I Look Like You. I Speak Like You. I Walk Like You.
Have you ever seen someone who looks just like you? It’s a terrifying moment. For a second, in front of you, is a replica, with your eyes, your hair, and your gestures. Usually you blink and stare, and then realise that the resemblance isn’t so great after all. The eye colour is different, after all, she’s fatter than you, and when she smiles her teeth are large and overlapping.
But what if you met someone who looked exactly like you? What if you had a double? Someone who looked just like you, but was better, better in every way.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s happened from what’s happening. When I think back, it’s difficult to remember; all gaps and images and fragments like slivers of broken glass. Our lives are like a series of overlapping tracks as our stories overspill into the lives of others. Everything exists at once, and, paradoxically, not at all. In my head, past and present slew around in my head, small, sharp fragments of unfinished stories.
On my lap there is a biscuit tin. It’s a faded box of Danish butter cookies. I know he won’t look there. He hates those cookies, complaining they taste like margarine. My legacy is in here. The worn and dented tin contains all about me that has survived. In it are a few old photos and faded clippings. When everything is quiet at night, I come down here, to the damp-smelling kitchen of the apartment, and pull the biscuit tin out from under the sink. I take out a photograph, carefully. This is my most precious possession, a photograph of us. It’s black and creamy yellowish-white and creased around the edges. At one point it must have been folded in two – a cracked seam runs down the image, dividing our solemn, curly heads, our fat little arms around each other’s waists.
When I close my eyes I picture us like this, twinned and embryo-close, secure within our black and white bubble. I see our one true tale diverge and splinter into fractured narratives. Susieandstella. Susie. Stella.
We were happy then. I remember our dolls – twins too – with their flaxen hair and marble-blue eyes. We would push them in two tiny prams, heads together like gossipy married women, endlessly babbling.
Sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see her, our mother. I see the tired fear in her eyes. I think of her as we last saw her, on the kitchen floor, her face a pulp of blood and bone. She reached out to me - ‘My babies.’ I turned and ran and hid with you, bodies pressed tight in the kind darkness of the airing cupboard. The hot water tank shuddered and hiccupped beside us as we hid, silent, for a long time, holding hands, mute. I can still remember how much the light hurt my eyes when the unfamiliar people opened the door.
When they took you away, I cried so much I was sick. I was in a strange house with unfamiliar smells and a hard bed. Kind people tried to get me to tell them what my favourite food was. I just turned my face and wept until my face was sticky and swollen. I wouldn’t talk. Not one word. In deep shock I heard one nurse tell another at the hospital. I just wanted you back, my sister, myself; your small arms tight around me at night. I often wonder who the expert was who recommended we be parted. It doesn’t happen like that anymore, you know. They try everything to keep siblings together.
Then one, by one, the years ticked by, and when I was old enough to find you, you had already disappeared.
I met him at a fairground on the edge of the city. I was there with some friends, wandering around, enjoying the swell of music and the smell of candyfloss mingling with and the hot, iron perfume of the machines. My friend Karen knew him from work. They were talking about something, laughing together. I was watching a ride with narrowed eyes, wondering if I had the courage to get on it. It was a row of little boat-carriages for two that swung around recklessly from side to side, threatening to, but never quite, turning over. I watched it, intent on the screaming, joyous faces of the riders swirling by me.
‘Are you scared?’ His low voice came from behind me, his breath tickling my neck.
I shivered, excited, nervous.
‘I think I can do it.’
He smiled at me. His teeth were large and perfectly white. ‘I know you can’. He flicked my arm lightly. His hands were large and immaculate, strong and long-fingered. We looked at each other.
‘Harry’ he said.
The ride had finished. We continued to stand, inches apart.
‘I’ll go with you’. He scooped me up like a grocery bag and dropped me into the nearest carriage. The little boat rocked as he climbed in, swaying hard under his weight. His thigh was taut against mine. My heart was beating in my throat, in a delightful panic.
I can still feel the imprint of his large hands on my body, his confident touch, his fingers firm and assured.
Last month it was my wrist.
He pushed me over, hard. By the time I hit the worn linoleum of the floor I was already crying, my stomach clenched in fear. It was almost a relief to feel the sick pain in my wrist and to hear myself scream. It was enough for him, I could see it. His mouth was already stretching at the sides into a hard grimace that tried to be a smile. He stood over me, and his hands dropped to his sides.
