Helen was the world’s kindest woman, Nev was a self-made man. And Clare? She was nothing.
They were the only two people that loved her, truly, loved her in that way. Nevison Gallagher loved Helen more than life itself; and he wasn’t the only one either for Clare loved Helen too, loved her with a passion and a fury she could barely comprehend, could barely admit to herself. She could deal with it, just, when Helen was with her and before her and smiling as she drank endless cups of tea and nibbled digestive biscuits, but now, with Helen – with Helen fading, with her lying there, unknowing, dying, Christ, she was dying – Clare didn’t know how to breathe. And then, later on, when Helen was dead and Clare’s world had turned on its head and she’d fucked her high school boyfriend just to see if she was still there, still alive, she realised for the first time quite how alone she was without Helen by her. This crowd, this funeral party, ‘her crowd’ as Catherine put it – none of it was real, none of it was hers. Helen had been her crowd, her only crowd, and she stuck out a mile, tugging her sleeves over her wrists uselessly. God, Jesus Christ. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
And oh lord, wasn’t it just easier to succumb, to forget? Wasn’t it better that way? She didn’t want to be without Helen Gallagher, she couldn’t be without Helen Gallagher – how had she so single-handedly helped Clare simply exist? – and so she decided to not, and when Ann produced the fags and the beer she didn’t think twice about drowning her sorrows. Drowning. She felt she would for eternity.
Later on when she was alone and shaking, shaking without stop and crying, she clawed at her wrists in desperation, wanting to feel something, feel anything, feel alive – just like with Neil, but sod Neil to be honest, for whenever had she truly cared about him? He was nice for sure, but he was nothing, fucking nothing compared to ------- to her.
Clare stood up. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
She had been with Helen, when it happened. Not the dying, no, that had been Nev, he who was allowed to love her that had been there for that, but she’d been there when Helen had slipped under, faded out for the final time. She’d collapsed, down at the mission, doing what she was best at, that was what hurt Clare – she had been caring, looking after, supporting – she’d collapsed amongst the miserable drunks and the junkies and the scrotes, and Clare had run and run but she couldn’t get there in time and of course there was nothing she could do to save her. She’d never had power like that, never could.
But Clare had been tangible, then, and Clare could hold whilst Mrs Akthar from up the road dialled an ambulance, was there when it came, went with Helen, never letting go, went and went and went and was there, there, there, right from the start till the end when the doctor said it was unlikely she’d ever regain consciousness. That was when Clare began to flake away. The wagon was leaving without her and she wasn’t sure she even wanted to be on it.
“HELEN!!!! HELEN, NO!”
Clare’s cry was harsh and terrible and keening against the commotion, the almost symphonic scrape of metal chair legs on linoleum floor as nearly everyone jumped to their feet, but they weren’t quick enough, no one was quick enough – Helen had fallen, fallen completely into a shaking mass and Clare flung herself to her knees beside her, pulling her face around towards the light and brushing a thick curl out of one of Helen’s half open eyes.
“Helen!” she cried, “Helen, love, darling, can you hear me?”
Helen just lay unconscious and Clare started weeping frantically despite herself, rocking Helen back and forth across her chest. “No,” she murmured violently. “No. You’re going to be fine Helen, you’ll be fine, you’ll be right, this isn’t the end, no, I won’t let it, I won’t…” She broke off, suddenly scrabbling for Helen’s pulse which was faint and fast but decidedly there, and Clare broke into a sob again. “See,” she whispered. “See, you’ll be fine, someone’s ringing an ambulance, you’ll be fine love, you’ll be fine, you will, you will…” She was muttering more to reassure herself than anyone else really, and when the ambulance came she stayed by Helen’s side all the way, and when Helen was rushed away in the A&E department she herself felt her own legs give way and she crumpled sideways into a chair, cold tears leaking from her eyes. She hated herself for making a scene in public but she couldn’t help it, how could she help it because Helen had fallen and it meant, then, surely, that this was the beginning of the end?
