My sister Josie was born in 1979, so there was almost seven years between us. I have memories from that time, but no clear memories of Josie until she was at an age when she was learning to walk. We had a baby walker consisting of a wheeled base with a handle at one end at a convenient height for a toddler and the base was filled with coloured wooden blocks. These were fun to play with and also gave the young child an early introduction to practical mechanics: if you remove all the blocks from the base the babywalker becomes significantly less stable and it's much easier to tip the whole thing up and fall on your face. Josie picked herself up again and again, determined to try one more time. And her focussed frown reminded me of nothing so much as Boris Karloff's classic portrayal of Frankenstein's monster. Sorry Josie. This is why you don't want your older brother writing about you, posthumously or otherwise!
I got on well with little Josie. Somehow nobody had remembered to tell me boys aren't supposed to be interested in children, so I was very interested indeed. The age gap between us meant that we weren't really entertained by the same things, but making up things to entertain her was very rewarding. Our brother Bernie was born in 1982 and from that point on I was often left looking after Josie - and occasionally a couple of her friends - sometimes in exchange for extra pocket money. Josie being so small and light meant she could ride around on my back and be swung around in my arms. Then one day she was too big to ride on my shoulders anymore and I still remember her crestfallen expression. Thirty two years later Bea, my own daughter, felt much the same about it.
Getting older wasn't all bad. It meant we could play more interesting games. Now, of course, I wish I'd written some of them down because I remember hardly any of it. One game sticks in my mind, though; possibly because I have played nothing like it before or since. I don't remember how old Josie was but by deduction she must have been about five or six. By this time I was obsessed with adventure and mythology and that sort of thing. So I decided Josie was going to go on a quest one afternoon. "There is a demon in the attic," I explained, pointing vaguely upwards towards the top of the three storey house we lived in. "The demon will use its evil powers to destroy the whole kingdom unless you return the magic diamond that was stolen from it." And so the cleverly-named Give the Diamond to the Demon was born. Josie started right at the other end of the house. The floor was out of bounds and I laid paths of cushions and books (the Dandy annual and other glossy hardbacks, all nice and durable). Then things got harder and there were sections where Josie had to close her eyes. And a giant threw a boulder at her, which looked a bit like a pillow. I only remember a few of the challenges now, but Josie climbing across the bannisters was very memorable because they creaked alarmingly and for a moment I thought they were going to collapse into the stairwell. Quickly, a passing Roc (I'd been watching Ray Harryhausen's The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) scooped Josie up and flew her to safety.
Although we had fun together, Josie and I were in some ways very different. I remember being quite surprised when she decided to become a vegetarian. Josie's favourite food for much of her childhood was what she called "rabbit holey", which was that particular kind of canned ravioli consisting of a bright orange sauce like baked bean sauce and very soft little white ravioli filled with what I assume was minced beef. There was no rabbit in "rabbit holey". But another food of the day which has since disappeared was rabbit cubes. These were unappetising little nuggets of meat which came in big frozen bags. Josie didn't like them. They were, to be fair, quite hard to like. But then one day she asked why they were called "rabbit cubes", having just made the connection between the terms "rabbit" and "rabbit". She gave up eating meat on the spot. I assumed her principled stance would soften in the face of more palatable alternatives, but as it turned out Josie remained vegetarian and as far as I know never regretted her decision.
In the Autumn of 1991 I left for university. I never got homesick in the way some first year students do, but where some students had escaped a home life they hated I looked forward to going home. During the term I would call Mum and Dad fairly regularly on the beaten up payphones in our halls of residence. These days I imagine they don't see much use what with mobile phones. I seldom spoke to Josie on these calls but then, to my surprise, she started writing me letters. In one of them she ran out of things to say and so she drew a picture of a small cartoon elephant on a piece of card, carefully cut him out and included him in the letter. He was bright pink and his name was Angus. Since he wasn't very good at standing up on his own I slid the end of his trunk into the crack at the top of my monitor. This started a tradition of my having a "monitor elephant" and although in later years these animals were increasingly large stuffed toys I still have Angus somewhere.
