By Tena Laing
2014 Winner: Adult
“You’re gonna have t’ face it, Veronica. You knows you are.”
Dad broke the silence he’d held all the way from the airport as we came around the bend off the winding Viking Trail, and took the turnoff for Tickle Point. As the car edged closer to the dip in the high road that would reveal the scenic bay and community spread below, despite myself, I felt that old magnetic pull in my guts.
Of course this trip home was different. Everything from now on would be different. But my body forgot that for a moment when home presented itself in the vista below us.
This dent in the map of Newfoundland, this was my history and my geography. No matter how far away I ran, whenever I crossed that threshold and saw the dark slate ocean of this bay, contrasted against the deep green of the mountains, and mirrored by the lighter sky, I tasted the pull of home and my entire body, which had been tensed, breath held, sucked it in greedily. In minutes, I could be out of the car, right on the edge of the ocean breathing it in, every pore alive to the salt spray.
Dad and I not speaking for the long ride from the airport to home, that wasn’t so different. We had trouble talking to the other without giving offense, and sometimes the best thing was to just drive. I bit the inside of my cheek to prevent a sharp response. Face it? Wasn’t I going to spend the rest of my life facing it? Alone too.
When Dad pulled to a stop at our lane, at the end of The Road, right on The Point and just above The Cove, I got out. There were no suitcases to deal with. The airline had lost them. I could see my grandparents in the sun porch, Nanny worrying her knitting, Poppy absently cleaning his pipe, both sitting in their armchairs, facing the road, waiting for me. They looked older, greyer, and the fact that they stayed in their seats as they watched me pull at the door handle told me something about how long I’d been away.
“B’y de lord dyins! You put on some shockin’ weight since you was last ‘ome!” I was too stunned to respond to my grandfather. As blunt as I remembered him, and despite the fact that I maybe was a few pounds more than I had been a few years ago, this seemed a particularly vicious greeting for the occasion.
“Go wan, Clyde! Sure, Veronica’s not even trew the door and you goin’ on like that!” Nanny came to my defense. “And after what she’ve been trew. Through,” she repeated, more carefully, correcting herself, then putting her knitting aside for a moment, and pulling a crumpled tissue from her sleeve to wipe her watery eyes.
Poppy cut in, dropping many of his consonants as he warmed to his topic. “Wha’? You t’ink she can’t ‘andle dat?” He waved his pipe for emphasis, “Sure, she got dat big, she ‘ad a job to fit trew da door, she did.” He raised his hands to the heavens innocently, “So wha’ was I gonna say?”
I almost laughed at that. Almost. Newfoundlanders were welcoming – sure, hospitable – absolutely, but they were also the toughest crowd on the planet, and my family never shied away from pointing out any changes the years between visits had wrought, good or bad. Perhaps mostly bad. But I couldn’t laugh today, even though Poppy’s callous exaggeration was probably just his blunt way of welcoming me back into the fold, after so long away and not so different in its way than when he would eat half a raw onion before insisting on kissing us goodbye on the lips whenever we left the island as little girls. He might even have been trying to lighten my gloom, but the blunter the weapon, the more it hurts, and I was already flayed raw.
“Come ‘ere, my duckie,” Nanny beckoned, laying her half-knit grey wool sock aside again. I buried my head in her neck and let her wrap her soft fleshy arms around my stiff back. Those arms had been a haven since forever. Nanny smelled of flour and cinnamon, and starch, exactly the way she always had and should. “Sure, Veronica, my love, you ‘aven’t put on more’n a few pounds, now, have you?” she whispered in my ear. “But, oh my dear, you been gone some long this time. How many years have it been since you been home, do you s’pose?”
I pulled myself away from the warm embrace of my grandparents, and with my dry throat and swollen tongue croaked, “I’m going down to the water, Nanny.” I needed to breathe.
“Make sure you’re right quick, my duckie,” We ‘aven’t got long, now, you knows,” – Oh, I knew – “and you still haven’t…” I didn’t let the door slam, but shut it firmly just the same.
