Polly’s face was thunderous as Kate approached her at the plastic table. Polly had been killing time nursing an overpriced coffee at one of the outlets in the arrivals lounge. Kate looked down at her feet as she approached and slid into an empty seat.
“I’m sorry Poll…” she started, trying to let it come out naturally so that Polly wouldn’t be able to hear too clearly all the rehearsing she had been doing on the plane.
“Save it Kate,” said Polly, tiredly, “I don’t want to hear it.”
Kate stopped talking and sat in silence, listening to the bustle of the airport over the ringing in her ears. She hated upsetting anybody, let alone Polly who had always been so good to her and scraped her out of so many jams.
“I forgot to put my phone on charge and -“
Polly waved her hand with an irritable tiredness to get Kate to stop talking again, “I mean it Kate… I don’t think there’s an excuse you could give me that I haven’t heard from you before. We were supposed to be coming away here so I could get some time to think and have some fun. This was supposed to be about me, and somehow - it’s about you. Like everything always is. I needed a sister not a fifth child this week. No wonder I’m too exhausted to have a straight conversation with my husband.”
Kate was stunned, “What do you mean everything is always about me?” Kate thought she blended into the background most of the time; she felt like she just scurried along in the wake of everyone else’s lives. She didn’t organise things or command people, what was Polly talking about?
“You always manage to have a drama. Something goes wrong and you need help. All the time. It’s exhausting.” Kate noticed with a sickening astonishment that Polly was crying. Kate felt the world scooping and crumbling around her: these truths felt like they were flying out of pitch blackness and hitting her hard in the face.
“I didn’t know.” She said, feeling tiny.
“No, well… of course you didn’t know. You’re too sweet to want to hurt by telling you, aren’t you? You’re fragile and delicate and I’m supposed to look after you but I’ve let you bumble along for so long now that I’m worried I’ve broken you.”
“I’m not your responsibility.” Kate said, not sure if she was trying to defend herself or Polly.
“I know, but also… you are though, aren’t you? You’re not but you are. I’ve watched you boil your life down to pretty much nothing except a job that you hate and a shopping habit and I’ve just let you do it. I started because I didn’t know what else to do after mum and dad died and then it just got harder and harder to call you out on it. Now you’re this: you can’t get on a plane, you forget to come to a book club that you organised us going to, you skip work most of the time, you owe so much money I don’t even know how we’d ever pay it all back… and if I call you out on it I’m an arsehole because you don’t have anyone else in your life.” Polly ran out of steam and slumped into her chair with tears streaming down her face. “And now, here we are on a trip that was supposed to be about me getting my head together in thinking about me and Ryan and our children, and we’re going to be reeling from everything I’ve said now and piecing you back together. I love you Kate, I love you so much… but you accidentally make everything about you by never trying to make it about anyone else.”
Kate didn’t cry. She was surprised she didn’t cry, but she felt numb. Her muscles felt like play dough and she wasn’t sure she could move without creaking. Her senses were alert and someone had turned the volume up on the airport. Polly sat in front of her, sniffing and weeping and sipping coffee trying to pull herself together. Kate’s mouth was dry. Polly had laid it all out: all the worst, most rotten parts of Kate’s life just lay on the table between them and Kate stared at the entrails. She expected to feel gutted and broken and naked at the thought of Polly articulating all the worst aspects of her life in the way she had but instead… she felt oddly lightened by it. It felt somehow freeing to have all these shameful, complicated, difficult parts of herself seen by someone else. She didn’t have to reveal it, or admit it or try and explain why she wasn’t very happy in spite of things seeming normal on the surface. Things didn’t apparently seem normal on the surface. Kate smiled.
“Polly, I am so sorry I missed that flight. I didn’t know I was such a weight on you.”
“You’re not a weight… Oh god, Katie you’re my sister…” tears poured anew down Polly’s face.
“No, Polly, I have been. I didn’t think I was because I didn’t… I didn’t know you were seeing all that. I thought I was just bumbling along but I didn’t realise you were so worried about all the things I was worried about. I don’t know what I’m doing with my life, and I just thought if I carried on living it then things would fall into place. I try every now and again but not very hard. I went on a date a few weeks ago.”
Polly’s head snapped up, “You what? With who? Ewan?”
Kate laughed, “No, not Ewan. A guy I met on an app. Graeme.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because… because it was rubbish and it’s not going anywhere and you and Ryan are so perfect and have it all and…”
“We’re not that perfect. I’m sitting in an Arrivals lounge crying because he wants to have another baby.”
