Collapsing Into Life
If you wish to view Rachelle Meyer's wonderful animated GIFs that accompanied this story in Cracked Eye, you can find them here (images 5-8 only)
My collapse began with a message on my voicemail. It was Richard, sounding cheerful.
"Hi Melissa, I'm just calling to say thanks for a wonderful Saturday night..." He paused for a moment, as if considering his choice of words. "I reckon we should do another gig, soon as possible. Until then, you take care. And, um, call me, right?"
Richard's message left me feeling bemused. That he sounded concerned for me was not the issue, as nothing had changed on that score since 2005, when we met at that year's Glastonbury Festival. No, my problem was that I'd spent Saturday evening slumped in front of my sister's television with a tub of paprika-flavoured Pringles and a bottle of Chilean Merlot for company, not bouncing around in some sweaty mosh-pit with Richard. In point of fact, I hadn't seen him in months.
So whoever it was that Richard should have thanked, it definitely wasn't me.
I'd promised Pamela that I'd tidy my bedroom – or rather her spare bedroom, as she reminded me on a daily basis – but after lobbing a few items of unwashed clothing into the wardrobe, the usual distractions got the better of me. Plucking ineffectually at my perennially five-stringed guitar, I contemplated the inescapable fact that the junk surrounding me represented only a fraction of my possessions.
Three months had passed since my falling-out with Mark had deposited me on the doorstep of my sister's flat in Tooting. At the time, I'd told Pamela I only needed a couple of weeks to sort myself out. She had known better of course, but accepted the situation with her usual mixture of stoicism and whinging.
After strumming a few bars of The White Stripes' Hotel Yorba, I placed the guitar on my bed and stood up to inspect myself in the wardrobe's full-length mirror. Not wishing to inflict such a wan visage on Jerome, I reached for the blusher and lipstick.
A knock at the door interrupted my repairs. I heard a muffled remark to the effect that we were out of milk again. Maintaining a tactical silence, I listened to Pamela clump down the hallway in the clogs she always wore indoors, a tawdry memento of some Aegean island holiday. Hopelessly unfashionable, but that's Pamela for you. Separated by three years of age and two inches of height, we otherwise looked very similar, our genes having equipped us with glossy auburn hair, hazel eyes and skinny hips, plus, it seemed, a fundamental antipathy for each other's way of life. Yet we had lived together on several occasions, invariably making each other miserable in the process.
Thinking that I was out of danger, I laced up my Doc Martens, grabbed my leather jacket and pushed open the door. Pamela stood waiting for me at the end of the hallway, her arms folded.
"Off out again, Melissa?"
"What's it to you?"
Jealousy I reckoned.
"So, who is it this time?"
"It's none of your business, but if you must know I'm meeting up with Richard. You remember Richard? Anyway, I haven't seen him in months, so..."
I expected my spur-of-the-moment lie to silence Pamela, not least because she'd always fancied Richard. But instead of feigning indifference and returning to the kitchen she fixed me with an accusatory stare.
"Why lie to me, Melissa?"
I frowned back at her. "What do you mean?"
"You met up with Richard on Saturday night. You told me about it the next day!" Her gaze narrowed, as if to bring my alleged misdeeds into sharper focus. "So why change your story now?"
"Don't be ridiculous! I spent Saturday evening here, on my own, watching episodes of Arrested Development!"
Pamela groaned and retreated into the kitchen, leaving me to exit her flat wondering whether she and Richard really knew more about my life than I did.
Happy-looking couples thronged Upper Street, their evenings just beginning, whereas I was slinking home through the drizzle because Jerome had stood me up. I'd texted him three times without receiving a reply. Finally I summoned up the courage to phone him. After listening to his impersonation of Arnold Schwarzenegger saying "I'll be back," I left a suitable riposte on his voicemail.
