I know a man who many years ago went on holiday to Greece with his girlfriend. And on the flight out she dumped him.
Two summers later, the man went to Greece on holiday again, with another woman. Heading out on the plane together, she also ended it. (This man wasn’t me.)
I recently told a friend at work of this peculiar tale of lightning striking the same man twice – at 30,000 feet. He was appalled. He said it was the most miserable thing he’s heard in ages. I nodded. But, in truth, the shock waned a long time ago, as the dumped man’s painful experiences alchemised into a quirky anecdote – confirming the basic law of humour, that Comedy = Tragedy + Time. (But was it comedian Steve Allen who said it first, or did Mark Twain beat him to it?)
And then I recalled how my sister broke up with a bloke on the first night of a camping holiday with our family.
She was 17 and he was her first serious boyfriend. It was August, and it rained a lot through the week. Her new ex, normally a straight-edged guy, went haywire, doing uncharacteristic and reckless things. Our camp site was situated in the grounds of a stately home built to look like a castle. One night he led a slightly drunk, 15-year-old version of me, up onto the roof, and we shined our torches from the rickety parapets at campers leaving the shower block in the courtyard below. One camper started to run away from the mysterious light in the sky and my sister’s ex laughed so much he peed his pants.
|death of the author, Marlene Dumas|
In the early stages of the break up from Vela (she’s ex no 2, the cause of all the recent turmoil), I was made to sleep on the so-called ‘luxury’ fold out bed. Ten years earlier, I’d gone through the same grisly routine breaking-up with ex no1, the mother of Annoying Son.
How much does it take out of a person? All of those lonely nights, dispatched from the conjugal bed, exiled to the Siberia of the fold out … Martha Gellhorn described the heart as ‘pierced’ or ‘diseased’ when a relationship goes wrong. ‘A broken heart is… like poverty… failure and… incurable diseases.’
There’s a medically recognised ailment described as ‘broken heart syndrome’, in which the lovelorn experience the symptoms of a heart attack, from enlarged ventricles to closed arteries. The condition mostly occurs with first-tier bereavements, like the death of a loved one. Still, we know and have felt, the burden a serious break-up brings forth. Usually loaded on top of which is a towering stack of practical, stress-making stuff: selling up the home, buying again, losing money, splitting the furniture and dividing up the tea towels, packing, unpacking, searching for the stopcock, the household income halved.
How could the bad time return like this after almost ten years? All those hours and days, the months and the years, all that time for modifying, tweaking, recasting and reshaping a life into something that would never break or go wrong again. It hadn’t worked. My life had turned full circle in a decade and here I was again, back sleeping on a fold out. But, second time around, my feet were sticking out the end of the duvet, and my toes were cold.
And my cold toes sticking out the end of the fold out was deja vu laced with a twist of farce.
Meanwhile, a recent story from BBC Magazine is deja vu laced with Hollyweird. The piece describes a man with ‘constant deja vu’, who was so profoundly afflicted that ‘he avoided watching television, listening to the radio and reading newspapers, because he felt he had “encountered it all before”.’ For eight years, the man felt ‘”trapped in a time loop”.’
Follow that thought! is a familiar presque vu. I remember the thought I didn’t follow that time waiting for a train with a girlfriend. She wouldn’t let me see a text she’d just sent. She always used to show me her texts. This one though, she abruptly stood up and crossed to the other side of the platform, where she deleted it from her phone. I decided she was being difficult, a bit prickly, and didn’t chase the thought any further.
Many months later I found out that she burned the text because it was to a lover. She texted him right under my nose. The thought I didn’t follow was right under my bloody nose.
|I was listening to you before Edward Snowden was even born!|
A curious sidebar in the science of deja vu is its possible link to vertigo. I wrote previously about a fear of heights and Hitchcock’s film. The lead character’s pathological need to re-stage a failed relationship continues to resonate. I often still find myself revisiting key moments from my time with Vela – brain wilfully re-working past events and re-staging a failed relationship that I wish had gone well.
In my 20s, I was very, very sure, of so, so much. My speaking style was affirmative; I didn’t use ers, or ems, at the front of sentences. I was most often near certain I knew what’s what – or that I was going to find out pretty soon – and therefore quite declarative in my speech.
The ers and ems started when I hit my 40s. In the fifth decade life is more grey and less sure. These are the years rigged with existential tripwires, with more trapdoors than Tintin or the Famous Five.
|watch your feet!|
One feature of the uncertain middle years was the way I started to doubt where I lived. I couldn’t be sure whether it was Stroud Green, Upper Holloway or Priory Park? And where did I move to next? Was it South Lambeth, Vauxhall or Oval?
It was a strange perplexing distraction. I tried to rationalise it away, as a symptom of Hollywood glut maybe – where an industry’s tendency to churn out repetitive vehicles, leads to a bland generic cinema that’s samey, where everything starts to remind you of something else.
The glut is often compounded by the adjoining cramped career phenomenon, where there’s only so many roles going round, and actors become interchangeable. And therefore Lori Singer and Daryl Hannah end up sub-dividing careers, leaving viewers open to confusion. Was that Elizabeth Shue or Kim Basinger we just watched? Did Gwyneth run away with Reese’s spoon? Or was it originally Charlize and Rene’s in a part-share? And there’s also the related ‘ethnic’ compress, with Salma and J-Lo required to figure as broad Latin; even though one is from Mexico, and the other from the block.
It was during an episode of NYPD Blue when I saw a man who had my eyes, my brow and my lips. He was a minor character with a just a few lines, but seemed like a nice guy to me. Something he said didn’t sit right with Caruso though. And when the intense cop returned to ask more questions, my doppelganger betrayed a possible darkside by bolting. He scarpered out the window, down the fire escape, and outran Caruso during an urban chase on foot. Thereafter he was lost in the narrative, never to be seen again.
|do I know you?|
It was during the same period in my life that I once caught sight of a man on the tube who was my doppelgänger He was in the next carriage. When he got off the train at Tottenham Court Road station, I got off too. It wasn’t my stop and I didn’t have a plan. I just knew that I had to follow him.
But I quickly lost my likeness, as he sprinted up the stairs, while I got stuck behind a crowd of Italian tourists. I watched his head disappear round the corner at the top, with me still stuck at the bottom. By the time I barged my way up, he was long gone, leaving me with three blind corridors to choose from.
But our mirror doubletake was brief, as we both realised on closer inspection that we only resembled each other just a little bit. I’d got completely carried away earlier (or maybe my subconscious craving caffeine had carried me away).
The wouldbe doppleganger abruptly broke-off his gaze and continued on his journey without another glance. And I returned to my notebook.
But I quickly lost interest in the short story idea. After all, the urban uncanny is a well-trodden path. I’m not the only one who finds dopplegangers interesting; and I’m certainly not the first – there’s Borges and Sebald and Nabokov. They also go down well at the cinema.
Saramago once wrote a novel about doubles. Dostoyevsky the same. Melville or Edgar Alan Poe must have covered the same ground, or at least thought about it. Saki, Roald Dahl, Calvino?