Sometimes you hear a story and it won't go away. It sits in the middle of your head so that when you meet someone and start up a conversation you can't help telling them the story you heard, and you think it might spread over the world like a virus. I heard a story like that last year in Australia, which seems such a clean place for this nasty little story to have taken root. I brought it back with me to Canada, and whenever anyone asks me about Australia I tell them this story, which I heard there but which really happened in Canada. That's the thing about a story: it moves around. It's true enough that everyone who hears it changes it -- certain details become important, others are almost forgotten, and some are sort of invented.
One reason I can't stop thinking about this story is that I knew one of the people in it -- the most important person, really. Not well and not for long, but still I knew her. And the story is about two things that have interested me for a long time -- one is twins and the other is storytelling. This is about a twin who was also a writer, which makes it perfect. For me. Her name was Clara Shipley. The Clara Shipley. Even people who didn't know her or haven't read her books still think it's a pretty surprising story, which is why I'd like you to hear it -- although I should tell you right now that some people I've told it to have said they wish I hadn't.
One day Clara found out that she was dying. If she hadn't known she was dying, Clara wouldn't have done what she did and there would be one less story in the world -- which, considering the nature of the story, might not be such a bad thing.
I knew Clara long before the cough or the lump or whatever. I knew her when she was young and promising and about to publish her first book. She stood out even then because she was so fat and wore such weird outfits. One day she dressed up totally fifties in a felt skirt with a poodle on it in 3-D and a white off-the-shoulder blouse. You might have seen her that way on the cover of Chatelaine when they told their readers all about this promising young writer and her first book, which took place at the time of King Arthur but looked at people just as you would today -- people searching and being disappointed when they actually found what it was they thought they were looking for, or not even knowing when they'd found it. Which in a way is what happened to Clara.
Her real name was Ida, which she found extremely boring and silly. She exchanged her old name for Clara, which sounded pale and quivery. Clara was loud and big and tended to knock things over, but she felt she had a rarefied soul, as a Clara should have. You could see it in her books, the later ones too, which were not set in a chivalrous age but were about unheralded bravery and small, private victories. Noble stories with ordinary heroes.
That's why this story surprises so many people who didn't know Clara personally, as I did, but who felt they knew her because they read her books and heard her voice on the radio and saw her on TV. She certainly looked and sounded wise and seemed to feel things deeply, especially simple things, like how hard it is to lose someone you love, and the damage people do to one another when they don't even mean to -- particularly when they don't even mean to.
Clara learned a lot of these things from the beginning. She knew right off that she didn't belong to the family everyone said she belonged to. She was big and they were small -- tiny, really. They were deeply religious, or they seemed to be because the father was a Baptist preacher who carried the gospel by airplane to remote and needy people and where would he be if he lost his faith? Clara told him there might be a God for other people, but as far as she was concerned if there was a God He had abandoned her in his world all alone, despite the fact that she had three older brothers who looked alike and often started to say the very same things at the same time although they were not triplets, or even twins, but just so kinlike. You didn't have to be very smart. to see that something unusual was going on here -- and Clara, whatever else you might say about her, was smart.
One day, when she was about twelve years old (she told me this part herself when we were still sort of friends), she stood on a chair and started smashing her mother's only set of real china, one piece at a time, screaming, "Do something, Jesus. I dare you. Strike me dead!"
Her family didn't know how she got to be the way she was exactly, but they knew a secret which she did not know but which went a long way to explaining her differences. They had never told her before because they were afraid of what it might do to her. But that night, the whole family -- mother, father, three brothers -- gathered in the parlour even though it wasn't Sunday. They told Ida, which was still her name then, that she could come out of her room where she had been sent to pray to Jesus to forgive her. The father spoke in a bossy voice like he was giving a sermon, pounding his fist down on the lamp table while the little knickknacks he'd gathered on his travels into the interior of British Columbia jumped up and down. The Reverend Shipley said, "Ida, we have tried our best with you. The good Lord knows that. But you are not our own flesh and blood. You are adopted." In this way she found out what she had long suspected -- that they were not really related. She was not the daughter of that raging father or of the mother sitting rigid in her cane-back chair. She had no real connection with the three brothers strung out like crows along the sofa.
The family were all terrified that Clara might start throwing things again, so the mother ran over and slid all the knickknacks into the table drawer. The three boys -- tiny men really -- threw their hands up over their ears, ready for the yells.
But Clara just started laughing, laughing and stomping around the small room with her big feet, shouting, "Praise the Lord. Thank you, Jesus! I knew it. I just knew it!" And for the first time ever, without being offered a lollipop, or an ice cream cone, or anything, she ran around the room kissing and hugging everyone so they nearly fainted.
