Excerpts for My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

By Annabel Pitcher

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Copyright © 2013 Annabel Pitcher
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-17690-3


My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well, some of her does. Three of herfingers, her right elbow and her kneecap are buried in a graveyard in London.Mum and Dad had a big argument when the police found ten bits of her body. Mumwanted a grave she could visit. Dad wanted a cremation so he could sprinkle theashes in the sea. That's what Jasmine told me, anyway. She remembers more than Ido. I was only five when it happened. Jasmine was ten. She was Rose's twin.Still is, according to Mum and Dad. They dressed Jas the same for years afterthe funeral—flowery dresses, cardigans, those flat shoes with buckles thatRose loved. I reckon that's why Mum ran off with the man from the support groupseventy-one days ago. When Jas cut off all her hair, dyed it pink and got hernose pierced on her fifteenth birthday, she didn't look like Rose anymore and myparents couldn't hack it.

They each got five bits. Mum put hers in a fancy white coffin beneath a fancywhite headstone that says My Angel on it. Dad burned a collarbone, tworibs, a bit of skull and a little toe and put the ashes in a golden urn. So theyboth got their own way, but—surprise, surprise—it didn't make themhappy. Mum says the graveyard's too depressing to visit. And every anniversary,Dad tries to sprinkle the ashes but changes his mind at the last minute.Something seems to happen right when Rose is about to be tipped into the sea.One year in Devon there were loads of these swarming silver fish that lookedlike they couldn't wait to eat my sister. And another year in Cornwall a seagullpooed on the urn just as Dad was about to open it. I started to laugh but Jaslooked sad so I stopped.

We moved out of London to get away from it all. Dad knew someone who knewsomeone who called him up about a job at a building site in the Lake District.He hadn't worked in London for ages. There's a recession, which means thecountry has no money, so hardly anything's getting built. When he got the job inAmbleside, we sold our flat, rented a cottage and left Mum in London. I bet Jasfive whole pounds that Mum would come to wave us off. She didn't make me paywhen I lost. In the car Jas said Let's play I Spy, but she couldn'tguess Something beginning with R, even though Roger was sitting right onmy lap, purring as if he was giving her a clue.

It's so different here. There are massive mountains that are tall enough to pokeGod up the bum, hundreds of trees, and it's quiet. No people I said aswe found the cottage down a twisty lane and I looked out the window for somebodyto play with. No Muslims Dad corrected me, smiling for the first timethat day. Me and Jas didn't smile back as we got out of the car.

Our cottage is the complete opposite of our flat in Finsbury Park. It's whitenot brown, big not small, old not new. Art's my favorite subject at school and,if I painted the buildings as people, I would turn the cottage into a crazy oldlady, smiling with no teeth. The flat would be a serious soldier, all neat andsquashed up in a row of identical men. Mum would love that. She's a teacher atan art college and I reckon she'd show every single one of her students if Isent her my pictures.

Even though Mum's in London, I was happy to leave the flat behind. My room wastiny but I wasn't allowed to swap with Rose 'cos she's dead and her stuff'ssacred. That was the answer I always got whenever I asked if I could move.Rose's room is sacred, James. Don't go in there, James. It's sacred. Idon't see what's sacred about a bunch of old dolls, a smelly pink blanket and abald teddy. Didn't feel that sacred when I jumped up and down on Rose's bed oneday after getting home from school. Jas made me stop but she promised not totell.

When we'd got out of the car, we stood and looked at the cottage. The sun wassetting, the mountains glowed orange and I saw our reflection in one of thewindows—Dad, Jas, me holding Roger. For a millisecond I felt hopeful, likethis really was the beginning of a brand-new life and everything was going to beokay from now on. Dad grabbed a suitcase and took the key out of his pocket andwalked down the garden path. Jas grinned at me, stroked Roger, then followed. Iput the cat down. He crawled straight into a bush, tail sticking out as hescrambled through the leaves. Come on Jas called, turning around at theporch door. She held out a hand as I ran to join her. We walked into the cottagetogether.

The uneven floorboards squeaked under my feet. Take off your shoes Jassaid, because that's what Mum used to do. I pointed at a stain on the old redcarpet. Take them off, anyway. I shrugged and did as I was told, thenstretched up on my tiptoes and wrote my name in the dust on the light shade.JAMIE. Jas rubbed it off and walked down the hall into the kitchen,looking at the rusty oven and the cracked sink in the corner. Home sweethome Jas said, trying to smile. We heard a bag being opened in the livingroom and followed the noise.

