Sisters

book cover for short story - sisters

I was seven years old when I decided that it might be better if my parents died, probably in an unfortunate accident. I, of course, would be distraught and everyone would gather round to comfort me. It wasn’t that my parents were cruel or neglectful; in their own way they were perfectly adequate. But I was convinced their lifestyle was going to be an embarrassment to me when I was older.

The year I made that decision was 1974. We lived in a small hotel in a declining seaside town. It was not the most thriving of businesses when my mother inherited it from her grandmother and, in truth, the hotel was little more than a bed and breakfast. Few guests took their evening meals there.

The Temperance Hotel – that was its name – was a rather dreary place for a child. In the summer holidays, when I had no school to distract my imagination, I would invent stories about our guests. I wrote them all in a journal which I kept hidden under my mattress. Quiet, apologetic couples were bestowed with important jobs from which they were escaping, often for an illicit affair. It was simply too dull to believe they were all boring married couples. It was more entertaining to recast them as masters of industry, or important civil servants, and the women as lovelorn secretaries harbouring dreams and living in bland bedsits. Occasionally I would have a spy staying with us, secretly exchanging information with a super intelligent scientist, who had been overlooked simply because she was a woman.

Even at that age I was well aware that husbands and wives didn’t always adhere to their solemn wedding vows. The reason for that enlightenment was my own parents’ behaviour and that of their friends and acquaintances. During the winter months, when there were no guests in the hotel, my parents held parties, the sort people talk about in hushed voices when they think little girls are not listening.

What I understood about those evenings, or rather what I now understand but then only sensed, was that everyone at those parties was rather friendlier with each other than one usually observed in public. 

My bedroom was on the fourth floor, accessed by a narrow set of stairs. It was essentially in the roof, but there was a turret with a balcony, which I thought magical at the time, putting me above and beyond the reach of adults and their unfathomable ways. It was my own private world. I had a small sink in my bedroom, but shared a bathroom with my parents on the floor below. We lived in those top two floors during the summer with the first and second floor bedrooms reserved exclusively for guests.  

In the winter, during those gatherings, I would sit on the bottom step of the flight of stairs to my room and listen to the music and laughter. There was occasionally the sound of footsteps approaching from below, but they never reached our private apartment – as my mother called it. Strange noises of people in pain would sometimes echo up to me, muffled by closed bedrooms doors. Any concerns I had for their safety would soon be assuaged by giggles, or outright laughter, emanating from behind the same closed room.

I didn’t realise at the time exactly what was happening, but instinctively knew it to be wrong. The Sisters at my school could not, or chose not to, explain what was happening. Even when I described the events in as much detail as I could, they pretended an ignorance worthy of their calling.

In the mornings I would often be the first to breakfast. Sometimes a number of party guests would have stayed overnight and, having finished my cereal and milk, I would make them toast when they arrived in the kitchen. It was interesting that the couples arriving at breakfast together were not necessarily in the same pairs in which they had arrived the night before.

I didn’t murder my parents, not then, not ever, at least not directly. That would have been wrong, a cardinal sin as I came to understand.

It was not until I was in my teens that I fully comprehended these matters. I was in one of Sister Eleanor’s classes at the Convent School I attended. She instructed us in botany and moral science. Although not much older than us, she was fascinating in her joyous explanations of the plant kingdom and steadfast in her resolve to educate us in the matter of morality.

Her constant edict was that everyone has wickedness in them, but that we should all strive to rise above it. Sister Eleanor was the youngest of the Sisters and hinted quietly to me that she ‘knew’ my parents from before she took holy orders. She said the word ‘knew’ in a half whisper, almost as though scared of the sound it made. She never specifically said she didn’t approve of my parents, but she always took a deep breath before she spoke their names and I occasionally heard her whisper, ‘Those who have fallen we pray for’, just after we had spoken of them.

Of course, I didn’t remember Sister Eleanor from when I was young, but she later revealed that she had attended one, or maybe more, of my parents’ parties. Dressed now in her habit, scapula and cowl she bore no resemblance to when I might have seen her.

We were taking a break together one Saturday morning, both sitting on a bench in the Convent garden, on the occasion that she first mentioned her past. I had that year started to help the Sisters with their vegetable plot. My parents were rarely interested in what I was doing, so they never enquired as to where I was. They might have found my choice of company strange, but I doubt they would have curtailed my meetings.

