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The Alphabet Sisters

Chapter One

London, England

Your sister is married to your ex-fiancé?” Jessica’s voice rose to such a pitch Bett Quinlan half expected the lightbulbs to explode. “We’ve worked together for nearly two years and you tell me this now?”

Bett knew right then she had made a big mistake. “It didn’t ever really come up until now.”

“Something like that doesn’t need to come up. That’s something you tell people within minutes of meeting. ‘Hi, my name’s Bett, short for Elizabeth. I work as a journalist in a record company, and my sister is married to my ex- husband.’ ”

“Ex-fiancé,” Bett corrected. She tried to backtrack. “Look, forget I mentioned it. I’m fine about it. She’s fine about it. He’s fine about it. It’s not a big deal.” Liar, liar.

“Of course it’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal. And they’ll both be at your grandmother’s party? No wonder you’re feeling sick about it.”

“I’m not feeling sick about it. I said I was a bit nervous about going home for it, not sick.”

“Tomato, tomayto. Oh, Bett, you poor thing. Which sister was it? The older one or the younger one?”

“The younger one. Carrie.” Bett felt as if the words were being squeezed out of her.

“And what happened? Were they having an affair behind your back? You came home from work early one day and caught them at it in your marital—sorry, engagement—bed?”

“No, it wasn’t like that.” Bett stood up. She’d definitely made a mistake. That afternoon at work she’d decided to invite her friend and colleague Jessica back for dinner to tell her the whole story. She’d hoped it would help make this trip back to Australia easier. Prepare her for people’s reactions again, like a dress rehearsal. But it wasn’t helping at all. It was excruciating. She ran her fingers through her dark curls, trying to take back control of the situation. “Can I get you a coffee? Another glass of wine?”

“No thanks. Don’t change the subject, either. So did you go to the wedding?”

“Would you prefer tea?”

Jessica laughed good-naturedly. “Come on, Bett. You brought it up in the first place. Think of it as therapy. It can’t have been good for you to go around with a secret like this bottled up inside you. Did you go to the wedding?”

Bett sat down again. “I didn’t, no.”

“Well, no, of course you didn’t. It would have been too humiliating, I suppose.”

She blinked at Jessica’s bluntness.

“Did your sister use the same wedding invitations? Just cross out your name and put hers instead?”

“That’s not very funny.”

Jessica gave a sheepish smile. “Sorry, couldn’t resist. So who was the bridesmaid? Your older sister? Anna?”

“No, she wasn’t there either.”

Jessica frowned. “None of her sisters were there? What? Did it cause some huge fight between all three of you?”

In a nutshell, yes. “It was a bit like that.”

“Really? You haven’t spoken to either of your sisters since the wedding?”

“No.” Bett shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Or seen them.” Not since the weekend of the Big Fight. Which had followed the Friday of the Revelations. Which had followed the Weeks of the Suspicions. “Not for three years.”

“Your grandmother’s party will be the first time you’ve seen your sisters in three years?” At Bett’s nod, Jessica gave a long, low whistle. “This is more complicated than I thought. No wonder you went so weird when that fax from your grandmother arrived.”

“I didn’t go weird.”

“Yes, you did. Have you got any photos of your sister and your fiancé together?”

“Why? Don’t you believe me?”

“Of course I do. I just need to get the whole picture of it in my head, so I can give you all the advice you need.”

“I’d rather you didn’t—”

“Please, Bett. You know how much I love looking at photos.”

That much was true. Jessica was the only person Bett had ever met who genuinely enjoyed looking at other people’s holiday photos. She wouldn’t just flick through a packet of snaps either, but would inspect each one, asking about the subject, the setting, the film speed used.

Jessica was being her most persuasive. “I’m sure it will help you. This way I’ll know exactly who you’re talking about.”

“Thanks, anyway, but—”

“Bett, come on. You’ve told me half of it. I may as well see the rest.”

“Look, I—”

“Please-please-please . . .”

