Duty of Care – Sydney Jamesson

OUT OF THE DARKNESS an insipid winter sun appears, discharging splinters of yellow light between two blocks of flats overlooking a landfill site. Parked between the misshapen hillocks is the silhouette of a burnt-out, smoking car. A middle-aged woman hangs out washing before heading out to work. Sodden jeans and a couple of T-shirts appear like ghostly apparitions in the miasmic haze. From way up high, she can see for miles on a good day. But this is not a good day. Her senses are triggered. Her eyes itch, her throat constricts; hairs on the back of her neck feel electrified and bristle against the collar of her nurse’s uniform. She turns and faces the wasteland twelve floors below, leans forward on the metal handrail and catches an unpleasant odour: burning rubber and … something else… No one heard the small red car arrive in the early hours. No one saw it catch alight and burst into flames. But, later that day, everyone would be talking about the charred remains of the young woman strapped in the driver’s seat… CHAPTER ONE EMILY “The whole world can become the enemy when you lose what you love.” Kristina McMorrris. I STOOD ALONE in the graveyard the day they buried my sister. There I was, Emily Parsons, the hapless figure lurking behind a gnarled oak tree—an unwelcome guest. A savage January wind gnawed at my cheeks.

It made my eyes sting; eyes already brimming with salty residue left over from a night spent sobbing into a pillow. Sapped of all strength, I leaned against the trunk, held it between my hands; gloved fingers tracing rough edges. I breathed in its wild, woody perfume; rotting branches, unclaimed timber—a steadfast pillar of support in a surreal tableau. At our parents’ request, I didn’t show my face. Did they fear I’d cause a scene, throw myself onto the coffin? Who knows? Who cares? With or without their blessing, I had to go. I had to be there to witness my little sister’s departure from this mortal coil and, if that meant enduring sniveling platitudes caught on the wind—so be it. Our parents, family members and some of Rita’s friends circled the cavernous hole in the ground like ravens; a flock of silhouettes set against a snowy backdrop. My watery eyes lingered on the word Rita formed in purple violas on the wreath—a tiny name for someone with a big personality and an even bigger heart. Having endured the lamentations of the priest marking the passing of a life ended much too soon, I absconded. I sprinted like a bandit between gravestones, my feet slipping on ankle deep snow that shrouded everything, creating a clean, sterile landscape.

Nothing seemed out of place. Nothing except my sister’s charred body lying six foot under in a mahogany coffin fifty yards away. I took refuge in my car and sat in silence, refusing to acknowledge the shifting congregation. Concealed behind windows veiled with condensation, I left unseen. In those days leading up to Rita’s funeral, I cried nonstop. I would wake from dozing and the world would be as it was. I would smile through cracked lips, but then I would remember and my heart would ache and my body would shake and tears would cloud my eyes once more. The myriad of memories we had made were my only lifeline: phone conversations, photographs and texts existing in a vacuum, authorless—a cruel kind of comfort. For the sake of my sanity, I tried to come to terms with her passing, I really did, but the realisation that the one person I loved more than any other had gone and left me behind did not make any sense to me. We had made a pact when we were kids to never be separated.

Why had Rita broken it? A fortnight before the funeral, a member of my international investment team tore into the boardroom in Heron Tower on Canary Wharf, to tell me I had an urgent phone call that I would want to take in my office. I took my time, assuming one of my parents had been rushed to hospital—a heart attack, a fall … too damn mean to die without involving me in their medical drama. Rita did not even come up on my radar. A second after picking up the phone a young nurse, preparing to deliver bad news, cleared her throat and said in a half whisper, “I’m so sorry…” She only had simple details, the most shocking of which was that Rita was dead. It was suicide. I assumed I had misheard. I’d only spoken to Rita a couple of days before and detected no signs of depression or unhappiness. We even talked about booking a holiday. She was in her first teaching post and was enjoying her new school, for God’s sake. “Are you sure you have the right person?” I questioned, disbelieving that Rita could even contemplate such a thing.

