A Family Affair
The plaster smelled of wet plastic. The initial delicious coolness against my skin was losing its charm as Amy worked her way around my body. It was heavy and cold and I couldn’t feel my feet any more. She was less than halfway done, I figured by the time she was finished hypothermia would have set in.
Amy was muttering weights and times under her breath almost constantly, and from time to time she would stop to spray water on the parts she had already covered to keep them moist. It made the process of being plaster moulded by my twin an agony of stillness. The cold was doing nothing for my ego either.
I winced as she slapped plaster -there- a little less gently than necessary. “You realise your future nieces and nephews are in there?” I asked as her fingers roamed around with rough thoroughness.
“Shut up, concentrating,” was all I got in reply.
“It’s just, in the circumstances, that’s not really reflective of, you know…” I stuttered to a halt. Finally her head of frizzy hair lifted and her grinning face was revealed. Her eyes were twinkling with supressed laughter. She winked at me. “Don’t worry Dave, I’ll make you proud.” Her head dropped out of sight again, “Now be quiet, I’ve never done a full body before and I need to keep an eye on the drying times.” There were a few moments of laboured breathing as she adjusted the rack I was lying on to begin filling in around my arms, which were stretched over my head. She took me by surprise when she went on, “Of course the other guys I’ve cast didn’t seem to have any problems.”
I was about to twist my head to look at her in shock when a plaster covered hand grabbed me by the chin. “Don’t move you idiot.”
I let it drop, art was her business and I let her get on with it. I had designed the rack she was using, which spun around on three axes giving a range of manoeuvrability for her work. She had been working on me for over half an hour, merging legs and torso and neck, letting it all part dry, and then spinning me round and moving onto my back. The really tricky bit was yet to come.
I was numb from chin to heel when she whirled me about to face her. “Are you ready?” I tried to nod, but my head was rigidly caught in plaster. I managed to squeak out a “Yes”.
Earplugs went in first, then she put clingfilm over my mouth, smoothing it carefully. She pierced it with a straw that she left in place. More clingfilm went over my nostrils, and two more straws went in just before I began to struggle for breath through my mouth. She put clear little plastic caps over my eyes and Vaseline in my eyebrows and hair. When the plaster came the world went dark, and very very cold.
I lost track of time, afloat in a noiseless, motionless world. A level of terror at being trapped in a void crept in, and was building into a scream I would never be able to release when I felt a faint vibration. It completely filled the emptiness.
Amy had taped a fine wire up my sides and left the ends poking out above my head. Very slowly she was using it to saw away the plaster into to perfectly matched halves. The sensation went down both sides and then stopped at my ankles. Through the plaster and earplugs I heard cursing. Loud, vitriolic cursing. I couldn’t make out all the words, but I could guess, and I wasn’t sure I knew what all of them meant.
Her voice was suddenly close by my ear. “Dave, I forgot to wire up the insides of your legs and thighs.” There was a pause. “I’m going to have to cut you out. Sorry. This could take a while.”
It took me a moment to process what she had said. The wires were there to separate the two halves of the cast with the least possible damage and create a perfect replica of me. They ran from my head, up and down my over stretched arms and then to my ankles. I could remember her laughing as she had taped them to me. I couldn’t remember her running the wires up the inside of my legs. A very cold and very unpleasant sweat pushed through my numb skin. I wanted to thrash around but I was still under a weight of plaster that was only partially separated.
She must have sensed my panic. “Dave, you have to stay very still,” she said. “I have a hacksaw and I will be very careful, but it will take some time, I can’t risk using any power tools.”
No she couldn’t. I would get her for this. I began plotting my revenge through little spasms of panic every time the saw blade scraped my skin. She left the very worst til last. I felt the vibrations radiating from the centre of my body outwards. Suddenly I really needed to pee. It took an age as she gently cut her way through the plaster.
If I could have moved I would have sagged into the mould when she finally stopped. I could feel her strapping the upper half of the cast onto the rack. With a rattling of chain she winched it away. And then there was light and breath and noise. I was out. She ripped away the cling film and cut off the cable ties holding my hands in place above my head. I tried to use my own hands to haul myself out of the lower part of the cast but my arms flailed around bloodless and useless.
Then the pins and needles kicked in all over my body and I screamed.
I don’t remember much about what happened next. It was all a blur until I was looking into the deep brown eyes of Cousin Kate. Beautiful, intelligent, calm Cousin Kate. She was talking at me but the precise words weren’t piercing the fog. If I had control of my body I would have leaned forward to kiss her. It was OK, I had worked it all out; we were third cousins, kissing cousins.
