The Key

In January 2020, before lockdown, I participated in a short, free, creative writing course. We were given prompts and invited to write a story. This is one, shared without changes

“I remember skipping ropes. Is that what you mean?”

“Not really, Louise. I was wondering what your childhood was like. Did you have many friends?”

Louise had to think. Many friends? She didn’t remember having any friends at all. She knew people. She played with other girls. But none of them liked her much.

“Oh yes, I had lots of friends at school. We played for hours, especially skipping ropes. I usually held the end of the rope and sang. I wasn’t good at skipping.”

“Okay Louise. So do you keep in touch with any of your childhood friends? Do they know you’ve been feeling low recently?”

She tried not to look at the clock. How many questions was the person going to ask? Was their time together almost up?

“Louise? Have you spoken to any friends about your situation?”

Trapped in a room, avoiding the truth.

“I told Madeleine. She phones sometimes. She knows my sister too.”

Yes, Madeleine knows Geraldine. They had been friends since school. A horrible child who grew up to be a horrible woman. Madeleine had never liked Louise. She and Geraldine used to laugh: “You’re called Lou! You’re a toilet!” Silly, childish taunts that now seemed ridiculous, had hurt so badly her head ached.

“Madeleine knows I’ve been unhappy. She’s very kind hearted.”

“Good you have someone to talk to. Can we speak about your childhood? Your family?”

Louise glanced at the clock. Could that be right? Had she only been in the room for twenty minutes? Would the person make her talk about her parents and sister till she had to leave?

“Oh, quite normal. Mum, dad, two daughters. Not much happened.”

Not much. Quite normal.

– “Why can’t you be more like your sister?”

– “We’re disappointed with your school report. Geraldine has done so well.”

– “You can’t wear that to school. Geraldine always looks smart.”

Quite normal.

“Did you like school?”

Louise imagined all her teachers standing in rows, like a class photo, scowling at her. Each was muttering, “I expected better of Geraldine’s sister”.

“I got good marks. I wasn’t a high flyer but I always passed the exams. I got into university.”

“What about primary school? Some people form lifelong friendships at that age. Do you remember it with affection?”

Not in a million years would Louise use that word. Primary school was a trial to get through. The girls laughed at her name; the boys laughed at her clothes. The teachers laughed at her inability to be like her older sister.

“I remember lots of laughter.”

“That’s a great memory to have.”

How much longer would this go on? Louise didn’t want to look at the clock again. She wanted to escape.

“Could we return to your parents? Were they interested or detached?”

Louise’s parents were so interested, they opened her school bag every afternoon to check her work was adequate. It never was. They didn’t check Geraldine’s bag. Geraldine always got excellent results, sometimes a letter of praise from the school. Geraldine was entered for prizes and scholarships. Louise was told to try harder.

“Definitely interested. Sometimes I wished they were a bit more detached.”

Oh no! She’d let a little bit of truth slip out. The person’s face stiffened.

“You know what it’s like when your parents seem to read your mind”, Louise smiled. “They tell you to buy an apple but you buy chocolate. You don’t see how they could know, but they do. Of course, it’s all over your clothes, plain to see.”

Saved. That mustn’t happen again. Take more care.

“And your sister. Did you get on well?”

– “Geraldine, you’re such a clever girl.”

– “Geraldine, leave those dishes. Louise will wash them.”

– “Geraldine, you can have a treat this weekend for being so kind.”

“We were always together. It was very strange when Geraldine went up to the High School. Suddenly I was doing things without her.”

The summer that Geraldine moved from Primary to High School was like a prison break. The girls left their house together, but walked off in different directions. Louise could breathe. No sister reporting back to Mum and Dad, “Louise was in trouble again”.

“It was strange, but I got used to it.”

“There’s time to cover one more topic, then we’ll finish for today.”

Louise froze.

“You were very distressed when your cat died. I know you miss her. Would you be able to talk about that?”

No, no, no.

“Yes, that’s fine. She was sixteen. She had a long life. But the longer I had with her, the harder it was to lose her. She was sleeping beside me, and didn’t wake up. I loved her, but I knew she couldn’t live forever. Still, it was upsetting.”

“I understand.”

No, you absolutely do not understand. She never compared me with Geraldine. She didn’t ask me why I hadn’t been promoted. She didn’t laugh at me for having an inexpensive car and a tiny flat. Her way of life and mine were compatible. You don’t understand at all.

“Thank you. Some people think missing a pet is silly and weak.”

“No, it’s normal. Pets are important to us. They leave a space that can’t easily be filled.”

Breathing out, Louise picked up her jacket.

“Guard!” shouted the person. “We’re finished.”

And to Louise: “I’ll write up my report and send it to your solicitor. You’ll get a copy pre trial. It’s obvious to me you were under temporary strain, and you acted impulsively as a consequence. With tragic consequences.”

“Thank you” said Louise, trying to look sad. “I really thought someone had broken in. I forgot Geraldine had a key.”

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