|The Day My Sister Came to Stay
Sam North’s New York Stories ‘So he never mentioned to you that the air conditioner was broken?’
What do you mean you can’t switch it on? It’s 105° degrees in here. You have to switch it on.’
I looked a bit sheepish. I felt just as hot as she did, but I could not make the air conditioner come on, I think the fuse had gone and I hadn’t a clue on how to fix it.
‘Let me get this straight,’ she said, glaring at me as if it was my fault that Manhattan swelters every summer. ‘He’s lent you his penthouse on Park Avenue no less, we are 32 floors up, you have no cold drinks, it’s 105° degrees and you don’t know how to put the air-conditioning on.’
‘I can open the windows.’
‘That’s where the hot air is – outside the windows.’
Nevertheless, I opened all the windows and it did actually create a breeze, a sort of Saharan breeze that sort of stole the oxygen from your lungs.
‘So this Desmond guy never mentioned to you that the air conditioner was broken?’
My sister Sara had flown in from Johannesburg. She was absolutely exhausted and not a little upset. I had first taken her to Rockaway beach, where I was staying ostensibly to cool her down. The airport was registering over 110° degrees, roads were melting and I just couldn’t face taking her into the city in this heat. We took the bus to the beach and I made her walk, with her suitcases all sixty blocks along the ocean beach. Even though I was carrying at least two bags, she wasn’t happy. Her feet were swollen from the flight and I had this idea that the sea would reduce the swelling. It worked, but her temper was just a bit frayed after the long walk.
She was not impressed by my living quarters. I’d rented a room a block away from the beach in a house that couldn’t have been fixed up since 1930. I forgot to mention that when you go to the backyard shower, slugs have a tendency to crawl over your feet when you turn the hot water on. I remembered this when I heard her scream. The radio was a genuine Bakelite and took around twenty minutes to warm up. It was like living in a museum. But I had a roof garden and view of the ocean and I got to swim for an hour every day. I don’t care how rich you are in Manhattan, you can’t normally do that.
She looked at me with incredulity when she returned. ‘Did you know there are slugs in shower?’ ‘
‘The roof also leaks when it rains, but it’s a cheap rental, what can I say. It’s healthy.’
She just looked at me as if I was crazy. There was no way she’d ever live ‘cheap’.
‘Are they paying you anything for this book you’re writing?’
‘Hmm some, but the pound doesn’t go far over here. I have expenses.’
We went for a swim. For a while, she cooled down and after lunch, she dozed as I worked.
At 4pm I got her onto the subway train.
‘Where are we going?’
‘The city. My publisher loaned me his penthouse for the weekend.’
‘Didn’t you say it was hot in the city?’
‘Don’t worry, it’s got air conditioning.’
We caught the train from Rockaway all the way into the city. I always loved that first part of the journey as it crosses the bay.
She lay sprawled across the giant bed in 105° degrees like a goldfish on the carpet. It was painful to watch. I opened the fridge to cool us down a little but it didn’t seem to help.
‘I thought we’d go for a walk in the park.’
Sara opened one eye and fixed it on me with disbelief. ‘Walk? Didn’t we already do that? I distinctly recall walking 60 bloody blocks this morning after flying 9,000 miles.’
‘It will be cooler in the Park,’ I tried to say. ‘Shady trees, nice cold cokes, believe me, it will be better than here.’
Reluctantly she allowed me to prise her off the bed and I shoe-horned her into the elevator. ‘It had better be cooler,’ she threatened, ‘those cokes better be cold.’
Central Park in summer teems with people skating, cycling, riding horses, it’s the best place in all of the city and the atmosphere seemed to cheer Sara up somewhat. In the distance, we could see a temperature sign that read 90° degrees and in the shady evening, it was all rather pleasant.
‘So, how is the book coming along?’ She finally asked.
‘Harder than I thought,’ I admitted. ‘Lot of research. See this?’ I showed her the purple bruising on my back. Sara looked at it with interest. “What happened?’
‘Got kicked, a lot. Guys in a bar up by Indian Point took exception to me asking about their jobs and safety at the nuclear plant. ‘My own fault. Should never talked to guys with pot bellies and T-Shirts that say‘ Whoops’ on them.’
‘I told you no one wants to hear about nuclear power. You should write a love story. People like love stories.’
‘Unfortunately, I am writing a thriller. I have the bruises to prove it. One cool thing, I discovered is that you can flag down the trains. Just wave and this huge train stops for you anywhere on the track. You couldn’t do that in Jo’Burg,’
‘Not unless you had an AK47.’ Sara remarked.
We heard music ahead behind some trees.
‘Sounds like Gilbert and Sullivan.’ I told Sara, but doubted my ears. This was Central Park, where else would you find a full orchestra playing light operetta?