During the break from our weeding Sister Joanna, the Reverend Mother, brought a tray with two mugs of tea for us.

”You were a very polite young girl,” Sister Eleanor said when we were alone again.

She said she had seen me once at my parents’ hotel and that she was concerned for my safety even then.

“You were one of the reasons I recognised the foolishness of my ways.”

“Were you a Sister then?”

“I had sisters, two in fact, but no, I hadn’t taken Holy Orders at that time.”

I asked her if she had been a guest at the hotel and she paused before saying that she wasn’t exactly a guest and that it had been during a rather chilly February.

“Were you at one of my parents’ parties?” I whispered conspiratorially, and she appeared to shrink in front of my eyes as though she were a snail retreating into its shell. “It’s just that the hotel is closed to guests during February.”

Sister Eleanor admitted that she had attended one of ‘those’ parties. The word ‘parties’ contained a hint of venom that I had never heard before in her voice. She shuddered and tipped the last cold dregs of her tea onto the bare earth.

“It was a previous life, I shouldn’t have mentioned it.”

I was surprised but tried not to show it. “They are unusual parties,” I said, in an attempt to draw more information from her. I was curious to know more about her involvement.

She claimed it had been an error of judgement at the time, a gross error of judgement. But she had been very young and said she had been confused about many things in life, including the very nature of that party.

“You made me breakfast the next morning. There were just the two of us and you made me feel comfortable and normal again.”

I did remember her when she told me that. She had come to breakfast alone and still in the dress she had worn the previous evening, which wasn’t that unusual. She hardly ate anything. Most of the people I met on those mornings were jumbled in my memory, but Sister Eleanor had been unusual in that she was alone.

“My parents haven’t changed very much.”

“I have to say I’m not entirely surprised. You have to be very careful. Do those… parties still take place in the winter months?

I nodded and sipped my neglected tea, which was already cold from the cool spring air. I didn’t want to finish it as Sister Eleanor might continue to talk if we remained on that bench.

“You didn’t like mushrooms,” I ventured.

“I still don’t, we don’t cultivate them here.”

Sister Joanna reappeared to collect our empty mugs. I drank mine quickly, albeit cold, as the conversation had dried my mouth.

Sister Eleanor taught me a lot about tending to and nurturing vegetables on those Saturday mornings. She instilled a curiosity in me, and an enthusiasm. I asked my parents if I could have a vegetable plot at home.

The gardens at the rear of the hotel were very long and at the far end there had been a vegetable garden, probably in my great-grandmother’s time. It was overrun with brambles, but my youthful vigour and a lack of friends to distract me, meant I could make headway quickly. I continued to help at the Convent garden, but was rarely alone with Sister Eleanor. Whether that was by her design, I could not tell.

There were, however, a few moments when we were close enough to communicate without being overheard.

“When I was young I wished for something terrible to happen to my parents so that those parties would stop.”

Sister Eleanor paused in pulling a parsnip from the earth.

‘Wishing for something bad to happen to someone is a sin my dear. Have you confessed these thoughts to the Father?’

“No I haven’t. It was a long time ago. Could I confess to you Sister? Does it count telling you now?”

I knew that the Sisters were not in a position to hear confessions, but I didn’t much like the Father, he was supercilious and smelled of boiled cabbage.

She shook her head, kept her eyes trained on the parsnip and spoke quietly.

“I wished much the same for your parents at one time, but I have since repented for that sin.”

I should have been surprised, but I wasn’t. There was no reason why someone else shouldn’t have seen them as I did or harboured the same thoughts, albeit for different reasons.

“But you never planned to do anything?” I asked.

Sister Eleanor lifted and brushed the earth from two parsnips, placing them carefully in her trug. She didn’t answer my question immediately. I heard her exhale slowly and for longer than seemed possible without her deflating like a pricked balloon.

“I found God,” she said, with the last of her breath.

There was nothing I could say in reply. I may have attended a Catholic school, may have been a regular at the church on Sunday mornings, but I didn’t ‘know’ God. He was, and has always remained, a stranger to me.

We didn’t speak of my parents again after that morning. My own vegetable garden grew and demanded more of my time. I visited the Convent on only the occasional Saturday and Sister Eleanor took care to ensure we were never alone.

