The Shadow Sister
I will always remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard that my father had died . . .”
With my pen still suspended above the sheet of paper, I looked up at the July sun—or, at least, the small ray of it that had managed to trickle between the window and the red-brick wall a few yards in front of me. All of the windows in our tiny apartment looked onto its blandness, and despite today’s beautiful weather, it was dark inside. So very different from my childhood home, Atlantis, on the shores of Lake Geneva.
I realized I had been seated exactly where I was now when CeCe had come into our miserable little sitting room to tell me that Pa Salt was dead.
I put down the pen and went to pour myself a glass of water from the tap. It was clammy and airless in the sticky heat and I drank thirstily as I contemplated the fact that I didn’t need to do this—to put myself through the pain of remembering. It was Tiggy, my younger sister, who, when I’d seen her at Atlantis just after Pa died, had suggested the idea.
“Darling Star,” she’d said, when some of us sisters had gone out onto the lake to sail, simply trying to distract ourselves from our grief, “I know you find it hard to speak about how you feel. I also know you’re full of pain. Why don’t you write your thoughts down?”
On the plane home from Atlantis two weeks ago, I’d thought about what Tiggy had said. And this morning, that’s what I had endeavored to do.
I stared at the brick wall, thinking wryly that it was a perfect metaphor for my life just now, which at least made me smile. And the smile carried me back to the scarred wooden table that our shady landlord must have picked up for nothing in a junk shop. I sat back down and again picked up the elegant ink pen Pa Salt had given me for my twenty-first birthday.
“I will not start with Pa’s death,” I said out loud. “I will start when we arrived here in London—”
The crash of the front door closing startled me and I knew it was my sister CeCe. Everything she did was loud. It seemed beyond her to put a cup of coffee down without banging it onto the surface and slopping its contents everywhere. She had also never grasped the concept of an “indoor voice” and shouted her words to the point where, when we were small, Ma was once worried enough to get her hearing tested. Of course, there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was the opposite—CeCe’s hearing was overdeveloped. There was nothing wrong with me either when a year later Ma took me to a speech therapist, concerned at my lack of chatter.
“She has words there, she just prefers not to use them,” the therapist had explained. “She will when she’s ready.”
At home, in an attempt to communicate with me, Ma had taught me the basics of French sign language.
“So whenever you want or need something,” she’d said to me, “you can use it to tell me how you feel. And this is how I feel about you right now.” She’d pointed at herself, crossed her palms over her heart, then pointed at me. “I—love—you.”
CeCe had learned it quickly too, and the two of us had adopted and expanded what had begun as a means of communication with Ma to form our own private language—a mixture of signs and made-up words—using it when people were around and we needed to talk. We’d both enjoyed the baffled looks on our sisters’ faces as I’d sign a sly comment across the breakfast table and we’d both dissolve into helpless giggles.
Looking back, I could see that CeCe and I became the antithesis of each other as we were growing up: the less I spoke, the louder and more often she talked for me. And the more she did, the less I needed to. Our personalities had simply become exaggerated. It hadn’t seemed to matter when we were children, squashed into the middle of our six-sister family—we’d had each other to turn to.
The problem was, it mattered now . . .
“Guess what? I’ve found it!” CeCe burst into the sitting room. “And in a few weeks’ time we can move in. The developer’s still got some finishing off to do, but it’ll be incredible when it’s done. God, it’s hot in here. I can’t wait to leave this place.”
CeCe went to the kitchen and I heard the whoosh of the tap being turned on full blast, knowing that the water had most likely spattered all over the worktops I had painstakingly wiped down earlier.
“Want some water, Sia?”
“No thanks.” Although CeCe only used it when we were alone, I mentally chided myself for being irritated by the pet name she had coined for me when we were little. It came from a book Pa Salt had given me for Christmas, The Story of Anastasia, about a young girl who lived in the woods in Russia and discovered she was a princess.
“She looks like you, Star,” five-year-old CeCe had said as we’d stared at the pictures in the storybook. “Perhaps you’re a princess too—you’re pretty enough to be one, with your golden hair and blue eyes. So, I will call you ‘Sia.’ And it goes perfectly with ‘Cee’! Cee and Sia—the twins!” She’d clapped her hands in delight.
It was only later, when I’d learned the real history of the Russian royal family, that I understood what had happened to Anastasia Romanova and her siblings. It hadn’t been a fairy tale at all.
And nor was I a child any longer, but a grown woman of twenty-seven.
“I just know you’re going to love the apartment.” CeCe reappeared in the sitting room and flopped onto the scuffed leather sofa. “I’ve booked an appointment for us to see it tomorrow morning. It’s a shedload of money, but I can afford it now, especially as the agent told me the City is in turmoil. The usual suspects aren’t queuing up to buy right now, so we agreed on a knockdown price. It’s time we got ourselves a proper home.”