I hurried down to the water, like it was pulling me to the edge. I walked along the narrow beach closest to our lane, drinking in the September ocean with all of my senses, almost like I could breathe.
It was no time at all before I heard my name piercing through the salt spray. “Veronica! Make haste! It’s time.” I turned away from the water to look back at the houses, Nanny and Poppy’s and Dad’s and my Aunts’ and Uncles’ homes, across the lane from them. In the middle of the lane, perhaps 200 metres away, I saw my mother, holding her scarf over her head and waving it at me. Hermes, quite likely, designer, certainly, and no doubt she had something similar for me in the plush luggage she traveled with. Normally, I might have cared the tiniest bit. Today, not even a fraction of that. But I had no choice. I had to stop trying to breathe. It was time.
The sun was low in the sky, and it was sinking in a gorgeous blush precisely between the two ancient tableland mountains across the bay – the picture perfect tourist’s dream. A sunset positioned like that would only last a couple of days before the spin of the earth would make it just enough off-kilter to lose the symmetry.
“Typical,” I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, that this sunset would be perfect for Victoria. Then I bit the inside of my cheek for that bitter thought. It was swollen and ragged, and tasted of rust now. Why couldn’t I let her have this without turning it somehow? I lowered my eyes from nature’s lavish display to the more personal spectacle taking place right at my feet. Victoria, my twin sister, was in a glossy dark wooden coffin, being lowered into a hole that had been dug out of the dirt not an hour after my arrival on The Point.
I had seen several men from the community all huddle around to watch the grave digger.
“She’s foundering!” someone called out helplessly, and wouldn’t you know it, while everyone else discussed it, it was Uncle Eli and Dad who had to jump in, up to their shoulders, to keep the pit from caving in. Everyone else stared as they solved the problem and braced the collapsing hole with some boards. I watched the whole thing, foundering myself, from the picture window at the front of Dad’s house, which sat between my grandparents’ house and the graveyard. His living room faced the road and the corner of the cemetery rather than the ocean. The old saltbox houses never faced the ocean. The only view worth talking about was knowing who was entering the landscape by ‘comin’ in the road’ or who was exiting it, by ‘burial in the boneyard.’
There’d be no escaping this, this mound, I knew. I’d be facing it head on from every angle as long as I remained on The Point, and in my head for the rest of my days.
The funeral took place in the cemetery since a freak North Atlantic storm had blown the roof off the church. I hardly heard a word spoken aside from Mom’s brisk and business-like eulogy, which left me emptier and guilty. No one but me should have done the eulogy, but no one thought I could handle it, and they were right. I had been vacationing in the North West Territories and barely made it back in time for the funeral, which no one was keen to delay given that with no church, and certainly no funeral homes in the vicinity, Victoria had been waked at home. Crafting the just right words to memorialize a dearly departed family member, just like MCing various cousins’ weddings, that had been a joint job for the twin’ as we were jointly called around here. We would have handled that together. How could I be trusted with that eulogy, the one that sent Victoria to her eternal rest? You’d only have one chance to get it right, and I was too frozen in my deep gulf of grief to take that chance.
Just as there were no words for me, there were no tears either. There was nothing. Nothing. Just that bereft thought, “What do I do now?” I had no idea what I would do with myself. Not in that moment, and certainly not for the rest of my life, which I could already tell would be long and lonely no matter its length. I was going to have to face the rest of my life twinless. Without the one that I had come into the world with. Or followed out, shortly after making her go first, to test it out a bit.
I had read in university that humans have a dominant paradigm. One that we entered the world with.
As someone who had a womb-mate, I entered the world less alone/hesitantly, but not first either. I held back, waiting for confirmation that the outside world would work for us. Did it? Maybe. For awhile.
T is for Twins
Tiny wombmates, one after the other,
Venturing into the cold world.
“No, wait. You go first.”
“No, I insist. Your turn.”
A lifetime of Veronica always having Victoria to turn to
And being there for Victoria in return.
