Short Fiction by Alice Wickham
At eight years old, Rosalind was expecting a rosy cherub for a sister, but instead, she got me, flapping about in my mother’s arms, looking more like a caught mackerel than a Botticelli angel.
Following that first fishy phase, I then went on to become a pain in the butt, according to my sister. For one thing, I refused to walk, much to Rosalind’s disgust. She accused me of being a torment to my poor mother. Easy for her to say. Rosalind sailed through those early years whereas I suffered one childhood illness after the next. I was like a raft blown hither and thither on rough seas.
Mother despaired, and then lost interest. In fact, she turned against me altogether. Whenever Rosalind wanted something, Mother shelled out, but she refused to give me pocket money. When I turned fourteen, she began criticising my appearance.
Father was kinder, taking more of an interest in my welfare. He took care to provide money for schoolbooks and the like, whereas mother would sooner have me steal them, or so it seemed. When he’d had a few, which was often, Father proclaimed that both he and I were descendants of the mighty Fitzgerald clan, a warrior bloodline from Normandy, apparently. According to him, I was a definite, if weak, representative of that great clan. Whereas Rosalind took after Mother’s side of the family, who were Irish gipsies, French pig keepers, Jewish merchants and English seafarers all mixed together.
It helped to remember Father’s words when Rosalind was pushing me around. I knew that Father’s jealousy influenced his acceptance of me, the ugly duckling, and that he resented mother’s good looks and her popularity with men. Mother too had an aversion towards Father’s side of the family but she died before I could probe her real reasons for hating them.
During our teenage years, everything my sister said got on my nerves, and vice versa. We kept out of each other’s way for that reason. She had her ‘best of friends’ upstairs, and I had my drums down in the basement, and we both agreed that never the twain shall meet. On the cool stakes, we were about even. She dated married men, and I managed to string together a heavy metal band.
At the age of seventeen, Rosalind left the family house in Dublin and moved across the water to London, which I thought was a cool thing to do, so I followed her to London. Here’s what happened. She studied sculpture at Goldsmith’s College and married a stockbroker called Stanley. I found a job in the NHS and adopted my lifelong companion Fatty. Rosalind and Stanley moved to a smart villa near Camberwell. I moved to a flat above a shop in a sedate suburb in Middlesex, where I settled down with Fatty. My sister and I drifted apart, not that we were ever that close. It suited me though if you get what I mean.
One day, out of the blue, Rosalind sent a text inviting me to an art exhibition. I’d been to one of her shows in Soho, and the thought of hanging out again with Rosalind and her arty-farty friends sent shivers down my spine.
I consulted Fatty, ‘what do you reckon? Should I accept the invite?’
Fatty was his usual flippant self. ‘Don’t ask me, your sister, not mine. Thank God.’
‘She always picks on me though Fatty, everything I say or do annoys the hell out of her. I’m walking on egg-shells around that prima donna.’
Fatty is a Burmese with a smoky grey coat and an incredible intuition. ‘Don’t worry, she won’t be in the mood for a fight.’
‘Because… she’s preggers,’ Fatty said and went back to licking his paws.
I had to laugh. What a concept. Rosalind and motherhood didn’t go together. Then again, who was I to talk?
When the day arrived, I buttoned up my Levis, zipped up my old leather jacket, and with a deep sigh, made my way to fashionable bohemia. On route, I thought of things I should avoid saying to my sister to stay out of harm’s way. Don’t mention Mother or Father. No talk of childhood whatsoever. Be nice about Stanley and don’t call him ‘Stan’. Compliment Rosalind on her appearance. Not that my sister needed compliments. By fourteen, she was already breaking hearts with her buxom figure, green eyes, and long chestnut coloured hair. In contrast, I was what people call ‘pale and interesting.’ To compensate for my scanty assets, I cultivated a medieval outlook on life, which saved me from the hassle of trying to fit with my surroundings. I always suspected that I ought to have been born in the early middle ages rather than the fickle twenty-first century. Maybe I was around then too. Who knows.
Turning into the row of mews dwellings close to where the gallery was housed, I heard men and women yapping too loudly. My anxiety increased as I neared the venue, and I considered turning around, but it was too late. Rosalind had poked her head out the door, and she saw me approaching the gallery with a cautious step.