Clara stayed with her so-called family until she had saved up enough money to run away to Toronto, which was in four years' time when she was sixteen. Soon after she arrived, she received a call in the middle of the night saying that the Twin Otter the father flew on his missions had exploded over a coastal fishing camp, killing both her so-called parents since the mother, who had no more children at home, had decided, this one time, to go along for the ride. When the will was read, Clara received exactly the same share as the three boys, which seemed to her the first bit of evidence she'd ever had of the possible existence of God.
One of the mysteries she never did solve was why the Shipleys gave her the name Ida. Clara told me, you'd think if two people wanted a baby girl so much, when one came along they could think of something a little more substantial than just three letters, more like an anagram than a name, especially when the boys, although they looked like little gremlins, had good, strong Bible names -- Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Clara said they should have kept right on going and called her John, which might have prepared them for her unusual outlook on things. As it was, people who had long since stopped singing "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cid-ah" still remembered the tune and some of the words, and they tormented Ida by singing as much as they knew whenever they saw her.
So when she came to Toronto to be as free as she could make herself, she changed her name right away to Clara, and worked nights as a waitress and went to school in the day. She was at the same time discovering sex and writing. At first she really threw herself into sex since Clara had been told it was the most forbidden of all activities; she took up with anyone who wanted it. Soon she felt that she had exhausted the subject. By the time she was nineteen she swore she had been probed, prodded, primed, and penetrated for the very last time, and as far as I know, she kept her promise.
But writing was different. Living with the reverend's family, she'd found in the stories written by other people, a secret passage out of her own misery. In every library, in every town she lived in, she hunted for stories of fantasy and romance, the ingredients missing from her life. But a library is a dangerous place. Once you're inside, once you wander up and down the shelves running your fingers over the curved spines of the books, a certain seduction can take place. Clara read books about history and about thinking and just plain stories -- first easy books that took big ideas and great epics and condensed them for beginners. Then she moved around to the back rooms where the important books were kept under a blanket of dust, and she sank into stories by people in countries she'd barely heard of, stories about civilizations as old as the rainforests in which she lived. So by the time Clara moved to Toronto she was prepared to be our Scheherazade.
I noticed her first in English class, sitting in the front row, wearing wing-tipped glasses with rhinestones on the corners and holding up a copy of the Kamasutra for everyone behind to see all those limbs braided together. Every lecture after that I moved my seat closer and closer to Clara's until finally I sat down right beside her and she said without even looking up, "You certainly took your time."
We did a lot of things together -- concerts, poetry readings, marches to ban the bomb. Clara was so fierce about everything she sometimes gave me a headache. In my final year I married Ted, who was studying to be a teacher, and Clara came to the wedding dressed in black. We'd meet every now and then for lunch and I'd save up funny stories to tell her about the kids and life in the suburbs, and she'd tell me the latest gossip about famous writers, which I'd pass on to the others in the car pool. Clara and I never had a fight that I can remember; she just found other friends and I never minded her for that.
When all my rearing and caring were over, I started writing a little column on ageing for a magazine. I knew it was a subject that never interested Clara much. She told me she saw great virtue in an early death, a lesson she said she had learned from her so-called parents. But when she knew death was only weeks or months away, that twisted things a bit, even for Clara. She needed to know more about her past before she could move into her future, so she hired a private detective to locate her real parents. My friend Nancy, who writes a column about children, says that in some places they have to tell you when you ask about where you were born and who your parents were, and, even if they won't tell you themselves, they have records so, with a little perseverance, you can find out one way or another.
Clara always had wild ideas about her real parents. She boasted that she was probably of mixed ancestry -- French and Indian perhaps -- because of her fair skin and dark hair and the bump on her nose you could see when she turned sideways. She filled her house with native artefacts and taught herself to speak French; I think she must have been planning all along to track down her family and was only waiting until she was ready. But seeing the end coming up fast, she hired this detective and everything moved right along.
I hate to think how disappointed Clara must have been. Honestly. Instead of finding passion and a clash of cultures she found narrowness and hearts as tight is walnuts. It turned out she was born in a small Ontario town where they made tractors and processed sugar beets. Her mother was a young Irish farm girl only fifteen years old. You can just imagine the sort of thing -- a young girl is seduced by a passing stranger, or more likely someone she knows from right around home. Or she falls in love with a boy from the wrong family, or a young man of no fixed address doing seasonal work who goes away when summer's over, never knowing the trouble he's left behind for Patricia O'Donnell -- which was the mother's name; the father was said to be UNKNOWN. I can tell you the mother's real name without fear of embarrassing her because she died in childbirth many years ago, when she was thirty-eight.
Another surprising bit of news, surprising to Clara but not to you because I've already told you, is that the record clearly stated that Miss O'Donnell gave birth to two girls, not one: identical twin girls who were split apart when they were still fresh and shipped out to live with different families.
