Ensconced in her world of soft cream and gentle blues, Vanessa cradled a mug brimming with peppermint tea, the warmth easing her arthritic but perfectly-manicured fingers. The city glimmered before her; each individual speck of light shining stubbornly through the damp gloom. The fog hung low tonight, all the way down to where hard-booted footsteps echoed along the cobblestoned pavements and cold rain pattered in the gutters.
She took a sip and sighed, the vapours enshrouded her senses, soothing the internal static. She had finally managed to secure funding for her current venture; a speculative television series with a clear focus on the technological advancement of humanity and the environment. She liked it. The budget wasn’t great but she would make it work. Before leaving the office for the weekend, she had emailed a number of her preferred screenwriters and directors who she knew would be interested in this sort of project. First thing Monday morning she would—
Vanessa squeezed her eyes shut and focused her breathing, willing herself to stop thinking about work. A soft wave of calm spread outwards from her core, lapping along her arms and legs, all the way to her extremities, dispelling the sizzle of stress as surely as icy water poured into a boiling saucepan.
It was her Dad who had taught her that trick. She wished he was here now. He wouldn’t approve of the quiet though, she could hear him complaining as clearly as if he was right there with her – it’s a fantastic apartment Vanny, but where’s the music?
Her mouth twitched, the familiar surge of anger menacing her calm. He was supposed to live forever or at least until she was very, very old herself. Her fingers tightened around her mug. He couldn’t be gone. Not her Dad. It wasn’t allowed.
She forced back the tears and tried to focus on something else.
What were other people doing right now?
In her mind, she saw families settling down on top of each other, vying for space on sofas too small for all of them. Spiritually united by their evening’s entertainment. Her older sister, Tina, belonged to this group. Most of her children had moved out by now, of course, but Vanessa still imagined them all in one place. Tina lived in the eastern outskirts of the city near the green belt, where house prices were much lower and parking more abundant.
Now, when did she last talk to Tina? It was always Tina who called her, but the calls had become less frequent since Dad died. Why was that?
She’d never forget the last time she was bullied at school. The metallic taste of blood where she’d fell and bitten her tongue, the dank smell of puddle-water and the sting of asphalt against her cheek. Her sister suddenly appearing between her and her abusers, hands on hips, defying them all, her girlish voice unwavering in its fury.
Had Dad been the last link? Without him, were they just two people who grew up together?
Vanessa shook her head and tutted. This melancholic mood was hard to shift.
Who else was out there? Lovers, of course. Dipping their toes in the untrodden depths of intimacy, watching the ripples and wondering how far they would go. And older couples, sharing a contented silence gleaned from a lifetime of memories. Revelling in an unspoken bond that only they could ever truly understand.
And if they looked out, what would they see?
A woman in her mid-forties with short, blonde hair. Stylish and slim in slate-grey designer loungewear, padding about her immaculate apartment. The furniture predominantly white, edged with chrome or glass where appropriate. Decorative sofa cushions laced with pale blue, matching the bedspread and blankets. The floor-length curtains a darker, almost royal, shade of blue. It was a haven of soothing tones, her oasis from the hectic lifestyle she led.
And she had earnt it. She turned her back to the city.
She didn’t care what people thought.
Tina picked up her mobile phone, paused and put it down again. Garbled voices floated in from the living room, mingling with the soft roar of boiling pasta.
“Call her,” David said, herding their two squealing grandchildren out of the kitchen, “She likes it when you call.”
“I don’t know,” she said, wiping her hands on a red and white chequered tea towel, “She always makes some lame excuse after a few minutes.”
“If she didn’t want to talk to you, she wouldn’t answer.”
Tina nodded, tucking a rogue strand of her long blonde hair (now inlaid with silver) behind her ear, “Fair point.”
With a wooden spoon, she stirred the Bolognese, letting the aromas fill her nostrils. It reminded her of when she was a child herself, pulling on her mother’s long ruffled skirts, hankering for a taste. She could never wait for food. Not like Vanessa who had always viewed food as a necessity rather than something to be enjoyed.
Would Vanessa like her to call? Despite what she’d said, David didn’t get it. Not really. Who can wade through the undercurrents of a shared childhood and make sense of it all? If anyone understood why they had drifted apart it should be Tina. But she didn’t and she felt that she was in some way failing her younger sister by not understanding.
Was it Dad’s death? The old feeling of not understanding something was stronger when she thought of him. He and Vanessa had always been giggling, making inside jokes with rolled eyes and half-hearted explanations. She recalled furious jealousy as her Dad winked at Vanessa over the kitchen counter. She never got a wink. She never got the jokes.
