The sister of an abducted child is haunted by a sinister figure who may or may not be real. . .
The backdrop Graham uses for the Zoom meeting makes it look like he lives in a luxury apartment, which is highly unlikely because Graham is hanging on to life by his fingernails.
Of a group defined by absences, he’s had it the hardest. His mum told him that she was going out for a loaf. She locked him in and told him to stay out of sight if anyone knocked. He was six. A neighbour called the police because they heard him screaming with hunger. Saved by shoddy, paper-thin walls, he told us with a rueful smile.
Her body was found later on an abandoned building site. She’d escaped the husband who’d broken her jaw only to meet someone more monstrous while trying to supplement her meagre income with sex work. A desperate woman, reduced even further by the tabloid headline “Prostitute Slain.”
Very few of us here like the press.
Graham at sixty still bears all the scars of a childhood in care. His Zoom box bulges with pent-up pressure. His shoulders are up around his ears.
The thing about Zoom is that people can’t tell who you’re really looking at. In my case it’s the man in the box adjacent to Fiona, our facilitator. She asks him to introduce himself when Graham finishes.
“Hi, I’m Dan.” He clears his throat and rubs his forehead with the back of his right thumbnail. “I guess I’m here for the same reason everyone else is. My sister Caitlin went missing when she was fourteen. She’s never been found.”
Every face on the screen distorts in sympathy. The possibility of being reunited is torture. The lack of closure. As if losing someone is a door that can be shut.
Dan and I are a unique subset in this group that overlaps mother, father, son, sister, brother, the murdered, and the disappeared. Dan and I are the siblings of the missing.
Memory is malleable. I’ve been asked what happened, over and over. I’m worried that I’ve invented details to plug the gaps, or subconsciously drawn on my family’s version of events or news reports.
Some things I know to be true.
The smell of the sunblock that made us slippery and pale-sheened. The holiday complex at the edge of the new part of town, stacks of tessellating white apartments, bright in the sun’s glare. Air-conditioning units that looked stuck on, metal shutters and tiled floors for coolness. The kidney-shaped swimming pools and plastic loungers spread with bright towels. The tennis courts. Palm trees. The glint of the gold necklace around Aunty Samantha’s neck that caused such a ruckus.
Don’t go up into the hills, the company rep warned us. Her lipstick was orange. I couldn’t stop staring at her mouth. There are wild dogs up there.
I visit Mum every month. She’s still in the house that was once home to us all. She won’t move, insisting Isobel won’t be able to find her if she does. She’s redecorated everywhere except Isobel’s room. I loathe being here. You can’t wallpaper over unhappiness.
“Why do you hate me, Mum?”
“I don’t hate you.”Not even that, then. My cheeks burn. It was a mistake to ask her.
“What a strange thing to say. Why do you always have to be so dramatic?” She shakes her head. “Not everything is about you.”
I want to reply, No, nothing is ever about me, but I don’t because it won’t help.
“You’re going to spout some cod psychology that you’ve learnt in therapy, aren’t you?” Her pitch rises in mockery. “You hate me because Isobel was taken instead of me.”
“It’s true though, isn’t it?”
“Don’t you dare. You’d enjoy that, wouldn’t you? Making me to blame for everything.”
Mum likes absolutes and extremes: always, everything, never. And blame is a particular sore point. Or rather, her perception of it. Mum was the most vilified in the end, to be fair to her.
The search for Isobel led nowhere. Not to a child-snatching ring. Not to a body in a drain. Not to the wild dogs living in the hills. My private, distant mother was an easy target for both suspicion and speculation. More than my easy-going, affable father. She was singled out as a negligent mother at best, or guilty of infanticide at worst, be it accidental or deliberate.
We’re here now, so I persist.
“You were different with me to Isobel, for as long as I can remember.”
“Different? What do you mean different?”
“Like I was in the way.”
“You’re being ridiculous.”
I want to cry. I don’t know if they’re tears of anger or shame at allowing myself to be bullied like this, even though I’m a grown woman.
“You acted like I annoyed you. Isobel was only a child. She took her cue on how to treat me from you.”
It’s a eureka moment. The truth has crystallised in trying to talk it through. I was so angry at Isobel, but she was only a child. It was all Mum. The truth only makes my guilt worse.
“Oh God, Natalie, I’m seeing Samantha later and I haven’t got the energy for both of you in one day.”
I should’ve brought an umbrella because it’s raining revelations. The overwhelming fear of weeping has passed. I pick up my bag.
“I’m your daughter, not your sister. And I no longer have the energy for you, either.”
Isobel disappeared while we were on holiday. Disappeared. That makes it sound like a magic trick, doesn’t it?
