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The Catalyst

Sometimes all you need is a sign

21/06/2011 – London

“What do you mean you QUIT your job?” Julia shouted at me. My sister was trying to mother me. However it was hard to take the ‘mom’ routine seriously when she was only two years older than me. This reversal in our sibling dynamic was hard to swallow too. She was a lot more emotionally childish than me. And then I exhaled a deep tuft of air.

“I’m not happy, Jules. I don’t have any kind of social life and I’m just too tired all the time. And all my friends are now married and have kids and their own lives. I feel left behind” I tried explaining.

“Well can’t you just try to do some courses or classes or something?” she asked her eyes flashing in exasperation.

“No, it’s more than that. I need to do something different. I need to nourish my spirit a little…experience life” I trailed off at her expression. I could tell she thought I was just being flaky. Never mind the fact that I had spent the last ten years of my life dedicated to building my career as a systems architect. I won’t bore you with details but it’s an IT thing.

I could tell she didn’t understand why I wanted to throw away the money and the lovely little apartment in London. The apartment I basically slept in ate take-out and watched TV in when I’d stagger home at eight or nine o clock at night. I understood the need for security coming from our poor background. What was the point of money and security when I couldn’t even enjoy it? I had lost my sex drive too. Not that I had time or the inclination to date anymore. The few boyfriends I’d manage to keep had soon left after I missed dates, relative’s weddings, and holidays. And then they had barely registered as gone. She shook her head continuously and I felt a little irritated spark of anger suddenly transform into rage.

“I don’t need to explain to you, Jules. I’m telling you my decision. I didn’t go into this lightly without thought. I’ve been agonising over it for weeks”

“But...” she interjected and I put a hand up to stop her.

“It’s done. I leave for South Africa in two weeks” my voice was hard and commanding – the type of voice I had to use for work when dealing with difficult people. I’d never used it on her before and I saw her tear up slightly. I’d obviously hurt her feelings.

“Why couldn’t you do this in England?” she asked and continued with “They have charity work here”

“I’m needed there to help orphans. I’m going to help people who really need me. Here we have the benefit system and there they have nothing of that set up”

“But it’s dangerous…What if you are killed?” she sobbed now and I felt the hard bit around my heart melt slightly. She had always been a soft touch. She used to cry for sad movies, weddings, her wedding, at Christmas. The last time I had cried had been a few weeks ago and before that at our parents’ funeral. Even though I was two years younger than her I’d had to be the grown up for both of us. I felt a small throb of pain at the thought.

“Jules, I’ve been depressed and lost for the longest time. I didn’t even realise I was depressed. I’ve been numb for years. Just barely going through the motions” I said in a softer voice. I wanted to get through to her. Make her understand why I was doing this. So she didn’t feel abandoned like after mom and dad died and none of the relatives wanted to take us in.

“I want to help kids like us. Teach them and help them improve their lives. Make a real difference and not some bullshit corporate one. You don’t need me anymore. You have Simon and your own life now. I want to have my own life.”

“I just don’t understand what happened” she sobbed out. And how could she understand the catalyst that changed my life. There had been no indication of it. I’d seemed happy if busy all the time. I let her believe it. I had even fooled myself in believing in it in my own stupid ‘head buried in the sand’ kind of way.

“I got an email from Jo White a month ago. Her sister, Kelly had been killed in an accident. You remember Kelly, right?” I asked and she sobbed again.

“Oh! I’m so sorry, Leslie’ she said tremulously. And like that I was brought back twenty years. Jules and I had been bundled off to our Great Aunt Maud’s place after our parents’ funeral. She hadn’t wanted to take us in except she was duty bound to do so. This was to become one of her favourite phrases in conversation to us. She professed to be a good Christian woman who had taken us orphans in with ‘the goodness of her heart’. I soon came to the realisation that someone who banged on and on about their own act of charity diminished the sentiment. We were two quiet children who tried to keep out of her way. She wasn’t evil or hurtful but it was clear we were just lodgers in her house. She fed, clothed and schooled us but we had none of the love and care we had been given by our parents. She was too old and set in her ways to unbend and change she’d tell us. And so I became the strong one because Jules was so fragile. When Julie sobbed her eyes out because she missed her friends and our parents I’d hold her and pat her head. I had to learn to cook the basics to feed us when Aunt Maud had Bingo night down at her local Lutheran church. I’d ensure both our dresses were perfect, our shoes shined and hair perfectly braided for Church on Sunday. Julie had soon made friends at school but I held back. People that I loved had died. I couldn’t do that again. I’d watch Julie surreptitiously in the playground to ensure that she wouldn’t come to harm. I was in my own childish way terrified of losing her.

And then Kelly White stumbled into me in the school line. She wanted to be friends and I retreated into myself even more. Until one day she handed me a piece of paper and walked away without saying a word. In it was an invitation to her house. I stuffed it into my suitcase and walked away. Julie had managed to find it searching for something in there. When she questioned me about I got sulky. She pushed and pushed until I agreed to go visit Kelly. I remembered how my hand had trembled as I carefully wrote out a reply.

