I have to admit to noticing him a number of times before taking the time to attend to his existence. Fleeting glimpses in the midst of a crowd. A chance sighting as I sped past in my car. The blurred reflection in the train window. I dismissed each and every occurrence as a waking cheese dream.
You see, I have a pet theory, a half-baked hypothesis that I concocted on the hoof as it were. My musings centred around the simplicity of faces. There are only so many combinations of features and this helps explain my regular encounters with the familiar. Largely, the familiarity exists only because the combinations presented to me bear a similarity to combinations I have already experienced.
This theory has helped stave off the embarrassing situations that plagued me when I was younger. The impetus of youth compelling me to address each and every person I recognised, only to discover I did not know them at all, and so both parties were subjected to a wholly avoidable awkwardness. I adapted and removed myself a step or three from these silly eventualities, and that was all for the best.
I would that I had developed the theory further, so that I made myself a hermit as far as new acquaintance was concerned. I’d an abundance of friends and no burning need for more. The mechanism for the initiation of those friendships was not that I was gregarious, only that I was polite and also interested. I hid my shyness well. One of the best ways to do so is to be interested in those around me. I ask them questions of themselves and then I sit back and listen. Listening helps me relax and once conversation is in full flow I can be myself a little more. An interesting aspect of this strategy of mine is that I am observed to be talkative and gregarious! Funny how perceptions can deceive.
There was an inevitability to what happened. I was sleepwalking in ever decreasing circles and it seems I was destined to land up where I did. Fate did its thing. I sometimes wonder whether fate is like the wind. That it is not cruel, it just is.
I had seen him before, but I would not have admitted to seeing him before. He was a dawning realisation. And on this day we were confronted with the reality of our existences. We came face to face with one another and there was no escaping it any longer.
I have a wish to dramatise the occasion and in so doing, I have a vision of our standing on a path facing each other. Our faces curious and our movements deliberately slow as we mirror each other’s movements fluidly and effortlessly. From this moment, it was obvious to us both that we were mirror images of one another, so much so that one of us, I can no longer remember which, asked the other which was their writing hand. Mine is right. His is left. So you see, we really were mirror images of each other.
The truth of our first meeting was that I was sat outside a coffee house with a cappuccino. Cappuccino is not my favourite coffee. After a meal I will indulge in an espresso, but a cappuccino lasts longer and this prolongs the validity of my stay at a table in a coffee house.
When he appeared, I was on my phone and so my head was bowed in worship of the screen.
“May I sit here?” he asked me.
“Sure,” I said without looking up.
There then elapsed something like five minutes as I attended to more of my emails, stifling moans and cries at the laxness, laziness and lunacy of my work colleagues. My work place is five minutes from this coffee establishment. I come here to escape the ridiculous pressure of inept people inflicting themselves on all those around them. I know that I am not the only one who feels this unwarranted oppression, but no one else seems to do anything about it. I have never understood how this can be the case and I am beginning to fear that I never will.
It is a marvel that we sat at the same small table enraptured in our own little worlds and neither of us noticing the other. There was though, a growing momentum that gradually distracted me from my emails and my phone. The same force was working upon my counterpart in equal measure for as I placed my phone down, so did he. We both reached for our coffees, noticed the mirrored act and looked up for the very first time with a warm smile on our faces.
Then I saw him and something happened in that moment that I will never be able to fully explain. In the seeing of him and the recognition of what he was, my world jolted. My world. But it felt like the whole world skipped a beat. There was a momentary earthquake that only I was aware of. Only me. I never once asked him whether he experienced it and somehow I know the answer. He didn’t. That should tell me everything I need to know. Or not, as the case may be.
Just for one insane second, I was hit with something that shook me to the core. My teeth jarred and my chest cavity boomed. All of my muscles tensed painfully and I thought I was going to implode. But then it was gone. I’d been struck by silent lightening and not one person witnessed it. Except him. I think he knew that something had happened to me, and yet he said not a word. Instead we sat across from each other taking the impossible scene in. Instantly, it was obvious that it was not the case that we were alike. We were exactly the same. He was wearing the same clothing as me. Same brands, same ageing. Everything matched. He had his left leg crossed over his right. My right leg was over the left. Even our socks were the same mismatched socks.
