I thought you were wonderful. Striding across the playground, chestnut hair streaming behind you, acolytes skipping to keep up. Your bold hazel eyes, the freckles scattered across your face like brown sugar on gingerbread.
You stood tall, engaging with teachers on your own terms, bringing them birds’ nests, proposals, opinions. You always had a project on the go, organising us to produce puppet shows or school magazines, to build dens in the long grass in your garden.
Ah, your garden. No neat, suburban patch, no rockeries or snapdragons, roses or tulips. A paradise, a field run wild with waist-high grasses, cornflowers and poppies. Tiny tansy, under your feet, disregarded plantain and daisies choked in the undergrowth. Thistles, catching in my white ankle socks.
‘Jeremy says flowerbeds are bourgeois,’ you said, airily. I was dazzled. I had no idea what bourgeois meant, but it was your use of your father’s first name that impressed me. Your parents, ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Kate’, glamorous in flared jeans and long, centre-parted hair. He worked from his studio, a big lean-to on the side of the enormous house you shared with another artistic family.
That summer, you led us barefoot from room to room, roaming across floorboards warm with sunshine. Carpets were bourgeois, too.
I wrote poems for your magazine, little meditations on robins or blackberries. Jeremy was going to print it, hand-setting the letters in his print shop. I waited, wondering how my poems would look. I’d written my name carefully under each one, and the date. Somehow, the magazine never got finished. Time passed; you were onto the next idea.
The puppets I’d helped make from cardboard and Quality Street wrappers had their only professional outing the week we visited Grandma, while I stood ankle-deep in the North Sea, gales blowing into my face.
‘Empty pitchers make most noise,’ said Grandma, cryptically, when I told her about the magazine. She straightened up, secateurs in hand, to read the poem I’d written that morning.
‘Well!’ She shot me a surprised look, as if I’d changed shape or grown another head. ‘Dad!’ she called to Grandad. ‘Look at this!’
Back home in Cambridge, you were busy making clay pots for your dolls house, churning up dirt in the hole you and Michaela had dug by the fence. You walked with arms ostentatiously around each others’ waists, and giggled a lot.
‘You can make some if you want,’ you said, generously. I crouched by the hole, rolling mud into worms, coiling them into bowls. You were off. Kate was making lemonade and you were going to squeeze the lemons. I could watch, if I wanted.
I had news. ‘I’m not going back to school. We’re moving.’ I watched anxiously as you sat up on your heels and pushed back your hair.
‘You won’t be able to be in my play, then. We’re going to put it on in Jeremy’s studio. Kate is making the costumes.’
‘We’re going to London,’ I said, sadly. I’d read about London, in books. ‘It’s a dirty hole.’
You wrote in the little alphabetical address book I’d had for my birthday. Rebecca Cartwright, 5 Windsor Road, Cambridge. It was the third entry in the book, after Grandma in Whitley Bay and Nanna in Kent.
We moved. The house had a long, narrow garden, with a rockery and apple trees. It didn’t look like a dirty hole, but you never knew.
You did write, once. It was a photo-stat chain letter, purple ink smelling of peardrops. I was worried. I had to send it to five other people, or I’d break the chain and bring bad luck. I only had two other addresses. I showed Mum, who tutted and pressed her lips together. She took the letter. I didn’t see it again.
Another envelope arrived, with my name on it. Grandma’s spidery writing. Inside, a newspaper clipping from the Whitley Bay Guardian.
‘Ode on a blustery day,’ said the headline. I squeaked.
‘Young visitor Anna Sayburn was so impressed by the beauty of our coastline when she visited her grandparents, Margaret and Tom Sayburn of Beechwood Avenue,’ it read, ‘that she wrote a poem.’ And there it was, in glorious black and white. ‘Ode to, on a blustery day, St Mary’s Island, Whitley Bay.’ My name at the bottom.
Rebecca, I thought you were my friend. But you were much more important than that. You were my inspiration, the girl I wanted to be, the one I wanted to impress. You thought you could do anything, but you rarely saw it through. And I was the one who was the published writer.