And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Irresistible – 2014
It was irresistible, the notion. That airbrushed upon my life was a gentle watercolour image of us, together. The day we met, we were both searching for something else entirely, and it became that we could not be without each other. We were as one. Then someone I had considered a friend came along and took what we had. Over time, I tried many different ways to erase the image. Of us. Forever. There were even times when it momentarily vanished. Only to return with a vengeance. When something inconsequential would release a trigger, my emotional safety valve would ‘pop’ and, once again, I would be consumed and troubled.
I had left work early, citing a headache. It was the anniversary of my twin sister’s death. Grace. Identical in every way except that she was dead. Ten years. I remembered the moment when the medics offered her the opportunity to participate in a trial of new drugs, which had some successes on patients with advanced cancer. The words ‘opportunity‘ and ‘advanced’ were used by the medics as a perverse, ‘Ying‘ and ‘Yang.’ I remember the day as if it were yesterday, only today the memory is blacker.
Driving home, I flicked through the channels between listening to a fierce debate about Gaza and a high pitched shriek of, ‘One less problem without you.’
I switched the radio off and pulled over to allow the car roof to open when I spotted him. Walking along into Kentish Town Underground, it was him. Luka.
How could I be sure? That slow walk of his. The slight turning of his head to follow my car with his eyes. We both did a double take. His face. Irresistible.
I would have recognised him anywhere. I got out and turned around. Too late. He had disappeared. I whispered to myself, ‘It can’t have been him.’
After that moment, I just couldn’t shake his image out of my head.
I whizzed through the afternoon like I had somewhere to be. My evening routine transformed. After putting our Baby Girl to bed, I poured a large glass of wine for Mark, my husband, whilst mine remained untouched. Then I ran a warm candle lit bath, filled with relaxing oils to help us both unwind. Mark was delighted at my renewed interest, showing my commitment to us.
I laid back, with my arms above my head, as he stroked my face and told me in earnest that he loved me more than life itself. I should have felt guilty though, shouldn’t I? As my thoughts lingered on my first love.
Later, I stayed awake and waited for Mark’s descent into a deep sleep. Like cream silk rippling in the breeze, I slipped out of bed and slowly opened our bedroom door, whilst looking over to ensure I hadn’t woken him. I tip-toed along the hallway, down the stairs into the study. As the Apple logo flashed on my laptop screen, it reminded me of the first time I saw him. Shamefully, I had visualised taking his clothes off with my teeth. I typed his name, a brief Google search. Minuscule. Innocent. Once. Just once. Harmless. Searching. 0 – 60 with Chrome. Where did he live? Was he working in London? Did he remain married? I found images of him everywhere. Endless pictures of him at award ceremonies and black tie events. The camera still shared my love of him.
The next morning I met with girlfriends for coffee in Costa.
I mentioned my guilty pleasure of searching the internet. We laughed. Each of us had, at some time or another, sought out an ex-boyfriend.
If only to reassure ourselves, we agreed we were now in a better place. I relaxed in silence as they shared, with loud mocking laughter, their reunited stories.
One warned me though: ‘Be careful. There are horror stories, and Mark doesn’t strike me as forgiving type.’
After that, I felt compelled to type Luka’s name and press return every time I logged on. Why? I can’t offer an explanation.
A few nights later, there was the answer to a big question. The one burning right into my gut. He remained married. It was painful, you know, but more than that, it offended me. That he had stayed with her. I felt waves of resentment I thought had dissipated long ago.
I tried to find an image of her. The wife.
I spent hours searching, trawling databases, delving into dark cavernous parts of the web. Nothing. Where was she? Where were the pictures of her? As the darkness lifted outside, with the birds yawning, I would give up and slip back into bed and sleep, a deep immovable sleep.
Weeks later I decided to call him. Right out of the blue. I searched and discovered his ex-directory telephone number. I found it listed on a US website, paid 24 US dollars Inc. sales tax and there it was. Obtaining it actually made me laugh. I felt like I had won an award. I know. I heard words softly in my head, repeating, encouraging me.
‘Wonder what he’s doing? The gorgeous Luka? You have his number, why don’t you give him a call?’ I smiled and thought – Why not?
