Carpe Diem

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Emily Tremaine registered the soft hiss of her sister’s BMW on the gravel of the drive below with a sinking feeling: A ton of teutonic hi-tech, she thought to herself, scrunching its souless way across her heart … She clutched at the wardrobe door for support.

She had to find a clean pair of green tights. For some reason, she knew she could only face Susan today if she was wearing green.

Tights and knickers, scarves and blouses littered the floor of her attic room, hung from the backs of chairs, dangled from picture frames and lampshades. The doorbell rang as Emily was in the process of ripping off a pair of black tights and pulling on a dirty green pair she had just located underneath the bed. The doorbell always rang with a peculiar peremptoriness when Susan sounded it: no-one else managed to imbue the old-fashioned mechanism with such a tone of command.

Stepping into a pair of lace-up shoes without undoing the laces, Emily threw a scarf around her neck, exchanged it for another one, and then, with what appeared to be a single movement, swept up all the discarded clothes and shoved them in the bottom of the wardrobe. Checking her hair quickly in the mirror – on which the words CARPE DIEM were scrawled in pink lipstick – she went downstairs to let her sister in.

Susan was standing on the doorstep, her feet in their patent-leather shoes planted neatly together, her hands clasped symmetrically just below her waist. In her navy-blue blazer and crisply pleated skirt, she bore an unnerving resemblance to an air-hostess; even her straight and glossy blonde hair had an institutionalised look about it, as though its cut had been decided upon by a committee of PR men.

The two sisters exchanged a look of pure hatred.

“Well,” said Susan, after some moments, “aren’t you going to invite me in?”

“Oh, of course, of course,” said Emily, brushing back a lock of hair which had suddenly become tickly and bothersome. “Come in.”

They made their way up the decrepit staircase with its chipped brown banisters and threadbare floral carpet, Susan averting her gaze as they passed half-open doors out of which emanated odours of roll-your-owns, tinned soup, babies. Dusty houseplants languished on the landings here and there; bicycles and push-chairs lingered in odd corners; and at one point they had to step over a disembowelled vacuum-cleaner, its fuzzy innards trailing all over the floor.

“Geoff’s been trying to get that thing to work for days,” remarked Emily.

“Who’s Geoff?”

“Just someone. Someone who lives here.”

It was a long climb: both sisters were panting slightly, and trying to disguise it, when they reached the top.

“Emily, how much longer are you going to go on living in this place?” said Susan, fighting down the desire to wipe the sweat from her upper lip with the back of her hand.

“What can I offer you to drink?” was Emily’s reply. “Tea? Coffee? Coffee’s only instant, I’m afraid.”

“I think tea might be safest,” said Susan, searching in her handbag for a paper tissue.

“Take a seat somewhere,” said Emily, snatching a tell-tale pair of knickers from the back of a chair and dusting off the seat with the palm of her hand for good measure. Her palm came away covered in talcum powder.

Susan chose to perch on the edge of the window-sill, crossing her legs elegantly and admiring the arches of her feet. She had to gather herself … She had to do something to stop herself from screaming. Here was her sister, her brilliant elder sister, the one with all the intelligence, the one with all the talent, the one with all the promise, living in an Edwardian slum on the edge of the red light district, still on the dole, still without a man, still drawing pictures of herself in coloured crayons and pinning them to the walls …

There were pictures everywhere – pictures, and photographs from magazines, and quotations from books copied out on index cards in bold felt tip … A hard-bound notebook lay open on the desk, covered in Emily’s whirling, dense black scrawl, and beside it a brimming ashtray, a copy of the I Ching, and a perfect pink rose in a slender glass vase.

“Mind if I smoke?” asked Susan, to whom the combined smell of unwashed crockery and fresh talcum powder was becoming unbearable.

“Go ahead,” said Emily; “I’ll join you.”

Susan offered Emily a cigarette from an emerald-green packet with gold lettering.

“I’d rather have one of my own, thanks,” said Emily, reaching for a crumpled pouch of rolling-tobacco. “Filters,” she muttered; “where did I put my filters?

There ensued a search that turned up an unopened bill, a loose tampon, a postcard depicting Charlie Chaplin in The Kid – but not the filters.

“Have one of mine,” said Susan, through whose nostrils smoke was already contemptuously issuing.

“No thanks,” Emily replied. “I’ll just have to make do without the filter … This is extraordinary,” she went on, scrutinizing the postcard. “I’ve been looking for this for ages.”

“I suppose you think it’s symbolic?”

“I do,” said Emily, her eyes flashing defensively at her sister.

“Oh God, Emily, when are you going to grow up?

“I would hope never,” was Emily’s reply. She rolled the tobacco back and forth inside the cigarette-paper so hard that the paper ripped. “Susan, let’s not have this conversation all over again,” she said, as she took out another cigarette-paper.

Susan’s eyebrows arched, but she said nothing. “Well, let’s at least have some tea.”

The two sisters sat in silence for a while, not looking at one another as they drank their tea and smoked their cigarettes. From time to time their eyes would stray towards one another, but then they would avert their gaze at the last second.

An impartial observer might have noticed a similarity in the way they held their teacups – a mannerism they had inherited from their mother. “Emily,” said Susan, prefacing her words with a sigh just like that of the BMW on the gravel a few minutes before, “why do you live like this?”

“Because I want to.”

“Because you want to. Very good. And have you any idea how selfish this way of living is? Or perhaps I mean self-involved,” she added as an afterthought.