Helen was moved into the hospice up Manorlands a couple of days later, and Clare visited every day. She felt like an imposter at first, but Nev and Ann didn’t seem to mind her being there, seemed to welcome her even, and she was grateful for that, grateful for the chance they were giving her – god, Helen had given her so much. Helen Gallagher had given Clare her life back, and now she was losing hers, and the injustice of it made Clare want to scream – Helen didn’t deserve this, she didn’t deserve to die slowly and in pain whilst she still sloped around the planet, trying her best to keep on the straight and narrow. Clare would have given Helen her own life if she’d had the opportunity, but of course she couldn’t, and so for a moment, an hour, a few days, she decided that she’d live well, she’d spend the rest of her life living well, she’d do it for her, do it for Helen – she’d get a job, she’d ave up money, she’d try and stay strong – and yet as soon as Helen died on that cold wet day Clare went limp so to speak, limp and numb, and she slipped from the wagon as if in a dream. She thought she could live for Helen. But how could she when she clearly couldn’t manage without her? She hadn’t realised until now how much, just how bloody much, Helen had been keeping her sane. God, she loved her, loved her so much, and the grief was unbearable. And the booze, well, it had always worked well at changing Clare, at removing her from her true self, and it was glorious really, for how could Clare stomach her life like this? It was easier to just let go, to eke away.
Clare was retreating down the road, wobbling all over the place in her heels and Catherine sighed in disbelief, cursing herself for running after her, though deep down she knew that it was the only thing she could live with herself to do. “Clare!” she shouted. “Please! Listen to me!”
Clare violently shook her head, stumbling to the side with the force of the motion. “No,” she snarled. “I’m fucking – I’m going to the fucking – you can’t stop me, yer don’t want me, you don’t…” she staggered again and Catherine took the moment to grab her arm, righting her before she fell.
“Clare, no, you are not going to the Jockey’s,” she said bluntly. “You’re not. And I do want you, course I don’t want to see you out on the street, but for god’s sake if you carry on like this then I bloody well will have to!”
Clare moaned and struggled in Catherine’s grasp but she wasn’t particularly physically strong, especially not in her inebriated state, and Catherine managed to pull her closer until she could look Clare in the eye despite the way Clare was wriggling around, pointedly looking anywhere but her sister.
“Listen,” Catherine said. “Just listen to me, Clare…”
Clare just struggled even harder and Catherine tightened her grip on Clare’s arms, forcing her to look at her in the face if only for a moment. “Come on Clare, for god’s sake, don’t make you grab you like you’re some tosser I’ve come to arrest, just listen to me for one minute…”
“Don’t – want - to fucking listen!” Clare growled. “I want a fucking drink, let me go…” she toppled over in her heels, unable to support the weight of her body and Catherine eased her down to the edge of the pavement.
Clare seemed to suddenly lose the fight in her body as soon as she was sitting, sagging heavily against Catherine, her face pale.
“Oh Jesus,” Catherine muttered. Clare looked like she was losing consciousness almost, a side effect of the drink Catherine supposed, and she hauled her to her feet with some difficulty, very aware that they’d made an awful lot of noise and that the neighbours were beginning to poke their heads out of nearby windows.
Catherine scowled and gritted her teeth as she hauled one of Clare’s arms around her shoulder. “Why is it I am always picking up the pieces for you, Clare Cartwright?” she muttered. “Can you answer me that, hm?”
Strong as Catherine was, she was finding it difficult to actually drag Clare down the road and she prodded her exasperatedly. “Clare, come on,” she hissed. “For god’s sake, move your legs. I’m not nannying you all the way home.”
“Wha…” Clare stirred, blinking blearily into Catherine’s face, her breath sour with alcohol and Catherine sighed in distaste, hoisting her sister further up her shoulder.
“You’re going to have to try and walk for me, Clare,” she said. “Please, come on, it’s only down the road.”
Clare merely swayed again, and Catherine resisted the urge to shout in frustration.
“Clare, if you don’t move now, then I will leave you out here all night and I will chuck your stuff out after you. Please just cooperate!”
Something must have registered somewhere dimly in Clare’s mind, as she struggled to regain her balance for a moment before putting one foot in front of the other, Catherine half dragging her as she stumbled along. Her senses began to return somewhat as they went and she started struggling again when they reached the back door as though she was still resisting trying to go in.
“Jesus Christ, Clare, do you still think you can get out to the Jockey’s after that?” Catherine said incredulously. “Just – just get inside.”
Clare stumbled in, pitching almost head first onto the sofa where she lay flopped for a minute before righting herself and started to fumble at the laces on her boots. Catherine rolled her eyes as she pointedly locked the back door and slammed out the kitchen up the stairs to see if Daniel was managing to distract Ryan from everything that was going on.
