Aunt Lil’s face had frozen mid-smile, making it hard to tell whether she was enjoying the performance or grimacing her way through it. Noticing the static expression, Jasmine began to worry that their birthday treat had backfired. Maybe she wasn’t a fan of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Or, perhaps she just didn’t rate their interpretation and resented having to sit there on her birthday pretending to like it so much her face had gone sore. She got so taken with this train of thought she didn’t realise she’d missed her line, until Olive, gently at first, but with ever increasing pressure, pinched the back of her arm. Only their mum, lurking by the door to be closer to kitchen, saw Olive’s knuckle turn from pink to white the harder she squeezed. She was just about to intervene when Jasmine remembered herself and blurted “That’s it, Will, you’re grounded!” Aunt Lil’s grimace broke into a full-throated laugh and joined the others in a chorus so enthusiastic, Jasmine concluded her mistake can’t have been that bad that bad after all. She didn’t even notice the disapproving look Olive shot her.
The captive audience was granted a brief reprieve whilst uncle Wilf refilled the empty glasses, starting with his own, then those within arm’s reach, then, miraculously, his own again. Olive intended to give people a thirty second interval, but impatience overcame her at a count of 25.
“And now for something from Aunt Lil’s favourite TV show, The Vicar of Dibley.”
Retreating slightly from the centre of the room as Jasmine began, Olive mouthed her sister’s lines and waited for her cue.
The encore finished just as Mum approached with Lil’s cake. She hovered by the doorway watching the girls bow to all sides of the lounge: Olive in a practiced and perfect 90-degree motion, Jasmine in a carefree whirl. The wax of 50 candles threatened to contaminate the icing as they waited for their time to shine.
Twenty years later and the two sisters were once again called upon to tread the living room floor boards. This time, depending on your perspective, there were either too many candles or not enough cake for the usual display, so the occasion was marked with just two – a ‘7’ and a ‘0’. Lil ensconced herself in the corner slurping too loudly on tea. She’d given up anything harder after Wilf’s liver had finally given out 4 years earlier. A perplexing array of toddlers scurried round her feet. Grandchildren tumbled over great nieces and nephews – Andrew’s progeny wrestled her sister Judith’s. Young Archie landed head first on the beloved matriarch’s handbag, Lil helped him off with a discreet prod of her foot.
If this gathering had taken place just a couple of months earlier, it would have been Olive’s arrival that was most feted. Back then, she’d not long been made associate at a more-interesting-sounding-than-it-actually-was ‘creative agency’ and was basking in the afterglow of being peripherally involved in an advert that people had not only seen, but also didn’t hate. It was Olive who drew frequent compliments for her ever-changing but usually asymmetrical haircuts. Olive who breezed in red-eyed from trade conferences in Copenhagen or late night’s seeing a soon to be signed band play impromptu at an already too small venue. Jasmine meanwhile was unsure of herself. You could see the awkwardness in her stance and hear the shyness in her speech. These were minor imperfections really and in normal circumstances would barely warrant comment, but in the glare of Olive’s light they appeared bigger than they ought to.
So while Olive shone bright, Jasmine, her satellite, contented herself with the shadows, lest her flaws be illuminated more than was necessary. That is, until to everyone’s consternation, Jasmine unexpectedly eclipsed her older sister by landing a supporting role in a low budget TV drama which, equally unexpectedly, became the sleeper hit of the year. Suddenly all that time spent on unsuccessful auditions, all that sheepish mumbling at family gatherings about the competitiveness of the industry and the struggle for exposure, was recast. What had seemed a childish and hopelessly naïve ambition, destined to be unrequited, became the origin story of a burgeoning star.
By association, Olive’s role too was recast. Jasmine’s rise was so rapid that her older sister felt as if she’d gone from sibling frontrunner to backmarker overnight. The speed of the overtaking left her dizzy and adjustment was made that much harder by the fact that she hadn’t slowed down herself. She was still eating Michelin-starred taster menus courtesy of clients, still chosen to work on the next big campaign, it’s just that people no longer seemed to care as much as they used to.
