We knew the situation was dire because Mum said ‘your sister is unwell’ as opposed to ‘your sister is under the weather.’ Dad knew things were bad from the look in Mum’s eyes, the way the whites of them pooled and threatened to spill. I wanted to stick my fingers in the ooze. But I knew things were bad because of what Mum said. She’d also used the term ‘unwell’ when my sister ended up in hospital with a broken collarbone after a hockey match. What she didn’t bother to mention was my sister had driven straight into a brick wall on Middlewich Road and was in traction. Unconscious but alive.
“I’ll pack some sandwiches,” said Mum. She could make a hamper in less than ten minutes. Dad finished shaving. I stood between my parents, wondering why I’d moved back in. I knew the answer, of course, but it’s the sort of the decision you soon find yourself questioning and each time you remind yourself of the why and the how, a little part of you squirms
“Change that jumper,” said Mum. “You can’t turn up at the hospital like that.”
“Rebecca’s unconscious, Mum. I doubt she’ll care what I look like.”
“Suit yourself,” she said.
I went upstairs and changed into a T-Shirt that was too small. I wasn’t wearing a bra. I’m not the type of person who can’t wear a bra, but I hadn’t worn one in several days. Five days, not that I was counting. Despite not showering for a week, or brushing my hair for two, I felt oddly chipper as we stepped out onto the driveway. Though my sister was in hospital, I complimented Mum’s food hamper. She told me to shut up and get in the car. I sat in the back, feeling like a child. I didn’t wear a seatbelt until the first junction, when Mum caught me. She shouted till I put my seatbelt on. Dad ran the red lights with a soft smile. Mum listened to the radio. We passed several fields filled with cows until I was convinced we were doing laps round the same field. We passed my primary school, then my high school. The church with its leaning tower. The spire was sweating almost as much as I was; the cement dripped with black rivulets. The oak trees were blindfolds. Dad honked the horn. Mum turned off the radio. None of us said anything until we reached the hospital, when Mum announced,
“I’ll pay for parking.” Dad said,
“I’m not parking here. Its costs an arm and a leg.”
We parked anyway, Dad grumbling as he reversed into a space. We were sandwiched between a blue Volvo and a van which resembled a hearse. I laughed.
“Grab that hamper,” said Mum. “We can’t turn up empty handed.”
Dad went to pay, then walked back because the parking-ticket machine demanded a license plate he couldn’t remember. The Volvo next to us had those foldable wingmirrors. I pictured being able to fold my ears like that and made several unsuccessful attempts to tuck them beneath my jaw. Mum caught me doing this and told me to stop being childish.
I was twenty-four.
We reached the sliding doors just as my sister’s husband arrived. He was sweating through his white shirt. He wore cufflinks and loafers. A suit jacket dangled from his forearm like a broken handbag. It was navy. He looked good in navy. Mum waved.
“Simon! Simon, did they phone you first?” Simon wasn’t actually called Simon, though Mum pretended not to know this. Simon’s real name was Seo-jun. He’d only told me this because he’d been drunk that night; it was the night of their one-year anniversary. I’d been inexplicably invited and had inexplicably turned up. I got them a gift and everything. Still, Mum always called him Simon. My sister only called him Seo-jun when they were alone—or thought they were alone. Seo-jun had black hair, slicked back. Dark eyes atop a darker suit. He drove a Range Rover because my sister drove a BMW and they couldn’t both drive a Range Rover or a BMW.
“She’ll be alright,” said Mum. She patted Seo-jun’s arm. He flinched. His eyes dipped and rolled. He asked the same questions over and over till someone answered. He didn’t care who answered. While he ran to the desk, we walked. Dad stumbled behind us. I carried the sandwich hamper. I nearly offered the receptionist a sandwich before Seo-jun got to him.
“Where is she? Is she okay? Which room is she in? Is she is in surgery?”
Mum pushed past. She gave the receptionist my sister’s full name – Rebecca Joanne Gallimore – and her date of birth: 7th April 1988. Only then did she ask about my sister’s health.