Sailing forth in her tight-fitting dress she greeted me with a painted-on smile. I saw that she was wearing purple lipstick and pink Versace boots combined with a skimpy Lycra number. She got away with it, as usual. Rosalind could wear a bin bag with twine tied around her waist, and still look stunning. She was pushing forty, but she looked ten years younger, whereas I remained the same age that I’ve always been – junior crone.
My sister took me by the elbow and led me into the gallery. ‘Gosh, Val, it’s been what? Three years!’
‘I know, terrible.’
The memory of our last meeting triggered a disturbance in my mind. Stanley had just been promoted, and he and Rosalind held a celebration dinner at their villa in Camberwell. On that occasion, a devil took hold, and I drank too much of Stanley’s imported wine. When Rosalind revealed her latest marvel, a bust of Stanley in plaster of Paris, I laughed too loudly and for too long. In the end, they packed me in a cab and sent me home.
Inside the gallery Rosalind introduced her friends, two of whom stood out as being more interesting than the rest. One was a blonde woman with a Californian accent, wearing a sharp business suit. Standing next to her was a good-looking guy with a beard and ponytail. The beard reminded me of Charles Darwin, but not in a good way. A denial of youth, I thought. Rosalind introduced them as Guy and Melissa. Somehow, the way she said their names gave the impression they were a couple. I found out later that they were mere acquaintances. The art exhibit was a white metal bird with red and blue wings that sloped to the ground. It was a depressing sight. A neat little card on the dais gave the title of the piece, ‘Brexit Swan’.
Observing us looking at her masterpiece, Rosalind’s eyes were feverishly bright. If I didn’t know my sister, and her repulsion for drugs of any sort, I would have said that she’d been sniffing cocaine.
‘Well, what do you think?’ She asked.
I scoured my brain for something intelligent to say. ‘It’s…er…’
Luckily for me, Melissa was on hand to talk fluently about my sister’s ‘high conceptualist endeavour’, the ‘fineness of form’, and other wordy turdy art phrases that went right over my head. Rosalind looked confused by some of the things Melissa was saying, but seemed pleased by the intended praise, which she accepted as her due. She announced to all that she had been invited to do an interview for Modern Art Today, a magazine whose editor ‘deeply admired’ her work.
‘Awesome!’ gushed Melissa.
We broke away from the exhibit and drifted into the crowd, who seemed more interested in the drink and nibbles than in Rosalind’s swan. People pressed about trying to get to the goodies before they vanished. I managed to secure a glass of wine. It wasn’t bad poison. French but not the cheapest variety. I ignored the cheese canapes, having as I do a deep suspicion of uncovered food. Finding an empty stool, I sat down amidst boxes of flyers and observed my sister as she went about smiling and shaking hands with important-looking people wearing name badges. The chap with the beard trailed after her, taking notes. I gathered he was an assistant of some sort.
Rosalind spotted me, happily drinking away on my own in the corner. She came over and perched on one of the cardboard boxes. ‘You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you.’
I waited, expecting to hear about an invite she had received to appear on TV or radio or something of that sort.
‘I’m pregnant,’ Rosalind announced.
‘Good God!’ I blurted. Fatty was right! Stanley had finally hit the bullseye.
‘Don’t sound so shocked…’ said Rosalind with a frown, ‘I’m not that old.’
‘Such great news! I’m happy for you, sis.’
When we hugged, Rosalind had tears in her eyes.
‘You’ll be an aunty, amazing huh?’
‘Amazing,’ I said.
Privately, I was horrified by the thought of becoming an aunt to Rosalind and Stanley’s offspring.
‘Stanley won’t get to see the baby much, not in the beginning.’
‘Hawkman and Eagle have made him a director. He’ll be in New York quite a lot actually.’
‘Wow. More great news,’ I said.
My sister pulled her dress back down over her knees.
‘What about you though, Val? Any thoughts of becoming a mother?’
I sipped my wine.
‘God no. I’m not the mothering type. My kid would wind up like Gilles de Rais.’
‘Oh, just someone in history.’ I said.
My sister picked up her wine glass and peered across the room to see who was checking out her exhibit.
‘A serial killer actually.’ I added.
Rosalind looked horrified.