Or had it started earlier? The insidious unravelling of a tapestry that was meant to keep them woven together like twin strands of silk: independent but forever connected.
Their mother had died first, killed by a drunk driver when Tina and Vanessa were in their twenties. The shock had propelled Vanessa into her work and Tina into her nascent family. Bobby had been four and Catherine two; they had kept her busy as tears dripped onto their storybooks and fish finger sandwiches. There were four of them now. The youngest, Ronan, being twenty-two. And two grand-children, Catherine’s little Connie and Robert who kept sneaking into the kitchen like Tina used to all those years ago. They all had eyes the same pale-blue as Tina’s mother, as if she was reassuring her that she wasn’t really gone.
Her mother’s voice rose up from her most cherished memories. A warm, pink blanket. Tiny toes. This is your baby sister. Her name is Vanessa. The overwhelming surge of protectivity was felt even then, at the tender age of five.
She looked again at her phone and shook her head. It was always her that called. The big sister checking in with the younger, even at the age of fifty. If Vanessa wanted to talk, nothing was stopping her.
Perhaps it was time to stop forcing it.
The buzzer went. Vanessa tipped the young delivery man and unloaded the little cardboard boxes, packets of sauce and prawn crackers into a large, curved dish. Satisfied with the presentation, she tidied away all the rubbish and wiped down the ceramic work surface before settling down at the glass-topped dining table to eat.
She flicked the plasma television from channel to channel, not sure what she was searching for, just something to watch while she ate. Momentarily, she paused on some dramatic scene; a woman wept on a stoic man’s shoulder, he shushed her and said, “It’ll be alright. We can always adopt.”
Vanessa grunted and switched over, finding one of those programs about re-styling your house. That would do. But it was no use, the thoughts she had been ignoring stirred, like cockroaches emerging from the corners when the lights go out.
Jake, her partner of seven years, had left her. He had said – emphatically and more than once – that it wasn’t because she couldn’t have children but the evidence was plain. Social media was a cruel beast sometimes, flaunting pictures of him with his new girlfriend glowing with expectant motherhood. She knew she should stop torturing herself, she had never felt the urge to have children before she met him. Not like Tina who dove into the maternal waters as easily as a mother goose. She yearned to give in and talk to her older sister, to weep like the woman on the tv, to drop the pretence.
But Tina was always worried that she was unhappy or unfulfilled because she hadn’t surrounded herself with children. This would only cement that concern and exacerbate it. Vanessa straightened in her seat and with one finger, pushed her phone further away. It was time for her to grow up and protect her older sister - Tina had a whole family to look after - she didn’t need another worr—
The television winked out.
The hum of the fridge vanished.
All the lights of the surrounding buildings flicked out in near-perfect unity, leaving Vanessa enshrouded in night. The sad, waning boop of the TV powering down was greeted with a strange silence, unpleasant in its totality. Dark seeped into her apartment like mist, deepening the black, giving it an opaque quality. The cockroaches of her mind were roused, crawling out from their hovels. Why was she all alone? She wasn’t a horrible person, was she?
She didn’t move, apart from turning her attention from the television to the windows as her eyes adjusted. She turned on the torch app on her phone and placed it on the table. It cast a ghostly pallor across the table’s transparent surface, allowing her to see her own gaunt reflection in the window.
There was no hint of light coming from outside, not even from the moon and stars which were enshrouded in thick storm clouds. The whole city must be out. Unbelievable. She crunched into a vegetable spring roll and let her mind wander.
There had been a power cut when she was about seven and Tina twelve. They’d loved it. Mum had filled the living room with candles, their flickering, wobbling light giving off a magical ambiance. They had played cards with Mum and Dad well past their bed time. Shrieking as they accused each other of cheating and bestowed the greatly-feared punishment – mass tickling.
At one point, Dad had gotten his guitar out and started playing songs they didn’t know and some they did. Sad songs, jaunty songs, fun songs. There were few songs that didn’t make Vanessa think of her Dad. She swallowed the burning lump in her throat and took a sip of water.
She ached to be able to call him. To slip into his embrace which seemed made just for her, her head fitting perfectly in the centre of his chest, the reassuring thump of his heartbeat loud in her ear.
She wished she could reach out.
Tina and her family huddled around the old, wooden table, their dishes empty (some licked bare) and waited for David to return from his investigation.
“Do you think the whole city’s out?” Catherine asked, her arms wrapped around her frightened four-year old Robert.
“Maybe,” Tina said, adding her phone torch to the others. Their collective lights lit the room almost as well as if there was no blackout. “I’m just glad it happened after dinner was ready.”
