Put me next to my sister Charmaine and I fade into the background. It’s a twist on ugly duckling/ beautiful swan syndrome.
The fact I’m two years older only makes matters worse. I’m eighteen and Charmaine is sixteen. She’s everything I’m not. She has brilliant green eyes to my hazel ones, golden hair to my light brown, and a figure to die for. But it’s more than that! Every pore oozes sexuality and confidence. She only has to crook her finger and the boys come running.
The last straw came when one of her admirers tried to befriend me in order to get close to her..
Our family live in a modest private house on the edge of a sprawling estate. “The wrong side of the tracks,” dad calls it. But he turns a blind eye to my sister’s frequent trips there. As far as he’s concerned, Charmaine is “an angel” and it seems she can do no wrong.
Built in the 60’s, the estate is a sprawling affair consisting of white blocks of polygonal courtyards. It covers around fifteen acres and is connected by a series of ramps. I’ve often wondered how long it would take to walk from one end to the other, but I have no desire to try it. Instead, I bypass it taking the longer route to avoid crossing its pathways.
It wasn’t always bad with my sister. Not so long ago, we used to link arms and laugh about silly stuff the way sisters do. It was the pair of us against the world. But that was before her hormones kicked in. The last time I stepped out with her on the estate was sheer punishment; before long, the air was thick with whistles and shouts of “Can you get out tonight Charmie?” No one gave me a second glance.
It was hard to take the humiliation.
EGBDF: Every good boy deserves favour.
A mnemonic to show the lines of the treble clef starting from lowest to highest.
We’re talking early 80’s when every Sunday I attend the “mission” for young people at a boy’s school, of which dad is in charge. Whenever I see these words chalked up on the blackboard of the music room where the service is held, I wonder if any boy will dare to erase them. But then, a boy might get a beating for doing that. Corporal punishment is still very much alive and well. Also, it’s a boys high school so it’s not going to have a mnemonic mentioning girls.
It’s 3 o’clock on Sunday and I’m cringing in one of the plastic orange seats that have been painstakingly set up for the “young people’s fellowship group” as it’s officially called. I wait with baited breath dreading dad will say something that will make me want to sink into the floor. There’s no point asking him to tone things down because he’ll just tell me I I should be supporting him in his “missionary work.” To avoid trouble, I try to say as little as possible
It’s a different story when it comes to my sister Charmaine. She only has to work her charm on him to get what she wants. For weeks now, she’s managed to get out of going to the meeting.
“Charmaine needs to spend more time on her homework,” he said the one time I questioned it. It was difficult to argue with that.
Fat chance of her spending time on her homework though! How little he knows her. At the first opportunity, she’ll slip out of the house to be with her mates from the estate. I’ve seen her staring dreamily at one of the boys from the bedroom window. It’s only a matter of time before he succumbs.
It may be unfair, but I don’t complain.
I have my own reasons for not making a fuss.
His name is Greg. For some reason, he’s selected me as his friend. Literally gorgeous, about six months ago, the music room door opened and there he was. Dark and mysterious, clad in motorbike leathers, he immediately came and sat next to me. Every time I’m with him I long to put my fingers through that thick brown hair, see his deep blue eyes gaze longingly into mine and hear that amazing voice soothe away my worries. I could hear him talk for hours, except he’s more of a listener. We hang out together before, during and after the meeting.
In the last few weeks, a group of teenagers who I’ve come to think of as The Gang of Five have been showing up. Four boys and one girl smirking and giggling through dad’s talk. The slightest thing sets them off, but he continues doggedly. I feel embarrassed on his behalf, but he’s unfazed. If anything, their presence fires him up; he regards this intake of “fresh blood” as a chance to spread the word.
Whereas I just feel sick.
It’s the half hour break and I’m waiting to catch up with Greg in the sports ground area. We never go out together in case it rouses suspicion.
This time he’s a little later arriving at our designated spot. I distract myself by concentrating on the lines marking out the football pitch. Self-conscious to a fault, I dread encountering any of the gang members. I know they’re around somewhere.
Too late. I feel myself tense as Shaz, the girl member, saunters over.
“Got a fag?”
“NA, you don’t look the type. Daddy’s good girl, aren’t ya?.” We’re back in the day when smoking was cool – although its health effects were starting to be questioned. Ironic that now I work for a pharmaceutical company that specialises in getting people off cigarettes.