Olive sees Jasmine walking up the driveway before the doorbell goes. She hears the muffled sound of her mother greeting her with a firm kiss on each cheek. Lil too has heard and begins the long, drawn-out process of hoisting herself up out of her chair. Olive tries to think back to twenty minutes ago and whether Lil left her near-permanent residency in the armchair to greet her? Certainly Andrew’s youngest daughter hadn’t hopped spellbound from foot to foot when she arrived. She waits until the chatter about the finale of Jasmine’s series has subsided before greeting her sister, and scrutinising her hard either side of an obligatory hug. A little disappointed, she concludes that in looks at least, she doesn’t appear to be changed by her new found fame.
“Congratulations,” says Olive. “I loved the twist.”
“Oh thanks. It was a bit of a cliché, wasn’t it? The girl next door who turns out to be a bunny boiler, but I guess that’s what people like. Anyway, how are you? I feel like I haven’t seen you in ages with everything that’s been going on. How’s the world of adverts?”
Olive pauses to consider whether this question conceals a criticism and in the hesitation that follows little Oscar emerges and asks aunty Jasmine if she wants to see his magic trick in the next room. Jasmine allows herself to be led away by the hand with a theatrical smile.
It’s after a rather raucous rendition of Happy Birthday that Judith suggests a re-enactment of what used to be a family tradition – a dramatic performance by the two ‘girls’. They both demure, but the gusto in the cajoling makes a refusal seem mean-spirited. After a brief conference they step forward to reproduce an old favourite.
“You might struggle to keep up, Olive, you’re working with a professional now,” shouts a rather over-excited Andrew.
“Ready?” asks Jasmine, eyebrow inclined. Olive nods, inhales deeply, exhales and –
“I have a cunning plan, my lord.”
Olive freezes, thrown off by the unexpected reversal of roles.
“Really, a sunning an – cunning and subtle – one” she manages eventually.
Jasmine responds as if nothing has happened. Olive feels at sea, she wants to start again, the simple skit they must have performed twenty times as kids now seems alien. She wills herself to concentrate, repeats the word over and over in her head until she realises she’s neglected to listen and has arrived late to another line, but which one?”
“As cunning as a fox who’s…” she begins, but Jasmine’s eyebrows tell her it isn’t that. She can feel her face reddening, can see the creases of embarrassment in Aunt Lil’s mask-like smile.
“Well, I’m afraid it will have to wait…” she says, but her hand has risen involuntarily to cover her mouth. Jasmine coaxes it down, whispering “relax”, and with all pretence of composure dispensed with, Olive finally, mercifully, puts an end to the embarrassment.
The applause which chases her to the bathroom is relief-fuelled. Behind the locked door she mouths curses to herself and fumbles for her phone. She feels a panic rising from her stomach which she hopes can be quelled with photographs of her cat. It can’t. She opens a news app and, after a time, her shame is gradually anesthetised under a slurry of celebrity vacuousness. Someone has a new haircut. Someone else has gained some weight. A third person has been photographed smoking a cigarette.
Her eyes flit between familiar faces as she scrolls. The woman from Love Island with the figure everyone covets. The lead singer from the 60s band who’s definitely too old to be dressed like that. And then a face so familiar she struggles at first to reconcile why it’s appeared on her screen. Her sister stares back, frocked in floral and smiling toothily on some minor red carpet. ‘Why Jasmine Miller’s humble upbringing has her destined for the top’ reads the headline. Below is a ridiculous quote about how not having been to drama school or having any family connections in the industry makes Jasmine hungrier and harder working than some of her better-heeled peers.
“I’ve always felt something of an underdog, but my journey so far has taught me that you get out what you put in in acting. So maybe not coming from that background or having those advantages is actually a good thing because it’s made me take nothing for granted.”