Aunt Sam and her family were already at the resort when we arrived. Our apartment was at the very edge of the complex. Theirs was further down the wide walkway on the opposite side.
They came over to meet us. Aunt Sam looked loose-limbed. Happy.
“Let me just get the bags unpacked.” Mum smiled but always found a way to be busy around Aunt Sam. She was an expert at constructing barriers, even then.
“We’ve brought you drinks.”
Aunt Sam put down a glass for Mum, the same colour as the half-full one in her other hand. The contents were blood orange, with a wedge of pineapple jammed on the rim.
“Hey, come here, big man.” Uncle James put down a pack of beer. A head shorter than Dad, he clapped Dad’s back as they hugged.
I’m glad they’re still close friends. I’m not sure Dad would’ve survived without him.
Ellen, my cousin, stood in the middle of the room and spun around. At ten she was the eldest of us. The frilly hem of her sundress swirled out. She always had such nice clothes. They were handed down to Isobel and then to me.
Our fathers flopped in chairs, beer cans in hands, and started talking immediately. Aunt Sam fussed over us, telling us we’d grown, then perched on a kitchen stool. She called to Mum, who moved between the two bedrooms, unpacking.
Isobel was drawn to Ellen. I followed. Ellen carried a beach bag filled with things to show us. She pulled out a mobile phone.
“Mum? Ellen has a phone. Can I have one too?” Isobel pulled at Mum’s top.
Mum put a box of teabags and tubes of sunscreen on the kitchen counter. “No, darling, not until you’re older.”
“But Ellen has one. I’m only a year younger than she is.”
“When you’re older.” Mum sounded gentle but resolute.
“Here, have your drink.” Sam pushed the glass across the counter. “Go on. You’re on your holiday now.”
Mum picked up the glass and took a sip. “God, that’s sweet.”
Aunt Sam drained hers.
Isobel and Ellen piled into an armchair together. It was always like that when we cousins were together. I was six. Too babyish for them.
I could see a plastic panda in the beach bag full of treasure. I took the panda out. It was a pencil case. I unzipped it to reveal pens in neon and sparkly pastels. I pulled the cap off one.
“No,” said Isobel loudly. “You’ll break it.”
“Natalie, put it down.” Mum came over and pulled it from my hand. “Haven’t I told you not to touch other people’s things?”
“Oh, she’s okay—” Aunt Sam started to say, but Mum stopped her with a raised hand.
I arrive at the café twenty minutes early. I wanted somewhere nice, even though it’s not a date. A place with good coffee and homemade cakes.
After seeing Dan at online meetings for three months, I messaged him privately. Just a message of support. We kept in touch, soon talking every day. I wanted to meet him. I wanted to see if what I was feeling could survive out in the real world. I feel like I know him. I hope I’m not wrong in thinking he feels the same way too.
I stand up when I see him in the doorway. “How was the drive?”
“I got stuck outside Birmingham, but apart from that it was okay.”
I hold out my hand as he opens his arms. We both laugh and then I nod in consent. He leans down and I am enfolded. Nobody has ever held me like that before.
“I would have come to you.”
“No. The drive was good for me. I needed to be busy.”
“What will you have? I’m buying.”
I watch him as he studies the counter. He’s grown a beard since that first Zoom meeting. It suits him. His hair is a lighter shade that’s almost blond.
“A latte, please. And some chocolate cake. It’s not too early for cake, is it?”
We sit and wait for our order. The coffee machine splutters and hisses.
“Thanks for today, Natalie.” I watch his lips as he says my name. “I didn’t want to be alone.”
“I know you do. That’s why I wanted to spend it with you. After Dad died I’d meet up with friends on Caitlin’s birthday, but I could tell they felt uncomfortable.”
“The world carries on turning, while we’re stuck. Waiting.”
Without a body, we’ve not been given permission to grieve.
“Yes.” He sounds grateful. “Someone I thought knew me really well once said, ‘You’ve got to let her go.’”
I’ve noticed he does that thing of rubbing his forehead with the back of his thumbnail when he’s nervous. I want to clasp his hand in mine.
I hold up my coffee instead. “Happy birthday, Caitlin.”
“Happy birthday, sis.”
We talk about our lives. Work. His love of music. My love of cinema. It sounds like small talk after what we’ve shared, but I want to piece Dan together until he is more than the sum of loss. He’s earnest most of the time and when he laughs he stops himself as if we’re not allowed to be happy.
We were at one of the resort’s swimming pools. Our parents were stretched out on loungers. Isobel and Ellen were splashing and shrieking. I put my head under the water and watched them swim to the pool’s edge. Their legs scissored as they clutched the side. I surfaced. They were deep in conversation.