Doubtless Jerome was having a good time, whoever he was seeing, but he'd seen the last of me. Or rather, he'd receive one further visit, so I could collect my stash of clothing and books I kept at his flat. I suspected he would smile nonchalantly and wish me well. Pamela's reaction to the arrival of another instalment of my belongings was every bit as predictable.
Two blocks from the station, the drizzle turned into a downpour. A car had just splashed through a puddle, soaking my legs, when I spotted a couple making a risky dash across the road. I had never seen the skinny blonde before, but the muscular guy with the spiky black hair I knew all too well.
I stepped forwards and shrieked "How dare you!" into Jerome's face. He batted away my right hand as it swung towards his cheek. "Melissa, what's up?"
"You know damned well!"
Jerome turned to his gawping companion, held out both hands and shrugged. "It was she who dumped me, and that was a month ago!"
Stunned by this revelation, I mumbled my apologies and sprinted towards the tube station.
I was still trembling when I boarded the southbound train. Unable to make sense of this latest revelation about my personal life, I consoled myself with the thought that at least I wouldn't have to endure Jerome's penchant for painful sex any more.
My double life had an upside, evidently.
A thick bundle of contract papers thudded onto my desk. I looked up. Vivienne was smirking, as usual.
"So you've actually made it to work today? Congratulations, my dear! But fear not; subbing for you yesterday was a breeze."
Vivienne's espresso-strength sarcasm had been a feature of my working life ever since I'd joined Pitney Briers LLP. Still, she'd covered for my lapses on countless occasions. This time, however, she had gone too far, because I could recall every humiliation dished out at yesterday's review meeting. Afterwards, I had joined my fellow sufferers around the coffee pot and sought solace in gossip.
I recalled the acrid taste of the coffee, the sniping at absent colleagues. Oh, I had been there all right!
So why should Vivienne think otherwise? Exasperating she might be, but she was efficient, observant and no more prone to telling lies than Pamela or Richard; or Jerome for that matter.
"Oh, um... Well, thanks for bailing me out."
Vivienne nodded, her blonde fringe flopping over peach-perfect face. "Oh, I nearly forgot," she said. "I took a phone call for you from Richard."
At work? That was a first!
"Well, thanks for letting me know."
"He did ask that you phone him back."
Presumably this titbit of gossip was already circulating the office. My shrug did the trick. Vivienne departed, no doubt appalled by my casual attitude to social interactions.
Thereafter I tried hard to focus on my work, but the paradox that it was either five days or as many months since I had last met Richard kept distracting me. Finally I gave up and reached for the phone.
This time I made the date.
The guitarist of The Fallen Angels roamed Alphaville's tiny stage like a penned-in tiger, coaxing caterwauls of feedback from her amplifier. She pulled the neck of her Stratocaster back and forth, as if strangling a swan. The volume pushed out by the PA system was sufficient to make me press the tips of my forefingers deep into my ears.
I looked up at Richard's face. Though his eyes were closed, his expression suggested that he was enjoying the music. Presumably his hearing was as immune to the decibels as his flawless complexion was to the ravages of time. If some enterprising biotech company were to discover Richard Marsden, it would make a fortune from ransacking his genes.
Richard clapped and whistled as the band ambled off stage. I tapped one hand against my glass with less enthusiasm, although in truth the music had been better than the preview in Time Out had led me to expect. With the PA now blaring out Punk classics at a marginally lower volume, I tugged on Richard's leather jacket, then stood on tiptoe and shouted in his ear.
"Come on, let's get a drink!"
We squirmed through the crowd of sweaty, jostling youths. Back at the bar a conversation was possible, with effort.
"Is everything okay?" Richard said, his lips brushing my ear. "You sounded kind-of tense when we spoke on the phone earlier today."
I took a sip of vodka, and then shook my head.
Richard gestured towards an unoccupied alcove. The plastic seats were sticky with beer, but we claimed them anyway, just ahead of a group of teenaged girls sporting glow-in-the-dark tattoos. Tough shit, I mouthed when they looked like making a fuss. In any case, they were much too young to impress me.
