Published in New Australian Stories 2, 2011
There was a big kafuffle when we were born; cameras and magazine reporters camped all over the front lawn, just like we were the kids of singers or royalty or something. Dad was still reeling from the shock of our birth, but pulled his head out of his schooner when he saw all those flashbulbs. There’s some footage of him on the old video camera, standing awkward and frowny in front of the hibiscus bush, all but hiding Mum holding Meg and me in our tiny grow suits, special-made. He doesn’t say much, just nods or shakes his head earnestly whenever the invisible interviewer asks him something, but for years he’d get the bloody thing out whenever someone new came to visit, and make them watch his thirty-four seconds of fame.
Poppy doesn’t appear in any of the reels or photos and Gretel says our grandfather hid himself in his shed until the whole racket was over, muttering and weeping and throwing up his hands and lunch both. Gretel was five when we were born, so she remembers everything. Even Danny swears he remembers us being born, but he wasn’t quite two at the time, and probably he just wants in on the excitement too.
We were good babies, considering, and Mum said it was enough that we didn’t lay ourselves out with the colic or fevers, although Meg fussed a bit to begin with, trying to get that right hand free all the time.
It’s my earliest memory: Meg and I, two years old, going for the same red cup, and me getting it first, because it was up high, and with her dominant hand tied up, she had to make do with snatching clumsily with her left. I remember Meg tossing a paddy on the kitchen floor and taking me with her, all spilled over with apple juice.
Possibly I remember it because things were usually the other way round, with me yelling and frothing and striking out at everyone and anyone, while Meg stroked my hair, the closest thing she could reach, and made that tuneless noise like the fridge starting up, until I calmed down.
Our house was far from peaceful. There was always someone around: Danny or Gretel; or Poppy, sad-mouthed and weepy; or Mum of course, lifting and rearranging and wiping us clean; or Dad, clumping around in his dirty boots and getting on everyone’s goat with his grousing and language. There were others too: that med student with the red hair who turned up every few months and cleared his throat so often it gave us the nervous giggles. And the seamstress, old Mrs Bogg, who clucked around us like a hen and managed to fashion double-necked garments out of purple terry cloth and pink stretch cotton. And doctors, of course, by the dozen.
Doctor Jack was the head honcho, and the biggest, with those shoes like boats, that great blob of a nose that Meg liked to pull, at first. There was Doctor Roseleaf too, and you hardly even noticed him to start with, all silent and dry and watchful. They were the two big guns, the movers, but there were dozens more, some around for a gawk who you’d see just the once.
‘You have a responsibility to the future of medicine,’ Doctor Jack told our parents, and Mum just shook her head, but Dad drew himself up to dizzying heights like he was totally responsible and reliable and not just some old boozer blowing his dole check on the nags.
Only at night was it just the two of us, Meg and I; even though Danny shared with us from the word go. In our cot we’d hear him snoring away in his bed and talking too, and Meg’d wriggle right around so our shoulders fit across the pillow and our legs went up the wall. In the dark room we could hear all the other comforting sounds: Gretel’s violin wailing like a pulled tooth, Poppy hawking and spitting in the outside shower, all the neighbourhood dogs winding down for the night, and Mum, clunking away with the iron while she watched the television, getting teary and thanking her stars that nothing really bad ever happened to our family.
Dad stuck around because he thought me and Meg would make him rich. He saw offers for film rights and royalties rolling in long before they actually did; had visions of a two-storied house, a speedboat. But after that initial fuss, Mum made the paparazzi bug off. She sent every journo packing and Returned-to-Sender all the wheedling propositions in their buff envelopes. And with Dad at the races or half-sunk at the pub most days, he was never home at the right time, so it was years before he figured out that we hadn’t really been snubbed: we’d been snubbing.
Poppy came round in the end, round about the time we turned three. It’s one of the stories Mum tells me at night when I can’t sleep, but I swear I can remember it for myself. He was sitting in the shade of the jacaranda tree in the old camp chair, looking at nothing while Mum pegged our funny-looking clothes on the line, and Meg and I grovelled around in the dirt under her feet. I preferred to err on the side of caution when it came to bodily functions, but Meg always liked to push the envelope, so when I started off, heading back inside for the loo, Meg had other ideas, being not quite finished with her peg house and confident that the bladder could hold out a bit longer. So we started up a squabble, Meg holding grim-faced to the hoist and me kind of rolling my way towards the house, and what with all the rumpus, Poppy looked up and beheld us, and for a wonder he didn’t commence weeping like usual, but laughed instead, a crusty bark that surprised him as much as the rest of us.