Bett gave in, picking up the small photo album lying on top of the bookcase in the corner of the room. At least it would take Jessica only a few minutes to get through them. She had left South Australia in such a hurry three years earlier that she hadn’t taken any of her photos with her. The only ones in her album were those her parents and Lola had sent with their letters.

As Jessica gleefully started turning the pages, Bett retreated to the tiny kitchen with the dirty dishes, feeling sick and steamrolled. Thirty-two years old and she still hadn’t learned how to stand up for herself. For a fleeting moment she wondered how her sisters would have reacted in the same situation. Anna would have given Jessica a haughty stare and chilled her into silence. Carrie would have tossed her blonde head and told her laughingly and charmingly to mind her own business. But not Bett. No, she’d just felt embarrassed about having said too much and then handed the photo album over anyway. She decided to blame the wine they’d had that night for this sudden need to show and tell all. Nine parts alcohol, one part truth serum.

She came back into the living room and picked up a music magazine, trying to pretend she wasn’t watching Jessica’s every reaction as she pored over each photo. For a while the only sound was pages turning, interrupted by Jessica asking the occasional question.

“Is that your mum and dad?”

Bett glanced at it. A photo of her parents, arm in arm in front of the main motel building, wearing matching Santa hats, squinting into the sunshine. They’d sent it in their Christmas card the previous year. “That’s right.”

Jessica read the sign behind them. “The Valley View Motel. Is that where you grew up?”

“We moved around a lot when we were younger, but that’s where they are now.”

Jessica nodded and turned the page. “And this is Lola? The old lady wearing too much makeup?”

Bett didn’t even have to look at the photo. “That’s her.”

“Would you look at those eyebrows! They’re like caterpillars on a trampoline. She was your nanny, did you tell me?”

“Sort of.” Nanny always seemed too mild a word to describe Lola. She’d certainly minded them as children. With their parents so occupied running the motels, it was Lola, their father’s mother, who had practically brought up Bett and her two sisters—but she was more a combination of etiquette teacher, boot-camp mistress, and musical director than nanny.

“Is she wearing fancy dress in this next photo?”

Bett glanced over. It was a picture of Lola beside her seventy-ninth birthday cake, nearly twelve months earlier. She was wearing a gaudily patterned caftan, dangling earrings, and several beaded necklaces. Nothing too out of the ordinary. “No, that’s just her.”

Jessica kept flicking the pages, and then stopped suddenly. Bett tensed, knowing she had reached Carrie and Matthew’s wedding photo. Bett had wanted to throw it away the day she received it, but had stopped herself. She hadn’t wanted her grandmother to be right. It was Lola who had sent the photo to her, enclosing a brief note: “You’ll probably get all dramatic and rip this up, but I knew you’d want to see it.”

“This is them?” Jessica asked.

“That’s them.”

Jessica studied it closely. “Carrie’s very pretty, isn’t she? And he’s a bit of a looker, too, your Matthew. Nice perm.”

At least Jessica hadn’t said what people usually said when they remarked how pretty Carrie was: “You don’t look at all alike, do you?” As for her other remark . . .

“He’s not my Matthew. And it wasn’t a perm. He’s got naturally wavy hair.”

Jessica grinned. “Just seeing if you defended him.” She turned the page and gave a loud hoot of laughter. “Now we’re talking. I’ve been dying to see proof of the Alphabet Sis- ters. Look at you with that mad head of curls.”

Bett tugged self-consciously at that same head of curls, now at least slightly less mad. Lola had sent her that photo, too. It had arrived with just a scrawled note, subtle as ever. “Re- member the good times with your sisters as well.” It had been taken at a country show in outback South Australia more than twenty years previously, at one of the Alpha- bet Sisters’ earliest singing performances. Anna had been thirteen, Bett eleven, and Carrie eight. Bett could even remember the songs: “Song Sung Blue,” “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and a David Cassidy pop song. Just minutes after the photo had been taken, a fly had buzzed its way straight into Anna’s mouth. Her shocked expression and sudden squawk had made Bett and Carrie laugh so much both of them had fallen off the small stage, a wide plank of wood balanced on eight milk crates. The memory could still make Bett laugh.

