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A Sister's Duty

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The warm autumn sunlight was pouring through the windows when she came in from the garden. Piling her armful of foliage, in all shades from deepest red to golden yellow, in the still-empty grate, Myra took one, slightly regretful, look out at the woods, and then pulled down the lid of her desk. Wag, recognizing the gesture, realized that his hopes of further romps in the leaves were over for the day, gave a sign and curled up on the rug.

The slender young woman pulled a sheet of thick, honey-coloured paper from her desk, and picked up her pen. The paper had been a Christmas present from Ettie, sent from Prague on a recent tour of Swan Lake, when she was one of the four young swans. And the pen had come in the post from America, with a short note scribbled by Wolfie, apologizing for forgetting Myra’s birthday. Beautiful things, and nice to get – but how much more she would have liked to see her
brother and sister in person…

“Dear Ettie,” she began to write in her clear, round hand.

“I was so pleased to get your letter, and to hear how well you’re doing in Vienna. What a shame that you didn’t get the Sugar Plum Fairy when Isabella twisted her ankle. I hope you have managed to persuade your room mate to use her own towels…”

Myra sighed, and put down the pen. If only she could conjure up her sister instead of putting cold words to paper. Even with airmail, by the time it got through, the day-to-day problems that beset the young dancer would be long forgotten, replaced by another set. A different part she’d either got or failed to get. Another issue with room-mates, or the coach between venues, or missing luggage. At heart, she knew that Ettie was deliriously happy with her life. But somehow, on paper, all she ever got was the complaints.

She picked up her pen again and dashed off a few sentences, concentrating on life at Apple Bough – the latest batch of puppies at the farm, the eggs, the fun she was having with the local quilting group. The small, everyday moments of her life. Perfectly satisfying most of the time, but sometimes, just a little bit…

“No ! Stop that this instant, Myra Forum !” she said out loud, startling Wag. “You are not lonely ! It’s just that you’re missing…”

Missing what ? Was it just that she was missing her family, spread all over the world, doing so well in their own fields ? She thought she had everything she wanted, with a home of her own, with her precious Apple Bough. But somehow, she’d expected… she’d expected to see more of them all. Their rooms were always waiting, but nowadays rarely seemed to be occupied.

She picked up a second sheet of paper. “Wolfie – “ she wrote. And then ground to a halt. She got out her brother’s scribbled note and re-read it.

“Darling Myra,” he’d said. “So sorry that I won’t be back as promised next month. You’ll never guess what happened after I finished filming ! There was this big party, and I met Lalla Moore ! You know, the ice skater ? She does all those twirly things, all in white velvet and fur. She’s so lovely… I’ve totally lost my heart. So I’m staying here because she’s throwing a big party soon, and I’m determined to be there – whether I’m invited or not ! I hope you understand. I’ll be back for Christmas, promise – wouldn’t miss your roast goose for the world…”

Lalla Moore ! Myra couldn’t help groaning. Wolfie had been tumbling in and out of love all his life, it seemed. And with what girls ! It was always starlets of some kind or another, or fashion models, or sporting stars. Girls with plenty of temperament, with busy lives and tempers to match. Just a mention of Nicky Heath could still bring her out in a cold sweat. The shouting match during Wimbledon had been reported in all the tabloids…

She sighed again, and Wag came over, putting his nose on her lap and looking up at her with large, worried eyes. She ruffled his head, growing silver now. “Good dog,” she murmured, picking up her pen again. “Wolfie, love,” she wrote in her quick script. “Of course I understand that you’re busy and I’ll look forward to seeing you whenever you have time to visit Apple Bough. I’ve seen Lalla Moore at the cinema, and I know how lovely she us. But please remember what happened last time you fell in love, and don’t rush into things ! You know we’ll love whoever you bring home, as long as you’re happy !”

Two down, two to go. Sebastian’s letters were always the most special for her, but were also the ones which tugged the most at her heart. The young boy with the incredible talent had grown up into a serious musician, who still became totally absorbed in his performances and practice, who still hated the cocktail parties and soirées, who had to be coaxed back to normal when he came off stage. She opened the letter which had come in that morning’s post, and read it through again.

