In Sherwood, where we used to live, there was a man who would walk around with an owl sitting on his shoulder. He was a classic sixty-or-so white-haired man – wearing dark blue jeans, a medium blue fleece, a pale blue anorak, but also wearing an owl on his shoulder and an expression on his face which said, “Ask me about my owl.”
You’d spot him walking up the high street or in the park. Oh look, it’s that guy, the guy with the owl. Often, he was standing with some interested passers-by who’d stopped to get a look at the owl, ask questions about the owl, maybe even touch the owl. I made a point of never asking him. It was a curated part of my personality, refusing to ask that man about his owl. “I’m not going to give him the satisfaction,” that’s what I’d say. Obviously, in truth, I’d love to know about the owl – who wouldn’t? – but talking to strangers is not something I can comfortably do.
The relevance? Well, now I have twins – twin toddler girls, and walking with them around town makes me feel like the man with the owl on his shoulder. A conversation waiting to happen. A tedious one.
“Are they identical?” – As you can see, they look the same.
“You’ve got your hands full, haven’t you?” – Yes. I have.
Nobody asks me (like they would, no doubt, ask the man with the owl), “Where did they come from? How did you get them?”
If someone did ask me, would I even want to tell? Tell it to a random, nosy stranger on the street?
But I will tell you.
We had, for months, been house-hunting; it was bloody awful trying to find somewhere. We needed a bedroom each for the children and a bedroom for us, Luke and I. I was firm on the idea that we needed at least two bathrooms. Luke insisted that we needed to be on a street that, “Had a nice feel,” which apparently wasn’t something he could quantify. We wanted a nice garden. There were schools to think about – our oldest would be starting the next year, and the baby would be going to nursery soon – she was a toddler by then but would still be called baby for some time yet.
Everything we found was wrong. If it wasn’t wrong, it wasn’t available anymore, and if it was, our offer wasn’t enough. Nothing was enough. Two little kids, so much harder than one, life piling up all around us in our too-small tiny terraced cuboid.
Was a garden essential? It’ll get overgrown and out of control like everything else, won’t it? We could manage without a second bathroom, couldn’t we? We were panicking. Then, like magic, our house turned up on the market – turned up like a fairy godmother come to save us. Yes, this is the one. It was such relief for the panic of “would we find somewhere?” to become the panic of “would the sale actually go through?”
The sellers were a couple who had lived in the house for twenty-five years – a reassuring fact, surely? They were keen to get the sale through before their daughter came home from her travels. The solicitors mentioned this a lot. The underlying implication being that if the daughter came home before we completed the sale, the deal was off. But everything came together like it was supposed to. No surprises, no trouble.
Except, obviously, the trouble of moving house with two small children and a man who was (and still is) disorganised, forgetful, and flighty about decisions. Yes, it was rough.
Eventually, we were in, and starting to recover from the house-moving-madness which makes me sick to remember even now. Starting to get used to the place. The house lost that unfamiliar smell, and before long the tapping of the plumbing, the creaking of the wood, became familiar sounds.
Relentless, relentless life. No different here than in the last place. Tantrums about nail clippers, squabbles over shoes, a bad-sleeping baby, a week-long freak out over a grazed toe, a favourite sock lost in a mountain of dirty laundry, household jobs half-finished, nothing in the fridge for dinner. How does anybody manage it? Relentless.
I didn’t need more trouble, yet it came for me anyway. One Thursday afternoon, while we were giving the children some cheese cubes as a snack – the front door opened.
Luke and I looked at each other, mirroring each other’s confused expressions. The sound of heavy boots stomping up the stairs. My heart was flipping about. An… intruder? Luke gave me a pathetic look: he wasn’t going to do a thing. I ran into the hall – and saw a curtain of purple hair swooshing round the corner. I dashed up and saw her clomping up to the next staircase to the loft room.
“Excuse me?” I called after her, my voice sounding more feeble than I would have liked. She ignored me and proceeded to open the triangle-shaped door that led to the eaves storage. She bent down and crawled in.
“Excuse me,” I said again, into the dark low space where she was foraging around, banging about. “Can you come out of there please? I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
What the hell am I going to do if she doesn’t come out? – that’s what I was thinking – what the hell am I going to do when she does come out?
She came out crawling backwards, holding a cardboard box – which, by my glance, contained tarot cards, crystals, incense, candles, and all that sort of business – she looked exactly the sort of person you’d expect to have a box of things like that. Long velvet dress and Doc Martens (which looked pretty new, her feet were probably suffering, sore-spots at the back of the heel – I know what shoes like that can do to an unsuspecting young foot). Hair dyed purple. A young woman – probably about twenty-two.
She was trapped between me and the triangle door; she had to acknowledge me.
Her voice quavered as she said, “This is my house. I didn’t say they could sell it. They should never have – they shouldn’t have – ”
I raised my shoulders, opened my palms. What could I say? Before I could figure out a reply, she elbowed past me, down the stairs. I thought (mistakenly) this would be the end of it (and before you ask, I don’t know where that box of interesting objects came from since I know that those eaves cupboards were absolutely empty. I had crawled about in them myself two weeks earlier. Empty).
Back in the downstairs hall, Luke peeped round the dining room door with frantic eyes. I gave him the confident nod, which said, “It’s alright, all sorted now.”
Just then, the girl began to shriek. “Where’s the key, they’ve taken it!” She emitted a rising screech; her hands flew up and she began to punch and kick at the wood-panelled wall next to the front door.