Jessica was inspecting it very closely. “You were a bit of a porker back then, weren’t you?”

The smile disappeared. “Well, that was nicely put, Jess, thanks.”

Jessica was unabashed. “I always believe in calling a spade a spade. And you were a plump little thing. Look at that little belly and those rosy-red cheeks.”

Bett didn’t need to look. That little belly and those rosy-red cheeks had never gone too far away. She was about to ask Jessica if she thought she was still a porker—she had gone up and down in weight so many times she hardly knew what size she was—but Jessica was too occupied with the photo. She was taking in every detail, the flicked fringes, the matching dresses, the bad makeup—all Lola’s handiwork.

She glanced up at Bett. “Not exactly the Corrs, were you?”

Bett laughed despite herself. “I bet they didn’t look that good when they were teenagers either.”

“I bet they did. Have you ever wondered if there’s a fourth Corr sister, a hideously ugly one they keep locked away?” Jessica looked at the photo again. “You’re not very alike, are you? Even apart from the appalling eye makeup and the different hair colors. Unless they’re wigs?”

“No, all our own work, I’m afraid.” Anna had straight black hair, Bett’s was dark brown, and Carrie’s dark blonde. She presumed her sisters’ hair colors hadn’t changed in three years. She’d find out soon enough. In less than two weeks, in fact. Her stomach gave a lurch.

The fax from Lola in South Australia had arrived at Bett’s work out of the blue, just the one line. If Bett didn’t come home for her eightieth birthday party, she would never talk to her again.

Bett had rung her immediately. “Lola, don’t do this to me, please,” she’d said, straight to the point as soon as her grandmother answered. “You know what it’ll be like.”

“Elizabeth Quinlan, stop being such a baby. You’re scared of seeing your sisters. So what? I’m nearly eighty, and I’ve got a lot more to be scared of than you have. I could die any moment. Now, hang up, book your ticket, and get here as soon as you can. I’ve got something I want you to do.”

Lola had obviously taken her extra-strength bossy tablets that day. “I can’t drop everything just like that, Lola. I’ve got a life here now.”

“And you’ve got a grandmother in Australia who has missed you very, very badly and wants to see you again.” Her voice had softened. “Please, Bett. Come home. For me.”

Bett had thought about it for two days, veering between excitement and dread at the idea. One image had kept coming to her. Lola, standing in front of the motel, beaming at her, waiting to give her a hug. In the end Bett had compromised. Yes, she would come back for the party, but it would be a lightning trip. She’d arrive in South Australia the day of the party and then leave as soon as possible afterward.

Lola hadn’t been at all pleased. “But I need you here for longer than that.”

“I can’t, Lola. I’ve got a life here,” she’d repeated firmly. It had been a strange sensation. She wasn’t used to standing up to her grandmother either.

Beside her, Jessica was going through the album again. “It’s a tricky one, that’s for sure. No wonder you’re so nervous. Your first meeting with your sisters and the happy couple in three years, all of you in the same motel, not to mention the added tension of a party . . .”

Bett nodded, waiting for her friend’s sound advice, the helpful comments.

Jessica shut the album with a snap. “I’d say it’s going to be ferocious.”

Sydney, Australia

Anna Quinlan knew that outside the sun was shining. That less than a kilometer away the waters of Sydney Harbour were probably glinting in the sun, to a sound track of ferry horns, gull cries, and tourist-guide commentaries.

But it could have been the Sahara Desert outside. She’d been trapped inside this coffin of a recording studio for three hours now, trying to get the voice exactly right for a new range of kitchen sponges. She’d decided the client was not just from hell, but from somewhere much deeper, hotter and even more unpleasant.