Jas saw it first. I felt her arm go stiff. Do you want a cup of tea shesaid, her voice too high and her eyes on something in Dad's hand. He wascrouching on the living room floor, his clothes thrown everywhere as if he'demptied his suitcase in a rush. Where's the kettle she asked, trying toact normal. Dad didn't look up from the urn. He spat on it, polishing the goldwith the end of his sleeve 'til it gleamed. Then he put my sister on themantelpiece, which was cream and dusty and just like the one in the flat inLondon, and he whispered Welcome to your new home, sweetheart.

We went upstairs after that. Jas picked the biggest room. It has an oldfireplace in the corner and a closet that she's filled with all her new blackclothes. She's hung wind chimes from the beams on the ceiling and they tinkle ifyou blow on them. I prefer my room. My bed's in the middle with a smallnightstand to one side and a lamp that doesn't work on top. The window overlooksthe back garden, which has a creaky apple tree and a pond, and behind that arethe mountains, stretching on forever. London was flat and the only green spacenear us was the park, which was ruined 'cos of the litter and graffiti and thegays, who Dad said looked for men in the bushes.

The best thing about my room is the windowsill, wide enough to sit on. Jas useda cushion to make it comfy. The first night we arrived, we curled up on it witha blanket, staring at the stars. I never saw them in London. All the lights fromthe buildings and cars made it too bright to see anything in the sky. Here thestars are really clear and Jas told me all about the constellations. She's intohoroscopes and reads hers every morning on the Internet. It tells her exactlywhat's going to happen that day. Doesn't it spoil the surprise I askedin London when Jas pretended to be sick 'cos her horoscope said something aboutan unexpected event. That's the point she replied, getting back into bedand pulling the covers over her head.

Jas is a Gemini, the symbol of the twins, which is strange 'cos she's not a twinanymore. I'm a Leo and my symbol is the lion. On our first night in Ambleside,Jas knelt up on the cushion and pointed at the constellation out the window. Itdidn't look much like an animal, but Jas said that whenever I'm upset, I shouldthink of the silver lion above my head and everything will be all right. Iwanted to ask why she was saying this stuff when Dad had promised us a Fresh NewStart, but I thought of the urn on the mantelpiece and I was too scared of theanswer. Next morning, I found an empty vodka bottle in the garbage and I knewthat life in the Lake District would be exactly the same as life in London.

That was two weeks ago. Since taking out the urn, Dad unpacked the old photoalbum and some of his clothes. The movers did the big stuff like the beds andthe sofa, and me and Jas did everything else. The only boxes we haven't unpackedare the huge ones marked SACRED. They're in the cellar, covered withplastic bags to keep them dry in case there's a flood or something. When weclosed the cellar door, Jas's eyes went all damp and smudgy. She saidDoesn't it bother you and I said No and she said Why not and Isaid Rose is dead. Jas screwed up her face. Don't use that word,Jamie.

I don't see why not. Dead. Dead. Dead dead dead. Passed away is what Mumsays. Gone to a better place is Dad's phrase. He never goes to church soI don't know why he says it. Unless the better place he's talking about is notHeaven but the inside of a coffin or a golden urn.

My therapist in London said I was In denial and still suffering fromshock. She said It will hit you one day and then you will cry.Apparently I haven't since October 7 almost five years ago, which was when ithappened. Last year, Mum and Dad sent me to that thin woman 'cos they thought itwas weird I didn't cry about Rose. I wanted to ask if they'd cry about someonethey couldn't remember, but I bit my tongue.

That's the thing no one seems to get. I don't remember Rose. Not really. Iremember two girls on holiday playing Jump the Wave, but I don't know where wewere or what Rose said or if she enjoyed the game. And I know my sisters werebridesmaids at a neighbor's wedding, but all I can picture is the bag ofSkittles Mum gave me during the service. Even then I liked the red ones best andI held them in my hand until they stained my skin pink. But I can't rememberwhat Rose wore or how she looked walking down the aisle or anything like that.After the funeral, when I asked Jas where Rose was, she pointed at the urn onthe mantelpiece. How can a girl fit inside something so small I said,which made Jas cry. That's what she told me, anyway. I don't really remember.

One day for homework I had to describe someone special and I spent fifteenminutes writing a whole page on my favorite soccer player. Mum made me rip it upand write about Rose instead. I had nothing to say so Mum sat opposite me withher face all red and wet and told me exactly what to write. She smiled thisteary smile and said When you were born, Rose pointed at your willy andasked if it was a worm and I said I'm not putting that in my Englishpaper. Mum's smile disappeared. Tears dripped off her nose onto her chin andthat made me feel bad so I wrote it down. A few days later, the teacher read myhomework out loud in class and I got a gold star from her and teased by everyoneelse. Maggot Dick, they called me.