“I’m not doing anyone any harm,” said Emily, getting up with a toss of her head and going over to the tape recorder. “Excuse me, I need to listen to a piece of music.”

Emily knelt down in front of the cassette recorder and started rummaging through a cardboard box containing cassettes. Like everything else in the room, it was falling to pieces. Like everything else in the room, it was covered in bright crayon.

“You say you’re not doing anyone any harm,” Susan began – but the sound of the cassette recorder drowned out her voice.

“I’ve got to find the right passage,” said Emily, without looking round.

“You say you’re not doing anyone any harm,” Susan started again, over the strains of a Vivaldi largo, “but what about Mother? She’s sick with worry about you.”

“She’s sick, full stop,” said Emily.

“Whatever you may think about her,” said Susan, “you have to acknowledge the fact that –”

“I don’t have to acknowledge any facts!” exploded Emily, bringing her hand down on the floor with a thud. “I’ve spent my whole life acknowledging facts, as you call it. I’ve had facts rammed down my throat ever since I can remember! I’ll tell you the kind of facts that interest me!” She had stood up by now and was pacing up and down in front of the dresser. Her image stalked her in the mirror – an image obscured here and there by the postcards and scribbled notes with which the glass was covered. “Fact one: Our parents have spent their whole lives trying to force me into a role –”

“Everyone plays a role in this life, Emily –”

“Fact two: I am not prepared to play that role –”

“You can’t live without playing a role –”

“Fact three –” But Emily seemed to have forgotten what fact three was. She sat down on the edge of the dresser and buried her face in her hands. “Susan,” she said at last, through her half-open fingers, “why don’t you just leave me alone?”

Susan stubbed out her cigarette with a decisive gesture, got up from the window-sill and walked over to the desk. For a long time her attention appeared to be concentrated on the rose in the glass vase.

“Why don’t I just leave you alone?” she said at last. “Do you want to know why I don’t just leave you alone? Because I’m fed up with doing your dirty work. I’m fed up with looking after Mother. I’m fed up with having to make excuses for you –”

“Then don’t make excuses!”

“You think I should tell her the truth?” Susan seemed genuinely shocked by the idea.

“Why not? It can’t be any worse than what she thinks about me already. God, Susan, why don’t you just get off my back? You’ve got everything. You’ve got a husband who loves you and two beautiful blue-eyed children and a successful career and a great big house and a great big car –”

“You don’t seem to be aware of the sacrifices I’ve made.”

“I am all too aware of the sacrifices you’ve made. You reek of sacrifice. You carry it round with you like a miasma.”

Susan seemed troubled by the word miasma.

“Like a stench,” clarified Emily.

Susan’s nostrils flared. Again she let out one of those BMW sighs. Crossing to the window-sill, she picked up her handbag, snapped it shut, then suddenly opened it again and lit another cigarette.

“I don’t know why I waste my time on you,” she said in a quiet voice.

“Then don’t waste it,” said Emily, in a voice that was equally quiet. It might have been the same voice speaking. “Don’t waste it,” said Emily.  “Leave me alone. I’m happy. Just leave me alone.”

“You’re happy?” echoed Susan, tossing back her head as she exhaled a cloud of smoke. “You’re living in a dump like this, with a load of dead-beats – Emily, what do you actually do all day?”

Emily almost laughed at this. She sat down cross-legged on the floor, hung her head, and took several deep breaths before answering. When she raised her head again, she was smiling.

“I live,” she said.

“You live.” Susan nodded. “I see. And what else?”

“There is nothing else. I live. What do you do?”

Susan appeared to be unable to find an answer to this

“I’ll tell you what you do,” said Emily. “You work all day in a bank and help your children with their homework every evening and you take them out on trips every weekend and you have friends over to dinner at least twice a week and you make love every Saturday evening –”


“Every Friday evening? I thought Friday was Roger’s squash evening. No matter.”

“You disgust me,” said Susan, stubbing out her half-smoked cigarette. “Your arrogance disgusts me.”
“I’m right, though, aren’t I? Tell me if I’m not right.”

Susan said nothing.

Emily got up and went over to the kettle. Shaking it to check how much water was left in it, she said, “Would you like another cup of tea?”

Susan shook her head.

“You’re welcome to,” said Emily. “I’m not in a hurry. I’ve got all day.”

“No,” said Susan, with a glance at her watch. “I’ve got to be getting back to pick up the children.” She stood up and reached for her handbag. “I see –” she started, fiddling with the catch of the bag. “I see no point in our maintaining contact, Emily.”

“Fine by me,” said Emily. “I’ve got better things to do.”

“You are a complete egotist.”

“If that’s the way you look at it.”

“Well don’t come running to me for help when you need it!”

“I won’t,” said Emily, very quietly.

Susan gave a shrug and made towards the door.

“What’s that on the mirror?” she asked, pausing in the doorway.

“What, the photograph?”

“No, the words. Carpe diem.”

“It means Seize the day in Latin.”

“And that’s what you think you’re doing?”

“That’s what I’ve just done.”

Susan shook her head and left without a word.

Emily sat down for a long time in front of the mirror after her sister had left. She heard the door of the BMW slam shut, heard the engine purr into life, heard the wheels swishing away across the gravel, faster than they had come. She took out a mauve lipstick and started tracing around the pink lettering on the mirror. Carefully she filled out every line and contour, until the phrase shone with a three-dimensional depth.

Then she buried her face in her hands and burst into uncontrollable tears.

First published in Signals, Ed. Alan Ross, Constable 1991