Two sisters. Twelve letters. One year that changes everything.
Lizzie and Bea Harris were always very close. They were sisters and nothing could tear them apart. Until Bea dies at the age of thirty-five, leaving her sister twelve letters and a mission that will change Lizzie’s life forever.
Alone for the first time Lizzie is left trying to pull together the pieces of a life she has for so long ignored. With Bea’s list of last requests, Lizzie has a chance to finally find a place for herself in the world – out from under the shadow of her sister.
The church was chilly. This came as a surprise to Lizzie Harris, walking in out of the summer sunshine, and she pulled her jacket more tightly around her for comfort. She almost hadn’t come today. As she got ready that morning, she had thought about what would happen if she simply didn’t turn up. No one would come to find her. Nothing would change. She would simply be living up to expectations. But she had come. She had come because of one person; the person she cared most about in the world and one of the few who cared about her.
So Lizzie had pulled herself together, put on the purple dress she’d bought especially for the occasion, dragged herself into her car and arrived uncharacteristically early. She had watched as other people arrived, keeping a safe distance, not wanting to attract anyone’s attention. Not yet. She wasn’t quite ready to face it yet. Every time she spotted a recognisable face, she closed her eyes and told herself that she was doing the right thing. She had to see this through, had to be strong. She waited until five minutes before the service was due to start. Only a few stragglers were entering the church now. It wasn’t seemly to be late on such an occasion. Lizzie had to tell her feet to keep walking as she made her way up the path and into the church. Breathe and walk. Her stomach was churning with nerves as she looked around the packed church. She spotted Joe sitting at the front, his arm wrapped around Sam, who looked impossibly small for a boy of ten. They were both staring out towards the front of the church, where the coffin sat draped in a purple silk Pashmina. One mourner, a man of around fifty, approached them, resting a hand on Joe’s shoulder. Joe looked round and smiled weakly at him. Lizzie wondered if he might recognise her and lifted her hand in greeting but he turned to the front again, his face glassy with grief, pulling his son closer to him. The congregation was a riot of colour, the women all dressed in varying shades of purple, the men wearing purple ties or buttonholes as requested. The church was heavy with the scent of lavender and ‘Hopelessly Devoted To You’ was piping through the speakers to the accompanying sound of subdued whispers and the occasional loud sniff.
Lizzie was wondering where to sit when she became aware of someone standing next to her. She turned and looked into the face of a woman worn down by grief.
‘Hello, Mum,’ said Lizzie in a hoarse whisper.
Her mother surveyed her as someone might look at a persistent stain and Lizzie noticed something else behind this, something which she had always seen in her mother’s eyes: disappointment.
‘Well at least you’ve made it to your sister’s funeral,’ she said. ‘But I hope you’re not thinking of embarrassing me by skulking at the back. At least do Bea the final courtesy of sitting at the front with her family.’ And with that she turned, her skirt a flash of purple as she made her way down the nave and took her place to Joe’s right.
Lizzie remained frozen to the spot. She had a sudden urge to rush out of the church, drive home and lock the door on the world. After all, who would really care if she did? It would confirm all her mother’s worst opinions of her and Joe would understand if she put it down to grief. He was hardly a man to challenge anyone; he’d certainly never challenged his wife.
Olivia Newton-John’s plaintive tones were fading and the congregation quietened in readiness for the service to begin. One of the vergers approached Lizzie and touched her gently on the elbow.
‘Lizzie?’ She turned to face a woman she recognised from her childhood; Evelyn Chambers, the vicar’s wife. ‘Do you want to go and take your place at the front?’ she said, ushering her forwards with practised efficiency. ‘The service is about to start.’
Lizzie wasn’t sure what she was doing as she made her way down the nave. She felt numb, almost as if she was watching herself from above, unable to control her own body. She had no choice but to keep going. She noticed the odd nudged elbow and whispered comment as she passed. She reached the front and looked to her mother, who ignored her with stiff-lipped coldness. Joe glanced up and gave her a grateful smile of recognition, gesturing for her to sit to Sam’s left. Lizzie took a deep breath and settled next to her nephew. He looked up at her in surprise and then, frowning at this father, said in a loud whisper, ‘Who is that?’ Lizzie could feel people around her shift at his words but kept her face fixed to the front as the service began.
