Telephone Calls

The call came at 7am.

7am. Who calls at 7am? You know its not going to be a good call don’t you? Unless your boyfriend’s on nights and he’s saying “Don’t get out of bed love, I’ll be there with a sausage and egg mcmuffin and my warm body in less than 10”. That wasn’t the call. The phone rang and it was a man I didn’t know. He was the duty solicitor at a police station in Kent. Right then, I know.

“You’re her sister?”

“I am – what’s this about”. I cast around for my telephone voice and find it, stifling the early morning cough inevitable after a night out. I’m cigarette-hungover. The back of my throat is raw and I’m thirsty. I’m immediately on guard. And yet I know.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you that she was arrested last night and charged”

“Is it serious?”

But I know its fucking serious. Over the past few weeks she’s been on the phone every day.

Phil is dying. I went to see him in UCL on Euston Road last week. He had a room on the north side, way way up. You could see Parliament Hill. We sat and talked. The tumours in his lungs had spread to his brain. He made sense for a while when you talked to him and then didn’t. I stayed and talked. We listened to the Navy Lark and he pointed at the landmarks out of the picture window. He tells me about the Test Match in 1982 and then that becomes the FA cup final in 1992, his wedding to Diana, the fire brigade and a hearing in court about the proposed channel tunnel extension. There is no hope of remission. It will be here to the hospice. He can’t go home. He never will. I press my nose to the window so he won’t see me crying. I leave snot trails and wipe them with my sleeve. Then wipe the whole thing down with some germ spray. And afterwards I go to have a coffee near the hospital. I call Phil’s wife. I cannot say anything but somehow between us we understand what it is we both want to say and I know it is for her to talk about how she feels, for her to be the focus. I hope I comfort her. We end the call. And immediately my sister rings. I tell her where I am and where I’ve been. She says “Oh” and then “I’ve been cutting myself”.

Sat outside the hairdressers yesterday having a fag while my foils cook, Grace’s number comes up on my phone. I answer and she tells me she is frightened. She doesn’t tell me why. I guess the fact that I don’t pursue it then means that I am very used to her calling like this. I hit the worst comment I could, the classic councillors comment – “How does that make you feel”. I mean really? How does being frightened make someone feel? It makes them feel frightened. So she’s frightened. And I am outside a hairdressers with dye stinging my scalp. Sharon is coming over that night. I don’t want to have this call.

Perhaps its because I don’t care? I’m selfish. I want my night out with my mate. I want to forget all this. I don’t want this to be my life. It’s a panicky rejection. It’s an instinctive “No, no, no”. It’s the moment your whole body rejects where you are. Its when you hold the phone to your head so hard it hurts your ear because otherwise you would just throw it down. Its when you have to put away every instinct. And just listen. And the act of listening hurts. I struggle always to see why it hurst so much and why I cannot just stop it. I don’t do any good. I have loyalty – family loyalty. Increasingly now I understand how you must have struggled with her. And I think perhaps I inherited from you a “we must excuse/look after” instinct. I wonder as well if part of it is a longing to recreate the time when we were a kind of family. We use the same language – those words every family has that means something different – special to them. A shug is a cup of tea, a dressing gown is a drog. Chocolate is schlump and oranges are gongs. And she and I are the only people now who know that. And she has only to use that language or talk about how it once was and she is inside me. I love Grace because she is my sister. I want to help. But every positive impulse is half thwarted by the knowledge of the damage she does, the people’s whose lives she wrecks or tries to.

Do I empathise? Oh yes professionally. Which is shit. I feel a combination of shame and sorrow. Shame at not being able to change it. Shame at feeling about her as I do. Shame of her being “my only family”. Sorrow at how she is, at where she is. At the point she went to prison she lived in the middle of nowhere with an alcoholic man who worshipped her but also hit her. She left the house once a week to go to the supermarket. Sometimes for doctors appointments. But otherwise she sat and read and drank all day. Once a month she’d pick up her prescriptions, eying the green shiny jellies like jewels, claiming that for her temazepam is a stimulant and makes her feel truly alive. It isn’t. Its a mickey finn. She’ll take them 2 or 3 – hundred milligrams at a time and become incoherent, aggressive, destructive and violent. I have no doubt the things she did, she did while off her face on benzos. But I also have no doubt she’d have done them anyway. It always seems to me that drugs and alcohol enable her to do what she wants. Which is destroy – things and people.

Harsh words. I know that. But honest. And so sitting there outside the hairdressers I am wondering first of all how much she has taken of whatever she has taken. I am wondering if she’s been drinking. I am wondering what has gone on with her and the man. I am wondering what I can do – but of course there is never anything I can do that is any good. And I am listening. She has cut herself. Her life is over. She cannot go on. I don’t know then that the night before she’s been questioned by the police about a series of acts of criminal damage in the village she has moved to. I don’t know that the police have finally after going on ten years, actually used some intelligence across force borders and worked out that the fire setter in Surrey is the firesetter in Kent. She doesn’t tell me that/ She tells me she needs mental health support and that I have to find it for her. We’ve been through this repeatedly and pretty much every appointment I got for her she’s turned down or fucked up. The therapists are too thick. The other people are “mongs”. The services are rubbish. They don’t understand me. Though I remember vividly how excited she was that she might be going to the clinic for “clever people whose egos are too big”. That was of course the Personality Disorder Service. She never attended. Though to be fair, its hard for an agoraphobic alcoholic to get a bus and two trains during rush hour. Particularly when they’re so fucking clever. The referral was good, but no one followed it up. Why would they? She wasn’t their problem as once she got the PD diagnosis, she was classed as outside the remit of the Community Mental Health Services.

So I sit and I listen. And I try to say the right things. To calm her. To soothe her. I’m rubbish at it. there’s this huge barrier there. Unscalable. I cannot be with her. be with her in the way I am withy my friends when they hurt. Present. So what I say sounds false. It feels false. She is not soothed and I hear the interest fall off in her voice when I don’t respond the right way. But what is the right way? What do I say? What can I do? That makes me panic. What will she do to herself? If I can’t help then what? Then what. I am left with then what?

But clearly, then this. The 7 am call. And a world changing irretrievably. Both our worlds. And I am back in her court. In a way I never thought I would be again. You’ll see. But I won’t realise it for nearly a decade.

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