“Well this is odd,” said I, having spotted his odd socks. That in itself, the matching odd socks, would be worthy of this opening line.
“That’s one way of putting it,” said the mirror man opposite me. He even sounded like me, but with one significant difference. I quite liked the sound of his voice, whereas I had always despised my own, reedy and weak tones.
This matter of our voices was a part of my undoing. I see that now. Retrospect affords me that, but nothing more. Retrospect is a dark harridan crawling over the battlefield of loss, sucking the last remnants of life from the fallen. That cursed bitch comes along when it is too late and pushes the knife in a little further whilst twisting it this way and that to discover further nerve endings to send her messages of pain through the body of the grieving loser.
My mirror had an advantage over me from the very start. I was predisposed to like him, whereas I am inclined not to automatically like me. This is not unusual. This is how we are all built. We are social creatures. We want to get along in our group and the best way for that to happen is to want to like those people whilst always looking out for them and looking after them.
Our self is a different matter though. Our predisposition in this respect is to be self-critical. This is necessary. We must adapt in order to survive in our environment and the best forms of adaptation allow us to improve and in improving we do more than merely survive.
We also assume far too much. I created more than my fair share of assumptions when it came to him, and those assumptions all fell under a banner named He’s The Same As Me. I can see why I did this and the simple reason was that he was the same as me. He was so alike that he was too good to be true. I felt that in my gut from the very beginning, but in the shock and confusion of his appearance in my life I overruled that gut feeling. I chose to interpret it incorrectly and that was a big mistake. I did myself a disservice and as I got to know this man I continued to disregard myself in the matter, so much so that I told myself that I was jealous of him and that that was all there was to it. Jealous of myself for being better than I was. You can see how it might get quite confusing in matters such as these.
As you can imagine, we talked. We talked at length and I did not go back to work. My phone lay untouched for a record extent of time and I did not even bother ordering another coffee to justify my protracted stay at the table. Eventually, we agreed that we should move on elsewhere. I suggested a pub that wasn’t far, but far enough away that it was unlikely any of my workmates would be there. The pub in question was a favourite of mine. A quiet spot with well kept ales. And of course it was a favourite of his too.
Initially, we laughed at our commonality, but after a while it became habit and we noted it less and less. It took its toll though. Every instance where we shared a like or a mannerism, or whatever else a person does in the course of their life, seemed to take something away from me. Again I ignored my unease. This denial came easily. Each instance was insignificant and to highlight it would be so very petty. But the snowflakes kept falling and in the end the threat of avalanche would become too big to ignore.
At the end of our first meeting I suggested bringing him back home with me. I was drunk and I knew it. He was drunk too and it seemed like he was drunk like me, but again I made his brand of being better than mine. You wouldn’t know it to look at him that he was drunk. I only knew he was drunk because he was me and I was drunk, and so I discounted that and looked up to the better version of me.
“We shouldn’t,” he said sensibly when I asked him.
“It would be fun though!” I grinned wickedly because I was having childishly wicked thoughts. Sophie would be blown away when we eventually revealed the existence of a second me! My inebriated mind was bouncing around all sorts of hilarious capers. I’d heard stories of identical twins stitching unsuspecting people up. I wouldn’t go too far. I just wanted fun. People do go too far though, even in the pursuit of a gag. All too easy not to think things through. Getting carried away in the pursuit of fun is an occupational hazard. The same goes for being drunk. Combining the two is a recipe for disaster.
“All in good time,” he’d said with a disconcerting wink.
If only my hangover hadn’t distracted me from the warnings and reservations that had at one point crowded in on me. Uncomfortable thoughts that verged on the paranoid. Disturbing thoughts of a dark version of me. Disturbing because I was being invited to consider the dark things that I might be capable of, especially if I knew I had a good chance of getting away with them.
The day following my revelatory meeting I worked from home and kept my head down. My head was sore and I felt the usual guilt of overindulging in beer, but this time it was amplified.
“Are you OK?” Sophie asked as we sat together having lunch.
“Overdid it last night,” I told her.