Ryan was sat bolt upright on his bed with all the lights in his room on and Daniel in the chair beside him, who at once jumped up when Catherine marched in.
“What’s ‘appening with Auntie Clare?” Ryan asked. “Is this cos she’s an alcoholic like Uncle Daniel said?”
Catherine sighed. “Auntie Clare is…Auntie Clare is not very well,” she said firmly at last. “You don’t need to know anything else.”
She turned to Daniel, muttering “come outside for a word will you,” pointedly ignoring Ryan’s wail of “eh but whyyyyy!”
They shut the door behind them and Daniel pulled a face. “How bad is it, what’s she doing?” he asked.
Catherine rolled her eyes. “Oh she’s gone completely off her head,” she said, “drunk as you like, nicking – she had a load of money, I don’t know where she’d got it…she was off to the Jockey’s for god’s sake, and I just – well, I just don’t have the time for this, I don’t – I mean she’s my sister, and I love her, but I can’t – I can’t give her chance after chance whilst she continually fu – I mean messes up!” She shook her head. “I can’t – I can’t deal with it. Why did she have to do it, to fall off the wagon on today of all days.” She looked at Daniel in desperation. “Of all days!”
“Jesus,” Daniel muttered, “where did she even get the booze?”
“Oh, Ann gave it to her at Helen’s funeral,” Catherine said. “I’m not – I’m not blaming her though, she wasn’t to know, but Clare – god, she’s worked so hard!” She laughed incredulously. “God, Helen worked so hard! And then Clare chooses her funeral of all places to fall off the bloody wagon!”
“Well, maybe,” Daniel began, but Catherine cut him off bluntly.
“No, I don’t – she should have had more self-control,” she sighed. “Anyway, have you been keeping an eye on Ryan?”
“Erm, yeah, yeah, he’s been fine,” Daniel said. “Well, apart from wanting to know what’s up with Auntie Clare and going on about being an alcoholic all the time…”
“Daniel, I wish you’d never mentioned that to him!” Catherine blazed, “you know how he latches onto things!” She raked her hand through her fringe. “Anyway. I’d better go back downstairs, check that she hasn’t tried to piss off again…”
Clare was still sitting on the sofa, boots off now to reveal a tattered pair of socks beneath with a hole on the right toe. She was shaking violently and smoking a cigarette and she flinched when Catherine came in, her face contorted with emotion.
“Well you can put that out for a start,” Catherine said. “I don’t want you smoking inside, not when Ryan’s around.”
Clare sniffed, pulling her legs up underneath her. “Gi’ me a break, Catherine,” she muttered furiously. “Thought you’d be grateful I’m in yer house at all the way you were begging me out there.”
Catherine closed her eyes in despair. She couldn’t stand it when Clare went like this, when she was drunk and it made her cruel and uncaring and bitter. She was like a totally different person like that; Catherine knew better than most people what Clare was really like, and it broke her heart as much as it angered her to see Clare so changed, so full of pain.
“Why did you do it, Clare?” Catherine asked sadly. “Why did you decide to have a drink?”
“Oh, why do you think?” Clare snarled, “why do you honestly think?!” She shook her head violently. “Fuck,” she swore lightly. “Do you think I’d ‘ave done it if I hadn’t been – if you hadn’t have – if I…”
“Eh, don’t you go trying to blame me for leaving you, Clare,” Catherine said sharply. “You’ve brought this on yourself, you and nobody else, not me for leaving you, not Ann for providing it because she didn’t know, but you did, you could have refused at any point, and yet you didn’t. And I want to know why.”
“Stop talking to me like I’m some bloody criminal!” Clare cried. “God Catherine, you’re not at work now…or ‘ave you become so preoccupied that you can’t tell the difference anymore?”
Catherine ignored her. “I’m just disappointed, Clare,” she said. “At Helen’s funeral of all places.”
No, Catherine, I did it because I fucking loved her, I fucking loved her, Catherine! God, I loved her, and she’s gone, she’s fucking gone, and she was taken by something – by summat terrible and relentless and cruel and she was the one thing in this life that was properly good for me. and she’s gone, and so no, Catherine, it wasn’t because I was bored, it was because I was fucking dying – look at me, look at me! Jesus Christ, there they all were, all her family and all her posh bloody acquaintances and people who loved her – people who deserved to love her, and then there was me, me, and I couldn’t….god I was so out of place, it was so dreadful, everyone were fuckin’….fuckin’ laughin’ and smiling and celebrating Helen, I don’t know, I couldn’t bear it, Catherine, can’t you see – I wanted to – I wanted to fall on the floor and scream but how can I bloody do that in Nevison Gallagher’s house! God. So. The beers came out and I couldn’t help it. Sorry. I just…I’m sorry I need to ----
Clare smiled awkwardly, and Ann took her arm and led her outside.
