This is a story I submitted to my How Writers Writer Fiction MOOC
The Sum of all Sorrows
Lou sat by the window, rubbing the red mark on her face. She stares out the window through her disappearing reflection, rivers of rain filling the empty spaces.
‘Sometimes I don’t even like you,’ she whispered.
When their mother was angry she spoke a different language. Face brittle, neck tight, eyes narrowing, their milky blue brightening with tears, their mother spoke in splinters of glass. Later, sometimes years later, a splinter of glass would work its way to the surface, or worse, lie just beneath, irritating and spoiling. Lou drank then. It seemed to work, softening the edges, the scotch forming a deadly alliance with the beer.
Their mother sat rubbing the arm of their father’s chair. There were always ashes on his chair and, where he’d let the cigarette burn down once, a small black scar – not unlike the ones on his shirts and ties. “It’s not like I didn’t take care of him – no it wasn’t me. He loved me I know he did. He forgot about us, just walked away and forgot”.
Then she’d start to cry.
It was worse on some days. They’d come home from school and find her lying on the floor. Though they tried to wake her, she didn’t move, didn’t seem to breathe. They’d cry and push her arms, pull her hair, the long plait. Once they ran next door, got Mrs Freeman to come over and help. Their mother was sitting in the chair watching TV when they came back. She didn’t look surprised, only smiled at them and asked Mrs Freeman if she wanted a drink. “Too early for me, dear,” she said and walked out without looking at them. They’d kept their heads down that night, staying in their room, doing their homework or trying to read.
Sometimes they found a note when they came home from school.
Pretend I’m dead. What would you do?
They looked everywhere, wondering if she was watching them from some dark place. In the end, they’d held each other tightly in the corner of the living room. They were still there when she came in, whispering half a song, body sagging, shopping bags hanging from her arms.
Lou was last. She wasn’t the oldest, or the smartest, or the one who got to wear the new dress first. It took her a while, but she liked being the baby, liked having Claire for a big sister. Claire came first; she was always in front. Only rarely did Claire seem to turn around, as if to check that Lou was still there. Lou always was.
“I was the favourite for a couple of years, then it was your turn,” Claire said once as she combed the tangles from Lou’s hair. Lou didn’t know what she meant. How could she be the favourite when nothing was ever good enough?
“Where’s the other point,” their mother would say when Lou brought home an almost” perfect” grade.
Lou and Claire were always sent to bed early. They ate dinner around 5 and were usually in their room by 6. In the summer they would peak out the windows, watching their friends riding bikes in the street. They whispered and giggled together until late. Once, after it got really dark, they climbed out the window. Holding hands, they walked down to the glen at the bottom of their road and sat on the damp grass watching the glow-worms.
Claire hated to be late for anything. At night, she’d put her school clothes on under her pyjamas. She’d get early, make breakfast for Lou and a cup of coffee for their father. He left for work before they went to school and most days he wasn’t home until very late at night.
Claire and Lou liked to watch their father shave in the morning. They stood in the doorway of the steaming bathroom, watching him wipe the mist from the mirror. They loved the smell of his soap and the way he moved his tongue around inside his cheek. Sometimes they’d talk about what was happening at school. Lou stand close to Claire, both of them leaning against each other in the doorway. Once, when he was finished shaving, he picked Lou up, carrying her over one shoulder. Claire stood on his feet, holding tight around his waist. The three of them walked back to the kitchen like that, laughing. Their father drank his coffee standing at the bench.
Sometimes, if it was raining hard or really cold, he’d drive them to school. They always got there too early on those days. Claire waited with Lou on the bench until their friends arrived. After school they always walked home together.
Late one night, their mother stood in the doorway of their room, the hall light framing her thin body. Her long black hair was pulled tight off her face, the plait hung down her back. ‘There’ll be another one soon,’ she’d said and walked away.
Lou wasn’t sure what she meant. Claire told her. Their new baby would cry and wear nappies. They played ‘big sisters’, made up names for their baby, imagining what she’d be like. They knew it would be another girl, just like them. Lou was going to be in the middle. All through that wet winter she’d thought about the baby. It was her’s, her baby. Lou would take care of the baby, just like Claire took care of Lou.
Some time later, on a rainy Saturday, their mother came inside. She didn’t take off her wet coat. She sat in the chair in the living room for the rest of the day, until it got dark and the room grew cold, until they were hungry and too afraid to turn on the lights. Claire kept Lou in the kitchen with her; she opened a tin of soup and made toast for them.
