Martha and May

What happens when sisterly love turns into jealousy?


Martha and May were born joined at the head. It was the sixties and there was nothing the doctors could do to separate them without killing them both. But despite growing up together, they turned into two very different people. Martha was a home body, plain and serious. She learned to cook and sew and was a meticulous housekeeper. May was an artist, outgoing and exuberant, popular with the boys.

In their mid-twenties they left their devout Catholic home and set up house together. Martha took care of the housework, while May concentrated on her music and painting. May liked to go out and meet people. At the local pubs and bars she gathered a circle of friends and admirers. Martha stayed in the background, too shy to say very much.

May’s greatest admirer was Raul, a soloist in a tapas bar. He played flamenco guitar and sang in a gruff tenor. With his curly brown hair, Latin features and cocky grin, he looked like an angel with an interesting past. Unlike May’s other admirers, he always said hello to Martha and included her in the conversation whenever May let him.

‘I’m getting married,’ May announced one morning at breakfast.

Martha almost choked on her Weeties. ‘Who to?’

‘Raul, of course.’

‘Raul? You’ll have to pin him down first.’

May was indignant. ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘You’ve seen him. He goes home with a different girl every night.’

‘But he likes me best.’

Martha scoffed. ‘Has he said so?’

‘No, but he will. I just have to get him alone.’


Their mother had taught them that the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach, so May invited Raul to dinner, hoping to seduce him with Martha’s cooking. Raul hadn’t had decent home cooking in a long time, so the dinners became a weekly event. But if May thought they would soon lead to the much-anticipated declaration, she was sorely disappointed. With Raul on her own couch, Martha lost her shyness. She wouldn’t let May take centre stage alone and engaged him in long and intense discussions on politics and world events.

But Raul was not an insensitive man. He could see what was going on. One night, while Martha was preoccupied at the stove, he handed May a note. May kept it close to her heart until Raul had gone and then showed it to Martha. It was a declaration of love, but a proposition rather than a proposal.

‘You see, I told you he liked me best.’

Martha went pale. ‘Well, he’ll have to do better than this. We’re good Catholic girls. It’ll have to be marriage or nothing. And from now on,’ she added, ‘you can cook for him yourself. He should know what he’s in for if he does marry you.’

The weekly dinners weren’t such cosy events anymore. While May panicked over the simplest dish, Martha gave Raul hell, interrogating him about his past liaisons, challenging his politics and criticising his performances. But Martha’s antagonism only made May all the more stubborn.

‘Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to!’ May shouted at Martha one night after Raul had gone. ‘You can try as hard as you like, but you won’t come between us.’

‘I’m just trying to show you what kind of a man he really is,’ Martha retorted. ‘I told you he wasn’t marriage material. He’ll be off with the first little floozie that bats her eyelids at him.’

‘If he’s such a bastard, why do you want him for yourself?’

Martha couldn’t answer her, but a sick feeling in her stomach told her her sister was right. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said at last. ‘Look, if he ever does propose I’ll cook you a dinner you’ll never forget.’

It wasn’t long after that that Raul knelt at May’s feet.

‘Well,’ Martha said, ‘it looks like dinner’s on me next week.’

As an entrée to the engagement dinner, Martha made individual cheese soufflés — in a set of different coloured soufflé dishes their mother had got as a wedding present — and carefully handed them out. May complained about the taste of hers, but Raul said his was fine. By the end of the dinner, May had heart palpitations and had started to convulse. While Martha stayed calm, Raul frantically called an ambulance. By the time it arrived, Martha had begun to convulse as well. Both sisters were unconscious when they got to the hospital.


A few days later Martha woke up to find her mother’s face looking down at her, and her hand in her father’s firm grip. She tried to lift her face for her mother’s kiss, but a dead weight pulled her back.

‘May…?’ she croaked.

Her mother sobbed.

‘Still asleep,’ her father said, avoiding her eye. ‘But we’re praying hard.’

The hospital had put them in a room of their own in two beds joined head-to-head. After she woke, they rigged up a mirror so that Martha could see her sister and the machines that kept her alive, and gave her an alarm so that she could call the nurses if there was any change in May.

The doctors explained to Martha that May was in a deep coma and they weren’t sure when she might recover. They couldn’t look at Martha directly when they talked about May’s prognosis, focussing on a point somewhere above her head or reading from the file. The nurses were more sympathetic, chatting to both her and May when they came every hour to turn them over, monitor their blood pressure or check the catheters. But even they avoided talking about the future.

The police came a few days later. ‘We’ve tested the soufflé dishes. May’s was the only one with rat poison. Do you know how it got in there?’ the senior partner asked.

Martha only paused for a moment before answering. ‘We had a problem with mice a few months ago. I put some poison out in the cupboard the soufflé dishes were in. Maybe I just didn’t wash one of them well enough.’

The one that spoke looked at Martha, then at May, then at his partner. His partner shrugged. The senior partner closed his notebook. ‘We’ll get back to you if we have any more questions.’

‘You know where to find me,’ Martha said as they left.

