Seen, Not Heard
“We were identical, but that’s where the similarities ended.
I came first and everybody panicked because I didn’t make a sound. I was shaken and prodded and checked from belly to bonce but they couldn’t find anything wrong. Fact of the matter is, I was just enjoying the quiet. It was a good thing too, it would be years ‘til I experienced any again. Seven years, to be exact.
She followed a few minutes later. Mother had barely caught her breath. She was screaming before her lips cleared the canal and everyone seemed overjoyed. I still hadn’t let out a pip but people seemed to be getting less concerned, rather than more. I reluctantly signalled my consciousness with a sigh.
I couldn’t decide, at first, if she had a lot to say or if she just wanted attention. It’s hard to tell when everything comes out as noise. I soon learned it was both. She immediately became the constant soundtrack to my life. By constant, incidentally, I’m not taking in approximations, I mean the dictionary definition of constant. I mean incessant, unrelenting, ceaseless, interminable.
While she was every parent’s nightmare from the start, I was a dream. No noise, no fuss, no trouble. I was kept fed, warm, and clean. I didn’t have enough experience to have opinions worth sharing. I didn’t see any reason to add to the cacophony, You’d think that might have made me the favourite but it just meant I was ignored. Not that I minded.
You’ve heard about twins having a special bond, an ability to communicate between themselves on a more intuitive level? Maybe you do, but it wasn’t my experience. Walkie-talkies don’t work if one person never takes their finger off the button. I learned to understand what she was saying in the same way you learn to swim if the other option is drowning. If she had any idea what I was thinking she never let on and, considering I was usually thinking about murdering her, you’d think she might.
Mother and Father liked to dress us the same, Perhaps because they thought it was adorable. Perhaps because it halved the number of decisions they needed to make. Or, maybe, because it saved them from having to fully acknowledge I existed. Whatever the reason, all it achieved was to emphasise our differences. Somehow, and I didn’t understand how until much later, I came off as sullen, brooding, even aloof. She, on the other hand, was outgoing, exuberant, exciting. I can’t blame our parents too much, neither of them slept in anything but snatches from the day before we were born. Still, it would have been nice to have even one acknowledgement that I was the good one.
It was frustrating enough from the start but once she learned to talk with words it became exasperating. She knew nothing but that didn’t stop her from giving opinions. She experienced nothing more than I did but that didn’t stop her from offering observations. She’d earned nothing but she still issued demands. She needed nothing but she still made requests. The cheek of it was flabbergasting. Still, that wasn’t the worst of it. Around the age of two, she became contrary too.
To this day I still can’t explain why Mother and Father didn’t drown her in the bath.
As soon as I could move, I started looking for spaces away from her. No matter how often I tried, I was always denied by a door, a gate, a stair, or an adult chasing after me and returning me to her side.
I started learning to read early. It was something to focus on and it seemed to earn me at least a few feet of separation from her if I looked as though I was focusing enough. Annoyingly, it also seemed to make them think she should be reading too. Twin logic, I suppose. Every so often I’d be minding my own business with my nose in The Little Engine That Could or Llama Llama Red Pajama and they’d drag me into the air and drop me virtually on her lap as though it might encourage her to join in. It didn’t.
Nursery offered a moment of hope. I waddled in and saw the carpet full of kids and thought ‘one of these has got to be able to put her in her place.’ I thought she might get shouted down, shown up as an idiot, pushed over, anything. I’m not saying I wanted my sister to be bullied, just that she was a pretty one-dimensional personality so a little peer-induced character building might have been good.
That’s not right. I shouldn’t lie. I was already beyond the point of hoping for her redemption. I wanted her to be tormented, tortured, taken apart, traumatised. I wanted her to feel some part of the endless horror I’d suffered for our entire existence.
They loved her. I think for some it might be the same sort of love an oppressed nation feels for a charismatic dictator but, however you see it, she was top dog within half a day.
Nap time wasn’t a thing. Storytime wasn’t a thing. She barely broke voice long enough to pull milk down her throat. Occasionally, I saw one of the minders looking longingly at a pair of scissors or a pillow and I knew exactly what they were thinking. Murdering an infant isn’t great for a career though, so they’d usually just disappear for a few minutes and come back smelling of smoke, or gin. You’d have thought at least one of the parents might have made a fuss about the fact their child was regularly coming home tired and unstoried, but it turned out we lived in the sort of area where they just took their kids to another nursery instead. By the end of the year, most days were just me, her, and the kid who ate crayons.
School was the same.