We were 2 peas in a pod, matching pink jumpsuits and all features in common. Physically, we were not easily distinguished but within, there lay the distinctions.
Victoria was the leader, the talker, the maker of action. I was close by in the wings, making up plays. Speaking out only under duress. She led the way – was that circumstance or something more universal? What if I’d come out first, or not spent my first month alone in an incubator?
Only later, after we moved to different cities for university did I subvert my dominant paradigm, begin to replace the pronoun ‘we’ with’ I’, borrow the ease around people and wear it until it fit more naturally, and go off into the world first, on occasion.
If we were Jewish, we would have been the ones to pile the dirt on top of Victoria. Family and friends, one-by-one, shoveling all that dirt back onto the coffin and into the hole, until there wasn’t a grit of gravel left. Almost like a thick blanket, if you thought about the lovelier side of the image. I couldn’t do that, though. And I couldn’t have done that. Instead, I had to step backwards, thinking I might hurl myself on top of the coffin before the grave digger finished his job.
After prayers and a hymn called “The Sweet By and By”, and Nanny’s sobs and Poppy’s stricken face, a new minister, not the one the family had known for decades, had more words to say about the inexplicable nature of life and death, and the unforgettable nature of Victoria’s every word and action. His words angered me, but not as much as the anonymous asshole who left his or her cursed cell phone on and let it ring for a full eight piercing rings. The crowd was too thick to determine the criminal, but I longed to pinch and kick and bite whoever it was for interrupting one word about Victoria, however ignorant the speaker. I glared up in the direction the sounds came from. If only I knew who it was, I could pull out the offending phone and throw it as hard as I could. From this distance, I might even reach the water. That’s where phones belonged – at the bottom of the ocean.
After that, everyone began to disperse. I backed two more steps away, from the hole in the ground, toward the ocean, thinking that might give me enough space.
It didn’t. There wasn’t enough air left in the world. I didn’t leave with the others either. The older cousins who’d made it back from Alberta in time, and my little cousin Jamie in from university in St. John’s, huddled around to hug Dad and me before walking back to their parents’ houses. Mom left the cemetery, her head resting on the shoulder of her best friend, our Aunt Elizabeth. Not like her to linger, ever, I thought, then hated myself for it. But Dad stayed behind. When I looked at him, tears were streaming down his newly lined face. I knew that he’d loved Victoria best. I couldn’t blame him. I’d loved her best too. Better than anyone, including me. I’d jokingly called her the Parent Whisperer. Even though we were 30, she was still sent to the front lines for every difficult conversation we’d had with either Mom or Dad. Now there would be no one to negotiate those rough roads for me. I reached for Dad’s calloused hand, and he didn’t stop me. We stood there until it was almost dark, and the grave digger, who had to do the shoveling was shivering, waiting for us to walk away, so he could do his dirty work.
If only the cemetery weren’t attached to our property. It wasn’t as if I could have forgotten what had just happened, or really imagined moving beyond it – but it would have been nice to step away from it. Knowing that I could see Victoria’s fucking funeral mound from the front window, and every time I stepped out of the door just might kill me too.
We hadn’t been back to Newfoundland in years. Was it three or four? So many years that Dad had had to break down and come visit us up on The Mainland.
Technically, Victoria and I had been part of Newfoundland’s Diaspora, but not in the traditional way. After the cod moratorium, countless out-of-work fishermen had left the island to find work any way they could. To a man, their main desire had been to get back to Newfoundland any way they could. The salt water coursed through their veins like so many threads tugging them back east…In our case, Poppy and his sons had figured out a way to turn their boats into first passenger ferries and later tourist cruise boats. They had survived and even thrived during the deep recession of Newfoundland’s darkest days. Mom had been the one to leave, after 9 intense years of marriage to our father. “I married into the Freakes, but it doesn’t have to be a life sentence,” she told us. “I could stay here for the rest of my days and cook for your insatiable yet impossible to satisfy father, who was never properly weaned off your nan’s… cooking,” she paused to smile wryly, “or I can take my precious education and make something of my own life.” This considerable life change happened not long after Mom exerted her independence by hitch-hiking across the Maritime provinces with one of her girlfriends from university. She was gone a few weeks, and Victoria and I never stopped wondering what she had experienced, since she never told us.