Olive notices a clench in her jaw and a tightness at her temples. A memory suddenly springs to mind: she’s thirteen years old, trusted for the first time to look after her little sister while her parents take a rare trip out together to the cinema. She takes the responsibility seriously, but Jasmine, sensing the anxiety of her guardian, is deliberately playing up, traversing the stairs on the outside of the bannister singing “you’ll get in trouble if I fall.” Eventually the inevitable happens, Jasmine loses her footing and in the rush to break her fall Olive trips and hits her head on the woodwork. Jasmine lands unharmed only to find her sister unconscious. An ambulance is called for and somehow her parents get wind. Olive remembers waking up in a hospital bed with her mother caressing her hair. She immediately launches into an explanation but her mother hushes her.
“Don’t worry darling, that’s not important. Everything’s okay now. Maybe it was just a bit too much for you to take on, love.”
Jasmine sits nearby slurping an ice cream, a reward for her “quick thinking” in calling for help. She smiles back sheepishly. Olive knows her role in the accident won’t have featured in the account her sister had told her parents.
Remembering one act of treachery inspires another. Olive clicks in the comment section below the article and questions her sister’s salt of the earth credentials by telling the world about Bailey, the horse Jasmine kept in stables throughout school; and then for good measure disclosing that Jasmine still continues to take bi-annual holidays to her family’s second home on the Côtes du Rhône, replete with private swimming pool. Her heart is beating dangerously fast as she types “and I’ll let you in on another secret. The only reason lovely Jasmine didn’t attend drama school was because she failed her audition at 14.”
She leans back against the cistern, satisfied. There’s a rap on the door from outside and her mum asking if everything is okay.
“Just a second.”
Olive looks over her comment again. It’s already accrued its first thumbs-up. She watches another two add in real time, mesmerised. Then she stands, flushes, adjusts her hair in the mirror and exits.
“Don’t worry, Mum,” she smiles. “I’m feeling much better now.”
It’s funny what you can get used to. Jumping out of aeroplanes, staking the family silver on black, living a double life online. The most outlandish and unwise behaviours quickly become normalised if the dopamine hit is big enough. It’s a fatally flawed system, designed by someone well beyond their pay grade who thought it sensible to reward us with a chemical rush after attending to our basest impulses. A mandate for cheating on our partners, stealing from our neighbours and lying to our friends. It couldn’t be allowed to stand. And so our consciences, ever the stick in the mud, attempted to wrestle back some control. They appointed themselves the come down to our chemical high, yanging us into emotional turmoil once the adrenaline-fuelled ying had worn off. As a result we’re left embarrassed and ashamed; no longer satisfaction-seekers, but betrayers and deceivers. Empty and hollowed-out, we find ourselves deprived of that crucial ingredient that enables us to simply be with ourselves. From this intolerable state, it isn’t long until the craving returns, stronger than before, whispering silver-tongued promises to take us somewhere better. Only this time, against all reason, we tell ourselves it will be different.
Olive’s safeguard against full-blown addiction was to keep a score. She restricted her online sniping to only those times she decided it would be remiss of her to do nothing. Jasmine was allowed three unmistakeable invitations to compliment her cameo in a Netflix biopic before Olive decided a retort was justified. She replied to the show tweeting out a teaser clip of Jasmine with a popular meme of a toddler reacting to a bad smell. When Jasmine pulled out of her birthday plans because she’d been invited to a party at a “must meet” producers house, Olive equalised by posting about the time her sister got so drunk in Malia she wet herself. When she reluctantly agreed to meet Jasmine and her thespian friends in a pub, only to be ignored most of the night before being told by one “you’ll find something worthwhile to do, just hang in there”, Olive followed-up with photographic evidence of said pant-wetting from her anonymous account. Lying in bed that night fifteen minutes after pressing ‘send’ Olive began to transition from feeling vindicated, to feeling vindictive. She had no idea how it had come to this.
A few days after Olive’s birthday, in their weekly phone call, her mum complained about “the vicious ogres attacking Jasmine online”.
“Mum, do you mean trolls?”
