The Darker Half
Posted: 17 July 2017
Word Count: 2541
Summary: This is Chaps 1/2 of my novel. Chap 1 is told from the POV of Alec - the boy twin and Chap 2 is from the POV of Anna the girl twin. They are both about 11 at this stage.
He lay on his back in front of the fire. His skin was burning but he couldn’t be bothered to move. Slowly, his lids closed and he began to drift. He could hear the background mumbling chant of his mother droning on and on… ’natter, natter, natter’, he thought but for a change, she wasn’t irritating him. Nothing could stop his slow slide into sleep and even as the thought surfaced it was snuffed out as he closed his eyes. His lips parted and his breathing deepened as gradually he was transported into a technicolour dream world of high actinic intensity and with an unconscious sigh of relief, he slipped into his favourite fantasy.
Mouth open, sweat streaming down his face, his muscular body pounded down the track and his tanned legs flew towards the finishing line - a narrow strip of luminous white stretching across a backdrop of brilliant green grass. Beyond the tape, a blur of pastel coloured shapes leapt in the air.
‘Alec…Alec…Alec….’ As he drew nearer, the surflike roar of the crowd deepened and screwing up his eyes into a squint, he caught a glimpse of his friends pogo-ing with excitement. As quick as a blink of an eyelid, he turned his head and saw his rival, scarlet faced and desperate, a hair’s width behind him. ‘No chance’, Alec thought exultantly and lengthened his stride. The tape broke against his chest and the crowd surged towards him, slapping his back and deafening him with congratulations.
A shutter click later and he was slicing through the pool, drops of glittering water spraying from his cartwheeling arms. ‘One lap to go, one lap to go’, one lap to go, the mantra ran through his head as he forced himself on. Adrenaline coursed through his veins and he could almost feel the weight of the heavy gold cup as he raised it above his head in a salute to the crowd.
Out of the blue, a heavy hand shook his shoulder and in slow motion his dream first shimmered then disappeared.
‘Wake up, son. Yer too near the fire. Yer clothes are scorching. I can smell ‘em.’
Alec opened his eyes to see his mother’s fleshy face looming above him. For a moment he lay motionless, relishing a tidal surge of white-hot hate.
Then, rolling over, he first levered himself to a kneeling position then brought his good leg up and grasped the side of a chair, straightening his body until he was on his feet. Clumsily, feeling grotesque and ugly, he hauled himself, crablike, towards the window seat.
He took a moment to gather himself and then his eyes flicked to the clock. Almost four-thirty. Anna was late. She must have another detention. She’d had a lot of those recently. He smirked and wriggled with glee as his imagination flared.
His sister would have looked up to see her teacher’s crooked finger beckoning her forward. Miss Tutt’s face was expressionless but there were deep grooves running from nose to chin and her eyes were cold.
‘What’s happened here Anna? How am I supposed to mark this?’ She slapped her hand against the open copybook and Anna had gasped. The page was a ruined mess. Anna’s essay, which she’d toiled over for hours, was almost totally illegible the ink smeared and blotched as if it’d been dunked in water and smeared dry with a towel.
‘Anybody can have an accident, Anna. But you can’t turn in work like this. Can you give me a good reason why you didn’t re-write it?’
Moments passed and Miss Tutt’s face hardened.
I’m waiting, Anna.’
Alec imagined his sister’s mouth opening and closing as if she was a fish and sniggered soundlessly.
Anna was so careless. Her reputation had followed her from primary school. There were all the times she was late for school because of missing plimsolls, library books, pencil cases all of which she swore she’d packed in her schoolbag the night before.
‘But, I did Mum, honest.’ The sound of her whiny, tear clotted voice had always made him feel sick and even the memory turned his stomach.
Best of all, had been the money. His face brightened as he thought about it. Somehow, she’d managed to lose the cash for her longed-for school trip. Mum and Dad had saved up hard for that. Even Dad had been angry with her that day.
His eyes lit on something and he held his breath, a small figure was turning the corner heading towards the house. He watched as it drooped along, shoulders slumped, feet dragging as if regretting every step. He glanced towards his mother, her mouth was still moving as it had been for the last hour and a half. She hadn’t even noticed the time. He leant forward and rapped, three times, on the window with his knuckles the sounds echoed like pistol shots, through the fug of the room.