During the holidays I still got to talk to Josie face to face, of course. I occupied a position for her halfway between parent and sibling in some ways. I remember on one occasion Josie telling me that she'd overslept very badly one morning and was so late for school it had already started. Quickly she pulled some clothes on, but before she'd got out of the house she heard Dad coming up the stairs. In a panic, she'd climbed out of her bedroom window (which was on the first floor) and raced off in some disarray to a very late arrival at school. I listened and smiled... but decided not to tell her that I'd heard the other end of the same story the previous day from Dad, who'd wanted my view on whether to mention it to her or not!
When I was about fifteen I wanted to draw comics for a living. That was before I discovered how useless most of the art courses available were and how little money comic artists made. But still, I studied Art at A level and got reasonably good at it. It wasn't until the mid 90s that I began to realise Josie was significantly better. My favourite art teacher from secondary school was also teaching Josie. When I discovered this I mentioned that once - just once - I'd managed to get a nine and a half for one of my homeworks. This was something of an achievement since he rarely gave out nines and on point of principle had never awarded a ten. There was a moment of silence before Josie conceded with a glance down at her feet that she had in fact got a ten for one of her pieces. "Maybe," she hazarded, "he dropped his standards over the years?" But no, it wasn't that. And in fact later in life he and Josie crossed paths again and became good friends. Apparently she eventually managed to stop calling him 'sir'. As for Josie's art, she learned her craft well and produced many works from the beautiful to the bizarre. Dawn and I ended up buying one of her A-level pieces, which still hangs on our dining room wall. It's a picture of an old alchemist surrounded by esoteric equipment, apparently waking up in a delapidated armchair in his laboratory. Working as a fine artist isn't really feasible, though. As such she paid the bills by drawing caricatures. Often in the Grand Arcade in Cambridge, one year outside the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin (probably illegally) and at many, many weddings. As a result, Josie's art probably hangs on far more walls than most artists can dream of - albeit in the form of five minute charcoal sketches.
Josie took up drumming after I'd moved out, but she'd been playing keyboards for some time by then. When I was looking around for music for my first video game project I eventually decided to ask Josie to write some for me. She was only about 13 at the time and threw herself into the project with great enthusiasm. Much later, and perhaps with more exacting musical standards, she said she couldn't believe I'd actually used her work. But it was good! Exactly the kind of strong melody needed for video games. Almost like an advertising jingle - cheerful and catchy.
Once I'd left university I saw Josie less often, but that just made it all the more enjoyable to catch up with her. No longer a child, she had a love of eclectic ideas and conversations with her were never boring as a result. Once we sat and talked for an afternoon whilst Josie did a portrait of me in oil pastels. She'd never seriously used them before, but wanted more diverse work for her university portfolio. The resulting work was shocking and brilliant. It had a kind of ugly, horrifying quality to it like a Francis Bacon portrait, but with a slightly impressionist feel to the pastel marks. Most unsettling of all, it looked exactly like me; almost more so than a photo. On another occasion I happened to be in Cambridge when her band at the time - The Filthtones - were playing. Josie's drumming was amazing, energetic stuff. She disputed my claim that she was good. "I'll never be good," she explained, "my arms aren't strong enough."
At one point Josie was putting together a website and I constructed the initial version of it for her. I remember thinking it was a shame it was so hard to find a career in the arts. Make good art or good music and people love it... but somehow we've never worked out a good system for funding creative works. Josie never wanted to be a businesswoman. She never wanted to care about marketing and tax returns and logistics and all that tedious stuff. But she never gave up, always looking at new ways to approach the problem. Only this year she was talking to me about a new project she was doing with Waterstones. Based loosely on the I-Ching, it was an interactive installation in which flipping six coins would direct the participant to one of sixty four original artworks she planned to draw. Each would have an interpretation. She hoped to bind the pieces into book form at a low enough price that the change from the purchase would be exactly the right sum to use for the divination.
Josie was a much loved aunt to Ryan and Bea. One year she gave Bea a very curious shaped present. It was large and promisingly heavy. Bea ripped the wrapping off to reveal a velvet chest. She undid the catch and opened it. "It's full of treasure!" she said, which seemed most unlikely. After Josie's death I was reminded of this when an old friend of Josie's posted a picture of her from a childhood party dressed as a wizard. We don't really have wizards, not like the alchemist in the painting, but maybe kind aunts full of smiles and music and art who give you chests full of treasure are the closest we can get?
I moved over next to Bea to see what was really in the chest. It was full of treasure.
Image © Rachel Hewitt
Dom Camus - 29/10/2014