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Sometimes all you need is your little sister

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It wasn’t a particular day, nothing had really happened, but Ada felt like someone had dropped ten tonnes on her shoulders and strapped them there. Karl was wreaking havoc on her head, full of ideas from school that she was having to talk out of him every day. She figured he would have to live with it when he realised that not only was he going to have a sibling with darker skin than him, but his favourite uncle was also of the same religion that the world was trying to pit him against.

A jew who was doing as much as he could for Tommy, which Ada appreciated. Sometimes, when she could admit it, she missed Freddie more than she could say. He wasn’t the best husband, and he was destined to die for the cause no matter what happened, but he cared. He held her tight and used his coat to shelter her skirt when they sat together by the docks.

It would be nice to feel that again. To have someone look at her the very same way that Alfie looked at Tommy, to have someone to help her navigate raising a young boy in such a difficult time when the world is telling him so many things his father would have hated.

The phone rang, which pulled Ada out of her daydream as Karl finished off his math homework. She answered it hastily, giving Karl a smile and a little wave to tell him not to worry. It would be fine. Nothing could harm him, not when Ada was here. Even pregnant she would kill before anyone harmed a hair on his head.

“‘Ello, this Ada?”

Ada smiled, recognising Alfie’s dulcet tones anywhere. Someone who cared about Tommy. Those were good, and in short supply. “It is - anything I can help you with, Alfie?”

“Well, aren’t you all the same. So mercenary, well I fuckin’ never.”

“You’re part of the family now, so you’ll just have to deal with our blunt ways. I know you wouldn’t phone without needing something, what with Charlie.”

“Ay, he’s easy enough, he’s in bed. I’ve got some unfortunate fucking business, yeah? Your brother is in a bad way, and I’ve done my best, phoned that mad aunt of yours to see what I can do, but she said to call you. I can normally deal with him when he’s in a state, but he’s gone completely fucking off the rails.” Alfie rambled, making sweeping hand gestures from his position on Tommy’s office chair. “He’s currently on the sofa, he’s off by a mile”

Ada knew what it was immediately. Funny that she and Tommy always seemed to sync up. She sometimes wondered if maybe they should have been twins. “Give me an hour, Karl and I will stay overnight. Get two bedrooms made up for us, tell him I’m on my way.”

“You’re an angel, Ada. Tell Karl that I’ve got some pastries here that I need my favourite nephew to taste test for me, if he’s willing to help an old man.”
“If it’s not too late when we get there, then I’m sure he’d love to. If it is late, then you’ll have to talk to his bat of a mum.”

“Aye, she’s a stickler is she?” Alfie chuckled, listening in on any noise coming from the living room. “I’m going to check on our favourite disaster, you get yourself packed up and come as soon as possible - speed sensibly, yeah? Or carry a gun.”

“Both. Goodbye, Alfie.”

“Goodbye, Ada.”

Ada hung up the phone and looked at Karl, pulling on her leather jacket from where it sat on the chair opposite him. “We’re going to see your uncles, alright? Tommy’s a bit under the weather, and Alfie wants to give you sweets, as always.”

“Cool. Do I get to miss tomorrow?” Karl asked, abandoning his homework with little to no persuasion. “What’s wrong with Uncle Tommy?”

“Yes, Karl. I think less of that school might be best for you anyway, and there’s nothing that Tommy or I can’t teach you.” Ada decided, stretching. “Go get your stuff together, we could be staying two nights depending on how your Uncle’s feeling.”

Karl nodded, quickly walking out of the living room and jogging very nonchalantly up the stairs. Ada followed him, though not out of excitement. If Alfie couldn’t handle him, then Tommy was bad. Really bad. Ada would always do her best to help him, but with her at such a low… it was worth a try, no matter how she felt. Tommy was worth it, even when she spent the hours when Karl was in school wondering what it would be like to disappear.

Ada sat down in her bedroom, closing the door behind her and rubbing her forehead. “Fucking hell.” She was close to tears, the pressure in her head building with the thoughts of Tommy. Fuck.

