I don’t like my brother Danny. When we were children he always wanted to be the senior twin, the boss. He’d decide what games to play. He’d be the striker and I’d be in goals.
But he is better than me in lots of ways. If we tangled he would put me down. But then as a dancer he trains a lot. And he is clever with words. He writes ad copy for alternative medicines and press releases for a wee publishing house he runs on the side, turning out nonsense books on knowing yourself and keeping your bowels regular.
I bristle like an angry dog when he comes near. We should try and get on. He said he had a plan and I said I would listen.
“We’ll swap wives.”
We had met for lunch in Greens and Things. He had ordered a bulgar salad with yogurt and I had settled for imitation sausages made of celery and aduki beans. And he had waited until my mouth was full.
Twins know each others bodies like their own. That’s one of the most annoying things. I look at the way he rubs his nose and it is my way of rubbing mine.
“And you think they’d agree to that?”
I should have killed the idea.
Instead, I was thinking about his wife, Joanne. There is something that happens when you meet your twin’s wife. She looks at you as if she knows what you are like in bed. Imelda looks at Danny the same way. We have talked about it.
She said once, “I wonder if he makes the same noises you do when he comes. He does when he’s eating or when he coughs.”
“I’ve never seen him come”, I say.
“And you have to wonder if twins are attracted to the same kind of woman. Is Joanne like me in bed? We’re about the same build.”
“She has bigger tits.”
“Would you prefer it if I had bigger tits?”
But now Danny was looking me straight in the eye as if he was selling something. “Why do men get jealous about their wives sleeping with another man? Psychologically, the other man has come into the marriage bed. But we are not like other men.”
“No. We shared a womb and a mother’s breast and we grew up like pups in the one litter. I want us to love each other again the way we did when we were little boys.”
Now he was making me squirm.
“Have you put this to Joanne?”
“She didn’t say yes and she didn’t say no. I think if she was relaxed and enjoying a glass of wine with you and knew that I would never call her out on it – and I wouldn’t: I think she’d fuck your brains out.”
“Afterwards, we’d go back to the way we are. No recriminations. This is not about them anyway; it’s about us. But it suits them too because of that wee bit of curiosity they have about the twin of the man they love and sleep with.”
Which left me feeling that I was the only one who was really against this idea. But that should have been enough to prevent it anyway. I wasn’t going to go home and tell Imelda I’d like her to sleep with my brother? Wife swapping is wife swapping. It’s about sex. Couples who are bored with each other agree new parameters. But I wasn’t bored with Imelda. She wasn’t bored with me. Was she?
“I’ve been talking to Danny”, she said.
“He said you didn’t say yes and you didn’t say no.”
“Well then I didn’t make myself clear enough.”
“He knows how you think. He’s your twin.”
“Well, tell me”, she said, “what do you think?”
“I think we are in a marriage that is exclusive to the two of us.”
Maybe she didn’t think that was a strong enough declaration of my love for her. Maybe I should have sneered at Joanne, mentioned how annoying she is. But I’d said what I’d said.
She said, “I think he has a point.”
I felt the ground moving under me. And yet I’d just been given permission to shag Joanne, and that prospect started looming larger in my imagination.
“Joanne feels it about you the way I feel about Danny, as if we are already intimate. It would not feel like infidelity to sleep with Danny. It just wouldn’t.”
“But wouldn’t you feel it was infidelity for me to sleep with Joanne. She’s not your twin.”
“In a way maybe she is; she is another woman who loves exactly what I love in a man.”
“This is the sort of thing that breaks marriages. What if you got pregnant by him?”
“Even that wouldn’t matter; his genes are no different from yours. You wouldn’t be able to tell whether it was his or yours, not even with a blood test. But if you are that worried, darling, let the thought pass. We’ll do nothing about it.”
And then I went into the kitchen and started chopping vegetables and she went upstairs to write an article about love and the home.
So how then did something that we had agreed would not happen come to seem inevitable?
I got an email from Joanne that night.
‘What do you think of Danny’s big idea?’
‘I think it isn’t going to happen. Sorry.’
Why did I say sorry? I suppose, because I was taking on trust that she wanted it to happen. But whatever she wanted, she would read that as regret on my part – so she’d think I wanted it to happen?
