“The voices bleed in and out, nothing but nonsense and garbling lark, and she’s conscious of only this. She couldn’t even be an agony uncle to pain and turmoil: perhaps she’s numb to it? But wait–why should she be in pain? Something’s happened, she’s certain of it.
She has no interest investigating the peculiar circumstances, though. She’s too mellow, too relaxed. Almost as if she’s floating, cushioned by downy-soft pillows and cocooned in a nest of winter duvets. There’s flashes of colours: mostly whites and specks of blacks, but there’s bright greens and soft blues dominating her vision. She thinks of blinking them away.
‘Wheel her down to the operating theatre!’ Someone shouts.
It’s the last thing she hears fully before the black spots eclipse all colour and swallows her entirely. Sleep’s nice, she determines. So’s the piano notes tickling at her subconscious.
She’s fluctuating between rapid and slow eyelid movements to clear her blurry vision. The sight ahead surprises her: it’s her old primary school’s playground. In her giddiness to cross the space separating her from it, she trips over a kerb and nearly splats on the ground.
Except a strawberry-blonde young lady latches on to her flailing forearm and tugs her upright with startling strength.
‘Kaira, would you slow down?’
But her attention is diverted away from the young lady that saved her from a rotten fall; something toward the playground’s caught her eye, and Kaira waves distractedly at the strawberry-blonde. ‘Hold on a mo,’ she murmurs and she’s doing a runner straight across blacktop toward the jungle gym. She’s too focussed to notice the exasperated huff and footfalls that echo hers.
Kaira recalls doing similar activities as a lass on these very grounds. A particular favourite places her about seven or eight-years-old, plasters littering her knobbly kneecaps and elbows from scraps with the local boys, wearing a black and sky blue polka-dotted mackintosh as she chases rain puddles to stomp in her Wellies. She adored looning round this place.
Her feet encounter mulch and a wide grin stretches across her lips. A flash thought occurs to her and she shakes away the delight to investigate whatever drew her focus earlier. A couple more steps and she spots a lump outlined in dirt and mulch. Befuddled, she ambles toward it. Then grinds to a halt upon identifying a familiar looking form sprawled out, starkers. The raven tresses are spread out almost artfully, framing her head like a halo. It’s dark enough to hide a thick pool of blood.
‘She’s not breathing,’ Kaira whispers, eyes locked on the form that could very well be her twin in morbid curiosity.
‘Of course she’s not breathing, you berk.’ An indignant contralto gripes.
Kaira’s head snaps up in anger and finally recognises the strawberry-blonde woman before her. ‘Hello, sister mine,’ she sneers. Despite her embarrassment and anger coursing through her, Kaira takes a second to note her sister’s appearance: she’s wearing a knee-length, flowing white sundress. A quick downward glance reveals Kaira’s wearing a replica of it in black. How odd. They haven’t dressed alike (willingly) since before Roselle began secondary school or even beyond the biennial family portraits their father suckers them into. ‘Why am I not breathing?’ She finally forces the words to leave her mouth.
‘Never mind that,’ Roselle dismisses with a flick of a wrist.
‘No, I deserve to know-‘
‘Honestly, Kaira, it’s not-‘
‘How can you even say-‘
‘What? It’s a dream! Do you actually believe I like you this way?!’
‘How else am I supposed to take-‘
‘You’re barmy if you think for one minute-‘
They’re nineteen to the dozen, speech overlapping and escalating in tones until the words jumble together and become inaudible in the heat of the moment. The sisters pause suddenly, reflecting what’s been implied. The silence is an abrupt clap of thunder as they glare at each other, chests heaving as if both finished running a marathon.
That’s around the time a haunting strain of a violin’s e-string floats between the sisters, high-pitched and mewling, weaving around them and no doubt giving Roselle a headache.
Kaira’s bottom lip trembles and angry tears sting. She spins round and marches off.
The skies begin spritzing as she storms away. It’s not long afterward that the raindrops become steady, but Kaira’s unperturbed. She blatantly ignores her sister’s shouts behind her, hoping she’ll take the hint and get lost. So Kaira may or may not widen her stride, wilfully knowing her taller stature can out-pace her older sister’s shorter ones.
Up ahead, near a bridge, Kaira takes notice of a lone figure swaying to and fro. She doesn’t realise she’s stopped short. As she stares, it occurs to her it’s a bloke wearing braces and he’s bowing away on a posh-looking violin.
