The girl next door
It didn’t take much detective work to find her but I was still surprised when the picture of her flashed up on my screen. It’s taken at a private view and she’s standing in front of one of her own paintings, hand wrapped round the stem of a wine glass. The same smile, the same eyes.
The girl next door was an only child. She wore velvet dresses with Peter Pan collars, patent T-bars and wore her long brown hair in an Alice band. She was always drawing, drawing, drawing. She was the same age as my elder sister and so her friend rather than mine and I would sulk, waiting for my sister to come back from next door. Sometimes they let me tag along, the annoying kid sister. Ours Mums had coffee mornings. Our Dads sailed together.
Our gardens were separated by a wooden fence and instead of running round the front, you could climb onto the water butt in our garden and hop over into hers, the back door always unlocked. Her garden always seemed dark because it was split in two, a row of Leylandii blocking out the light. Once she had a birthday party out there and the blossom from our cherry tree blew over into hers and covered the table like snow.
In her bedroom, she had this book with a picture of an Egyptian cat inside – its neck circled with dozens of gold hoops. I was terrified of that picture. We played this game where she would hold the book in front of my face and flick through the pages until it got to that page and I would run screaming back next door to my mother at the sink.
‘If it scares you that much, then just stop looking at it,’ my mother said.
But then my sister died and I didn’t go round anymore. I could see her mum on the phone through the pimpled glass of the front door so I knew they were in.
The girl next door suddenly grew up; she feathered her hair, and the velvet dresses became a red PVC coat. She wrote the name of a pop group on the back – the upward arm of the ‘T’ was an arrow and the ‘a’ was encased in a circle.
They moved away and another family moved in. I watched out of the window as the Leylandii were cut down and sweet pea canes went up.
I saw the rest of my sister’s friends get perms and drag their school bags and kiss boys on the corner of our street.
Over the years I would hear snippets of what they all doing, these friends of my sisters. And this particular week, on what should have been her fiftieth birthday, I look this girl up, wonder what she’s doing to celebrate.
I look at the picture of the girl who lived next door, this girl who now looks like her mother just as I look like mine, and wonder what she remembers.