Now that I had steadied my nerves with a trivial victory, I felt ready to tell Richard my story.
I watched his face while I recounted the events of the past few days. His steepled fingers tapped against the tip of his nose, indicating that he was deep in thought. A couple of minutes elapsed after I'd finished before he broke his silence.
"Melissa, we did meet up here on Saturday night, honest. We saw a couple of bands, got a bit drunk, and then went back to my place for coffee." He looked me straight in the eyes. "I told you about my promotion. Don't you remember any of it?"
"Richard, I wasn't with you! Like I said, I was at Pamela's flat watching telly."
"Yeah, four episodes of Arrested Development." He rolled his eyes. "Wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy!"
Over the years, we'd happily argued the merits or otherwise of American popular culture. This time, though, he sounded bewildered rather than belligerent.
I pulled a face. "It must be five months since we last met up. I didn't see you on Saturday. You must be confusing me with someone else!"
Richard frowned. "Look, we can't both be right."
I stared into my glass, counting the bubbles. It seemed a less futile activity than continuing our conversation. I couldn't let the matter rest there, though.
"I am telling you the truth," I said.
"Well, in that case there must be two of you."
The idea was preposterous, but Richard rarely made fun of me.
"Go on," I prompted.
"Nature abhors a vacuum, right? Well, maybe it's true of society, too. Perhaps someone has noticed that you've abandoned your social niche and is trying to take your place."
I stared at Richard, unable to believe that he was spouting such nonsense. Despite the esoteric nature of his research at Ultra Technologies, he had never before shown a tendency to confuse science fiction with real life.
"You are joking, aren't you?" I said.
Now there was a hint of a smile from Richard.
"Well, up to a point." He paused for a moment, as if searching for words that wouldn't offend me. "But Melissa, you've withdrawn from so much of late. Last Saturday, you told me you hadn't been to a gig for over a year. And as for going to the theatre or visiting an art gallery..."
"That's hardly fair!" I countered. "Only last night, I was out—"
Richard's despairing expression silenced me. I'd never kept any secrets from him. He knew about Jerome and the others, although he usually kept his opinions to himself.
"I've moved on," I muttered.
"But not to Brighton, I see. That was always the plan, wasn't it? Instead, you've moved in with your sister – again."
I wasn't sure whether it was exasperation or pity he felt for me. Then again, maybe it was a sense of loss. After Glastonbury we'd had a lot of fun, in a brother-and-sister kind of way. Of late, though, we'd been drifting apart.
"There was even a time when you liked your job," he continued. "Whereas now you just stumble through it like a zombie on Novocaine, while Vivienne tramples all over you."
"Okay, enough already!" I glared at him, furious that he should try to psychoanalyse me in this way. "I admit that I've been a bit withdrawn of late. But your theory is absurd. Worse, it's an insult to my intelligence! If someone really were trying to take my place, she would have to look exactly like me. Damn it, she would be me!"
The way Richard peered at me felt too penetrating for comfort. "Yeah," he said, "that's pretty much the conclusion I came to."
"Get a kick out of dating impersonators, do you?"
Stung by the rebuke, Richard shook his head and turned away.
"Didn't mean it," I mumbled.
Richard sighed at he got to his feet. "I think I'd better go," he said, carefully avoiding eye contact. "I'll see you sometime."
Sometime as in never, I guessed from his tone.
I didn't follow him out. Instead I wandered back towards the mosh-pit. Just then, numbing my brain with another hour's worth of screechy indie-pop seemed preferable to weeping my way back across London.
Needless to say, it was Richard who phoned me. Over the years, I have had good reason to be grateful for his resilience.
"Look, Melissa. I really want to make up for last night."
I spun out the silence a bit, to make it absolutely clear that he had offended me.
"I'll do anything," he pleaded.
"Okay, Richard. You're forgiven."
I heard a sigh of relief.
"But you do owe me one."
"Fair enough," he said.
"I've been thinking about your theory that an impostor is trying to take over my life."
