Creative Writing Ink December Competition Winner

Reflecting Queenie

by Anne Goodwin, Nottinghamshire, England

Queenie would not have wanted me there, but she could hardly expect Dad to attend her trial alone. So I sat beside him in the public gallery as he held himself as still as his Parkinson’s would permit, while the prosecution ripped her personality apart. It was a straightforward case of jealousy, they said, and only Queenie seemed surprised when the jury returned a guilty verdict.

Up until that point, she’d kept herself aloof, not quite focused on anyone, or anything. Now she raised her head towards the gallery and found me. Her fear and confusion beat against my skin, fighting to penetrate my mind. I stayed firm and let it all bounce back to her, as if I were a bat, and she the ball.

I was not quite three when my mother decided I had special powers. As she told me later, it was the only possible explanation for the way I seemed to anticipate her every move. She’d be thinking about making an apple pie and before she’d opened her mouth I’d be wrestling the baking bowl out of the cupboard. She’d be wondering how her Gran was getting on and, before she knew it, I’d be pushing her fountain pen and a pad of Basildon Bond into her hand.

“How did you know?” she’d ask again and again and, since I hadn’t the words to tell her, she concluded I was telepathic.

I was four when the piercing wail of my baby brother broke up our blissful duet. It didn’t matter then if she was thinking about baking or writing a letter; the moment he began to whimper the baby’s needs took over. “What is it?” she crooned. “Are you hungry? Do you want your nappy changing?”

The sing-song voice she used with the baby embarrassed me. It made her sound like she wasn’t right in the head. As if she were unable to distinguish between a scream of hunger and a summons to clean him up.

Weeks passed before I realised she genuinely couldn’t tell the difference. That each of the cries in my brother’s repertoire sounded exactly the same to her. It struck me that if I didn’t call out “He’s hungry” or “He’s lonely” the moment the baby started to exercise his lungs, we’d never have got any pies baked or letters written ever again.

My mother would look at me in wonder as the baby latched on to her nipple or gurgled in her arms. “How did you know?”

Without a spell at nursery to acclimatise me to a world of other children, school came into my life with a bang. If I’d thought my baby brother was noisy, it was nothing compared to the rabble of the playground. At first I kept close to the edge, intimidated by the terrible uniformity of the other children. I leant against the fence and watched, while I worked out how to survive the confusion, how to remember which blonde-haired blue-eyed little girl was Charlotte and which was Mandy. Which of my classmates liked Smarties and which preferred Fruit Pastilles. Who walked to school and who came by bus.

When the first of the children came along and jabbed me on the chest, I was prepared. “What’s my name?” she demanded.

I told her.

She giggled. “How did you know?”

Another sauntered up. “When’s my birthday?”

Again, I told her.

“How did you know?”

After that, I was never alone in the playground. The other children could always find a use for my attentiveness and I’d skip along with a gaggle of girls hanging onto my arms. In the early years I suppose it made them feel secure that there was someone who could look at them and tell them who they were. Later, their requirements became more sophisticated. Will I get to star in the Nativity play? Does Jennifer really like me or is she pretending so she can play on my bike? I answered as best I could. I took their questions inside me and reported what I felt. You’re not right for Mary but you’ll make a great shepherd. Yes, Jennifer likes you but she also likes your new bike.

Although I was in demand, I never took my position for granted. There was always the chance that one day I’d say something they didn’t want to hear and be pushed back against the fence. When the teacher wrote on my report, Myra is a popular girl, I knew it was provisional. I knew that deep down I was no different from the boys and girls who no one sought out at playtimes. The kids who were left to themselves because when people looked at them they didn’t like what they saw. So I made sure that when my classmates looked at me all they could see was themselves.

When they wrote on my report that I was good at art, I knew I’d managed to convince even the grownups that there was no more to me than their own reflection. True, my sketches of my friends were well observed. But when I drew myself all I could manage was the black outline. Nothing in the middle at all.

At breakfast one morning, not long after I’d moved up to the high school, my mother left the kitchen abruptly, leaving me to spread the marmalade on my brother’s toast.

“Sorry about that,” she said, ten minutes later, when she returned, red-eyed, to find me sweeping the crumbs from the tablecloth. “Don’t know what came over me.”

She may not have meant it as a question, but that’s how it came across to me. The answer seemed to flutter in the lower part of my abdomen. A part of me I’d not paid much attention to before. “You’re pregnant.”

She shook her head. “You and your premonitions.” And turned away to help my brother find his rugby boots.