Everyone agreed that it had been a wonderful send-off; a fitting tribute to a much-loved daughter, wife, mother and sister. The vicar had spoken warmly of the woman he’d known through childhood and into her adult life and the choir had sung with reverent fondness. Once Joe had delivered his trembling eulogy and the funeral cortege had carried Bea’s coffin down the central aisle with Sam leading them towards the door, the sobbing had reached a crescendo. Only Lizzie and her mother remained dry-eyed. Lizzie knew that her mother was not one to show her grief in public and Bea had given her sister strict instructions.
‘No wailing like a banshee during my big finale, Lizzie Lou. We’ve done our crying. I don’t want my last exit to be ruined by your mucus-stained face,’ she had grinned. Lizzie had worried whether she would be able to obey these wishes. It was all very well agreeing to these things when Bea was alive. It was the easiest thing in the world to make promises when the person you loved most in the world was still there. It was a different matter when they were no longer there to guide you. Lizzie hadn’t thought she would break down in a fit of hysterical sobbing but she was surprised at how surreal she found the experience of sitting in the church, staring at her sister’s coffin. She felt like a spectator, almost cocooned from the reality of the situation. She had no place here among these people. She was merely watching from the sidelines and she couldn’t connect the sister she had known with the body in the coffin. Lizzie felt numb as if momentarily anaesthetised against the grief of her loss; it was still there but buried deep inside.
The mourners in the pews behind them waited patiently for Lizzie and her mother to walk out together following the coffin. Ignoring her daughter completely, Stella Harris made her way out into the aisle behind the procession. Lizzie felt panicked as all eyes were drawn to her. She could almost hear their thoughts. Surely she should be supporting her mother on today of all days. Mind you, she’s hardly been the supportive one. Not like Bea. Lizzie avoided their critical glances, concentrating instead on her sister’s coffin, taking courage from her presence in death as she had in life. She fell in step behind her mother and followed her out of the church.
Once outside, Lizzie felt the sunshine warm her face and shielded her eyes as she watched Joe and the other attendants slide her sister’s coffin into the waiting hearse. There was to be a cremation but Bea hadn’t wanted anyone to be there. ‘Too bloody sad. When they shut that curtain like the door finally closing on your life? No thanks. I want it to be a celebration. I want it to be like the kind of party I would enjoy. Why does everyone get so hung up and sad about death when it’s actually as natural as life?’ Most people didn’t share Bea’s sentiment. They honoured her wishes; they wore purple and played the music she’d requested, but they were the ones left behind. They were the ones who had to deal with life without her and particularly when they saw Sam, a ten-year-old robbed of his mother, it couldn’t be a celebration. It was a tragedy playing out in front of them.
It was different for Lizzie. She didn’t know their version of Bea’s world. She only knew the world of Lizzie and Bea as sisters. She wasn’t part of Bea’s life in this community, as a successful lawyer, devoted wife and mother, beloved daughter. To Lizzie, she was Bea. Just Bea. The one who had picked her up so many times, who had always been there for her. She was the only reason Lizzie was here now and as she watched the hearse pull away, she could see no other reason to linger.
As the mourners began to disperse, Lizzie decided to escape. She planned to go back home, put on her pyjamas and watch Bea’s and her favourite film, Grease, whilst drinking as much red wine as she could handle or possibly a little more. She wanted to slip away from the helpless feeling that her life was like a ship, cut loose by her sister’s death, with no hope of getting back on course. How would she cope without Bea to guide and protect her? She had known this moment was coming for the past six months. She and Bea had talked about it but still, nothing quite prepared you. In a fight or flight world, Lizzie’s instinct had always been to flee but you couldn’t flee death. You could ignore it, pretend it wouldn’t happen, dismiss it from your mind, but you couldn’t escape its inevitability.
