“Sister.”

Qualified Entry: Fiction Category

By: Zoe Winther

A few months ago the family had a gathering at the parents’ house in Bendigo. All four siblings were there; an unusual occurrence and one we all bask and drench ourselves in, like trying not to forget the scent of a lover. The sisters will always bring the chardonnay, to drink before delving into the parents’ $25-a-bottle red wine. The brother will always bring the joints, to smoke in the small hours of the morning while the parents are tucked safely and soundly in bed. But like all romantic children’s tales, the anticipation surpassed the reality.

There’s always been a certain point line between her being fun and tipsy, and horrifically drunk. All it takes is one extra glass of wine; this particular gathering saw maybe ten too many. She was slurring, screaming, making a fool of herself. We’d all seen it before. We’d all been the recipient of her horrible drunken words at some point. Once she didn’t recognise who our brother was, despite having spent the whole night with him drinking. But this night, my dad, her step dad, began to scream about the implications of her behaviour, especially regarding her son. Like a mouse, or a child, I hid in my room, light switched off, door opened ever so slightly, listening as he shouted about how he was in her son’s position once, and how if her behaviour ruined her son’s life… Dot dot dot. He never finished the sentence and nobody wanted him to.

“Fuck off, you’re not my dad, you don’t know shit, you don’t know anything!” She screamed with a drunken vigour resembling an angst-riddled teenager.

In the morning, like usual, she didn’t remember a thing.

I asked her recently what she would tell her teenage self if she could.

“To think about the world more. I was very selfish when I was young, and I’ve only realised that as I’ve gotten older. And to think about my family and friends, because to me that’s what life really is about.”

The drive home from our parents’ house back to the city was all too familiar. Those hung-over Sunday afternoons with the low sun swimming in the rear window, every bump in the road another churn in our red-wine stomachs. One particular afternoon, after a couple of spew-stops, we started talking: about her wild nights, which at 34 are film-worthy (I would assume she’d be played by Cameron Diaz circa ‘The Sweetest Thing’), outshining my 19-year-old nights tenfold; about her texting-while-driving that I actually have to hold on to the little bar at the top of the window that is otherwise seemingly unnecessary; and about the car crash she had when she was 18.

She’d been driving from her dad’s house in Horsham to Bendigo on a Monday morning at 7am to work.

“It was January, so it was cool in the morning, with the sun pelting in the window right in my eyes. I had had the heater on because it had been cold, but then it had gotten warm,” she said.

“I didn’t drive back Sunday night because I’d had a big weekend and didn’t want to risk it. [My step mum] said it was a good idea.”

She pauses, nervously bites her thumbnail and I can almost see inside her sweltering teenage flashback. I feel she is reliving the moment.

“I did all the right things…”

There’s silence for a moment as I feel I’m intruding on a private memory. Her voice pales, like he’s talking to herself, not me. Like she’s a teenager trying to rationalise a good deed gone wrong. Her eyes are far away.

All too abruptly she’s back in this moment; a roll of the eyes and a smile, like it’s a funny story she heard, a joke. Like it was too long ago to still garner any real importance.

“I was so young and stupid. You know how when it’s warm you get sleepy?‘I’ll just shut my eyes for a second,’ I clearly remember having that thought. When people read that they are going to think, ‘this girl has mental issues’.”

She shakes her head in what seems to be an overwhelming disbelief at herself. It’s as though she knows things constantly go wrong in her life but she can’t get use to it. And she’s helpless to that fact.

“I woke up, the car had veered from the left to the right hand side of road, I noticed I was going about 120, shit myself, got a really big fright, overcorrected really fast, went into gravel, the car started spinning then flipped three times on its side then hit a tree and flipped twice end to end,”she says it all barely pausing, like the car.

“Dad showed me the car to try to teach me a lesson, but I nearly had a breakdown, the bonnet was gone, the car was about a quarter of the normal size, the only part of the car that was not completely smashed in was the driver’s seat, so if I had of had anybody else with me they would have died.”

Her face fades back to blank and far away. She looks at her nails.

I asked our mum about the accident. I’m back in my childhood home, sitting across from mum making dinner – teaching me how to make the perfect pie crust – and asking her about my sister. I feel seven years old, adoringly watching her smooth tanned hands knead dough, lapping up any information I can about my heroine big sister.

“I sat in that St Arnaud hospital waiting room for hours and hours. She was in a bad way, they had taken out her spleen, she had a collapsed lung, the seatbelt had cut into her really badly. And they wouldn’t say that she was going to be ok. She was in intensive care for 10 days before they said she would be ok,” mum tells me. She pauses her measurements, chopping and stirring, looks me square in the face, shaking her head: “It was horrendous. It was the last thing any parent wants to see, their child like that.”

