There’s one thing I do without fail every morning, as regular as clockwork, though you couldn’t set your watch by it. As I scramble through the market square on my way to work I always look up to the clock at the top of the glorious tower of Victorian bricks which forms part of the town hall, Reading’s miniature answer to Big Ben. Most people use this to tell the time, which is only natural, but for me it plays a subtly different but still more crucial role; it’s how I work out whether I have time to grab a cappuccino from the train station before making for my bus.
Years of practice have distilled this decision making process into a simple set of rules. If the clock says eight twenty-six or later, it means I shouldn’t even bother trying. If the clock says eight twenty-three or earlier, it means there’s plenty of time. I can even slow down - which is a good thing, because I look undignified enough at a leisurely saunter and even worse when clumping at speed, one foot chucked haphazardly in front of another. Anywhere in between those two times is borderline; then it all depends on what it’s like when I get to the kiosk, on the size of the queue of miserable looking passengers-in-waiting and weary briefcase-carriers dawdling and trying to decide what to have. The shape of a morning is completely dependent on a matter of minutes, the difference between a long goodbye or a short wave at the front door, the difference between shaving and not.
On Thursday morning though, I was completely distracted by the man walking past me, just by the new bookshop that nobody thinks will flourish, and it set off a completely different train of thought. At first I was certain it’s a man who used to work in the bay next to mine years ago, back when I worked in the battleship-grey hexagonal building by the train tracks, all round-edged windows and the sort of noisy air conditioning that could drown out your own thoughts, if you let it.
He wasn’t someone I knew well but I knew his type better than I wanted to; big, capable, a rugby lad, a political animal. He was the sort of colleague who survived cull after cull, redundancy after redundancy, emerging from the ashes each time with a marginally more impressive job title and a slightly larger empire. Every large company employs at least one person like this. Their success is always mystifying and often they simply create the illusion of productivity by marching round the office shouting to nobody in particular on a hands-free kit. It’s the kind of equipment that was designed with them in mind; fifteen years ago, they would have carried a clipboard instead.
On closer examination though, I realised that it wasn’t who I thought it was. Just as high end fashion filters down over a season and becomes a cheap knock off thrown together in a sweatshop, this man was a poor facsimile with all the bulk and none of the swagger. His features were slightly cruder, his tie was cheaper. Little things, that’s how you spot a fake.
It happened again as I got to the end of the long street, glum commuters trudging in the opposite direction like an identity parade of people suspected of being doleful. As I got to the crossing a woman cycled past me, fresh ruddy face visible through the frame of a woolly hat with earwarmers, and I got that feeling again. She looked like a friend of mine, a woman I haven’t seen in months who got pregnant and got boring. I’m no fan of children, but even I don’t think the latter inevitably flows from the former. But again, after a double take I took in that she was a double, and not a convincing one either. The friend in question doesn’t even live in Reading. Even if she did, she wouldn’t be seen dead on a bicycle. You would be more likely to spot me on a jet ski.
This isn’t a new phenomenon, though it is quite recent; I have been seeing the bad doppelgangers more and more these days. More and more people look almost, but not quite, like people I used to know.
It’s odd how if you look like someone famous it’s a talking point. You can earn a living from it; in some cases, you can make more money out of looking like somebody with no talent than you ever could out of any talents of your own. It’s an odd, unfortunate facet of the world now, and I wonder if it depresses the lookalikes. Or do they just think of the money and live in fear of the day when their almost-twin drops out of the public eye?
Looking like somebody nobody knows is a different matter altogether - far less remarkable, much more commonplace and only feted, it seems, by me writing this. Feted is far too grand a verb anyway to use when saying something so far from noteworthy: somebody I know and you don’t looks like somebody else I know and you don’t. And yet I did find myself wondering what it all meant as I stood in a reassuringly short queue to pick up my coffee, ready to board my bus in the fog that had only just started to materialise out of nowhere.
Did they simply run out of cast members in the movie of my life? I’ve always thought it would be an impeccably scripted and acted, beautifully shot affair, even if nobody would have heard of any of the bands in the soundtrack. I thought that was the trade-off, those were the benefits I would enjoy in return for having passed on any big explosions, stunt doubles or special effects. But this recent trend made me think that maybe I had been wrong all along. Perhaps it was the kind of low-budget independent movie where money was so tight that the extras had to double up, play several parts and hope nobody was paying too close attention to the continuity.
Initially this was a terrible blow to the ego, but the more I thought about it the more I saw the consolations. Imagine the exciting extra dimension it could add to everyday life! Suddenly all those crowd scenes you have to endure all the time would feel like they had meaning after all. A humdrum half hour spent queuing in the bank to pay in a cheque could be transformed into an exciting game, scanning the surroundings for somebody I’ve met before. Tucked at the back of a theatre audience might be someone who had previously featured as an old flame or an old friend, the next table along in the restaurant might have a particularly entertaining ex-colleague or a favourite teacher.
Then I realised that I was kidding myself: I live in my home town, where I grew up and went to school. Maybe that’s what makes the movie of my life feel low-budget, because I never went travelling or lived in London or took on the world. Nobody has ever needed to use a wide angle lens or a sweeping panoramic shot to film this. And I could already bump into an old flame, or an old friend, or a former teacher; if I see somebody who looks like them it’s probably because it is them. And even if these doppelgangers weren’t the real thing, what difference did it really make?
It was a chastening thought. And yet there’s still something I find comforting about it, something about the commonality of our experience. I find it reassuring that we all have more in common that you might think. If we don’t all look that different, maybe we aren’t all that different in other ways too. Maybe we can be connected in ways we don’t necessarily need to understand. And I like the feeling of echoed memory I get when I spot one of those lookalikes, the way it brings back feelings that would otherwise be lost or buried.
That night when I got home, I spoke to a friend on the phone for the first time in almost a year. The next day, I contacted one of my oldest friends after two years out of touch. Sometimes you have to travel back into the past to find where you need to be in the present. I don’t know if all of that would have happened if I hadn’t seen so many bad doppelgangers recently.
Lastly, of course, because this is all about me, there’s the most selfish thing of all to like about that phenomenon. I like the idea that one day, somebody I don’t know any more will be waiting, hot and cross on a Tube platform, sitting at a plaza in another country enjoying a cold beer in the sunshine, shivering outside an office hundreds of miles away on a wintry cigarette break, in a swimming pool, in a waiting room or even somewhere nicely incongruous like on holiday, getting ready to use a jet ski. And somebody will walk past them who looks almost but not exactly like me and they’ll remember me, even if it’s only for a moment. If they do, I hope I’m lucky. I hope they remember something good.