When Joe had phoned Lizzie to tell her that Bea had died, she had greeted his call with quiet resignation. It had felt odd to be receiving news about her sister from a man she hardly knew. She had wanted to end the call as quickly as possible. Joe’s voice had been heavy with grief and Lizzie had no idea what to say to him.
‘Thank you for letting me know,’ she had said, embarrassed by the inadequacy of her response.
‘I’ll call you with the funeral arrangements,’ he had said before ringing off.
Lizzie had stared at the phone after he’d gone wondering how she was supposed to feel. Bea was gone. It was over. Lizzie was alone now. And yet, there she stood, two feet on the ground, the sun shining outside, life continuing without her sister. Part of her was stunned. She had half-expected the walls to start closing in or the ground beneath her feet to shift at the moment of Bea’s death. She had also expected tears – wracking sobs of loss and grief – but none came. Minutes became hours became days. Lizzie thought about Bea during every waking second at her job in the bookshop, on trips to the shops, whilst making dinner but still no tears came. Every night she would fall into bed exhausted from thoughts of her sister but did not cry; she couldn’t and the worst thing was, Lizzie didn’t know why. She had thought that the funeral might be a catalyst for tears but she remained dry-eyed. The grief was still there though. It felt like something heavy and solid at the very centre of her being.
She could see Joe and her mother surrounded by people, all wanting to offer their condolences, as if their words could soothe away the pain of loss. They were all glad it wasn’t one of their loved ones and who could blame them? No one approached her and she felt this gave her the permission she needed to escape. She put on her sunglasses and started to walk to her car without a backward glance. Once inside she exhaled with relief and placed the keys in the ignition. It was at this moment that she heard a light tapping on her window. She glanced over to see Joe’s worried face peering in at her with a frowning Sam at his side. She felt her insides sink with shame as she pressed the button to open the window. How could she let this poor bereaved man and his son follow her as she tried to escape? His opening words made her feel even worse.
‘’llo, Lizzie. I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to speak to you in the church. I just wanted to say thank you for coming.’
Lizzie mumbled a response along the lines of, ‘of course’. There was an awkward pause and she wondered if it would be okay to start the car, whilst inwardly praying that she didn’t run over her brother-in-law’s foot as she sped off.
‘We’re having a party for Mum,’ said Sam, his face fierce and suspicious. He was clearly offering her a dare.
‘Oh right, well I’m not sure if –’ stammered Lizzie.
‘You should come,’ said Sam as if it was the simplest thing in the world.
‘Sam, I’m not sure if Lizzie is able to come,’ said Joe, trying to placate the situation and making Lizzie feel both grateful and wretched at the same time.
‘Why not? Mum would want her to be there. She’s her sister,’ declared Sam.
‘Well of course, if you would like to come, we would love you to,’ said Joe.
Lizzie looked at Sam and knew that there was no getting out of this. He had an air of Bea in his frowning face; it was a look that said, ‘Come on sis, do it for me.’ And like everything else her sister had ever asked her to do, Lizzie agreed without question.
‘I’d love to come,’ she said with a small smile.
‘Excellent,’ said Joe. ‘We’ll see you back at the house.’
The Goode Family lived just outside Smallchurch very close to where Lizzie and Bea had grown up. When Bea and Joe married, she had made it clear that she wanted to stay near to her parents and give their children the countryside upbringing that she had enjoyed. Joe had been so in love with Bea that he would have lived in a sewer if she’d told him to and so they settled in a rambling old farmhouse surrounded by large fields and impressive views over rural Kent. Bea loved it because its boundary was flanked by cobnut bushes and fruit trees. The house itself needed a great deal of work and they had spent a lot of money and time making it into a comfortable family home.
