Today is my sister's birthday. She would have been 58. I decided to mark those years with a 58 mile bike ride. With each mile I thought of every passing year. It was meditative and joyous. It made me smile and it made me laugh. There were things I'd half-forgotten and things I remember very well and often come back to. Mostly I remembered her smile and the way she seemed to shine. She was one of those people who could walk into a room and make everyone look up. She was beautiful, of course. Glamorous, even. Perhaps I make her more and more shiny as I reweave this story? Well, why not. We do polish our memories, don't we? The more distant the past becomes, the more we restructure it to fit in with the way we see our own lives. I think memory is more re-invention than we care to admit.
I went to the White Horse at Uffington, which is a favourite cycle ride of mine. These days, with legs having a combined age of 122 and one of them being seriously gammy following an altercation with a bus many years ago, I walk up the big hill. Today, at the top, the sun came out. You could see the rain coming down in huge swathes across Gloucestershire and the plains of Oxfordshire. There was a whitethroat scratching its strange little song in a hedge somewhere. It flitted down briefly and drank from a rain puddle and flew off again. Cyclists panted past. A couple wandered off with cans of Red Stripe to enjoy the view in privacy.
25 miles to this point. Julia and her husband had just gone AWOL from the US Army - much to my delight. Their time in military jail made them realise what they'd got into. Julia talked about the way white officers treated an imprisoned black soldier in a way that no white prisoner was ever treated - having urine thrown at him and being made to clean up other people's mess. She met another soldier who had wanted to leave the army because she was pregnant; the pressure on her to have an abortion was immense. She went AWOL too and ended up being chased by the military police. She was so panicked, she ran through a plate glass window. She lost her baby, of course, and when she was in hospital they came to arrest her and take her away. Julia ended up questioning the whole system, never mind the army.
I cycled on, through Uffngton, Baulking, Goosey, Charney Bassett, Buckland. Oxfordshire is a very rich county. You see privilege everywhere. It's charming, too. I like thatched cottages and little villages. I like the cosy rural landscape . I like the fact that it doesn't rain as often as everywhere else. But I know there's another world.
Julia knew the world deeply. She made friends with everyone. She knew dealers, addicts, doctors, patients, cops, prisoners, dancers, sex workers, telephonists...She was a very gifted medical transcriptionist who'd also worked as an 'exotic dancer' at one time. She never judged anyone. She had views on things, but your life was yours to live, so you'd better take responsibility for it yourself. That's how she lived. She impressed that upon her son, too. She impressed that upon us all. She was a good listener, as well. For me, anyway. I miss that.
Between Bampton and Curbridge, on the A4095, Julia moved to Tucson, Arizona to make a new start. She wasn't one for hanging around. Just before her 21st birthday she quit her job in a typing pool in north London and emigrated to the USA. Reinvented herself, if you like. She was about to do the same thing again. She found a job working in the University of Arizona College of Medicine's Kidney Liver Unit. She began to sculpt a new life for herself. Eventually, as the technology developed, she could work from home.
I always loved visiting her, but her move to her last apartment near Sabino Canyon was something special. She seemed more confident and relaxed and healthier than ever. She was in love, she was working out, and she'd got a dog. In all my years I never imagined she'd be a dog owner. She adored Gertie. They went out every morning. The last time I visited I could barely keep up with them. Walking was a serious business. Julia would already have been working since 5 am. Between 8 and 9 she took her exercise. From 9 till lunchtime, she'd carry on working and then the rest of the day was hers. Reading by the pool, visiting friends, eating out; it was an ideal life. She'd come a long way from rainy suburban north London.
I began to have fantasies that holiday. Here we were, two sisters, heading into our middle years. I was 53 and she was just 50. I could imagine her and I in our old age. It was a nice thought, she and I sitting on some porch somewhere discussing the world, berating our governments, drinking beer. Whatever happened in life, she would always be my best friend and the one person I could share anything with. We understood each other in an instinctive, unspoken way. As time went on, that ability increased. We would be a fine pair of old ducks sitting there sorting out the world.
I said goodbye to her at the airport in 2007. My elderly aunt was with her. My aunt and I fully believed that we'd never see each other again. How wrong we were. It was my sister I should have been watching as I turned the corner to go through security. She was killed by drunken drivers barely two months later. She was out walking her dog when it happened. My aunt had to phone me up and tell me.
Julia had no malice in her. She wouldn't have screamed for vengeance any more than I did. If it had been the other way around, if I'd been killed, she'd have recognised the deep tragedy of two people whose lives are desperately out of control, then she'd have moved on, leaving them to take responsibility and make something better of their lives. My sister was not a saint, but she was a damned good human being. The sun stopped shining for a while after she died. Today it came out as it often does and I was glad to have it warm on my back as I rode up the path to my front door. I will ride those 50 years again next year, unless something happens to me. In the meantime, carpe diem - seize the day. I intend to make each second count.