My sister Louise always loved music. Even before she could walk, she would hold onto the sofa’s edge and her chubby baby bottom would bounce up and down to the rhythm. She took her first steps while the radio played in our sitting room, teetering forward to collapse in my mother’s arms and laugh.
She was almost two years old by then, which meant I was five. My mother pulled me close so that the three of us were in a tight hug together — my mother, Louise, and me. I felt the warm tears on my mother’s cheek and asked why she was crying.
“I’m so proud of my girls,” she said. “I’m just so… happy.” She held me away from her and smiled hard, to prove it.
When I was eight years old, a new girl joined my class. Her name was Susan, she wore her hair in a ponytail, and had a round face with cheeks like red apples. I thought she might become my friend. I needed a friend. The teachers liked me because I was quiet and clever, but the children in the playground tormented me for the same reason. I thought Susan might be different.
One afternoon, as we waited at the gate after school, Susan was keen to tell me about a shopping trip with her mother.
“We bought sandals. They’re yellow, with white daisies on the buckles. I’m going to wear them to France when we go there this summer.”
I clutched my books to my chest and hung on every word that came from her strawberry lip-balmed mouth.
Then my mother’s car pulled up. Louise sat in the back seat, moving her head from left to right in rhythm with the radio. When she saw me, she thumped the window with the palm of her hand.
Susan’s pretty little nose wrinkled. “Ugh! What’s wrong with that kid’s eyes? Is she retarded or something?”
Embarrassed, I tried to ignore my mother’s beckoning, but she rolled down the window and called out my name. Louise echoed her in sing-song, “Ju’ie, Ju’ie!” I ducked into the car, slamming the door behind me. But Susan had seen me, and I knew she would not be my friend now.
Louise giggled, putting both hands to her mouth. Then she began to nod again to the music. At that moment, I hated her.
A month after that, I sat by her hospital bed, watching the blip of the heart monitor and listening to the click of nurses’ heels in the corridor. Louise’s face was so pale that the marbled veins showed. My mother smoothed back the damp wisps of hair that stuck to her forehead and kissed her gently. Louise often had problems with her heart in those days, and this time the doctors were really afraid she wouldn’t pull through. Nobody ever said would die. They always said wouldn’t pull through.
“My brave little girl,” said my mother.
I wondered what was so brave about lying on a hospital bed and chewing your teddy bear’s ear. Maybe next time she would die and at the funeral I would be the brave little girl in my black dress and black patent shoes. If only she would die…
“Ju’ie,” my sister murmured. “You aw’ight?”
Oh God, don’t take her, I swear I didn’t mean it… “I’m fine, Louise.” I covered her small hand with mine. “You get better now, you hear?”
My mother stayed with her that night, and my father let me sit in the front as he drove home. It was dark and wet, the wipers swishing on the windscreen.
“Louise will be fine,” he said. “The danger is over. Keeping her in overnight is just a precaution.”
My father looked old, his mouth and forehead tense with strain. His jaw was dark with the stubble he had not had time to shave, and his hands gripped the steering wheel tightly. Neither of us turned on the radio. Music was Louise’s thing.
“You’re a good girl, Julie,” he said. “We really appreciate that, you know.”
My stomach tightened with guilt. If he knew the terrible feelings I had about my sister, what would he think of me? How disappointed would he be to have such a wicked daughter? I swore to myself that I would earn his respect, that I would never have such awful thoughts about Louise again, that I would do my best to watch out for her.
When I was twelve years old and Louise was nine, she wandered off and my frantic parents sent me to search for her. Although it was summer, the sun was low on the horizon. I found her on the green at the end of our housing estate, dancing. A stereo sat on the grass, turned to full volume and playing Killing Me Softly by The Fugees. My sister was lost in the music.
She was tall for her age, and big-boned, which often made her everyday movements clumsy. But when music took hold of her, she was fluid and free. I stood in awe of her, bathed in the buttery light of evening, her floaty blue dress swaying about her hips. Her eyes were closed, her mouth serene, and her arms waved as if conducting some magical orchestra.
Then I saw the other kids watching her. They were about my age — a blond boy sitting on a stone, a dark-haired boy, and a girl sitting cross-legged on the grass. The dark boy smirked and nudged the girl and she sniggered, making fun of my sister.
I stomped forward and slammed my hand down on the off button.
The sniggering stopped with the music. Louise’s eyes snapped open, the spell broken. She looked at me, hurt and confused.
“What’s up with you?” the dark-haired boy demanded. His blond friend muttered in agreement, while the girl rolled her eyes angrily at me.
I took my sister’s hand and tried to lead her away, but she stood her ground.
“I wan’ to dance, Ju’ie!”
“Yes, Julie, let her dance,” the girl said.
It was Susan, the girl who had not become my friend four years before. She no longer wore her hair in a ponytail; she had sunglasses pushed up like a hair band, with the metal frames glinting in the evening sun.
“Yeah, let her dance, Julie,” the dark-haired boy joined in.
I pulled harder on Louise’s arm but she refused to budge, as if she were stuck in concrete. Susan sniggered again.
“Stop it!” I yelled. I let go of Louise’s arm and swung around wildly, glaring at the two boys. “Stop making fun of my sister. You should be ashamed of yourselves!”
The dark-haired boy snorted and glowered back at me, but the blond boy avoided my gaze. Susan’s eyes narrowed dangerously, although the rest of her face seemed to register hurt.
“Julie, as if we would! We only want to be her friend. Don’t we, Louise?” Her voice was honey as she took my sister’s arm.
Louise looked at me, confused, her lip trembling. “We were jus’ having fun.”