The hairdresser started and dropped a perm curler. His mother slopped tea in her saucer.
‘Here she is, Mum. It’s Anna. She’s so late. I was scared in case she’d had an accident.’
His mother’s head, covered in marching lines of pink and blue plastic, turned towards the window and then swivelled towards the clock. Her lips disappeared.
‘That young madam had better have a good explanation.’ she muttered as she levered herself out of her chair.
The leather satchel cut into her shoulder and she paused for a moment to run her finger under the strap, trying to lighten her load but it was so heavy a few steps later she had to stop again. There was extra homework that night, part of her punishment and extra homework meant extra books. Her eyes started to fill and she blinked rapidly determined not to cry again. If she went home looking like a pink eyed rabbit there’d be no sympathy, just more questions. She licked a finger and rubbed it around her face trying to erase any trace of tears and took a deep and shaky breath.
In a determined effort not to think, she looked upwards, past the chimney pots with their plumes of smoke coiling into the air. She was searching for Venus the first star of the evening and at last she saw it, a tiny speck glittering in the sky. Hurriedly, she made a wish before any others appeared. ‘Star light, star bright, the first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I make tonight’. Then, closing her eyes and pursing her lips she blew her prayer heavenwards despite knowing that it wouldn’t be answered. How could it be when the person it was aimed at died two years ago?
She took a deep and shaky breath. To calm herself, she lowered her head and looked around but the houses with their trim front gardens shimmered as her teeth chewed at her bottom lip.
‘Oh Gran…’ and then she just couldn’t help herself. Sobbing helplessly, she slumped against a nearby wall and pressed her face against the cold brick that drained all warmth from her body. She remembered the very last time she’d seen her gran. She’d crept into the ward and she’d been lying in bed, her face almost as white as the starched linen, her hair spread about her head in a delicate explosion of thistledown. Suddenly, her eyes had opened and found Anna. The faintest hint of rose had coloured her cheeks and her lips parted in a shadow of her familiar smile.
‘My bird…’ was all she said and Anna had flown into her arms.
Afterwards she’d pulled away and looked at her. Gran’s flushed cheeks had made her eyes sparkle even, and Anna was sure she hadn’t imagined it, the one made of glass. Long ago, her gran had told her how she’d lost her eye.
‘In those days, my love, we wore leather boots in the winter. They reached to well above our ankles and were tightly laced all the way up. It always used to take ages to undo the laces and one day they got into a knot. Try as I might, I couldn’t unpick the blessed thing, so I went and got a fork from the kitchen. The next thing I knew was my mother screaming and passing out and me sitting there with a fork sticking out of my eye. They tried to save it, but there weren’t any penicillin in those days. It got infected so, in the end, they had to take it out…’
Ever since then her gran had one eye brown and the other hazel but Anna still thought she was beautiful and she’d never looked more so than on that day.
‘Oh Gran, you do look pretty,’ she’d said.
Fascinated, she’d watched the wrinkles melt and caught a glimpse of Gran as a young girl.
A week later she’d opened the front door to her mother who’d come clumping down the path, her legs moving slowly like a toy that needed winding.
‘Yer Gran’s dead’. Her face expressionless, she’d pushed past Anna, dumped her bags in the kitchen and heaved herself upstairs.
Anna hadn’t been allowed to go to the funeral. Instead she’d sat through a geography double period listening to the dry rasp of Mr Wilkinson’s voice as he recited something about the Continental drift. To this day, the only thing that she remembers of that lesson is the hollow thud of soil landing on wood.
With a determined effort Anna pushed away the wall and started to walk. The paving slabs were a maze of cracks and she remembered happier days when she was little and Dad used to take her to the sweetie shop at the end of the road for her weekly treat.
‘Remember, you turn into a toad if you step on crack…’ Together, they’d hopped diagonally from square to square all the way down the road. She blinked and a ghost of a watery smile appeared. At least, she still had Dad. He’d never let anything bad happen to her.