‘From the 15th Century,’ I said, resisting the urge to confess my strange admiration for the medieval tyrant.
‘Are you still with your band?’ Rosalind asked, changing the subject. ‘What’s it called again? Dog something or other?’
‘Dukes of Grooves,’ I reminded her.
‘Oh, yes, D.O.G for short, right?’
‘Right.’ Suddenly it sounded like an utterly stupid name for a band.
‘Where are you playing these days?’ I was about to answer when a voice called out,
‘Hey Ros! Where are you hiding?’ I looked up and saw Melissa coming towards us. She was jubilant. ‘Guess what! I’ve just had a call from New York. We’ve found you a buyer!’
She hunkered down and spoke in rapid detail about the investor-to-be, a wealthy resident of Boston.
Rosalind was overjoyed. ‘Oh, my God, it’s all happening so fast. I’m thrilled to bits! Thanks, Melissa. Thanks!’
Melissa and my sister embraced with excitement, then Melissa looked around for a proper chair to sit on. ‘Really, Ros, you ought to get yourself a better venue to show off your art.’
‘I know, I know, and I will!’ said Rosalind. ‘Now that my work is starting to make real money!’
Rosalind hated the name Ros. If it were me, she would have bitten my head off, but with Melissa, it was okay, apparently.
Melissa found a pouffe of blue and red velvet with a white trim representing the Union Jack. She pulled it towards her and sat on it next to Rosalind. ‘The guy buying is a senator. He’s like you Ros, he thinks Brexit is a disaster for the UK.’
As if becoming aware of my presence for the first time, Melissa turned her attention to me. ‘How about you Val? How did you vote – if it’s not too personal a question?’
‘What? You didn’t vote?’
Rosalind gave a dry little laugh. ‘Typical Val.’
‘Why not?’ Melissa enquired, looking bemused.
‘Because the whole thing is bollocks.’
Melissa burst out laughing.
‘It’s a tragedy that some people don’t bother to vote anymore, especially women,’ said Rosalind.
I’d had enough. Sardonic Val rose to the surface. ‘Oh, and I suppose just because I declined to pop my paper in the ballot box poor old Emmeline is spinning in her grave, is she, Rosalind?!’
Rosalind threw her eyes to heaven. Melissa grabbed my arm with enthusiasm. ‘Oh, my God, the Pankhursts are my absolute favourite women in history!’
‘I bet they are,’ I said, shrugging her away and glaring at my sister. ‘Personally, I don’t think women should vote, not at all.’
Melissa’s face dropped. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean now we’ve got dumb men and dumb women telling us what to do.’
Melissa and Rosalind were speechless. Suddenly, I felt drained and wanted to go home. I put my glass down on the floor. I figured it was time to leave.
‘Gotta go, I’m afraid. My last train leaves soon.’ I stood up. ‘It was nice meeting you, Melissa.’
‘Likewise,’ said Melissa. ‘You’re a hoot! By the way, good luck with the band.’ She added as I turned to leave. I glanced at Rosalind. She had a guilty expression. What had she said to Melissa about D.O.G?
‘Oh, wait…’ Melissa said, in her breathless fashion. She poked about in her Gucci handbag. ‘I may know of an agent for you guys.’
I stood frozen to the spot, I was gobsmacked. An agent, for D.O.G?
Melissa handed me her business card. ‘Here, give me a call in a few weeks. I might have some news on that. Give me your number too, just in case!’
Rosalind threw me a warning look. There was an unwritten rule about not adopting each other’s friends. So far I’d kept to that rule. Now, throwing caution to the wind, I wrote my number on a flyer.
I gave it to Melissa. ‘That’s my mobile, I’m usually free after six.’
‘Perfect,’ Melissa said, smiling up at me from the Union Jack pouffe. ‘I’ll be in touch.’
On the way home, I was amazed at myself for breaking Rosalind’s ancient rule.
When I arrived at Toddlington, there was a message from Rosalind on my phone. ‘Text me the details of your next gig. Stanley and I will attend.’
Guilt, I thought, nothing but guilt. She’ll never come to the gig, not in a million years.
