“Your nails are probably too long anyway,” Neave says, taking the creased Rizla from me and reclining back, her hair spreading into a halo on the pillow. Two neat folds form on her forehead as she rolls. I tell her that it looks like she has an equals sign above her eyebrows. She tells me I’m a c**t.
The room had been like a Tardis before I even stepped in. There was an army of nail varnishes, boasting every shade of red. Each little bottle was sprinkled with dust. If I’d touched the glass, an oval pool of grime would have shone from my finger, like a backwards finger print.
I didn’t touch the bottles.
I say nothing as Neave holds the lighter to the end of the cigarette. The little bulge of tobacco poking out at the end reminds me of the pube-ball I’d teased out of the flat shower the previous day. Georgia’s hair is the culprit for most of the blocking, but as the flame singes the strands to blackness I swear I feel a nip in my knickers. The smoke spirals upwards and collects beneath the ceiling like a cloud.
“Don’t tell Mum.” Neave looks at me daringly mid-toke.
There were photos in the room, the ones that I had ordered because SnapFish had had a deal on. Not the type that can be taken on an iPhone and uploaded straight to Facebook or Instagram – but 6” x 4” prints that have a gloss on the front and grey lettering on the back. There are chins and lazy eyes and rosy cheeks and blackheads and everything else that a 15-year-old shouldn’t care about but a 20-year-old deletes, deletes, and deletes. Adolescent Maya, John, Delfi, Jess. Polly and Dad. Mum. Adam, Laura. Neave. Jack. Lots of Jack. One photo had fallen off and landed face down onto the carpet. The blu tack punctuating each corner was grey and flat, like it had been ironed on.
“How’s it all going, anyway?” Neave asks, returning her eyes to the cloud.
There were my rosettes, fringing the walls with a river of blue and red. The rosettes made me smile. At least I could get a first in something.
“Uni’s great. How’s life here?”
She tells me it’s quiet. She’s always missed me, but never realised she’d miss Mum. She says she’s not sure about the new neighbours. It’s nice to hear. She asks me if I’m still riding. I’m not. Neither is she. We both look to the window as three beautiful horses stride past the house. One of the riders is texting.
“My Mum is still a bitch,” she replies. I laugh. During the shouting matches between Ruth and Neave, I’d stroke Merlin, the cat, to pretend I wasn’t listening. Neave had a temper. Ruth had a temper. I have a temper.
Neave never packed her bags and left.
There was the stain on the carpet, egg-yolk yellow and about the size of a football. I’d hidden a packet of bleach hair dye beneath my bed so that Mum wouldn’t see. I forgot about it until I changed my room around, moving my bed into the corner by the window where it remained until the house was sold. The box was still intact but the bottle had leaked so that dye had seeped through into the carpet. Mum banned me from going riding for a month.
“How are your siblings?”
I say they’re good, though I don’t actually know.
The second time I met Delfi, I was pulling my bags out of the car; a big horse riding bag ready for the Saturday afternoon and a smaller bag of clothes and schoolbooks. She shut the boot before I was ready. I collapsed into the car from the impact – a smack on the very top of my skull. Dad lifted me out. It wasn’t deliberate, but between her sorrys, I saw tears in her eyes from the self-contained giggling.
Dad had warned me that Delfi had taken the move the hardest. A new house, a new school, a new father-figure and a couple more siblings. She was still the youngest. Every other weekend she had to give up half of her room to me. The twin beds were less than a metre apart. I had an assigned drawer for some spare clothes and she always kept the room clean. She started coming riding with me. She quit, and came to Girl Guides instead. She didn’t quit. One night, a couple of months after the new set-up, I felt a presence in our room, like someone watching in the darkness. I reached my arm out into the void to feel for Bouncer, my step-dog. I felt something colder. I retracted my arm. I reached again. Soft fingers. I let my hand hover on hers, hardly touching. I prised open her fingers and laced them with my own, arm stretched out awkwardly in the darkness. Delfi was silent, but I’m sure her eyes were as wide as mine. Her whisper was so quiet I almost didn’t hear it.
“Sorry about the boot, Em.”
When I moved in permanently, Delfi painted a little ‘+ Emma’s’ to the ‘DELFI’S ROOM’ sign that hung on her door. We didn’t mention my Mum, and she and Adam invited me on bike rides and dog walks. Pete was at university, but I hadn’t lost a sibling. I’d gained two.
There had been a rose. Plastic. Jack had bought it for me for Valentine’s Day, along with a snow-globe that I’d dropped and smashed on the bus home. The card remained propped up on the windowsill, but the golden ‘Forever’ had faded a vomit-yellow in the sun.
Twin beds. Three bodies. Two sisters and one boyfriend.
“Laura is still a bitch.”
I smile. Laura is the spitting image of Neave, but is velvet and Neave is steel.
She offers me her cigarette and I take it. The smoke feels like sandpaper in my throat but I force myself to keep it there before it creeps out through my teeth and my nostrils.
“Have you heard from Jack?”
When Mum told me that she was going to sell the house it shouldn’t have mattered. I’d been living with Dad for 3 years. In the few times that I’d visited, I’d stayed downstairs. When Mum told me that I had to sort through my belongings, I should have meant it when I said just throw it all away. I’d survived 3 years without whatever was still in there anyway.
She told me I should have a final look. The room was like a Tardis.
“Nah.” The cigarette tasted horrible. I sucked it again. “But Delfi has a boyfriend now.”
Harry is handsome and kind and everything Delfi needs, though I’m not sure she appreciates that yet. She’s not like us Johnsons, who crumble without love and company. Maybe she’s more like Neave. Steel.
“Do you still share a room when you’re back?”
“So you use Jess’ room?” Jess has graduated and is living back at home with her boyfriend.
“Where do you sleep?”
There was my bed. The red and white floral sheets that I had picked with Mark a few years after Dad had left. We agreed that the unicorn sheets made it just a little too babyish. The bed I had slept in for 15 years. The bed that had watched my insomnia and depression. The bed that I’d never had to share.
“On the landing.”
I never heard my Mum swear. When I moved out she didn’t chase me. We didn’t speak for four months. I told her she was embarrassing. I told her I wanted to get drunk and have sex and be free. She told me I was too young.
She took me to the doctors for my pregnancy test results. She never swore. She hated swearing.
Neave sat up on her bed. “No wonder you don’t come home much.” I shrug. She stubs out her cigarette on a 2015 Hello magazine. Neave sighs and pauses for a bit. “You know, my Mum wanted to trade me for you, I think. You were popular, pretty and all the teachers loved you. I truly thought you and Jack were going to live happily ever after and all that.”
I’d been sucking on the cigarette, not noticing that it had seared down to my fingers.
“You always seemed to get it right. Miss Perfect.”
Before I felt the burn, I swore. Sorry, Mum.