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Oh, So Brightly by Laura Besley

At the wedding breakfast, your place name card is next to mine. You are wearing a black satin dress and a matching hat. ‘I know,’ you say, as if you can read my mind, ‘but the groom’s a right twat.’ I don’t know the bloke, so I take your word for it. When the food arrives, I say, ‘Six months ago the goat’s cheese tartlet seemed like such a good idea.’ You laugh, deep and dark, and divide your steak into twelve pieces. You eat slowly. Each time you lift your fork, the light reflected off the tines is blinding. 

You move in the following Monday. You are messy. Your red-soled shoes spill from a tatty tote bag onto the floor by the front door. You have twenty-five coats, but only one handbag. You drink thick black coffee with three heaped spoonfuls of brown sugar. You are the middle sister. You tell the youngest one everything and the eldest nothing. You like sex best straight after lunch. Then you nap and snore like an old man. You have a job in finance so complex you can’t explain it to me. Your favourite meal is spaghetti hoops, cold from the tin. 

‘Fine,’ you say, one night, and flick on the bedside light. I yawn and stretch and look at my phone. It’s 4.32am. You sit, pillows scrunched behind your back, your knees triangled in front of you. ‘My dad,’ you say, ‘died at forty-two. Massive heart attack. Literally laughed himself to death. I was twelve, Jennifer was fourteen and Kitty was eight.’ Briefly, I think of my own parents, my boring but stable childhood. I feel love and gratitude, for them, for you. I reach out. ‘Don’t,’ you say. It will be years before I learn Kitty’s real name is Sandra.   

You swing your legs off the bed. ‘Wait,’ I say. ‘What about your mum?’ You sigh. It’s 6.07am. You yank open a drawer. You pull out some cheddar-yellow underwear. ‘She remarried,’ you say. ‘A guy called Bernard. Now she’s all twin sets and pearls.’ You pluck a diaphanous pink t-shirt from your high pile of laundry. The ones above topple to the floor. You strut into the en suite and I stare at the ceiling, thinking – foolishly – I can protect you from future heartache. I get up and listen to the stream of the shower as I refold your clothes. 

A month later, we go to another wedding. Mutual friends raise eyebrows, say, ‘Wow! You two?’ We reply Uh huh and Why not? but we’re unsure which one of us they’re insulting. The following summer, there are five more weddings. Between the third and fourth, there is a christening and we’re godparents. Walking to the church, I ask your friend, ‘Why us? I mean, I’m flattered, but…’ She stops and stares at me. ‘Because Oona has always wanted a baby.’ Later, when the vicar dabs holy water on the baby’s little head, I see you cry for the first time.

   

We don’t have the conversation per se, but when I suggest I stop using condoms, you bite your bottom lip for a second, nod, then our lives carry on as normal. We swim. We take vitamins. We watch arthouse films at the cinema. We listen to live bands. We cheer on opposing football teams in the pub. We go to farmers’ markets, select strong cheeses from local dairies, buy sourdough bread and fresh vegetables. We play with our goddaughter, take her to the park, buy her extravagant gifts for her first, second, and third birthdays. But you don’t get pregnant.

You are thirty-eight when your heart stops. It stops again. And again. It stops twenty-five times in twenty-four hours. You have a stroke and your team of doctors tell us it’s a miracle you’re alive. They want to write a paper on you. ‘My moment to shine,’ you joke. It is a junior doctor, a young woman from Syria we both like and admire, who discharges you. ‘No driving,’ she says. ‘And no more birth control pills.’ You thank her quietly. I follow you down the length of the long corridor under the egregious glare of the overhead strip lighting. 

At home, I make us tea and leave yours on the counter. I open the French doors and perch on the back step. You lower yourself down next to me, put your cup between us, lace your fingers around your knees. ‘The risk… it was just too high,’ you say, your voice childlike. Anger flares inside me. ‘But it’s my life, too,’ I say. You nod, tell me I’m right, tell me you’re tired, and I let you rest your head on my shoulder and there, together, we watch in wonder as the low large sun sets the sky ablaze. 

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