Can you imagine if you were someone else? I used to think about that a lot, that it could be just as natural to be gazing down at a completely different big toe—I mean, the toe I’d be seeing would seem normal to me, because that toe and not this one, the one I’m looking at right now, would have been the only big toe I’d have ever known as my own. As though it weren’t too much more than an accident that I turned out to be me and you turned out to be you.
Mama always said that’s not philosophical thinking, philosophical thinking is something else entirely. And I always said, Mama you’re wrong, it’s just that I don’t like abstractions, I need the example, even if the example still doesn’t get across what I’m trying to say because it’s more about what I feel when I look at the toe and think it could just as well be a different one, one that would seem just as normal to me. My own toe would be the weird one then, the way it stretches out and then curves up a little bit, but no one seems to know what I mean. It’s the thing I feel when I say “toe,” it hides behind the words somewhere and I can’t really pin it down. I always wished for someone in my life to understand, someone I could say “toe” to and they’d understand exactly what I meant, they’d nod and say, “strange, isn’t it?”
It’s funny she told me in the end. Mama, I said, why didn’t you tell me before, and she said Phoebe Marie, I wasn’t sure if you should know or not, but now that my days are numbered I think differently, and I don’t want to take this to the grave with me. And ever since then I’ve been wondering what it would have been like if I’d have known all along.
But here I am with my toe and the other toe and all I can say is that it often feels like I could just as easily be someone else. I open my mouth to say something and what do you know but that my voice sounds strange, as though it were coming from somewhere outside of me. There’s this disjointedness that I’ve never been able to describe, the voice is out there, outside my head somewhere, but what worries me most is this feeling that everything is random, that it could just as easily not exist at all. I hurry down the street to catch a bus just like anyone else, but it’s not like I have a sense of certainty that this is all exactly what it is, this and nothing else—this street, this blinker signaling a right turn, that driver motioning me across the street with a wave of the hand that’s starting to get impatient, because I’m stalling, I’m holding him up, and then I hobble across as best as I can with my bum leg, and here I am in the midst of things, going about my business without the slightest doubt that this is this and that’s that, or so it seems.
I always told Mama I felt there was something wrong with me; there are people with phantom limbs that ache and ache even though they’re not even there, but with me it’s my whole self that aches, Phoebe and Marie, both of us feel like we’re not there, but that can’t be, of course. One of us must be here, because there’s always so much to be done, there’s the shopping and the laundry and then there’re the stairs that have to be swept and the hallway rugs to shake out and somebody is always passing by whom I have to say Good Morning or Good Afternoon to as the case may be. I usually take the opportunity to rest my hands on my broom and to straighten up a bit, and that’s when I feel the ache, standing there in the stairwell with the light shining dimly in and exchanging a few words with whomever happens to walk by. I see the kindness in their faces, the sympathy in the way they carefully skirt around the piles of dust—they’re glad I’m here, keeping the building clean and chatting pleasantly, it makes them feel better, but it leaves me feeling so lonely that I’d like to blurt something out, but what could I possibly say? I’m here and I’m not here, I don’t know where I am? I’m sweeping, in a moment I’ll be mopping, but I can’t say for sure if any of this is real: it’s not a phantom limb, but a phantom self I’m talking about here, can you help me?
But this must be real, because if I disappeared they’d notice it. At first they’d notice the hallway getting dirty, and then the ones I do laundry for would wonder where all their socks went, but it wouldn’t dawn on them just yet, because I’m the one who brings their laundry to them, what’s the point of getting someone else to do it, I always say, if you have to bother about picking it up yourself? But then they’d eventually realize something was wrong and they’d notify my employer, and he’d call the police, I guess. Oh, they’d notice all right, maybe not at first, but soon enough, and so how can you say you don’t exist when a couple of dozen tenants can identify you, would have things to say about you, Mr Macintyre would know all about the vacation I took to the Poconos once; I described it to him in great detail.