That sort of thing wasn't unusual then, which is why we know so much about twins that no matter how far apart they were raised, or how different their new parents were, if they meet up years later they discover they both like the same things -- the colour yellow, say, or du Maurier cigarettes -- or they were both kissed first by boys named Willie, or they both named their first-born Virginia. You read about that sort of thing all the time and it makes you shiver. Nancy says they can't do that kind of separating these days. But when Patricia O'Donnell gave birth more than fifty years ago these two baby girls travelled off in different directions, one moving just up the road to Guelph and the other crossing the country with a nurse all the way to British Columbia where she was given to a father and mother who wanted a sweet little girl after having had three boys in a row. That was Clara, of course.
I don't imagine Clara was really shocked to find out she was a twin. All her life she'd felt a certain hollowness inside, an empty place as if she'd been reamed out, as if what had been taken from her had been thrown away or buried somewhere and she couldn't find it. She made up characters, she said, to fill the void.
And the other twin? Clara didn't know if she was still alive, but she sent the detective to look for her -- not so much to find her as to find out about her. Clara thought it might be hard to do since she herself had moved fourteen times before she finally left home, and it would have been awfully hard for any sister of hers to track her down. But it turned out that Clara's twin had lived her entire life in Guelph, never leaving. She even married a local boy named Charlie, who bought supplies for the Guelph District Hospital. Clara's sister worked there herself, as a nurse, until she quit to have her kids -- twin boys and a single girl. I should call Clara's twin by her name, which was Susan Farrington, at least that was her married name and the only one I ever heard.
By the time the detective found out where Susan lived, Clara was spindly and bald -- the treatment, you see. She looked parched and shrivelled, a little like the reverend's wife who raised her. During that last spring Clara's picture kept appearing in the newspapers. It seemed that almost every day some group or other was racing to name a prize in her honour, or add a few more initials after her name, or publish a whole issue of a magazine as a tribute to her work. She was called a National Treasure, Canada's Greatest Living Writer. But inside Clara there had to be something burrowing into the pleasure of reading her own glowing obituaries, and that something must have been this knowing about her sister, Susan, but not knowing what to do about it.
Clara learned that Susan's children were all grown up and that she'd gone back to work as a "special." The detective discovered as well that when she worked she ate outside the hospital, in a Greek restaurant around the corner, a place called the Mercury.
Now, I see you're thinking that this story isn't that unusual when you consider how many times twins were separated in the old days. But what I'm going to tell you now is the part that makes you wonder how some people get away with things, scot-free.
You see, Clara had all these facts -- and she knew she'd soon be gone and still she didn't do what you and I might do: pick up the phone and call Susan. She didn't even write her a letter explaining the situation, giving Susan a chance to think about having a twin, to decide what she might do about it. Knowing Clara, that letter would have been a masterpiece, even if she hadn't been strong enough to write it herself but had to get someone to take down her words. Clara was a powerful talker when her feelings were aroused. A letter would have left it up to Susan, whether to meet her twin or not, which, it seems to me, would have been fair, don't you think?
But Clara didn't do any of that -- didn't call, didn't send a letter. No, instead she asked her detective to drive her to Guelph so she could wait in the Mercury for her sister to appear. I don't believe anybody can say for certain what happened in that restaurant or why things happened the way they did. I've been through it all a million times, imagining what the place was like, what Clara did, and Susan. All I know for sure is that Clara had sent her detective away, that she was alone. I imagine she'd want a dark place to sit, sort of out of the way, where she could watch Susan without Susan seeing her. And she probably didn't eat anything, a cup of clear tea maybe, and a pack of cigarettes -- she'd have to have those.
Then I see the door opening. It's Susan. She stops just inside the entrance. She feels uneasy the way you do when you think someone is watching you but you don't know who it is or what they want. I see her wearing white nylons and shoes with rubber soles. She clutches a little white handbag and sets out, hardly making a sound, across the room. She sits down at her usual table and looks without seeing at the menu. She always orders the same thing anyway. Then she becomes aware of an intense-looking woman in a blue turban sitting at the back table, lighting one cigarette off the tip of the last one, dropping ashes into the half-filled teacup in front of her.
Without meaning to, the two women look right at one another. Susan is startled. She thinks she's looking at her own daughter tossed into old age by some sort of time machine. And that smell, the unmistakable smell, like buttermilk, of someone who's rotting inside. Susan wants to get up and leave but they know her here and she doesn't want to make a fuss.
And Clara? What does she see? An overweight, middle-aged woman, her hair the sort of burnished colour ladies take on when they try to look young. And her clothes -- they have no money, the Farringtons, and three children, grown but probably always needing one thing or another. Susan's wearing something sensible, a good polyester print with a covered belt, easy to wash, sleeves cut off above the elbows. Or maybe she's wearing her nurse's uniform, tired from too many washes. When Susan turns sideways there's this funny bump on her nose, and even in this light Clara can see her eyes, their eyes, in that peculiar shade of blue that sometimes looks yellow.
