Whooping cough. That was the first thing my sister gave me. Me, with my crushed-velvet flesh and sea creature fingers, her with thick bunches and dungarees. I was four months old but Mum fetched the story down so often I could almost smell the vomit-scent cellular blanket. Mum had to suck mucus from my nose with a plastic bulb and Mrs Evans – who never let us tread on her lawn, even when our ball went over – came to the end of her drive when the ambulance arrived just to watch because what else did you do in the ’80s?
The doctors thought I might not live.
And then there was the scar she gave me above my right eye. Swingball bat. I still see it coming towards me, her red face, spit on her lip. Afterwards she gave me the Chupa Chups lolly that Dad bought her from the hospital shop. I asked her once if she hit me on purpose and I expected her to laugh but she ran her long hair into her mouth and pulled it out in sharp wet points and asked if I wanted a wine.
My sister gave me Mum. Well. She left her up for grabs when she took Dad and I mean, she took all of him. All of his eyes and thoughts and all the timid little hopes that we don’t expose to natural light. ‘Have you thought, Doll, about medicine?’ He always called her Doll even though her name was Sarah. He gave a lot of thought to what she might do when she grew up. He enjoyed travelling into imagined futures, framing her in different costumes. ‘What about law?’
‘I’d like to be a doctor, Dad.’
He looked at me like I was lost change. A spare sock. Sometimes I think she didn’t even want him, like carrying all that attention was too much for one person but she didn’t know how to set it down.
Mum worried a lot so, in that sense, my sister also gifted me medium-grade anxiety.
Dad was there-not-there, like most dads in those days, until Sarah appeared. She could be doing anything or nothing, just reading a book upside down with her legs against the wall and he would laugh like she’d cracked a joke. Around Sarah he stopped being just a suit. ‘You kill me, Doll.’
‘I can do that too, Dad. Look!’
But unsuit-Dad was full up. ‘No one likes a show off,’ he’d say.
I gave her head lice.
We got older, passed stuff back and forth. Mascara. Mix tapes. Sometimes she bought my friends and I cider. One leather jacket. Dieting tips. She gave me 27 games of Shithead the night before they announced my exam results. Sterile bandages when things got too much and I tried to cut the worry out. I gave her space from Mum on come-down Sundays. She gave me my first spliff and my husband, Adam, who was her boyfriend first but I was young and thin and Fuck You then.
Perhaps she didn’t give him to me. Perhaps I took him.
Sarah said she didn’t mind. She dyed her hair blue. Had another flirtation with dungarees. But sometimes later at family dinners I’d come into a room with only Adam and Sarah in it and she’d be playing her Dad trick. The happiness-giving. The grey-skin-sloughing. It made me envious, knowing that her secret talent was the Unclenching of Men. Perhaps he would have loved her like Dad did if I hadn’t got in the way. Perhaps, if he’d married her, Adam wouldn’t have left.
My sister gave me my daughter. It turned out Mum and Dad only gave one of us a functioning womb, so she offered hers up because she wasn’t using it at the time. She said it like she was offering me her cowboy boots for a night. Brand new, never worn.
It was hard to watch her wobble around with her beach ball t-shirt and blue vein breasts knowing that she was carrying my baby. My body ached with it. I hid alcohol. Scrubbed surfaces with anti-bacterial spray. I wanted to lock her away from the world, from the whooping cough and rubella. Adam said I was turning into my mum.
For a while, the three of us were a family. We whispered in awed tones about the future. We gave each other anticipation. Then, after Baby came and Adam left, me and Sarah gave each other red wine and tissues and endless watery coffee and gin and tissues and we hated each other in our same-same house with our missing love, but we poured ourselves into the tiny person who turned out to be a bit of us both. Sarah tried to rebuild the Lego-brick me without instructions, pulling her glasses onto her middle-aged nose like I was a problem she could solve.
We got older. Our sister-love gifts got more extravagant. Cashmere jumpers. Badged handbags. Trips abroad. Finally, in an outrageous climax, we swapped organs.
She gave me back my Lego-brick heart, fully rebuilt, devastatingly whole.
I gave her a kidney.
We watched as the machines cleaned her blood and pumped it through her. We took the drugs together. We lay in the same room with our sheets pulled up over our chests and our girl holding both our hands.
‘I’ll see you soon,’ I said as they wheeled me into theatre.
She can’t have liked all the things I gave her but she never said a thing. Even the neon scarf she wore at least once. Even the slippers that were a size too small because I forgot about her fallen arches.
Of all the gifts to reject, in the end it was this one her body returned.
Never to be outdone, my fragile Lego heart – that she so carefully rebuilt – collapsed. Now I find myself rattling with sorrow, less than half the pair I once was.
The intentional use of style in this story is impressive. I love the way in which the repetitive resonance creates a powerful effect. I also love the exploration of the body, which adds a layer of depth and richness to the narrative.Mustapha Enesi
This lyrical piece encompasses an entire life in a page and a half, describing the dark and co-dependent existence of two sisters in eerie clockwork language.Camilla Grudova