“Well, I can fix part of that. Come on.” Kate stood up briskly.
“Where are we going?” Polly looked surprised.
“We’re going to a bar.” Said Kate, aware that this might be the first time in either of their lives that she had been the one to take control.
The air was cold as they got out of the taxi in the city centre. Somehow, Amsterdam looked exactly as Kate had hoped it would and she was so excited to be seeing different architecture, a different place. She tried to think about the last time she had been away - been anywhere that wasn’t home, work or the familiar town centre of home. Did going out in the boat with Graeme count? Kate shivered. Probably not. That was terrible and the view was just water. Why didn’t she travel more? Why didn’t she do anything more?
Kate dumped her bag on the twin bed Polly had assigned to her. She noticed with in a moment that made her heart inflate that Polly had let her have the bed by the radiator because she knew how cold Kate got at night. How did her sister’s brain have the capacity to think about so many people all at once? No wonder she could be a bit blunt or snappy sometimes: she had so much stuff floating about in there. Kate’s brain was all a bit vaguer and looser. But had it always been or had she just stopped using it? God, this trip was more reflective than she had hoped.
“Come on, let’s get a bit dolled up.” She said suddenly to Polly, trying to divert her thoughts from wandering down maudlin lanes.
“Dolled up? Us?” Polly said in astonishment, and then looked down at her open case on the bed, “I don’t know if I have anything particularly…”
“Just do the best you can!” Said Kate, “I’m going to shower.” She stood under the steaming water and washed her hair through. Then she dried it with a hairdryer - something she hadn’t bothered to do in about a decade. It would dry on its own, she usually figured - so why waste twenty minutes doing it? But looking at it in the mirror as it bounced and shone, she realised with a little glow of pride that her hair could be quite pretty when styled.
“They looks lovely.” Said Polly, “Will you do mine?”
“I wouldn’t know how.” Kate muttered, immediately feeling embarassed.
“You always used to do mine.”
“Did I…?” Kate stopped talking as the memory of sitting with Polly and styling her hair came back to her, “Oh yeah… oh go on then. Give it a wash and I’ll blow dry it. I’m not promising anything mind.”
Kate selected her black jeans and a simple black jumper. With a nice red lipstick that would look very European chic, she thought.
It was lovely sitting in the warm heat of the hair dryer styling Polly’s hair. It was a simple job but one that Kate found she could focus on and it kept her brain occupied but resting. A bit like when she was chopping and cooking… she was busy, but not so busy she felt frazzled. Good busy.
They hit the streets of Amsterdam both feeling fizzy and excited. It was a long time since they’d been out together. Possibly since Polly’s hen party. They walked past restaurants and pubs and clubs, several places that they weren’t sure what they were and all the while Kate felt like she could see herself from a Birdseye view. “I’m a tourist in Amsterdam” she thought to herself, excitedly, people looking at me must think I do this all the time.
Eventually, they chose a small, cosy looking pub on a quiet street slightly outside of the main canalways. They were drawn to it for the lack of shamrocks drawn on chalkboards outside, no mention of a fry up for 4 euros in the morning, and not a flickering red light promising dancing anywhere in the building.
The tables were scrubbed bare wood and it was lit with soft wall lights and flickering candles in bottles. Kate immediately felt at home - this place was perfect. She felt like she could sink into a chair and relax. She ordered two foamy pints for herself and Polly and they settled themselves at a little round table. Kate fought with the urge to pick the wax off the table.
Polly wiped bubbles off her upper lip and looked at Kate, “So, who was this date with then?”
Kate groaned, “Oh, a guy called Graeme… he’s really lovely and everything but definitely not for me.”
“Why not? What’s wrong with him if he’s lovely?”
“He… well, we’re just not into the same stuff I suppose. He’s really quiet and he likes fishing. I don’t think we’d really have much in common. There was no spark.”
“I can’t believe you went on a date without telling me!” There was a grin in Polly’s eye, “Do you date a lot?”
“No!” Kate’s eyes flashed wide, “No! This was the first date I’ve been on in forever.”
“How did you meet him?”
“On an app.” Kate admitted, shyly. “I sometimes chat to people on there but I never normally go on dates.”
“So, what was different about Graeme?”