Jeez, Mama, you could have told me. I stood there next to the hospital bed and looked out the window at a concrete foundation being laid for a building about to go up on the other side of the street until I suddenly realized that I’d walked along that long construction fence plastered with notices just a few minutes ago, without the slightest thought as to what might lie behind it, and here I am on the fourth floor now looking down at the entire scene, the Caterpillar parked at the far end of the muddy field and the deep curves of tracks going this way and that, and then I look at the faces of people hurrying past, their steps pounding across the wooden planks as they squeeze by one another without the slightest curiosity about what might lie just beyond that fence, without the slightest inkling that a whole huge space is right there on the other side, spreading out to the farthest end of the city block, but isn’t that how we live our lives, anyway? Not the slightest inkling of what might be right there, at arm’s reach. If she’d told me maybe I could have found some help somewhere, there’s someone out there to help you with everything these days, isn’t there, but now it’s probably too late, I’m not young anymore and it’s hard to teach an old dog, as they say, but there’s a point to that. I always needed a sister, needed someone to understand me, and it’s true, you know—she guesses my every thought, and I hers, and we get on each other’s nerves sometimes because we’re so much alike, and so what drives me crazy about her is pretty much what drives me crazy about me, but for the most part we’re glad to have each other, it’s not like with other sisters who can’t tolerate one another at all, because you see that kind of thing happening a lot, take the Sutton sisters on the third floor, unmarried, you’d think they’d stick together but no, they can hardly stand being in the same room, fighting like teenagers, and about what, nonsense for the most part.
Take Edna, if there’s one thing I’ll never understand it’s this urge to broadcast to the general public, God knows what she’d do if she lost her voice, what she’d do if she couldn’t gossip. You think something out loud around her and the whole building knows before you do yourself. I asked her once what brought her to these parts, living with Martha like that if they didn’t get along, and her eyes got as small as pins and she cocked her head to one side and peered at me with such mistrust that I never asked again. But I was only wondering, really, it was a notion I had all of a sudden, what it must be like to have a sister—not a long-lost twin to suddenly arrive in your life like a true-blue miracle, but one you’d rather be rid of altogether—I just didn’t get it, I’d have thought you’d be grateful for any company life provided you with, all the better if it’s next of kin.
Now that I know, what am I supposed to do? Go back to work tomorrow, tomorrow’s Thursday and Thursday’s the day I do my weekend shopping, I never shop on Friday, the supermarkets are too crowded on Fridays, either you forget what you wanted to buy altogether or it’s not there because someone else has grabbed it right from under your nose. I saw Martha Sutton stuff a piece of cheese right up her coat sleeve once, I could hardly believe my eyes, what would she do if she got caught, they’d make her go to the back of the store with them, make her sit down in their grimy office with piles of cash register receipts stuck on top of those pointy pronged things, and then they’d check her bags and her coat pockets and wait for the police to come, and maybe they’d even get one of their female employees to frisk her, who knows, maybe she’d have a leg of mutton stuffed down her drawers as well, anything is possible. For my part I’d be mortified, but maybe she thinks she’s charmed, that no one would call the police on an old lady, and maybe she’s right, who knows, but that’s still no excuse to shoplift like that. I wonder how they divide the work, those two, always bickering, always complaining, any opportunity that comes along, one about the other and vice-versa, but they seem used to it, used to the bickering hell they’ve made for each other, yet I can’t help but wonder why their ways didn’t part long ago, what was it that stuck them together like that, a big blob of invisible glue it must have been, some folks you just can’t understand no matter how hard you try. Now, if they were twins, see, things would be different—twins are made from the same ball of wax and so naturally they’d want to spend a lot of time in each other’s company, that’s a completely different story of course.
Mama. Maybe you never should have told me, but then it would have been like it’d never happened, and maybe it explains some things to a certain extent, although I wish there was a book you could buy that was written exactly for this particular predicament, or someone you could talk to about it all, I wish there was a place you could go with exactly this problem and then they’d point to the sign hanging up above their desk and smile; they’d be able to help you. It’s like I’d finally gotten things into some kind of order in my life, what with the job and the building and all, I don’t mind the work, really, it helps me plan the day, and so there I was with everything all set up and then Mama goes and dies but first she tells me this. And so all of this order is peeling away like paint on a rusty railing, and I sit and stare at nothing and my mind wanders off like a hungry dog and I start imagining what everything would have been like if… It’s like this huge absence has entered my life now, a big blank space that takes up all the room around here with its silence and its blackness, and so I spend my time trying to fill it in, and every day I invent another tiny bit, but the absence is so vast and empty that the parts I invent don’t amount to all that much more than itty bitty iotas, little pinpricks of light in a nighttime sky, and it will take me to the end of my days to amass a couple of clusters as best as I can but I’ll never be able to make the sky bright with life, and all of it will be my own invention.
