So, we were both sitting in the vegetable patch, holding a French Bean in front of our mouths ready to begin. We'd agreed that we would start on one, two, three – go! Not just one, two, three. You had to wait for the go! Not that I could care less. All I could think about was how this was turning out to be the worst summer holiday ever. There we were, on our arses in the soil, nothing better to do.
Anyway, I'd started counting, when Margaret went,
Wait! You have to open your mouth when you’re done to prove it's gone.
And I went,
OK, OK, whatever you say, Maggie.
And she said,
Lift up your tongue and everything.
And I was like,
Yes, yes, OK!
My little sister was one for rules then, and sticking to them. She liked adding extra guidelines. She thought that would help her win.
I started the countdown again and at go! we both threw a bean into our mouths, quick-smart. Imagine it; both of us chewing like crazy.
We held each other in a stare as we worked our jaws round those not-quite-ripe beans, so I started making goggly eyes at Margaret. You can’t chew and laugh at the same time and any kind of funny face would set Maggie off giggling and wetting her knickers. A sure bet. She started cackling like an excited starling.
I was just about to open my mouth to show her that it was empty, you know, throw my hands in the air, make a big song and dance of winning, when Maggie stopped laughing and her eyes went goggly. Bulging like a Pool Frog's, I tell you.
She was choking.
I was up on my feet in a panic, trampling on carrot heads. I knew Maggie would never have the wit to fake something like that. Plus her cheeks were turning the colour of a bruise underneath her sunburn. Maggie was still on her backside, muddy fingernails grasping her throat, a strange, desperate look on her face.
I was calling her name,
and asking if she was OK.
Then she made it up onto her knees in the soil and I watched for a moment; this strange spectacle of my sister silently heaving, her body rippling. A caterpillar’s back. She went bluer in the face. I remember standing there thinking my sister could die.
My sister is going to die!
What if my sister died?
Then, I whacked her.
Really, really hard.
Right between her chubby shoulders. There was this inhuman sound, the 'phut' of a bicycle pump, as a half-chewed clot of bean flew out of Maggie’s mouth. It landed in the open arms of a Butterhead Lettuce.
And Maggie breathed again.
Neither of us said anything for a while. We just sat there, listening to our own panting. Maggie still had a grip on her throat, but gentler now, as if she was checking she was still alive.
Eventually she moved one hand away from her neck, twisted her arm behind her back and started rubbing the spot where I’d hit her.
She turned to me and she glared.
I wasn't having that.
So into the silence, I said,
And right away I was dusting dirt off the seat of my shorts and walking back towards the house, leaving Maggie with the vegetables, counting her lucky stars.
I refused to play with her for the rest of that summer, told her if she couldn’t even manage a simple French Bean race, what was the point? She would call that bullying or something similar, but really, I saved her life that day. Anyway, I ask you to name one person who goes around being all 'Mother Teresa' to their sister when they're 12-years-old.
We fell out again the following summer playing in that garden - that battleground of ours. Maggie would have you hear about that too. We were playing at the wild end of the garden that particular day, where the grass was so tall it reached up to my chin. You could lay flat on the ground and see nothing but the cowslip and blue sky above you.
I'd had this bright idea that we should pretend the long grass was a swimming pool. It was a hot August that year and I'd heard just thinking you were somewhere cold made you feel cooler. Of course, Maggie was all gung-ho about the idea, reckoning she'd heard that theory too, when patently she hadn't.
I said we should have a competition to see who could do the best impression of Mrs Wishaw. She was this doddering, old woman who insisted on doing her painfully slow lengths at the public baths the same day as our school swimming lessons. She must have enjoyed us all pointing and laughing at her ridiculous attempts at the breaststroke.
Of course, Maggie had to chip in and spoil it. She had to take things too seriously, as usual. She wanted to know how we could have a fair competition when there was no-one there to judge it. I told her it would be obvious who had won.
A judge? I ask you.
But I remember thinking, if you want to make it into a big deal, Maggie? Fine. I told her the loser had to be tied to the tree swing for the whole of sunset.
At last, we got around to the actual pretend-swimming. Maggie went first and, bless her, didn't do a half-bad job. Mrs Wishaw had this way of swimming that looked as though she was using her arms to wade through a swamp. Maggie had pulled that off. She gave it some real effort, fat clumps of her mousy hair flying all over the place.
When it came to my turn to pretend-swim, I was in a different league. I managed to get the real feel of the old bat. I pulled my arms right back, too far, for each breaststroke and then made the top half of my body lurch above the grass, like a mallard duck stretching its neck, before I wobbled back down and disappeared below the surface. Maggie was roaring with laughter, crossing her legs to stop herself wetting her knickers.
