What would be worse do you think – too much oxygen or not enough? Suffocation or starvation? Both can kill you. Both can make you feel high. Not that I can claim to be high when I hyperventilate at the prospect of riding a lift. When that happens I think I’m going to die. But robbing your brain of oxygen can make you feel euphoric. I did try it, I had to know. Well, when I say I tried it, I mean I stopped at the first flush of panic. I imagine Kait felt elation though, before she lost consciousness.
My therapist, Dr Kay, said I’m to write this. My recovery diary. A journal of anything in my past that may have contributed to my fear of confined spaces. We’ll then de-code these events, disarm them of their toxicity, so I can rationalise my phobia. In tandem with this, I’m to do my practical homework: step-by-step exposure to the spaces I dread. I’ve made a list starting with the least bothersome – toilets and changing rooms with no gaps under the doors, escalating (pardon my pun) to the most unthinkable. Ask any claustrophobe on this Green Isle, it’s is a no-brainer: the Channel Tunnel vehicle shuttle. I mean sitting in a car, inside a train, hurtling through a tunnel that is under the sea? Hell on Earth. I need to pee just thinking about it. In a toilet that has a gap under the door, of course. And a visible bolt, not one that’s buried in the doorframe. Buried, says it all.
Today seems as good a day as any to start this. The day after I said goodbye to Mum, or rather the day after I missed saying goodbye to Mum. And I’m not going to lie, because what’s the point of lying in a journal? I blame Kait. Fuck you, Kait, for making me miss seeing her go.
Why did I miss it? My car broke down on the way to the hospital. Why did it break down? Because it’s old. Because I need traditional (non-centrally-locked) doors that are opened with a real (not-electric-fob) key, and hand-cranking (not-automatic) windows. Which means I can’t stand to ride a taxi either. Or a bus. Pneumatic doors. I shudder at the sound of their hiss and suck.
‘You need a more reliable car, lovey,’ Dad said, when I burst, breathlessly through the ward doors after the most traumatic cab journey of my life. The only cab journey of my life.
I knew what he meant by that. He meant that normal people wouldn’t have a car so ancient that it would fail them at this critical moment. Or that normal people would be able to hop onto a bus.
Normal people hadn’t had Kait for a (half) sister.
‘Don’t say that like it’s my fault, Dad.’ I said. ‘I can’t help the way I am. I wouldn’t have that damn—’
And then he shook his head. ‘You’re not going to start with that again, Brígh. Not today of all days, for God’s sake. Can’t you ever let go of this business with Kait? Haven’t we lost enough?’
I avoided his eyes, stroking the veins on the back of his hand. ‘I can’t,’ I said after an uncomfortable pause.
‘Can’t let it go?’
‘Can’t get a new car.’
‘Brígh, central locking is perfectly safe, everyone uses it.’
‘Not if the battery in the key fob goes flat and you drive into the River Weaver it isn’t.’
‘You sound like your mother.’ And with that his brow puckered, as a fresh wave of tears threatened.
‘Can I see her?’ I said, getting to my feet. I couldn’t watch him well up again.
‘She’s in the side room.’ Dad blew his nose. ‘They said they’d wait until you got here before they moved her to…’
A trolley. A slab. A chiller. An unbearable thought. A cold feeling walked through me as if Mum was rising and taking her leave. We’d only spoken on the phone the previous night. She’d sounded a little worse for wear, but that wasn’t unusual. ‘All in,’ was the last thing she’d said to me. ‘I’m off to bed now love, I’m all in.’
‘Are you Brígh?’ a faint voice said beside me. I turned around to see a young nurse with highly-coloured cheeks and sober eyes. ‘If you’d like to see Mum, she’s in room two,’ she said, nodding down the hall. ‘It’s on the left.’
Mum. Not your Mum, but Mum, as if we were sisters. In those few short words this girl had shown me more kindness than Kait ever had. I would have been there to say goodbye, if it weren’t for Kait’s cruelty. Mum wouldn’t have had an alcohol-bloated heart, if it weren’t for Kait breaking it.
I gave Dad’s shoulder a squeeze then turned towards room two. My belly was a bed of eels as I approached the door. It was a solid door, no pane that I could peer through to acclimatise myself. I gripped the handle, lowered my eyes, and pushed my way in. Feet were the first thing I saw, pointing to the ceiling and swaddled in a baby-blue blanket. There was a washing station to my right that obscured the rest. I took a few in-breaths and slowly let them out before stepping forward.
