Catherine Simpson (2019) When I Had a Little Sister: The Story of a Farming Family Who Never Spoke.

Catherine Simpson is around the same age as me. We’ve both received a little largesse from Scottish Book Trust. Her story is in the title. Most readers understand intuitively with the use of the past tense that her wee sister, Tricia, has passed over. In plainer terms, she’s dead. She died in December 2013, aged 46.

My brother died around 1995. My partner’s brother died around the same time. They were both in their mid-thirties. Mother and father long gone. Our season has past.

Simpson looks for reason in her wee sister’s suicide.

‘I have often wondered many times what if anything, specific happened to Trisha when she was so young—maybe only eight years old—that essentially changed her personality.’

Happy-go-lucky and a wonderful and caring follower of her older sisters, she retreated behind her fringe, never to appear again. But it was a gradual, Mum and Dad had a farm to run and no time for such nonsense.

Catherine and her elder sister, Liz, asked the question.

‘You don’t think anything really terrible happened to her, do you?’  

As a child Catherine wondered if she’d used up all her wee sister’s goodness and kindness and cast her in the wrong parts in many of her farmyard plays.

As an adult she wondered if somebody had been fucking with her, literally. They were a family business and it involved animals being born and dying. Chatting was what other people and other families did. It happened on the telly. Kids were to be seen and not heard, which I was familiar with, and best of all, neither seen nor heard.

They could watch a terrier go down a hole near the pig pen and bring out the mother rat and shake it until its neck broke, and farmyard labourers grinded the blind baby rats into the dirt with their boots, but they couldn’t watch the sow being serviced by the inseminator. Sex was taboo.

Going through her sister’s papers, Catherine discovered a note Tricia had written to a friend.  

‘I can’t imagine what she’d gone through,’ Tricia wrote.

Catherine deduced from this her sister hadn’t been sexually abused as her friend had. Tricia had been depressed. Psychiatrists also look for a cause. An inciting incident, like a soldier’s body and mind suffering from Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder keeps returning to, which explains things. A battle won and lost. There was none of that for Tricia, as perhaps there isn’t for any of the rest of us. But we do like to wrap lives up so they make sense.

Tricia had secrets. They weren’t very big, but big enough to kill her. She wrote them down in her diary. Her big sister tries to make sense of them. Perhaps we never can and that’s the secret. Read on.