Looking up from the cracked pavements, I see a man walking towards me, his eyes widening in surprise and pleasure. I know exactly what is going to happen next.
We used to find this funny.
I want to duck into a shop, to turn and run and hide amidst the jostling shoppers. Except I don’t. I stand and wait and let it hit me.
“Tim!” the man exclaims. His smile is determined and it’s only as he gets closer that I see how there’s a flickering of doubt — or perhaps it’s disappointment — creasing there at the corners of his eyes. I don’t run, but I don’t smile either. I let him come right up to me and I hear how he’s saying, “You remember don’t you? Teddy Hall. Rowing. I was stroke, you were bowman.”
People press on past us. Light glints off the stop-start of cars and buses.
The man’s hand has reached out to touch my arm in a gesture of insistent ownership; he can’t quite believe his ruddy, well-fed face is so eminently forgettable. “I’d know you anywhere,” he persists, a hint of hurt and accusation in his voice. “Dave.” He points to himself in a final gesture of defeat.
Still I don’t speak; I don’t move. Then I breathe in the traffic fumes and I say, the way I’ve done so many times before, “I’m not Tim.”
His smile falters, but it’s still lingering on his lips, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice, wondering what kind of joke it is I’m playing. Tim always did like to act the goon. But then his eyebrows turn in thoughtfully and perhaps there’s some kind of calculation ticking away, and maybe he’s remembering, because I know it’s something Tim would have mentioned, not just once, but many times.
“I’m Ralph,” I say, helping him along and then, just to be sure, I add, “Tim’s twin.”
The man – Dave – looks sceptical, but he’s removed his hand and his smile is kind of awkward now.
“Ralph?” he says.
“Yep. Tim’s twin brother.” Identical twin. I don’t need to say that. “I expect he said…”
He’s not someone I ever met, at least, I don’t recall doing so. He can’t have been more than a casual friend.
“It happens all the time,” I say.
“You’re Ralph?” This one’s surprisingly slow to accept it. “You look just like Tim.”
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s all right.” Except it isn’t.
“Well fancy that.” He pauses, waiting for me to help him out. “What a coincidence…” He seems uncertain now, how to proceed. I’m not sure he’s convinced, not one hundred percent. I wait for what will come next. There’s a slow, heavy inevitability to it. I’d like to run only my legs are too jelly-weak to take me. “So how is Tim?” he asks.
Expecting the question doesn’t make it any easier. I pause, caught between impossible choices, with neither answer remotely thinkable. And then I achieve the Herculean task of forcing the corners of my mouth up into a smile. “He’s fine,” I say. “Absolutely fine.”
“Well be sure to remember me to him.”
“I will: Dave; Teddy Hall; rowing.”
He’s still standing there and I probably should be asking after him. Is he married? Kids? Career? Only I don’t. I don’t want to prolong this, don’t want to be asked those questions back on Tim’s behalf.
Finally, he shuffles his feet and shakes his head. “Well I never. Tim’s identical twin! You look so the same. Remember me to him, now won’t you?”
I feel the relief of being released. I think of my twin, and the ways in which we differ.
I continue along the high street then turn into the tree-lined road, which has become familiar. Great horse chestnuts loom above. The leaves are turning brown, though it’s not yet autumn, and the barks are cracking and leaving the smooth tender trunks exposed. Some kind of disease, I heard, difficult to treat. Already, some of them have been felled. But others remain healthy.
It’s a truly ugly building, the hospital. The metal frames of the windows need painting. Everything is square and covered in grey rendering.
I know the route, the long pale-green corridors, smelling that way they do, of fragranced disinfectant, which never quite covers up the feral scent of sickness. I pass two chattering nurses. When I first came here, I’d sometimes see staff do a double take.
No one makes that kind of error now.
I push open the door into the small room with its raised bed on a metal frame. I meet Tim’s eyes and I force myself to smile. I go and sit close and I take his veined hand.
“So how are you today?” I ask, but I don’t expect more than his shrugged answer.
I tell him about Dave. He smiles, weakly.
I talk a little more and then we lapse into familiar, comfortable silence. We’ve never had to pretend, Tim and me, never needed to talk if there isn’t something worth saying.
I gaze at the frailer, wasted version of myself. We always thought we were identical; we were mistaken. I had all the tests, of course. They show I’m fine.
Apart from the fact that one half of me is dying.
Sarah Evans has had stories published in a number of magazines and competition anthologies, including: the Bridport Prize 2008, Momaya Press, Earlyworks, Tonto Press and Writers’ Forum. She lives in Welwyn Garden City with her husband, and is part of a small writers’ circle who meet regularly in London.