After a night of twisting, turning and a maximum two hours of sleep, I give up on my futile attempt to get some more, and get out of bed at seven, not pausing for anything (except a quick hygiene stop) in my new quest for coffee. It's while sipping my sachet cappuccino that I allow myself to think about it, the cause of my sleepless night: my conversation with Abby.
I find it almost comical that Abby feels excluded. I've always thought that if anyone has the right to feeling left out, it's me, only having one parent in common with my five siblings and all. I remember confronting my mother about this once; I was around eight years old, just after Abby was born, and after hoping for a sibling who finally had my eyes (and being disappointed) I finally approached my mother. I was angry- that kind of child's anger that feels so real- because everyone else had eyes like each others, nothing strange or out of the ordinary. Mine, in comparison, were big, almost like they didn't belong on my face, and so green.
My mother, like Jen, never one to miss a hint, had cupped my face with her hands and said my eyes were different. I didn't think she understood that that was precisely the problem. Then she said that the green of my eyes was beautiful. Eight year old me still wasn't appeased. Finally, she called Paul over who, going through a (albeit unsuccessful) poetry phase, took one, long look at me and said, "Your eyes, Annabelle, are like shards of green glass, or looking through a kaleidoscope with an emerald held at the lens."
To me, this had sounded positively magical, and eventually the insecurities faded away, until they all but vanished. But sometimes, and it feels like a slap in the face when it happens, they return with a vengeance. At first glance, you can tell that my siblings and I are obviously that: siblings. It's when you look closer that the small differences appear. There's the eyes, obviously, but then there's other things, like the slight curl to my dark locks, which you won't see in any of my brothers' or sisters' hair; there's the fact that Rob, Jen, Alan, Jake and Abby can all pass for at least two years older than they really are- I only just look twenty three- which means that it's a common assumption that Rob and I are the same age.
I dwell, and dwell on these thoughts, even though they're driving me mad. When Abby comes out of her room for breakfast at eight, probably having forgotten she's suspended, I make her an omelet, and listen to her chirp on about Aaron, her "absolutely gorgeous" partner for History, but I don't smell the sizzling eggs or really hear the chatter, because this bubble I'm trapped in seems to be indestructible.
"What do you think, Anna?"
I snap out of it to see Abby looking at me expectantly. "I'm sorry, what, love?"
Abby rolls her eyes. I don't remember her ever doing that. "I said, since no one has school now, we might as well finish up the shopping that's left for the house. That way we don't have to do it after we move in."
"Yeah, sounds good," I say. "When do you wanna go?"
She appraises me. "You don't look too good, Anna," she concludes. "You stay home; me, Jen, Alan, and Jake will go."
I give her a grateful look and don't try to argue. Abby takes the coffee out of my hands, washes her own plate and places a fresh cup of tea in front of me. I can smell the honey in it- it's the same tea I give her when she's not feeling well. She coddles me for the next few hours, insisting on wrapping me up in a blanket and sitting to watch a film with me. She picks The Aristocats, a favourite of both of ours, and worms her way into my blanket cocoon, so we're cuddled up together as we sing each song from memory. Jen, who didn't come in until fairly late last night, doesn't know that Abby and I are okay, so she's pleasantly surprised when she shuffles out of her room a bit later and sees us, singing Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, and me just about to start my signature solo.
Despite having just crawled out of bed, she also makes her way into my make-shift one, and joins me for our Duchess-O'Malley duet.
When the twins finally wake up and the movie ends, the four of them head out, leaving me at last with a genuine smile. There's a knock on the door, while I'm finalising the last, minor details of the move on my laptop. I set it down and head over to the door- from the peephole I see a woman holding a dish. I don't know her and I'm still in my pyjamas, so when I open the door, I do so warily.
She looks nice enough- probably in her early thirties, nicely-done highlights, and a genuine smile.
"Hello, dear," she says, moving the dish around to one hand so her other can shake mine. "I just moved in, downstairs, 4C?"