People were drifting towards the woods and an open air theatre. We followed, got ourselves cold cokes and plonked our butts down on front row seats (no one ever sits on front row seats as they always assume someone important is going to sit there).
‘What is it?’ Sara asked, fanning herself with someone else’s programme. I reached over and borrowed another programme from someone who looked uncannily like the actress Phoebe Cates. I suspect it was. I looked at the programme. ‘Hey, it’s Pirates of Penzance. It’s a dress rehearsal. My God, Linda Ronstadt, Kevin Kline, George Rose. We’re in for a treat.’
And we were. Linda Ronstadt was perfectly perfect, pretty in her bonnet, sang beautifully, Kevin was funny, agile, possessing great comic timing. George Rose was like the icing on the cake – the perfect model of a modern major-general. We just couldn’t believe our luck to get to see such a great version of this show.
Sara perked up tremendously, couldn’t believe it was free. I rather suspected it wasn’t, we just got through by luck. We drifted out with the happy crowd, both of us hungry now. I had intended to cook in the apartment, but the apartment was intent upon cooking us, so we strolled over towards the Lincoln Centre and found a nice little sidewalk restaurant with a view of sluggish traffic going by. The waiters seemed frazzled, the customers were smiling and relaxed. Sara hugged a glass of wine and dropped her bombshell.
‘ I’m never going back to Africa.’
‘ No?’ I had this sudden vision of Sara and her suitcases living in my squalor in Rockaway.
‘ I saw this fortune teller. She said I’d meet someone in Vancouver and I’d settle there and I’ll never go back. It’s not my soil.’
‘ Vancouver? Canada? You’ve never been there.’
‘ I know, but that’s what she said.’
‘ And you believe her?’
‘ Of course, she knew everything about me, everything.’
‘ And she specifically said Vancouver?’
‘ You never mentioned Vancouver to her. Never mentioned that your best friend moved there or anything.’
‘ So when are you going?’
‘ Just like that.’
She just ate her food. That’s Sara, once she makes up her her mind, it’s done.
We walked back to the apartment in silence. Sara was totally exhausted now, but still happy she’d been to the show in the park. She couldn’t get over the huge scale of Manhattan, it made Johannesburg seem so puny. Africa’s largest city. In Jo’burg you could make dreams come true, but New York was so large, so intimidating, it didn’t seem possible.
‘ You going to stay here?’ Sara asked me as we crossed Fifth Avenue.
‘ No, the west is friendlier. I have this plan to LA., Redondo Beach.’
Sara disapproved. ‘You just move from beach to beach. Don’t you ever get tired of it?’
‘ Not yet. I like beach communities.’
The penthouse was still 100° degrees – it had hardly cooled at all. We felt like Thanksgiving turkeys volunteering for oven duty. I found an old electric fan, put it by the window. Sara soaked a silk scarf in cold water and draped it over it. I didn’t notice much difference.
‘Isn’t there anyone you can call about the air conditioning?’ Sara pleaded.
I shrugged. ‘It’s 2am. Who would you call?’
I tried scraping ice frost from the freezer and sprinkling it over the fan, it didn’t seem to do anything, except nearly short it out.
A siren sounded shortly followed by ten more police cars and fire trucks racing up Park Avenue. It was 3am. A shot rang out and there was the distant squeal of car tyres.
‘Just like Jo’burg,’ Sara muttered, and I realised that she was finally asleep.
On theThursday she flew to Vancouver.
A year later Sara married Tony in a penthouse at the top of the Hyatt Regency in Vancouver.
Twenty years later it all ended in tears. But don’t they all.
She has never been back to Africa.
In April 2017 she came to visit me in the UK
© Sam North May 2017
What I remember of that trip
By Sara Troy.
Yes, it was a 13 hour trip from Johannesburg in South Africa to New York, and yes he made we walk miles with my luggage. Yes there were slugs in the shower, yew, and yes he made me walk 40 blocks on the beach ( which we could not swim in for the jellyfish) and yes we went to New York to stay at his friend’s place with no air conditioning.
Yes we saw Pirates of Penzance, but not on the same day, and yes it was awesome, a hot summer night front row seats free and exciting. We also another day got to hear Pat Banatar and see her in concert from a peak on a hill.
We also went to see Fame, all the rage then and Urban Cowboy with Travolta. We ate at neat little places and he had me walking New York. Sam is and has always been an excellent tour guide if you’re willing to walk.
Yes, I was moving to Vancouver BC not because of a man, but my friends were there and why not, I needed a new life and yes it was told it would be a good place for me. Yes I did meet my ex-husband there, and now have 3 wonderful children and live in a great country, and I do miss South Africa for which I have not gone back too.
I loved my time with my brother, I always do, he sees life as an adventure and it is exceiting, if you have the energy. I loved seeing him in the UK with my sister recently, and hope to be back there again soon, for a a less energetic adventure.