‘OK, time for bed,’ said Mum. We were both sitting watching Top of the Pops in our wicker chairs. We had to replace the beanbags as the stitches kept popping and the polystyrene beans would get all over the living room. Dad had brought these chairs home from a craft centre one day. Mine was the smaller of the two, with a criss-cross pattern weaved across the back and a wide base and seat where the bamboo tripped and fell over itself to trail around the edge of the seat in intricate decoration. The bamboo met in the middle of the seat in a ‘v,’ like a tornado twisting in on itself halfway down the tunnel of its body. Claire’s chair was the taller of the two because she was older, with the same highly-worked bamboo wound out around the head of the chair. Sometimes because it was so tall, she would have to move the chair so Mum and Dad could see the TV. Mum liked to dress us the same. We were like dolls, tucked into our matching flannelette pyjamas, only heads and hands exposed. Rosy-cheeked from Thursday swimming lessons at the old Swimming Baths round the corner with hair still scented with chlorine even though we had both been in for a bath since then. We both pretended not to hear.
‘Girls…’ Mum said in her ‘It’s Too Late To Play This Game’ voice as we started to giggle. Peering around the back of the chair, blowing damp tendrils of hair from our faces, we gauged the mood in the room.
‘Come on, time for bed, said Zebedee,’ chimed in Dad from the other side of the striped blue sofa, muting the TV. Behind him, the night sky was obscured by the floor-to- ceiling curtains cloaking the bay window, but behind it traffic slid over the arched flyover. Headlights rose to the sky on the incline and dipped to the ground past the apex. In Mum and Dad’s bedroom next door, the journey of a headlight could be traced across the wall as the light split and diffracted through the slatted blinds. Take That crooned on the silent TV as we giggled even more at the two creased faces frowning at us from the couch, our smooth faces mirrored beside one another.
‘Teeth!’ Mum raised an arm and pointed in the direction of the bathroom. As two pictures of youth – fuzzy around the edges from our pjs – we left our willowy thrones, flitting to the sofa for last hugs and kisses.
‘’Night, Pumpkin,’ Dad said into my hair, into which I had twisted my right index finger as I reached my left arm up and barely reached around his shoulder. His arms reached under mine and entirely surrounded me, gently squeezing me in a light bear hug.
‘I’ll come and tuck you in once you’ve done your teeth,’ Mum said, extending her long arms to wrap me up in them. Sealed with a kiss on the cheek and I was on my way. A production line of love, following my sister into the darkness of the hall, one step closer to the dark oblivion of sleep.
‘Christine, move your elbows!’ Claire demanded as we both fought for space at the sink. Neither of us tall enough to use the mirror, but already echoing fights that were yet to come. We stood self consciously side-by-side, with brushing noises and strawberry toothpaste smells the only buffer in the silence. Claire peered over into the bath and absentmindedly picked up one of the bath toys, a turtle whose head and arms popped out of his shell when he was submerged in the bathwater. She manoeuvred the toothbrush into the right of her cheek, and trying hard to keep the foamy toothpaste from escaping her mouth, made the turtle talk in our language. Smiling widely, a trickle of toothpaste dropped from my mouth onto flannel. Claire pointed with wide eyes, forgetting her own foam battle for a second as the same thing happened to her. We almost bumped our heads together as we both forged towards the sink, eager to clean up before Mum came in. Claire passed me a wet face cloth for the spill.
‘Imagine the turtle could actually talk, Chris,’ Claire said in our language, but in ‘our language’ it sounded a lot like made up French, which it was. Neither of us could understand a word the other said but there was lots of nodding and shrugging.
‘Yeah, it would talk to the other bath toys,’ I said back, ‘I wonder what they’d talk about?!’ Claire nodded. I shrugged.
‘Come on girls! Enough now.’ Mum’s voice came through the semi-opened door as she peered in at our guilty faces. ‘What are you two up to?’ she asked, a smile playing on her face.
‘Nothing’ we said in unison, running under her arm and back into the hall.
The lamplight from the living room door shone, distorted into two soft points of light through the glass door straight ahead of us. A more diffuse light came from the under-cupboard lighting in the kitchen to our left. All doors opened onto the hallway and the lights were out in Mum and Dad’s room on the right. Parading through the kitchen, the room smelled of washing powder from the ceiling airer, which had Dad’s shirts and school uniforms draped from it. The kitchen table dominated the room below it, the matching benches tucked far underneath its oak bulk. The clock on the microwave read 20.00 in blue. I watched our reflections approach the back of the kitchen in the undressed sash window and our modest procession turned left into our little room.
Imposing pine bunk beds took up one long wall, and another window claimed the majority of the facing wall. As Mum folded back my duvet for me to climb into the bottom bunk, Claire’s pink toes scrambled past me on the pine steps up to her bed. Tucking the covers up to my chin, Mum came in close and smiled in my face as I creased my eyes up and grinned back.
‘So, what story do you want tonight, mmm?’ Mum asked, scanning the bookshelf in the window seat for one that we might not know all the words to off by heart.
‘Topsy and Tim!’ I exclaimed, bursting back out from under the tucked-in duvet as I sat up straight, eager.
‘I’m reading my own book, Mum,’ Claire’s voice floated down from above, apparently disinterested in the events happening below her.
