Rumours had swirled along the backseats for months that one of the girls was interested in me. She, Alexandra, always sat with her identical twin sister Victoria in the middle of the bus. Both had brightly polished shoes and a cute habit of biting their lips. They reserved their conversations for one another and rarely involved themselves in the type of romantic conspiracy that I, when not reading Commodore 64 magazines or tracing polygonal spaceships into the back of my exercise books, had become increasingly preoccupied with as I entered my thirteenth year.
The idea that Alexandra fancied me, as one would perhaps fancy a pheasant, was both curious and concerning. Most days, I filled the journey home with a pirated cassette of Green Day’s Dookie and Dark Horse comics about the fate of the starship Nostromo. There was a reason I hid my eyes behind long hair. Girls like Alexandra and Victoria weren’t attracted to boys like me. I was both happy with this and wished it were another way.
Girls like them lived in the bigger detached houses up the road, mansions with edged lawns, raked gravel turning circles, and gates that had stone balls on top of stone pillars. These girls kept ponies and had Barbour jackets. They carried hockey sticks and wore their messy, mousey hair in low ponytails. Their skirts were, like their vowels, long and flowing. They were unobtainable.
Like them, I went to a fee-paying, independent school. But I was there on an Assisted Place, a government subsidy to allow children from families with limited financial means to access elite education. Being allowed to occupy the learning institutions of their fathers and brothers put me in the same social class as Alexandra and Victoria, but culturally and financially, we came from different stock.
So, when one of the twins turned and waved at me from the driveway of their house, and I looked around and saw that I was the only kid left on the bus, it was inevitable that the question that came into my head as I slumped against the window was who, me?
The next day, after school, I was drifting around the village with friends. We’d been at school together years before, taught in Horsa huts, classrooms with concrete walls, asbestos roofs, and metal-framed windows that were never washed. Then I took a test that they didn’t, and we found ourselves separated, them to the local comprehensive, me to a Royal Grammar School with a chained library and a quadrangle from 1555.
Carl was tall for his age and usually uniformed in Adidas. We were sure his mother cut his hair by placing a bowl on his head and scissoring any strands of hair that dared to poke out. He never just walked somewhere, he was always either doing wheelies on a mountain bike of dubious origin or kicking something — a punctured football, an empty, crushed can of Skol. Louise was my next door neighbour, a year older, streetwise and networked, an introducer and confidante.
When I mentioned the rumours about Alexandra, their eyes lit up. Louise immediately suggested I show them the house. We walked up past the garage, the village club, and the old tannery, to where the road narrowed. As we approached, I pointed out the house. There was a Range Rover in the drive.
“It’s that one,” I said to Carl.
“Why don’t you go and see if she wants to come and hang out?”
“No way. I don’t think she’s into mountain bikes and throwing sticks in the river.”
“Go on. What’s the worse that could happen?”
“It’s worst. What’s the worst that could happen?”
“I don’t know. She might say yes?”
Louise gave me a look and, before I knew it, we were standing at a studded oak door. Carl rapped on it and leapt back down the steps, leaving me alone, waiting.
When the door creaked open, I saw a large man with red trousers and a checked shirt that was only partly tucked in. A hint of breathlessness. The twins’ father, surely.
“Yes? Can I help you?”
“Yeah, we were, I mean... I was just wondering whether Alexandra and Victoria were in?”
“And whom, may I ask, is enquiring?”
“Adam. I go on the same bus to school. As them. The twins.”
“Oh!” He stepped back to survey me, scanning me from head to toe. “So you’re Adam?”
“Unfortunately, the twins are not here at the moment,” her father continued. “I’m terribly sorry, but she has swimming club on Tuesdays. She’s a rather keen swimmer, you see.”
“Oh, OK. Well, actually, that’s fine,’ I said, backing down the steps.
“Wait a moment. Alexandra has told me all about you, Adam. Perhaps you would like to come in and leave her a note? Seeing as you’ve come all this way.”
My confidence ascended. Behind me, Louise and Carl were nodding and grinning, urging me to accept the invitation, to embark upon this uncertain mission.
“Can they come in too?” I said.
“Certainly. Though I trust no-one is afraid of dogs?"
Alexandra’s father opened the door fully and revealed a fawn-coloured Irish Wolfhound standing squarely three feet tall at the shoulder.
“That’s a dog?” I said.
Her father smiled and beckoned us inside.
We stepped over the threshold, past a heavy, red velvet curtain, and into a large hallway. A grand staircase with dark wooden bannisters stretched up to a mezzanine. Statuettes perched on sidetables and plinths. My shoes sank into the carpet.
“You can draft Alexandra a letter here at the bureau,” her father said, pointing to a small desk. He walked over to a green-shaded table lamp and pulled a small gold chain which illuminated the desk. He indicated that I was to sit. Inside a mahogany drawer was a fountain pen. He handed it to me. “One moment please. I must fetch some paper from the study.”
The wolfhound stood sentry at the desk. I took the lid off the pen. It had a gold nib.
“No fucking way,” Carl whispered. “Where are we, the Victorian age? What is this place?”
“Why do you need a club to go swimming?” said Louise.
“Forget that,” I said. “What am I supposed to write?”
“I dunno,” said Carl. “Anything. Make yourself seem like someone she would like.”
“Thanks. You’re a great help.”
Alexandra’s father returned from the bowels of the great mansion with a few sheets of creamy writing paper.
“Here we go,” he said cheerfully.
“No pressure. Take your time,” he said and positioned himself to look directly over my shoulder.
My mind went blank. With my left hand, I shielded the paper from his stare. With my right hand, cramping and uncertain, I wrote the first words that came into my head.
Dear Alexandra. I just called round to say hello. Hope you had a nice time swimming. Your dog is very big. See you on the bus. Yours sincerely, Adam.