‘He thinks it would be good for his relationship with you.’
‘It could pull us all together or it could tear us all apart.’
‘But there is something wrong, isn’t there?’
‘Some twins keep what they had as children, can go on sleeping and bathing together as adults, are closer to each other than to their partners; some don’t even need partners; they have each other. You wonder if it is incest, even. Other twins just go off each other. That’s what happened to Danny and me. It’s part of becoming an individual.’
‘But what if you have lost something precious? I see you both as nearly the same person. It seems weird that you wouldn’t be close.’
‘That’s what Imelda says, that it wouldn’t be like infidelity for her to sleep with him.’
‘I would love to sleep with you’, she wrote.
And from there, in my mind, it all became about the question of whether I would sleep with Joanne and whether the risk of losing a bit of Imelda was a fair price to pay. It was nothing at all to do with Danny.
That night in bed I turned to Imelda and said, “Why don’t you just admit that you fancy Danny. There is something you see in him that you don’t see in me.”
She kissed me on the lips. She said, “There is nothing I see in him that I don’t see in you. That’s what this is all about.”
And she made love to me that night in the reassuring way she does sometimes when she wants me to be at ease and content and takes nothing for herself. But lovemaking is lovemaking and you always feel better, whatever subtle messages are implied in the manner of it.
When Joanne suggested that we all have a joint birthday party for me and Danny, no one demurred. We would go to a country house hotel in Ireland. I think she wanted it as far as possible from home to avoid the risk of our meeting anyone who knew us.
Imelda and I did not discuss Danny’s wife-swapping plan. If we had done we could have killed it. By staying silent on it we were keeping alive the prospect of a sexual adventure, whether we admitted that fact or not.
On the day before our birthday, Imelda and I flew to Dublin and hired a car there and drove five hours to Donegal. The hotel was beside Lough Eske. It was an old Irish mansion house run by an English couple who had restored it according to their notions of how the Irish gentry had lived. It was beautiful. The menu included vegetarian dishes I had never heard of, so it would suit Danny.
Imelda and I unpacked in a large bedroom with a four poster bed and sash windows that opened out onto the gardens and a car park at the front. Imelda inspected the bathroom and approved the brass taps and ran the hot water. She was settled in her suds when we heard Danny and Joanne arrive below our window.
“I think we should be honest with each other”, she said.
“I’m sorry?” She was lying back gloriously naked. Usually when she had a bath I would make an excuse to go into the bathroom and see her. I had never tired of eyeing her all over.
“You want to have sex with Joanne and I want to have sex with Danny. We can do that if we agree.”
“No, Imelda. We can have our fantasies but this is too dangerous.”
“Well, I don’t think so and you have my permission to sleep with Joanne, and if you do, I will go with Danny. It will be your call. But if I see you move on Joanne, that’s my permission. And seriously, there will be no come back on it. I’ll never hold it against you.”
“And would this be the start of an affair with Danny? Is that how you see it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you discussed this with him? Have you already slept with him?”
“No”, she said, and I accepted that she was telling me the truth.
I could hardly believe what we were discussing and I was torn apart, frantic with anxiety at losing her yet, to be honest, fascinated by the prospect of having permission to have sex with Joanne, from herself, from her husband and from my own wife.
“It’s your birthday. Think of it as a birthday present”, said Imelda. “Now, give me a big kiss.”
She stepped out of the bath and I towelled her dry and got hugely aroused and dragged her laughing to the big bed where I stripped off my own clothes and took hold of her, where I had to tongue her first because the bathwater had washed away her oil, and she smelt like the sea, where having sex with her felt like mischief too. She laughed at the end of it. “You see, we are made for each other. I have no fear of losing you.”
Danny texted to say he would see us in the bar and we dressed and went down about an hour later.
He was at a small table in a corner with Joanne. She looked terribly beautiful and I studied her as we walked towards them. She was wearing a low cut navy dress and her breasts were clearly much bigger and smoother than Imelda’s. She rose from her seat and kissed Imelda then kissed me, briefly but directly onto the lips. She had such a soft mouth.
Danny smiled and hugged me. “Happy birthday, Bro”, he said. “Three score and ten between us now. We should know better.” And he laughed. “Drink?”