Lizzie had never been to the house but she wasn’t surprised by its size or decor. Her sister had always had great taste and an eye for style. She felt sick as she parked her car at one corner of the gravel drive and made her way through the open front door. An impressively large staircase sat in the middle of the hall, sweeping up towards a wide landing. Lizzie imagined an exquisitely decorated Christmas tree sitting at the top of the stairs. When Bea and Joe bought the house, she remembered her sister telling her that, ‘it has room for two Christmas trees. I’ve always wanted a house big enough for two Christmas trees!’ Along with a lifelong passion for the musical achievements of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, Bea was also hopelessly devoted to all things festive. Lizzie smiled at the memory but the moment was interrupted as she heard voices approaching the door of the room to the right of the staircase. She made a beeline for the left-hand room. She needed to give herself a little more time before speaking to anyone. A buffet was laid out on a long rectangular table, which flanked one wall. Lizzie had been too nervous to eat breakfast that morning and felt queasy at the sight and smell of the food. She turned away and immediately caught sight of Sam. He was standing in front of the fireplace staring up at a large canvas photograph of him with his mother and father. It was an informal shot of the three of them, wide-eyed and laughing. Lizzie noticed Bea’s arms locked protectively around Sam’s body. If it hadn’t been for her sister staring down at her, Lizzie could have been looking at a photograph of any family. She felt as if she were intruding. This place had nothing to do with her. As she hesitated, Sam turned round to face her. It was like an electric shock jolting through her body. His resemblance to Bea was astonishing.
He didn’t smile but he wasn’t frowning any more either. His face was more a picture of curiosity. ‘Do you want a cake?’ he asked, wandering over to the food table and helping himself to a large chocolate muffin. ‘Mum and I made these before she died. We put them in the freezer so that they didn’t go off before the funeral,’ he added.
Lizzie’s stomach groaned with a mixture of nerves and hunger but there was something about Sam’s casual acceptance of her that made her take one. She nibbled the top. ‘They’re delicious,’ she said.
Sam seemed satisfied. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you my rope swing.’
She watched him walk towards the door, unsure whether she should follow. She had been on the verge of leaving and yet she was torn. He paused in the doorway and looked her straight in the eye. There it was again. That look. That determination.
‘Come on,’ he repeated.
Lizzie couldn’t refuse him any more than she could refuse his mother. She followed him out into the garden, across the sweeping lawn which led down to a stream. The rope swing hung from the bough of a sturdy-looking apple tree.
‘Can you hold my cake please?’ asked Sam. Lizzie obliged and watched as he took hold of the fat stick which served as a seat and swung across without a sound. He stared at her triumphantly. Lizzie realised that some sort of reaction was required so she said, ‘That’s very clever,’ although it sounded flat to her ears. Sam probably felt this too and swung back to stand next to her and reclaim his cake.
‘You can have a go if you want,’ he said offering her the stick. Lizzie didn’t think her mother would appreciate her estranged daughter making an exhibition of herself at Bea’s wake, although she suspected that Bea would have loved it.
‘It’s all right. I’m enjoying watching you,’ she said, realising that this was true. Sam nodded solemnly and embarked on another swing, cake in hand this time.
‘Why haven’t you ever come here before?’ he asked once he was back at her side. Lizzie admired his candour. For Sam, this was merely a question that needed an answer, whereas for Lizzie, it was a can of worms she’d stuffed in the back of the cupboard a long time ago. Why hadn’t she returned to the place of her childhood for fifteen years? Why had she stayed away so long?
‘Well, I live a little way from here.’
‘Just outside London,’ said Lizzie hoping Sam’s geography wasn’t up to much.
‘That’s not far,’ he declared. Damn, thought Lizzie, why are kids so clued up these days?
‘Well I work a lot,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said Sam, seeming to understand this. ‘Mum used to work a lot too before she got sick.’ Lizzie nodded, hoping the subject was closed. It wasn’t. ‘I suppose we could have come to visit you though.’
‘I suppose you could have.’
‘Why didn’t we then?’
Lizzie didn’t know what to say. This was the first time she’d properly met Sam and it was clear that he and Bea shared more than just facial resemblance. There was something in his honest and direct questioning that reminded her so much of her sister. ‘You’re very like your mum,’ she said fondly, hoping to buy a little time.
‘Everyone says that,’ observed Sam, sounding bored. ‘So why didn’t we see you then?’
Lizzie sighed. ‘It’s complicated.’
Sam kicked at a stone. ‘Adults always say that.’