“Oh, I’m not sure Olive, possibly. Whatever they are, they’re upsetting your sister. She was round here in floods of tears yesterday. She said she’s afraid to go online in case people are making fun of her. Can you imagine that, people posting pictures to show her up? Such jealousy. I bet it’s Clare Martin. I never liked that girl. Do you remember the time she slept over at our house and…”
Olive did try to imagine. Tried to imagine how it must feel for her sister to have her accomplishments tainted by some unknown malice. Tried to imagine how it must feel for her mum to have to offer advice to an emergent celebrity experiencing online abuse – two worlds she knew nothing about. She tried to imagine how they would feel if they found out it was her. Tried to imagine how she’d feel. Scrunched her eyes up hard and tried to conjure a sense of shame so overpowering that she’d never be comfortable among her own family again. She willed the gut punch of guilt she’d have to carry round with her for the rest of her life into existence. She tried to recall her most embarrassing moment and imagined it multiplied in intensity and magnitude many times over. She tried, but failed on all counts. She could never get over, was always brought back to, that first hurdle. That all this mental energy, from her, from her mum, God knows from her sister, was being expended on how Jasmine feels, how Jasmine ought to feel, how Jasmine deserves to feel and precisely none was being spent on her. They were simply subsidiaries in Jasmine’s ascension. Accessories to her coronation. Extras in her story. Sometimes she told herself that though what she was doing was dishonest, it was still laudable – helping to keep Jasmine’s feet on the ground and counter the corruption that inevitably accompanied success. She knew this was a lie. This wasn’t about character building; it was about reminding those in the limelight that despite the adulation, there will always be people in the cheap seats who hate them for the breaks they’ve had.
What surprised her most was how well it worked, it didn’t matter what her sister did, which star she appeared opposite, or the praise she garnered for her own performances, she remained perpetually vulnerable to Olive’s barbs. It was as if she’d risen to the rarefied air so fast, she hadn’t yet had time to evolve the necessary defences for attacks from below. Whether she was delighting in her first award nomination, or counting down to passing 50,000 followers on Instagram, she remained in range of Olive’s arrows. These were fired up effortlessly – out of the drudgery of meetings Olive didn’t want to be in, from her bed that had started to sag, from the toilet, the train into work, and without fail they inflicted the same pain Jasmine knew from before, the same pain those firing the arrows felt each day.
Jasmine didn’t confide this in anyone, but one of the most noticeable changes fame brought was that she began spending more time searching for information about herself online than she did about other people. At first it was all very innocent: looking for her name in the TV listings, a brief mention in a review. It all felt so dream-like that she wanted some confirmation it was actually happening. Gradually though, the habit became less healthy. She was no longer satisfied in knowing that she was there, she wanted to know what people thought of her – good and bad. She searched for references to herself on social media, she scoured forums, watched vlogs, ‘control + Fd’ her name (real and character) in lengthy and increasingly ill-tempered comment threads below news articles. She’d occasionally find some praise, just the odd adjective – “charming”, “fresh-faced”, “promising” and she would revel in them. She began looking up the profile of each poster, seeing what they had said about her peers. How judicious were they with their compliments? How much of what they’d said should she allow to go to her head? She proceeded quite happily in this vein until she came across her first piece of criticism, which ended this period of prelapsarian bliss. To be fair, the first negative comment she read about herself online was a doozy. An anonymous hatchet job on her implied humble beginnings that even went as far as to name check her pony.
After that, her online self-stalking took on a more obsessive quality. She searched for news of Jasmine Miller constantly. Waiting for the bus to arrive. On the bus. Getting off the bus walking to the coffee shop. Waiting for her coffee to arrive. Drinking her coffee. Walking out of the coffee shop. Her hands unlocked the phone and refreshed the screen entirely independently from her mind, as if this was some vital life preserving reflex passed on through millennia of natural selection and not simply the muscle memory of millennials: an autopilot for doomed youth.
