You’re the only one left who remembers when an ‘artist’ came in one day with coloured chalks and drew strange animals straight onto our bedroom wall beside our cots, which we lay in all day long when we had chickenpox or measles and couldn’t get up until the fever broke. And our doll’s house, which we always squabbled over and could never share. What was yours and what was mine? Whose was whose?
When Mother and Father divorced, it was you who gave your grief free rein while I held mine in check. You were Father’s and I was Mother’s. So when she consulted me and asked: wouldn’t it be best if she and Dad split up?, I just accepted it. I was six. You were five.
We were ‘pseudo-twins’, only eighteen months between us. I was the oldest, a wartime baby, born when Mother’s beloved father – like many other Danish Jews – took the rest of the family to Sweden. She and I had a symbiotic bond. Whereas you came along just after the liberation, like an added bonus, soon forgotten, put away in a drawer. (Had the cradle used for me already been discarded, because Mother didn’t want more children?) You were always being sent away, as I recall. To nursery – somewhere I, clingily attached to my mother, had never gone. Later you were sent to boarding school in South India while the rest of the family lived in Ceylon. Two little boys had come along by then, sons looked after by a Sinhalese nanny. You were the only one they sent away, the only one who realised – correctly – that something in our family was wrong. Whomever Mother was married to, she was always crying. And you and me, we only had each other.
In Nærum, on the outskirts of Copenhagen, we swooped through the woods down to the beach on our bikes. (You aren’t the only person in the world who’s done that.) I let you have the top bunk, but always dreamed of a room of my own. I went for walks alone with a book on botany, trying to make myself part of the realm of flowers. I withdrew from the family, aged twelve. Moved down into the basement. I began to write, letting some interpreting entity take over. A demon or a daimon? The twofold gaze of the anthropologist.
This gaze collapsed when we sang together, two voices in harmony. Yours the lighter one, the purer, the first part. Mine deeper, dominant, the second. So precise in phrasing and breath that we were singing with the same air. Bei mir bist du Schön.
You idolised me almost like a rock star. You copied everything I did, a devoted fan, imitating my improvisations. And I only wanted to be free. We drew lines everywhere, always: ‘You can’t come over to my side.’
Father died young, an accident. Burning in his bed. A degenerative spinal condition – he was looking at paralysis, a wheelchair.
Whisky and cigarettes. In bed.
I took responsibility for the funeral – gave the eulogy by the body, booked the musicians: ‘When You’re Smiling’. An unmarked grave. His friends who gambled and his flamboyant debts: ‘Aren’t you proud of your dad for owing so much money?’
I don’t remember if you were there, at Father’s funeral. You’d met your husband, and Father had just about managed to walk you up the aisle, while I was a correspondent in Afghanistan. And I was so relieved because now, at last, you had your own life. What more could I ask?
There was nothing left of Father but charred remains – plus a worn old Burberry raincoat we fought over for ages. All our lives. Even after I gave up the fight and let you have it, to keep the peace.
One day in 1978, after the publication of my third novel, Crème Fraîche, your husband rang. He said I could write whatever I wanted, of course, but he – the two of you? – couldn’t be around someone who wrote so disrespectfully, especially about you, his wife.
I accepted it.
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