With the help from an hourly chime and a little green man, I have no time to sit still.
I think like a lot of Dads I believe that time stands still when it comes to my daughters. Not that it takes just short of an eternity to get their coat on and out of the front door, but in that despite their age and their size, in my mind they are still small babies.
That idea came and bit me in the…back a few years ago when I was lowering my eldest into her cot. Thinking she was still only a few kilos in weight (sorry, mass) I forgot about my own age and completely did my back in whilst doing it. I could hardly move and blah blah yeah I’m an old man with back problems – and yes, I’ve been asked whether I could run faster than dinosaurs and is that why I’m still alive, Daddy?
So frequent trips to the chiropractor are still on-going. Another sign of my age, that it’s taking blimming yonks for my lower back to get back to the young agile state it was in when I was running circles around those pesky dinosaurs. Sadly, a sign of our present (geological) era is that many of us – and that includes myself – sit still in cars, trains and behind computer monitors instead of moving about around catching, skinning and barbecuing woolly mammoths. And that’s not good for our backs (though admittedly it’s probably good for the woolly mammoths).
When I first sought help for my back, the physiotherapist had no idea what was wrong with me (admittedly, many psychologists might not know what’s wrong with me either) – but her solution was to drink lots of water. It’s healthy stuff, and it makes you stand up to go to the toilet (or stand up to walk to the toilet – whether you sit or stand is up (or down) to you). It’s a good idea, but it wasn’t getting to the core of the problem which is why I’m now going to the chiropractor (actually, this one – so visit it, like it, share it etc. – though be warned it’s not only in Dutch, it is actually in Holland 😉 )
And it’s going very well, and on the last visit I was encouraged to entertain a visit from a little green man…
The little green man.
The idea is that we set the hourly chime so that we’re reminded every hour that we should stand up and take a break from sitting down. Give our back a rest. I commented that hearing a beep every hour on the hour would probably annoy my office-mates, so needless to say I was well up for the idea!
Here he is in situ on my keyboard. Notice timeless juxta-positioning of old-fashioned pens and pencils under the monitor, as well as a princess doll thing my daughter (aka back-cruncher) gave me to take to work to keep me company.
So. Against a few principles I set the chime, and for the 10 minutes before it was due to sound I sat glued to the LCD screen waiting for it to show :00, then I could stand up and move around. You may have spotted the irony that in trying the heal / prevent the inflexibility in my back I was displaying a ludicrous display of inflexibility in my timing…
A relaxing stroll to the coffee machine.
Anyway. The beep sounded, my room-mate gave me a growl and a disparaging look of contempt so I duly stood up and fled. (A note to save my dignity; he’s a big chap with big muscles, a rotweiler for a cuddly toy and an automatic machine gun under his desk. Fleeing the scene is the only way to ensure that my time doesn’t come prematurely.)
After the first few hundred meters I slowed down and stole a look behind me. Despite a slight graze to my left earlobe, most knives were now missing me by a large enough margin that I could steal a quick breather. My back might be getting better, but my heart was clapping in my ears and my lungs were burning. No wait. That would be the flame balls whizzing past me. Douglas Adams’ deadlines would have much more preferable, but by a startling coincidence and against all (OK, most) odds, I was rescued by a certain Heart of Gold and delivered panting in a pool of my own perspiration by the coffee machine where I seemed to be safe.
I chatted and gossiped with fellow colleagues there about anything interesting that may have happened to us recently (one lady had had a new haircut) and I returned a little sheepishly and cautiously to my desk.
And found this:
I’m afraid – very afraid – of what will happen the next time the hourly chime sounds, but the chances are that I won’t be sitting around…
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After over a year of ignoring each other, contact has been made with my doppelganger! A public acknowledgement of each other’s existence, but I’m worried…
With my long distance and long commute times, flexibilities at home are maxed out. Flexibilities are now so strained that there’s no room left for further movement, either in time or space.
A delayed or missed train means that I won’t be in time to get to the daycare centre before closing time, or I’ll miss the exciting department meeting at work. My timings and movements are closely meshed with my wife’s who’s also got a tight schedule with her work and her travel.
But here’s the thing. Today there has been an upset. Actually it started on Tuesday thanks to a horrendous train delay. Train delays are bad enough anyway, but in Holland they’re crazy. You simply get kicked out of the train and get left stranded with no information. “This train doesn’t go any further. Get off.”
I got home 2.5 hours late, and crucially my girls were already in bed and tucked up for the night. They weren’t awake when I gave them their goodnight kisses; I wasn’t there when they needed me to be.
The impact has shuffled onwards through the week. Yesterday some cretin in his big car pulled out across the cycle lane and I needed to slam on my anchors; I couldn’t move around him as there were oncoming bikes in the other direction. Needless to say I felt obliged to kick the side of his car and let him know what a prick he was.
