This is the opening chapter of my latest work-in-progress novel.
My question is – after reading this do you want to read the rest?
The Post-Edwardian Age
‘Then I am going,’
Early March 1911
We are dying.
There is nothing I can do about it.
We’re dying and it’s my fault.
It is my fault.
It pains me to think so but Alexa is already gone. We breathe but her eyes are closed and unmoving beneath the membrane of her eyelid. The wheeze of her stickleback gasping scrapes in my ear. I try to breathe in time with her, like when we’re sleeping, our ribs rising; our eternal single embrace, our single life.
I rub our belly, like we always do, just for comfort.
When I can summon up the courage to look up at her face on the pillow next to me it is not her. It is not us. Her face is contorted with a slackness I have never seen. Custard skin, jaundice wrinkles.
Our heart still beats. A weakened thumping resonance clambering through our body, pushing the blood slowly like lumpen stones up through our arteries, up to our unique skull-encased brains, our minds awash with it. The same blood washing through our minds; our two minds the only real separate things.
The rest is shared.
My mind, the only place to be alone and now that hypnotic wish that has haunted me for so long has come true.
Now I am alone but, I fear, not for long.
Constance Lemon has killed Alexa Lemon. Connie Lemon has killed us both.
I am Connie Lemon.
We are dying.
Because we are ‘Siamese’.
‘Siamese’ like the famous Chang and Eng. Mother claimed she met them once in New York but we always doubted that story. She said they were just like us but they were not. Nothing like us apart from being a product of fission in the womb, and I doubt their mother was as blessed with hysteria as ours is. The very act of giving birth to us splashed a debilitating stain upon our mother’s mind and no matter how hard she scrubbed her own fingers with the stiff nail brush, no matter how much carbolic she scoured beneath our childish armpits and between our legs she could not wash away the shame of our deformation. Shame she carries to this day as if she is hiding her own disfigurement beneath her voluminous black skirts, as if it is her and not us that carries the onerous cargo of malformation.
Mother even claimed Chang had tried to flirt with her once, in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel she could never have had the wherewithal to afford. Claimed he whispered sweet lover’s words to her, as if Eng didn’t hear, couldn’t possibly know, but he can’t have been deaf and blind. Eng must have known, he was less than a foot away, stood with his own two feet on the very same Persian carpet as Chang.
Chang, unlike us, had two feet as well. Four feet between them, four arms too. Chang, of course, could not possibly remove himself from his brother Eng’s company any more than I can walk away from Alexa now as we lie in our oversized iron bedstead waiting.
We only have one set of legs.
They were twins from Siam, Chang and Eng, joined at the hip. We are twins too, but we have never been to Siam. Twins; that is the extent of any similarity between us and them. They did not share the same torso, the same legs, the same heart, the same blood. They led separate lives as far as any man in their position could. Chang and Eng, the plantation owning, slave owning joined-up men who shared their marriages in an oversized specially built bed a bit like ours. Chang and Eng who enjoyed fame and delivered progeny numbering over twenty, depending on which tale you believe.
Mother had conjured her story of Chang and Eng from the ether and would repeat it endlessly to us as children. It was more for herself than us. She made it part of our family folklore in order to imbibe herself with some sense that the world was full to the brim with unnatural and unholy beings such as us, her daughters. It was only much later when the good Doctor Adolphus came into our lives that we gleaned the fakery of Mother’s story about those celebrated twins.
For the truth was that Chang and Eng died on the Seventeenth of January 1874, the very same day that our mother, Miss Isla Lemon, was born. Was that date a fateful connection between us? We cannot tell. It was Chang who died firstly, the night after they unfortunately fell badly from a carriage, and when Eng awoke and discovered his brother lying dead he knew. He knew that those such as they were, such as Alexa and I are, must live forever bound together, and when one succumbs to death the other must surely soon follow.
When Eng truly knew his brother to be dead his plaintive cry was ‘Then I am going!’
We are dying.
I need to write this.
We are dying.
Chang and Eng lived until they were sixty-two.
We are twenty-one.
Doctor Adolphus Frewen stands on the pavement beneath the twinkling gas lamp.
Twinkling? Twin killing?
In his mind there is a contemplation that shifts nimbly, just like the fronds of cigar smoke that slip lightly over the brim of his top hat.
He nods a frigid smile at the approaching dollymop.
She is certainly an attractive girl; slim with dirty lace pulled low to reveal the white skin of her shallow cleavage; the right age perhaps but Adolphus knows she is not the one. The girl gleans quickly from his expression that approaching this imposing gent verbally is not a good idea. She steps up the kerb and passes quickly by. It is this trick of observation that tells Adolphus not to bother with her; she is perchance too intelligent. A good subject perhaps for an experiment investigating the intelligence and morality of those who have fallen from society’s good graces, especially if she had siblings close in age, or better still a twin. But intelligence and morality are not the subject of Doctor Frewen’s current obsession.