So enthralled is she, Kaira spooks when Roselle cups her elbow and holds up a brolly to share. She blinks away the rain that found a new home in her eyelashes and squints at her sister questioningly.
‘What?’ Roselle demands, uncomfortable with the intense scrutiny.
Kaira turns away from sapphire orbs and back at the lone figure on the bridge. ‘Who’s that? Up on that bridge, playing the violin,’ she clarifies in hopes to dissuade her sibling from deflecting.
‘He’s nobody important right now, Kaira.’ She answers in a gush.
But Kaira doesn’t believe her. ‘No, no, that’s Ian, isn’t it?’ She’s convinced and steps forward. ‘Wotcher, Sebastian!’ She screeches her brother’s name in the hopes of drawing his attention. She’d know that poncey air anywhere: it’s a sort of family characteristic they’ve inherited from their father.
He keeps on fiddling away, lost in the soulful tones he’s wheedling out of the instrument, swaying in time to the upward and downward bow movements.
‘He can’t hear you,’ comes a whisper behind her.
‘What?’ She spins on her heel. ‘Of course he can hear me! What has gotten in to you today, Rose?’ Kaira’s working herself into a nice strop and she rushes forward.
And Rose’s hands clamp on her shoulders, tugging Kaira out of the zebra crossing as if there was a queue of dodgy lorries ready to run her down. She’s infuriated.
‘What the bloody hell are you on about, sister?’ She snaps. ‘And are you completely daft? That is our brother up there,’ she thrusts her right hand in his direction. ‘I am two seconds away from going spare if you don’t start talking!’
Rose is nonplussed by her outburst for all of half a minute. ‘Calm down, Kaira; it’s all in your head. Can’t you see? He’s not real; that’s not really Sebastian.’
Kaira makes to cross the road yet Rose latches on her wrist. ‘Would you stop? You’re not my childminder anymore, Rosie, now stop acting like it!’ She whinges.
Rose releases her as if burnt by a branding iron and her expression matches: she’s devastated. ‘I just want to help you, lovie.’ She whispers brokenly.
‘Help me figure this out, yeah?’ She eventually concedes.
Her sister nods immediately. ‘I’ll get this sorted. Promise.’
Their hands interlace.
Less than six months after Kaira was born, her mother made a cuckold of her father. Within a sennight, her father turned into a single parent with three children under the age of eight. Kaira knew no other life, the youngest child, and of course she has no memory of her biological parents together and happy. Her sister would, obviously; and Ian recalls only the domestics after the truth had been revealed.
Her daddy is a proper genius, she believes. A maths and medicine boffin in his own rights, her father owns a surgery in downtown London with an attached chemists for patients’ easy access. He used to allow Kaira and her siblings to take cream tea there after school and on occasion the kindly receptionist would slip them candy floss if they behaved. Rosie hated the sticky treat, so Ian and Kaira split hers.
Then one afternoon, when Kaira wasn’t quite old enough to attend school but for whatever forgotten reason went to work with her father in her pyjamas, she woke up from a kip to the harmonious combination of her daddy’s low-register baritone laughing merrily and an enthusiastic tenor regaling tales. Bleary from sleep and crusty dust in the corners of her eyes, Kaira had stumbled out of a plastic chair. That must’ve been what drew their attention.
‘Well, hello there, little lady!’ The same tenor that had been making her daddy laugh was now much closer.
Kaira had jerked her head up to find an average height man (but tall to her in that moment) sporting jeans and a warm-looking grey jumper, who smiled broadly at her. She craned her neck to glance beyond the man to see her daddy just behind him. So she returned the smile.
He had introduced himself as Jonathan and gave her a biscuit on the cadge. She liked him instantaneously. Less than a fortnight passed before he was a permanent fixture in their lives.
‘How is she?’
‘Same as before.’
A heavy sigh.
‘Did you bring her dressing gown, Dad?’
A rustling sound.
‘Yes, got it right here.’
‘Did you bring anything else from the flat?’
‘Not really, no.’
Some shuffling and sniffling.
‘It’s not your fault.’
‘There’s nothing any of us could have done.’
‘She’ll be fine. She’s a strong girl, you’ll see.’
The sniffling turns pianissimo as piano keys crescendos up its b-flat scale.
In the heart of London, Kaira and Roselle stroll leisurely. They pass a row of bedsits with five or so hoardings off-set in the skyline, which generally indicates Rose’s favourite restaurant is nearby. Right on time, her sister speaks up.
‘Are you feeling peckish?’
Kaira shakes her head in negation.