This time Richard groaned. "Look, I was joking, okay?"
"It's too late to squirm off the hook now."
His "okay" sounded reluctant but I pushed ahead anyway.
"So this is what we're going to do..."
With the benefit of hindsight, I should have known better than to stalk myself.
The plan was for Richard to phone me every Thursday morning, asking me out on a date. Each time, I turned him down. As a consequence, Vivienne got to spread a lot of gossip around the office and I got to watch a lot of television.
Four weeks passed before I received a letter from Richard. I didn't need to open the envelope to understand the significance of its contents. He had been out with her – with the other me. Apparently I'd phoned him in order to break our "no dates" arrangement. Richard put up with these shenanigans with characteristic good humour.
The next time was even weirder.
We set up the "no dates" arrangement again, but with one crucial difference. This time, when Richard received the phone call from the other me, he would send an email containing details of when and where they had agreed to meet. To her, it would look like a routine confirmation, whereas to me it signalled an imminent showdown.
A week passed before I received that e-mail. All being well, I would be meeting my doppelganger on Friday evening. Just thinking about the prospect gave me gooseflesh.
I arrived at Point 101 in good time. Having found an empty table on the upper floor, I nursed a vodka while trying to concentrate on a Philip K. Dick novel Richard had leant me years ago. I'd barely finished the third page when a trio of City traders claimed the spare seats. I endured their whispered comments for fifteen minutes before seeking sanctuary in the toilet. Ensconced in the one free cubicle, I phoned Richard. He answered on the fourth ring.
According to him, I'd phoned that afternoon to cancel the arrangement.
That night, I decided to phone myself.
Logic suggests that when I tapped in the number I should have been connected to my voicemail. Instead, I heard the faint sound of breathing coming over the line, echoing my own.
Adrenalin made my heart pound like a jackhammer, yet when I tried to say something the words would not come.
I don't recall which of us hung up first.
Richard and I had just settled down for the evening in All Bar One. Unsurprisingly, our latest meet-up had proved difficult to arrange. But here I was, nursing a double measure of vodka and hoping that Richard could help me unravel the tangled strands of my life.
"Come on," I pleaded, "you might at least try to persuade me that I'm not the victim of supernatural forces. Or is it that I'm the unwitting subject of an experiment conducted by Ultra Technologies?"
Richard shook his head but said nothing.
Finally he looked up from the figures he'd been drawing in the beer he'd slopped onto the tabletop.
"Don't you remember anything of that Saturday evening?"
"I told you already: I wasn't with you!"
He sighed. "After the gig, we went back to my flat for coffee. I told you that I'd been transferred onto Ultra's Quantum Computing project. You were really pleased for me, and insisted that I teach you some quantum physics. It's bloody difficult to explain entanglement and superposition when you're drunk, but I did my best."
Richard looked into my eyes for several seconds; then he shook his head again.
"Melissa, you don't have a doppelganger, at least not in the physical sense. But ever since that evening at The Underworld, you've been living your life in a schizoid way. Maybe you took what I said about quantum mechanics to heart. Perhaps you saw it as a metaphor for your own situation. I don't know. What I do know for sure is that while you don't have a physical double, you have been behaving as if there are two versions of you."
His new theory seemed no less ridiculous than his previous one. At least that had been a joke, albeit in dubious taste. Was he being serious now?
"So, which Melissa are you hoping for – the rock chick or the woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown?"
"I'll leave the manic depressive for her sister to deal with," Richard said with a trace of a smile. "She can continue to have a lousy time at work, too."
I was about to argue that point, as I'd already made up my mind about the advisability of suffering further put-downs from Vivienne. Then I noticed that Richard was frowning. Something was still bothering him.
"Melissa, I'm glad you can joke about your condition, but that doesn't make it any less real. You do have a problem. And I don't think you can just wish it away."
"But if you knew all along, why didn't you tell me until now?"