The street corner is quiet, no carriages moving at this dark hour and Adolphus inspects his pocket watch. Perhaps it is too late. Perhaps he should abandon his search tonight. He will wait another five minutes and no more.
The next girl sashays out of the mist, right on cue as if he had willed it. This idea is indeed part of his obsession; the physical manifestation of thought beyond the brain and its concurrent ability to manipulate matter. Persuasion as a science.
This girl is bolder it seems.
‘Are you a gent in need of company?’ she says,
Adolphus does not reply, he is still contemplating, surveying her likely attributes. She is short, slightly less attractive than the previous girl and perhaps a little too long in the tooth.
‘Playing hard to get are we?’ she says,
She fiddles with her necklace; a learnt coquettish movement that he feels is not part of her natural behaviour but one she has practiced; perhaps she was taught by a madam in more fortunate times when she could ply her trade from the warmth of a maison de tolérance and not out on a bleak London street.
‘Show me your teeth,’ says Adolphus,
‘I’ll show you more than me teeth sir, for the right remuneration,’
She grins, poking her face forward into the light. Good teeth, mostly. One or two are crooked but not bad. He lifts her top lip with his gloved finger to make sure. She does not resist. As if to signal her willingness to please she angles her face sideways and upwards, and opens her mouth wider, like a compliant horse on market day.
Adolphus drops his cigar, removes his gloves and plucks the notebook and pencil from his overcoat pocket.
‘What’s your name?’ he says,
‘What?’ she says, ‘You police or summink?’
Adolphus is silent, pencil poised.
‘Me name’s Molly’ she says,
‘Your real name?’ says Adolphus,
The girl’s shoulders slump. So easily defeated.
‘Me real name’s Emmie, Emmie Chambers,’
Adolphus scratches the letters of her name briskly into his notebook.
‘Any siblings?’ he says,
‘Look Mister,’ she says, ‘what’s this about? You want some fun or not?’
‘I have a contract here,’ says Adolphus, pulling the ribbon-tied paper from his inside pocket, ‘all you have to do Emmie Chambers, is to sign it, come with me for a few days, no questions asked mind, and I will give you fifty guineas,’
‘Fifty guineas?’ she says,
‘Yes, but you have to sign right now and come along with me. I assure you no harm will come to you,’
Adolphus smiles to add weight to his lie.
‘I dunno,’ she says, ‘how do I know I can I trust you?’
‘My dear girl,’ he says, ‘I’m an eminent physician, but if you aren’t interested I can soon find a more willing companion,’
Adolphus moves to put the contract back in his coat but, as he knew she would, she puts her hand on his to stop him.
‘No, no,’ she says, ‘fifty guineas sounds fair to me, paid upfront of course,’
‘You’re a shrewd girl Miss Chambers,’ he says, ‘I’ll tell you what, if you sign the contract this instant I’ll pay you half now and half in a few days,’
‘Yeah, well, I dunno,’ she says stepping back off the kerb.
For a moment Adolphus thinks the bait has slipped from the hook. He holds up the contract and the pencil for her to examine.
‘It’s ok Emmie,’ he says, ‘if reading and writing is an issue you only need to make your mark here, at the bottom,’
A keen furtive look and she has decided. She grabs the pencil and scrawls a wobbling X mark on the paper and then waits patiently like a child.
He hands her the money in folded notes wrapped in a band. Exactly twenty-five guineas as he had planned all along. She secrets the money sharply in amongst the folds of her skirt.
Adolphus strides away, confident that her simple pencil mark will keep her obedient for as long as he wishes it. Emmie Chambers trots behind holding her skirts out of the puddles as if she were a lady.
At the end of the cobbled alley his carriage awaits.
He is back now. I can hear the footsteps on the stairs below.
I look at Alexa, no change.
Should I be thankful for that?
We are still yet to be dead.
I will continue to write this down. For as long as I am able.
I know he will come and profess his sin.
Another soul to be purged for our supposed redemption. Does he mention the pain when he gets them to sign their name? I daren’t ask. Alexa would be truly mortified if she knew his plan. ‘Mortified’, ‘mortification’; the subjugation of the flesh. Our flesh. Her part of our flesh no longer feels; as if it has begun a reptilian transformation, from warm-blooded life to cold-blooded death.
I scratched the itch on her ear earlier, she did not rouse. I could not feel it but knew it was there for I could feel it on my own ear. A shared nervous system of experience wrapped neatly inside our confusing duality. We know the scientific reality of this; Doctor Adolphus has taught us well.
His ruddy face peeps round the door and he doffs his hat.
‘There is hope my love,’ he says,
‘We are yet to be dead,’ I say,
© 2018 Simon Poore