In Stansted, I text her one word: “Landed.”
Anything else is superfluous; I must stick to strict instructions regarding the collection of my sister’s keys.
There is a key-collection precedent here, when things didn’t go well, something to do with me “not following instructions like any normal adult”.
Hence the strictness.
But there would be strictness anyway, precedent or no precedent. She’s like that, my middle sister: unconditional, everlasting sisterly love, plus rules (or OCD, depending on your perspective).
My sister’s rules today are as follows:
1. “Text me “Landed” in Stansted then don’t text again until you’re in Hackney Central. I’m in meetings all afternoon.”
2. “At Hackney Central, just text, ‘Here’. I’ll come down and give you my keys. Then you can go back to my flat and just veg on the sofa till I get home.”
(Implicit instruction: “Stay where I can see you even if it’s only in my mind’s eye.”)
3. “Tonight you’re having Marks and Spencer’s macaroni cheese. I’m getting it on my way home from work.”
(Implicit instruction: “Don’t go near my fucking fridge, you gannet, or trash my kitchen.”
12pm. Instruction two is a disaster; I’m at Hackney Central, trying to text “Here” but my phone has made the decision to suspend this service. God knows why.
12.10pm. I’m standing by the Visitor’s desk in my sister’s place of work, which is awe-inspiring at the best of times but especially so when you know that you are at this very moment creating key-collection precedent number two, by a. having no phone signal, and b. stuffing a wet coat into a plastic bag because it’s too shameful to wear even when it’s dry.
12.15pm. My sister comes down just when I am stuffing it in. She gives me a massive hug. Our hug smells of Acqua di Parma (her) and wet coat (me).
It also cuts me off mid-sentence, which is a mercy because it’s a sentence about my phone signal, which is going nowhere good.
12.30pm. I’m on the train to my sister’s house, wondering whether the business of stuffing a wet coat into a plastic bag is more or less shameful than just wearing it.
1pm. I’m in my sister’s flat, making a chilli for eight; my sons, their girlfriends, my sister’s girlfriend and Vanessa are coming for dinner tomorrow, and I’ve decided not to follow my sister’s instruction to “wait till I get home, I want to be there to supervise the chilli”.
You see I also have rules. About my sister’s rules, I mean. Some, obviously, must never be broken, for instance, “stay out of my fucking bed,” and, “don’t go near my bloody Acqua di Parma”.
These are black and white rules, obviously. But other rules are grey.
“Wait till I get home, I want to be there to supervise the chilli” is definitely a grey, especially when chilli only takes one pot.
With a grey rule it works like this: break it hard and fast and but leave no trace. No trace whatsoever, which is much harder than you’d think in a hi-spec flat.
1.20pm. The crucial thing to bear in mind with my chilli-challenge today, is timing; 40 minutes prep equals 80 minutes clean-up, then double the 80 minutes - just to be on the safe side, which means 160 minutes clean-up.
5pm. Balcony doors open to air the flat, chilli in the fridge. I went hard and fast and left no trace; there is no chipotle, cumin or onion anywhere in her kitchen. Or on me. I have checked and double-checked.
5.10pm. Balcony doors closed. I am on the sofa.
5.10pm. My sister returns home. I am staying put on the sofa. Important to avoid another hug or she might pick up the smell of Ceramic and Halogen Hob Cleaner Conditioner on me. (I couldn’t risk a shower; 10 minutes showering, 20 clean-up, then double it.)
5.11pm. “I’m so excited you’re here,” she says, “just going to have a shower.”
5.12pm . She re-enters the kitchen holding a spec aloft.
“What’s this?” she says, I inspect it from the sofa. I have a terrible feeling it might be a coriander leaf.
“It was in my bedroom,” she says, sniffing the spec, “why is there coriander in my bedroom?”
There’s nothing for it.
“I did a handstand,” I say, “to celebrate.”
“To celebrate what?” she says.
“Making a chilli,” I say rebelliously, “it’s a good place to do a handstand. The carpet is so soft. And it’s fun because it feels like there should be a rule against it but there’s not. And it leaves no trace.”
She holds up the coriander.
“Not usually,” I say.
“Not usually?” she says, “are you completely insane?” “There’s no rule against it,” I say.
“There is now,” she says.