Short stories

The Burton Sisters

‘PLEASE don’t put the milk next to the cat food in the fridge. I don’t know why your cat should come for the weekend as well anyway. There’s hardly enough room in the flat as it is.’

It was true, the flat was small and getting smaller, in fact it had been shrinking since Christmas of 56 and that was twenty months ago.

Now it was August Bank Holiday 1958. The flat – a large four bedroomed yellow painted regency flat in NW3 - comprised (in no particular order such was the internal chaos) - four paying tenants – their four weekend boyfriends (lovers Maggie called them though at an average of nineteen surely this was too sophisticated?); one hanger on (Jo Burton’s mysterious sister who looked like Elizabeth Taylor but barely spoke) - and the cat.

The cat was a pure white Russian widely disliked and whose only ally was Jo Burton’s sister and this only because Jo’s sister had a white rabbit wrap from Harrods. They would be found curling on chairs and sofas, corners and occasionally kitchen surfaces. One of Jo Burton’s rich boyfriends had bought her the wrap in the Harrods sale, or so Sue said, and the cat somehow related to it.

It was Sue’s flat.

Just as well it was so close to Primrose Hill and that it was summer. Another winter like the last and they might all suffocate. Half were jobbing actors of course so they might be gone all night and well, the wretched cat didn’t take up that much space.

‘Shall I come and visit next weekend?’ said Sue’s boyfriend.

‘If you like. Better take the cat with you though. Maggie says she’s allergic. It makes her all blotchy for Desdemona.’

‘She’s doing well. She’ll go somewhere one day.’

‘I daresay, but not if she looks like she’s got leprosy. Can’t you get rid of it? It’s so unfriendly.’

He looked upset. ‘The only real friendly one in this group is Jo Burton’s sister. Why’s that?’

‘Probably because she doesn’t live here. I’ll see you next week then?’

‘I’ll call you.’

‘Phone’s off. Maggie didn’t pay the bill.’

She opened the door to see him out and check if it was still raining. Summer rain on a London pavement wasn’t so bad. It would clear soon leaving everything fresh and she could pop down to the Lebanese café and beg some lunch from the Australians who jammed there.

‘See you then.’ She stretched on her tiptoes to give him a peck but there, just when she didn’t want it, was the phone ringing.

‘Oh. Well. Well - she must have paid it after all.’

She watched him stomp off in the puddles all bad mood and balderdash and turned back with relief to be met with two cool green eyes – the cat, doubtless left as his calling card, a punishment or marking his territory. Why, thought Sue, are men really so peculiar?

THAT was Sunday morning; later that day after lunch and before tea, Maggie got into the flat to find Jo Burton’s sister hanging out in the kitchen with a man who claimed to be Kenneth Williams’ agent.

‘I didn’t know he had any agent.’ She passed Sue in the tiny hallway.

‘Does it matter?’ said Sue. ‘After a while these things become metaphorical or meaningless; it probably means he wants to be his agent. How was the theatre?’

‘Half-full or half-empty, depending on the size of your part. No one likes doing matinees. What are you wearing?’

‘Jeans. The Australians gave them to me.’

‘Give them here, you’re too short for them.’

Maggie could look good in a costume suit of armor, which she had actually had to wear last year when she was in rep as Joan of Arc. They were now in Sue’s bedroom that overlooked the Park, assessing the jeans in the looking glass. Maggie was a redhead with a strong handsome face, perfect for a serious actress. Sue was short and dark. They both had cropped hair. Sue was training to be an architect, all very serious.

‘Very nice,’ said Sue.

‘You know,’ said Maggie. ‘Do you think Jo likes her sister? She’s always avoiding her.’

‘Oh Jo gets so busy at the Times.’

‘She’s only a secretary,’ said Maggie.

‘But she wants to write, doesn’t she?’

‘Well the only way to write is start writing, isn’t it? I wonder if they’re adopted…’

‘Those Burtons? Don’t be silly. There’s a big age difference. Jo’s sister is seven years older. Do you know, I haven’t actually seen Jo for days. Weeks! Is she all right? Don’t turn the hems up, you don’t need to.’

‘Weren’t they born in India?’

‘Think so. Here, try the jeans with a red belt. That’s better. Brings out the blue.’

‘Quite like this,’ said Maggie. ‘Mother used to say that no good ever came to daughters of the Raj. That’s what she’d call ‘em. Spoiled she said, and once they got home, they were ruined.’

‘They were planters daughter’s. Tea. Hardly royal India… Now try it with the stilettos.’

‘Servants. That’s what my Mother used to say ruined all the women in India.’

There was a light tap on the door and Kenneth William’s agent stood in the peeling wooden frame.

‘We’re popping out to catch returns for La Boheme. Anyone fancy it?’

‘Isn’t that opera?’ said Maggie. ‘No ta.’

They couldn’t quite see Jo’s sister who stood some way behind him with her back slightly turned. Always so immaculately dressed. Today - a little mock Dior summer dress in white and pale blue strappy high-heeled sandals. Jo once said she had got them all made up by an India tailor, copied from fashion magazines, in an Indian bazaar. She was dark with big blue eyes and always a pose.

