We were separated with fire, torn apart by the cries of a fallen generation.
I sit in a small cafe. The smell of fresh paint is acidic and permeating, the furniture’s tatty past covered with cushions and yellowed tablecloths. It is a poor attempt to hide the scars from the past, but the tea I’m sipping on is nice enough. The day is hot and sticky; outside the people of London crowd around a butcher’s shop window, almost licking at the windows in desperation. Rationing ended last week.
A young woman walks in and I freeze. She is honey blonde with drab apparel, her pieces of clothing stitched and darned several times over. She looks older than she should, another person carrying the weight of their sins, their grief, squarely on their shoulders. It is not her.
Of course it wasn’t her. It startles me to realise that she will look different, not as young as the girl she is in my mind. My heart slowly returns to its normal pace, my agitation increasing as every minute ticks past on the archaic clock. Another sip. I barely taste it as the lukewarm liquid runs down my throat, doing nothing to soothe my nerves. She will be here soon. I arranged this meeting place because it is neutral ground for both of us.
The distance between my sister and I feels like the length of several oceans, our reunion a lone island amongst the sea of accusations and bitterness. The interior of the small cafe slips away from my consciousness as I am lost in a world of memories long suppressed and seldom visited. They are harsh and resentful, yet I feel oddly detached from them. The bygone years feel like ancient history to me, like I have lived several lives since, reincarnated each time to become someone better. A worker, a husband, a father.
I wonder how much she has changed.
During the war, London was my solitude. As buildings were decimated and lives destroyed I soldiered on, grounding myself in my work. I was an engineer, helping to make the bombs that would destroy the lives of families in far flung countries, faceless entities that would simply be another number in the death toll. I thought of it as a kind of penance for not risking my life; Churchill needed us, or there would be no war.
My sister was distraught. Young and impressionable, her fiancé had gone in the first wave of recruits. I can still recall his confident and handsome face and my sister’s cries as she refused to let go of him, his uniform stained with her tears. He smiled and told her it was the right thing to do. We shook hands and I held her as he marched away.
We never saw him again.
When she received the letter, it was as if all the vitality that made her human disappeared. She was a shell, going through the motions as the women at the factory offered their condolences, their shared stories of despair and melancholy. I checked on her every day to make sure she was alright, making sure she ate, picking up her rations.
Then it all changed.
“Would you like another?”
I am whisked away from the maze of my memories as the owner of the cafe approaches me, a teapot in her hand. She has a sympathetic look on her face, but I’m not sure why.
“Yes, thank you.” I don’t really want another, but the distraction is welcome. I turn down milk and sugar, no longer accustomed to such luxury. It seems frivolous and wasteful to me now, but I know others rejoice in the small things. My sister used to like sugar in her tea, I recall. “Actually, I’ll have another cup with two sugars, please.”
The owner sets down a second cup and says nothing as she pours, giving me one final glance of pity as other customers are served. I ignore her. The fresh cup burns my tongue as I gulp it down, checking the clock. She is ten minutes late. Sweat beads on my forehead uncomfortably. She was never usually tardy.
A seed of doubt grew in my mind. With all of the bad feelings between them, would she show? Was she ready? When the letter arrived in neat little cursive last week, she told me she was ready to start again. I was desperate to see her, to tell her about my life, to tell her she was now an aunt and had gained a sister. She always wanted a sister, she told me as we were growing up. I laughed at the time, but that dream of hers was a reality now.
I wanted to tell her I was sorry.
She became strong again, revitalised as the months went past. The Blitz was what truly made her come back to life once more. We spent months in shelters, shuffling around aimlessly, trying to help others find their missing loved ones. Our house was blown apart, nothing left but the smouldering ashes of past lives promises of a better future. It strengthened her resolve.
She immersed herself in the war effort as I stood by, amazed at her renewed strength. “This is for Barry,” she would mutter every once in a while, as if his name would keep her dead fiancé alive in her memory. I had already forgotten the details of his face. She comforted children, worked at the factory she so loved, became a community hero. I carried on making our defences, the causes of death.
The way she looked at me changed. Once filled with joy and occasional awe at her older brother, a slight frown would form between her eyebrows as I sat down after a twelve hour night shift, my bones weary and aching from the labour. “There are things to do,” she would say as she looked down at me. “Won’t you help?”
My reply was always the same. “I’m already helping.” I regretted those words with every ounce of my being now, cursing them in my mind. If I hadn’t said those words, the endless gulf would not have appeared between us.
One day, she came to our small room with anger written all over her features. In her hand was a single white feather. She thrust it forwards towards me as my mouth fell open in shock, eyes widening at her indictment. The gesture was outdated, but the message rang loud and clear like those of the air raid sirens.
“You shouldn’t be here. You should be fighting, and you know it. You’re a coward.”
“I’m already helping!” The same words held exasperation and outrage, their meaning taking a darker form. It was all I could say as I could see her defences going up, building the walls that would shut me out of her life.
“You’re not contributing, you’re hiding in that damn place and hoping this will all blow over for you. I don’t know how you sleep at night.” I could see the years of propaganda, the pain that had broken her, the pointed words of strangers about me coming together as my mouth set into a firm line.
I was told she got a job in the country, working on a farm. She had volunteered without a second thought, they said. She didn’t write, and neither did I. I wasn’t interested in the person she had become, the mindless patriotism that had consumed her. Such a small problem became the biggest price to pay; I had lost my sister.
The war ended and years passed. My labour was desperately needed from the people as I helped to repair buildings and create new ones. They were fresh starts, built on the ashes of the fallen. She still didn’t write. My own anger had turned into a kind of mourning, desperation for an age long past, but I had no address to pen a letter to. I thought of her every day, wondering whether she felt the same as I. We were a war in our own right; atrocities and condemnations on both sides felt so real and so justified at the time, but came to nothing.
The second cup has gone cold. My wife is at home with our baby son; she sent me here with a kiss and teary eyes. We have all suffered from the war, each in different ways. She too yearns for a sister to make up for the one she has lost.
Half an hour has passed. I have been in here for what feels like an age, my nerves shot to pieces. My shoulders sag as I check the time again and again, alternating between staring at the full cup of tea opposite me and the empty chair.
She isn’t coming. The resignation of the statement makes my body feel dull and heavy. She was not ready yet. She lied to me. It was too soon. I pick up my light overcoat, trying to quell the feelings of acrimony and bitterness that are beginning to rankle.
I look up and my heart stops. A woman in her thirties is at the door, hesitant on the threshold of the shop. She wears a red dress and an expression of hope, using her dark curls to hide the tears in her eyes.
She is here.