And there she was. Mum. Only not Mum. I closed my eyes and fought against the ache in my throat.
There were no visitors’ seats in the small, starkly-lit room, so I made my way to the side of the bed and sat down on it. Mum’s arms had been placed on top of the blanket, either side of her body. Body. The word had new meaning now. I lifted my Mum’s hand and closed mine over it. It felt like the delicate nap of fine suede. It was still warm. Oh God, I only just missed her.
‘Bye, Mum. Love you,’ I whispered, stroking her spun-cotton hair.
I took a last look at Mum’s face. She’d lost colour, her lips brushed with blue, her eyes sunken and shadowed and her cheeks lined and sallow. But it was Mum. Just. I noticed that her glasses had been left on the trolley that was pushed to one side. I took them and carefully threaded the arms through her hair and over her ears.
‘There you go, Mum. You can see the way now.’
You see, part of me wanted to be there for the release of seeing her go. To feel liberated from the cage of Mum’s control-freakishness, erected out of loss. Be careful. Take care. Stay close. Perhaps it was her language of love. Because God knows she didn’t speak any other.
I blame Kait because her reckless games are what got us here. I was just fifteen when her lover – allegedly – strangled her.
I remember that first time the police came knocking, when the front door rattled in its frame. Asking questions to begin with, wanting recent pictures of her. I remember Mum bustling me up the stairs. Locking me in my box room. Only the solemn, baritone drone of a man’s voice rising from the kitchen as I pressed my ear to the floor.
One day the police knocked again. I was locked in my room again.
That day came a woman’s voice, with a cadence that carried up the stairs. ‘I’m sorry,’ I caught; ‘Identify,’ I made out. That day, amidst the hushed tones, I felt my mother’s wailing through the boards beneath my feet. It was a horrible sound. A yowling. She was wounded animal. It was physical pain that forced that sound out of her and to this day I have never forgotten it. I wanted to get out of that room, to run to my Mum, but my door was locked. So I slid to my knees, sobbing. That day no one could hear me reaching for breath; I was drowned by the sound of my mother falling apart.
Kait was always her favourite. If love was oxygen then she had too much, me not enough. (There’s an irony in that, considering how she died.) It was always there, right from the start. Mum said I was a difficult birth – not that I had a difficult birth, but that I was a difficult birth. Like being difficult was somehow baked in to me. I don’t recall her talking about Kait’s birth. Nothing to tell. No news is good news. Not like my arrival. I know every detail of the umbilical getting caught around my neck, the excruciating pain that I caused Mum as she tried to fruitlessly squeeze me down the birth canal, the urgent inflection in the midwife’s voice as they prepped Mum for an emergency caesarean. The fact that Mum was in too much discomfort afterwards to hold me close. At least that’s the reason she gave for not holding me close.
I sound bitter. I know I do. But it’s hard not to be when you’ve been raised in the shadow of your dead sister. I resent Kait for tapping the last drop of Mum’s love and bottling it. I resent knowing that Mum preferred Kait. I don’t just feel it, I know it. Mum told me, many times. As I hefted her limp, dead weight back to the sofa, garbling through a stream of consciousness that rivalled for bile the jet of pure whiskey that she’d just expelled into the downstairs toilet, she told me.
She said how she loved Alan, Kait’s dad; how he’d ripped her apart when he’d defected; how she’d never loved my Dad; how she’d wed him on the rebound and then I ‘came along’ and locked her into a loveless marriage. I wish she’d never told me those things, but alas she would forget she had, and the next time I’d find her hovering over the toilet bowl reeking of booze and stomach acid, she’d tell me again.
With Kait gone, Mum’s fantasy that Alan would come calling died too. With Kait gone, the vessel into which she’d poured all that misguided love for him was shattered. With Kait gone, her love leaked away, to be replaced with decanted whiskey.
I found a bottle of vodka in my bedroom once, nestled amongst my stuffed toys. The pitiful irony of Mum’s comforter being cheek-by-jowl with my own is not lost on me, as I look back. While I’d clung to my Teddy and cried for my mother to notice me, she’d clung to her bottle and prayed for me to stop needing her. She’d never have hidden her shame in Kait’s room. Her room was sacrosanct, like an art installation, to be dusted and polished and buffed ever so carefully. Kept just was it was, not to be tarnished with Mum’s misery, even though she was the one who caused it.