‘It’s the push-me-pull-you!’ he croaked.
And Meg, who always knew the right thing to do, beamed out a big Oh-hello-there! smile at him and tucked us straight into his heart.
We could move pretty fast by the time we were four. If Danny started across the room towards some toy or book, Meg and I could scoot round him and snaffle it before he got there or even realised there was competition. We were top-heavy, so walking was never going to be our locomotion of choice, but we could go lickety-split on carpet or grass, and we loved the sandpit. Mum used to shake her head in wonder and say, ‘Ah bubs, you’re a blur of limbs, you make me head whirl.’
But most people were like Poppy had been in those first years and it hurt them to see us living squished up together. The doctors were no different. Doctor Jack and Doctor Roseleaf started up again, first with Mum, and then with Poppy once they saw that he’d come on board, but in the end, mostly with Dad. ‘With prosthetic limbs, both girls could walk independently. Run perhaps. Why they could even walk to school together!’ It was the start of the last campaign to separate us and I don’t doubt that it had a seductive tune to it.
Now I walk. I make my slow and lonely way across the room, and I never beat anyone to anything.
When we turned five the clamour from the outside world became a roar. We were going to school next year; how would we cope, how would we even sit at the desks, all skewiff like we were? How could they stop us cheating on tests? No matter that we were happy now, what about when we reached adolescence and realised we were different from everybody else? What about when we got interested in boys? (In sex?) It was selfish of our parents to deny us the operation — no, it was more than that; it was wrong. An infringement of our basic rights as human beings.
And Poppy, red-faced and just about inarticulate with indignation, would shove pictures of Chang and Eng under their noses and shout, ‘Both married! Both had kids!’, and the doctors would smile patiently and turn their attention back to Dad, where they were at least making some progress.
‘It is imperative that it happen soon,’ said Doctor Jack in his rumbly, assured voice. ‘The sooner we separate them, the faster their bodies will heal, and the more successfully they will compensate for any deficiencies.’
He turned his head and we could see the frustration scrambling up those smooth, moisturised features. He muttered, ‘It should have been done years ago!’ and Doctor Roseleaf threw him a warning look from across the room.
One time Doctor Jack turned to us and crouched down, all smiles, and said, ‘Wouldn’t you girls like to be able to give each other a big hug? Play hopscotch together? Ride a bike?’, but we just stared back at him, mute, for didn’t we give each other hugs all the time? And only little kids played hopscotch; we played marbles and, what with my aim and Meg’s grit, we were just about unbeatable in our street. And we rode Danny’s bike all the time, with the trainers on, and with just a bit of help from him and Gretel.
Mum showed the doctors the door and came straight back to us. ‘It’s alright,’ she said, wiping away my tears and Meg’s scowl. ‘I won’t let them.’
And Dad banged out the door and went to the pub with a face like a pound of tripe.
Meg was the strong twin, so when it came time to say goodbye, out there in the prep room, Mum barely gave her the time of day. It was me she was worried about, with my tiny scrap of liver, my single kidney and dickey heart. It was me she thought she might not see alive again, so she wept all over me and kissed my face wet and gripped my hand, then at the last minute, as the nurses made to take us, she remembered Meg and pecked her on the cheek. ‘Take care of your sister,’ she said to her, fierce. ‘You keep a good hold on her!’ And then she was gone, poor Mum, with her sad face, grey and lined from all the months of court and fighting, and we were on our own.
They wheeled us through some metal doors into a room bright with overhead lamps and smelling badly of bleach, and Meg, the bold one, tucked her head under my chin as best she could, and whimpered, and it was me who had to be brave. With my good arm I reached around and cuddled her to me, tight as I could for courage, and with the hand we shared, I stroked her hair. Underneath the din of clanging and beeping and busy people turning knobs, I started up a humming, low and steady, a bit like the noise a fridge makes; and like that, we went under the gas.