Beside Myself - Ann Morgan

Prologue

Out into the garden, sunlight blaring. Ellie lumbering after. Run along you two and don’t get into mischief. The leaves of the apple tree blotching us with shadows.

Away from the dark house with the curtains pulled shut. The cushions huddling. The mumbles and sighs that boil up into yells and sobs at the sight of water rings from the bottom of a glass. A manner missed. Not me – it’s always Ellie. Never my fault. I’m the good one because I was born first.

On to the bottom of the garden, behind the blackberry bush. A turn back to watch for eyes, but the coast is empty. Then up with the latch, the gate swings open and the warm sun of the lane spills in. A giggle from Ellie. A jiggle like she needs the toilet.

‘Shhh, Ellie,’ I say. ‘Do you want the world and his wife to hear?’

Ellie’s eyes go serious. People say after I came out the cord got twisted around Ellie’s neck and because of that she’s sometimes not as good as me. But I know she does it on purpose. I see the look she gives down at me when the teacher picks her up because she’s tired.

‘Do you think we should go out there without Mother knowing?’ she says.

‘Shut up,’ I say and pull her through. ‘It’s only Mary.’

Mary is where we go when it’s time to teach Ellie a lesson. She’s older so she’s the best at thinking up games. Like, one time when no one came to collect us from school we took Ellie to the park and left her there by herself and ran all the way home. I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe with how good the lesson was and how much better I liked it than tiptoeing around the missing furniture at home.

And another time we tried to make Ellie eat a yoghurt that we found in a plastic bag on the wall by the bus stop. We did every trick in the box, but it had gone all fizzy and smelly and hard and she wouldn’t touch it. Even though we threatened down on her and everything. Even though we told her it was cheese.

Mary’s house is up the lane. It’s not like our house because it’s all on one level, like someone rolled it with a rolling pin. Plus there’s all this stuff lying about where the grass and flowerbeds should be. But it is like our house because inside there’s only one grown-up – Mary’s dad, who does things with hammers and spanners in the garden and sometimes in the bathroom too. Plus there’s also Mary’s brother who is sort of in-between.

We knock and after a while a shadow comes to fill the swirly circle of glass so it looks like a dragon’s eye opening. The door swings back and the sour smell comes out. The brother looks down at us, his face thin and whiskery like a wolf’s.

‘Hello. Is Mary in?’ I say.

‘Nah,’ says the brother in the flat, hard way Mary says comes from Manchester where they used to live before. ‘She’s fucked off.’

A tremble comes over me, but I bite it back and stare up into his wolfy eyes.

‘Fucked off where?’ I say.

The brother smirks. His eyes go between Ellie and me. Behind him in the house, something glints.

‘Twins, eh?’ he says. ‘How old are you girls?’

He reaches out a hand and curls a finger round behind my ear, stroking the hair there.

‘You’re a pretty one, aren’t you?’ he says.

The breeze blows.

‘Say “fucked” again,’ he says.

Suddenly the day comes at me in a rush, all the colours singing. I turn and grab Ellie’s hand.

‘We’ve got to go,’ I say, and I yank her off down the path, her mouth going ‘But, but, but’ so it sounds like bubbles bursting all around.

I want to get away and out of there – to unzip my skin and step into another me. But out in the lane here is Mrs Dunkerley from across the way, back from shopping with her cabbage smell that always follows her around.

‘Well, girls,’ she says. ‘Helen and Eleanor, isn’t it? But which one is which? I can never tell – you’re like two peas in a pod.’

The fidgets are on me, but I stand politely and tell her who is who. Even though I have to do this every time we see her. Even though everyone knows who we are. Even though no one calls Ellie Eleanor.

‘Isn’t that lovely?’ says Mrs Dunkerley,