Like my sister, my mum can flick readily between the edge of an emotional waterfall and smiling normality. Grinning, she tells me:

“I remember I was over there when Marion [her stepmother] brought Annie [her other sister] over. She kept signalling in the air like she was writing, so we got her a piece of paper and a pen. She scribbled: ‘Fuck off’!”

Back in the car that day, she too is back from the brink to smiles, jokes.

“I honestly don’t know how I’m still alive!”

I knew she wasn’t just referring to the car crash; her whole life of adventures could vouch for that. And I didn’t want to admit that I didn’t know how she was still alive either.

I also asked our mum about what she was like growing up.

“She was always very cross, it was always like she blamed me in an underlying way. Not that she’d ever tell me that. I didn’t see her as much as I wanted to, but I couldn’t. [Her father] wouldn’t let me.”

I often forget my mum’s back-story. Although I now know it’s not true, I still look at her with the same childhood eyes of perfection. After having two babies, she got divorced from her first husband. She was so young; I’m nearly how old she was, and it breaks my heart. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must have been like. She was a child with children. My sister is older than mum was, but the story is nearly the same. When talking to either of them, the similarities can barely be seen. But on paper… it’s almost enlightening. I wonder if they know…

“She was very domineering. If she wanted to do something with Annie then they always did it, but it didn’t work the other way around.

“She did some very naughty things. When she was 14 she got so drunk her father thought she would die from alcohol poisoning. In year 12 she moved out. Christ knows what she got up to there. I don’t even know what she lived on.

“Going through puberty lasted about eight years, I reckon.”

Walking to her house one night after a visit to our local pub, she was telling me about her most recent life jaunts: dating a guy seven years her junior, partying with his friends, falling over walking home in ridiculously high-heeled shoes. I told her about how all I wanted for my birthday was a new tablecloth and some good wine.

She said to me: “Sometimes I think you’re the older sister.”

I laughed, because I didn’t feel the same.

I thought that all of the time.

“When I was you I remember vividly wanting to work for World Vision –now I’m in a position where I possibly could but I don’t know if I want to. It’s a very bad time to interview me because I’m going through an existential crisis.”

“Your whole life is a crisis,” our brother interjected.

“Your life ambition should be to stop losing stuff,” one of her visiting friends laughed.

“Yeah, my wallet, my mind.”

A testament to her is her son. Nobody could have wished for a sweeter child. He is polite, hilarious, gorgeous. He never throws tantrums. He’s learnt an almost-as-narcotic-as-his-mother cleanliness. He eats his vegetables. He turns off the television when his mother asks. Once he crossed the road without an adult – but only because he was with a school mate! And he regretted it after his mother saw him.

He’s never done it again.

“So what are your hopes for the future?” I asked her that day when everyone was at her house. The door is constantly banging open and shut whenever I’m there. Friends, siblings, and a bizarre number of people offering consensus type surveys for the government.

“To wake up tomorrow.”

I’m unsure of how to interpret this. I think she just means to still be alive tomorrow, still breathing. But part of me almost believes she wants to wake up tomorrow finding her whole life has been a dream, so she can start over.

“I want to get a good job so I can provide for Nicolas better in the future, and obviously I want him to have the best opportunities he can have. That’s another reason for going back to uni too, to do a good job and be a good role model and earn more money for him.”

When I was six or seven, my mum cut a cartoon out of the paper and stuck it on the fridge. It wasn’t a Leunig but it was in the same vein. It starred a distressed man, seemingly at a loss; going through an existential crisis of his own; despondent and depressed. His speech bubble read: “Right now I am so far behind, I will never die”. It shaped my perspective on religion – the idea we were put on this earth to achieve some goal – until somewhere in the middle of high school I decided upon atheism; it was a mantra I read and blindly accepted as truth with the malleable naivety of a child.

This idea still resonates with me, so when I think about how she is still alive, I feel it’s because there’s an underlying reason. Despite all her faults, she is one of the most passionate people I’ve ever known. Here is a 34-year-old woman, who almost everyone had given up on, who went back to university a single mother with the single hope of wanting to make a difference in the world.

“I wanted to do something more for human kind than sell holidays,” she said.

She’s a girl who fervently learns about the plights of those less fortunate, there have been times when tears have welled in her eyes on reading about disadvantaged children. She’s a girl who upon learning about any suppression of human rights makes it her purpose to change the world.

And with her passion and endeavour, there’s no wonder she’s alive.

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