After the meeting with Rosalind, I took a couple of days off work to recover my spirits. The following week when I returned, the streets of Foxbridge were deserted. A few drifters plodded in and out of Tesco, but a gloom hung over the town. The little alley to get to my building was empty, not a beggar to be seen. When I arrived at the health centre, I had to press the buzzer two or three times before the door clicked open. Where was the receptionist? When I went upstairs to the central office the lobby was empty too. The temp was nowhere to be seen, and there was nobody at the reception desk, and no patients either.
There was only Bina, our long-suffering secretary, sitting alone in the main office. ‘Where is everyone?’ I asked.
‘Out sick.’ Bina told me. ‘Norovirus is going like wildfire through the whole town. I’ve had to cancel everyone’s appointments for today.’
I noted the lifeless PCs sitting at empty desks. ‘Jesus, it’s like Dawn of the Dead. Where’s the temp?’
‘She quit.’ Bina said.
‘Who’s manning the phones?’
‘You and me, and I’ve got all this work to do, I don’t know how they expect me to cope on my own!’
I thought about switching off the phones, but it was risky. We were the only crisis team in town. What if someone tried phoning in to say they were about to jump off the bridge, and couldn’t get through? The local press would smell blood!’
Poor Bina was pounding away at the keyboard, her glasses slipping down the bridge of her nose. If I knew Bina, she would continue pounding away at the computer until that wire basket of hers was empty of audiotapes.
I dropped my rucksack on the ground next to my chair and went over to the tiny kitchenette area to boil the kettle. ‘Coffee?’
‘Make it a strong one,’ Bina said. ‘I’ve got all these letters to type. I keep telling Giles to bring his tapes down at five o clock each day, but no, he chuck’s ‘em in at the last minute. Moron.’
I nodded. Poor Bina, Giles didn’t deserve her. ‘When is that old fart going to catch up with the times and go digital?’ I asked.
Bina slammed another tape into the machine. ‘Never, he hates it. Says he’s always done it this way and sees no reason to change.’
I brought Bina her coffee. ‘Never mind love, you carry on. I’ll handle the phones.’
A pile of admin sat on my desk. With a sigh, I sat down. Just as I was logging into the network, the phone burred and the console lit up like fireworks. One line seemed to light up with more fury than the others. I had a sixth-sense of who it might be.
Reluctantly I picked up the handset. ‘Foxbridge Mental Health, how can I help?’
A voice on the other end said, ‘He’s cheating on me again!’
I looked at Bina shaking my head, she silently mouthed the name of the caller. I nodded.
‘Who is, Marge?’
‘Carlos, who else?!’
Carlos was nearly eighty years old and walked with a Zimmer, but to Marge, he was still a hot-blooded Latino. It was pointless arguing. ‘What has he done this time, Marge?’
I listened to some twaddle about Carlos’s supposed shenanigans with the town trollop. With that off her chest, Marge turned to the other subject, her overactive bladder. ‘It’s playing me up again, so it is.’
‘Sorry to hear that, Marge.’
‘I went for a check-up last night.’
‘How did that go?’
‘It was okay until they said to shove it in me mini.’
‘Shove what in, Marge?’
‘The thing-a-ma-jig. You know? The nurse, she gimme a mirror to see for meself and blow me, there it was, large as life!’
‘What was, Marge?’
‘Big as the Loch Ness Monster!’
Marge replied. I put my coffee down. It didn’t taste right.
Marge continued. ‘I said to the doctor, I said, ‘dear me doctor’, I said, ‘I never knew I had such a thing’.
‘Okay, listen Marge…’
Marge was on a roll, there was no stopping her. ‘Oh, yes love’, he says, ‘it’s your ureet-ra’. ‘What’s that?’ I said. ‘It’s where the urine flow comes from’, he said, and here’s me thinking it come from me mini…’
At lunchtime, I stepped outside the office and headed for the old Mill road, where I took a walk along the narrow canal that divides the town in two. As I was walking, the sun came out, and I came upon a white swan cleaning its plumage with its yellow beak. Another swan floated on the water nearby. I wondered if they were lovers. If so, they would have mated for life. Or perhaps they were brother and sister. It was a beautiful sight seeing them there, both silhouetted on the water’s surface. It seemed to me that these two swans wouldn’t be impressed by Rosalind’s gloomy depiction of one of their kind.