“Actually, I don’t get on with him.” I’m unable to hide my bitterness. “I did smoke but then I got caught. Sorry, I haven’t got anything on me.”
“So your old man caught you? I’d liked to have seen that.” Her opinion of me shifts a little.
“He’s sumfing else, eh?” Must be ‘ard being preached at all the time.”
“Something like that.” Actually, it was mum who caught me smoking and I made her promise not to tell dad, but I’m not going to admit that to Shaz.
“We only come ‘ere for a laugh, you know.”
“Ah, don’t take it the wrong way: we don’t mean no ‘arm.... Sommat to do, innit?”
“Anyway, it’s my last time here. Mum’s moving away so won’t be coming again.” She studies me intently. “You’ve got a soft spot for that Greg fella, haven’t ya?”
I say nothing.
“Yeah, you do. I can tell. No skin off my nose mate. He’s not my type.” She scrabbles about in her bag. “Ere, you can have this.” She hands me a glinting charm of a ladybug hanging from an elastic strap. “It’s supposed to be lucky. If you wear it, you get the boy you want. But don’t go and lose it like I did. Even when I found it again, it stopped working. It’s no use to me now. But maybe you’ll have better luck than me.”
“Thanks.” I’ve never believed in the power of charms, but I’m touched by the unexpected gift.
Greg comes towards us. “He looks like a hard nut to crack,” she adds. “Think you’re gonna need that charm.”
When I get home I tuck the necklace away in a drawer. Then I poke my head round the kitchen door where mum is slaving over a roast with all the trimmings.
“Give me a hand, Beth, please. Carry the plates in.” I’m about to object that it’s always me who gets called on to help, but seeing how tired she looks, think better if it. I once asked her why dad favoured Charmaine over me. Her face clouded and I thought she was going to deny it, but in the end she just said, “Please don’t make a fuss, Beth. He loves you too. In his own way.”.
At the table, my sister looks like butter wouldn’t melt. Cozying up, doing her usual charm act on dad. He says nothing about the telltale smudge of makeup she hasn’t quite wiped off..
While everyone is tucking into the meal, I’m thinking about the words chalked up on the music room blackboard. Doesn’t a girl deserve favour too? If only I could find a way to capture Greg’s heart and make dad love me the way he does Charmaine.
I keep going over what Greg said to me a few weeks ago.
“You’re such a good mate, Beth. It’s a bit like being with another bloke – except better.”
Bittersweet words. Can there ever be anything other then friendship between us? Maybe there’s a spark from his side? It seems unlikely. All I know is I have to do something.
After the washing up is done, I try the necklace on in my room. On either side, the charm flashes its little fake diamonds, lighting up my face. At least, I assume they’re fake. If anyone asks, I’ll say I got it from a church sale. Deep down, I’m worried dad will forbid me from wearing it, but when he sees it, he says, “That’s a nice necklace, Beth. It suits you.” I’m amazed by his reaction. I can’t remember the last time he’s complimented me. Is my luck about to change?
My good luck continues when the following Sunday Greg and I meet in our usual spot during the intermission.
“You seem different today, Beth.” There’s a glimmer as if he’s seeing me for the first time. “What’s that you’re wearing?”
“Just a necklace.”
“That’s so pretty.” He draws closer. No mistaking the electricity as he briefly touches the charm.
“Thank you. I’m glad you like it.”
“Erm, I I was wondering if you’d like to go to the cinema with me next week?”
“What?” I exclaim.
“Well, only if you want to.”
I think of my sister. How would she respond in my shoes? “Sounds like fun,” I say, at last.
“It will have to be when dad’s not around. You know how he is.”
Between us, we work out the best time is next Sunday when dad is preaching. “I’ll tell him I’m not feeling well. My sister gets away with it all the time, so why shouldn’t I?”
“You don’t speak about her much,” Greg says curiously.
“She’s not worth speaking about.”
In the cinema, Greg puts his arm round me. The warmth of his body and his aftershave make me dizzy. I have no idea what the film is about and when he kisses me, I feel faint. All I can think of is getting him alone.
Like Juliet, desire changes me, making me bold. When my parents decide to take Charmaine to London as a birthday treat, I point out I need extra time to revise for my exams. Normally that would be true. Now, I seize the chance to spend time with Greg alone.
After spending the day with him, I now know what all the fuss is about. Even though the charm is starting to irritate my neck, I keep it on. Greg seems fascinated by it so any discomfort is a small price to pay. He touches it even during our most intimate moments. I only I take it off in the bathroom. And even then, I keep it close.
