The Lost Sister: A gripping emotional page turner with a breathtaking twist
As they draw closer to the cave, Becky sees a small one that has a notice at its front: Do not enter. Risk of falling rock. Her mum’s face darkens when she looks at it.
‘Is it safe?’ Becky asks, hesitating.
‘My one is.’
‘Sure?’ Becky asks.
‘Absolutely. Come on.’
They walk up to the cave and pause, taking it in. Large chalk boulders are littered here and there, painted an assortment of colours, some smashed, one charred. The white clay of the cave is mossy in parts, ledges jutting out. Becky remembers standing on one of those ledges, looking out to sea.
Painted around the edges of the cave’s entrance are different animals, and shells too. Even a child and a dog. The paint has faded slightly but it’s still discernible.
Her mum raises her hand, touching the clay. ‘Feel it,’ she says. ‘It’s softer than you think.’
Becky leans her hand against it and realises her mum’s right. It even crumbles beneath her palm. As she takes her hand away, she notices there are man-made dents down the length of the cave’s entrance, and a black metal plate drilled into it, as if there was once something hanging there.
Her mum peers into the cave, a sense of peace spreading over her face.
Becky notices her mum’s breath is laboured, her eyes hollow. ‘Come on then, let’s get you inside.’
She helps her mum step in, the sound and smell of the sea suddenly muffling all her senses. It’s as though the cave is absorbing everything but the sea … even absorbing her. The temperature drops, and Becky notices the damp moss on the walls, the slimy vegetation. Her feet sink into the sand, wet, cold, sand flies leaping around her shoes. Rubbish congeals around the edges of the cave, cigarette butts and rotting fish bones.
How could her mum have lived here? No wonder she wasn’t allowed to bring Becky to live here too. And how could she want to die here? But then she’s never quite understood her mum.
‘Look,’ her mum says, pointing to the wall at the back. Her eyes are alight, as if she’s seeing another place entirely.
Becky gasps. It’s covered with people, sculpted from the rocks then painted. These faces smile out at her: a girl wearing a white dress with a book in her hand; a black man with a dog at his feet, a hammer in his hand. More and more people, nearly a dozen, including children – one tiny one with her eyes ominously scratched out. And then there she is, Becky’s mum, her dark hair a cloud around her head as she stares into the distance, pen poised over her notepad. Next to her is a half-finished painting of a man with long, blond hair.
‘Did Idris do these?’ Becky asks. His name echoes around the cave, making her shiver. She often heard his name that summer her mum left, whispered first in awe then in anger by people in the town, often spat down the phone by her fuming dad.
‘He did paint them. There,’ her mum says as she points to the back of the cave. ‘I want to be there.’
Becky helps her over. Broken wood criss-crosses the sand, pages torn from books strewn over it, a discarded soiled cup on its side. Becky sweeps it all away and unrolls the thick sleeping bag she brought with her along with a small pillow.
‘I wish I’d brought more to cover the damp sand now,’ she says. ‘I didn’t think.’
‘It’s fine. This is perfect.’
‘How did you sleep here?’
‘On wooden planks,’ her mum replies, eyeing the broken panels.
‘What about the damp?’
Her mum shrugged. ‘We didn’t mind.’
‘Come, sit.’ She leads her mum to the sleeping bag and helps her sit down. Her mum stares around her, a small smile on her face.
‘I’ll just set some things up,’ Becky says, unloading the heavy rucksack from her back with relief, pulling all the items out: some fruit, water, a flask of tea, crackers, pads, flannels. And then the pain relief. Becky takes a deep breath. Will it be enough? She pops two pills out, pours some water into a plastic cup. Then she takes it all over to her mum.
‘Do you want tea?’ she asks her mum after she swallows the pills.
‘Not right now.’
‘Are you comfortable?’
Her mum closes her eyes and sighs. ‘I’m very tired.’
‘Why don’t you lie down? It’s all set up.’
Her mum looks at the sleeping bag. ‘It does look rather tempting.’
‘Come on,’ Becky says. She unzips the sleeping bag and helps her mum into it, so aware of how thin her arms are. ‘Is it okay?’
‘Lovely, thank you. Though I have to admit, the pillow’s a bit lumpy.’
‘Here,’ Becky says, lifting her mum’s head and shuffling under her so she can lean on Becky’s lap. ‘Better?’
Her mum smiles. ‘I knew the Rhys thunder thighs would come in handy one day.’
Her mum laughs, but then her laugh turns into a cough. Becky gives her more water.
‘I don’t know how you lived here,’ Becky says, looking around her. She realises she’s absent-mindedly stroking her mum’s hair as she says that, as she is so used to stroking her dogs as they lie on her lap. She remembers her mum doing the same when she was young, singing her a lullaby as she fell asleep.
‘Oh, it was better equipped back then,’ her mum says. ‘There was a toilet and a makeshift shower over there,’ she says, gesturing to the corner opposite to her. ‘A kitchen at the front, with a huge table. Anyway, it didn’t really matter. It was more about the space to write, the people. At first, anyway.’
Her eyes stray over to the half-finished painting of Idris, pain flittering across her face.
‘You loved him, didn’t you?’ Becky says simply.
Her mum nods. ‘The first time I saw him was the day the boy nearly drowned …’
As she begins to tell Becky about those first few days, Becky tries to find the anger she once felt at her mum for falling in love with someone else. Not just someone else, but a ‘bloody hippy’ as her dad referred to him. But as her mum lies with her head in Becky’s lap, eyes alight with memories, Becky finds it impossible to be angry. Instead, it feels like her love for her mum has never been stronger. It swells inside her as she strokes her hair.
But as her mum continues with the story, the sound of her voice grows increasingly slurred and panic clutches at Becky’s heart. It’s as though coming here has made her mum feel safe enough to slowly loosen her grip on life. Becky is desperate for her to hold on a little longer, this woman who gave birth to her, who held her in her arms, who protected her despite all that came after. The past twenty-four hours have reminded her of the good memories. They crowd in, suffocating the bad that have so dominated thoughts of her mum all these years. Instead, they’re replaced with the smell of her mum’s warmth when Becky crept into her parents’ bed at night. And the love, so much love, that she saw in her mum’s eyes.
How could she have forgotten that?
One of her tears splashes onto her mum’s cheek but her mum doesn’t notice. She is lost in her own memories, words barely making sense now as she recounts her story, so wrapped up in her past that she is beyond caring if Becky can understand what she says.
Over the next few hours, as darkness creeps into the cave, the only light provided by a flickering candle, Becky leans against the damp wall, legs out flat, her mum’s head now heavy in her lap. She watches a bird glide across the sky outside under the moonlight, another pecking at oysters that have washed up ashore with its distinctive orange beak. It peers up at her, noticing her watching, holding her gaze.
‘You always had a way with animals,’ her mum croaks.