My sister Jane was perfect.
She never knew the agonies of a bad report, never got rejected by a crush, was never yelled at by our parents for having a messy room or coming home late from a party. She was beautiful, her skin as smooth as a ripe apricot where mine was cratered with acne scars. Her nails were perfectly-formed half-moons; mine were ravaged into wonky trapezoids from years of stress-biting and unconscious picking. Her hair stayed as soft as the down in a cradle of a thistle where mine had the consistency of seaweed, washed out from one experimental dye too many.
I never actually met her, but that didn’t matter. I saw the picture in my mother’s bedside table.
I found it by accident: I had one of those colds which makes a mockery of small multipack tissue packets, and I was ransacking the house one last time before conceding defeat and resorting to toilet roll. The photograph was underneath the layers of middle-aged things that mums always seem to accumulate: tissues and hand sanitiser and leaflets from long-ago school fetes. Maybe that meant it wasn’t important, repressed by the banalities of everyday life, buried and forgotten under these mountain ranges of meaningless stuff. But there was something about it – the creases at the corners, the faded colours – that made me think my mother liked to hold it in her hands. Not frequently, but not infrequently either.
I sat on my mother’s bed and looked at it for a while. And I imagined her doing the same, turning it over in her hands, red eyes and dribbling nose like mine. It goes without saying that there wasn’t a photo of me in there. Those were all over the house – on the mantelpiece, in the kitchen, where everyone could see them, bearing witness to my mess and noise and mood swings. But there was no trace of me here, swaddled in the heart of my mother’s bedside table.
I know it sounds stupid, but before then I hadn’t fully realised that my mother had thoughts beyond do-your-homework and what’s-for-dinner and isn’t-that-nice-we-must-have-them-over-some-time. She’d told me about Jane, but I never really understood. I never knew her, and how could you miss someone you never knew?
But she and Mum knew each other, alright. Jane filled the space of our mother’s womb before I did, grew to the rhythm of her heartbeat, squirmed under the spotlight of an ultrasound. They never outgrew the bond my mother and I had now forgotten and couldn’t possibly hope to recapture.
I imagined that, on nights when tension festered around the dinner table, after she’d grown fed up of nagging me about the dangers of alcohol poisoning and the importance of respecting my elders, my mother retreated to her room. Drew the curtains, switched on the light, smoothed out the bedsheets. Opened her drawer and looked at Jane, perfect Jane, Jane who never did anything wrong.
Did I hate her? Did I hate my stillborn sister? Was that a sick thing to think – was I a monster for even acknowledging that such a thought had crossed my mind?
But then, there’s always another side to these things, isn’t there? Jane never did anything wrong, but she never did anything right either. She never knew the embarrassment of messing up, but she never knew the beautiful feeling of eating vinegary chips on the way home from school on a Friday, or the joy of lying in the garden on a sunny afternoon with shadows cross-hatching the grass. Her life was perfect because it ended before it had even begun. She was the down in the cradle of a thistle, blown away with a breath of wind.
And so I put the photo back in the drawer.