We travelled to and from school together every day like this for two-and-a-half years. It felt like forever and then afterwards like nothing.
I pressed my head hard against the window cushioning most of what the road had to offer. My sister, twelve years younger, sat at my side and talked. I watched the road ahead, picking my way through the lines of a ballad she’d chanted while I swung the rope for her through a hole in the chain-link fence that separated our school grounds. The words jumbled together in my mind with the operations for discovering angles for x and y and with what we would eat for supper that evening. Somehow it all made sense.
Barbara Turner, the elected senior on our bus, was talking in loud hushed tones to the two boys in glasses, the Sidney twins. She sat turned in her bench and was leaning forward to address them, folder clutched adroitly to her chest with her slender free arm. I watched. She twirled a lock of thick, chocolate hair as she spoke and avoided my eye. I caught only snippets over the sound of the engine which the driver revved loudly at the bends and breaks in the road.
‘My mother said she saw her wearing lipstick…’ and ‘Well, yes, that’s certainly possible.’ Terence Sidney, always the brighter of the pair, sucked air and shook his shocked head. Albert simply stared, besotted. I loved him for it. I understood from the way she angled her body that lipstick was not looked on kindly in the Turner household. As these things work, I guessed it held a fascination for Barbara. I glanced at my sister who was still talking, whistling sibilance, through the new gaps in her teeth. Our own mother wore lipstick often when she worked. Bright lipstick. The brighter the better. I chewed on my wind-chapped lips hoping to raise a little colour.
Outside, the day was yellowing. I reached out and squeezed my sister’s hand. It fluttered like a sparrow. She turned her face full on me and looked a question.
‘Go on, Grace.’ I smiled down at her. ‘I didn’t mean to interrupt.’ She turned back to her neighbour over the aisle, picking up where she had left off in her small serious voice. I shivered.
‘The way we make it is by braising the filling first,’ she said. I’d shown her how to braise weeks ago and she had rolled the word around in her mouth, delighted at the discovery. ‘Sometimes we braise rabbit, mostly it’s a vegetable.’ She pronounces this last in four staccato syllables, finishing with her tongue sticking through the gap. ‘Then I roll out the pastry, put it on top of the dish and pinch the edges. We take it in turns to poke a hole in the top with a knife.’ I blushed at this, wondering if Barbara was listening, hoping both that she was and was not. I focused on the houses outside the window. I loved cooking with Grace, the chat, the little discoveries about her day that made mine come alive. I also hadn’t realised how limited our diet had become and resolved to learn another dish.
I’d fallen behind in the year of my sickness, only regaining my strength and my interest in school when the man, father, had finally gathered his things and left. I don’t even think of that time. And then the baby; Grace. Mother’s nerves were too fragile for her to do anything but help me name her. We had raised her together.
At our stop we thanked the driver and clambered down onto the side of the road, Grace skipping ahead. In a few years things would be different. We would relate as peers. She would stand tall, make her own way and the hollow fear inside me would be replaced by gentler things. The best I could do for her now would be to move aside. I let her turn the key in the lock when we got to the house. Mother was home already, busying here and there, filling empty spaces. I hung our bags while Grace climbed on a chair and took down mugs for cocoa.