“Me too!” Bobby, her eldest, said, slapping his belly. Now when did he get so big?
“I don’t fancy driving home until the lights are back on,” Catherine’s husband, Tom, said. Connie, their six-year-old was sitting on his lap, thick shock of white-blond hair sticking out in every direction, quiet and content with her full, warm tummy.
“When I was little,” Tina began, leaning back in her chair which groaned as she moved, “We used to play cards when there was a blackout.”
“I don’t know where the cards are,” David said, the front door banging shut behind him, “But I know where the board games are… anyone for Monopoly?”
“YES!” Connie screamed, jolting herself up so suddenly she almost smacked her father’s chin with the back of her head.
“What did you see?” Tina asked.
“Nothing,” he said, stretching his arms wide, “Whole city gone." He turned to Catherine, "You’re not driving home in that.”
Catherine and Tom nodded in unison.
“Right,” Tina said, gathering the cutlery and stacking the plates, “Bobby, help me put all this in the kitchen.”
Once the table was cleared and the board set up, Tina caught her eyes wandering over to her phone again. What was Vanessa doing right now? Was she out in some swanky nightclub, smoozing clients or was she at a friend’s house? Tina didn’t know Vanessa’s friends, but she was sure she must have some. She hoped she wasn’t all alone in that cold, featureless apartment of hers.
David placed a hand on her shoulder, “Call her.”
The chicken Chow Mein was delicious; lightly flavoured with soy sauce, the noodles a little crunchy but in a good way – she’d never paid this much attention to her food – but it distracted her from the dark’s icy caress.
When her phone rang, she jumped so hard she hit her knee on the underside of the table and dropped her cutlery.
It was Tina.
“Hey, how are you?”
“Oh fine,” she said, placing her cutlery neatly on her empty plate.
“You got a blackout there?”
“Catherine and Tom are here with the kids... We’re going to play Monopoly. Do you remember when we played cards with Mum and Dad during the blackout?”
“Yes.” Vanessa winced at her own monosyllabism. Why couldn’t she open up to her sister? She searched desperately for something to say, something to ask, “How’s David?”
“Same as always, you know. He went outside and reported that it was definitely dark everywhere. Connie and Robert are here, they are very excited by it all.”
“I bet they are.”
“Are you… it sounds very quiet, are you at home?”
“Alone?” Vanessa clenched her teeth. That hadn’t taken her sister long.
“Yes. You know Jake and I split up.”
“Yeah, I know,” she said, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean… but, you could have been out with friends or even on a date or something. It is Friday night and—”
Vanessa’s chair screeched on the hardwood flooring as she stood up and moved over to the kitchen.
“I don’t want to go on a date. I’m too old.” She wished her voice didn’t sound so harsh.
“Don’t you dare! If you’re old, what does that make me?”
Vanessa smiled, sliding a wine glass off the rack above the counter and poured herself a glass of chardonnay, “You’ve got children… and grandchildren, they keep you young. That’s what they say, isn’t it?”
“They do say that,” she said, an unmistakable note of tentativeness creeping in, “Are you alright?”
“Of course. I’m always alright,” she said, cursing inwardly as a nervous chuckle escaped.
Maybe it was the pounding silence, the encroaching darkness or the hollow, deathly image of herself floating in the window, mocking her… she didn’t know what it was, but she didn’t want to pretend anymore.
“Jake broke up with me because I can’t have children. He said he didn’t care but his new girlfriend is twenty-six and she’s already…” She took a deep breath, “She’s pregnant.”
"You can't have kids?" The horror in Tina's voice made her flinch.
“And you wanted to have kids?”
“With him… yes.”
“Oh Vanny,” she said, her voice breaking, betraying the tears that Vanessa knew were there, “I’m so sorry.”
Vanny. That was what Dad had called her.
Her chest heaved as the tears came. Fast and furious like a burst dam gushing into a river long-accustomed to being a thin, trickle. She cried unashamedly amidst comforting sounds from the phone clamped to her ear, from the only voice left in the world that had known her since birth.
After a long time, Vanessa blew her nose and said, “I’m sorry, T. I guess I’m not doing so well at the moment.”
“Don’t be sorry! Look, what are you doing this weekend? Come and visit. Stay with us.”
Automatic refusal teetered on her lips but she swallowed it down, “OK. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Great,” Tina said, “And Vanny?”
“Bring some cash cos I’m gunna thrash you at cards.”
“Thanks T,” she said, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.
“Hey,” she said, “What are big sister’s for?”