The Birthday Present

sisterhood story

‘Happy birthday. It’s not much but I didn’t really have any time to shop. It’s just been so busy at work and, well, you know what it’s like. Well, you don’t actually, but anyway… happy birthday.’

I regard the hastily wrapped parcel my sister is offering and manage a weak smile. I know without opening it that the likelihood its contents will soon be joining her previous gifts at Barnardo’s charity shop are pretty high. It looks soft, squishy, suggesting clothing of some sort. Disaster. I wish my sister wouldn’t buy gifts for me. Somehow, despite having the same parents, upbringing and early life experiences, our tastes in pretty much everything – from clothes to food to politics – are poles apart.

I take the parcel from her and my heart sinks: I will now have to open it in front of her, feign delight and be forced to show some interest in the gift – where did you get it? Wow, the hexagonal buttons are just so unusual! I’ve never seen that shade of mustard in a scarf before! We’ll do the dance, say goodbye, and later I’ll quietly add it to the gathering pile to donate to charity, with mixed feelings of regret and frustration that I am so totally incapable of being honest with her.

The barbed remark has not gone unnoticed either. My sister: busy physics teacher and deputy head of a large secondary school, mother of four and wife to a similarly employed husband. Not enough hours in the day, scraping by, no time for frivolities like gift shopping. All imparted with the primary purpose of shining a glaring light on the fact that I suffer none of her woes. No job – no need. One successful businessman husband, half her quota of children, nice house, cleaners. What on earth do I do all day? In every conversation I have with her I am only ever a few sentences away from feeling I need to justify my choices, my day, my life.

‘Ooh, thank you, but you shouldn’t have, really. Really.’ I smile and take the gift from her, staring wildly at it in an effort to avoid any kind of eye contact with its giver. No matter, as she’s already rifling in her bag and, thank the Lord, retrieving her car keys.

‘Leaving already?’ I ask hopefully. ‘Shall I… open this now?’ What is wrong with me?

‘I’ve got to dash – I’m parked outside your neighbour’s driveway and I can’t face another telling off if they come home.’ She could have simply parked in our driveway, but I say nothing. She turns to look at me. I’m holding the present with two hands, even though it barely needs three fingers to hold it up. It’s making me feel awkward, like I’m six again and she’s twelve, and we’re playing a game of her invention, one which would inevitably involve me needing to ask her permission for something. And her sometimes giving it, sometimes not.

As she readies herself to leave, she pauses and regards me for a second longer than necessary, and I brace myself for the inevitable passive-aggressive critique of some aspect of my appearance, demeanour, life. But it’s my birthday, and instead she says, ‘How’s the project going?’

For a second I don’t know what she means. My mind races as she continues to regard me with an expression of strained patience. I’m still holding the present with two hands and I frown, looking down at it, as if it holds some clue to what my sister is referring to. It does.

‘Oh! You mean my business idea?’

My sister closes her eyes and does the briefest of nods. As she opens them again, she releases a long breath. She doesn’t have time for these niceties, she’s busy, and I’m making things worse by not knowing what she’s on about. I look down at the gift again – my thumbs have turned white, and I realise my grip on it is unnecessarily vice-like. Slowly, considering my words, I place her gift on the kitchen worktop.

‘I’m going to get some more advice first, before I launch myself into anything.’ That sounds pathetic and I immediately regret my choice of words. I can’t quite bring myself to take my eyes or hand from the gift, and I readjust its position on the worktop minutely. Before my sister can say anything, I add,

‘I do want to do it, still. I just want to make sure I get it right. I think it could work, I do, but I’ve never done anything like this, so, you know…’ I sputter out.

I look up, expecting her eyes to be firing lasers, but her expression has softened. She smiles at me and I see her shoulders relax. She inhales, as if about to say something, then seems to change her mind. Jangling her keys and taking hold of her bag strap decisively, she says, ‘Well, don’t wait too long, a good idea won’t hang around forever. Happy birthday, Kate.’ And she’s gone.

I stare at the doorway for a moment or two, wondering if she’ll come back. She called it a ‘good idea’. I feel a warm glow melt over me.

My idea – which met with a mildly amused expression and a small but devastatingly derisory snort from my sister when I first brought it up a few months ago – is to convert some outbuildings at the bottom of our garden into a series of residences and classrooms. To run workshops. Principally, writing workshops. Not taught by me of course (that particular misunderstanding caused my sister to laugh out loud), but by published authors.

My sister had always scorned my choice of degree – creative writing.

‘What a sensational waste of time,’ she’d mumbled dismissively when at seventeen I’d mentioned I was considering it. I was baffled and upset, at that age not yet entirely inured to her razor-sharp analyses.

‘Life’s not all about physics, you know!’ I’d foolishly retaliated. She’d looked at me as if I was beyond contempt. ‘God, you can be crass,’ she’d said. I’d stared at her, until she’d laughed and said, ‘You don’t even know what crass means, do you? Look it up.’

I did. ‘Grossly stupid’ was the succinct definition.

I did the course regardless, and true to form she mocked me ruthlessly – all I apparently did was turn up for the odd lecture and spend most of my time with an ‘artsy fartsy’ crowd, hanging around in coffee shops and bars and dressing it up as inspiration.

She had of course been correct in her assertion that it would render me unemployable. But that hadn’t mattered, as only a year or so after graduating I’d married Oscar – good-looking, dependable, ambitious and, twenty years or so down the line, pretty well off. I’d ‘landed on my feet’, the implication being that my good fortune was undeserved and misplaced.

