Read by Claire Lacey
Did you ever hear the tale of the Weir twins? It was my mam who brought them into this world, back in 1900, when the old Queen were still alive. I were nowt but a lass myself, but Mam had already started taking me with her when the babbies came, to make up the hot water and to shout glad tidings to the dad, if he weren’t already half sozzled by the time baby’s head had crowned.
Of course, this time, what with it being Christmas Eve, it wasn’t just Mr Weir who were out at the pub, but Doctor Maury too. So when Mam shouted at me to run out and fetch the good doctor, I knew as I had a heck of a walk ahead of me, a mile and a half at least and that was before you even thought about the snow.
But I set off at quick speed, making out in the cold with nowt but a candle-lamp that quickly blew out at the first hint of a snowflake. By, but there weren’t roads then like there are now, I tell thee! Just cold, hard fields and me shoes with holes in the sole, but I made it to the Crown at last, though it felt fair like me hands were going to drop off.
The men surrounding Mr Weir all chuckled, and they slapped his back. “Well done, Fred!” called out one, who were fair worse for wear, “You’ll be a dad by Christmas Day. Tidings of comfort and joy to you both!”
But both Mr Weir and Doctor Maury were as close to grey as you’ve ever seen two men go, and they jumped up to follow me to the cottage, leaving their pints half-drunk behind them.
It were too late by the time they got home of course. Mrs Weir was lying ashen-faced on the bed, with one mealy-mouthed baby girl suckling at her breast and my mother cleaning dried blood from the cracked blue lips of the other.
Doctor Maury went straight over to her, took one look at the baby and shook his head. “It’s not me you’ll be wanting, Fred, but the parson,” he said.
Sylvie, they called the living twin, and Linnet, the little one they buried the morning after St Stephen’s Day. She were the smaller one, were Sylvie, and they worried she wouldn’t thrive, but Mam went every day with the swaddling cloths and the best chops she could find for Mrs Weir, and Sylvie grew strong, though she were always slight. There weren’t a little lad in t’ village who didn’t sigh after Sylvie Weir when she trotted past their cottage doors holding her mam’s hand, for she had fair hair that her mother let grow to her waist and the prettiest little rosebud mouth you’d ever saw.
But she were sly, were Sylvie, and the more her mam tried to wrap her up away from the world, the colder she became, and by the time she was six, she was the most uppity madam you could know. Oh, she wouldn’t talk to the likes of me! Never mind that I used to tell her when she was acting up at school that I were one of the first that’d held her and changed her wet napkin. She’d look up at me, bat her silly eyelashes and say “Oh, but Maudie, I don’t like to think of someone as ugly as you holding me! Those spots might be catching!”
Sylvie kept herself to herself. She’d often sit in the corner of the playground, mumbling what sounded almost like a different language, and sometimes you’d see her playing clapping games alone, her little hands stretched out as if someone were about to meet them. “My mother said I never should!” – that one was her favourite. If we ever asked her to play, her reply were always the same – “Oh no, me sister wouldn’t like that, you’d better leave us alone.”
So we left her to herself most of the time. She seemed quite happy in her own company – although Mam was always a little suspicious of her, and would cross herself in the old Catholic way when she saw her and Mrs Weir out running their errands together.
So grew up Sylvie Weir, and by the age of fourteen, she were as bonny a lass as has ever been seen in these parts at least, though still as strange as she had been as a child. She took quite often to going to visit little Linnet at the graveyard of St Julian’s, and I once saw her on a June morning sat next to Linnet’s grave, on the plot that was reserved for her mam, dad and her, speaking in a low, soft voice and running her fingers through the air as if she were stroking someone’s hair.
She stopped going to the churchyard though when Wilf Scarritt took a shine to her. He were seventeen, and had gone from being a right gawky thing to somehow filling out in both handsomeness and wit. I remember when she first stepped out with him, and we went from surprise to approval straight away, for they made a striking couple. And Sylvie Weir began talking to people, like ordinary folk do, just asking how their day had been or had they bought anything nice from market, as you do. There were a change in her that summer. The pair of them went everywhere hand in hand, and he weren’t afraid of teasing from the other lads that they’d seen him kissing her, or that he were too young to be going daft in the head over a girl. No, he loved Sylvie, although no one else but her mother had ever seemed able to before.
I remember that terrible day as though it were yesterday. The church bells had rang out sombrely that morning, and the Reverend had told us all in his most solemn voice that we was at war. It didn’t feel like war at first. It were sweltering that day, and I think most of us went down to the beck straight after church for a swim. But we were interrupted by a scream coming from down the path, and a cry: “You’re not going! We shan’t let you go, and if you do, we will smite you before the Germans do!”
Wilf stormed past us all, some of us stark naked waist-deep in the water, and Sylvie came running after him. “Please Wilf, please!” she were calling, “You said we were going to be married!” You could hear her wailing halfway home, and even though the sun hadn’t clouded over we all got out of the beck for it felt like none of us cared any more about swimming.