Cousin Kate. Also known as Dr Kate Rovero, of the clan of doctors Rovero, and its various matrilineal lines. The doctors Rovero et al. of whom in my generation there were twenty in various fields of medicine, all alumni of the medical college founded by our shared three times great grandfather Dr Miles Rovero.
And then of course there was Amy the artist and me, the engineer. The two misshapen pears in the barrel of perfect medical apples.
I don’t know what had possessed Amy to call on Kate when there was a platoon of doctors in her phonebook. She knew very well Kate specialised in neuroscience, we had been given the drill of all the cousins and their specialities by our disappointed mother often enough. She also knew I had the most terrible crush on Cousin Kate; ever since I had worked out that not all girl things were the same as this odd appendage called Amy.
Yet here she was, and here I was, half out of my senses, wholly naked, tactically covered in Vaseline, shivering with cold, worse than that: shrunken with cold, and if I didn’t mistake the smell, I think I had wet myself somewhere along the line. I could only hope that had happened before Kate arrived.
Kate was rubbing me down with what looked suspiciously like the mouldy old tartan blanket from the back of Amy’s Volvo. Amy was in the corner sobbing over a kettle that was just at that moment coming to the boil. The babble of voices that had first broken through my stupor started to make sense.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Kate’s was exasperated and seemed to only have the echo of the fire I knew she was capable of. She had probably asked the question several times over.
Amy didn’t seem to be in any fit state to answer, so I thought I had better pitch in. “It’s a dental amalgam we adapted,” I said between my still chattering teeth. “Should have been perfectly safe. Amy uses it for casts all the time.”
“And just how long were you in it?” She asked sternly.
I shrugged, although whether she could tell over the shivering was uncertain. Amy returned with a cup of green tea. “It was about an hour and half in the full cast,” she said
“How long was the process?”
“Two hours, maybe just over. You have to work quickly or it…” Amy’s explanation tailed off under Kate’s glare.
“It didn’t occur to either of you geniuses to just break the damn thing apart?”
“But that would ruin it,” we said in unison. Kate looked from one to the other and then closed her eyes and shook her head. She checked me over with brisk professionalism while I sipped the tea, making me follow her finger with my eyes, jabbing my fingers and toes with some of Amy’s sharp tools.
Eventually she stood up, dusted off her knees and took off the doctor face. Worry and tiredness warred across her features. “You got lucky,” she said to me, then turned to Amy, “You both did. Now get him dressed and home and into bed.” Amy nodded, so Kate followed up with, “And no more of these experimental shenanigans.”
I shot Amy a guilty look, which she shot back. Kate was a sharp one and she caught us. “What’s this?”
“Well, Dave was first so we could test the technique, then he’s going to use it on me for the next one.” Amy explained, a hopeful smile attempting to break out across her lips as she spoke. Kate was a couple of years older than us, and while I fancied her, Amy had always looked up to her. Kate’s approval meant something to Amy’s otherwise independent spirit.
“No you bloody well are not. This stops here.”
“But the project’s not nearly complete,” I protested, now slightly more in control of my mouth and limbs. “We need the Amy casts to make the whole thing work.”
“Are you kidding me? Dave, that was really dangerous.” Kate pointed at the rack, “Neither one of you is getting back into that death trap again.”
“Death trap?” She had stung my pride in my work. “That’s a piece of precision engineering. It worked perfectly.”
Amy followed up on my lead, “we know exactly what went wrong, I forgot one part of the process, that’s what made the whole thing take so long. We’ll be much better at it when it’s my turn.”
“You are both completely nuts.” She stamped over to the cast, looking for more reasons to stop us, or perhaps just a hammer. “What the hell is it that you’re working on anyway? What are you willing to go to such lengths for?” She stopped. Realisation dawned on her face. It softened away her anger and I fell in love all over again. “It’s for next week, isn’t it?”
We both nodded. She looked from me, to Amy, and back again. “OK, but Amy’s the one that knows the process and how to work the materials.” She looked from one to the other again, “So I’ll be your model.”
I was stunned, with a simple sentence she had left herself to our skill, just like that. And I’d just landed the prospect of seeing Kate naked. It must have shown on my face, she pointed at my own obvious lack of clothes and said, “but I’ll do it in a bikini.”
* * *
Amy flapped around me like a mother hen until I snapped at her to leave me alone. She fled back to her studio to make me into a statue. A life sized Dave reaching up over his head. When Amy phoned through with the weight of metal used to make my statue I was able to run some calculations on the weight of resin that would make Kate. Actually that would make five Kates leaning forward like figureheads on a ship, and reaching back with their hands, which would join to form a circle.
