The Bed-making Competition – Extract

1991: Hillary, at home with Bridgid 

The Bed-Making Competition by Anna Jackson
14.95

Winner of the 2018 Viva La Novella Prize

From teenage rebellion to the most painful of goodbyes, The Bed-making Competition chronicles the coming of age of Hillary and Bridgid. Told over five sections, each separated by years and kilometres, we follow the sisters as they manage abandonment, motherhood, illness and the ineffable connections of the families that we are born into and those that we create. Spiked with dark humour and bracingly familiar depictions of the overwhelming ambivalence of filial love, Anna Jackson’s novella is a book of riotous energy and great heart. 

I wanted to tell Bridgid about Vanya powdering her nose in Mr Greville’s art history class but she was in her room again. I could hear the strained music of a string quartet from behind the closed door, it would be jangling up her head, she’d be writing in her diary, and if I barged in on her she’d yell at me. I got a Smurf
ice-cream out of the freezer and watched The Smurfs on television, then I watched The Young Doctors. Bridgid came out of her room a couple of times, to get something from the fridge or go to the loo, and once she came and stood by the sofa watching The Young Doctors with me. I thought maybe we were going to talk when it was the ad break, but she just went back to her room as soon as the ads came on, even though it was only halfway through the show. I felt so dispirited by the time it was over I started doing my homework, which for me was unusual. In fact, it was a pretty bad sign. Although that suggests someone was looking for signs about my well-being, which they weren’t, not then. Perhaps I mean for myself, perhaps I mean I was looking for signs as to how well I was doing: ‘How are you, me?’ 

‘Alright, thank you, me, although it was pretty weird today in Mr Greville’s class . . .’

I was still doing my homework when Dad came home, flung his stuff down on the sofa, and said, ‘Where’s Mum?’ He didn’t call her Mum to her face, but he used to call her Mum to us. He doesn’t anymore, because Bridgid doesn’t call her Mum anymore, she calls her Ursula. I don’t, I call her Mum.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, not having actually thought about it.

‘Where’s Bridgid?’

‘In her room.’

‘Bridgid!’

No answer.

‘Bridgid!’

Bridgid came out, looking rumpled and peculiar, her cheeks red, mascara making tracks under her eyebrows where she’d blinked. ‘What,’ she said.

‘Where’s your mum?’

‘She said to tell you to phone Margaret.’

‘What for?’

‘She just said to tell you to phone Margaret.’

He sighed, and phoned Margaret. I leaned on the table, fiddling with the salt and pepper shakers, listening as he got more and more upset and angry. He seemed to be angriest of all about having to tell us, that’s what he kept going on about, that she should have told us, it wasn’t fair to make him tell us. 

‘Dad, you don’t have to tell me,’ I said, when he put down the phone. ‘I heard enough.’

‘Well, I don’t know. What did she expect?’ he said. ‘What am I supposed to say? What do we do now?
I don’t even know what’s for dinner!’ 

‘Mum said to defrost the Irish stew from the freezer,’ Bridgid said.

‘Yeah, well, we’re not eating that,’ Dad replied. 

‘Takeaways?’ I said.

‘You order whatever you like,’ Dad said.

Yay, I thought. ‘I’m not hungry,’ Bridgid said.

‘Oh don’t start that,’ Dad snapped. 

God, I thought. ‘I just said I’m not hungry, I didn’t say I wouldn’t eat.’

‘I just don’t know what we’re going to do,’ Dad said. 

‘We could get Indian takeaways,’ I said. ‘They deliver. Or a pizza from the Pizza Oven, marinara or capricciosa. Or lamb korma if we get Indian.’

‘I want sag aloo,’ said Bridgid.

‘We’ll get a pizza,’ said Dad.

We got a marinara and a capricciosa and shared them. If Mum was there, she’d have made a salad, but because it was Dad we just ate pizza. I told the story about Mr Greville and Vanya, but it wasn’t as good as telling Bridgid, it was different with Dad there. I sort of told it more to Dad, really, because he was listening a bit more than Bridgid, although he was mainly listening to me being me. Or pretending to be me, being the story-telling me, the funny little sister. But he wasn’t really listening. He wasn’t really cheered up. Afterwards Bridgid went into her room with the phone and was on the phone for hours, so I did the dishes, without Dad even telling me, not that there were very many to do. In fact, it was sort of a good move, in a way, because it meant it would be Bridgid’s turn again the next day, when chances were there’d be more dishes, if we unfroze the Irish stew for instance. Except, of course, Bridgid didn’t do the dishes the next day, and we didn’t unfreeze the Irish stew either.

