Originally published in The Wells Street Journal, Issue 10, Winter 2018.
My sister’s grandson disappeared about a year ago, because the universe is an utter bastard. They said he was last seen in Tulsa, Oklahoma and my sister’s first instinct was to ask, “Where’s Tulsa and what the ever loving shit was he doing there?” but really I’m fucked if I know. She got married young and had kids young and got a divorce young and her daughter had kids young and skipped the rest, so at the tender ages of fifty-something, thirty-something and seventeen respectively, my sister’s daughter’s son disappeared about a year ago somewhere near Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The local police waited a month before telling us that wherever he was, he likely ain’t breathin’ much no mo’. In these United Kingdoms, however, we’re far more considered in our estimates, so it takes seven years for a missing person to be presumed dead. In March 2013 the somewhat morbid Presumption of Death act was passed, which means that my sister’s daughter’s son’s mother can apply to the High Court to have him declared dead before seven years are up. She can walk into a courtroom, face down the wigs and say, “I want you to tell me my son is dead.” How about that.
She’s been inconsolable, of course. How could you expect the young mother of her eldest young boy to be okay with him leaving for the States and never coming back, having disappeared in Tulsa, Oklahoma? He only left a few weeks before with two of his friends, both older. They talked a lot of talk about going on a big American road trip to find some big American girls. I could’ve sworn the three of them were just fucking each other, but hey, what do I know. Anyway, his buddies went missing too. They planned to take the 70 from St Louis all the way through to Denver, but from the map the police found in their rental it seems they changed their minds at the last minute and headed for Albuquerque. Presumably someone told them it was worth the detour. We all knew they were really headed for Vegas. They were just stopping over for the night in Tulsa, then some hick saw them walking into Osage County and that was it.
One of them, the eldest, 20s, blond, narrow shoulders and a firm arse, turned up two weeks later, but he wouldn’t say a word. Just kept blubbering and blubbering until his old man gave in and sent him to rehab. It had to be drugs, they said. They all said. It has to be drugs, they said, and that’s why they walked into the woods and that’s he blubbers and that’s why the other two never came back and that’s why marijuana’s bad for our fair state and its wholesome people and it’s because they were British and Jesus doesn’t like socialists. The one thing we could agree on was that they were wrong. His mother said, “Not my little boy, he’d never take drugs,” and her mother said, “He’d better bloody not have,” and her brother said, “Weed can’t fuck you up that badly,” because I’ve seen Trainspotting and I know about drugs.
My sister was also inconsolable. Not grief-stricken, not angry, not even upset. My sister is a hard woman – hard and spiky. She’d be like a hawthorn bush if it didn’t get pretty red berries in winter. You could drown your conker in vinegar or bake it in a furnace or paint a stone to look like a conker and she’d still beat you. No, she’s never needed anything from anyone, especially not me. So when my sister’s grandson went missing about a year ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma she was inconsolable, because she didn’t need to be consoled. I was inconsolable too. It took me a while to work out what it was and I really have become more self aware this year as a result, but I think I just don’t care. Even that’s not quite right; you’d think to say, “I don’t care,” means you don’t care, but it actually means you care enough to say, “I don’t care,” which suggests you care just a little bit. Saying it indicates you harbour some sort of emotion about it and I’ve been struggling to find either that emotion or the words to express not having it. I think perhaps I’m indifferent. I never saw much of him; when I did he never spoke to me and I never spoke to him and that was fine. So now that he’s not here my own life is really not that different. It’s in-different. I’m indifferent. My sister’s daughter’s son went missing about a year ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma and I’m inconsolably indifferent.
I never went to America. Everyone told me, “You should go! You’ll love it there.” Friends from the other side of the pond told me, which was sweet; friends from this side of the pond told me, which actually felt a bit insulting; even my own mother told me. Eventually the love of my life told me I should see America, but it wasn’t the right time for me, so he went alone. The only people who wanted me to stay here were my sister and myself. I may have wanted that out of fear, but I’m not naive enough to suggest it had nothing to do with my sister. All my best opinions come from her. She would say, outfitted head-to-toe in Primani and with a face beat for the dogs, “It’s tacky. There’s no history there, nothing real. The roads are straight and so are the people.”
I rarely argue out of any genuine feeling, rather from a contrary attitude, so I told her, “Roman roads are straight, but they seemed to have fun.”