Cigarettes were lovely. Beer was better. Heroin was best of all.
It was fire of it all that Clare liked, such a lovely fire; the nicest of its type for it livened you up but cooled you down and you could drift in a haze of such intensity, such reality that somehow didn’t seem real at all until you felt you could float no further. It didn’t matter that you were lying in a gutter then, didn’t matter that you were wasting away; you didn’t mind that you were skin and bone, didn’t mind that you didn’t know up from down, left from right. You knew you were real and that was all that mattered. It was no different for Clare. It was wonderful for Clare for it meant she could forget; forget her past, forget her family, forget how she hated herself so, forget how much she hated her very soul, how she tore at herself, how she struggled – and now she could forget that Helen was dead. Perhaps if she tried hard enough she would be able to hear her voice, fading somewhere on the other side of the deep blue. So she fell, she fell, she fell, down and down in her heels, her ankle catching and spraining on the way, but it didn’t matter, it didn’t matter one bit, because Helen was going to be – it meant that she – it meant that – it meant --- someone’s arms caught around hers, someone was supporting her back, perhaps it was, perhaps – “Helen?” she whispered, and the voice said something in return but she couldn’t tell what they said, couldn’t tell who it was, couldn’t tell why they wanted her. So she closed her eyes and allowed herself to drift and float, to let her mind fly away and float on the breeze and come away in tatters and maybe it would never come back to her again like it used to, but she didn’t care, no, she didn’t care a bit, because she had forgotten this, forgotten what being off the wagon felt like, she’d forgotten what it was like to fly even when there was a knot of grief nestled deep in your chest so strong it felt like it was going to suffocate you. So she floated away and thought of Helen, thought how she loved her, how kind, how beautiful she was, how lovely, and how awful it had been, so awful when, when, when – when she had collapsed in the mission, when her legs had given out and the ambulance came and took her away, and took her away to the hospice and she never woke up and never got out and Clare never heard her voice again, never heard a word of encouragement, and wasn’t even there to hold Helen’s hand as she slipped away. Was anyone? Was Nev, was Ann? Clare didn’t know, she didn’t want to know, it was better to think, better to imagine, to pretend that they had been there and that Helen hadn’t been alone at the very end, because god, how could Clare ever live with that? And she cried and cried but somehow she’d coped, somehow tried, tried and tried, but didn’t quite feel real, and she fucked Neil to see if she was still real, and afterwards…lovely as he was, she hadn’t felt – did that mean she wasn’t quite as real as she’d thought after all? Did that mean that she could only feel alive when she had Helen with her, when she had Helen to love and love and love? And so falling off the wagon was easy after that, so very easy, because unreal as she might feel, the bite of the needle had always been real, it had always been there, it had always been solid, something she could hold onto – and beer was just one way to get it all going. God, she had missed that fire, that warm feeling that stretched from her mouth to her legs. She could even feel it in her fingers.
Catherine cried for her at night, cried for her baby sister who couldn’t listen, couldn’t live without something to fire her veins to keep her alive, who had so much pain and who she had tried so hard to save. It was all Catherine had ever wanted to do, she wanted to save, and she hadn’t – she hadn’t saved bloody anyone. She hadn’t even been able to save her own daughter, let alone her wretched sister – it made Catherine burn with anger, because god, couldn’t Clare at least try? Couldn’t she at least try to keep herself safe, to keep herself straight? And at Helen’s funeral too. But despite it all, Catherine knew that really, that was why, that was really why, why Clare had descended so suddenly, so soon – it was Helen’s funeral after all, the funeral of Clare’s only proper friend and out of family confidant. They’d made a funny pair together – Helen, the millionaires wife, the endlessly kind, the massively posh, and Clare, the recovering heroin addict who’d whirled through her days in a dream of nothing, rebelling against nothing because that was what she thought she had to do. But they'd been kind together, and loved each other, in their own funny ways, whether it was with pain like Clare or Helen's gentle fondness, and they'd supported each other through everything, lifted each other up from the ground. So an odd pair perhaps, but oh god a splendid one.