The Pearl Sister
I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that my father had died, I thought to myself as I stared out of the window and saw the complete blackness of night. Intermittently below me, there were small clusters of twinkling lights indicating human habitation, each light containing a life, a family, a set of friends . . .
None of which I felt I had any longer.
It was almost like seeing the world upside down, because the lights below the plane resembled less brilliant facsimiles of the stars above me. This reminded me of the fact that one of my tutors at art college had once told me that I painted as if I couldn’t see what was in front of me. He was right. I couldn’t. The pictures appeared in my mind, not in reality. Often, they didn’t take animal, mineral, or even human form, but the images were strong, and I always felt compelled to follow them through.
Like that great pile of junk I’d collected from scrap yards around London and housed in my studio at the apartment. I had spent weeks trying to work out exactly how all the pieces should be placed together. It was like working on a giant Rubik’s Cube, though the raw ingredients were comprised of a smelly oil can, an old Guy Fawkes scarecrow, a tire, and a rusting metal pickax. I’d constantly moved the bits into place, happy right up until I added that last vital piece, which always—wherever I put it—seemed to ruin the entire installation.
I laid my hot brow against the cool Perspex of the window, which was all that separated me and everyone else on the plane from asphyxiation and certain death.
We are so vulnerable . . .
No, CeCe, I cautioned myself harshly as panic rose inside me, you can do this without her, you really can.
I forced my thoughts back to Pa Salt, because given my ingrained fear of flying, thinking about the moment I heard he’d died was—in a weird way—comforting. If the worst happened and the plane dropped from the sky, killing us all, at least he might be there on the other side, waiting for me. He’d already made the journey up there, after all. And he’d made it alone, as we all did.
I’d been pulling on my jeans when the call had come from my younger sister Tiggy, telling me that Pa Salt was dead. Looking back now, I was pretty sure that none of what she said really sank in. All I could think of was how I’d tell Star, who had adored our father. I knew she would be totally devastated.
You adored him too, CeCe . . .
And I had. Since my role in life was to protect my more vulnerable sister—she was actually three months older than me but she’d found it difficult to speak, so I’d always spoken for her—I’d sealed up my heart, zipped up my jeans, then walked into the sitting room to tell her.
She’d said nothing, just wept in my arms. I’d done everything I could to keep my own tears at bay. For her, for Star. I’d had to be strong because she’d needed me . . .
That was then . . .
“Madam, is there something you need?”
A cloud of musky perfume descended from above me. I looked up and saw the stewardess leaning over me.
“Er, no thanks.”
“You pressed the call bell,” she said in an exaggerated whisper, indicating the rest of the passengers, who were all asleep. After all, it was four in the morning, London time.
“Sorry,” I whispered back, as I removed my offending elbow from the button that had alerted her. Typical. She gave me the kind of nod I remembered one of my teachers had given me when she’d seen me opening my eyes during morning prayer at school. Then, with a rustle of silk, the stewardess disappeared back to her lair. I did my best to make myself comfortable and close my eyes, wanting to be like the four hundred or so random souls who had managed to escape from the horror of hurtling through the air in an aluminum tube by going to sleep. As usual, I felt left out, not part of the crowd.
Of course, I could have booked into business class. I still had some
money left from my legacy—but not enough that I wanted to waste it on just another few centimeters of room. Most of my money had gone toward buying the swanky riverside apartment for me and Star in London. I’d thought that a proper home was what she’d wanted, that it would make her happy, but it so hadn’t . . .
Now here I was, no farther on than this time last year when I’d sat next to my sister in economy class, flying across the world to Thailand. Except this time Star wasn’t with me, and I wasn’t running to something, I was running away . . .
“Would you like breakfast, madam?”
I opened my eyes, feeling groggy and disoriented, and stared up at the same stewardess who had visited me in the middle of the night. I saw that all the cabin lights were on and some of the window blinds were open, revealing the pink hue of dawn.
“No thanks, just coffee. Black, please.”
She nodded and retreated, and I wondered why—given I was paying for this entire experience—I felt guilty about asking for anything.
“Where are you headed?”
I turned to face my neighbor, whom I’d only viewed in profile up until now. And even then, it had been a nose, a mouth, and a lock of blond hair hanging out of a black hoodie. Now he was full frontal, staring at me. He was probably no more than eighteen, the traces of adolescent acne still visible on his chin and forehead. I felt ancient next to him.
“Bangkok, then on to Australia.”
