Who’d have a little sister? Bloody Ashley barges into my bedroom without knocking. Again. If I’ve told her once…
I go to shout at her (again), but looking at her, something’s not right.
She flops onto the bed. “Tara, why’s Mum crying?”
“Don’t be silly. Mum never cries.”
“She is. She’s in the kitchen, crying. Go and look if you don’t believe me.”
The easiest way to get rid of the little pest is to play along – besides, I’m a bit curious. So I tell her to stay in my room (which I’ve never said before) and I sneak downstairs. True enough, Mum’s at the kitchen table among a mountain of soggy tissues.
Ashley dashes past me. “Mum, where’s dinner?”
Oh, the tact of the nine-year-old. I drag her from the kitchen. “I told you to stay upstairs.”
“You’re hurting me.” Her voice rises to a wail. “Mum…”
“I’ll hurt you even more if you don’t sod off.”
Back in the kitchen, I clear the tissues and sit down. “Mum?”
“It’s nothing, Tara. Go and look after your sister.”
“Yeah, like you’d be sat there blubbing over nothing. What’s happened?”
Then I realise: Ashley was right. It’s half past seven. There’s no dinner. “Is it Dad? He’s normally home by now. Where’s Dad?”
It’s like Mum’s whole body collapses in front of me. “He’s not coming home, Tara. He’s left us. Your father…“ More tears. “Your father’s moved out. To rediscover himself.”
I collapse, too. Dad’s gone? Where? To rediscover what?
“I don’t know what we’re going to do, Tara. Ask anything you want, although I doubt I‘ll have answers yet. But if you’ve the faintest idea about how I’m going to tell Ashley, then for God’s sake say so. I know she just won’t understand.”
Yeah. Like I do.
Caitlyn, my best friend, is all worldly-wise. “It’s a mid-life crisis,” she announces, swinging her freshly-painted toenails up onto the bed to dry. “He’ll have a tattoo and a younger woman the next time you see him.”
“So sensitive. What makes you the expert?”
“I heard Mum talking to our neighbour, ages ago. She was wondering how long before my dad has one.” Caitlyn stares. “Omigod, you don’t think he will?”
“Well, I didn’t see it coming with mine, did I? I can hardly be the judge of yours. And I’ll have my nail varnish back now, please.”
She wiggles her purple toenails. “You should call him. Find out what’s going on. Then you can tell me all about it and I’ll start watching Dad for tell-tale signs.”
Despite her self-interest, Caitlyn’s right, so I sneak off to the end of our garden after school. Dad’s phone rings for ages; I’m just planning my voicemail when he picks up.
“You left us.”
“Er. Well. Yes.”
“Where are you?”
“Well, Tara, I’m in a lovely flat in the city. There’s a spare room here for you and Ashley when you visit. You’ll love it. It’s – “
“I don’t care about your fucking flat.” Did I just swear at my father? “Why, Dad? Ashley’s devastated.”
“Is she there? Can I talk to her?”
“For God’s sake. Just tell me what’s going on.”
He sighs. “Tara, I’m forty eight. I’ve spent the last twenty years with your mother, the last fifteen of those making sure that all three of you are OK. You know, money, food, school. I’ve worked constantly. I feel old and tired. I still love you, but I just needed to get away, have a rest from responsibility. Do you understand?”
Caitlyn’s words come back to me. “What’s her name?”
“Love, don’t be like that. Look, you know when you get bogged down with homework and revision? Well, that’s how I’ve been feeling.”
“But I didn’t run away! You made me carry on. ‘Think of the future,’ you said. So why’s this any different? You chose to have us. I didn’t choose school. How about you think of the future? Or perhaps you already are – so, what’s her name?”
I wonder if he’ll hang up. But he doesn’t.
“I knew it. How old is she?”
“Tara, I really don’t see…”
“She’s thirty. She’s very friendly and she’s looking forward to meeting you and Ashley...”
It’s me who hangs up. Dad calls back and I reject the call, cursing him to hell. I chew my hair – something I can only do when Mum’s not around – and work through it all.
He’s had enough of responsibility, yet he’s moved in with another woman (my future step-mother, eugh) who he’ll have to support (along with us), and who will probably want kids of her own (my half siblings). How long does this “mid-life” period last, I wonder. Because it strikes me that when the next child turns fifteen he’ll do the same again. But by then he’ll be sixty three at least.
Ashley finds me behind the shed. “Was that Dad?”
“What did he say?”
“What car is it?”
I look at her. “Sorry?”
“Jenna said he’d have gone and got a new car. All men do it, she says.”
And I’d thought Caitlyn was forward. Jenna’s only a year older than Ashley.
“Tara, why would he leave us just because he’s bought a new car?”
For once I don’t say she’s stupid. I laugh. Not at Ashley, but at her garbled understanding of all this. She’s hurt and so confused, she thinks it’s all over a car. She’s young, but she deserves the truth.
“Tell you what, Ash – let’s get a Coke from the fridge and I’ll tell you what he said.”
“Does Mum know?”
“Mum can wait.”
But there have been too many secrets. I’ll tell Mum later, but right now it’s Ashley who matters. I tuck her in beside me as we walk towards the house. Suddenly I feel the need to protect her. My little sister.