I was clearly the winner. It was just a case of sour grapes when Maggie started bawling her eyes out as I walked her down to the woods behind the long grass and bound her to the tree swing with some of Dad's garden twine.
Maggie was convinced the trees were haunted and the spirits would make her start swinging, then take her soul when she got up too high. This was all based on some ridiculous story I'd made up for Hallowe'en. She knew I’d made it up. Maggie never thought these things through.
If I'd have lost, I'd have had to do the same punishment. Without crying.
I went and lay on my back in the long grass and listened to Maggie whimpering while the sky turned black. I stayed there until I couldn’t see the purple tops of the Campion weed anymore, just the wheelbarrow of stars making the tail of The Great Bear.
Of course I went and set her free. I'd been learning about Roman gladiators at school before the summer and I saw myself as one of those kind-hearted sponsors who gave the losing gladiator a reprieve to fight another day. I could have left her there. But I didn't.
She refused to play at the end of the garden after that. Every time I wanted to shake loose my little sister of an afternoon, I'd run off towards the woods and she'd run back to the house, whining to Mum and Dad, who would tell her to stop being so daft.
At least, I hope that's what they used to say.
After today, I have my doubts.
I did phone her about today. Ages ago. I went to the effort of phoning her in Bolivia - or Brasilia or Bogota - or wherever the hell it is she hangs out these days. Some place where it's an absolute miracle that she ever gets a mobile phone signal. God knows how a girl who couldn’t handle half-an-hour on her own in a Norfolk wood ended up in the rainforest.
I phoned her a month ago and she wasn't interested. She said she couldn’t even think about leaving. She said she'd send Mum and Dad a card. She said to me,
No one really bothers about Ruby, Geraldine, it's Gold when you make a fuss and that's not for another 10 years.
That's what she said.
But all the time she must have been thinking about that bloody French Bean race, building up that tree swing incident in her mind until it resembled full-scale torture. That is what today was all about - the fact that Maggie just can’t get over stuff and move on.
It was me who organised all those extra garden chairs and laid them out so they'd be shaded by the apple trees. It was me who went through Mum and Dad's address book and rang every single one of those friends of theirs and made mindless small-talk until they would let me get an invite in edgeways. It was me who emptied that dishwasher three times over so we all had enough glasses for the Pimms. I even paid for the cake.
What did Maggie do? She made a surprise entrance through the rose arbour and the crowd went wild.
Mum was sobbing,
Maggie, oh my gosh, I had no idea. I would have gone mad if we'd had to wait until Christmas to see you.
Dad was gushing,
What about your farmers out there, can they manage without you?
as if Maggie is single-handedly curing Third World poverty.
And all around me I could hear Mum and Dad's friends going on about how fantastic Maggie looks, how hard she works, how amazing it is that she has travelled thousands of miles to be here, how it was just such a wonderful surprise.
Once Maggie had finished soaking up all the unearned praise, she eventually bothered to come over to me to say hello. She stuck that sun-tanned face of hers up close to mine - because, of course, magnificent Maggie has now developed the ability to suntan rather than blister red like she always used to - and she gave me three kisses on the cheek.
As if two wasn't pretentious enough.
And I whispered,
You said you couldn’t make it.
And Maggie was just so, so nice and whispered back,
I pulled some strings.
Then she went, loud enough so everyone could hear her acting like some kind of homecoming queen in a soppy movie of her own life,
I wouldn't have missed this for the world.
Before I knew it, Dad was front of us with his camera and Maggie was smiling back at the lens, all white teeth and brown skin.
And that was when she did it. She whacked me. Really, really hard. Right between my shoulder blades, just as Dad took the photo. I was winded.
It's a been a long time, sis
Maggie went, patting me on the back, gentler now, as if she was trying to help me get my breath back.
It's been a long time.
One, Two, Three - Go! by Julie Mayhew was read by Lizzie Roper at the Liars' League Fun & Games event on Tuesday 12 April 2011 at The Phoenix, Cavendish Sq., London.
Julie Mayhew’s short story collection A Little Death has been shortlisted for the Scott Prize. She writes plays for radio and her next, A Shoebox of Snow, is on BBC Radio 4 in September. Arvon and Jerwood chose Julie for their 2011 Mentoring scheme to complete her second novel. www.juliemayhew.co.uk
Lizzie Roper is an actress whose work in TV includes; New Tricks, Coronation St, Shameless, Waterloo Rd, Harry and Paul, Him and Her, The Worst Week of My Life, The Great Outdoors. Her work in film includes; award winning The Arbor, Angus Thongs and Snogging. Theatre includes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Christian Slater, The Odd Couple with Alan Davies and Bill Bailey.