Real lives: The secret torment of my tragic sister

by Sheila Kohler

With rumours of violence and infidelity, Sheila Kohler knew that there were cracks in her sister Maxine’s ‘perfect’ society marriage. Then a fatal car crash sent her suspicions soaring…


Sheila and her sister Maxine aged five and seven
Sheila and her sister Maxine aged five and seven


My mother calls with the news. My brother-in-law, a heart surgeon and protégé of Christiaan Barnard, the first doctor to transplant a human heart successfully, has managed to drive his car off a deserted, dry road and into a lamppost. Wearing his seat belt, he has survived, but my sister was not so lucky. Her ankles and wrists were broken on impact. ‘She died instantly,’ my mother assures me. I wonder how one knows such a thing and think of that moment of terror in the dark.


I take a plane to Johannesburg and go straight to the morgue. I am not sure why I feel I must do this. Perhaps I cannot believe that my only sister, not yet 40 years old, the mother of six young children, is dead. Perhaps I believe the sight of her familiar face and body will make it clear. Or perhaps I just want to be beside her, to hold her one last time.


Growing up in Johannesburg in the 1950s, we were known as the Kohler girls: Maxine, the elder one, the sweet one, with her soft blonde curls and long-lashed violet eyes, her pale delicate skin that bruises so easily, the shy smile; and me, Sheila May, two years younger, darker skinned with straight hair, grey-green sloe eyes and narrow, boyish hips.


I did not go to my sister’s wedding in Johannesburg, though she came to mine. There are so many times in her short life when I have let her down. Why was I not at her wedding? I do not remember the reason I gave to my only sister. Carl seemed like a more suitable choice of husband than my own, Michael, a boy without fortune, still a student at university, studying French literature and political science.


Maxine and Carl’s wedding day, 1962
Maxine and Carl’s wedding day, 1962


My sister and I flew long distances back and forth so that we could meet in beautiful places. We met in France and toured the countryside together to study art. We travelled to Scotland where Carl was specialising in thoracic surgery and to Switzerland to ski. We went to Greece and stood on the Acropolis gazing out at the city below. We travelled to Italy with our growing families, nomads of a kind. All of these visits with my sister over the years to famous places have run together in my mind. They hardly seem real to me. They have become a song, a litany, a sung prayer, its distinct notes chiming mournfully in my mind.


Our young husbands took an immediate dislike to one another, bristling like hostile dogs at first sight. It was clear they had little in common. Carl had not learned the art of conversation at medical school, although I discover later that he knows how to charm when necessary. With us he mostly remains in sullen silence unless directly questioned. He glowers and buries his unease under a veneer of mockery. I have the impression he considers us superficial. He has not spent idle time wandering around a great garden or reading unnecessary books. He seems to say that while we have been wasting our time on stories, he has been studying the essentials: the anatomy of the body, the heart and the lungs, life and death.


The sisters on the beach in Durban in knitted swimming costumes
The sisters on the beach in Durban in knitted swimming costumes



On a visit to Paris, where my husband and I had moved for his job, my sister tells me a story. We sit side by side in the shade of chestnut trees in the Square Lamartine, watching our children play in the sandpit. She says a terrible thing has happened to a friend. I notice the tears shimmering in her violet eyes and think how kind she has always been, how sympathetic to the troubles of others.


A young wife, married to an up-and-coming doctor, had given a big party for his birthday. She cooked for days. In the midst of the festivities with children splashing in the pool, people drinking, the sun shining, she looked around for her blond handsome husband but could not find him. She went through their big house, even down to the bottom of the garden, but there was no response. Finally, back in the house, she found him lying on the gold carpet in his study with another man, a doctor, their limbs entwined amorously. ‘It was such a terrible shock,’ my sister put her hands to her heart. ‘What do you think she should have done? she asks earnestly.


‘Kicked them in the balls, thrown them out of the house, alerted the authorities,’ I say.


‘Oh, she couldn’t do that! They both would have been struck off, their careers ruined.’


‘So what did she do?’


‘All she could think of was to call his father into the room,’ my sister says, tears spilling unheeded down her pink cheeks, which is when I realise that, of course, she is telling me her own story.


‘This happened to you?’ I ask.


‘I promised not to tell anyone,’ she says, putting her hand to her mouth.


‘Well, you didn’t tell anyone,’ I sigh and hold her in my arms as she weeps. In this guarded form the truth will gradually emerge. How gingerly my sister will reveal her tragic story.


The sisters at the Acropolis in the late 1960s
The sisters at the Acropolis in the late 1960s


My husband and I and the children fly from Paris to Johannesburg during the Christmas holidays to visit my sister and mother. My sister comes to pick us up at the airport wearing her dark glasses. As she drives, she puts her hand to her eyes to wipe away tears from time to time.

‘Something wrong with your eyes?’ I ask.


‘Hayfever, something in the air,’ she says smiling.


Alone with my mother and my aunt in her pretty cottage in the grounds of my sister’s house, we sip tea. Mother sits in her chintz-covered chair and tells us that my sister is always taking refuge with her here. She runs down through the garden, escaping her husband in the main house.

‘Black and blue! He beats her black and blue!’ mother says angrily, making a fist. ‘I’m afraid he is going to kill her. He’ll shut her in the sauna and lock the door from the outside, or he’ll take her out sailing and drown her.’


‘For goodness’ sake don’t exaggerate,’ I say.