Lizzie didn’t feel qualified to deal with this. Sam needed answers. She just wasn’t sure that she was the one to give them. ‘I used to see your mum.’ She knew how inadequate a response this was even before the words were out of her mouth.
Sam narrowed his eyes. ‘Don’t you like kids?’ It was black and white to Sam. You chose not to see me. You don’t like me.
‘It’s not that.’
‘What then?’ Lizzie was silent. ‘Is it something to do with Granny?’
‘Yes,’ said Lizzie uncertainly.
‘Because she never mentions you. Or rather we’re not supposed to mention you when she’s around.’
‘Oh. Right.’ At least I know where I stand, thought Lizzie. ‘Did your Mum ever talk about me?’
Sam shrugged. ‘Sometimes. She said you’d fallen out with Granny and so didn’t want to come home.’
Lizzie nodded. ‘That’s about the size of it.’
‘Do you miss my mum?’ he asked, eyeing her closely.
‘Very much,’ said Lizzie without hesitation.
Sam nodded, satisfied that he was getting an honest answer. ‘I’m going to get another cake,’ he said, heading back up the lawn without a backward glance.
Part of Lizzie longed for him to stay. It might be odd to confide your innermost feelings to a ten-year-old but Lizzie got the sense that he understood, that he knew Bea like she knew Bea; an uncomplicated relationship based on love and trust. They had both lost the source of their comfort and protection. The difference was that whereas Sam had his father and grandmother and no doubt plenty of friends to envelop and help him through his grief, Lizzie had no one. She was alone. She had deliberately built her life in this way because she’d always had Bea. Now that Bea was gone, she literally had no one to turn to. She felt her stomach twist with panic at the realisation of this truth. She stared at the house, trying to imagine her sister appearing at the back door, waving and wandering down the garden to join her.
‘I miss you Bea,’ she whispered. She considered going back inside to find Sam but then she risked bumping into Joe or, even worse, her mother. It was at that moment that she noticed a male figure make his way out onto the lawn and walk towards her. At first she thought it might be Joe but as she shielded her eyes against the sun, she recognised him. She felt an overwhelming urge to run away but he was striding purposefully towards her, waving and smiling so she stayed rooted to the spot. It was fifteen years since she had seen him and as she watched him stroll down towards her she was immediately transported back in time. She remembered how her heart had surged whenever he had walked into the room, her teenage self filled with longing for his attention. He had made her feel protected and special until it had all turned sour. He must have noticed her guarded expression because at first he looked unsure, studying her face for a clue as to whether he was welcome. She told herself to stay calm. She didn’t need to deal with this now, in fact she was unsure if she ever wanted to deal with the hurt this man had caused her. She wanted to be on her way. She looked into his clear blue eyes and did her best to keep her face neutral. He smiled confidently. He had always been confident. It had been one of the things she had liked most about him. As a teenager he had been boyishly good-looking with the charm of youth to carry him. Age had allowed him to grow into his looks, and his once dark hair was now flecked with a little grey.
‘Hello, Lizzie,’ he said. ‘It’s good to see you.’ His voice was warm and genuine but Lizzie wasn’t about to be drawn in by his easy charm. Too much had happened since the time she had been his girlfriend. He had been one of the reasons she’d left Smallchurch and one of the reasons why she hadn’t come back until now.
‘Hello, Alex,’ she said coldly. He either didn’t pick up on her tone or chose to ignore it.
‘How are you holding up?’ he asked, reaching out to touch her on the arm.
She took a step back. ‘Yes, okay thanks,’ she said. It was a complete lie but she wasn’t about to share confidences with this man. ‘I was just leaving actually.’
He looked surprised but gave a small nod of his head. ‘Of course. I just had to tell you how sorry I am about Bea. I know how close you were.’ His eyes misted with grief and Lizzie felt enraged. How dare he try to hijack her loss? How dare he try to act as if he understood anything? ‘If there’s anything I can do,’ he said.
Such kind words, thought Lizzie, if they were uttered by another person, but from Alex they were like a cheap unwanted gift. She could have reacted in a hundred different ways, said everything she’d practised in her head over the years, but today wasn’t about Alex Chambers. Today was about Bea; her darling lost sister. ‘I’ll be fine thank you,’ she said turning away and walking back towards the house. It was another neat lie. Five reassuring words that meant nothing.