We sat down and Imelda told Joanne how beautiful she looked and Joanne said it was great to get away and that they never saw enough of each other. Imelda said she had been in Donegal when she was a student and would like to explore some of the places she had seen then.
“It would be lovely to go to the coast”, said Joanne.
Danny and Joanne seemed to be very intimate with each other. Joanne would often reach across and give him a nice squeeze on the arm and a smile. When she got up to brush past him to go to the loo she bent over and gave him a little kiss. Imelda picked up her bag and went with her.
“Women always do that”, said Danny. “Go to the loo together.”
To me he looked a bit tense. When we were children I would immediately start crying if he was crying. It was as if we drew on the same pool of emotion. I never had to ask him how he felt.
“Joanne has never been to Ireland”, he said. “I think she expected to see more donkeys.”
And we laughed. This is what we were good at, joking to move the focus away from the things that were really on our minds.
A waiter brought the menus and we perused them to hide from each other and when the women came back laughing and in high spirits we drew them into a discussion about whether to go for the lamb or the salmon. Danny ordered a broccoli quiche. Imelda and Joanne discussed the wine.
The momentum of our combined desires, however confused, was taking us into a big experiment. I never felt I had the power or even the very strong desire to stop this happening but in theory I had. But on that first night we were all tired from the journey and the birthdays were not till the next day, anyway.
Better to save any plunge for the end of the holiday and then dash for cover to think about what we had done.
No one showed any impatience.
“Do you know there were signs in the sky the night we were born?” said Danny.
Both women knew the story that our birthday coincided with the shooting stars of August, the Perseids.
“Every year we go out to try and see them and we never do”, said Imelda.
“But”, I said, “you’ll never see a clearer sky than here.”
So we took up our drinks after dinner and went out to the garden and walked along the road away from the lights. I walked with Imelda, Joanne walked with Danny. They were laughing and at one point she stopped to take off her shoe and check the sole and put it back on again.
Soon it was completely dark. We could hardly see each other and our voices dropped to an almost reverential whisper as we looked up at an extravagance of stars such as I had barely imagined. The Milky Way looked like cloud from there.
Imelda took my hand and squeezed it. “Who’ll see the first one?” said Joanne. “Oh there” and I caught sight of it, just like a large silvery star gliding across the sky and disappearing.
“There’s another”, said Imelda.
Danny said, “The waning moon will be up in an hour and then just that small amount of light will be enough to make most of this invisible.”
“Really”, said Joanne.
We stood in silence and watched shooting stars for about ten minutes, hugging closer to our partners as the chill seeped into us.
“Actually, I think I am exhausted”, said Imelda, and we turned and worked our way down the road and through the gate and across the dewey grass to the back entrance to the house, and I gave Joanne a little kiss and a squeeze and Danny did exactly the same with Imelda and we all went to our own rooms.
Imelda was almost asleep on her feet now. She flopped onto the bed and, as often in the past, I took off her shoes and helped her undress. This was a game we played. She wasn’t drunk, just indulging the sense of being a floppy dead weight in need of care and cosseting. It was a way of closing the day without passing judgement on it.
I drew the duvet over her when she was naked and she lay curled and still. Then she sat bolt upright. “Teeth! I forgot to brush my teeth.”
I would sleep better if I blanked out all thoughts from my own mind of the risks we were taking. Better still would have been to announce flatly that I was refusing to go along with it but the resolve to do that never framed itself.
I didn’t believe at all that this idea of swapping wives with my twin brother would bring us closer together. Yet when I visualised him having sex with Imelda there was something intriguing about the image. I dared myself to see the whole thing plainly, her clenching tight to him, sucking him even, wondering if I could be neutral about them giving everything to each other for an hour and instead of being able to contemplate this blithely, as I had hoped, I was, in fact, a little thrilled.
And what was that about? Danger?
Would I have felt the same way at the thought of any other man taking her? I lay in bed and set myself the exercise of imagining other men we knew, ploughing into her, slavering over her, and I found it all repulsive and scary.
Over breakfast, Danny suggested we drive up the coast and go for a walk on one of the nice beaches. We studied the map and picked a little town called Glencolumbcille. We went in our car, with Imelda in the front beside me and Joanne and Danny in the back.
