My friend Dave and I were in another obscure pub in South Kensington and he was telling me again that he had a doppelganger who sold newspapers and magazines at Baron’s Court Station. Actually, he said, the double had probably retired by now. He himself would have done if he had to do that job for years. It was the second time I had heard the story so we didn’t get far with it. Instead we turned to anomalous and unexpected places, and Dave’s theory of urban mazes. Dave had quite a thing about mazes, and ornamental gardens, something he had in common with one of his colleagues, a woman named Dee. Or who called herself Dee as he put it. She was Japanese he said, and Dee is not a Japanese name. She seemed Japanese in other ways he thought, but just as I was loosing interest in her he told me that the other staff sometimes called her the Time Traveller. Why was that? Well, sometimes she didn’t seem to understand fairly basic things about the world and the way it is. Or she would suddenly express an interest in something that she had discovered as if it wasn’t already well known to most people. He called it the “oh those Beatles” syndrome. And he added as if this was the clincher, she always wore long dresses or skirts.
Well. not uncommon surely, especially these days. But this was not good enough for him. I tell you she dresses like she just stepped out of a time machine. Well, that proves it I said. Missing Dr Who companion, vampire, some other kind of immortal. But time travel is a bit unlikely. We’ve all seen those pictures which look like someone using a mobile phone in an old photograph. It’s amusing, might even be worth a mention in Fortean Times. You should meet her. She sounds a bit young for me I said. It’s always a bit distasteful. an older man with some young woman. Then I digressed with a story about how I had seen from the upper deck of a bus a pretty young woman bidding a found farewell to her boyfriend, some big nosed older guy who clearly couldn’t believe his luck at this girl fawning on him. No, I’ll make sure she knows I’m not trying to set you up. I’ll tell her you’re an expert on history, and not a dirty old man at all. Fifty three isn’t old I said, recalling Kingsley Amis in the Green Man citing it as the age when things started to go down hill for a while. We veered off for a while and then he produced his punch line, an photograph of an actual maze. This is the small maze at Arcover House – the place where the Cyanogrphers used to meet. It’s gone now, ripped up in the war. Dee talks as if she’s actually seen it.
Okay then, worth a look. We arranged to meet in the same pub. I brought along my tablet, loaded with views of old Kensington, to establish my bona fides or to fill in any lulls in the conversation. At the last minute I got a text from Dave saying he couldn’t come, and that Dee had changed her look (what did that mean?). I remembered the pre-mobile era when if you made an arrangement, you had to stick with it, or just stand the other person up. You couldn’t make a vague arrangement and then text the fine details, or phone the person up and find them waving to you from down the street. On the other hand, staring at a phone or a laptop is a good way of looking like you’re doing something when you’re sitting alone somewhere. I was doing that when I noticed a woman was standing in front of me. She was wearing a big raincoat but I could see her lower legs and a pair of blue fur-trimmed ankle boots.
I went to get her a drink and when I got back the raincoat was draped over a seat and I could see she was wearing a mild Loilita outfit, a blue dress with a print featuring whales and ships, and looked very Japanese indeed.
Dave says you’ve changed your look?
She smiled at me . I heard about that time traveler thing, so I thought it was time for a change. Something a little more 21st century.
How’s it working for you?
Well, it’s a lot of layers. A bit warm actually. But that’s just like my younger days. The time traveler thing? Well that’s true. I’ve given myself away a few times recently, so I thought it was time to try actually telling someone to see how it goes.
And I’m a good security risk? Or someone known to be given to flights of fancy?
Well, why not. Dave said you know 19th Century Kensington like the back of your hand. Do you know the Victoria Road / Victoria Grove area?
I flicked through some pictures on the tablet.
She took it off me and stared closely, expanding the view with her finger and thumb. She pointed at a house, and said it was hers. That’s where I grew up. My Mum and I lived with an English couple who took us in when we had to leave home. I think. I grew up speaking English. I used to walk up this road.
There was a second view.
She expanded that one.
I remember those boys. Harry and Jim.That woman, the one in a hurry, she looks like one of my teachers. The school was just around the corner.