“She’s in recovery,” the receptionist said. Seo-jun sagged. “She came out of surgery an hour ago. Afternoon visiting hours are 2-5pm.” We still had twenty minutes. Mum asked which room my sister was in. We followed a nurse to Room 206. When she opened the door, I choked. I would have laughed had Seo-jun not been with us. My sister was here with three other people. Two coughing men and a woman who kept muttering to herself while her husband or brother or kindly hostage read the newspaper on a plastic chair, pretending to ignore her. I did laugh. Seo-jun stared at me as if I were a monster. I shot him a smile.
“She’ll be fine,” I said. I felt like a monster but this was nothing new. Anyone can be monstrous if they try hard enough. And my family have had years of practice.
As promised, my sister was unconscious. Her blonde hair – freshly dyed – lay sprawled against the pillow. Her nails, though cracked, were perfect crescents. She looked so beautiful lying there I wanted to smother her, or peel off the rest of her perfect nails. She had a tube down her throat. I frowned. Somehow, she made this attractive.
Mum pulled up one of the plastic chairs. She wore a fleece, which she wrapped tighter round herself.
“It’s like a Victorian workhouse,” she muttered. “Such a draft.” I offered to close the window.
“Never mind that now,” said Mum. “We won’t be here long.”
Seo-jun knelt. He put one hand on my sister’s arm. She had an IV. I didn’t know why this was so surprising—we were after all in a hospital. Her left arm was in a cast, as was her right leg. She had a large cut on her eyebrow, shot through with stitches. Her heartbeat was horribly steady. She was still. I wondered if she could dream in such a state.
“Unpack the sandwiches,” said Mum. I obeyed. We ate nothing. Seo-jun kept whispering words of comfort to my sister, no matter how many times I told him she couldn’t hear him.
“We’d better take the long way back,” said Dad. “Just checked the traffic report. It’ll be chock-a-block on the A40.”
“Cut through the industrial estate then,” said Mum. I caught Seo-jun watching them, eyes wide and red. It was strange, I thought. Surely he was used to this by now. Surely, he understood the kind of people we were.
My sister’s doctor visited us before we left. He looked too tall to be a doctor. By the time he finished bending down, his patient would have died. He had a goatee, splattered with grey. He told us my sister had come in with cracked ribs, two broken bones, minor internal injuries and a concussion. He told us she would be fine, but it would take time which of course was news to no one. She’d wake up in the next few days, he continued. She would need rehabilitation.
“Luckily,” he said. “No one else was hurt.”
“What do you mean?” asked Mum.
“From what I hear, she lost control of the car.”
Mum huffed. Then she asked the if he was single. The doctor frowned. He waved his hand. Mum deflated. His wedding band was swollen to the skin. She thanked him anyway and said,
“Right then. Let’s go. We must beat the traffic. Say goodbye to your sister, Harper.”
I left the room. The toilets were closer than I remembered. I ran in but didn’t manage to lock the door before I vomited. When I emerged, my sister’s doctor was there. He instructed me to head back to the reception area.
“To collect your sister’s belongings.”
Though I wondered why Seo-jun hadn’t collected them, I wiped my mouth and ran to the desk. I was given a small box, which I had to empty. I had no box of my own to carry these belongings. I almost asked for a bag, but then remembered I was in a hospital and not a supermarket. The box contained:
x1 smartphone (with a portable charger)
x1 make-up bag
x1 handmade purse
x1 Pandora bracelet
I wondered if my sister still wore her wedding ring or if they’d removed it during surgery. Then I wished I’d bothered to check. Perhaps Seo-jun had taken it.
Thanking the receptionist, I hauled my sister’s belongings out to the car-park. An ambulance sliced past, blue lights flashing. A car horn blared. A young woman wheeled an older woman towards a small white van, humming the tune to some old radio show. I winced. She had an awful voice, though the older woman didn’t seem to notice. She simply nodded along. I watched them for a moment, wondering if I’d do the same for my own mother in a few short years. Mum said she’d hang herself we ever put her in a home, though she was more the type to check herself into one simply to urinate on the stairlift or complain about the poor conditions. My Mum was also the type to reply to her own comments on Facebook. I wondered whether she’d post something about my sister’s accident. I wondered who’d she’d blame. I was the ideal target, but my sister had crashed on her way to a Pilates Class. I frowned. She hadn’t packed her gym bag. Unless she’d been wearing her jumpsuit in the car, I thought.