She gave me a look of uncertainty. This was different. I’d overdone it before and never acted like this. Truth was, I didn’t want to tell her the truth and that was a betrayal. I’d been with someone last night and I was concealing it from her. I didn’t want to tell her and I wasn’t sure what my motives for this were. Some may have been noble, but there was a high probability that I was not playing it straight for nefarious means also.
Memory loss did not help matters. In the absence of memory I had this uneasy feeling that I had spilled my guts and told him plenty about me and my life, but in return was this absence. And the absence hurt. It wasn’t just that he had not been forthcoming, it was that he had mined me for what it was that he wanted. He had been intent on taking and that was as far as it went.
As I recovered from my hangover, I put such thoughts behind me. A part of me did wonder whether I had dreamt the whole thing. The prospect of a doppelganger was far too fantastical for it to be real. I clung to the dream explanation far too fiercely. The reality of him frightened me, so much so that when I looked in the bathroom mirror that evening I gave myself a shock. I caught a glimpse of what I would say was the temporary nature of our existence. I thought I’d seen through myself as though I were fading. Comically, I poked at my face and then pulled down on my lower eyelids as though these actions would expose the truth of the matter.
Sleep came to me readily that evening, but when I awoke it were as though I had not slept at all. On the train to work I indulged in my habitual email checking and responding, but then took a break and checked my contacts. His details were in my phone. He was real enough. And as though my looking him up had summoned his attention, I received a text from him.
Great to meet. Unusual request, but can we meet after work today? I have something I need to tell you.
I wanted to refuse him. I really wanted to reply telling him that I couldn’t. Or better still, to ignore him entirely. But I could not. It wasn’t just curiosity. There was something more than that. I thought it was perhaps a unique bond that the two of us had.
Work dragged and raced by in a distracted blur. I wanted it to end and I never wanted it to end. I walked through treacle to get to our pub and got there all too soon, and yet there he was awaiting my arrival.
He smiled, he actually smiled and something about that smile made me grieve. It filled me with a terrible sorrow and a sense that there was no turning back if there had ever been a chance of that at all.
It’s been three days, I thought to myself, only three days.
I think I knew what he was going to say before he opened his mouth to deliver his news. If not the words, then the sentiment. It was his calm, confidence and self-satisfaction that got to me. I remember thinking how could you!?
Meekly I sat at the same round table we’d occupied a couple of nights ago. He ushered me to my seat and the awaiting beer. We mirrored our first big drink from the pint, but this time I saw no comedy in it.
Placing the beer down, we faced each other and I faced my fate.
“I’ll just come out with it,” he told me, “it’s the only way.”
I nodded, fighting the urge to cry, or to flee, or to slip from my seat and hide in the dark place under the table.
“I’m dying,” he said.
He said it warmly and almost gleefully. He said it in the same way that someone might tell you they’ve inherited a considerable sum or they’re being awarded the Nobel Prize.
He said it and I knew what it really meant from my own, personal, dedicated mirror man.
It was me. I was the one that was dying.
Now he was nodding.
“And you’re here to present me with a choice?” I asked him, but I already knew this was what he was about.
“Well done,” he said patronisingly, “they don’t always cotton on to that bit you know.”
They, he definitely said they, but I made the choice anyway. How could I not? The alternative was selfish, or so I thought. Now I’m not so sure.
I agreed to the swap. Better for Sophie. Better for our girls. I couldn’t put them through all of that. Better to save them from the pain of seeing me deteriorate in front of them. Better to give them all what they want.
Only a better version of me.
Only now I’m having second thoughts. Now I see that maybe he isn’t quite the same as me. And the difference between us is as clear as night and day. He wasn’t a mirror image of me after all. Or maybe he was and the mirror cracked and he found a way through.
He’s evil you see. He’s the dark image that we fear we might become if we lose control. He’s the one that sends those terrible thoughts and urges into our heads reminding us of the monster we could be if we don’t behave and hold it together.
All I wanted was for Sophie and the girls to be OK. My intentions were honourable. But the real truth of it is I was scared and I gave up on myself when I should have been there for them. Now there’s no one to stop him.
And I know he will stop at nothing.
After all, he’s me.