Previously published in Woman's Weekly © Karen Clarke
I could sense the tension in my
sister's house the minute I stepped inside. Sophie was standing at the sink,
washing up, eyes raw from crying.
'Is it Gemma?' I asked with as
much sympathy as I could muster, considering I knew next to nothing about
fourteen-year-old girls, other than I used to be one. My niece was 'playing up'
according to my mother, who'd been quick to express her opinion when I'd called
round to see her that morning.
'Your sister's too soft with those
children. I told her she'd pay the price,' she'd said with a typically smug
expression. I couldn't get a word in edgeways as she rattled on, obviously
relishing Sophie's predicament. In the end, I'd left without telling her the
reason for my visit.
'I suppose Mum's told you
everything. Is that why you're here?'
Sophie sounded so miserable I put
down my bag and pulled her into my arms. We weren't given to displays of
emotion, but she let me hug her briefly before stepping away.
'Mum did tell me,' I admitted,
noting the defeated set of Sophie's shoulders. 'But I was coming to see you
anyway.' I didn't say why. That would have to wait for now. 'Where are Greg and
'Greg's away on business and the
twins are at nursery.' Sophie's eyes swam with tears. 'I'm at the end of
my tether with Gemma,' she burst out. 'She's in a terrible mood and I can't get
to the bottom of it. She won't talk to me.'
'Shouldn't she be at school?'
'She refused to go in. I had
to tell them she was ill.' Her tears spilt over and I tore off a sheet of
kitchen roll and handed it over, feeling helpless and slightly afraid. I'd only
just moved back to the UK after living abroad for years and hadn't
had much to do with her family life.
If I was honest, I'd never wanted
children of my own, which was one of the reasons my relationships hasn't
lasted. After enduring a Victorian-style upbringing with older parents, I was
worried that I, unlike Sophie, might turn out like Mum and Dad. I couldn't
wait to leave home and escape the restrictions of family life, choosing to live
as far away from my parents as I could. Although I'd missed Sophie, we kept in
close contact, emailing and Skyping regularly, and I'd never been tempted to
return - until my latest relationship broke down.
'Perhaps you could have a word
with her,' Sophie said, blowing her nose. I blinked uncertainly. 'I know,
I know,' she rushed on. 'You're not comfortable, you don't want to interfere,
you don't know what to say. But maybe she'll talk to you.'
'Well . . .' I began, stretching
the word out, trying to think of an excuse that would let me off the hook.
'I'm scared it's boy trouble, or
she's in with a bad crowd, or taking drugs,' Sophie blurted, fresh tears
Looking at her anxious face and
seeing new lines around her eyes, I nodded.
'I'll give it a try,' I said,
squaring my shoulders. 'It can't do any harm.' Can it?
'Oh, Claire, thank you so much.'
Some of the tension drained from Sophie's face and she gave me a watery smile
as I left the kitchen.
I was ashamed of my reluctance as
I headed slowly upstairs. Sophie rarely asked me for anything, and I knew she
didn't get much support from Mum and Dad. It was time I made an effort.
Gemma's door was firmly closed and
there was no answer when I knocked. I turned the handle and pushed it open, as
nervous as if I was going for a job interview.
The room was stuffy, the floor
layered with discarded clothes and mugs. Gemma was face-down on her bed, tinny
music erupting from her earphones. When I lightly touched her arm she
looked round, revealing a mascara-stained face.
'Auntie Claire!' She pulled
off the earphones, her expression brightening, which made my heart turn over in
a way I hadn't expected. 'What are you doing here?'
'I've come to see you.' My voice
was too hearty and her expression immediately darkened.
She sat up and hugged her
knees. 'I suppose Mum sent you.'
'I would have come up anyway.' I
perched on the edge of her rumpled bed, completely out of my depth. Aged
five or six, her skinny arms had jangled with sparkly bracelets and
butterfly clips had held back her curly blonde hair. Now, her hair was black
and poker-straight and her arms were bare, increasing her air of vulnerability.
'You used to be obsessed with
butterflies,' I remembered suddenly.
'And?' She shrugged with a teenage
nonchalance I remembered well. Sophie had perfected that look at around the
'Your dad bought you a book about
them and whenever I popped round, you'd read out these amazing facts like
they taste with their feet, and their wings are transparent and they can't fly
if they're cold.' I was surprised by how much I could recall.
'They are pretty cool,' Gemma
acknowledged with a ghost of the smile that used to melt everyone's heart. 'All
that chrysalis stuff is, like, amazing.' A shadow crossed her face.
'What is it, Gemma?' It felt
natural to take her hand in mine and although she didn't return the pressure of
my fingers, she didn't pull away. 'Why aren't you at school?'
'I'm fat.' She roughly pinched the
skin on her thigh with her other hand.
'Gemma, that's not true,' I said,
'The girls in my class said so.'
She avoided my gaze. 'I keep trying to go on a diet, but I like
eating too much. I'm gross.'
'Please don't tell Mum, she
wouldn't understand.' Gemma climbed off the bed with the elegant grace that the
other girls probably envied and moved across to the window.
I stood up and began browsing her
bookshelf, while I tried to think what to say, spotting the battered butterfly
book among her more recent fiction paperbacks.
'You've still got it,' I said, touched, but she didn't turn around. I flipped through the worn pages and silently read:
Butterflies employ tricks to keep from being eaten. Some fold their wings to blend into the background, using camouflage to render themselves invisible. Others wear vibrant colours and patterns that boldly announce their presence.
'Your mum would understand,'
I said, heart thumping.
'What do you mean?' Gemma looked
at me, her green gaze heavy with suspicion.
'She was bullied at school because
she had a birthmark on her face.'
'No way.' Her demeanour changed
and seemed to soften. 'Poor Mum,' she murmured. 'I didn't know.'
'She had it removed a long time
before you were born,' I said. 'People could be so cruel. I got in a lot
of fights, sticking up for her.'
'Good for you.' Gemma seemed momentarily distracted from her own dilemma, nibbling her thumbnail. I returned to the bed and sat down with the book on my lap and Gemma sat beside me. 'What happened in the end?'
'She changed her appearance when
she got to sixth form.' My memory flashed back to that time. 'Your mum came out
of the shadows, bigger, brighter and bolder - the person she'd always wanted to
be. She had an orange mohawk for a while.' I laughed. 'She got sent home
for that. Clothes in vivid colours that she sewed herself. Our mother was
furious. Exotic make-up, a pierced eyebrow. She became popular because people
saw her personality, not her birthmark.' I hadn't needed to fight for her
Gemma was quiet for a
moment. I could see her slotting this new version of her mother over the
old one and perhaps working out how she could apply my words to her own
'Don't tell her I told you,' I said, giving her a nudge.
Gemma glanced at me shyly. 'I won't,' she promised. 'It might be too traumatic.'
The silence that fell was companionable. Gemma was the first to break it. 'You're cool, Auntie Claire.'
She pressed soft lips to my
cheek and tears sprang to my eyes. I thought of the baby curled magically
in my womb, a precious gift I hadn't known I wanted until it was there. After
my boyfriend decided he wasn't cut out to be a father, I came home to tell
my family and to ask for Sophie's advice. I'd been terrified I would make a
terrible mother, but maybe I would be okay after all.
'I've got some good news,' I said, standing and holding out my hand. Gemma leapt up, a child again, with skinny arms and a trace of blonde at her roots. 'Let's go and find your mum.'
Previously published in Take a Break Fiction Feast © Karen Clarke