We had liver and onions for tea that night. My brother chased his around his plate until my mother lost patience and sent him away to watch television. She ran the water at the kitchen sink and passed me the tea towel. I could tell she was on edge; she kept picking up plates I’d already dried and putting them back in the sink. Eventually she came out with it: “How did you know?”

That fluttering again in my abdomen, somewhere below my stomach. In my bowels? In my bladder? It was in the bit of me that the Tampax lady had pointed to on her chart. I blushed.

As she swelled, my mother developed a craving for liquorice. Then she’d go mad if she couldn’t have a rhubarb and ginger yoghurt. Another time it had to be roast potatoes. Even at two in the morning.

My dad worked double shifts to keep out of the way. My brother could occasionally be bribed with the promise of a Mars bar to saunter down to the corner shop, but mostly it fell to me to safeguard her sanity. I didn’t find it hard. She only had to look at me with a question in her eyes and my stomach would know what I had to do.

A couple of months before the baby was due they took my mother into hospital. Nobody bothered to tell a twelve-year-old what was wrong. When my sister was born she came home again, pretending to be well. When visitors came she held the baby on her lap and smiled, but when they’d gone she’d say, “What’s wrong with me? Am I just too old for this?”

I let my hair hang over my face so she couldn’t see into my eyes. So I wouldn’t feel the ache in my budding breast that I knew didn’t belong to me.

When Queenie cried I pulled my hair over my ears but it was never enough to block out the sound. I would wake at night with my heart pounding as if there were a burglar in the room and I’d lie, sweating, until my mother had put her right. Sometimes, I couldn’t bear to wait. My mother would stumble, bleary-eyed, into the baby’s room to find me cuddling and cooing in my nightie.

At first I was afraid to take care of such a tiny thing. Her mewling seemed full of questions, there was so much in the world she didn’t understand. What’s this hollow feeling in my middle? What’s this coldness on my edge? How can I make it go away? What will happen if I can’t?

How do you answer a baby? I did what I had always done, took her pain inside me, felt her hunger in my stomach, her dampness on my buttocks. And because I knew that milk abolishes hunger, and a clean nappy refreshes a baby’s skin, her crying didn’t scare me any more. I could answer her with kisses, with the way I held her in my arms, with the lilt of my voice.

My family joked that Queenie had two mothers. As the cancer gorged on my mother’s breast, draining her of energy, I became the one my sister preferred. I didn’t mind those mornings when I was too exhausted to get up for school. Scrabbling with simultaneous equations never had the same appeal for me as resolving my baby sister’s existential dilemmas. Why would I want to learn about the whims of the kings and queens of England, when I could play lady-in-waiting to that diminutive royal at home? I made her needs mine, her dreams my own. As she developed through my ministrations, I felt a dash of colour enter into the black outline that defined me.

Queenie had just lost her front teeth, and I’d left school to sweep up at the hairdresser’s, when my mother went into hospital one last time. As I dressed my little sister for the funeral, I wondered where my childhood had gone. It might have been all right if I’d only had Queenie asking, But where is heaven? It was the way my brother looked at me. And my dad. Wanting to know why. I couldn’t handle four people’s grief.

I moved into a squat with some people I met at the bus stop. We covered the walls with murals and made music into the night. Whenever I thought about my family, I’d roll another joint. Nobody asked me to tell them who they were or why they were hurting. Or if they did, I was too stoned to notice.

One day a little girl knocked on the door. Her hair was tangled and her shoes were on the wrong feet. I reached for the Rizzlas but her loneliness had already got under my skin.

My brother joined the merchant Navy and sent postcards home from places I’d never even heard of. In between raising my sister and keeping house for my father, I trained as a beautician. If I ever felt resentment, I wasn’t going to let it show.

That’s not to say I wasn’t tempted to leave again. Once, a man who smoked Gauloises offered to take me to France where the light was good for painting. Although he may have been joking. It didn’t matter. My sister was beautiful and clever, but she still had lots of questions she needed me to answer.

When she started dating, it was down to me to help her get ready. Choose her outfit. Do her makeup. And afterwards, I’d be there for the debriefing. Did I talk too much? Too little?

So many uncertainties. No right answers. I painted her nails and I listened. Not just what she said, but what she didn’t say. I listened with my whole body. Took it into myself and reflected it back to her. Showed her herself, but with all the blemishes and insecurities filtered out.

Queenie was nineteen when we bumped into an old acquaintance of mine in the pub. He’d been married to one of my classmates who had been killed in a car crash the year before, leaving him with a six-year-old daughter, Blanche. It was Queenie he invited out to dinner. She didn’t come home that night to sit with me in the kitchen analysing how the date had gone. Three months later she told me they were engaged:

“I just know he’s the one.” There was no hint of a question in her voice. The hollowness in my abdomen was mine alone.