After we got out, our parents towelled us down. Ellen got something from her mum’s wicker bag.
“Not near the pool with that, Ellen.”
Isobel sat so close to Ellen that their upper arms looked welded together. Their wet ponytails stuck out at odd angles. I saw the phone in Ellen’s hands. Ellen whispered in Isobel’s ear, covering her mouth with her hand. She showed her something on the phone. They talked some more, voices hushed.
“Natalie, look at this.”
It was the first time Isobel had spoken to me directly since Ellen had arrived.
“Come on.” Ellen beckoned and moved aside to make space for me.
They showed me cat videos on the phone. Cats falling off kitchen counters. Cats in outfits. Cats staring at dogs. Cats chasing dogs. We had two cats at home. I wanted a dog but Mum said they were too much work.
Then they showed me another video.
It was taken from a bedroom, I think. There were Lego models on the windowsill. Someone was filming the street below. It must have been late autumn, from the light. It was already fading at a time when groups of children in school uniforms were on their way home.
There was a figure under the trees on the opposite verge. I couldn’t see his face. He was wearing a dark suit and a black hat. His hands were in his pockets.
The schoolchildren hadn’t noticed him.
“Who’s that?” I pointed to the screen. He was turning: left then right, then left again. Watching each group of girls.
“She can see him. She can see Jack O’Dander.” Ellen’s nose was freckled and slightly upturned. She has grown into that promise of prettiness. Her facial tattoos and scars aren’t armour. She’s mortifying her own flesh. On the rare occasion that we meet, she can’t look me in the face. I think she’s suffered more than any of us.
“Who’s Jack O’Dander?” I asked.
“If you can see him, it means he can see you. He’ll come and find you.”
I looked at my sister.
“Why would he come to find me?”
“To take you away. Then we’ll never see you again.”
“Can you see him?”
“No. Can you?” Ellen asked Isobel.
“No.” My sister shook her head. I couldn’t tell if she was joking or not.
When I glanced back at the phone, Jack O’Dander had stepped out from beneath the trees. He walked to the kerb and looked up. The streetlamp cast a shadow from the brim of his hat, hiding his face, but I could tell he was staring towards the window. In that moment, it looked like he was staring at me.
I snatched the phone from Ellen and threw it down. It landed on the tiled poolside. Ellen shrieked Then she started to cry.
“It was Nat.” Isobel drew up her legs and wrapped her arms around them.
Aunt Sam knelt down and put her arm around me. “What happened, sweetie? Was it an accident?”
“What have you done?” Mum stood over me.
“She did it on purpose.” Isobel, my betrayer.
Uncle James picked up the phone and pressed the buttons. The screen was cracked. “It’s dead.” He sighed. “Told you she was too young for a mobile.” He hauled Ellen onto his knee and hugged her. “It’s okay.”
“You apologise to Ellen right now.” Mum gripped my arm. “Do you think we can afford to replace this?”
“It’s okay. It’s insured.” Aunt Sam’s voice was soft and soothing. “What happened, Natalie?”
I couldn’t explain. I started to cry, too.
“Don’t fret, sweetheart.” Sam made a sad face. I wished she was my mum. “Let’s not make a big thing of it, Kelly.”
“Was it deliberate, Isobel?” Mum ignored Aunt Sam.
“Right. Get your shoes.”
Mum marched me back to the apartment. People stared at us, a sobbing child and a mother, thunder-faced at some unspeakable misdemeanour.
Life after Isobel.
I came in after school and dumped my bag in the hall. I pulled a dirty bowl from the sink, rinsed it, and tipped in the last of the cereal. I ate it dry because the milk smelt off. It was early September, a yellow, buttery quality to the light.
It was just Mum and me by then. Dad told me: You won’t understand this now, but your mum and I can’t help one another, not when we need the same thing.
It was a shitty thing to say, because neither of them had considered what I might need.
After I finished, I opened the glass-panelled door to the lounge. The curtains were half drawn. Mum sat on the floor, her back against the sofa, phone clutched in both hands. I didn’t need to see to know that she was watching a video of us as children. I could hear Isobel’s voice. It sounded tinny and distant. She was singing. Mum didn’t look up. She didn’t see me. Not in the virtual world and not in the real one.
In fact, I knew the final time my mother had really seen me. It was the night she’d opened the door to our room and seen that Isobel’s bed was empty. She pulled me from the bed, where I was pretending to sleep, huddled up to the wall. She shook my shoulders.
Where’s your sister? Where is she?
I was mute with terror. She only let me go when Dad intervened.
Mum resented my every milestone. Puberty. My first day at high school. My first date. Graduating. Everything Isobel should have done before me.
