My sister shopped me. You could do it anonymously online or by phone because they relied on local intelligence, as they called it. She, on the other hand, had faith in my fear and she was right to. She terrified me. I didn’t say a thing, didn’t query her, not even a whisper, but the betrayal hurt worse than the worst period pain, which Mum always said was the same as contractions, and they, in her experience, required a glug or three of something, anything.
‘Coral, no, that’s bad, the lowest. Any clue as to who
As usual we were in her front room, not mine, sat on her deep-plum leather settee. Her lights, not mine, were on low, her languorous 42-inch on silent. The air freshener didn’t smother the tang of bleach coming off the clothes waiting for the wash. I won’t say dirty clothes because my sister doesn’t do dirty. Obi, her youngest, was in his room, Taiwo and Yehinde out somewhere ducking behind a bus shelter but not up to much bad. She never came round to mine and she didn’t have to say why. She had the three kids still at home, but they were big boys now.
She said, ‘Here, love, have a drink.’
I gulped down half a glass of white, which, going on the taste, was the cheapest and rustiest she could find, strictly for getting drunk. She said, ‘And I don’t suppose you got any way of pleading innocent.’
How did I know she was the one? I didn’t. I inferred from the fact that she, sat at the murkiest end of the settee, which was the colour of dried intestines, despised me, always had, and wanted me reformulated. If I’d accused her, she’d have denied it. The rest of the chardonnay went down.
She looked at my empty glass. ‘Fair enough,’ she said.
Her eyes glowed in the shadow, or maybe the swellings of the quilted leather raised their little square summits to the light. I had to be careful. Her body was a mask, and I didn’t really know who was looking out through the eyeholes.
She said, ‘So what happened? They come round? Question you? Full monty? Concealed camera?’
‘I’ve had a letter. They’ve been investigating me and I’ve got to go for an interview. God Almighty.’
‘Don’t you just love them bastards,’ she said. ‘It’s not like you been raking it in, for God’s sake. Sorry, God, sorry.’
She’d been attending her African church for a couple of years so she was cleaning out her mouth. ‘Mummy know?’
Maybe it was too much booze that stopped my voice, or the thought of our mum’s innocence and her deep plum-burgundy hair dye that didn’t banish all whites, especially not at the temples. Or it was the years of trying to understand my sister. We’ve got different fathers.
Two sides of Mum’s garden are crumbling brick wall. The wall running between her and the neighbour on the right bulges out where the council had a go with new bricks, but the contractor didn’t do vertical, only horizontal. The other wall is half brick because the end next to Mum’s back
bedroom is the remains of a room. The floor is the patio, where she still grows geraniums and an oleander the colour of rose madder. The fence at the back is taller than my sister’s father, but getting skinnier every day. The neighbour at the back didn’t want to be looking through the fence at
Mum sunbathing, she said the neighbour said, even though Mum’s flowers and creeping vines used to be beautiful and luscious. These days her courgettes are the size of a double bed, and I’m not talking futon, and her potatoes take up the whole garden. Fortunately she never had grass, so she doesn’t miss it. I used to help her pull dandelions out of the crazy paving,
where the grass wasn’t. My sister said why should she crawl in the dirt digging up dandelions when weedkiller came out cheaper than a new pair of knees. From birth, my sister shoved me around. Her bones were longer. We had our first period the same day of the same month, February 16th, when she was eleven and I was thirteen. Other simultaneous things came later. I liked the warm feeling of the pad in my knickers, and the metallic smell, but after I showed her my blood, she refused to show me hers. She said it was too thick and there were brown bits – she wouldn’t want to frighten me. That was the first moment my solar plexus stopped working. Afterwards you gasp. Until then I’d got by on damage limitation. After that,
the fear more or less scabbed over the hate. Makes sense.
Our simultaneous first periods wasn’t the moon synchronising the tides in our all-female household. Mum didn’t have her periods the same time as us. Puberty comes with size and it wasn’t just my sister’s bones. From when she was eleven her bra was a shelf she hung off her shoulders with the extra wide straps maximum tight. I’m not saying the size of her tits was her fault or the trough sunk in her shoulders where her straps dug in. Her hair took up space as well. Big hair started with my sister. In fact with
Angela Davis, but when we were younger, my sister wasn’t interested in her African roots. Before all that, there was the time Mum was brushing
my hair. I was sat on her lap on the chair by her bed. I also wanted to be on the bed, the tiny pink and lilac flowers on the duvet drifting around me. So I slid off her lap but then I slid back on again. You could say I wanted it both ways, or you could say I wanted neither one nor the other. My sister wanted one thing alone, to sit on Mum’s lap, so she tried shoving me off, which made Mum’s hand jerk a clump of my hair out. Mum dropped the brush. My sister didn’t say sorry. She said, ‘Excuse me, princess, my turn.’