I sat back, embarrassed by my own handwriting.
“Have you finished?” said Alexandra’s father.
“Excellent. If you give it to me, I’ll seal it in this envelope.” He pronounced it on-fe-loape, not envelope. “I’ll keep this away from prying eyes and deliver it myself, personally.”
“Okay,” I said. I pointed at the dog. “He’s not going to eat it, is he?”
Carl, Louise, and I laughed nervously and the next moment we were outside, blinking in the daylight.
The following day, Alexandra and Victoria got on at their usual stop. I was already on the bus, headed for home and sickeningly tense. Schoolchildren occupied almost every seat. The vehicle was busier than usual, packed with pupils from the town’s three independent single-sex schools, transported from a world of bunsen burners and arithmetic into a neverland of flirtation and consort. For those interested, it was the only opportunity to channel flourishing hormones into flustered liaisons with the opposite sex.
Everyone already knew about the letter and the Irish Wolfhound. On their way to finding a free seat, Alexandra and Victoria looked down the bus and we locked eyes. One of them submitted a sad sort of a smile and, for a brief moment, it seemed that we connected, if only through shared embarrassment. The twins shuffled to the last remaining seat in the middle of the bus and it took off.
As the bus picked up pace, reaching escape velocity along the wooded roads outside of town, friends on the back seat offered me reassurance that spiralled, firstly into a dare, and then into a direct, insisting challenge. Their excited conversations began to steam up the windows.
I stood up and breathed deeply. Someone gave me a forceful nudge in the back and I stumbled.
“He’s actually gonna do it,” said a voice above the din. “No way.”
I lurched down the aisle, gripping the back of each seat. The twins had not yet looked back. Heads either side of me swivelled, tracking, and voices faded into expectant static. The bus began its final climb into the hills — there were no bus stops here.
The twins had not seen me when I finally reached them, so I stood there mute, hanging on for dear life, cursing myself for not having thought of something to say.
I considered making small talk about her favourite swimming stroke, or feigning interest in Irish Wolfhounds. Make myself someone she would like. I thought about asking her if she had seen Aliens.
Time ran out. The twins were aware of my unannounced presence, both had turned in their seats. I decided to start with something simple: a greeting.
“Hello,” I said.
The bus continued to pick up speed as we passed the summit and plunged down into the valley along curved roads that arced through the countryside.
I am actually doing it.
“Hello,” they answered, in unison.
“I called round yesterday...”
“We know,” they said simultaneously, again.
How do they do that?
I narrowed my eyes, tried to seem both aloof and intense.
“I left a letter, with your—“
“Yes, we got it.”
At precisely this moment, whilst trying to summon up the courage to say what was next, to project enough confidence to ask Alexandra out, Alexandra with the ponytail and the cute bitten lip, Alexandra who goes to swimming club on Tuesday nights, Alexandra whose father already knew who I was, I realised something that endangered both my plan and my chances of ever getting on this bus again.
I didn’t know which of the identical twins was Alexandra.
I looked desperately for identifiers. My eyes darted to their collars - looking for a name tag, something poking out from the clothing - and then to their schoolbags for any hint: a good luck message written in marker pen, the tell of an exercise book with a name inked on the front in neat capital letters. Anything that would betray their identities to me. But the twins were identical and immaculately turned out. I could not tell them apart.
There’s only one way to proceed, I thought. Pick one.
I decided upon the closest twin and made first contact.
“So, I was wondering maybe, I mean, I don’t know of course, but I was wondering whether”—I gulp and blink at the same time—“you, well, I mean this is a weird thing to ask, and a weird place to ask it, right here, in front of this whole bus full of people, and I’m getting a bit nervous, would you look at that, but I was wanting to ask if”—I allow myself a brief pause for oxygen—“you would like to go out with me?”
Rain sliced across the windows. Dark forests closed in on all sides. Time dilated.
She is Alexandra, I can sense it. She has angled her body towards me, aligned our meridians. We share an orbit, ellipses overlaid.
“Me?” she said, the twin closest, the closest twin. “Are you asking me?”
Full commitment. Projection. Be someone she would like.
“Are you sure you don’t mean my sister?”
My fellow passengers drew a sharp breath through clenched teeth. The world was suddenly suspended in glycerin, slowed, highly unstable. Pupils from three schools bore silent witness to this implosion, this silent collapse.
Think, Adam, think.
“No,” I say. “I mean, yes. I mean… whichever?”
The entire bus roars and I die inside.
“Sorry?” said Victoria, for now it was clear that it was her.
Deny the mistake, turn error into intention. Double down.
“What I meant to say is would you both like to go out? With me and my friend?” I pointed back to mission control where my best friend was grinning maniacally with two thumbs up.
Confusion passed across Victoria’s face. She looked at me and then turned to Alexandra who had been listening in as I accidentally asked her sister out, the wrong identical twin, the one that did not, in fact, fancy me like a pheasant.
The twins looked at each other, wordlessly conferred, and turned back to me.
“OK,” they said.
“Wait, what? OK? OK, like... yes?”
“Yes. We would like that.”
I floated back to my seat at the back of the bus, beaming, gravity no longer a thing. Children applauded and rolled in their seats howling, having just witnessed a schoolboy travel towards the centre of a black hole, skirt its event horizon, look into its blackened mass, and return.
“What did she say?” asked my best friend.
“Yes,” I breathed. “They said yes!”
He cocked his head. “They?”
“Look, I need you to come with me on a date on Saturday. I couldn’t tell which was which—”
“—so I asked them both.”
“But you’ll know on Saturday, right?”
“You’ll know which one is Alexandra on Saturday?”
“Oh god.” The smile fell from my face. “I hadn't thought about that.”
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