“Mum?” Karl asked softly from the door, not used to seeing his mother like this. His mum was strong, she used massive words and wrote long things in newspapers. Her friends were funny, and she didn’t judge them like his teachers would have. He walked towards her, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.

“I’m alright, Karl. Just worried about your uncle.” Ada smiled, wiping fallen tears from her face and then sitting up. “Your Uncle fought in the war, like Uncle Arthur and Uncle Alfie. The war did funny things to people, and sometimes your Uncle has flashbacks - like in books - where he’s back in the trenches.” She explained softly. “And sometimes it’s not the war at all, which is okay. Sometimes he’s sad about Grace, who you won’t remember. She was Tommy’s wife before she passed, like what happened to your dad, and that makes him sad sometimes.”
“Do you get sad about dad sometimes?” Karl asked softly. “I get sad about him. Even though I don’t remember him. Is that okay?”

“Yes, I do. I have never loved anyone as much as I love your father. It’s okay to miss him, love. It’s more than okay to miss him, because I know that there isn’t a day in your life that your father wouldn’t have wanted to spend with you.” Ada told him honestly, holding his shoulders. “If you ever want to talk about him, tell me, Karl. I try not to talk about him much because I don’t want to upset you, but if you want to, then I will tell you every last detail about your father.”

Karl nodded, wrapping his arms around Ada tight, sniffling into her neck. “Do you think he would have liked me?”

Ada couldn’t have nodded quicker “God, yeah. Your dad would have loved to meet you now. He was good at maths, which would have been useful, eh?”

“Yeah,” Karl laughed, wiping his cheeks on Ada’s blouse.

“Go pack, yeah? We can talk in the car. I’ll bring the nice biscuits from the cupboard, I know Tommy will like them.” Her smile was watery and weak but Karl seemed to accept it just the same. He gave her a final squeeze and walked out of her bedroom, leaving her alone.

That was the reason Ada couldn’t leave. For the young boy who still very much needed a mother, and for the young girl who was still developing in her stomach. Karl was her top priority, over herself, over her sadness. She brought him into the world, and she would make sure it was one that he knew how to read like his battered copy of The Wizard of Oz.

Ada packed her things, occasionally glancing at the wedding photo they’d gotten done - it was cheap but it cost a fortune to them back when they were still in Small Heath. She resented the girl in the photo - young, beautiful, happy. Ada would do anything to go back with her.

Once Ada had packed a small bag, biscuits from her and Tommy’s childhood safe in a tin on top. Tommy used to charm the young girl working in the bakery whilst Ada slid the biscuits into Tommy’s pockets. They were a rarity, which is what made them so treasured. When they didn’t feel like sharing, they’d run into the alleyway and scoff them, almost making themself feel sick.

She took Karl’s clothes from him, checking he’d gotten himself a change of underwear and socks and putting them in her bag.

It was silent until they were in the car, out of London and speeding a little down the country lanes that Karl spoke again.

“Daddy was a communist, wasn’t he?” Karl asked, unsure of himself. “Like Jessie?”

“He was. I was a communist too. Mostly because of your father, but also because it seemed like a solution to the time we were in.” Ada told him with a smile. It was easier to remember then when she thought about how his eyes lit up when he rambled about politics. Missing him was so bittersweet it hurt.

“So you’re not anymore?” Karl probed, watching the sheep in the fields along the road.

“I’m not anything in politics anymore, love. All of it has its downsides, and most of them are more interested in putting each other down than making changes.” Ada told him - her take on parenting was that treating the child as anything less than a rational human being with full thoughts and emotions would only stunt them. “It doesn’t make Jessie’s opinion on it less important, or your father’s, or your Uncle Tommy’s. Or you, no matter what you see as being right, as long as you aren’t harming other people.”

“So like what Mr Harrod says about Jewish people.” Karl decided. “That’s bad. Alfie is Jewish, and he’s nice.”