And with that a new flash of memories - sleepovers, birthdays, first boyfriends, first loves, first kisses. All memories involving Kelly or ones she had been privy too. And the saddest memory consisted of me going off to ‘Uni’ in London and her staying behind in Truro to study at the local college. We swore blind we’d never be parted and see each other all the time. Inevitably we grew apart. Visits became few and far between as I moved up to London eventually. We’d write copious emails which slowed down until they were sent once a year on birthdays and Christmas. And then they stopped as I started working and she had kids. Life got in the way.

“How did she die?” Julie asked pulling me out of my memory induced reverie.

“It was a car accident. A drunk driver ploughed into her car. She died instantly” I explained.

“So because she died you re-evaluated your life?” she asked puzzled.

“Yes and No…” I smiled at her expression and continued, “I’ll try explaining. When I got the email I was a little irritated. I wondered to myself why she couldn’t tell me at a convenient time. I wasn’t even sad and just pushed it to the back of my head and carried on working. I completed my day and took my tube. I picked up a take-away on the way home and ate it in front of the TV. I then got into bed. And I couldn’t sleep and all I could see was ‘Kelly is dead’ in the email. And I wondered what type of selfish asshole couldn’t even summon up a little bit of sadness at the death of not only a human being but my closest childhood friend. I wondered if I was some kind of psychopath, or sociopath or narcissist. I got up and switched on my fucking laptop and looked these up on Wikipedia. And I stopped and realised what a shit human being I was becoming. I went through every decision I had made that got me to that point in my life. And I felt ashamed, Julie….So God-Damned ashamed, at my behaviour, my poor choices, the way I pushed everyone away. And lastly I thought about mom and dad and how they’d be disappointed in how I turned out.”

I stopped talking and drank some of my tea and looked at my sister. She was silently crying but obviously didn’t want to interrupt me. I hadn’t been so honest with her in many years.

“I called my boss to say I wasn’t feeling well and wouldn’t be in the next day. He was surprised as I was never off ill. I knew then you see that I needed to change myself before I died alone with nothing ‘real’ to show for it. And after that I cried so hard it felt like my chest had been ripped apart. I cried so hard that I fell asleep for a few hours and woke up and cried again. I cried for mom, dad, Julie, and all the people I’d disappointed. The next day I made an appointment with a therapist, Dr Finn The first session was awkward. I resented sharing my secrets as I’d clung on to them for so long. He asked me why I was there and I explained what had happened with Kelly. He booked me in for a few more sessions and I went back home. When I eventually got back to work it made me realise how unhappy it was making me. No one cared that I was working myself into an early grave. They all went off home to their families while I sat in the darkened offices all alone”

I took another sip of tea.

“And then I looked around at doing something more worthwhile. I took a weeks absence and went to all the charities in and around London. And then just as I despaired of finding anything – I walked into a Charity called ‘Children’s Hope’ in London. They had a few openings for people to try ‘blag’ money off the street and I was going to walk away when I saw a pamphlet. It was to go and work in Orphanage for Aids orphans in Cape Town, South Africa. You have to pay for the flight and all that but it was £5000 for six months and accommodation and food is free”

“What do you know about kids, Leslie?” my sister interjected.

“Nothing…yet…But I’m willing to learn” and smiled and felt the happiness lift the corners of my mouth into a joyful smile.

“Are you sure this isn’t your biological clock ticking?” she asked and I grinned at her.

“No, it just felt right…More right than anything else I’ve done in a while. I want to help other people before I help myself. Do a sort of penance if you can call it that”

“So you’ll be back in 6 months?” she asked hopefully.

“Maybe…” I said mysteriously.


Julie sat down at her laptop and opened up her email. She heard her husband in the kitchen humming slightly.

“Simon…New email from Julie” she shrieked out excitedly. She heard him grunt somewhere from the kitchen.

Sent: 21 December 2011 19:00

To: Hellooooooooooooooooooo  


Thanks for the care package you sent for the orphans and my special package of goose fat. Johan loves goose fat roast potatoes now. If I hadn't have decided to make such a big change to come here, I'd never have met the love of my life. I’ll Skype you tonight but I wanted you to be the first to know. I’m enclosing a picture. 



Simon heard his wife screaming loudly from the kitchen and ran into the lounge in panic. Julie was jumping up and down beside the laptop.

“What’s wrong?” he asked in a panic at his wife’s tear-filled eyes.

“Look” she managed to stammer out. He looked over at the laptop. There maximised was a picture of ultrasound entitled Baby Van De Burgh.

“That’s Johan’s surname…Leslie’s Johan?” he said slowly putting two and two together.

“I’m going to be an aunt” she said weeping happily. He grinned and pulled his wife closer.

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