My twin brother has the softest lips of any man I ever met. He lives in a house with several people: a poet, a teacher, a traveller and Veronica, who has the basement. When I visit my twin I always go with some uncertainty, as I never know who might be home. Sometimes this is pleasant. At other times it provokes my anxiety, especially if I’ve already decided who I want to see.
The walls of the traveller’s room are papered with posters of exotic places. His bed is strewn with maps. This time he is plotting his route to the centre of our country. It will be a long and thirsty journey, and I am not invited. The traveller tells me stories of places he’s already visited. He has an extraordinary memory. He recalls the details of meals and women from twenty years ago.
Sometimes the traveller clears the maps and guidebooks from his unmade bed. We lie down, and I become a foreign country.
The traveller is always dusty. He has a beard, and a small bag packed at all times in which he keeps everything he needs for a journey. He wears jeans and sandals and owns almost nothing. The traveller says:
‘I would marry you. I would be your husband.’
But the traveller knows a husband is not what I want. Perhaps that’s why he says it.
Sometimes when I visit only the poet is at home. He invites me to his room on the first floor. It is sparsely furnished and there is a typewriter on its own special table. Beside it are piles of paper with black type crossed out in green. His handwriting is small and difficult to decipher. The poet is clean shaven and smells of a particularly pleasant sandalwood shaving cream. His skin is soft. I enjoy placing my cheek against his. His quotations stay in my mind; they are always appropriate to every occasion. The poet invites me to join him on his mattress in the corner by the window. His language is romantic. He says:
‘There is a part of you I cannot reach. You have a secret.’
I am silent, as befits one with a secret.
When I visit Veronica I must walk down a flight of dark stone steps to reach her basement. Veronica cannot be visited without invitation. She lives the life of a recluse. She is a moody and unpredictable creature whose presence fills the whole house, but who is rarely seen. Veronica is in love with my twin. She has moments of motherly concern for me in which she straightens my jacket, or adjusts the strap of my bag so it won’t cut into my shoulder. Veronica’s basement is a night place, decorated with scarves and shawls of brilliantly dyed silk. There are candles in brass holders; she burns little cones of sandalwood incense. Her rugs are in colours of deep red and midnight blue. Her furniture is low: she sits on cushions. There are bars on the windows of her basement, and double locks on all her doors. I don’t know what she does all night and day.
Veronica has never been known to cry, though from time to time she flies into terrible rages. Sometimes upstairs we can hear the rumbles of her fury seeping through the floorboards. Then everyone goes quiet. The poet retires to his room, the traveller to his guidebooks, the teacher to his attic where many assignments await his attention. Then I know it’s time for me to leave.
My twin is rarely home. I love him most in this household, in this world. When we meet, we spend our time tangled and wet on the bed in his room in the middle of the house. My twin and I fold our arms and legs around each other. We tell jokes. We have competitions in which we good-naturedly try to outwit one another. When I look into the eyes of my twin, at the times when they are very close to mine, he says:
‘What can you see?’
and I say:
‘I can see me.’
Then we blink and shift our focus a little so that we can see one another. We are practicing. We are trying to see ourselves and each another at the same time. This is not easy.
I’m not very fond of the teacher and never visit his room. He is pedantic, and I can’t reach him. He wears small glasses on the end of his nose and patronises me. I don’t understand his jokes, studded as they are with references I’ve never heard of, and he acknowledges no one’s wisdom but his own. He thinks Veronica should leave the basement. He is very clear on this, as he is on almost everything. He has an air of authority that comes from without, not within, therefore I don’t trust him.
He never speaks to Veronica. He pretends she doesn’t exist. I can tell this infuriates her and she sets up particularly dreadful rumblings sometimes when she knows he’s home. Up there in his attic they barely reach him. I imagine that his vast knowledge has not made the necessary journey from his head to his heart, and so is useless.
I’ve been visiting the household for nearly five years now. Lately things have been changing, and not for the better. The traveller, though his bag is packed and his routes settled, seems to have been seized by a kind of inertia and isn’t going anywhere, barely out the front door. The poet hasn’t written anything for weeks, and spends his time drawing intricate patterns on his writing paper. The teacher is as always, only more so.
But Veronica in her basement seems to have lost her mind. She won’t eat, hardly sleeps. Her dark eyes are bloodshot and circled with grey. Nothing she says makes sense to me. She growls that they won’t let her out, that they’re suffocating her, but they all assure me that she’s quite free to come and go as she pleases.