I learned some lessons about making friends, though. I learned that most people don’t really care if you’re annoying or overbearing. They mostly just like to have somebody who fills the space and takes the pressure off. If she was nearby, nothing was ever expected of you because there was never a big enough gap for you to contribute.
I also learned people were not particularly interested in aligning themselves with somebody whose prime goal is the achievement and preservation of silence. It turns out that isn’t entertaining, interesting, or a recipe for a lifelong friendship. I was older than you are now before I could bring myself to sacrifice silence long enough to build real relationships. You’ve probably already realised this is the longest I’ve spoken to you in one sitting.”
The two boys looked at each other, then at their mother, unsure if it was polite to agree or not. They chose to keep their faces neutral and wait.
“I haven’t answered your question, have I?” Grandma continued. “Well, it happened the first time we went to London. It was our seventh birthday.
Mother and Father, your great-gran and great-grandad, wanted to take us to the Natural History Museum in Kensington, which was exciting for us both because we’d get to see dinosaurs. I knew it was exciting for her because she told us, repeatedly.
We got the early train into Euston. I ran from the platform so I could get a window seat and spend the trip looking out. I wanted to see the big plume of smoke rising from the city as we approached. As it turns out, the only ‘big smoke’ still in London by then was the one which choked your lungs as you stepped into the main hall of Euston station. You could still smoke cigarettes indoors back then, you see.
It meant I was already disappointed, in addition to my continual state of irritation, by the time we stood on the Tube platform below Euston.
Now. The Tube is something special. Have you been on it yet?”
Grandma looked at her twin grandsons but they remained blank, so she turned to her daughter, their mum.
“Not yet,” Mum shook her head. “We’re taking them next month for their birthday, as it happens.”
“Oh, that will be a treat!” Grandma smiled, but there was something dark behind it.
“Well, a Tube station is the busiest place in the world, but it’s also tiny. Everyone has to squash together and it feels quite intense. As you can imagine, this made her incessant noise even worse. And it made my feeling of anonymity even more complete.
We got on the first train that arrived, which is normal for the Tube. I looked for solace from her ceaseless jibber-jabber by focussing on the unfamiliar melody of a man from far away speaking in a language I’d never heard. His tones were so rounded and flowing. I found it intoxicating if I tell you the truth. I guess that explains the colour of your grandad. It’s a shame more of it hasn’t ended up in you.”
Mum’s eyes widened and she opened her mouth as if to speak before thinking better of it.
“Anyway,” Grandma pushed on. “You wanted to know what happened to the little girl in the picture with me. She was my twin sister, just like you two are twins, and that was the last day I saw her.”
A slightly puzzled expression had formed on Mum’s face but she continued to hold her tongue.
“We had to change at Leicester Square, from the Northern line to the Piccadilly line. We shuffled off our first train near the end of the platform and stood just by the yellow line that you’re supposed to stay behind. You’ll see what I mean when you go.
It was quiet on the platform at first, much quieter than when we’d arrived in Euston. It meant my sister's noise echoed off the curved wall and somehow managed to pierce even deeper into my consciousness than usual. It felt as though the stagnant air was crushing my skull. As the platform filled up, she seemed to notice her sound was being muted and began talking louder to compensate. By the time the electronic sign told us the train was one minute away, I felt like my head was in a jet engine that sacks of Jack Russells were being poured through.”
“Mum!” Mum protested as the boys winced. Grandma ignored it.
“Suddenly, a clarity came over me and I felt a calm I never had before. I was three feet tall and silent in a room filled from wall to wall with adults and noise. Not a single eye was turned in my direction. The station filled with wind as the noise of the approaching train grew louder, finally drowning her out. As I saw the nose of the train appear at the far end of the platform I poked my sister in the eyes with my index and middle fingers. She let go of Mother and Father’s hands to cover them. She’d been hogging both our parents, as usual. I pulled back my arms then thrust them forward as hard as I could against her chest.
As she tumbled backwards onto the track, for the first time since her first breath, she was silent. Then, a second later, she was gone.”
Grandma looked delighted as three open-mouthed faces looked back at her.
It took a second or two, but Mum managed to gather herself.
“Grandma’s joking,” she said hurriedly to her two young sons. “She has a very funny sense of humour,” she paused, “I think I can hear your dad shouting from the garden. Why don’t you go see what he wants?
The boys looked from their grandma to their mum and then at each other. Unsure what else they could do, they did as they’d been asked.
As soon as they had left the room, Mum turned back to Grandma, white as a sheet.