Sometimes I see them. Others like me. Once when I was waiting, arm limp in my lap, aching head pressed against the damp, green walls of A&E I saw one watching me. She was holding a bloody rag to her face. One eye was a puffed and bleeding mess. But the other looked straight at me. In her one eye I saw reflected the sick resignation in my own. I am just like you her steady gaze said. I closed my eyes. When I opened them she was gone.
If this wasn’t my story, if some unfortunate woman were telling it to me, I’d laugh. I would. I’d laugh and say Walk out the door! Just leave him! It’s impossible to describe the death of hope to free people, those invisible barriers that spring up, around the house, around your behaviour. You just don’t know what it’s like.
It grinds you down, as one tense day follows another, like beads on a string. Once I bought the wrong milk, semi-skimmed instead of full fat. They’d changed the colour of the carton, you see, and I hadn’t noticed. But he did. I remember the cold light of the fridge glowing blue-white as he turned around, and the warm, helpless trickle of urine that ran down my leg as I saw his face.
It’s the waiting that’s the worst bit. The wondering. Is the flat clean enough for his inspection? Will he be alright when he comes in? If I stay up, will he hit me for nagging? If I go to bed, will he come and get me? He’s done it a few times, you see, grabbed me by the ankles and pulled me out. Once I went flying down the stairs. That was the worst. That was the time the doctor could barely look at me, she was so sick with disgust at my pathetic improvised story, as he stood over me, breathing heavily, watching, listening.
I finger my lip, almost unconsciously. There’s a thin line down it, from when he split it last year. It was one of the first times he hit me, and I suppose he wasn’t practiced enough. I remember his consternation.
‘God! I’m sorry! Here, mop it up. Will I get a plaster?’ His face was suddenly anxious, hovering above mine. I lay on the floor, dazed. I felt my lip swell and throb, the blood bubbling over it and into my mouth. I remember him dabbing at it, a hot wet cloth with the pungent smell of Dettol.
‘You fell over,’ he says. ‘It could happen to anyone.’ I close my eyes and weakly, horribly, enjoy the soft touch of cloth on my lip, his anxious hands cradling my face.
If you leave me, I’ll kill you. Killing me is his answer for so many things. Going to the police. Complaining. Making trouble. Spilling tea.
I don’t work. Of course I don’t work. How would I explain the on-off limping, the bruises on the arm, the wincing as I sit down? Nor do I have friends. Having friends carries a penalty, judiciously exacted. Friends are a threat to him, you see. There was Maura, a nice Irish girl I’d met in the park near the flats. She rang the house-phone once. He answered the phone, hung up, and then punched me methodically once, twice, hard in the stomach.
‘I told you’ he said. His voice is almost regretful. ‘No calls’.
I see my death written in his face. It will happen some night when he’s just that bit too drunk, when he hits just that bit too hard, and those huge hands that once held me in love will punch me out of this life.
In the end it wasn’t so hard to find you, Susie. For some reason I thought it would be a lot more difficult. I remember worrying about not having enough money to hire a private detective, but there are agencies, kind, concerned agencies set up to help you track down relatives lost through fostering. My twin story went down well, the dog-eared photograph never failed to elicit a cry of sympathy.
I’ve found you now. We live in the same city, but on different sides. I know your name, where you live. I stalk you on Facebook. I see what you like. Heart-warming stories about dogs found and restored to their owners. We have the same face, the same body, but your life is different in every possible way. I watch the video of your birthday party, uploaded to YouTube. I see the unconscious flutter of your right hand to your lips when surprised. I do that too. I learn everything about you. I want to know it all, to develop the same likes and dislikes. I want to know who your friends are. I want to know your jokes, your recurring spelling mistakes and your favourite dress. There are so many things to learn before we can meet. When it happens it has to be picture-perfect.
When he hits me I freeze. I hug my body in my arms, but even as I cry and beg and plead, even as I shrink from his terrible fists, I withdraw. In my head it’s is already over. I think of you, my sweet sister, I think of you in your shiny home, your family nestled around you like baby chicks in a straw basket.
Your life is so flawless. I watch it in the dim light of my laptop, while he snores drunkenly upstairs. Your house is large and colourful. Your husband has a fat, kind face with dark, guileless eyes. He has dimples on his cheeks as he hugs the girls. Your two little girls, Pearl and Veronica. Old-fashioned, hipster names. I touch their rosy faces on the cold screen.