The waitress comes over to Clara and, asks if she'd like more tea. Clara shakes her head, not trusting her own voice. Susan's eating quickly, but the owner's wife comes and sits at her table for a chat. They talk about small-town things, the Kiwanis festival say, or the weather, or something funny the owner's little boy said, and Clara hears Susan laugh for the first time -- and it's her laugh, her own famous, laugh, filling the room, only she hasn't laughed.
Still Clara doesn't move. Oh, she could move, all right, could walk over to Susan's table, it wasn't that far. Or she could have knocked one of her canes to the floor, or spilled her tea; Susan, a nurse, after all, would've come over in a flash.
The owner's wife gets up and takes Susan's money to the cash register. Susan isn't laughing any more. The smile has gone from her face. She appears to examine her own bitten cuticles, but the way I see it, she's really thinking about that lady in the corner, "One month. Two at the most. That's all the poor thing has left. I wonder how old she is anyway."
Susan's on her feet, moving towards the door and Clara, who has let her cigarette burn out, strikes another match. Then everything is quiet.
Clara died during that hot spell in the middle of August. She didn't want a funeral but had asked that her ashes be scattered from a plane some place in British Columbia. It surprised me at the time, I must say, but not as much as the story about Clara and her twin.
When I heard there was going to be a big dedication ceremony on the anniversary of her death, I had to go. They were putting a plaque on the Clara Shipley Library. You probably read about it in the paper -- speeches by her friends, funny stories because they said she'd have wanted it that way. There was a tribute from the prime minister, and messages from writers all over the world saying how much Clara meant to them. There was one from this fellow in Australia, the one I met when I was there for the gerontology conference, the one who told me this story in the first place.
I brought Nancy with me. She's heard the story so many times she almost feels she knew Clara, which she didn't. We wanted to see if there was someone there who reminded us at all of Clara. Nancy sat on one side and I sat on the other, both of us doing a good deal of looking up and down. When the ceremony was over we stood around a while longer in the lobby, but there wasn't anyone who even came close to looking like Clara. I guess that Clara didn't mention Susan in her will, which would have been the last possible chance for her to do the decent thing.
For who's to say that Susan didn't feel that same emptiness, that same nagging sense of loss, that Clara felt? I mean, twins do share a lot of the same feelings even if one is a great writer and the other one's just a nurse. That's what all these studies prove, isn't it? What right, I keep thinking, did Clara have to take her secret to the grave, to just sit there thinking up reasons why that poor sister should never know the truth, ever? What gave her that right?
Oh, some people I tell the story to say Clara must have looked so wasted she just wouldn't face her sister, that she'd had her pride, after all, and it certainly was too bad for both of them that they didn't have a chance to meet earlier. They say the timing was bad. Well, I say what about a letter that could have been delivered after she was dead and gone, what about that? You don't have to look your best to send a letter, do you, or leave a little something in your will to a person who just happens to be your sister -- your twin!
I think it was all those years as a writer, Clara making up characters just the way she wanted them to be, getting them to do this or that, just as she pleased. But she never, not for years and years, not since she left the reverend's, had power over a real person, until Susan.
I know, I know, I shouldn't get so upset. It's only a story, and some of it might not even be true. But if you'd known Clara even a little the way I knew her, you'd know there always was a mean streak under all that good humour and big spirit. But the people who praise her to the skies, they won't hear a word spoken against her. Not a single word.
I've thought about taking things into my own hands and going to visit Susan myself. I'd be willing to do a bit of lying, to tell her that Clara asked me to visit her, that she really wanted to herself but time just ran out. I'd hope she wouldn't remember that lady in the restaurant -- maybe she never even saw her -- because I wouldn't mention that part at all. Never.
How would I go about it? Well, it wouldn't be hard finding out where she lived, Charles and Susan Farrington, somewhere in Guelph. Probably on a street named Maple or Princess. I could drive there on the weekend. I'd call first to make sure Susan was home, and then hang up. I'd take along Clara's books and some of the stories people wrote about her. I'd carry them in a big bag and walk right up the front steps and ring the bell. Susan would answer and there she'd be, wiping her hands on her apron. "Yes?" she'd say, sort of carefully, and I'd say, "You don't know me but..." and I'd tell her this story, fixing it up a bit here and there so Susan wouldn't feel so badly about her twin, just sorry that she didn't have a chance to meet her in person. But she'd have the books, and even if she'd read them before she'd be reading them in a different way now that she knew who wrote them. Yes, I think I will do that. And then there will be a proper ending to this story, and I won't have to worry over it any more. I'll just say, "You don't know me but..." and a whole new story will begin.