I scanned the car park, settling on the empty space where my parents had been. It wasn’t a surprise that they’d left without me. My father was very serious about traffic. He couldn’t sit in it. Five minutes on the M6 during congestion and he was slapping the steering wheel and renouncing God. I thought about ordering a taxi, but I had no money. There was my sister’s wallet, but the thought of using even a few coins for the bus made my stomach churn. In the end, I sat on pavement. I wasn’t sure how long I sat there, only that I found myself opening Rebecca’s laptop. The screen was cracked. The glass now formed an elaborate spiderweb. Somehow, it still worked. Still made that happy ding-dong sound as I turned it on and tried to guess my sister’s password. Her phone had also survived. It retained its protective plastic covering. I removed it and used the phone to unlock her laptop. My sister’s desktop was horribly organised. The screensaver was some nameless sunny beach I was certain she’d never visited. Before I knew what I was doing, I opened her emails. They were in her favourites bar (a rookie mistake.) I reset her password with a single text sent to her phone. Her inbox was disgustingly clean. Each message was organised into separate folders. Altogether, she had less than fifty emails compared to Mum’s five-hundred. I hadn’t checked my own inbox in weeks, not since that meeting with Will. There were several messages about subscribing to a local beauty salon, then another few messages from the gym she attended. Messages about the water bill, one message forwarded from Seo-jun about updating their passports. There were five unread messages. I checked the most recent one, which was sent half an hour after the accident.
Dear Mrs. Kim,
I am pleased to inform you that we have decided to proceed with your application. We would like to invite you for an interview on the 22nd of April. Please prepare any questions you’d like to ask our panel.
Please reply to confirm you are able to attend between 9am and 12pm.
I froze. It made sense that my sister knew of Vita Anderson – everyone knew Vita Anderson – but I couldn’t comprehend what had driven her to apply for such a job. My sister worked as a paralegal in a respected solicitors firm in Alderley Edge. Lots of wills, lots of rich (and elderly/dead) clients. She always spoke of the job with a soft smile, like she knew I had no chance of outmatching her. Applying for a different job, let alone a job like this, made no sense. My sister was all about sense. Every decision was debated, meticulously. So why did this feel like a joke? The entire day was a joke, only it was a joke without a punchline.
“Harper. What are you still doing here?” I jumped, closing the laptop. When I looked up, Seo-jun was there. He held an unlit fag. I snatched it from his hand, wishing I could light it myself. Instead, we stood and smoked together.
“Are those her things?” he asked.
“I don’t know why they gave them to me.”
“Neither do I.” He took a long drag of his cigarette. He looked good when he smoked. Like a tragic hero from a neo-noir. I could see the tear tracks on his face, still drying. The smoke settled at the back of my throat.
“I’ll give you a lift,” said Seo-jun.
“That’s unnecessary.” He stubbed out the cigarette.
“Get in the car.”
I followed. Seo-jun helped me carry my sister’s purse and make-up bag. He didn’t notice me pocket her phone. I told him the laptop was broken and that I’d been trying to fix it before he arrived. He nodded. He slid into the driver’s seat. The engine purred. I never thought a car could sound self-satisfied but this one did.
As we hit traffic, Seo-jun wiped his eyes. They swelled with more tears. He couldn’t stop; it was fascinating. I squinted and saw the ring clutched in his hand. He must have been squeezing it for the past ten minutes; his hand was red. The ring left an imprint when it dropped into his lap. I checked my pockets for a tissue. I said,
“Keep your eyes on the road. Don’t want to end up like Rebecca.”
