Sisterly Devotion by Ginny Swart

Two ageing South African sisters go on holiday to Kenya, and find out surprising new things about each other; by Ginny Swart.

Image generated with OpenAI
"You have my list? And you'll arrange for them to be collected from my house once we've left? I'll leave the key with my neighbour. Thank you, Mr de Waal."

Libby Phillips put down the phone just in time.

"Who was that, dear, the travel agent again?"

Her younger sister Ann walked slowly into the room, still slightly hunched after her operation. She sank into an armchair with a smile.

"Sit up straight, Annie, you know what the doctor said," said Libby briskly, ignoring her query. "You need to get your muscle tone back again."

"Bossy boots. Just wait a few weeks, I'll be a new woman!"

After that dreadful conversation with Dr Van Zyl, Libby had good reason to doubt this, but she smiled agreement.

"I know you will. Probably won't be able to keep up with you once we hit the night life. You always were a go-er!

Ann grinned.

"Yes, well... that was long ago."

She fingered the pile of holiday brochures next to her chair.

"I still can't believe it. Kenya and the Serengeti! It's so good of you, Libby. I don't know how to thank you. I mean, I know Bill left you very well provided for, but really, I do appreciate your generosity."

"That is absolutely and positively the last time you're going to say that, Annie, or I'll cancel the flight," said Libby with mock severity. "I'm planning to enjoy this holiday as much as you are. Don't spoil it all by being soppy, now."

The sisters smiled at each other. They'd always been the best of friends and as teenagers in Oudtshoorn, their singing and dancing duets had been the star turn at the church concerts. They painted their lips dark red, dressed in '40s outfits with wide shoulder-pads and made like the Andrews Sisters.

"Sisters! Sisters! Never were there such devoted sisters!"

This old number used to be their favourite piece, when they linked arms and belted it out as their finale.

As children, they had been very different. Right from the start, Libby had adored the limelight and the buzz of performing. When the curtain went up, she glowed and became more alive onstage. Annie, always the quiet one, preferred to sing just for friends, away from the spotlight, but she forced herself to go along with her older sister just to please her. Of course, when Bill came along and swept Libby off overseas, that was the end of their theatrical career.

"She wore the dress, and I stayed home!"

This is more or less what happened, reflected Libby. I got to wear the beautiful wedding dress and follow Bill to Geneva with his glamorous job, and she stayed home and worked in the library for forty years. If only Annie had married some nice fellow and had a big family. And if only Bill had been a bit cleverer about investing money. Maybe it's a good thing that he's not around to see what's happened to our pension.

Privately, she dreaded the six-hour flight to Nairobi. Annie had all her medications with her, but what if she had another attack? Dr Van Zyl had said it would all right to travel but he'd warned her not to stay away too long.

"Three weeks, at the most," he'd said. "After that, she's going to need to be close to home. I don't know what sort of facilities they have up there to deal with an emergency."

No matter what it cost, Libby intended to make sure that her sister would have three wonderful weeks to remember.

A month later, people queuing at the departure hall in Nairobi turned to smile at the two elderly women struggling to carry a six-foot wooden giraffe. They were giggling so hard they practically dropped it, and an attendant came forward to give them a hand.

There was no doubt that the two had hit the tourist spots. They were loaded with carrier bags, with one of them wearing leopard skin pants with a tee shirt from the game park, and the other in a zebra patterned caftan. They both sported khaki bush hats and thick ropes of beaded necklaces, and the official who stamped checked their passports gave them a wide grin.

"Did you have a good holiday, ladies?"

"We certainly did!"

"Well, I'm glad to see you did your bit to keep the Kenyan economy afloat. Come back soon!"

Libby and Ann collapsed into wide leather chairs, laughing. Ann arranged her packages, peering into each one with a sigh of satisfaction.

"These leather sandals were such a good buy. And this cotton top, isn't it the prettiest thing? It's going to be just right for summer. Too bad it's still winter in Cape Town."

"Thirteen degrees, they said on the radio. Got your warm woollies ready for when we land? And a waterproof jacket?"

"Yes, in my hand luggage right here, you old bossy -"

"Bossy boots. I know. Can't help it, Annie. Comes of being your older sister. And I'm too old to change."

"If I'm not used to it by now, I never will be."

They smiled at each other in perfect understanding.

What ever am I going to do when she leaves me, thought Libby, stricken. When Bill died, I knew Annie was there for me but soon... soon there'll be no one. She swallowed the panic rising in her throat.

"Let's have a celebratory glass of wine before we board. The end of a great holiday."

"I'll drink to that," said Annie. "And to the best sister any girl ever had. Thank you, Libby, for this wonderful time. No matter what happens when we get home, I'll never forget -"

"What did I tell you about getting all soppy?" Libby patted her sister's hand. "I'll never forget it either."

The flight back to Cape Town was uneventful, although Annie was looking strained and pale when they landed.

"I can't wait to get home," she murmured, suddenly weary. "It'll be good to sleep in our own beds again. I nodded off on the plane, so I don't know why I'm feeling so exhausted."

"Six hours in the air is enough to knock the stuffing out of anyone," said Libby comfortingly. She'd spent the flight watching for any sign of distress from her sister. "We'll be back in half an hour, and a cup of tea will make you feel better. Oh good, here's a taxi."

She was in the kitchen waiting for the kettle to boil when she heard a cry of distress from Annie and hurried through to the sitting room, expecting the worst.