Isobel was good at maths, wasn’t she? Do you remember that poem she wrote? She could sing. Do you remember how she liked to paint? Isobel’s potential eclipsed me. In the moment she was taken, a trajectory of possibilities were closed to me. She was a fragment of shrapnel that entered me, and I was remade around her.
It seemed like hours before Dad returned to the apartment on the afternoon that I broke Ellen’s phone.
The bedsheets smelt unfamiliar. The twin bed opposite mine had an indentation in it, as though someone had slept there while we’d been out. Apart from that, all the room contained was a small wardrobe, a floor lamp, and a long mirror. Dad had put one of the empty suitcases in the corner, stood on its end. It looked huge. It was open, just a fraction. I hadn’t looked at it before we went out, so I couldn’t say whether Dad had left it like that or not.
The room was full of afternoon sun. It reflected off the white walls and had faded the prints of the old town hanging there. It only made the suitcase’s maw worse. It was an absolute black, without shade or nuance. What did it hold? Was it large enough to fit Jack O’Dander? I imagined his fingers sticking out, widening the gap. Then him stepping out: one long limb, then the other.
I pulled the sheet over my head. The flimsy cotton couldn’t protect me. I needed a duvet or heavy blankets to shield me. Sweat gathered in my creases and ran down my back. Fear held me there. It stopped me from running to open the bedroom door and to Mum.
I thought I could hear Jack O’Dander breathing.
“Where’s Isobel?” Mum’s voice was loud.
“Playing with Ellen.” It was Dad.
The door opened. I pulled the sheet down.
“Hey, kiddo.” Dad’s expression changed. He sat on the bed beside me. My face felt tight and swollen. Dad placed a hand on my forehead, checking for a fever. He smoothed down my hair.
“Are you feeling okay?”
I nodded. I could see Mum. She was on the sofa, reading a paperback. She didn’t look at me.
“Come on, chicken.” He pulled me onto his lap, arms around me.
“Natty, why did you break the phone? It’s not like you.” He was the only person to call me that.
I wish I could’ve found the words. He might have understood. It might have changed things.
I’m scared Ellen and Isobel are lying to me about not being able to see Jack O’Dander.
I’m scared of Jack O’Dander.
“You won’t be in trouble if you tell me.” He stroked my back. I felt comforted until Mum’s shadow fell across the bed.
“Of course she’s in trouble. She broke something expensive, although God knows why you’d give a phone like that to a child. Ellen’s only ten.”
“That’s not really our business, is it? And yes, I know what you’re saying, but look at NatShe’s in a right state.” The strokes turned into a gentle pat. “You are sorry, aren’t you?”
“Yes.” It came out high-pitched and childish.
“And you’ll say sorry to Ellen and to Aunt Sam and Uncle James.”
I nodded because I didn’t know what else to say.
“Does this mean we’ll be kicked out of the group?” I intertwine my fingers with Dan’s.
His smile fades. I curse myself. I meant it as a joke, not a reminder.
“We thought we’d found Caitlin once. It was five years ago. Just before Dad died.”
Such is our pillow talk. I’m lying in the crook of his arm, naked. It takes all my self-control not to get up and pull on some clothes, making an excuse about needing the loo.
“It wasn’t her, though. I think the shock of it finished Dad off.”
For an awful minute I think he might cry.
“I feel guilty all the time.” He is crying now. My stomach tightens but I put my hand on his cheek. “If I’d walked back from school with her that day, like I normally did, she would’ve been safe. But I was with a girl. It was the first time. You know.”
I want to comfort him, I really do. I put my arms around him, tight, and stroke his back so he can’t see my face. The truth is that I don’t want to know. Not about Caitlin or his loss of virginity. He wriggles out of my embrace to look at me.
“What do you remember about the night that Isobel went missing?”
Dan’s never asked me this before. I tense up. If he notices, he doesn’t say anything. So Isobel manages to even be here in bed with us, and Dan and I are knotted together by loss, not love.
Dan’s tears for Caitlin have been the foreplay to this moment. I know what Dan wants. I never talk about the night itself. Not in group. Not to anyone. I told my mother I’d been asleep and have stuck to this lie in the face of every authority.
I once asked if Isobel was dead. Mum slapped my face. Dad let her.
Dan must know my story. Dad makes sure no one can forget. It’s his reason for living. He fundraises and campaigns. If only he’d shown that much gumption when we were married, Mum once said. He visits the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Home Secretary on a regular basis. He is funded by millionaires. He thinks if he brings Isobel home, life will go back to how it was, even though it was awful. Or maybe it’s just to expiate guilt. We’re all guilty. Me more than anyone.
“What do I remember?”