And he looked at me as though it was my fault. That I shouldn’t have been there.
And walking back to the station at the end of the day I managed to trip over a concrete slab the builders nicely left on the pavement. Yeah, I should have been looking of course, but I was focussed on getting to the train station on time, but it shouldn’t have been there. It could have been embarrassing, me rolling around on the floor in the early stages of rush hour, but at least my doppelganger was in front of me and didn’t see it.
I’ve written in the past about my doppelganger – and made the comment that he and I seem to have also synchronised with our train times, favourite seats on the train and places to park our bikes. It’s an awkward synergy, much like when your toilet trips in the pub get synchronised with a complete stranger, but I think over the course of the last year we’ve now both somehow got used to it, silently ignoring each other but keeping the other under close surveillance and making up stories about each other.
So now I’m convinced he’s got a dodgy knee. I damaged mine some years ago when a large single cylinder motorbike backfired when I was kick-starting it. Admittedly it’s mostly OK now, but every now and then, like when I climb a mountain (not many of those in Holland…) or cycle quickly (to avoid my doppelganger slipstreaming me), a few twinges remind me it’s there.
And now he’s caught up. He’s got an electric bike now which means he doesn’t need to slipstream me (and I certainly can’t pedal fast enough to stay in front of him), so he regularly overtakes me and zooms on ahead. But why? After he’s parked his bike he walks the final 100 meters or so to the train station.
It’s so slow it’s like a taunt which says “Even though I’m not in a rush, you cycle so slowly I still overtook you. And yes, I saw you fall over yesterday.”
So I reckon he’s got a dodgy knee too, needs the electric bike to help rest it, and walks slowly as it’s too painful to do anything otherwise. He surely didn’t hurt it turning a key on an electric bike (or however you start them); or maybe he fell over somewhere and landed badly.
So this morning something strange happened and it sums up the accumulative effects from the delayed train on Tuesday which has me displaced in time. The displacement means that today I came to work early so that I can leave early and collect my girls and spend some time with them tonight and make up for Tuesday. And here it is: my doppelganger was on the same early train – he’s early too. I walked behind him from the station to the bike shelter, overtaking him about halfway, and paying particular attention to the concrete slab which was now no longer where it was yesterday. As if it had never been there…but I know!
I unlock my bike and head for the turnstile out of the shelter. There’s only one, and it serves as both entrance and exit so at busy times there’s an unwritten rule of alternating people coming in and going out. It’s my turn. I put my bike in the slot in the ground and look up to check it’s clear. It’s not – there in front of me, is him.
He holds up a hand, signalling that he’s waiting for me. I swipe my card, the turnstile opens, and I walk through. You’re welcome!he nods, and I nod back.
After over a year of ignoring each other, contact has been made! A public acknowledgement of each other’s existence!
And I’m worried that we’re going to blow away into non-existence like matter does with anti-matter. It’s already happened at least once before.
You know what’s weird? When the train on Tuesday stopped and we got kicked out…it was at the station where the doppelganger gets off.
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I have a doppelganger. He looks a bit like me and he behaves a bit like me. But he’s not me; he’s a little taller but not as scrawny, he’s a bit less bald, and he doesn’t wear glasses. He wears a black coat as I do and slings a small grey rucksack on his back. As I do.
And he really gets on my nerves.
Like me, he doesn’t talk to other passengers on the train and avoids them by fixing his focus on glitzy but intellectually dull pages on a free newspaper. Reading about characterless celebrities with non interesting lives. Loser. At least I read books. Or write in my journal.
But sometimes he likes to watch real people.
The first time I caught sight of him I thought he was a pillock and best avoided. The trouble is that it seems he’s everywhere I am – and can’t be avoided!
He catches my train every morning. And he cycles to his office on the other side of the road as mine, pedaling the same speed as me – either just in front or just behind. He leaves his office when I do, and cycles again either just in front or just behind me, back to the train station where he catches my train to take him back to his home.
He waits on the same part of the platform every day so that he’s best positioned for his favourite seat – a single seat towards the back of the carriage where he can sit without the elbows and knees of an adjacent passenger protruding into his personal space.
I like to sit on the seat at the side with the back to the window. Many don’t like it as it means a sideways motion when travelling and that means I have space. No arms or legs or bags or large newspapers invading my personal space. And I can watch him trying not to let me see him watching me!
He observes everything with silent disdain; a scowl or disapproval of any facet of life he may encounter in his unchanging sphere. And yes, I have caught him eyeballing me too, through the corner of his eye – I have seen it!
I’ve never spoken to him, but he’s never spoken to me either. He started it.
