Cigarette smoke occluded my vision; when she exhaled, I felt my eyes redden and sparkle as the fumes grew stronger, only to dissipate easily in the long, low sun which slanted golden through the curtains. From the tip of her cigarette a dense, thin trail of grey rose and slowed and cooled, leaving a horizontal vapour trail at eye level, a calm and patient sea of haze. I was restless: I couldn’t stop there, for I had other business. I still hadn’t been able to get a word in edgeways, to say my own piece. For I had to speak: I had to tell her what only I knew, before I left her there, alone in that house once more. But there was something intangible about her which arrested me. She dressed comfortably in a baggy pullover, the mad pattern of which had faded into a patchwork of beige over numberless years. I imagine smoke clung to it like dust clings to artefacts left indefinitely untouched. To her hair, too: it must have clung to her, trapped in its dry, tight coils.
‘When they held up the scan, and showed us the – the results,” she said, half-memory, half-smoke: “…and they said, you know: “Well, there’s the head, and there’s the back, and you see those are its little legs… And there’s the other head…”’
At this she smiled and leaned back, into her own recollection, her own private joke: her face tautened, her thin lips drawn back to reveal greying teeth. She held in one hand her cigarette; the other, her reddest, reddest wine. She must have been in her mid-fifties, despite it all. How beautiful she might once have looked.
‘Well. You can imagine I was a little bit taken aback, to think the two-headed monster was in there just… growing inside me. And then they says “It’s twins” and I nearly pissed myself with relief, I don’t mind telling you. Thank Christ! Not one of those freaks you read about born in India, with all… legs and mess, and that.
‘But two of them! A blessing. I mean it wasn’t a blessing to give birth to the buggers, but I’d rather that than the other, I mean the two-headed monster: we’d have to chuck it down the village well or something, hardly ideal. No. So twins, much healthier. Rather than a Rosemary’s Baby type nightmare: not that I’ve seen the film but from what I gather it’s hardly a picture of a happy young family. Did it have two heads, Rosemary’s baby, was that it? I don’t know. I might watch it someday. Find out for myself….”
I shifted deeper into my chair. Though a harmless creature in many ways, I sensed something amiss about her. She kept my gaze fearsomely throughout, avid in her own attention, drawing me in.
“Yeah, not a picture of a happy young family at all. Although we hadn’t always been a happy young family, not by a long stretch. The last child, you see, my first, we were too young. Too young. I refused to terminate, although Harold thought… but no. Gave him up.”
How could I leave now? I was in the midst of a personal catastrophe, one which was preserved in aspic, held in time as she was in that chair, clouded in her own memory. It was a catastrophe as old as me, brought to my attention by a mother.
Somehow she seemed to remember the thread of her previous story: as she wound it back into place, she returned with a brief apology (‘What was I saying again? Ah yes! Of course…’) and brought me back to the twins, the actual birth of her story, the one she brought to me as pure anecdote between strangers. Talking of childbirth as casually and seriously as only mothers can.
‘The worst thing was the lumber pain. And Harold! Harold got into the habit of saying: “Oh yes, we gave birth after a few hours in labour, didn’t we Emily?” So I says, “We gave birth did we Harold? You gave birth to twins did you? I didn’t see you with your legs akimbo screaming in agony!” … ah. We do laugh about it, though.’
And indeed she smiled at it. And as she smiled, I felt the horror of it.
‘So our first, you see, were actually our first and second. Thomas and little Peter.” She took a long drag from her wine, a long drag from her cigarette, ever leaning her head back. “I say little Peter. Kinda fitting. He was much smaller than Thomas. Came out all blue apparently. I didn’t see much of him, he was the first out so I was otherwise… and so they took him out quickly, and they fussed about a bit and told me to concentrate on Thomas. Concentrate on the next birth. It was hard enough concentrating on anything at all to be frank, not through drugs mind – wouldn’t let me have any, could you imagine – no, just the back pain, more than anything else, drove me mad. It was much worse than when I gave birth to… than the last time. Something you don’t often hear, it was the back pain which was really getting to me with the twins. Couldn’t lie down or sit up or any of that, without that shooting pain.
‘They cleared up Thomas, and handed him over. Said that they’d get Peter in from the other room as soon as they could. Little Peter, in some other room being… incubated. I always imagine… a little body of blood and tiny bones, wired up. Tubes. Into his body.
‘See, some people have real difficulty getting over the little things, don’t they? You know: kicking out in frustration before you fall asleep because… you remember, I don’t know, something your teacher mocked you for years ago. In front of the class. And you still feel the shame of it. It sneaks up on you, when you’re in the shower or just, you know, thinking to yourself… and you just, you just feel like screaming Oh fuck you!
‘Or, full grown men who shout at the football. Like, little things which don’t matter. They don’t even matter!’ At this she became quite animated, as if wires in her body were tightening within her, forcing her shoulders to clench and her wine to oscillate dangerously in her glass. ‘Thomas complaining about how hard he’s finding things at his new school, as if nobody’s ever been to a new school before. Worrying about whether you’ve been putting on weight since you turned eighteen. Having difficulty turning down… another slice of cake at a party or whatever, it’s all shit. Because the little things, they matter to us. They really matter to us, when we’re there. We indulge in them. When we’re there, they are all we can fucking think about.
‘Maybe I should have… changed my diet. Or stopped smoking. Little things which you don’t actually notice in a day. It all gets into the blood, the way of life. It is just self-indulgence, I think now, selfish. All the poisons. But it’s a dangerous, metallic – in the blood. Ready to rip the life out of you one day.’
As the weight of what she said rest upon me, I grew cold. It came to me in waves.
“Peter. Came out, practically blue. And that could have been any one of us, the one which didn’t make it. And how many of us have heard people say, that they would have been a twin, that they would have had a twin if things hadn’t turned out…? Not always given a name, even. At the mercy of our parents. Drinking, smoking. Lifetime abortionists.
“I don’t know. It’s so strange, telling other mothers that I had twins… had twins, and then explaining… So, now there’s one. There were two. He lived, he did live, for a short while in the way that… But in our day-to-day lives, now, it’s just one of those… one of those little things. The way Harold sometimes thinks of it, Thomas is the luckiest boy alive. The luckiest one.’
She smiled. This loving woman smiled at this. The cold waves broke upon me, and I drowned in them.
And unable to talk to her, unable to speak like a man to the mother who abandoned me, I finally raised myself from my chair, and made myself ready to leave her without explaining what I had come, after years of doubt, to say.
It could have been different. I might have been like Peter. Or like Thomas, whom also I have never met, whom indeed I might never meet: I might have been raised by her.
And as I made my thank yous and made to leave, wrapping my coat around me and in so doing unsettling the cobweb-like strands of tobacco which left ghostly trails across the air, I thought to myself: perhaps, of the three of us, none of us were the luckiest one.
As part of a semi-regular game my friend Jac, my boyfriend and I came up with, we set each other the challenge of writing a short piece under a given theme with one week’s notice. This was my response to the rather flexible theme of “Three.” I love a good revelation, don’t you?