The house I grew up in was a project, much like my family. My father would pick up bits and pieces from scrap yards and skips and the deadwood and bolt them into the rest of the house, a little like my mother did with my siblings. The heart of the home was the kitchen, at least I think it is the earliest room that I remember. I have a recollection of sitting on the split linoleum as a toddler, splashing a plastic toy in and out of a washing-up tub as my mother was kneading bread and flour sifted down onto the surface of the water. Mother says I must have made this up, that I was too young to remember, but accusing me of an over-active imagination was really one of her only criticisms of me. I knew my parents had always wanted me, because they told me so. They had chosen me when I was only a tiny baby, and then when I turned six they had taken in two more children, my new brother and sister. My parents loved me and looked after me, gave me a strict but fair upbringing, and considered the most important things in life were to be both good and kind.
They called me Sienna, and I never knew whether this was the name my birth mother had given me, or whether it had been changed before I knew that I had been chosen. The year before my brother and sister came to the house Papa made a sandpit in the small yard that counted as our garden. He spent a week of evenings after work cutting and measuring planks of wood, cutting small crescents of plywood to act as seats. He worked with his shirt off, glasses fogging slightly with the exertion, and I squatted next to him in bright pink shorts and red wellies, sucking my thumb. There’s a photo somewhere, just after he had filled it with sand and declared it finished. He is smiling, his hair slightly curled with sweat, and I am sitting happily with a bucket and spade, staring up at somewhere beyond the camera. Each corner of the sandpit has a seat, and there I am in the middle without a care in the world. It was before I learnt that, for people like my parents, nothing can ever be considered complete.
I did not appreciate the arrival of Kieron and Aurelia at first. They were twins – fraternal, of course – and a little older than I had been when I first came into the family but still only babies. I was surprised at how big Kieron was, his head almost the size of mine.
Aurelia was smaller, gentle, happy to burble and cuddle; Kieron was quieter, and despite being more mobile and independent, he gave an impression of studied concentration in every movement he made. Mother was very keen on developing my role as big sister and recruited me to help read bedtime stories. At this stage we were still sleeping in the master bedroom, and story-time was the only time we were allowed on to the proper bed. She would put Aurelia on her lap and Kieron would prop himself up against the softness of her chest, and I would sit to her other side and turn the pages, reading aloud, Mother helping me when I was stuck on a word. If I was very good for a whole week she would read from a big book of fairy tales that had glass castles and a man who wished he were the richest in the world and ended up with nothing and goblin cities and daughters who dripped jewels or toads from their mouth when they spoke. When we were all being read to by Mother Aurelia and Kieron would sit on either side of me and I took care to support their heads and let them sleep if they needed to. Aurelia would almost always curl up, bunching a handful of my shirt in her fists and flop her head down into my lap, but Kieron sat ramrod straight and hung on to every word.
It was at this point our father started building a bedroom for the three of us, breeze-blocks and heavy cement, insulation that looked soft as clouds but left my fingers bleeding when I stroked it. It took over three years for our room to be finished, because Papa worked on it in spurts of sudden energy, weeks taken up where we would hardly see him other than at supper, then long stretches where he would blame the weather, or his workload and the construction ceased. It was in one of the last of the fallow periods when the siblings learnt to walk properly, Kieron first, then Aurelia, and then something in our family changed. When I had turned seven Papa made a fold-out bed to go in his study and this was my new bedroom – only temporarily, he assured me – but it meant that I often was put to sleep whilst he was still working, and my bedtime stories had turned into a constant clack of keys and mumbled words. Kieron had taken to walking with the same seriousness as he had for listening to Mother, using straight lines to get to his objective. More often than not the objective was a toy, or a snack, but as I kept an eye on the pair when Mother was cooking I began to notice that he would head towards Aurelia and take whatever she was playing with. She’d cry, and I would try to go and see her and make her hush before Mother came in and told us off for fighting. It made me scared to go to school, but also relieved. The relief hardened like a kernel of guilt in my lungs, something that pressed against my airway and made it difficult to breathe.
The new walls smelled faintly of art class, and we each had our own proper bed. Mine was longer, built for growth, and didn’t have the safety rails of the others’. Our parents had made the dinner-time before we got to see our new room into a party, three small wrapped gifts as if it were a birthday. Aurelia got a soft bumblebee, its wings gauzy and edged in cuddly fabric, which she immediately stuck into her mouth garbled a thick “ank you”. Kieron got a construction set, which he turned around in his hands carefully before flashing a brief smile. I got a handsome leather-bound notebook with a set of pens in blue and black ink, which Papa told me was strictly Not For School. After pudding was taken away it seemed like the bedtime process was hurried, baths perfunctory, pyjamas on when we would have preferred to have been up and awake. I missed the sounds of the keyboard and Papa’s voice that night, instead listening to the snuffling coming from the two adjacent beds. The window to our room faced the street, so for the first time in my life the sickly orange glow of a streetlamp turned the shapes in the night a dull suckling black. I felt acutely conscious that I was still present when I was dreaming. When Aurelia whiffled in her sleep I pulled the covers over my head and tried to write my own stories in my new notebook.
Aurelia was easier, but somehow I felt as though I got on better with my brother. Even though he was often sullen or silent he was never actively malicious. Perhaps it was because I knew I needed to protect my sister in some way, Kieron worked in his own way to be part of the furniture of the house. There was only one serious discussion that I can recall, when we were young, where he asked whether the hexagonal block bridge he had built would stand my weight. I put my feet on either side and it collapsed under me and he looked at me under his lashes and told me he would make it better. When we sat next to each other on the school bus I’d pinch the skin on his wrist until it turned white, and he would do the same to me.