Seo-jun sobbed and I hated myself. I hated that he knew me. I hated that he’d grown accustomed to one version of me and most of all, I hated that I was more concerned about how my brother-in-law perceived me than my sister who was unconscious in a hospital bed.
“I’ll get some time off work,” said Seo-jun. He was talking to himself but I told him this was a good idea. “I’ll stay with her tomorrow. Weekends too.”
“I can do the weekends,” I said. Seo-jun flinched. He stopped at a pair of traffic lights, staring at me. The lights turned green. We drove the rest of the way in silence.
My sister and her husband lived fifteen minutes from my parent’s house. It took Seo-jun just five minutes to drop me off. Though Mum tried to convince him to stay for dinner, he said he needed to pack a bag for tomorrow. He wanted to pack Becca’s favourite clothes, all the books she’d bought but hadn’t read. He had to contact her boss.
“I’ll do that,” I said. “I’ll call him tonight.” Seo-jun frowned, but he agreed. When he left, Mum told me to set the table. She told me to use the fake China plates. She said she didn’t like using them when Seo-jun came round because it felt racist.
“He’s Korean, Mum.”
When she cooked, the plates were soaked in batter, all full fat. We had thick yogurt for dessert. Dad didn’t eat with us. He ate from a tray, watching TV. Mum said it was like living in a Care Home. I picked at the oven chips, dunking them in mayonnaise. She’d bought a limp salad from the corner shop; it went out of date three days ago.
“Your sister was meant to be here,” said Mum. I stilled. She said nothing more until,
“You should cut those nails. I’m not having a wolverine at my dining table.”
We listened to the radio while washing up; it was tradition. It meant we didn’t have to speak to each other. It also meant we didn’t have to truly listen, though Mum huffed once the programme finished.
“Honestly. They think we want to hear about that. I have half a mind to phone the BBC.”
“Alright, Mum. You do that.” She flinched. It was as if she’d forgotten I was there. Part of me didn’t blame her. Most people in my situation moved into friend’s flats or got a house share or trawled endlessly through SpareRoom.com.
We watched a documentary that night. All three of us in the living room. I sat on the floor because Dad liked the armchair and I couldn’t bear to share the sofa with Mum. I sat cross-legged. I might have sucked my thumb if I hadn’t remembered that I was twenty-four, that I would be twenty-five in a few months. The carpet was an overgrown scab. It was the same carpet I’d once used as a field for my plastic horses when I was eight. I picked at it to feel better.
The crack of a can being opened. I turned. Dad slurped, his horse-like lips closing over the yellow bubbles. I asked if I could have one.
“Mine,” he said.
“I’d like some too.”
“You wouldn’t like this,” he said.
“Maybe I would.”
“It’s not your type. I’d offer you wine but we don’t have any.”
“I don’t like wine. You know I don’t like wine.”
“You don’t like beer, either.”
“I can’t win, then.”
“No, you can’t.” I turned away.
“There’s no such thing as winning,” Dad added. He finished the can in minutes. I might have applauded had Mum not stormed out. I heard her climb the stairs, heard the sound of the bath running. That moan of the pipes; it sounded like an orgasm.
Dad muted the TV. We kept watching anyway, trying to guess what the narrator was saying as a bear caught a fish in some unpronounceable river. He opened another can. For a moment, I thought about snatching it from his hand. I thought about raiding the cupboard. I knew we had wine somewhere, the kind with screw tops because Mum bought them as an afterthought in case her schoolfriends came round. They never did. The wine remained untouched.
As I sat on the carpet, Rebecca’s phone pinged. It was a text. From her old boss at the solicitor’s office. I wanted to read it. Instead, I kept watching the silent documentary. I watched till it finished and then I climbed the stairs to the room I once shared with my sister. I was twenty-four. I was jobless, friendless. Most of all, I wanted to unlearn everything I knew. I wanted to unlearn myself, unpick my skin and start from scratch. I think that’s the reason I pretended to be my sister. It’s one of the many reasons I replied to Vita’s email and said I couldn’t wait to meet her. It’s the same reason I told no one that the hospital had called me first.