Susan stroked her arm, as she would a cat. “That’s right, Louise. We were just having fun. Your sister is being stupid.”
Louise stiffened, and pulled away. “She is NOT. Julie is NOT stupid.”
Susan gave a sly smile. “Ooh, I love the way she says that. Stooo-pid. Stooo-pid.”
The dark-haired boy roared with laughter, hands on his thighs.
I slapped Susan’s face so hard that her pretty cheek pinkened and her pretty mouth made an outraged “Oh!” Then I took Louise’s hand and together we marched away.
I grew up, but sometimes it seemed nobody noticed. I studied biochemistry and got a job with a pharmaceutical firm. Louise charmed everyone she met, especially the other staff at the supermarket where she helped to pack shelves. My parents hyped her achievements and downplayed mine. I bit my cheek and pretended it didn’t matter.
Then I met Sean. We both liked Indian food and French movies, and laughed at the same jokes. He bought me a green scarf, because he said the colour suited me. He always remembered the exact spot on the back of my neck where I liked to be kissed. And he was the first man I ever brought home to meet my parents.
My father dished out pork chops onto the good blue-and-white china plates, and then thought to ask Sean, “You’re not a vegetarian, are you?”
“Oh no,” Sean assured him. “Pork chops good! Mmm!”
He rubbed his stomach and I started to laugh, but my parents just smiled politely. When Louise appeared at the doorway, she mumbled a shy “hi” before taking her seat.
We ate dinner in between awkward bursts of conversation. My father asked me to pass the butter, but I couldn’t see any on the table until my mother pointed to the fancy butter dish that I had not seen for many years. We didn’t often have visitors.
Then I heard my father say to Sean, “Can you dance? Louise is very good at dancing.”
A forkful of parsnip halted halfway to my mouth and a warning voice cracked in my head. No! Don’t make her dance like a trained monkey you can laugh at!
But after the dishes were cleared away and we retired to the sitting room to digest our lemon pie, my father invited Louise to choose the music she wanted to dance to. My parents had a double-column CD rack beside the stereo system, and my sister fingered each title slowly as she decided on her song.
I pulled Sean to the doorway out of earshot of my parents. “Why do they have to do this? Make her a show in front of people?”
“She doesn’t seem to mind.”
“But it’s embarrassing.”
“Julie, don’t be so uptight! Your parents and your sister are trying their best, but you’ve been so jumpy since I arrived it’s driving me mad. This isn’t like you! You need to get over your issues with Louise.”
I opened my mouth, but was too outraged to reply.
Louise held up a CD and announced, “This one!”
Sean moved away from me to sit beside my parents on the sofa. As the music started, my heart sank even further. It was the Fugees. Killing Me Softly. Louise stretched out her arms and beckoned Sean to join her. She waved her hands from side to side and he moved awkwardly in a mirror of her.
I was still furious. How dare he give me grief about some “issues” I’m supposed to have with my sister! I love Louise. I would do anything for her. Is he suggesting I’m ashamed of her?
She swayed around the room and he followed. He slipped an arm around her waist and began to waltz. She laughed, but fell easily into step with him. They moved past the fireplace, the piano, the sofa where my parents sat, and the doorway where I stood fuming.
Okay, sometimes I had been embarrassed by her, by other people staring at her or trying not to stare. Sometimes I was frustrated by her clumsiness and slowness. Sometimes I resented that I always had to be the sensible and responsible one, while everybody would love her for her charm. How different my life would have been, were it not for Louise. How much easier.
And yet, look at her move! She smiled at me as she waltzed past. Her smile was beautiful, and she was a wonderful dancer.
Later that night, I lay in a spare bed in Louise’s room and heard my sister breathe deeply. Sean was in the spare room; my parents were old-fashioned like that.
“Do you love him, Julie?” Louise whispered.
The slit between the curtains let in a chink of street light, outlining the wardrobe and shining faintly on the mirror, but she could not see me blush. “Very much,” I said.
“I like him. He’s nice.” The room was filled with a thick, hesitant hush before she continued. “I have a boyfriend as well, you know. His name is Jimmy. He likes to dance, too. We’ve been practising.”
Fortunately my face was hidden, because it tightened with alarm. Louise couldn’t have a boyfriend. She’s couldn’t handle a relationship. She was – well, not a child anymore, but I could hardly consider her an adult either. Or could I?
I felt that she was bothered by my lack of reply, so I ventured a question. “Is he…?”
“Yes,” she said. “He’s like me.” Then she turned over and went to sleep.
But I couldn’t sleep; my head was too bothered by questions and doubts. I pushed off the quilt and slipped out of the room, pyjama-clad. The top stair creaked as I crept downstairs. I found Sean in the kitchen, in that old grey T-shirt of his.
“Caught you!” I whispered close to his ear. He smelled so good.
He turned and smiled. “I was just going to have a glass of water.”
I sat at the table and he brought over two glasses.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should never have had a go at you like that.”
“No, you were right.” I reached across the table to place my hand over his. “Louise does drive me crazy sometimes. But she makes me happy at other times, so it evens out. I wouldn’t be without her.”
“It can’t have been easy, though.” His voice was soft and low in the half-light. “Growing up with her.”
“It wasn’t. And it won’t be easy, ever. You’ve seen the strain it’s put on my parents. And when they’re gone, she’ll be my responsibility alone.”
“Not alone, I hope. We’ll manage fine.”
He said we. I hardly dared move, but our hands seemed to grow warmer. His eyes were deep with promise and I knew he did not speak the words lightly.
Through the pine cross-frame of the window I could see a pale half-moon and a silver trail of cloud above the garden wall. Upstairs my sister Louise slept, dreaming perhaps of Jimmy, who also loved to dance.