‘No, I’m not,’ she snarls when I pass on this information. ‘There’s more than one way of locking someone up.’
I don’t know what’s happening or what to do about it. My twin has been absent for weeks and can’t be consulted. This is unfortunate: he’s been known to reach Veronica when no one else can, and she’s certainly happier when he’s around.
‘If they don’t let me out soon,’ Veronica threatens, ‘I’m going to kill them all.’
The teacher says he insists, absolutely insists, that she be taken to a hospital where they know how to manage this kind of thing. Then he shuts himself up in his attic, saying he won’t put up with any further interruptions. The poet and the traveller look sad, and terribly tired. I lie down with the poet on his mattress and we make love a little, but our hearts aren’t in it. The poet talks about finding a new profession since it seems he’s dried up. The traveller says one place is much the same as another so why bother? Depression settles over the household, while Veronica rumbles more and more frequently in her basement. I fret for my twin.
The next time I visit Veronica, she takes a set against me as well as the men. She says I’m noisy, and not serious minded. She says I don’t understand anything, I’m a stupid woman and why don’t I just go away and fuck someone, as that’s what I’m best at.
‘You’re not a patch on your twin!’ she yells. ‘Hard to believe you are twins!’
Then she throws a brass candlestick at me. Fortunately it hits the wall. I decide to stay away for a while.
A few nights later my twin visits me. This is the first time he’s ever come to my house. I answer the doorbell and there he is, looking worried and a little nervous. We go straight to my bed and lie there under the quilt. A full moon shines through the bedroom window onto our faces. We hold one another close.
‘I’m going away,’ he says to me.
I want to know why, where, how, and when will he be back. He refuses all of my questions. He kisses me with his soft lips.
‘Is it because of Veronica?’ I ask.
And he looks at me with an intensity of expression very like Veronica’s, and for a moment his eyes look dark like hers, instead of their usual pale blue. Then he strokes my hair in the motherly way Veronica used to sometimes adopt, when she wasn’t enraged and against us all. Then he touches my breast, like the poet, and he touches my belly, like the traveller mapping a route, and he looks wise, like the teacher delivering a lesson. Then we look at ourselves in each other’s eyes. After a while I realise he’s entered me so gently I was hardly aware of what he was doing. I don’t know how long we lie like that. Now and again he breaks our gaze and kisses me.
I fall asleep. When I wake my twin has gone. So has the moon, and the sky is light with breaking day. The impression of his head on the pillow next to mine, and the faintest smell of sandalwood, are all that is left to remind me that he was here, and won’t be anymore.
I don’t go out for a long time, not to the other house, or to movies, or to classes. Something has happened, and it will take time to understand.
Then I hear that Veronica has burned down the other house. In it were herself, the poet, the traveller and the teacher. There was no sign of my twin. People ask me if I know where he is.
‘He was in the house,’ I tell them.
They think I don’t understand. They explain gently that he couldn’t have been because there’s no trace of his remains.
‘He wouldn’t have left remains,’ I tell them and they shake their heads.
Losing my twin is like losing an arm or a leg. The missing part aches and itches long after it’s been removed to some hospital incinerator or pickling jar. I miss the poet and the traveller and Veronica as well. In his absence I can even find something to miss about the teacher. I salvaged a few things from the fire. Some postcards, an anthology of poetry, a half written paper on women in Shakespeare, and one of Veronica’s brass candlesticks.
After some weeks I began to dream about them, singly and together. But it was my twin who visited most frequently. Sometimes, travelling through a place of great beauty, I thought I saw him. I thought how he would enjoy what I was seeing. I thought we would probably have stopped beside a river at the bottom of a deep green valley and laid down together in the grass.
At the times I dreamed about Veronica, I always woke up crying. Veronica, who never cried when she was alive, wept her way through my dreams like an abandoned child. Observing her from a distance were the poet, the traveller and the teacher. None of them ever approached to offer comfort.
These dreams lasted for many months. Finally they began to lessen. The relics from the fire I put away in a box in the attic. Then I discovered a desire to see the world through the eyes of the traveller. The poet led me to other mysterious realities. From Veronica, I got the tears she never cried. And the teacher left a vast store of unassimilated knowledge.
As for my twin, he never really left me. I hear him sometimes on quiet nights. I sit up in bed to listen, and to remember who I am.
First published in Coastlines 3, New Writings from Southern Cross ©Jennifer Wilson 2011