Erica doesn’t remember her sister drowning. It was their third birthday, a picnic up by the lake. There is one photograph that her mother has of the two of them in their swimming costumes, proudly showing off their armbands. It looked like a beautiful day, the grassy bank stuccoed with daisies, families fanned out across the slope.
Erica isn’t sure if she’s still a twin. She always had a sense of being different, special, because they were a pair, identical. But now she’s a young woman and although her sister has been dead for twenty years, she still wonders who she is.
Erica has always felt guilty. She saw a therapist for a few years, paid for by her father, to try and come to terms with the fact that her sister’s drowning wasn’t her fault. That day, Erica had been carving a figure of a girl lying in the sand with her father when she heard her mother’s cries. There were a dozen people in the water and her father had suddenly got to his feet, clumsily crushing the girl in the sand’s chest. It was that that she recalled with the greatest clarity. The sharp outline of arms and legs, the work she had done to make the hands, wrecked by his footprint right in the centre of it all.
They had done everything together. Erica has never been able to fathom why her sister wasn’t with her then. Sat on her knees, a spade in hand, gathering fistfuls of sand to make the feet, the hair.
She has no memory of seeing her sister’s body being fished from the water. Nor of the people who’d gathered, the man who her father had said breathed into her, tried to revive her. She thinks she can picture the girl made out of sand. Her hair spread out in a giant fan, the great hole in her chest where her father’s foot had been.
She’s tried to talk to her father about the accident, but he can’t, or won’t. Not even about the girl they made in the sand. There is only one photograph, and it sits near the TV in their apartment, watching over the sad quiet lives her parents have lived ever since.
Erica’s father had been someone in banking. Ethical investments at a time when people didn’t care so much about how they made their money. But his grieving had turned to extended leave and eventually the bank had let him go. Erica always imagined a fish caught on a hook, its gills frothing, then freed. But when she visits her parents, she sees a goldfish going round and round in a bowl. Trapped in an endless loop that seems to go on forever.
She wishes he’d let her in. Not that she can help. But she thinks that just understanding what’s going on in her father’s mind might be good for her. He always seems to be on the cusp of saying something. He has this way of inhaling, as if he’s about to make an announcement. Like he’s going to break out of whatever it is he’s trapped in. And then he’ll pick a piece of the jigsaw that’s always laid out on the table by the balcony and hold it delicately between thumb and forefinger, hovering above a half-finished scene of the mountains or a cat or something.
In some ways her mother moved on years ago. She has a boyfriend in the town who Erica’s not meant to know about, but everybody does. An artist who lives in his studio above a florist. It’s common knowledge that she goes there every day after work. An hour or two before she comes home to the meal her husband makes. Erica sat in her car across the road from the flower shop and watched her mother let herself in with a key. In the huge window upstairs, she could see two silhouettes and it looked like they were dancing, a slow embrace.
Erica can’t talk to either of them about any of this. She knows it’s her sister’s death that still fills this reservoir of sadness. Her father locked away with his puzzles, peeling potatoes, making soup. Her mother’s long-term infidelity barely concealed.
Erica fears it has changed her too. Her sense of being a lone twin, severed from her sister before she’d had a chance to know what it was like to be on her own. She’s done well at college and graduated with a good degree. She’s got a job working for a company that designs office equipment. Printers and photocopiers mainly. But she hardly has any friends and lives alone on the other side of town.
When she was younger, she would go and visit her sister’s grave on the way home from school. She didn’t tell her parents and they never asked. She used to sit with her back to the headstone and tell her sister made-up stories about adventures they might have. She imagined her as if she were asleep and that as soon as she woke, they could take a train to the mountains and go skiing and stay in a cabin with a fire and toast marshmallows together. She didn’t think about her sister’s tiny body, the hole in her chest where they’d taken out her heart, her lungs. Nor the transplant that her father had mumbled about, once, years later, when she’d found him drunk on the floor in the middle of the day, a bottle of schnaps clutched by the neck.
Later, after she’d moved to middle school, Erica pictured herself beneath the mound of tiny grey stones, peacefully asleep in her uniform, her arms crossed on her chest. As the years passed, it was her own body that she imagined under the earth, her legs and arms extending, everything filling out.
She comes here less often now. On their birthday, in the height of summer, and at Christmas too, when the paths that crisscross the churchyard are carved into the snow.
It was here, on Christmas morning, that she met Peter. She’d come early as she was due to have lunch with her parents at a restaurant on the town square and because she wanted to walk. It was a beautiful morning, sky the colour of cobalt above the snowy peaks. The air sharp in her throat, her sinuses.
Erica avoids conversation, eye contact, with work colleagues, whenever possible. She likes to keep herself to herself. The therapist she saw wondered whether Erica feels the absence of her sister in these situations and Erica had gone around and around with these thoughts until they hurt. As far as Erica’s concerned, she’s been on her own for almost all her life. And yet her therapist was right to push her on this. She does feel it’s the loss of her sister that prevents her from making connections with others. At the few parties she’s invited to – for work largely, or a birthday perhaps – she stands in the corner with her hands behind her back, the fingers of one hand hunting out those of the other. It isn’t even a conscious thing but when her therapist pointed it out, she realised it was her sister’s fingers she imagines searching for. That it’s her sister who gives her strength and even though she knows she’s no longer here, that she’s hardly been here at all, the touch of her hand is all she needs.
It seems incredible that she ever met Peter. She wonders afterwards whether it was because her sister was close by. That Erica could take some strength from knowing her twin was with her in the graveyard. It was as if her sister was a tiny, brilliant light in the deep blue shadow of the mountains.