She hurried through the patio door, past a small gathering of people chatting in hushed tones over the strawberry pavlova. They turned as she entered but she ignored them all. She was giving herself permission to flee. Bea wouldn’t want her to stay, not after her encounter with Alex. She had almost made it to the front door when she heard a voice behind her.
‘Oh Lizzie. I didn’t realise you were here.’ From another person, this might have been a declaration of pure joy but from Stella Harris it managed to sound both cold and critical.
Lizzie turned to face her mother. In the gloom of the church, she hadn’t looked at her mother’s features properly. Now, in Bea’s brightly lit hall with the sun streaming into Stella’s face, Lizzie was shocked by how much she had aged in fifteen years. Her mother had been forty-five when she had last seen her. If someone had described Stella as being in her late sixties, Lizzie would have believed it. Her face was a mass of wrinkles, like a map of her life’s experiences. She observed her daughter, unsmiling, unimpressed. Lizzie couldn’t bear that look. ‘I’m going now. Would you say goodbye to Joe for me?’
‘I most certainly shall not,’ snapped Stella.
Her mother wanted a fight. Lizzie saw this now. ‘Goodbye,’ said Lizzie turning away. She couldn’t handle this. Not today. She knew it had been a mistake coming to the house. It was like being smacked in the face by the past over and over again. She might have been able to deal with this if Bea had been here but not on her own.
‘Well I don’t suppose I’ll see you again then,’ said her mother. There was something about the way she said this that was less critical and more regretful.
Lizzie turned back and looked at her, seeing sadness in her face that mirrored her own. She couldn’t bear it. ‘Goodbye, Mum,’ she repeated.
She hurried to her car and flung open the door, flopping down into the driver’s seat and telling herself that it was nearly done. She had almost made it through the day. All she had to do was drive home and she would be safe. Someone tapped on her window and she jumped. It was Joe. He was holding his hands up in apology, a parcel tucked under his arm. She sighed as she wound down the window.
‘Hi, Joe. Sorry, I was going to say goodbye but I couldn’t find you,’ she lied.
‘No worries,’ said Joe ever reasonable. ‘I just have something I need to give you. From Bea.’ He held out the parcel and Lizzie stared at it. As soon as she saw Bea’s writing and the name, ‘Lizzie Lou’, she felt her pulse quicken.
‘Do you know what’s inside?’ asked Lizzie, her voice almost a whisper as he handed the parcel through the open window.
Joe shook his head. ‘No, but Bea was very precise in her instructions. I was to give it to you on the day of her funeral. You know what she was like,’ he said with a fond smile.
Lizzie nodded. She looked down at the writing and ran her hand across it. Joe took a step back as if he were intruding on a private moment. ‘Well, I should let you go,’ he said. ‘Thank you for coming. It meant a lot to Sam and me.’
Lizzie knew that she should have a better response for Joe, something heartfelt and consoling, but she was too caught up with thoughts of Bea’s parcel and the need to be on her way. She laid it carefully on the seat next to her, like a mother placing her newborn in a cot.
‘Thank you, Joe. Goodbye,’ was all she could manage before she drove off. She didn’t make it very far before she pulled over at the side of the road and sat with her hands on the steering wheel, staring out at the bright summer sky, her mind racing with thoughts of her sister. She picked up the parcel and hugged it to her chest as the tears fell easily and the sobs overcame her so that she thought they would never stop.
Also by Annie Lyons:
Not Quite Perfect
Sometimes having it all isn’t enough…
Emma has everything she’s ever wanted. Her boyfriend’s just proposed and her career has finally taken off. And so what if her latest client just happens to be downright gorgeous? She’s getting married. Isn’t she?
Rachel’s married with 2.4 children (well, actually, 3) and life is all about trying to leave the house in a non-stained top. Once it was about skinny cappuccinos, cocktails and dynamic ad agency meetings. She wants her old life back, but can it ever be the same?
A sparkling, funny tale of two sisters and how often you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.