It wasn’t actually that bad when Mum went, or at least not because Mum had gone. It was really Bridgid I was missing so badly, even though she was still living at home – but I’d been missing her all year so that was nothing new. But it was only after Mum left that everyone started feeling sorry for me, and looking for signs to see how I was taking it. I didn’t know how I was taking it. When I tried to think about how I felt, I couldn’t seem to find a spot to put my finger on, to see how it felt. I could see Dad was pretty miserable, and I suppose I knew how I felt about that, which was sort of guilty, and solicitous, which I don’t like the feeling of very much, but it is hardly the sort of thing teachers needed to be looking for signs of. 

And then Dad left. Just like Mum, he didn’t tell me, just Bridgid, although this time I heard them. I was supposed to be asleep, but I was reading a Mills and Boon which Mum had got free with the washing detergent. It was really stupid and the heroine was a wimp, and of course I knew what was going to happen, but I felt like I had to get to the end of it before I could throw it away. I couldn’t hear what Dad was saying, but I heard him driving away, so I got up and asked Bridgid what was going on. She was sitting on the sofa holding his credit card and a wad of cash.

‘He’s gone after Mum,’ she said. 

‘When’s he coming back?’

‘When he gets Mum.’ 

‘But he can’t just get Mum,’ I said, ‘if she doesn’t want to get got.’

‘I know,’ said Bridgid. ‘But he seems to think he can.’

I wondered what to do next. ‘Are you upset?’ I asked Bridgid, very tentatively. Even though, if she was going to get annoyed, she’d get annoyed at my tentativeness.

But she didn’t. ‘No,’ she replied. ‘Are you?’

‘Not if you’re not.’ 

‘He’s given me his credit card.’

‘Yay,’ I said, tentatively.

‘Yay,’ agreed Bridgid.

‘We should have a drink,’ I said.

‘Yeah, to celebrate,’ said Bridgid, and we opened up the drinks cupboard with its peculiar sweet, wood-shavey smell. ‘What do you want?’ asked Bridgid.
‘Do you want me to make you a martini?’ 

I kept feeling like Dad was going to come barging back in and find us drinking from the drinks cabinet, and finally, after trying and hating the martini and then experimenting with Kahlua and vodka which was actually really good (‘That’s because it’s a drink,’ said Bridgid, knowing everything as usual, ‘it’s called a Black Russian’), I told Bridgid I was feeling this and she said, ‘Yeah, me too.’ And we started laughing and laughing until we were laughing so hard we had to clutch each other not to fall over. And I wrapped my arms around Bridgid, and felt her breasts push into my collar bone, and breathed in the smell of her hair, and I felt delirious with joy. 

I even felt delirious with joy in the morning, when I woke up feeling sick and remembered why. It was horribly late, I’d missed the 8.10 already before I’d even got out of bed, and I was in no state to rush around, but I wasn’t too worried about being late for school.
I really just wanted to get home from school again and find out if me and Bridgid were still being friends. 

I’d missed French by the time I’d got to school, which was good, because I hadn’t done my homework. I told the deputy principal my Dad had left us the night before to go after my Mum, and he asked if I wanted to see the counsellor, which I didn’t, and signed a green slip for me and said he’d have a word with my form teacher, which was embarrassing, but my own fault, and also very useful. I told Vanya at interval, and she wanted to come over for Black Russians. I thought I’d better see what kind of mood Bridgid was in first, and besides, I wanted to have Bridgid to myself, but I promised to let her know what we were doing in the weekend, and although I had a bit of a headache it was really a pretty good day. Especially because I’d done my maths homework. (They’d be wondering about that in the staff room.)

Then when I got home, Bridgid wasn’t there, and it was me and The Smurfs and The Young Doctors again, and two Smurfs ice-blocks since there were only two left and I might as well get them over and done with. I had just embarked on another round of homework, and was feeling pretty sorry for myself, when Bridgid rang up. ‘Get yourself to Rossinis,’ she said. ‘Get a taxi, I’ll pay when you get here. We’re having dinner out.’

She had a couple of friends with her, her friend Julia and some guy called Space who seemed really cool, so I didn’t mind not having her to myself. Space didn’t treat me as a schoolgirl, even though he must have been about twenty: we just talked. He was telling me about all these other William Golding books I could read, but he listened to me too. I persuaded him to try The Bell Jar

‘Everyone has this impression of Plath as this dreary suicidal sort of boring person but The Bell Jar is really funny. Really dark.’ 

‘But that’s good,’ Space said. Exactly.

‘Bookworms,’ said Bridgid, but that was good too. 

