When I was 8, my mother called my brother and me into her bed one weekend morning. She asked us if there was anything in the world we wanted to have more than anything else. I was confident in my reply: a piano. My brother was equally so in his desire for a Liverpool football club strip. Our mother appeared dejected. She was having a baby! She, of course, was overjoyed. We, on the other hand, were shocked. We’d been trucking along quite nicely as a family of four and this news was quite a bombshell. This new addition had the potential to disrupt the status quo and comfort blanket of familiarity.
It was not long though before I began to really look forward to the arrival of the new baby. The pregnancy was not so straightforward and our mother spent some time in hospital, during which there was more upheaval with our grandparents coming to stay and some real heavy snow which lasted for weeks. My father had bought a new car in anticipation of the baby coming but Ford had gone on strike and we were stuck with him using a work van. The period of time my mother was in hospital was deeply unsettling. I managed to fall over and injure my jaw and I just wanted to familiar comfort of my mother. The snow was relentless and children were only allowed to visit the antenatal ward at the weekend. We would look forward to the all too short hour we spent with our mother on Saturdays and Sundays and then miss her terribly all week. On the odd occasion when she was allowed home for the day, it just made it worse for everyone knowing that she would have to return to the hospital at the end of the day.
Eventually it was decided that she would be induced and so it was, on the morning of Friday 16th February 1979, my brother and I were packed off to school by our grandfather, knowing that when we left school that day, if our father was at the school gates, the baby would have been born. Sure enough, there he was waiting for us. “It’s a girl”. I was ecstatic; my brother less so. I had wanted a sister and he a brother. It’s obvious really – we both had only one flavour of sibling until now and both wanted to experience the other. He was brave. “At least I won’t have to share my bedroom” was his reply. The visiting hours were not going to bend for the birth of a new sibling and so we did not get to meet her until the following day, a Saturday. Goodness knows if she had been born on a Monday we would not have met her for days. It seems so draconian now.
Sharon Ann Evans was not the prettiest baby. She wasn’t very chubby, had no hair and protruding ears. But she was ours and we loved her from the first time we saw her. Soon she was home. I went into little mother mode, helping to change her clothes, folding her cloth nappies and hanging over her every coo and cry. Our brother was more interested in the whys and wherefores of this alien concept. Why does she poo so much? Why do babies cry? Why can’t she eat normal food? When she was a few weeks old, it was his birthday and he had a few select friends round for a party. “Look boys, she’s got this soft spot on her head and if you touch it, you can feel her brain underneath!”
It seems as though baby Sharon grew up in the blink of an eye. She ended up tall and beautiful. How on earth did that happen? There were traumas along the way of course – she got a nasty dog bite on her nose and a bout of meningitis which was really scary and in my mind truly marked the time I realised just how much of a bonus she had been to our little family. She was a typical third child – inquisitive yet relaxed, bubbly, energetic, confident and competitive with her older siblings and certainly quite unlike me. It wasn’t long before she showed her personality. She loved animals. The family dog got no peace and eventually a second one was introduced as we all realised she would be bereft when the first one went. She was sporty, loving gymnastics and dance in particular. She was exceptionally sociable and by the time she was just a few years old, had more friends than I did at almost nine years her senior. She entertained us all with made up words and phrases and to this day, none of us knows what a “pancorn” is or was and we only vaguely understood her concept of a “junky jowl”.
Even the bedroom sharing was not so bad. Dad had built an extension by now and so we were upgraded to a larger bedroom. I have always been able to sleep the sleep of the dead anyway so she was rarely a disruption, even as a baby. Christmas Eves were probably the most amusing, each of us tucked up in our beds with her being overly excited and not able to sleep and me willing her to do so before the inevitable footsteps of our mother carrying the stockings got ever closer to our door. “Father Christmas swore when he came with the stockings last night” she declared one Christmas morning. “He must have dropped something because he said ‘shit’”. Mam looked panicked. “But Helen made me go under the blankets so I didn’t see him’. Phew. One year there was the insistence that she had heard the reindeer on the roof. Another time she claimed to have seen a bright light as their sleigh came in to land.