It’s time I got myself a proper life, I thought.
“You’re buying it?” I said.
“Yes. Or at least, I will if you like it.”
I was so astonished, I didn’t know what to say.
“You all right, Sia? You look tired. Didn’t you sleep well last night?”
“No.” Despite my best efforts, tears came to my eyes as I thought of the long, sleepless hours bleeding toward dawn, when I’d mourned my beloved father, still unable to believe he was gone.
“You’re still in shock, that’s the problem. It only happened a couple of weeks ago, after all. You will feel better, I swear, especially when you’ve seen our new apartment tomorrow. It’s this crap place that’s depressing you. It sure as hell depresses me,” she added. “Have you e-mailed the guy about the cookery course yet?”
“And when does it start?”
“Good. That gives us time to start choosing some furniture for our new home.” CeCe came over to me and gave me a spontaneous hug. “I can’t wait to show it to you.”
“Isn’t it incredible?”
CeCe opened her arms wide to embrace the cavernous space, her voice echoing off the walls as she walked to the expanse of glass frontage and slid open one of the panels.
“And look, this balcony is for you,” she said, as she beckoned me to follow her. We stepped outside. “Balcony” was too humble a word to describe what we were standing on. It was more like a long and beautiful terrace suspended in the air above the river Thames. “You can fill it with all your herbs and those flowers you liked fiddling around with at Atlantis,” CeCe added as she walked to the railing and surveyed the gray water far below us. “Isn’t it spectacular?”
I nodded, but she was already on her way back inside so I drifted after her.
“The kitchen is still to be fitted, but as soon as I’ve signed, you can have free rein to choose which cooker you’d like, which fridge, and so on. Now that you’re going to be a professional,” she said with a wink.
“Hardly, CeCe. I’m only doing a short course.”
“But you’re so talented, I’m sure you’ll get a job somewhere when they see what you can do. Anyway, I think it’s perfect for both of us, don’t you? I can use that end for my studio.” She pointed to an area sandwiched between the far wall and a spiral staircase. “The light is just fantastic. And you get your big kitchen and the outdoor space too. It’s the nearest thing to Atlantis I could find in the center of London.”
“Yes. It’s lovely, thank you.”
I could see how excited she was about her find, and admittedly, the apartment was impressive. I didn’t want to burst her bubble by telling her the truth: that living in what amounted to a vast, characterless glass box overlooking a murky river could not have been farther from Atlantis if it tried.
As CeCe and the agent talked about the blond-wood floors that were going to be laid, I shook my head at my negative thoughts. I knew that I
was being desperately spoiled. After all, compared to the streets of Delhi, or the shantytowns I’d seen on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, a brand-new apartment in the city of London was not exactly a hardship.
But the point was that I would have actually preferred a tiny, basic hut—which would at least have had its foundations planted firmly in the ground—with a front door that led directly to a patch of earth outside.
I tuned in vaguely to CeCe’s chatter about a remote control that opened and closed the window blinds and another for the invisible surround-sound speakers. Behind the agent’s back, she signed “wide boy” to me and rolled her eyes. I managed a small smile in return, feeling desperately claustrophobic because I couldn’t open the door and just run . . . Cities stifled me; I found the noise, the smells, and the hordes of people overwhelming. But at least the apartment was open and airy . . .
“Sorry, Cee, what did you say?”
“Shall we go upstairs and see our bedroom?”
We walked up the spiral staircase into the room CeCe said we would share, despite there being a spare room. And I felt a shudder run through me even as I looked at the views, which were spectacular from up here. We then inspected the incredible en suite bathroom, and I knew that CeCe had done her absolute best to find something lovely that suited us both.
But the truth was, we weren’t married. We were sisters.
Afterward, CeCe insisted on dragging me to a furniture shop on King’s Road, then we took the bus back across the river, over Albert Bridge.
“This bridge is named after Queen Victoria’s husband,” I told her out of habit. “And there’s a memorial to him in Kensington—”
CeCe curtailed me by making the sign for “show-off” in my face. “Honestly, Star, don’t tell me you’re still lugging a guidebook around?”
“Yes,” I admitted, making our sign for “nerd.” I loved history.
We got off the bus near our apartment and CeCe turned to me. “Let’s get supper down the road. We should celebrate.”
“We haven’t got the money.” Or at least, I thought, I certainly haven’t.
“My treat,” CeCe reassured me.
We went to a local pub and CeCe ordered a bottle of beer for her and a small glass of wine for me. Neither of us drank much—CeCe in particular couldn’t handle her alcohol, something she’d learned the hard way
after a particularly raucous teenage party. As she stood at the bar, I mused on the mysterious appearance of the funds that CeCe had suddenly come into the day after all of us sisters had been handed envelopes from Pa Salt by Georg Hoffman, Pa’s lawyer. CeCe had gone to see him in Geneva. She had begged Georg to let me come into the meeting with her, but he’d refused point-blank.