‘Topsy and Tim it is then,’ said Mum, half standing and retrieving the book, grinning at me again and settling in beside me. With her back against the wall and the bunk bed stairs to her left, it was just us two underneath a sky of neon stick-on stars shining beyond the anglepoise lamp on the shelf behind Mum.
‘Topsy and Tim needed new shoes,’ began Mum. As she read the brother and sister’s high street adventures, I pointed to Topsy’s party shoes and to Tim’s trainers, wrapping the length of my ponytail around my small fingers and snuggling in closer to Mum. Before I knew it, Mum was finished and was tucking me in tight.
‘OK, wee honey lamb, night night,’ as she kissed me on the forehead, smoothed my hair out away from my face, clicked off the lamp and stood up.
‘Claire, don’t read too long,’ she said, stretching up and over the bars of the upper bunk to collect more toothpaste kisses. ‘Mmhhmmm’ was the non-committal response.
With the door closed and all lights bar the stars and the glow of my sister’s lamp, it was peaceful. Slowly there was wiggling from above and those toes passed by again, this time on their way down. Erupting from the last rung of the ladder to land on her bare feet on the plush carpet; feet apart like Peter Pan, hands on hips like Mum. Claire stood in front of the bunk beds, poised.
‘Do you want another story, Chris?’ she grinned.
I smiled, nodded and started to sit up as she twirled over to the window seat to collect the piece of notepaper which acted as a list of story titles. We would do this after Mum had settled us for the night; Claire would make up stories for us and we’d have our own story time. Not that Topsy and Tim’s adventures were not enough, but two little bears in two little pictures on our bedroom wall had been inspiration enough for many more adventures with us – more than Topsy and Tim could ever imagine.
‘OK. Bear and the Balloon Ride? Bear and The Cloud Land Express. Bear Sees The Stars. Bear and The First Day at School. Little Bear’s Bedtime. Two Little Bears and a Bouncy Castle…’ she looked up from the list expectantly. It never really mattered which title I chose, the story changed every time. That was the good thing about Claire’s stories; they were always different and exciting and if I shouted out things she would include them, no matter how silly. Well, sometimes. Perched in a corner of the window seat, heels tucked into her bottom, hugging her knees, she began.
‘Once upon a time there was a little brown bear. He lived in the clouds but he was very lonely up there. There was nobody for Little Bear to play with. He would make up games of his own; he would look for shapes in the clouds. One day he spotted a dog, a trumpet, another little bear…another little bear!
‘The first little bear ran as hard as he could in the direction of the second little bear. Eventually the little bear had run far enough and the second little bear was standing in front of him, waving. He was so excited to have a friend he didn’t ask where the second little bear had come from!
‘They scampered this way and that, chasing one another, until they were tired and the second little bear sat down first. They played ‘Little Bear’s Looking Game’ together. Little Bear could not have been happier! They spotted a dinosaur, a magician’s hat, a bouncy castle… a bouncy castle! Off they went running again, this time together. They ran side-by-side, they ran a race, they started slowing down and suddenly they were right at the entrance to a bouncy castle.’
‘Why are they excited about a bouncy castle, if they are in the clouds?’ I asked, looking at my sister, who had now fitted herself into the window space like a distorted L, heels halfway up the wall, back flat, craning her neck to look at the picture of the little bear on the wall.
‘Christine’ she enunciated the ‘t’ betraying her irritation and spoke to the ceiling, ‘In this story the clouds are not bouncy.’ I nodded.
‘They bounced, and they bounced, and they bounced, until they were too tired to bounce any more. The second little bear moved towards the front of the bouncy castle and bounced right out of the door! Little Bear followed him and bounced right out too, and landed with a bump. On his bedroom floor. Poor Little Bear, it had all been a dream.’ We looked at one another pulling sad faces, until Claire’s face cracked into a smile and she continued, now kneeling side on to the window, as if in prayer, on the window seat.
‘So, Little Bear got up from the floor and sat on his bed looking out of the window, and began playing his Looking Game. And what did he see? He saw a big shoe, a little car, another little bear. Another little bear?! And off he went running as fast as he could to find his friend.’
‘THE END’ declared Claire, now sitting normally with her legs dangling off of the pink padded cushion of the seat, heels softly kicking the white wood at the bottom of the window seat, awaiting my feedback.
‘I liked that one! Poor Little Bear in the middle but –’…I said.
‘Another?’ she said.
My yawn answered her question and we paused for a moment as she bounced off the seat, projected from the heels of her hands, and sat on the edge of my bed.
‘Alright, I’ll tuck you in tight, like Mum,’ she said and proceeded to tuck the covers around me so tightly that I had to really try to move at all. With no choice but to stay still, she brushed my hair away from my face like Mum would do and turned the rest over in her hands, rolling it into a French roll at the back of my head. As we sat in silence in the semi-dark, punctured only by the dayglow stars, she patted me on the cheek and reached for the rung of the bunk bed stairs.
‘Night, Clairey,’ I murmured, listening to the familiar creaks of the wood as she hopped along the bed and got under her covers.
‘Night, Chrissy. We’ll do another one tomorrow. I’ve got a GREAT idea!’ she exclaimed in a stage whisper.
‘GIRLS! Is that light still on!?’ Dad called from the kitchen just as the light clicked out under Claire’s authoritative thumb. As we heard Dad move away from the kitchen doorway and the living room door click closed, all that was left was the sound of the refrigerator from the kitchen, humming gently.