Mum reached down for the tumbler of white wine sat under the chair so it didn’t get knocked over, took my sister’s comb out of her hand, blew the dandruff off, and plopped her on her lap. Mum’s name is Vie, short for Verbena. She said you couldn’t get much except Verb and Bean out of
Verbena, but when me and my sister called her Ribena, she said rib reminded her of God, and Rye is the name of a south-coast town, so it had to be Vie.
‘Coral, lovey,’ she said. ‘Go and get the bottle of plonk out the fridge, there’s a good girl. Jen’s hair puts me in a shocking thirst, doesn’t it, Jen?’ She gave her a squeeze.
‘Very brittle your hair is, my girly.’
My sister said, ‘You’re the only one can look after it, aren’t you, Mummy? You’ll take care of it.’ She was eight. It was two years after her dad left us.
Grey and orange moulded plastic furnished the Job Centre off Kilburn High Road. The desks, computers and chairs were rounded at the edges so no one could harm themselves or others. People kept banging the computer console after they’d stabbed the continue button for the various jobs pages.
An elderly guy lurched around with his arms stuck out in front of him doing a living dead. He said to security,
‘I have a mission to take up with you lot hanging around here doing nothing.’ His laugh was a road drill.
Security talked to him about Arsenal. The fraud room had scarred walls and a bare light bulb that vibrated when anyone moved, but the two Job Centre guys, both white, sat with their legs stretched out as though they were in their front room and catching up with their long-lost relly. The sweat dripped down from my armpits. The two guys did in fact know all about me because of the surveillance, and one of them kept glancing at my chest, which is nothing like my sister’s. He convinced me he knew not only about my various jobs but also what my breasts looked like, so I admitted straight out I worked more than the sixteen hours, and it’d been years. He gave me real coffee, and apart from the strip-search in his head, he and his mate were such nice guys I nearly said about my Portobello tourist trade. It was my sister’s voice in my head kept saying get a grip that stopped me, the shame of her thinking me stupid. So when it got to the magistrate’s court, the blond baroque one on Marylebone Road, I was over the worst and I knew what was coming. On my mind was more my sister shopping me than how I was going to repay twenty thousand pounds and the five hundred pound fine, plus my rent during the benefit freeze, and the arrears. I spoke to the lady in the court about instalments. Thanks to my sister I was now in debt for life. That’s when she took me to Conrad Cleaning in Holborn,
second floor of a building held up by neo-Parthenon pillars either side of the Royal Bank of Scotland. It was early June 2010, in those days before zero-hour contracts and the climate became a crisis, before London lost its definition to melting tarmac, and before white boys and girls dry-fried
their skin. That time of year if you inhaled in the direction of Regent’s Park you smelled mown grass and roses. Conrad’s door had a square of glass punched in it, a black plastic slab across the middle that said ‘reception’ and an arrow pointing up at the glass. I peered through. My sister didn’t hesitate. A woman was sat on the desk, a ring file balanced on her right thigh, which was crossed over her left thigh, her right bunion falling out of her shoe. Brenda was Conrad’s area manager at the site where my sister worked.
‘And you’re a lot else besides, eh, Bren?’ said my sister.
Under Brenda’s blonde streaks and her mauve, gold and black makeup, her eyes were somewhere. When I found them they were yellow, a lizard’s.
‘Always happy to meet a friend of Jen’s,’ she said.
‘I’m her big sister.’
‘Oh right,’ said Brenda. She looked at my sister.
‘We’ve got a sixteen-hours at Querin, haven’t we?’ my
‘I expect you’re used to being supervised by your little sister, aren’t you, Coral?’ said Brenda. They laughed. The keys on Brenda’s desktop keyboard were filthy brown. She glanced at my CV.
‘I’m sure Jen’s told you what sort of work you’ll be doing.’
‘Course I have,’ said my sister.
‘So you don’t think she’ll be bored, Jen? I’m just looking at her qualifications.’
‘Course you won’t, will you, Coral? And she’ll be joining the union to please her sister, won’t you, Coral?’