“Honestly?” Polly nodded eagerly, taking another sip of beer, “He had a boat. And I thought he meant like a yacht type boat and I got all carried away thinking about boating etc but then when I got there it wasn’t that kind of boat at all - it was this little wooden dingy thing. Oh my god it was awful.”
Polly was giggling away at Kate’s retelling, and Kate found herself laughing too. Poor Graeme, she hoped he wouldn’t mind them laughing. They weren’t laughing at him, anyway, they were laughing at her misunderstanding of it all.
“To be honest I’m just relieved you went on a date. I was starting to think you might be turning into a hermit like, I thought maybe you just weren’t ever going to show an interest in meeting someone or having a family.”
“Not at all! Oh my god I’d give anything to have a family and be surrounded by people all the time.” Said Kate, enjoying how free she felt to admit all this to her sister.
“Really? Well how come you haven’t really dated anyone yet? I didn’t think you were bothered.”
“I don’t know…” And Kate truly didn’t… “I think that might be partly what made me go out with Graeme, when we were talking I had this fleeting moment of feeling like it’d be ok to get out of my rut for a bit. He was talking about having a boat and all the things he liked to do at weekends and it all sounded so great and I was thinking “Oh I wish I could do that” and I thought… oh I can. I could just go out with him and then I would be that person. But then when I didn’t like it, I thought… Oh, yeah - I don’t really get things right, that’s why I don’t try.”
“But just because you didn’t like fishing doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like anything? Go on… what’s your dream Saturday?” Polly leant in across the table. Kate felt uncomfortable under so much scrutiny. She cleared her head.
“I dunno… cooking I spose.”
“You are a good cook. Oh my god that salmon lasagne… I think Ryan loves it more than he loves me.”
Kate laughed, “I’d love to work in a restaurant.”
Polly grabbed a napkin and fished a pen out of her bag. “Ok that’s the first thing on the list then. We’re going to get you a job in a restaurant. How do we start?”
“I can’t work in a restaurant…” Kate started but Polly shushed her.
“Oh stop it, of course you can… we just need to work out what starting job you need or what qualifications to get you going and then we can go from there. Why couldn’t you do it? You can’t carry on doing your job forever or your brain is going to turn to complete mush.”
Kate looked at the napkin which now had RESTAURANT JOB written on the top in Polly’s neat capital letters. She liked the thought of that. Not owning her own restaurant: she didn’t want to do all the complicated business running bit, but the thought of going in and then just being so busy chopping and cooking and focusing on textures and smells that she could only concentrate on that until her shift was over… that sounded like perfection. Maybe she’d get paired up with another more flamboyant chef and they’d be the one to go out and get all the handshakes and she could stay in the kitchen but every now and again there’d be a secret article about how she was the fire beneath it all tucked away in the kitchen. She shook the day dream away and looked back at the words on the napkin. It was a day dream - but a genuine job in a restaurant didn’t have to be.
“So, when I get back I could apply for some starter jobs in kitchens and see what they say?” She said, nervously, “And maybe have a look at what classes I could take to get some basic qualifications. That would help I think.”
Polly beamed at her. “Kate, I think it’d do you the world of good. You’re amazing when you put your mind to things… I think you’ve just forgotten how to put yourself out there.”
“Yeah… ok then.” Kate grabbed another napkin, “What about you then? What are we saying to Ryan?”
Polly swallowed, “I just… don’t want another baby.”
Kate wrote “Happy as we are” at the top of the napkin. Polly smiled, “Exactly,” she said, “That’s it… I’ve got to tell him I’m happy as we are: not that I’m not happy and that’s why.”
“And he will understand that. Honestly Poll, if it hadn’t been for my stupid meddling he would never have told you because I really think he knew that you felt like this. He knows deep down he probably doesn’t want to do it either: you were never supposed to know. So, what’s all the things that you and he can do with the kids if you’re not glued to a push chair with your nipple in a kids mouth?”
Polly laughed, “I’ll have a think at the bar… same again?” Kate nodded and Polly made her way to order them more drinks. When she got back and sat down they filled each of their napkins’ with plans and ideas and things they wanted to do but just hadn’t.
Several beers in, with a fuzzy head, Kate looked up at Polly, “I’m sorry.” She said.
“What for?” Polly said, smiling kindly at her sister.
Kate indicated the napkin full of Polly’s dreams and intentions, “I never realised how much you needed a parent too.”
What restaurant does Kate get a job in:
- A fish and chip shop
- A posh restaurant
- A country pub
- An Indian restaurant