After I’d visited the kids’ home I thought things might have been simplified. I thought that it would be like the tipping point of a Sudoku and that, once that piece of her had been found, every other little mystery would reveal itself to me in an avalanche of effortless truths. The truth was that Iris was not a maths puzzle printed in a magazine. She was three-dimensional and ruthless. Iris was like climbing Everest; each peak proved not to be the summit but only to reveal how much further there was to go. She was an infinite length of loosed thread that I was trying to reel in. She relished in her ability to appear boundless although I was coming closer and closer to realising that she wasn’t. If she played by a rule book then it was one she had written for herself.
I even considered asking Bronwyn whether I was imagining it that a girl holding your hand in that way meant that she liked you because, since I’d left her in Llandrindod that Saturday, she had not condescended to act like she did. She had gusted into school on Monday without looking at me and spent the day avoiding us. She only spoke to me once, when I suggested I could walk to the bus stop with her.
“If you want,” she’d said, looking as though I was about as interesting as the mud she’d ground into the cracks of her converses. I decided that I didn’t really ‘want’ to walk beside a girl who’d just snubbed me and so turned back. It was only later that I considered that those three words may well have been another of her bloody tests and assessments but I could not discern whether or not I’d failed.
I actually got as far as calling my sister through from the kitchen.
“What is it?” She emerged irately, with a flour-dusted face and a dish cloth. Mum and Dad were at the village ‘Ping Pong Evening’ because it made them feel young and free and careless.
“Do you want a hand?” I asked thickly because the words I’d been planning to ask were lodged in my throat like I’d swallowed them by accident.
She looked surprised – which was not surprising given the infrequence with which I made such offers – and shrugged.
“Are you sure? I don’t want to-”
“It’s OK,” I stuffed my science book back into my school bag. “I know I’m crap at cooking but I can wash up or whatever,” I garbled, already regretting the offer I’d made but reluctant to drop out on my one sibling who lived a life that was worse than mine.
“Thanks,” she smiled a weary smile that crushed the bags under her eyes, “You’re being unusually helpful today.”
“Is that an insult or a compliment?” I asked and she shook her head.
“God knows.” She paused as we entered the kitchen. “One day I’ll work out which member of this family has done the best job at holding it together.” She picked up the dough she’d clearly been kneading and began slinging it against the kitchen surface. I looked on, overwhelmed by the awkwardness of her honesty. “And you know what, Gareth? I can’t even find anyone to nominate right now.”
“Don’t be,” she gestured towards the stack of soiled saucepans and I began to run some hot water. I hoped that turning the tap on to full blast might drown out some of my discomfort but it didn’t. “No one’s ever set you an example,” she seemed on the verge of breaking. My simplified sister was cracked over the dishes and I understood it. You could search our family for years and barely find a trace of sadism but, somehow, it had left us feeling like disappointed victims. Bron had gone to university once but had dropped out after one year because she’d lost track of the horizon. So she’d fallen back into the net of the countryside and had spent the next four years convincing herself that the set-up was only temporary. She was now no closer to finding her horizon after four years of attempted re-invention and had watched while two of her younger brothers surpassed everything she’d ever achieved. She dropped off our dad’s radar and had remained on Mum’s only because Mum and her propped up the business that drained her youth and motivation. She looked at me and I could read the pleas in her unspeaking lips: I loved cooking once but it’s only become a prison cell.
“Don’t be,” she repeated. “You know what, Gareth? I still remember that time when we all told you that you were messed up because of those damn flowers at the end of the garden and – I don’t know whether you even ever think about it anymore – it still makes me feel so damn bad.”
I had to look into the swirling washing-up liquid because her sadness was pulling me into shreds. Yes, I still remember. I still think about it. I still feel his disgust settled on me like muddying dust.
“Um, Bron,” I said after I’d cleared tomato remnants from one of the pans. “Have you ever known a- a fr- someone who you can’t figure out.”
“Maybe people aren’t math’s puzzles,” she said.
“Maybe you just have to nominate yourself, Bron.”
I didn’t mean to overhear the conversation but I was filling up my water bottle at the fountain outside our tutor base and they were in the classroom.
“We’re not suggesting anything,” Mr Thomas was saying. “We’re simply noting that perhaps this school is not what you needed, Lily, I’m sorry.”
My world seemed to hang in that half-second. My heart walked tip-toes, the breath halted in my clenching throat. Lily. She was Lily to everyone.
Iris burst from the room; doused in rage and terror.