You do agree, you would have done the same. Wouldn’t you?
That was how it began. My Limerence.
Born Lucky – 2000
I was born lucky, everyone told me so. With an identical twin – Grace. As soon as we could reach out and touch, we formed the habit of reaching across and touching each other’s heart. We took consolation in the feel of the rhythmic thud against each other’s palms. It reminded us that we always had each other.
My earliest memory is of being woken up by a loud indistinguishable curse as our stepfather’s key had refused, once again, to surrender itself from the sticky lock. I heard a soft jingle as the bunch was left dangling on the outside, followed by the noise of the door slamming shut, the echo travelling in waves around the stairwell, drawing out the sound. His main challenge was habitual and specific. It was one of walking. I remember rubbing my eyes and tightening my ponytail as I pulled at Grace, asleep on the other bed, to wake up as I heard the sounds of him stumbling around, oblivious to the blackness. He carried with him his smell of stale unfiltered cigarettes and beer. I heard the sound of my heart beating as he coughed in and out. The heavy creak of the bedsprings as he sat down at the end of my bed, immense like a sack of wet sand, then almost falling off. As his tongue slurred, I heard his words, but at the time I just didn’t fully understand.
‘You are lovely, you two, every man’s fantaseee.’
I saw the shadow of Mum at the door as she wrapped her flimsy nightgown around her. I held my hands to my ears as they shouted obscenities at each other. Mum’s tone getting louder and higher.
Her challenging him, over and over, the shouts of ‘Just leave her alone.’ Our routine was fixed.
He stood up and staggered towards her voice and we heard his muffled, ‘Get out,’ followed by a thud and more slurring. As Grace jumped out of her bed, we could both hear what was happening outside our door and we started to get dressed.
Knowing we needed to be quick, knowing the drill, the inevitable. We had been here before. The unforgettable sounds as he punched her, like a whip cracking over and over, repeatedly—one, two, three. Grace and I decided to do something new. Thinking about it, maybe we didn’t decide, maybe we just didn’t have an option. We pulled him off Mum, who was lying on the ground curled in the corner, silently, like a puppy in training. She hadn’t even raised her hands to defend her face. Mum, Grace and I managed to grab our shoes as we ran out of the apartment and down the stairwell. We huddled in the hallway outside our neighbour’s. Mum held her finger against the doorbell. When there was no answer, she began to bang on the door with her fist. Grace and I stood behind her and at the same time we reached across and touched each other’s hearts. It reminded us that our bodies belonged to us and us alone.
Our neighbour, Mrs. Dixon, finally opened the door, a fractional crack of light in the shadowy darkness, her craggy face just visible between the three thick chains. Each chain seemed to endorse her fragility.
I can still remember the sickly feeling we had when, with light in her eyes, she undid them, slowly, one by one, the sound of the scraping metal sliding across as she ushered, ‘Come in, come in.’
Her once white dressing gown was always the colour of greyhound, matching her hair and her skin.
We waited in her sitting room, three of us squashed onto the lace covered sofa, staring quietly at the tiny silhouette of our rescuer outlined in her Parker Knoll chair.
The light from the nightlight disguised the misery of our plights. No one moved or spoke. We could hear him shouting from above us, standing in our doorway, his threats and promises in broken slur, his menace diminishing as the words echoed up and down the hallway. We sat there, the four of us and looked out of the single Crittall window at the lights in the tower opposite, waiting for them to fade and go out, one by one. Until that day, life had played on repeat. The same swelling, the same blackness. This time, though, the signs were different. Our ritual had changed. Grace and I were top and tailed on the sofa. A swirly patterned polyester eiderdown was produced by Mrs. Dixon, who announced, ‘When I saw it the Oxfam shop just before Christmas I thought of you all. Isn’t this a find?’
Mum cried silently, trying to cover her intakes of breath with shaking hands. I guess that was the moment she realised that this is what she was settling for. Thankful for the darkness, Grace and I were able to whisper confidences to each other, hoping that this time, please God, this time, things would be different. But our problem remained. Our real dad had disappeared and our mum was a drunk.
The next morning, Mrs. Dixon’s son, Reggie, arrived in his black hackney cab to drive us to St Albans. The car sped along as we shared our excitement, Grace and me, that the sky had become larger and the spaces between the lamp posts wider.