‘You’re not?’ She asks for clarification, her inflection genuinely surprised. ‘How about we skip the chippy and get some takeaway from that new advert we saw, hmm? If I remember correctly, it’s fry-up style.’
‘No, it’s alright,’ murmurs Kaira.
‘If it’s about pounds, don’t fret: I’ll pay.’
Kaira’s temper rears and she growls out, ‘It’s not about your stupid quid, Rose; I’m simply not hungry.‘ She stresses the last part.
Rose throws up her hands. ‘Fine! There’s no need to get so tetchy,’ she replies stroppily, picking up on the bad vibe circling the sisters like storm clouds in July.
‘I’m sorry, Rosie,’ Kaira pushes through on her apology and tugs on her sister’s wrist until they stop.
Kaira cuts off Rose’s feeble attempt at placating her. ‘We both know it’s not. I dunno what’s gotten in me, lately; but I am truly sorry. I’ve turned into a rotten sod and have been itching for a row.’
Roselle smiles fleetingly, stepping into her sister’s space to swipe the fringe off Kaira’s forehead with a tender caress. ‘You always did enjoy throwing a spanner into my plans, didn’t you?’
‘Are you having me on?’ Kaira giggles and shoves her sibling away playfully, resulting in Rose roaring in laughter, too. ‘You know I did if it interfered in you snogging some loser who didn’t know the difference between a biro and a zip.’
‘Kaira!’ Her sister shrieks in faux-outrage, her laughter ruining the image. ‘As if Daddy would let me date some plebeian wanker, let alone me deigning to entertain an acquaintance with someone so…so average.‘
Their gazes lock for a few beats before they burst out into hysterical laughter, leaning against the other for support, the white and black skirts of their dresses twirling together, bleeding harmoniously like ivory keys.
All three of the siblings play an instrument. Daddy had been adamant on that requirement: he swore from London to Bath and back again that he didn’t care what their interests were, but he was making them play sports or an instrument. The choice was theirs, of course; all three chose an orchestra, stringed instrument like their father, a master violinist on top of all his previously mentioned accolades.
Roselle chose the piano and viola first, but found switching between treble and alto clef too taxing. So she nixed the viola.
‘The piano is the superior one,’ she had stated after explaining she would only play one.
Daddy had been perplexed by the turn in events: Kaira recalls giggling at his affronted mien, nose and forehead scrunched together before masking it into a more neutral one to pacify his eldest. Kaira knows he dislikes the piano referred as superior because her nan and uncle say the same, and he’s never agreed. She fancies it’s no coincidence Roselle inherited Nan’s colouring and adoration of the keyboard: after all, she’s no rebel like Daddy, who had the lighter hair Rose’s had her whole life. Nan teases her youngest that he got a shock of curly black locks as retaliation for falling in love with the violin, especially as she claims it was around the time his hair changed.
Surprisingly, Ian, the sibling who reflects their father the most in personality and least in appearance, decided to practice the violin. After Rose’s slight, Dad probably would have been chuffed had Sebastian chosen any strings instrument (jury’s still out whether he’d have suffered through any child learning the flute or its like). Perhaps that’s what softened the shock of Ian requesting to run track because athleticism certainly doesn’t run in the family.
When it was Kaira’s turn, she demanded the cello. She’d been a tiny lass of all but five and no doubt looked a sight to behold getting fitted for such a hefty piece. She probably would have been perfectly all right choosing any of the four stringed instruments; yet with each family member wielding an apparatus responsible for carrying a melody, Kaira wanted something that could both lead melody and encourage harmony.
Jonathan had teased, pointing out the two youngest children that most resembled their father (Kaira had his complexion and odd beryl eyes, but Sebastian hogged all his curls, sadly.) act the most like him. Daddy and Ian rolled their eyes at Jonathan, but Kaira had preened under the praise. After all, in a peculiar twist of fate that many of her mates struggled to comprehend, Jonathan became a second parent to Kaira. She occasionally refers to him as Papa. Her father, Alexander, and Jonathan were the best of mates. It was never odd to Kaira to have two male parents, especially ones not romantically involved. How was her circumstances different compared to sisters or female best friends raising children conjointly? She never visited her mum the few times her brother and sister did before the egg-donator quit coming round; thus, her second source of grownup counsel had always been the next most reliable adult in her life. Daddy had even named Jonathan her godfather.
So praise that linked Kaira to either man always resulted in a warm haze as if she returned from a month long holiday. She cherished her quirky family.