‘Your mistake,’ he said cheerfully, and escorted the pose out and they floated away in what smelled to Maggie like a trail of Shalimar.

‘La-di-da!’ said Maggie.

‘She is beautiful,’ said Sue.

‘But not happy. Anyway, what does she mean hanging out here all the time?’

‘She’s looking for a husband Jo said.’

‘Well – she won’t find one in this flat. Pass me the white blouse Sue I think I’m ready to walk these jeans out a little. Portobello or Camden?’

THAT was Sunday afternoon; all a-nice-walk-around-and-about sort-of day, an inside-out sort–of day, Sue liked to call it. Even the cat seemed to have a nice weekend, cuddled in the kitchen by the tiny cooker. Bank holidays. Even wet ones, even in London, were delicious.

Now there was a loose arrangement to meet that evening in the kitchen, to plan the party that was due the next weekend.

Not that parties ever needed planning in that flat.

But – a big but thought Sue - things were changing, she could feel it in the air. Maggie was sure she was going to get a good film role soon and that must be celebrated. Anyway Bez was pregnant and that needed celebrating as well as forgetting – well it was so awful it had to be marked somehow. She wasn’t going to keep the baby and god knows where the baby would go.

‘Not in this flat,’ said Sue.

Bez was the fourth official tenant next to Sue, Jo and Maggie. She had no cats or boyfriends or sisters, just the awkward little baby growing unwanted in her belly.

‘What are you going to do with it?’ said Maggie, horrified.

‘Adoption,’ said Bez optimistically. ‘But I’m going to stop eating as much just in case I start showing early. My first diet!’

‘All your fault Sue,’ said Maggie under her breath.

Sue said, ‘I didn’t think anyone was going to shin a drainpipe like that.’

‘Someone will want it,’ said Bez cheerfully. ‘Anyway it doesn’t show at the moment does it?’ She left the kitchen, suddenly turning again: ‘Anyone seen Jo recently?’

‘Well I was just saying to Maggie I haven’t seen her in a while,’ said Sue. ‘She all right?’

‘Avoiding the sister…’ said Maggie.

‘There’s a man,’ said Bez. ‘An older man; she’s smitten.’

Sue said, ‘Well she never said anything about him to me.’

‘I wonder if that was why she was crying so loudly the other day,’ said Maggie.

‘Maggie! You might have mentioned it.’

‘Ach, you know what she’s like. Even when she’s here, she’s hardly ever here. I thought someone had left the shower on. But I was rehearsing; had to ask her to shut up.’


‘Anyway,’ said Bez, ‘If you see her, tell her to return my copy of Iris Murdoch’s The Bell. Gawd knows why she wanted it, impressing her editor or something…’

Sue turned to Maggie. ‘We need to make rules for this party.’

‘I think,’ said Maggie, ‘The rules may already have been broken. Anyway, parties arrange themselves, don’t they?’

‘Mags we had half of Oxford rep here last time; we nearly got evicted.’

But Mags had peeled off to start rehearsing her movie script.

Sue sat alone with a coffee and cigarette and considered the mechanics of the flat. She herself was the mother, or supposed to be – the oldest, the big sister, the looker-after – utterly failed in the case of Bez; and Mags was and always had been the Queen Bee. An actress, a showman - though recently challenged by the mysterious presence of Jo’s sister, and her eternal Dior wardrobe.

What was her blasted name?

Bez was the baby. Pregnant baby. God bless Bez. And Jo? Jo was….

She couldn’t think. Everyone was welcome, that was the main thing, and every one seemed happy. Even Bez was happy, immune to the thing inside her. It was a happy, busy London flat and Sue loved the large London rooms and the great London windows to the great London outside. She was originally from Cornwall. Anything to beat those blown-to trees and cruelest-waves.

The thought of cruel waves lashing the Cornish coast for some inexplicable reason bought her back to Jo Burton. No, there was no getting away from it. Jo was the dark horse. Jo had answered the advertisement she had put in the paper eight months ago. In fact, she hadn’t even answered the advert, had she? She had simply rung the bell to the flat a day after seeing it. Sue had opened the door expecting one of their hanger-on boyfriends – and instead seen this all-thin and waif-like creature with a heavy suitcase making her lean to one side.

The lean-to tenant they’d called her.

She was all wonky and sore for ages. It was that suitcase that had made Sue’s heart bleed. All bashed and mangled. The kind of case you sat on and privately howled. She’s had to let her in then and there, without consulting Maggie who had never really got over it.

‘Where’s she from?’ wailed Maggie.

‘From Bengal, via Versailles. Her parents sent her there to learn French. She didn’t like the food and hasn’t eaten for six months apparently.’

‘And where are her parents?’

‘Retired to Ireland. We’re all she’s got. She’ll have to stay.’

She’d learned the French all right though, and could do French short hand too, which is what had got her the job at The Times. Tough little thing deep down, Sue thought, with all those geographic references like a walking globe: Darjeeling, Versailles, Cork.