It's my birthday tomorrow and a few days after that, I start at Ambleside Churchof England Primary School on September 1. Apparently it's tiny and they talkabout God all the time even if they're just doing science, as they believe inAdam and Eve not evolution and Jurassic Park like everyone else in thecountry. Why do I have to go there I asked Dad when he told me. It'snearest he said and then turned up the TV. The school's about two miles fromthe cottage so Dad will have to drive. It's not like London here. There are nobuses or trains if Dad's too drunk to go out. Jas said she'll walk with me if wecan't get a lift, as her high school is about a mile farther on. She said Atleast we'll get thin and I looked at my arms and said Thin is a badthing for boys. Jas doesn't need to lose any weight but she eats like amouse and spends hours reading the backs of packages and looking at thecalories. Today she made a cake for my birthday. She said it was a healthy onewith margarine not butter and hardly any sugar so it will probably taste funny.Looks good though. We are having it tomorrow and I get to cut it 'cos it's myspecial day.

I checked the mail earlier. There were a few envelopes and a menu from the CurryHouse, which I hid so Dad wouldn't get angry. He started avoiding anythingforeign after Rose died. Shops. Streets. He went all patriotic and hung theEngland flag in the living room and got a tattoo of it on his arm. KeepEngland English he began to say. Mum hated it and they used to argue,probably 'cos chicken curry was her favorite food and she wasn't allowed to eatit anymore.

There was nothing in the mail from Mum. No present. No card. But there's stilltomorrow. She won't forget. Before we left London, I bought a We Are MovingHouse card and sent it to her. All I wrote inside was the cottage's addressand the date that we were moving. I didn't know what else to put. She's livingin Hampstead with that man from the support group. His name is Nigel and I methim at one of those memorial things in the center of London. Long stragglybeard. Crooked nose. Smoked a pipe. He writes books about other people who havewritten books, which I think is pointless. His wife died on October 7 as well.Maybe Mum'll marry him. Maybe they'll have a baby and call it Rose and then theywill forget all about me and Jas and Nigel's first wife. I wonder if he foundany bits of her. There might be an urn on his mantelpiece and he might buy itflowers on their wedding anniversary. Mum would hate that.

Roger's just come into my room. He likes to curl up at night by the radiator,where it's warm. Roger loves it here. In London, he was always kept indoors 'cosof the traffic. Here, he can roam free and there are lots of animals to hunt inthe back garden. On our third morning, I found something small and gray and deadon the doorstep. I think it was a mouse. I couldn't pick it up with my fingersso I got a piece of paper and pushed the mouse on with a stick and then I threwit in the garbage. But then I felt mean so I got it out of the garbage and putit under the hedge and covered it with grass. Roger meowed as if he couldn'tbelieve what I was doing after all his hard work. I told him that dead thingsmake me sick and he rubbed his orange body on my right shin so I knew heunderstood. It's true. Dead bodies freak me out. Sounds nasty to say this but ifRose had to die, I'm glad she was found in bits. It would be much worse if shewas under the ground, stiff and cold, looking exactly like the girl in thephotos.

I suppose my family was happy once. The pictures show lots of big smiles andsmall eyes, all crinkled up like someone's just told a really good joke. Dadspent hours staring at those photos in London. We had hundreds, all taken beforeOctober 7, and they were in a big jumble in six different boxes. Four yearsafter Rose died, he decided to put them in order, with the oldest last and themost recent first. He bought ten of these really posh albums that are realleather and have gold writing on them, and he spent every evening for months notspeaking to anyone, just drinking drinking drinking and gluing all the picturesin the right place. Only the more he drank the less he could stick straight, sothe next day he would have to do half of them all over again. That's probablywhen Mum started having the Affair. That was a word I'd heard on TV and not oneI expected my own dad to shout. It was a shock. I didn't guess, not even whenMum started going to the support group two times a week, then three times aweek, then pretty much whenever she could.

Sometimes when I wake up, I forget that she's gone and then I remember and myheart drops like it does when you miss a step or trip over a curb. Everythingcomes rushing back and I can see what happened on Jas's birthday too clearly, asif my brain's one of those HD televisions that Mum said was a waste of moneywhen I asked for one last Christmas.


Excerpted from My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher. Copyright © 2013 Annabel Pitcher. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
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