“My sister is Rita Derbyshire, she’s at work, she’s…” There was no mistake. She had left instructions that in the event of her death, I should be contacted first as her next of kin. I swivelled around in my chair, casting an eye over the calendar—January tenth, eleven thirty. I made a mental note of the time, the very minute I became aware that her life had ended and mine had ceased to exist in the way it had before that moment. I turned a few more degrees clockwise and from thirty floors up looked out over London. Life was going on as normal: an airplane was flying overhead, leaving a frayed white ribbon across a blue sky; traffic was moving like glistening chess pieces, people the size of millipedes were scuttling around on a white canvas. They had no knowledge of the catastrophe that had befallen my sister and, as a consequence—me. How could they? Why would they care that a bright-as-a-button, Oxford graduate had ended her life just when it seemed to be getting started? The most loving little sister I had raised was dead. I pursed my lips, raised my chin and glowered. Why was the sun still shining? Shouldn’t the Almighty have frozen time, stopped traffic; marked the occasion with storm clouds, torn the heavens apart with forked lightening, roaring thunder…? Rita was dead! That devastating news hit me with the force of a sledgehammer: first to the head, and then to the heart.

I knew instantly that I was irreparably damaged, the way you do after a fall from a great height; you hope there are no serious injuries but expect to be concussed and scarred, at the very least. My injuries were more permanent than that. I was heartbroken. I slid from my office chair, fell to my knees and wept uncontrollably. That was over a month ago. Back then I saw no reason for Rita to take her precious life. Now, I know why she did what she did. And I know who was to blame. DECEMBER 1997 TRAUMATISED AFTER THE DEATH of their mother, two broken-hearted little girls joined twenty-two other homeless waifs and strays at the Summerville Children’s Residence. The place regularly featured in the local press, and even had its own website.

It was impressive to look at— from a distance. The Victorian architrave framing a striking entrance was more suited to nobility than a collection of ne’er-do-wells; a decorative balustrade offering a warm welcome impressed the occasional visitor but, behind the façade, the building bore the tell-tale marks of a century’s worth of mismanagement and neglect. Look beyond the polished veneer and you would be privy to draughty, overcrowded rooms; Belfast sinks filled with tepid water, and a kitchen … more of a Victorian scullery really, furnished with outdated appliances and cracked crockery. Take an even closer look and you would see a creaking collection of abandoned rooms and damp cellars, accessible only from a single set of steps that no one dared to descend; a place where tales of ghosts and white sheeted spectres grew legs and arms and became real to imaginative children; tight-lipped orphans looking out of windows smeared with frosty breath. From the outside looking in, they appeared well cared for and cocooned; on the inside most of them were uncultured kids who wanted no more than a place to call their own and a decent chunk of change to buy some of the finer things in life like hair accessories, stickers and clothes. When Emily and Rita Derbyshire arrived with everything they owned in a single suitcase and two rucksacks, they were treated to the usual gauntlet of glowering boys and girls, the likes of which they had not met before. Rita clutched a teddy and folded into Emily’s thigh too scared to meet their unwelcoming stares. Emily strode on bravely, knowing they were out of options; Summerville Children’s Residence was their new home. In the early days it was a case of assimilate or suffer—there was no in between. Emily’s twelveyear-old bark was worse than her bite but—a month in—she developed incisors sharp enough to draw blood if necessary.

At night, Rita cried and begged to go home to mummy. Emily didn’t have the heart to tell her that they were home and there was no mummy. She soothed her with the promise of fresh starts and bedrooms adorned with puppy posters and soft sheets. Even though Emily explained that mummy had gone to heaven to be with Jesus, she continued to cry and talk of angels and the afterlife was meaningless to a grieving five year old. Rita’s miseries merged then divided like cells, revealing themselves in a number of ways: she refused to eat, threw herself onto the floor and kicked out like an upturned cockroach; she sobbed for hours and even began wetting the bed. For a while, Emily struggled to make sense of her sister’s sudden decline. Over a lackluster bowl of Irish stew one evening, a gangly, older girl with orange coloured nails filed into dagger sharp points announced, “She’s acting-up because she misses your mum. You’ve gotta be her mum now. You’re all she’s got.” From that unsophisticated teen came words of wisdom which would resonate with Emily again and again when Rita acted up and even later in life when the tantrums had long since subsided and that tenacious toddler had been transformed into a beautiful, intelligent young woman.