If locating you was exciting, it’s nothing compared to the anxiety and delight of meeting you for the first time in twenty-five years. My palms are sweaty as I wait in the anonymous café on a side-street, carefully chosen to be at a safe distance from my house or yours. I see you first; I see you walk in, look around. Your face reflects my own confused and fearful excitement. When I see you walk towards me, I feel my heart stutter in my chest; it pulses in the hot pain of emotion. I look like you. I speak like you. I walk like you. I am you. But I’m not you.
You see me. ‘Stella?’ you say uncertainly? Even my voice is yours, yours is mine.
I nod. Words are beyond me. You put your hand to my face, tracing the scar on my lip. Your eyes are full of tears. When I hug you, it is like holding a warm mirror. Face to face, belly to belly. Together we fit like soft Lego, neat and tight. Your arms give the tight comfort I remember.
I show you the crumpled black and white photograph and your eyes widen. How wonderful you breathe, touching it lightly with your fingertips.
Susie. Susie. Susie.
I like my own face more now I’ve met you. You look so pretty.
I cut my hair like yours. It costs me a beating. I don’t mind. I have started to look in mirrors again. I am surprised how normal I look. Except for the faint lip-scar and the wariness in my eyes, I could be you. I compare myself to the Facebook selfies of you, my sister-double, and I am pleased. I hug you to myself like a precious secret. I buy myself a mobile phone. If he finds it, he will be incandescent. It would be construed as evidence of my having friends, informing on him, planning to leave him. We text each other, the texts are our memories made concrete. We had a doll called Lucy. Remember that? She wet herself. We didn’t like her. My phone lives in the biscuit tin. I retrieve it and read these words over and over in the darkness of the night.
I have a new courage now. For the first time in years I feel I am awake. I can feel everything more vividly, the heat of the sun on my forearms, and the smell of warm flesh that rises from them. I wear heels. Mascara. Once I wore red lipstick but he smacked my mouth so hard my lip broke open again. I learned.
We meet the next day. ‘What happened to your lip?’ Your voice is soft with concern.
‘‘Oh’ I say ‘It’s just a bit of blood. I tripped and fell on the way home. I’m sure my lip will heal soon.’
‘It looks’; you swallow, ‘like someone hit you.’ You look directly at me. ‘Promise me that that isn’t true’.
I look back in your eyes. My gaze is open, honest. ‘Of course not!’ In a way, I’m not lying. When I am with you, the scared, small version of me falls away. It is only with an effort that I can remember my old life, waiting for me at the end of every meeting, the end of every day.
You leave this line of enquiry but I can still see a fleck of doubt in your eyes. Maybe I can only see it because I know what they look like so well, I have seen them in the grip of every emotion I have ever had.
‘You haven’t told your family yet, have you?’ I ask.
‘No’ you say, grudgingly. ‘But I want to tell Tom’. Tom is her childish-looking husband, with the smile and the puppy-fat.
‘Not yet’ I say. ‘There’s so much to take in. Everyone will be so surprised. Harry doesn’t even know I have a twin.’
Your face clears. ‘Me neither. I was feeling so guilty, talking to you. It’s just…’ you lower your head ‘…still painful to remember.’
I cover your hand with mine. Both our hands are thin and pale, with fingernails that curve slightly over, like talons. Even our wedding bands mirror each other. ‘I know’ I say. ‘Let’s start tomorrow evening. I’ll break the news to Harry tonight. You come over afterwards. We’ll see how it goes. Then tomorrow night, we’ll both go home and tell Tom.’
I don’t tell Harry anything. Instead I wait for him to leave in the morning. I open the biscuit tin and take out the phone. The photograph I tuck into my bra. It’s not a perfect fit, but the edges are so worn and creased that they lie soft against my skin.
I go downstairs and get to work. First I open the fridge. I sweep everything out, onto the floor. Milk spills, meat splatters bloodily, yoghurt cartons burst. I take the eggs out of their carton and smash them, one by one, against the cupboards I have spent my life polishing. I break the dishes. That is a lot of fun. I throw the rose-patterned dinner service his mother bought us against the wall. They smash beautifully, their shards glinting in the sun-shafts from the window.
When I am finished I go upstairs. I stuff the toilet with paper, and then flush it till it overflows. I take the kitchen scissors and saw through the down pillows and duvet. A stream of feathers fall and drift around my head, like an illicit snowdrift. I am breathing heavily now, heart beating in a queer mixture of fear and exhilaration.