Is it Dan’s way of asking Why her and not you? Were you awake? Did you see him? Why didn’t you scream? Did you blank out the whole thing?
“I’m not sure. It was a long time ago. I was only little.”
“You must remember something. What about the video?”
I don’t like this version of Dan. He’s got no right to question me.
“It was going around lots of British schools. Ellen told the police it was a joke, but they had to check it out. It was just a stupid children’s prank. It was of some bloke watching some schoolkids. If you could see him as you watched it, then he could see you too, and he was going to come and find you.”
“You must have been terrified.” He’s watching me intently. “What was his name?”
“I don’t remember.” I pull on my T-shirt. “It was just a silly thing that kids did.”
“Why are you so annoyed?”
“I don’t see how you could forget that. And I thought we trusted each other.”
“Jack O’Dander.” Saying his name aloud is like pushing a needle deep into my flesh. All the pain is located on a single point. “There. Are you happy now?”
I can’t read Dan’s expression. It’s not unhappiness exactly, but something else that I can’t identify.
We went into the old town the day Isobel disappeared. Aunt Sam’s apartment was across the path from ours, halfway down the block. We met in the resort’s foyer that looked more like it belonged to a hotel. There was a marble counter and uniformed staff. They directed us to the coach. There was a queue. I think it was midmorning.
Isobel and Ellen rushed to sit together. Sam noticed my hurt look and held out her hand to me with a grin. “Will you keep me company?”
Dad followed James, but Mum pulled him into the seat beside her instead.
The bus was crowded so Sam pulled me onto her knee to give a seat to someone else. I liked it. Mum said I was too old for that. As we pulled off, I leant back against Aunt Sam. She kissed the top of my head. Her arms around me felt good. Safe. I looked out the window. The landscape was different to home. Drier. Paler. Flat-roofed houses, never more than two storeys. Chain-link fences. A collapsing shed in a field.
Isobel and Ellen, who had the seats in front of us, peered from the window to look at something. I turned to see it, too. We passed a figure on the road. The man wore a dark suit and a black fedora despite the rising heat of the day. He was thin and leggy, just like in the video. A trail of dust rose behind him.
“Did you see him?” I put my head through the gap between the seats.
Isobel twisted around to answer me. “Who? I didn’t see anyone.”
My phone rings. I’m surprised to see it’s Dad. We normally talk on a Sunday night. I answer.
I know what he’s going to say. The certainty of it makes me feel like something cold is running down the inside of my chest.
“Natalie, we’ve found her.”
I don’t know how to answer.
“Natalie, are you there?”
“Yes. Is it really her?”
“Definitely. It’s been confirmed by genetic testing.”
“Testing? When did you find her?”
“A month ago.”
“Oh.” We’ve been talking all these weeks and he never said.
“Isobel needs time. She’s been through so much.”
“Where she’s been?”
“She’s not ready to talk about it yet. Not to us, but she’s been talking to the police. All I know is that she was in Spain until her early teens and then lived on the streets in Algeria for a few years. The investigator found her living in a commune in Greece. God knows what she’s been through.”
“Where is she now?”
“At your mum’s.” I hadn’t spoken to Mum for months. “Don’t say anything to anyone yet. She needs her privacy.”
“You’ve not told Aunt Sam either?”
“Not yet. Isobel wants to see you first.”
The thought made me feel sick.
We got off the coach and walked through the old town’s square. We took photos by the fountain, water gurgling down one side of the statue of a woman holding a baby in one arm and a fawn under the other. Interpol examined those photographs later, in search of evidence.
Mum and Aunt Sam walked together at a slow pace, both frightened of putting a foot wrong. They’re the same even now. Advance and retreat. Frequent skirmishes followed by short-lived peace.
They stopped to look at shop window displays. At the street hawkers’ handbags and sunglasses laid out on blankets, ready to be scooped up in a quick escape from the local police. I stood close to Aunt Sam while she looked at racks of postcards. Mum’s stare made me step away.
Lunch was at a restaurant in a long stone barn. The waitress gave us menus in English before anyone had to ask, and then brought crayons and paper placemats to colour in while we were waiting. Mine was a picture of a unicorn. Isobel and Ellen both had fairy-tale castles.
Plates were put down in front of us. There was a bottle of wine, then another. I don’t remember what the grown-ups were talking about. Their voices got louder. Combative. Even I could see the surreptitious glances from the other diners.
Then Mum leant over the table and pulled at the gold necklace around Sam’s neck. She fished out the gold locket that hung beneath the neckline of Sam’s sundress. It was engraved with an ornate scroll pattern. Sam had to lean forward, tethered by the chain.
“When did Mum give you that?” my mother asked.
Sam took it back, clutching the locket in her fist.
