I write this sitting on the floor in front of my unreliable, dangerously flickering electric heater. I am sure one day the thing will go up in flames or else give me a deathly electric shock when I go to plug it in. I long to light a fire on this December night but the chimney has been blocked by the landlord to prevent such things happening. Next to me sits my sister, Rose. She is very kindly ignoring what I write.
Prior to this morning, I’d not seen my sister for two years. It didn’t seem like so long a time, partly because we’ve sent letters to each other so frequently and partly because I’ve never known time to pass as quickly as it has these last few years. Perhaps it’s a sign that I have finally lost my youth after years of clinging on by a finger. Next I will start to say how young policemen look when I see them in the street. Rose hasn’t aged a day all this time. She looks different but only in the best ways. She looks happier, healthier, browner (she used to have such pale skin), and content. California clearly suits her better than London suits me. She is thirty-one now and I am twenty-seven.
I didn’t know she was coming until the very last minute, when Topaz sent a telegram to tell me. Apparently Rose wanted it to be a surprise. We both cried a little at first. She, loudly and immediately, whilst I tried to carry on a conversation in sniffles, not wanting to make a scene in the middle of Oxford Street.
“Have you heard from Stephen?” she asks now.
“Any Stephen you like but he’s the one I was thinking of.”
I had a letter from Stephen a week ago. I think he is well and fairly happy—as happy as anyone can be when fighting a war—but it can be hard to tell from his letters. He never tells me what is happening in France. In any case, I don’t receive as many letters from him as I used to. He has a ‘sweetheart’ now, an American called Faye. He doesn’t tell me much about her either.
“It’s a shame for poor Stephen,” Rose remarks, “I wonder if the war will spoil his career.”
I feel a wave of love for Rose wash over me as she says this. It is made up of simultaneous feelings of despair, annoyance and affection. Only Rose could make me love her with a comment of such callous disregard for the people Stephen is fighting for.
It is later now. Rose is asleep on my bed in the next room. I shall have to sleep on the couch tonight. I’ve stayed awake to add a few more words to a piece for The Times that has to be finished by Friday. We had sardines on toast for supper. I did ask whether Rose would prefer to go out to eat but she refused. I know she’s lived on an American ranch for almost ten years now, and she hasn’t said anything, but I can’t help but feel she’s disappointed in the way I’m living. Or perhaps that’s only me being disappointed in myself. Earlier, I asked her why anyone would want to come to London whilst there are so many air raids, rationing, and all the other consequences of war. Never mind it being a miserable time of year and so far for her to travel. She laughed it off.
Eventually I asked the other question that had been on my mind.
“Do you see much of Simon?”
“Not at the moment. He’s awfully busy with his work for the war effort and, well, you know, being newly married… Oh, Cassandra, I am sorry.”
I gave her my best smile and said, “Don’t mind me. It’s been years now, hasn’t it?”
And, really, I meant it. I mean it. I won’t disrespect my younger self by dismissing what I felt for Simon as calf love but, by and large, I no longer feel it. A long time ago, he did come back, as he said he would. I should have realised long before then that it would never work between us. He tried to make it right, I think. Eventually, though, he told me that I reminded him too much of Rose. I had never been told anything like that before. I had always thought of myself and Rose as two diametrically opposed creatures. We were family, and we loved one another, but nothing else could possibly link us. To be told that I couldn’t be loved because I was at once not my sister and too much like her… I couldn’t make sense of it. It seemed an entirely wrong-headed piece of reasoning. However, long after Simon had gone back to America, I started to notice tiny details that I never had before. Looking at a picture of Rose, I would notice the similar shape of our eyes and the way they sit just slightly lopsidedly on both our faces. When reading one of her letters I’d see that we both write our ‘S’s in exactly the same way.
Rose is awake again. She says she is going to make us cocoa.
“Remember when I used to beg father to let us have some money for cocoa powder,” she says, “You always told me it was an unnecessary expense.”
“It was! And I’m not going to let you waste mine now, either.”
I think she’d forgotten that in this country we’re limited to rations. She said immediately that she’d send me some cocoa from America to replace mine. She’d send tins of pineapple too, and all the sugar and nylon stockings I wanted.
“It must remind you of living in the castle,” she said, sitting next to me.
“It’s not quite so romantic.”
“There was nothing romantic about the castle! All the cold and the mud and having hardly anything to eat,” she said, but then she added, quietly, “I do miss it though.”
She took the quickest peek over my shoulder to see what I was writing.
“My sister, the novelist,” she said with one of her nicest giggles.
“Hardly,” I said, “I’m a journalist right this moment. A journalist living in this dingy, stone-cold flat, living off of tinned sardines and baked potatoes.”
“My sister, the novelist,” she repeated.
She held my hand. I stretched out my fingers and she did the same so that we could see how our hands matched perfectly.
In the end, the best thing Simon left me was a sense of the indestructible tie between my sister and myself.