Raul came to see them often at first, sitting for a long time with May, talking to her, holding her hand or playing his guitar. Then he would sit for a while with Martha, but he found it hard to make conversation with her and sometimes gave her a reproachful look. After a while he stopped coming and the next Christmas he sent May a card from Barcelona.

Their parents came every day, of course. Their mother sat with them for hours on end and their father came every night after work. They didn’t doubt that the rat poison had got into the soufflé by accident and they were sure that May would soon recover just as Martha had. Before they left they would kneel by the beds and say the rosary, and as it was a Catholic hospital, they would come every Sunday morning to hear mass with them. But Martha found it hard to join in the prayers as she wasn’t sure what she was praying for.

Finally she got up the courage to ask a young resident doctor what their prognosis was. He was too tired and too inexperienced to prevaricate. ‘Your sister is in what we call a Persistent Vegetative State.’

‘What does that mean?’ Martha asked.

Too late he realised what he had said. He took Martha’s hand. ‘It means she’ll never wake up again. She’s kept alive by the machines.’

Martha knew what that meant. ‘Then I’m trapped here forever.’

The resident pulled up a chair and spoke to her softly. ‘Look, it hasn’t been done before, but… in this case… considering the special circumstances… it might be possible. We’ve got some brilliant surgeons here.’

‘Do you mean we could be separated?’

The young doctor stood up abruptly. ‘It didn’t come from me.’

The next time the doctors visited, Martha put the question to them. The doctors ummed and ahhed and blathered out a stream of long words. Then one of them finally said, ‘We could try, but one or both of you might die.’

‘Aren’t we dead already?’ Martha said.


Much against her own feelings, the hospital social worker helped Martha make the application. The ethics committee argued the case for weeks but they could not condone an operation that would kill one or both patients.

Martha’s parents only heard about it when the ethics committee contacted them as May’s legal guardians. Their father stayed away for a few days. Martha’s mother took her hand next time she visited. ‘I can understand how you feel, love. You’re young and healthy. You just want to get on with your life. I guess you’ve got the right to risk your own, but think of May. We can’t risk her life. Not while there’s hope.’

‘No, Mum, there is no hope,’ Martha wailed. ‘Don’t you understand? May will never wake up.’

‘While there’s life there’s hope, Martha.’

Martha would have turned her face away, but she couldn’t.


But as the months passed and there was no improvement in May’s condition, her parents finally had to admit that there was no hope left. Now their rosaries were not asking for May’s recovery but for enlightenment. What should they do? They consulted Father John, their parish priest, who took the case to the archbishop, who sent to Rome for instructions. Finally the reply came back. Catholics were not required to take ‘extraordinary means of treatment’ to maintain life in such a case — it was not euthanasia, but letting nature take its course — but the surgery would be actively killing the patient. They proposed a compromise. The hospital could turn off the machines, but surgery could not go ahead while May lived.

Despite the endorsement from the Vatican, the hospital ethics committee could still not comply. May’s parents had to go to the Public Guardian to force the hospital to turn off the machines. And so the case hit the news and became a cause celebre for weeks. Martha watched the television coverage from her bed, listening to an array of commentators, lawyers and ethicists — none of whom had ever met her — discuss whether she had a right to a life. Finally the Public Guardian came to the same conclusion as the Pope. Life support could be withdrawn.

The next morning Martha and May were taken to the operating theatre where the surgeons would have to begin operating the moment May was declared dead to minimise any risk to Martha. The surgical team, together with the sisters’ parents in the gallery above, watched in silence as the respirator was turned off. Only the sound of the heart monitor could be heard as it slowed down, faltered for a moment, then suddenly picked up at a slow but steady pace.

Martha woke up to see her parents’ faces looking down at her, just as she had expected, but nothing else was. She had been told she would wake up swathed in bandages and probably in some pain. But everything felt the same. She tried to raise her head, but it was pulled back to the pillow.

Her mother took her hand, smiling at her through tears. ‘Good news, love. May is alive. They turned off all the machines, but she didn’t die. She lived. God had heard our prayers after all. We should never have doubted it.’

‘And the surgery?’ Martha asked weakly.

‘We couldn’t, could we?’ her father said.

Martha closed her eyes, trying to stop her own tears falling down her cheeks.

‘There’s no need to cry, love,’ her mother said. ‘Don’t you see what this means? May doesn’t need to stay in hospital anymore. We can take her home and take care of her there.’


Father John still came to see Martha every week. Even though she had long since stopped saying her confession, he still brought her communion. The nursing home was not an ideal place for the sisters as they were still relatively young, but since their mother had died their father had had no choice. It would have been different if Martha had been able to take care of May by herself. Despite regaining her freedom, Martha had fallen into a deep depression after leaving the hospital. And although she barely left the house, carrying May about had put a strain her spine so that eventually she was confined to a wheelchair.

The priest paused at the door of the dayroom. There they were, against the picture window overlooking the hills, the afternoon sun streaming in around them. Even from this distance he could hear Martha singing and crooning to the shrivelled body she held in her lap, looking, Father John thought guiltily, and not for the first time, like a grotesque parody of a Madonna and Child.


© Pauline Montagna 2013


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