My sister's hospital bracelet
On my desk, there is a green tin box that followed me home from my last job. Inside there are a pair of scissors, several sachets of pepper, a roll of sticky tape and seven packets of coloured document flags, relics from the final weeks of that job, where I thought I that the shock of redundancy could be attenuated by stealing boxes of coloured drawing pins. Since washing up on my desk it has further acquired a Kinder Egg toy tricycle, one of those plastic clips for closing cereal packets, a selection of felt tip pens in unpopular colours, the business card of a man who sells Maseratis I spoke to once three years ago and a deflated orange balloon advertising a bank. There’s a lower sub-strate of coloured drawing pins, single staples and escaped pepper I generally avoid.
It also contains the handwritten pink paper and plastic wrist tag issued to my sister when she was born. ‘Baby of Sarah Baldwin’ it reads, though no one ever called my mother ‘Sarah’, then the date and time of her birth. When I take both cut ends and hold them together, the circumference is comically, unimaginably tiny: my sister is 27 this year.
I know where my own children’s hospital bracelets are: as is traditional in families, my eldest son’s is in an album, carefully preserved with the hospital card noting his height and weight, and a proud sequence of near-identical photographs; whilst my younger son’s is stuffed in a plastic bag with congratulations cards and a lesser bundle of pictures somewhere in the corner of my office, guiltily noted from time to time, never quite transformed into an album.
I don’t know how my sister’s got here, but I know where it came from: the tiny hexagonal raffia box that lived on the chest of drawers in our mother’s bedroom, where she kept both our hospital bracelets, and a selection of our baby teeth – tiny bloodied shards like voodoo accessories. I remember the musty, hippy shop smell of it, the faded red star shaped design on its lid. I suppose when we cleared out her bedroom, it must have washed up accidentally in the pile of things I kept, with her red silk scarf, her handbag, a couple of jumpers. I can't remember what my sister took: hardly anything, I think.
I didn’t like my sister when she arrived. I was ten years old when my mother went into labour and my father came to take me out of the way, to the country: I remember sitting in a damp armchair looking out over the bleak January Dales landscape, sodden sheep and muddy fields, and hearing I had a sister. “Half sister”, I would correct, angrily, for years. Her pregnancy had been both a shock and a betrayal, and acquiring a de facto stepfather left me stunned with fury. I simply hadn’t seen it coming; I had met my sister’s father, yes, but hadn’t for a moment imagined he might be a rival for my mother’s affections. We had been alone together for years and she was all I wanted, and all mine. I was extravagantly displeased with the baby: there’s a picture of me holding her shortly after she was born and you can see my brows knitted, my hands unwillingly around her, slack with distaste.
I came round, gradually, and now my mum is gone, they – my sister, my stepfather – are my family; they are home. I grew to love them slowly, almost against my will, sharp edges rubbed smooth in the careless routine of daily life. Then, when she died, I loved them harder and more urgently, with the intensity of grief and need. I discovered a hard knot of loyalty towards them that never shifts now. They are mine.
They are quite alike, the two of them and nothing like me: gentle, tolerant, inclined to see good. My sister makes me laugh, remembers things no one else does, loves my children fiercely. She forgives my short temper and my failure to pick up the phone, makes me feel connected when I threaten to drift into isolation. I see parts of my mother in her that I emphatically did not inherit: the gentler parts, the ones I miss most, actually. The cataclysm in my ten-year-old life now helps keep 37-year-old me afloat.
Holding the tiny bracelet in my hand, I wonder, momentarily, whether I should put it in an envelope and send it to my sister, to whichever of her many addresses – Paris, Copenhagen, Edinburgh, London – is currently working. But then I think of her propensity to lose everything that passes through her fingers, the drawer downstairs filled with her forgotten cables and nail varnish and single socks, her peripatetic life, and I know I won’t, not yet at least. Nor will I send it back to my stepfather for whom possessions are like dust, who lives so much inside his head that a physical prompt or relic of a memory is unnecessary, of scant value.
Because I think someone should care where your tiny pink wristband is: someone should want to preserve the ephemera of your arrival, treat it with reverence. My sister should have that, and she does. I have moved her bracelet to the small Liberty paper box in the drawer of my bedside table, where I keep my children’s milk teeth.