(Photos: Crossways)
(Photos: Crossways)

LIFE HONESTLY

After losing my sister to a violent death, I turned to the solace of writing

Sheila Kohler’s sister died in devastating circumstances and it has haunted her work ever since. After all, she can keep her safe on the page

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By Sheila Kohler on

I have tried again and again to imagine my sister’s last moments.   

He leads her by the hand from the party where they have spent the evening dining and dancing with friends. They walk across the smooth lawn in the warm air and the sound of the crickets, going to their car – the accomplished South African  heart surgeon, in his well-cut, shiny suit; his wife wearing a thin white dress, a little tight at the waist. She has gained weight and her unruly blond curls fall over her flower face. She wears the pearl ring Mother has given her, which is how they will identify the shattered body, the broken wrists and ankles.  

She stops a moment to fix her high-heeled sandal, where a stone has caught in the strap. She leans on him. Her friend and hostess, watching them walk across the lawn, as she had watched them all through the evening, told me, “He seemed in a bad mood, glowering at her as she danced, but, hey, he was often in a bad mood, wasn’t he? I put it down to the kind of work he had to do.”

My sister turns to wave goodbye. “I thought she was having a good time,” the hostess told me, years later. “How she loved to dance – loved music, books. She was reading Wide Sargasso Sea, that book by Jean Rhys. Do you think that could have had anything to do with it?”

For a moment, my sister hesitates, standing in the ghostly light of the moon, as though she were considering going back to the party. But her husband says something that, from that distance, her hostess cannot  hear. Perhaps he says, “Come on. I have to get up early tomorrow to operate.” So she lifts her arm, waves goodbye and they go on to where he has parked the silver convertible our mother had given them as a wedding present. It was the last time she was seen alive.

My sister gets into the car. She is about to buckle her belt, perhaps, fumbling for the slot, but he puts his hand on hers, as if to tell her: We are not going far, after all. When they have gone a little way in the dark, he slips on his belt, which saves him, though it bruised his chest, the children tell me.

He has been thinking of it for a while, or so his son tells me. He has found a gun at the back of his father’s closet and believed his father was planning to kill all six children as well as the wife. Probably, she takes advantage of the fact that her husband has his cutting hands on the wheel and his gaze on the road, to tell him what she has told me, that she is planning to leave him. Somewhere, despite all she has suffered at his hands, I imagine she still expects people to behave the way she would have. Perhaps that is what aggravates him so – her continuing hopefulness.

He has been thinking of it for a while, or so his son tells me. He has found a gun at the back of his father’s closet and believed his father was planning to kill all six children as well as the wife

It is a spring evening in October, what the Afrikaners call “die mooiste maand”, and the top is down and the radio playing loudly. Perhaps she asks him to turn down the music, or she sucks on her teeth in a way that annoys him. Or, perhaps he says something about the way she had been dancing at the party, that she looked like a slut, in her thin white dress. He is always telling her that he has put her up on a pedestal and she has fallen into the dirt.

Perhaps she says that she is going to leave him, or that she despises him.

Or, perhaps she says nothing at all.

At the last minute, he must swerve slightly away from the lamppost. Perhaps, had he swerved more, they might both have lived. It must be harder to do than you would think – killing yourself, I mean.  

***

When I arrived for my sister’s funeral, I drove straight to the morgue and asked to see her body. I am not sure why I wanted to do such a thing. Perhaps it was because I could not believe she was dead at 39, the mother of six children, or perhaps I wanted to be with her, near her in some way, to follow her even into death.    

They wheeled her body into the room. I walked over and stood with my hands on the glass, my breath misting it. The body was completely wrapped, even the head. Only her small flower-face was visible, the lovely skin gray, the little chin thrust forward slightly, propped up, as though seeking the sun.

I will see her like that all the days of my life.

***

My dead sister comes to me again and again. I bring her to life on the page where I can keep her with me, safe. I describe her in a white dress, in blue, with her violet eyes, her soft smile, her gentle glance, her voice, her laugh.

In my first book, The Perfect Place, she is Daisy Summers, the girl who lives with her three maiden aunts in house on a cliff by the sea, the girl who will save a spider, catching it on the edge of a page, the girl whom the narrator denies she ever knew, the girl she is trying to forget. The narrator, who has survived to tell the tale, is the guilty one, the one who cannot feel, who betrays her, who does not hear her cry for help. The unnamed narrator has her eye fixed on extraneous things: the landscape, a boat in the distance, a fork-tailed bird.

When my brother-in-law dies, I will have a sense of great relief, but also of loss – this last conduit which has led me incessantly to my sister is now gone

When the novel comes out in 1989, a reader, himself a distinguished writer, will write and tell me that what he liked in the book was the “not knowing”. My narrator will never be quite sure what has happened to Daisy Summers, just as it will never be proved what actually happened to my sister in the dark car that night. So many versions of the truth are possible, which enables me to tell the story in so many disguises.  

Her bright image leads me onwards like a candle in the night. Again and again, in various forms and shapes I write her story, coloured by my own feelings of love and guilt. In Cracks, she is Fiamma, the beautiful foreigner with her Botticelli face, who is the swimming coach Miss G’s “pet”. She is surrounded by a group of swimmers, amongst them a certain Sheila Kohler who will write it all down and will be part of the group who is responsible for her death.  

Gradually, over the years, I learn to find a middle distance from the red-hot material of my sister’s death.

 I come closest to the events in a novel called Crossways, told from three points of view: the woman who has lost a sister, the murderer himself and a Zulu servant. At the end of the book, it is the sister who remains, who runs over the brother-in-law who has killed her sister in a car. Revenge and reversal are sweet, as they say, on the page at least.

Even in the historical novels I write, my sister appears. She is Emily Brontë, who dies so young, and she is the youngest of the three girls too, Anne, who would so much have liked to live. She comes to me through the voice of those who have not been able to tell their story, like Freud’s young patient, in Dreaming For Freud. To the voiceless, the muffled, the frightened, the guilty, I attempt to give words.    

The danger of writing down the truth does not deter me, though it will cause me some grief as the expression of truth often does. Naturally, my brother-in-law’s family will be incensed. This does not stop me.  

I will write a novella, published as Correspondence, about a woman who writes a letter to her brother-in-law, asking him to come and do to her what he has already done to her sister.

 Later, too, I will write about the brother-in-law who comes after the remaining sister, who knows what he has done. He follows her in a dark Manhattan street. My mind turns back to this theme in various permutations, in an attempt to find meaning in the absurdity of our lives.  

When my brother-in-law dies, I will have a sense of great relief, but also of loss – this last conduit which has led me incessantly to my sister is now gone.

I will publish 13 books and hundreds of short stories and essays in a variety of magazines before I finally write a memoir, Once We Were Sisters, telling the truth as I see it. Writing becomes my pleasure, my passion, my constant compulsion, stemming from a deep need to share my story with others, a way of establishing a community of souls, of reaching out to my fellow man and a means of both escaping and exploring my own mind and heart. It is an attempt to answer the questions that continue to perplex and trouble me. Above all, perhaps, it is a way to hold those I have loved and lost in my mind and in my heart of hearts.

Sheila Kohler will be launching Once We Were Sisters at Waterstones Gower Street on 1st February. For tickets go here.

Sheila Kohler's book Once We Were Sisters: A Memoir is published by Canongate. 

@sheilakohler

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(Photos: Crossways)
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