By David Gardiner
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‘Come in, boy. Sit up there by the fire. Take that coat off. I’ll get you a cup of coffee. You look like a High School kid. How old are you?’
‘I’m twenty-eight, Ma’am.’
‘Twenty-eight. I don’t think I can rightly remember being twenty-eight. How did you hear about me?’
He made himself comfortable on the wicker armchair and balanced his briefcase carefully by its side before he replied.
‘Well, Ma’am, my grandfather died about two months ago and I inherited a lot of his stuff. He had a record collection – easily fifty, sixty years old, some of them – and when I looked through I found this one here.’ He withdrew it carefully from his briefcase. ‘It was recorded by a couple of local girls. It says they came from Redwood County, Vermont.’
He handed her the delicate old 78, which she slipped out of its faded paper jacket. She put on her glasses to read the label. He could see that it choked her up slightly. ‘You drove all the way up from Burlington because of this?’
‘It’s not all that far, Ma’am.’
‘Forty-six miles and a hundred-and-fifty years, we always used to say. I was born in this house, you know.’
‘Yes, I do know, Ma’am. I’ve been reading up a bit about the twins. I was surprised I’d never heard of you. You were pretty famous people… back then.’
‘Back then is right. And back then is a long time ago. What makes you think anybody’ll be interested now?’
‘Well, most folks are interested in local celebrities. Burlington – even the whole state of Vermont – doesn’t have all that many famous people to boast about.’
‘Famous people? Famous people are presidents and Nobel Prize winners and astronauts and film stars. We were never famous like that.’
‘Your records sold pretty well. You played the Grand Ol’ Opry. Got a bit of film work. Quite a lot of stage work. That’s famous enough for Vermont.’
She laughed. ‘The two easy roads to success – aim low or get yourself born in Vermont. Yeah, we done alright for a couple of country girls from out here. People used to ask us if we would’ve done so good if we hadn’t been twins. We used to say: How the hell would we know? It was a way of putting us down, really. Saying we had no talent, just looked cute. Anyway, who cares? Being twins was our gimmick, and if that’s what got us the bookings then thank the Lord for it. I ain’t going to look no gift horse in the mouth.’ She gave him back the record and went over to the wood-stove. ‘Here’s your coffee. Want a bit of stew? It’s all I’ve got.’
‘No thanks, Ma’am, I ate before I set out.’
‘Can we drop this “ma’am” thing? My name’s Tillie.’
‘Sure. Is that your real name?’
‘Are you kidding? Our agent gave us those names. Millie and Tillie. Millie really was Millie – her name was Millicent – but Tillie? Nothing like my real name. It was made up. I always resented that she got to keep her real name but I had to have a made-up one. Real name’s Theresa. At least it begins with “T”. I haven’t used it since I was about fifteen, so best call me Tillie or I may not know who you’re talking to.’
He nodded. ‘Is it okay if I take notes?’ He slid a spiral bound pad out of his briefcase as he spoke.
‘Sure. I’m glad it ain’t a tape recorder. Those things make me nervous as hell.’
‘Would you say that you and Millie were very close?’
‘Name me a set of twins that wasn’t. When we were little we were almost one person with two bodies. It never occurred to us to be selfish, or to keep secrets from one another, or to do anything on our own. There was us, and then there was the rest of the world. It’s something you probably can’t understand if you haven’t lived it.’
‘And did that closeness last for the whole of your lives?’
Tillie hesitated. ‘You want cream in that? I got some. Sugar maybe?’
He shook his head. There was a pause, but he wouldn’t be sidetracked. He waited for the answer.
‘No relationship of any kind stays the same for a whole lifetime. You’re too young to know that but you’ll find out.’ She sat down wearily at the kitchen table and rested her head in her hands. He couldn’t see her face any more so he came over and sat nearby. His reporter’s instinct told him to say nothing, simply wait.
‘We used to take advantage of people because nobody could tell us apart,’ she said quietly, not looking up. ‘I guess most identicals do. People used to think they could, but we could easily fool ‘em. Millie was a bit more shy and quiet than me, so if I wanted to be Millie I would act a bit more timid and everybody would be sure it was her. We used to play tricks on our beaus – maybe Millie would go out on a couple dates and then she’d tell me to have a go and I would go out on the next one pretending to be her, and tell her afterwards how we got on and what I thought of the guy. We never got caught out, not once. Well… maybe once.’ She hesitated. ‘You know, I don’t think I ought to be telling you this here stuff. This has nothing to do with our career.’
He sensed that he had struck a nerve. If he could find a way in he might have a story here. A real story. ‘You know, Tillie, a reporter doesn’t have to put everything in when he comes to write his piece. There’s an ethical code – sometimes we get told personal stuff that people don’t want to go any further. And it doesn’t. It’s as simple as that. If it did folks would stop trusting our profession, stop talking to us. So I want to give you my absolute assurance that you’ll have a chance to see whatever I write, and if there’s anything whatsoever that you’re not happy with then it doesn’t go in. Simple as that. That’s the way I work.’
She looked him straight in the eye but remained silent.