“Mum gave you Nan’s diamond earrings,” Mum persisted, “so I thought that I’d get her wedding ring and locket.”
James glanced at Dad, who pushed a piece of fish around with his fork. I shoved the last of my chicken nuggets in my mouth, making my cheeks bulge.
“Here.” Sam took off the necklace and dropped it on the table between them. “You just can’t help it, can you? It always ends up like this, no matter what I do. I thought this holiday would be good for us all, but I can’t keep trying. James, I want to go back to the hotel.”
Uncle James held up both his hands in exasperation. Isobel and Ellen huddled closer together on the bench.
“Please. For me, love.”
He got up. “Come on, Ellen.”
“Ellen.” His voice was low. I’d never heard him be so firm. “Now.”
Isobel got up to go with Ellen, but sat back down when Mum shook her head at her.
I wanted to cry. Everyone was staring at us. I didn’t want Sam to go. I didn’t understand why, but it would be worse for me after she left.
Halfway to the door, Sam turned back. “Do you know why Mum gave it to me?”
“Because you’re her favourite.”
“No. Because she gave you twenty thousand pounds when you got into debt. I’ve never asked her for a penny. Not ever.”
Mum was red in the face.
“There, Kelly. You thought I didn’t know. Well, I do, and I kept my mouth shut because it’s got nothing to do with me. And here you are getting all huffy about a necklace that you once called bloody ugly.”
“You’re so perfect, aren’t you?” I thought Mum’s head was about to blow off. I knew that look. She was moving past reason into fury. “You’re so much better than me.”
“Stop acting like a child. Yes, I am perfect in comparison to you.” Sam had the last word. Mum hated that. The last word was always hers in our house.
When the door closed, it was Dad’s turn to get it.
“Why do you always do that?”
“What did I do? I didn’t do anything.”
“Precisely. You’re so pally with James. Why don’t you and him go on holiday on your own?”
“I would if I could.”
“Everyone thinks you’re the happy one. You want to be everyone’s friend. Dave is so much fun. You never back me up.”
“I can’t interfere with your family.”
“You’re meant to be my family.”
“Yeah, I am until I disagree with you, and then you tell me to butt out.”
“You’re happy enough when it comes to asking them for money.”
His gaze drifted upwards. He was biting his lower lip.
“Not now, Kelly. Not in front of the kids. I’m ashamed enough as it is.” He took a deep breath. “When did you get so angry all the time? You never used to be like this.”
I put my forefinger on the locket that lay on the table. How was it that it had caused so much trouble?
Mum turned in her seat to face me. She wore the same expression that she used for Aunt Sam.
“Don’t. Touch. That.”
I pulled my hand back as if I’d been burnt. Our waitress was watching us. She saw me flinch. After she cleared the table, she brought two bowls of ice cream. For your beautiful girls, on the house, she said. Everybody likes chocolate ice cream.
She winked at me. The kindness of strangers is staggering sometimes.
Everything was shuttered after lunch. A postprandial hush settled on the town. Tourists were sluggish as they shuffled through hot streets.
Mum and Dad walked in a silence that was heavy on us all. She stopped to check the map she’d got at the resort, and then folded it up and slipped it in her bag.
“The church is up there,” she said to no one in particular.
We followed her along the narrow streets until we reached the oldest part of town.
My abiding memories of that afternoon are the colours. Whitewashed houses, so bright in the sunshine that it hurt to look at them. Doors painted cerulean to match the sky. Blue to fill your eyes.
We’d entered a labyrinth. Bougainvillea spilled flowers in rich purple over walls. Pots of red gardenias graced doorsteps and windowsills. Passageways led to private courtyards, making us double back. I heard murmurs from open windows, a soft song drifting from a radio. Our own footfall. The distant revving of a motorbike. I thought we were trapped and would never escape.
We came to a set of cobbled steps that rose gradually above us. I lagged behind my family. A door was ajar, halfway up. A woman sat in a cane chair in the entrance hall. The floor was a monochrome chequered pattern. Her face was turned to the sun, flower-like. She hummed to herself, sounding younger than she looked.
Something wound itself around my legs and I tried to stifle a cry. The woman stopped humming, her head turning in my direction. I realised she was blind. The cat was soft and silky against my bare calves. I could feel its tiny bones beneath its fur. When I reached down to stroke it, it darted away. It pushed its length against the door and then froze, looking deep into the hall, beyond where the woman sat. Something moved.
The woman called out, but I didn’t understand what she said. The cat flattened its ears and hissed before it turned and fled past me down the steps. Startled, I ran up towards my family. The pale tower of the church peeped out over the rooftops above us.
