By Alison Bate

I never felt lonely until I was eighteen.

I grew up with my twin sister Gill in England, first in a tiny village and later a stuffy cathedral city.

She had her best friend, Jane, and I had my best friend, Pip. But after school, we played together with the three Sims boys next door.

Pix twins in Mirror dinghy
Gill and Ali sailing their Mirror dinghy called “Algi”

Gill and I had our own special trill for finding each other as we roamed around, trespassing in the Top Field. We sailed together in our Mirror dinghy and made friends easily, but whenever we arranged to meet, it was always to do something active. Play tennis, go swimming or go for a bike ride.

I remember one rainy Saturday afternoon when we were about 14, one of our school friends dropped by our home. Her name was Ann and she was an only child. Gill and I were just reading books, nothing special, and had no idea why she had come to visit or what to do with her. After a tortured half-hour or so, she left and we breathed a huge sigh of relief. Gill and I looked at each other and shrugged, wondering why she came round. It wasn’t until my early 20s that it hit me. She just wanted company.

Tony, our big brother, was away at boarding school most of the time so really was out of the picture while we were growing up. As for our parents, to this day Gill and I confide that we don’t really remember them being around much except on holidays.

Looking back, they were great parents and did lots of activities with us. We just tuned them out.

Gill and I are identical twins and, as teenagers, got really bored with each other and being called ‘Twin’ all the time. It’s not really surprising that we polarized.

Ali (left, with the fatter face), brother Tony and Gill.

At the age of 18, I went into arts; Gill into science. I went to a university in southwest England and Gill went to one in the north. As I studied for my degree, if someone had asked if I were happy, I’d have said ‘yes’. I played tennis for the second team, was also on the sailing team and acquired my first boyfriend, Graham. But beneath the surface, my life was in turmoil.

I hadn’t realised until leaving home and separating from Gill that I actually had to talk to people to communicate. And all my conversations and friendships seemed really artificial. I started reading lots of heavy books for enlightenment: “Ulysses” by James Joyce and “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf. The latter made a huge impression on me. Like the father in the book, I began mentally dividing my friends and family into those who were seekers, the enlightened ones, and those who were not.

I hurt one of my friends badly by yelling at her: “Do you realise how superficial our friendship is?”

I had no idea how to get close to people and carefully ditched Graham before he could ditch me.

Pix twins
On holiday near Sark as teenagers

To make matters worse, my sister seemed to be flourishing socially at Leeds. Hosting parties with her friends, and having one boyfriend after another. Full of self-confidence while mine shrivelled away. On vacation at our parents’ home, she declared: “Three men are in love with me.”

I could never imagine that happening to me, let alone having the confidence to voice it.

When I graduated, I flew overseas to work in a summer camp in Maine, teaching sailing to rich kids. I loved the space and freedom and felt way more at home in the States than in my own country. I decided to find work in the States, but then my sister was suddenly accepted into a graduate exchange program at UBC in Vancouver. “Dammit, she’s stolen my continent!” I thought. Instinctively I needed to be away from her at that time. Often when we were together, I’d feel she had stolen my thoughts.

So I stayed in England, went into local government, then delivered milk and eventually decided I’d better get a career going. Somehow, I chose journalism. Looking back, I don’t think it’s an accident that I chose one of the most difficult things for me to do– learning how to communicate with people.

I progressed up the ladder, from a weekly to an evening paper and then freelancing on the nationals in London. In the summer, I popped over occasionally to Vancouver to visit Gill, who now had a Canadian boyfriend, later her husband.

By my early 30s, I’d got over my hang-ups about being on the same continent. Also, I felt claustrophobic and starved of open spaces in London. So I moved to Vancouver, got a job on the newspapers and became a Canadian citizen.

Now we’re in the same province, but our lives are still very different. Gill’s married with two grown-up kids, while I’ve remained single. She worked as a medical lab technologist in B.C. hospitals, while I stayed working as a journalist and later taught English in China, Sudan, Vietnam and Canada.

Ali and Gill riding on the bamboo railway in Battambang, Cambodia in 2014

For a long time, we had our separate islands: I lived on Bowen Island and she lived on Gabriola. I’ve since moved back to Vancouver, but she’s still on her Gulf Island. Over time, she’s envied my freedom to travel and sometimes I’ve envied her family life.

I remember talking to my Mum once about why I never got married. “Well, you had to fight so hard for your independence, didn’t you,” she said sweetly. I’d never really thought about it that way, but it’s partly true. I had to fight to be my own person, and having found her, it’s a tough habit to break.

But nowadays Gill and I are close again. Every year we go sailing and usually also fit in a camping trip, huddling round a campfire at a remote rec. site in the mountains. And we became a team again, looking after our fiercely independent mother. As her heart began to wear out, I’d catch the ferry to Nanaimo most weekends and Gill was “on” during the week, popping over from Gabriola.

We tapped out “All good here” or “Mum’s not doing so well” as we travelled back and forth on the ferries. Now Mum is gone, passing away in her sleep six months ago (Dec. 2019).

But the legacy is an even stronger bond with my twin. Gill calls most mornings from her island home, filling in the time before her husband is awake. “I’ve lit the fire here. Are you still in bed?”

Today’s our birthday and she’s here in town with me, taking a break from visiting her son and his family nearby. And now we’re off for a bike ride together.