If I’d had a little more sense I wouldn’t have spoken. I would have judged that she had been steadily filling with anger she could not remove and that the conversation I’d heard had force-fed her beyond her limit. I would have let her eyes colliding with mine and her small gasp be enough. I had, however, never been a sensible eavesdropper.
“They knew?” I spluttered, practically choking on my words. She ignored me and I followed – of course I did – like some ridiculous dog that couldn’t resist chasing her scent right the way to the truth at its centre.
“So they knew.” I repeated. “Did everyone know? Was it just me? Did you enjoy making me look stupid?”
“I hate you Gareth. Can you hear me? I hate you.” She spat the words over her shoulder, fighting her way through the layers of the school and out into the tennis courts. We were threading and weaving between the other kids.
Everyone else ceased to matter; I almost forgot that they were still enjoying their lunch break. Nothing was important apart from pinning Iris down and hoping that by holding her in my hand I could undo the bullet she’d let rain from her lips.
“Is it all a joke to make me look stupid?” I asked as I caught up with her by the wall that framed the courts. “Are Jac and Aaron in on it too?”
“You haven’t got a clue, have you? No freakin’ idea?” Her voice was, on the surface, erupting with loathing but underneath there just seemed to be this hollow disappointment. Like Miss Diagon when I couldn’t answer her questions; like I’d failed her in some way. She flung herself down on the wall and, for once, I looked down on her. Finally elevated. Finally, finally, exercising some sort of control.
“No, I haven’t; no freakin’ idea why you’re so mad at me when I’m the one who should be mad. You know why? Cos you never tell me; everything you tell me is just lies on lies on lies. You’re so freakin’ fake!”
She stood up suddenly and her fist clenched round the shoulder of my coat. “Don’t you dare,” she hissed directly into my left ear. “Don’t you fucking dare tell me I’m fake.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” I retorted, pushing her off me. “What was it you said? Putting on all that eye make-up to hide yourself. You were trying to be fake!”
She was like a switch – anger snapping faultily on and off – suddenly back to that empty sadness. Like her pale skin was just an eggshell from which the egg had been leaked. I imagined her cracking on touch.
“You think your life sucks because you’re not a daddy’s boy and because I feed you lies like you’re starving hungry; well guess what buddy? Your life doesn’t even come close to sucking. You’re just some sheltered, clueless, middle-class boy who thinks that it hurts to be bad at playing football. Grow up.”
It hurt when she said it; it was meant to, of course.
“Haven’t you remembered me yet, you sheltered brat?” She hissed with her face suddenly back close up to mine; the wrong kind of close. The millimetres between my skin and her fuming lips seemed to be crackling and it felt like, if pushed any tighter, the space would explode. “Did you forget Lily Madoc?”
“Hell’s that s’posed to mean?”
“Remember? Course you don’t, you were too busy crying about being dumber than your brothers. Remember Lily Madoc?”
“I thought you were Lily Madoc; don’t tell me that’s another bloody lie-”
“Don’t worry darling, I know how it feels; no one’s been lied to as much as I have. I was Lili Madoc but Lili Madoc was, officially speaking, murdered eight years ago.” Her voice was screaming through my head and telling me things that were impossible until all the words just became tangled noise that I couldn’t decipher.
“Iris, Lili, whatever you are – please just calm down.”
“Funny, that’s what they always told me,” her upper lip curled into a sardonic mockery of a smile as she spoke. “Whatever, not whoever… calm down.” Her lips started to shake. “Like if they told me to calm down enough times; they’d undo how mum got angry.”
I was so confused, so damn confused. “Is it so hard for you to just tell me the truth – the whole truth – for once?” I asked.
“You probably remember my mum actually, even if you don’t remember me,” she sighed and her head fell into her hands and didn’t lift up. “Does the name Rhona Madoc ring any bells?”
And she was right because it did. She was right because we’d all heard of Rhona Madoc… Lili Madoc… Oh God, oh no.
“Yes, that’s right,” she said grimly. Her eyes hadn’t lifted from the ground she was watching between her fingers. Her teeth were grinding her bottom lip.
“But – but Lili Madoc’s dead,” I breathed; my forehead a jumble of creases and concerns.
“That’s what I said a minute ago. I had a twin sister – Mai – and we got conceived in a wardrobe, probably, something like that. She didn’t have an abortion; you know what? I wish she had, I really do because then we’d both be dead. I don’t know why she didn’t because she never liked having kids to look after – she decided not to bother looking after us. Sometimes she’d get smashed and then she’d be pissed off but most of the time she was just pissed off anyway. I don’t think the drinking really made it any worse. One time, we’re at school and Mai says something true and stupid like: Mummy don’t give us no dinner – she says there’s fags in the cupboard and that’s ‘nuff for her.”