We passed through the port of Killybegs, which stank of fish oil. The air was filled with the shrieking of panicked gulls. Beyond the town we were following a beautiful meandering coastal road from bay to bay, the sea glittering below us. Several times we stopped by the side of the road to admire the view and take photographs.
Then once, after getting back into the car, Joanne was sitting beside me and Imelda was in the back with Danny. In the mirror I could see that her head was resting on his shoulder. I followed the scenic route along a narrow road where grass broke the tarmac in the middle and then when faced with a spectacular view of a wide stretch of sea, I stopped and sat still and said nothing.
Imelda was kissing Danny. Wasn’t she supposed to hold back until she saw me move on Joanne. Did she think she had seen me do that already? When? Had I been so transparent? I got out of the car. Joanne followed me. I walked round a corner and sat down on a rock.
“How do you feel about it now?” said Joanne.
“I hardly know what my feelings are”, I said.
She took my hand and said, “come with me.”
I said, “I didn’t think it would happen like this. I thought it would be tonight, perhaps, or not at all. That we might talk about it.”
We were on a little river bank. I kissed her and she opened her mouth and took in my tongue. I grasped one breast.
Then she said, “You know, I’m not going to shag you out here and get covered in mud.”
I squeezed her close and felt her thigh close against my cock. She would have known the state of it. I was suddenly almost dizzy with need for her. It seemed urgent that I match what Imelda was doing, not let her get ahead of me.
Joanna knelt down and unzipped the front of my trouser. “She reached in for me and pulled me out like a stick through a thicket. “It’s exactly like his”, she said. “It really is.”
And she stroked it a few times then took it into her mouth, glancing up at my eyes while I looked around to check we were not being seen. There was a cottage nearby with smoke from the chimney but no sign of anyone at the front of it. She stood again and I reached under her skirt and between her thighs, worked my fingers in under her knickers and felt fur and soft flesh and probed for heat and dampness. It was strange. My fingers expected her flesh to be familiar. She pulled away from me. “We are paying for a perfectly good bed. Save it”, she said. “Later.”
She kissed me briefly. “I will make it all up to you later.”
It took me a few moments to get my breathing steadied and my zip up over the bulge. She said, “Let’s give them a little longer then go back to the car.”
We sat and talked about simple things for a while – I hardly know what – the view, the smell of burning peat in the air, anything. Then I heard the car door open. Through a gap in the hedge I could see Imelda bend to reach under her skirt to adjust her underwear. She’d perhaps had her knickers off or got them entangled. “We can go now.”
No one said anything about what we had done. Danny and Imelda probably assumed that Joanne and I had had sex. I was like a crazy man; one moment panicking at the thought of my wife fucking my brother, the next almost frantic with desire for Joanne.
And, I was entitled to her now, like a penalty kick, for the deal had been made.
We reached Glencolumbcille and stopped for lunch in a pub. They were all cheerful. I suppose I was too, apart from burning with the kind of yearning that I used to have for a cigarette when I needed them.
And I knew that Danny could read me and would know that things weren’t so simple as that we had had each other’s wives and everything was now ok. He tried his charm, “There are no other people I would rather be with right now than you three. And there isn’t one of you I could bear to lose.”
I raised my glass of Guinness and drank to that. The women went to the loo together. Now Imelda would learn that I had grasped for Joanne but that she was making me wait.
From the pub we drove to a beach, Danny in the front beside me, the women in the back.
Imelda was saying, “There is a really gorgeous beach near here that we walked to from the hostel when I was here.”
We had a couple of rugs in the boot of the car and took them down the steep steps to the sand and spread them out. There were almost no other people there. I laboured to get my shoes and socks off and when I looked for a place on one of the rugs I saw that the two women were together on one of them and there was only room for me beside Danny who was stripped to the waist now and looking impressively fit.
I wasn’t sure about taking my shirt off. I was a little plumper, though I had managed to come down a few pounds for this holiday. I wanted to hear what the women were saying to each other but Danny slapped an arm round me and claimed me.
“Isn’t this perfect?’
He said, “I know you’re not convinced yet that we’re doing the right thing, but you’ll come round to it. What we are doing here is cementing a bond, something stronger than ordinary brotherhood and stronger than ordinary marriage.”
