BY NINA PATTERSON
I ADD YET ANOTHER bunch of flowers, complete with standard condolences card, to the expanding collection on my desk and wonder how long this is going to continue. I’ve never really been one for social niceties so am completely out my depth when it comes to knowing the socially expected mourning time for your sibling’s death. If the sibling also happens to be your identical twin does this extend the grieving period? Or maybe this only applies if you were ‘close’? Let me make it clear, we were not ‘close’ and didn’t have a telepathic connection or any of that other twin bullshit you read about! But I did know the moment of her death before anyone else so perhaps that counts for something?
Jess’s funeral took place three weeks ago and although work has offered me more time off, I am insistent on returning today. To be honest I can’t face another day of half-drunk cups of tea and forced nostalgia with mum and dad. The faÁade I need to keep up when I’m with them is exhausting. Yesterday I found myself on the verge of shouting at them, “maybe if you’d both cut Jess a little more slack when she was alive she would still be here today!” Perhaps had they been able to double their capacity for love when we were born instead of trying to split it (and failing miserably) things would have been ok. But Jess was always such hard bloody work – an unsettled baby, an angry toddler, a volatile adult. By comparison I must have seemed so easy and had won the lion’s share of our parent’s finite pot of love. You don’t need to be a therapist (and trust me Jess saw many) to tell you that is not going to end well.
“Rosie?... Rosie?” It takes me a moment to realise someone is speaking to me. My boss is standing beside my desk with a sympathetic look, another cup of tea (bloody hell!) and a stack of papers. I pick up the legal papers that I am meant to prepare for a court case next week and wonder (not for the first time) how I am going to pull this off. I tell myself I’ll just need to think a bit less like Rosie and a little more like Jess to get through this. Jess never questioned what she was capable of, she never needed to given how quick everyone else was at doing this for her. While I had followed in the family tradition by studying law at Edinburgh University, Jess had left school as soon as she could. After several years of travelling, Jess had returned to Edinburgh and taken on casual work while she focused on becoming an actor. I remember furiously how my parents would gloat to their friends about how well I was doing at university while skirting over Jess’s ‘acting phase’. I was always so envious of my sister – she had the life I would have given anything for.
I look up at the photograph on my work desk and do a double take as I look straight at my own face. It always surprises me how identical my sister and I are (or rather were, I suppose). This must have been taken a few years ago when our hair was still different. I smile as I remember the havoc we caused during our school years pretending to be each other. In our teenage years we had progressed onto playing tricks on respective boyfriends by switching names and clothes. It was always Jess pushing the boundaries though. I smile remembering her suggestion that she too could study law and I would simply take the exams on her behalf. Although Jess was by far the quickest and sharpest person I knew, putting in the years of study to pass the LLB exam was simply not her style.
Despite our looks, our personalities and lifestyles remained worlds apart. As Jess partied, travelled and acted (in that order of priority), I finished University and got a job in a small legal firm in the city. At twenty-four I was still living with my parents and paying back debts. Meanwhile Jess lived a hedonistic and nomadic lifestyle, sleeping on friend’s sofas or with the latest guy she had hooked-up with. Of course, in the eyes of our conservative, law-abiding parents there was only one twin deserving of their attention and praise. As always, Jess was left with the dregs of what was left over. Our incompatibilities, combined with a hefty dose of jealousy and parental favouritism, had resulted in Jess and I drifting apart in our twenties. We would go for months without contact, interspersed only by the odd message from Jess when she needed money which I always gave her. Perhaps I was trying to ease my guilt over the hand she had been dealt in our family pecking order?
A couple of months ago Jess had got back in contact on the premise of wanting to ‘shadow’ me as part of her preparations for an acting role she had successfully auditioned for. She would be playing the part of a legal clerk in an upcoming televised drama and said I should be flattered that she was using me as her character study. She had even convinced mum and dad that she needed to move back into her old childhood bedroom to immerse herself in the role completely. She had recently grown her hair longer and started borrowing my clothes too which had made us carbon copies of each other. Now the only physical difference between us was a small freckle under my right eye. After Jess starting her acting classes, she had even managed to successfully fool our parents that she was me on several occasions by changing her voice and body language ever so slightly.
Things had been going surprisingly smoothly with both of us in the house much to everyone’s surprise. Three weeks ago today, Jess and I decided to take a trip back to Portobello Beach for old time’s sake. Our parents had brought us here as kids which usually ended badly due to Jess’s tantrums, to be fair. These could be triggered by her going in the sea, coming out of the sea, being too hot, being too cold, being hungry, not being hungry… the list was endless. When we arrived that day, it was already late afternoon and the daylight was starting to fade. The beach was deserted apart from the odd dog walker wrapped up against the cold. Jess suggested a “winter dip” but as she had correctly predicted I was not keen. Jess was adamant it would be good to do something fun together and that I needed to stop being “so f***ing boring”.
She had brought towels and a flask of hot chocolate in preparation, as she said she knew I would be ‘difficult’. So that evening, as the daylight fades, two young women enter the water together for the first time since childhood. Both feel the momentousness of the occasion. For one it brings hope of a reconnection with her twin and for the other it brings the chance of finally stepping out of her twin’s shadow.
The reports state that at approximately 7pm a woman runs into the chippy near the beach shouting that her sister has been swept out to sea. The man behind the counter calls the police who quickly scramble the coastguard boat and helicopter. At 7.45pm a women’s lifeless body is found not far from shore. Her sister identifies the body is ‘Jess’ and says they had been swimming together before she had been swept out to sea. The last person to see the girls was a local man walking his dog along the beach at 6.15pm who saw two women the same height and build swimming close to the shoreline. He is sure of the time because he checked his watch thinking about who would be mad enough to swim at low light at this time of the year in the freezing cold. There is speculation about cold water shock, a heart attack, drowning and riptides in the local media. The cause of death remains unconfirmed but has not been treated as suspicious, thankfully.
Later that same evening Rosie is brought home to tell her parents the devasting news about her twin. She could swear she detects a hint of relief as they realise it is Rosie, not Jess, who has returned home. They are probably surprised given that Jess was always by far the stronger swimmer. Rosie tells her parents she is going to stay in Jess’s room that night and has remained there ever since. Whenever they question her about this she tells them she wants to feel closer to Jess. A couple of weeks after the accident her parents actually had the nerve to tell her they were worried about her as she seemed to be ‘acting very differently’. “Yes, well losing your identical twin sister can do that to you,” came the caustic quick reply.
Before I go home tonight, I pop into the bathroom at work and check my face in the mirror. Looking around to check I’m alone I take out my foundation pen and slowly redo the tiny freckle under my right eye. I wonder how long it will take for my parents to accept that ‘Rosie’ now drinks coffee instead of tea and is thinking about leaving law to pursue an acting career…
© Double or Quits, 2023, Nina Patterson
Nina Patterson has always been an avid reader and loves stories that are unpredictable, psychologically compelling, mystical or a little off kilter! She was born in Aberdeen but spent her childhood overseas (mainly Asia) before returning to Scotland aged 17 to attend Edinburgh University where she studied Psychology. Nina currently lives in Chester with her husband and two teenage children and is a Lecturer in Public Health, Mental Health and Wellbeing at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, North Wales. She began experimenting with writing poetry and short stories as a creative outlet during the pandemic and had her short story – Homecoming – published in the first edition of Tangled Web Magazine.