Blue Note

Jacqueline was the pretty one. Everyone said so. On Saturday mornings, the two girls went shopping for their mother. The fishmonger, the baker and the grocer. Teresa peered through the glass of the Tudor shop fronts—the window displays of buttons made into the shape of a lady at the haberdashery and the glass bowls of vivid plaster fruit at the grocer were her favourites. At each shop, Jacqueline did the talking and Teresa was silent. The shopkeeper would hand the straw basket laden with shining zucchini and peppers, flour-dusted loaves and wrapped sausages to Jacqueline, who passed it to her sister. Teresa listened as Jacqueline’s voice wove like silk strands, capturing rapt attention.

Teresa’s older sister strode ahead, her russet hair swung. She never glanced back, her patent leather shoes clicked on the cobblestones. The handle of the basket cut into Teresa’s arm as she followed. Long shadows fell on the alley, tinted blue. Invisible cats yowled and she felt her skin prickle. She would help in the kitchen again. As soon as they arrived home, Mama called for her. Teresa deboned the fish and filled the peppers with breadcrumbs and ricotta. Mama murmured instructions and scolded her if the measurements were wrong. In her room, Jacqueline danced to Duke Ellington, her whirling and jumping reverberated through the house.

‘You forgot the flour.’ Her mother did not look at her.

‘Sorry. I can get it tomorrow.’

‘Mama?’

She was stirring a butter sauce, her scarlet lips pursed, the apron tight around her waist. ‘Yes?’

‘Can I go now?’

She nodded.

Teresa sidled into Jacqueline’s bedroom. It had once been their mother’s sewing room, until Jacqueline had complained of their younger brother’s groans in the night, and that Teresa talked too much.

Against the backdrop of the rose-patterned wallpaper and the cast of pink from a scarf flung over a lamp, Jacqueline kicked her legs and twirled. Her face was rapt as the brass and drums filled the small room. If she had seen her sister, she pretended not to notice.

‘Can you play the Judy Garland one?’ Teresa’s voice was hesitant.

Jacqueline stilled and raised an eyebrow. ‘It’s depressing. What do you want?’

‘Just to listen.’

Her sister shrugged and another song came on, a rumba.

Teresa perched on the edge of the bed, tapping her hands on her knees. She wished she were graceful like Jacqueline, her hair red gold instead of dull blond.

With a sigh and a flick of her hair, Jacqueline stilled and adjusted her dress. It had fallen below her shoulders as she leapt across the room. ‘Why do you always follow me around?’

Teresa flushed, her eyes downcast. ‘I’d like us to be friends.’

Jacqueline was silent, her cheeks had a fine sheen of perspiration and Teresa felt the cool wash of her gaze. ‘I’d prefer you keep to your own room and leave me in peace.’

Teresa sat frozen before jolting to her feet and racing out. In her own room, her brother Tommy was pushing a train engine along the wall. He smiled at her, gap-toothed. Their twin beds were pushed together as he often woke in fright, needing her arms and gentle words. ‘What’s wrong?’ he frowned.

‘Nothing,’ she said and stretched on the bed, her back to him. He sat next to her and stroked her arm as she hiccupped and sniffled.

‘It’s Jackie, I know it.’

Teresa smiled through her tears. Her sister hated it when he called her Jackie.

‘All she thinks about is herself.’

‘Thanks, Tommy. I just wish she would speak to me. She’s my sister.’

Tommy lay down next to her and flung an arm over her waist. ‘It’s all right, Ter.’

And for a moment, it was.

***

Teresa heard muffled footsteps. She rose and peeked through the gap in the bedroom door and saw the outline of her sister’s back as she tiptoed down the stairs, heeled sandals in her hand.

She waited until she heard the faint click of the front door and followed, pulling on her long overcoat and the first shoes she could find. The streetlights hummed, the cobbles were slippery with damp. Teresa allowed a good distance to fall between them and kept to the shadows cast by the lamps, along the rows of terrace houses. A fingernail of moon hid behind wisps of cloud outlined with indigo. Her heart hammered, her ears ached with cold.

As they reached the centre of town she lagged behind with aching legs. She paused to catch her breath and saw Jacqueline approach a bar on King Street, the words ‘Blue Note’ curled in neon light over the door. A gust of wind whipped her hair. The heavyset man at the door crushed a cigarette underfoot as Jacqueline talked to him, gesticulating. The Avon was near, its dank smell filled her nose.

Teresa shuffled closer, her mouth dry as her sister’s eyes locked with hers.

Her lip curled and she turned as if she hadn’t seen her, disappeared inside where the honeyed notes of a saxophone crooned and soared.

Teresa hunched over as she made her way to the river, held her arms to herself. The town lights stippled the river, flickering over the opaque green of the water. She sat on the edge, her hands clasped together. I’ll just wait for her, she thought.

There was something in the water. She peered, edged forward. It glinted gold, floated on the surface. Maybe it had come all the way from the sea to the middle of Bristol. Maybe it was treasure from hundreds of years ago. The object, resembling a box, seemed to be coming towards her. She gaped and stretched out her hand to reach it—

Ice in her blood, silted water in her mouth. Her legs kicked, her arms flailed. Her soundless screams allowed more water into her lungs, her head breached the surface then plunged under. Cold like knives sliced through her and blackness fell.

An arm snaked around her waist, and she was rising up. The surface. Air cascaded in like the purest blessing and there was a ragged gasp she knew to be her own. She felt herself dragged through the water and up steps. A furious voice.

‘What were you doing, you stupid, stupid girl?’ It was Jacqueline. Tendrils of hair criss-crossed her face, her eyes wild. ‘You would have died if I hadn’t seen you.’

Teresa gagged and water spewed from her mouth. It tasted metallic.

‘I saw treasure,’ she whispered. ‘And it was beautiful.’

Jacqueline pressed her head against her knees, her shoulders quaked. She reached for Teresa’s hand and interlaced her fingers. The water lapped beneath them and there was the faint glissade of a clarinet.

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