There ensued a brief and bitter debate over where Victoria and I would live, but in the end we went with Mom, leaving Dad alone in the house on The Point between our grandparents and the cemetery, and across from two sets of our aunts and uncles, Aunt Elizabeth and Uncle Eli, and Aunt Dora and Uncle Don.
Victoria and I struggled that first year on The Mainland. We were eight. We moved to Halifax, and Mom worked a lot, getting her first job with the Government, and determined to make a good impression. We were far from our family, and in a city for the first time. Dad took on mythical proportions, now that we didn’t see him every day. He’d pop by on his motorcycle, every few months to take us out for meals, and to play in the park, acting like the sixteen-hour trip was nothing. We leapt into his arms, like he was our hero. We didn’t tell him what was wrong, beyond that we missed him.
We didn’t tell Mom about how miserable school was, because that would have made her feel bad, and we knew how hard she was working. “I’m doing this for you girls, you know. I want you to know there’s more to the world than one lone outport in Newfoundland. Sure, until I was finished high school, there wasn’t even a road to Tickle Point.” Her tone implied that places that were only accessible by boat were backwards beyond all imagination.
Victoria and I found our new school challenging, but it wasn’t the schoolwork so much as everything else.
We weren’t surprised to hear, “Freakes!” hollered at us from the mean kids. Even in Tickle Point we heard the odd joke about our family name. But “Newfies!”? Other kids would spit that at us, like it was the ugliest insult imaginable. “How many Newfies does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” It was a terrible thing to learn that off the island, Mainlanders told ‘Newfie’ jokes about how stupid we were. (We’d always thought we were little Newfie Princesses)
In the face of such hostile ignorance, Victoria and I weren’t able to articulate all the wonders of our anchoring island. We huddled together at recess, whispering with each other, faces hot, fiercely wishing we could just go home to Newfoundland. Instead, we fought hard to get rid of the accents we hadn’t even known we’d possessed. I spent two months being pulled out of class for sessions with a speech language pathologist who in her crisply enunciated syllables, made no secret of the fact that I mispronounced most everything I said.
“No, Veronica, it’s not ‘agg’. It’s pronounced ‘egg’. Try it again.” And again. “You know, Victoria didn’t have this much difficulty,” she reminded me.
I didn’t even eat eggs. Small wonder.
Mom had kept her maiden name, Martin – a bone of contention with her in-laws, our traditional grandparents. She told them she wanted to keep some part of her long dead parents alive, so, like it or not, she was staying Maeve Martin. When the insults got worse at school, even though we knew it would devastate our Dad, we begged Mom to change our name. I guess she had some appreciation for how that would make Dad feel, to lose his daughters a second time with that additional blow, because she pretended to misunderstand us.
“Well,” she said, “I could have called you Myrtle and Ethel. Those would be good twin names, right?”
Mom then giggled as she told us about Nanny suggesting it when we were born, “Sure, Maeve, you don’t want them baby girls saddled with fancy names like Veronica and Victoria! Why not call them Myrtle and Ethel after their great grandmothers, God bless their souls. Perfectly good Christian names.” Victoria and I frowned in distaste and then begin giggling against our wills, because really, we could have had it worse. Imagine being the poor twins with those names. We had never known our great-grandmothers, so they didn’t seem real. And Mom didn’t joke very often, so you had to encourage it when she did.
In Halifax we lived in a small townhouse with one of mom’s friends from school. Mom and Mabel and Mabel’s twelve-year-old daughter Sadie all had rooms upstairs, but Victoria and I had to sleep in the basement. It wasn’t a normal part of the house. In fact, it didn’t even have real walls. It was just a small concrete room, cold like a crypt. Remembering that cold, damp room made me shudder, thinking of Victoria in her coffin. We had been given 2 cots, and Mom had managed to find colourful blankets which she cheerfully insisted brightened the room, but we weren’t fools. Pulled from our house on the edge of the ocean, we had been placed in a windowless solitary confinement, and we weren’t sure what crime we’d committed.
