She delivered us herself, at home – no midwife, no birth-partner. Like a bird hatching its young, she says, as if it was the most natural thing imaginable. It meant no-one could take us away from her. Connor was the first. Then me, Beth, about ten minutes later. Twins, our mother thought, assuming it was over. Then Aidan turned us into triplets.
Three babies, one mother, no father. Our family.
Aidan was the runt. Sorry, but he was. From the moment of his birth – in the womb, as well, I suppose – he was the smallest, weakest, frailest of the three of us. It was as though he’d been assembled from the scraps left over after our mother had made Connor and me. Not that my share amounted to much; but I’d fared better than my little brother. Let me say that I loved Aidan; please don’t think I didn’t. From the beginning, his was the hand mine grasped whenever the three of us were laid side by side on the big quilted playmat. His was the ear or cheek I would suckle at, mistaking his tiny head for a breast. When he was hungry, which he always was, I’d let him suck my fingers for want of anything else.
‘It was like the two of you was joined,’ Mother has told me. Conjoined, she means. ‘If you wouldn’t sleep, all I had to do was put Aidan in the cot with you and you’d snuggle up and be off in no time.’
I realise that makes our mother sound normal. She wasn’t, isn’t. But we had no notion of it at the time. She was our only example of motherhood.
The only person we ever saw, for that matter.
Her first problem was this: three babies to feed and only two breasts. (She tried bottle-feeding but none of us would take it, not even Connor.) Connor was the second problem. From the start, our older brother was brawnier and noisier than Aidan and me put together; he cried the loudest and longest, squirmed about the most, flapped his arms and legs more vigorously, clamped on tighter and sucked harder and for longer. If there was any milk going, Connor’s clamouring ensured he had the first helping. Once he was latched on, there was no shifting him till he’d drunk his fill, and then some. So our mother would position him on one side while Aidan and I took turns to feed on the other. Even then, Connor wriggled and fussed, jerking his chubby limbs at whichever one of us happened to be there. It was as though he wanted to knock us off the other breast in case he needed it for himself. So Mother says. Of course, he was just a baby; a fidgety, boisterous, hungry baby. There was no malice in it.
I loved Connor, too, regardless of what you might think.
In those early weeks, the physical disparity between us became increasingly apparent. Connor, with all the milk he guzzled, grew bigger, fatter and stronger at a startling rate; he’d been a kilogram heavier than me at birth, according to the bathroom scales, but by the time we were six months old he weighed almost twice as much as I did. Meanwhile, Aidan became more runt-like, dependent on the dregs of milk that remained after I’d had my turn. Sometimes, our mother tells me, she would doze off with Connor at one breast and me at the other, and wake up to find she’d been drained dry, with Aidan grizzling and unfed in his cot.
Things were no better after we were weaned. Mother would sit us in our highchairs in the kitchen and spoonfeed us puréed fruit or vegetable straight from the jar.
‘Soon as I buckled the three of you in your chairs, Connor would kick off.’
I’ve heard this tale so often, I picture it as if it’s a memory: my big brother, red-faced with rage, mouth wide open, howling for food – thumping the tray and rocking back and forth so hard the highchair jolted a few centimetres across the floor towards our mother as she reached into the food cupboard. Against his demands for attention, my own cries and Aidan’s feeble mewling barely registered.
She fed Connor first, always. One of those little jars after another: parsnip, butternut squash, spinach, carrot, apple, banana... he didn’t care, as long as it kept coming. Four or five helpings at least. Once each jar was finished, Connor set up his commotion again as our mother unscrewed the lid of the next. Mine, his wails said. Mine, mine, mine. Often there’d be only one jar left for me and Aidan to share. Most of it went to me.
There isn’t a day when I don’t feel bad about that.
None of this amounted to deliberate neglect on Mother’s part; she only did what she thought was right. ‘Baby will tell you when he’s hungry,’ her parenting book said. ‘Baby will tell you when he’s had enough to eat.’ So she fed her babies according to whichever of us told her they were hungriest.
Anyone else would have seen straight away that Aidan was dangerously underweight. But no-one visited and Mother never took us out of the flat. Apart from any neighbours who heard us crying, nobody knew we existed. Nobody who mattered, anyway. As for our mother, she saw us as she had always seen us, and which she took to be the natural order of things:
‘Connor was the big one, you were the middle one,’ she says, always with a wistful smile, ‘and Aidan was the little shrimp.’
As far as she can remember, we were about seven months old when Aidan went to sleep and wouldn’t wake up. For a few days, she continued as before: lifting us from our cots in the morning, changing our nappies, dressing us, placing us in our highchairs, feeding us, laying us on the playmat, and so on. Last thing in the evening, she bathed us and put us in our sleep-suits and lay us back in our cots. Day after day, Aidan ‘slept’ through all of this, entirely unresponsive. Floppy to begin with, then stiff, then limp again. At feeding time – once Connor and I had finished – our mother held Aidan’s head up while she pushed spoonfuls of mush between his lips, only for it to dribble back out of his mouth.
Naturally, we were oblivious, Connor and I. However motionless and silent, our little brother was still there, alongside us, as he’d always been. I dread to think what state he must have been in as the days went by. But, on the playmat, so I’m told, I would snuggle up to him as usual and offer him my fingers to suck.
Then, one day, Aidan was no longer with us. Mother must have taken him somewhere during the night because, the following morning, there were only two babies to be raised from their cots, to have their nappies changed, to be dressed and carried into the kitchen for breakfast. We were twins again, me and Connor.
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