Wilf Scarritt went to France, of course. They all did – six of them from the village, reaped in one fell swoop to wear uniforms and cover us with glory. We didn’t see the war then with the horror we remember it with now.
Sylvie wilted while he were gone. She took to going to the churchyard again, every day, from sunrise till dusk, whispering to Linnet’s grave as if plotting something, and acting even more secretive than ever we’d known her. And she got so thin – there were nowt to pinch on her in the first place – that her lovely blonde hair started to drop out and you could see her collarbone jutting out from under her dress.
And then one day, she weren’t at the graveyard, and we didn’t see her again after that. Mam knocked on Mrs Weir’s door a couple of times to see if she could be of use, and once did she hear her reply hoarsely “It’d been better if you’d let her die with Linnet.”
But what with all the news coming in from France – three of our lads dead on one horrible day, I can still hear their mams wailing in the street – we all started to forget Sylvie Weir. But one evening, as I were watching Mam and Dad playing cards in the pub, in hobbled, on a pair of crutches, none other than Wilf Scarritt. He’d aged twenty years or so it seemed, his hair greying and his back stooped.
‘Wilf!’ called Mr Shetlock, the landlord, ‘No one said you were home on leave. Here, lad, have a pint.’
But Wilf turned to look at all of us, who by now were quiet, the rummy game forgotten. “I weren’t supposed to be. It’s Sylvie. She’s dead.”
Well, that knocked the wind out of my sails. I don’t mind saying I were never fond of her, but none of us wished her in the grave.
“Dead?” whispered Mr Shetlock. “Come on, Wilf. She can’t be. She weren’t even poorly, was she?”
“I assure you, Mr Shetlock, she’s quite dead. Died five days ago and we’ll be burying her tomorrow with Linnet, if you care to join us. Her mam wrote to tell me she was not long for the world, and I lied to the sergeant major, said I’d married her the week before we were posted out. We’re not scheduled to go over the top again for four weeks, so he said it weren’t no trouble for me to take leave for the funeral.” He spat the last sentence out as rueful as anything you’ve heard, hanging onto his pint like a drowning man.
“Do you believe in ghosts, Mr Shetlock?” he went on, “I only ask because I knew Sylvie had died before I got home. Y’see, Sylvie told me that she’d smite me if I went to France and left her. Only, I think she must have changed her mind.
“The day her mam’s letter came through, I were half-sleeping in my dug-out, next to the mess. Mess, that’s a word for what I were. Had gone over the top two days before, saw things no man should see. I won’t tell you now. Crying, I was, and I don’t mind telling you. One of the stretcher skivvies was shouting out the names of those of us who’d got letters that day. Anyway, I came out into the trench when he called my name, and there at the end of the row, was Sylvie. Oh, she seemed sad as anything, with a look in her eye that would break even your heart. She were staring straight at me and she shook her head, just once.
“And then, coming behind her to wrap her arms round her waist – Lord, but she were so thin – was another Sylvie, laughing and giggling, throwing her head back with joy. She didn’t look at me – just at my Sylvie, with something that almost seemed to me like hunger.
“I covered my eyes with the shock of it, but when I took my hands away, both were gone. And then, I knew. It weren’t two Sylvies, but two twins, with one come back for t’other. The skivvy didn’t even have to press the letter into my hands afore I knew she were dead.” Wilf began to weep as Mr Shetlock thrust another pint across the bar to him.
They did bury Sylvie Weir the next day, above the tiny coffin that had carried her sister. And her name doesn’t get spoken much in these parts, though some older folk might still cross themselves if they hear it. And Wilf Scarritt said till his dying day – for he lived, many years, though folk always said as he were queer in t’ head after – that he never forgot the Weir girls, and that he’d never marry another.
And that’s the last I can tell you of the Weir sisters, though some who still live in those parts say that if ever there’s a set of twins born, their mothers make them cross themselves as they pass that grave in the churchyard. There’s still snowdrops that bloom ‘neath the stone now, and they say that if you stand next to it on a June evening, in the gloaming, you might still hear on the breeze two girls laughing, two pairs of hands clapping together as they play a game ...
(c) Victoria Finan, 2017
By day, Victoria Finan works for charity PR in London, by night she dreams and writes of her Yorkshire homeland. She likes all things Victorian, gothic, ghostly and a little bit macabre and her greatest fear is still coming across the Woman in Black. Tonight is her Liars’ League debut.
Claire Lacey is a former member of the BBC English Repertory Company. Recent screen work includes Brief Encounters (ITV),feature film The Hippopotamus and sci-fi feature Game Day, opposite Stephen McGann; stage credits include Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, newly-widowed Helen in dark comedy Come Die With Me (The Vaults) and Gratiana in The Revenger’s Tragedy. She’s also an experienced voice-over artist