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The Crooked Little Pieces: Volume 1

Prologue. 2nd September 1968

The tapping of Isabel’s spoon was beginning to irk her. It was a particularly idiosyncratic form of warfare, Anneliese inferred: her sister longing to drum into her a new responsibility. This so-called responsibility involved some happiness being thrust into her heart – a happiness she should have felt for Isabel.

The odds were hardly in her favour.

It so happened that the infantry that could have wielded joy in Anneliese restrained themselves from this invasion. They turned and became renegades, clinging seditiously to their objection. Gloom was the path that she was taking despite Isabel’s unspoken pleas.

A memory bounced to the forefront of her mind. She and Isabel were four years old and at a park in Zurich. Crouched down in the little hut at the slide’s peak, Isabel had wrapped her hands around the cold and shiny metal bar for fear of slipping. She was staring down at Anneliese in an imperious fervour: her way of commanding her to roll the ball along the slide. Anneliese propelled it to ascend the slope with all ten fingers. It tumbled with a bump before a nail of Isabel’s could even poke it. But Isabel would not relent. With Anneliese’s every try her glare grew meaner – simultaneously more demeaning. Four minutes later she was staring at her sister to denounce her as a traitor. Her glance would have suggested she was looking at a person who had chosen to support the Axis powers there in Switzerland.

Now at forty-eight years old they played a new game. The rules, ethics and score were the same. Anneliese felt like the littler twin. Isabel was sure she was inferior. No victory was ever gained but both of them infallibly assumed the other won.

Isabel finished her ice cream. Crossing over to her purple music stand, she saw along its spine the strokes and dashes of a scribbled scarlet acronym: ‘I.v.d.H; C.H.S.’ She had no clue what could have urged her, aged eleven at the time of writing, to interpolate a semi-colon between two sets of initials. It was preposterous.

Quickly she returned to sit before her sister. Isabel’s intentions were deliberately opaque; she simply didn’t know that Anneliese’s bore a hue of the same shade. Her eyes met fixedly with the clock’s face.

‘Is it safe to cross the date off now?’

Anneliese took her own turn to read the time.

‘Ten thirty-seven.’

‘That’s an hour to go.’

‘Well, it’s over…’

The felt-tip pen was wandering already in her clammy clasp. Isabel drew a cross through the ‘2’ and shrugged girlishly.

‘The main part is over.’

There was something excessively timid about her; her voice was too soft. And after striking through the date she loosed a sigh so long and swirled it mirrored wispy smoke departing a volcano.

Isabel threw a half-smile at her sister. Yet her stock of weaponry appeared to be depleted. She couldn’t make the effort and the smile was faint. Her mouth’s shape quickly collapsed into an uncurved line.

Then she smirked on purpose – gently, not mockingly – with no ill will. She hadn’t exercised ill will for a long time now. In Anneliese’s eyes it had been far too long for Isabel.

‘Liesa…’ She exhaled heavily through her nostrils. ‘You’re unimpressed with me.’

But it was one of the few times that Isabel was incorrect in that assumption. Anneliese’s voice became breathy.

‘No. No, Isabel…’ She laid her hands down on her lap. Perhaps it would have stopped them from unwanted gesturing. ‘You’re acting… your behaviour is guided by a smartness, resolution, cleverness… so many features that I didn’t know you – I mean, I…’ She itched behind her ear. ‘I wouldn’t have expected so much.’

Isabel faintly half-smiled once more – feebly again.

‘That’s funny.’ She leant her hands on the edge of the table. ‘See, I worry for you, Liesa, ‘cause I assumed you would have – I thought… I’m not speaking of accomplishment. I just meant… I had hoped that you’d be safe.’

There came the rebuttal:

‘I’m not in physical danger, superficially it seems to be that way, but—’

‘No, I meant… I just meant, professionally, erm…’ She parted her lips noisily in nervousness. ‘I imagined you in the kind of situation that would seem impressive on paper. I didn’t expect you to be listed in the phone book with the same…’ Isabel shut her eyes tightly. ‘No, that was very horrible of me.’

Anneliese almost laughed.

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