She peered through the glass of the studio window again, counting to ten as she caught sight of him. He looked like a suit-wearing spotty child who surely couldn’t have driven himself to the studio today. He didn’t seem old enough. She snapped back to attention as Bob, the producer/technician, pressed the button on the intercom so his voice came into her headphones.

“Anna, Henry feels you are really getting there, but he wonders whether you could combine the laugh in your voice from that first take with the kind of bubbling tone you did on the one before that last one, and add a little more lightness to the whole thing.”

Henry leaned forward, speaking into the microphone as though he was an MC at a football-club presentation night. “Yes, loved that bubbly sound, Anna. Just perfect for our demographic. You don’t mind, do you?”

Mind? Mind that she had spent three hours saying one sentence in dozens of different voices? Mind that the preschooler in the suit had tried to describe the mind-set of a kitchen sponge—a kitchen sponge!—to her? “It’s determined, it’s energetic, it’s fun. . . .”

No, it’s not, Henry, she’d thought. It’s a three-inch square of detergent-soaked sponge with a scouring pad on one side that you do dishes with. It isn’t Russell Crowe.

She bit her tongue. Whatever you do, Anna, don’t let them see you’re upset. Keep cool, keep smiling, keep up the front. She’d learned that lesson after years of unsuccessful auditions for parts. No one wanted a moody actress. It was much better to be tagged as a thorough professional, even if it was sometimes mistaken for haughtiness. And at least Henry had definitely decided that the sponge was female. Today’s booking had been set up, canceled, then set up again while Henry, his advertising agency, and his market-research team argued over the best gender for their new sponge.

Anna looked at Bob for help. He was just chewing, as normal, and hitching up his trousers, unfazed, also as normal. She knew he didn’t care how long the client took. He charged an hourly rate.

Some of her frustration must have shown on her face. Bob took pity on her. He spoke again, surreptitiously inclining his head toward the client. “Anna, perhaps it would help if you visualized yourself in the sink, getting psyched up to help your housewife—sorry, homemaker—clean all those dirty dishes. And there’s one particularly greasy pot that’s going to need special energy, but you know it will be worth it to scrub like mad until every spot is gone.” Another barely noticeable nod at the client. “Whenever you’re ready. Tape’s running.”

It worked a treat. Staring through the glass, seeing her sharp bobbed hair and immaculate makeup reflected back at her, Anna imagined Henry evolving into a dirty, grease-spattered saucepan. She imagined herself as the sponge, leaping out of nowhere and scouring his face until every spot and blackhead had disappeared, shouting all the while in a voice that was a combination of Mary Poppins and kamikaze pilot. She leaned toward the microphone. “Let me at it! I’m the clean machine!”

Henry’s pimply face broke into a huge smile. “That’s it. Perfect. Thanks, Anna.”

She had just leaned down to her bag when his voice came in again. “But would you be able to do it one more time? I think it needs just a touch more softness, to convey the moisturizer we’ve included in the washing-up liquid.”

An hour later Anna was driving out of the studio carpark. The voice of the sponge was now lodged in her head, and she knew from experience it would stay there for the next few days or until a new character’s voice took its place. Last month her internal voice, her mind voice, had varied between a kitten stuck up a tree (for a cat food commercial), a warmhearted nurse in an old folks’ home (health insurance), and a cake waiting to be iced. That had taken three hours to get right, too, before Bob stepped in once again with her motivation. “Imagine you’re the cake, Anna, okay? You’re scared. You don’t know which brand of icing you’re about to be iced with but you sure as hell want it to be high quality. So we need a combination of fear and anticipation and . . .”

Her seven-year-old daughter, Ellen, loved it, of course. She treated Anna’s repertoire of voices like a human jukebox. Lying sleepily in bed listening to a good-night story, she’d pick and choose the voices. “Mum, can you read this one like the Zoomer Broom?” The Zoomer Broom featured in an animated TV commercial where the ordinary household broom metamorphosed into something Harry Potter could have used for Quidditch, babbling nonsensically all the while. Ellen’s other favorite was the ocean pie, a gurgly underwater voice.

