THE THING THAT TURNED MY SISTER’S HAIR WHITE
I almost didn’t recognise her at Bismarck airport, North Dakota. It was only the fact she was holding up a piece of cardboard with my name on it. The last time I’d seen my sister Grace her hair had been shoulder-length and black. Now it was bright white, and a little shorter. At first I thought she had just coloured it that way, to get the platinum blonde look, but somehow I knew that wasn’t really Grace’s way. When I got closer to her I could see that the colouring, or rather lack of it, was natural. It was a shock. I somehow resisted the urge to ask her about it. I think it probably spoke for itself.
After what had happened to her - and her family - she stopped emailing photographs, Grace, Marty and the two boys, which she used to do at fairly regular intervals, but not since the thing that happened to Marty, which was kind of understandable, at least where Marty was concerned. Grace had emailed occasionally, but there were no longer any pictures, just news updates, kind of brief factual things. The warmth seemed to have gone out of her writing. I even rigged up a Skype and suggested she did the same so we could see each other and talk. But she never got round to it. When I suggested I really ought to visit her and the boys I got the feeling she wasn’t overly keen on the idea.
Marty and the two boys had survived the fire but all three were badly burned and disfigured. They underwent endless skin-grafts. Marty couldn’t live with it. One bright and sunny morning he was found by two ramblers in the forest hanging from the bough of a cedar tree. I guess it was that that had done it... the thing that finally turned my sister’s hair white.
“I’m afraid the air-con’s kaput, so feel free to wind down your window, Rob. How was your flight?”
Grace drove a maroon pick-up, an old beat-up Chevy with rusting chrome trim and white-walls. The air was hot and dusty. She drove with the window down, her elbow on the ledge poking out like she was some young high-baller. The wind blew her hair. I answered her question about the flight.
“Long and boring. I tried to sleep, but there was a lot of turbulence. It seemed to go on and on. I’m a bad flyer, Grace. Heathrow’s a nightmare these days too.”
She glanced at me and smiled a sad smile. Her eyes crinkled and there were fine cracks at the corners of her mouth. It made me think of what she’d been through, what it had done to her. The bright young thing of England seemed to be a thing of the long past.
“Airports, huh? 9/11 has made security a nightmare. There’s no fun in flying now. Hey, Rob… you’ll find some baccy in the glove compartment, honey… and some papers. Could you roll me one? There’re some book-matches in there too somewhere.”
I sprang the lid and had a look. I found the stuff and did my best to make something that resembled a cigarette. I’d never rolled one in my life. I got it going for her. There were sparks when I drew on it. She smiled in amusement, a glimpse of even white teeth. I handed it over.
“Thanks. What about you?”
“I don’t anymore.”
“Poor you,” she said.
Grace had certainly aged, not badly and not just the hair. She was still attractive, striking even, with that hair contrasting her tanned skin. But the little girl had gone. Her once-soft features had coarsened, although there was still a kind of cute prettiness about her. Her eyebrows, in contrast to her hair, were still jet black. She put me in mind of the way Emmylou Harris was looking these days… which wasn’t a bad thing.
Grace had been the first girl I’d ever kissed on the lips. Why I should have thought of it right at that moment I do not know.
It had been her idea as I remember. She had been thirteen; I would have been eight or nine, somewhere thereabouts. Sometimes, if her regular friends weren’t around, we used to play together. One time we were left alone in the house and she wanted to play a game she called ‘Film Stars’.
What I think it was, was just an excuse to practise her kissing. There was a boy in her class at school she liked at the time. I played along, but the significance of kissing was lost on me. I guess I was too young for that stuff. We were in the kitchen. We stood toe to toe, although the top of my head barely came up to her shoulders. She had to stoop down to reach me. We kind of pecked at each other. I kept giggling and laughing which seemed to annoy her. It felt funny. She told me I had to be serious otherwise she wouldn’t play with me anymore.
“Now we’re going to kiss like real film stars,” she said. “You have to open your mouth and put your tongue against mine.”
I made a face and said, “yuk!” It was just the thought, but she somehow still talked me into trying it.