Ada nodded, proud that he’d come to the conclusion on his own. “Exactly. And you, Karl Thorne, are romani. People will call you many things - gypsy, they may call you unclean, they may call you a witch. Don’t listen to them, just like I don’t listen to them for being romani, just like Alfie wouldn’t let anyone call him anything for being Jewish, just like Jessie wouldn’t let anyone call her anything for being gay.”

Karl nodded, silencing for a minute before posing another question. “Why can’t Alfie help Tommy?”

“Sometimes, Karl, you just need your sister or your brother. You’ll understand.” Ada pulled into the driveway of Arrow house, greeted by Alfie standing outside the front door, cane and hat as per usual.

Ada had to stop Karl from throwing himself out of the car as they were still moving, but let him torpedo into Alfie once they had stopped. It wasn’t an unusual thing for him to do, and she thought that maybe he’d need a bit more affection than usual.

“Hey kid!” Alfie’s voice boomed, wrapping Karl in his arms for a second. “Where’s that wonderful mum of yours, eh?”

“Right here, Alfie, don’t worry.” Ada teased lightly, bag over her shoulder. The skirt she was wearing hid her slight bump, but Alfie still hugged her with caution.

“Alright then, now, two beds ‘ave been made, stay as long as you’d like, all them fuckin’ formalities. Karl, my boy, Charlie may have tried to beat you to the pastries, so I made double. Then he said he didn’t like ‘em. So, if you ask your mum very nicely, I reckon she’ll let you have some whilst she talks to your less fun uncle, yeah? Bit under the weather, needs your mum to sort him out.”

Ada nodded at Karl, unable to resist his begging eyes. She never could, even when they were his father’s.

Alfie guided them inside, hanging their coats and then guiding Karl into the kitchen, wishing Ada luck behind his back. She shrugged it off with a wink, but was secretly shitting herself.

“Tommy?” Ada called softly into the living room, just light enough to see him. She dropped her bag and purse on the ottoman, walking over with soft steps to sit next to him. “That husband of yours is giving Karl more sugar than he’s ever seen, so I thought I’d come in and see my favourite brother.”

It was something they had all done - told each other they were their favourites when it was just two of them alone. Tommy’s face nearly twitched into what you’d call a smile. He looked at her, wrapping an arm around her. Still Tommy, then. Unable to actually hug unless you forced him to.

“I know Alfie called - I asked him to. Can’t stop thinking, my head’s full of mad horses and they’re stampeding.” Tommy sighed, leaning back in the chair. “Can’t stop thinking about you and Karl, and the baby that’s inside you, or about the fact that Linda’s just taken Billy with her without thinking about Arthur, or about Dad. I keep thinking about Dad. He keeps showing up in my head, Ada. The stuff he says about Alfie, about your baby, about me…”

Ada sighed softly, pulling Tommy into a hug. “Don’t you worry about me and my baby. She’s got me, she’s got her brother, she’s got you and her uncles. You do yourself dirty, Tommy, because you protect us more than you give yourself credit for. Remember when we used to go to the bakery?”

Tommy grinned, then nodded. “The girl who’d work there on weekends… robbed them blind.”

“That we did.” Ada beamed, shuffling about in her bag to get out the biscuit tin. “So, stuff your face, I will too, and then talk to me, yeah?”

He almost audibly gasped as he watched Ada open the biscuit tin.

“How did you get these, Ada? Do they taste like they did?”

“Exactly like it, go on, have one. Only if you’ll talk to your favourite sibling honestly.” Ada bartered, holding out the sewing tin.

“Did you bring Finn with you?” Tommy joked, taking one and missing a faux swat.

“Twat.” Ada muttered, a fond smile on her face. “What’s got you thinking about dad? It’s hard to believe he’s dead, but it helps me sleep at night.”

“So much is going right, Ada… so much is going wrong, I know, but I’m in a stable relationship with someone who cares for Charlie like a father, Ruby too when she comes round for weekends. He cares about my family too. My kids are happy. You, Finn and Arthur are as chaotic and messy as you’ve always been, but you’re all alive.” There was something unspoken about John, but they didn’t dare address it. Not unless Tommy brought it up. “He always shows up when it’s going well.”

