by Fenella Johnson
When they say why did you do it, I always start with the same sentence:
The day before my sister died, I was out shoplifting with my cousin Irene.
It had been not being raining, for once the day they came with the news. The weather had been stormy and stifling -early that week when we awoke, the fields were wet with glassy dew but soon the rain had become a prickly discontented sort of heat. The days bruising like peaches, our lips cracking and the scorching relentless sun surrounding us constantly. I had been in the store, listening to the broken of air conditioning, forehead pressed against the ice cream refrigerator, tendrils of hair stuck to the back of my neck. Longing for the crisp clear blue of winter, I was watching my cousin Irene stuff a bottle of gin down the back of her shorts.
It was an old routine-the too sweet candy and the gum which squelched when you chewed for me, for Irene something more adventurous-alcohol, cigarettes, one memorable occasion a gun. A routine that was easy, fun almost-the lemonade bottle I'd chose was sticky cold to my stomach. She had always been the more adventurous of the two of us, a fact I could not forget-later, in my grandmother's house as my numerous sins where laid clear before me, I knew I should have stopped her. For in my child's clear mind of wrong and right, my sister was killed because I did not stop Irene stealing the gin, nor the cigarettes. My sister would have been so disappointed, stern lipped and wet eyes at us, a maddening disappointment that infuriated me, gangly and unformed, Irene a florid garish cool 16 to my 12.I think sometimes we did it to wind her up, to know how far we could push her and ourselves. Every day that unfurled was a joke, a laugh to us-to me, my sister was alien at 20 but to Irene, she was a dare.
In other versions, of the story it is raining. It depends how I feel. In a way, it depends how you feel.
In my grandmother's house where I stayed those few days after I got the news, with its sweet biscuity smell of sweat and backyard which was so large the sky and ground slid on and on in a blur of orange and dirt, in my grandmother's house where everything was a sin, I knew what I had done.
For my grandmother, marching purposefully across the floral living room, the sole point of life was the church. I knew I owed my sister a debt-my sin was her sin and she was dead, so I knew my atonement to her was to find her murderer. My first thought was her boyfriend, who she had argued with as she had argued with no other in her life (apart from Irene who was family and thus didn't count).I knew it was not him. I knew it was not my father or my mother. It was a fruitless search, one of pretence and silliness. But, I never really believed in religion but when Irene took that gin, I had felt the first sense that something had shifted. Perhaps it was the way she smiled-so similar and smirking to my sister, that I thought idly of her, in college somewhere, and the twinge of jealousy mixed with affection her name always brought.
It is up to you whether I loved her-it depends how you defend my actions. If I did it for love-well, how lovely and weird the human heart is to love someone who does no longer exist. It’s your choice.
It is a story, after all.
It was my mother who told me. My father had managed to make the telling about himself-
"He's in a bad place. “My mother anxious and small, and accompanied by the tinny shouts of anger from the phone, coming from my father. My mother anxiously attempting to reassure me as I crouched in the living room beside her, legs pressed beneath me. "He's in a bad place, sweetheart." she said, mouth twisted over the words."
"What,Newcastle?" It was a joke, but still it came out wrong and gangly, but I was cheerful, not yet haunted by that ghost girl, a ghoul; that had become a nameless noun, a walking contradiction-a sister, but not one I remembered. Saintly, her shadow jeered and hovered over what remained of my childhood, painting patterns I could not hope to reach.
"No,silly.Mentally. Your sister was a good girl. “I could not hope to understand. Firmly but tenderly she began to explain. She had been pushed of a pier by a gust of wind-they took me to the pier in early winter, so we could see my sister's last living place. A stone with her name, cool and glossy to the touch, was on the pavement. My parents drew further apart. Soon it was as if their marriage was a song they had both forgotten the words to, and only one copy had been made. Soon, it was as if the song had never been made at all.
The first time I shot a man, I was twenty and greasy haired, greasy eyed. I was good with a gun: it came easy to me, as long as I was focused and get my eye on the target. It was not too hard to change to a person, it was winter: the trees burrowed their gaunt hands into the sky, and the blood pooled in scarlet tendrils on my kitchen floor. It took ages to get out of the counter and there was more than I could have imagined-everywhere the metallic tang of it could be smelt. The first man I killed was my sister's roommate, foolish and floppy haired. He begged. He gave me names, which were useful and cried snotty nosed, desperately on my shoes. A disclaimer here: I have killed a lot of men.
I moved on. I slipped through life. I still saw Irene at family gatherings but less and less. I became a journalist. They are still gentleman's clubs in London, old and not so old, and ones like my sister frequented-ones that you don't get mixed up. Ones that come with a warning sign. Nobody ever retires from being a drug dealer, goes a saying. Nobody gets pushed over a pier by a gust of wind, should go another. I investigated the people from there my sister knew and didn't know fully. It was after I had gone in one of those clubs, further from the truth then I had ever been and was returning home in the dawn-through still streets and fog, and the beaming golden glare of streetlights. It was there that I saw her. I knew her at first sight-how could I not? That long hair and the smile, I knew, finally I knew the truth. I reached for the gun, tucked into my waistband and I heard her scream, and as she wheeled round, her blond hair caught in my hand. I thought of my sister screaming at me, our fights which soured the holidays, the way she could make me laugh so hard that I shook with it, and I knew. I thought of a little girl angry at an older sister who thought she knew and probably did know better, a little girl with a gun she had stolen from someone for she liked the thrill of stealing-a little girl angry enough to push and I knew.
I gutted my cousin Irene like a fish for killing my sister. They are a lot of ways to tell a story.
There is also this:
The day before my sister died I was out shoplifting with my cousin Irene-in fact, Irene was running a shop lifting business. Irene was sixteen and my sister was twenty and the gulls circled above them and they shouted. Irene said; don’t you dare tell, fierce and bloody lipped, you never knew, Irene said; she shouldn't have interfered. I lied. My parents didn't split up-they were never together. I killed some people. I killed Irene.
There is also this:
The day before my sister died I was out shoplifting with my cousin Irene. When she wasn't looking, I stuffed a knife into a short pocket, I stole the lemonade,gave her the toffees I wanted which would make us look more legitimate, and I waited outside. I was twelve, skinny armed and malicious-I pushed my sister. I whispered don't tell, don’t say. I killed those men. I killed Irene.
My grandmother was never religious. I didn't have a grandmother. I just liked killing. I liked pretending it was for a purpose.
I never had a sister.
I never killed anyone.
Her boyfriend killed her.
She killed Irene.
All these paths we do not take.
My sister was never dead. It was her I saw on that street.
It is all a story after all. It’s your choice. I am, after all, awaiting the publisher’s approval.