"To be frank, I tolerated your behaviour because I thought something good might come out of it – for both of us. That was a stupid thing to believe. So I'm ending this charade right now; my part in it anyway."
We sat in silence while I tried to digest everything Richard had told me. As for what he was thinking, goodness only knows. Perhaps he was trying to remember the name of a good psychoanalyst. Rather than risk the embarrassment, I decided to take charge of my own treatment.
"Just now, you suggested that I might have taken your quantum mechanics lesson literally. For pity's sake, what did you tell me?"
Richard groaned in embarrassment.
"I described Karl Schrödinger's famous thought-experiment, in which he imagines shutting a cat in a box which contains a mechanism that might – or might not – kill it. According to one version of quantum mechanics, the cat is both dead and alive while the box is closed. It only becomes either dead or alive when the box is opened. Until then its quantum states are superposed, its fate unresolved."
I pondered this paradox for a bit.
"So I'm like Schrödinger's cat, existing in a pair of contradictory states while I wait for something to happen in the real world."
Richard groaned again. "Look Melissa, it was only a thought-experiment. You weren't supposed to take it literally!"
Even so, I found the analogy oddly comforting, if only because it suggested that a happy ending might still be possible. I toyed with my empty glass while pondering quantum cats and my tangled-up life.
"It's time I took control," I said.
"Can I help?"
Richard gave me a dejected look when I declined his offer. I was sorry to hurt his feelings, but I felt certain that disentangling Melissa was solely my responsibility.
So I gave my Doc Martens to Pamela.
Then I emailed my resignation to Vivienne.
Next I posted a dried-up turd to Jerome.
Finally I kissed Richard goodbye.
The wave rasped up the shingle slope, depositing flecks of foam a couple of metres from my bare toes before sluicing away again. The air smelt of ozone, of seaweed, of emptiness. Above me, herring gulls screeched defiance. To them, I was the impostor.
A trebly rendition of Alone Again Or interrupted my thoughts. I pulled my new phone from my handbag. There was only one person who knew this number.
"Hi, Melissa. How are things?" Richard sounded wary, as if he feared he might be intruding. In truth, he was.
"I'm okay." I paused for a moment, hoping he would take the hint. No such luck. "Look, Richard, I need to be alone. For a few weeks, or a few months, or maybe forever – I don't know yet. Just tell Pamela I'm safe, that I'm doing fine."
The ensuing silence was proof of his feelings for me; feelings that I had never been able to return, although I had often wished I could.
Without warning, a memory flashed into my mind: the two of us cavorting on a double bed, having just discarded our clothes and years of inhibitions. I remembered laughing at Richard's corny joke about becoming entangled, then came the heart-pounding, core-melting, ear-ringing orgasm: my personal moment of superposition. Maybe that was the debut of the other me.
"Are you still there?"
"Yes. I was just recalling what we got up to on that Saturday night." I paused for a moment while I pondered what to say. "I don't blame you – or myself for that matter – but for the sake of our friendship it must never happen again."
I heard a drawn-out sigh, then: "I suppose not."
"I'm really sorry about everything," I said.
"I guess so."
The line went dead.
As the gloom gathered, the incoming tide pushed the waves ever closer to my feet. Lulled by the gentle rhythm, my mind drifted into a state of anticipation. My superposed waveforms teetered on the brink of collapse, but something still held back the inundation of reality into my life.
When at last the surf tickled my toes, I pushed myself upright. One of us would have to make the call. Shivering with cold rather than fear, I picked up my phone and called my own number. I heard breathing.
"Look," I said, "we need to—"
Hearing those words echo in my ear made me shudder.
She ended the call.
I haven't heard anything of that other me since, which is good.
I've moved in with Pamela again, which is not.
We argue incessantly. I suppose some things will never change. Others do, though. I mean, who'd have thought Pamela would ever ask to borrow my
Maybe I ought to give them to her.
© 2016 2017 Vaughan Stanger
Originally published in Cracked Eye (2016)
Reprinted with the kind permission of The Other Publishing Company Ltd