"Oh, you're in Mr Ahmed's old apartment?" Mr Ahmed had lived here for God knows how many years until he finally moved out about a month ago. He was awesome, never passing up an opportunity for a celebration. One party he had held was when he had got Carlos, the cat for his daughter- he'd somehow managed to fit our entire building and his whole family into that average-sized apartment. No one had called the police when we were still going at it at three in the morning because everyone had been there.
The new lady nods, "I'm Emma, by the way. I'm sad I missed him, apparently he was quite a riot."
I laugh, "That's a bit of an understatement," I step back. "Please, come in."
She walks in and looks around, taking note of the huge cardboard boxes littered everywhere. I follow her gaze, "My family's actually moving out, too," I tell her.
She chuckles, "I seem to have come at an unfortunate time," she holds out the dish. "I made some brownies," she says.
"That's lovely of you," I say, taking the dish. "Why don't you sit down and I'll make some coffee."
"Two sugars, please."
"A woman after my own heart," I joke, and in two minutes, we both have a cup of coffee and I'm trying her brownies- which I discover taste as divine as they smell. "Have you met anyone else in the building?" I ask.
"Yeah, I met Ella yesterday. She's the one who told me about you. Annabelle, right?"
"Yeah, Ella's great, isn't she?" Ella and I had clicked almost instantly when we'd moved in all those years ago. I've always felt like we're in the same boat: Ella and I are the same age, and she'd had her daughter, Mia, when she was sixteen; I was nineteen when we came here and struggling to raise my five siblings- she was the one person who got what it was like.
"She's a lovely woman; her little Mia's an absolute darling."
"She is," I agree, "but wait until you see her angry- she has her mother's temper.
Emma laughs. "Ella said there are six of you here?"
"Absolutely. Me and my five siblings."
I see the surprise cross Emma's face and I know what the next question is.
It's never really a question. "We've lived here for four years," I say, smiling a bit, solely for her benefit. "My mother and step-father passed away in a house fire."
Emma covers her mouth with her hand. "Oh, love, I'm so sorry. And you're raising your five siblings by yourself?"
"Technically," I say, "they're my half siblings. My mother had me, and then married Paul. Paul wasn't my biological father." I don't tell her that I don't even know my real father. I've never needed to. All the family I need is right here, in this flat.
Just like Headmistress Keller, sympathy laces itself into Emma's features. Just like with Headmistress Keller, I ignore it.
"What are their names?" she asks gently.
"Robert, Jennifer, Alan, Jacob, and Abigail- all of them except Alan are shortened of course- imagine that mouthful when calling them to dinner," I joke feebly, but she still laughs, so I figure I'm not too out of practice.
"Do they all live here?"
"Um, no, actually, Rob doesn't- he's twenty-one- he's at university, so he lives up there. Jen's eighteen, but she's still in school; Alan and Jake are twins- both sixteen. Abby's the baby of the family- she's only fifteen."
"It can get tough sometimes, can't it?" she says, sympathetically, patting my hand.
"Of course," I reply, "but my siblings are pretty damn near perfect," I say, completely honest. "They all have a bit of a rebellious side, especially the twins, but they've never made it too hard on me, you know? They're young, but they're understanding, and they want our family to stay together as much as I do."
There's a small, knowing smile playing on Emma's lips. "You need to give yourself more credit, love," she says. "If they're such good people it's because you've helped make them that way. You should be proud of yourself- there are very few people who could do what you're doing, at such a young age."
"Thank you. That means a lot."
She just nods and wipes away a few tears. "I know you're not here for much longer, but any time you need to talk just give me a call." She scribbles her number down for me, and stands up. "It's been amazing meeting you, Annabelle."
I get up and hug her, and then give her another hug as she leaves. I close the door behind her and begin picking up the mugs and plates. I feel my energy begin to seep away again, but I feel strangely lighter, like I'm on the verge of floating away.
Everyone comes home about an hour later, carrying pizza. They show me the things they bought and I fawn over them or decide if they need to be exchanged. Alan asks what I did while they were out.
"I met the woman who moved into 4C," I say.
"Mr. Ahmed's apartment?" asks Jake.
"I miss him," says Jen. "He was a riot."
"He was," I agree, slapping Alan's hand as he goes in for my margherita.