By Cherie Brown
One desperate man is hard enough to handle, but two? As the Spanish would say, “Imposible!”
My introduction to South American students came in a twin pack, two for the price of one, Jorge and Alberto. The identical siblings descended one hot, southern-hemispherian February afternoon, after skillfully negotiating a discount in course fees (there were two of them after all), and I found them seated, side by side, in my language class, “English for Beginners – Level One.”
Their arrival proved to be the beginning of a year of great confusion. Today Jorge was Jorge, tomorrow he became Alberto. Alberto, in turn, transformed into his brother, then back again, and so it went on. I never could get it right, my perplexity no doubt assisted by the twins themselves.
Not that they deliberately set out to befuddle anyone, but their limited means necessitated a keen eye for deal-making, something at which they proved adept, and a constant sharing of resources. This extended to the second-hand clothes they purchased and took turns to wear. I gave up trying to decide who was who based on shirt color, shoes or shade of trousers, since these switched, back and forth, in disarming fashion (pardon the pun), from one day to the next, and opted instead for hairstyles.
Unfortunately (for me), the twins soon cut a deal with the local barber, emerging from his establishment one afternoon with matching number one’s. This was not going to be easy.
Casting aside dress and hairstyle as a means of assessing identity, I discreetly scrutinized their newly-shaven scalps as they bent over classroom writing tasks, in the hope of finding some physical characteristic unique to only one. A scar or peculiar cranial bump would surely resolve my difficulty?
It was not to be. Their fuzzy pates were truly alike. Like proverbial podded peas, Jorge and Alberto seemed set to remain forever an indistinguishable duo.
Occasionally, I found myself pondering the possibility that really there was only one of them after all, and that perhaps I needed new glasses. Maybe it was my shifting vision that was the real cause of the double apparition before me? But no, two there definitely were, in all their glorious symmetry.
Good teachers are capable bluffers. I managed to avoid direct questions, and other awkward methods of extracting responses from one twin or the other, which would have required the use of a correct name, by gesturing vaguely in the general direction of both (they always sat together), to indicate my pedagogical queries. My hope, since each was such a perfect facsimile of the other, was that over time, and by means of this ingenious methodology, they would achieve a near equal balance of skills, and my lack of discernment might not be found out.
Summer turned to autumn. The twins quickly discovered that not all their wants and needs could be fulfilled by wheeling and dealing. They needed a job. (Astute readers will note that I use the singular form.) Their student working visas (visa?) allowed them this option, albeit for a limited number of weekly hours, so off they went in search of part-time employment.
Eventually, they found a position at one of the many vineyards in West Auckland, assisting with the annual grape harvest and mopping the floors of the winery salesroom.
They suited the job and the job suited them. This was most evident on Monday mornings when they turned up to class, with red-rimmed, vitreous eyes and heavy heads. Their boss, it turned out, was fond of them, and was also, it seemed, very generous with his fermented produce.
By now, accustomed to their new and fulfilling lifestyle, and increasingly reluctant to give it up, Jorge and Alberto began to speculate on how they might remain, legally, in New Zealand, as permanent residents.
Exhausting the usual channels – a large wad of investment funds, skills listed as ‘desirable’ by the New Zealand immigration authorities (which, sadly, did not include grape-picking, floor-mopping, or wine-tasting) – they settled upon… you guessed it …marriage.
The most natural starting point from which to begin the spousal search was obviously their English class. Sadly, the only female students with citizenship were two middle-aged and very wedded Chinese housewives, Daisy, and the class matriarch, Lee Ying. No ‘joy-luck’ there.
Another idea offered more potential. Stage one of its implementation required some basic but practical reading skills. Two matching prickly heads peered around the frame of my office door.
“May we pleeze to use la book teléfonica?”
I handed it over.
For almost an hour, the twins sat in the waiting area outside my office and flipped hopefully through the Yellow Pages section of the Auckland Telephone Directory, something of a weighty tome. Finally, in desperation they asked for assistance.
“Pleeze, we need ze date.”
“16 July,” I responded absent-mindedly.
“No, no… ze date for ze woman,” said one. (I have no idea which one.)
“Si, ze woman,” echoed the other. His sudden enthusiasm had the desired effect. I sat up straight and paid closer attention.
Teachers of English as another language soon become adept at making connections between context and the actual words their students utter. Matching my knowledge of the pair’s desire to remain in New Zealand with the request for the telephone directory, and the unexpectedly ebullient reference to ‘woman,’ the word ‘date’ suddenly acquired a new significance.
“Look under Introduction Services,” I suggested.
For a moment, I considered the possibility that it was probably only one woman they were really in need of, and wondered just how hard it might be to get away with that.
Moments later came the next, inevitable request. Stage two was about to begin.
“May we pleeze to use el teléfono?” they asked, pointing to the phone on the corner of my desk. (I must explain. These events took place in those antediluvian days before everyone owned a cell phone. My landline was, at that time, our only immediate link to the outside world.)
“Sure,” I agreed.
One brother read the number aloud, while the other dialed. I folded my arms and sat back to watch, intrigued as to how this process would unfold.
A seductive female voice wafted from the hand-piece of the phone.
“You have reached the office of ‘Dream Mates Services.’ Unfortunately, we are not able to take your call at this moment, but your enquiry is important to us…”
“I sink is answering machine,” said Jorge (or was it Alberto?). The hand-piece crashed to the cradle.
“Try again, and write it down,” I suggested (never being willing to pass up a teachable moment).
It was a full day. I was preoccupied. After several attempts, I left them to it. It was clear that ‘Dream Mates Services’ were going to have a busy time clearing their voice mail. I had materials to organize, fascinating resources to create, ingenious solutions to twin identification to conjure up. The relentless duties of teaching preparation pressed in…
The final weeks of the term arrived. The specter of progress reports was only overshadowed, for the twins, by looming visa expiry dates, and for myself, the need to arrange an end-of-term class party. My students and I made plans to celebrate the end of the year and to farewell the twins at the same time. Two birds, one stone. Lee Ying, as class grande dame, had everything under control. She booked the student hall, and set about organizing who would bring what.
Jorge and Alberto, at last, seemed resigned to the strictures of Kiwi immigration law. If they had to return to their homeland, they could at least say goodbye in style.
On the appointed evening, they arrived in full bloom, wearing matching, high-heeled, patent leather cowboy boots and dressed in a blaze of fluorescent hibiscus-pink and tiger-lily orange. Their eye-thumping, floral velour jackets apparently a hard-haggled snitch from the costume hire company near campus.
Someone cranked up the sound system. Borrowed copies of pulsating seventies disco music yo-yoed with reggae and crashing glam-metal. I retreated to the kitchen to protect my ears, and my head. From that safer vantage point, I peered through the serving hatch just in time to see Lee Ying enter the room, uncharacteristically late. She was not alone.
Trailing in tandem behind her, were two, tall, dark-haired, plum-mouthed daughters…identical twins… citizens of Aotearoa New Zealand, born and bred. Until this point, none of us had known of their existence.
Jorge and Alberto exchanged a knowing look, and then, in all their fluro- and patent glory, slid gracefully, like Torville and Dean on Olympic ice, across the polished floor.
In perfect unison they enquired,
“You like to dance… Si?”