Going home that evening, I felt I had picked up a trace of the virus. My stomach was queasy. I nearly threw up on the train. I was about to take a cab back to Fatty when my phone buzzed. The text was from Rob, Dukes’ lead guitarist. Wer the fuk r u????
With a groan, I remembered that I had arranged to meet Rob and the band leader Essex at the Tavern at eight to discuss some new songs. How could I get out of it?
I sent a text to Rob to say I was feeling poorly. Rob pinged me back immediately. Best get hir luv, he’s in a strop abt ppl not turnin up 4 rehrsls lst wk.
Essex! Such a fuckin wanker. Why was I always having to deal with prima donnas? Wearily, I trooped to the Tavern pub on the main street. It was not my fav place to be, always packed with yobbos. Squeezing my way to the bar, I virtually had to scream to get the barman’s attention and order a drink. Rob and Essex were nowhere to be seen.
I sent Rob a text. I’m here, were r u?
Rob rang my phone, but I couldn’t hear a word he said, with all the noise at the bar. Finally, I found them sitting at the back of the pub, next to the patio doors, opposite the gents. There was a faint whiff of urine when someone opened the door of the toilet. It made me gag. Essex and Rob were both trolleyed, and the table in front of them was littered with empties. They’d been drinking all afternoon.
Essex had a seat waiting for me. ‘What took ya so long, rock bitch!’
Rock bitch was Essex’s little joke. At first, I accepted it, for the sake of being part of the band, but it was starting to grate on my nerves.
I dropped my rucksack on the empty seat next to Essex and unzipped my jacket. ‘Sorry, I got delayed at work.’
‘Some of us have to work I s’pose,’ Essex said, ‘keeps the economy going. Anyway, we’ve loads to talk about, sit your arse down luv.’
Rob looked hot in his skinny jeans and t-shirt. A cross between Keith Richards and Anton Lavey. Good guitarist too. We winked at each other.
‘I’m doing a ballad at the Heroes gig.’ Essex announced.
Rob looked at me with a crooked smile. He shook his wrist up and down making the sign of wanker
I tried not to laugh. ‘What sort of ballad,’ I asked Essex.
He looked wary. A few tufts of greyish brown hair stuck out from the top of his white shirt. ‘One Love’.
I felt a curious sense of relief. ‘Great!, I’ve got the reggae beat right down.’
‘Not Marley,’ said Essex. ‘Blue’’.
I stared at him. ‘As in boy band Blue?’
Essex nodded with a grin on his face. He was like a schoolgirl out on a first date.
‘You gotta be kidding.’ I said. ‘We’re a rock n’ roll band, not X-factor wannabees!’
‘My version kicks ass,’ Essex said. ‘Way better than Blue.’
Rob laughed. ‘She’s got a point though, Essex.’
We both knew it was a pants idea. Essex was no boy wonder. If he thought, he was going to get a new female fan club from doing a Blue song – and badly – he was off his rocker.
Essex scratched his stubble, a sign he was agitated. ‘Listen, Ms Queen of the Funkin drum, I say what songs we do, you play the skins, that’s all.’
A tense silence followed. I looked at Rob, hoping he would say something, but he had his head down. The git.
‘I’m not doing that number,’ I said. ‘I’ve got a reputation to uphold.’
Essex was furious. ‘You bloody will do that number, or you’re out!’
I knocked back my vodka. Rob was saying nothing, as usual. It was a tough one. It had taken me ages to get into a band. Essex was a pain in the neck, but I didn’t want to blow it all over a stupid song.
I laughed it off. ‘Okay, okay, have it your way. If the crowd likes it, then that’s all that counts.’
Essex was satisfied. He turned his back on me and started chatting to the new bass player, who had been keeping his head well down.
Rob pulled his chair next to mine and said under his breath, ‘Don’t sweat it, girl. He’s a fuckin moron, take the money and run like the rest of us.’
At the sound of our snickering, Essex turned around. He barked a warning about rehearsals, telling us to get there early ‘cos we’d be working on his new ballad.
His new ballad. Anyone would think he’d written the song. What a jerk! I sincerely hoped he’d get Norovirus just from sitting next to me.