‘She reads,’ Maggie had declared, ‘Like a confused Imperial train timetable. She doesn’t belong anywhere.’

Jo Burton had been their only argument but in fact, she’d been no trouble at all, in fact, worse than that, they’d hardly noticed her. Why, she didn’t even know what Jo was short for – Josephine? Joanna? One year on, and she’d never found out. What sort of Mother are you, she rebuked herself, lighting another cigarette.

And then there was the unhappy sister. When had she arrived? It was only Jo for the first few weeks, then on a Saturday evening –winter – just before Christmas? – and they’d put a tiny tree up in the sitting room – the sister had arrived and Jo had introduced her. Only everyone had been a bit drunk and that was why no one could remember the name and didn’t have the guts to ask what it was again the next morning. Or didn’t care. Maggie had said the Christmas tree fairy had arrived. She had been a bit overdressed, thought Sue, but it wasn’t a crime. She always looked very well presented; like a proper woman – whatever that was. There was something about her though, a bit tragic: beauty, cigarettes and silence. She almost never spoke. Jo did prattle on the other hand, but come to think of it, Sue couldn’t think exactly what it was that she talked about either. Didn’t eat. In fact, neither of them ate. Perhaps they ate at work. What was it that the sister did?

‘Mags,’ called out Sue from the kitchen, what’s Jo’s sister actually called? Mags!’

‘No idea. Griselda.’

‘Definitely not.’


‘I don’t think so!’

‘Madame Bovary.’

‘Maggie we really must be more nice to them!

Their conversation paused and Sue again floated the idea that she must really, really be a better mother to them all. This flat was a refuge. It must be women united. The world was changing. Women were changing. Why, they must look after one another; look out for one another. Everyone all in a rush; those poor Burton girls in London limbo. She wished and wished she could remember the name…

In the hallway the phone suddenly rang. It made her jump and she dropped her cigarette on her skirt and a hole appeared through the material. She could hear Maggie curse but then the door opened and she listened as Maggie walked to the table and lifted the receiver.

‘Hello? Oh hello. Oh yes? Oh. Really? Well congratulations. Aren’t you a secret one! Yes. Yes I’ll be sure to let your sister know. Yes. I’ll tell Sue. No I don’t know it, just give me the address. In Soho? Right ho. We’re all be there. Well goodbye.’

She strode to the kitchen. ‘You’ll never guess what. Don’t look so forlorn!’

‘I don’t,’ said Sue, ‘Have a good feeling about this.’

‘Your little lopsided Jo Burton has only gone and got engaged.’


‘To the editor of the Times, who I seem to remember is 25 years older than her.’

‘Oh Gawd. What a disaster.’

‘You do pick ‘em don’t you Sue. That’s what you get for letting in un-knowns... She’s moving out completely.’

‘Do you suppose that’s why she was crying the other day?’

‘Because he hadn’t asked her?’

‘Or because he had. Oh what a state – and she couldn’t come to us. Or did she try?’

‘Well at least that’s the end of the sister. Practically a spinster! Of course an absolute disaster to be usurped by your younger sibling. I knew they were trouble. No more haunting of this flat - she’ll have to haunt her new brother-in-law instead. The humiliation of it – but I always said they were a funny - .’

They froze mid conversation. A figure stood in the hall doorway. They only noticed her presence because the white cat had rolled on her back, something she never did for anyone else other than - Jo Burton’s sister.

She stood in the kitchen having surely heard everything, her face poised between tears, rage and disappointment. Even Maggie was impressed with the range of emotion. She looked more mysterious and tragic than any of Maggie’s heroines so far. What really did they know about her? What did they know about either sister? Some people had secrets and some had skeletons. In that moment it wasn’t clear which these sisters had. Her fake Dior dress was still immaculate though seemed less well fitting now. Her summer sandals were covered in a thin layer of summer dust. Had she fled Kenneth William’s agent? Had she returned to talk? Perhaps she had had an intuition of foreboding…

They would never know. They would probably never know anything about either of them. They would disappear as mysteriously as they had come.

Jo Burton’s sister opened her mouth to say something but swallowed the words and any and all emotion that was so fighting to come out. She bit her bottom lip just ever-so and her red lipstick slightly smudged. Oblivious to drama, the white cat stood up and nudged her for attention and instead she scooped it up, turned on her blue summer heals and left the flat.

‘Oops!’ said Maggie.

‘Oh dearie me,’ said Sue. ‘What a to-do! What a disaster. And I guess we’ll never know her name, will we.’

‘There are some girls who hack it and some who don’t,’ said Maggie sagely. ‘It’s a question of upbringing. Like I said, daughters of the Raj, spoiled in India, ruined in England. We’ll have to be quick about re advertising if we must avoid a void. Pass me a pen and fag will you? If we hurry it can be in the Evening Standard late editions for tomorrow. ’

  Dedicated to my mother Jocelyn Burton and her sister June – and all the girls who passed into women in the Primrose Hill flat 1957-59.
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  View other short stories:
  Butterfly Kiss
  Le Temps et Le Reve
  Dark Hearts & Dinosaurs
  © Copyright Sophie James. All Rights Reserved.