Although we weren’t locked in our dungeon bedroom all day, we certainly had to sleep there – and we did so huddled together in one cot, crying almost every night. No one liked us in Halifax. Everyone at school made fun of us, and Sadie who was three years older, and fighting her own demons, terrorized us by hanging voodoo dolls from our creepy low ceiling that looked eerily like us with our long dark matching ponytails, but riddled with pins sticking out of their doll bodies and X-s across their painted plastic eyes. We thought we’d die of fright every night as we laid down and watched them dangle, spinning from the low ceiling, too close for words.
Sadie threatened to kill us if we told our mom or hers.
We believed her; she practiced voodoo.
At the end of Grade 3, we moved again, and now Mom was making better money, with two promotions already under her belt, and she got us an apartment of our own, above ground. Windows in every room.
I had missed the wake before the funeral, and I didn’t want to wake Victoria now either, God knows, but I could hardly not show up. The entire community would be crowding into Dad’s house and Nanny and Poppy’s tonight. We Freakes had to hold our heads high, of course. We would define strength and fortitude through our tragedy, naturally. No one would expect less. I had been wearing the same clothes for two or three days now, but that didn’t matter to me. I refused my aunts’ offers of a change of clothes. Neighbours had brought the food, and we had pulled out our best liquor. Dad’s sister Dora and her husband Don started off at Dad’s, while his brother Eli and his wife Elizabeth stationed themselves at Nanny and Poppy’s. I knew that’s where I’d find Mom. She’d stay there for a bit and then leave to spend the night across the lane with her best friend, our Aunt Elizabeth, before flying back to Asia in the morning. Being deputy high commissioner in Singapore wouldn’t wait.
I started at Dad’s. It was right next to the cemetery, and I had a bedroom if I needed to escape. The relentless onslaught of awful, mournful cheer began immediately.
“Dyin’s, Veronica. It must be what, three years since you was home? What took you so long?”
“Some good to see you, Veronica, maid, but some awful like this.”
“Well, now, you must be one of the twin? One of Griff’s twin, I’d say? I haven’t seen you since you was this tall.” For once, the odd Newfoundland use of the singular while referring to a set of ‘twin’ fit. We weren’t twins anymore. We weren’t we anymore. Possibly, I was still a twin. But who was I? Who the hell was ‘I’?
We had always been ‘we’. V&V = We, encoded at birth – before that actually, when we were wombmates. Once we got a bit older and took back our name, owned it without any of the old embarrassment, we used to joke, “We are… Very Very Freakey!”
In middle school we were put into different classes for the first time, at Bedford Senior Elementary. Mom had moved us into a small house in a prosperous neighbourhood, after yet another promotion. It was our third school in as many years. I can remember how confused my new classmates were when I told them about myself using only the pronouns “We” and “Our”.
“When we were in Grade 5, we…”
“We were born in Newfoundland.”
“Our favourite colour is orange.”
My new classmates’ faces showed me that this was not a normal way to refer to oneself. I had lost the Newfie accent, but I was speaking the wrong language again. On the outside again. It had rarely occurred to me to refer to myself as ‘I’. These were shared experiences and memories, so how could I claim them as mine?
Our Mom had been orphaned in her teens. She didn’t like to talk about it much, because those were her grimmest days on Earth, she said. She was always top in her class, though, and with encouragement from her teachers, she got a scholarship to University. She spent four influential years in St. John’s at MUN, doing a degree in Political Science, and percolating in the cultural and political atmosphere of the 70’s. And after all that, all it took was one ardent summer back in Tickle Point, and Maeve Martin had returned home, presumably for good, to marry her high school sweetheart, our Dad, Griffith Freake, and become a housewife.
