In my dreams
My mother, Mrs Oates, was having an affair with a woman down the street.
I knew the woman. Her name was Rose and her daughter, Patsy, had been making my life miserable for as long as I could remember. The day she dismantled my yellow toy duck that I loved because it always bobbed its head as I pulled it behind me by a string, is forever etched in my memory. After breaking it apart, she had sat herself down on the edge of the pavement and tauntingly let the pieces of my dear friend disappear through an opening in a street drain.
On another occasion she had threatened to throw me into a campfire that she and some boys had got going, unless I told her I loved her. I refused at first because I hated her, but then she lifted me up and started dangling me in front of it. I thought of my dad then. I knew that he would be in great pain if he learned that I had died. So I told her. She made me repeat it three times and after that slobbered me with kisses before she let me go.
My mum hadn’t said much when I told her what had happened. She never did when it came to Patsy. I didn’t get a new duck either.
Mum always told me that Patsy had some mental problems that were a result of having to live with such funny hands and feet. She would add in a serious tone that I should take that into account and show some understanding.
My mother didn’t know how evil Patsy really was, until the day she did and our lives were changed forever. It was winter and I remember that the night before it all happened Annie, my three-year-old sister, had squealed with delight when my dad kept switching the lights of our Christmas tree on and off to make her laugh.
Patsy and I lived in the same street, Larkshall Road, and my mother took us over to her place quite a lot because she wanted to see Rose. I always cried when she made me go down there. Once my mother had knelt down before me and she had looked me in the eye and asked me why, for crying out loud, I hated playing with Patsy so much. I couldn’t tell her that it wasn’t just because of the duck and the fire, but that there was other stuff too because Patsy had told me that she would slit my throat if I ever told my mother the truth. So I told her that Patsy’s fingers made me feel like throwing up, which made my mother reel off her lecture on showing some respect and understanding again.
‘I have a secret to tell you,’ Patsy smirked when the three of us were up in her room that afternoon. Annie was playing with Patsy’s rocking horse, Daisy. Patsy didn’t allow her to sit on it, but she had given Annie two pencils and told her to pretend they were carrots for the horse.
Patsy looked me straight in the eye and at that moment I realised that the alarmed look on my face nourished her, so I tried my best to look neutral. ‘Your mum is going to leave your dad and she is going to live with us. I’ll have two mummies and you’ll have none.’
Patsy turned away from me and knelt down before Annie, who was jabbing the pencils at the horse’s mouth. She wrapped her long middle finger, the only finger she had on her right hand, around Annie’s wrist. ‘Your mummy is leaving Annie, because she is going to be my mum.’
Annie briefly glanced at me and then burst into tears.
‘Oh, don’t cry pet,’Patsy cooed.
It reminded me of the time she wanted to throw me in the fire. ‘You’ll be fine Annie. You can come visit. And hey, we’ll be sisters.’
I, too, was now biting back my tears.
Patsy noticed. ‘Oh my God,’ she angrily exclaimed. ‘You two are such babies.’
Annie started crying even harder. ‘Don’t cry Annie, we’ll be sisters. You know what? I know something that will cheer you up. Do you want to see ice?’
Annie stopped crying abruptly and looked at Patsy through her haze of tears. ‘Ice cream?’ she quivered, with snot running into her mouth.
‘No, not ice you can eat. Ice you can walk on. Would you like to see it?’
Annie nodded hesitantly. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and took the two fingers of Patsy’s left hand that were extended to her.
‘Where are you going?’ I asked.
‘There is ice on the ditch behind our house. I go on it every day. It is strong enough.’
I felt a flutter of excitement. ‘Can I come too?’
‘Sure,’ she grunted.
Downstairs, Patsy helped us put our shoes and coats on, and then we silently slipped out of the house and made our way over to the ditch. ‘You’ve never seen ice before, have you Annie?’ Patsy asked.
Annie duly shook her head. I wanted to tell Patsy that she actually had, but I was afraid I’d trigger something, so I kept quiet.
Patsy was the first to lower herself down the edge of the ditch and onto the black ice and turned around to help us. I tightly held on to Annie’s hand. ‘Walk slowly Annie,’ I said. ‘It’s slippery.’
She carefully shuffled one foot in front of the other. ‘You’re doing great Annie,’ I egged her on, and she beamed at me with joy.
I looked down on her pink woolly hat and at the tufts of chestnut-coloured hair that stuck out on the sides, and I suddenly felt a warm glow welling up inside me. I always did when I saw her happy. Like with the Christmas lights.
I have been over this moment, and what followed next, millions of times over the past twenty years and I have never really understood how Annie came to walk off by herself. I remember that Patsy started talking about our mothers again and that she angered me enormously. I remember that, at that moment, I dared to stand up to her for the first time in my life, a fact that I attribute to that moment in her room, when I realised how she needed my fear. I didn’t understand the hole in the ice that I had failed to spot until much later, when I learned that people sometimes make them so that ducks have some water to swim around in.
I remember we heard a splashing sound, followed by a feeble shriek. And in the moment I turned around and saw her I was changed forever.
Annie was lying up to her armpits in the freezing water. Her arms were stretched out before her and she was pressing her little bare hands down on the ice as she fought to stay above water. Her face was a mixture of shock and disbelief and she let out soft, high-pitched cries that I had never heard before.
I had lost all feeling in my body and as I tried to rush over to her as fast as I could, I felt like I was lugging ten dead cows behind me. Suddenly Patsy grabbed hold of my arm. It couldn’t be true.
‘No,’ I screamed. ‘No, let me go. We have to save her.’
‘It’s dangerous,’ Patsy yelled back. ‘I’ll get my mum.’
‘No,’ I screamed again and pulled myself free.
I ran up to the hole, but Patsy caught up with me. She tackled me to the ground and sat down on my back. I was lying on the ice now, facing my beloved sister and knew that everything was lost.
I stared at Annie. She was limp and pale, but she looked back at me. I could tell that she knew that I wasn’t going to rescue her. ‘Let me go,’ I shouted at the top of my lungs and tried to wriggle free. ‘Help her! Patsy, help her! Help Annie!’
‘Mum, mum!’ I heard Patsy yell behind me.
I looked back at Annie. Her eyes had glazed over. With cold. With acceptance. She started to lose her grip. I remember I peed my pants and that it gave me some comfort for just a few seconds because it was warm and familiar. Before my eyes my little sister slowly sank into the water underneath the ice. ‘Annie, I’m sorry, I love you,’ I yelled after her.
I felt it was the last thing I could do.
I have never forgotten my mother’s harrowing screams that filled the air as she and Rose came running towards us. They are with me every day of my life. My poor mother. Her face. Her eyes. I couldn’t look at her.
She sat on her knees, one arm groping around in the ice-cold water. Her voice hoarse, she screamed, and cried, and groped. But she never got Annie back. She got back a lifeless body that was buried five days later.
I love going to sleep at night because in my dreams Annie survives. I see myself standing in front of the hole with Annie in my arms. She is happy because we’re on the ice. Patsy screams at me: ‘Please help me. Please Kate, help me.’
I look down at her as she frantically clutches at the ice. She is shivering profusely and her lips are blue. I am happy. Not because Annie and I are on the ice, but because Patsy is in it, and she is dying.
Mum never left us for Patsy’s mum.