Entry for July's The Playlist Competition. Inspired by Bittersweet Symphony by The Verve.
My Sister Gayle
My sister Gayle was cleverer than me. I never disputed that. My sister Gayle was the sibling who held most promise. My parents never hid that. My sister Gayle spent her life focussing on success and money. She believed they were all that mattered. My sister Gayle died alone.
The summer before we took our A Levels was alive with warmth and friendship. The days stretched lazily into one long dream and I saw everything through vivid, sun drenched glasses.
I wasn’t expected to do well in my exams, so saw little point in trying. My subjects of drama, art and music were considered unimportant by my parents. So why strive to do well? I decided to enjoy my last year of freedom, before entering the adult world of work.
Gayle, who was exactly five minutes older than me, was different. Our headteacher at primary school talent spotted her when she was eight. “Mr. & Mrs. Jenkins, your daughter is incredibly bright. You must enrol her in further tuition.”
From then, everything changed. Gayle’s childhood was filled with extra lessons. She had no spare time, no friends. I watched as, nightly, she furrowed her brows and chewed her pencil, trying her hardest to be perfect. I remember one assignment she struggled over, working on it until three in the morning. When she received A- (the same as me), her face crumpled and tears of fear trailed steadily down her cheeks.
The side effect of Gayle’s genius was that I had no pressure at all. I could have failed everything, the reaction from my parents would have been the same. I was free, I could choose my A Level subjects. Gayle was forced to focus on sciences and maths.
It was pre-determined that Gayle would be a doctor. She loved helping people, so it was the obvious choice for someone with her intelligence. She tried, once, to tell our parents she longed for the patient contact that was better suited to nursing. They simply walked away, shaking their heads.
So there it was. Gayle would be a doctor. She knew the path she was on. She had no choice. She aced med school and worked her way up to being one of the most skilled cardiovascular surgeons in the country.
She had no relationships. She lived alone in her opulent Chelsea apartment. When my husband and I first visited her, we felt out of place, dirty. The decor was almost exclusively white and sparse. I couldn't shake the feeling her workspace had spilled over into her home.
I don’t believe Gayle was ever happy. She had the professional respect of all she knew. She had ridiculous amounts of money, far too much to spend on living alone. But it wasn’t what she wanted.
The last time I saw her, her face was twisted with pain. “I can’t go on like this, Gina,” she said. “You have no idea how hard it is.”
“So change it. Get out. You have enough money to live on for years. Give it up. Do something you enjoy.” It seemed so simple to me. After all, I had always done what I wanted.
“It’s not that easy, Gina. Mum and Dad are so proud of me. I can’t let them down. It’s alright for you, you’ve never cared what they think.”
I suppressed the urge to start an argument. I looked at the worn out, angular version of me, with lank hair and lips that hadn’t seen a smile in years. I couldn’t be angry with her. She had sacrificed so much of herself.
“Gayle, I do care. I just don’t let it run my life. I am my own person. So are you. We are both from the same mould, remember. You can change your life.”
“Yes, maybe,” Gayle agreed, quietly taking her thoughts elsewhere.
I received the call one frosty November morning. I had woken at 4am, feeling a heavy weight on my chest. Panic trickled through my stomach like a waterfall. Something was wrong. I called Gayle’s landline but there was no answer.
When my phone rang at 7am, I hesitated before answering. I placed the phone to my ear and my father said, “Gina, I’ve got bad news.” Mum’s stifled sobs filled the empty space in between his words. “Gayle had a massive heart attack this morning. She didn’t make it.”
Immediately, I was angry. At my parents, Gina, our headteacher. Everyone who had ever pushed her into this path she never wanted. She was a slave to their wishes, then she died. What was it all for?
On reflection, I know she never had a choice. Who amongst us really do? I think we all live alongside the societal rules that apply to us. I know I do, anyway.