It was in the autumn of the following year that I decided to steer my life in a different direction. Even though my examination grades were excellent, and the Sisters encouraged me to take a degree course, I explained that I was more interested in horticulture than academia. My vegetable garden had, by that time, surpassed all my expectations in terms of productivity. Some of the yield was used in our kitchen and I donated the surplus to the Sisters at the convent.

With some objections and a certain amount of sniggering, which I thought was even below their basic level of decency, I persuaded my parents to offer vegetarian evening meals to non-residents. They indulged my whim, obviously believing it would be a failure and that I would move on to some more sensible career. I managed to speak to Sister Eleanor about my plans and she suggested I explore the possibility of going to horticultural college.

“But I can grow all the basic vegetables I need now, why do I need years of learning Latin names for plants?”

“There is somewhat more to it than that. And I thoroughly enjoyed my time at Lowborough College.”

“You studied horticulture?” I asked, never having thought very often about Sister Eleanor’s life before she became attached to the convent. I had never dwelled on how she met my parents. They attracted a strange assembly of friends and acquaintances.

“I did. Just like you I had a flare for gardening. A talent I thought. But life changed. I changed. I took the wrong path in God’s garden.”

Her voice dropped as she said that and I wondered if it had anything to do with my parents. I asked her as much and saw her face colour. The set of her mouth and narrowing of her eyes suggested that her reaction was caused not so much by embarrassment, but by anger.

“Maybe it would have been better if my childhood dreams and wishes had actually come true.”

She knew exactly what I meant without me expanding on the thought that still resided in the back of my mind.

“You can’t say that my dear. You need to concentrate on your own life, your own wishes and desires, your own future. You should not be harbouring such evil thoughts.”

I told her about my idea for the restaurant, to distract her, and she showed genuine interest, asking me details about the menu I had in mind and my parents’ reaction. She nodded thoughtfully when I explained that they hoped I would fail, but weren’t actively standing in my way.

“I hope they don’t. It would be a shame if you don’t at least get the chance to try.”

“They will let me try, but I can’t start until next spring. They said that running a restaurant when the hotel is closed would be too disruptive to their winter recuperation.”

Sister Eleanor asked me if they meant the parties, which they held during those months. I told her they did, but that now I would go to stay with my aunt on those occasions, finding it far too noisy and disruptive. She nodded and, picking up a soiled rag, concentrated on cleaning the fork she had been using. 

“I understand,” she said.

October of the following year brought heavy rain, interspersed with days of bright, clear skies and almost summer warmth. November was a shock when the weather turned suddenly to winter, with frequent mists and hoar frost decorating the windows each morning.

My parents were once again planning their parties and in particularly good spirits, while I was in my lofty bedroom, planning my ever-expanding vegetable garden. The vegetarian options had proved popular and even the number of outside diners had slowly grown over the summer. My parents were indifferent to my success, claiming it was merely a novelty with which people would soon lose interest. 

Closing the restaurant during the winter would undoubtedly be a blow to establishing a regular customer base and to the possibility of offering private functions when there were no guests in residence, but my parents wouldn’t even consider it.

As so often happens in life, unpredictable events change your plans. That autumn my parents were involved in a motoring accident. It could probably have been predicted as a lax attitude towards their marriage vows was replicated in a similar disregard for consumption of alcohol. Their small, brightly coloured, sports car had wandered across the central reservation of the road and glanced against a minibus coming in the other direction. Fortunately nobody in the other vehicle was harmed. My mother was at the wheel at the time. She must have overcompensated when she realised what was happening. According to the accident report, read out at the inquest, their car swerved back to their side of the road, skidded and then somersaulted several times, after which it left the road completely and flew into a stand of sturdy beech trees. Only one tree gave way and my parents were both killed instantly.

I was only 19 years old and I confess somewhat confused by the position I found myself in. Although it was a situation I had pictured from a very early age, the reality was not how I imagined it would be. I had not realised how much fuss there would be with post-mortems, police, solicitors, all the paperwork, registering their deaths and arrangements for the funeral and wake. I was quite exhausted by it all. Thankfully they had both made wills and, being an only child, and of age, the ownership of the hotel passed into my hands without too much fuss.

 I found solace in planning and expanding my vegetable garden that winter and by spring I had decided to continue running the hotel, but I wanted to change the ethos of the business to something in which I could believe. My parents’ finances were in surprisingly good health and I found myself not having to worry at all about a business plan, although my bank manager constantly advised otherwise. I made a few changes to the hotel, the decor was simpler, brighter, and it had a new name. It was called the New Temperance Hotel and offered only vegetarian dishes with vegan options.