“Sadly, I have to follow my client’s instructions. Your father insisted that any meetings I might have with his daughters be conducted individually.”
So I’d waited in reception while she went in to see him. When she’d emerged, I could see that she was tense and excited.
“Sorry, Sia, but I had to sign some stupid privacy clause. Probably another of Pa’s little games. All I can tell you is that it’s good news.”
As far as I was aware, it was the only secret that CeCe had ever kept from me in our entire relationship, and I still had no idea where all this money had come from. Georg Hoffman had explained to us that Pa’s will made it clear that we would continue to receive only our very basic allowances. But also that we were free to go to him for extra money if necessary. So perhaps we simply needed to ask, just as CeCe presumably had.
“Cheers!” CeCe clinked her beer bottle against my glass. “Here’s to our new life in London.”
“And here’s to Pa Salt,” I said, raising my glass.
“Yes,” she agreed. “You really loved him, didn’t you?”
“Of course I did, lots. He was . . . special.”
I watched CeCe as our food arrived and she ate hungrily, thinking that, even though we were both his daughters, his death felt like my sorrow alone, rather than ours.
“Do you think we should buy the apartment?”
“CeCe, it’s your decision. I’m not paying, so it’s not for me to comment.”
“Don’t be silly, you know what’s mine is yours, and vice versa. Besides, if you ever decide to open that envelope he left for you, there’s no telling what you might find out,” she encouraged.
She’d been on me ever since we’d been given the envelopes. She had torn hers open almost immediately afterward, expecting me to do the same.
“Come on, Sia, aren’t you going to open it?” she’d pressed me.
But I just couldn’t . . . because whatever lay inside it would mean accepting that Pa had gone. And I wasn’t prepared to let him go yet.
After we’d eaten, CeCe paid the bill and we went back to the apartment, where she telephoned her bank to have the deposit on the flat transferred. Then she settled herself in front of her laptop, complaining about the inconsistent broadband.
“Come and help me choose some sofas,” she called from the sitting room as I filled our yellowing tub with lukewarm water.
“I’m just having a bath,” I replied, locking the door.
I lay in the water and lowered my head so that my ears and hair were submerged. I listened to the gloopy sounds—Womb sounds, I thought—and decided that I had to get away before I went completely mad. None of this was CeCe’s fault and I certainly didn’t want to take it out on her. I loved her. She had been there for me every day of my life, but . . .
Twenty minutes later, having made a resolution, I wandered into the sitting room.
“Yes. CeCe . . .”
“Come and look at the sofas I’ve found.” She beckoned me toward her. I did as she asked and stared unseeingly at the different hues of cream.
“Which one do you think?”
“Whichever you like. Interior design is your thing, not mine.”
“How about that one?” CeCe pointed to the screen. “Obviously we’ll have to go and sit on it, because it can’t just be a thing of beauty. It’s got to be comfy as well.” She scribbled down the name and address of the stockist. “Perhaps we can do that tomorrow?”
I took a deep breath. “CeCe, would you mind if I went back to Atlantis for a couple of days?”
“If that’s what you want, Sia, of course. I’ll check out flights for us.”
“Actually, I was thinking I’d go alone. I mean . . .” I swallowed, steeling myself not to lose my impetus. “You’re very busy here now with the apartment and everything, and I know you have all sorts of art projects you’re eager to get going on.”
“Yes, but a couple of days out won’t hurt. And if it’s what you need to do, I understand.”
“Really,” I said firmly, “I think I’d prefer to go by myself.”
“Why?” CeCe turned to me, her almond-shaped eyes wide with surprise.
“Just because . . . I . . . would. That is, I want to sit in the garden I helped Pa Salt make and open my letter.”
“I see. Sure, fine,” she said with a shrug.
I sensed a layer of frost descending, but I would not give in to her this time. “I’m going to bed. I have a really bad headache,” I said.
“I’ll get you some painkillers. Do you want me to look up flights?”
“I’ve already taken some, and yes, that would be great, thanks. Night.” I leaned forward and kissed my sister on the top of her shiny dark head, her curly hair shorn into a boyish crop as always. Then I walked into the tiny broom cupboard of a twin room that we shared.
The bed was hard and narrow and the mattress thin. Though both of us had had the luxury of a privileged upbringing, we had spent the past six years traveling around the world and sleeping in dumps, neither of us prepared to ask Pa Salt for money even when we’d been really broke. CeCe in particular had always been too proud, which was why I was so surprised that she now seemed to be spending money like it was water, when it could only have come from him.
Perhaps I’d ask Ma if she knew anything more, but I was aware that discretion was her middle name when it came to spreading gossip among us sisters.
“Atlantis,” I murmured. Freedom . . .
And that night, I fell asleep almost immediately.