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Alternating facts

Maggie Rainey-Smith


My sister and I know there’s a chance that one of us is wrong. There’s no one left in the family to arbitrate. Over decades, our memories have been carefully nurtured, coloured by strong emotions, refined with retelling – to ourselves and others. We don’t clash so much as court each other with our own stories. It’s a dance of semantics and despite our considerate, thoughtful attention to each other’s versions, we remain convinced that our own are more plausible.


I try to assume a neutral stance, believing I’m extra tough on myself and have been generous but honest. I pick apart my story, stand back from it, then approve – with tweaking – a version that still fits my original assumption but incorporates enough of my sister’s to appear fair.


Her strategy is to place her version of the truth starkly in front of me – not daring me to disagree – just not caring if I do. It’s unsettling. What if her version is more right than mine? Of course, deep down, I know it’s not. I’m known for my steel-trap memory. Family are wary of it. Friends shy from challenging it.


When my sister presents me with a different memory of the night she abandoned me under the blue gum, I try to see it her way: that I’m the antagonist – the annoying baby sister. We’re walking home from a weekday movie and we have school in the morning. We both agree with this detail, but we could both be wrong. I do know the only reason I’ve been allowed to go to this movie is because my sister will walk me home in the dark.


The blue gum stands guard over a short cut path through the school grounds to our house. In the daytime, it’s bleached and magnificent with an unforgettable scar: someone has lopped a branch from it, which would, no doubt, have hung low across the short cut path. Now, instead, the place where the branch grew from is a creamy breast with an indented nipple. It belongs to us, this blue gum on the short cut path. But at night-time it becomes something other. The bleached tree looms larger on starry, moonlit nights. It stands taller, and the nipple is both a marker and menace on our homeward map.


Neither of us remembers which movie we’d been to see. On this we both agree. But the argument that ensued is directly linked to that movie. We know that we talked on the way home about a moment in it that was pivotal – so pivotal that we were bursting to share it. As neither of us recalls the movie, we don’t know what it was. But there, under the breast of the bleached blue gum, we argued. My sister ran off, racing home to be the first to share it with our parents.


My story, for years, was that I was terrified. Struck dumb with fear. I began to scream. And here, again, we agree. I screamed and screamed, until my father came to rescue me. My sister got into a lot of trouble for abandoning me under the blue gum. This was my story, that she abandoned me.


She agrees, but now and then I interrogate my young self, questioning fear versus fury. I can’t decide. The older I get, the more confused I am. I like to think I might have been terrified. But there’s a part of me that suspects, that night, that I was furious with my sister for getting a head start on me homewards to share the part of the movie we were both so transfixed by. I remember the dark, the blue gum, the sound of my screams, and my Dad coming in his pyjamas to get me.


The blue gum still stands, far from us both, and it knows my story, holds it close to its bleached breast in the moonlight, on the path to what used to be our home.


Then there’s the small scar at the back of my head near the middle parting. There’s the day my sister dyed her hair and ran away. The day our father’s stepfather was banished on the bus back home. The day our brother took his own life. The day our mother died; the night our father died.


We do the crossword now, when we get together. She’s better at the cryptic clues and I’m quicker with the regular crossword. We snatch the pen from each other and pretend not to care, but although I’ve stopped screaming, we’re both still trying to outrun each other.


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