‘Come along,’ Rosie demands, giving her hand linked with Kaira’s a sharp tug of encouragement.
But Kaira’s down to petrol fumes. ‘No,’ she cries plaintively. ‘I’m so knackered and cold.’ Are her teeth chattering?
Roselle quickly peers over her shoulder to pin her gaze on her sister, worry marring her pretty face. ‘Not to worry, lovie.’ She says instead, not an ounce of ill humour evident in her intonation.
Kaira trudges behind.
Her sister turns around and urges the other young lady to stop. The strawberry-blonde examines the downtrodden raven headed one. Silence engulfs them.
‘Budge up, love,’ coos Rose, nudging Kaira’s arm and situating it to rest against her shoulders. ‘Just a little while longer, okay?’
She squints. ‘Are you shining a torch in my eyes?’
‘What? No. What are you on about?’
Kaira says nothing.
She’s chasing after straining cellos off in the distance. She can’t explain it. If the violin chords Ian had sapped out of his performance earlier had been haunting and soulful, the notes pouring off the cellos were daunting and mournful.
She tries to weep yet is unable.
She hears voices and can imagine the scene unfolding, though she’s not truly there: Her father sitting hunched over in a pleather chair, hands snagged in curls, and a carrier-bag tucked under.
Jonathan walks through a door and immediately hands her father a cuppa. Their eyes meet briefly, full of mutual pain and understanding, before flicking away. He thanks his friend as the shorter man offers a waning grimace (it was supposed to be a smile) and sits down next to him. Their elbows knock.
Some bard on the telly in the corner masks the muttering her siblings are swapping next to a hospital bed. There’s three stacks of empty jelly cups and a damp flannel on a tray nearby. She wonders when the dustmen come to collect the piles of rubbish?
Whoever is on the bed looks like he or she is enjoying a lie-in. The person doesn’t appear peaky, though on second examination Roselle totally does: her sister’s actually wearing black dungarees and her hair’s pulled back in a tight plait.
The cellos’ notes appear to sharpen and she swears as if they are chanting her name: Kaira, Kaira, Kaira, Kaira.
She ignores it and wanders toward the bed, specifically the IV lines. Whatever the poor sod’s hooked up on surely isn’t paracetamol. She’s shifting her attention to the bed’s occupants when she’s bodily forced away.
‘Kaira!’ Roselle shouts, right in her face. ‘I’ve been calling you for several minutes. Haven’t you heard me?’
Kaira gives herself a shake and blinks up at her sibling. ‘Huh?’ And she keeps on blinking because Roselle is flickering? How is that even possible?
‘Are you all right?’
She snorts. ‘I ought to be asking you that,’ she replies and reaches a tentative hand out.
Roselle takes two steps back, out of her reach. ‘Never mind that,’ dismisses she succinctly.
Kaira’s confused. ‘Ought I ring for the fire brigade?’
‘Of course not! Don’t be ridiculous.’
‘What’s going on?’
‘I’ve told you-‘
‘You’ve told me absolutely nothing!’
‘If you’d listen to me for once in your life-‘
‘And when’s that ever helped me?’
‘It’s supposed to help you now, Kaira!’
Sapphire eyes widen and beryl orbs fill with tears. They hardly dare to breathe so dumbstruck with the revelation.
‘That’s a lie,’ Kaira’s voice comes out in a rasp.
Her sister hesitates a moment before shaking her head slowly from left to right. ‘It’s not. Oh,’ she sobs, ‘how I wish that’s the case. I’m so, so sorry!’
Kaira attempts to scuttle backwards, but she’s too shaky to get any farther than an inch or so. ‘This isn’t real,’ she repeats and continues attempting to put distance between her apparition-like sister.
‘It is,’ wails Rose, rubbing at her ruddy face. ‘C’mon lovie, I need to get you-‘ she hiccups.
‘No no no no no,’ she shakes her head rapidly. ‘This is a dream. And I’m gonna wake up to find you and Ian are teasing me and Ian’s in those awful pants and vest combo Daddy got him for Christmas and–‘ she’s gasping and crying.
But Rose is crowding round her, chivvying Kaira into standing up and hurrying. And then they’re on the move.
Halfway to wherever they’re going–Roselle refuses to give an inch–Kaira espies the flickering motion of her sister is steadily climbing and thus more noticeable. Whatever’s going on, Kaira cannot deny its existence any longer. Fear laps at the base of her spine, scurrying upward to swing from rib to rib until it weasels inside her chest cavity.
