Seeing double

The woman who works in the co-op walks up to me with a laugh on her lips and a light in her eyes as if she’s about to tell me a joke. She’s always there helping customers smooth wrinkly bar codes at the self-scan checkouts, speaking loud and clear for those who can’t hear, and winking at me when she confirms with the till that I’m old enough to buy wine.

Your double was in here ten minutes ago!” she says. “I was about to ask if you’d forgotten something!

Haha, I think, she’s good at her job. Then I think: maybe I was here and I did forget.

It reminds me of a few months ago when I ran past a toddler who was trailing her faster-walking father. The toddler stopped and pointed at me: “There’s a runner!” she exclaimed to her dad. A minute later I hit a dead end and had to turn around and run past the pair again. “There’s ANOTHER runner!” the girl cried.

Haha, I thought, she’s good at being an amazed toddler. Then I thought: maybe there was another runner and maybe I didn’t see them. Maybe the girl was right.

I walk to the library soon after the co-op exchange and listen to a podcast in which Ian McKellen tells Simon Armitage a funny story (it’s about someone called Michael and his poodle, at about ten minutes in). It’s bright in Cambridge, and while Spring isn’t here, there are hints that it won’t be long. On the other side of the road is a woman whose face meets the full glare of the sun, but she doesn’t seem to see it or care about its exposure. Behind her glasses, her eyes are glistening, and her left arm is gripping a fence. Whatever has happened has rendered her immobile. A younger (middle-aged) man is with her. His head is bowed low and his arm rests on the woman’s back. They stand there on the pavement, motionless and silent.

At the library, I’m too distracted to worry about the woman and the man, thanks to a lovely chat with Jane Wilson-Howarth, a writer (and doctor, zoologist and mother), who has: “lived in the East for long enough to be able to say diarrhoea in nine Asian languages.” Amongst other things we talk about neglecting housework for writing. “You can write in dust.” Jane quips. By the time I go home an hour later, the same way I came, I’ve forgotten the woman and the man on the pavement altogether.

The day is still bright, I’m wearing sunglasses, and I’m not really listening to why Ian McKellen is telling Simon Armitage that his childhood was happy, but that it wasn’t, really. My mind is on the conversation I’ve had, the books I’ve borrowed, and Dervla Murphy’s definition of Far-Flungery: “where nobody within 200 miles speaks a syllable of any European language.” In such a place: “one becomes very aware of the range of moods and subtle feelings that may be conveyed visually rather than aurally.” (The Traveller’s Handbook).

Only later, when day dips to dusk and the cold begins to bite, and I know that it’s still winter, do I remember the woman and the man and realise that I hadn’t seen them again. I guess I’m glad they’d moved on from their place on the pavement, but their absence doesn’t signify that things had got any better (or worse).

I also think about the woman in the co-op, and wonder how many times a day she tells people she’s seen their double when they want to buy wine. I think about the toddler whose father also saw me twice and didn’t spoil his daughter’s delight. And I remember how I cursed the sun’s glare, a few days ago, when I was cross about something. I’d taken myself out for a walk and forgotten my sunglasses so became doubly-cross. I sensed that it showed because my fellow walkers in the park seemed to be keeping their distance from me. Or was I keeping my distance from them.

  • seeing double, writing, travel, stories, far-flungery
  • seeing double, writing, travel, stories, far-flungery
  • seeing double, writing, travel, stories, far-flungery
  • seeing double, writing, travel, stories, far-flungery

Dervla Murphy on Desert Island Discs.

Dervla Murphy on Intrepid Women.