ISN’T IT RICH? ARE WE A PEAR?

  • Isn’t it rich?
  • Are we a pair?
  • Me here at last on the ground,
  • You in mid-air.
  • Send in the clowns.

Stephen Sondheim: Send in the Clowns

 Sorry about the pun. Couldn’t resist.

I’ve been thinking about doppelgangers – or doppelgänger if you want to be faithful to the original German. I mean, it is the sort of thing you think about, isn’t it? With Halloween coming up an’ all.

My first brush with these mysterious doubles took place, unusually for me, in real life rather than literature. I was in my twenties – a couple of years married – and had just started a job at a small publishing firm. This small publishing firm was at the far end of a dire industrial estate. I sometimes feel as if I have served time in every office on every dire, concreted-over, weed-and-speed-bump infested industrial estate in the South East of England.

We published two things, mainly – Book Auction Records and Art Prices Current. My official title was Editorial Assistant but all I had to do, all day long, was leaf through auction room catalogues converting catalogue entries into reference-book entries – selecting the required information and abbreviating it. This abbreviated gobbledegook then got transferred onto a white file card and filed into a filing cabinet. Our boss had a personal hygiene problem. One of the girls I worked with – a real hippie, with long blond hair done in those marvellous ripples you could achieve by plaiting and sleeping in the plaits overnight – used to file white cards at random:

Mr X should buy deodorant… Mr X niffs a bit.

I felt a bit sorry for him really, poor wee fellow.

Back to doppelgangers. One morning one of my fellow lady Editorial Assistants remarked in a knowing tone that she’d caught sight of me one lunchtime getting out of my car and going into some man’s house. This was in a road I had never heard of, in a part of the town that as far as I knew I had never visited. I had only moved into the area when I got married, from forty miles away. I told her she must be mistaken but she swore black’s blue it was me. Then someone else said they had also seen me, in another part of town. At this point I stated to worry, if only to myself. Could I have somehow visited these streets and these mystery men during some sort of sleepwalking or schizophrenic episode? When I continued to insist that I had never been there I got knowing nods and winks all round and realised it was hopeless – they were smugly convinced I was having an affair and had been visiting these unknown roads/men for some noontime nookie.

Then my husband came home one day and said the people in the newsagents round the corner from our flat had accused his wife of not coming in to collect and pay for the serialised sewing magazine she had ordered, and would he please ask his wife to pay up. He was annoyed. I was bewildered. I had certainly been into that shop once or twice but had no memory whatsoever of ordering a sewing magazine. I wasn’t even interested in sewing.

After I had protested my innocence at great and tearful length he said it was OK, but I could sense that he neither trusted nor believe me. And of course I could never set foot in that shop again. What sort of mischief was ‘other me’ up to? Was she deliberately playing tricks on me? After that I scanned the crowds for ‘me’ everywhere I went in the town but I never, ever spotted ‘me’. I came to the conclusion that ‘me’ existed purely for the purpose of being spotted by other people.

Writing this, I suddenly recall a poem I wrote there, around the same time – Remembrance Day, it was called. The poem has long since vanished. I can only remember one line, probably because it was the only line worth remembering:

While my green ghost stands behind me spending money.

Thinking about it does bring back the general atmosphere of the poem. It was written, unsurprisingly, on Remembrance Day (the eleventh day of the eleventh month) and was partly sparked off by the little wooden crosses with poppies on, arranged around a war memorial in a little park, the park being the space once occupied by the town’s main church, destroyed by a wartime bomb. There was just one small corner left standing, a kind of clock-tower. The rest was now neatly-mown grass, and a pathway, and this memorial surrounded in November by poppies and crosses, paying tribute to the dead of the two World Wars.

I remember standing around in the November drizzle staring into shop windows and wishing I had some money – any money – to spend on something. Retail therapy: I just desperately wanted to spend something, on anything, to make myself feel better. The green ghost was a kind of avaricious alter-ego. I remember being very, very unhappy in that God-forsaken seaside town that wet November, no doubt because I had married the wrong man and knew he was the wrong man even before I married him, and because there seemed to be no possible escape from the situation I had got myself into. I had thrown away my career for a lifetime of dead-end jobs and unhappy co-incarceration with a man who was wishing he hadn’t married me. In my misery, could I have somehow brought into being that ‘green ghost’, as young teenagers are said to create the poltergeists which wreak violent havoc on their behalf?

After four years we left that town and never came back, and as far as I know my double did not come after me. Is it possible she is still meandering round the old town, placing orders for things in newsagents and not returning to pay for them, visiting strange men and making sure people see her doing so? Maybe she doesn’t realise I’ve left…

… and with any luck she won’t be reading this blog.

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