This was the very thing she had spent a lifetime discouraging Victoria and I from ever doing, and perhaps she’d done too good a job at that. Though Mom would readily admit there had been good times and plenty of passion between the two of them, “You’ve got to ask yourself, girls, at what cost? Eventually, I had to recognize that I wanted more. For me and for you girls too.” Some people – family among them – might have said that Mom got too big for her britches, but we understood the draw of the city. By the time we were grown, V and I were just as much city girls as we were islanders. Probably more given how low visiting home had slipped on our list of priorities over that last few years. (This time though – bitter irony – we had both been on our way home, like it was pulling us back from Away.)
When Gale Harding said after hugging me, “Well, you’re practically a Come-From-Away now, after all this time,” I pretended I had to go to the bathroom. Even from the bathroom window, I could see the full moon shining down on the pile of dirt that held my twin’s earthly remains to the planet. My dry eyes snapped shut involuntarily, and I took off my glasses so everything became fuzzy. I was going to need to become fuzzy myself to bear this unbearable evening.
I tried to make myself inconspicuous to avoid more painful conversations with people whose names I couldn’t easily access, even though I had known them since I was ‘only this tall’. I sidled up to the fast bar Dad had laid out across half the counter. To give some scale of the scope, I skipped the nine kinds of rum, not including what was on the top shelf. With my back to everyone else in the kitchen, I poured myself Victoria’s favourite drink: a tall rye. She would have had it straight. I sissified mine with ice and soda. Pretending I didn’t hear Sheila Coombs asking me, “How on earth are you coping, my lover?” I stepped out onto the porch, gulping the drink as fast as its poisonous taste would allow me. It wasn’t enough, but I decided it was time to visit the wake taking place next door at my grandparents’.
Mom was holding court in Nanny’s kitchen. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if it had been more than a decade since Mom had last been home to Newfoundland. Once she’d left, she had rarely looked back, allowing her travels with the diplomatic corps to pull her further and further from her early life. Mom was ‘smart as a cricket’ as Nanny liked to say. Not a bit frail, unlike her parents, both dead of ‘blood poisoning’ as they called it then. People still talked about how she graduated with ‘flying colours’ only to return home and then fly the coop again, leaving our handsome Dad behind. “It’s like that all happened to some other person,” she had told us once we were grown up, of her housewife life in Tickle Point. “I can’t regret it, ‘cause I got you girls, but I couldn’t go back to it, you got no worries about that.”
Today though, Mom’s regular vim and vigour (or spit and vinegar as Dad would say) was not on display. She was devastated, make no doubt, and her red-rimmed eyes made that clear. Victoria was her favourite too, though she’d never confess that, even under torture. Still, she had scarcely seen this side of the family and these old friends since Victoria and I were teenagers, and after condolences, there was a lot of catching up to be done. Amid the sighs and tears and headshakes, Mom even managed a few laughs with her old friends, but I couldn’t stand around to hear about what.
The bar at Nanny and Poppy’s was considerably more limited than the one at Dad’s, but I found a bottle of rye and topped up my tumbler, adding more ice and less soda this time. I slipped outside, to the wooden swing in the backyard that faced the black ocean, lit darkly by the full moon. Across the bay, a few houses twinkled with cheery lights in the distance. Did they even know what we were doing over here?
Victoria and I had loved this old fashioned four-seater swing from the time we could walk. We would sit side by side on the wooden bench, holding hands, facing the water, pumping our little legs to get the swing going as fast as it would go. Sometimes, we’d lose control and end up squishing our legs between the bench and the floor of the swing, and scream to our Nanny and Poppy who would rescue us with hugs and kisses. Then admonishments to not get so carried away.
But we did get carried away. We urged each other on. Around others, V was the bolder one, where I held back, wanting her to go first. When it was just the two of us, dares were our M.O. It might be eating carpenter bugs, cutting worms, and then stepping on the shale rocks that jutted out close to the beach, nearly out of our reach, but not quite.