Anna parked on the street across from the hospital, ten minutes late. Hurrying toward the lift, she composed her face, already hearing the disapproving tones from her neighbor, who had grudgingly agreed to collect Ellen after school and bring her here to the clinic for her latest appointment. The lift door opened, and Anna spied her little daughter in the distance, standing up on a chair near the nurses’ station, chatting to one of the staff. In the dozens of hospital visits since Ellen’s accident, she had gotten to know all the nurses very well. Anna tensed, as she always did when she remembered the trauma of those first months. She decided it was time Ellen had a good spoiling: she’d give her whatever she wanted for dinner, let her watch whatever video she wanted, and then read her all the stories she wanted, as well.

By nine o’clock Anna’s patience was wearing a little thin. Ellen had been alternately tearful and cranky all evening, insisting on pizza, then not eating any of it, and not settling on any one video but wanting to watch specific scenes out of five different ones. Anna had finally had enough, speaking more crossly than she intended, which set off the tears again. She then read two extra stories, purely out of guilt, hardly finding the energy for the different voices. Ellen still wouldn’t settle, hopping in and out of bed. She stood in the doorway of the living room now, tears on her face. “Is Dad home yet?”

Anna kept her voice mild with effort. “No, darling, he’s not.”

“Where is he?”

“At work, I think.” She thought. She didn’t have a clue where Glenn was. He didn’t ring and tell her anymore if he was going to be late, or if he was going to be home at all, in fact.

“Can you read me another story, then?”

“Sweetheart, you’ve had enough stories. It’s time to sleep.”

“I can’t sleep. I’m scared again. I keep remembering.” The doctor’s voice came into Anna’s mind. “There will be some post-traumatic stress and recurring fear, but it’s important you learn to listen without making too much of it. Children are children and very skilled at knowing which buttons to press.” So what was she supposed to do? Ignore Ellen’s tears? Tell her to get over it? Of course she couldn’t. She pulled herself up out of the deep sofa. “All right, Ellie. You hop back into bed and pick another story. I’ll be there in a moment.”

By the time Anna got to the bedroom, Ellen had changed her mind. “Can I have a tape instead? Can I hear Really-Great-Gran’s tape?”

“Again? You sure you don’t want a story tape?”

Ellen lay back and shook her head. Her dark hair fanned out on the pillow.

The tape had arrived from Lola more than two years earlier, with a note to Anna attached. “This is for you to play to Ellen. I’m still having no part of this nonsense between you and your sisters, but I’m not losing a great-granddaughter because of it. Please play her this tape so I’m not a shock each time she meets me.”

Anna put the tape in, then lay on the bed beside Ellen, stroking her hair back from her face as Lola’s voice filled the room. Her still strongly Irish-accented tones were clear and precise.

“Hello, Ellen. This is your great-grandmother speaking. Now, my little dote, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what you should call me, and I think I’ve come up with the best solution. Your scoundrel of a mother started calling me Lola when she was just a child, and her two sisters followed suit, but you need a different name for me, I think. And not just Great-Grandmother. I’m much better than great. So, my darling, I would like you to call me Really-Great-Gran from now on. Okay?”

There was a pause on the tape.

“Are you listening, Ellen?” Lola asked.

“Yes,” Ellen answered sleepily beside Anna.

The voice on the tape continued. “Good girl. And are you happy with that? Happy to call me Really-Great-Gran?”

“Yes, Really-Great-Gran,” Ellen answered in the pause. She knew this ritual by heart.

“Good girl. Now, I’m going to tell you a few stories about your mother and your grandfather, but first I’m going to sing you one or two of my favorite songs. So settle back and relax.”