‘So? You’re a music-worm,’ I said, and Space laughed.

Oh god, it was just the best, best night. We ordered whatever we wanted, because Bridgid was paying with Dad’s credit card, and we ordered a bottle of really expensive red wine and you could taste how good it was, too. At first, it tasted kind of horrible, a bit bitter, but then you suddenly got past that, like a turnstile just whooshing open, and you could taste how old and good it was, deep down. Then we took a cab to see this friend of Space’s who’d have some dope, he lived in this really cool apartment, and I just kept lifting things off the shelves and stroking them because they were all so beautiful, all these little statues and things, and papier mâché skulls and maracas. And everyone was laughing at me, and I felt more and more at home.

Then they laughed at me because they said I wasn’t inhaling, and I didn’t know what they meant, because I thought I was inhaling, because I was breathing in and out. At least I thought I was, but then I tried to breathe really deep, and that time the smoke went right down into my lungs and I couldn’t believe it, it felt like I was exploding. This burning explosion that was bursting my lungs, it was incredible – I was gasping and gasping, coughing and coughing, and I couldn’t stop coughing and everyone was laughing and laughing. Bridgid got me a drink of water, and showed me what to do. I tried again, and this time I managed to breathe in just a shallow lapping of hot smoke, I let it in to the top of my lungs and already I felt them seizing up but I managed to breathe the smoke out slowly, without choking. 

‘You’ll never get stoned at that rate,’ said Julia. 

So I tried again, and again I just lapped the smoke in to the top of my lungs, but this time I lapped it in just a little bit too far, and that was all it took to set me off coughing and coughing again.

‘Perhaps you should give it a rest,’ Space’s friend said, and I said, ‘I need my inhaler, then I could take puffs of inhaler in between puffs of smoke.’

Space’s friend said, ‘Bloody hell, Space, the kid’s not an asthmatic, is she?’ 

I said, ‘Just a bit,’ and wished I hadn’t said a thing. Because now Brigid said she thought she’d better take me home, and I wanted to stay there forever, stoned or not, I didn’t care. We started arguing, I started feeling like I might be going to cry, and I knew Bridgid would be wishing she hadn’t brought me but I couldn’t help it, I had kicked into full baby-sister mode. 

Then Space’s friend said, ‘We could put her into my bed and let her sleep,’ and thank god I had enough sense not to refuse to go. Actually it wasn’t so much sense, as a desire to sleep in a man’s bed, and see what his bedroom looked like, and smell what his bed smelled like, which was pretty good actually. You could definitely smell it was a man’s bed, it was all salty-sweaty smelling; it was lovely. And I didn’t even mind lying there listening to them in the other room all going on talking and laughing and talking and laughing, I just loved them all, so much, and loved listening to them.

Then, in the morning, I woke up to find Bridgid in bed with me, and when I rolled up to her she opened her arms and smiled at me and I thought I could live like this forever. 

No one else was awake, Space’s friend was rolled in a duvet on the floor at the foot of our bed (his bed) and Julia and Space were sleeping together on the sofa bed in the living room. I found the bathroom, made a bath, and then lo and behold Bridgid came and joined me in it. We put in shampoo to make it bubble, then Bridgid found some real bubble bath, so we ran the taps again and made the bath even bigger, with even more bubbles.

I didn’t even remember it was a school day till we had left the apartment and were trying to figure out where exactly we were. ‘You weren’t going to go to school, were you?’ asked Bridgid. So I didn’t, and the day just unfolded in a kind of blissful haze. Bridgid and I walked together through the Domain, then we decided to go to the museum where we walked through the echo-y rooms together looking at things, not needing to say anything very much at all. We found these things called ‘death bracelets’, made out of bone, there was one of a snake eating its tail, and another one that was like a river running over itself. They seemed to be about time and eternity, and I thought they were so beautiful, I thought if I were going to steal one thing from the museum, it would be one of those death bracelets. 

‘Do you think they are made out of dead people’s bones?’ I asked.

‘Well I don’t think the people are still alive.’ 

‘I meant animals,’ I said.

Then we thought of going shopping, which was actually almost too much. I mean, it was just too good to be true.

‘What if we reach the limit on the credit card?’
I said, and ‘what will they say when they come home?’

‘They?’ said Bridgid.

‘Mum and Dad.’ 

Bridgid said, ‘Oh, Hillary.’ 

And I said, ‘What? What?’ then, ‘Well, Dad, anyway.’

‘He won’t care.’ 

I thought, won’t he? And, don’t you? Don’t you care about anything? But I didn’t dare say that.