The Old Vicarage
This post has developed from a conversation with orna B Raz who is interested to hear about being a twinless twin.
Lent, I've thought a lot about loss. It's that time of year. Last
year's palm leaves scorched to soot. Last year's thorns not yet
camouflaged with burgeoning leaf. Dead wood snapped in autumn gales
not yet encrusted with copper-green lichens, or host to oyster
mushrooms. Redundant nests awaiting tenants. Dispassionate skies,
dark as pewter. Slicing winds and not the merest rumour of a thermal.
But it's always a sad time of year in ways I struggle to explain, despite the facts. These words will give shape to something invisible whose effects are as tangible as those of a severed limb. There were things I knew before I knew the reasons for them, fixed impressions not based on evidence, spoken or actual, but so taken for granted that they seemed routine yet jarring at the same time.
My April birthday makes me a dyed-in-the-wool Arian. Jump in at the deep end. Sink or swim. I made it into this world from a better place, I'm sure, with a vague sense of mission. There was something I had to do. Get back there, retrieve something lost. Earn space on the face of the planet. Life is a gift we must do our utmost to treasure in order that lemons become cordial. I think the anguish of birth was so traumatic that memories are imprinted from some of my earliest days. You see, I made the journey here, but my twin did not.
They were years of austerity, the nation for all its courage and grit, shell-shocked, hustled to its feet after not one, but two world wars. Perspectives on life and death were not as they are today. The moral code of stiff upper lip and shouldering your own burdens, not speaking openly about trials and tragedies, getting on with it, was the norm. Everyone had suffered in one way or another. There was a singular pride in not indulging grief. You dealt with what was before you and put the rest out of sight and, yes, out of mind. Was that unhealthy? It's not easy to answer that, as this account will show. But for all our present day insight and empathy, the western world does seem less mature.
I was born in a rambling Victorian vicarage which had been turned into makeshift nursing home during WWII. It was shortly due to close. In fact, mine was the penultimate birth and would have been the last if I'd not arrived two weeks early. My mother had been told by her doctor that the signs indicated twins. There was no Ultrasound, no amniocentesis, so, after a complicated delivery which required ten days of rest, she was sent home to get on with her life, grateful to have come through, and with a healthy baby. She never mentioned the absent one, at least not to me, until she was in her late seventies and a widow.
There were conspiracies of silence about many things, of all shapes and shades, when I was growing up, so that functioning in a vacuum, being blind to certain factors that impinged on daily life, seemed part of the human deal. I suppose this is not uncommon and was especially rife after the war when quite a number of children were fathered by American GIs billeted upon British wives and families, or else by POWs quartered in the district. Thus the loss was despatched, couched fluffily in an ensuing comedy which became the narrative of events.
Gender roles were clearly defined at that period. It was unthinkable that fathers should attend the birth of their offspring. It was women's work and as natural as shelling peas. After a nail-biting day and night, my Dad telephoned the nursing home from a public call-box to be told that a bouncing daughter had been born in the early hours. “Not twins, just a little elephant,” quipped the doctor. I weighed seven pounds.
My poor Dad, a logical man, overcome with the news, clutched faintly on the receiver, fully convinced that the medic had said seventeen pounds!! He was the butt of that joke for many a year, though he took it in good part.
Ironically, the elephant in the womb became the elephant in the room. It wasn't just that it was a taboo subject, by mutual, tacit consent. It was as though it hadn't happened. This may seem like a fine distinction, but the domestic dynamic had changed beyond what was demonstrable and reasonable in the circumstances. It introduced a ghostly dichotomy that is an integral part of who I am. This is played out in small matter-of-fact ways when making choices and evaluating opinions, down to a sense of deep emotional and spiritual cleavage from where, and with whom, I belong.
I feel we're called upon to justify our space upon this planet, if only by goodwill and the care and support of the fellow creatures who cross our path. We didn't ask to be born, but Creation has called us into being and invested in our uniqueness for the benefit of all. While there is a metaphysical pressure to live for two, my instinct is to take up as little space as possible in trying to achieve that. Throughout her life, my mother impressed upon me that sacrifices had been made on my behalf, though I was never quite sure what they were, and this may have induced a free-floating guilt that is near impossible to shake off. It did not occur to me until after she died that the chillingly offhand moods which had been so perplexing might have erupted from a primitive form of suppressed grief. I was the child who had gained life at the expense of the other.