When I am finished, I take a long bath, dress in my most anonymous black dress, and climb into the wardrobe of the spare room.
When he comes home, his rage is huge, electrifying. He roars my name all over the house. Underneath my layer of coats, I cower, afraid that his anger will lend him a superhuman sensory ability to find me. I can hear him shout and throw things downstairs, the finally, the weighty slap of his feet as he climbs the stairs.
‘STELLA!’ I am so silent I can hear his panting, as he walks up and down the corridor. ‘If you’re here, I’ll kill you.’ I hear the sound of the bed in my room as it’s flung to one side. ‘If you’re hiding here, I’ll kill you slowly, I swear to God.’ Now comes a heavy thud as something (the chest of drawers?) hits the floor.
He calls from the next room. ‘Are you in the wardrobe?’ I stiffen in fear. Keep away from the guest-room wardrobe! I think, alarmed. I hadn’t expected him to search so thoroughly.
‘Helloooooo’ he calls, then slams my wardrobe door shut. ‘If you’re not here, I’ll find you and kill you anyway.’ I shrink down further and further into the pile of old coats, drawing my knees close to my chin. If he finds me, this is all over.
The doorbell pings.
Right on time.
His feet are thumping down the stairs, an angry tattoo. He is swearing, his voice heavy and ugly in his throat. The door scrapes back, and then slams shut. Her voice squawks, pleads. He is on her. I crouch low in the wardrobe, my hands over my ears, but I can still hear it. The screaming, the roars, the hard, repeated slamming against the wall, his fist, her face, I don’t know which. I press the pre-set number on my phone and listen to the ringing. ‘Come quickly’, I whisper. ‘It’s next door, No. 25 Chalforth Road. Come quick!’
I press the button to hang up.
‘Stella, you stupid bitch.’ His voice is nearer now; I hear the scrabble of her heels against the floor. He is dragging her in the hallway. Her voice is thick and slurred ‘M’m not…not her…’ He doesn’t listen. There is another horrific, hard thump of flesh on flesh, then a final thud, and a slip-slide of a body coming to rest. I peek out of the wardrobe, and see you, head bent at an impossible angle, eyes wide and staring. I am glad you can’t see me. He is on his knees, his back to me, crying, his bloody hands clasped around his head.
‘You stupid bastard,’ I murmur in a low, unemotional voice, and walk by, walk lightly out of this house like I have always dreamed of.
I pause going out the door. One last thing. I take the razor blade out of my bag.
I open the door and hang up my coat. The kitchen door opens.
‘What happened to your face?’
‘It’s just a bit of blood. I tripped and fell on the way home. I’m sure my lip will heal soon. I’ve hurt my wrist a bit too.’ I extend my swollen hand.
His face is soft and slightly pudgy, eyes dark with compassion.
‘Poor thing’ he says. ‘You’re home now. I’ll look after you.’ His fingers touch my face gently. I flinch. ‘Would you like to go to A&E now?’
I shake my head.
‘Not right now. I’m a little worn out from the shock of it all. I’ll just lie down for a bit.’
Once we were identical. We had curls and held hands. Our mother gathered us to her soft body. The world was new and full of love.
I watch my precious photograph crinkle and burn, our baby-faces twisting and melting in the flames. You will always be with me, my dark twin, forever inside me. It was more than the lip scar, you see. It was all the scars, countless, invisible, internal. The scars that covered my love for you in a thick crust like crocodile skin. Now I’m cold. I’m hard. I’ll do anything to get out. Same city, different sides.
I look like you. I speak like you. I walk like you.
But I’m not you.
Tracy Fahey writes Gothic fiction and has published eight short stories to date in several anthologies- 'Looking for Wildgoose Lodge' in Impossible Spaces (2013, Hic Dragones Press), 'Coming Back' in Girl At The End Of The World (2014, Fox Spirit Press), 'Ghost Estate Phase II', in Hauntings (2014, Hic Dragones Press), 'The Changeling' in Drag Noir (2014, Fox Spirit Press) and 'Long Shadows' in Where Dreams and Visions Live (2014, CreateSpace).
Stories also forthcoming in 2015 in Piercing the Vale (Fox Spirit Press), Faed (A Murder of Storytellers), In An Unknown Country (Fox Spirit Press), and Darkest Minds (Dark Minds Press).
Author website is http://designingtracy.wix.com/tracyfahey