“My Oldest Memory by Jan Carson

I’m not from round here. I have two heads.

(This is a lie; only partly true.

I was born here, in the baby hospital by the duck pond where almost everyone I know also got born. I don’t remember anything of it, only the ducks afterwards.

My father was not from round here. He sailed into town from someplace else- made me briefly in the backseat of a Ford Escort- and caught the next boat back to the mainland.

It was a shame. Now I have two heads.)

I am currently waiting for the National Health Service to remove one of my heads.

(Thankfully it is still free to have your head removed on the N.H.S., though certain people object on the grounds that it is not the public’s responsibility to foot the bill for irresponsible parents and the two-headed fruits of their irresponsible loins.)

The N.H.S. have assured me that head removal is a simple enough operation with only 2% chance of serious death or side affects.

“In one day, out the next. Back to work in less than a fortnight,” they say, “Minimal scarring, of course. So you’ll still be able to wear a bikini, should it ever turn warm enough to justify one.”

They laugh mutually. It’s a Northern island joke.

I find it increasingly difficult to believe them. They look like television doctors: stylish and antiseptic, with their every other week haircuts. I imagine they’ve never had a second head in their whole lives.

Unfortunately I have little choice in the matter. It is illegal to have more than one head in this country. (Supplementary heads upset the children and reflect badly on the monarchy.) It is compulsory to have all extra appendages removed before one’s twenty fifth birthday. I am almost twenty three and, as such, pushing the boundaries of respectable decency.

“It’s about time you had that extra head off,” my mother will remark from time to time, hovering over the Sunday dinner, “You’ll never get a proper job with that thing peering over your shoulder.” Fearing for its life, my second head will feel compelled to belch out a whole string of four letter words. My mother blushes into the gravy boat and, not for the first time, wishes to goodness I’d got born normal.

I suspect the extra head reminds her of my absent father. My mother says nothing but I strongly suspect she knows it’s 50 percent her fault for going with a fella from the mainland. People can tell when they look at me.

It’s an ongoing shame. I have two heads.

Of course I am not without options.

I could feasibly disappear.

I could catch the ferry to the mainland and never return. They’re ten years more tolerant on the mainland. In certain parts of certain cities, it’s absolutely fine to be both yes and no, left and right, here, there and dear only knows where else, simultaneously in the very same breath. Chances are I could hold on to both of my heads and still land a desk job if I moved to the mainland.

Or I could choose to stay here and fight the system. I could write anonymous letters to the Secretary of State and start an underground support group for all those anonymous, “friends of friends” who struggle with the stigma of an extra head. We could apply for lottery funding, buy a mini-bus, (yellow most likely,) and take day trips to the North Coast.

As you can see, I am not without options.

If nothing else, I have the God-given right to choose which head gets removed and which remains. It’s not an easy decision to make. Over the years, (twenty two to be exact,) I have grown rather attached to both my heads.

“We’re running out of time here,” the guys and girls from the N.H.S. have begun to mutter, more urgently with every appointment, “We need to run scans and blood tests. We need to measure things. You’d better hurry up and choose which head you want to keep.”

It’s not an easy decision to make.

The first head is an ordinary kind of head. It sits to the left of my shoulders and is at all times, demure and accommodating. It speaks only when spoken to, and when doing so, employs a thick Northern drawl. It knows every song in the Presbyterian hymnbook, (the original version, still containing more than its fair share of resounding thee’s and stalwart thou’s.) It does not suit hats, not even casual woolen hats or caps, and bears- with drizzling fortitude- the same doughy, potato-shaped peaks and troughs as every other head on this God-forsaken island.

If I opt to keep the first head I’d definitely get to stay here with my Mother and the cat, next door’s cat and all the other people who got born in the baby hospital by the duck pond. Eventually I would become part of the furniture: a plump, leather pouffe, or coffee table, perfect for resting your heels on. I’d be just like everyone else on this island, thinking the same thoughts, laughing at the same wee jokes; singing all the very same songs on a Sunday morning.

Undoubtedly it would be easier to hold on to the first head.

The second head is an unusual color. It sits to the right of my shoulders and refuses to speak anything but American. It is constantly peering out to sea for an escape route. This head was given to me by my late father, (who made me briefly in the back seat of a Ford Escort, before swimming back to his real family on the mainland. It was a home-baked shame at the time, but I have grown rather fond of my second head.)

If I should decide to keep this extra head I’d be forced to leave the island. I could swim or take the passenger ferry to the mainland. It would be wrong of me to stay. I wouldn’t be able to see things from their perspective.

All things considered it would be difficult to justify holding on to the second head. (All things considered has, over the years, come to include my mother and the cat, next door’s cat and our troubles, which hover like the Holy Spirit, purpose-born over every blessed thing on the kitchen table.)

Last week I had an appointment to see a surgeon at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I wasn’t nervous. I’ve been to the Royal before: (twice. Once to have the wisdom teeth removed from my first head, and then back again six months later, for the very same procedure on the second.)

On this particular occasion, the waiting room was full of people with extra heads reading Women’s magazines, (two at a time in some cases,) and picking nervously at their fingernails. The waiting time in the outpatients’ department of the Royal Hospital can often run to three and a half hours, (an irritating, but understandable, side affect of the National Health Service’s “free medical care for all” policy.)

I had gone to the Royal alone with a handheld computer game, and subsequently found myself in the extreme minority. Most of the other patients had come fully equipped with at least one ordinary person to pinch their nerves and coerce them through the examination room door- a parent, an empathetic sibling, or in one rare case, an actual, flesh and bone, single-headed, spouse.