Mum stared ahead, not seeming to hear. Breaking her silence with, ‘It will be a lovely treat for us to stay with my parents.’
Spoken as if to herself, and then she returned to gazing intently at something neither of us could see.
Grace and I looked at her lopsided bruised face and back at each other as Mum examined her eyes in a tiny cracked compact mirror.
She tried to cover the red and black marks with an orangey coloured make-up stick Mrs. Dixon had given to her. As we left, with a clasped hand, Mrs. Dixon whispered, ‘It’s from the 60’s.’
Finally, the car pulled off the new M25 motorway and Mum exhausted everyone saying, ‘Right, no sorry left, no, I meant right.’
The driver made funny faces in the mirror at her each time she spoke, which she didn’t seem to mind. It helped us all laugh.
When she changed her directions, he exaggerated his driving so that we giggled even more and I imagined we were at a funfair on a roller coaster ride.
Then he stopped the car in the middle of the road, ignoring the beeping of other cars from behind us as he turned to us in the back and said, ‘No disrespect intended love, but if you could name a pub or a park or something? We might have a better chance of finding the house.’
Mum answered in her easy voice, the one we recognised from when she didn’t have the rent for the council or when she was making up a story about why she was buying sherry and a packet of biscuits at ten o’clock on a Saturday morning.
‘I am so sorry. I am silly; it’s opposite Rothamsted Park, the North entrance off Ambury Lane. Here’s me trying to direct you – and you a professional driver. Silly me.’
She smiled at him, a wonky smile that looked painful, and he set off, this time with purpose. Us laughing with him as he gave a two-fingered salute out the window to the drivers behind us. He dropped us outside a moss-covered terrace at the end of the row, overlooking a park.
Our collective euphoria was short lived. We stood as instructed by Mum, beside a red letterbox a little way from a moss covered end of terrace house, watching as Mum rang the brass doorbell, knocked the smart black door and then started shouting, ‘Hello,’ through the letter box.
With one arm wrapped around her body, to keep her red tartan coat from flying open, she said with sudden enthusiasm, ‘Come along, there’s a corner shop. I have enough for a box of Tunnock’s teacakes and you can eat all of them in one go.’
We hadn’t inherited the specific gene that seemed to allow Mum to survive on air most of the time.
As we wandered down streets, clutching our belongings, Grace and I threw a silent caution at each other, walking past rows of red brick houses which all merged into each other until we got to an open park.
The well-beaten path was covered in squishy brown mud, the texture like wet meringue that tugged at our shoes as we navigated our way to a rough wooden bench. We sat together, our Woolworths bags piled up at the end.
Mum leaned in and gave us instructions. ‘Stay together, and don’t speak to anyone.’
We must have looked worried because as she got up to go, she stopped and said, ‘I’ll only be gone a little while, I have to find your granddad. It will be great for us to finally meet and be together. I just need to speak to him first and check that it’s okay.’ She turned and waved to us as she left.
Grace made a point of her being ‘first out’ which automatically afforded her certain rights. She opened the bright yellow box and pulled out the six red and silver foil covered marshmallows encased in chocolate. She divided them equally and as we unwrapped the first one, without speaking we both held one in our hands, closed our eyes and counted, ‘one, two, three.’ We both laughed big open-mouthed guffaws as we tapped the teacake on our foreheads and opened our eyes to see how many cracks appeared all over the top of the marshmallow mound.
Grace had a theory that each crack represented a year of your life. After vigorously counting to twenty something and then skipping directly to one-hundred, we could start our ritual of slowly peeling the chocolate off, segment by segment, then wolfing the rest whole. Which we always tried to do without licking our lips.
Years later; too late, I realised that I was the one who set up our rituals and Grace was in charge of the accompanying theory.
When the pigeons disappeared and no one had passed us for a while, Grace and I sat together on the bench in silence.
Grace kept wrapping her arms around me saying, ‘It’s okay Baby Girl, Mum will be back soon, you’ll see.’
That was the first time Mum left and couldn’t find her way to return.
Eventually, the park warden came and called the police, who then called social services. We were driven back to London and placed with our first foster family and we returned to school the next day – another normal Monday. And my life went on.