“Cool,” he commented as he tucked into his prison-issue tray of inedible scrambled eggs, over-fried bacon, and a long pink thing that was masquerading as a sausage. “I’ll head there eventually, but I’m gonna check out Thailand first. I’ve been told the Full Moon Parties are something else.”
“A few times,” I replied, his question immediately downloading a selection of memories in my mind.
“Which one do you suggest? Heard Ko Pha Ngan is the best.”
“It’s been ages since I went there last, but I hear it’s huge now—maybe a couple of thousand people. My favorite place is Railay Beach in Krabi. It’s very chilled, but I suppose it depends on what you want.”
“Heard of Krabi,” he said, his jaw working overtime to chew the sausage. “I’m meeting my mates in Bangkok. We’ve still got a couple of weeks until the full moon to decide anyway. You meeting friends out in Oz?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
“Stopping over in Bangkok for a while?”
“Just the night.”
I sensed his excitement as the plane began its descent into Suvarnabhumi Airport and the usual set of instructions was issued by the cabin staff for us captives. It’s all a joke, really, I thought as I closed my eyes and tried to still my banging heart. If the plane crashed, we would all die instantly, whether or not my tray table was in the upright position. I supposed they had to say this stuff to make us feel better.
The plane touched down so gently I hardly knew we were on the ground until they announced it over the PA system. I opened my eyes and felt a surge of triumph. I’d completed a long-haul flight alone and lived to tell the tale. Star would be proud of me . . . if she even cared any longer.
Having gone through immigration, I collected my baggage from the carousel and trooped toward the exit.
“Have a great time in Oz,” called my teenage neighbor as he caught up with me. “My mate says the wildlife there is insane, spiders the size of dinner plates! See ya!”
With a wave, he disappeared into the mass of humanity. I followed him outside at a much slower pace and a familiar wall of humid heat hit me. I caught the airport shuttle bus to the hotel I’d booked into for my overnight stop, checked in, and took the lift up to my sterile room. Heaving my rucksack off my shoulders, I sat on the white bedsheets and thought that if I owned a hotel, I’d provide my guests with dark sheets that didn’t show the stains of other bodies on them the way white does, no matter how hard you scrub.
There were so many things in the world that puzzled me, rules that had been made by someone somewhere, probably a long time ago. I took off my hiking boots and lay down, thinking I could be anywhere in the world, and I hated it. The air-con unit hummed above me and I closed my eyes
and tried to sleep, but all I could think about was that if I died right now, not a single human being would know I had.
I understood then what loneliness really was. It felt like a gnawing inside me, yet at the same time, a great hole of emptiness. I blinked away tears—I’d never been a crier—but they kept coming, so that eventually my eyelids were forced to open with the pressure of what felt like a dam about to burst.
It’s okay to cry, CeCe, really . . .
I heard Ma’s comforting voice in my head and remembered her telling me that when I fell out of a tree at Atlantis and sprained my ankle. I’d bitten my bottom lip so hard in my effort not to be a crybaby that I’d drawn blood.
“She’d care,” I murmured hopelessly, then reached for my mobile and thought about turning it on and texting Ma to tell her where I was. But I couldn’t hack seeing a message from Star, or, even worse, seeing no message from her at all. I knew that would break me, so I threw the phone across the bed and tried to close my eyes again. But then an image of Pa appeared behind my eyelids and wouldn’t go away.
It’s important that you and Star make your own friends, as well as having each other, CeCe . . .
He’d said that just before we’d gone to the University of Sussex together, and I’d been cross because I didn’t need anyone else, and neither did Star. Or at least, I hadn’t thought she did. Then . . .
“Oh, Pa,” I sighed, “is it better up there?”
In the past few weeks, as Star had made it clear she wasn’t interested in being with me anymore, I’d found myself talking to Pa a lot. His death just didn’t seem real; I still felt him close to me, somehow. Even though outwardly I couldn’t have been more opposite to Tiggy, my next sister down, with all her weird spiritual beliefs, there was this odd part of me that knew and felt things too . . . in my gut and in my dreams. Often it felt like my dream time was more real and vivid than when I was awake—a bit like watching a series on TV. Those were the good nights, because I had nightmares too. Like the ones with the enormous spiders . . .
I shuddered, remembering my teenage plane companion’s parting words . . . They couldn’t really be the size of dinner plates in Australia, could they?