"Libby! You've been robbed!"

Annie was pointing to the empty space on the side table where a pair of Sevres vases used to stand in all their ornate splendour. "And your lovely Wedgwood bowl... and that little Chinese statue. All gone. And where are the silver candlesticks from the mantelpiece? Libby, phone the police!"

Damn Annie's eagle eye, thought Libby, I should have sent her upstairs and then moved things around a bit so she wouldn't notice.

"Oh, those? I decided to sell them all, they were just collecting dust. I was sure I mentioned that to you before we left?"

"What? All your beautiful things? That bowl Bill gave you for your sixtieth birthday?"

"I never used it for anything," said Libby cheerfully. "And I was tired of being so careful with everything. Life's too short to waste hours cleaning and polishing ornaments."

Annie looked at her in stunned disbelief.

"But you loved those candlesticks! I remember you said you'd always treasure them, because Bill gave them to you for your silver anniversary. How could you sell them?"

So now she thinks I'm a heartless cow, thought Libby, wryly amused. But better that she thinks that than finds out the truth. That they've gone to that swanky auction house in Church Street to be sold next week.

"I'm planning to re-decorate," she said airily. "All that old stuff just didn't fit in with my new scheme. I'm thinking minimalist, clean lines, madly modern. Now, why don't you go up to your room and I'll bring you a hot cup of tea?"

Annie shook her but went slowly upstairs without saying anything more.

Libby gazed around the room at the blank spaces where once her treasures had stood, and the tears trickled slowly down her cheeks. She didn't regret the sale of them but she would miss them dreadfully. She'd always loved beautiful things and her darling Bill had been such a generous man. But he'd have understood that she'd had to do it.

They'd got home just in time. The next day Annie was feeling very poorly and Libby insisted on calling Dr Van Zyl. By the afternoon she was back in hospital once again. Libby went to see her that evening and was shocked at how ill her sister looked beneath her new tan.

Annie lay completely still, her eyes fixed on Libby's.

"Lib," she whispered, "We always had fun, didn't we?"

"We did, my darling. And we'll have some more, once you're up and about again."

"I don't think so." Annie wet her lips. "Lib, I know why you sold all your beautiful things. It was to pay for our holiday, wasn't it?"

There was no point in lying any more, it was time for the truth.

"Yes," whispered Libby. "But I wanted to do it."

"And I thought Bill had left you so well off."

"My poor Bill. He thought he had, but in the end his pension turned out to be a lot less than we expected. He was hopeless with money and the lawyer said he must have made some bad investments."

Annie's eyes filled with tears. "One of them was me, Lib."

Libby stared at her sister, mystified.

"How do you mean, you?"

"Over the years, Bill gave me quite a lot of money, Lib." Annie's voice was so low that Libby had to lean closer to hear the words. "He was always so kind. And when I retired, he paid an enormous amount into my bank account because he knew my librarian's pension would be so small."

"But why should he give you money?"

Annie closed her eyes wearily. "For old times' sake. Bill and I... well, he always was a lovely man, wasn't he, Lib? And those weeks when he came home to the Cape Town office and you stayed on in Geneva with the children... men get lonely."

Libby couldn't believe what she was hearing but pressed her sister's hand gently. "It was a long time ago, Annie, don't worry about it."

"There was never anything important between us," Annie whispered. "It was just because I looked a little like you, Lib. Bill missed you so much on those trips."

Typical Annie, kind to the last, thought Libby. Trying to spare my feelings.

"Sisters, sisters, never were there such devoted sisters!" she sang under her breath with the ghost of a tune. So, we shared everything. She had my husband while I stayed home. Libby couldn't help a little giggle escaping.

Annie opened her eyes and struggled to speak.

"I've left you everything, Lib, all the money Bill gave me and the little bit I've saved. So, please, do me one last favour..."

"Anything," said Libby, fighting tears.

"Buy back all your precious old things."

"I will. Or maybe I'll buy some beautiful new things. We'll go shopping together, Annie, you and me. You'll enjoy that, won't you? Remember when we bought that giraffe from that funny little man on the side of the road? And how we bargained with him? And you carried the neck and I carried the legs? That was fun, wasn't it, Annie?"

"Never were there such devoted sisters..."

Annie's whisper trailed off, and she closed her eyes, smiling slightly.


  1. An fun twist at the end.
    From a monogamous traditionalist standpoint, it is ironic that Libby’s husband’s infidelity with her sister
    - sexual, then financial - is what allows her husband to be faithful to his role as a provider for Libby, posthumously…
    One wonders what greater happiness the three adults might have had if open consensual bigamy were an option in their culture..

  2. Well-written, engaging, and a great message about the importance of family and the joys of traveling and, most of all, forgiveness. Love the image of the two sisters carrying the girafe.
    - David Henson

  3. I enjoyed this story. It is short, but actually contains the plot for an entire novel. Well done, Ginny.

  4. Rozanne CharbonneauApril 11, 2023 at 3:53 PM

    Sorry, the third comment is from me.

  5. Ginny Swart’s “Sisterly Devotion” is a tiny tale of the mutual enlightenment of devoted sisters, of secrets revealed at the last possible moment. Would make a nice novella, if expanded and fleshed out. A thoughtful and bittersweet story; I liked it. On the other hand, it is a little depressing to see characters of one’s own generation referred to in the text of a story as “elderly.” But, even with that, it is a good story, Ginny, well done.