Grace liked to pretend we were on holiday and every few months would become ecstatic when Mum appeared, flanked by social workers. Initially, Mum was always fit and healthy, declaring sobriety. We would be rehomed together, anywhere up to three bus rides away from our school, until the next time. The next time Mum walked out and just couldn’t find her way back.
Then we returned to the treadmill of people paid to care. Grace and I recognised a new routine had been set. A new low.
We left our final foster placement at the age of eighteen. I was off to university. Our form tutor had called my offer of a university place, ‘A gift from God.’ Once again, all of my effort marginalised and awarded to someone else.
University was our first proper separation, for Grace and me. It was never really properly discussed. Just long pauses as I carefully spoon fed information about the media course to Grace, who nodded and then changed the subject. Grace dreamt of something else. A fairy-tale. The handsome prince, beautiful children, preferably one of each.
We stood at the station; me with an oversized backpack strapped to my back, waiting for the platform number to flash up on the overhead screen, when Grace announced she was pregnant. We hugged each other, accompanied by loud shrieks, both sounding the same but with very different meanings. I placed my palm softly against her tummy. It was washboard flat. I boarded the train and waved at her through the thick opaque glass as it pulled out of the station.
I leaned forward, kissing the glass, with my lips flat against the window, using my tongue so that she laughed even more as she tried to run along the platform, waving as the train pulled away.
When I couldn’t see her any longer, I sat down while the other passengers in the carriage turned away from me, and no matter how many times I wiped my face it just remained wet.
Her pregnancy had only been a matter of time. I guessed it was a miracle she had made it to eighteen without being caught.
The next time I saw Grace, we were running barefoot through the dew covered grass in the park, picking petals off the perfect rose bushes to use as confetti for her marriage ceremony that afternoon. When the petals flew up and around, cascading in swirls of soft velvety pastel over Grace, as she stood clutching Brendon, her new husband, under the archway of Ealing town hall. Although there were only a few of us, we smiled and waved at each other.
Grace had a real daisy chain on her head and her long blonde hair with its soft waves tumbled untamed around her. Tiny ankle bracelets combined with thin flat leather sandals and with a long white cotton flowing dress, she was the definition of blooming and beautiful. We laughed and joked about being hungry and looking forward to our, ‘two for one’ meal deal at the local Pizza Express. Mum was smiling, smelling of her own unique combination of too much perfume mixed with alcohol, but at least she had found her way to the venue.
Mark was there. Our first love from our foster home before last. As always, that foster family had three of their, ‘own’ children. Two girls and a boy, all a year or so apart and a similar age to us. They were lined up in the hall, bored, like a mini set of Russian dolls, ordered to stand up straight and meet the new arrivals. Black hair, small framed and perfectly formed. Grace and I were like giraffes penned into a cage. Each of us worth £160.00 a week to the family. Then Mark arrived, brought by another set of faceless social workers moments after us. Another charge.
He kept saying, ‘We were promised I would be with my brother and sisters.’
A social worker’s reply was delivered in a pass me the salt kind of way, ‘This is the best we can do, Mark. Be grateful.’
Our affinity with Mark was instant, shared broken hearts and a sense of confusion, hidden behind a big smile and bigger laughter. He was as I imagined an Italian to be. His extra-large physique betrayed a softness Grace and I could see, but for some reason the others chose not to, as they pushed past us to get the last seats in the living room. Mark came into our allocated pink and white fluffy bedroom and sat on a pink plastic box in the corner. His head was pointing towards something on the floor, but we could see he was watching us from under uplifted eyelashes. We spent hours that night exaggerating poses in front of him, delighted to have an audience while we examined ourselves from every angle in front of the mirror.
Our silhouette remained long and lean and we yearned to have enough to be able to fill a bra. Even a tiny one. Our hair was the same, always cut almost in a straight line, when Mum had been sober enough to be trusted with a pair of scissors, sitting blunt on our shoulders.
‘What colour do you think our hair is? Mark?’
‘Dirty blonde.’ He smiled.
Grace punched him lightly on the arm and as he rubbed it in fey agony, he said, ‘Blonde. Sorry, I mean blonde.’