“Christ!” I jumped out of bed to halt my thoughts, and washed my
face in the bathroom. I looked at my reflection, and with my eyes pink and swollen from crying and my hair slick with grease after the long journey, I decided I looked like a baby wild boar.
It didn’t matter how many times Ma had told me how beautiful and unusual the shape and color of my eyes were, or Star had said how much she liked to stroke my skin, which was—in her words—as smooth and soft as cocoa butter. I knew they were just being kind, because I wasn’t blind as well as ugly—and I hated being patronized about my looks. Given I had five beautiful sisters, I’d gone out of my way not to compete with them. Electra—who just happened to be a supermodel—was constantly telling me that I wasn’t making the best of myself but it was a waste of time and energy, because I was never going to be beautiful.
However, I could create beauty, and now, at my lowest ebb, I remembered something else that Pa had once said to me when I was younger.
Whatever happens to you in life, darling CeCe, the one thing that can never be taken away from you is your talent.
At the time, I thought it was just another—what’s the word Star would use?—platitude to make up for the fact that I was basically crap looks-wise, crap academically, and crap with people. And actually, Pa was wrong, because even if other people couldn’t take talent away from you, they could destroy your confidence with their negative comments and mess with your brain, so you didn’t know who you were anymore or how to please anyone, least of all yourself. That was what had happened to me on my art course. Which was why I’d left.
At least I learned what I wasn’t good at, I comforted myself. Which, according to my tutors, was most of the modules I’d taken in the past three months.
Despite the battering my paintings and I had received, even I knew that if I lost faith in my talent now, then there wasn’t any point in carrying on. It really was all I had left.
I went back into the bedroom and lay down again, just wanting these awful lonely hours to pass, and finally understanding why I saw so many old people sitting on benches whenever I walked through Battersea Park on my way to college. Even if it was freezing outside, they needed to confirm that there were other human beings on the planet, and that they weren’t completely alone.
I must have fallen asleep, because I had the spider nightmare and woke
myself up screaming, automatically clapping a hand to my mouth to shut myself up in case someone along the corridor thought I was being murdered. I decided I just couldn’t stay in this soulless room any longer by myself, so I put on my boots, grabbed my camera, and took the lift down to reception.
Outside, there was a queue of waiting taxis. I climbed into the back of one and directed the driver to the Grand Palace. It had always amused and upset me in equal measure that Bangkok, and what I’d seen of Thailand in general, seemed to be completely overstaffed. In any shop, even if you just went in for a packet of peanuts, there was always one person to guide you around, then another to work the till, and a third to bag your purchase. Labor was so cheap there, it was a joke. I immediately felt bad for thinking that, then reminded myself that this was why I loved traveling: it put things into perspective.
The driver dropped me at the Grand Palace and I followed the hordes of tourists, many of them bearing telltale red shoulders that spoke of a recent arrival from colder climates. Outside the temple, I removed my hiking boots and placed them with the variety of flip-flops and trainers other visitors had left by the steps, then walked inside. The Emerald Buddha was supposed to be over five hundred years old and was the most famous statue in Thailand. Yet he was small compared to the many other Buddhas I’d seen. The brightness of the jade and the way his body was shaped reminded me of a bright green lizard. His limbs were fluid and, to be honest, not very accurate. Not that it mattered—“he” was a beautiful thing.
I sat down cross-legged on one of the mats, enjoying my time out in the sun in this big, peaceful space with other human beings around me, probably contemplating their navels too. I’d never been one for religion, but if I had to pick one, I liked Buddhism best because it seemed to be all about the power of nature, which I felt was a permanent miracle happening right in front of my eyes.
Star often said that I should sign up to become a member of the Green Party when she’d listen to me rant on for ages after watching some TV program on the environment, but what would be the point? My voice didn’t count, and I was too stupid to be taken seriously. All I knew was that the plants, animals, and oceans that made up our ecosystem and sustained us were so often ignored.
“If I worship anything, it’s that,” I murmured to the Buddha. He too was made of earth—of hewn mineral turned to beauty over millennia—and I thought he’d probably understand.
Given this was a temple, I thought I should put in a word to Pa Salt. Maybe churches and temples were rather like telephone exchanges or Internet cafés: They gave you a clearer line up to the heavens . . .
“Hi, Pa, really sorry that you died. I miss you much more than I thought I would. And I’m sorry if I didn’t listen to you when you gave me advice, and all your words of wisdom and stuff. I should have because look how I’ve ended up. Hope you’re okay up there,” I added. “Sorry again.”