They arrive at the ambulance bay of an A&E when Kaira refuses to budge another step. Roselle won’t have any of it: she attempts to shove her sister inside yet her hands glide right through Kaira.
The sisters shout aloud.
‘Go! Kaira, go!’ Rose screams, still trying to urge her sister forward sans physical contact.
‘No, Rosie, you don’t-‘
‘I do,’ she corrects vehemently and flickers. ‘I’ve to go now too but you need to get inside!’
‘Come with me.’ Kaira pleads.
‘Lovie, I’ve been with you this whole time.’
‘No, I meant inside-‘
A hand ghosts over Kaira’s cheek as if cupping it. ‘Be well.’
And Roselle disappears.
Panicked, Kaira eventually sprints inside and past an indifferent security bobby loitering by the bay doors. She’s frantic in her search of something and that’s when the piano chords start up again. She nearly growls at the painful stab and reminder of her sister. She’s never hated the years of meticulous practice Rosie spent perfecting the instrument like she does in this moment. Just when Kaira acknowledges the need for her eldest sibling’s guidance, she loses it.
Her heart aches acutely and she realises she can’t sellotape the hurt back together.
So she continues onward and sidles inside a lift, innately knowing it’ll carry her to where she needs to be. As it does.
She’s running through hospital halls, bobbing and weaving between staff and patients who cannot identify her, in her frenzied pursuit to reach, find, comfort. Then she’s charging through PERSONNEL ONLY doors and this restricting clench around her middle spasms and settles, as if watering the seed of fear it planted inside her right before Rose disappeared enough to take root. It nearly results in folding her in half to stanch the process. But Kaira is determined.
She skids to a stop at the sight of her parents and she’s shaking heavily in relief. She approaches them blindly, aching to reach them and fall into their embrace. Please, make it stop. So utterly fixated on getting to them, when she’s near enough to notice, her chest’s concave and heart alights its galloping to an abrupt halt.
Between their clasping hands and hunched over forms are scattered pieces of A4, official looking based on the yellow highlights marked throughout.
And they’re sobbing! The sight of them gutted and mourning completely wrecks her.
Kaira stumbles backward as if physically struck then jerks forward to comfort them.
‘Daddy, Papa,’ she sniffles and falls to her knees before them. She sounds needy and childish to her own ears, though she doesn’t care: she needs them. Her hands clutch at a bent kneecap each, squeezing to grab their attentions. ‘Puh-please don’t cry. What’s wrong? What’s happened? Please, please, I’m right here.’
Jonathan glances up but doesn’t see her. Instead, his lower jawline quivers as he watches his best mate before he grabs Alexander’s nape to bring the curly head into his chest.
She’s shaking her head and backing away, swiping angrily at the tears cascading down her cheeks. She pivots and flies back down the hallway, sobs lodged in her throat.
She’s bellowing for help and answers and someone who knows what’s bloody well going on. She finds nobody.
A door up ahead draws her attention and Kaira’s closing the distance in long, agitated strides. She shoves open the door to discover Roselle and Sebastian huddled together on hospital bed, blocking a familiar figure from view. The slamming door doesn’t pique their notice. The musical cacophony that’s been stalking her recently merges together into a lilting harmony.
Curious, she steps farther inside. She shifts to stand on tip-toes after three or four paces in, craning to see beyond her siblings. And she catches sight of a battered form, decorated in aubergine-hued bruises, a familiar form because it’s hers.
Kaira begins screaming and barrelling toward her siblings, rattling their shoulders yet her hands slip through like Rose’s had done earlier. So she bellows some more until it’s no use: it’s as if she’s going straight to answerphone. No one hears her.
It all suddenly occurs to Kaira that she couldn’t possibly be dreaming: her imagination isn’t honed enough for anything toward this caliber.
She stumbles toward the bed, heartbroken as she is forced to watch her brother and sister openly sob over her when she’s right here and cannot comfort nor reassure them. Sebastian clutches at Roselle’s forearm while she leans up the bed, petting the mangled locks of their comatose sister.
‘Ta, Rosie,’ Kaira mutters through the lump in her throat.
As if on automatic, she edges around toward the free side of the bed, refusing to spy on her siblings’ lamentation and keeps her focus on the unnaturally still body hooked up to IVs and a nose cannula. Slowly, carefully, she places one knee then the other atop the mattress and allows gravity to tug her downward until she’s crumpled in a ball overlapping her dying body.”