I don’t want to tempt fate.
Inevitably Greg will get to meet my sister because dad has invited him round for Sunday lunch. Predictably, I can almost hear her intake of breath when he’s introduced. Maybe she sees him a challenge because she spends the entire meal flirting. But it’s all to no avail: it seems he only has eyes for me.
For weeks everything goes well, but then one day I leave the charm in my bedroom while I take a shower. When I go to put on my necklace, I find it’s gone. I completely freak out. Greg is due any minute!
Why am I not surprised to find my sister sitting at the table wearing my necklace, her hand circling the charm? Why am I not surprised to see her looking like the cat that got the cream?
“You’re wearing my necklace,” I snarl. “Give it back to me.”
“Surely you don’t mind if I borrow it, Beth. Just for today.”
“I never said you could.”
Dad looks up from his bible. “Don’t be churlish, Beth,” he says. “Let your sister wear it.”
“Mum?” I plead.
“You shouldn’t take what doesn’t belong to you Charmaine. Just make sure you give it back to your sister by the end the day.” Mum speaks quietly and serves out the vegetables.
As events unfold, its like being glued to a horror movie. I watch powerless as Greg suddenly reacts to my sister the way all the other boys do. After the meal, her eyes glint as she offers to give him a tour of the neighbourhood. It all seems to be happening in slow motion. I’m paralysed, unable to act. All the time, the charm glitters mockingly on my sister’s neck. Mesmerised, Greg follows her out of the house, not looking back.
“Greg…. Please….. don’t go.” My throat constricts. I can’t get the words out properly.
“We won’t be long,” Charmaine purrs. “I know how much you hate wandering round the estate.”
I’m standing in my sister’s room watching the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. Fast asleep. She’s always hated the dark and keeps the curtains slightly open. The cold glare of the moon reveals the charm lying attached to its necklace on her bedside table. There’s a slight stirring, but no waking. Lying there, she’s vulnerable and exposed without the necklace. An image flashes of when we were kids dressing up in mum’s clothes and trying on her shoes. Like little magpies, we used to love the glittering jewellery.
Charmaine’s still playing at being grownup. At heart, she’s still a child, snatching at adult things. Seeing her like this reminds me how I used to take care of her. She’d snuggle up next to me while I read her stories in bed. Nothing too scary because she was easily frightened.
For a few seconds, my anger evaporates, but it returns to the familiar refrain of “If I can’t have him, neither can you.” Things have spiralled and I can’t get them to stop. Sibling rivalry is primal; a pulse running deep. It’s the human urge not to be replaced. Wanting to preserve what’s mine at all costs. Wanting to matter.
Anger makes me decisive. I quickly slip the necklace into my dressing gown pocket, tiptoe across soft carpet pile and gently close the door…
The upstairs hallway is eerily silent. Pressing my ear to my parent’s bedroom wall, I hear nothing. Padding downstairs, I open the front door. My nostrils are filled with air that is smoky and rain-drenched, but undeterred I make my way to the outside drain where I release the necklace. There’s a slight plop as it hits the water. So much better than throwing it down the sink where it could be retrieved.
The following morning, Charmaine bursts into my bedroom.
“You fucking bitch! What have you done with the necklace?”
Now it’s my turn to look like butter wouldn’t melt.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. After all, you took it off me, remember?”
It comes as no surprise when not long after ‘losing’ the charm, she and Greg split up. Charmaine is devastated. It’s the first time a boy has rejected her and for the life of her she can’t understand why.
Lying in bed, I hear her bitter crying on the other side of the wall. Not only has she had to deal with the ignominy of being dumped, Dad has listened to mum for once and generally clamped down. There’s to be no more rearing off and she’s been banned from mixing with boys from the estate. He’s also insisted she attends all the Sunday meetings, no excuses.
My only comfort is Greg won’t be there. He hasn’t attended the meeting for weeks now and I never want to see his face again.
Tonight I lie in bed wondering about the charm as it sloshes through miles of underground pipes, gets pushed around by rats and passes through the sewage system. Eventually it will probably be discovered by some waste disposal worker. Or maybe it will lay dormant, tangled up in filth and detritus for many years to come. Who knows?
I can only hope at some point along the line it will bring someone lasting luck. Hopefully, someone who deserves it.
But human nature being what it is, it seems unlikely.