I was breathless when I reached my parents, but they didn’t slow down for me. Isobel clung to Mum’s hand. We climbed until we reached a plateau from which God looked down on the town.
The church doors were huge, with Bible scenes depicted in bronze relief. They were patinaed by time except where people had touched them in reverence, revealing the true colour of the metal. These accents of faith shone brightly. Mary’s head as she shied away from Gabriel at the Annunciation. The baby Jesus in his crib. The feet of Jesus as he hung on the cross.
I looked at Dad, but he had turned his back on us. Mum and Isobel went into the church. I stood on the threshold, caught between them, but then followed Mum in. It was cold inside, rather than cool. The coloured glass in the window behind the modest altar stained the stone floor with elaborate patterns. Mum lit a candle and put it on a rack with the others. I wondered if she had to blow them all out for a wish to be granted.
I felt sick after all the ice cream and the climb. I went back outside and joined Dad at the railing at the edge of the terrace. We could see the rooftops, some covered with washing lines and others with canopies. The alleys were laid out below. Slanted shadows. It was midafternoon. A hush had settled. The world was dozing.
All except for one person, who flitted across the mouth of one alley and into the next, coming from the same direction as we had. Jack O’Dander was a thing of limbs, an arachnid of a man. The blackness of his suit and hat made him an absence of space. Like he was a cut hole in the world.
I watched his dark progress towards us. Sometimes he’d disappear from view, only to appear somewhere much closer, like he’d magically transported himself from one spot to another. He groped along a wall as if he could read who’d been there with his fingertips. He came to a junction of alleys and got down on all fours to sniff the cobbles, trying to catch the scent of something. Someone. Me.
My sister nudged me as she clutched the railing with both hands.
When I looked back, Jack O’Dander was scrambling up a wall.
“Can you see him?” I asked her.
I opened my mouth and screamed until I was sick.
“Where are you?”
It’s Mum. I’m parked around the corner from her house.
“I’ll be a few minutes. I got delayed. Car issues. “
I hang up. I’ve been sat in the car for nearly twenty minutes. It doesn’t occur to me to tell her the truth. That I’m nervous. That I’m frightened.
It’s a shock when Mum opens the door. I’ve never seen her so bright-eyed. I don’t recognise her clothes. They must be new. She’s had her hair done.
“We’ve been waiting.”
It’s we versus me already.
“Go on then, don’t just stand there. Go through.”
Her giddiness is unsettling.
Dad and Isobel are at the kitchen table, mugs in their hands. They’re laughing at something. Mum goes over to them. They have already learnt how to be together.
“Hi.” I hover in the doorway. I’m the intruder here.
Isobel gets up, arms wide, waiting for me to go to her. She’s in her rightful place.
“Isobel.” It’s all I can say.
She has a Spanish accent. She’s tanned. Sunburnt, even. She has a nose ring and henna tattoos on her palms. She’s an exotic bird in English suburbia, but I don’t need genetic analysis to know she’s my sister. Isobel beckons me. Her hands are loaded with silver rings. I’m wood in her arms. She’s so thin that it’s painful.
“Hello, little sister.”
The way she says it makes me think she knows what I did, but how would she?
On the evening of the argument, we were put to bed early. There was a knock at the apartment door. I rolled over in bed. Isobel was asleep. It was dark outside.
“What do you want?” That was Mum.
“We can’t keep doing this. We need to sort this out, once and for all.” Aunt Sam.
“You can’t come in. The girls are asleep.”
“Then come out here.”
“What’s there to talk about?”
Our door was ajar. I peeped through the gap. Whatever Sam said in reply was enough to make Mum join her outside. Dad slumped on the couch, the droop of his shoulders making him look more tired than he ever did after a day at work.
Their voices grew louder. More strident. Dad raised his head, listening. Then he got up suddenly, like something in him had snapped. He followed them out.
I tiptoed to the front door. It was a warm night. To my right, insects buzzed in the yellow halos of the lamps along the path. Some apartments were dark, others were awash with the light of televisions. Ours was at the end of the block, at the edge of the resort, so to my left there was only night falling on the service road, the hills, and the wild dogs. I heard them barking.
Sam walked backwards in the direction of her apartment. Mum went after her. At one point Dad grabbed her arm but she shook him off. Her face was contorted. Someone shouted from an open window above them and Sam held up a middle finger in response. That was so unlike her.
I went back to our room. Unhappiness rolled around in my stomach. Isobel was still asleep. Her head had slid off the pillow and she’d pushed the sheet off. A strand of hair lay across her face. I wanted to wake her but I didn’t dare.
I climbed into bed and pulled the bedsheet up under my chin. I turned to face the wall to try and block it all out. The front door creaked. I waited for the fight to continue indoors, but Dad had returned alone. He sounded puffed out, like he’d been running.