Their mother was still sitting there when their father came home late from work. ‘It was busy,’ he’d said. ‘Lots of people in the shop’. Their mother was still sitting there much later, when their father went off to bed.
No one talked about the baby again. It was like the very idea of her was wrapped up tight, like damp potato peelings in a newspaper ready to be thrown away. Their mother seemed hollow after, like a shell made out of sand. The house was always quiet. Their father left early in the morning and mostly they were asleep when he came home late at night. Lou couldn’t remember exactly when he’d stopped coming home at all.
After a while, Lou could only remember details of their father, the small scar that cut through his eyebrow, a pattern of freckles on his arm. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t conjure up the whole. She found herself remembering photos. Their father was made of smoke. Somehow, even without the new baby, Lou stayed in the middle, like the space between the words on a page, between the before and the after.
Lou thought Claire was beautiful. She liked it when strangers came up to her in the street, or in places she’d never been before and said, “Hey! You must be Claire’s sister. Gee you two look so alike.” Everyone liked Claire. Lou always felt good when they were together.
At first, when Claire left home, she called everyday. She promised Lou could come and stay. Claire was saving up so they could go on holiday together. Lou didn’t like having their room all to herself. She didn’t like coming home to the quiet house.
Then one day Claire didn’t call. After a while, Lou hitched a ride to town. The landlord let her in. There was an envelope with Lou’s name on it on the table. Lou read her sister’s words, knew that she was gone. She heard the cars drive passed, the rain falling. Lou lost herself in grief, let it stretch the boundaries of her skin.
Lou started to stay out late. She waited outside the pub for one of the boys, or some man, to bring her a bottle and they’d go off together, down to the glen, to the glow-worms. Her mother would be waiting up for her, sitting in her father’s chair, every light in the house blazing. Sometimes Lou didn’t come home at all.
Holding the death notice tightly in her hand, Lou moved carefully, across the room. Across to the place where her father was, where they’d put him. She was in the middle of a family, his new family, the one he’d walked into, all ready made.
She walked past the laughing, drinking men. These were their father’s new friends, people she’d never met. There were photos of the new family on the piano, newspapers and books on the table next to a big chair. She knew it was his chair, his ashtray and the sagging pillows. There was a small burn mark on one of the arms.
Lou walked to the table where they kept the bottles. She poured herself a drink, not looking at what she poured, only caring how much. When she drank, she’d wonder what he was like – this father of hers. She couldn’t really remember. Were his eyes brown or blue? It wouldn’t be right to lean over and open his eyes, not now when everyone was watching, not later, at the church.
Her mother’s funeral had been different. It was just Lou and a few people from the hospital. The service was short. Lou read a poem and held an old photo of the four of them. In the photo, Lou and Claire stand in front of their parents, holding hands. They are wearing the identical coats and hats. Lou’s gloves are blue, Claire’s are yellow. Her mother wears a grey coat with a red scarf; she stands behind them, smiling into the sun. Her father has one arm around her mother, the other hand slightly behind Claire, Lou can just make out the curl of cigarette smoke rising. His head is turned towards their mother, like he’s whispering something in her ear. Lou thought she could see the small scar. There is a lake in the background but Lou can’t remember where they were that day. She placed the photo in her mother’s coffin and kissed her goodbye.
A car drives past; the noise of the tyres on the wet road startles her. The rain makes the room seem colder.
‘Come on baby, come back to bed.’
‘Don’t call me that. Don’t call me baby.’ Lou pulls her bathrobe tighter.
‘Look just come to bed. I said I was sorry. What do you want me to do, write it in blood’?
‘Another thing I do wrong huh huh! Christ! Nothing’s good enough for you. Bitch’
‘Oh God please not again’, she thinks.
‘You’re not that bad’, she hears herself say. She knows her part by now.
‘So ya do like me’
Lou nods, looks away.
‘You love me – don’t you?’
It isn’t really a question but she knows the script and answers anyway.
‘Just a bit?’
‘Which bit? Which bit do you like best…?’ He grabs her head, pulling it down.
‘Cut it out – it’s not about that.’
‘Isn’t it. Hell. Isn’t it just…’
‘Come on baby – do it for me.’
‘Let go of me.’
‘Come on,’ He growls, forcing her down.
‘You like it. Come on. You like it baby.
‘You’re hurting me – let go’.
Later, Lou sits by the window. She stares through her disappearing reflection; rivers of rain filled the empty spaces.
‘Sometimes I don’t even like you,’ she whispers.