The Kings Head Hotel was next to a busy roundabout on the road from Toddlington to Foxbridge. It was more of an inn than a hotel, with a few guest rooms for travellers and a restaurant that sold overpriced cheeseburgers with kale fries. From time to time they hosted charity events, such as the Help for Heroes gig that Essex had managed to finagle for us. We were getting paid £100 plus drinks. Essex had a poster printed for the concert. He pinned it on the front gate leading to the hotel entrance. The poster showed him with fireworks exploding all around his fat head. The rest of us were barely visible. A paragraph above Essex read, ‘Don’t miss the fabulous Duke of Grooves at The Kings Head Hotel this Saturday! All proceeds go to Help for Heroes’.
‘Where’s the ‘s’,’ I asked Rob.
‘What do you mean?’
‘He’s left the ‘s’ out of ‘Dukes’. It looks like there’s only one Duke – him! What about the rest of us?’
Rob was disgusted. We both agreed that Essex’s ego was getting out of hand.
In the makeshift changing room that the manager had provided for us, behind the bar, Essex took up most of the space changing into his red leather suit and silver snakeskin boots. He propped a portable mirror on the only table that was available and kneeled in front of it to pencil his lids with black eye-liner. The rest of us wore our usual black D.O.G t-shirts. Essex’s routine never varied, but this time, he was adding an extra touch to his appearance. Rob and I were stunned to see our illustrious band leader stuffing a rolled-up sock down his crotch. It blew our minds. We raced to the car park to fall about laughing.
‘Well, I never…’
‘Wot a tool!’
After drying our eyes, Rob rolled a spliff. He lit the joint and handed it to me, ‘here, try this girl, African gold.’
‘Not my thing Rob.’
‘Oh, go on girl! It’s on’y catnip. You’ll be purring like Ginger Baker afterwards, I promise ya.’
Within five minutes I was stoned. Rob and I floated back into the hotel like a pair of moonwalkers, Essex and the others were waiting for us on stage.
As I approached Essex took the mic and said in a low, velvety voice laced with a sneer, ‘here she is everyone, the marvellous, the extraordinary, the Queen of the Funkin Drums!’
Rob and I broke down again at the sight of the lump in Essex’s tight leather trousers.
‘Where have you two idiots been?’ Essex growled as we climbed onto the stage.
‘Sorry boss, nature calls,’ said Rob, and we were on the verge of laughing again.
Rob was right. The catnip did the trick. On the skins, my chops were red hot. Every number went down solid. Even Essex’s dodgy ballad sounded half-decent. During the interval, Rob and I had another few hits. The second set was even better, and I was just easing my sticks into ‘Smoke on the Water’ when Rosalind showed up at the bar. She was with the bearded wonder from the art gallery. She waved to me from the bar. I waved back but her presence spooked the shit out of me. I submerged myself back into the beat, hitting those skins until I forgot about everything but the synchronicity of sound. The crowd got up and started dancing in front of the stage.
f, hot and sweating from exertion, Rob and me climbed down off the stage, both of us still high. Essex looked sick and drained. He’d never worked so hard for an audience. Black eye-pencil ran down from his eyes in two small lines, and for a moment he reminded me of Stephen King’s IT. I looked over at Rosalind. Her luxuriant hair was pinned up like an elaborate bird. I could almost imagine a swan rising from it and soaring towards the ceiling.
I said to Rob, ‘Jesus Christ, that stuff is like rocket juice!’
Rob laughed. ‘How about another spliff?’
I declined, and went over to join Rosalind and her friend at the bar.
Rosalind was all smiles. ‘Hey Val, that was Brilliant! I never knew you played so well.’
Hearing that was even more of a high than the spliff earlier. Not once in our entire life together had my sister ever paid me a compliment. It was always the other way around. I felt more light-headed than ever.
Rosalind gestured at her friend. ‘You remember Guy, don’t you?’
Guy shook my hand – his grip was tight and intense. He seemed nervous. I wondered if he was OCD like my sister. ‘You…you play like John Bonham.’
It was getting better and better.
‘Are you a fan?’ I asked.
Guy looked uncertain. He glanced at Rosalind before answering. ‘Well, he’s a bit of a legend…’
‘Not like Ginger Baker though,’ I added.
Rosalind and Guy were drinking a bottle of wine at the bar. Guy asked the barman for another glass.