I didn’t feel up to hitting the workshop, so I spent the afternoon curled on the sofa with a notebook making amendments to the final design, and deciding how I would need to arrange the weights and gears to make the whole project come together.
When Kate stopped by to check up on me I was busily sketching what I imagined her naked body would look like. I flapped the notebook closed when the bell rang, and gulped like a schoolboy when I saw who it was.
The apartment that Amy and I shared was on the edge of the university district, easy enough for us to get in to run classes, but far out enough that we could rent a nearby warehouse and split it into her studio and my workshop. It also put us a comfortable distance away from the College and Mum and the campus of family that were concentrated close to it.
Despite my protests Kate made coffee and then checked my eyes and pulse, she took my blood pressure and asked some general questions about how I was feeling. It was about half an hour before she got to the point of her visit.
“What’s really going on here Dave? You guys have always been off doing your own thing, and now this,” she waved her hands roughly in the direction of our studio cum workshop.
“It’s Mum, she’s so into this clan thing, how everyone is a doctor of medicine, and marries other doctors and begets more doctors, and the whole Rovero legacy. We just wanted to show her that what we do has some value too.” It sounded weak when I said it out loud.
“Everyone knows Auntie Jen can be,” she hunted for a diplomatic word, “Difficult.” She took a sip of coffee, “She does take the whole Rovero thing pretty seriously.”
“And the funny thing is that she is two steps down the maternal line. I think it is just the fact that grandma never did it, and it would ridiculous, that stops her double-barrelling Rovero into her name.” I stopped there, it was all sounding a bit childish and bitter. Amy did needle and spite much better than I did, she could really lay on the acid, while I just sounded whiney.
Kate changed the subject, “So show me the project, I got the gist of it yesterday, but I want to know what I’m getting myself into.”
I flipped open the notebook to the master drawing. “It’s basically a tulip with five petals and a central stalk. There are counter rotating gears between the one Dave and the five Amys.” I stopped, “or the Kates I should say now. In the circular base there are asymmetric weights.” I flipped over the page, “So when the Kates catch the wind the Dave spins in one direction and the Kates in the other.” I flipped over another page that showed the bearings, getting a bit geeky in my element. “The tolerances on the bearings are incredibly tight. To the uninitiated it will look like a perpetual motion machine.”
She took the notebook from me and flipped back to the first page. “It’s beautiful.” She smiled ruefully, “The funny thing is I always envied you two. Off in your own world away from the pressure and expectation of the clan. And now you come up with this…”
I sat back, surprised by the revelation. To the outward eye Kate was a true scion of the house, first in her class at everything, qualified and practising a year before she should have been, and in a technically demanding field of medicine. I tried to explain, “Mum could never accept that we just weren’t into medicine. It’s so important to her. Dad was cool with it, I think he liked having something else to talk about over dinner, even if it was Rodin and Brunel. We got a chance to try and tie it all back together, we couldn’t turn it down.”
She smiled at me and flipped idly through the pages, not really paying attention to my hard work. “I always wondered what it would be like to do something else.” There was a faraway note to her voice. “There are so many other things we all could have been, but our beloved ancestor seems to have laid down the tracks for us all.” She flipped on a few more pages, “Well not all of us.” She looked at me, “In a way I’m proud of you and Amy, you both broke the mould and made your own way. I guess that’s why I want to model for your project,” she gave me a bigger smile, “So that I can be part of your revolution.” I think the confession embarrassed her, because she looked away from me back to the notebook. Her own face looked back, accurately rendered by my hand. “Oh.” She flipped forward another page to my imagined naked Kate.
I leapt off the sofa, spilling my coffee as I grabbed the notebook. “Sorry, I was just doodling,” I said lamely, trying to ignore the hot coffee running down my leg.
She gave me the full bore smile then, like the sun coming out of the clouds on a rainy day. “I’ll see you tomorrow evening in the studio.” Then she was gone, and I was smelling her perfume and spilled coffee and grinning like a village idiot with an amusing turnip.
* * *
I was in my workshop when Kate arrived the next day. I didn’t hear her car roll up as I was busy on the lathe with my ear defenders on. When I saw her in the doorway between Amy’s studio and my workshop I waved an apology and bent back over my equipment. For the mechanism to work it had to be very precisely balanced, and I couldn’t afford to leave a component half finished.
When I was done I walked in on Amy explaining her finishing process to Kate. She had a file in one hand, and was waving it at a full sized naked model of me, in a bright aluminium alloy.