“Hey, hey hey!” I stepped forward to pull her away from the wall, but paused with my useless hands hovering. “Can you stop that, please?”
The wood panelling she attacked had been an argument for Luke and I. Should we remove it? (Yes, to my mind, but Luke – for some reason – liked it, even though it made the whole space too dark – honestly it looked like the inside of a church). Wood splintered and with bloody knuckled hands, the girl pulled pieces of panelling off the wall, yelping as she pried them off. Underneath, there was an oval-shaped, swirling silver vortex – like a whirlpool of mercury – a humming noise coming from it, and a faint green light.
Luke marched into the hall. “What the Hell do you think you’re doing?”
The girl picked something off the wall and chucked it in the box. The vortex was gone. An unfinished bit of mucky looking plaster – all that was left behind.
“Look at this damage, you can’t come in here and do that, I should call the police right no! You’ll have to pay for it you know? It’s not on. It’s really not on. We’ve got children in the house, they’re terrified! How dare you come in here like this?”
I never heard Luke sound like that before or since – so direct. The anger brought out some new eloquence in him – a confidence – the bass notes of his voice stuck me in my ribcage. I’m a tad ashamed to admit it was attractive. Shouting at a young woman.
She looked back at him with a sulky expression, as if she would yawn any second – but I knew that look, I’d produced that look myself in the past and I knew deep emotion churned underneath.
“Luke, go back to the children,” I said softly, close to his ear, with a hand on his shoulder. The wound-up shoulder relaxed and dropped. The real Luke came back, shocked at himself, he trotted back to the other room like a lost piglet.
I rummaged around inside myself and found a dial which I could turn up. Drag out the last dregs of my energy to talk to a stranger. It’s painful to do. Takes something out of me.
“Look, I’m sorry about all this. There doesn’t need to be a problem here. Let’s go and have a cup of tea, alright? This was your childhood home, wasn’t it? I get it, it must be weird for you”.
She followed me to the kitchen and I put the kettle on. It boiled loudly while we made conversation about the house, the local area. She was behaving herself now. I’d managed to activate her ingrained social nicety. She produced cheerful chatter, although her voice sounded a little heavy – nasal. Her eyes darted around the kitchen, eyes lingering here and there. Probably trying to find her childhood kitchen under our piles of mess.
I asked her what that vortex had been for, and how did it get there. In response, she gave me a look that suggested it was a grotesque thing to ask. As if I’d said, “Would you like to eat a bowl of uncooked rat meat?” No response. I started to look around for something else to talk about and was saved by the baby toddling in. The teenage girl – I think she said her name was Gwen – grabbed the opportunity to talk to someone else. She told the baby she was cute, that she liked her cardigan. Was the girl’s name Gwen? Or Gren? She may have said “Gren”, but who would be called “Gren”?
When she came back to the hall to leave, she apologised about the wood panelling. I chose not to tell her that I was grateful – that she’d made it easier for me to justify removing the lot of it.
Out she went, and I hurried into the living room to make a face at Luke, to marvel at what had just happened, to react, share the relief that it was over. Except it wasn’t over. Out of the window I saw her walk across the drive, and in her arms was my baby, my little girl, bowling-ball round head with hair the colour of sand, hand knitted cardigan made by her great aunty.
I ran out to them screaming
“Oi! Give her back, give my daughter back!”
“This is my daughter!”
“Don’t be stupid, give her back now!”
“I assure you, this is my baby.” Smug coolness. Bloody infuriating. The urge to grab and push her reverberated in my shoulders. If I were to yank the baby out of her arms, what would happen?
She put her cardboard box on the roof of her car – a manky old Volkswagen Beetle, (of course she’d have a ridiculous car like that. So cool, so iconic, so impractical) and she opened the driver’s door.
“You really think you’re getting in that car with my baby? You don’t even have a car-seat. Can we stop this? This is so horrible for me; you can’t possibly understand. Give me back my baby. You’re really going to pile this on top of me as well, along with everything else? You’ve no idea. If I had a way to make you understand, to really show you what it’s like, I wouldn’t even do that to you, I wouldn’t inflict it, even on you, I can’t stand another second of this bullshit, give me my baby back right now!” I felt the pressure in my throat of a scream ready to burst out, to break through my voice box and roar at full volume. Another second and it would have.
She looked up, shrugged, stepped to me and huffed with a sarcastic smirk as she handed over my child. Then she lunged into the car and reversed off the drive. The cardboard box slid around on the roof as she manoeuvred the car into the road and drove away.
“Mummy, my mamma,” said the baby, resting her heavy head on my shoulder. I hugged her tight and slowly released my breath.
I came into the house shaking my head. Sighing. What the hell just happened? “We’ve got to change the locks,” I called to Luke in the other room. He stepped out and did a double take at the baby. Scrunching his eyebrows at us.
“Yeah, she tried to take her,” I said. “She actually – ”
Then, from behind Luke’s legs toddled the baby, my baby. Again. I looked from her to the one in my arms. The same. They were exactly the same. Two of them.
So, from then on, we had twins. What on earth could we do about it?
Over time, they’ve grown quite different from each other. We’ve made a point of never mentioning who was the original. That’s another thing that people on the street don’t tend to ask me. “Which twin is the original?”
They only want to say things like, “Double trouble.” Or, “Was it buy one get one free?” “Do twins run in your family?”
“You’ve got your hands full, haven’t you?” Yes. I have indeed.
Philippa J Rice is an artist and author from Nottingham, UK. She works in a number of different mediums including comics, animation and crochet. Her book, SOPPY was a #1 New York Times Bestseller.