The Write Stuff: The Sisters

Rosie Wallace. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Rosie Wallace. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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Welcome to the latest of The Scotsman’s regular feature showcasing the talents of Scotland’s best writers. Every Saturday will carry a great piece of writing from household names to up-and-comers, all reinforcing The Scotsman’s place as the home of Scotland’s best writing

The younger one has always been a chatterer. Silence is a vacuum to be filled with whatever thoughts are passing through her mind. As she wraps a china lamp base in old newspaper, she explains how her daughter could have been a doctor if the physics teacher had not had a nervous breakdown two months before the Highers. The elder, a thinker rather than a talker, reverts to childhood habits and ceases to listen, attention diverted to the faded print of the Matterhorn she has just removed from the wall. It goes in the box for the charity shop.

The younger one pauses for but a millisecond between sentences, then continues. ‘If you believe Colin Fry,’ she says, ‘they are all here, watching everything we do.’

The elder is now half listening. ‘Who is Colin Fry? And why are physics teachers watching us?’ She is looking round the room at the extensive display of ornaments which cover every available surface wondering which, if any, are of value.

‘Colin Fry! He’s a medium! He brings messages from the dead.’

‘How do you know him?’ The shell encrusted ashtray goes to join the Matterhorn.

‘I don’t know him! He’s on the TV. In the mornings!’

‘And the physics teachers?’ The elder now picks up a small china Scottie dog which brings greetings from Pitlochry.

‘Not physics teachers! The dead! They come back to say they disapprove of the paint colour you’ve chosen for the hall, or they think you should take that planned holiday to Lake Garda because they will be there too.’

The elder one is a Radio 4 listener. ‘I think you need to get out more!’ The Scottie is placed in the charity box. She picks up the largest of the china bells. It dingalings cheerfully. ‘You want these?’ She notes the bad-smell-wrinkle of the nose from her sister. ‘Sale or charity shop, what do you think?’ She studies the collection. ‘Bell collecting is quite popular, isn’t it? Might even make the price of a bottle of gin?’

The younger pays the suggestion no attention. ‘Do you think she’s here? Do you think she is watching us going through her things?’ She looks round the room for some sort of sign. The elder says nothing. She’s wondering whether swapping twenty-seven bells collected from worldwide destinations for a bottle of alcohol is in bad taste.

All is quiet – no unexplained knocking, no flickering lights.

The elder is not surprised. Their mother has gone. That’s why they’re here, clearing the house. ‘Sale box then.’ she says with conviction.

‘OK,’ says the younger.

As they wrap the bells, the younger keeps glancing over her shoulder. ‘Little children can often see them. They say that we all have psychic powers but we grow out of them, so perhaps she is here, but we are just no longer susceptible.’

The elder doesn’t do fey. At least, not any more. ‘If it’s as you say, then she’s probably on holiday with her pride and joy. If anyone deserves to be haunted it’s our little brother. Now, let’s get on with it, in case she comes back before we are finished!’ Suddenly she dances round the room making ghostie gestures, then takes the rack of teaspoons off the wall, tips the spoons into a freezer bag and drops it in the sale box. Potential to be converted into a couple of bottles of red wine.

A rainbow effect vase, their grandmother’s treasure, is claimed by the younger and identified as Lustre Ware. She never misses an episode of Bargain Hunt, ‘The other day the blue team found a bowl like this and managed to get it for next to nothing…’ The elder is a follower of the Antiques Roadshow so she knows that the cranberry decanter, hideous as it is, will fetch a decent price. It is wrapped and in the sale box before the younger has reached the climax of her Bargain Hunt story.

They take a break. The kitchen is, as it always was, spotless, the formica worktops gleaming. They drink tea from familiar cups and eat stale Kit Kats from the Silver Jubilee biscuit tin. Neither of them want the tin, both want the cups. The younger remembers sweet tea on return from school, hot chocolate after a night out, her mother stirring soup with one hand, cup in the other. She remembers the smell of baking and piles of still warm ironing on the kitchen chair.

The elder, still not listening properly, can almost, but not quite, detect the whiff of Vim and the shake of a dishcloth. She warms her hand round the cup, keeping the memories to herself. ‘The sooner we get this place on the market, the better,’ she says briskly. ‘I’ll get the agent round next week. There must be lots of folk who want something like this to modernise, to put their own stamp on it.’