And she replied, “That’s different, they were Italian.”
That’s how she sees the world and so that’s how I see the world and anyway I’m very happy here in London. London with its busyness and its curved roads and its oldness. London with its endless clean streets of identical chain restaurants with identical people shackled to identical tables. London with its innumerable individual old heroes commemorated by innumerable identical blue and green plaques. London, where people care more about time than about people and since time is money, care more about money than about people. Two-faced London, with one pristine, lacquered with makeup for the tourists and the other underground, staring blankly at Londoners. It’s just as tacky as America and we share most of the same history, but it’s real. It’s cold and grey and awful, but it’s real and I’m happy with that.
Still, it’s amazing what an instagram filter can do in the autumn, so right now London’s on fire. Without your instagram goggles it’s still grey, just with a lot of brown, but which of us can honestly say we haven’t had our eyes fitted with Valencia or Amaro or Clarendon options by now. Although Christmas is approaching fast, Amaro still makes London warm. I’m surprised to see it, though, because this year either Christmas is early or autumn is late. There’s something distinctly disquieting in seeing a tree in Valencia-fire beside a fake snowman, or a pile of Juno-fire leaves around a taxidermy polar bear. There was a taxidermy polar bear at the end of my road until about a week ago. They had to take it down. The fact of the matter is a taxidermy polar bear is all well and good until it falls over or comes to life and crushes an old couple from Eastbourne. I suppose it must have been the first time in three years that I had seen Mum and Roger; certainly it was the first time they’d been to my house. Mum’s fine – shaken a little physically and a lot mentally, but she’s about as fit as an eighty-three year old can be. She’s always been extremely tough of body, presumably to compensate for her mind. Roger wasn’t so lucky – he had a slipped disk a few months before, so his sciatica flared up, but he also managed to pick up pneumonia when he was lying on the ground. Only Roger could manage that; picking up a disease off the street in less than half an hour for next to nothing.
So it seems likely Mum will be burying a fourth husband after all. Part of the reason she went for him was that he’s fourteen years younger than her. Who dies at sixty-nine in this day and age? Other than Bowie. And Rickman. And Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Well Roger’s preparing to join the sixty-nine club, which is supposed to be like the twenty-seven club, but sounds a little too much like the mile-high club, which actually is perfect for Roger. I don’t dislike the man, he just exudes the impression of a creepy sixties music executive, which makes him really hard to like, which I suppose I don’t. I don’t care about him, or, at least, I’m indifferent.
His age is difficult to be indifferent about. It’s hard to argue that a younger man wasn’t a relatively sound investment for an eighty-three year old woman, but being a whole fourteen years younger than her, he was also only fourteen years older than my sister and I. I never really noticed until she, outfitted in a black high-street trouser suit and with a large hat to suggest she was happy for the newlyweds, said to me, “Don’t you find it odd that he’s so much younger than Dad? And her?”
To which I replied that I hadn’t really thought about it and she said, somewhat acrimoniously, “You never do.”
So I tried thinking about it and of course she was right. In fact, I can’t think of a time she hasn’t been right. In half a century and a bit, even together in the womb, I reckon it would be accurate to say she’s never been wrong. I think that might be what I love most about her. She’s hard and unforgiving, she didn’t cry when Dad died or when her grandson went missing or on any of the nights her daughter wailed into her lap. She didn’t cry when her husband ran off with a woman younger than their daughter. I say ran, his left leg was shorter than his right, so he tended to limp in a pained, irritating way, as if his abject suffering made him holier-than-thou. She didn’t cry when she found out he caught a tropical disease in Guadalajara or when he died a few weeks later in Ramsgate.
What I love most about my sister is her reliability, her consistency. The only time I saw her shed a tear was when my lover moved to America and I sat beside her, dry-eyed, pushing my thumbnail into the textured wallpaper of her front room and watching the indentation remain.
I suppose I might be the only person she’s shown softness to, but then she’s the only person I’m not indifferent about. We’re two peas in a large, otherwise empty pod. Two babes in a single womb who only care about each other, and even then only a little. So when my sister’s grandson went missing about a year ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she didn’t need consoling, but I was there. Indifferent, but there. And now, while London’s Valencia-burning, Roger’s on his early death-bed and Mum’s inconsolable, preparing for widowhood again, my sister and I are there. Hard and indifferent, but there.