‘Where’s Stan?’ I asked, forgetting Rosalind’s command about not shortening his name.
Rosalind and Guy swapped glances. ‘Stanley is still in New York,’ said Rosalind. ‘They’re overworking him, I think.’
It sounded like there was more to it, but I wasn’t about to poke my nose any further. Rosalind poured herself another glass of wine. She seemed a bit tipsy. ‘Hey, sis, should you be drinking wine?’ I asked.
Rosalind glowered. I knew I’d rubbed her the wrong way. ‘What are you inferring, Val? That I’m endangering the life of my child?’
I could sense she was spoiling for a fight. All my anxiety of earlier came flooding back. Surprisingly, Guy leapt to my defence. ‘Oh, come on, Rosalind, I’m sure Val meant nothing of the sort, you’re being oversensitive.’
Rosalind slammed her glass down on the bar. Some of the wine sloshed to the surface. ‘Well, then, that’s alright, isn’t it? Excuse me while I go take a piss!’
I felt flabbergasted. It was not like my sister to refer to her bodily functions in that manner. Rosalind made a move away from the bar and then dropped to the ground, stone cold.
Looking back on it, from that point, everything was blurred. I remember putting Ros in the recovery position and screaming at people to get back. I remember Guy shouting for clean towels at the bar, and both of us desperately trying to stem the bleeding until the paramedics arrived. I remember the young locum doctor from India talking to us outside the emergency ward. I remember her clear, round vowels and compassionate eyes. I remember Guy bringing hot coffee and putting his arm around my shoulders. I remember my chest heaving and praying that my sister would make it.
It’s weird really. Family legend had it that I was the weakling, I was the pale and sickly one – not Rosalind.
But it’s not true. Rosalind, lying there with her hands folded over her chest and her long chestnut hair flowing around her shoulders, looking like a pre-Raphaelite Goddess, was much paler and much sicker than I have ever been. The lead doctor tried to explain her condition, but I didn’t get it. A rare genetic disorder, he said. One in eight thousand people. See, Rosalind and I are descendants of the mighty Fitzgeralds, warriors from Normandy. It’s a… rare blood group, often at fault…it makes it difficult you see… the blood disorders occurring most frequently in this type. It wasn’t the bleeding or the baby, the doctor told us, it was the clotting afterwards. That’s the thing.
I lifted my sister’s cold hand and holding it away from her chest, put it next to my warm cheek. It was strange how comforting that felt. We were never touchy-feely growing up. ‘Rosalind, it’s Val, can you hear me?’
My sister was beautiful in death just as she had been in life.
I learned afterwards that Stanley was living with another woman in New York. Could that have brought on Rosalind’s miscarriage? Who knows.
I tried to carry on where I had left off. Just me and Fatty. It wasn’t the same. I felt truly alone and cut off from the world. No sister was living on the other side of the city to studiously avoid. When Melissa called to commiserate, I didn’t know who she was, and it took a while to figure out that she was Rosalind’s friend from the art gallery.
Another bittersweet twist to my life.
She told me that Rosalind had sent footage via Facebook messenger of my drumming that night.
‘She sent it live, she was so proud of you,’ Melissa said. My chest hurt and I wanted to hang up at that point, but Melissa said to wait, there was something else. ‘Remember that agent I told you about?’
‘Not really, no.’
‘Well, anyway, he’s passed on, strangely, but…’ I wondered if Melissa was a twisted psychopath from hell. What was she trying to do, torment me?
‘…Here’s the thing, I sent the footage to his office, and his associate saw it and thinks you’re incredible. He thinks the rest of the band is shit, but he thinks you’re a female Ginger Baker and he wants to sign you.’
I’m not happy. What’s happiness? Not something I’ll ever truly have, but I’m content, and a bit intrigued I guess, living here with Fatty in a rented apartment in New York. I’m doing my first studio recording with girl band, ‘Ark Angels of Rock’ next week, then we’re out on tour. Exciting, I’ll admit.
I’ve kept the stage name, ‘QFD’, short for ‘Queen of the Funkin Drum’. I guess it’s the one good thing that Essex passed on to me – the power of a good acronym. And I’ve got a sick logo on the front of my drum kit – a pair of swans in flight.