Family holidays were another source of fun. We would pack the family car until it could hold no more, add some suitcases to the roof and trek off to France on a driving holiday. The first few times we stayed in a caravan but later we graduated to villas. One time we stayed with the local mayor, Monsieur Pau and his family. They lived upstairs and we had the downstairs. Outside in the garden were mounds of dried vines for us to use on the barbecue along with a cage of pigeons. Sharon took a shine to this beautiful white bird and would stand by the cage looking longingly at it. One day we returned from a trip only to find the white bird missing. Tales of it having been promoted to a larger coop on Monsieur Pau’s balcony were quickly dispensed but she wasn’t daft and had this mournful look on her face every time she looked at the cage afterwards. Then there was a beautiful stone cottage at the top of a hill near Narbonne where we stayed another time. It was only accessible via a long private road over what looked like a moor. The place was teeming with cicadas, for some reason known in our family as May bugs. We were speeding along the moor one day, when one of these May bugs flew in through the car window. There was an almighty scream from little sister and dad drew the car to an abrupt halt but not before she had pushed our brother out of the way, flung open the door and jumped out. No May bug was going to get her. To say she is bug phobic would be an understatement. I have completed roach patrol every time she wanted to use the bathroom at a hotel in Egypt following the appearance of one small cockroach in the bath. I once used a whole can of fly spray trying to floor a hornet while she cowered outside on another trip to France. Even recently in Australia, bro was charged with capturing a massive bug in an Indian takeaway container before she would let him back in the house.
Holidays are the main source of Sharon-related anecdotes. When we were all older (our brother by now married), the three of us and our sister-in-law took a driving holiday down through France and Switzerland to Italy. A consistent feature of this trip was smelly feet. Both Sharon and our brother had felt it necessary to only bring one main pair of footwear. Both of these pairs were relegated to outside and never allowed in to the cottage we had hired. However, our brother’s pair was at least robust. Sharon’s were these flimsy white sandals, the style of which is known as a slider. They were not really up to the shiny stone streets of Italy and any hint of moisture on the ground and they lived up to their name in make her literally slide around. On one particular trip to Sienna, she and I managed to climb the many hundreds of steps up the campanile but getting her from one end of the piazza to the other was impossible and involved sister-in-law and myself holding her up by one arm each. Some years later, we took a driving holiday to Spain. By this point, a young nephew had joined our midst and we rented one of those strange looking Fiats with three seats in the front. Our sister-in-law and nephew could then have the whole of the back seat while the rest of us sat in the front. We were driving along on the first day, bro becoming used to the car and driving on the wrong side of the road, when out of the corner of my eye, I spotted them. The white sliders. They were back. After all these years. And they smelled no better. On the last day of the holiday, we drove out of the gates of the cottage for the last time and stopped by the bins as we always did as there were always nappies to be dispensed with. It was just a sudden decision but the right one – I grappled the sliders off Sharon’s feet and ceremoniously threw them into the bins with the rest of the rubbish. At least then we could enjoy our long drive back without the pervasive odour of centuries old shoes. On this same holiday, the owners of the cottage had recently taken in a stray dog. He looked awful – thin and bony with matted fur. Boofy was his name and Miriam the owner was very taken with him, calling out for him frequently to check on him. Sharon and I took a weekend trip to Barcelona leaving the others behind. When we returned, our brother announced that Boofy was nowhere to be seen. Even though she was now much older, my heart was lurching at the thought of having to attempt another cover up in the style of Monsieur Pau’s pigeon. Thankfully it turned out to be a very bad, older-brother-picking-on-younger-sister joke.