Grace spent the evening, while I remained quiet, firing questions about every part of our appearance at him and made him answer again and again until she was satisfied. He agreed our eyes were only just too far apart and our noses maybe too small, but identical and, ‘cute.’
He said, ‘You’re attractive – in a fresh, girlfriend material, seeing double way. You even laugh the same, big open-mouthed guffaws that you cover with both hands, left over right.’
That made us laugh even more.
Later that night Grace was crying, and Mark crept into our room and sat on the carpet, silent. His large shadow dominated the wall.
He just sat there. I found his presence comforting. After a while, we pointed out the stars in the sky to him. We knew all of them off by heart. We explained our tale, in whispers, of the hours spent looking out windows waiting for our mother to decide if she could find her way home.
For a few months, we would find Mark sitting on the wall outside school, always offering to carry our bags home, one over each shoulder. Grace devised a sketch of him bowing to us as we sat on our beds and pretended to be royalty, deferring our hands to be kissed by him. It made us all laugh in such a way that downstairs always guessed we were together in our bedroom.
Our foster dad would shout up the stairs, ‘Is that you, Mark? You’re not allowed in the girls’ bedroom.’
Mark would then lean over and whisper, ‘Hide, it’s the butler.’ We would scramble into wardrobes and under beds, always getting us in to more trouble.
Some mornings I would wake up in the bedroom and stare at the stars painted on our ceiling and I had a consuming feeling that I would never belong anywhere. Grace would see my face and throw herself on the bed and drag me out of my darkness, with tales made up from her imagination. Where the male monster always died in a horrible, gruesome way, right at the end.
I would go downstairs and look across at Mark, with his bulk, hunched behind the tiny kitchen table and it reminded me that I wasn’t the only one trying to fit in.
I was glad that Mark was there, at the wedding, smiling and laughing. Grace kept taking pictures of us, Mark and me. He took loads of Grace and me. He looked less awkward, like he had grown into himself. I suppose we all had grown up.
Someone managed to take a picture of Mark with us on either side of him. The next day we parted again, Grace to a bedsit in Ealing with her new husband Brendon, and me to a coveted place at Birmingham University.
Mark gave me his number on a scrap of paper as I left for the train station and, of course, I lost it somewhere between Ealing and Birmingham.
Losing You – 2007
My life was summed up by The Scissor Sisters lyric, ‘I don’t feel like dancing.’ I carried a large invisible object strapped to my back, full of grief. The size of a king sized mattress but stuffed with confused undetonated emotions. Sometimes I would pass a stranger and guess they had the same weight strapped to them, it was a look that passed over their eyes, nothing more.
After the memorial service for Grace, I returned to my job at an advertising agency. It was a great place to hide, behind a pastel tissue wrapped marshmallow of creativity; no thudding heartbeat required. A few weeks later, a group of us from university were having a catch up, all penned into the corner of a heaving pub in Soho, drinking wine like we had just returned from a month in the desert.
I tried to explain, whilst shouting over the sound of the music, ‘I arrive home from work, lay in bed and gaze at the walls, running through the last few years, over and over again. Just as my eyelids become heavy and my eyes start to close, my alarm clock goes off and it’s time to get up and start all over again.’
Her response was to stare at me for a second too long and then she said, ‘Trust me. It will get better. I promise.’
But it didn’t.
Every morning, I reversed back into my memories of my twin Grace; a single mother trying her best. When she died, her son was almost four. Little Bobby.
The flashbacks continued daily. Arriving like an unexpected twister, spinning my life around bringing a primal fury and darkness. Reminding me of sickness without grounds or reason, my memories were always accompanied by the chemical smell of the hospital, right up inside my nose.
Sepia images played on repeat, like a video shot in super 8mm, of Bobby, speaking in his tiny wispy voice, who kept asking, ‘Mummy – Why are you in bed?’
It was a big question. I visited the hospital every afternoon and they were always sat, Grace and Bobby, squashed, arms wrapped around each other like honeysuckle, whilst she read to him and he listened silently with occasional deep breaths. Then she would sleep whilst he sat doing colourful crayon drawings on a small A5 pad.