Relax? Anna bit her lip as Lola started warbling “Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree” in her falsetto voice. The last thing Lola’s voice would make you do is relax. She could clear a room in seconds. Ellen didn’t seem to mind. Lola could have been singing a sweetly tuned nursery rhyme, the way Ellen was reacting. Her lids were getting heavier by the second, her lips mouthing the words along with her great-grandmother’s slaughtered version. Anna smiled, remembering the song. It was one of the first ones Lola had taught Anna and her sisters. There’d been a row over who got to sing the high notes. Carrie had won, hadn’t she? Or was it Bett? It certainly hadn’t been her, cursed with as deep a singing voice as her speaking voice. She’d always sung the bass parts.

Lola reached a shrieking crescendo, then paused on the tape, as if expecting her performance to be followed by rapturous applause. “One of my favorites, Ellen, and one of your mum and aunts’ favorites, too. As is this one. Are you comfortable? Sing along with me, darling.”

As Lola embarked on “The Good Ship Lollipop” Anna glanced down. Ellen was fast asleep.

Back in the living room, Anna poured herself a glass of wine and pressed the TV remote control. She stared at the screen, trying to pick up the plot of the thriller, fighting the desolate feeling inside her that seemed to be rising closer to the surface each day. One phrase kept occurring to her. I’m lonely. Lonely. Yet she had friends in Sydney, didn’t she? People she could meet for coffee? And hadn’t there been joint friends, other couples who came over for dinner or who they met in restaurants occasionally? Not anymore. They had all slipped away the past year or so, like extras in a film, Anna thought, silently stealing away and leaving the main action to unfold. She couldn’t blame them. Who would want to be around to see how she and Glenn treated each other these days?

The TV program changed to advertisements, and Anna noticed without pleasure that it was her voice coming out of the mouth of the animated mobile phone on the screen. She’d done that one two years ago now, and here it was back again.

She put down the glass and rubbed her face with her hands. Who was she fooling? She didn’t want to talk to Glenn or any Sydney friends or colleagues. She wanted to talk to her sisters again. She wanted Carrie to sympathize with her. She wanted Bett to cheer her up with some madly melodramatic account of how bad her day had been. She wanted to tell them both how awful things had become with Glenn, especially since Ellen’s accident, but how wonderful Ellen herself had been, most of the time.

She could ring her mother or father at the motel, but she’d never really confided in either of them. It had always been too hard to get the timing right. They’d be either in the kitchen cooking for houseguests, or out in the bar, or doing the accounts, or any of the hundred things both of them always seemed to be doing. She could ring Lola, but lately those calls hadn’t been having the calming effect they used to. For the first year or two after the big fight, Lola had been understanding, trying to see each of their points of view, as she always had. Understanding had turned to exasperation. “This is ludicrous. I’m ashamed of the three of you, carrying on like this.” She’d tried the frosty approach for a while. “I’m not talking to any of you while you persist in this ridiculous carry-on.” But then Lola had missed their phone calls, too. “Just because I’m talking to you doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven any of you.” But for the past six months there had been silence on the subject. Perhaps she’d realized, as Anna herself slowly had, that that was that. It had gone on too long now for things to change.

A scream on the TV made Anna jump. A young blonde detective was being chased down a dark street by two men in suits, her face in close-up, fear-stricken. “Oh, shush, would you,” Anna said aloud. “You’re just acting, for God’s sake.” She put the remote control on the shelf under the coffee table. As she did she noticed the mail in a pile, wrapped inside the free local newspaper. How long had that been there? She picked it up and checked the date—more than two weeks old. How many times had she asked Glenn not to leave the mail there? Is this what it had come to? Each of them deliberately doing the things they knew most annoyed the other?

She flicked through the bundle. Bills. Advertising material. A fund-raising letter from Ellen’s school. And a thick cream envelope. She turned it over, recognizing the handwriting immediately. Puzzled, she tore it open. It was an invitation. She read it again. No, not an invitation. A summons.

Excerpted from The Alphabet Sisters © Copyright 2012 by Monica McInerney. Reprinted with permission by Ballantine Books. All rights reserved.

The Alphabet Sisters
by by Monica McInerney

  • Genres: Fiction
  • paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 034547953X
  • ISBN-13: 9780345479532