‘Nice one, Jen,’ said Brenda. ‘You know, Coral, I’ll tell you something about your sister. She’s a great help to us. She helps us stick up for human rights, don’t you, Jen? Conrad the Caring Cleaners, that’s us. So, Coral, Monday week suit you? We’ll get a contract sorted by then. If I could just have your NI number, please. I won’t worry about a passport in
your case.’ She smiled deep into my eyes. ‘They’re nice at Querin, quiet people, accountants, respectful.’
On the bus home, my sister gave up her seat to an old lady whose face was candle wax dripping onto her collar, sealing off her neck. My sister stood legs astride in the buggy area, looking out over everyone’s heads. She threw out her chest, grabbed a pole and shouted at me.
‘It’ll be regular work to get your teeth in, babes. Just what I always said you need, plus lift you out of your current predicament.’
I sat next to the window the other side of the old lady. Before they let me go, the waitressing had been good hours and left me time to paint. Now I’d be doing earlies, which’d use up my morning energy, and then I’d be too knackered to work when I got home. I looked out of the window. Look
at my sister. She had two jobs, tax credits, housing benefit and three kids over the age of twelve still at home. I didn’t know the meaning of nackered.
She shouted, ‘Regular income. Can’t be beat.’
Some of the passengers sneaked looks at her but most stared ahead, blind, deaf and desperate for non-involvement.
‘Let’s approach it like they done you a favour and put you back on your feet after you fell off that artistic pedestal of yours. I don’t know, Coral. Still can’t get my head round your wasted college bill. Twenty-five grand at today’s prices.’ She shook her head. The old lady shook hers.
We got off on Vie’s High Road by Osamah’s. Vie’s lived there forever. Osamah sold fruit, veg, chickens, olives, halva, fig jam, you name it. His blue awning merged with the orange one next door, which Sanjay was fixing a string of flags on. Everything in Sanjay’s was under a tenner.
‘How you doing, Sanj?’ shouted my sister.
A car driver looked over to see if it was trouble and looked away disappointed.
‘Very fine, thank you,’ said Sanjay. ‘Can I interest you in anything? Calendar, perhaps? Or a lovely watering can?’ He pulled an elegant red plastic jug out from under a twelvepack toilet roll. ‘Lovely pourer,’ he said.
‘Next time, Sanj, OK? No probs. Catch you later.’ She strode off towards the traffic lights. After taking one step into the road, she slammed on the brakes. She stabbed the pedestrian button over and over, expecting the lights to change for her. I like to keep off the road when the lights go green.
I said, ‘I’ve been painting again for the last two years.’
She said into the traffic, ‘I know you been painting again for the last two years.’
‘Not in the studio.’
The lights did change for her.
‘And not selling neither,’ she said. ‘Come on, what you waiting for, the lights’re red, ain it. You know what, Coral? You don’t see a black African
waste a college education. It’s just not on, you know. There’s too much laziness around you people, understand what I’m saying?’
We reached the other side of the road. An elderly man looked from my sister to me and back, and nodded. He had red eyes, a frill of white hair on his forehead and his trousers hung down over his left hip.
‘How you doing, Dave?’ she said.
‘Biding my time, girl, biding my time,’ he said. ‘Snow on top, volcano below, which I’d say is an attractive proposition for any beautiful woman and you’re the best one I seen today.’ She slapped his forearm.
‘Each and every time this man tries it on. Dave, this is my sister. Coral, you know Dave.’ I didn’t know Dave. She knew everybody.
‘How you doing, Dave?’ I said.
Dave said, ‘You’re looking fit and well, just like your sister. You listen to what she have to say now. Good day to you, ladies.’ And he strolled off.
She said, ‘Just nipping into Iceland. You staying out here? Won’t be long, love.’
Dave was now stood outside Iceland by the shopping baskets with his mates. They passed a can of lager round. On Vie’s High Road they didn’t do shopping trolleys. I stood by the box someone left between Iceland and the Coop so people could sit down when they begged. Even though she was the only one who could have shopped me, even though she’d told the whole bus my life was a waste of time, here’s what I thought. It was really nice of her to help me out with the Conrad’s job.
Walking up her street with me and the Iceland bags, she suddenly said, ‘Segun left because he didn’t like living with white people, you know.’
For two years she’d worn her African dresses, attended her church and poured libations, even on her front room carpet. She meant me, not Mum. It was obvious Segun had liked living with Mum.