Three Sisters by Susie Thornberry
By Wasafiri Editor on May 23, 2023 in
Wasafiri is pleased to publish the pieces shortlisted for the 2022 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize. The poems, essays, and short stories in this series showcase the best new writing from the best new writers across the globe – in all their diversity and complexity. In this emotive work of fiction, Susie Thornberry offers a poignant, shrewd portrait of loss and sisterhood.
‘Maybe all that a family is, is the shape of its silence.’ – Kei Miller
The three sisters share two backwards seats to suburbia. Versions of the same seats that Zahra (32), Mani (30), and London (28) were jammed onto for birthday trips to the SegaDome or Madame Tussaud’s as children.
Today, they had waited to catch the same train from different stops. It will be the thirty sixth Wednesday dinner with their mother since their father died and they could do without it. At Blackfriars, Farringdon, and St Pancras, each sister had flared their nostrils at the idea of the journey. A collective stress tic on three different platforms across the city. One overlooking the river, one at ground level, and one underground on platform B.
On the train around them, people are crammed close, swapping air and the smell of the working day now imprinted in their clothes. A commuter rests her Tate Modern tote bag on the side of London’s head.
‘Mani, Mani, do you like my new hat?’
She shifts her head so the bag fits more snugly and gurns. Mani cracks up, but the commuter is oblivious, reading the Evening Standard, and, next to her sisters, Zahra is focused into editing Mani’s application for a selective yoga course next May.
All three sisters are tall with dark hair and shades of light brown skin that shift with who’s been on holiday, who’s taken up running again, and whose current office is in a basement. Their similarities startle strangers but the things they see of themselves – London’s soft jaw, Mani’s blackheads, Zahra’s thinner hair – when they look at what could have been with a recombination of genes weighs heavy on them. The cooking and reshuffling of these genes in the same house, school, twenty minute journey up town, but against different lives mean that London is an activist, trying to save the world; Zahra is an assistant professor, trying to change the narrative on crustacea; and Mani is retraining, Mani is trying harder than them all.
They dawdle up the hill to their childhood home. A clutter of history of who is better at maths, job applications, and baking Victoria Sponge cake; and who wore the same skirt to a school disco first; and who ate the whole box of sweets their father bought; and who held whose hair back over the toilet; and who cut whose hair out of spite because of Laura next door; and who answers when you need them to.
Mani stops to buy flowers, London wants gin, and Zahra is happy to have the excuse to hang back outside the shop for a moment alone. It’s cold. She puffs her cheeks in and out, and holds her breath hothousing inside her mouth. She waits for her sisters to leave the shop, slaps her cheeks and lets it out in one long breath like a fire-breathing dragon. The hot air shoots out and fogs damp around them.
‘You’re so disgusting,’ says Mani. ‘I can’t believe you’re my role model.’ But London is laughing so, by blood majority, it was a funny thing to do.
Their mother (61) pulls them into the house, with thanks for the flowers and one kiss for the group, wearing a fuchsia pink jumper and lipstick to match. ‘Your father’s not here,’ she says.
The sisters don’t respond. It’s been like this every week since their father died. They don’t look at one another, hoping that if they ignore it, they can keep ignoring it. Three sets of nostrils flare. Every week they talk separately to therapists who are reluctant to give opinions or advice or options, and instead ask questions to try to pull a thread that none of the sisters feel exists within them. What is there is the relation to each other and a hole where they should know what to do and whether they are failing their mother or encouraging her or judging her too much.
Zahra heads up to the bathroom while Mani and London follow their mum into the living room. The room, like the house, is full of their parents’ life. Things they loved individually pile up into a thronged aesthetic the house can barely contain. Dark wood furniture, miniature buses, ceramic Donald Ducks, cream doilies, sugared almonds tied in a peach mesh puff from a distant relative’s wedding in Leeds eight years ago. Above the door frame there are three clocks with red labels, and the names of their parents’ significant places. London 19.32 – Amritsar 00.02 – Birmingham 19.33.
This is the room where the sisters learned to grieve together for four grandparents; for Pig the gerbil; and for Princess Diana whose televised funeral they watched eating ham and lemon pickle sandwiches while their mother shook her head that it was a shame, a life lost too soon. The whole town watched. Their friends from school, their families. The world watched with subtitles or different commentators. Somehow it felt better because everyone had lost someone. The local Safeway had to tie more pages into the condolence book with black ribbon until they gave in and finally put out a new one and then another two days later.