So Mum was left with me and Dad, the least preferred ones. The good ones. And by that I mean well-behaved. The ones she could control. But Mum’s not in control anymore. She’s not around to disapprove of the air I choose to breathe. And those I choose to believe. I’ve kept my misgivings to myself these twelve years. But now I can seek the truth, without fear of being called a Judas. Or crazy.
So today I’ll post my letter to Connor Abel, the man convicted of murdering my sister in the first degree. By erotic asphyxiation. He claims it was her own doing, the self-inflicted form of breath-play, yet the court found it was his. Murder her, though? With intent? With Malice Aforethought? He was there, yes. Potentially he could have saved her. But kill her in cold blood? I’m just not sure. And that’s because nobody knows Kait like I do. Nobody sees her. But I see her.
I see her every time I’m gasping into a paper bag. I see her laughing as she presses the cushion to my face, or locks me in the coal bunker, or holds my head under water, or lassoes me with her school tie. If love was oxygen, she starved me of it.
I was relieved when Kait was gone. Christ, I’d imagined myself throttling her. I’d fantasised about it. And I don’t feel guilty for feeling that way. I am not the one who was guilty. I’m the one who was never heard. Even when I tried to cry out. Whenever I told my parents about how Kait was taunting me, I was told by Mum that I was crying wolf.
Even Dad has forgotten. When had he started to doubt his own daughter? He’s the one who should have been in my corner. My flesh and blood. I’d never felt that visceral connection with Mum, that unconditional, reciprocal bond. But I used to feel it with Dad. His unspoken love once cushioned me from the sharp end of my mother’s partiality towards Kait. I was his little girl. His sidekick. I was the one who used to ride pillion with him, like outlaws, racing through the country lanes of Wybunbury on his GSXR 1100. With a too-large helmet that slid over my eyes, and my small arms circling his waist, clenched as tightly as my young muscles would allow as he leant in to take the bends. We rode in the same groove back then. He believed in me then. He called me brave. His brave little lion and he winked as if he knew that I had to be brave at home too. But over time Kait and Mum banded together to wear him down. He wasn’t strong enough to withstand Mum’s pressure to take Kait’s word over mine. Of course Kait couldn’t have been so cruel. Of course Brígh was telling tales, you know what a vivid imagination she has.
Dr Kay says that I need to re-imagine my relationship with Kait if I am to have any hope of coming to terms with this resentment that possesses me. She thinks it’s the key to unlocking my fears and ridding me of my phobia. That it’s linked to my belief that Kait’s acting out had caused it. She says, ‘Brígh, your sister’s—’
‘…Your half-sister’s behaviour is text-book sibling antagonism and one of the most common causes of this is—’
‘Being a sociopath?’
‘Jealousy. Think about it. Her father had walked out on her and your mother. But your father was a keeper. She was jealous that you had a relationship with your biological father and she didn’t have one with hers. This is particularly exacerbated in your case, as you were so much younger than Kait, who was used to having her mother’s attention all to herself before she married your father and gave birth to you. You became the site of her pain.’
So Kait tried to destroy my relationships, Dr Kay insists, by making me look like a drama queen. A liar. A tale-teller. She says that Kait was seeking attention, trying to get my parents – especially my Dad – to love her more than me. She says it explains how she sought the affection of older men; married too young; had affairs with unsuitable people. Risky people. People like Connor.
Dr Kay said that until I can re-frame Kait as a victim that I will never come to terms with what happened to her. But she’s missing the point. It’s me who is the victim. It’s what happened to me that I am trying to come to terms with. So I’ve decided to post my letter to Connor. The one that I first drafted years ago and have re-written many times since. I was too young to attend court when he was convicted, so he doesn’t know me. He doesn’t I know that I know how Kait could mess with your head; leave you shut in the cold and the dark. And it got me thinking. If she could leave me locked in a cupboard, then maybe she could do the same to Connor. What had been his crime, I wonder? Was he about to jilt her? Did he not return her love? Was she jealous of his wife? Maybe she’d decided to take herself out, and take him with her. Or she’d pushed herself to her limits, hoping that he would save her. Or he’d pushed her to his, and went too far.
Perhaps Kait was the victim of someone whose games were more fucked up than hers.
Or perhaps Connor was the victim of someone whose games were more fucked up than his. I know what I think. And if I’m right then it would prove, once and for all, that it wasn’t me who was telling tales. I only ever cried when I saw a wolf.
Will it make a difference? Will it help me to let go of ‘this business with Kait’ as Dad calls it? I don’t know, but only one person holds the answers.
So today I’ll post my letter to Connor Abel.