I grew up on a farm. Well, small holding, really. When I was little, most of it was worked by a neighbour. But then Dad came home from the Army, and bought a little tractor, and started to use the land to feed us. We didn't grow enough to earn serious money, just sold a bit that we didn't need, here and there. We had chickens and ducks, and my first duty was collecting the eggs each morning. Then as I got bigger, I learned to clean out the hut and poultry-run.
When Dad came home for good that time, he didn't come alone. He brought Aunt Charlene. I didn't understand then. She wasn't really my aunt; she had brown skin and frizzy black hair, and was the widow of Dad's best mate, who was killed right next to Dad. I never did get the details. I don't think there was any more to it than Dad keeping a promise, but I could be wrong. Anyway, Auntie brought with her Katy, a little girl a couple of months older than me.
I know that some kids would have got jealous, or felt replaced, but I didn't. We lived over five miles from town and there were no other kids nearby, not near my age, anyway. I was delighted to have a playmate right there. It never seemed strange to me that my 'sister' had café-au-lait skin and frizzy brown hair. She was skinny when she came. She filled out a little with good food, but work on the farm and good genetics meant she never got really more than slim. Her mother helped Mum around the house and with some of the farm stuff.
Perhaps because her only playmate was an active small boy, Katy was a tomboy, and we played boy games, and wrestled. She was – for all our childhood – stronger than me, and I only ever got the better of her by trickery. No matter how many arguments we had, though, we remained friends.
When we got old enough and had to go to school – at five, no nursery school for us in those days – we were isolated from the other kids in some way. Partly it was that we were so close, but partly it was the attitude of the other kids to Katy. I heard, but didn't understand, the word 'nigger'. Early on, one playtime, we somehow got separated in the playground; perhaps I was deliberately distracted, but I suddenly realised my sister was in the middle of a group of older kids who were pushing her around and taunting her.
I ran over, shouting. "Hey! You leave my sister alone!"
One of the kids – a couple of years older and much heavier than me, turned. "Hey, Squirt! What's that? Your sister? The Nig?"
I didn't understand, but I could tell the word was rude, just by the way he said it.
"Leave her alone!"
"Yeah? You goin' to do something about it?"
He was almost twice my size, but I didn't think about it as I laid into him. Not very scientifically, I'd have to say. In fact, I was pretty strong for my age and size and he was far from fit, so just from surprise I got a few hits in before I was laid out. Actually, I don't think he knocked me out – I think it was one of his sidekicks. I came round in the small clinic room, with a teacher standing over me. Katy was there, too.
When I got home, Katy and I were grilled by Dad about what happened. He took photos of my bruises and took me to the hospital, where they said I appeared to be okay; though I had bruised ribs they didn't think anything was broken.
Dad took us to school the next day. I think the school tried to lay all the blame on me, but Dad wasn't standing for that.He never said it was okay to fight, but he did teach Katy and me some moves that he'd learned in the Army. He got a big tarpaulin that he pegged down on our 'lawn' that was mostly moss. It made a pretty good mat for what nowadays I would call 'martial arts'. We didn't need them in Primary school, though. The other kids mostly let us alone apart from some taunts, and I noticed there was always a teacher somewhere not too far away. Anyway, that pushed the two of us closer together, I suppose.
We stayed best mates until Secondary school. Nature took its course and Katy started turning into a young woman, as girls do, at about eleven. Perhaps her abilities to defend herself and skills with a football, that sort of thing, meant she was accepted better by the other kids, and her physical maturing meant she mixed more with the other girls. Anyway, we made some friends, not close ones. At home, Katy was still my friend, but there was some distance between us that hadn't been there before.
I was, of course, a year or two behind her in physical maturity, but when I got to about fourteen I began to shoot up and for the first time I was taller than her. It was a few years before I filled out, though. About then Dad developed prostate cancer. It wasn't diagnosed early – either because Dad was stoic and didn't go to the doctor in time, or just because less was known about the condition. Anyway, he eventually had an operation and it was only then that they realised it was cancer rather than benign enlargement. They did what they could, but he got secondaries everywhere.
Katy and I did well with our 'O' levels, but I couldn't go on to 'A' levels at the school we'd attended, so I had to travel to Wisbech, to the College there. It was called the 'Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely College of Further Education and Horticultural Institute'. But I'll just call it 'College'.
Anyway, Katy didn't want to continue in education and, as Dad got less able to work the farm, her help was welcomed. I did the heavy stuff evenings and weekends, burning the candle at both ends to keep up with studies.
Dad died just before I sat my exams and I was the man of the house. He'd saved a bit, so even though most of his pension stopped – Mum got a third, I think – with the produce from the farm we could live quite well, but for a while we didn't have much time for anything but work.
We'd concentrated on produce we'd use ourselves, and took wheat and oats to a nearby mill, to have the oats rolled for porridge and the wheat ground for bread and cake. We grew and kept enough grain, and harvested enough hay, to keep a cow which produced more than enough milk for our everyday use. Aunt Charlene had the job of milking her.
Time wore on and I ploughed and harrowed ready for either planting winter wheat and vegetables, or for the spring planting. Then autumn was nearly over and the worst of the work was done. Of course the days were shorter too, and some of my time was in the barn where we kept the equipment, cleaning, lubricating and making sure everything was safe and working properly. Katy would keep coming in and much as I liked her, I got shirty at being interrupted. In turn, she reacted with anger and sulks. I didn't understand. Where have you heard that before?
One evening, she just wasn't there.
"Where's Katy?" Mum asked. As if I should know!
"I don't know," I shrugged, "I haven't seen her all evening."
"Well, you'd better go and find her. Supper's nearly ready."
Well, she wasn't with the poultry, and I knew she hadn't been in the barn with the machinery as I'd just come from there. I found her in the barn where we kept our milch cow, curled up on some hay and crying. I sat behind her and touched her shoulder, but she flinched away.
"Leave me alone."
"Not until you tell me what's the matter."
She just curled up tighter and moved away. That wouldn't do; no matter how irritated I got with her when I was trying to work, this was my sister, damnit. I scooped her up, still tightly curled up, and plunked her in my lap, and just held her. She just cried harder.
"Come on, Katy. I'm not going to leave you until you tell me what's the matter. And Mum's wondering where you are. She sent me to fetch you for supper."
She sniffled, but relaxed a bit, unwound, and buried her face in my chest. "You hate me," she said. The words were muffled by my chest, but I could hear them okay.
"Of course I don't," I said, astonished. "Whatever gave you that idea?" I became aware, painfully aware, you might say, of the warmth of her body and her scent; I mean her natural scent, not any artificial perfume.
"You don't? But you get annoyed and tell me to go away..."
"That's just because I have to concentrate on what I'm doing. I don't want to make a mistake, which could be expensive."
"Oh." I cuddled her a bit longer before she spoke again. "I'm sorry, Bobby."
As I held her, I felt something stir in me, but this was my sister.
"We'd better go to eat," I said.
To an onlooker, it probably seems weird, but remember, for fourteen years or more, since I was barely four years old, I'd lived with Katy as a sister. I never noticed the colour of her skin, or the halo of fuzzy brown hair. She was my friend, playmate and constant companion. I was finding a conflict, an ambivalence, in my relationship with my ... sister.
.... There is more of this story ...