“Myra, sometimes, I sit back in my dressing room and picture you back in Apple Bough,” he’d written. “In my mind, I can see you and Wag running up the lawn and into the house. I follow you into the kitchen, and I can almost smell the toast and the hot chocolate. Yesterday, it was all so real, that Matt had to call me three times before I heard him…”

Matt … The name had been creeping into Sebastian’s letters more and more often. Myra had managed to gather that he was a young flautist who had been gathered into Mr Ruttenstein’s stable of musicians. The two young men had obviously struck up a close friendship, and Myra couldn’t help feeling a slight pinch of something she recognized as jealously. Paul – no longer a tutor, but nowadays combined manager, press officer and friend – had written reassuringly, saying how much Matt helped Sebastian after concerts, much as Myra, Ettie and Wolfie had done so many years ago. But Myra had her own suspicions about her brother, and could not help feeling concerned. However, time had taught her that it was better to face her problems directly. Just look at what had happened when she’d gone to see Mr Ruttenstein about the Amati !

“My dearest Sebastian,” she wrote. “All is well at Apple Bough, and both Wag and I are looking forward to seeing you for Christmas. Thank you for the wonderful record set you sent me – your music is filling the house, and it’s almost as if you were upstairs, playing again. The sun is setting over the woods, and the garden is filled with soft light. You should see the leaves ! But by the time you get here, it may all be covered in snow. I know the vicar is looking forward to having you back for Christmas, and hopes you will play a short interlude during the Christmas service, as you did two years ago. I was wondering if you’d like to bring your friend Matt back for Christmas - Paul mentioned he was alone in the world. There’s always plenty of room at Apple Bough…”

The fourth letter was purely business, but she read and re-read the letter with delight, before quickly dashing off a reply.

Myra finished her letters, and sealed the envelopes, ready to catch the post the next morning. As she licked the
stamps, Wag reappeared with his lead. Myra laughed. “Yes, Wag ! Just a quick walk to the post office ! And let’s hope we see them all home soon for Christmas !”

Autumn turned to winter; the leaves turned yellow and coated the ground, blanketing the newly-planted bulbs that would give a beautiful display in the spring. Myra made jam and chutney with the last of the fruit, and spent her evenings in front of the fire, quilting, reading or – her most frequent pastime in recent months – writing. She’d been scribbling short stories, based loosely on her childhood family, and Popps, to whom she’d nervously given them to read, had been enthusiastic. “Just the thing for the kiddies at the school,” she’d said, matter-of-fact as ever. “You should see about getting your mother to do some illustrations…” But Myra, so used to thinking she had no real skills, not like the others, had not dared mention the project to Polly. She could just imagine her reaction. “But Myra has no talents of that kind,” she pictured her saying, aghast. And how embarrassing for her brothers and sister if the unknown Forum sibling was a failure ! Better to remain a shadowy nobody than that !

She began her preparations for Christmas early. Between helping Popps to do the flowers in the church, and baking for the village bazaar, she prepared the rooms, making them as warm and welcoming as possible. They were all due to arrive - from at least three of the four corners of the world – on Christmas Eve, and she had planned a huge dinner.

Polly and David arrived first, from London. Polly brought a huge canvas as Myra’s present – abstract flowers in various bright colours – which she proceeded to place in the middle of the dining room, removing a carefully chosen landscape. Outwardly calm and smiling, saying how delightful it all was, Myra nevertheless planned a rapid removal up to the attic, as soon as her parents returned to their London flat and gallery.

Ettie was due to arrive on the midday train, but just as Myra was thinking about putting on her coat and strolling down to the station, the doorbell went. The telegram was unexpected, and she felt her stomach lurch. She opened it with shaking hands.

“Petra broke leg ski-ing. Hooray for me. This is Ettie being Sugar Plum Fairy. Sorry to miss Christmas but will send tickets. Love E”

Myra’s heart sank. She handed the telegram to her parents, who immediately began to gush over the unexpected delights. “We must book flights right after Boxing Day,” Polly said, excitedly. “Just imagine Ettie dancing the Sugar Plum at just 18 !”

The chatter carried on all afternoon, until Myra slipped out, Wag running happily beside her, unable to cope with the Nutcracker talk any longer. Walking along the country lane, frost still glistening on the brambles, she began to plan her next story. Perhaps it would be about a little girl who hated to dance…

Eventually, she had to turn back. After all, Wolfie was expected soon - along with a surprise guest he had promised. Myra was certain this would be the skater and film star he’d been chasing, this Lalla Moore. She hurried her steps, but, approaching the French doors, realized she was too late. Her younger brother, now tall and handsome, stood in front of the fire, smiling broadly. His arm was around a slender girl, huge brown eyes and masses of hair. Her heart sank. She’d heard rather a lot about Lalla and didn’t know what to expect. A showy, temperamental star of ice shows and musical films, Myra was not exactly looking forward to meeting her…