“Be serious, Bobby. You mustn’t laugh, otherwise you’ll ruin it.”
It was weird. When the tips of our tongues touched I recoiled. I wasn’t laughing now, no way. It was the strangest feeling. It kind of tingled, like when I used to test a pen-lite battery’s power by holding it against my tongue. Dad had showed me the trick once. If it tingled the battery was okay. If it didn’t, the battery was a dud.
I told her I didn’t like it, the slipperiness surprised me and made me shudder. I don’t really know what I expected it to be like, but certainly not like that. I didn’t believe people really kissed like that. She told me we hadn’t actually kissed properly and should do it again; but I didn’t want to. I think I was fifteen or sixteen before I actually wanted to kiss a girl again.
“So, how have you been?” she said.
“I should be asking you. It must have been tough this past year.”
“And the boys?”
“They have each one more graft to go.”
“How have they taken it... you know, with everything?”
“Kids are resilient, aren’t they… far more than we think they are… you know – we adults.”
“It must have been terrible for you... I mean, really.”
“I’m over it. And they are too, they’ve been incredible. Did you eat on the plane?”
I told her yes and wasn’t particularly hungry right then, but could absolutely murder a cup of genuine American coffee. We turned off the main highway into a truck-stop diner.
Grace ordered ring doughnuts and coffee for two. We sat by the window and watched the rigs come and go, the drivers checking their loads and we tucked into the ring doughnuts. They were hot and sticky and delicious.
There were a lot of silences. Grace had always been easy to talk to in the past, when we lived together at home. But now she seemed withdrawn and uncommunicative. Hardly surprising really.
“How far from here?” I said, breaking the silence.
“Around fifty miles. I’m afraid it’s a bit out of the way.”
I had never understood why my sister should have wanted to cut herself from the rest of the world in a remote place like Korner, a place where nothing seemed to happen. She had met Marty when he was taking a kind of working holiday in England. He had been a mechanic in the United States Air Force. His flight was visiting an RAF base in East Anglia. They met in a pub one evening where Grace was working as a barmaid. The airmen and ground crews, English and American would often meet up there after work.
It had been a whirlwind romance. After they were married Grace and Marty lived in accommodation supplied by the U.S. Air Force for their staff at the airbase in Bismarck. After he left the Air Force he got a job as a travelling salesman, a rep working out of North Dakota and covering South Dakota too, selling kitchen gadgets and utensils. He had made a living, but not a lot more, just enough to keep the family in reasonable comfort, food, clothes, reasonable timber-frame home and two weeks holiday each year. He loved fishing and would take the boys up to the mountains for a week’s vacation in the autumn. Grace had seemed contended with her life, but Mum and Dad missed her like hell.
Grace poured more coffee. The doughnuts were good. She wore a white cheesecloth shirt, knotted around the waist. I found myself looking at the tanned hollow between her breasts, the rise and fall of her gold pendant as it caught the sun coming through the window. I stirred my coffee and felt sad for her. I wanted to hold her in my arms.
“How old are the boys now, Grace?” I knew the answer to that one, but I wanted to make conversation. She was quite subdued. I imagined that our meeting up the first time in around twelve years would be accompanied by great gushes of affection and admissions of ‘I’ve so really missed you!’ ‘Oh, me too!’ ‘It’s so good to see you!’ ‘How have you been?’ etc. etc. But no.
I began to wonder whether I’d made a mistake coming all this way to see her. It wasn’t Grace’s idea. It had been mine, and although we had never pined in each other’s absence, I felt a sense of duty and rightness about my intentions after what happened to Marty, and the boys.
I wondered how anybody came to terms with disfigurement. Marty obviously hadn’t, but Grace and the two boys seemed to have.
Through the window I watched a trucker checking out his load, the tension on the guy ropes and stays that criss-crossed the blue tarp covering the trailer.
“Shall we make tracks, Rob?” my sister said, eventually. “I have to be back to collect the boys.”
We went out to the Chevy. Two men were talking at the side of a silver Peterbilt’s cab. The heat from the muttering engine made shimmering thermals in the air, distorting their faces.