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My first word, at about a year old, was Go-Go. That was as close as I could get to the name Joanna. My big sister's name.

There were only eighteen months between us — I was just one school year behind her — but we weren't alike. Joanna was painfully thin, tall and lanky, straight dark hair falling across her face, so fine and flyaway it was never tidy. I was small for my age, with a head of blonde curls that people often called sweet, or even enchanting. My father called me "doll" and at three I was entered for the "Miss Pears" competition. Relatives and strangers alike fussed over me. My earliest memory was of admiring faces gathered round as I clung to my mother's skirt in the street.

Joanna seemed to escape all that. She got on with doing things. I thought it should have been Joanna who was entered for "Miss Pears". She would have won. She won everything — school drama prizes, the lead in the ballet school show, the cycling proficiency championship for the county, a house designing competition run by a local building society (prophetic, as she became an award-winning architect).

I put it down to my size that I wasn't allowed to do so many of things Joanna did. She was permitted to go to the shops on her own long before I was even allowed to go in her company.

At the end of one long summer holiday, however, I'd been stuck at home, miserable from a painful bout of athlete's foot. Mum finally let Joanna take me to the park, with firm instructions to look after me. Mum didn't have to worry. Joanna took her big-sister responsibilities very seriously.

The other local kids had gone back to school — our Catholic one had a few extra days holiday — so the playground was empty and we had a choice of equipment. Joanna took me on the seesaw, and pushed me on the swing for a while, but then she wanted a swing of her own, so I wandered over to the roundabout. I was just drifting round, wondering if there was anything we could use to take blackberries home in, when a man appeared among the trees beyond the tarmac.

I didn't notice him until he attracted my attention by calling "Little girl!"

"You're a pretty one," he continued, as I jumped off the roundabout. "Would you like to see something nice? I'll give you a sweet."

I hesitated. He looked a bit odd, his shirt and trousers crumpled like used brown paper, his sleeveless jumper full of holes. I had been warned not to take sweets from strangers.

"I've got a nice little animal here," he said, fumbling with his waistband. "Would you like to touch it? Would your friend like to see?"

"She's my sister," I said. I was curious. Whatever he had was so small I couldn't see it yet. A mouse? A hamster? Mum didn't allow us to have a pet.

As I went closer and one hand descended on my shoulder I suddenly heard Joanna screaming her head off as she ran towards us.

"Go away! Leave her alone! I'll call the police! Let go of my sister!"

The man shuddered and twisted away from me. I fell heavily into the twigs, early fallen leaves and nettles at the edge of the playground. Joanna continued to yell at the man, who was now running away, and I burst into tears.

Joanna took me home, and Mum started to scold her for letting me get stung and grubby, but I said: "She saved me from a nasty man!". Mum hugged us, and sponged my knees with warm water and antiseptic, while Joanna stood by, sucking on an ice-pop.

I wasn't sure exactly what Joanna had saved me from, but I knew she'd always be there to protect me.

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Helen Whitehead

Part of this work was submitted for the Dissertation for
MA in Writing

Nottingham Trent University

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Last amended on 8th September 1998 / copyright H. M. Whitehead