Wolfie grinned madly as Myra came in, rushing over to envelop his sister in long arms. She noted with surprise how wide and comforting his shoulders were nowadays. Stepping backwards, he smiled at his guest. And Myra was suddenly aware of a new look in his eyes, a new depth and warmth in the much-photographed smile. But the young woman looked nothing like the film star she had been expecting…

“Myra, I want you to meet Harriet,” Wolfgang said in a serious voice. “I really hope you’ll love her as much as I do…” And Harriet Johnson was shyly putting out her hand, as Wolfie continued. “She’s an Olympic skating star, and Lalla Moore’s friend – almost her sister - and I met her at Lalla’s party. It…” he looked down at the slight girl, and took her hand, squeezing it. “It was love at first sight. For both of us…”

As the young lovers went out into the garden – Wolfie wanted to show Harriet the smallest details – Myra fled to the kitchen, where Miss Popple was keeping an eye on the roast. “She’s a nice little thing, isn’t she ?” Popps commented. “I saw her at the films, in a news reel, when she got her medal. Seems really normal, no big temperament. Her brothers own a chain of grocery stores and a market garden, I understand…”

Suddenly she was aware of noise in the hall. She burst through the door and straight into her brother’s arms. “Sebastian !” she murmured, her eyes suspiciously damp. Squeezing her tightly with one arm, she knew instinctively that the other held the precious Amati.

“Let me look at you !” he said, a huge smile lightening up his thin face. “Oh, Myra – I can’t believe I’m here at long last ! This tour has seemed endless !” As he shed violin case, overcoat and scarf, Myra turned to the other two men crowded the hallway. One was a stranger – a compact young man, with bright blond hair and tanned skin. And the other – the other was Paul. Paul, as solidly comforting as always, still looking as if he was about ten years younger than his actual age. Paul grinned at her, and gave her a thumbs-up sign. She smiled back.

Around the dinner table, the missing place for Ettie was filled – rather more quietly – by Harriet. Festive and cosy, with holly and pine boughs decorating the room, the table was sparkling with red candles and green napkins. As was tradition, Myra was sat at the head of the table, surveying her family gathered around her. And also as had become tradition, they went round the table, each giving their news and wishes for the year ahead.

“I’ll start,” Wolfie said with a grin. “I am so very happy to be here, in my lovely home, with all my family around me, and especially to have Harriet here by my side. The day I gate-crashed that party was the best day of my life…”
Harriet smiled shyly up at him, and then around the table. “Thank you for welcoming me here today. I hope you’ll meet my family soon … although you’ll have to excuse my brothers if they start pricing up the value of your apple orchard…”

There was a ripple of laughter around the table. Sebastian took his turn. “I’m staying put for a while, in America. I’ve got a new recording contract, and …” he looked at Matt … “I’m planning to buy a house there. It’s nice to be settled.”

Myra, glancing at her brother, was not surprised that the look Sebastian gave Matt was so similar to that exchanged between Wolfie and Harriet. But somehow, the jealousy had subsided. Sebastian deserved to be happy…

Paul next took over. “I’ve got some exciting news,” he began. “It may come as a surprise to you all – although it was no surprise to me – that there will soon be another famous Forum. Myra’s been writing some children’s stories, and I’ve just had word to say that she’s been offered a very nice book deal.”

Gasps of astonishment around the table. Polly and David exchanged puzzled looks. Myra’s mother looked at her daughter. “Myra, are you sure about this ?” she said, breaking through the chorus of congratulations. “Don’t you think this is just someone trying to make the most of your name, as the sister of so many well-known people ?”

But it was Paul who cut in. “Nothing like it, Polly,” he said in his firm, comforting voice. “The stories were sent by my company, anonymously. No-one knows that Myra is the author. This is all down to her talent. “

“You used to say I had a talent for wisdom and for being a good sister,” Myra broke in. “Well, I’ve used those feelings in my writing. I know what children like to read, and how to tell the stories simply. I like it…”

Polly sat back, looking as if her world order had been shaken to its roots. But eventually she smiled, and raised a glass. “Then I must say well done to all my children, and the rest of you. A very merry Christmas, and a successful new year !”

And Myra looked over the table to where Paul sat. Their eyes met, and Myra suddenly felt quite strange. She’d been going to thank him for his help with the publishers, but felt herself blushing. She smiled, biting her lip slightly, and was rewarded with another warm look.

It was going to be an interesting new year…