She dragged me round the shops looking for a bridesmaid’s dress for Blanche.

“Just think what you’re taking on,” I said.

“I love her,” she said. “I love them both.”

For the first few years, everything seemed fine in my sister’s ready-made family. Dad and I didn’t see that much of her but, when we did, we had to agree she seemed happy. Happier than she’d ever been.

As Blanche grew into adolescence, Queenie, not yet thirty, decided she wanted a baby of her own. But her husband wasn’t keen.

She started hanging around the salon again. Popping round home to see how Dad was. She always came with some unhappy tale of an altercation with either the belligerent teenager or the girl’s increasingly indifferent father.

Queenie lay on the couch and I brushed warm wax on to her legs. “Tell me honestly, Myra. Am I good looking?”

I waited till I’d yanked off the strip of wax and hair. I hated to hurt her. “Of course you are. You’re the best looking woman I know.”

“Are you sure? Sometimes I look in the mirror and wonder what he ever saw in me.”

Dad turned seventy. In the years since my mother died, he’d never felt much like celebrating, but we persuaded him to have a small family get-together to mark his birthday. I hadn’t seen Blanche for some time and, when she walked into the restaurant all dolled up, I gasped.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” said Queenie.


Queenie spoke casually, as if it were a joke. “Who do you think is the better looking, Blanche or me?”

I felt it inside me like her baby-cries all those years ago. “Oh, Queenie.”

“Tell me. I won’t be offended.”

“You’re both lovely.”

“But who’s the prettiest?”

My sister would always be beautiful to me. Yet her stepdaughter had a freshness and sparkle that Queenie, more than twice her age, could not hope to emulate. Blanche would turn heads whatever I said. It was my sister who needed the confidence boost. I hugged her. “You are, of course.”

Something changed for me that day. I no longer felt like cancelling my other clients when my sister called at the salon. I no longer cared to hear how her stepdaughter had borrowed a favourite blouse without asking. How her husband stayed later and later at work. But I held my feelings within me, for there was nowhere else they could go.

For her fifteenth birthday, I offered to give Blanche a makeover. Queenie brought her to the salon and looked on as I massaged unguents into her cheeks and buffed up her nails. Afterwards, the girl went off to parade before her friends at the burger bar.

“So what do you think?” said Queenie.

“About what?”

“Who’s the most beautiful, Blanche or me?”

I fiddled with a bottle of nail varnish, screwing and unscrewing the cap. “She seems happy with her makeover.”

“You’re evading the question, Myra.”

The rage bubbled inside me, hers and mine, melding together like depilatory wax. “Grow up, Queenie!”

“I have to know.”

I’d given her my teenage years. My work. She gazed into my eyes but still she couldn’t see me. “It’s Blanche.”

The slap made my eyes water.

Apart from those few weeks in the squat, I never abandoned Queenie. But when she chose to keep away, I wasn’t disappointed. My body began to feel my own.

Blanche still came to the salon, bringing hints of what her stepmother was up to. How the arguments continued. How Queenie was letting herself go. But the girl was too sweet-natured to fuel the feud between us. If only she’d been less discreet. If only I’d listened better.

Queenie wanted to send the girl to boarding school. I knew Blanche wasn’t keen. So when she mentioned the stomach pains I commiserated with her sense of banishment. It never occurred to me to investigate further. Not even after she was rushed to A & E.

I badgered the police to take a statement from me. “Nobody knows her like I do.”

“So? The poisoning began in October. You last saw your sister in September. This is nothing to do with you.”

I drove Dad to the remand centre, but Queenie refused to see me. When he shuffled back to the car, his Parkinsonian mask reflected nothing of my sister’s suffering.

“You know, Myra,” he said, as we hit the motorway again, “I never thought beauty therapy was right for you.”

I tightened my grip on the steering wheel. “Oh?”

“Pandering to other people’s vanity. Must be rather wearing.”

“I’m used to it.”

“Didn’t you want more for yourself?”

I felt his gaze too close, scorching my cheeks. “What a question!”

Dad was quiet for a while. I thought he’d nodded off. “You used to love drawing.” It was almost a reproach.

“All little girls love drawing.”

He closed his eyes. It had been a stressful day for a man who wasn’t in perfect health.

I drove home, mesmerised by an old man’s snoring and the roar of rubber on tarmac. In the tail lights of the cars ahead I fancied I caught glimpses of my father’s dream, where a daddy held the mirror steady while his daughter sketched the perfect image of herself.