The younger is doubtful. ‘Too many new houses about now that are so well insulated the electricity bill is next to nothing. There was a programme on Channel 5 the other day about someone trying to sell their late mother’s house. It was a bit like this and it had been on the market for over two years. Then the team came in and painted it magnolia, took up the old carpets and put in a new kitchen and it was sold within – ’

A crash from the sitting room – they discover the remains of a china shepherdess lying on the hearth.

‘It’s Mum! She’s telling us! She doesn’t want the house changed,’ cries the younger.

‘Look! The photo frame slipped and knocked it off the mantelpiece,’ says the elder. ‘That’s all.’

The brush and dustpan are hanging on a hook in the cupboard under the stairs. Beside them, on the shelf, is the shoe-cleaning box. The smell of polish lingers on the brushes. The elder sister fingers the velvet pad, stitched by her in handwork class, used for extra shine. A memory of Sunday morning, Daddy sitting on the red topped stool, shining his shoes, camel coat, church, raspberry ripple ice cream for pudding.

Back in the sitting room, the younger is holding the family photo – Mummy, Daddy, two little girls in party dresses, everyone smiling, everyone unaware of the aneurysm, biding its time. ‘Don’t Mum and Dad look young! And what about your fluffy cardy thing? You look like a mini Barbara Cartland!’

‘They were young, still in their twenties when that was taken. And as for the ‘cardy thing’, as you put it, it was called a bolero and it was made of pink angora and I thought I was the bees knees.’ She laughs.

But the younger doesn’t join in. ‘I’m sure it never came to me. I wonder why? I always had your cast offs, never got anything new.’ She cradles the photo to her chest. ‘Can I have this? I really don’t have any memories of him, so this photo is all there is.’

The elder one pauses as she sweeps up the china shards. She wants it also, wants it because she does remember. ‘We’ll get a copy made.’ She takes the frame and lays it on the hall table, ready to take back home.

The younger now has the other photo, taken ten years after the first – teenagers, a mother, a stepfather, a little brother. She traces the outline. ‘He was like a real Dad to us, wasn’t he? Do you think she’s with both of them now? How do you suppose that works? Do they all three live in the same house? I mean, meeting up with your dead husband must be wonderful, but what happens if you have more than one… and what happens if your second husband had a dead wife? That would be four of you. It all gets a bit complicated doesn’t it?’

The elder was never one for idle speculation. ‘I think it’s easier to believe it all stops.’ She goes to the kitchen to tip the contents of the dustpan into the bin. Adult logic cannot quite override the memory of soft pink angora fluff next to the face, the comforting pressure of a hand on her shoulder as she fell asleep, a shadow at the end of her bed as she woke. With an imperceptible shiver she rinses the dirty cups and leaves them on the drainer, a challenge to her mother’s idea of what constituted washing up. On returning to the sitting room she begins to stuff cushions into a black bag.

So. Either it all stops with death or life goes on. They were always like that. Chalk and cheese. It’s not an either/or, you know, girls. Yes, it stops, but then if you choose, it goes on and it can go on for as long as you wish it to go on. I’ve been here for fifty-five years; disapproving of the paint colour, watching over my own as they grew, watching him as husband, father of the bride, granddad, then watching her alone again. He was here for a bit until she passed, but now they’re both watching their boy. There are no reasons to remain, it’s time for me to move on, time to step into the next place.

The younger is still chattering, the elder silent. A gentle envelopment of each of them in turn, and I am gone.

The younger shivers and reaches for her jumper. ‘This house needs new windows, terrible draught in this room.’

The elder glances round and then looks upwards. A feather floats past her face. One of the cushions must be shedding its contents.

After many years as a politician’s wife, Rosie Wallace published her first novel A Small Town Affair (Hachette Scotland) in 2010 at the age of 55. A second novel The Trouble With Keeping Mum (Hachette Scotland) followed in 2012. These novels concentrated on the domestic side of politics, the first at Westminster and the second at Holyrood. She is now working on her third novel. She is married to Lib Dem politician Jim Wallace, has two grown up daughters and lives in Orkney.

Twitter @WallaceRosie