Of course I lost some of the regular seasonal guests, but the restaurant had grown slowly during the spring and the books still balanced. I had also taken on staff to help in the kitchen and kept my parents’ old cleaner. I was now able to offer her work throughout the year and she was very grateful. 

It wasn’t until late spring that I returned to the Convent, hoping to see Sister Eleanor in the garden, with a fork in her hand. There was a reticence from the other Sisters to explain why she wasn’t there and I detected an air of embarrassment in their failure to be straightforward.

“I don’t hold her to blame,” I said. “And I know I should have come to see her before now, but everything has been so busy with the hotel and the restaurant.”

“It was God’s will,” came a voice from behind me that I recognised.

I turned to see Sister Joanna there with her hands concealed in the folds of her sleeves.

“Sister Eleanor has left our order.”

“She’s left? You mean she’s gone to another convent?”

“She has been released from her vows.”

The Sisters remained unseen at church ceremonies, secluded in their own gallery. I assumed that Sister Eleanor had been at my parents’ funeral, but I never saw her then or afterwards. This news confused me. Why had nobody told me before?

“Is she still here? In town I mean.”

“She is still with us for the moment. It has been a long and arduous process for her and for us. Much soul-searching and many hours of prayer are required at such a time”

“May I see her? I’d like to talk to her, tell her that I bear her no ill will, that I know it was in no way her fault.”

“I will tell her of your wishes, but I am not sure it would help either you or her to meet at the moment.”

“Would you tell her she is welcome to visit me, that I would really like to see her.”

I didn’t want to mention the hotel because I didn’t know how much the Reverend Mother knew about Sister Eleanor’s previous life. Sister Joanna nodded curtly and told me she would pass my message on. I knew I should have gone to see Sister Eleanor before then. It wasn’t her fault that she was driving the minibus that day. The police, the passengers, everyone concerned had exonerated her from any blame.

The Reverend Mother said she would inform her, but I shouldn’t expect a response.

It was quite a surprise a few days later when Jacqui, my cleaner, told me there was a woman outside reception who said she didn’t want to come into the hotel. I was slightly annoyed to be honest because I was potting on plants at the time. I peeled off my gloves, slipped my feet out of my shoes and brushed the front of my jumper to remove a few flakes of peat. For a moment I didn’t recognise the woman against the sunshine. Her blonde hair was cut in a short bob and with a slight figure she looked young, almost girlish, but fine lines on a weathered face showed that not to be so.

“Sister Eleanor?” I asked, still not certain, but recognising something familiar about her eyes.

“Just Eleanor now, or Ellie.”

“I’m so glad you came, you must come in for a cup of tea.”

“I never apologised.”

“There was no need to.”

I reached out to take her hands, both of which were wrapped tightly around the handles of a black-nylon holdall. Her knuckles were white against sun-browned fingers.

“I don’t want to interrupt. I just wanted to say goodbye, properly, in person…. and to say that I’m sorry.”

I took hold of the handles of her bag and gave her no choice but to move forward as I gently encouraged her to enter the hotel. She reluctantly stepped over the threshold and looked around at the entrance hall, which I had redecorated. Her eyes crept up the stairs. I imagined she was thinking about the last time she had been here.

“Come through to the kitchen, I’ll put the kettle on.”

She followed me. I had taken her bag so Sister Eleanor had little choice.

“Where are you going?” I asked. “You’ve left the Convent now I presume?”

“I was going to stay with my sister.”

“But you’re not now?”

“It’s not convenient for her at the moment. I will stay in lodgings until she has my room prepared.”

“You could stay here. I have two spare bedrooms in the apartment. There’s lots of room and it would be no trouble”

Sister Eleanor, I couldn’t yet think of her as Ellie, looked down at her hands and whispered so quietly that I almost missed her reply.

“That would be very kind, but I couldn’t, not after…”

“The accident? I told you that I never held you in any way responsible. My parents led their life carelessly. Something like that was bound to happen.”

“But I recognised their car.”

I wasn’t sure what she was implying. My parents drove a bright orange, convertible sports car, one of their many indulgences. Nearly everyone in town would recognise it.