My parents decided on a hyphenated name. Rose-Marie. There was no such tradition in the family, but I suspect that a coupling of this kind answered the spirits. However, on the day of the registration, my mother changed her mind. For some abstruse reason, she decidedly did not want her daughter to be called Rose (as was inevitable in the real world) so Rosemary was instead written on the certificate. Rosemary Joy. It failed to stick. Well into adulthood, I was informally called Rose, except at home, and it seemed so naturally to morph into Rosy that I kept to it. It was like a gift of identity whose roots are clandestinely entwined.
In the shadows of the psyche, where no one else treads, Marie has been an angel presence from time immemorial. I don't actually name her, except in now describing the alter ego, or phenomenon, she is. I don't even think about this often, but have never been able to shed the formless grief of her going, which, at times, is intense and quite inexplicable in wholly rational terms. In infancy, I talked to her as a matter of course. As a three-year-old, I noticed the sad pain in the middle of my chest, exactly where Benjamin, my teddy bear's squeak-box had worn through his fur, and marvelled that he was feeling it, too! Even now, the way I go about decision-making and debating issues with myself sometimes strikes me more like an actual dialogue than an evolving stream-of-consciousness. When a conclusion is finally reached, it is seldom other than firm. There is another dimension at work.
Where does all this leave me? I suppose it is a major cause of 'drivenness'. Wherever I am and whatever I'm doing, there's a feeling of needing to be elsewhere doing other things. In order to keep focus, it makes me doubly obsessive about achieving goals which, incidentally, don't usually tally with what an observer might expect. In the past, I have crammed much into my days to the point of serious exhaustion. Family and social responsibilities aside, I have run a gallery and a music agency, have written several books, trained as a singer, performed in hundreds of concerts and a fair few operas (in the chorus and minor roles). I have attended artists' courses, plus others in antique furniture, silver, the fine arts, the Baroque era. For many years, I taught Scripture. 'Jill-of-all-trades, mistress of none,' I hear you say. Well, that is undoubtedly true. All I ever wanted was to be was a ballerina. Folk pressed my parents to enter me for proper ballet school, but the stage was anathema to their beliefs.
Another source of misgiving has been friendships. I've been forever blessed in finding good friends and have not always reciprocated with the degree of enthusiasm they deserve, at least in terms of relaxed and regular socialising. The main reason for this is the distraction, the anxiety amounting almost to panic when the contemplative sessions from which creativity arises, are displaced. I've written of this before, but it's not altogether about the demands of research or writerly application and absorption in Story, it's where I am closest to Marie. I am never alone. I know this sounds crazy, but it's as though she will die if I don't make this breathing space and I shall become disorientated.
It must be stressed that there's nothing eerie about it. My other half is a presence just over the shoulder, a breath's span out of sight, the whisper of something I might not have thought of. She is the frisson of electricity when I eclipse the essence of her. Does she ever see through my eyes? Do I see through hers?
Strangers sometimes think they recognise me. They mistake me for someone else, or I remind them of a person they once knew. We twinless twins like to think we are individuals, but I smile and wonder which of us they see and whether the capacity for mirroring extends beyond the context, out of time and mind. One weird thing that does keep happening is that when I spot a person who strongly resembles someone I know, they will acknowledge me or greet me like an old friend. It could be in the native character of the catching of the eye. Or not. Occasionally, in the past, I have used homeopathic Argentum Nitricum, beloved of performers for its calming effects. In its chemical form, it's used as the silver backing to mirrors. I began to notice on those days an increased frequency in the experience described. There is much at our fingertips we fail to grasp.
To the end of her days, my mother refused to hear me called anything but Rosemary. Maybe it was a deep-seated need to keep a homogeneous version of the legend intact, to slay the elephant, or an impulse to control identity and reduce it to something she could cope with. This was so challenging that, in full possession of her faculties, she came to deny she had a daughter at all. The presence and absence are curiously interchangeable. It's how I know death doesn't have the last word.
As The Twinless Twin Support Group says, 'Once a twin, Always a twin. You are not alone.'
Just once in a blue moon, the mist thins and all slots into the twilight picture, the whys and wherefores. And one day, the light will shine and melt the veil and the long, stumbling journey of separation will be over.
Who knows? Perhaps Marie is doing the dancing in a parallel reality, wishing she had written poetry or explored Georgian history. It cannot be denied that particular music haunts most powerfully and excruciatingly of all.
My poem, In Memory, which is included in THE TWAIN, Poems of Earth and Ether, attempts to describe the experience of being born as a twinless twin.
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