Not long after my twelfth birthday I was babysitting the twins for Mother and Papa when they went out for an evening. Aurelia had settled down to play some make-believe game that absorbed her entirely, and Kieron had gone to our room. I was sat at the kitchen table, still my most comfortable place, working through some homework. I had recently been allowed to drink tea rather than juice, and something about sitting down with a cup in front of me, the responsibility of watching my little sister and brother, made me feel awfully grown-up. I had almost finished the first problem sheet when a thin wail went up, Aurelia’s lips trembling in an open o. “He took my Buzzie and now I can’t find it and he stole it it’s…” Kieron looked hurt. “I never touched it, I didn’t” but in the bedroom there was no sign of her toy, nor in the bathroom and I knew that Kieron hadn’t entered the kitchen because I had been there all the time. I looked with Aurelia everywhere I could think of, but we couldn’t find it and then I got bored and both of them were hungry. In the end I made baked beans on toast and waited for our parents to come back as the two of them sat mutinously opposite each other.
Buzzie turned up in the sandpit two days later, one wing ripped, and his fabric matted with damp sand. He went through the washing machine three times but by then the mould had set in, and Mother said Aurelia was getting a little bit big for soft toys anyway. My sister coughed sadly at this, and she pouted. Kieron maintained that he hadn’t done anything, and I was meant to have been looking after them both, so nothing really came out of this except an uneasy mistrust. I asked Papa if I could have a room of my own, or move back into the study, and Mother gave me a look that I didn’t understand but I realised that I had said something wrong. It was about a year later when I stopped sleeping properly. It was then when the kitchen really became my home.
Because Papa had built our bedroom against the side of the ground floor it was more like an annexe than an extension. I’d wake up to the twins’ breathing and lie flat on my back, willing sleep to come. When it didn’t I learnt the way to push the wood to the side of the door handle against the frame whilst pulling the doorknob, so I could exit silently. If I timed it right, Aurelia would be having one of her little sleepy coughs when the latch clicked. There were five paces down to the kitchen – sticking close to the walls prevented a creak – and then my sanctuary. Under the kitchen table very little light filtered through the windows, and if I cupped my arm under my head with the blanket it made a good pillow. I hadn’t realised that bedtime for us didn’t mean bedtime for my – our – parents.
They stumbled through the door like Aurelia did when she would choke too hard to stand up properly. Father sounded like he had when he had been promoted, and Mother was flushed like she’d been cooking. They were speaking fast-slowly and there was something about barrow or barrel and children, and they looked like they were fighting. Mother’s hands were on Papa’s wrists like Kieron and me going to school, and he was digging into her chest.
They were arguing about the house and making new rooms and I did my best to make myself as small as possible, curling my cover tighter and tighter. When they left the kitchen they were still fighting, or at least it seemed that they were. There was a regular sound of angry slapping and I took my blanket and crept back into our room.
Kieron was sitting up in bed, his eyes shining. Aurelia seemed smaller than normal, clutching her duvet like she used to cling on to me in our reading sessions. “See-nee, I’m scared”. Her breathing did not sound right, it was ragged and hissed hollow in her rising and falling chest. His pale hands grabbed mine and I can’t remember if it was Kieron or me who shouted first, but Mother and Papa both ran in and then there were lights and people wearing green and questions and colouring-in pages that I didn’t think were meant for us.
Aurelia came back and our father built the room he hadn’t built for me, he did it quickly, as though he were working against a deadline. Her sleep got worse, breathing like discarded papers thrown by a disgruntled employee. Her open hands stained the bed sheets with a yellow residue. Her skin grew thin, and doctors’ appointments ruled out asthma or any other common breathing disorders. She growled desperately, x-rays showing nothing unusual, scopes showing a perfectly normal pair of lungs even as she choked up thick sputum. Papa spent long hours in his study, only coming out to eat or work on things in the garden, muttering under his breath. He wouldn’t let anyone see what he was making, but it was tall and had slatted sides. Mother, in turn, withdrew into Aurelia’s room. She would sit by the side of my sister’s bed, and after the first week I started doing the cooking and the cleaning as well.
During this period I found a new closeness with Kieron. He would stand next to me in the kitchen, peeling or chopping, and not having to talk about Aurelia was a blessing. We’d talk about school (boring), our classmates (unfailingly dull), and snippets of things that we had heard (variable). I asked him how he had buried Buzzie, and his face hardened. “I didn’t. I said I didn’t, din’I?” I think I gave him some cheese, or at least something that would be a naughty snack. He took it back to the sitting room and dropped down to his games, deaf to my apologies. We stood and brushed our teeth side by side against the pedestal basin that night, when Kieron began to cry. Mother and Papa were by Aurelia, the hacking cough had turned into background noise that we could both drown out. He told me he knew what was happening. I didn’t believe him, and we both lay down in our beds, staring at each other in as the light from the road slowly across the room over the hours. We threw off our covers in unison, crept out towards where our sister slept.
“Watch”, he said softly, and out of Aurelia’s open mouth a honeybee crawled, its antennae tasting the air on the tip of her tongue. I put my head to her chest and the hive roared in both of her lungs.
Sylvia Warren is an academic editor and writer. Her fiction has been published in Open Pen, Burning House Press, and more. She is a contributing editor at 3: AM Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @sylvswarren