The Letter C

I was sat in the kitchen with my sister-in-law, both of us on the same side of the dinnertable, opposite but for our crossed legs at diagonals to the other. Her children were in bed, her husband getting high in the garage. There was a brother over by the sink, semi-occupied with a stack of plates, listening in, undoubtedly, but distant. The room was very warm; all the heat of August, the thick mist of morning’s rainfall stuck in the air and swirling. There was music playing. A white rectangle of song names was being scrolled through on my father’s phone. It was the end of the day.

She listens. She might listen better than anyone else. Small ears that receive everything and the coil into her skull, tiny bones and so forth, minute vibrations in liquid. When she asks questions, they are asked honestly and wholeheartedly. Her skill, above all others, is listening. When she was first introduced to the family, I avoided her with the same skepticism and contempt that I had held for my brother’s other girlfriends, and it was only at, by chance, another family gathering nine years ago that at the end of a wooden bench, she spoke to me and we talked and I came to believe that she listened perfectly. In another life she may have sat on the other side of the confession box, her long face obscured by a wooden grille, musty in the varnish, probing and withdrawing, innocently, without judgement. And now I was there with her, tired and nostalgic, at the wrong end of a ten-hour drinking session.

They are in the Lake District for her birthday. Everyone seems to be on holiday. She is on holiday in the Lake District with him. I still remember the night when she came up to me in a nightclub and shouted in my ear that she was in love with him, but I thought it foolish and waved her away—‘No!’ she said, ‘I’m in lovewith him.’ Now they are in the Lake District together and it is a long time since she told me she was in love with him. I remember that night vividly because the next day H— was coming to visit. Our stories took different paths. They smile in their photographs at varying altitudes in the Lake District and all the water’s mirror below, ripe green hills propped up around them. When I see the pair of them together, I think of Her. I would not dare tell her so, because she wanted me to meet someone, she wanted me to meet someone.
For days, I had thought of Her. I knew why and it had nothing to do with the Lake District. It was likely because of the colour of summer morning skies. Time is at its most relative when one is drawn nostalgically to remember what was and imagine what could have been. It is my birthday in less than two weeks and time hangs around my neck like a millstone. She dances through time like a carousel.

It was the first family gathering in eighteen months. The day before, Beck called me and declared that his son had tested positive for covid. Irritated, I could only think of how I might disrupt everyone’s plans. One test: negative. Second test: negative. C. That was what I wanted: C. The little purple line had only to burst out slow and solidify next to the letter C. I just wanted C. The next morning: C.

No one said hello to me, just to be sure. They were going on holiday soon and did not want their plans to be ruined. How good it would be to go on holiday. I stayed outside as the last dregs of morning’s rain petered out, smoked a cigarette and shuddered at the scraped caw of gulls. My aunt came out, told me she did not care and embraced me strongly, putting a redstained kiss on my cheek, her husband at home, alcoholic, in the midst of an ‘episode’. I wondered how drunk he was when he told everyone he loved me ‘body and soul’. Regardless, it was warming.
As I thumbed through the white rectangle for the next song, my sister-in-law asked—‘What have you been up to?’ I told her and then, an admission—‘I met L— last weekend.’ She knew L—. I do not know why I confessed as such; perhaps I just wished to get it out there, as I had not told anyone, perhaps I just so desperately wanted to talk to someone (therapist on holiday for three weeks) or to be heard and when one is liquored up, their tongue waggles with startling ease. ‘How was that?’ she asked, and I told her that it was nice. My fifth-year teacher told me that ‘nice’ was the worst word ever, and from then on I came to fall in love with the English language. My sister-in-law asked me—‘Are you looking to meet someone? Do you want to meet someone?’ I was already stood up, at the fridge, my arm reaching into the block of cold. ‘I guess I do,’ I told her, loud music. ‘But I’m still stuck on H—.’ Surprised at myself. She questioned me further, what I meant. ‘Every woman I have met since has made me miss Her even more. Everyone woman has just highlighted to me how amazing She was… And that sounds really bad, I know, but it’s true.’ You have to set the can down on a flat surface to open it and make sure it does not spray everywhere but it had a sound I had heard many times that day. ‘I can’t help it. It’s true.’ Taking the beer back to the dinnertable and the music was still loud, still the clatter of crockery in the background from my brother that I heard but did not listen to. ‘I wish it wasn’t like that but…’ She watched me keenly, as though I might dodge back and forth to evade her gaze. But no. ‘Every woman I have met since Her has been…’ I shook my hand in the air—‘They’ve just made me realise how amazing She was. They don’t even get near Her. No-one gets near Her. They don’t even come close! She is untouchable.’ Drunkenly rambling, spilling it out, smiling like a sigh, a portion of lung expelled in the surrender of honesty. I slumped back into the chair and sipped on the drink. Although I had been drinking for so long, my mouth was dry, my thirst insatiable. I grinned like a white flag—‘And that’swhy I’m fucked.’