Misunderstood by Louise Wilford

Photo by Varad Murti on Unsplash

When my sister Kerry said the words, I misunderstood.

            ‘I don’t love him,’ she said, voice taut as the skin of a balloon. 

            Impulsively, I rested my hand on her arm, squeezed the soft flesh gently in a way I hoped was comforting.  Had I understood what she meant, I might have done something different. 

            ‘You shouldn’t stay with someone you don’t love,’ I said. Trite. The words you mutter in such situations, aware of the caverns of meaning that echo beneath.

            I remember that she smiled – a small, sad smile that told me she had no choice.

            They split up a few months later.  Mike bought a two-bedroomed new-build on a large estate in a grubby suburb, big enough for his son to stay weekends. I kept in touch with him, for Ethan’s sake. I’d drop off the occasional cake I’d made for them, check they were ok. He was a quiet man, Ethan’s dad – I could see why she’d grown bored. He had no drive, none of the charisma that keeps women interested. But he was kind and he loved his son; that was all I cared about.

            She kept the house they’d shared, dropping Ethan off at school each weekday morning on her way to work. I picked him up, gave him tea at mine. Some days we’d go to the park, or take a walk along the canal to the Heritage Centre where there was a Playmania in one of the old warehouses. Other days, we’d race toy cars along the hallway laminate, play Snap and Happy Families, practice writing his name. I’d take him home about seven, in time for bed; she’d be home, his bath already run, his bedtime story waiting in his room.

            Ethan was always quiet when we arrived – exhausted by the long days at school. Now and then, he’d push his little face into my thigh, stand close – even occasionally cling to my legs like ivy round an oak tree. But it’s natural, isn’t it, for young children to get attached to people they see a lot?  I used to worry that she’d be jealous, but she never showed any signs. We were a slick machine, the pair of us. I used to think there were worse things for a boy than being brought up by his mum and his auntie. But there are better things too.

            It was a Friday evening when Mike rang me. I remember that jangling noise, like a siren cutting through the silence in my living room. I’d been nodding off, reading, my bedtime cocoa half-drunk in its mug beside me. I don’t get many calls after ten in the evening.

            I could barely understand what he was saying. His voice was hot coals burning my ears.

            ‘It’s Ethan,’ he said. ‘Angie, he’s dead. Kerry… Kerry, she…!’ 

            It was – hours later – a police officer who told me what had happened. They’d found Ethan in the bath. Drowned. Kerry had rung the police herself, voice dead as her child.

            When she’d said the words, I’d misunderstood.

Louise Wilford lives in Yorkshire, UK. Her work has been widely published, most recently in Bandit, English Review, Goats’ Milk, Jaden, Makarelle, New Verse News, POTB, The Fieldstone Review, River and South and Parakeet. In 2020, she won the Arts Quarterly Short Story Prize, the Merefest poetry Prize, and was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing (Distinction). She is working on a children’s fantasy novel. Blog: https://louviewsnewscues.blogspot.com/

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