I stood up, feeling the uncomfortable lump of tears threatening the back of my throat, and walked toward the door. As I was about to step outside, I turned back.
“Help me, Pa, please,” I whispered to him.
Having bought a bottle of water from a street vendor, I wandered down to the Chao Phraya River and stood watching the heavy traffic chugging along it. Tugs, speedboats, and wide barges covered with black tarpaulins continued about their daily business. I decided to get on a passenger ferry and go for a ride—it was cheap and at least better than sitting in my miserable hotel room back at the airport.
As we sped along, I saw glass skyscrapers with golden temples nestled elegantly between them, and along the riverbanks, rickety jetties connected wooden houses to the stream of activity on the water. I took my trusty Nikon camera—Pa had given it to me on my sixteenth birthday, so that I could, as he’d put it, “take pictures of what inspires you, darling”—and snapped away. Star was always nagging me to move to digital photography, but me and technology didn’t get on, so I stuck to what I knew.
After getting off the boat just past the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, I walked up the street beside it and remembered how I’d once treated Star to high tea in the famous Authors’ Lounge. We’d both felt out of place in our jeans and T-shirts, with everyone else dressed up to the nines. Star had spent hours in the library looking at the signed photographs of all the authors who had stayed at the hotel in the past. I wondered if she ever would write her novel, because she was so good at putting sentences together and describing things on paper. Not that it was any of my business anymore. She had a new family now; I’d seen a light in her eyes when I’d arrived home a few weeks ago and a man she called “Mouse” had
been there in our apartment, gazing at her like an adoring puppy.
I sat down at a street café and ordered a bowl of noodles and a beer just for the hell of it. I wasn’t good with alcohol, but given I was feeling so awful, it couldn’t really make me feel much worse. As I ate, I thought that what hurt the most wasn’t the fact that Star had a new boyfriend and job, it was that she’d withdrawn from me, slowly and painfully. Perhaps she thought I’d be jealous, that I wanted her all to myself, which just wasn’t true. I loved her more than anything, and only wanted to see her happy. I’d never been so stupid as to think that one day, what with her being so beautiful and clever, a man wouldn’t come along.
You were really rude to him when he came to the apartment, my conscience reminded me. And yes, I had minded his being there, and, as usual, I hadn’t known how to hide it.
The beer did its job and blunted the sharp edges of my pain. I paid, then stood up and walked aimlessly along the road before turning into a narrow alley that had a street market. A few stalls down, I came across an artist painting a watercolor. Watching him sitting at his easel reminded me of the nights I’d sat on Railay Beach in Krabi with my sketch pad and tin of paints, trying to capture the beauty of the sunset. Closing my eyes, I remembered the peace I’d felt when I’d been there with Star, only a year ago. I wanted it back so much it hurt.
I made my way to the riverbank and leaned over the balustrade, thinking. Would it be turning chicken to head for the place I’d felt happiest before going on to Australia? I knew people on Railay Beach. They’d recognize me, wave, and say hello. Most of them were escaping from something too, because Railay was that kind of place. Besides, the only reason I was going to Australia was because of what Georg Hoffman, Pa’s lawyer, had told me when I’d been to see him. It was somewhere to head to, far away from London.
So, instead of spending twelve hours flying in a tube to a place where I knew no one, I could be drinking a cold beer on Railay Beach by this time tomorrow night. Surely a couple of weeks or so wouldn’t hurt? After all, it was Christmas soon and it might be less awful to spend it in a place that I knew and loved . . .
It was the first time in ages that I’d actually felt anticipation at the thought of doing something. Before the feeling vanished, I hailed the first taxi I saw and directed it back to the airport. Inside the terminal, I
went to the Thai Airways ticket desk and explained that I needed to delay my flight to Australia. The woman at the desk did a lot of tapping on her computer and told me it would cost about four thousand baht, which wasn’t much in the scheme of things.
“You have flexible ticket. What date you wish to rebook?” she asked.
“Er, maybe for just after Christmas?”
“Everything full. First available flight is eighth of January.”
“Okay,” I agreed, glad I could now blame fate for having to stay on longer. Then I booked a return flight from Bangkok to Krabi, leaving early the following morning.
Back in my hotel room, I took a shower, brushed my teeth, and climbed into bed feeling calmer. If my sisters heard, I knew they would all say that I was “bumming around” again, but I didn’t care.
Like an injured animal, I was going away to hide and lick my wounds.