I have not always been grateful for my sisters, I must admit. I was the first and most important and then they had to come along. The Canadian one, who was English at the time, stole my woolly bear, I remember. When I was twelve she blurted out to Kevin Brewer, a sixteen year old leather-jacketed blond-quiffed motorbike rider who went to the same youth club as me – that I had just used some white stuff to bleach my moustache. (I hasten to add, not a great whiskery handlebar moustache or anything grotesque – I’m just, you know, a brunette… well, now I’m more of a grey-with-brunette-undertones).
I had a massive crush on Kevin Brewer. I used to sit at the bottom of his garden and pine for him hour upon hour until his mother complained to my mother and my mother, irritated, told me not to. So imagine how pleased I was with my English-at-the-time sister. Not that I ever had any chance with Kevin Brewer. What I finally got a date it was with a bespectacled weed call John-something-or-other. We went for a walk along the sea wall and I was terrified. He told me afterwards he had been dared to ask me out – by Kevin Brewer.
However – gosh, that was as long digression – this evening I was glad of my Canadian sister. She phones me quite a lot at the moment because my brother-in-law has terminal cancer and she is on her own out there. She is even more on her own because he is fed up with her crying all over the place when he just wants to carry on as normal – a different approach. So she was feeling low this morning (it’s morning in Alberta when it’s evening here) and she called me, and we chatted round in circles as usual. We talked about counselling and short-term projects – small goals, easier to cope with. I didn’t know how to reach out across the Atlantic and lift her mood but quite by accident – as you shall see – I did.
In the meantime I had been having one of my Black Dog days. It was something to do with the necessity of spending a whole day being driven round properties with a guy called Gavin on Tuesday – the thought of which was already exhausting me – and the prospect of visiting Mum in the mental hospital on Easter Day. I don’t talk about Black Doggie much – he is manageable. I’ve seen what clinical depression does to people (this is my third lot of psych ward visiting) and my occasional Grim Day is nothing in comparison.
So, I got in the car, in a chilly wind (Storm Kate – don’t they sound nice with names? – is due to hit the South East at midnight). I stopped off at the one-and-only-shop to buy a box of chocolate fingers for Mum, since it’s Easter Sunday. When I got there she didn’t want them. Black Doggie was with her too. Two Black Doggies in one room. She had a headache. I persuaded the nurse to give her some paracetamol. The old lady who sings to me, sang to me again. She eyed the chocolate fingers.
‘I often share my things with your Mum. I expect your Mum would want me to have a chocolate finger. Or two. If she could speak.’ Her eyes never left the box and the tantalising chocolate-finger picture on the packaging. I gave her two. Had to ask the nurse for help getting into the cellophane. He gave me that look, like – shall I reserve you a chair in the Recreation Room now? On the way out I gave her the rest of the packet. ‘That was kind of you,’ said the nurse. ‘It’s not easy, is it? This time?’
So Mum and I sat and held hands, and I lent her my comb because she said hers had disappeared. She had someone else’s trousers on. I told her to keep the comb, but she gave it back. I wrote notes for her. She looked at them and handed them back to me. ‘I’m never getting out of here.’
‘Yes, you are. Soon. It’s a hospital. They can’t keep you for ever.’
‘I don’t believe it. What use am I? The doctors should give me something to get rid of me. What use am I, in here?’ Outside, there were daffodils, and birds flying about. In here, on the wall, was a frieze of spring made of coloured paper and cotton wool, like you see in the classrooms at infants’ school.
So, really, three Black Doggies – the Canadian one, mine and the one sat next to my Mum in the mental ward.
But then my sister phoned and she told me she was thinking of learning shorthand, as one of those short-term projects to cheer herself up. It wasn’t that she needed shorthand, she said, but she liked the shapes it made. She could see it on the wall – like a poem, maybe – and visitors would ask, ‘What do all those squiggles mean?’ And I said that was a weird coincidence – I had only five minutes before ordered a second-hand book on Gregg shorthand, having been reminded of it by an old post on this blog. Mum had had a book on Gregg shorthand – turned out we both remembered it.
And somehow the weirdness, that we should have both thought of learning shorthand, at the same time, all those thousands of miles apart across windswept oceans, lifted her mood. Mine too. She asked me to order the same book for her. We would learn it together, she said, and she would write me letters in Gregg shorthand, and I would write her Gregg shorthand letters back, and she would make artwork using Gregg shorthand, or write a diary that her husband couldn’t read, or…
Once, when we were teenagers, sat in that stuffy suburban living room with our parents and other visiting family, the same funny thing occurred to us both at the same time. It wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t anything anyone had said it was just – an invisible amusement. I caught her eye and she caught mine. I started giggling, and she started giggling. And of course no one else had any idea what we were giggling about – and even we weren’t entirely sure – which made it funnier still.
It was ten minutes before we could stop, by which time we had the hiccups.