I could make out that the women were more comfortable with each other and laughing, in that way they have of making you think that they see through everybody. Neither of them seemed to be worrying that we could be tearing ourselves apart from each other.
Then, as I was trying to explain, exasperated, to Danny, that he was being much too simplistic, I noticed that Joanne was on her feet over us. I looked up and she was undressing.
She dropped her blouse and bra down onto the sand and then stepped out of her skirt and knickers. A body always seems to have a bit of history written on it when you see it for the first time, the marks of the straps and knicker elastic, the little stretches on the skin, the traces of faded tan. You can’t look at the crumpled darker flesh of a vagina, designed by nature to receive a man, and not think about the men who have been in there. You can’t look at the musculature of a woman’s legs without pity. This body was my part of the deal and my consolation when the day was over would be to snuffle there and then feel all over her with my hands and lips and tongue and take final refuge inside her.
“I’m going for a swim”, she said.
“Good for you, girl” said Danny, granting approval that hadn’t been asked for.
Then Danny was on his feet stepping out of his trousers and running, laughing after her, and I could have sat there with Imelda and together we might have mocked them and I might have recovered some way of being relaxed with her, but I said, “Shall we join in?”
“Well, I’ll look daft if you do and I don’t.” And she pulled off her clothes and shuffled off her knickers and ran down the beach after them and I was right behind her.
My wife has a lovely body. It is trimmer than Joanne’s and her breasts are smaller, but I like the tidiness of compact flesh and I have more faith in its health and vigour.
Joanne was standing in the water waving and laughing. “It’s bloody freezing.”
Danny came behind her and wrestled with her and pulled her down and she shrieked at him and jumped up and dashed at him to try and push him over.
I went slowly down into the water and swam around and Imelda stretched herself out and did a breast stroke ahead of me. She wasn’t looking for anyone to play with, just plodding about in the waves on her own.
After a time she stopped and stood with the water up to her waist and her wet hair plastered down over her shoulders and breasts. The others were behind me now. I took a playful notion and swam close to Imelda and tucked my head between her legs then raised her on my shoulders right out of the water.
“No, Danny! No.”
“It’s me”, I said.
“Well put me down, you clown.” And she slid down my body pressing hard against me in her efforts not to fall backwards.
“I didn’t hurt you, did I?”
“Of course not”, she said.
Danny had waded to the shore and was now doing some of his dance movements to warm up. Joanna walked over to us. She said, “You two are the image of each other, even with your clothes off. I want a man who won’t remind me of that pain in the arse every day in life.”
“So you’re going to leave him?”
Imelda was staring at Danny as he arched and kicked in the sand to music she couldn’t hear, as if she was seeing him for the first time.
“Was it good for you?”
“For God’s sake”, she said and walked away.
Joanne and I walked behind her.
“Your wife has a lovely bottom”, she said to me.
We had no towels so we all had to stand around, stretching to let the wind dry us. Danny suggested a jog up the beach but no one went with him. I was left there with two naked women, one of them my wife and one of them the lover whose pledge to me was evaporating.
“Take care you don’t burn in the sun”, said Imelda. “You know how you are prone to that.”
Joanne bent over to pick up her knickers and step into them as if she was indifferent to me.
Imelda whispered. “I didn’t think it would be like having sex with another man. I thought I was just taking you, more of you.”
I drove us all back and Imelda and I had a shower before dinner. We met the other two in the bar and ordered champagne and toasted the two of us for getting older. And after dinner we sat in deep chairs by a log fire and drank whiskey.
Danny said, “Today, I think was very special. Very lovely.”
Imelda left for bed first. She didn’t say who she hoped might join her there. We’d have to work that one out for ourselves.
Then Joanna kissed us both goodnight and it was just me and Danny.
“Do you know”, he said, “there is neither of them all that keen on this swapping game now but we could play a trick on them. When they were half asleep they wouldn’t know which one was with them. You could have Joanne and she’d think it was me anyway, and I’d never tell her. Go on. Be bold.”
I was torn between having what, right then, I wanted most or beating Danny for once.
“I’ve a better idea,” I said. “You go to Joanne and I’ll go to Imelda and we’ll trust them to know the difference.”
And I finished my drink and went to bed, and slept with my back turned to her, not sleeping well, despite the whiskey, biting my fist, cursing the fucker for having scored against me again.