He closed the notebook and put away the pen, making sure that she saw him do it. ‘This is something you haven’t talked about before, isn’t it? I can tell. Sometimes it’s good to talk, you know. It’s a cliché but it happens to be true.’
‘It was in the early 1950s,’ she said in little more than a whisper, turning to watch the glow from the wood-stove, ‘all the guys were going off to the Korean War. If you volunteered you got a better posting than if you waited for the draft. America had never lost a war back then, it was all like a bit of fun. Couple months and it’ll be over, we all thought. Go in there, wipe ‘em out, come home heroes. We didn’t understand why we were fighting – didn’t care – it was a war, America was fighting it and so America must be right. Simple-minded times, eh?’ He nodded.
‘We were at the height of our career then. Those were the Grand Ol’ Opry days. And radio of course. Radio was big back then. Bigger than TV. We were good Republicans, like all our folks, like most people in Vermont. We volunteered to go out and entertain the troops. Us and a thousand like us. We thought it might be a little bit rough, didn’t know what to expect, but what we found out there scared the hell out of us. Young boys getting hauled into field hospitals with limbs hanging off. Bits of blown-up bodies that they couldn’t even identify. Trophy gook bodies cut up so that more than one guy could claim a kill. You think that only happened in Vietnam? That was invented in Korea. You’ve seen it all on MASH – but I’ve seen the real thing. That’s a bit different. And I was only about twenty-five. Younger than you are now. Hadn't even been overseas before.’
‘I know a little bit about it, Millie. My dad was in ‘Nam. I’ve been lucky, so far. My generation has been mostly lucky. Not the ones in the Middle East, of course…’
‘Well, you can imagine how it was, we were two young good-looking girls in amongst a few thousand combat troops, no chaperones, no holds barred. We had a pretty good time, romantically-speaking. I hope that doesn’t shock you. I know each generation thinks it invented sex. Not true, kid. Not true.’
She paused for a long time. He wondered if he should say something. His instinct told him that he shouldn't and it was right.
‘We were playing that little prank I told you about – switching roles, swapping dates, comparing notes, giggling about it all when we were on our own. Only…this time it went a bit too far. You see, there was somebody Millie really did care about. Somebody from near home, as it happened, quiet type, not much confidence, hated the war and what he had to do…
‘Millie and me – we didn’t understand anything really. About our own feelings, I mean. All our songs were about true love, betrayal, jealousy, broken hearts – but the truth is, we didn’t know a thing about that side of life. The only relationship we gave a damn about was the one between the two of us. Everything else was just a big game. We were two kids playing with matches in a barn full of dry hay.
‘Jace – that was his name – sent Millie a note to say that he’d got a new posting and he wouldn’t be able to see her after tonight. I happened to know she wouldn’t be around that night, but I guess she would've cancelled whatever it was she was doing to see Jace. Anyway I didn’t tell her. I went in her place. Jace was pretty keen. Things got a bit physical. Jace and me went all the way. I know Millie and him had never done that. Like I said, we always told each other everything. Or at least we did up to then.’
‘So that was the first secret you’d ever had from Millie?’
‘Guess so. And it was a pretty stupid one to try to keep. As soon as he wrote her from his new posting she found out what had happened. I’d betrayed her and that would have changed everything even if there had never been anything else.’
‘But something else did happen, didn’t it?’
Tillie sat back in her chair and sighed. ‘You can probably guess what it was.’
‘You got pregnant?’
She smiled. ‘No, we weren’t that stupid.’ The smile vanished. ‘Something worse. Her next letter got returned. Soldier boy Jace had got himself killed in action. He only lived a few days after… Well, let’s talk about something a bit more cheerful, can we?’
There was a longish pause.
‘You didn’t stop working together though, did you?’
‘No, of course not. That was our living. The only thing we knew. We stayed together for years after that. But something had gone out of the act, you know what I mean? That closeness that you talked about, that was what made the act special. Just looking like a pair of bookends wasn’t enough. People knew something was wrong, something had died. Our career went down after that. Quite slowly, thank the Lord. We had time to ease ourselves out of the music business. If things had gone different we might still be together now – like the Beverley Sisters. Must be ninety if they’re a day. I even tried to go solo for a little while. Now that was a mighty stupid move. Millie got out of the business – moved down south somewhere.’
There was really only one question left to ask. He wondered if he should – if he even wanted to know the answer. ‘What happened to Millie?’
The colour drained from Tillie’s face. ‘You mean you don’t know? I thought you said you’d read up about us?’
He wriggled in his seat. ‘I didn’t find any reference to that,’ he said.
‘Millie swallowed a month’s supply of sleeping pills and washed them down with a bottle of Southern Comfort. Nobody knew how she got hold of either of them. She did it sitting on a bench at The Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington DC on July 27, 1995 – just after it was dedicated by President Clinton and Kim Young Sam. Nobody noticed that she was dead until the following morning.’
‘…People…didn’t even notice?’
‘I guess folks don’t pay too much heed to an old bag lady, out cold on a park bench with a bottle in her hand.
‘Now – is there anything else you would like to know?’