By eleven thirty we were almost two dozen strong, worshipping round the magazine rack. Given the common loss, you’d think we might have swapped stories, compared notes, ganged up to interrogate the one post-op patient, back to have his bandages changed; but, no. For up to three hours and thirty minutes we stayed in our seats, picking our fingernails, reading the public health posters on the wall, and above all things, avoiding eye contact with our own kind, which, believe me, is easier said than done in a room full of four-eyed individuals.

I was not surprised to find myself surrounded by people with the same condition. A growing number of babies here get born with two heads: a product of indiscriminate coupling with the other sort.

Like me they hide their heads under motorcycle helmets and bowler hats. They hope no one will notice the enormous weights balanced on their shoulders. In the privacy of their own semi-detached- and sometimes detached- homes they go hatless and proud, buzzing with all the nervous rage of a closet queen. They feel good- crazy, righteous good- and then equally awful, all in the space of one instant coffee.

It is neither normal nor permitted to have more than one head. After all, this is an island, and all those extra heads, if tolerated, might cause the whole continent to sink under the weight of unnecessary thoughts and conversations; haircuts, hats and an excess of raucous, inappropriate laughter. Subsequently there is the confusion- the mass and muddled hysteria- of a population split right down the middle, half the heads heading resolutely in one direction, the other half, heart set on the opposite.

“What good?” asked the recently appointed Secretary of State, way back in 1983, when things were looking tight on all four sides of the city, “What good is a city split in two, a city where one man can’t see the same direction as the man next door?”

It was a point worth making, and make it he did, setting the precedent on extra heads for all future Secretaries of State and their offspring. After which it seemed timely to break for dinner, allowing the N.H.S. ample time to tidy up the resulting mess.

Twenty something years later I found myself summonsed from the waiting room of the Royal Victoria Hospital for an office-based meet and greet with a young consultant in a pinstripe suit.

“Billy,” he said, bidding me sit down beside his desk, “Now you don’t mind me calling you Billy, do you?”

I nodded dissent. “Yes,” with one head, “No,” with the second. The young consultant continued regardless. Removing an expensive ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket he appeared poised to take notes on our conversation.

“I’m reading here, in your notes that you’re almost twenty three now and still have yet to get your head sorted. Is there some reason for your reticence? If it’s only nerves, let me assure you this is a simple enough operation with only 2% chance of serious death or side affects. You’ll be in one day…”

“…Out the next, back to work in a week.” I nipped him off, smartly just before the punch line, “Yes I know all this information. I’ve read up on head removal. I know the risks and the benefits. I know that it’s compulsory to get rid of one of my heads. I just can’t decide which one to lose.”

“Surely it’s a simple enough choice Billy. That first head of yours is a beauty, perfectly cut for island life. The second head doesn’t even match your shoulders. It’s a no brainer Billy. Ax the second head. Keep the first. You’ll be back to work in less than a month and no one will ever know.”

To emphasize his point, he unfastened the top two buttons of his shirt, loosened both his tie and the stethoscope looped casually around his neck and dragged the collar of his shirt across one shoulder. The skin of this shoulder was bubblegum pink and unnaturally smooth where the young consultant’s extra head had once been attached. He tapped the scar efficiently with the blunt end of his ballpoint pen and began to button up.

“See,” he said, “It’s a no brainer. Lose the second head. In my opinion- both personal and professional- it’s your only real option.”

I said nothing, buying myself some thinking time.

Outside the window it was beginning to rain: the first indication, a faint sweatiness condensing on the windowpane, the second, a limp potted plant, wilting sympathetically over the medical journals. The city beyond the window was made of granite and greaseproof paper. It grinned and gloated like an overstretched excuse.

The people here were kind and never left home.

Sensing the mood my extra head looked across the Westlink to consider the very spot where the city folded into green, grass field. The traffic climbing the hill was particularly slow; bumper to bumper on the new dual carriageway. It was a Friday afternoon and everyone was trying to leave home, momentarily forgetting that this was an island, bordered on four sides, (five in places,) by the unforgiving sea.

My second head looked fondly at the hills and the cars: Fords, Vauxhalls and Citroens motoring on in a gay lexicon of reds, blues and habit-breaking silvers. “These people are kind and never leave home,” my second head thought and could not be trusted with an impartial decision.

My first head was insatiable. It ignored the hills, concentrating instead on the young consultant; the cut of his suit, the sleeked flick of his haircut, and the ongoing possibility of a desk job in a respectable outfit, not the Royal Victoria Hospital of course, but somewhere similar perhaps. My first head remains to this day, undeniable. It runs the length of my spine, finding its way into the fine Northern muck and tarmac, via the ever-open portal of my well-shod heels.

“I’m not going anywhere,” my second head was thinking, “I have good sense on my side. I belong here. I have roots like a twenty ton sycamore.” It seemed equally unlikely to come to an impartial decision.

“What’s it to be Billy?” the young consultant finally asked, capping and uncapping his ballpoint pen to build a sense of momentum, “Head number one or head number two?”

I looked at the young consultant, his collection of ballpoint pens, clasped neatly in a Pyrex beaker, and the window behind his head, which was clammering for attention; fat gobs of rain spit, exploding against the glass.

“Neither,” I said, “I’m keeping both my heads.” I got up from my seat and left the outpatient’s department of the Royal Victoria Hospital. Thus I resigned myself to a lifetime- an honest to God, long distance, lifetime- of hats.

Biographical Note:
Jan Carson is a short story writer, originally from Ballymena, Northern Ireland. She studied English Literature at Queen’s University Belfast and has just returned from three years working in the community arts scene in the Pacific North West. She currently resides in Belfast where she is completing a Masters degree and working on a novel.

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