Diana had died six days before London’s sixth birthday. London felt that she and the princess were connected in some way by the number six. Maybe this was the first moment that London felt linked to everyone else in the way that made her now want to save the world when her friends wanted to save their money for a three week holiday to Mexico. Zahra and Mani still sometimes called their anti-monarchist sister ‘Princess’ even though they had all felt sad at the time because school thought famous people were an easy way to teach about death and the sisters’ second generation Indian parents had a relationship with the monarchy that the sisters think is part of the problem.
The intimate knowledge of every nook of the living room’s jumble holds the sisters together, but in the back part of the room there is a gap. Mani and London spot it at the same time. Where the round chestnut dining table for six people should be, there is a small folding rubberwood picnic table with a bright blue top. It is big enough for one plate, a knife, fork, spoon and glass, which are all pre-set.
They look again for the chestnut table that their father had bought, with the sisters tucked beside him, at auction but there is only the folding table.
The two of them look away. Mani messages the group.
Mani: Mum’s lost her mind.
Zahra: Don’t say that. I’ll be down in two seconds.
London: She has, to be fair.
Mani: Yup. Wait and see.
Zahra comes in, sits on the sofa, and follows her sisters’ eyes to the sad little table.
Zahra: Did you wait for me to come down to say anything?
Her sisters nod.
Zahra: Fuck you.
‘Mum, where’s the table?’ Zahra says.
‘There.’ She points across the room at the folding table.
‘The other table. You know I mean the other one.’
‘I didn’t need it.’
‘We don’t need a dinner table?’
‘What does it have to do with you? You hardly ever visit.’
‘We come every Wednesday!’
‘London comes from Peckham,’ Mani says.
‘Peckham isn’t far,’ London says.
‘That’s true. Peckham is far. Thank you, London. But we still don’t need a big table without you.’
The ‘we’ stops the sisters’ questions. ‘Okay, Mama,’ Mani says. She moves behind, unties her mum’s hair and begins to replait it. She soothes with her fingers and hopes that each knot she hits will jar her mum into reality.
London looks down and messages her housemate.
London: Drink later?
London: I might need it.
Zahra looks down, allows herself a moment to visualise – a breath in for three and out for three – and messages her partner in their Filth chat.
Zahra: Later, I want you to use me and tell me what a good girl I’ve been.
Sam: You’re being very demanding.
Sam: What makes you think you deserve it?
She gets a message in their usual chat seconds later.
Sam: Are you okay? Hope it’s not too horrible there.
The sisters’ mother brings out rotis in a tea towel and keema with peas, and touches her husband’s forehead in their wedding photograph. This is the same Wednesday dinner they ate watching Star Trek reruns eighteen years ago. It’s Mani tired from karate and London tired from how boring karate was. It’s Zahra spacey from sitting in the car reading teen horror and looking out for strangers trying to break into their brown Volvo. Today’s Wednesday mince is made from soy composite for vegan London’s sake and their father isn’t here to complain that it tastes like mushrooms.
‘Let’s sit on the sofa,’ their mother says.
‘Before you replace it with a deckchair?’
Their mother hands out the rotis dripping with hot butter. She smiles at them individually and then as a pack. ‘Your dad loves these,’ she says, waving one.
And to herself, ‘Such a shame.’
Zahra yelps and drops her roti, butter side down, on the carpet. ‘Such a shame.’ The incantation of death on her mother’s lips. Not quite a recognition that it was a life lost too soon, but a move in that direction. The two sisters look at Zahra, the eldest, the famously unfazed, and a crack appears.
The crack in the order of things grows as they watch Zahra’s first public tears since. In some way it’s a relief. In some way it is a relief not to be sitting at the auctioned table in the same place they have all sat looking at his empty chair for the past thirty five dinners. Them in their usual seats trying to be the same without him. It is not clear what is their own grief and what is all of their grief. Zahra sobs. London stares at the Birmingham clock. Mani’s eyes are on their mother who is tearing a roti like a letter she has read and wants no one else to see. A pile of ripped confetti forms next to the mince. Their mother seems to be in a different room; one where she needs to be alone but she wants the sisters on call. Here, the sisters have lost a name together: dad; daddy; your father. And a truth about him that they can only get closer to when they argue and dispute and add. He liked these rotis but did he love the corn ones more? The sight of parathas stuffed with spiced aloo on the now disappeared table once made him walk his balls straight into the back of a chair and howl for five minutes while everyone’s food got cold. Ten, fifteen years ago. Perhaps. Maybe those parathas were his favourite? Zahra sobs. They all threaten to fall down the crack, but not if one can take the turn to stay up and play the role they’ve been assigned. It is a story. A story. A family is just a story.
