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I have two heads. I say ‘I’, I mean we, me and my conjoined twin. She is Trinity, I am Stella. Between us we have two hearts, three lungs, two spines and two heads, as formerly mentioned. Currently, we are learning to drive. We are ever so co-ordinated. People are impressed. Trinity takes control of the wheel, the lights and the indicators, and I take control of the pedals. Off we go, wheee whizzing round traffic islands, ducking and diving through the dirty streets of London, then on to the M4 to Bristol to visit Aunt Margaret.
[private]At birth, we had a one in thirty million chance of survival. We beat the odds, we pulled through, survivors. We love life; how grateful we are to be here, how thrilled; each day is a tiny little gift. We make the most of it, get on with it. Wallowing in self-pity is not for us. We are battlehardened.
Our parents protected us; said no to the medical men who wanted to make lab specimens of us, poking and prodding and mauling, documenting, labelling, filing away. The world is obsessed by us. We have no desire to be a freak show, though we are one of course. In the street, people stare and take photographs, as if we are Beyonce or J-Lo or Madonna. We hate it. A normal life is what we crave; dignity, composure – heads held high. After all, we are not disabled, not technically. Mentally we are in fine working condition.
At school there has been some cruelty, but also compassion. Nice girls, those Benson twins, is what people say, and we are nice, we do unto others. Mockery is inevitable, it’s typically short-lived and then one of our friends, Evelyn or Kylie or Diana will step in and tell the mocker to shut their fat face or they’ll shut it for them. A good group of mates shelters us from storms that might otherwise blow our way. Academically, we excel: Trinity’s the mathematical type, I’m more of the arty sort, into poetry and painting, though we’re also careful not to try too hard in case the other kids get jealous and pick on us even more. Anything to try and blend in. Other people project emotions onto us – hate, fear, pity, love. That’s their problem. We shuck it off, off it slides, whoosh, water off duck.
There are fights – we are not saints. We bicker in the morning about what clothes to wear; I’m very ‘street’ – hoodies and baggy jeans worn down low with the knickers poking out the top and big, chunky, brightly-coloured necklaces. Trinity’s more conservative, into neatly pressed slacks and dressy shirts, a classy pearl necklace to top the outfit off. Our mother has told us that we must learn to compromise, to take turns; Trinity dressing us on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays and me taking the other days, swapping the regime round the following week. We tried it, but we still bicker. There is sometimes conflict between us. Omigod, I’m not wearing that. That’s hideous! What do you think we are? A gangsta? Or: Wouldn’t be caught dead in that in a month of Sundays. We look like a forty-four-year-old corporate exec.
People say that Trinity has the dominant personality, that she’s very outgoing. ‘Bubbly’ is the word they use. I exist primarily in an interior world, a landscape of words; I see everything through the lens of literature; I have been shaped by Keats and Yeats and Wordsworth, by Maurice and Maggie Gee, by Janet Frame and Jeanette Winterson. My mind produces snippets of sentences at random moments, fragments, ill-shaped pearls.
We arrive safely in Bristol. Aunt Margaret is in the kitchen, baking a lemon meringue pie, Trinity’s favourite. She hums as she works, hmmmm, a pleasant sound like bees swarming around a hive. In the past, Aunt Margaret has been severely depressed, lying in the corridor, weeping and wailing for days on end. Now she takes antidepressants and lives her life at a slow, manageable pace, just one steady footstep after the other, left, right, left, though she does have relapses, falls into crevasses of the mind. She does gardening and yoga. She’s never been married and personally I think that loneliness is one of her big problems, rattling around in that big old house that her father left her when he died, all those empty rooms, too much time on her hands. She doesn’t have to work; her father left her a wad of dough. Aunt Margaret is fragile; we pay her these visits to cheer her up. She loves us, throws her arms around us, smothers us with affection. She feels for our plight, people often do, but no, we are not to be pitied. Fate dealt us a certain hand; it could have been better, but it also could have been a whole lot worse. Weare expert in making the best of things. We are practical girls. Two heads are better than one.
When she finishes baking the pie, we take Margaret out to the beach; the sea air is good for her, the gulls squawking overhead, their harsh cries, piercing to the mind. Margaret is our mother’s younger sister; a hypersensitive, sickly child, she grew into a hypersensitive, sickly adult. Harsh blows were dealt her in her youth; a boyfriend of seven years upping and leaving her for a waitress from Hull, a miscarriage – life events that a more robust individual would have shrugged off in the course of time, events that were enough to psychologically cripple my aunt. She hobbles along her solitary road. She feels for us and we feel for her. A relationship based on mutual empathy.