After following a daily routine of strip, wash, make and dash for almost a month Emily became exhausted. The time came for some tough love. Just as a good mother would, she forbid Rita to have a drink at bedtime and forced her to wear a sanitary towel. That lasted two nights. On the second morning, having woken up wet and thirsty, Rita exclaimed, “I’m a big girl, and big girls don’t wet the bed!” She tore the damp sheets off her bed, threw them to the floor and stamped on them as if treading ripened grapes. Emily looked on and glowed with pride—she was a fast learner. She rewarded her with a new teddy she swapped for a pair of cheap earrings her mother had bought her. A week later, when that teddy went missing, Emily assembled a search party. She looked older than her twelve years and used that to her advantage. She didn’t go looking for trouble, but when it found her, when Kristen Fletcher—a freckled faced ten-year-old with curls and a jealous streak stole Rita’s hard earned prize—she saw it as her duty to become judge, jury and prosecutor.

She doled out punishment suited to the crime. As well as nursing a black eye, Kristen had to forfeit her meagre puddings for a month—a yoghurt here, an apple there. The criminal served her time without protest and Rita put on a couple of pounds. As the weeks passed, a kind of in-house justice took shape; no crime went unpunished, no achievement unrewarded. A new brand of status quo was established, pioneered by the increasingly authoritative Emily Derbyshire. CHAPTER TWO EMILY BY SOME MIRACLE, I made it home to Brackenbury Village, Hammersmith. I had driven through a snowy haze intensified by the fog swirling around inside my head, dulling my senses. I turned into Clifton Avenue, parked in front of the end terrace, number thirty, the one with the hanging basket by the front door—now an effective snow catcher—and stopped with a jolt so abrupt it awoke me like a sensory alarm. Being a school day, the avenue was empty and silent. There were no neighbours walking dogs or clearing snow from icy steps.

Not that I would have known their names to say hi. Was the woman next door called June? Or was it Jane … the skinny woman with bleached hair who had asked if I wanted to join the Neighbourhood Watch team? Naturally I said, “No thank you.” I was happy to watch my own patch, thank you very much. If it had not been for the distant sound of a speeding police car and the magpies overhead, I might well have been the last one standing after an apocalyptic event—a solitary survivor. I pushed open the front door, sending letters and junk mail skating across terracotta tiles, and proceeded in a straight line in the direction of the wine rack in the kitchen. I exchanged car keys for a bottle of red, unscrewed the cap and poured it into my throat and, still wearing my coat, gloves and boots, climbed the stairs, chugging back wine en route. In an attempt to blank out everything, I lowered the blind in the bathroom, relieved myself and walked in the direction of the guest bedroom: Rita’s room. I took an invigorating gulp of Merlot and braced myself, knowing I would have to confront recollections which would cut into an already festering wound. Thank God her clothes were hidden behind wardrobe doors: blue jeans, T-shirts and a pair of shoes for impromptu shopping trips. I walked around the bed with a single objective in mind—to close the curtains, shut down, switch off, but I only got as far as the bedside cabinet.

There rested a framed photograph of two girls: a bonny five-year-old and a poker faced twelveyear-old: me, the unshakable rock onto which Rita clung like a barnacle; her, my deceptively weighty anchor. Two survivors shipwrecked, in need of a safe haven—a home. I held the photo to my breast, reliving the memory. It was taken twenty years ago, on the day we were claimed by our new family. Despite my inscrutable expression, I remember us being happy that day. An involuntary sob made my chest heave against the small photo; a tear fell onto it smearing the glass, causing the image to blur. I placed the bottle down and polished the smeared glass with my gloves until it shone and I could see myself reflected in it. I looked ghastly; my face bore the brunt of my suffering, that and my aching head. I returned the framed photo to its place facing the bed, picturing Rita waking up to a cup of coffee after a sisterly catch-up, a night spent drinking too much wine, watching a Rom Com or singing along to familiar songs like a pair of drunken sailors. The curtains took the brunt of my frustration, fell into place and stayed there, reminding me of the red velvet drapes furnishing the altar during the ceremony I had secretly attended an hour earlier.

Once everyone had entered the church, I crept inside to the sound of A Sky Full of Stars by Coldplay, one of Rita’s favourite songs; totally appropriate for someone who had become the brightest star in the sky, and poignant enough to have the entire congregation bowing their heads and blowing their noses as they wept. I did not hear the service, I was not listening that closely. I didn’t need to. I knew what I would have said if I’d been invited to give the eulogy; if I’d been given the opportunity to stand up in front of family and friends, and God Almighty to say goodbye. After all, who knew her better than me?

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