As she walked up the path, the front door opened and her mother appeared. Without saying a word she folded her arms across her chest and a slab of mottled flesh formed a barrier between them.
‘So, what’s yer excuse this time? No, don’t tell me. You got kept in again, didn’t yer?’
Anna felt her face stiffen as she locked eyes with her mother. With the slightest movement of her head, she nodded.
‘Well, it’s just not good enough my girl. What was it this time….gabbing in class was yer?’
‘Don’t look at me like that, you sulky little madam. You, my girl, are going to have to pull yer socks up. I don’t know what yer Dad is going to say.’
Her mother sighed heavily obviously already losing interest. She put her hand up and patted her curlers.
‘Well, I can’t waste any more time now. This neutraliser needs to come off otherwise me perm’ll be ruined. But, don’t think you’ve heard the last of this. I’ll ‘ave a word with yer Dad later. Now come on, get inside and be nice to your brother. E’s been worried sick about yer.’
Anna doubted that but obediently followed her mother’s broad bulk into the house.
As Anna walked into the living room the smell of ammonia made her eyes water. She blinked and rubbed them thinking if anyone noticed they were bloodshot, at least she’d have a good excuse. She shot a quick look at her brother who sat with the coiled stillness of something venomous about to strike. His eyes smouldered as they met hers. No, he didn’t look worried, she thought. Not one bit. He looked wired. His skin, always sallow, had a dusky quality as if blood was storming through his veins and his body was tense. She thought that if she dared reach out and touch him she’d get an electric shock.
Suddenly she felt sick as she realised why he was so agitated. He’d been listening to the story again. She gritted her teeth until her jaw ached, then opened her eyes and looked around the room. The dull beige wallpaper with its vertical pattern of identical roses, the veneered teak coffee table, the maroon uncut moquet sofa, all reminded her of other afternoons just like this. The only thing that was new was the hairdresser, testing the curl in her mother’s hair by bouncing it on her palm. Anna had never seen her before. Usually it was Mavis, a stocky, no-nonsense Brummie, who Anna quite liked, chiefly because her flat, adenoidal voice steamrollered over her mother’s. Ever since she was little, Mavis had done her mother’s hair. She remembered crayoning on the kitchen table when her feet couldn’t reach the floor, listening to Mavis in full flow, her flat vowels as familiar as the wallpaper. She was a part of her childhood. That was a long time ago though. Perhaps she had retired. This girl was much younger with pale china blue eyes, slightly milky as if covered by an invisible filter and Anna realised that she’d switched off and the monotonous chant of her mother’s voice was falling on deaf ears. As the hairdresser’s slim fingers deftly unclipped another roller and tossed it into a container to join the others, plastic meeting plastic with a dull clatter. Anna wondered at what point the hairdresser’s sleepy eyes had sharpened as her mother, not wanting to waste the opportunity of a new audience, started on the story.
‘Course,’ she would have said, ‘my Alec over there is a twin. His sister’s still at school. She’ll be home soon.’
‘Oh! You’ve got twins. How lovely. That’s what I always say to my boyfriend. If we’re gonna have kids, I want twins. Get it all over and done with in one go.’
‘Yeah. Well, be careful what you wish for. I had no idea. Everyone just assumed I was just having the one, even the doctors. It was a shock to everyone when ‘e appeared.’ Anna imagined the sideways gesture of the head towards Alec.
‘Just as I was about to have a cup of tea and the midwife was packing up, I felt a God Almighty pain down there and the next minute another brat had popped out. Mind you, nobody thought e’d survive. As thin and shrivelled as a skinned rabbit ‘e was. Turns out me girl had been taking all the nourishment, she’d grown big and he was left with ‘ardly anything. Somehow, he’d got squashed underneath her. That’s why they didn’t notice ‘im and that’s why ‘e is like ‘e is. Poor little bugger.’
It would have been then that Alex would have been caught under the spotlight of the hairdresser’s stare and despite everything, Anna felt a twinge of compassion for him as she imagined the girl taking in his withered leg and hunched body.
Anna didn’t dare look at her brother. She knew what he was thinking. ‘But it wasn’t my fault’ she pleaded soundlessly, well knowing that no one could hear her. ‘ It really wasn’t.’
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