Once when we were climbing the fence around our grandparents’ garden, wanting a shortcut to escape the yard to get to the water, V got over and halfway down to the beach before she turned back to realize I was stuck. We might have been 10, our first summer back from The Mainland, glorying in the perfect and powerful sensation of finally coming home. Dreading the end of summer and our return to the outside world. My experimentation with jewelry had begun, and I was wearing a wristful of bangles. Two of them got caught on the top of a fence picket, and there I was, all my weight leaning forward, ready to jump off the fence, but held by the bangles, which dug deeply into my flesh. I didn’t weigh much back when I was 10. Certainly not enough to earn any insults from Poppy, but the pain of those bangles slicing into (and I assumed -through) my wrist had me screaming bloody murder. If anything, my pain was worse for V. She ran towards me screaming even louder, and in words, instead of just wordless agony. “Help us! Help us! Hurry! Oh my God! Poppy! Dad! Now! Come quick! We’re hurt! Help us!”
It felt like I dangled by a bangle for years, but I heard many times how V’s shrill words sliced through the air faster than that bangle could mangle me, and I was lifted bodily off the tall fence by my grandfather’s strong arms in less than two shakes of a stick.
Even in the dark, I could pick out that fence picket now. It was still bent, 20 years later. I hadn’t yet shed a tear for my beloved twin’s death, but I was suddenly choked up thinking about how bent Poppy’s back was now, and how not only wouldn’t he be able to rescue me from the fence if I got stuck right now, he wouldn’t even be able to lift my little 10-year-old self anymore. We were all disintegrating. We wouldn’t stop.
Mom found me outside. She’d been looking for ages, or so she said. “Veronica, you know I have to leave in the morning, and I hate the thought of you out here alone. Victoria wouldn’t like it either.” Well, I hated the thought of Mom thinking she knew Victoria better than me. In this case she was right, though. Victoria wouldn’t want me to be alone. She would worry about me. That was the thing about being ‘the twin’ – you felt the other’s pain more acutely. It was sharper and more hopeless than anything you had to experience on your own. That was what made this so excruciating. We couldn’t share it. Ever. Mom hugged me, and I couldn’t breathe again, like the big pile of cemetery dirt was pressing down against me. For the briefest second I pictured Victoria’s face against the satin of her burnished coffin, beneath the dirt, and I knew what hell was. I muffled a dry scream and forced myself to look at Mom and listen to her, just to take myself out of that moment.
“I wish I could stay longer, but…” I tuned out her excuses about the bureaucracy (and the economies of Canada and Singapore, specifically, and Asia and the Free World, in general) collapsing if she was not there to manage everything herself. “…why don’t you come with me?” I heard her say.
“What, to Singapore?” I managed to ask, incredulous. I was chained to a pile of dirt about 200 metres away. I didn’t bother to tell her my luggage might be in Asia now for all I knew, though she would have relished the chance to revert into solution mode.
“How long are you staying?” Mom asked me.
“I don’t know, Mom. I’m not sure I can leave.”
“Surely, you’re not thinking of staying in Newfoundland…permanently?”
“I don’t know anything anymore, ok? Good night. I love you.” I hugged her, letting her go to Aunt Elizabeth, who was waiting by the gate. I did love my prickly parents, even though with Victoria dead and buried, I felt as alone in the world as if my entire family had been wiped out in one fell swoop, or as if all the people who spoke my language had been destroyed, and now I spoke a dead language that no one else in the world would ever understand.
Nanny and Poppy were getting ready for bed with Aunt Dora and Uncle Don and the older cousins ushering the remainder of the visitors over to Dad’s. I could hear the voices get louder at Dad’s and smoke drifted over from his porch. I watched my grandparents ease themselves laboriously into their twin beds, shrunken and frail, as I had never seen them before.
Their mouths were sunken with their dentures soaking in cups for the night, and with their leaking eyes, and these softer selves, my grandparents abruptly resembled little children that I should protect.
About this story
This story was not planned – in fact the year I wrote it (and won the manuscript contest), I nearly cancelled my plans to attend the MNM. I was mourning the recent loss of someone I cared about a great deal and couldn’t imagine sitting down for a marathon of writing about my original subject. I ended up channeling my feelings of sorrow and helplessness into a very different story.