Mother tells me my brother-in-law has even risen one night in the dark and gone out and uprooted all the roses that used to grow in their garden.


‘The roses! I can’t believe it! Why would he do such a thing?’ I ask.


‘He replaced them with cabbages. More useful, he said.’

Fifteen years after our first trip to Rome, Maxine calls and asks me to meet her there. She has something urgent that she would like to discuss with me in person.


Suddenly, with her call, I grasp the opportunity for a change. I am diminished by my husband’s constant infidelity. Now I want to drink up life again with my sister. So I leave my three children, who are all in school, with the eldest, now 15, in charge. The concierge promises to keep an eye on things.


The early afternoon sun is warm on my face as I step out of the airport in Rome. I am eager to see my sister again and wonder what she wants to discuss with me. I think of Carl, his ruthlessness, his brutality. What has happened now?


As I stand at the window of our hotel room staring at the pink and white azaleas that run over the stone of the Spanish Steps, I feel suddenly as if somebody has turned on the colour in my life. Perhaps for the first time since Michael announced his love for someone else, I think I’m happy to be on my own, taking in life just for me.


I bathe and then go downstairs to wait for my sister. Why is she late? Could something have happened to her? I think of the troubling story Carl told us of my sister waking one morning feeling very ill. ‘She lay beside me saying she thought she was dying,’ he said and then went on to say that he was terrified, because he imagined that he would be accused of killing her. ‘Why on earth would they accuse you?’ I asked innocently at the time, though my words would come back to haunt me.


Then she arrives, her blonde curls in disarray, her face shining. I can see her trying to help the bellboy with her luggage. She explains she had to help someone who had several children find a taxi before she could get one herself. As she speaks, I hear my own voice coming to me and remember how our voices have always been indistinguishable on the telephone.


The house in Johannesburg where Maxine and Sheila grew up
The house in Johannesburg where Maxine and Sheila grew up


The next morning I lie beside my sister as we used to do as girls in the nursery and watch her sleep, remembering the house where we grew up and how freely we roamed together, bare-headed, barefoot, swimming in the big pool, picking armfuls of flowers and entwining them in our hair.


When she wakes we lean on the sill in the early sunshine, listening to the bells tolling the hour. ‘You cannot imagine how wonderfully peaceful it feels here with you,’ she says. ‘I wish we could stay for ever.’

‘We have to go back to our children,’ I say.


She says her husband is in great demand as a heart surgeon. He comes home at night exhausted, bad-tempered. ‘He says he adores me…’ Her eyes fill with tears. Her chin trembles and she wipes her eyes. She hesitates to tell me about the latest shocking events in her life. Carl seems to be a man who feels all is permitted to him, that he can follow his desires wherever they might lead. He has been found trying to molest a little boy, a friend of his son, in the changing room by their pool. What makes him think he is above the law in every way?


The last time I saw Maxine was in Geneva. We wandered together around the old town and talked about our childhood in Johannesburg. We talked about the games we played together, how we spread mulberries all over our faces, made garlands of flowers and wound them around our heads. I expect to see her again soon. So close to death, she has plans to change her life, to leave Carl and start anew. I say goodbye to her in the street for what will be the last time. She is 39 years old when she is killed, leaving six children. Her youngest is three years old.

The sisters on a ski trip to Switzerland in 1958
The sisters on a ski trip to Switzerland in 1958


I have tried again and again to imagine her last moments. He leads her by the hand from the party. She lingers on the dancefloor, turning and twisting with friends until he insists they leave.

My sister gets into the car and her husband sits beside her in the dark. He buckles his seat belt. He is always reminding her to do likewise, but perhaps she does not bother this night. She glances at him. ‘We are not going far, after all,’ she may have said, and he would have nodded and watched as she leaned back sleepily into the leather seat. His seat belt must be what saved him, only bruising his chest, one of the children will tell me later.


Perhaps, though, he may have been thinking of it for a long while. He has been considering it, or so his son tells me later. He found a gun at the back of his father’s closet and was convinced at one point that his father was planning on killing the entire family.


Despite all she has suffered at his hands, I imagine she still expects him to behave the way she would. It’s a warm spring evening and the top is down and the radio playing loudly. Perhaps he says something about the way she has been carrying on at the party, that she looked like a slut dancing like that in her thin blue dress. Perhaps she turns to him with rage and says she is going to leave him, that she despises him.


At the last minute, he apparently swerves slightly away from the lamppost. Perhaps if he had swerved a little more they might both have lived. It must be harder to do than you would think – killing yourself, I mean.


This photograph of Maxine, taken in 1957, still hangs on Sheila’s wall
This photograph of Maxine, taken in 1957, still hangs on Sheila’s wall


I still have a photograph of Maxine on my bedroom wall and sometimes people ask me if it is me, which makes my heart tilt with sorrow. There is something so unworldly about her with the cloud of light behind her head, a misty English countryside suggested in the background. She sits there in her ethereal loveliness in her pale mauve dress with the pleats, a curl on her forehead, her shy smile. Why did I not sense she would escape us all? Why did I not see how soon this would be, and how tragic?


Sheila wanted to consult a lawyer about her suspicion that Carl had killed her sister, but her mother was reluctant to put their children through the ordeal. There were no skid marks on the road, no other car in sight and Carl was not a drinker. He was never prosecuted and married again.


This is an edited extract from Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohler, which is published by Canongate, price £8.99