her hands behind her head, her eyelid’s closed and full. Not a goose-bump on her.

I waited for about a quarter of an hour before asking lightly if we could head back. Jools jumped up with that unwavering vitality of hers and leapt onto her bike, ready to go, before I’d even folded the blanket.

Marjorie was mewing peevishly on the porch when we got back, and Jerry sulking behind her. Jools knelt down to stroke them. I don’t think Marjorie knew her, far too stressed about being fed, but Jerry, who was getting on for fifteen then, had a glint of recognition in his big gold eyes. He rolled over, purring like a motor, and Jools tickled his tummy, just as she did when he was a kitten. I sorted them out with Felix, but was at a loss as to how to deal with my older sister. 

“We can’t order pizza out here, can we?” She kicked back on to the settee. “I wonder when the last bus back to Bournemouth is. I’ll have to leave here half an hour in advance. Four channels...” She’d found our TV remote. “It’s like the Bronze Age here, isn’t it?”

I sat down on the edge of the settee, generally placating her, until evening came and she decided she was staying the night. I let her borrow one of my larger pjama sets, though it actually fitted her very well, if a little short on the leg; she refused to borrow any of Mum’s things. I was glad she didn’t comment on my nightie with bananas all over it. We watched Titanic, one of the few videos in the cabinet, and fell asleep in the den of cushions and blankets we’d constructed. She still snored.

I woke up early, thanks to the creeping morning light. I sat for a while doing nothing. Jools was such a bizarre sleeper, sprawled like an upturned crab in the middle of the cushions, her hair covering her face. It lifted and fell with each ungodly snore. I don’t think she would have woken from a kick in the stomach. I put my fluffy slippers on and crept out to open the cat flap. Then I went upstairs to the attic. 

Dust floated about here and there. I curled myself up into the corner where the photo albums had been for so many years. Separating them caused a tsunami of more dust, cascading over me and rippling up through the fusty air. The one on the top was the largest, bound with white leather. I opened it. 

It was not painful looking at the pictures. Birthdays, holidays in Cornwall, first days of school, Dad chasing me with the hose. It did not hurt. I loved every picture. They escaped off the page, each one, into my mind and merged with the flickering memories stored there. Our day out on the steam train. Mum, Jools and I picking bluebells. Us all having Christmas lunch at our grandparents’. Every tiny moment leaping up off the cellophaned pages. Each time I put down an album, I could feel it hurting until I picked up the next one. I was addicted to the pictures. They made it alright.

I didn’t hear my name being called. When Jools found me, I was a bit of a mess. Crying. She pulled me into a massive hug. She made it better for a minute, but I don’t think she really understood. Leaving the albums in the attic and she took me down for her famous cooked breakfast.

But Jools couldn’t stay. She left mid-morning, with a toot of her bike hooter, waving madly. She stole my Minnie Mouse t-shirt, but I didn’t mind.

“See you, Fran. You better stand up to Mum, or I’ll be back in a shot.” She had let her hair stay loose today. I preferred it like that. 

“Bye, Jools. Have a good summer,” I said, standing in the doorway awkwardly.

“You too. Come down and see Dad sometime soon. He misses you. We’ll go out together.”


And off she went. It wasn’t long before she’d disappeared down the little country lane. The cats had been watching her at the window, inquisitively. I tickled them under the chin. They purred appreciatively.

“That was my sister, Julia,” I explained. “She had to go home.”

That morning was very productive. I cleaned the dirty dishes, took down the washing and hung up the new, and started a new painting on the easel in my room.  I used a selection of fine brushes and some of the oil paints I still had from my birthday. Stopping only for a Wagonwheel at lunchtime, I painted right through the day, and it was finished. 

There, among a field of passionate poppies and brazen sunflowers, sat my sister and myself, laughing over a secret joke. I don’t think I got my likeness very well, but Jools was spot on. The long nose, the big dark eyes. 

I made sure to leave something for her, though. In the powder blue sky above us, floating in the one cloud I painted, was a blank spot of canvas. Shaped like a jigsaw piece.

© 2010 livspen

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I really enjoyed reading this. It was a wonderful story and can't wait to read more.

Posted 13 Years Ago

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Added on July 6, 2010
Last Updated on July 30, 2010



Brighton, Sussex, United Kingdom

Im Liv. I'm from Brighton, England. I write, constantly. Enjoy. more..

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