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Sport 31: Spring 2003

KATE DUIGNAN — Stories We Tell About Our Sister

page 198


Stories We Tell About Our Sister

for Helen on her birthday

For twelve days and nights we call her Tuppence. Before Christmas there is snow and a fox crosses the garden. A name falls on her head like a star.

Sometimes the baby turns limp and blue like her own pyjamas. We freeze and hold our common breath until she inhales colour back into her skin. Oh, the doctor says, silly billy babies, sometimes they just forget.

It's an ordinary afternoon of biscuits in the kitchen when consciousness slips from our sister like a glass over the table edge. That day we see faces we never knew the adults possessed. An ambulance arrives at the door. The phone rings late into the night and for a week we eat McDonald's. This is how the heart functions, our father explains.

A date is set for surgery but our sister has other plans. She arrives home with her heart still leaking, smiles like a queen and evangelises us all with chickenpox.

Years later classmates will fall out of trees, break arms, chip teeth.

—Well, our sister, we say.

—Yeah, they ask, what?

—Boy oh boy, our sister. They snapped her bones, we tell them. They froze her, they stapled her back together. Look at this, we say, and press their fingers against the nub of skin on our sister's chest.

They are speechless. We bask in her glory.

page 199

One Monday when she is four our sister finds a pink shower-cap and wants to wear it out. No, Mum, we cry, you can't let her! On Tuesday she clasps it to her head and her stubborn fingers turn white. Gosh, her teacher says when she arrives at kindy, you look just like a marshmallow on a stick. On Friday it rains. Our sister stands out in the downpour and crows with delight. On Sunday she walks slowly up the aisle and the priest blesses her through the plastic.

When she is six she learns a joke. Knock, knock, she says to her mother, the teacher, the plumber, and the adults roll their eyes to heaven and ask, who's there? Bumblebee, she whispers and already she starts to tremble and jitter. Bumblebee who? they ask, and now she is jelly on the floor, she is champagne, the joke moves in her feet and ribs. Bumblebee-cold, she says, shocking herself silent for a second, until the line splits from her like water: if-you-don't-pull-your-pants-up!

Our sister lies on the couch, reading. A kitten jumps up and nips her toes. My life, our sister mumbles, scratching the kitten's head, is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes. She makes a cheese sandwich, picks up the book and lies back down.

The cat yawns and rolls over. Someone comes into the room, searching for a phone number. You have no compassion for my poor nerves, our sister says, I am most seriously displeased. She gets up, bakes chocolate-chip cookies and lies back down.

The cat grows fat and old. Our sister's legs flop over the edge of the couch. She has not moved for days. She ought to wash clothes, eat food, go out into the sunshine, but the Prince is away fighting for the Emperor, while in Moscow there is the absence of a moral barrier between the heroine and the scoundrel. A king is history's slave, she tells the dribbling cat. When an apple has ripened and falls, why does it fall? The cat twitches and his wet green eyes flicker beneath their lids. Her words are blackbirds gathering on the lawn, startled lizards in the courtyard.