I couldn’t even tell if she was crying because she just kept on staring at that same bit of ground. I felt sick.
“How old were you?”
“Seven.” She paused to gather herself. “Anyway, a little girl tells her mummy what Mai said and then her mum’s ringing our mum and having a go at her; threatening the council and social services and stuff… Mum denies it of course. She hangs up on this woman and goes berserk.”
I knew what was coming next – Oh God, I knew too well. I pressed my temples hard between my hands like I could squash all her words out of my head if I only pushed enough. Everyone knew those horror story child-abuse cases but they were just that – horror stories – they weren’t the girl who offers you fags, the girl you fall in love with.
“She started hitting me over and over again with the phone and with her hands and with her high heels… Mai was ‘cross the room but I was just the one close enough to be hittable… so then I said… I said-” her voice trembled and broke off, empty and unfinished. Deep breath. “I pointed at Mai and said it was her fault and that she was the one who said all that stuff. Mum let go of me and was hitting Mai’s head against the door frame again and again and again, again.”
Iris’ white-blonde head was rocking forward and back like she was remembering the endless stream of collisions. I didn’t want to listen to her but I couldn’t avoid it.
“Mai kept crying and I was telling her to shut up ‘coz I knew that that was what made Mum most angry of all. She always hated it when we cried. Said we were just selfish – why couldn’t we be happy with everything she’d done for us? Even though she did fuck all for us. Mai wouldn’t stop crying and I was telling her to be quiet and Mum just kept on hitting her ‘til there was nothing left to hit… I went upstairs and sat on Mai’s bed and hugged Mai’s teddy and so when mum came in later she looked at me and thought I was Mai. When she started the appeal saying her daughter was missing, she thought it was me who she’d dumped in the local building site. She was kind of clever, not clever enough to get away with it, but clever enough to see that a bashed up body of a little kid wouldn’t look too unbelievable on a building site. When she got arrested she was charged with murdering me – Lili Madoc.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“It was my fault – I told on Mai.”
“It wasn’t your fault,” I said confident that I could at least be honest about that. How could a scared seven-year-old take the blame for the absolute evil of their mother?
“No.” I replied shortly and she looked relieved. I supposed maybe her order was some sort of test – how much of me can you bear because I need someone to share the load with?
“So then you went into a kids’ home?”
“Yeah, in Cardiff, I told my councillor that my mum had been wrong and that I was Lili but I don’t know if they believed me. I think they thought I was just pretending and trying to keep the dead alive by reversing the roles. They worked out that I was right eventually but it didn’t seem to make any difference to anyone because we were identical twins – just two sides of the same coin – and mum had still murdered her daughter. What did it matter? It was only the identity of an unidentifiable twin. Everyone knew who I was and I hated it because I didn’t want to be who I was. I wanted to be a normal kid. I moved schools a lot and then I moved homes to a new place in Llandrindod. I asked them if I could change my name and they arranged it for me so that I’d be put down as Iris Deecan on all my new documents. Of course all my teachers and that were told but at least it gave me something to hide behind. I went to the secondary school there and that was OK until the truth all kind of leaked out. It’s true, I fucked up my maths teacher’s car, but only because I wanted to get out of the school. I had to do something really radical to be sent away forever because when you’re a screwed-up kid like me; the worse you act the more lenient their reactions become until you practically have to beg to be chucked out. I came here because it was isolated and small and no one could find out the truth. And then you kept pulling away at me and all my lies and so I realised. I realised that I tried so hard to be unrecognisable that I wasn’t even real anymore… I’m sorry I never told you; I just wanted you to think I was normal. Is that so wrong? God what’s so fucking wrong with wanting to be normal? I’m so sorry. I’m so goddamned sorry to so many people.”
Then she started to cry and she fell against me; thin shoulders shaking as she howled silently.
We sat, tumbled up together on the concrete of the wall until the world had stopped beating so hard on our skulls and until the sun was long gone and until her body wasn’t trembling anymore. Then she uncurled the scarf that was always on her wrist and pulled away at all the wrist bands, pulling harder and harder until it was all ripping from under her fingers and she was breathing hard and fast.
Her skin looked even paler than normal, emerging from its cocoon, and it was criss-crossed with humped and twisted scars which all spelt out the same three letter word.