It became a game she couldn’t win. No news was good news, but how could she be sure nothing new had happened without constantly checking? The best she could hope for was an endless, angst-ridden, anti-climax. The worst was finding exactly what she feared. On the days when this happened, she’d confine herself to bed in the afternoon to convalesce, a guilty pleasure streaming on her tablet. But her phone always retired with her too, just within reach, the blue light blinking enticingly in the dark. Didn’t she want to make certain nothing else had been said? Wouldn’t it put her mind at rest to clarify that the drip from earlier hadn’t become a deluge?
Then one day, a panicked phone call from her mum replaced these worries with something more substantial.
Aunt Lil died on Easter Sunday, out of the blue. Or as far away from the blue as it’s possible to get for a septuagenarian widow with respiratory problems. They were due to go out as a family the following day, but poor Lil got waylaid by a prior and more permanent appointment. The girls were devastated. The eccentric, ever-present was no more. They both came home for the entire week before the funeral. Jasmine reneged on a photoshoot to help promote a forthcoming ITV period piece, Olive pulled out of a series of promotional events for a high street bank in Madrid. It wasn’t long after unpacking into their childhood bedrooms that they felt the pull of the old family roles upon them. Olive spent long hours secluded upstairs taking phone calls, Jasmine left the lights on in every room she went in and played her music as loud as her now ancient portable CD player would allow.
Despite the influx of noise, the atmosphere at home remained maudlin. At their mum’s insistence they sat down for dinner each night with mobiles and TV prohibited. The conversation strained and spluttered but the three of them put in just enough work to make sure it didn’t dry up entirely. They talked about the funeral, but never mentioned the deceased. They talked about work and where they were living now, but never whether they were happy or sad. Everyone seemed on edge and over time this edginess multiplied to palpable, unattributable tension.
One night, after Olive and Jasmine left the dinner table without helping to clear it, their mum snapped at them, then immediately burst into tears. They comforted her cautiously for a few seconds before setting their minds to the task at hand with silent diligence.
The night before the funeral they sat down together to watch a show involving Jasmine. It was a 30-minute comedy-drama in which Jasmine played a ditzy rich girl who was conned out of her priceless jewellery by a couple of chancers. It was unmitigatedly bad. At its thickest the plot remained close to transparent; the writing jarred throughout, and though nobody was keen to say it, some of the acting was wince-inducing. The longer it went on, the more cushions Jasmine acquired to hide behind. Until, at yet another misjudged and mistimed punchline, one flew across the room and threatened the TV. Olive and Mum stared at each other before laughter took over.
“Perhaps it’s not your finest work, love,” Mum offered.
“Poisoned chalice, Jas,” consoled Olive. “Like being a crew member on the Titanic.”
Jasmine tried her best to stay angry, but in the end her pursed lips capitulated in the face of the nonsense on screen.
“Why is it sooo bad?” she laughed, incredulously.
“It’s like an art form,” Olive cackled.
Together they giggled and mocked their way through the remainder to the preposterous conclusion, by which time Jasmine had reached near hysteria, whilst Olive, feeling increasingly less jovial, joined-in in sympathy only.
The next day the three of them dress in their Sunday best. The funeral is austere, paired back to conform with some outdated ideal from a religion none of them believe in. No doubt Lil would have had something to say about it had she been alive. The ‘girls’ had originally been asked to perform Lil’s favourite Blackadder sketch, but at some point this flourish had fallen foul of some unknown official. Even so, the impact of the service is restorative and rapid. Family hold hands in the pews, the younger children each place a picture of Lil on the coffin and Uncle Andrew, Lil’s brother, strikes the perfect grieving-but-grateful tone in his eulogy. Everyone cries, but by the recessional, the tone of these tears has changed. Those most upset before are no longer self-conscious in their mourning and they leave feeling open, even energised. Olive and Jasmine lead the way to the reception arm in arm, crisscrossing their feet as they walk, threatening to trip themselves and each other over. Their mother walks behind them, smiling to herself despite the circumstances.
Mike Bonnet is a short story writer, published by the likes of Structo, Dead Ink Press and Please See Me magazine.
© 2020, Mike Bonnet