They all jolt at London’s fart. The force behind it, summoned to pull them out, sounds like solid matter hitting solid. A slapped hand on a table or on a cheek.
The sisters laugh.
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
She farts again. ‘You really need to sort out this creaky sofa.’
Their mother slaps her on the arm. ‘London, you will soil yourself and it won’t be funny.’
‘Soil! If you shit yourself, London, it will be the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.’
‘You’ll have to wear a pair of mum’s massive pants all the way back to Peckham.’
‘Fuck off, Mani. Peckham’s not far.’
‘Eff off Mani, my pants aren’t big. That’s a very old-fashioned view of older women. And I’m not old fashioned about the things you get up to.’
Zahra sits at the sad little table on top of the memory of the only thing her father had a hand in that’s now gone. Maybe it’s a fuck-you little table. To life, to him for leaving, to the sisters for leaving home in the first place and for pushing her now, for not seeing what she is beyond them and him. Traitors to their own values.
On the other side of the wall, Mani and London are scraping torn roti into the bin and boxing up leftovers for lunch tomorrow.
‘Do you think Mum knows Dad’s dead?’
‘She said he was out again. She’s talking about how much he loves things. Present tense. Man, maybe this is the time we need to get help.’
Mani’s jaw tightens. ‘She knows. She knows. She knows. She knows. She knows.’
It is a threat: leave it.
Zahra appears around the kitchen door. ‘Twenty eight years and you don’t know you can hear everything in this house? Mum’s upstairs but she can hear you,’ she says. ‘She replaced the family dining table with a tray table for one. Yes, she fucking knows.’
She pushes her sisters out the door and back into the living room carrying the guilt of making their mum a problem. Loudly. Their mother joins them in a circle on the carpet holding a Double Decker chocolate bar. Mani smiles, and they all shift closer together, sitting cross-legged so that their bare toes touch the toes of the person next to them. The sisters watch their mother cut the chocolate bar into four equal pieces and put a share in each of their hands. She keeps her own piece in her lap on some kitchen roll.
‘This is the last one he gave me.’
Their parents had met on a bus at Hackney Town Hall when they had both just moved to London from Birmingham. It took a new city to introduce them. For thirty three years after that, he bought her a Double Decker bar every Friday. Their ‘handsome life’ was built on double deckers, he would say. Every childhood Friday, he bought the girls sour sweets that made them dribble and wipe it on each other, cones of popcorn, caramel filled cartoon characters, but the Double Deckers were for his wife only.
Now they all sit holding the last piece of him. Their mother closes her eyes and bites the tiniest corner. London thinks of giving her share back – her mum needs it more – and then crams it in her mouth in one bite; Mani gnaws the chocolate from around the edges; and Zahra bites one quarter with mathematical precision.
Nobody speaks. They press their feet tightly against each other. Holding one another and the story together until Mani gets up to go to the bathroom.
‘Why are you taking your bag?’
‘I’ve been flushing your blood clots since you were seventeen. You don’t have to hide it. You can just take a tampon.’
‘I started my period when I was fifteen.’
‘No, you didn’t.’
‘Do you still care about that?’
London regrets bringing it up. Mani does still care about the years of waiting and pretending her body was ready to bleed when people were already fucking and her younger sister had periods. Now she has to care about the unbearable pain every month and what it means for the future. She ignores her sisters and takes her bag out into the hallway, closing the door behind her. On the way up she rummages through the coats on the rack by the front door. Her father’s charity shop rain mac is three jackets deep under a navy duffle and a hideous beige pea coat. She pulls a Double Decker bar from her bag, puts it in the mac’s left pocket and smiles. It will be one more for her mum to find when she is ready to move his things from next to the entrance. A taste of him that is hers alone or a sacred scrap that she’ll keep in the fridge for ten years past its sell by date.
As Mani walks away up the stairs, she hears London.
‘Mum, you need a pedicure by the way, my toes got exfoliated from rubbing against yours.’
Mani feels the stairs creak in the places they have creaked for years.
Susie Thornberry is a writer, producer, and artistic director. Her creative work has been presented with Battersea Arts Centre, WOMAD, BBC Radio 6 Music, and many others. She is working on a collection of funny and unsettling short stories about the lengths people go to hide from disaster, even as it unfolds.
The 2023 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize is open for submissions until 30 June 2023. Submit here.
Title photo by Viktor Forgacs on Unsplash