Margaret fancies a swim, so she tootles across to the shed, changes into her swimming costume and splashes about in the shallows, doing breaststroke and over-arm, a cap covered in rosettes on her head. She looks so happy, all her cares washed away in the water. Simple and free. You would not guess, to look at her, the darkness that lurks within. There is no darkness in the Benson girls! We are lights, shining, pure goodness; we beam golden rays into the world, as if, like Jesus, we have taken humanity’s suffering onto ourselves and borne it with good grace, a skip in our step, a smile on our respective dials. Trinity cries sometimes, lamenting our plight; I never do. I am the more stoic of the pair, upright, solid. But neither of us is the type to fall down. We prop each other up.
Our parents have good careers; they are doctors – our father, a paediatrician, our mother, a GP. They are good providers, they helped us build up high self-esteem, a buffer zone between ourselves and the world. My aunt’s nerve endings are too raw, too exposed – she is uncovered. She walks naked. We will not break like our aunt has broken. Nothing will shatter. We are full of hopes and dreams for the future; Trinity wants to be a vet, I entertain notions of becoming a painter; one of us is going to have to compromise of course, unless she does three days as a vet and I paint for three days, which I suppose is feasible. Teenage angst is not for us; some of the other girls weep and wail and flail about, going on silly fad diets, and sobbing because the boy they slept with last Saturday won’t call them, complaining because they’re no longer the most popular one in their little group of friends, no longer Number One.
We’re far more sensible than that. We have crushes, of course, like all girls, but we never let these develop into anything bigger – it would only lead to disappointment and pain. It would take a brave man to date one or both of us, and for the most past, the boys at our school can be divided into two categories; feeble, pale, pasty lads with gangly limbs or sports jocks who never leave the gymnasium. There are exceptions, of course; Henry, whom Trinity fancies, who is a well-built lad with a chunky physique and a maths whiz like her – they compete for top grades. Thomas, who I have my eye on, hangs around the art room painting gloomy-looking pictures of bats and rats. One day we will secure ourselves one or two men – we will not be denied, we will get our share.
Both of us want to be married, but think of the problems; me shutting my eyes and humming to myself while Trinity is being ‘serviced’ (but whose vagina is it anyway? – both of ours of course), Trinity blotting out the grunts and groans of my gorgeous husband. Awful. Or both of us conscious and gasping with pleasure, each developing a crush on the other’s husband, jealous fights and neither of us able to take ourselves off to the other room in a huff. And a baby, if one is born – who would it belong to? Tests could be done to determine the father, but we only have one womb, so technically it would be both of ours.
Sometimes Trinity cries at night and I have to comfort her. My mind takes over both arms and I put them around her, tell her that she’s safe and that it’s going to be all right.
“But what will become of us?” she wails, though never, it should be noted, ‘Why did this have to happen to us?’
“We’ll be all right,” I say. “We’re just different. We’ll make it through somehow.”
It’s up to me to be strong at these times. The boot, for some reason, is never on the other foot, it’s never me howling and her comforting. She is the more delicate one. If it weren’t for me, she could fall to bits, like Aunt Margaret. I am the string that binds the pieces of her together, the glue. Sometimes she cries and won’t stop crying. It’s terrible, it goes on for hours, a caterwaul; and then suddenly she’ll burst out laughing, her sobs easing off. She’ll mock herself then; imitate her own crying, as a way of making light of the situation, having a laugh. I clown around too, to cheer her up. I say things like Hey Trinity, maybe we were not born, but hatched, our mother raped by a swan, like Leda. We came from an egg. And she’ll giggle. The dark clouds leave; the sun comes out. Everything shines.
We have two heads. Hers is blonde, mine brunette. We can nod them in unison, or one at a time. We can turn our heads in opposite directions, away from each other, but we cannot spin to face one another; we are too close together, there is no room. We are a spectacle. We are spectacular. We are special cases. Sometimes we sing, in the shower, or around the house.
“Voices of angels,” says my mother. “Heavenly.”
She’s tone deaf – our singing is terrible, like the squawking of crows, harsh, cacophonous. We continue anyway, just because we can. Turn up the volume, crank up the volume on us, make us louder. We’re not going anywhere, we’re not going away. We dance too, closing our eyes, swinging our hips in time to the music, heads swaying like Axl Rose whom Trinity loves, or Kristen Hersh whose music I adore, side to side. Side by side we set out on life’s highway, determined to survive, steely-eyed: we will not become like Margaret with her breakdowns and her relapses and her existence that is not quite a life. Each carries the other; each is the other’s burden. Two heads, one body. What will become of us? Nobody knows. We are firmly in the driver’s seat. We will make the most of what we have been born with. We are the ones in control.[/private]