Conversely, my sister had worked hard and survived on a shoestring through three years of university, then on to do a PhD for another five. She turned her back on research and ended up in an inner-city London secondary school teaching Physics and General Science to by turns apathetic, abusive, threatening or plain absent teenagers. She’d thrown herself into teaching with pure focus and determination, and then applied the same thinking to marriage and children. Then combined the two. She was a force of nature, driven by a ruthless efficiency and her own innate need to succeed. All aided in no small part by the financial necessity of earning a living. Something, as she frequently points out, that I have no need to worry about.

‘It must be difficult when you have everything you need without having to actually do anything yourself to get it. Don’t take that the wrong way, it’s just fact. I actually couldn’t do it, Kate. I’d just feel pointless. But you’ve always been somehow disconnected from real life, almost ethereal.’

She said this to me on my fortieth birthday, during an alcohol-fuelled post-party debate on how I’d spend the next ten years. I was simultaneously wounded and flattered. I kind of liked being described as ethereal, though I wasn’t convinced she’d meant it in the way I decided to take it. At the time I focused on that word, rather than think too hard on the complete assassination of my character she had deftly achieved in less than ten seconds.

I stand for a while, considering her parting words. I am in the process, it’s true, of costing out my idea. If nothing else, my fluff degree has left me with friends who have gone on to actually write something, a couple of whom have been rather successful. They’re on board with the idea – our garden (in reality one and a half acres of land, bordering a tranquil stream) would be the perfect environment for writing workshops. My friends would come and run them – week-long or weekend courses – and I, along with the day-to-day running of the venture, would supply all meals.

Cooking has been a surprise new passion for me. It is, I feel, both creative and useful, but my sister has nonetheless managed to devalue my enthusiasm for it. ‘It’s fine for you, Kate, but having time to cook lamb tagine with minted quinoa on a Wednesday is a luxury I don’t have,’ she snapped when I once suggested she could maybe stray from her set weekly menu from time to time. My privileges preclude me from having an opinion on most things.

If I were better-natured and thicker-skinned I could simply cook up delicious and exciting meals every now and then for her and her family, and take them round in Tupperware boxes for them to enjoy at the end of their tiring and thankless days at work and school. But I can’t help thinking that that too would somehow be wrong; considered patronising, passively critical, snobby. There are only so many times a well-meaning comment or gesture can get thrown back in your face before you start questioning your motivation for everything.

I flip open my computer and click on the desktop folder called ‘Reflections’ – the name I have chosen for my business venture (‘staggeringly predictable, as ever’ – my sister’s verdict). Within the folder are sub-folders: Building works, Pricing structure, Architectural drawings, Tutors and authors, Menus, Co-curricular ideas, Clients/Students (I’m unsure how to categorise the people who would come to the workshops; to me, neither title sufficiently represents their value in making my dream a reality). And finally, Miscellaneous. I click on a few of the documents within the folders at random. Drawings skilfully made, showing a large classroom with floor-to-ceiling windows along one side, adjoining a smaller room, the walls lined with bookshelves. Across a landscaped lawn, gently sloping down to the stream, a further building containing four bedrooms – two with twin beds, two singles. Bathrooms and a kitchen and dining space. In another folder, biographies of my friends, their photos smiling out at me. They are ready to go; why aren’t I?

I gently close the computer. Time to collect the children from school. They are twelve and fourteen and could easily get the bus home, but I like to fetch them myself. No reason not to.

My sister’s gift catches my eye. The wrapping paper has clearly been used before. It is pink and crinkled with unicorns on, with ripped areas where the tape has been pulled off. It looks like it’s been wrapped by her ten-year-old, but I know it was her that did it. I feel a surge of guilt and anger, and before I know what I’m doing I swipe at the gift, knocking it off the worktop.

‘I don’t want your stupid present!’ I shout, emotions exploding suddenly in my chest. Holding my breath, I glare accusingly at the gift, now lying on the tiled kitchen floor. I wait, blinking back tears, until my heart rate has slowed. I’m forty-one today. Maybe this is all a reaction to my age. Maybe I’m just tired.

I bend and pick up the present, already feeling ashamed at my outburst and glad that nobody is home to have witnessed it. Reluctantly, I start to unwrap the gift. I won’t like it, but my sister has gone to the effort of getting something for me, and that’s all that matters.

I pull from the wrapping paper a small, densely patterned square of padded, wipe-clean material. Browns and pinks and yellows, all jumbled together in something that I eventually decipher as a paisley design. God knows what it is. It’s almost as if she looks for the most offensive thing she can find. Having good taste is a middle-class preserve that she delights in not caring about. I see there are zips running down its sides and I realise it’s a foldaway shopping bag. Actually useful, and despite the pattern I feel a rush of delight that this could be something I can genuinely thank her for. I turn it over, and printed on the other side in large letters is my name, ‘KATE’, and then, in smaller italics underneath: ‘She believed she could, so she did’.

I look at the writing for a long time. It’s a shopping bag; a hideously patterned, mass-produced practical item with a childish name and a trite message printed on it, and I am overwhelmed.

Eventually, I snip the label off the bag – this one’s a keeper – and place it in my handbag. I pull out my phone and text my son: ‘Can you two get the bus home today please, sorry and thanks’. Then I sit down at my computer. I’ve got work to do.


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