Published On: Tue, Aug 29th, 2017

Fiction: Dear Sister by Isabel Ashdown


Waiting at the counter of the busy on-board café, my stomach lurched with the swell of the ferry’s departure and my fear almost got the better of me. The fear that perhaps this was all a horrible mistake, that I’d misunderstood and my sister wasn’t really expecting me to come. These were the thoughts that clawed at me as I reached for my coffee and scattered my change on the floor.

“Sorry,” I said, feeling another coin slip free after a fellow customer had stooped to retrieve them. “Sorry!”

He snatched it up, pressing it into my gloved hand with a certainty that caught me off guard. He was about my age, bearded and scruffy-haired, wearing a jacket that almost exactly matched my own old Crombie. Mine had come from the men’s section of Oxfam; I suspected his was from a hipster boutique in Brighton or Covent Garden. He had a nice face and to my embarrassment, I blushed.

“Stick it in your pocket before you lose it again,” he smiled, and I muttered a thank you as I retreated upstairs to the bright air of the open deck. I pulled my collar up against the autumn chill, fixing my gaze on the Isle of Wight, already visible across the glistening expanse of water.

When, a few minutes later, the man joined me beside the railings, I was strangely unperturbed. 

“What takes you to the island?” he asked.

I surprised myself with the ease of my answer. 

“I’m visiting my older sister. 

She had a baby recently and I’ll be looking after her when Emily goes back to work.”

“Like a nanny?”

I smiled, because to hear it out loud sounded so ridiculous.

Me, a nanny? Hopeless, childless, aimless me? 

“Yes, just like a nanny. 

But with an auntie spin on it.”

He laughed at this, and it felt good to be the cause.

“You?”

“I grew up here. It’s my folks’ wedding anniversary, so everyone’s travelling in. Can’t miss the golden anniversary.” After a pause he added, “I’m the youngest of six.”

At once I felt profoundly sad, to be standing beside this dark-eyed stranger, to think of his family so big and robust when mine was so small and fragile. 

“I’m the youngest of two,” I said.

My thoughts returned to a few weeks earlier, to my mother’s funeral – the day of my reunion with Emily after all those years apart. Sixteen years without a word or letter. Almost two decades with so much distance between us, so much unsaid.

It was, to my shame, a boy who had come between us, but in some ways perhaps we had been looking for an excuse to separate our younger selves, to forge our own lives. We’d both made mistakes, but in that instant, when Emily slid into the pew beside me and silently accepted my hand, I really believed we might lay it all to rest.

“Are you close?” he asked. 

“You and your sister?”

My eyes rested on the horizon, the water undulating with the approach of a returning ferry. 

“We were. People always said we were more like twins than sisters. But – well, we weren’t in touch for a long time. It’s complicated.”

I’m grateful when he nods, with no hint of judgment. But I still have the urge to explain.

“We were young. Instead of talking it through or thrashing it out like normal people, I ran away from it. When we met again recently, the years seemed to vanish. I can’t believe we’ve wasted so much…” 

I felt the unexpected rush of tears and I turned my face away, swiping my lashes with the cuff of my coat.

The stranger touched my elbow lightly. “But you must be pleased to be reunited now? I mean, the past is the past, right?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll ever really trust each other again. Not like we used to.”

“Look, I don’t know you, but for what it’s worth, I know there’s nothing more precious than a child. And if your sister trusts you enough to let you care for her baby, that’s got to be a good sign.”

He gazed at me, unblinking, and in that strangely intimate moment, I knew he was right.

When the Tannoy called drivers back to their cars, he reached into his pocket and jotted down his number on a cigarette paper. 

“In case you fancy meeting up,” he said, handing it to me, and then he was gone, jogging down the metal staircase and into another life.

Along the island’s wooded edges, October was turning the leaves to rust, and the bright sunlight on the water had taken on that cool, sparkling quality that feels clean on the eyes. I turned the number over in my hands and knew I wouldn’t call him.

With Emily, I’d been given a second chance, and I couldn’t let anything – or anyone – distract me from that thought. I released the tiny paper, watching it lift on the cool breeze, and I headed downstairs with the rest of the foot passengers.

As I disembarked with my rucksack and single holdall, I felt the overwhelming sense of life starting over. Seabirds screamed noisily overhead, swooping down to pick up crumbs outside the terminal café, and I scanned the loading area for sight of Emily.

When finally I saw her, my breath caught in my chest: there she was, my big sister, waiting for me. She was standing beside a showroom-clean Range Rover, her figure neat and composed, her dark bobbed hair whipping around her head in the seafront breeze. On spotting me, she threw up her hands with a joyous shriek and raced to meet me. 

I dropped my bags and we embraced as if we might never let go. 

Isabel Ashdown’s new novel, Little Sister (Trapeze, £7.99), is out now. See Express Bookshop at expressbookshop.co.uk.


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