It looks a bit grim in black and white, but it was okay.
We did art
I never liked the climbing ropes.
On Sundays we went to the park. I’ve always liked gardens.
I had friends. I was happy.
So what happened?
In my last year I was sent for by the head mistress. She told me my life would change one day. I would be needed for an important task. She gave me a small leather wallet, which I was to carry with me at all times. She never told me how she had chosen me for this task. perhaps because I was already an outsider.
One day, late in the summer term she called me in and told me I should go home and get changed, into my “adult” clothes, with a long skirt, a white blouse, a wide belt and elegant shoes which I borrowed from my mother’s collection. You won’t see your mother again, or the Smiths. Can you bear that? I thought I could, although really I didn’t think about it at all. At the house I selected a nice wide hat too, my own, recently bought for me so I could pose for a photograph by that old man in Stafford Terrace.
As I had been instructed I left the house and walked south, going through the church gate, beside which two younger girls sat on a wooden bench. One of them raised her hand as if in greeting and smiled at me.
I walked through the overgrown garden and down a short set of steps into a mews.
I had never been this way before. I walked along the mews under an arch and found myself in a wide street.
There were vehicles moving rapidly in front of me, and there was noise. Automobiles I supposed, though nothing like the ones I had seen before..
And people, many different kinds of people walking along paying no attention to me. Men, women, old, young dressed in such a variety of clothing I felt bewildered .In particular, the women who wore anything from all concealing robes to what looked like nothing more than underwear. And hardly any of them wore a hat.
The packet contained directions to a firm of solicitors in Kensington Church Street. I knew the way but I was terrified by the vehicles passing by, and the variety of people, all walking quickly towards me. A few of them stared at me. After a while I got to the park and went in, looking for a familiar setting.
I sat at a bench. I removed my hat and let my hair loose, shaking it out as though I was preparing for bed. I felt a little more comfortable after that. I walked past a huge building which was set in the place of the new hotel by the park. It was also a hotel it seemed, so some things had not changed. I carried my hat. I felt better now walking down the road, apart from the vehicles. I was used to heavy traffic on the High Street and knew how to dash between carriages to get across it, but the size of those vehicles, especially a huge thing which I realised was an omnibus. I saw a number 9. How was that possible?
I found the solicitor’s office. I had to wait some time in a comfortable, beautifully padded chair before I was seen by an old man, who asked a few questions and looked at me. He put me under the supervision of a young woman barely older than me who took me in a taxi to a house, where a suite of rooms had been prepared for me. She visited me several times, brought me clothes, and showed me how to use the many devices in the flat.
And what was the task, after all that?
Oh, that! I thought you’d ask. I had to make a phone call. I had to deliver a warning. I was given information to prove that I was a reliable source. It wasn’t that easy but I eventually got to speak to the right person. I can’t say much. It was about a date, when something would happen, and I had to tell whoever it was enough to stop it happening. So that date wouldn’t be important.
And I suppose things would be different, but we would never know.
I guess so.
We sat quietly for a while. I had believed every word. I saw no reason not to do so. Over Dee’s shoulder the TV was showing Bowie, back in the UK for a farewell tour. The programme was interrupted by a news bulletin. President Clinton’s peace talks in Tehran had been successful. Iran, Syria and Turkey had agreed on a peace plan which included the creation of a new country, Kurdistan. Nice going. The World Environment Council had appointed a 16-year old girl as its new General Secretary. The new Prime Minister’s name was Johnson. He used to be a postman.
The world was okay, it seemed, and had survived Dee’s mysterious phone call. I asked her if she had made any more phone calls. I imagined that one person could do many of them.
I looked across at the elaborately made up face of the young Japanese woman. I made a prediction in my mind that she would wink. And she did.
Someone told me the other day that I looked like Mike Mills, of REM. I don’t think it quite rises to the level of a doppelganger situation though. Perhaps old men come to resemble each other. In this world I’m a bit older than 53, but I like the Green Man, and Amis’s comment about middle age is true.