A couple of times I have tried to make contact; to break the strange awkward aversion, but it never pans out. When I make a deliberate sustained look directly towards him, that’s when he sneezes, or reaches for his phone, or looks the other way. There’s always some excuse to not look at me directly. What am I…Medusa?
It seems that there is an unspoken battle between us, although I cannot say over what. Maybe for our very own existence.
I wonder. I read something a while ago that doppelgangers can’t share the same space or time – it is a paradox of causality. Some explain that multiple versions of a person exist in multiple parallel universes which are created at “bisection points” – when alternate outcomes of momentous or key decisions have been made.
Personally I don’t believe in the instantaneous creation of mass and energy out of nothing on a whimsical decision.
But if it were true, maybe a crossing or an intersection of these [not-so-parallel] universes would allow a person to meet an alternative version of himself? Or would interaction cause one or both of us to disintegrate? Or the universe?
I don’t know. But I do think it would be painful to find out.
(Too much) Contact
I’ve only ever seen him smile once. Perhaps. Actually, it was more of a smirk. I hadn’t seen him for a few days since the weekend. I wondered where he was because he wasn’t waiting on the platform at his usual place. He must have been ill because on Thursday he was back and letting me know about it as he was coughing loudly on the train. And he wouldn’t stop.
It was strange because he wasn’t on his favourite seat – he was sitting behind me. I bet he did it on purpose as my side bench wasn’t free and I was sitting on a regular forward facing double seat. I could almost feel his germs flying through the stuffy train atmosphere in a direct but statistically random walk to the back of my own bald head.
I stood up early to leave the train so I was facing him whilst he remained seated. He decided to sneeze at that moment to avoid eye contact, but I’m sure I saw a smile of smugness, content that he’d infected me; an invasion of my physical and personal space.
As I stepped off the train there was a cough behind me. Too close behind me. It was him.
He followed me, as he always does, on his bicycle on the way to work. Some may call it slip streaming, but I find his close proximity disturbing. Shadow cycling. He was right there by the mudguard of my back wheel…so close I could hear him sniffing.
I increased my speed, and he matched it. I slowed, as did he. Why won’t he just overtake me? In desperation and frustration I weave from side to side in a futile attempt to shake him off. Get in front! S**t before shovel!
But I couldn’t get rid of him. I never can. He’s always everywhere I am.
All the time. Day after day.
Another day. Another time.
It’s another day and I’m on the train again. I’ve forgotten my book and I have nothing to read. I’m bored. I need to do something to pass the time on this hour long train journey. Lying nearby is one of those ridiculous free newspapers. I thumb through a copy, bored as hell, but there’s nothing else to do.
I glance at a few other passengers but they’re immersed with their phones. One is making notes and looking a bit peeved about something. I’ve seen him around quite a bit. He’s always looking at me. Must be a nutter, so I try to avoid him.
I’m not feeling too well, I think I picked something up from some cretin in the train. And I think I know who. The last few days I’ve stayed at home; he’s probably aware of that and noted it down in his journal. But today I’m feeling a bit better and I’m back, but this stuffy air in this carriage isn’t doing me much good. It’s busy today, God knows why, so I’m sitting in a regular seat and already I’m blocked in and I can’t get up to walk to the train entrance where the air is fresher.
It’s a really tickly cough that won’t go away. If I talk, it gets worse. I can’t get out.
He’s come and sat in front of me now. He’s always around. I can’t get rid of him.
Argh. I’ve got nothing to do! I’m so bored. I can’t even look through the window as my seat is by the broad metal window frame. I can look forwards at the back of the chair in front. That’s it.
I’ll check my phone; it has pictures of my wife and girls. They cheer me up. I’m looking down at my phone. I’m trying hard not to cough but I need to sneeze. I can’t sneeze looking down, but as I inhale and look up he’s standing in front of me. He’s always there! Wherever I am! No matter. It’s my stop, and I can lose him. Besides, my wife loves me. So do my girls. I smile at the thought and stand up.
When I get my bike from the bike shelter he’s there, looking at me. I always think he’s going to say something to me, but he never does. It’s very awkward.
Thankfully he’s in front of me. I hate it when he’s behind me; I can feel his eyes bore into the back of my head. But it’s difficult with him in front too. He wobbles, and does unpredictable things. I’ve tried overtaking him, but he speeds up! In desperation I free wheel, but he slows down! Anyway, I guess I’m still recovering – I feel weak and my nose is running.
I want to overtake him; to pass him and get shot of him, but I can’t. He wobbles all over the place making it impossible for me to do so.
He’s in front of me again when I cycle home from work. I’m tired and not in the mood for this nonsense. He’s tailing me again. I’m nearing the end of my journey. I’m approaching the level crossing near the bike shed where I’ll leave my bike and catch my train home to my girls.
