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The Missing Sister

Cat had hoped to get to the shops this morning, but it was nearly midday and there was no sign that she would have a free five minutes, let alone enough time to catch the bus into town. Her mother had not had a good night, and the day had started with cleaning her up again and getting the bedclothes off and the bed made with a fresh set.

The house was already very warm in the late summer heatwave, but Cat knew that attempting to open any windows would result in a telling-off and probably a rambling lecture. She had risked putting on a vest top, shorts and flip-flops to try and keep cooler, but dreaded the inevitable frowns and tuts about showing her bra straps “to the world”. A world which these days mostly consisted of Cat and her mother Amy.

Cat made herself a quick sandwich with a couple of damp, square, ham slices, and ate it while the kettle boiled. Only afterwards did she remember to check the date on the pack. Luckily it had not expired yet, or that would be yet more ammunition in the armoury of reasons why Cat was not doing things properly. Warm the pot, two tea bags, top it up with boiling water, dress it in the striped woollen tea cosy to brew for a minute or two. Swill out two cups and saucers, add some milk and place on the tray, then Cat was ready to take tea into her mother’s bedroom.

Not too long ago, Cat would have poured the tea before taking it in, but the older woman seemed to be progressively losing her sense of taste, and would hand the cup straight back if it wasn’t strong enough to stand a spoon in. Taking a breath, she nudged the bedroom door open with her knee and stepped in.

Her mother’s room was. If anything, warmer than the rest of the two-bedroom flat. Cat edged round the walking frame which stood by the doorway. It took up space but didn’t get much use. At first, Amy was too proud and embarrassed to use it, preferring to rely on clamping her hand to Cat’s arm whenever they went out. Now, they hardly went out at all. The room was cluttered, but Cat kept a corner of a chest of drawers clear for the tea tray, which she put down before speaking.

“Here’s some more tea Mum. Can you manage anything to eat?”

Propped on a heap of pillows, Amy frowned.

“Don’t be ridiculous, we’ve just woken up. A cuppa’s what I need. Give it here.”

Cat sat on the edge of the bed.

“It’s still too hot. How about a chat while we wait for it to cool down a bit?”

Amy did not reply straight away, instead she looked around at her bed and the bottles, jars and dusty hairbrushes jumbled on her bedside table, reaching out with thin arms to bump things out of the way. She turned to look at Cat.

“What have you done with the remote? It was just here.”

Cat stood up again and walked round the bed to the side where her mother was pointing, quickly saw the problem and crouched down to the worn carpet.

“Here it is. You dropped it.”

Amy grabbed it and stabbed a finger at the “on” button. At the foot of the bed a television was balanced on the drawers next to the tea tray. It flickered its small lights and then filled with a yogurt commercial. More stabbing fingers and the images and sounds flipped and changed as she stepped her way up and down the channels.

Cat sighed and poured herself a cup then picked it up and headed for the doorway.

“Call me when you are ready for your tea.”

Cat kept busy sorting out the washing and was making good progress on clearing the kitchen but then a puzzled expression crossed her face as she looked at the clock on the cooker. A glimpse into her mother’s room showed she had fallen back asleep. The TV was still muttering as some journalists and politicians argued around a table. Cat had no idea what they were talking about, so she switched it off, picked up the tray with its unused cup and the cold, bitterly strong tea, and took it back to the kitchen.

“Catherine! Where are you? Catherine!”

Her mother might not find walking easy any more, but she could still manage to shout round the flat. Cat put down the packet of pasta she was considering cooking and went to see what the trouble was this time.

“Why did you take my tea? Bring it back here right now!”

Cat held her hands out in apology as she entered the bedroom.

“You fell asleep, Mum. It got cold.”

Amy turned sharply to face Cat

“I did not. You must have stolen it while I was watching…”

She paused. Not like her.

Excitement flushed her pale cheeks and she looked at her daughter with an uncharacteristic tender expression.

“I saw her. I didn’t believe it, but she was on TV. Oh Cat, I saw her!”

Cat sat down in her usual place on the corner of the bed, concern in her eyes.

“Saw who, Mum. Who did you see?”

Amy’s tenderness faded, pushed away by her normal crotchety expression.

“Eleanor, of course. I saw my baby and she’s all grown up.”

Cat sat in silence, unsure what to say. The specialist had warned that as the disease spread into her mother’s brain there might be many symptoms including mood changes, memory loss or hallucinations, but this seemed so sudden. Cat decided to find out more, or at least to look for inconsistencies.

“How could she be on the TV, Mum? What programme was it?”

Amy looked at the blank screen as it to force the image from her mind on to it through sheer determination.

“This one. The news. They put her name at the bottom and everything.”

“I don’t like what she has done with her hair, though.”

Cat raised an eyebrow. Just like her Mum to even criticise her own hallucinations. But there was still a slight chance that it might not be, so Cat pushed on.

“Which channel. Can I see it?”

Amy was becoming more animated and more cross. She was almost shouting at Cat.

“This one. Turn it back on.”

Cat did so. The screen showed a news channel with stock pictures of farmers’ fields. She clicked to the programme guide and rolled down to the “+1” channel.

Amy lifted her trembling arm and pointed at the screen.

“That’s what I was watching. It’s on next. Oh Cat!”

They both stared at the screen. A dull news article seemed to take hours before it was back to the studio for another report. Amy was so agitated that Cat had to prop her up with another pillow. After an introduction with rooms full of teen-aged boys staring at computer screens, the report showed brief interviews with opinionated businessmen in suits.

Then a woman appeared on the screen and time stopped.

She looked to be about thirty. She had straightened blonde hair cut sharp at her shoulders and tucked behind one ear. Her makeup was professional, and she was wearing a tailored skirt suit. Both women could immediately see the resemblance. They all had the same familiar nose, distinctive cheekbones and pale blue eyes. The interviewer was saying something about mergers and market shares, but Cat was oblivious. She stifled a gasp as a bar on the screen slid out with a name “Eleanor Crane”. In small letters below, it said “Computer Entrepreneur”.

Almost before they had a chance to absorb it, she was gone, replaced by the presenter who continued to talk, ignored by the two wide-eyed women. The television rumbled in the background as they looked at each other.

Despite herself, Cat twisted round to hug her mother. It was an uncomfortable and bony embrace, and Cat’s bra strap got caught on a nightdress button but neither of them wanted the moment to end. Trickles of tears tracked across Amy’s papery skin and past the wispy remains of her hair, but all either of them could think of was the daughter and sister they had not seen for over a decade. Eventually, Amy coughed and broke the moment.

“You should have worn a sensible top. Look at you, showing your privates to the whole world.”

“And where’s that cup of tea?”