It’s getting harder and harder to concentrate now, and I’m starting to make mistakes, I gave Mr Macintyre’s laundry to Mr Schiff by mistake, Mr Schiff laughed it off, but Mr Macintyre didn’t find it funny one bit, I guess he’s sensitive about his girth, because he really does have an unusual figure, so wide in the middle, and such short legs, and for a week I was wondering if he’d stop having me do his laundry altogether, because it’s not like I have a whole lot of extra money right now, what with Mama’s hospital bills the insurance didn’t cover and all, but he calmed down after a few days and then everything seemed okay. Mr Schiff held up a pair of pants in the hallway and laughed his head off, it looks like someone was hit by a ton of bricks, he wheezed, look at these legs, squashed right down like silly putty, and whose laundry did you say this was? Now let me guess. And it was all I could do to get the bundle back from him, and I guess it wasn’t really necessary, either, I don’t know why folks have to go poking fun at people all the time, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that you’re never going to change them.
And so I have to watch out now, and I’ve taken to writing little notes to myself, don’t forget to sweep on Monday, don’t forget to lock the broom closet, I nearly forgot again last week and if I do and the supplies get stolen then I’ll have to make up for it out of my own pocket. So I try to limit myself, I pick times to mop when I know I’ll be left alone for the most part, and then in the afternoon I make it down to the park and sit on one of the benches outside, that gives me time to think although there are so many muggings these days that I wouldn’t risk venturing too far inside, I’m not a spring chicken anymore and what with my leg acting up again and all. So I walk down the street arm-in-arm with this big blank thing now, and I think of how much time a life actually is, all these minutes and seconds and what would it be like if you could turn it all back again somehow, take away those seconds one by one, undo all the layers until there you were, just about to be born and without the slightest notion of everything that lay ahead—that’s the nature of the absence that I’ll never entirely comprehend, that’s it exactly.
I remember when Mama asked me who I was talking to one day, I can still recall the look on her face when she said it, Who are you talking to?—thoroughly spooked, and I didn’t really know what to say, and so I said myself, I guess, but she looked at me for a long time and from then on I tried not to do it when she was around, but sometimes I slipped and then I’d look at her and laugh a kind of guilty laugh and she’d say, Well I suppose that’s why I gave you two names, Phoebe Marie, because there seems to be two of you in there. And so we pretended it was a kind of joke, and I believed it, I really did, but I guess somewhere deep inside I knew that it wasn’t really a joke, knew from the way she’d look at me sometimes that she was spooked by it, there’s no other word for it I guess, and so while she’d sometimes ask me who it was she was talking to that day, Phoebe or Marie, I always said both, Mama, you know that, and I tried to act nonchalant-like, but she sensed something, I know she did.
It’s a real gift in life to have someone just like you to confide in, but that Edna Sutton walked in on us one day just as we were in the middle of a disagreement, I didn’t notice at first but then I turned and saw her all of a sudden, and Edna seemed a little shocked, which is hard to accomplish in a person as contrary as she. So I had to be more careful after that, and even if it stopped her in her tracks for once, even if it actually shut her up, she must have gotten over it soon enough and advertised it everywhere she could, I’m sure of that, and although no one in the building seems to pay her any mind, you never know nowadays when people are going to say you’re crazy and have you locked up, so I tried to watch out as best as I could.
It’s not like we never fought though, and sometimes I got the blame for things I didn’t do, and I’d be the one left standing there and it’d be up to me to invent an excuse, but for the most part we got along just fine. But there were days when we just didn’t see eye to eye and then I had to think that if she weren’t my sister I might not want to have anything to do with her at all anymore, that’s how bad things got sometimes, imagine that, a sister getting on your nerves like that and you have to keep quiet about it, none of this complaining like Martha and Edna all the time, and so naturally she got away with a lot of things she’d never have gotten away with if I’d have been able to tattle on her, if I’d have been able to tell Mama.
But now Mama went and took her away from me, took her away just like that and left me with a big fat blank, like she’d stuck a pin in some tremendous balloon and it burst, but only so far, disappearing not into nothing but leaving a kind of negative space behind, and all tattered-looking, like molten metal that’s fallen into cold water, spread for a split second like a fast and crazy explosion, and then frozen solid in a quick hiss. And so where I had a sister I have nobody now, and if Mama hadn’t told me I’d have never known, because it was just a little bit of a thing that died that day, lost to this world before she even had a chance to see the light of day, and now there isn’t enough life left to fill it all in, I’ll never get her fleshed out enough, and she never even had a name, and she’ll never do, this twin, and so it’s just Phoebe Marie now, and it’ll never be Phoebe and Marie again, and what would that have felt like to have a sister, I wonder, someone just like you.
Sisters, winner of the 2007 Hackney Literary Award