It’s not far to go, but now I’ve had enough. I’m running late, and maybe I’ll miss my train. Surely it’s close. I urge the rubber of my front tyre to touch his back wheel – he can’t avoid me now!
I call out. I can feel the pressures of two parallel universes twisting and contorting, striving to make contact at a single moment in time, at an elastic point in space.
Let me pass!
He looks behind, glaring at me. He slows, but doesn’t make space. There is a wailing and amber light engulfs us.
Stay back! he hisses.
Of course I have no choice but to stay back. As usual. He won’t let me pass. I try again to move to one side.
Now he’s slowing down, but he’s holding out his arm. The noise is deafening. Whining. Screaming.
He’s looking back at me.
It’s not safe!
Within the amber lighting I can see a blur of blue and yellow. My train! It’s hurtling past me, a massive tonnage of metal relentlessly responding to electrical charges initiated on an atomic level and upwardly scaled to the real and tangible motion of matter of the train.
I squeeze hard on my brakes; friction from the rubber on the front wheel losing its purchase on the ground which slides out from underneath me. When I roll over and get on all fours I see my bike in pieces near the rail track.
No. My bike is still in one piece. That’s his bike; a twisted frame with sheared rough edges of metal agape.
I stand and walk towards it. Blue light is flashing, but it’s hardly doppler. He’s nowhere to be seen.
He saved my life; my current existence is because of him. But I’ll never seen him again. It’s ironic that I never wanted to see him but now I want to, at least just to say thank you. But that can’t ever happen.
There’s his chair – empty, as if he never existed. Just a ghost through a train window.
Now that we’re in summer time I departed for work on a train which left – relatively speaking (and even though it turned up late) – an hour earlier than the same time last week.
I found myself sitting on a journey which previously, morning by morning, had got steadily brighter. Now, like a temporally backward hiatus, I was thrust back into darkness, at least for the first leg.
It’s fairly dark in the mornings at 7 am (summer time) at this time of the year in Holland, but as the vagaries of light reflecting upon the outside world and hitting my dreary retinas became clearer, I was shocked to see the ground covered in a frost of icy but magical fairy tales, and trees draped in ice like spectres of the night.
What had happened to the daffodils and tulips and other spring-ey kind of things I had glimpsed only days before? Had I finally traversed through time on a train, upon which I have had seemingly endless musings about time travel?
It wasn’t too long of a wait until I realised what I was looking at: white blossom and the usual dreary white concreted grounds of Holland. So no time travel (which regrettably in this world of predictability, comes as no surprise).
A couple of stations further on a gentleman seated himself opposite me with the assistance of a white cane. His gaze was distant, though I’m sure that his sight was indeed incredibly – if not infinitely – short-sighted.
Most other passengers (and despite my third person observation of them I include myself here as one of them) were using vision to gauge our traversal across space all the while passing the time. Our visually impaired travelling companion was not optically equipped to keep himself so-occupied in this way.
What was going through his mind I had no clue, but surely his mind was not as cloudy as his vision; he had navigated the platform, the train doors and the passage way to find his seat by the glass door separating the populated carriage with the entrance hall of the train all without the assistance of onlookers and those with whom he was embarking the carriage.
How does a blind man see the world in his imagination? Against what observation or perception does he measure his journey, be it the distance towards his destination, or marking the passage of time, the punctuation of which is so necessary to alleviate the boredom of doing nothing?
A piercing whistle dragged me from my thoughts and from those of the blind man back to the train which lurched suddenly to a stop.
Shortly a lady sporting too much make-up and armed with five small paper bags hooped in the crook of her inner elbow burst through the door. She was evidently relieved to not have missed the train which, even as she was bustling down the aisle, was accelerating away from the station at a pace to make up for lost time.
The glass door flung to behind her, beginning to trace the path along its predestined and extravagant pendulumous swing, seeking its final resting point of closed equilibrium at the end of its trajectory. Without turning his head, the blind man reached out his arm and let the door fall back on his hand, fingers slightly splayed.
As he allowed the beveled edge of the door to gently caress his hand and come to a silent rest, I came to realise that perhaps this soul whose perception of the world was won through audio means, and maybe an as yet unknown further sense, was more aware of space and time than the rest of us are.
I continued reading my book, The Time Machine. It was a reread, and though the words on the pages were invariably the same as the first time I had read it, they had struck my consciousness and I found that they spoke to me now with a deeper clarity than before. I put my book away as the train neared my station. I glanced out of the window and caught sight of the rising sun which was still low, a perfect disk of orange through the mist.
Unlike the large dull red future sun of Wells’ Time Machine, my sun would live to see – or indeed create – another day. I rose from my seat, though not as majestically as either the sun of the future of the present. I followed my doppleganger and stepped off the train, ready to embrace what that day had in store for me.