Fourteen years ago, I emigrated to New Zealand. For me this was very exciting and the family seemed to agree, with much talk of the opportunities for holidays and rugby-related trips. En route to Heathrow, with most of the family in tow except our mother who had recently had a knee replacement, I began to think that bringing Sharon along was a bad idea. You see, she doesn’t do well with goodbyes and by virtue of their nature, airports usually mean a separation involving some length of time. And so it was that when we kissed and hugged just prior to my going through security, she declared “just go” and shooed me off. “Go, just go. Go now. Go.” She became ever more pleading. All this so she wouldn’t be made a fool of when the inevitable blubbing began. I obliged and sashayed my way down the security carpet. I turned back to wave to the family, only to see this reddened tear-strewn face, a father and brother on each side, holding up the owner with one arm each, while she literally wailed. My father has waved me off at many an airport and it is tradition that I turn round to wave several times, until I can see him no more. So each time I turned, Sharon’s face was redder and she had sunk further to the ground, the job of her hold-er-upperers becoming ever more taxing.
On her first visit to New Zealand a few months later, she didn’t think it necessary to check the dates with me and so she arrived while I was actually in the US at a conference. On landing back in Auckland, I hurried as much as I could through the airport and into a taxi to get home to see her. Only she wasn’t there. She’d come to the airport to meet me, but I had landed early and missed her. Not long after this, Sharon moved to Australia for a few years. That was great of course, giving us more chance to meet up. She came over for my 40th birthday, a Mexican fiesta which, thanks to her, went swimmingly well as she did all the cooking and decorating while I was out giving a lecture. The margarita slushy machines were very popular and it was not long before Sharon was sporting some fondant icing from my birthday cake as a “moustache”, except it was strewn across her nose. As with most parties and social events, she was everyone’s friend. The following day she was not looking so flash. At the airport for her trip back to Australia, I filled out her landing card with her occupation as “clown”, only for her to text me just after security: “very funny”. I suppose it could have been worse.
As much as Sharon loved Australia, she missed her friends and family after a few years and made her way home to Wales. She took the opportunity to go back with our parents after they made a lengthy trip to New Zealand for the rugby world cup. They packed and re-packed their belongings several times on the day they were departing on a night flight and she chanted over and over “I am not going to cry. I am pleased to be going home. I am not going to make a fool of myself. I will not cry”. Auckland airport had undergone a facelift for the rugby visitors and so the departure area sported a red carpet. We said our goodbyes and off they went, Sharon confidently strutting her stuff down this cat walk. Then she noticed it: a new sign. “That’s it folks, time for your final goodbyes”. A spontaneous wail was let out along with the protestation “oh that’s awful”, followed by at the familiar crumpling at the knees. Rather than the parentals joining in with this drama, they were proudly strong, each of them reaching down and picking her up and, yet again, she was held up between two people and dragged along to her destination.
Life changed for Sharon after she returned to the UK. She soon met Mike and the rest, as they say, is history. A couple of years later we had the lovely news that they were expecting a baby. I was delighted to be asked to be there for the baby’s birth. This was a lengthy affair, involving 32 hours of my sitting on a Swiss ball, all the while her burying her head in my chest with every contraction and declaring “these pillows are very comforting”. Eventually Sharon and Mike were parents to a beautiful boy and a couple of years later he was followed by a brother. Motherhood and partnership have inevitably brought new experiences for Sharon and she has blossomed. Her children are a credit to her and Mike and I am proud of them. But, adulting has not changed her. She is not “just” partner to Mike or mother to the boys. She is just the same bubbly, excitable, personality-driven little sister she has always been. She is also one of the hardest working, kindest, most supportive people I know. I used to envy her for being taller than me. Now I envy her for being younger and nicer than me!
So, that’s it. In a blink of an eye, my baby sister is forty years old. They have been fun-packed, hilarious, memorable years and although I can still remember the years before we had a sister, it seems strange to think of life before Sharon. Growing up and separation have only brought us closer and I am grateful every day. Aren’t I the lucky one?
Happy Birthday beautiful Sharon. I hope you have everything you deserve on your special day. I love you with all my heart and more.
Your big sister xxxx
PS I never did get a piano.