Mum would take us out for a roll in the double pram, dressed identically in well-sucked pink jumpsuits, resembling newborn bunnies. Other mothers, grandmothers, and aunties would see the pram coming and lick their lips. Not just one baby, enough to bring on a smile and improve their mood, but two. Oh my. They would peer in at us, the smallest fish in the aquarium – faces bent low, eyes eager – hoping for a gummy smile.
I was beautiful. I’ve seen photos. My arms and legs were so soft and chubby, they’d taste like veal if bitten into, would have the texture of an avocado. I was the melt-in-the-mouth baby with electric blue eyes, ridiculously long black eyelashes and a pinch of white fluff floating atop a cuddly-wumpkins goo-goo face.
My twin sister, Sylvia, hadn’t fared so well in the womb. Her big wonky head wobbled on a twisty body. Mum had altered her jumpsuits to accommodate her various protuberances and shrivelled bits. She was a real life Picasso.
Some of the women who bent to see the bunnies in the pram turned away quickly. Some stared, bug-eyed, unable to look away, horribly fascinated. Then there were the women who pretended not to notice Sylvia. That was painful. Their eyes flicked away but the downturn of their mouths told another story. They had tasted something a bit off. They felt cheated. Babies should be perfect.
Dad felt the same. He could barely look at Sylvia. I don’t know whether he felt he was to blame for her condition, as we’ve never had a conversation. He walked away when we were eighteen months young. Mum told me much later that she was relieved when he’d gone. Now we could get on with business without him “creeping around the house like a roach.”
Mum had always dealt with Sylvia’s breakings and bleedings anyway. Born with no natural shock absorbers and brittle bird bones, Sylvia broke easily – the bustling innards of an ambulance frame some of my earliest memories. Mum used to joke that we should get a frequent rider discount.
Eventually Mum stopped calling the ambulance and when disaster struck. We piled into the car and I packed blankets and cushions around Sylvia. We knew the routine, and besides, it was quicker than calling an ambulance and waiting. Money was never an issue. Dad overcompensated for leaving us with vast and regular sums of guilt money. We had everything we wanted, except a healthy Sylvia.
When she was hurting, so was I; not so much physically, but I could feel her frustration and anger. We definitely had the much-speculated-about Bond of the Twins. I was also fiercely protective of my sister. “Like a bear with a cub,” said Mum. And Sylvia needed protecting. Her damaged emotional health jostled with her damaged physical health for supremacy. Our conversations often went like this:
“No one loves me,” Sylvia.
“I love you. Mum loves you.” Me.
“But you have to.”
“No, we don’t. We choose to.”
Then she’d start sobbing, with snot and gasps, and all the messy trimmings.
It was hard on both of us, and possibly even harder for Mum. When she died, I think she was simply worn out. I didn’t ever say this; Sylvia started it. We were then seventeen years old. Sylvia wasn’t supposed to have lived beyond twelve.
We continued to live together, in the same house. I mopped up after Sylvia, cooked, did the washing, everything. Sylvia blamed herself for Mum’s death, for Dad leaving, for my being cooped up “in a house stinking of a half-dead twin’s piss and shit.”
I counselled her as best I could. The main obstacle to my success was that she kept trying to kill herself. My mission in life became to stop Sylvia from embarrassing herself to death. This is not an exhaustive list, but the highlights of her attempts at suicide:
1. Self-smothering with pillow. She tried this when I was asleep. I heard her snorting, woke up, and lifted the pillow off her face. It wasn’t even fully covering her nose or mouth. I thought I was just being helpful, but in the morning she was furious and told me that I’d thwarted a brilliant suicide.
2. Drowning self in bath. As she wasn’t strong enough to get herself either in or out of the bath, I was always there with her to do the lifting. Thus the drowning, however much she thrashed around and tried to push me away, could never really work.
3. Trying to buy rat poison. As above, she couldn’t go shopping by herself, I was there, I saw what went in the trolley, and we didn’t have rats.
4. Stabbing. This clearly couldn’t work as she couldn’t hold a knife in her permanently curled fingers. I’m not sure if this even counts as an attempt, but she did look at a big knife an awful lot one Wednesday.
When Sylvia wasn’t sick, depressed or attempting suicide, I enjoyed her company. She was easily cheered by some tickling. Tickling was a little risky, but I had it down pat. Too much overenthusiastic tickling on my part and she would wee herself. The tickling routine went as follows: Tickle. Both laugh. Pause. Repeat until squealing laughter and squirming fade. Rock Sylvia to sleep. Carry her to bed. She was still only the size of a six or seven year old and painfully thin so was easy to cuddle or carry. And I was strong, making me the brawn of the operation, content to complement Sylvia’s lively brain.
She loved gardening; or, rather, garden planning was her passion. She’d decide what we’d plant, when we’d plant, and how we’d plant, ordering me around vigorously (and somewhat imperiously), while I did the physical work. Our corn and beans were the envy of, well, no one, because we didn’t mix with other people, only doctors when necessary.
If we went out together, people stared at us.
I couldn’t go out by myself because I couldn’t leave Sylvia alone. She might get sick, or need her nappy changed, or actually succeed with the suicide. The last was unlikely, but she could be surprisingly resourceful when determined.
With no help from her own hand, Sylvia passed away quietly at nineteen. During the massive thirty-six hour operation that followed, we were separated for the first time. The small collection of bones, brain, giggling, and tears that made up Sylvia were burned.
There were so many ashes for such a little person! I sprinkled them over the corn, beans, and tomatoes. She would have liked that.
I miss her every day, but I don’t miss being a conjoined twin. I go out now, I have friends, I can walk with a straight spine. And whenever I eat fresh vegetables from the garden, Sylvia becomes part of me again, but on the inside this time, where it’s more comfortable for both of us.
“Twinset” won Second Prize in the 2015 Accenti Writing Contest, awarded at the Annual Accenti Awards held during the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival in April 2015.