I sat up. It wasn’t Dad.
Was it Jack O’Dander? I was convinced of it, even though he wore a black sweatshirt and jogging pants, rather than his suit. His baseball cap was pulled low over his forehead, hiding his eyes. He’d come for me.
I cowered against the wall, clutching my pillow to me. A poor defence. I couldn’t hear my parents or Sam. The room was an echo chamber, my own heartbeat repeating so quickly that it deafened me. Jack turned from me to Isobel and back again, as if surprised to see two of us.
I pointed to my sister. Jack nodded and gently eased her from the bed.
Dan is due at my place for dinner. I’ve cooked things I know he likes. Chicken roasted in herbs. Dauphinoise potatoes. Dark chocolate mousse.
All Dan can talk about now is Isobel. What happened to her. Where she might have been. Why she’s taken so long to come home. He hasn’t asked to meet her.
“You can talk about her, you know,” he says when I refuse to join in with his speculation. “This must be strange for you.”
“I don’t know what I feel.” I do know, but it’s nothing I can share with him.
He’s trying to wear me down. At first his concern was touching. Then I began to wonder if this is a vicarious experience, his longing for his own sister. He’s insistent, though. Invasive. I don’t like this Dan. He’s not what I thought he was. Is this where all relationships end up? The real person leaks out eventually and it’s too late by then.
“You’re still in shock.”
“Isobel’s a stranger to me.”
“You just need time.”
No amount of time will help.
My door cam buzzes. It’s not Dan. Isobel is miniscule in the small screen. The drizzle refracts the light around her head. She turns her face from the wind.
“Hi, Natalie. Can I come up?”
She says it like her popping over is a regular occurrence. Mum or Dad must have given her my address.
“I’m expecting someone.”
“I’ve let the cab go. Can I come in while I wait for another?” She speaks with a cordial authority that makes me feel six years old again.
Time is tight. I want to get her out of here before Dan arrives.
“This is nice.” She drops her wet coat on a chair and starts wandering about before I can stop her. “Very chic.”
I can’t tell if she’s being sarcastic.
“You’re expecting a man, aren’t you? How long have you been seeing him?”
“Three months. You’d better call a cab now, in case there’s a wait.”
She nods but doesn’t do it.
“What’s your lover like?”
Lover. A more carnal word than boyfriend. I blush.
“Don’t be coy, Natalie. Is he handsome?”
My smile is a taut line. None of this is right. We’re not loving sisters who can share intimacies.
“Is he gentle? Or do you like to him to be rough? Does he hold a pillow over your face?”
I turn and walk away, feeling sick. Is that what happened to her? Isobel follows me into the kitchen. She peels back the foil covering the cooked chicken that I’ve left resting in the roasting pan until it’s time to carve. She pulls off a leg with a deft twist and gnaws on it.
“Where have you been all this time?”
Isobel drops the bone on the countertop and wipes her greasy mouth with the back of her hand.
“I’ve told you already, but that’s not what you’re really asking, is it?”
“What am I asking?” I put the foil back on the chicken.
“How is it that I’ve survived?”
“I’m alive because I made myself an ally to monsters.” Isobel’s enjoying this speech. She’s had a long time to rehearse it. “I thrived under Jack’s tutelage. If he was bad, I had to be worse to impress him enough to keep me alive. I was so pleased with myself, until the day he told me that you were a far better accomplice, even at the age of six.”
Jack. I turn and look out the window. She knows. She knows. She knows. She knows because Jack told her.
“We’re too old for children’s games. The question you should be asking is why I’m here now.”
Isobel comes up behind me and puts her arms around my waist, her chin resting on my shoulder. Her lips are close to my ear. I can smell the chicken on her breath.
We can see the road. Hawthorn trees line the bottom of the garden opposite. The movement of their boughs in the wind catches my eye, so I don’t see him at first.
I gasp. Jack O’Dander leans against the garden wall, his face in shadow. Isobel’s arms tighten around me.
He steps forward and pushes back the hood of his parka. It’s Dan. He crosses the road and stops under the pool of the security light so that we can see each other clearly. He rubs his forehead with his thumbnail. The gesture is all Dan, but his expression isn’t diffidence. It’s outright mockery.
I know what I felt instinctively at six years old when the man wearing the baseball cap, who didn’t look like Jack, came into our bedroom. Him, Dan—they’re just costumes for Jack O’Dander.
“It’s okay, Nat,” says Isobel, “I can see him, too.”
“Jack O’Dander” copyright © 2023 by Priya Sharma
Art copyright © 2023 by Jeffrey Alan Love