Ada sighed softly, wrapping an arm around him and offering him another biscuit. “That man took our childhoods, Tommy. We deserve to have a life that has nothing to do with him, don’t deny yourself of that.” She reminded him softly. “Sometimes people stay dead, and sometimes they leave forever. For once he has done both.”

“We thought he was gone last time - it takes an hour to get to you, an hour to arthur, an hour and a half to Finn. How the fuck am I meant to get to you all if he comes up again?” Tommy fretted, leaning into Ada and getting another biscuit. “You’ve got an impressionable kid who doesn’t need to see you fight your own father, fucking hell, Ada, you’re pregnant.”

“Tommy, you do not need to look after us.” Ada told him - not harsh, but stern. “You are not responsible for anyone but Charlie, and on the weekends Ruby. If he does somehow resurrect himself, and he finds me or Finn first, then I will get Finn to look after Karl whilst I make sure he doesn’t come back again. Don’t worry about us. We’re going to be okay, yeah? Just because I’m your little sister doesn’t mean I’m not still the same girl who bit off a teacher’s finger because he told me off. Just as vile as ever, yeah?”

Tommy chuckled at that, shaking his head. “I know you’re strong, Ada, you could take on Alfie should you have the motive. I don’t want Karl seeking out his grandfather, and I don’t want you to have to explain what kind of a man he was to Karl either.”

“Nonsense, Tommy. I’m his mother, aren’t I? We’ll come to it, we’ve only just decided I’m going to talk to him more about Freddie. Baby steps, you know?” Ada knew that her father would come up in conversation one day - Karl was a smart boy with an intuitive sense of the world around him. She had already crossed that bridge mentally, or atleast got a few steps onto it.

“What does he think about Freddie?” Tommy asked tentatively, having blamed himself for his death too - he had gotten him the best doctors possible, but it hadn’t been enough, and now his little sister was raising their kid on her own.

“Well, he knows that his dad would have loved him more than words could say, and that his dad was a communist.” Ada explained softly, her eyes watery. “I’m - How do you cope, Tom? It’s been so long, but I still see his face every time I close my eyes.”
Tommy felt helpless as he watched his sister try and hold back tears. He wrapped himself around her, rubbing her back. He didn’t imagine being pregnant with another kid with no dad was helping much. “It hurts still, Ada, it always will. You loved him, and he wouldn’t have stepped near you in the first place if he wasn’t so besotted. Sometimes the people we love can’t stick around, and it’s not your fault.”

“It’s not yours either, Tommy.” Ada told him, voice muffled ever so slightly by his shirty. “Not Freddie, not Grace. Not your fault.”

Tommy wished he could believe her, wished he hadn’t spent days wondering what would happen if he just left. If he stuck a bullet through his head and paid someone to throw his body on the January, sail him off the way he had started.

“Don’t, Tommy. Don’t feel like I do. Charlie needs you, Ruby needs you, Alfie needs you. Hell, I need you.” Ada told him through tears, looking up at him. “Grace wouldn’t want you to join her, not before your time.”

“Fuckin’ hell, and to think I had sent you in here to help.” Alfie tried to joke but visibly softened at the sight of the crying pair on the sofa. Karl was beside him, watching them. He walked over, hopping onto the sofa and sitting by his mum, patting her shoulder awkwardly.

“Is it about dad?” Karl asked softly, stealing a biscuit.

Ada nodded, giving him a light squeeze. “Yeah, it is. How did you get on with Alfie’s pastries, eh?”

“Good.” Karl told her, obviously thinking about more than pastries.

“Reckon he’s on his way to being as good as me.” Alfie beamed proudly, pride in his voice as he sat next to Tommy.

Tommy watched the scene in front of them, Charlie in bed above them. Maybe it wasn’t so bad, maybe their dad wouldn’t come. If the pain was the price of having a family that seemed to be so lovingly dysfunctional, then maybe he could take it.