Derek had two gangs - the one he was born into, and the one that accepted him

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Derek's sister is on her fourth white wine. Her opening statement: "You're late." It is a voice used to obedience. She looks so like her brother that my lie stutters and stumbles, finally falling over itself: "London. The tube. Traffic." Actually, I'd kept delaying, displacing, drawing back, until the very last moment and more, all the while in the loose grip of a feeling very much like fear. Like weakness.

She unfolds her napkin, gestures that I should sit. Do I want lunch? "No." I'm told that's a great pity: "The food here is excellent." A toad hops out of my mouth: "So Derek said." She avoids my eye, taps out another cigarette, crooks a ringed finger at a passing waiter: "We used to eat here a lot."

But not recently. Not in the last three years, even when the dearly departed was fitfully well. You, and your mother and father, aunts and uncles, sons and daughters, nephews and nieces, kissing and distant cousins, kept a calculated distance from Derek, and from the disease. Even in occasional, tersely proper letters and emergency telephone calls, until the very end was nigh; left his care, his feeding, his warmth and comfort to others. Others who embraced him and his burden with a devotion beyond the beggared bond of flesh and blood. Oh, except for that one Christmas, of course, when we, his friends and lovers, sent him to you, safe, almost damn serene, for seven days and had him returned tainted, a leper and an outcast, yet still making excuses for his treatment - cruel without ever meaning to be - at your thin, pale hands.

I tell her I will have a drink, though. A plucked eyebrow rises: "Derek told me you didn't drink." Another toad, bigger, more blatant: "For you I'll make an exception." She calls the retreating waiter. A vodka, straight up. Her "treat."

"Well," she says. "Well," I say. I don't initiate conversation, not a single sentence. She wouldn't at the funeral, or later, at the wake: pre- occupied counting the silver. So why should I? She, the designated leader, avoided us all, we who were, all too obviously, the hidden, the shadows, the shame in her sibling's life, only Derek didn't live one life, but two, running parallel, never touching, until now, at his graveside; the life born into, and the life chosen. Or destined: like it or lump it, buster. Worlds apart that sometimes touch at these raw moments, each belatedly greeting, perhaps embracing, the other, so each understands, in painful, scattered bits and pieces, not just the character of the mourned, but how he was made, and what he became, why he did and said certain mysterious things, but not on this cold never-the-twain occasion, no.

Two gangs clash in suspicious circumstances. The genetic gathering that expelled Derek from its ranks (never explicitly - that would have been rude) and us, the tribe that accepted him. An old, old story, weary from the telling: how even the sore souls who are told "it" doesn't matter are obliged to bring about their own family; a family that does not demand that you ... explain yourself.

"Family": that's what she's saying, waving a wallet across the table. "The family", she repeats, "wanted you to have this." Oh, I see. Derek's wallet. "For all you've done," she adds. I take a deep breath: "Keep it." She's graciously insistent. I must, "they" want me to have it. Derek would have wanted me to have it. "Derek wouldn't have wanted me to accept a bribe." It's fast, accomplished in a blink: the face that resembles his is torn away, and what lies beneath wants to know what I mean by a bribe.

And with a studied calmness that comes from I know not where, I tell her: a bribe for her conscience, not for mine, because my conscience rolls over and sleeps at night. I was around, and did not only what was asked, I did what was, excuse my old-fashioned ways, right and proper, not out of guilt, or out of duty, but because when we say we love someone it's more than grand sentiment, it's supposed to mean something. Don't use the word if you don't want the responsibilities.

And she snipes: "This is my parents' idea." "I don't doubt it." A gulp of white wine: "I don't have to justify myself to you." "I wouldn't listen. You have to justify you to you. Why didn't you visit him? He asked often enough. I asked often enough. Not until the last minute ... Where were you? Come on. Stun me."

She is defiant: "I loved him. He was my only brother. He knew I loved him." I have to agree: "You're right. He knew that. That's what made it bearable. Bearable for him, not for the rest of us. We did your work, and you still treated us like scum. Like scum. Your behaviour stinks. You stink." I am no longer calm. I am screaming across Death Valley, acutely aware of myself, the bad dialogue, the bad scene, the appalled attention from other tables, yet am unable to cease.

Her rage matches my own: "This is what I'd expected." She hunts for her handbag: "I'm going." "Not before you pay the bill. And it's not your `treat'. It's Derek's treat. It's his money." She's triumphant: "Money. It's about money. You thought you'd be paid for being a friend." I look at her and she's so him and so not him: "Yeah. Absolutely. Right. Money."

She turns, heads for the door, sending herself back to Coventry (the place, not the state of mind). It's pathetic, but I shout after her: "Sarah! Sarah! If you'd been paid to be a sister, could you have managed a visit a week?"

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