“It’s called forgiving,” she said, “taking out all the small imperfections from the casting and pouring, and giving the whole thing a perfect finish.” She looked evilly at me, “Of course some subjects take more forgiving than others.”
I gave her a childish sneer, which thankfully Kate missed, and then we got started. It took an hour, it went without a hitch and at the end I got to lift Kate out of the cast and carry her to a corner of the room where we had set up heaters and blankets and a thermos of tea, and rub the circulation back into her. It seemed like a more than fair reward for my near death experience and I figured myself heftily in karmic debt. Some days life just throws you a break.
Of course I didn’t see her again for several days, because Amy and I were locked together, building. Kate was sworn to secrecy as part of our plot and as she now featured so heavily in it, but her part was done.
There was one other essential conspirator: Dad. He was academic director at the Rovero College, a position he had earned in spite of, rather than because of his marriage to a daughter of the clan. Family were generally kept away from influential posts in a tacit agreement with the Board. His position meant he could pull strings and make certain arrangements for us.
We were working towards a memorial service, the annual tip of the hat to Dr Miles Rovero who had established the College, brought medical training to the region, and involuntarily set up the family business. This year was special, a hundred and fifty years had passed since he had first opened the doors and every one with a hint of Rovero blood was descending on the College grounds for a gala dinner, with alumni and professors all thrown into the mix.
There would be a distinct shortage of doctors all-round the country that night, and as I had seen the champagne order, it would be unwise to get taken ill the next morning as well.
We had a few bumps along the way to the final installation. Amy got copper grease in her hair which took three visits to the hairdresser to get out, and I nearly lost a finger fitting the acrylic mounts for the turning mechanism. But we got there, on time and ready for the big reveal.
I’ll be honest; it was a pretty swanky do. All black tie and evening gowns, a string quartet in one corner, a jazz band in one of the large tents, waiters with trays of little bits of food and enough booze to float a boat.
Kate was everything Mum thought a Rovero should be which included carrying the right surname, so I think she was disappointed to find Kate hanging about with Amy and me, thick as thieves. Mum very unsubtly bustled her away to some people she simply must meet. I wondered what she would make of Kate’s contribution to our work.
When the time came for the main address Amy and I were called up to the podium, which would have annoyed Mum no end, her delinquent children on show for everyone to see.
I spotted Kate at the front of the crowd and called her up as well. She resisted at first until Amy’s indecorous insistence threatened to ruin the solemnity of the moment. I was nervous and excited all at once. We’d planned this for months, built it in a week, and then nearly destroyed the whole thing when the crane tipped during the installation.
I felt Kate’s hand slip into mine, and realised she would be incredibly nervous as well. It would be her body spinning in front of the thousand people when the cloth went up. Amy was already gripping my other hand hard enough to crush my fingers; all that working with plaster and sculptures had given her an iron grip. It tightened further as Dr Barfield, president of the Board and MC for the night, explained how two Rovero descendants had built the monument that would commemorate the milestone of a hundred and fifty years. I missed the rest, caught in the moment and Kate’s proximity, until with a flourish several dozen yards of silk was removed to show our work.
The moment was perfect. The sun was setting, catching the enormous flower of Amy’s imagination. In the centre rose a silvery Dave stamen, highlighted golden in the sunset, and shooting shafts of reflected sunlight through the translucent deep lavender Kate petals, which joined at the finger tips and heels to make a cupped flower. The slight breeze caught the whole thing and made it spin gently, drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd.
“What made you think of it,” asked Kate, her voice filled with wonder. My drawing hadn’t done it justice.
“It was Mum’s idea actually. She said everyone else could lay their medical certificates at the feet of Miles Rovero, but we may as well just come and throw a bouquet of flowers,” Amy said, “So we did.”
Kate laughed. Amy was led away by Dr Barfield to show the monument to eager admirers. We watched her bask in their adulation.
“You know what they are really impressed by don’t you?” Kate said, nudging me in the ribs.
“You mean apart from the five spinning naked women?”
Her jab in the ribs was sharper this time, Amy had filed away the bikini lines and Kate was presented to the world as nude, her chest pushed out, her arms thrown back. It would have been beautiful even on a spoil heap.
“At least mine is accurate,” she replied, “Your twin was quite generous in how she interpreted certain bits of you.” A slow flush rose up behind my wing collars and onto my cheeks. Kate slipped her arm in mine, and lead me off to the buffet. “Don’t worry Dave, your secret is safe with me.”
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