”You remember our conversations,” I asked. “I used to hope that something might happen that would end the way things were here.”

Sister Eleanor nodded. I thought I ought to try out her new name. After all she wasn’t dressed as a Sister now. Blue jeans, a little too new to look comfortable, a dull green pullover and bright white trainers were not the clothes of a religious zealot – although I had always suspected Sister Eleanor was not entirely content in her cloistered life. Her previous existence, whatever that might have been, always seemed to be not far under those sombre clothes.

“I didn’t brake.” The words burst from her lips in a sudden rush.

There was a liquid quality to her eyes when she looked at me. I could imagine them dissolving completely, running down her cheeks and leaving two empty orbs.

“I knew it was them.”

I moved to her and took her in my arms. Words tumbled from her mouth between sobs.

“It was my fault. I could have avoided them. I killed them both”

I rubbed her back gently, assuring her that it must have all happened so fast, that she couldn’t have had time to take evading action.

“It’s okay Ellie. It wasn’t your fault, they had been drinking.” 

Her name sounded slightly wrong, like a child’s name, but then I was holding her and comforting her as you would a child.

“I wanted them to die,” she whispered. “For your sake and… for mine.”

There had been no question about the primary cause of the accident at the time. The mini bus had been taking several Sisters from the convent to a conference. Nobody had really questioned their account as my parents’ car had been reported to be swerving across the centre of the road.

“I turned the wheel towards them at the last moment.”

At one time I had asked to confess my sinful thoughts to Sister Eleanor. Now she was confessing an actual sin to me. 

“And I gripped the steering wheel so hard. I don’t know what made me do it. I steered towards them, not away from them. I killed them.”

“Have you told anyone else this? Have you told the Father?” I felt Ellie shake her head. “Then it will remain between us.”

Ellie stayed for tea that day. I even persuaded her to stay the night in one of the spare bedrooms in my apartment. I gave her a tour of the garden the next morning and she was excited by what I’d achieved, and with the large conservatory on the back of the hotel. I had it constructed in a Victorian style, in keeping with the property. Ellie had brightened up considerably from the previous day and offered one or two pieces of advice on what I could do to improve yields and the layout of my plot.

I managed to get Ellie to stay a second and then a third night. She fell in love with my old attic bedroom and I helped her unpacked her meagre belongings and arrange them in the drawers and wardrobe. When I went to clear out my childhood books, I hadn’t slept up there since my parents demise, Ellie asked if I could leave them.

“I’d like to read some of them, they remind me of my own childhood room.”

Ellie never did leave the New Temperance Hotel. She helped me in the garden and with the cooking. She was a fund of knowledge with regards to horticulture and became an expert in preserving our excess crops. She even ran courses for small groups who wanted stay with us and learn more from her. She remained in the attic room, asking little in return for her board and lodging other than peace, and the occasional shopping trip for practical clothes.

It transpired that Ellie was only fifteen years older than me. She found a style of dress that suited her and with which she felt comfortable, but kept her hair short. When she smiled Ellie had a youthful appearance, and she smiled more often as the months passed. People even asked sometimes if we were sisters.

“Only one of us,” I would sometimes reply. Leaving them to work puzzle over that enigma.

During the winter, when we were quiet and the hotel was full of echoes of past times, I heard Ellie crying in the small hours of the night. I crept up those narrow stairs to my old room and sat on the edge of her bed, stroking her hair to sooth her.

Every time I went to leave she gripped my wrist and asked me to stay. It was a narrow bed so I lay close beside her, Ellie under the covers and me on top of them. We both went to sleep like that, but I woke first, cold and cramped. I crept out of the room, managing not to disturb her. 

We never spoke about her tears at breakfast, but on nights when Ellie was upset she would appear by my bed and slip under the covers when I drew them back.

Ellie and I were not partners, not in business, or in love, but we were bonded by a common guilt concerning a desire, which we had both harboured – and which Ellie had fulfilled.

Sometime during that first year we gave up the pretence of separate bedrooms. I had my handyman help me move one of the double beds into the loft, under the pretext of making another letting room available. Ellie and I slept together up there.

Sometimes at night the wind would whistle through the tiles, moaning and screaming like someone despised and angry and I would hold Ellie tight. We would lie quietly like that until the wind dropped and the screams died away.

Published by Bruce Aiken

A maths and physics student who ran away to art college and has worked as a freelance creative ever since.

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