Peter was visiting his parents, as he did every weekend and public holiday. They’d died on his tenth birthday. Their car had slid off the road on the way back into town and dropped into a gorge. The way he described it made Erica think of some giant hand plucking the vehicle from the icy road and flicking it playfully into the chasm below. He told her the story without emotion, and she marvelled at his strength. He was a similar age to Erica but had none of her reticence, her quiet pain, her desire to melt like snow.
He had stood before her wearing a long black coat over a jacket and shirt and she had wondered how he wasn’t cold. How it was that she was here, talking with a stranger. She’d sought out the gloved fingers of her other hand and felt a heat in her chest that for a moment she confused for love. Love for her sister, buried three rows along, her grave softly iced with thick snow. And some other love that was suddenly in her heart like a flower or a virus, she didn’t know.
It is after New Year and her phone is ringing with a number she doesn’t recognise. She remembers writing hers on a scrap of paper in the graveyard and doesn’t know if she wishes it were him.
She doesn’t know if she wishes it were him and then it is and she feels that warmth in her heart again and it’s like something that she thought was dead, a seed perhaps, bursting into life, unexpectedly.
“It’s Peter. The orphan. We met in the churchyard at Christmas.”
She is sitting at the kitchen table, a single empty chair facing her, half an apple dissected on a plate.
“Peter, yes. Hi.”
She’s at the foothills of what might become something, a relationship, perhaps. But this is the highest she’s ever climbed, and she doesn’t know what else to say.
“Hey. You might be busy or just not fancy it. But I was wondering if we might meet? For a drink?”
She likes how he sounds. Both in and out of control. If she ever finds the courage to ask a man out, for a drink, she thinks she’ll ask in the same way. Plenty of room in both his question and her answer to move, to not feel trapped, to be free.
They agree to meet the following evening at the restaurant where she had Christmas lunch with her parents. Just a drink. Five o’clock.
She doesn’t know why she’s agreed to do this. What it is about this man that’s different from the others that’s made her say yes. The heat in her chest has come and gone again, like a heartburn that she quite likes, and she tries not to think too hard about what it all means.
In the shower she feels a weight has been lifted. A weight she didn’t realise was there until it’s gone. Like when you carry someone on your back for miles and when you put them down you feel as light as a mountain hare. She sings a song she didn’t know she knew, and when she’s finished, she sings it again. Sings her heart out as the tiny bathroom fills with steam.
Outside the restaurant it is dusk, the lights around the square flickering on. She is early and checks her reflection in the window and there he is, standing next to her.
“Hello,” he says, waving at her. And she does a little wave back, smiling at the man in the glass. They turn to face one another and it’s almost a surprise to Erica that he’s here beside her in the square.
Inside the staff are preparing for the evening shift. They’re the only customers and it’s like being backstage at a theatre, she thinks, ninety minutes before the show. They are seated in a booth and after a conversation about the cocktail menu, they both decide on the same one.
“Snap,” she says, too quickly, and then stares at the menu as the waiter takes their order.
They drink their Kirsch sours and Erica feels something thaw. And then they order another, and she tells him about how she’s a twin, about her sister, and her mother and father and how so much light in her family was extinguished on her third birthday. And then Peter tells Erica about his parents and that terrible loss and how he’s also coming to terms with grief. He tells her about growing up in the same town, over the same years, and she realises how parallel their lives have been.
He remembers being with his aunt when the policewoman came and how he wished that he had cried that day. There’s a numbness that he describes that Erica recognises. Feelings of guilt too. His parents had stayed over at a friend’s party in another village the day before his birthday. His mother hadn’t wanted to go but it was a close friend of his father’s and there would be drinking, and Peter had been happy to have his aunt look after him at home. They were driving early the following morning, eager to get back for their only son’s birthday. He still feels it’s all his fault, somehow.
He is animated now and Erica wonders how much of this he has talked about before, with a stranger. It’s like he’s trying to tell her everything, here and now. That the booth they’re sitting in is somehow outside of time. A place of temporary shelter from the storm. Somewhere safe to share their pain.
Erica wants to ask him about his job, his hobbies, what he does at the weekends. She wants to understand who this man is beyond his grief. But it’s this grief that has brought them together and these other things no longer seem significant.
Erica surprises herself. It might be the cocktails, or the booth, or maybe even a connection that she feels. She takes Peter’s hand, and he squeezes hers and describes his life as an orphan and an only child and how when he was young, he too nearly died. He was a sickly child, in and out of hospital, and although he doesn’t remember, his parents didn’t think he would survive. Heart failure, he says. Congenital.
Erica is hot. From the cocktails and the story and the man whose hand gently caresses hers.
She already knows how he’s come to be here now. She doesn’t need to hear the rest. The little boy in his hospital bed, his face etched with fear as the monitors bleep and flash. A doctor with his parents. Parents who will one day crash through a roadside barrier and tumble down a ravine to their deaths. Parents who won’t know that their son not only survived but met the girl whose twin gave her heart to him, and who right now leans across the booth and whispers in his ear.
About The Author
David Micklem is a writer and theatre producer. His first novel, The Winter Son, is currently on submission through his agent Robert Caskie. This year The Broken Heart and A Highland Reunion were published in STORGY Magazine, The Witching Hour in Lunate, Crows was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize 2021 and The Hesitant long-listed for the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. He lives in Brixton in South London.
Details of recent publications and links:
The Broken Heart – https://storgy.com/2021/01/13/the-broken-heart-by-david-micklem/
The Witching Hour – https://lunate.co.uk/short-stories/the-witching-hour-by-david-micklem
Representation – Robert Caskie – https://www.robertcaskie.com/david-micklem
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