My memories were filled with Bobby, obediently moving to the end of her bed when the nurses needed her arm, or another body part to stick more needles in, so they could continue to practice their art. I would fast forward in my mind, past the smell of burning skin from her radiation treatment and the long strands of blonde hair left on the pillow when she needed to make the short, slow walk to the toilet.
I always pause at the part where my sister’s ex-husband, Brendon, came and stayed in her house. Weeks of hell when, in a stonewashed attempt, he worked towards getting to know his son and we all sat back and pretended that the moment was normal. I tried to camouflage my surprise that he didn’t arrive wearing a black cloak and carrying a scythe. I really did.
I remembered one of our last conversations. Grace and I. Just before she died. I was sitting on the end of her bed cutting grapes in half, handing them to her one at a time and we were talking. As if arranging the detail of a forthcoming holiday.
I said, ‘Bobby should live with me. I’ll move back to St Albans to be near Mum.’
‘It’s arranged – he’s going to live with his Dad. Brendon.’
‘Brendon? But Brendon doesn’t even know him. In the last three years, how often has Brendon seen him?’
‘He needs his father. I trust Brendon. Don’t forget, I cheated on him. His new wife is lovely, she is. You just haven’t bothered to get to know her.’
‘She’s an airhead. Manchester? Grace, Bobby will have to start over again. His home is here.’
‘I’ll be watching – you think I’m going to die and that’s it? I intend to watch over you all.’
‘Grace – don’t say that.’ I reached over and touched her heart. She tried to sit up and, as I helped her, she touched mine.
I couldn’t feel her heartbeat; it was a sign, but instead I said, ‘Why can’t Brendon move down here?’
‘Juliet. It’s agreed. Please? He’s a good guy. He will be a great dad and he loves Bobby. Promise me? Promise me you won’t interfere? Just promise me you will live life enough for both of us.’
She was five and a half stone when she died. It was six months and two days from the initial diagnosis of cervical cancer. I cry briefly every morning, just before I get out of bed, at the memory. Of a few days after the cremation, carrying Bobby’s things to the car and dragging him off my leg and persuading him to go live with his dad. Waving them off, to a new life in Manchester. Without his mum, without my other half, without my sister Grace.
If I had remained in that state, I would have either killed myself or someone else.
Instead, I threw my attention into my work and every day it was like finishing the London marathon for the first time. The joyous relief of getting to the end of the day without having collapsed in a heap.
If I had remained in that state, I would have either killed myself or someone else.
Instead, I threw my attention into my work and every day it was like finishing the London marathon for the first time. The joyous relief of getting to the end of the day without having collapsed in a heap. If everything and everyone had been nice and cosy, it would have been easy. I could have thrown myself off a bridge.
I went to work every day and built a barrier to anything soft. I became known for unnecessary sparring and confrontation. Generally, I won the argument, if not the friends. After losing Grace, I had to win. I constantly created an atmosphere right on the edge of ugly. It sated my mood and satisfied a need for brutality. Replicating my experience of life, just in a different setting.
For over a year, I had a boyfriend who was also Head of Human Resource. It was against both of our terms of employment to sleep with colleagues.
I didn’t care. He was so refined sometimes I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I stayed with him anyway. Did I mention he was the Head of Human Resource?
There were quite a few of us working alongside each other while concealing our fierce ambition. I was promoted to Account Director, with a small team. I wanted more. My competitors within the agency didn’t know how far I would go. How could they? You see, I had nothing to lose. I guess only those touched understand the impact of grief upon person’s moral compass. Being a woman helped. I played my feminine charm for all it was worth. I know. I enticed the staff to pick a side, my side, and help me. If you wanted to be on my team, everyone else was the enemy.
If you didn’t like it, I suggested a career change. Never to your face, always via the head of Human Resource. I veneered my approach with expense-account fuelled laughter, always paying with a company credit card.
And all of my hard work paid off. Despite vicious competition, the board promoted me to Client Service Director of the agency. My reward for screwing everyone over. Happy? I didn’t feel a thing. Nothing. I should have though, shouldn’t I? I began to relax and rather than get stuck in, I rode along on the crest of office politics.
Then my Head of Human Resources boyfriend dumped me. I won’t even bother to tell you his name. I came home from work to find my ’emergency’ key on the table and his toothbrush gone.
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